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Find Another Tree

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I just finished a re-write for a book I’m working on and I was happy.  Then I started reading it yesterday and I got pissed off and stressed out because I hated the fucking thing.  I hated it before the re-write and I hated it after which is kind of a huge disappointment because I love the concept but I can’t nail the execution.

So we went for a walk because that’s what I like to do when I’m stressed—escape and talk to Ben.

I told him how much I hated the story and that I felt like I was overloading it with details and trying too hard.  I bitched and complained and Ben tried to make me feel better.

  Then we saw a cluster of people huddled around what looked like a small pile of leaves.  It was actually a bat that had fallen from a tree and it was tiny and scared and heartbreaking.

Ben ran back home to consult our wildlife bible and grab our net, gloves and a box just in case we needed to catch the little creature and bring it into the Toronto Wildlife Centre.  I stayed behind to watch over it with a bunch of kind people who were all concerned for its little, furry well-being.

The bat was at the base of a tree and it crawled up to the tree and tried to climb it.  But the problem was the bark on that particular tree was too smooth, so it systematically felt around for hand holds.  It went around the entire base of the tree looking for a way up and when it couldn’t find a way what did it do?  It hurled itself across the grass towards an adjacent tree with rough bark.  It was a harrowing journey for the poor little bat and everyone was cheering it on.  Then, finally, it got to the tree and climbed quickly to the very top, out of reach, and hung upside down to rest.  We all sighed with relief and Ben called to tell me what he had learned about bats from our wildlife bible.*

As I walked home I thought about the bat’s problem solving skills.  It tried that one, smooth-barked tree for a long time and then moved on when it couldn’t make it work.  If that wasn’t a lesson for me I don’t know what is.

Sometimes a story isn’t working, but instead of giving up completely you just need to find another tree.  Find a new path.  Find a completely different way to look at it.  Sometimes you have to let the old way go in order to find the way that actually works for you.

So I’m going to let the lesson of the bat inspire me and crawl away from this old tree as fast as I can.  Because I know there’s a different way to get that story out.  I know there’s a tree out there for this story, one with rough bark and lots of handholds to help me climb all the way to the top.

* Apparently if you find a bat on the ground and you can get near it, it means you should take it in to see a professional for help.  But in this case the bat had managed to get itself to safety so we will just check on it for a few days and if it’s still in the same place we will attempt a rescue or call the TWC to come help us retrieve it.  If you find an injured or orphaned animal please consult professionals as not all animals are in need of rescue and in some cases you might just be taking them away from their homes.

Toronto Wildlife Centre Hotline: 416-631-0662

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My Agent Wish List

ImageSince I decided to apply myself to my burgeoning career as a writer I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject of agents.  How to get an agent, what an agent can do for you, why bother to have an agent etc… I made the choice to pursue the traditional path of publishing because I’m brand new to the whole writing world and I wanted to find someone who knows more than I can read on the internet to guide me.

Now, for obvious reasons, agents aren’t easy to come by.  There’s the querying, then the sending the pages, then the anticipation and long waits.  But in a lot of cases once you get accepted into Agentland it seems like a pretty good place to be.  However, I have heard some horror stories, tales of neglect and being cheated, of communication breakdowns and other issues relating to writers and their agents.

In all the talk of getting an agent, the breathless hoping and the crossed fingers, I don’t often hear about people setting expectations for their agent.  In fact, more often than not, it seems to be the other way around.  Perhaps it’s the scarcity of the acceptance letters that keep writers from being realistic and business-minded about the prospect of getting an agent’s attention, but the more I dip my toe in the waters of the agent sea, the more I try to solidify my own expectations and form a wish list of my own for finding a good agent match.

I’m an entrepreneur.  I’ve been in business for myself for probably around eight years now and I find that has helped me to understand what it is I’m looking for in a business partner.  Because that’s what an agent is, a business partner.  Agents are the people who will represent you in the publishing world, they are the people who will help you make money and they are the people who will champion your work just as much as you will champion it yourself.  As a writer, you are definitely an artist, but you are also a business person running your own small business and I find it helps me to see it as such.  Because I don’t want just anyone to join my business, do you?

You can learn a certain amount about an agent through internet searches and websites, but the real trick is getting to know them (if they like your work enough to give you a call or offer representation).  It’s at that point when you have a choice.  You don’t just have to jump into business with the first person who likes you, although it may be tempting after all that longing and waiting.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and figure out if the agent you are in contact with is the right fit for you and your work.

Agents often have wish lists, books they want to represent or topics they are interested in (which you can generally find in their interviews or on their websites), but as writers I think it’s important that we do too.  As I spend more time in the industry, meet people and do my research, I try to narrow down my own agent wish list to the most important points.  So in the future when I (hopefully) get the chance to work with an agent, I’ll know what I’m looking for.

Here’s my agent wish list:

Good Communication – Communication is key for any good business partnership.  Can I be honest with this person?  Can I ask them questions?  Do they respond in a timely manner to my communications?  Are they willing to be honest with me?  Do we have a good flow to our communications?

Shared Literary Interests – Although I have a style and a general tone to my work (typically magic realism), sometimes I like to experiment.  I want an agent who enjoys all of my work and is interested in a bit of diversity of style, genre and format.

Open Minded – Most of my main characters tend to be bisexual.  I sometimes write books about sex and drugs (not always, but it happens).  I need an agent who is open to LGBT characters and the idea of things getting a little racy.

Hands-On Industry Guidance – I’m a publishing noob but I’m totally willing to work my ass of to make my career a reality.  I’m looking for someone who wants to work with me to help me learn the ropes of the industry.

Passion – I’m crazy passionate about things I dedicate myself to.  Sometimes to the point of insanity.  I need an agent who is just as passionate and excited as I am, because I want to feel the shared love for the work.

Sense of Humour – I like my business partners like I like my friends, with a sense of humour about things.  Life’s too short to take things too seriously and I want to know that I can have a laugh with someone I’m going to work closely with!

That’s pretty much it.  I guess it’s not a lot to ask for, but I’m sure there are agents out there who will fit that criteria and those who won’t.  But when it comes time to decide I don’t want to settle for someone who won’t be a good long term business partner, I don’t think any writer should!

Writers – Do you have an agent wish list?  Feel free to share!
Agents – What are your thoughts on writers having wish lists? Do you have wish lists of your own?

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Guest Post: Megan O’Russell – YA in an Adult World

ImageI’d like to introduce Megan O’Russell, a Young Adult author and my very first guest contributor Happy Musings!  Megan has written a wonderful piece on publishing YA with a very adult publishing company.

YA in an Adult World

I write Young Adult fiction.  My first book The Tethering is set to release this May, and I am so excited!  I have great editors at Entranced Publishing and wonderful people to back me up in the cold cruel world of books.  But I feel like the black sheep of Entranced.  Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but because I am a part of the Young Adult imprint at the big sexy romance publishing house.  Entranced has a YA imprint called Rush, but most of the books Entranced puts out are of the much more adult and dirty nature.

We have twitter chats where they talk about their steamy love scenes, and I’m worried about my poor characters sneaking out the window.  I can’t participate in their cover reveals because the covers are almost naked!  And the book blurbs are things my readers are not ready for!

I want my characters to have grownup lives.  I want them to live and discover and grow as real teenagers.  But I feel awkward being excited about their first kiss when my fellow Entranced authors are playing with bondage.  In a group where Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t seem all that dirty, can a story about first love hold its ground?

I would like to think so.  Not just because I want my book to succeed.  Not even just because it’s a different genre with a different target audience.  The sweetness, tenderness, and devotion of first love are things that we all have experienced right along with our first heartbreak.  The thrill of the first kiss is just as exciting as dirty things on a bear skin rug.

I mean sure, if you want to throw a little excitement into a YA book, just toss in a bit of non-sexual torture.  Maybe catch a few people on fire.  Dress someone in leather.  But do it all in a PG-13, teen romance friendly way.

I want to branch out, maybe write something a little more risqué for an adult audience.  But until The Tethering series is complete, I will exist in a world of (mostly) clothed, non-cursing, behind closed doors, teenaged angst.  Who knows, maybe my hero will even make it to second base.

About Megan

Megan O’Russell is a Young Adult author whose premier novel The Tethering will be released by Entranced Publishing this May.  Megan’s author blog can be found at MeganORussell.com, and her humor blog is at lifebeyondexaggeration.com.  For more news on The Tethering, follow her on twitter @MeganORussell.

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Stop doing what you think you’re supposed to!

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I’ve written two novels and a novella so far and I am currently working on editing a fourth book.  This new book (What it means to be a man) is a little unusual though because it’s a blend of non-fiction essay style Q&A intertwined with a fictional story.  The idea came to me because I wanted to write the fictional story but I found that it mirrored my real life (specifically my marriage) so I wanted to stir some real life juice from my relationship into the mix.  I’m really excited about it because I love both the real life parts and the fictional parts, but I’m also a little nervous about it because it’s a departure from the norm.

When it comes to publishing there seems to be this idea of writing in your genre, sticking to a single style and building an audience that way, but to tell the truth every time I think about doing that it gives me an existential crisis.  Who am I (style wise)?  What kind of writer do I want to be?  What if an audience would be unwilling to follow me on my journey though the different landscapes of what I want to try?

I started my fifth book (Nil) after I wrote my first draft of the one I’m currently editing (What it means to be a man) and I started out writing it in a pretty traditional way, I had an idea for a fictional story and I wrote it the way I had written the first two books.  But halfway through I started to lose steam and then the whole thing started to depress the crap out of me because I hated its guts.  So after flailing uselessly and trying to restructure it and being seriously depressed over the whole damn thing I eventually gave myself permission to walk away and a weight lifted.

I went back and focused on What it means to be a man and writing a few short stories and started thinking about diving into my travel memoirs from ten years ago to see if that is something worth pursuing (I even struggled through Eat, Pray, Love to try and see what a popular travel memoir looks like).  But then, today, as I was writing some of the non-fiction for What it means to be a man I had a brainstorm.  I found a way to fix the dreaded Nil.  It will require a lot of research and some serious exploration of the concepts of the book, but it could be really cool.  It could be really cool, but what it wouldn’t be is a traditional novel.

Cue the worry about building an audience and marketing etc…

So I bounce into the land of concern over doing the expected and then I think: stop being fettered by what you’re supposed to do!  My biggest passion in stories is the intersection of the fantastic into everyday life.  And what is more of an intersection then merging non-fiction with fiction?  I love the idea of exploring story concepts in real life so why shouldn’t I think that other people might love it too?  I love exploring new and unusual formats, styles and genres, so why shouldn’t I?  I’m not saying I’m doing something completely crazy or totally unique here, but it’s just that it doesn’t follow the format of a traditional novel (of which I have already written two).

But I don’t want to be tied down to traditional concepts of novels just because I think I’m supposed to.  There are plenty of people who have successful careers writing whatever moves them, so why should I be any different?  I find the idea of being tied to one format of book very limiting and on the flip side I am intensely excited to think of all the ways I could branch out and approach a story differently!

So if you are ever stuck on a story, or stuck in a rut, why not consider ways you could alter the style, genre or narrative of the story to embrace your passions and find a new direction?  Because finding your own way of writing and trying new things is so important and you shouldn’t be limited to what you think you’re supposed to do!

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Font Size Matters

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Font size matters to me on a weird, emotional, subconscious level.  Really it does.  When my words are smaller, like 10pt or 11pt or something, I like them better, I take them more seriously, find them more beautiful and think they are more clever than they probably are.

I really don’t know why this is and I never really thought about it before, but today I was writing a story and I wasn’t 100% feeling it so I tried to make the font size smaller and viola, I was in love.

I just did it while I was writing this blog post too, I reduced the size two points and all of a sudden I felt like I was saying something more important.

I wonder if this is unusual?

I just did a cursory and completely not thorough search on ‘the psychological effects of font size’ and found an abstract for a study that suggests negative responses to written words start earlier and last longer for larger fonts (assuming I’m interpreting the abstract correctly).  But other than that it’s mostly hits for the effects of different kinds of fonts, not size.

So what is it about the size that matters?

Well I guess a good question would be: who reads books with bigger fonts?  Answer: children!

It makes sense in a way, children’s books have these big, cartoonish fonts.  Tween and young adult books have pretty big fonts too.  Then we get to adult stuff and the size seems to matter there too.  Have you ever picked up one of those densely packed ‘cerebral’ novels where the font size is minuscule and the words just seem packed onto the page?  Those kinds of books always seem super intimidating to me, but at the same time super important.  Like if I conquer those thick, unbroken paragraphs I really must be smart.  I’m willing to bet Harlequin romance novels or commercial fiction don’t use that tiny font size because they want their fiction to seem more accessible.

It always shocks and amazes me how many things we subconsciously perceive and use to navigate the world and form opinions.  I wouldn’t even have noticed my odd respect for smaller font size if it wasn’t for my own observations while writing.

So is this a thing publishers know about and use to their advantage?  Does font size really play a part in the perceived intellectual value of a book?  I’m willing to bet it does.  I really think font size matters.

If you haven’t noticed how you feel about font size try it now with a story you’ve already written then tell me your thoughts and emotional responses to font size.

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Editing my first novel

ImageAbout two weeks ago I got some feedback on my first novel (A Girl Out There) that I felt inclined to listen to, so I went back in time and gave it a read through.

Looking back I was shocked to find that it hasn’t even been a year since I wrote it, but so much has changed since then that it seemed (as I flipped through the pages) like a book I set about writing in my teenage years.  In the meantime I’ve written two other novels, a novella, a host of short stories and I am currently working on a fourth novel.

I have done a lot since the first novel and looking back, my progress shows.

As much as I was happy to have such marvelous feedback I was shocked at the state of the book itself.  It was lacking a depth and a sense of feeling that I like to think I am much more capable of now and there was far too much telling and not nearly enough showing.  It felt sloppy, inconstant and too packed with stuff that didn’t matter.  It had only been seven months since I wrote the damn thing, but I swear it could have been years!

So needless to say I was thrilled to tear it apart and put it back together with more detail, emotion and expansion on the themes.

The whole process started out a bit rough, because I was stuck in the voice of my current protagonist (Nil) and I couldn’t quite make the shift back to the old one (Cali).  Nil is sassy and sharp and Cali is soft and flowing.  So I wrote the first chapter in Nil’s voice (or something close to it) and Ben read it and shook his head.  I’m pretty sure I threw things across the room in my annoyance.

It’s hard going back.  I like to tie things up and move on to the next thing, I’m a forward thinker, not a backward looker.

In round two I tried again, smoothed out some of the rough edges, but still Ben didn’t like it.

I despaired and it was all very dramatic.

Ben said vague sorts of things like ‘I’m just not feeling it’ and I wanted to chuck ‘it’ out the window.

 So I tried again and the next round was a bit closer, then a bit closer, then I hit the nail (more or less) on the head.  It was a huge relief.

After that all was well, having gotten the voice back and reestablishing the character in my mind going through the rest of the book felt as good to me as throwing stuff out.  I love throwing stuff out.  I will periodically go through the cupboards in the house just so I can feel the satisfaction and lightness of having less shit in our lives.

I got to rip out huge sections of text and toss characters to the curb, it was deliciously liberating.

Then, when all that was done I got to build up the parts I had left shallow, try to enrich the relationships and encounters that remained in the wake of my clear cutting.

Overall the book isn’t completely indicative of the style of writing I have moved on to.  My first book was more of an adventure-style story than the others that have come after.  I have shifted my focus a bit to go more literary with my magic realism, but still there is something I will always love about the first because it represents my own personal liberation.  It was me taking back my creativity, my past, my writing.  I was coming out of a bad situation and into a better one and the spirit of change is obvious within the pages of the story.

I used to hate editing.  When it came time for Ben to provide his feedback I would flail and moan and he would wait patiently until I was done my immature spazzing.  But now I get it, editing can be freeing and even fun.  It can be interesting and reflective.

Overall I’m pretty happy with the results of my efforts and I hope others are too (although that remains to be seen).  But what I can say is that I have a new appreciation for editing and the joy of tearing something to bits to find the goodness inside.

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Bisexuality is not a fiction

ImageI’m bisexual.

I’ve known it since I was a teenager and it’s been fun.  It’s also been a bit confusing.  Nobody ever told me to make a choice, but I remember telling my parents and they just sort of laughed it off.  I think the words they used were ‘it’s a phase’.  That’s pretty much the only time anyone has really challenged my sexuality, and it was a pretty weak challenge at that, but everywhere you turn in the media people seem to have some interesting stereotypes about us bi folks.  There’s the idea that we are all big slut cakes (and some of us are, but so are some gay and straight people), there’s the idea that we are cheaters and there’s the thought that we ought to just make up our mind, that it’s just a phase.  It’s not.  It’s just who I am.  I am sexually attracted to both men and women and it’s pretty equal.  I chose to marry a man, because I fell in love with a man, but that doesn’t make me straight, it just makes me a married bi chick.

I’ve recently finished a writing book called ‘What it means to be a man’ in which Ben and I have discussions about our sexuality, gender and other issues around those topics.  Our conversations are mixed with a story of another couple (closely resembling us) who are forced to deal with issues of sexuality, love and gender in their relationship.  There’s a whole section in the book in which I discuss my thoughts on my bisexuality, so I won’t get into that too much here, but what I do want to talk about is bisexuality in fiction, especially in TV (as I don’t have much of a frame of reference for books with bi characters – if you know of any let me know).

I had plans to write this post awhile back and was even more inspired after reading this article, which gives a pretty comprehensive look at bisexuality in TV and how it’s progressing.

Warning: Spoilers for Orange is the New Black & Buffy ahead!

Ben and I recently started watching ‘Orange is the New Black’ (great show) and the main character (Piper Chapman), it seems, is bisexual.  Although, the sad fact is, as bi as she clearly is (sexually attracted to both men and women), they just won’t say the word.  They call her a former lesbian (even though she still fucks women) and in one episode they vaguely alluded to a ‘sliding scale’ of sexuality, but not once have we heard the word ‘bisexual’.  I suppose it might have something to do with the image of bisexuality in a lot of people’s minds, it seems as though it’s a bit tainted.  When bisexuality is mentioned I suspect a lot of people think of those chicks in clubs making out with each other to please the men-folk (I was one of those chicks once upon a time and let me tell you it wasn’t just about the men).  It seems as though bisexuality is either taken lightly (it’s just a phase) or heavily (all bi folks are cheaters and sluts) and there is no happy medium, no place in the general population’s mind where the bi-folk of the world can live and have meaningful, deep, even monogamous relationships with both men and women.  So in light of all that I guess it’s not hard to imagine that the word itself holds a stigma that writers might be afraid of bringing to their story.  Maybe they feel labeling Piper bisexual would make her less legitimate?  Maybe it would make people less likely to sympathize with her?

Unfortunately for them, I think the exact opposite is true.  I think this struggle with sexual identity (her having to choose to be either gay or straight) cheapens the actual struggle of the deeper issue, love.

By not allowing for her to embrace her bisexuality, the writers are keeping her character’s sexuality front and centre and distracting from the actual issue, her choice between two loves.  The gender is irrelevant, but what they offer to her, who they are and what they mean to her is not.  By keeping the audience in the land of the polarized, black or white sexuality, we are not quite allowed to get over the gender/sexuality issue and dive deep into the actual relationships.  Now I’d like to think that most people are educated on different types of sexuality and that most people believe bisexuality is really a thing and not just a crazy unicorn dragon sexuality that is mythical and unreal, but I think it’s unlikely that’s true.  So instead of making a statement that bisexuality is real and that Piper’s feelings for both her potential mates are equality legitimate, the general population has to wade through the distracting question of ‘is she gay or not?’ before they get to the actual reality of her situation, the actual issue, being in love with two people at the same time.

I’ve seen this issue arise before.  Recently, Ben and I watched all of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (another fantastic show) and there was a character on it named Willow.  Willow was a witch who fell in love with a dude named Oz and then later a woman named Tara.  As soon as Willow fell in love with Tara, she started calling herself a lesbian.  When Oz came back for an episode or two after he and Willow had broken up, it was clear that Willow still had feelings for Oz, but she was in the ‘lesbian’ camp now, so what’s a girl gonna do?  To me, it felt as though this label of lesbianism that Willow stuck to herself took away from all the history between her and Oz and it made me mad.  It made me feel as though Willow was trying to delete her past, push aside her feelings and forget that she had experienced real love with a man.  It made her relationship with Oz feel trivial when I thought it was quite powerful.  I found it disturbing that she locked herself so firmly into the role of lesbian that she didn’t leave room for the part of herself that was clearly open to loving men.  I think that this is perhaps an illustration of a symptom of the problem of not really understanding, or embracing bisexuality.  The idea that people are being forced to choose one side or another without being allowed the possibility that they could have both is really just sad.

These are just two examples of poor representations of bisexual characters, but I suspect there’s more out there.  In this world of boxes, I think people are so obsessed with choosing one or the other that they might repress the idea of both.

So how do we combat this misunderstanding of bisexuality?  Same as any other misunderstandings are fought.  Exposure and education.  Bisexual isn’t a bad word, it’s okay to say and actually pretty fun to be.  Most of the time my protagonists in my novels are bisexual and I tend to try to make my fictional relationships more about the relationship itself than the sexuality, because I think that’s the thing that matters most.  I want the love to be the thing that matters most.  Even if it’s unconventional, love is love.

I’d love to see more examples of well represented bisexual characters in books and on TV.

Any suggestions on where I can find some?