Saturday, 30 November 2013

That empty feeling when you have published your book… Guest Post by Susanne O'Leary

I have just published my twelfth novel, Hot Gossip. It took me about six months to write, including editing, proofreading, proofreading and more—proofreading. You might think I feel relieved the work is done, that the book is out there in cyberspace to be enjoyed by, hopefully, a lot of readers.
 

Yes, I’m happy. And also very relieved and proud of my achievement. Writing a novel takes a lot of hard work, soul searching and brain bashing. So having finished a novel that is as good as I can make it is very satisfying.

But then… I miss it. I miss all the characters that became my friends during this time. I miss the fun, the heartache, the wrestling with all their problems. Letting go of that world I created and so enjoyed spending time in was a huge wrench. For six months, I had lived in Janine’s skin for part of the day, created her problems and tried to solve them. She was me, in a way, and I was her. With her, I fell in love with the hero and tried to make their story as romantic but also as believable as I could. I did my best to describe the setting and truly felt I was there as I wrote. I wore the clothes, drank the wine, danced and made love along with Janine. I was sad for her and laughed at her jokes, and got very, very annoyed with anyone who wasn’t nice to her. I loved her little house by the sea, furnished just the way I’d like it myself. I enjoyed the long walks she took by the ocean and ‘saw’ the beautiful scenery. The peripheral characters were also fun to write and they were as vivid to me as the people I meet in real life. It all became such a fascinating world and I loved spending time in it.
 

I often wonder why writers actually write. What makes them put those first words together for their very first book. I know what made me do it. It all happened during a time when I had a lot of sadness. I started writing a story that was full of light and laughter, where nobody was sad or died or suffered from an illness. My escape, in turn, became that of others who, perhaps, read that story in order to get a break from their own hardships. It helped me. I hope it helped someone else too.
 

As I went on writing, I drew on my experiences and my stories became more serious, hopefully deeper and more realistic. I feel I have grown so much as a writer since that bright, fun debut novel I wrote nearly fifteen years ago. But every time I’m finished, there is that huge feeling of separation—of having had to leave people I love.
 

Writing a book is like having a baby. Like carrying this person for nine months and actually feeling you know this small creature. While you’re keeping it inside you, it’s yours alone to nurture and love. But when it’s born, you throw it out there, into the big bad world for all to see. Your baby is the most beautiful thing in the world to you. But not to other people. When the ‘baby’ comes out, you have to stand back and wait for the reactions of others, of readers and reviewers who might not like this new creation of yours. Worst of all—they might even ignore it.
 

I miss my ‘baby’ and the time when it was only mine. But toward the end it was hard and painful, when I had to do all that proofreading and editing and formatting and reading over and over again.
 

But then… as with having a baby, you forget the pain and say: ah, why not? I’ll have another one…
 

As my stories are very character driven, it doesn’t take long before another heroine pops into my head and starts having problems I have to solve for her. Right now, there’s Rita, who comes to Dublin to start a new life, after her hair dressing salon in County Kerry burns down. She bumps into this dishy journalist and then…
 

I think it might become something Hot…

Susanne's website: http://www.susanne-oleary.com
Susanne's blog : http://susannefromsweden.wordpress.com/
Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/authoroleary
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Susanne-OLeary/e/B001JOXAJO

Friday, 29 November 2013

AUTHORS ELECTRIC HOW-TO DAY Making and embedding audio recordings - Bill Kirton


     (The illustration features the author depicted in the act of recording at what has become a mixing deck, and listeners who are either inspired to dance or deafened by his music. It is by Isla Kirton whose rates are very reasonable.)

     A recent suggestion was that we use some of these blogs to offer tips on perhaps more 'technical' aspects of writing. For me that narrows the topic range significantly but I have done plenty of voice-over work, so my own suggestions are about audio recording.

      Using audio opens up different possibilities through trailers, extracts or even whole chapters. The more courageous might try entire books but that's fraught with lots of difficulties too numerous to explore here. This advice is for anyone who wants to record a sound track for a trailer or try making a short reading to post on SoundCloud and/or their website.

     First, if you haven’t yet got them, download these free bits of software:

  • Audacity (an excellent audio editing programme) – get it here.  I won’t go into details of editing techniques and effects because there are so many and it depends what you want. The best way to find out about these is to play around with them. It really isn’t difficult. You can apply effects (speeding up, slowing down, adding echo, changing pitch, fading in and out, etc., etc.), to either the whole piece or highlighted sections.
  • A file converter, for changing your files to mp3 or other formats –  get one here.  (No need to say how to use it – again, it’s so simple.)

Making the recording.
     I’ve made recordings in 2 different ways. The obvious way is to use a mic and record directly into the computer, but to get good results you need a really good mic. Ribbon mics are best but they’re very expensive so instead I used a digital recorder – they used to be called Dictaphones. It’s an Olympus WS-750M (about £70 but there are cheaper versions) and I recorded into it, then transferred the file to my computer. That’s important. Whatever type of recorder you get, it must have a way of transferring your file from recorder to computer (usually via a USB cable connection).

     Of course, you can use your normal headset mic but, apart from the fact that sound quality is likely to be low, the danger there is that you’ll get pops and all sorts of other intrusive noises. Indies get enough flak already in the ‘amateur’ v ‘professional’ writing stakes without giving out ammunition in the form of substandard recordings with rumbling tummies, noises off, popping plosives, rustles as pages are turned, and readings that sound as if they’ve been made in a bucket.

     A tip which will help you to overcome some of those problems is to create a ‘mobile sound studio’. You need a cardboard box with no lid. The one I use is about 18 x 12 ins and about 5 ins deep. Line it with an old piece of towel or other material, stand it on end and set up the mic or recorder inside it so that you can speak directly into it (but don’t get too close). It cuts out all those intrusive ambient sounds and the hollowness you get in most normal rooms. (This obviously can’t be done with a headset mic.)

     My second method came about when my son bought me an iPad (the best Xmas present ever). This may work with iPhones, too – I don’t know because I don’t have one. Anyway, you buy an app called GarageBand, which I think was about £6. (Aside – it’s a terrific app with which you can create music, sound effects and seemingly limitless other audio things.) Choose the ‘Audio Recorder’ option. Touch the spanner (top right) and, on the drop-down menu that appears,  turn off Metronome and Count-in. Then touch the + sign beneath the question mark (still top right), change ‘8 bars’ to automatic and switch it on. And you’re ready to record. A good mic is still the preferred option but this provides a recording of surprisingly good quality - certainly good enough for most purposes.

     Still on the iPad, when you’ve finished recording, tap ‘My Songs’ (top left) press on the icon for the recording you’ve just made until it wiggles and has a yellow border around it, touch the page+arrow symbol top left and mail it to yourself.

A recording tip.
     It’s unusual to be able to read through a whole piece without making a mistake, getting the emphasis or intonation wrong here and there, or inadvertently making a sound that shouldn’t be there. If/when that happens, pause, make a mark on the script, remain silent for 2 or 3 seconds, then start again at the beginning of the sentence which went wrong. It’ll be very easy to cut out the offending sentence when you’re editing.

Transferring and converting the file
     Whichever way you’ve done it, you now have a sound file in your computer. What now? Well, just follow these steps:
  1. Use your file converter to change your file to an mp3. (No need to explain this – as I said, it’s very easy.)
  2. Open the resulting mp3 file in Audacity and tidy it up (cut out clicks, put in or take out gaps, generally mess around and find the features you need to make your recording as clean and effective as you can and to add any special effects).
  3. When you’re satisfied, click Edit > Export as WAV.
  4. Use the file converter again to change the .wav file to an mp3.
And that’s it.

Uploading to SoundCloud
     You need to upload the file to SoundCloud so that it’s permanently available to anyone who clicks on your blog link to it, so:

  1. Go to the SoundCloud home page and sign up.
  2. When that’s done, click the ‘Upload and share’ button, top right.
  3. On the screen that appears, click ‘Choose files’.
  4. A window will appear listing files and folders on your computer. Click the audio file you’ve made.
  5. The file will upload to SoundCloud. You can add an illustration, title and notes as it does so. Also, down at the bottom, click the box on the left to enable downloads.
  6. When the upload’s complete, click ‘Save’.
  7. You’ll now see a bar showing your file as a sort of block of sound with the usual play arrow to click. Just above the arrow is a small button labelled ‘share’. Click that. It’ll open a wee window with all sorts of stuff in it – facebook, twitter, etc.
  8. Click on ‘embed code’. This will highlight the text in the small slit there.
  9. Copy the text.

Embedding it in your blog/website/article/whatever
     Now you’re ready to embed it. I should say here that the following instructions refer specifically to blogspot because that’s the Authors Electric host. I’m sure other blog providers have the same options as those I’ll be mentioning, but I’m not familiar with them so you’ll need to go into the Help menu of yours and ask ‘How do I embed audio?’

  1. Go to your blog. Sign in and click on ‘design’, then ‘layout’.
  2. Click on ‘add a gadget’ in the right hand column.
  3. In the window which appears, choose ‘HTML/Javascript’.
  4. Paste the embed code into the big window and give it a title.
  5. Click Save.

     If you’d like to see what it looks like and how it works when you’ve done that, I’ve embedded several of my own recordings on my own website here.  Scroll down past the two trailers to see the audio only pieces.

     And that’s it. For someone like me, with no technical savvy, it feels satisfyingly like an achievement. Good luck.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Where We Work (Part Two) - Joint Post

Our previous joint blog (under the same name) went down so well that another three members of the team (Kathleen Jones, Susan Price and Valerie Laws) have decided to share where they work as well.

Kathleen Jones - visit website

         When I moved in with my partner there was nowhere for me to write.  It was an old industrial building adapted to the needs of a sculptor who sloshed plaster and clay about and who needed large, draughty spaces to mix toxic chemicals for casting. The living space was basic and cramped.  I wanted a quiet room to crawl into with space to think and spread papers around, enough light to read books and sometimes write them. It was quite a problem.  But the man wanted me to stay and so he decided to fix up something to tempt me.  


          Up in the rafters, on the top floor of the mill, he made a platform under two big skylights, built in a desk against the slope of the roof with plenty of space for files and a computer.  The roof has wonderful oak crown beams and it would have been criminal to hide them, so Neil filled in between them with bullet proof glass - from a bank they were demolishing - so it has one glass wall.  Then he made a day bed where I could quietly go to sleep with a book when I was pretending to be working (!).  I called it my Rapunzel Room, because you have to go up a steep set of wooden steps to get into it and I can shut myself in and ignore everyone.
         It's a beautiful room, and not everyone gets one made just for them - and certainly not with bullet proof glass. Twenty years later I'm still here - though (all the fault of the man again) currently writing quite a lot on a terrace in Italy - but that's another story!

______________________________________________________________________________

Susan Price - visit website


          This is a photo of the tiny spare bedroom I use as my ‘office’. I took it a few months ago, after an intensive tidy-up. It is still almost as tidy as this, but not quite.

 
          Out of shot, to the right of the desk, is my filing cabinet which is topped by a display of birthday and Valentine cards given to me by my partner over the years.
          The brown bookshelf at the back holds various reference books – such as my copes of Briggs ‘Folk Tales in the English Language, a thesaurus, dictionary, and books on the origins of place-names.
          Stuck to the end of the shelf is a photo of my late and still lamented cat, Biffo, a shot of the Gokstad ship, and one of the sun shining into the Neolithic tomb of Newgrange on the Midwinter Solstice.
          Behind the desk I’ve stuck up awards, post-cards, photos, greetings cards – anything which appealed to me for its image, colours or humour.  (There is a cartoon cat saying to a dog, ‘I was a dog in my previous life, but I came back as a god.’) At the moment they are partly overlayed by a sketch map of the territory in my WIP, Sterkarm 3. It’s loosely based on a real area, which I peer down on using Google satellite, but altered to suit my purposes.
          It’s my favourite room in the house.
______________________________________________________________________________

Valerie Laws - visit website

          One of the many glories of unexpected divorce is moving house, which like having your bikini line waxed is horribly painful for a short spell but has a pleasing result. I still think of this as my ‘new house’ but I’ve been here for almost exactly 11 years. One of the essential boxes my new house had to tick was a room to write in, a study if you will, which would be mine, all mine, mwahhahahahaha, and that’s what I’ve got. It’s the fourth bedroom, but it was already done out as a home office with a huge built in cupboard with sliding doors and a room-width built in desk and shelves. And a warm apricot colour on the walls which I like and haven’t changed. It’s at the back of the house and overlooks my and others’ gardens.

          I cope with disability and hatred of housework by two methods, one is having a cleaner come in for two hours a fortnight, and one is keeping the house fairly minimalist and tidy, but my study is a corner of chaos with stuff on every wall, bursting out of cupboards, piled on shelves, and often strewn across the floor as well. In my study I have some of my prized skull collection, which feature in my crime novel THE ROTTING SPOT, looking down at me and wishing me well. A horse, a deer, a wild goat, a gannet, a badger... and a human spine which also has featured in my writing. The walls, doors, surfaces are covered with posters for my plays, or performances: souvenirs of events, successes, adventures, awards, name badges from exciting times like attending the recording of my BBC radio play: and amid many books, my own (and many others my work features in) are above my desk in prominent position. If this sounds like vanity, it’s not, it’s the opposite. Each tiny step in the journey of being a writer, from the very first poem accepted by a magazine, could be as good as it gets, and even if you’re lucky enough like me to write for a living, there are many famines amid feasts. These souvenirs remind me that I have achieved something I love and value, however small, even if it all stopped tomorrow! I also have pictures of my children on the walls and all sorts of odds and ends. My computer is an ‘all in one’ or perhaps a ‘onesie’? I don’t like towers humming below me. I have a glowing rock salt lamp next to the pc which supposedly counteracts bad vibes from electrics but is lovely to warm my hands on! I write on trains and at my boyfriend’s house and when on holiday or travelling generally, but most of my writing happens in here.
______________________________________________________________________________

We hope you've enjoyed reading about our writing places and would love to hear about yours.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Whoring Myself Again - Andrew Crofts

          I hadn't heard my son coming into the office as I typed away at some self-promotional piece of blogging or tweeting or whatever was the social media flavour of that day. He only needed to stand behind me for a moment to grasp what I was doing, being a world-class reader of screens.
          "Whoring yourself again?" he enquired cheerfully before ambling off to stare into the fridge for a while.
          The bluntness of his comic timing made me laugh, as it often does, then I got thinking. "Whoring yourself again" is pretty much the perfect definition of freelance life. I've spent time with a great many people who have at some stage been involved in prostitution, either voluntarily or enforced. You sell your body or you sell your brain - either way you run the risk of ending up selling your soul.
Most writers hate promoting themselves, always hoping that publishers or agents or critics or fans will do it for them. But in our hearts we all know that if we wait for other people to sing our praises and rush out to buy our wares we are going to starve to death, so we hitch up our skirts and return to the kerbside of life. 





Tuesday, 26 November 2013

When A Challenge Gets Out of Hand #AllUsers - Ruby Barnes

          A few weeks ago I was giving a two hour talk in a local library on the wonders of e-publishing.
          'So, there's no quality control?' one of the still-conscious attendees asked.
          'That's right. Some restrictions on cover and content, but even those might not prevent initial publishing,' I said.
          Another person woke, caught the thread of conversation and asked, 'How about title and author name? Any copyright or that sort of thing?'
          'No. You can't copyright a title and you can call yourself whatever you want, within reason. If you use J.K. Rowling you might get into trouble. Let's take a look.'
          I opened the Kindle Direct Publishing web page and proceeded to create a new kindle book with the title Nonsense Novel. Then I entered an author name - Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel. (For those whose TV memories are more recent or less obscure than mine, Tarquin was a character in a brief Monty Python sketch, lampooning the Monster Raving Loony Party.) Then I uploaded a Word document containing last year's letter to Santa. To complete the ensemble I browsed for a picture of me half-naked with a Hitler moustache and saved it as the e-book cover.
          'If I press Publish, this e-book will be live on Amazon within forty-eight hours.'
           The insomniac attendee gasped and the others snored more loudly. But the experience gave me an idea.

          A couple of days later, in a facebook group, someone (who shall remain unnamed unless it's that Tim Stevens who hangs the toilet roll incorrectly) mentioned that independent author icon J.A. Konrath had said anyone could write an e-book in an hour. The nameless Tim (he won't mind me keeping him nameless) said he had written and published something - a skit on how to market an e-book. It was tongue in cheek but one or two people had taken it seriously and written a dodgy review. The whole thing sounded like a really bad idea. So I decided to do it. Surely I could afford an hour of my life to come up with a rant and immortalise it for Kindle?

          So I spent about a week thinking it over. I decided to follow a methodical structure for the few pages (which turned into a structure for each chapter), to break a few literary rules e.g. use a dream sequence (which became a dream sequence at the start of each chapter) and to use real life events for inspiration.
         The setting - a former lunatic asylum.
         The narrator - a health service employee who has two jobs, one as solemniser of marriages and the other as dispenser of healthcare aids and appliances.
         The humour - from mispronunciation of Solemniser and various tasteless healthcare appliance puns.
          The odd bits - dreams of death and destruction, compulsive behavioural habits and strange tastes in out-of-date food. And re-use of some very strange emails that are circulated from the former lunatic asylum on the campus where I spend my daylight hours.
          The plot - large scale fraud. I would write it in diary form with dialogue where helpful.

          Six weeks later, 23,000 words, 88 pages of beta-read, line-edited nonsense. But Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel didn't sound Irish enough for the author of this tome. So I added Murphy to the end. The book title came from the prefix of those #AllUsers emails. Uploaded to Kindle Direct Publishing, cover created with an image I purchased a couple of years ago. I clicked the Publish button and finally exorcised the demon.

          The moral of the story? If your personality is in any way compulsive then be careful about rising to a challenge. It can take over your life.

          The result? I'll let you be the judge of #AllUsers, but here's the opinion of someone who knows:

          "#AllUsers is a satirical novella of earth-shattering literary inconsequence." Mrs Murphy

Cover of #AllUsers by Tarquin Murphy

Monday, 25 November 2013

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! Crying Wolf! - by Susan Price

          And not only available on Amazon, but also on Barnes & Noble's Nook, and on Kobo too, thanks to Draft2Digital, which is a great boon to the self-publisher.
          Nice ad, eh? It was put together by my brother, Andrew, from one of his own illustrations for the book. This one:-


          At the moment we're battling through the problems of turning The Wolf's Footprint into a paper book, with Createspace. The pictures in the paperback will probably be black and white, because of the expense of colour-printing - but in the e-book they can be as colourful as we like.
           I asked the artist who produced the illustrations, Andrew Price, about the size the images needed to be. He said that the images in Wolf's Footprint are 1563 pixels wide by 2500 pixels high. This is a good size to give good resolution on a kindle. If you're working with an artist, he says, it's the artist's job to make sure the images have an adequate resolution - that is, enough pixels not to blur or pixellate.
         If you use photos, he says, it's probably best not to use a 'raw' photo straight from a camera, as it will probably be too big.
         But this blog is already too long to go into that. Maybe I'll tell you how to resize a photo another day.       

          We found that when making an e-book, it's easy enough to insert a picture if you start with a Word file. You use the 'Insert Picture' tool to insert the picture wherever you want it.


           When the picture appears in the text the 'Picture Tool' opens, which enables you to position the picture relative to the text.


           Click on 'Position' and a menu opens to help you position the image. Most of these positions are intended for use in publishing paper magazines and newsletters. They don't work well with the 'flowing' text of e-readers, which can be changed by the reader.
          So use, 'In Line.' Then go back to 'Home' and centre the picture as you might a line of text.


            To re-size, click on the picture and you'll see small black squares appear at the corners and sides. Click on the squares at the corners, and you can drag inwards or outwards to make the picture larger or smaller. It will remain in proportion if you pull at the corners.

  
          If you pull at the squares on the image's sides, you will stretch the image out of proportion - so stick to the squares at the corners and pull, or push, diagonally.
          The text will accomodate itself to the new size.
           Things become more difficult when you view your book in the previewer. The picture looks too big or too small. Or it has forced a large chunk of text on to another page, leaving a big, uncomfortable gap.
          We simply had to play around. We noted where the illustrations caused problems, and went back to the original file and changed it. Then loaded it into the Previewer again, repeating this until we had something which we thought was the best compromise we could make.

Kindle Previewer

          But then we came up against the problem that, when you tried different font sizes, the size of the illustrations also changed. Sometimes they shrank - sometimes they became so large that they went off the edge of the page.
          Andrew and I looked into this and found that there was a way of 'fixing' the book at a size we chose, so that it couldn't be changed on an e-reader.
          However, I chose not to do this. Firstly, I don't think I would like this myself. One of the things I like about e-readers is being able to change the line-spacing and font-size, and even whether the screen is portrait or landscape.
          Secondly, a scan of forums and opinion on the net suggested that a great many people agree with me. So I chose to publish the book with a 'flowing' format, and the following warning:
     Please note: a decision was taken not to fix the format, so that the font-size and line spacing can be changed on e-readers. However, depending on the e-reader used and the font-size chosen, the size of the picture will also change, and in some cases, may become too large for the page. Reduce the font size and the picture size will shrink too. This is unavoidable without fixing the format, which has other disadvantages.
      Readers may need to experiment to find the size that best suits them.



          Draft2Digital allows you to make three different files - a mobi file suitable for the Kindle, an epub file suitable for Barnes & Noble, iPad and Kobo, and, finally, a PFD file for their still experimental CreateSpace publishing. They supply links to previewers for all of these - and we found that we had a whole lot more fiddling to do with the epub files. And then had to start again with CreateSpace.
          But we'll get there...
          And I'm pleased to say that a copy of The Wolf's Footprint was bought by someone in America almost as soon as it appeared on-line, before I'd had any chance to publicise it at all. I don't know who you are, generous and kindly American citizen, but thank you.

          And if there should be any other generous and kindly souls out there...





Amazon UK
Amazon US
      Amazon  Canada
 
     Barnes & Noble
 
Kobo UK

          It is cheap as chips at £4.11 or $6.65 - especially when you compare the price to what paperback copies cost on-line.
          At Amazon UK, you can pick up a used paperback of The Wolf's Footprint for a mere £1,021.07. (I love that 7p.) Over at Amazon.com, you can get it for only $103.68 
          Not a penny of that money comes to me, the hard-up writer who created the story and without whom it wouldn't exist.
          But a large chunk of the £4.11 or $6.65 for the ebook will come to me.

          Susan Price has been a professional writer for over forty years, and had won both The Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Fiction prize.
          Her website can be found here: http://www.susanpriceauthor.com/
 

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Typos - by Jo Carroll


We all make them, don’t we? In that glorious rush to get
words on paper fingers get muddled and our wisdom can emerge as gobbledegook. So we edit, edit, edit – honing our wonderful sentences until they say exactly what we want them to mean.

Except sometimes they don’t. In our heads they are wonderful, because we see what we think we’ve written. But the reality can be wobbling tenses, repeated words words, missing punctuation so one sentence runs into another and the whole thing makes no sense at all and even speellings that hide in the sentence undergrowth and confuse here and hear.

I know, you’ve read the thing six hundred times and are convinced that this time it’s perfect. And then along comes Nellie (probably aged about six, with a reading age of eight) and spots twelve mistakes in the first paragraph and it’s all you can do not to chew your own arm off with frustration because YOU ARE MEANT TO BE ABLE TO DO THIS STUFF!

So – this is a plea – how do you spot them? I’ve read the following nuggets of advice, tried them all, and still the b*ggers slip through:

·       Print your piece in a different, unfamiliar font – you will read it more carefully. (I’ve tried this so often that all the fonts are familiar to me now, except the one that looks like handwriting and I draw the line at working with illegibility).

·       Print your piece and read it in reverse: you’ll stop noticing the narrative and find it easier to spot mistakes. (I wish – though it does pick up a few.)

On top of this there seems to be some sort of rule that typos leap out and smack you the second after you’ve posted the piece, or pressed send. Why is that? How come they lurk until that very moment you can do nothing about them?

Does it matter? Yes, I think it does. I get a copywriter to check my books, but can’t afford one for every short story submission or piece for a journal. And they matter because I’m a pedant, and I am irritated by mistakes in books – we claim to be writers, so we should be able to spell. There’s something unprofessional about leaving 'their' when we mean 'there', and don’t get me started on 'your' and 'you’re.'

But please, if anyone has a fail-safe way of spotting them before pressing send, please share it with the rest of us.

You can find more of my writing at http://www.jocarroll.co.uk - and please let me know if you find typos there, so I can correct them.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

So You Want To Be a Writer ... by Lev Butts

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This past March, I was asked to be the keynote speaker for Georgia Highlands College's inaugural Writers' Collaborative Conference, in Rome, Georgia. While trying to gather materials for this month's post, I came across my speech. I am posting it this month because I think it speaks to a lot of misconceptions non-writers and new writers have about being an author. I was going to pull some ideas from it, but I couldn't get it to work as well as it does here, so I'm posting the speech in its entirety. For those of you who wish to read the story, I reference near the end, I am posting on my personal blog and will provide a link at the end. I hope you enjoy it:

Good afternoon.

How many of you plan on making your living writing?

[Just about everyone raised their hand]

That many, huh? Well, I have some, perhaps, disheartening news for you all: the chances of doing that are, if I were to take a fairly educated guess, akin to the chance a black man has of surviving a season of The Walking Dead.   You may want to make nice with any well-to-do relatives or consider moonlighting as a CEO.

“The arts,” says Kurt Vonnegut, “are not a way to make a living. If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don't have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts.”

“That [creative writing] is taught anywhere, given the daunting odds against anyone making a living writing stories or poems, might appear to be a scandal,” he argues elsewhere, “as would be courses in pharmacy, if there were no such things as drugstores.”


And there is a lot to be said for Vonnegut’s opinion. There is not much money to be made in the arts, so your parents will worry if you choose such a life. Careers in the arts are rare and mostly poorly paid. I know this. I’m a writer and a humanities professor. In fact, nothing pleased me more than finding out my son was going to technical school to be a nurse. “You’ll make way more money than I do,” I said. “My retirement is assured.”

My goddaughter called me a few weeks ago and told me she was nervous about growing up and entering the real world. I asked her what she wanted to do.

She wanted to be a best-selling novelist.

I told her she’d need something to fall back on while she waited for her novels to be appreciated by the masses.

To her credit, she had thought about just that: “I’ll be an English teacher,” she said, “like you.”

Since no amount of logic can dissuade her from this plan, all I can do is be proud of her, too, and wait for my inevitable opportunity to tell her “I told you so.”

Since you all are sitting here, I assume nothing I or your English teachers can tell you will dissuade you any more than I can dissuade my goddaughter or my English professors could dissuade me. Therefore, I can only do what I can to cushion the blow and help you in some small way to realize what potential you have for artistic expression.

Even though, I have been asked to speak to you about writing, I cannot, unfortunately, teach you to write well. I cannot, to paraphrase Joseph Heller, teach talent, give intelligence, or make a person funny. No one can. This may seem surprising considering that I make my living teaching people how to communicate effectively in college composition courses. However, while comma splices and run-on sentences and subject/verb agreement are all important when it comes to writing, they can only help you write better, not necessarily well. Besides, I suspect that this is not what you all came out to hear me talk about. You can sleep through ENGL 1101 for that information.


All of you are here because you actually want to write, a desire so apparently unpopular that you, and literally thousands of others like you worldwide, have had to create entire conferences to discuss writing openly and without judgment, like cos-players going to Dragon-Con, or addicts to AA. You have come here to share your love of the written word with each other and to listen as other writers share their love of the written word with you. And that I can do.

I cannot teach you to write well enough to make your living at it, but I can share with you why I write fiction and share with you my own methods, such as they are, in the hopes that they may help you.

I knew I wanted to write as soon as I knew I wanted to read. I spent most of my childhood writing stories. None of them good. Most of them were feeble attempts to rewrite or expand on books I already read and wanted more from.

I remember taking a spiral notebook with me wherever I went and scribbling my stories whenever I had to sit still. This annoyed my stepfather to no end (I told you parents will not be happy with this particular life choice). Whenever he’d see me carrying that notebook everywhere I went, it embarrassed him as much as if I had attended church in a frilly pink tutu and Ronald McDonald shoes. “Real writers,” he used to tell me, “do not take their notebooks everywhere. They don’t have to write all the time.” He knew this, I assume, because he had never met a single writer who did this. That he had never met a single writer at all was irrelevant.

This is, by the way, something I still do. I no longer carry a notebook; I use my iPod. I no longer write entire stories during my downtime, I jot down ideas and dialogue. Especially dialogue. One of the things people have complimented most about Emily’s Stitches is its dialogue. I will tell you my secret to writing good dialogue:
I don’t write good dialogue, I steal it.

Whenever I overhear someone say something awesome or (less frequently) I say something awesome, I jot it down in my iPod here.

Here are some of the best lines I’ve never written:
  • “The best thing you could say about him was that he wasn’t Hitler” (a student discussing one of my colleagues).
  • From a conversation with my son about a friend of his I am not a great fan of: 
“I kinda thought you disliked him since, you know, you said you wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire.”
“Well I may have exaggerated a little. If he were on fire, I’d probably piss on him.”
  • An old grizzled man at the Waffle House when asked if he was ordering for here or to go: “I got nothing but internet porn and a wet paper towel waiting for me at home. I think I’ll eat my Waffle House here.”

Sometimes these lines lead me to stories; sometimes they fit into stories I already have. Sometimes, they’re just funny.

Another question I am often asked is how to create memorable characters. The truth is I don’t create characters any more than I write good dialog. I find them, usually after they’ve been in the story a bit and decide to speak up.

Richard Monaco, author of the Parsival novels, a Pulitzer nominated fantasy series in the 70’s and early 80’s, puts it best. He claims that you have to fall in love with your characters in order to make them “real.” “Characters are the soul of literature,” he says. “It’s like meeting a stranger with interesting superficial characteristics. You have to drop your own opinions and prejudices, and you have to look and listen. It is like falling in love because you care and learn as a result. When you love someone or something, you want to learn, to know; you forget yourself; look, listen. That's also how you create characters.”

Yeah, my literary mentors are quite a cheery group.

Yes, some of my characters begin as caricatures of real people. The narrator of “Negative Space” (the story I am about to read) is very much like myself; his estranged wife began as an avatar for my first wife, but as the story grows, the characters develop in their own ways. I am not a photographer; Aleck is. My first wife did not leave me for a tattooed, punk-rocking hellion, Jessi, on the other hand...

Other characters spring completely from my imagination. I never knew anyone like Uncle Birch, for instance, though he seems in many ways, the most real person in the story. He mostly began as a stereotype of the typical conspiracy theorist nut-job who, despite the fact that I had intended him to be simply an amusing character in the background of the story, gradually came to dominate the plot as much as he dominates his family’s Thanksgiving dinner.

The secret to finding good characters is to watch and listen to everyone around you. Anybody play the people-watching game? You sit in a corner or on a bench or otherwise out of the way in a group of people, preferably strangers, and try to figure out what their stories are. You pay attention to their idiosyncrasies. Every time that guy passes a window or mirror or security camera, he struts, but he slumps down whenever someone else walks by. The other guy checks out every girl who walks buy and blows them French-kisses behind their back. I have no idea what that guy’s up to. It’s a great way to find characters for your story.

But how do you find a story for your characters? This may well be the most frequently asked question of me or any author. Where do your ideas come from? And as with dialog and character, there is no easy answer.

My ideas come from everything. My first rule of writing fiction is to imagine a story I want to read that hasn’t been written yet, and write it. Sometimes I begin with an interesting story that actually happened to me or someone else, but then, just as characters have a tendency to get away from you, so does plot. Things start creeping into the story that didn’t actually happen. It starts morphing into something else, something new. Hopefully, something better than truth.

Some of my story ideas come from other people. For instance, my story “Gods for Sale, Cheap” came from a Neil Gaiman interview I read in which he discussed story ideas that never gelled for him. One of those ideas was about a shop that sold religions in the same way that other shops sell books or clothing or inflatable sheep. As much as I adore Gaiman’s work, the only thing that stuck with me from the interview was the idea of a religion store, so I gave myself the writing exercise of crafting a story about such a business and, because I wanted to practice my dialogue, it could not have a narrator. And of course, now that I say it out loud, I see that I totally stole Gaiman’s idea. I only hope that my book sells enough copies for him to sue me over it.

Most of the time, however, my ideas come from combining these two things. Take “Negative Space.” That idea came from two things occurring very close together: First, about a year previous to writing the story, shortly after separating from my first wife, my former mother-in-law invited me to their house for Christmas, and, to everyone’s surprise including my own, I went. Secondly, I had recently read Michael Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys, and in a scene that isn’t in the film, the Michael Douglas character, Grady Tripp, and the Tobey Maguire character, James Leer, inadvertently find themselves sharing a Passover Seder with Grady’s estranged parents-in-law. Of course the scene from the book brought to mind the awkward Christmas dinner with my own estranged in-laws, and I began by simply writing up a version of my own experience, then realized that the irony of having the dinner occur on Thanksgiving worked better than Christmas thematically. Once that change was made, the characters morphed into the ones we have now.

All of this to say that there is no magic bullet for writing a story. 

There is one for killing Kennedy, though.
If you have an idea, tinker with it. If the events are based on real events or the characters are versions of real people, don’t try too hard to make them exact replicas of reality. We have plenty enough reality as it is. The world could use more fantasy. Let events and characters go their own way; I suspect you’ll probably find the journeys they take far more interesting than the journeys that have already happened. If not, hell, just throw it away and start again. After all, whether you have an audience of one or one million, when you are alone with your keyboard, you are only writing for yourself.

And that’s really my last bit of advice for you. Write only for yourself because nobody else cares about your writing. Publishers, if you are fortunate enough to get published, will not care about your writing. When they say they do, they care only inasmuch as your writing will bring them money, and that is okay. That’s their job. Bookstore owners do not care about your writing; they care about selling your book, yes, but they are probably not going to read it, and that, too, is okay. It’s their job. Since, as I said in the beginning, you are probably not going be a best-selling author, your audience may not extend further than your friends and family, if that far. Your friends and family, for the most part, do not care about your writing. They care about you and want to encourage you, and that’s okay. It’s their job. Only you care about your writing; that’s your job. So write only about things that interest you. If other people like it, great, but if you are uninterested in it, you have failed yourself as a writer.


When I first taught high school literature, I was saddled with ninth grade lit and composition. As you probably know (and possibly remember) ninth grade is a horrible demographic to teach. On one hand they feel like big shots because they are in high school and they are still naïve enough to believe that means something. On the other hand, they feel intimidated by the upperclassmen, so they show out in order to prove that they are just as jaded about life as they believe the seniors are. On the third hand (because we really need at least three hands), they are brand new teenagers with bodies teeming with amazing new chemicals that make them think only about whatever is not in front of them now. In other words teaching ninth graders is not entirely unlike teaching a pack of Chihuahua puppies.

And I taught these puppies as best I could, and the one thing that helped me through the stress of teaching these Chihuahuas was my development of sarcasm, which is something anyone who has taught high school will tell you that you need. During my first teacher evaluation, my assistant principal praised my lesson plans and my ability to keep the class relatively herded and on task. The only thing she was really concerned about, she said, was my sarcasm.

“I don’t think the kids get it,” she said.

“That’s okay,” I replied. “The sarcasm isn’t for them; it’s for me. If they get it, that’s just gravy.”

Your writing is like my sarcasm: It is for you yourself and no one else. If anyone else gets it, likes it, or wants more of it, that’s just gravy.

Thank you.
---
I’m going to read you a story now. I hope you enjoy it, but if not, at least I will.

If you'd like to read "Negative Space," click here.