Category Archives: Publishing

Some Thoughts on Reading and Writing

A while ago, there was a discussion on Janet Reid’s blog around how much you should read in your chosen genre before you write that genre.* The received wisdom is 100 books. Yes, 100 books in your genre of choice, before you commit to writing that novel. Some of you can easily burn through a 300-page novel in an afternoon, so 100 books is a summer vacation assignment. For others who, due to time constraints, or other reasons, are not fast readers, that sounds like a six-month commitment. Maybe longer. I’m doing really well if I can get through 50 books in a year at the moment. What does that mean for the person chomping at the bit, eager to write their big crime novel, who has only read a handful of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie stories, and maybe one or two Michael Connelly and Lee Child books? Must they wait?

Here’s my take on this dilemma, for what it’s worth. I’m an as-yet unpublished writer, so I offer these thoughts for consideration, not as proven method. Indeed, I invite discussion in the comments.

What’s the Point of the Rule?

Whenever anyone spouts a so-called “rule” of writing, I’m immediately skeptical. For every rule, there’s a successful (and talented) author who has broken it. But these “rules” end up in how-to books and Writer’s Digest articles, so there must be a reason for them.

Before embracing or endorsing the rule, I ask a simple question: “What’s the point of the rule?” Because behind every writing rule, there are scores of literary agents and editors throwing paper, pencils, and laptops around in frustration at yet another dim-witted wannabe writer who doesn’t know his apostrophes from his asterisks, writing boring, been-there-done-that, prose, thinking they’re the next Hemingway.

Behind this particular rule is the idea that in order to write something original, you need to have a good feel for what’s been done. Also, if you want to get a good idea of how your novel fits into the general canon of the genre, you need to have a familiarity with that canon. All this helps the agent and publisher sell your book. If you’re writing another re-hash of a P.D. James plot, then no-one’s going to be interested.

That’s all well and good. BUT

You and I know there are plenty of books out there with settings and plots that all ring familiar. And yet millions buy them and enjoy them. Why? I think because each writer brings something unique to the telling of the story. Whether it’s their style, their “voice,” or their characters, or their peculiar perspective on the familiar, or something else, there’s a reason we keep turning the pages. It’s like a Columbo mystery, where we know who did it and how it’s going to end up within the first ten minutes of the show. And yet we keep watching because we love Columbo, and we love watching how he solves the murder.

If you ask me, I think writers should definitely be readers, and read as much and as often as possible. Writers should also write, and write as much as they can as often as they can. As a writer you should feel free to imitate styles, try out different genres, and find your voice and perspective. Then write whatever the heckovellia you want to write. Even if you’ve only read a couple of books in that genre. The worst that can happen is no-one will read it. But have fun. Enjoy what you write. If you’ve got any talent, you’ll know if what you’ve written is worthless dung,** or if you’re onto something. After that, all the usual “rules” about getting beta readers and so on apply.

What do you think? Disagree if you want. After all, what do I know? ūüôā

*¬†I’ve realized that I’ve probably written more in the comments on Janet’s blog articles than I’ve written articles on my own blog! Okay, perhaps an exaggeration, but that’s an imbalance I ought to redress.

** As opposed to priceless dung? I’m sure flies and beetles can tell the difference.

Writing about Writing

You might notice that the tag-line to this blog says “Reading Writing Music Theology Etc.” If you’ve been following for any length of time (well, not¬†any length–I mean, if you’ve been following for a few days this wouldn’t appy) you’ll have seen book reviews, Music Mondays, Sunday School Notes, Doctor Who stuff, and other things. But where’s the writing? Sure, I’ve posted some flash fiction from time to time. But you may have noticed I’ve gone quiet when it comes to writing tips and publishing advice.

Back when I started this blog, oh some six years ago now, I did a mini-series (a costume drama, I think) on querying agents, giving tips and suggestions. I was, at that time, querying my first query-ready novel. I had done a lot of reading, and I wanted to sum up all my research and offer it up to the world.

Since that time, however, I’ve done some hard thinking. You see, I am, and remain to this day, an unagented, unpublished writer. So my expertise in publishing is as good as my reading and conversations I’ve had with agents and published writers. I don’t have anything to offer by way of good, positive experience. When I look for query advice, there are two types of people I consider SMEs (Subject Matter Experts):

  • The people who read queries as a job requirement and necessity (i.e., literary agents and editors)
  • People whose queries have secured them multiple requests from agents, or, who have secured agency representation as a result of their queries. In other words, people who have written successful queries. Queries that have produced the desired result.

I am in neither of these camps. So why should anyone listen to what I have to say, when you have plenty of SMEs telling you what you want to know?

As for writing tips, sure I can tell you what works for me. But I have nothing to show for my writing so far, so why should you care what works for me? Clearly what works for me doesn’t yet work for many other people. Again, when I want writing tips, who do I turn to? Published authors whose work I like, people who have demonstrated ability with the craft of writing, and have, as a result, written work that is salable and/or critically acclaimed.

So, at least for now, until I have a credible enough platform from which to pontificate, I’ll gladly point you to SMEs. But unless, for some strange reason, you want to read my thoughts on writing, how I go about composing prose, or whatever, I won’t be posting “tips and tricks” here. Or anywhere else. It just seems a little presumptuous, and a bit arrogant, of me. After all, in the immortal words of the Eighth Doctor, “Who am I?” (Whovian in-joke). So here are some SMEs to get you started. You can easily Google for more:

Query SMEs:

Query Shark/Janet Reid

Carly Watters

Publishing Crawl (Pub Crawl)

Various Tips from Literary Agents

… and other Literary Agent blogs.

Writing SMEs:

Stephen King (his book ON WRITING)

Jeff Somers

Writer’s Digest

James Scott Bell

The Manhattan Trip, Day Two

As I mentioned yesterday, the main purpose of this New York trip was so my FirstBorn, Sarah, could audition at Juilliard and Carnegie Mellon. Day Two of our adventure, therefore, started early with a trip uptown on the subway (the 1-Line, to be precise) to Juilliard, which is near the Lincoln Center, and not far from Central Park. The journey by train only took about fifteen minutes, and then we had a short walk from the station to Juilliard. On the way, I spotted the Mormon Temple:

Why take a picture of it, especially since I am not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Well, first, I’m a theologian, so things like this interest me anyway. But also, if you Google “Mormon Temples”… go on. Google. I’ll wait. Do you see how everywhere else, Mormon Temples are big stand-alone buildings with tall spires? I’m not sure whether it’s because of city ordinances, or just lack of space, but the Manhattan Temple is not quite as impressive looking. Yet it¬†still has¬†the trademark golden Angel Moroni blowing his trumpet atop a… pole? Not quite a spire, but I guess it had to suffice.

We arrived at Juilliard, and I walked with Sarah into the lobby area where they were receiving applicants. I asked if she wanted me to stay, since they did offer a tour to parents and friends of auditioners, and maybe she wanted me to hang around for moral support. She said she was okay, and would text me when she was done. Juilliard hold their auditions in the morning, then ask their applicants not to leave town while they select those they want to see again. If you have been selected, you get an¬†email from them between 2 and 4 that afternoon. Sarah was warned that if she got¬†a call-back, she could expect to be at Juilliard as late as¬†11 that night! She probably didn’t think I would enjoy waiting around that long, so I wished her well and we parted ways.

Those who know me know that I’m a huge Beatles fan. Well… okay, I’m not that big, and I find enormous insects to be kind of gross, so let me re-phrase. I really like the Beatles, and have for over 30 years. Being from the UK, I have always known who the Beatles were. But it wasn’t until John Lennon’s assassination in 1980 that I really started paying them more attention. Since my Beatles fandom helped fan the flame of my interest in music, and my desire to learn to play instruments, that tragic event was quite a seminal one in my life.

After the Beatles split up in 1970, John moved to New York. His battle with the Nixon Administration to get a Green Card is the stuff of legend. It’s a battle he eventually won. John and his wife Yoko¬†moved into the Dakota building, just across the road from Central Park, where they lived and raised their son Sean. And it was just outside the Dakota building on the night of December 8th, 1980, that John was shot. Those who were around at the time will remember the international outpouring of grief. Hundreds gathered in Central Park singing his songs, mourning together. Not long after, a section of Central Park was given over to Lennon’s memory. Called “Strawberry Fields,” after one of his most famous Beatles songs, its centerpiece is a large circular mosaic:

“Imagine” is probably John Lennon’s most famous non-Beatles song.

One sign says that “Strawberry Fields” is supposed to be a “Quiet Place.” Given that it’s right next to Central Park West, a major road, it is amazingly tranquil, with benches all around, as you can see in the picture above. Each bench carries a dedication. One in particular caught my attention:

 

After lingering a little, I made my way across the road to the Dakota building. It’s still the residence of the rich and famous today, which is why there’s a guard post and “Authorized Persons Only Beyond This Point” signs. I believe Yoko still lives there. Of course, I had to go and stand in that fateful spot, the place where one heart stopped, a million hearts were broken, and lives were forever changed. It gave me a chill.

I hadn’t had breakfast and seriously needed a cup of tea, so I started making my way in the vague direction of Seventh Avenue. I could have taken the 1-Line back to the hotel, but I decided I’d rather walk. According to Google Maps, it would take about 40 minutes to get to the Hotel Pennsylvania from Central Park. I had the time, and I really wanted to take in the city, so off I went!

I breakfasted on a bagel at a Starbucks on West 59th Street, not far from the Lincoln Center. The tea was okay (“English Breakfast”) and only cost a couple of dollars, so I was happy with that. Sarah texted me while I was there to say she had finished orientation, she would be auditioning soon, and I shouldn’t wait around for her. She had the MetroCard I bought yesterday that was good for a week’s worth of unlimited travel, so she was fine.

With the help of Google Maps (don’t get me started on my lousy sense of direction!), I oriented myself toward Seventh Avenue and started walking. Before long, I found myself on Ninth Avenue, and a district known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” I’m not quite sure why¬†Hell’s, but I understood the “Kitchen” part: restaurants! Lots and lots of restaurants. At least five flavors of Korean, Mexican, Chinese, Greek, you name it! There’s even an Afghan Kebab House:

One restaurant (Chinese, I believe) had a sign on the door boasting “MSG-Free, Vegan, Gluten-Free…” and other ways it catered to every possible preference and allergy under the sun!

My family (and sometimes I) enjoy the show “Project Runway,” which is kind of like “American Idol” for fashion designers. Every week, the contestants go shopping for fabric at this amazing fabric store called Mood. It so happens, Mood is located on West 37th Street, between 8th and 7th Avenues. Since it was so close to the hotel, I made a point of swinging by just to see what it’s like in real life. Here’s what I found:

It doesn’t look much from the outside. The sign on the front says that the ground floor is for upholstery fabrics. If you want the fashion fabrics, you go through a door at the side and take the stairs to the third floor. I almost went in and shouted, “Hello, Mooood!!” but resisted. Thankfully.

While I was at Central Park, I got an email from my literary agent friend, Janet Reid (regular blog readers will know who Janet is). Before leaving for New York, I had emailed her saying I would be in town. She invited me to stop by the office, namely New Leaf Literary and Media. Her email that morning was to tell me I should call after 11 am to arrange the visit. It was after 11 by the time I got to the hotel room, so I called her, and she told me to come on over.

Fifteen minutes later, I was on the 22nd floor of 110 West 40th. Janet met me at the door and invited me in…

Bear in mind, folks, I’m a writer who has been stalking following literary agents on social media for the past six years, hoping to find one who will be receptive to my work. Since most agents live and work around New York City, it’s not often I get to meet one in the flesh. Here, I was about to meet a whole office full of them!

Janet introduced me to Joanna Volpe, head honcho of New Leaf, and agent to Veronica Roth, Leigh Bardugo, and numerous other best selling authors. I also met Jaida, JL, Mia, and I’m pretty sure I met Danielle and Sara (see the New Leaf website to put faces to these names)–everybody was busy working so I didn’t have much time to stop and chat. Janet then took me back to her office where we talked for a bit. Then Sarah texted to say she was done with her audition, and where was I?¬†Janet invited her to the office. When she arrived, we all headed out to lunch at the eatery next door.

It’s always a wonderful thing when you can combine good food and good company. I don’t recall the name of the restaurant, but they had a falafel burger on the menu. I checked with the waitress and, indeed, it promised a burger-sized falafel on a bun. I¬†love falafel, so I ordered that with eager anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed:

It came with coleslaw that really needed more vinegar, and potato chips that were clearly homemade, but lacked flavor. The burger was the star, and it more than made up for the rest of the plate.

Over lunch we talked about Sarah’s audition (it went well, but she won’t know anything until this afternoon), publishing,¬†and Janet’s blog (on which I am a frequent–perhaps too frequent–commenter). Janet also took pleasure in tormenting me (“You’d like to meet [literary agent] Jessica Sinsheimer? Oh, I had dinner with Jessica the other evening. We talked about you!” My mouth drops. “Just kidding!” Grrr.)

Once our bellies were full, we headed back to New Leaf. Our phones needed to charge, and Sarah was waiting on an email from Juilliard, so Janet invited us to hang out in their conference room and recharge our phones while we waited. I have a theory that Janet is trying to keep the list of agents that I query very short–as in, only her name. At¬†Bouchercon 2015, after telling Janet that literary agent Jessica Faust, with whom I had a pleasant fifteen minute chat, was on my query list, she replied, “You have a¬†list??” When we got back to the 22nd floor, Joanna was using the conference room, but kindly vacated it so we could use it. I’m certain that if I should query Joanna Volpe, Joanna will¬†say to Janet, “Colin Smith… do I know him?” And Janet will say, “Oh yes. He’s the guy that kicked you out of your conference room.” See what I mean?

Over the next couple of hours, Sarah went over her monologues for Carnegie Mellon, while I read some of the books in the conference room. One picture book I read that was quite entertaining was THIS BOOK IS NOT ABOUT DRAGONS by Shelley Moore Thomas and Fred Koehler. Throughout the book, a mouse insists there are no dragons in the story, while in the background we see clear evidence of dragon activity. I also started reading GHOST COUNTRY, the second in Patrick Lee’s series that started with THE BREACH (which I have read).

By the time four o’clock rolled around, Sarah had not heard from Juilliard, so she decided to head on over there just to be sure. We said our goodbyes to Janet, and I went back to the hotel while Sarah took the train back uptown. While Sarah was gone, I asked at the hotel cafe if they could fill my travel mug with hot water. Of course they could! Only $1.50 for a medium cup, and $2.00 for a large cup. I frowned and walked away. Sarah returned to say that Juilliard was a “no.” She wasn’t terribly disappointed since she knew it was a long-shot. It seems Juilliard gets about 3,000 applications every year, out of which they select 20 students. The experience was worthwhile, however.

To celebrate/commiserate, we ate supper at one of the Irish pubs nearby. The one we chose, The Blarney¬†Rock Irish Pub, was relatively inexpensive, and served veggie burgers. A great combination! I drank Blue Moon (they had it on tap), and Sarah got a hard cider. Sarah tried their shepherd’s pie, which she said was actually very good. My veggie burger was also good, as were the fries (no, they were not chips–and as Irish as they might claim to be, I wouldn’t expect proper chips in the States):

We then walked back to Korea Town to visit Paris Baguette, a Korean bakery, where we picked up some food for breakfast tomorrow. Sarah suggested we try¬†Starbucks for hot water. It seems she had been able to get a cup of hot water free of charge from them. So we found a Starbucks and, sure enough, they gave us two large cups of hot water, no charge. I have never felt so much love for Starbucks in my entire life. To complete my New York experience, we stopped at a street vendor and I got a large pretzel, which I took back to the hotel to munch on while I drank a cup of tea using our Starbucks hot water. (Yes, Sarah and I both brought tea bags from home, because that’s what we do.)

And that pretty much sums up our second day. Day three promised to be nerve wracking. Sarah’s Carnegie Mellon audition was at 8 am, but we didn’t know when she would be seen. Our flight out of JFK was scheduled to leave at 12:59 pm, so we needed to be leaving for the airport between 10 and 10:30 am. Did¬†we make it out in time…? Find out tomorrow!

 

 

Links and Stuff

I know you’re all anxious to hear the latest in the house-hunting news, so let’s get right to it…

Last week I said we might be honing in on the house we think is¬†“it.” So we prayed, “Lord, if this is the house, remove the obstacles. If it’s not, make them insurmountable.” On Monday, we visited the house for the third time, making notes on things that we would need to change, and things we would like to change if we can afford to. We came away with a consensus: it’s not the perfect house, but it will work for us, and everyone is willing to go for it. Of course, views vary among the kids from “Actually, now we’ve seen it again, and had a chance to really think about where our stuff will go, I like it!” to, “I’m not a fan of it, but I’ll make the most of it.” As I said last time, I don’t expect a ringing endorsement from everyone, but we don’t have a lot of choice. We’re being forced to move, so time is not our friend. We’re simply grateful the Lord has put a house in our path.

So we put in an offer. A low-ball offer. A¬†$12,000-below-asking-price low-ball offer. Our realtor said it wasn’t unreasonable, but he’d be surprised if they took it. He expected the sellers to negotiate hard. Okay, Lord. Here’s an obstacle. Stop us here if you want!

The sellers rejected our offer, but countered with one of their own: a mere $4,000 higher than our offer. That’s $8,000 below asking price. Jaws dropped. We accepted.

Okay Lord, so far so good. There’s still the inspection, and other due diligence things we need to do. Still plenty of opportunity for the Lord to throw in some insurmountable road-blocks. But at the moment, it looks like we have a house! ūüėÄ

We continue to covet the prayers of those that pray. And now for some links…

Have you noticed that books tend to publish on Tuesdays? If you’re a writer, or a publishing professional, this is probably no surprise. But why? What’s so special about Tuesdays? Why not publish on Wednesday, or Friday? Well, Laurie Hertzel did some investigating and published her results in a¬†Minnesota Star Tribune article. It seems many in the publishing world have no idea why–it’s just kind of a tradition. But some have¬†plausible¬†reasons to offer.

Literary Agent Jessica Sinsheimer recently announced the launch of The Manuscript Academy. This venture seeks to bring the benefits of a writer’s conference to your home and your digital device. By using high-quality video instruction, along with internet forums,¬†and other online technology, Jessica and the faculty of The Manuscript Academy want¬†to make writing and publishing industry education affordable and accessible. It’s a bold venture that reminds me of WriteOnCon, an online conference that ran for a few years. Indeed, it was at WriteOnCon that I first met Jessica Sinsheimer. She hosted a one-hour forum that¬†ended up going for three hours because we were all having such a good time. The Manuscript Academy isn’t free, but it’s cheaper than most conferences, especially if you factor in hotel and transportation costs. They also aim to eventually raise enough money to be able to provide scholarships to people who want to intern within the publishing industry. Many internships are unpaid, which, given the cost of living in NYC, makes the prospect untenable for many otherwise well-qualified people.¬†Anyway, check out the link and see for yourself what it’s all about!

Finally, I discovered this week that former Wings guitarist Henry McCullough died this past June. He was 72 years old. Henry joined Wings in 1972,¬†and¬†left in 1973, just prior to the recording of the “Band on the Run” album. He continued to play for a variety of artists, as well as¬†recording his own material, right up through 2012, when he suffered a major heart attack from which he never recovered. Of the Wings songs McCullough played on, the most notable are probably the James Bond movie theme, “Live and Let Die,” and the classic song, “My Love” which goes something like this…

That’s all from me for this week! How has your week been?

Vanity Press

Traditionally, when an author wants to be published, he or she will query an agent, sign with an agent, and that agent will then shop for a publisher. When the agent finds a publisher who wants to publish the author’s work, the agent and the publisher will draw up a contract. Under the terms of this contract, the author, the agent and the publisher receive a percentage share of the royalties from the publication of the book. The publisher will usually pay the author (via the agent) an advance against royalties (usually in three or four payments), which is repaid via the author’s royalty share. If the book sells more than enough for the author’s royalty share to repay the advance, the author will start receiving royalty checks (usually in semi-annual payments). If the book doesn’t sell well enough to pay back the advance, the author is not required to make up the difference out of pocket, but he or she won’t receive royalty payments from the publisher, and the publisher may not want to publish the author’s next book.

“Vanity presses” take a different approach to publishing. Under this model, the author pays a publisher to publish his or her book. The publisher may also offer editing, design, and promotional services for an additional fee, otherwise the author is responsible for all other aspects of the design and marketing of his or her work. The advantages of this model are clear:

  • the author doesn’t have to go through the cycle of agent/publisher submissions and rejections before getting published
  • it provides an opportunity for authors to publish books that are not mainstream, or may have a limited audience (at least initially)
  • authors receive a greater royalty share, since they paid the publisher up front, and they didn’t use the services of an agent

But there are downsides, too:

  • the author doesn’t have the quality control usually provided by agents and editors (for free)
  • the author has to become proficient with publishing contracts to avoid being scammed
  • the author has to have the funds to get the book published

There are ways around these downsides. Authors can hire lawyers, editors, and marketers. Also, as self-publishing continues to gain respectability in the marketplace, some literary agencies provide their services to those who wish to self-publish.

The whole subject of self-publishing is more complex (and contentious) than I can deal with in 500 words, but as technology opens up opportunities for independent publishing (ebooks, Print-On-Demand, etc.), the self-publishing and “vanity press” option is one many authors are taking seriously. After all, the author wants to get his or her work into readers’ hands, and this is another way to accomplish that.

What are your thoughts about self-publishing? Is it something you would consider? Would you buy a book published by a “vanity press”? If you have, were you disappointed, pleasantly surprised, or did you get what you expected?