Monday, August 31, 2009

Another Great Site to Help with Writing Stress

Here's another great site sent to me from Jane Mackay.

Mindfull Time Management: Relief from overwhelm for entrepreneurs and creative professionals. The latest blog post is called Writing Doesn't Have to Hurt, about how writing for shorter amounts of time regularly makes you more productive than binging on writing for long periods of time, less frequently.

I tend to fall into that last category, looking for a block of time to fully immerse myself in the world of my characters. Those free blocks of time are rare, so my writing time is also rare. Do I really need to block out four hours to write, or can I grab an hour, or even thirty minutes, for my novel and still create quality work?

If shorter bouts of time will help me write more, then I'll give it a try.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Three Sites to Keep us Writing.

I am writing this post from the student center at San Francisco State University, eating potato chips while waiting for class to start in an hour. Back to school for me, which means any personal writing time will be hard to come by.

I know I'm not alone. Finding time to be creative is hard for everyone. Between jobs, children, friends, daily life and housework, family obligations and sleep, it can feel impossible to let your muse out to play. Don't forget to spend time with her, though, or she'll be very, very unhappy. In fact, she might forget to show up the next time you beg for her help, deciding instead she needs to spend time with OTHER, more productive, writers.

To help us get motivated and find the time to write, here are a few handy sites.

The Productive Muse is a blog that helps freelancers stay focused and working. She offers tips and ideas for keeping the pen (or keyboard) moving as well as practical suggestions for managing the workload. Perfect for anyone who'd like to forge a freelance, creative career, or just earn a little money with their writing. Who wouldn't?

Sonia Simone is one of my favorite on-line writers and I am proud that she provided advice to new publishers in my book, What You Need to Know to Be a Pro. Her blog is a great place to find inspiration, and I especially love this post: The Complete Flakes Guide to Getting Things Done.

And when you really need help keeping your butt in the chair to write, check out this handy writing tool my friend and editor Jane Mackay showed me. Dr Wicked's Write or Die. Talk about writing prompts! I KNOW my Muse was involved in creating this thing. I dare any of you to try Kamikazi!

Those are just three of the thousands of tools and resources on the web that will keep our creative energy flowing within the limited time limits we cope with. I'm not giving you any more, though, because you should be WRITING, not reading blogs.

Except mine, of course.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Music of a Book

For three days, my Muse and I have been obsessing on the individual essays and poetry in the Punk Anthology, listening to the quality of the words to find its unique note, its tone, its melody... Every piece is different, but they must all flow together harmoniously within one larger work: the book.

As the publisher and Medusa's Muse "big-picture" editor, this is my job.

"There are too many short pieces clumped together at the end," I said, growling and rubbing my fingers through my hair furiously.

My Muse slapped my hands. "Stop that. You'll go bald."

"They all share a similar tone and flow together well, but it feels boring. We can't have everything clumped together like that."

"So pull them out one at a time and try inserting them in different places." Muse lifted a short, moment-in-time essay from the stack of contributions and studied it. "Like this one. It's lovely. It's a snapshot of a time and place rather than a manifesto. Could we move it up in the order of the book? I think something like this, which is well written and moody, would create a nice break next to a longer piece more focused on the person's history."

I took the story and studied it. "I see what you mean. What if we put it after Chestnut's story. He talks about community and this story shows that community." On my lap top, I find the story, then cut and paste it to its new position. I study how the one story ends and flows into the next. "Yeah. I like it. This could work."

We read and re-read the anthology, moving stories, reading the manuscript again, swapping position of one with another, then changing our minds and putting them back. One day passes, then another. I begin to see the stories clearly when I close my eyes at night and rearrange them in my dreams. I'm not even sure what I'm looking for. I don't know how the book should flow yet. When it happens, I'll feel it.

One day I discover that I'd put all the "jail stories" together. I moved those, then realized the first poem didn't ring true with the first essay. Not that the stories have to agree, but the tone needs to be complimentary. It's like trying to use snippets of Mozart with Motorhead. They may both work together in a piece (just ask a Mashup artist), but probably not directly next to each other. You need to find the common note, the thread of the story, to tie it all together one at a time. The first story may have nothing in common with the fourth story, but they are tied together by what they share with story number two and three. I need to find the threads to tie everything up.

Muse asked, "If this is a punk book, does it have to flow harmoniously? Aren't you working with a music that enjoys jarring people out of any sense of calm?"

"Musically, yes. But this is a book of personal stories and there is a pattern to them. They don't have to tie together as neatly as a different type of book, but they should still work together to tell the larger tale."

Late into the night, while Muse listened to Exene on her Ipod, I switched two storie's positions and suddenly felt it. The threads were tied and the story flowed easily from one piece to the next. It was done.

I leaned back in my chair and motioned for Muse to join me. We read the book again from beginning to end and when we finished we looked at each other and smiled. Even her snakes grinned and I thought I heard one whisper, "Yes!"

Muse stood tall before me and announced, "You are a genius."


"Yes. You discovered the music of this book. Not everyone can do that."

I shrugged. "I'm the big picture girl. I can't find spelling errors but I can find a plot."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Who Owns an Electronic Book? electronically deleted copies of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm from Kindles, even though those copies had been legitimately purchased by readers. There's irony for you: George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four was deleted by Amazon without the knowledge or permission of the Kindle owners. Did you know Amazon could sneak onto your Kindle and erase what you have stored there? Me either.

Who owns an electronic book? When we purchase and download an ebook, are we buying the actual file, like we would a paper book, or are we leasing that file? Is it ours, or does it still belong to the publisher? Amazon's actions seem to say that we are merely borrowing the book for an extended amount of time but they can take the book back any time they want. And if we loan that ebook to someone else, or give it to a friend, we're violating our lease agreement.

These are the same questions the music industry has been struggling with for ten years. Music companies have responded by trying to lock down music files so they cannot be shared or passed from one computer to another. But they haven't been able to stop the proliferation of pirated music. Music companies aren't just fighting internet piracy, they are battling ideology. Millennium kids believe that music should be shared, period. They don't believe uploading songs to Pirate Bay is stealing. The harder the music industry tries to crack down on piracy, the more people resent the control placed on how and when their music is played.

The book industry is starting to deal with these same issues. Ebooks are popping up on pirate sites alongside bootlegged songs. As a publisher, I am forced to evaluate my own ideas of fair use and ownership. How much do I want to control the way the books I publish are read? How much am I willing to give away? Can I give away books and stay in business? Is there any way to stop people from uploading copies of my books for thousands of people to download for free? Should I care?

Amazon went too far and is now being sued for deleting those Kindle books. CEO Jeff Bezos apologized for the company's actions, saying "Our "solution" to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles."

But the reason decided to erase those files from Kindles in the first place is because those copies of Nineteen Eighty Four and Animal Farm were illegal. The "publisher" uploaded those files via Amazon's third party distribution system and did not have the right to sell them. When Amazon found out, it deleted the files, then took the extra step of deleting them from Kindles.

Which is why I'm asking the question, "Who owns an ebook?" I understand the need for Amazon to shut down the illegal ebooks on their site, but do they also have the right to sneak onto your Kindle and delete what they want, without your knowledge or permission?

Friday, August 14, 2009


Rejection. There's nothing that stings so sharply. From the time you were a kid and none of the other kids would play with you, to the Jr Prom when your date ditched you for someone more popular, rejection has been bruising our egos. If you decide to become an artist, you will be dancing with the barbed-wire of rejection on a daily basis.

What do you do when you produce your best work and the only thing you get for your efforts is a big fat NO scrawled on a form letter? What do you do when you keep getting that big fat NO 100 times?

Before you decide you're a terrible artist who should never write again and start drinking Jack Daniels in your underwear at 2 pm, wait. I'm going to tell you a secret about rejection. And then I'm going to give you some steps to help defy those rejections

Those rejections are written by people and because they are people they are only giving you their opinion. A person's opinion is not gospel. It is their gospel, not everyone's. Not only that, a person's opinion can change, sometimes hourly. They may have read your proposal at 9 am after a big fight with their boyfriend, so they hate everything on their desk at that moment. But if they'd read your proposal at noon, after the boyfriend called to apologize, they instantly loved everything on their desk, including your proposal.

It's an unfair, subjective, process combing through query letters, and to make it all worse, you are one of a thousand who have sent in a query that week. There's no way you won't get 100 rejections.

But what about those 100 rejections? Should you just ignore them and declare all editors and agents are morons?

Absolutely not. Those rejection letters are trying to tell you something, so pay attention. Your query letter may be boring, or has a spelling error. Because of the overwhelming mass of writers all vying for an agents time, the agents are looking for any reason to ignore a query letter, so make sure it is 100% perfection.

Or maybe your book isn't as great as you think it is. No, I'm not saying your a bad artist! I am encouraging you to take a step back and evaluate it with the keen eye of a master artist. A work of art can always be made better, just ask Michelangelo as he was finishing the Sistine Chapel. Your writing may be wonderful, but how is the plot? Are there places where the writing is dull or bogged down with too much description, or not enough? Does it start with a strong scene, or lovely prose that doesn't really grab the reader's attention? Use those rejection letters as an opportunity to rethink your project.

I wrote a novel and sent it to an agent I met at a writer's conference. When I pitched the idea and showed her a sample of my writing she loved it. So I was pretty confident that when I sent her the entire book she'd send me a contract. Wrong. She sent me a lovely rejection letter, praising my writing skill, but "I'm not in love with it." I burst into tears and swore I'd never write again. After the despair (and the Jack Daniels) wore off I took another look at my novel and discovered I had written a boring book. Great characters. Compelling idea. Lovely writing. Boring plot.

I set the book aside and after five years I only now feel that I have the skills to fix this book and make it great.

Never give up. Believe in the work, but be honest with yourself. Delusion can be worse than rejection.

And the good news is, you don't have to rely on an agent or a publisher anymore. You can do it yourself, or work with a micro press who may be more willing to work with a new author. Like me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Remembering John Hughes

I am an enormous John Hughes fan, ever since I cried during The Breakfast Club. I saw myself reflected in the dark haired, off-her-rocker, artistic Allison Reynalds, the girl who buried herself in her over sized coat and shook dandruff on her drawing to make it look like it was snowing. I didn't have the dandruff problem (I don't think), but I definitely was that lost, emotionally disturbed girl when I was 13 and 14 years old. After that movie, I was a John Hughes devotee for life.

Several weeks ago, I had the urge to watch John Hughe's movies again, so I rented the Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. I felt the same reaction as I did when I was 17 and saw the Breakfast Club for the first time, crying through most of the film and cheering wildly at the end. How had he managed to show so profoundly the inner workings of the teen-aged psyche?

Last Thursday, John Hughes died of a heart attack. He was 59. I felt like a friend I'd lost touch with a long time ago had died. I was stunned and saddened. He was so young.

Today I stumbled across the book, "Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers On The Films of John Hughes" edited by Jaime Clark. The book has received mixed reviews, but I'm interested to read how other authors were influenced by his story telling. What made John Hughes movies so compelling? How did he manage to connect so strongly with the angst that was 1980's teen age life? They are classic films now and story tellers of all types can learn from them. Pay attention to how he plays with stereotypes and cliches. He bends those assumptions on their heads by using them to illuminate the inner workings of a character. Those characters stay with us because they reveal hidden parts of ourselves, letting us laugh and learn from our own foibles. That is what a good story should do.

Rest well, John Hughes. And thank you for the inspiration.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Writing Itch

Shhhh... I have a secret. I'm writing a new novel. I'm not sure why I'm doing this because I can't think of a worse time to start in on another novel, which will probably wind up like my last novel: rejected by an agent and then reduced to hiding in my file cabinet, shamed and bruised. I start the Fall semester of Grad school in three weeks, plus I'm gearing up to launch the newest title from Medusa's Muse (Punk Rock Saved My Ass). I should be preparing myself mentally and organizationally for a hectic Autumn, not plunging into another 300 page writing project. But I've got that itch and when the Muse starts scratching there's nothing you can do.

That's the problem with creativity; it is rarely rational. I think too many people try to force it to be. We get busy with our jobs, our kids, our ideas, and learn to ignore that annoying, persistent itch to create something. And I think our expectations hold us up, too. If what we create isn't GOOD, or WORTHY, or APPROPRIATE FOR PUBLIC VIEWING, we think it's worthless.

I disagree. My new novel may end up in a box like my last novel, but the outcome isn't the fun part for me. Writing is fun. Creating a whole new world one word at a time and peopling it with characters who I am now getting to know, that's the fun part. I have a general idea of what will happen, but my characters often change their mind mid-write, forcing me to chase after them. Writing this book will take a long time, but that's okay. Not only do I have school work on the horizon, but I am also working on a couple of short stories and outlining another play. Nothing may be finished before I graduate, but who cares?

If you see me huddled over my lap top and typing furiously at our local cafe, letting my coffee go cold, ignoring my homework, and generally looking dazed and wild, you'll know my Muse is in control. When she says scratch, I must obey. To hell with reason. Let me create!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

The Secret Code of the ISBN

One of the questions I was asked at the Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference was, "What is an ISBN?" There was a great deal of discussion about what that weird bar code on the back of each book means and when a book needs to have one. Not all books do, but if you want to sell a book through a retail outlet, you need one.

Authors don't really need to know what the numbers in the bar code mean (unless their book nerds like me), but every publisher does. The bar code is like the symbol ranchers use to mark their cattle. Every Bar-S ranch cow will have the Bar-S ranch brand. Every Medusa's Muse book will have the numbers 9797152 in their bar code. No other publisher can use those numbers. They are mine, telling stores that the book is a Medusa's Muse book.

Stores use a bar code system to track a books via the book's ISBN. What is a bar code?

From Wikipedia:

A barcode (also bar code) is an optical machine-readable representation of data. Originally, bar codes represented data in the widths (lines) and the spacings of parallel lines, and may be referred to as linear or 1D (1 dimensional) barcodes or symbologies. They also come in patterns of squares, dots, hexagons and other geometric patterns within images termed 2D (2 dimensional) matrix codes or symbologies. Although 2D systems use symbols other than bars, they are generally referred to as barcodes as well.Barcodes can be read by optical scanners called barcode readers, or scanned from an image by special software. In Japan, most mobile phones have built-in scanning software for 2D codes, and similar software is becoming available on smartphone platforms.

If you look at the back of a book you will see a rectangle with two bar codes, usually on the bottom left of the cover. Sometimes there will be a ten digit code, but books published in the last few years will have a 13 digit code. The ISBN standard changed due to the volume of books being published.

The ISBN for What You Need to Know to Be a Pro: The Business Start-Up Guide for Publishers, by Terena Scott, is 978-0-9797152-3-5.

The first three digits identify the type of product it is. 978 means that this is a book.

The next digit identifies the language the book was published in. 0 and 1 are used for English speaking countries.

The center group of numbers is the publisher's ISBN identifier, the brand I wrote of earlier. No other publisher can have the same numbers.

The fourth digit is the number of books published by the publisher. What You Need to Know is the 3rd book published by Medusa's Muse (technically not. This is the second book, but since I set aside two ISBN numbers for Traveling Blind, the next number on the list was the number 3. Nobody cares if the books aren't in order).

The last number is called the check-digit. This is a mathematical variable of the other digits (don't ask me to explain this. Maybe a math person can leave a comment and explain what that means exactly).

You'll see more digits below the code that are the same as the top ISBN digits, but without the dashes. Those numbers show what the bar code means.

Beside the ISBN bar code you'll often see another bar code with numbers on the top. This is the EAN, or European Article Number, which is the world-wide standardization for the sale of books. It tells the price of the book and what system of currency it is sold in. The 5 means that the book is sold in US dollars. What You Need to Know to Be a Pro's EAN looks like this: 5 1 0 0 0, which translates to Ten Dollars US.

And now you know the secret code of an ISBN. Language, currency, price, publisher, and item, all encoded in a bar code for a computer to keep track of books in a store.

Any questions?

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference

On Saturday I was part of a panel called Pathways to Publishing at the Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference. The Mendo Conference is my favorite writer's conference, and not just because it happens at one of the most beautiful places in the world. In only a few days the organizers manage to create a sense of community amongst the attendees based on the love of writing. Everyone is supportive and friendly. There isn't the same competition I've felt at other conferences; participants are genuinely interested in helping each other. Don't think this is a hippi-dippy, kick back kind of conference though. There are agents and editors from New York and the Bay Area offering advice and giving one-on-one consultations as well as award winning writers and poets teaching classes on revision, plot development, character development, writer's block, structure, and pitching. There are lectures about the power of writing to change the world, the needs of a YA reader, and how creative writing and other types of art can stop gangs.

This year I was only able to come for the one day of my talk, but I usually go for the entire three and a half days. In just one day, I met an agent from Manis who was excited about micro-publishinf. I discovered an up and coming author named Benjamin Percy (keep an eye out for him. His short stories are phenomenal. I had lunch with on of my co-panelists,the poet and very funny Robin Ekiss, whose first book debuts this fall. My other co-panelist was Stephanie Freele, whose collection of short stories also debuts this fall.

Our panel went very well and the room was mostly full. We each told how we became published and each of our stories was very different. Stephanie quit her corporate job and got an MFA while Robin went the only route available to poets: contests. I talked about why and how I started my own press and explained all the different paths a writer can take to share their work with the world. The one thing we all focused on was HOPE. Keep trying to get your work out. Keep believing in yourself and your desire to write. Hold fast to your dream. Not all of us will get that contract, but all of us can write and be published. We are not tied to New York City anymore.

Unfortunately I had to leave shortly after the panel. I would have loved to stay and soak up more of that cool, Mendocino Coast air and creative energy, but life is too hectic now days for that. Next year, though. And maybe I'll see you there.