I’ve often commented that Fifty Shades of Grey’s success stemmed from the simple fact that e-readers were prevalent and the time was right for anonymously reading sultry fiction. I certainly can’t count it as riveting literature in the same category as Lolita, though I’m sure author E.L. James has less concerns over literary merit than sales. Fifty Shades serves as an ideal tale of marketing, right-place-right-time, and tenacity.
From a timing perspective, the world was ready for good erotic fiction, and though I’m not an advocate for her writing style, James has an avid fan base. In a recent interview with Time, James commented on her Executive Producer credit, and her stewardship of the Fifty Shades transition to the big screen. Her passion for her work shines through, and it’s clear she has a vision that she’s following through with. Few first time authors can say the same. Continue Reading…
I recently had an opportunity to sit down (virtually) with Kelly Simmons, self-published author of The Wives of Billie’s Mountain. OK, full disclosure, Kelly graduated from the MFA program at Queens with me, and we shared a few classes, so I already knew her quality as a writer.
Kelly is no stranger to the publishing industry, having worked throughout the late 80’s and early 90’s for a packaging and publishing operation, Falcon Press, which was eventually sold to Globe Pequot. I have a theory about corporations – eventually everything will be sold to a subsidiary and either Disney or Microsoft will own everything. It’s no secret that I’ve been critical of self-publishing for the simple fact that it’s relatively easy for anyone to put anything out, which creates such a staggering amount of crap content that the average consumer has trouble weeding out good work, like Billie’s Mountain, from bland writing, like Aunt Gertrude’s expose on her secret love affair with the mailman in 1967. My opinion on self-publishing has undergone a transition over the past year, and I wanted to speak to Kelly about her experience, and her thoughts on the industry.
Your Book, Wives of Billie’s Mountain, was self-published on Amazon in April of this year. At what point in the writing project did you consider self-publishing?
Kelly: I had no interest in self-publishing and never set out with that in mind. When I finished Wives of Billie’s Mountain I started looking for an agent. Three different agents requested the manuscript for months at a time. One agent requested rewrites, which I did, and I also had three publishers who had it for several months. I waited for over two years with my book in limbo, and was told ultimately each time that they liked the book, but they just didn’t think there was much interest in Mormons. It didn’t matter how many times I told them about Big Love or any other Mormon titles. It’s frustrating. I’ve received great reviews but wasn’t able to get a foothold. Continue Reading…
It’s no surprise that the publishing industry is changing; pretty much everyone from the mailman to Aunt Gertrude can sense that bookstores aren’t what they were a decade ago. But what is the industry changing into? A butterfly, or a new form of ravenous beast? The summer’s greatest blockbuster for anyone following the industry was the feud between Amazon and Hachette Books, and just like most summer blockbusters, the show was filled with overproduced spectacle but ended in a fizzle. The behind-closed-doors resolution will impact the industry for years, and we may never know the specifics. Doubtless neither party walked away elated.
I’m a terrible prognosticator; I believed the iPhone would fail, that Avengers would bomb at the box office, and Twilight would never be made into a movie. So if I predict that publishing will be usurped by the prescription drug industry, I’ll understand if you’re cautiously doubtful. Think about it: television ads for new books, complete with fast-spoken warnings! Announcers booming: “Bored with life? Looking for excitement? The latest John Grisham is exactly what you need, ask your bookseller for details! Side effects include: sleepless nights, plot confusion, and subjective exposition. Be sure to read in a well-lit environment, not everyone who reads John Grisham is a fan, paper cuts can be hazardous, always seek the advice of a bookseller before reading a John Grisham. Glaco-Driscoll takes no responsibility for any adverse reaction to John Grisham. Buy your copy today!”
Eh, I could be wrong. Continue Reading…
Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town changed my life. Before I read it, I was a short Vietnamese woman with a lisp. OK, perhaps I exaggerated. Still, if you’re even remotely interested in creative writing, you owe it to yourself to read it. Were I emperor, I’d make it law that no author could receive a rejection without a copy of Triggering Town, and also a year’s supply of bacon. Perhaps this is why I am not emperor… I read Triggering Town as part of my MFA curriculum, and oddly enough there was a point of realization: the one piece of advice Hugo wrote which stuck with me the longest was a comment on teachers. Teachers teach how to write like them, they’re essentially implying the student should embody what they are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – Liz Strout taught at Queens and I’d give popular parts of my anatomy to write half as well as she does. Still, the impact of an MFA program on a writer’s style cannot be overstated. After graduation, it was a year before I had anything published. During that time, I was writing an enormous amount of bad fiction. Luckily my MFA taught me to recognize my own inadequacies. I had to un-learn some of what I was taught.
This advice made me realize something I’d been fomenting over as a reader for Carve. An awful lot of MFA student fiction sounds the same. The tone is the same, usually dismally emotionally repressed with flowery prose. I’ve gotten so that I can spot a currently enrolled MFA student most of the time (let’s face it, there are exceptions to every rule). When I decided to write this topic up, I went through a few drafts that read just as bad as the fiction I was bashing. I think what it comes down to is a matter of teaching. Most fiction writers are taught to write what we know, a mantra codified in nearly every fiction class since the first stories were scrawled on cave walls with bat guano. If writers only wrote what they knew, the world would be filled with crappy stories about breakups and parking tickets. Granted, some really fantastic stories are written by authors who’ve had amazing life experiences, but for the majority of mortals, daily excitement is limited to the Barista spelling our name right when they scrawl on the coffee cup. I think the lesson should be: write what the limit of your imagination compels you to see. Otherwise it puts a whole new spin on Fight Club, and I’d like to think Chuck Palahniuk is not batshit crazy.
MFA fiction often reads like an over-produced song sounds. The story strikes very specific beats, usually with an overly dramatic opening in mid-conversation. I’ve often rallied against this, and I’ll say it again: I’m likely to reject any story that starts with a conversation because I think it does a disservice to the reader. Sure, there are examples where it’s worked, but there are far more examples where it doesn’t. You start mid-conversation, and you have to immediately back up and fill the reader in to what’s going on. Don’t do that.
MFA fiction themes tend to be centered around relationships, death, death and relationships, student problems, or some utterly bizarre and outlandish concept that no modern reader has been born who could possibly appreciate your story. These kind of stories can still work, but they need to be fresh and they almost never are. Think of the deluge of vampire fiction – nobody wants to read about sexy vampires anymore, and the re-imagined dark prince has also been done to death. Your bad breakup story, or your best friend killed story, they’ve also been done to death. If you’re going to write about an emotionally heavy topic, remember the simplest thing: the reader has no stake in your characters and won’t care unless you make them care. Your teary-eyed re-telling how your best friend was clipped by a train when you were eight is likely not going to be the celebrated fiction you think it is. I’m sorry you had such a traumatic childhood, but you really do need to distance yourself from the story before you can write about it well enough to make a reader want to stick with you. Most emotional stories simply don’t earn their ending, doubly so if it’s an abrupt ending. Take the time to make the reader care. If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s earlier works, they’re good stories because he makes us care about the characters before anything terrible happens to them.
MFA fiction tends to over-weigh prose with back story. I’m a huge advocate for back story, but mostly for the writer’s sake. If you know every detail about your character from their favorite ice-cream to the reason they hate watching reality TV, you’re doing something right. If you include all those details in your story, you’re missing the point. Detailed characters and plots are set dressing to the story. If you know your character is manic about getting a job, you don’t need to tell the reader. Write manic into your story and the context will be enough. Pair down your prose and cut the back story to a few well-placed lines. I honestly think this is a trend in modern times. Some of my favorite stories from the mid-nineteenth century were terribly overwritten. Modern readers will rarely stick with a story that lingers too long.
And lastly, I leave you with this tidbit: as a writer, the best advice we can give other writers is honesty. If your writer buddy reads your work and levies nothing but praise, they’re probably going to hit you up for a loan in the near future because nobody’s draft work is that good. If I critique a story for a stranger or a friend, I’m apt to tell you exactly how I feel – often how bad it is. I’ll also tell you what I think works, but it’s the broken parts we dwell on. As a writer, you can’t fixate on bad criticism. If your aunt Gertrude simply says your story sucks, you need to ask yourself why. If a reader’s reaction is honest, it can never be wrong.
I spoke at length about critiquing recently, and I’d like to expound on some of the concepts I discussed. A good writer embraces the critique, which is not the same as accepting every opinion levied against your work. A critique is both an opinion and a fact; the opinion is what the reader feels when they read your work, and the fact is that their feelings are valid. Never apologize for feeling a certain way, and if a reader feels strongly regarding your work you should consider their criticism. Providing they can articulate why they felt the way they did. Nothing’s worse than “this sucks” without any clarification on why.
I’ve been fairly vocal about my dislike for Dan Brown. I think he’s a terrible writer. At the same time, he’s widely read (or was, at least), because readers found something compelling about his work. I could be a bitter egocentric person, convinced of my own superiority, and judge Dan Brown to be inferior and unworthy of my attention. While entertaining, that doesn’t help me become a better writer. Rather, I re-read DaVinci Code several times to fully identify what didn’t work (for me) and what did. That’s the key – identifying what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. DaVinci Code is easy to critique because, while the story is interesting, the characters and structure are rather terrible. The first thing I identified was Brown’s inability to fully realize his characters. In DaVinci Coded, nearly all of the characters become interchangeable trans-gender speakers. Take away dialogue tags, and it doesn’t matter who’s speaking because everyone sounds the same. That’s something I don’t want in my writing. I could keep picking apart the novel, but it’s just as important to recognize what works, and what makes the story compelling. The DaVinci Code is a wonderful mystery, complete with the crucial revelations at chapter conclusions which compel the reader to want more. It’s the mystery we want answered, not the characters. At the story’s conclusion, that same mystery resonates. Brown struck a chord between a believable mystery interwoven with historical fact and enough wonder to make readers question faith. That’s what sold DaVinci Code in droves, and that’s what Brown has infused in his other novels.
A good critique can identify your strengths as well as your weaknesses. When I write a critique, I try to be cognizant of what works for me and write a paragraph or two about it. It’s easy to identify what’s broken and what doesn’t work. Most readers will quickly spot plot holes, character flaws, spelling and grammar mistakes. While useful, that doesn’t paint a true picture of how a given story makes the reader feel, and as writers that’s crucial to understanding what works in your writing.
Think of your favorite novel, something you’ve identified as a great work of fiction. Challenge yourself to re-read that work and find a crucial flaw as well as the essence of what makes it a compelling read.
Writing well requires mastering the fine art of critiquing and being critiqued. That means letting your aunt Gertrude read your work, and sitting through her long-winded soliloquy about why your protagonist should be more like your uncle and less like you. Criticism can bite, but it’s up to the writer to understand not only valid criticism, but to understand how to shape your work into a coherent and compelling story.
Often when we write, we start with a brilliant idea which gets muddled somewhere between the brain and the word processor at our fingertips. We re-read what we wrote yesterday and realize that the brilliant Shiraz-fueled writing session last night actually churned out five pages of mindless drivel focused on the protagonists need to find a clean bathroom. Nobody wants to read that. You need to know how to kill your darlings when required; knowing when and how doesn’t come easy. Before you ask, no I’m not talking about the Daniel Radcliffe movie, I’m referring to what Richard Hugo talked about in The Triggering Town, which should be required reading for anyone serious about writing.
Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with accepting rejection. When you write, you’re capturing ideas and shaping words to record the imagery and emotion you wish to convey. That kind of magic requires practice and skill and a lot of work. 10,000 hours or so of work, in fact. Accepting criticism is a developed skill, right along with critiquing someone else’s work. You can learn an awful lot by recognizing what’s wrong with someone else’s story. As a reader for Carve magazine, I end up reading through a few dozen short stories a month. Most are fairly underdeveloped, but the nugget of inspiration is visible. A few are finely tuned, but underachieve a clear focus. When the writing works, when the writer fully engages the reader, the words fall away and only the story remains.
To fully understand the editing process, start by reading. A lot. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read good and bad fiction, read genre, read romance even though you may hate it (“he thrust his manhood into her quivering mound of love pudding…”). Aside from getting enjoyment out of it, you’ll start to recognize the pattern published writer’s use in their work, you’ll start to recognize how stories are shaped and how scenes lead together in a long chain of narration that builds a compelling picture which fully engages the reader. I once critiqued the novel of a friend where nearly everything was working, but the single greatest flaw was the final quarter of the manuscript – the protagonist had a sudden and jarring revelation when there should’ve been seeds of inspiration laced throughout the novel. A single long flashback revealed a compelling past story which should’ve been at the front of the novel. Such things aren’t easy for the writer to notice, especially not in an early draft. The story can be good and still end up unbalanced.
Critiquing lets you practice the skills you’ll need to edit your own work. When you sit down with someone’s story, read through it once and let the surface story sink in a bit. You may recognize flaws early on, and you will want to mark them, but don’t just yet. Don’t distract yourself from the first reading. When finished, go back and identify the easy fixes – misused and misspelled words, grammar and punctuation issues, and also focus on the story itself. Is the imagery compelling? Are the characters clear? Is this the kind of story that sticks with you long after you’ve read it? Identifying what works in a good story is just as important as identifying what doesn’t. I like to write a paragraph or two in my critiques where I explain what I think the story is about. This accomplishes two things: for the writer, it lets them know if their intent was achieved. Just because we wanted to write a story about a man struggling with infidelity, we may have laced so much metaphor we ended up writing a story about a man who wants ice cream to melt in his mouth and any intended sexual innuendo may be lost on the reader. You can get mad at the reader and claim they just didn’t ‘get it’, and you could be right. But if ten readers give you the same general criticism, chances are nobody gets the story but you. And second, writing an explanation of the story helps identify exactly what worked, which you can use in your own writing.
I’ve been a reader for Carve magazine for a few months now, and I’ve read hundreds of stories in a short span. Some were truly great! Most weren’t. For the ones in between, it only takes a bit of editing and attention to detail. If you’ve spent the time to craft your short fiction, you really should be spending the time to edit. That means if you finish the story the night before the contest or submission deadline, you’re going to need a good outside editor who can work quickly. You cannot edit yourself in 24 hours.
After reading your story dozens of times, focusing on character and narration and powerful dialogue, you’re going to miss things. You’re no longer looking at your work with an editorial slant. You’re going to miss words that are spelled correctly, but are the incorrect words to use, or you’ll miss too many spaces, a comma where there shouldn’t be one, or even worse, you’ll transpose characters in dialogue. Reading over these elements after having just completed your story is like correcting your taxes. Everything looks great from a few feet away. You’ve read and reworked it so much you no longer notice the little things. It’s fine when, on page 3, John says, “My breasts are sagging” because you’ve read it so many times you automatically insert Jill. It takes an extremely rare and talented editor to switch from writing-mode to editing-mode.
To cope, you need to plan your writing a bit better. If that writing contest is in thirty days, give yourself no more than twenty to finish your story, and eight to send it out for friends to read, comment, and edit. Realistically I don’t think anybody should be writing to target a given contest. I think it’s highly likely you’ll fail. It’s far better if you have something recently completed that you can just quick-edit and submit. And if you’re writing to hit a submission deadline, likewise give yourself time. Better to skip the contest or submission altogether and try next year. You’re less likely to make mistakes.
Someone once told me that stories need to simmer. You should write them, then put them away and work on something else. Come back to that first story after you’ve given yourself enough time apart so that it feels fresh. Read it like it’s the first time you’ve ever read it, and your edits may surprise you. As an author, you clearly know what you want when you’re writing, but as a reader it’s too often we have no idea what the writer was trying to say. Those are the kinds of things you catch in a good editing session.
Now that we’ve gotten the structure out of the way, let’s talk about the other things. The “given” recommendations that get re-printed everywhere, but nobody reads them. I’ll try to keep this entertaining: