October 23, 2016

Book Review : Does This Mean You'll See Me Naked by Robert Webster

With Halloween just around the corner, there's no better time to dive into something a little dark. 

I just finished Does This Mean You'll See Me Naked?: Field Notes from a Funeral Director by Robert Webster. I found it to be an interesting read. Quick and easy. I can't say I would recommend it for everyone but if you don't recoil at the thought of reading a number of random anecdotes about dead bodies and a bit about the history of the Death Industry, you just might like it. 

My only qualm with the book would be the use of private information concerning his prior "cases" and either issues he faced (such as the conundrum posed by transporting, embalming, and burying a 660lb woman) or unusual requests (like being buried in the front seat of a truck), the fact of the matter is that these were actual people. Though they're (obviously) dead and gone, their family and friends almost certainly are not, so I found myself conflicted throughout the early chapters of the book. Though it has a generally appropriate mood, the book occasionally veers off into dark humor. Given the sensitive subject matter, some of it was actually funny, but some of it fell flat which meant it came off as being a bit tacky. It was mostly a matter of detail and word choice, such as including the fact that he held the obese woman's corpse open with duct tape and, while locating the femoral artery, was "nearly up to (his) elbow in fatty tissue". This paints quite a vivid picture for the reader. Unfortunately, it paints the same crude image for the deceased's family who chose to use his funeral home.

On the flip side, it offered a bit of insight into everyday problems and solutions those in the Death Industry face (in both the past and present). I suppose when processing dead bodies is your day job, a sense of reverence for the dead probably fades through the years. This may account for the handful of crass comments sprinkled throughout the earlier chapters (which I should note, were mildly annoying but not enough to make me put it down). 

The middle of the book took a weird turn into the history of the Death Industry which I felt was a bit awkwardly placed. Some of it, such as the history of embalming, I already knew (don't ask me why) but a fair amount was new to me. Also, I appreciated that there was a decent amount of material addressing the practical application of insiders' knowledge concerning planning funerals as well as the unnecessary bells and whistles they'll inevitably try to sell you on. Let's be honest ... all you really need is a big wooden box. Unless you plan on being cremated, in which case, all you need is a little wooden box. 
Overall, I'm glad I read it. I feel like I learned a thing or two. It moved along at a surprisingly quick pace so I found it to be generally enjoyable, and what I would consider some light reading material before bed. Definitely not for squeamish readers but if you've ever found yourself wondering about death, or mortuary science, it might be worth a read.   

September 26, 2016

Reading Recommendations: 3 Awesome Need to Read Short Stories

I've never done a post like this before, but I've been considering it for a while. A few months ago I ran across a blog that was literally just excerpts from books. I'm not sure that's entirely legal but I found the concept to be fascinating. The curator compiled hundreds of posts with just pieces of stories that resonated with him.

It's very late on a Sunday night and as I type this, I'm sitting in the dark staring at my screen, feeling awkwardly meta as I contemplate how deeply the "this resonated with me" blog actually resonated with me. I really wish that I had taken down the name or bookmarked it or followed it, but alas, I'm an idiot.

Since I've been working on short stories and flash fiction lately, I've been reading more of them than I ever have before. I debated on writing a review for them but it just feels silly for something so short. Instead, I thought I might keep a running list with links to stories that resonate with me. Short Fiction and Microfiction that I find interesting, inspiring, thought provoking or, in some small way, worth reading.

Here's a few that not only caught my eye, but stayed with me all week -

Immersion by Daniella Levy

Published in The Jewish Literary Journal 
I'm not Jewish but I've always taken the advice to "read wide and deep" to heart. A basic understanding of the Jewish faith and culture would help put this piece into context but I think this story stands well enough on its own. At least, I found it to be very approachable. The story follows a young woman and her soul searching as she undergoes a Mikveh (a religious ritual reserved for married women).

No Vacancies: Reality TV Dumpster Fires and Haunted DVDs by Max Booth III 

Published with Gamut - (For the record, I LOVE the artwork on this site.)
I think the voice is what captured my attention the most. It's a bit cynical, maybe even existential. This piece uses some more advanced structural techniques that I wouldn't recommend to beginners but it's clear that Booth knows what he's doing. I liked it. I believe it's a CNF  piece (Creative Non-Fiction). If you're a fan of Chuck Palahniuk, take a moment to read this.

The Masque of Red Death by Edgar Allen Poe

Poe needs no introduction. The Masque of Red Death is certainly one of his best known pieces. It's not exactly a hidden gem, but I couldn't resist adding it to the list. Contemporary American culture places such a taboo on death, I always appreciate artists that push it back into the public eye. The fact is, we're all mortal and at some point we're all going to die. Chances are, you've heard of the story before (it's even the costume Erik wears to the masquerade in Phantom of the Opera) so I'm probably not ruining much when I say it can summed up in five words -- Death comes for us all. Definitely worth a read if you've never taken the time before. 

September 8, 2016

10 Things to Consider Before Submitting Flash Fiction

To be clear, Flash Fiction is a Short Story, only smaller. The word count hovers between 500 words to 1,500 words (though few Literary Magazines accept Flash Fiction over 1000 words).

I took a couple weeks to browse through what felt like hundreds of Literary magazines and online journals hunting for open (year round) Flash Fiction submissions (without entrance fees). There are so many to choose from, but they're all looking for something specific. If you plan on submitting, make sure you read their guidelines ... and their legals rights! Seriously, read the fine print! Giving away first printing rights is good (how else would they print it), but signing the piece over entirely, not so much.

So ... after reading hundreds of articles on it over the last few weeks (Okay, you got me. Dozens.) I thought I'd pull it all together in one place. A mish-mash list of tips, tricks, and points to consider. So here's what to keep in mind if you're looking to write Flash Fiction (and do it well).

  1. Good Flash Fiction is short but it is still a story. Not a vignette. Not a blurb. Not a summary. Not a chapter. It is a piece of short fiction. It has a beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Flash Fiction, by necessity, cannot delve too heavily into complex subplots or backstory. Don't overdo it. In the words of Donald Draper, "Make it simple but significant."
  3. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Cut down the wasted phrases and unnecessary words. Chuck 'em. Or save them for another story. It doesn't matter, as long as the story you're working on is succinct and concise. 
  4. Use your voice. In an effort to condense, I stripped a story down to the bare bones, but when I reread it, it sounded bland and decidedly not like me. Obviously Flash doesn't give you the same space to play with words that a novel will but that doesn't mean it can't sound like you. In fact, it should. A strong voice is often sought by the mags and it makes your piece stand out in the pile. Cut down the words but don't overdo it or the text will lose any semblance of poetry it had in earlier drafts. 
  5. Watch your content. Being bold does not mean being gratuitous with sex, violence, coarse language, incest, rape, abuse against women, or other objectionable content. Though you might have some luck finding a really amazing fringe journal like Trigger Warnings (dedicated to horror, the dark, and macabre), most journals and magazines are looking for pieces open to a general audience. So keep it light and clean. Bummer, I know. 
  6. Be bold. Be daring. (Avoid saturated tropes on the market- most notably Young Adult Paranormal Romance... vampires, werewolves, zombies etc.) Be different, but for the love of all that is good, make sure it fits with what the magazine or journal is looking to publish. Not sure what that is? A great place to start is cracking open an old issue and reading what they're all about. In fact, some even require you to purchase an old issue in order to submit. Also, go to their website and check out the What We're Looking For or the FAQ's (if they have one). 
  7. Experimental Lit has a time and place. If that's your cup of tea, more power to you but make sure the magazines or journals have similar tastes... especially if your form would require nontraditional formatting. 
  8. Get an Alpha & Beta reader. More seasoned writers can get away without critiques (maybe) but for beginners I'd recommend joining a critique site. My personal favorite is Scribophile. (No, they don't pay me to say that. I just really love the site and the community there.) I got seven critiques on the last Flash Fiction piece I posted. That means I had seven separate people point out the strengths and flaws which is a tremendous help during the next draft. 
  9. Reread your piece. Don't embarrass yourself (and every English teacher you've ever had). It'd be a shame to be rejected for a few typos. Proofread before you submit. 
  10. Don't overthink it. Have fun. It's just a story. The worst that can happen is that it gets rejected. You'll sigh (maybe cry a little), take a deep breath, and move on. It's not the end of the world so don't treat it like it is. Write. Edit. Submit. Repeat. 

August 9, 2016

Conquering Fear and Overcoming Writer's Doubt

You're not alone.
As writers, doubt is difficult to escape. It follows us around like a shadow. It can be accompanied with depression, self-deprecation and any number of other issues which makes it all the more difficult to shake.

You wrote something yesterday, last week, maybe a few years ago. As you read through it you can't help but wonder - what is this crap? Or ew ... where did this come from? Maybe you're prepping to send out your manuscript to beta readers, to submit it for critiques, or maybe even send it to a publisher. But ... is it ready yet? You've already revised it a thousand times but maybe just one more version before it's really ready. If this sounds familiar, you've got writer's doubt.

Don't worry, we've all been there. In fact, I'm not so sure we'll ever shake it completely but we can take a huge step towards casting a light on these shadowy emotions and being prepared for when they try to return.

There is no cure for doubt. No miracle pill or workshop will make it go away. Only you can do it and, unfortunately, overcoming these doubts is just a temporary fix. If you keep writing, the doubt will creep back in (eventually). Sorry. That's just reality.

You might be staring at the heavens screaming Ahh! Why me? The answer is simple - because you're human... because you're an artist and that's part of the process. It's difficult to be vulnerable and honestly, short of direct mind-reading, what's less personal than letting someone (read your stories and) take a walk through your thoughts? To meet the characters and see the scenarios and settings you've created? Really, it's intense and learning to let go and take a bit of criticism is tough stuff.

It helps to remember that whatever it is you're writing at the moment doesn't have to be absolutely perfect. Of course, it shouldn't be riddled with grammatical errors or burden the reader with a painfully predictable plot, but it doesn't have to be 100% perfect either. This is a craft where we're all learning as we go. So this project might not be your best work ever but as long as you can make it the best that you can with the talent and skills you currently possess, there's no shame in that.

Another thing that's good to keep in mind is that nobody can tell your story the way that you do which is to say that no matter what anyone tells you- you are a special little snowflake.

Someone once said that criticism is how you know you're onto something special, that you're writing something that matters. If it didn't matter to the person criticizing it, they'd let it pass by without commenting. If they care enough to log into Amazon or Goodreads, then you've touched them in someway. Even if they reject your works, you've made them care enough to take the time to complain.

As long as you've put forth the best work that you can, don't doubt yourself.  Not everyone will love everything you do. That's just reality. It's bound to happen at some point and when it does, it means you might be on the right track. 

July 26, 2016

Developing Deeper Characters: Backstory

Every character walks a path that has two directions. While they move forward during the story (the character arc) it's important to remember to look back at the ground the character has already covered to get to that point. Everyone has a past, characters included. Their backstory or personal history gives readers a deeper sense that the character is complete, not just a stick figure going from one thing to the next.

Have you ever had those "ah-ha!" or "I didn't know that!" moments with your friends where you learn something about the way they were raised or something in their past? It's kind of like that. The character has a personality but his past is what has made him into the character he is at the time the story takes place. Another way to think of it is that the story being told doesn't begin at the prologue or the first chapter. For a more complex story it might begin years, even centuries prior. For most stories, the character's childhood is a good place to start.

Whether it's a terrible child hood, a traumatic event, a bad break up, it can be anything and it can make a difference in the way you (and your readers) view the character. When you give a character backstory, you create a life for them outside of the confines of the story being told. It makes it seem as if they exist independent of the story itself ... as if they are real, complex people and not flat fictional characters.

There are so many options to pull from but my personal favorite is exploring previous relationships.
If this is something you struggle with, you can start with the people that were closest to the character in his past or memorable life events. This usually means his parents, siblings, grandma, college roommates, former girlfriends, ex-wife, etc. Is the character still close to his parents? Does he get along with his father? His mother?

Many of my male characters are conflicted and struggle with maintaining a pretense of masculinity. I can give them effeminate reactions in the present story (screaming when he's scared, crying, failing to do something "manly" like change a tire, or successfully hunt deer), but I don't have to stop there. In order to give him a deeper sense of character, we can take it a step further and give him motivations tied to the present. Then, we can take it even further and create motivations for the present informed by experiences from the past? If you'd like, we could call this a dual motivation system. To take an example from my own works, Roger is effeminate because he's artsy in the present (motivation one) he's self conscious about it because his father was hypermasculine (motivation two). This instantly opens up a whole new world of possibilities as the reader is kept guessing which of these two motivations will win out as he faces a number of obstacles. It would be difficult to achieve this without backstory.

Suddenly, when the character steps out of his comfort zone and tries to defend his masculinity, we no longer run the risk having it feel like he is doing something out of character. If we know that he had a strained relationship with his father, we suddenly get to see a different side of the character... Yes, he's effeminate, but this suddenly gives depth to his struggles. He seeks male approval and it now appears that this has influenced his world view and planted the seeds of the insecurities he cultivates as an adult. And therein lies the genius of a multi-leveled motivational system (which is less complicated than it sounds).

Then there's romance...  Was she a heart breaker? Or did she always find herself being dumped on a whim? Did she ever come close to marriage? Or was she actually married at one point? (Maybe she has an ex-husband off in Idaho or Prague.) Is she bitter and cynical because of it? Or is she still a hopeless romantic?

If the character is guarded and takes a long time to warm up, the reader will want to know why. The reason should probably be that she has been burned in the past (or maybe her mother was burned and she witnessed it). Childhood trauma is another route that many writers like to exploit but I personally feel that it can easily veer into becoming repetitive and predictable.

A character's backstory can clarify their motivations in the present, give them a more distinct personality, make them easier to relate to, and just make them all around more intriguing. It's fine to have a character that is a "strong independent woman" but we should ask ourselves why is she like that? 

Not every detail of the backstory will end up in the final story (nor should it), but it will help you as a writer to know her motivations (who knows? It might come up later.) Of course, it's the writer's job to be judicious about what will remain but fleshing out a character's backstory is a great place to start if you're looking to develop deeper characters. So don't forget: it's not just about where the character is headed, it's important to also think about where they've already been. 

May 30, 2016

Ghostwriting: What it is and What it isn't

For the last few months, I have been plugging away, working as a ghostwriter. I wish I could be more specific. I'd have to look at those Terms of Agreement more closely to be certain, but I'm pretty sure the contracts made me promise my soul and first born child if I give away too many details. And while there aren't blood rituals in a dank basement with broody men in hooded robes (yet), there are legal contracts which makes the whole thing pretty darn official.

What it is: 

Ghostwriting is when someone (like myself) is hired to help another writer (like my clients) put words on the page. They provide the outline, I provide the prose and (drastically) increase the word count.

What it isn't: 

A bunch of people (by which I basically mean my family) has asked me the same few questions at least a dozen times.They're usually all a variation or combination of the following.

"Is that legal?"

Yes, it is. There's a contract and everything. It's not "shady" or "illegal", going into the job, the ghostwriter is fully aware that they will not publicly receive credit for the end product. Their work hasn't been stolen from them, (for a fee) it has been signed over to the author. Really, there's no hard feelings. I promise. 

"So you do the all of the work and the client gets all of the credit." 

That really depends on the arrangement made with the client. Some clients give an honorable mention in the Author's Note page. You've probably seen dozens of these without even realizing it. It might look something like this: Thanks to everyone who made this book possible. My husband who read countless drafts, my family and friends who have supported me along the way. Special thanks to my editor and [GHOSTWRITER] Jane Doe. I couldn't have done it without you!  
Some clients offer co-authorship (meaning the ghostwriter's name ends up on the cover) and sometimes a portion of the royalties. This is probably one of the best options for those clients who have an awesome idea burning in their brain but lack the time and energy (or maybe the technical skills) to bring it to the page. It's also a great option for a client with little startup cash to invest in the project. The catch here is that the ghostwriter's pay is largely dependent on the success of the book (and a client with little or no startup funds probably won't be investing a whole lot in advertising). That also means the ghostwriter better produce the best book they possibly can if they want to be paid something more substantial than exposure and the cost of a single meal. 

"Is this new?"

Probably not.With the self-publishing and electronic market, it might be more common now but it's probably been around forever. Ever heard of something written by a "Pseudo" author (for example, Pseudo-Dionysius) ... that means it was written by somebody other than Dionysius. People used to publish under whatever name they thought would lend them credibility and (until historians examine the texts more closely and declare otherwise) for thousands of years it's worked. It's a little different in that Dionysius probably didn't commission the work and slap his name on it, the actual authors usually just stole the guys' names. But the same basic idea of someone else getting public "credit" upholds.   

In the modern era, most authors don't go around bragging to their readers that they hired a ghostwriter. (Published authors don't really go around talking about their editors either but that doesn't mean they don't have one or two or five.)

"Isn't that 'cheating'?" 

It's not a contest and the answer is no. Most books are not made by one person alone. While the author absolutely deserves our respect, it often takes a team to make the final product that ends up on your coffee table or in your bookshelves. Chances are, you've read more than one book that's been either written or supplemented by a ghostwriter. It's probably a lot more common than you'd think.

The question still remains, is it "cheating" for the client to hire a bit of extra help. I guess it depends on the way you look at it. When a client hires a ghostwriter, they usually send them an outline which at very least covers the plot. The client may even oversee the entire process, providing extensive background information on each character and theme or some other kind of notes and research for the ghostwriter to use. In that case, it mostly comes down to plug and chug. The ghostwriter sits and puts words on the page, creating a first draft according to the desires of the client.

Others might give more leeway for the ghostwriter, offering a chapter by chapter outline and specific details concerning a few plot arcs but leaving it up to the judgement of the ghostwriter to make some changes, flesh out some subplots, add some secondary characters etc. This takes more time for the ghostwriter but it also allows them the freedom to feel like it is a genuine collaboration instead of a more mechanical process.

Then there's a whole other group of frazzled clients with deadlines they won't be able meet. They might hire a ghostwriter to complete a whole first draft or the last half of their book but plan on rewriting it in their own style when you finish. It really all depends on the arrangements made between the client and ghostwriter.

"I read somewhere that 50 cents per word is the 'going rate'. Is that true?" 

I recently spoke with another writer on this subject. While she is now a full time author, she started out as a ghostwriter (like many writers). While I'm relatively new to ghostwriting, I have been freelancing since 2014 and I've been keeping an eye on the rates being offered by clients. We were both baffled that people are still being told that 50 cents/word is in any way "standard", and even more so, that it is allegedly the "low" number. 

I can't speak for the wages being paid to professional full time ghostwriters, with unions, in the big publishing companies, but the rest of us (freelance ghostwriters working in the indie fiction market) are lucky to get 1 cent/word. That would be $500 for a 50k word book (before taxes). Many clients offer lower rates but most hover around 0.5 - 1 cent. Really, you would be lucky to find someone willing to pay 2 cents/word. I can almost guarantee you that you will not make over 10 cents/word. It would be too costly for the client and they'll still need to hire an editor / proofreader, commission cover art, ebook formatting, advertisement ... it doesn't stop with the ghostwriter so you can't expect the client to figure out the cost of living in your area and work around that. It's just not going to happen.  

The reality is that ghostwriting (fiction) is not a profitable market. Unless you are lucky enough to land a very high profile client (for instance, writing an autobiography for a presidential candidate), it really isn't a great source of income. Like everything in writing, it is subject to how much you are capable of producing. If you're one of those rare gems that can pump out 90k a week, you could land a handful of clients at all times and get by. If you top off at 2k a week, you might want to reconsider.

For many of us, it's a learning experience as we work towards getting our own writing out on the market and published under our name. So while I don't anticipate making a killing, I get paid to write fiction. How cool is that? 

January 28, 2016

5 Ways to Keep Your Writing Moving Forward When You Hit a Brick Wall

1. Outline - or use the Snowflake Method

Chances are, there's something wrong with the structure. Can't figure out what it is that's off? Go back to your outline. Don't have an outline because you like to pants? Simple - write out a small summary of each chapter until you effectively have an outline on hand.

It's worth mentioning here that many writers and authors (myself included) find the Snow Flake Method to be spectacularly helpful. In case you don't know what it is and would like to learn more, here's a handy little link.

2. Research

How would time travel work? Don't ask me. I don't do Sci-Fi. But I do happen to know of a magical thing called the internet which is filled with answers to every question you have ever and will ever have. If you're struggling to move forward in your writing, there's a strong possibility that it is because you need to conduct more research first. I realized this when I was circling the drain around the issue of having one of my MC's dispose of a dead body in 1954. My guy's not a genius so I knew I couldn't have him do anything fancy like dissolving it in acid and he lives in the city so dropping the body off in the abandoned woods was a no-go as well. I felt the obvious (Law and Order) go-to was to toss the body in a garbage bag in the dumpster behind the apartment building- only plastic garbage bags weren't available at this time and neither were dumpsters. My only option was to research methods of trash disposal and find a new direction to take the story.  

3. Take some time off and come back later

Okay. I'll admit it. This is actually my go-to step but there's a fine line between putting some distance between you and your writing and just procrastinating. Feel free to take some time off but if its been months since you've touched your writing ... you're probably just procrastinating. Your book won't write itself! That being said, it's perfectly natural and healthy to take some time off now and then. Let your brain work out all the problems you can't see at the moment. When you come back the mistakes and plot holes will be screaming out at you. But that's okay because now you've gained some perspective and you know what needs to be changed.   

4. Have a fresh pair of eyes look it over

If you're newer to writing this one is tough with a capital T. Seriously, it can be very difficult. It's like handing your newborn baby over to a stranger - a potentially filthy, germ-ridden, disease-bearing stranger. It's hard to be vulnerable and, honestly, what's more vulnerable than letting someone take a journey into your mind? Scared yet? Don't be. Getting feedback from others is a crucial part of the process. Even before your book ever makes it to the shelf (or Amazon if you're going the self-publishing or ebook route) it'll pass through the hands of alpha readers, beta readers, editors and proofreaders. 

In order to grow as a writer, you need feedback and having an honest reader help you spot the weaknesses in your writing now will pay off for you later. Does it hurt your pride? Yes. Absolutely. I've had pieces that I was convinced were brilliant only to find that everyone else saw a million flaws I couldn't. I've also had pieces I was close to just deleting forever only to discover others really connected with it. It's a mixed bag, really. You'll be both praised and criticized for things you didn't anticipate but above all, you'll gain a new understanding of both your work and other people's perception of it.

5. Read it through a different medium (kindle or print)

This is especially helpful later in the game. At the moment, I'm pushing my way through another draft of my novel and I'm amazed by how differently I'm relating to the text on Kindle (and in print) than on the computer screen. If you're more old fashion and use a typewriter or pen and paper to write, try typing it up or reading it out loud.

There's no reason to rush through your writing. Take it at whatever pace you need. Whatever you do - don't give up. Whether you come back a day later or a year later, don't be afraid to finish what you started.