Encouraging Young Writers – A Middle School Talk on Writing

I had a great time at a local middle school this morning. I was asked to give a talk about writing to an advanced 7th grade class. They started out a little subdued, but it was a Monday after a Holiday. I started out asking them questions about what type of literature they were interested in and if they had ever written anything before. Some had written stories outside of school work. The majority loved Horror, especially about vampires. I took them through the creative process from the beginning; where they get their ideas from, what to do with their ideas and how to nurture these ideas.  I gave them some examples of where their stories can come from: a dream, a word you hear on the street, etc…

Being relatively new to writing myself (less than five years), I felt it best to keep to the beginning levels. I took them through what they had to do to get started writing a story: The willingness to put it down on paper and let other people see what you wrote. I explained how so many people aren’t willing to share because of fear of rejection or of being thought of as too weird. Next, being willing to have several different people critique the story to get feedback, and how to handle it. I explained the need to have a variety of different people read their stories to get a proper range of feedback, and then how to take that feedback and decide what to incorporate into their stories; what would make sense and not lose the essential nature of what they were trying to express.

I also explained how only a minuscule portion of writers’ make any real money on their work, which surprised them.

I continued into how their characters in their first stories may all sound alike and actually have the writer’s personality, and what kind of research it might take for them to find different voices for different characters.

Then I took them through the cycle we go through, of writing, getting critiqued, submitting, getting rejected, editing, getting critiqued, editing, submitting, getting rejected, etc… I also explained why rejection was a good thing and the range of rejection letters and what they meant, from silence up to “We like the idea, but it needs more work. Here’s what we’d like to see.”

There was a question about too many vampire novels out there, and I explained that every publisher is trying to make money on what ever is popular at the moment, so there’s a lot of trash out there. I told them to make a vampire novel salable; they would have to put a unique twist on it. I threw out “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” as an example, “Sense and Sensibilities and Sea Monsters”, & “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” as two other examples of unique twists. That got a laugh!

I also offered to have them submit short stories to me for critiquing. I wanted to give them a real-world kind of experience. I also told the teacher that if enough stories came in, I would produce a PDF e-book on CD’s she could give to the students and their parents. Two of the students write music, so they may collaborate on a song to be included.

I know one student in particular paid attention. His comment at the end was that he had no idea the process was so complicated. He thought you just wrote something, submitted it and it either sold or was rejected and that as the end.

They were an enthusiastic bunch by the time the class was over. I look forward to working with them. It was a marvelous opportunity to share my own experiences, and to help others oen new doors. I encourage any writer, editor, publisher, artist or any other creative person to volunteer their time to such an endeavor. It is a truly rewarding experience!


Audio Self-Edit of Your Manuscript – Updated

I was testing a piece of text to speech software this week and discovered something interesting. I used a story I was working on to test it, and was enjoying it immensely! It was a sweet little story and was flowing along nicely.

Until I heard something that made me cringe: too many descriptive adjectives. Now, I like to write how I think, and my mind tends to be cluttered with descriptive stuff. And I know it shows in my writing, but it looks all right to me since I wrote it. Not matter how many times I edit, I always know I’ll find something. A bad habit is to think: “Well, this is enough. It’s a great story as is.”; I struggle with this all the time.

Hearing your story spoken to you will give a very different perspective. I’m not sure how many people have the luxury of having a person who can read the story to; I suspect not many. But I know it has already changed my editing habits after having it just once.

Just for information purposes, I was testing ClaroRead V5. It was very easy to use. Just start the program, turn it on, and select the text you want to have read out. When you release the mouse, it start speaking. The price is $159, but you can download a 15 day trial. I am going to see if I can find a freeware speech to text program that will do a decent job. I will post if I find one.

*** UPDATE***

I just found this one about an hours ago. It’s a little cumbersome because you should really use just a plain text file.


But it works and uses the same voice as ClaroRead.

Has anyone had a similar experience with this? Or there ways to do a better self-edit? Leave a comment please!

Goliath vs. Goliath

As a writer, here’s my take on Amazon vs. Macmillan: Nobody wins. What we are seeing is not really the clash of business models. We are seeing runaway economic evolution in action. And it isn’t pretty, folks.

Think about the concept: Macmillan wants to charge more for their books so Amazon really get’s a bigger cut. Huh? And oh yeah, that comes out of the consumers’ pocket. So it was a no-brainer that Amazon would back down. To me it smacks of Demican and Republicrat policy makers trying to shove their brand of politics down our throats. You can have any color car you want, as long as it is red or blue.

Let’s step back a few paces and see what we can see. Amazon is the ultimate middleman. Whatever you want (within reason, as opposed to the REALLY weird stuff you can get on E-Bay) can be ordered and shipped with a few simple keystrokes. Marvelous, right? Maybe. Let’s fire up the Wayback machine and go back about fifty years. I grew up in a little neighborhood in Brooklyn called Bay Ridge. It was safe to walk around by myself at five or six years old. We lived a block and a half from the main shopping street, 3RD Avenue.

At the corner of 74th Street and 3rd Avenue, there was something called Scheirra’s Green Grocer, a little family owned produce market. On the other end of the block was the local grocery store, Packer’s. What you would consider a Safeway or Grand Union back in the day.

They both did a brisk business, for different reasons. Packer’s, along with Bohack and A&P (two other larger grocery stores) offered convenience and a much wider selection of products than Scheirra’s did. But what they didn’t offer was the personal local touch. We would always swipe a green bean from the produce bins outside the store, sometimes he’d toss an apple or two our way (or maybe AT us).

But let’s look at the concept of customer experience. When you walked into Packer’s it was a lot like walking into a Wal-Mart Super Center. Lights, gleaming shelves and cooler cases; a lot of chatter and neighbor’s taking by the deli and butcher counters.

Now, walk into Scheirra’s. It’s quiet, and not quite as bright. He wasn’t trying to hide anything mind you it was just the style of store. But what hit’s you the most is the aroma of fresh vegetables. I mean, the place smelled GREEN in a really nice kind of way. You always knew when the bananas were ripe; the onions smelled of fresh earth. The green beans were as snappy as twigs. The floor board creaked, the scales groaned when weighing produce. And Mr. Scheirra was always changing out the produce to make sure it was fresh. You couldn’t get a better sell by date meter than his nose. Even for a five year old it was heaven. It was a place for a slower pace of life.

Ever been to a green grocer? They still have them around, but they are mostly ethnic specialty stores with high prices. What we have now are huge Wal-Mart and Target stores, incredibly large grocery chains and even huge specialty stores that you almost have to pay a tax just to get into.

And yet a sincere lack of ambiance in the old fashioned sense of the word; all cold and gleaming. Now, back to the future and books.

Amazon and Macmillan are setting the playing field for the next ten years at least. (I figure by then people will have printers sophisticated enough to print and bind their own books at home. Hell, they have printers that you can buy to build 3-D products like teapots right now, for way less than a thousand dollars.) We are being locked in slowly to a mass-market way of life. If a book or magazine doesn’t sell really well, it disappears. Short fiction is going the way of the dinosaur; is Ellery Queen Magazine being printed anymore? I don’t know; I haven’t seen the shelves lately. My own genre is suffering, because there seems to be no way to stop the onslaught of greed and corruption that is threatening the industry that brought us the printing press, the Gutenberg Bible and a general increase in the ease of knowledge transfer.

My own solution is a partial one. When you buy a piece of literature, you then own the rights to it legally in every format; printed page, audio, 3-D Smellorama. You get the idea. Let’s move away from media ownership and into the area of knowledge ownership. Let’s look at what is really going on behind closed doors in the publishing industry.

Support the people that are trying to make the next ten years of publishing work for us, instead of against us. People like Cory Doctorow, Eric Flint and the late Jim Baen.

To quote one of my favorite philosophers (Greg Lake), “…if we make it we can all sit back and laugh…”

What’s you’re take on this? Throw me some ideas and let’s see what we can come up with!

On the other hand…

REJECTION! Everybody handles it differently, even the Agents. I met a great agent in June who asked me to send my novel in for review. I sent it in and followed up every month with a polite e-mail inquiry as to its’ status. After five months, I found out the agent apparently forgot about requesting my submission and never read it! In late November I received a rejection saying that due to market conditions, this particular type of story would be very hard to sell, so they were going to pass on it.

Now, did I miss a window of opportunity? I don’t know. But I do know that my manuscript was off the market for five months for no good reason.
Now, contrast this to the next agent I immediately sent to. Within 10 days, I had queried, sent in a proposal and been rejected THAT’S reasonable to me. They didn’t want to handle the story, even though they enjoyed the submission. But at least I could move on.
Now, I know Agents and Publishers are swamped, but a five month delay and then admitting you lost the manuscript does no one any good. I will submit other manuscripts to both Agents in the future, hoping that things will balance out.
But while Agents and Publishers are swamped, I hope they are aware how frustrating things like this can be for a writer. Let’s all work together and try to survive the coming upheaval in the publishing world!

Rejections mark progress… if you listen.

I sent out five stories and poems in October, and have started getting some rejection letters back. Mostly I get the “Thanks, not for us.” response, but I noticed something about one of them in particular. It was a personal rejection that had some excellent advice in it: the Editor liked the science and the technological accuracy, but there were just too many short stories and even novels with the same premise.

What did that tell me? It told me I hadn’t done much in the way of research as to what the market had been publishing. My story was a standard end of the world story, told from what I had hoped was a different enough perspective. I was so wrong. How many of you have tried to write the quintessential vampire story (and your initials are LKH or AR) and had the same thing happen? Or the perky young wizard battling evil? There is such a thing as market saturation and market timing, and it can kill the writing career of anyone not willing to look a bit further afield in what they want to write.
Almost everything has been done to death, many times over. Take zombie stories for instance. How many zombie short stories are rejected every day because it is the same tired theme over and over again. I recently had the opportunity to critique a zombie story told from a very unique point of view. When I picked myself up off of the floor after laughing myself out of my chair (I hit the ground hard, let me tell you!) I knew this writer had that special talent to take a trope and turn it inside out. I will post more about the story when it is published.
So, take these rejection letters to heart. Read up on your chosen genre. Try to think out of the box. You’ll be a better writer for it. I know I will!

Submit or Perish!!!

Are you a writer who is also a pack rat? I am. I went over the list of stories I have been working on and discovered I hadn’t submitted anything in a couple of months. That didn’t seem right. So I checked a little spreadsheet I have of current work. Sure enough, there were five stories I had finished editing and didn’t submit! Why? I asked myself. It turns out I was too busy writing other things and getting them ready for critiquing. So they sat on my PC, gathering electronic dust (and cat hair, but we won’t go into that.)

So I fired up the Internet (thanks, Al Gore and Vin Cerf) and logged onto Duotrope. There I found a home for everyone of my stories. Now, I may get five rejections. But if I do, at least that tells me where I stand in my writing skills (See previous post.). But If I don’t submit, then nothing changes.
Some writers I know keep working on stories forever. They want it to be perfect before it’s published. But I am of the mind that putting too much polish on a story can actually take some of the shine off of it. You need rejection; you need to know what you are doing wrong (or at least not quite right.). Any response I get on a story will teach me something. But not submitting teaches you nothing.
Write, submit, recover and start all over again!

Bettering your craft…

This year at Armadillo Con 31, I had the honor of meeting and chatting with James Frenkel, a senior editor with TOR Books. I did the usual polite introduction of myself, business card in hand, and told him that I hope to have a manuscript pass into his hands someday. He inquired about said manuscript and what my writing credentials were. I gave him a brief (10 second) description of the novel currently sitting on an agent’s desk and the one short story I had published at the time.

He looked at me and asked if I was still writing short stories. I said of course. He encouraged me to writing short stories. I thanked him for his advice and let other slavering individuals garner his attention.
His comment stuck in my mind. The week after the Con, I went back and reviewed all of the short stories I had written since I started. I read them in the order in which I wrote them. I noticed that there was a remarkable difference in the style and quality of writing between the oldest and the newest stories. THAT made me think. I started my novel at the same time I started my first short story. Like any newbie writer, I was sure that the novel was a good one, albeit targeted to a specific sub-genre (hard science space opera). I thought I might have trouble selling it, but all of the people who read it (twenty or so) really enjoyed it. When I met the agent, there was interest and I was asked to send the usual package. It’s been out with the agent for over three months; not a lot of time in the publishing industry.
But after reading my sequence of stories and the progression of my writing skills, I realized that Mr. Frenkel’s advice wasn’t just good, it was critical. No matter how good my novel was, if I started it today, it would be a much better novel. I had fallen for one of the worst pitfalls any new writer can succumb to: Thinking I was good at writing. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like my stories and my characters, but will everybody else?
What helped me most of all was getting involved in critique groups. In an earlier post, I said not to write in a vacuum. Let people who write also read your stories and tell you where things could be better. My two favorite critique groups are Critters.Org and the Slug Tribe. They are open, honest, fair and have a code that explains how to critique and not be nasty about it. One memeber of the Slug Tribe, Patrice Sarath, was teaching a Writer’s Workshop at the Armadillo Con. During a critique of a story I submitted, she gave me one piece of valuable advise that FINALLY got through my neutronium skull. My writing was good and my story was interesting, but my POV was all over the place and that ruined it for her.
When I started writing after the Con and Workshop, I focused on nothing but keeping the POV where it should be. (I tend to write like I think, and I am so all over the place!) The difference between these stories and my earlier ones was readily apparent. I was getting even better!!!
But I still have a long way to go. Jim Fenkel’s advice is what drives my writing now. Short stories are the pop quizzes of writing; you can get an immediate idea of where your skill set is while preparing to write your thesis.
So, thanks to Jim Frenkel and Patrice Sarath. You have been a great help to me!