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?

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As I may have mentioned, I’ve got a novel coming out in August published by Champagne Books.  TOXIC RELATIONSHIP is a thriller with a humorous twist set in the Hill Country of Texas.  My protagonist, Nick Sibelius, moves to the small Texas town of Pflugerville, turned Austin suburb, to set up a private investigation business, find some peace and maybe, himself, after a murdered partner, a cheating wife and a lost job in Houston.  When a young couple disappears and a bass fisherman turns up dead, he finds himself drawn into a web of toxic relationships: MaryLou, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, Junior, a failed farmer whose best intentions seem to always result in a dead body, and Barry, a sociopathic dentist turned illegal toxic waste and methamphetamine entrepreneur with visions of grandeur.  When the felon who killed his partner in Houston joins forces with Barry, Nick must not only stop the toxic waste dumping while finding his client’s missing daughter, but keep from being killed in the process. In the end, MaryLou’s dark secret will either help him or kill him — whichever comes first.

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I’ll be posting occassional stories about writing this novel, pics, backstory, character descriptions as the publishing date draws near.  My hope is that the novel is as fun to read as it was to write.

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.

A Boy and His Dog

I have a constant writing companion who keeps me in the present, offers positive support day and night, stands by me on the good days when I’m writing like a demon and on those days where I just can’t seem to shift into gear, hangs out with me while I work, takes walks to clear my mind, licks me whenever the opportunity arises and brings toys throughout the day with the implicit contract that I will either: a. hold on to the toy while we growl at each other in a tug of war, or b. throw said toy across the room so she can hunt it down.  Yes, my writing companion is a dog.  A 9 month old English Springer Spaniel named Jazz.  She’s a happy bundle of overflowing energy in a fur coat, always up for walking, running and playing.  And to date, I have not found the bottom of her apparently infinite energy source.  I’m thinking of hooking her up to the power grid to make a few bucks off the utility.

Why Jazz?  I met her when she was a month old and already she had that crazy, creative spirit of improvisation. This girl never plans anything.  She takes live on in the present and makes it up as she goes along. Sometimes that leads to some unfortunate choices.  Besides “here Jazz,” my most frequent comment to her is “leave it.”  And to her credit, she doesn’t always listen to me.  Sometimes I want her to “leave it” because “it” is gross and nasty.  But sometimes I just don’t want the hassle — a piece of electrical tape, a quarter of a torn up tennis ball, a snail, a clump of grass, a flower — the list is endless.  Sure, four out of five humans think chewing on a clump of grass will lead to dirt in the mouth and muddy paws in the house. But five out of five dogs know the pure pleasure of sweet grass, musty soil and mud between the toes.

I sometimes think I may have lost my mind to bring a puppy in the house.  She requires lots of attention.  However, I also know having her around keeps my feet on the ground.  Writing can be a lonely business. A little unconditional love from Jazz goes a long way.

William Kenower spoke at a recent Pacific Northwest Writers Association about the myths that keep us from writing.  He’s a very good engaging, fun speaker.  And he has been blogging about writing for a number of years now, regularly interviewing writers of all genres and measures of success.  The bottom line of his presentation is that our own fear and self doubt gets in the way of being the writer we want to be.

A number of years ago I wrote a newsletter post on the topic of fear and I thought I’d repost to this blog.  Hope you find it of interest.

Fear Is the Door to Possibility

Fear has been on my mind lately. You know, that 2 am, eyes wide open, mind won’t shut down, stomach churning, “what have I done!” kind of feeling. We get ourselves to that place in our own unique ways.

Some of us fear failure – and we’re extremely talented in creating failure scenarios.

“If I leave this job, I won’t be able to get another one or I won’t get one that pays as much. I’ll lose my benefits, be on unemployment, lose my house, my car, my life partner. I’ll be on the streets….”

Some of us fear success – “If I succeed, I’ll be responsible for my success and I’ll lose this whole blaming strategy that has worked for me for most of my life.” Or “What if I succeed? I don’t know what I’m doing!”

Some of us fear instability. It unnerves us. The ground moves and we can’t find a handhold. Walk into any corporation in the process of merging, downsizing, or being sp
un off. Stay by the coffeepot or the copy machine and listen. The loss of control and stability is palpable. “I can’t believe what THEY are doing. THEY don’t care about us. THEY’RE just using us!”

Some of us fear stability. The very sameness and routine of life and work raises the question of our life purpose. “Is that all there is?”

Have I named your fear yet? If not, give it some thought. Think about somewhere in your life where you stop yourself. Maybe you want to create a business, but you seem to always stall at the idea stage and never reach the implementation stage. Maybe you want to contribute to a business or a non-profit, but sit in front of your phone procrastinating, rather than making those essential sales calls. Maybe you have a deeply held passion for teaching, for healing, for creating, for organizing. Maybe it’s a goat ranch in Texas, a marina in Florida, a gallery in Santa Fe, a new business, an innovation that will change the way we live. Maybe you want to write novels, poetry, memoirs. You have this passion, but you hesitate to act. Sure, we all have many very good reasons for not following our passions. And many of those reasons are legitimate. Or are they?

Sooner or later, we all learn about the limited time offer called “life.” I learned one year when I buried too many people – friends really. They died of old age, heart attacks, cancer. One of my takeaways from standing at so many graves in a short period of time is the true and certain knowledge that life is short and the point of power is the present. Wishing for a future does not a future make.

We have to be willing to stand at the edge, look over the precipice of our fears, take a deep breath and leap without the certain knowledge of flight. This is not a blind leap of faith, but a leap supported by building sufficient reserves of mind, body, spirit, money and community. While the leap itself is the act of an individual, we don’t have to act alone. The more we surround ourselves with people who challenge us to be our Selves and support our journey of discovery, the more success we will create. So build a community to surround you on your path and face those fears. Fear opens the door to great possibility!

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?