Category Archives: Reviews and Reflections

I often write reviews or reflections on the readings/seminars I attend, so this is the category where you’ll find those.

A New Player

I started a draft for a post titled “Self-publishing: too easy?” just about two months ago, and I promptly forgot about it in lieu of graduate school applications. However, a recent news article caught my attention and had me thinking about self-publishing yet again. I recommend you read the article, but to sum it up: “The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) has introduced a new MA program in self-publishing, the first of its kind in the U.K.”

Very interesting.

At first I was surprised. Isn’t the nature of self-publishing “do-it-yourself”? But after more consideration, I thought “maybe this is actually a good thing.”

I checked the university’s description of the program, curious to see how the faculty was planning to approach such a degree. Turns out, it’s pretty comprehensive, theoretically speaking; topics such as “The Publishing Environment” and “Editing Principles and Practice” are good foundational topics that, honestly, any writer/publisher ought to know about. Other topics like “The Production Process” and “Electronic Publishing and the Creation of E-Books” are standard for publishing degrees, from what I’ve seen during my research of similar programs.

Anyway, I’ll be curious to see the outcome of this new program. Will it be the parent of other programs like it, or will it be a short-lived experiment? I wonder at the cost of tuition too. Most self-publishers do it themselves because of the costs: advertising, editing, marketing– the whole package. Isn’t a Master’s program counter-productive, in terms of money-saving. Then again, “teach a man to fish.”

I talk/think about self-publishing a lot. My biggest qualm with the rise of self-published books is the concurrent rise of bad or underdeveloped writing. I’m not saying that all self-publishers are bad writers; there are gems out there, but it’s a matter of slogging through available books  and finding those that are worth reading and promoting. The move to create a Self-Publishing MA degree could very well be the answer to cutting down on the number of badly-written pieces out there. But, it will take time. You have one school offering the program, but for there to be any effect, similar approaches would have to be adopted. Can that happen, though, if traditional publishers, who have the upper hand, want to preserve their dominance? Self-publishing MA programs may have to grapple for a foothold for awhile, but their presence may, in fact, be a game changer.

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Fantasy Novels?

Hello, readers and writers alike!

Earlier this week, I had a friend ask me for my thoughts on this blog post , and I thought I’d share my thoughts here, one, because it’s got to do with writing and publishing markets, and two, because it’s relevant to me because I’m in the process of writing a fantasy novel.

Summary of the blog post (in case you’re too lazy to read it… I suggest you do read it, though. Informative and over all, a great post): Fantasy author Greg Hamerton discussed a variety of challenges that a fantasy author will face when he or she goes to publish their book. Namely, the challenge of deciding whether they’ll publish online, in print, or both, and the implications of their decision on distribution of their books. He talks about the prices associated with printing, and how the number of books published affects the overall selling price. His post ended up illustrating the difficulty of making a return on the hard work a fantasy author puts into his or her book, and the elements in publishing that need to be considered when making important decision, and he highlighted how the fantasy genre, to an up-and-coming author, is a gamble. A very insightful post, but it certainly made me think of my in-progress fantasy novel and what I’ll do when it comes down to publishing. Honestly, I got worried and a lost a tiny bit of hope in ever getting it out to the public.

This blog post brought a couple things to mind that I’d like consider here: Why is fantasy so much of a gamble to publishers? Is there any hope of changing that perspective? How?

The biggest thing that I struggled with was why fantasy has a stigma of being unpredictable. Everyone likes a good, imaginative story, right? I’d say the answer is yes; the problem lies in the issue of finding “good” and “imaginative” stories that aren’t mere copycats of the famous JRR Tolkien and other such like elf/dwarf/wizard/human stories set in a world that still uses bows and arrows, and swords, with people who live in thatch-roof cottages, who farm half the day and drink beer in community in the other half.
This isn’t to say that all fantasy is like the above paragraph. Without reading a wide selection of fantasy, I know for a fact that it isn’t, but in my experience with authors who are thinking about, or in the process of, writing fantasy, this is predominantly true. Why? Probably because their earliest, most impressive experiences with fantasy have been with that type of story, which is something you can’t criticize. As humans, we all pull from the things that have impacted our lives; it comes out in our lives, our writing, our art… that’s natural. I’ve struggled against writing stereotypical fantasy stuff; it’s a battle we all face in our writing, being influenced, not indoctrinated, by other creative works.

This all goes back to my original question, why do publishers view fantasy as an unpredictable genre? Fantasy can be anything, literally. You can do anything with it, within very broad outliers, which is both a wonderful thing, and a potentially bad thing. Your crazy ideas could be received with cries of “genius!” or they could be rejected with a simple, exasperated shake of the head. Because people and their interests, likes, and dislikes come together in a pot of weird, varying with each person, how can anyone ever predict how a certain audience will respond to YOUR book of weird, strange, exciting, mystifying stuff? You may have chosen to write to an audience of “young adults,” but in that audience, there are lots of different kinds of young adults. It gets complicated.
As Hamerton suggested in his post, publishers are more  likely to prefer relying on the popularity of an already-established author instead of taking a gamble on something that is equally able to lose them a good deal of money, or give them a good deal of money. Who wouldn’t rather invest in something sure?
The stereotype of fantasy, and what the general populace believes of fantasy, is what I believe to be the reason publishers aren’t more willing to take a gamble with fantasy. I know for a fact that my book is not going to fit under the typical “fantasy” impression, and I know without having to do very much research, that there are MANY fantasy books that also refuse to be categorized under “typical fantasy,” yet the stereotype remains. Sad, really. This leaves us authors having to deal with what Hamerton summarized in his post.

Well… that’s a nice plight in which to place unknown or little-known fantasy authors in, isn’t it? Which brings me to my next question: is there any way this can be changed? How?

I think it can be changed, though with a lot of work on both sides, authors and publishers. I might just be talking ideals here, because I tend to care more about getting creative and interesting things out into the world than money, but bear with me.
The growing trend toward online publishing and self-publishing (which I wrote about in a post here ) is probably a good thing for fantasy authors, because of the problems listed by Hamerton. Because of the ridiculousness of the costs of production. Producing books in ebook format? Saves a lot on printing and distribution costs, no doubt. I hate to admit it, but I’m beginning to believe that there is hope in ebook publishing; people are more likely to read something if it’s easily accessible to devices they already own, and unless they’re book enthusiasts, they’re not as likely to peruse the shelves of used (or new) bookstores. Also, the generally-cheaper prices of ebooks are more conducive to buying than retail pricing. Everything points to ebooks.

Ebooks allow the author to be the publisher; it allows a good fantasy author the chance to publicize their book and redeem the fantasy name. It allows readers at large to experience fantasy at its best (which will hopefully help publishers change their minds in the future about fantasy, at least to some degree). Of course, there is the fact that e-publishing allows the bad work in, but there’s a pretty dependable way to distinguish good from bad: the quality of a book. Because e-publishing is easier and less demanding than a traditional publishing house, most authors who’ve written mediocre stuff haven’t often gone through the harrowing process of editing, revising, editing, revising, editing some more etc. Authors, even if their quality is so-so, can have a good polished work after it’s been worked over and over again. In fact, that’s what often makes a book good.

So, e-publishing is the hope of fantasy, I think, at least for a good while. Thanks to Hamerton, the website CompletelyNovel has been brought to my attention. In my brief look-over of the site, I’m excited to see what treasures it holds (and you should go look too)!

The thing about e-publishing is the work that it takes. If you want to be successful with it, you can’t just submit your manuscript, get the book out there and sit back. You have to WORK. Network with other writers; promote, promote, promote; follow and participate in other writer’s blogs; create a following through your OWN blog and social media; promote some more, and review other writer’s works, sometimes in return for them reviewing your work. After the editing and revising and the final publication of a book, more hard work and investment might not be high of your priority list. But it HAS to be. And be aware, I’m preaching this to myself as much as I am to anyone who is reading this, because I don’t like the promotion part of publishing… I’m the one who’ll sit and revise, edit, and proofread until dawn. But it’s necessary in order to make your book a success… at least, that’s what I think. Because, you know, I haven’t actually published a book yet =)

So, those are my two cents on the issue of why fantasy books aren’t regarded very seriously by publishing houses, and what hope that fantasy authors have in getting their books recognized. Eventually, I hope to write on WHY fantasy books ought to be regarded more seriously, but in order to do that I have to go find some to read first… to widen my horizons. However, I did buy a fantasy book by Diana Wynne Jones (author of Howl’s Moving Castle, for those of you who don’t know) titled “The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1” that I plan to read before the summer is out. It’s a gigantic, thick book, though, so we’ll see how far I get!

The Chronicles of Chrestomanci, Volume 1

Also, just as an Allison-update: I am participating in July’s Camp NaNoWriMo challenge (sitting on 32,000/50,000 words as of the publishing of this post), which is why I have written hardly anything on this blog. I have virtually 3 days left to write the final 18,000 words, and with a lot of patience, I think I can do it. I’ll let you guys know if I survive (because, you know, if I don’t, I won’t be here to post that I did).

See you on the other side!

A Gift

I was sitting in the kitchen eating a banana, listening to my mom and little sister go back and forth over a story my sister had written. Naturally, I was intrigued. I listened for awhile and tried to encourage a discouraged sister with pieces of advice about writing. She probably didn’t care, but it was worth a shot.

I watched my mom and sister, and a thought crossed my mind: what kind of role do gifts and specific skills play, specifically in writing? I can consider at my writing and process right now, read a story from my childhood and wonder how-on-eath I ever got to where I am. What is it that shaped me? How much of a gift did I really have to begin with? I like to think of myself as a person who has a strong understanding and passion for the English language; sometimes I feel confidence in that assumption, and other times I feel like I have no gift at all. I guess everyone goes through those phases because it’s part of life. But, regardless of my feelings, my question remains the same. How does gifting affect someone’s ability to write?

I can say that for me, a lot of my development came from online roleplaying (I know… don’t judge me. You’ve done weird things too). I faithfully wrote almost everyday, multiple times from April 2007 till probably about October or November 2010. I’m not totally sure on the ending date, because there were random weeks or months that I would try to get back into it for the sake of the discipline. However, college took over my life, and writing unfortunately became a back-burner priority. I can look back on the posts I made all those years and years ago only because I like to see how far I’ve come. It was because of my constant exposure to better writers that I was driven to get better, and as a result of associating with everyone’s writing, my vocabulary expanded, my sense of event progression sharpened, my ability to keep track of a lot of different events was honed (I did write with several characters at a time, and there was a lot of chat box plotting before and while a thread was in progress), and, in general, I had a better idea of how words worked. Then, as I said, college took over my life. However, as a Creative Writing major, I only continued to gain a better understanding of how writing worked and what it took to write a solid piece, both prose and essay; in fact, essays don’t daunt me anymore because I know how they work (or are supposed to work.. they still don’t always come out well).. and I ENJOY writing them. Who woulda thought? During my roleplaying days, constructive criticism never happened because this activity was a stress-reliever in many ways. We all did it for the fun of it, and benefited from that, however, it wasn’t designed as a writing purified, if you know what I mean. When I got to Union, however, it was all geared toward criticism and finding strengths and weaknesses in the plots and characters, and in general bettering each writer. All good stuff, and I’ll forever be thankful for each of the professors and students who have contributed so much to my learning.

So again, I ask, how much does gifting play into the make-up of a good writer?

From everything I’ve been thinking about, and learning, I’d venture to say that a good writer comes more often through of the discipline of honing the little (or lot) of gifting that he or she has than they do out of pure gift. Think of diamonds… they’re only worth so much when they’ve been cut and polished and placed. There IS an initial gift that a person has, a solid foundation to begin the building on, but without the dedicated shaping and hard work toward betterment, there won’t be anything to show for it. And this is why it’s important to be persistent. I’ve  just realized that there is value in both collaborating and enjoying being a writer with other writers, and in engaging in constructive criticism and the appraisal of the written word. Work and play, you could say.

Another thing that seems to play a big role in developing the basic gift a person has is a desire to do so. Going back to the kitchen, I watched my sister get very discouraged and frustrated when mistakes in grammar or weaknesses in her story progression were pointed out. For a half-minute, I was surprised at her response; I have learned to love criticism and the red pen as much as I love my parents (and maybe more, if that’s possible…), however, she hasn’t gotten there. She hasn’t realized how valuable revision is. To her, a story is done as soon as the first draft has “the end” written on the last line. Hopefully one day, she’ll get to the point where that “the end” is only just the beginning, and that instead of frustration she’ll experience joy when someone comes along and rips her work to shreds. =) It sounds violent, but sometimes in violence there’s beauty… and by violence I’m thinking turbulent seas and the desolation of winter (when the world is stripped of life.. or so it seems), and such like things. Not actual violence.

Anyway, I digress.

As I said, a desire to improve is what enables a person to muddle through all the growing pains of learning, and the discipline of trying to improve is what makes the cake.

So, what do you guys think about gift versus discipline? Can a totally ungifted writer discipline themselves into a good writer? What are your experiences with developing your gift of writing?

 

(Sidenote Update: I’ve read “The Perks of Being a Wall Flower”, “Atonement”, and I’ve almost finished  “The Silmarillion” since my last post. I have Fahrenheit 451 and… another book whose title I can’t remember on the list. I might watch the “Perks” movie and write a review of both, comparing them and whatnot… we’ll see. I’ve been busier than I anticipated this summer)

New books!

There are few things that please my heart more than finding impeccable editions of beloved books at the thrift store, new books to read (at the thrift store, library, friend’s bookshelves, or wherever else one can discover new books), and 85% dark chocolate. What makes these things even better?

CHEAP.

New books!

I procured these guys for less than $3.42 at a local Goodwill store. It made my heart happy. I’ve determined that I will collect each and every Redwall book there is, which requires just a tiny explanation. As a child/young teen, I absolutely LOVED Redwall will all my heart. Animals were a huge thing for me as a kid: I wrote a series of “The Little (insert any type of animal name)” stories, which continued for who knows how long, and then I spent at least four years co-administrating a roleplaying forum in which I created characters in animal form and interacted with other people’s characters. In running the risk of making myself look kind of weird and nerdy, the roleplaying phase of my life was the part that helped me realize the passionate love I have for writing. Not to mention, some of the plots and characters me and my role play buddies came up with were legit.

But, back to Redwall.
I loved it mostly because of the animal world it was set in. In my young mind, barely anything could beat an otter with swift slingshot skills, or squirrels with frightening accuracy in the practice of archery. Even as a junior in college, Redwall holds a very soft spot in my heart, and I intend to impart this crazy love to my children someday, hence why I am determined to own every book in the series. So far I believe I own five… and there’s at least 20. Maybe. I’ll have to make a list.

What about Great Expectations? Well, I’ve heard mixed reviews, so I thought I’d read it and form my own opinion. Dickens is not my favorite author, especially considering that his books start out slow. It’s difficult to stick to the story until about halfway through… then it gets interesting. I managed to read the first 50 pages today, and I’m hoping to have it done by the first week of next month. We’ll see how school cooperates though. I figured that if I owned it I’d be more likely to finish reading it than if I borrowed it from the library. Plus I need to start getting great classics to fill up my future library!

Any writer can tell you how very, very valuable a good name resource is.
I’m a TERRIBLE namer. I have favorite names that come and go, I forget my character’s names all the time, I change them. Heck, I have to think for a LONG time before I can come up with anything… and the worst part about that is that I must have a name before I can start creating. It’s a writer’s tic, and it’s a tic that ticks me off sometimes. I’ve lost so many ideas because I spent too much time trying to come up with the “perfect name”, something I’m sure someone else can relate to.

It’s hard to pass up a good book deal. =)

Also, exciting news! cosmologicallyconstant over at gravatar suggested a post on beauty in writing and how it’s created! I’m super excited to have my first topic suggestion, and I’ll definitely see what I can do about getting a response up over the next week. No promises on how well thought-out it’ll be, but I’ll have something =)

Thanks for reading!

“Little Squares”

A week ago, I received an email from one of my professors with an invitation for me and the rest of my editing class (from last semester) to attend an event featuring special guest speaker Dr. Jennifer Holberg, who is the editor of the journal Pedagogy, a publication of Duke University Press. Upon seeing that it was talk focused on academic editing, I was excited to hear the wisdom and advice of Dr. Holberg, especially considering my interest in pursuing a job in the publishing world.

The first thing she covered was her journal, Pedagogy, and how it came about and the vision behind it. It is the first generalist journal in English, and it publishes using a double-blind review process, which is basically a process that removes names in order to produce a journal with submissions that are accepted and published without a bias toward those who have powerful names in the field. This allows writers and educator’s across the board to submit with an equal chance of publication. This journal, in effect, is a publication that desires to be the place of conversation for those who are dedicated to teaching, especially teaching literature.

She then spoke about editing in general, and shared some wisdom that I know I will cherish. Three main points:

1. Nothing is ever wasted.
2. Way leads to way.
3. Look around and see what needs to be done.

Sometimes I feel like the little odd jobs that I do around school and in the English Department are pointless and do nothing to further my goals, but as Dr. Holberg so tactfully pointed out (and backed up with her own personal experiences), everything you do has an impact on what you’ll do in the future. I was reminded to not undervalue that in any way, and it also called to mind the editing work I helped my dad out with early in highschool. To be sure, I wasn’t a very adept editor at that point (and I’m still learning.. and forever will be), but it gave me exposure to the process of communication in editing and working with an author, which has prepped me, in a small way, for what I have been doing this past year. So, all in all, it was cool to see that one point of encouragement already at work in my life.

The second piece of wisdom (way leads to way) was a challenge to me. I guess I find myself expecting to get where I want to be right away after graduation, and slowly, I’m beginning to realize that that may not happen. It might, but it’s better not to expect that. Rather, as this point encouraged, it’s better to take advantage of the positions available right now, gaining experience as you go and embracing those opportunities (nothing is ever wasted, eh?), and in that way walk the paths of life. I spoke to a friend last weekend about expectations, and in that conversation, I realized just how destructive they can be if they’re counted as surety. So in going with this word of advice from Dr. Holberg, don’t let expectations ruin the opportunities presented! How refreshing is that?

The last point was a little harder to apply, but it was a good nudge. She gave the example of Pedagogy being the only generalist journal in English that puts more focus on teaching literature than on composition. She saw the opportunity and took it, and because of her (and her co-editors) hard work and dedication, Pedagogy has existed for 13 years, and has been the recipient of awards (one such being the 2001 Best New Journal Award from the Council of Editors of Learned Journals -linked at bottom of post-). I can only hope that my eyes and mind stays open to the needs in my field, however broad it is.

That concludes the portion of her talk that revolved around Pedagogy itself. She went on to talk about her editor experience in general, and honestly, it was an honor to hear and learn from her. She explained editing as a communication art, a role that combines knowledge with teaching. The primary goal of an editor is to encourage authors to think about scholarship (in academic writing specifically), and to communicate how an author can grow their ideas. Just the other day, I was talking to a friend about poetry, and how it’s a constant work-in-progress, aka. the growth of an idea. For me, the growth of that idea results in a different poem every time, but the idea of growth applies to other types of writing too, of course.

She also talked about how editing is more of a helping profession than a spotlight profession, which made the editor and introvert in me happy. I am a very behind-the-scenes kind of worker, and that comment was particularly pleasing and affirming to me. Not only does editing make me happy, but the fact that it’s done in such a out-of-the-limelight sort of way is a reason to rejoice.

I’ll end this blog post with a couple more pieces of advice that she shared in relation to pursuing a job in publishing. A lot of what she said resonated with what I’ve been learning through the resume critiques I’ve been going through, but there were some things that stood out. Holberg talked about demonstrating good writing skills, which, I realized today, doesn’t just mean clean, grammatical pieces. It includes the ability to write copy for book abstracts or cover summaries, item descriptions, press releases, and all manner of small, punchy content. How does one go about practicing such a thing? Good question. I’m hoping to come up with an answer for that. Holberg described book cover writing as a genre in itself, and suggested going through a library and sampling said genre. I think I know what I’ll be doing over spring break =)

Another good piece of advice was to know the company you’re interviewing for. That goes without speaking, but it’s a bit of information that I know I forget to incorporate in decision-making. Also, KNOW strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how to apply them to where you’re applying! In my notes, I’ve written “Take what you’ve done… and show how you can incorporate it” into the workosphere of a company, which goes back to knowing a company and finding out where the position you’re applying for is situated in the publishing structure.

I send off the reader with a quote that she shared:
““What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot, author of Middle March

As an editor, that’s kinda what we do. =)

(As promised, information about 2001 award found: http://kscenglish.wordpress.com/tag/editing/)

Book List

In Progess:

  • The Warden
  • The Meaning of Marriage
  • Life Together
  • Love in the Time of Cholera (pg. 34)

To Read

  • Middle March
  • Les Miserables
  • An Agatha Christie book (haven’t decided yet…)
  • Strong Poison (Dorothy Sayers)

Completed

  • Green (Ted Dekker)
  • The Vicar of Wakefield (Oliver Goldsmith)
  • Sense and Sensibility (Jane Austen)

Bits of wisdom

So, cool story.

Writer Ben Sáenz visited Union today! He’s published a couple books of poetry, as well as a few novels, selections and excerpts of which he read from. He did a little talking too, and there were a couple things he said that struck the writer in me:

“Grappling is enough…”

He made the comment that he’s realized that he’ll never understand God, but that he was content to experience God through the world He’s created. That there’s contentment to be found in pondering and trying to understand the world, and on a higher level, God, through the world. This idea can be paralleled with writing in the sense that we’re never going to understand everything in the world; our minds aren’t created to understand everything, but as people (and moreso as writers and artists of different mediums) we grapple with what know and what we don’t. To loosely quote Mr. Sáenz: if we think we understand everything about the world, we’re going to end up with some crappy writing.

Another thing he said: “If you’re a writer, you don’t want to live in a comfortable place.”

Porque?

I know for a fact that I hate being out of my comfort zone. What’s so special about forcing yourself (or being forced) out of a comfort zone? Why is it necessary?
Any writer will hear the advice “write about what you know”; however, that advice has a tendency to  make room (for me) to justify staying comfortable and undisturbed. Writing from what you know is a good starting place; however, if you never move past the “GO!” square, you’re not going to do well in the “game” of writing. You’re never going to expose yourself to things that may be uncomfortable or challenging… and when that happens, mediocrity happens. Inconsequential writing happens.
As much as the little voice in me protests, I’m learning that staying in comfort zones is a good way to get stuck. It’s a good way to keep your mind in a little box, safe and secure from… well, creativity. If you can’t put yourself in another person’s shoes or life, how do you expect to write something compelling? Heart-moving? I can say that, while there are a few things in my life that have proven rough, my life has been conducted in a safe environment; there are few notable experiences on which to draw from.

Or are there? All experience is experience. It needs to be valued as such. Sometimes the thought that, because my life hasn’t been hard, and because there has been relatively little drama in my life, my writing will only be mediocre and nobody will want to read it because of how boring it is. That’s what I think. But what do I know? Ben mentioned that you can’t sacrifice art for popularity; if they come in a package, that’s awesome, but if you’re going to write, do it the way you know how, and in the process of doing (aka. discipline), your personal art form, style, whatever, will be established (he didn’t say all that…paraphrase!).

All of my thoughts are starting to fall apart now, but I’ll leave you with this: all writer’s are born from discipline. It doesn’t matter how basely talented you are; you’re only going to get somewhere if you work hard and discipline yourself, devote yourself, to your calling as a writer. You may not get somewhere big, but you will get somewhere personally. Besides, in the end, what does it matter if you end up like J.K. Rowling or an unknown novelist if you’re doing what you know you’re supposed to be doing?