Thoughts on teaching–a retrospective.

I originally posted this about five years, seven or eight books, and a bunch of classes ago. I believe it’s still relevant and may be of interest. When I first declared myself a writer, long ago, I had no idea what the future held, but I never would have thought I’d also become a teacher. Since then, I’ve come to love that role nearly as much as I love writing. This may help explain why.   

Breathe in. Exhale. I just finished my first, multi-session course on fiction writing. And now I’m not sure if I’m a god or a slob. Could go either way, I suppose, depending on one’s viewpoint.

writer_cartoonMy class was titled “Creative Writing.” I went into it feeling confident in my knowledge of the craft. I’d written nine novels and countless short stories. I’d been through the publishing game, the agent game, and the conference game. I’d hobnobbed with great writers and commiserated with the not-so-great. I’d known the aggravation of selling my work only to have the publisher go belly up before my stuff slithered through the press. I’d been anthologized, awarded, nearly awarded, and ignored. In short, I had a lot of experience to share. I’d seen it all. I’d done most of it. Hell, I had a fan who’s not a blood relation! What could possibly be asked of me that I wasn’t capable of handling?

In a word: non-fiction.

Okay, that’s probably more than a single word; it’s hyphenated. Geez. How was I supposed to know that half my class would come from the world of memoir writing? I got my journalism degree almost 40 years ago; that was the last time I wrote non-fiction. And suddenly, half — HALF! — my class is smiling at me, pens poised, waiting for me to tell them how to write their life stories creatively.

Holy. Fricking. Moly.

I read non-fiction. I sure as sin don’t write the stuff. My last feature article was about a blind taxi cab dispatcher who directed me to a pick-up forty-something years ago when I drove a hack to make ends meet in college. (Sadly, they didn’t. But that’s another story.) It was a great feature article. My professor loved it. He wanted to run it by some of his old pals at UPI before the service went belly up. We’re talking profound. And I should know, I edited my college newspaper. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in a position to market the story and had to settle for a good grade in a journalism class instead. There are times when altruism sucks. Trust me on this.

Anyway, returning to the present — and half the expectant faces in my class — I’m talking about 7-point plotting (thank you Algys Budrys, Kris Rusch, and Dean Wesley Smith) while my students are thinking about the latest and greatest on Ancestry.com.

Holy. Crap. Time to get seriously creative.

I’m scrambling, trying to find common ground for the fiction and non-fiction folk. And there’s this guy sitting there, smiling at me. He’s somewhere in his 70’s — slender, quiet spoken, probably ex-military; he’s obviously seen a lot in his life.

“So,” he says, “an opening ought to have what, again? A person, in a place, with a problem?”

“Exactly!” I say. “That way, readers experience some sort of conflict — whatever the problem might be — and they know the writer will probably deliver something worth reading.”

“And that’s where you start to tell a story?”

kiss on the cheek“Yessir! Right there. On that very spot.” Did I know the man well enough to kiss him? Probably not. But as savvy as he was, I’m sure he could have handled it.

And suddenly, the pressure was off. It turns out there’s an amazing amount of cross-over between fiction and non-fiction. People are interested in things that matter. Conflict matters. The things we remember in our lives are almost certainly rooted in conflict. It’s the absolute essence of storytelling.

That wonderful man and I have since come to call each other friends, and I welcome his patience, wisdom, and experience, for he has many more lessons to teach me. And I look forward to them more than he will ever know.

–Josh

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Valentine, oh Valentine, where didst thou go wrong?

And whatever happened to Saint Valentine’s contemporaries: Saint Austrebertha, Saint Eormenhild, Saint Eulalia, and Saint Scholastica? February was their month, too. It all began a long time ago.

Based on my admittedly cursory research, it seems the Romans had a nifty thing going back in the day–the “day” being somewhere around 753 B.C., not coincidentally, the year Rome was founded. They called it Lupercalia, which to me, brings to mind supercali-whatever. Totally different deals.

Sorry. So, Lupercalia….

In the original version a handful of young males, presumably of noble birth, would be given the task of memorializing the occasion.  This was accomplished via a two-part ritual. The first involved the sacrifice of a goat and a dog. (Why a dog? Lord only knows. One early Roman writer blamed the tradition on the Greeks.) The animals’ blood was then smeared on the foreheads of the young volunteers who would run naked, laughing and carrying on around the Palatine amid a crowd of onlookers. Meanwhile, priests were busy skinning the goat and cutting the hide into strips.

Part two of the ritual involved passing out the strips of goatskin with which the naked memorializers would whip female members of the audience, presumably to ensure fertility. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

To be fair, there actually was a sort of logic involved. The festivities were held in the approximate area where the legendary Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf, the Lupercal. Goats were long considered symbols of fertility, so one might understand why the ancients would whack one in honor of the occasion. Evidently, dogs were considered the enemies of wolves, thus making their sacrifice somewhat more understandable as well.

I’m still pondering the business of naked lads whipping the ladies into a frenzy with strips of goat hide. That’s a bit of a stretch, even for me. But hey, we make a big deal out of a fat guy zipping around the world in a sleigh drawn by flying reindeer. What gives us the right to be critical of how others celebrate their holidays?

According to various reports, these rituals continued for centuries, undergoing subtle changes over time. One such change involved young married women who were encouraged to bare their bodies. That began in 277 B.C. (I’m not making this up!) The annual celebration continued without other major changes until 341 A.D. when the Pope decreed an end to sacrificial killings. This surely put a damper on things, and yet the event limped on until the late fifth century when either Pope Gelasius or Felix III quashed it. Evidently, Rome had run out of naked nobles, and hordes of uncouth and unclothed commoners had taken their place. Oh, the humanity!

News traveled slowly in those days, and the folks in Constantinople didn’t get the word until sometime in the tenth century.

It seems, however, that folks rather liked the idea of fertility, and since February marked the time when many European birds began mating, it seemed only natural to find a suitable date to mark the occasion. The church provided the martyred Valentinus, who may or may not have been three different people (the historical record is foggy). Renamed Valentine, and sainted, he was honored for performing marriage ceremonies during a time when the Emperor forbade Christians to wed (approximately 270 A.D.), a service which ultimately cost him his head.

Meanwhile, the Normans were busy celebrating their own fertility celebration around the same time of year which they called Galatin’s Day. Some historians claim there’s enough similarity between the names Valentine and Galatin that some morphing of the two events likely occurred.

During the dreadful “dark ages” little changed until Geoffrey Chaucer happened along in the 14th century. (Finally, something about writers and/or writing!) He penned the poems “Parlement of Foules” and “The Complaint of Mars” which put a more romantic spin on the holiday.

Roughly a hundred years after Chaucer’s poetry appeared, so did the first valentine love letter. The Duke of Orleans wrote to his wife from his prison cell in the Tower of London telling her he was “sick of love” (lovesick) and referred to her as “my very gentle Valentine.”

In the 17th century, Shakespeare mentions the day in “Hamlet” which seems to have sealed the fate of the date. And guess what showed up in the 18th century: Valentine’s day cards. Granted, they were originally done by hand, something we really ought to go back to doing. The Brits were printing the things in 1797, and a few of those early efforts now reside in museums across the pond.

And why, one might ask, would Josh delve into so much historical trivia? To sell books, of course! My latest features a cover adorned with yet another naked male, this one atop a writing instrument of great historical import. The book’s loaded with writerly stuff. And humor. Why not get a copy for YOUR favorite Valentine?

–Josh

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How much of you should go in your book?

While the answer is obvious for those who write memoir or family histories, the question becomes a great deal trickier when one is writing fiction. To a certain extent, all of what we put in a novel is derived from our own lives, even if the story we’re telling is set on another planet, in a different dimension, or smack in the middle of some utterly illogical fantasy land. None of that matters.

The admonition to “write what you know” seems silly to me; what else can we write? Our characters reflect the emotions we’ve felt in our own lives. Our likes and dislikes will be reflected in the words and actions of our cast. The players in our make-believe world are likely derived from folks we’ve met, or wished we hadn’t.

We can write about survival in the Arctic based solely on the weather we experienced while visiting relatives living in snow country. Our action sequence involving a great white shark will lean heavily on what we experienced while snorkeling in three feet of fresh water as a kid. Our cowboy hero will command his horse with consummate expertise because of a pony ride we took during summer camp. The killer in our action/adventure novel will drive a car, a truck, or a tank with incomparable skill simply because we’ve spent some time behind a steering wheel.

Can our characters pilot starships, do brain surgery, or manage a sword dance? Of course! And they’ll do so convincingly because of things we’ve seen and done in our own lives. That’s one of the wonderful differences between writing novels and writing textbooks. No one’s life (their real one, anyway) will depend on the expertise we bring to a tale we’ve completely made up. Our character can root around inside someone’s head and ferret out a bullet or a magic bean; that doesn’t mean we should be allowed anywhere near a real operating room.

We extrapolate. We imagine. And then we fill in the gaps. We can empathize with a fatally wounded legionnaire sprawled on the ground at the feet of a Celtic swordsman, his innards rapidly transitioning outdoors. We know what pain feels like; we understand shock; we’ve been light-headed on more than one occasion. We can make our reader live through scenes where our players experience far worse.

Sam Clemens never experienced time travel or lived in ancient England, yet his magnificent novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court has enthralled millions. I seriously doubt J.K. Rowling encountered much actual magic before, during, or after she created Harry Potter and the horde of imaginary beasts, bad guys, and bravado which populate her books.

The mix of memory and imagination is a powerful one, but it’s one we can harness. Doing so takes time and effort, of course. But what worthwhile thing doesn’t require exactly that?

There are risks involved, too. What if we get the details completely wrong? What if we confuse the details of one era with a different one entirely? What if…

But those are questions for another day. And trust me; I’ll get to ’em sooner or later.

–Josh

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So, you wanna be a wordsmith?

…then you’d best use words the way they’re meant to be used. I know I’ve misused words in the past. Like way too many writers, I get the past tense of lie and lay, laid and lain confused and have to look them up several times a year. (The web pages I use greet me with, “Oh good grief, you again?”)

I’ve compiled a list of some of the words my students have managed to misuse. While the great majority don’t stray into the land of acrologia, they do stumble a bit more than more experienced writers do. This is most likely because the folks who’ve been doing this for a good while are well aware that they’ll make the same kinds of mistakes, so they make sure they’ve got a bunch of sharp-eyed readers to help them ferret out the offenders.

Here are some of the words I’ve seen most often used incorrectly. Do you think you might have accidentally used one? Or more?

Let’s start with bemused. Many people think it’s synonymous with amused. It ain’t. Bemused means confused. Trust me; I’ve been bemused, and there’s nothing remotely humorous about it.

When I see words being misused, I feel compelled to make corrections. Compelled, you see, means one is forced to do something; it’s not just that one is unwilling to do it. He or she has no choice.

I’ve probably heard the alleged word “conversate” more often than I’ve seen it in a manuscript. No matter, it’s still a prime offender. Trust me on this: conversate doesn’t mean having a conversation. In fact, it doesn’t mean a damned thing. Please don’t use it; it’s not a word.

Next up are two words with nearly identical spellings but totally different meanings. Get these wrong and your more erudite readers will abandon you–and your writing! Discreet means unobtrusive, unlikely to give offense. It can also mean capable of keeping secrets. The troublesome non-synonym, discrete, means separate or distinct. You see, there’s no need to treat this discreetly, the two words have utterly discrete meanings. Got it?

Enormity is a word that seems to give many folks trouble. It means extreme evil, not great size. The enormity is my appetite, not my waistline. [sigh]

Then there’s the subtle difference between grisly and grizzly. If you’re talking about something horrendous or horrific, use grisly. Unless, of course, you’re referring to Ursus arctos or one of its honey-loving kin.

Another oft-mangled word is nauseous. It refers to something that causes nausea; it doesn’t mean to feel sick.

For some reason, the word peruse is often confused. If you peruse something, it means you’ve examined it carefully. Don’t mistake it for skimming over something.

And how ’bout prodigal? The proper meaning is wasteful. The Bible tells us of someone who wandered off and squandered his inheritance. The prodigal part refers to throwing away his wealth, not his road map.

And then there’s redundant, as in the oft-maligned “Department of Redundancy Department.” What it doesn’t mean is being repetitious. What it does mean is using words that just aren’t needed; they’re superfluous. There’s a difference!

If you intend to refute something, be ready to completely disprove it, otherwise you’ll just be offering a rebuttal. A charge successfully refuted in court could mean freedom for the accused, a rebuttal only means one person disagrees with another. The defendant may still end up in the slammer.

Let’s also set the record straight on restive. It means fidgety or difficult to control. It definitely does not mean restful. My dog is often restive when he should be restful.

Finally, we get to the word travesty, which simply refers to a mockery or parody of something. Please don’t confuse it with tragedy, unless the act is so biting that it causes the mocked party to collapse and die.

Happy wordsmithing!

–Josh

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A Necessary Evil — Part V

Unless you can wrangle an appearance on “Oprah!” or some of the late-night TV shows, your best bet for alerting the public to the publication of your book is a press release. That’s not to say you shouldn’t contact radio and TV stations in your area. Depending on the market size and the degree to which your subject matter matches the interests of a given host’s audience, you might make a connection. It’s certainly worth a try, so give some thought to including local broadcast media in the mailing list for your press release. The information will be the same for both.

While you’re building that list, think about other geographic areas to which you can claim some connection. There’s a lot of truth in the old saw that “All news is local.” If you’ve lived in more than one town, use that to your advantage; call attention to the fact. Hometown heroes are a staple of local papers. As an author, you might just qualify as one.

Now, am I going to tell you how to write a press release? No. The internet is loaded with excellent articles on how to format them and what to include. Not only that, but you’ll find links to resources like BiblioScribe or Free Press Release which provide distribution services for your write-up. If that’s a cop-out, I apologize. Things change quickly in the self-publishing business, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when there are upheavals in the self-promotion biz, too.

And then there are social media advertisements….

This will not be a comprehensive discussion. There’s just too much information to cover. When it’s time for you to start advertising, you’re going to have to study the process involved for each provider. Fortunately, there’s plenty of information available for free on the Internet.

While there are significant differences between the service providers I’ll discuss, when it comes to advertising books, there are enough similarities to make a general discussion worthwhile. The biggies in this regard are Amazon, Facebook, and Google. For this discussion, I’ll ignore services that aren’t geared toward getting a potential customer to click on an ad which leads to a sales location for a book.

Ad providers have one of two methods for selling their service: cost per impression and cost per click. They don’t all work the same way, but there are similarities. An impression simply means your ad appeared when someone used the provider’s service. For instance, a Facebook ad which became visible thousands of times in the 3rd quarter of 2016 cost the advertiser an average of $7.19 per thousand appearances. It may have been ignored every time it popped up. There are no guarantees.

The alternative is cost per click. Let’s say an ad appeared exactly 1,000 times and 26 people clicked on it to learn more. The average cost per click for a Facebook ad in the same period was a little over 27 cents. Total cost: $7.10.

The ad service computes the cost per click (or cost per 1,000 impressions) based on how many advertisers want their ad to appear and how much they’re willing to pay. It’s an auction, and you’re bidding on who gets to see your ad. For Facebook, you determine what demographics are important: age, residence, schooling, etc. Facebook figures out which users best match that profile. The amount you bid is up to you, as is the total amount you’re willing to spend per day. Facebook then uses a proprietary algorithm to determine whose ad appears.

Google and Amazon ads are similar but instead of bidding on user profiles, you’re bidding on the keywords potential buyers enter when trying to find something. Again, how much you’re willing to bid is entered into an algorithm which determines whose ad appears first, last, and everywhere in between. Unlike Facebook, Amazon and Google have unlimited ad space. They can produce as many screens of ads as needed. As a result, you can bid much lower and still have your ad appear. But then, who’s going to wade through 30 screens before they find something or give up? A higher bid will get your ad better placement.

Billing and payments differ between providers as well, so be prepared for some confusion. For example, Amazon is typically two months behind when paying authors for book sales, but they somehow manage to charge you twice a month for the ads you buy. All three are great at sending out tax forms in January to show how much you’ve earned. Now you get to share it with Uncle Sam!

–Josh

PS: Yep, the letter I posted above is as bogus as the name on the letterhead. I’m not eager to get sued.

 

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That Point of View thing

Television and the movies have had a tremendous impact on the way we perceive things. It’s rare when a TV show or film allows the viewer to see only what one character sees. And yet, such a limited viewpoint is often touted as a principal means of linking reader and character. You only see what that character sees, only know what she’s thinking, only feel what she’s going through.

Film ignores all that. There’s a well-known scene near the end of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” in which three of the main players face off against each other in a cemetery.  The camera switches from an extreme close-up of one gritty character after another, switching faster and faster as the tempo of the music builds. Who’s going to shoot first? Eyes squint; sweat beads on foreheads; jaws clench. It’s quite suspenseful and dramatic. But it wouldn’t work all that well in a book.

You can choose to put your reader in the head of a single character or in the heads of all the characters in your story. The second option is the only one which would allow a reader to “see” all three of the faces mentioned above. If limited to a single viewpoint, only two faces could be examined, unless the point of view character is looking at a reflection.

So, which viewpoint option is better, omniscient or limited? I prefer limited, and I believe most commercial fiction today is done that way. But there is plenty of well-read material that isn’t. I suspect this is not the result of a consciously made decision. I’m guessing it was simply easier for the writer to proceed that way, and in light of the impact TV and movies have had on us, it was done without any forethought at all.

Well then, one might ask, if limited viewpoint is harder to do, why do it?

Because it gives the writer more options. If the reader knows what every player thinks at any given moment, the options for suspense become limited. Will Mary leave John? If we’re in Mary’s head, we already know the answer, but we don’t know if John does unless he somehow communicates that knowledge. As a writer using limited viewpoint, you can choose to dwell in John’s head, stewing over what decision Mary will make. And when she finally does show her intention, it’ll give John’s reaction more punch.

Another issue of concern when using omniscient viewpoint is the possibility of overdoing it. Constantly switching back and forth from one character to another can be tiring and has often been compared to watching a game of ping-pong. Mary thinks this. John thinks that. Mary decides this. John decides that, etc. Neck pain ensues.

Dedicating yourself to one viewpoint character doesn’t mean you can’t use others. It merely limits you to one per scene. Many popular novels feature only one POV character for the whole book. That’s fine, too, although personally, I’d chafe at such a restriction. I like seeing things from the bad guy’s perspective now and then. The same goes for the heroine’s lover, and maybe her boss, or even a grandparent. I’ve been known to use non-human viewpoint characters as well, dogs in particular. (Who wouldn’t want to know what’s really going on inside a canine brain?) Non-human viewpoint characters are pretty common in works of science fiction and fantasy.

In my writing classes, I often ask students to draft scenes from the perspective of a non-living entity. Their responses have included a clock, a rental cabin, and a host of other items. It’s just for fun, but it serves a purpose. It’s a quick way to gain an understanding of the technique.

–Josh

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A Necessary Evil — Part IV

So, you’ve followed all the suggestions, gotten all the feedback you could stand, made all the updates, corrections, and edits; you’ve picked all the nits, tied up all the loose threads, thanked everyone you could think of, and now it’s time to release your baby into the world. The book you hold in your hand is the culmination of hard work, possibly some of the most intense work you’ve ever done, and you want it to succeed. Right? Who wouldn’t?

One of the most common, and natural, inclinations is to organize a book launch party. These can be modest affairs or range much wider into major celebrations. The two biggest limiting factors tend to be how much money you have to spend and/or how many influential people you can persuade to attend. Many who are new to the publishing world are reluctant to shine a light on themselves. But that’s silly. No one else is likely to do it, and you deserve it. You’ve accomplished something most folks can’t even dream of doing. You’ve written a book! You’ve entered a world populated by some of the greatest names in literature. You’ve earned the right to take a bow. So take one!

Where you throw your party is up to you. They’ve been held in homes, clubhouses, schools, shopping malls, bookstores, libraries, museums, churches, outdoor pavilions, subway tunnels, public parks, sports venues, animal shelters, and virtually every kind of retail establishment one can think of. Authors tend to be creative, so the variety of books being published is legion. So, too, are the places chosen for those launch celebrations.

You’ll need to start early and concentrate on your mailing list. Hopefully, you began to build that list long before you typed “The End” on your manuscript. You’ll want to invite as many people as you can, especially if you intend to sell books. This is fuel for your book’s launch. The countdown should begin long before your invite the audience.

If your goal is to acquire reviews, you may want to be more selective. While you won’t have to pay retail for printed copies of your own book, there is still a cost involved. This is critically important if you intend to give away “author copies.” In the land of the Big Five, these are called ARCs or Advanced Review Copies. They’re often produced without a finished cover. Some are even generated before the final editing has been done. You can have pre-release, proof copies of your book printed and distribute those if you’d like. The cost is the same whether it’s a finished copy or a proof.

You’ll want those reviews posted on Amazon, first and foremost, and then anywhere else the reviewer can think of. This includes Goodreads.com, Barnes and Noble, and any other retailer carrying the book. There are also a host of book review sites online. Some are better than others, but that’s a whole different discussion. What you don’t want to do is pay for reviews. Amazon doesn’t take kindly to it, for obvious reasons. Besides, who would put any stock in a paid endorsement?

Whether you serve food and/or beverages is your choice as well. Ditto for entertainment. When I launched Treason, Treason! I offered a free, signed copy of the book to anyone who attended the festivities in period costume. Quite a few folks took me up on the offer, and we had a good many American Revolutionaries milling about during the affair. It added flair and made the evening more interesting. It also helped to draw traffic from the general public since the launch was held in a retail store on the town square.

Media contacts are important, so you’ll need to send out press releases to local papers. Don’t forget radio and TV; you never know who might turn up, especially if you can boast of a celebrity or two in attendance. That could give your book a real launch!

But what about after the party? Stay tuned….

–Josh

 

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