Archive for the ‘Publishing’ Category

I want to welcome Brian Braden to the blog today. Now retired from the military, he served as an officer in intelligence and as a combat helicopter pilot. In addition, he’s been a corporate executive and a freelance columnist featured in defense publications including Military Times and Air Power Journal. Brian and I know each other in our work at Author Salon where we support and critique each other’s work. So I speak from experience — the man can write. Brian also writes regularly for Underground Book Reviews. He is the author of CARSON’S LOVE, a novelette about a family’s struggle with childhood cancer. His current project, BLACK SEA GODS is an epic fantasy, the first in a series and a novel I can’t wait to read.

Brian, thanks again for joining me. From the perspective of someone who flies aircraft with actual wings, my discovery of your helicopter experience leaves me a bit humbled. It certainly takes a level of courage to fly what is essentially a controlled crashed landing called a helicopter. But to fly one in combat, well, thank you for your service.

How does your military and flying background influence your writing?

First, thanks for inviting me to your blog. Many years ago, as a young man in high school and college, I had the writing itch. But when I reached deep inside for inspiration my bag was empty. I hadn’t experienced enough of life’s ups and downs. I wanted ups and downs. I craved ups and downs. I wanted to look back and be able to say “I did that.” Don’t misunderstand me, I wasn’t looking for thrills. I was looking for meaning, an uncompromised life. The military exposed me to undiluted people. It allowed me to experience places as they are, not as they appear from a tour bus.

I’m not sure I lived an uncompromised life, but I sure met a lot of undiluted people, saw interesting places, and had enough ups and downs to keep me writing for another fifty years. I feel more comfortable writing now than I did in my early twenties

Flying, especially military flying, taught me life and actions have consequences. Everything has a cost, and those costs must be factored. Ignoring facts can have instant and devastating consequences.  I think it brings realism, an immediacy and leanness to my writing I don’t think I’d otherwise possess.

I’m always curious about what jazzes creative artists. Where do you find the inspiration for your writing? 

I find my inspiration in unexpected moments, whether it’s a word, a scene, or a phrase that grabs my imagination and won’t let go. They are like grains of sand caught in my mind. I worry them, rub them and start to lay down layers over them. Soon, in my mind I build entire stories around that flash of inspiration until I finally commit them to paper.

Most of these unexpected moments concern people. When I meet a new person or see a stranger with a unique personality trait, I commit them to paper, like a catalog. This isn’t just a catalog of characters, it’s a catalog of story ideas. A story may be built around an idea, but in the end it’s the person, the character, that sells the story to the reader.

On Underground Book Reviews you constantly scour the 99 cent digital shelves. Have you found any gems in the process? 

Three indie authors instantly pop into my mind: Michael Manning, author of the Mageborn fantasy series;  Bryan R. Dennis, author of the sci-fi book The Uncanny Valley; and Michelle Isenhoff and her YA novel, The Quill Pen.   These self-published authors created books that, in my opinion, stand equal to anything generated by the traditional publishing industry. I’m stunned how any agent or editor could read their work and pass it up. There is some seriously good stuff lost in the background noise on Amazon that deserves our attention. If I were an agent I would bypass the query process and just surf the self-published authors to find projects to represent.

I cannot for the life of me understand why the Big Six publishers don’t use the self-published treasure trove the way Major League Baseball uses the farm teams.

What do you find to be the most challenging thing about being a writer? And how do you cope with that challenge? 

That goes back to your last question – the most difficult thing about being a writer is trying to make sense out of this industry, trying to figure out what is fact, what is myth and who you can trust. This particularly applies to the traditional publishing side.

In fact, trust is the key issue that bugs me the most. I’m slowly coming to grips that publishing is really show business. That concept is somewhat daunting, because much of your success is out of your hands. It brings to mind when I once had a beer with legendary ace Chuck Yeager. I asked him why he was so successful in his career. He replied it wasn’t so much having the Right Stuff, it was a lot of luck and being at the right place at the right time. I think getting traditionally published is a lot like that, even if you do have the Write Stuff.

How do I deal with it? Research, prayer, coffee, perseverance and occasionally walking away from the laptop.  I won’t quit and I won’t compromise my values. Eventually, good things will happen, maybe not this year, maybe not next, but it will happen.

What do like the most about being a writer? 

Other writers. Writers are like cats. We’re not herd animals, but we do occasionally congregate at midnight and swap stories. And what stories! We military personalities usually run only one standard deviation either side of the Army…Marines on one side and Air Force on the other. To say writers are a bit more diverse is an understatement. At the Algonkian Conference in New York in December I was thrust into the company of dozens of writers for the first time in my life. And we had beer. I was in culture shock and I loved it. The creative energy was phenomenal, overwhelming. It felt like a drug.  I want more.

Specifically, I think my fellow writers at Underground Book Reviews are absolutely the best thing that’s happened to me since I started writing. If my writing never pans out I will still have UBR.

Having read your writing, Brian, I don’t think you need to worry about the writing thing not panning out.  So, tell us about your current project, BLACK SEA GODS.

Black Sea Gods is an epic fantasy based on a very ancient mythology from the Caucus region of Asia. This mythology is probably the foundation of the more familiar Greek and Scandinavian myths. The mythology provides the foundation and binding for the story, but what it’s really about is two men. It tells the story of a fisherman and a demi-god, two men trying to save the people they cherish from an enemy, a force, they don’t understand and they can’t fight.

In BSG I wanted to write a different kind of fantasy, a genre I think has grown somewhat stale in the past ten years. First, I didn’t want a dark book. I’m tired of dark. Second, I didn’t want to write a YA novel. I love YA, but I wanted a book that adults, especially parents and spouses, can relate to.

You have two protagonists, one, a human named Aizarg and the other, the demi-god Fu Xi. Tell us a little about Aizarg. In the excerpts I’ve read, I found Aizarg to be a compelling character facing extreme adversity. What drives Aizarg on against all odds?

Aizarg is a father, a husband, and chief of primitive tribe called the Lo. Aizarg is loving and flawed, but no worse than any other family man.  My inspiration for Aizarg came in 2008 during the beginning of the global financial crisis. I wanted to capture that kind of fear and put it in a fantasy/mythological setting. It’s a slow-roll terror. He knows something bad is coming but he doesn’t know how to stop it. He feels powerless, even as everything around him seems okay for the moment. The sky is blue and the world looks like it should, yet everyone knows something wrong, something broken, something very bad is about to happen, but when and how is still a mystery. He looks at his wife, children and people and wonders how he can protect them.

Fu Xi is an actual figure from Chinese mythology. How did you come across this mythology and how do you make the translation to a western audience?

I found Fu Xi accidentally when researching Black Sea myths. He is purely a Chinese myth and plays a role in the founding of ancient China. China has amazing mythology which has directly influenced western thought, mythology and history since the dawn of civilization.  I can’t really say too much on this without giving the series away, but when I read about him I instantly latched on to the Fu Xi myth as a way to glue my story together.

We think of China as an ancient culture, but it was once young. Fu Xi represents that youth, even though he is a god. Fu Xi and Aizarg will eventually develop a bond, a brotherhood. Perhaps it more accurate to say it is more like father and son. In the course of extraordinary events and drama, both will have important lessons to teach one another.

Brian, you have a novelette entitled Carson’s love, which is the first in a series. Tell us about Carson’s Love and the series you have planned.

Carson’s Love started as a writing exercise. I wanted a piece of flash fiction that was first person, present tense. I’d been seeing a lot of that in my writing circles, so I decided to give it a try. I developed into two separate short stories about a family dealing with both marital problems and a child with cancer. One short story is from the husband’s perspective, the other short story is from the wife’s. I fused them into a novelette. I got the idea when my own child was fighting cancer and  I read a pamphlet in the hospital about dealing with a child’s cancer while undergoing a divorce. I said to myself, “How can someone undergo a divorce while their kid is fighting for their life?” What a great idea for a story, I thought.

I never originally intended to publish Carson as a novelette, but I needed to stick my nose into the self-publishing business to understand how it works. I wanted to make my mistakes on a small project, like a novelette, instead of a big project like a novel. Carson was like my Voyager space probe, launched into the abyss that is self-publishing. Through it, I learned how to edit, find an artists to do the cover, submit, etc. The real hard nut to crack is marketing. That’s why I’m writing a sequel, as an attempt to understand the ins and outs of marketing. I plan to release several sequels to the Carson saga over the next few years, not unlike how King originally released his Green Mile series.

A part of the proceeds from sale of this book goes to Cure Search. Can you tell us a little about Curesearch and why you wanted to direct a percentage of the profits to that organization?

What few people know is organizations like the American Cancer Society do very little for children’s cancer. No drugs have been developed specifically to fight children’s cancer. Their justification is the ratio of adult versus children’s cancer doesn’t justify the dedicated resources. Most pediatric cancer treatments are “hand-me-down” drugs, adult chemotherapies and such adapted to children. CureSearch aims to change that.

CureSearch for Children’s Cancer is a national non-profit foundation that supports clinical trials and research in hospitals across the United States, funds research, and conducts fundraising. To findout more, go to http://www.curesearch.org/.

Due to my family’s experience with childhood cancer, this is a cause near and dear to our hearts.

I hope readers will go check Carson’s Love out.  Thanks for sharing with us today. Is there anything you’d like to add? 

I greatly appreciate you inviting me onto your blog. If your readers want to read more of my stuff, they can read my review column, Brian’s 99 Cents, on Undergroundbookreviews.com, stop by my personal blog at brianbraden.weebly.com, or buy my novelette, CARSON’S LOVE. CARSON’S LOVE is the first installment of a novelette series, with the second installment, CARSON’S LINE, coming out later this year.

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Read a story today about the author of Ready Player One, Arthur Cline, is giving a prize away for any reader who can find a clue in his novel, then successfully navigate three challenges in an online video game at a specific web address. The contest sounds kind of cool. Much more skill based than say Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. All you had to do to win that one was be either seriously lucky or a glutton. Cline’s contest involves some detective work to find the “Easter Egg” as he calls it, then be pretty decent at gaming.

Most authors give out copies of books and other low cost swag for a contest. But not Cline. He’s giving away a DeLorean. That’s right, an honest to god DeLorean he picked up on eBay. So you’re probably wondering if there’s a catch. How can this be? Find a hint, win a video game and get a car? The only catch I can see is that if you win, you’ve got a DeLorean. Not the most high performance car ever built — not even in its time. But at low speeds you could cruise downtown and I imagine, once parked, you’ll gather a crowd.

I appreciate Cline’s marketing initiative on this one. Every gamer into his book will want a piece of this action. USA Today, and I’m sure other news outlets, picked up the story. And people like me have just written blogs about it. My gull wing door tips in your direction Mr. Cline. Now that he’s raised the bar, I guess I’ll have to start buying cool stuff to give away as prizes.

What’s the best author contest you’ve ever seen? And if you received a prize from an author, what would you want it to be?

Just received the cover for my thriller, TOXIC RELATIONSHIP which will be released August, 2012 by Champagne Books.  I gave the marketing team some very sketchy info, unsure myself what the cover should look like.  I believe I said something like arid, toxic waste and airstream trailers.  You see, I’m one of those people who has a very difficult time figuring out what color to paint a room. I eventually pick something out, bring it home and it doesn’t look anything like the color I saw in the store.  So thinking about a book cover is way out of my pay grade.  The designer, Amanda Kelsey did a great job of capturing a Texas feel and I love the graphics.  Thank you!!  Take a look.

A friend who is in the process of writing a non-fiction book asked me what it takes to get published.  I thought I’d share what I told her.  Call it another data point for anyone in the hunt for working with a publisher.  I also think most of this applies to self-publishing as well.

1. Join and attend your local writers’ association.  This is a great place for networking with other writers, attending workshops and gathering the shared wisdom of your colleagues.

2. If you’re pondering how to get published, you hopefully have a good first draft of a finished manuscript, be it a novel, memoir or self-help.  If you’re a fiction writer, hone your synopsis. I’d suggest running it by other accomplished writers (ah, that’s where the networking you’re doing at a writer association comes in!).  Get crystal clear about your conflict and stakes, antagonist, protagonist, climax and denouement.  Develop a pitch that sells your book.  You can find resources on how to write a synopsis and a pitch at your writers’ association (ah, there it is again) and online.  If you’re writing non-fiction…

3. Write a book proposal. There’s lots of advice out there on writing one and it looks like there are similarities in the structure and then everyone has their own little twists. A couple of websites to check out as a start are:

Nathan Bransford’s blog on the topic. http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2007/02/how-to-write-nonfiction-book-proposal.html

Ted Weinstein’s concise description at http://www.twliterary.com/bookproposal.html

4. Look for comparables. You want to know your market. You also want to be sure you’re offering a concept with a new twist.  If you’ve just finished your manuscript about a teenage girl who takes the place of her sister in a state run game where reps from twelve districts fight to the death in a televised arena — think again.  Been there, done that.  To find comparables, I’d start by going to Amazon and searching  key words associated with your book. Once you find a title that is comparable, scroll down “customers who bought this item also bought” for some other possible titles to check out. You’re looking for anything close to what you are doing, the more recent the better. You can also find lists of “best of” in various genres for com parables.  Remember, you want to know the market for your book as well as a potential agent or publisher knows it.

5. Continue to build your platform. You might look for someone out there who is very successfully promoting their  book, whether its a fiction or non-fiction. Find out all the paths that writer uses to market and promote. Start a blog.  To be honest, I’m still learning about how to be an effective blogger, but my sense is you want to be blogging, inviting guest bloggers to your site and guest blog for others.  In other words, network, network, network. When you have a blog, be sure to link to your Facebook and Twitter. A potential agent will like that you do have a social media platform, but if you can demonstrate a large following, now you’ve got their attention. You may be well versed in social media, but if not, a helpful book on the topic is “We Are Not Alone: The Writer’s Guide to Social Media” by Kristen Lamb.  Check out her blog

6. Attend a writer conference.  If you’ve joined your local writers’ association, in all likelihood they have an annual conference.  Do attend.  In Seattle, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association has about 500 attendees and 20-30 agents/publishers, workshops on the craft and business of writing, as well as a good path to start networking in the business.  I also attend the Texas Writers League conference (although not making it this year).  In addition to all the networking and knowledge you will gain at a conference, this is also an opportunity to…

7. Pitch at a conference. Nothing will sharpen your synopsis and pitch than sitting in front of an agent, pitching to him or her in a two-three minute session.  What if your novel book isn’t complete yet?  No worries — pitch.  Just let the agent know you’re pitching an unfinished manuscript and you’d like feedback on the pitch and especially the book concept.  You want to know if they’ve heard this idea a hundred times or if this is a new twist they haven’t heard before.

8. Most importantly, if you want to get published, keep on writing.  We all get rejected, but with each rejection gather the information to help you hone your craft, sharpen your story, build your platform, and understand the business side of writing.  Anxious about pitching. Write. Bummed about a rejection from an agent?Write.  Worried you’re not any good (everyone else on the planet is afraid of speaking in public, but we writers share a fear of not being good enough)? Write. Sensing a common theme?  Write.

As an author writing a YA novel I face the conundrum of determining how much graphic sex, violence and profanity my characters will experience in the course of the story.  YA presents a challenge because you’re dealing with a broad spectrum of intellectual and emotional capacity to understand what is being presented.  The distance between a 9 year old and a 14 year old and  an 18 year old is huge in terms of an awareness of self, sexuality and the world.  As a nine year old, I’m ready to see the princess fall in love with a king, but I’m not ready to see them fondle each other in the back room and definitely not see them make torrid love in the royal bedroom.  And I might not be able to make a clear distinction between the violence in the story and how I play that out in the real world.  However, if I’m 18, with a few exceptions, I am able to take in the full spectrum of possibilities — sex, violence and language — and not let that have a negative impact on my life.

But even at the older end of the YA spectrum, I find the waters a bit clouded in the marketplace. If you Google the “best of YA Fiction,” you’ll find a number of references.  One of those suggested The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as a “best of YA.”  If you’ve read the book, you know there are explicit scenes of sexual abuse, sodomy and rape.  An older, emotionally mature teen could read that story, but I would hesitate to pass that along to a 14 year old, not because the scene is gratuitous, which it is not.  But because a 14 year old doesn’t have the life experience or emotional maturity to understand what that scene is about.

So I’ve gone to the bookshelf to pull out a few examples of older YA novels.  Let’s see how they handle language, sex and violence.

 

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Violence: e.g., teens killing teens in various ways

Sex & Nudity: some snuggling

Expletives: 3

Summary (Amazon):
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before-and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

Jumper by Steven Gould

Violence, e.g., attempted homosexual rape, mother ripped to pieces in an explosion

Sex & Nudity: implied sexual intercourse on several occasions

Expletives: 151

Summary (Library Journal)

The sudden discovery of his teleportation ability rescues teenager David Rice from his abusive father. It also signals the beginning of a new life for the troubled young man. Gould’s first novel features a hero who is not particularly wise and whose ethics are sometimes questionable, but whose yearnings and psychological turmoil ring true.

The Named by Marianne Curley

Violence: e.g., sister murdered by demon

Sex & Nudity: none

Expletives: 33

Summary (Amazon):
Ethan is a member of the Named, sworn to fight the Order of Chaos, an evil group determined to permanently change the course of history. But he is also a normal high school student trying desperately to keep up with his homework and fit in. When he is assigned to mentor Isabel, a cute classmate and future member of the Named, the line between his two lives begins to blur. So begins an epic quest as Ethan, Isabel, and others travel through time to battle dark forces and protect the future.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

Violence: piles of dead bodies with bloody mouths from teeth being removed, fights

Sex & Nudity: description of a male character modeling nude for an art class, implied sexual intercourse

Expletives: 45

Summary (Amazon):
Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.  In a dark and dusty shop, a devil’s supply of human teeth grown dangerously low. And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherwordly war.

Meet Karou. She fills her sketchbooks with monsters that may or may not be real; she’s prone to disappearing on mysterious “errands”; she speaks many languages–not all of them human; and her bright blue hair actually grows out of her head that color. Who is she? That is the question that haunts her, and she’s about to find out.

When one of the strangers–beautiful, haunted Akiva–fixes his fire-colored eyes on her in an alley in Marrakesh, the result is blood and starlight, secrets unveiled, and a star-crossed love whose roots drink deep of a violent past. But will Karou live to regret learning the truth about herself?

 

We’ve been struggling with these issues in the arts for many years.  Think George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.  In 2000 the Advertising Standards Authority, British Broadcasting Corporation, Broadcasting Standards Commission and the Independent Television Commission researched the use of expletives in a report entitled, Delete Expletives.  While British and American standards may not always match up, I did find the ranking of words by perceived severity to be interesting.  Research asked adults about their perception of the severity of various expletives.  At the low end of the scale were double entendres, puns and rhymes.  One level up were blasphemy (I can’t help but imagine that would score as more severe in the U.S) and abbreviations (e.g., f**k). The next level up in severity were descriptive words (think f**k, sh*t, but replace the asterisks with actual letters).  And finally, the most severe expletives were abusive words (sexual, physical and racial).  In the spectrum of expletives, the lowest level of words, essentially implied expletives within double entendres, puns and rhymes could pass in the 14+ level of YA.  However, below age 14, I imagine that puns and rhymes on anything but hell, damn and crap would be at the limit.  I personally have not read any authors using abbreviations, but some of the authors above do use a blasphemy or two.  In older YA (16+?), descriptive words may come into play and occasionally an abusive word, if the word comes naturally from the story.

Another source that may give some insight in the appropriate use of expletives, violence and sex are the standards used by the Motion Picture Association of America, accepted nationwide in the United States.

Parental Guidance Suggested

This rating signifies that the program may be unsuitable for children under the age of 9 or 10 without the guidance of a parent. The TV-PG rating may be accompanied by one or more of the following sub-ratings:

 

 

• D for some suggestive dialogue
• L for infrequent coarse language
• S for some sexual situations
• V for moderate violence

Parents strongly cautioned/May be unsuitable for children under 14 years of age

Parents are strongly urged to exercise greater care in monitoring this program and are cautioned against letting children under 14 watch unattended. This rating may be accompanied by any of the following sub-ratings:

 

 

• D for intensely suggestive dialogue
• L for strong coarse language
• S for intense sexual situations
• V for intense violence

Mature audience — unsuitable for audiences under 17

An MA  rating means the program may be unsuitable for those below 17. Programs may contain extreme graphic violence, strong profanity, overtly sexual dialogue, nudity, and/or strong sexual content. This rating may be accompanied by any of the following sub-ratings:

 

• D for dialogue is not used in this rating.
• L for crude indecent language
• S for explicit sexual activity
• V for graphic violence

Note the gradient as the rating moves from PG to R.
Dialogue: suggestive to intensely suggestive
Language: infrequent coarse, strong coarse, crude indecent
Sex: some sexual situations, intense sexual situations, explicit sexual activity
Violence: moderate, intense, graphic

I don’t have any empirical evidence, but I have a feeling that if I took a hundred people across a broad spectrum of this country, I would not get a consistent definition for any of these ratings.  When does a dialogue shift to an intensity that would force a PG14 rating? Where is the line between an intense and an explicit sexual activity?  What makes violence graphic, rather than intense?  And I would add, is pretending that violence, which in the real world has very graphic consequences, is somehow not as significant doing our teens a favor or giving them a false sense of reality?

The BBC and the Motion Picture Association of America provide some clues, but I’m still mostly in a grey area, wondering what would be appropriate for older teens.  Let’s look at this from another perspective.  Why, as an author would I use explicit language, violence or sex in a novel?

Why use coarse language?  I use expletives to make the character ring true to their culture and time.  To give a character a unique voice and rhythm to the speech pattern.  To communicate a heightened level of anxiety, angst or anger.  I found Steven Gould’s use of expletives for his protagonist to be genuine to the character to the point that I didn’t find the swear words pulling me out of the story.  And in the Hunger Games and the Daughter of Smoke and Bone, the lack of expletives also fit those characters within the fantasy worlds the authors had created.

Why use strong or graphic violence? I use strong or graphic violence to drive home the reality of the act, not as a romantic gesture, like a cowboy falling to the ground after being shot without any physical trauma or a war scene that feels sterile and false.  The violence however, needs to be an integral part of the plot, not just a random violent act which does not move the story forward.  And I’d reserve the more graphic violence for older teens 16+.

Why use intense or even graphic sexual situations? When the sex emerges naturally from the storyline and the characters.  It needs to be integral to the plot, not just random sex.  And while an author might want to fly the flag of freedom, the reality in American culture is that explicit sex is not appropriate for anyone under the age of eighteen.  For older YA that means sex can be suggestive, just not explicit.

The final pass to make is in terms of marketability.  Authors want to write their story, but we also want to have a market so the story is read.  Jumper, published in 1992 and re-released in 2008 has many expletives, moderate to graphic violence and moderate sexual situations. The book won awards for YA fiction from the American Library Association and International Teacher’s Association.  Books like the Hunger Games, a best seller and now a movie, and Daughter of Smoke and Bone both have some commonalities with each other: minimal expletives, moderate violence and mild to moderate sexual situations.

So what is the bottom line?  I think for every older YA book (16+) without explicit language, moderate sexual activity and moderate to graph violence there’s a counterpoint.  The guiding principle for language, sex and violence in a novel is whether or not it comes naturally out of the story and the characters and is necessary to move the plot forward.  In other words, is an expletive, a sex act or an act of violence genuine to the character or gratuitous?

In my current thinking, I use moderate expletives, intense sexual situations and moderate to graphic violence in a novel directed to the older YA market with a crossover to the Adult market. In the end, how we use language and these tools is an ongoing conversation.  The culture, the market, and the art of writing constantly shift and change.  As authors, keeping up with the craft of writing means staying in the conversation.  So what do you think?  Where should the lines be drawn for language, sex and violence in YA novels?

One of the things many writers will tell you is just how difficult it can be to get good, objective feedback on your writing. We go to workshops, critique groups, editors, readers and others, looking for some feedback. Is the writing clear? Do you get a good sense of the protagonist/antagonist? Is the primary plot clear? The conflict and the stakes sufficiently high? Etcetera.

We’ve done the writing. We know the questions to ask? Why is good critique hard to find? The easy out here would be to whine and moan about all those gutless critics out there, but I think for most of us, the answer lies within.

A writer needs to be clear about what they want out of a critique. Here are a few examples:

Acknowledge My Greatness: I’ve known writers who essentially want me to read their pages and then proclaim the scene perfect. Usually this writer goes on the defense, offering extenuating circumstances, declaring that the scene lacked clarity or conflict because the person giving the critique hadn’t read the fifty pages leading up to that scene. Whenever I sense my defenses going up I turned to my inner editor. He’s a real hard ass, by the way. “No, I don’t need to read the previous eight chapters. A scene needs to stand on its own with a beginning, a middle and an end, be clearly written and have sufficient conflict to create tension and forward movement.” If you really don’t want feedback, don’t ask for it.

The Writer Wears No Clothes: Every writer starts at a beginning. Especially when we’re starting out, there’s a need for confirmation which I think is often grounded in a fear that we’re making fools of ourselves. Sure I think my writing is great, but maybe I’m delusional. Everyone knows how bad my writing is and I’m the only one who doesn’t get it. The more naked you feel, the more need you have to be acknowledged. If you feel especially tender, then you might want to find safe, supportive places to get feedback with rules about always giving positive feedback first and offering a single suggestion for improvement. That type of critique group can nurture you as you start out, helping you build confidence.

The Truth and Nothing but the Truth: After you’ve been critiqued and have been critiquing others for a time; after you have send query after query to an unending list of agents; after you have pitched yourself hoarse: sent pages to literary contests; attended conferences and workshops and webinars; there comes a point where you don’t want praise or support anymore. Praise and support are nice, but they don’t get you across the line of publishing. You want the truth. Raw, unvarnished, objective truth offered with respect, but still, the truth of that reader.

On my own path, I’ve been in the support group, the participants so careful not to hurt each other’s feelings, that we hardly offered critique of value. And I’ve been in the groups where we spent our time amazed at our greatness, wondering how the publishing world didn’t see it. Sure, it feels good to not be alone, but we weren’t getting anywhere either.

I have my days when I just want someone to tell me I’m good. And other’s when I just don’t have the heart to hear one more thing I need to revise. But when I’m on my game, which happens more and more these days, I don’t want a person giving me critique to be nice or kind. I want them to be respectful, but brutally honest.

I was in a workshop led by Michael Neff (the Algonkian Conferences — highly recommended). At the beginning of the weeklong intensive, the six participants pitched their books to Michael. I started by saying, “The title of my novel is The Genealogist.” Before I could get out the genre and page count Michael interrupted me. I don’t have an exact quote, but it was something like, “The Genealogist? No. No, that’s not going to work. The Genealogist? We’ll work on it. Okay, go ahead.” I proceed to inch my way through the pitch, with frequent interruptions. On the one hand, my stomach dropped to the floor with each comment on my pitch. On the other hand, I knew Micheal was absolutely on point with his critique and my pitch came out the other side significantly stronger. I left that week by the Potomac with a renewed passion for getting clear, honest feedback that will push me to the edge of my abilities. Why? Because that’s where the best work happens.

What’s the new title? I’m not completely satisfied with it, but the working title is now The Inker War.

Unless you’ve been living on a small deserted island somewhere in the Pacific, you’ve seen a tremendous change in the publishing industry over the last few years. I’ve found myself in many conversations around books, bookstores, the big chains, the online retailers, and the medium itself. Before we used to beat each other up over being Republican or Democrat, Pepsi or Coca-Cola. Now we can add analogue vs digital. But why all the fuss? Why is the shift from books made from paper to books made from electrons such an emotional minefield?

Change is hard. Whether you want the change to happen — e.g., getting married, getting divorced, having a baby, buying a car, quitting a habit or starting one — or you’re faced with a change you’d rather avoid (please see the above list for examples), as human beings, we find change uncomfortable. I used to facilitate management training workshops in a past life. To give the participants the visceral experience of change, all I had to do was have them change seats. After much eye rolling, moaning and grief, the group would gradually shift to new seats in the room with varying levels of frustration over this “pointless exercise.” Then we’d spend the next hour talking about their reaction to change and how they see those same behaviors play out in the real world. So if changing seats presents a challenge, shifting the technology and behavior of readers offers a huge challenge.

However, I think the angst to the shift in reading technology goes deeper. If you think about how other forms of information have changed over the last century, many of them have happened at a gradual, steady pace. Music, for example, went from live performance to piano rolls to recordings on acetate and then vinyl disks, to magnetic tape to compact disks and then to an online digital format. And the handoffs between each technology allowed for a few years of overlap to let the stragglers catch up. Yes, there are folks out there who love their vinyl, but the majority of recorded music listeners have shifted quickly to a digital format.

Unlike the evolution of recorded music, with books we have the Gutenberg Bible in the 15th century and the refinement of a technology for printing words on paper and binding them together that has lasted for well over 500 years. Then it what felt like a flash in time, the eBook emerged. We didn’t have transitional technologies as we did in the music industry evolving over a one hundred year period. We had books for over 500 years and then at the beginning of the 21st century, boom — digital books.

Much ink (or should I say many electrons) have been spilled over what this sudden transition to digital means to the publishing industry. I’m sympathetic with publishers, agents, bookstores, libraries and all the other components of the analogue book business. I have wonderful memories of roaming the local library with my Dad as a kid, the musty smell of a bookstore stacked with tomes filled with adventure. Heck, I even love fountain pens. But obviously, whether we like it or not, the business will shift to meet the demand of the market. And the market is you and me. I have to admit that 90% of my reading in the last three years has been all digital. I have reference works and novels on my iPhone, essentially in my pocket to read at any moment. And because those books are on my phone I am able to read more, anytime, anyplace.

I don’t think the analogue book will be disappearing immediately. And I think there will always be a place for some form of analogue book. But the tide has turned. The generations growing up into reading today will not have my memories of stacks of books on shelves, the musty smell of an old paper book, leaning back in a chair to look over the titles of books that have been read or those frustrating moments when you accidentally drop a book losing your place. The up and coming consumers of books have digital memories of books shared through social media, instantly looking up words while they read, searching large texts with ease and having access to virtually any book at any time instantly.

So if you find yourself uncomfortable, maybe even a bit sad at this evolution in your lifetime, give yourself some time to grieve and then pick up that smartphone or pad and begin a new journey in reading.