Category Archives: Writing Life

NoNaNoWriMo

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When I first started participating in NaNoWriMo, I had unrealistic visions of participating every time. When camp NaNo branched into two, I was overjoyed. Three months to plow through novels—how great—just think of how much I’ll get done!

Not so much.

I’ve learned that NaNoWriMo has its uses, and for 2014, it doesn’t fit into my plan. Here’s why:

It’s a great tool for brainstorming. I spent all day yesterday at the Harvard Leadership Conference, learning about design thinking and how to implement it in coming up with innovative solutions. It was an intensive day of panel discussions and workshops, and I got a tremendous amount out of it. Basically, design thinking incorporates empathy as an element into resolving problems, and is followed by a layered brainstorming sessions where idea upon idea is sketched out—even to ridiculous, counterproductive ideas so that your mind is pushed down new paths. These new paths can offer solutions that may never come to mind if you try to solve the problem in a linear way. I realized NaNoWriMo has been my sandbox for design thinking.

As the final keynote ended (and amazing talk by former astronaut Ron Garan, accompanied by stunning footage he’s taken from space), I checked my email to see invitations to join up for Camp NaNo 2014 in April. I logged in, thought about it, and said no to this round of NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been an open rebel the past couple of years. My first, in November 2011, was the only time I crafting something new from beginning to end. It’s the novel I’m currently working on, Whiskey and Rue, set in Tombstone around the time of the gunfight at OK Corral. Then I alternated between Whiskey and Rue and Lords of Kur, a novel I originally began in 1994, but I used NaNo to drastically change it.

NaNo is fantastic for first drafts and reworking novels that have lain dormant for many years. Characters change, scenes that otherwise wouldn’t have appeared with careful planning suddenly stand out as key passages in the story, and it can be a lot of fun to just let the stream of consciousness flow. Both of these novels require careful planning and focused writing now, and I can’t let myself get distracted by trying to work on something new. I’m already behind on getting Whiskey and Rue to the editorial stage.

That isn’t to say I’m not sorry to miss out this year. I am. I enjoy the focused time to write with abandon. I’ll be there in spirit, on my walks to and from the T to get to work, thinking about the novels to come.

The (Wine-Fueled) Journey of a Book Cover

Oh, why have you abandoned me?

Oh, why have you abandoned me?

My Muse and I haven’t been on great terms for the past few weeks. With the release of the Shadows of a Fading World anthology and the novelette Captured Possessions, I foundered, even though the third novel is well underway. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to resurface from this artistic void and finish the story. Maybe it was time to move on to something else? I wiled away the hours playing Oblivion and thought about working on other stories. As my husband and mom both pointed out, even Hemingway took a break from time to time. After all, I work full-time, am involved in a number of volunteer activities, and am running the PR for my own imprint. Finally, the characters of the third novel came back to me, even stronger than before.

In recent weeks, I’ve appeared on Wendy Van Camp’s No Wasted Ink blog, and have become hooked on searching for my family tree on Ancestry.com. What began as a trip to the town where my great-grandmother grew up has sprouted into a new novel, and while I’m still in early stages of research, it’s brought me a lot closer to my family history—something I didn’t pay much attention to before.

To be fair to the Muse of Words, in order to release Captured Possessions, I had to come up with a cover, so the Muse of Graphic Design had to take center stage for a while. I had long envisioned a certain image as I worked on the story: Eyes of flame looming in the clouds above a dark sea—either becalmed before or after a storm. I was so certain of this image that I bought the images from a stock photo site. However, when I got around to working with them in PhotoShop, the cover looked nowhere near as good as I had hoped.

What followed was a lot of silly mayhem. I tested and bought numerous images—some were ridiculous but I couldn’t resist trying them out. Then a new vision struck: at first, I saw a close-up of a galleon’s rigging, the words emblazoned around it. I found several excellent images of galleons from the time of Spain’s war with England. Just as I was about to give up (it being after 1:00 a.m. and there was enough pinot noir to knock out a sailor)—the perfect image appeared. It spoke to the lead character and how alone she felt throughout the journey north to England, as well as showing the abandonment of the ship she was on after it was severely damaged after an explosion from a nearby ship within the armada itself.

Here’s the story of how I got there:

If you design book covers, what’s your process like? How drastically different are the covers that come to mind, or do you stick with one image and see it through no matter what? Do you share your ideas out on social media channels to gauge interest (or have contests to help decide), or do you rely on your inner circle of people who know your writing best? Which book covers have you found to be the most striking, and why?

Wall of Spam

Photo credit: freezelight via flickr

Photo credit: freezelight via flickr

One of my favorite Facebook groups for authors recently announced a culling of its population. Its numbers swelled into the thousands, there were problems with people who used the group just to spam the newsfeed, and there were many who never participated. The announcement sparked a connection to an article I read on Hubspot about gray mail—things you sign up for but then pay no attention to. How much email do you get from retailers, newsletters you signed up for but have had no time to read, or digests of groups you belong to on LinkedIn, Google+, etc.?

Periodically, I go into my own culling phases. I unsubscribe from a bunch of emails or social media notifications. But I’ve rarely touched my list of Facebook groups. I decided to take a look and see what I was missing out on. It was a lesson in marketing and engagement.

Several groups stated noble missions: critique groups, working groups to talk about best practices in writing, formatting, and marketing—yet—there was none of it on the group’s very busy page. It was one ad after another: Free for today!, some proclaimed. Buy this, buy this, buy this! It was an endless stream. And what was most remarkable about them? Not a single like or comment. Nada. Zip. Zero. And sadly, often the accompanying imagery was amateurish, the ads pepped with typos. It’s the kind of thing that gives the self-righteous types who condemn self-publishing all the fodder they need to bolster their argument. It’s just spam and go. How effective is this sales technique? Not very, I guess.

Thought leaders in the indie author movement offer a range of best practices, advising against filling your social media channels with self-promoting spam. Soft marketing is more successful. Offer thoughtful content that supports what you do. If you write historical fiction, then talk about why certain people or periods of time inspired you, or how you find reliable research, and so on. Promotions should be at a minimum. In the Facebook groups I like best, there is either no promotion whatsoever, or it’s kept restricted to specific threads. The controlled invitations to announce new works or sales actually generate conversation, because the group is regularly engaged in discussions and relationships have been formed. Still, the spikes in sales are small. Guest posts, however, have been more successful, and that too is about building relationships.

There are plenty of indie authors out there who excel at offering intriguing content: sharing their success stories, their inspiration, their experience in transitioning from traditional publishing to indie. Establishing a platform takes time and a lot of effort, and has to be carefully balanced with actually writing. Too often I hear writers lament the lack of time, yet their Twitter feed is loaded with pleas to buy their book.

Take a step back and see who does this well: Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright do the awesome Self-Publishing Podcast every Thursday. Read the blogs of Chuck Wendig (and if you really want to delve in, buckle yourself in and read Chuck’s NSFW post on the erreruption of the self-pub slush pile. It’s one of the best descriptions of the market today, but it’s a curse-filled rant. You’ve been warned.), J.A. Konrath, and anyone else who fits the bill of content over promotion. According to the Economist, the average American sees more than 3,000 ads per day. It’s a tsunami out there. Innovation with a mind to establishing connections is the key to success, but again, this has to be done thoughtfully, and this digital age, the tactics change all the time. Using the social space should be just that: being social.

Compelled by Pen and Paper: A Tribute to My Brother

Me and Matthew, circa 1993, in Worcester, MA

It began in elementary school. Stuck in the classroom for recess on a rainy day, I collected a pile of paper, both lined and plain, and stapled it to create my first book. I wrote and illustrated a story from cover to cover. I don’t remember what it was about, but I always indulged in the dark side. I loved ghost stories, and the Count on Sesame Street was a likely point of origin for my fascination with vampires. My second-grade teacher was not so appreciative. I was told my book was a waste of paper. So much for encouraging creativity. That was in 1977.

Since then, stories have ebbed and flowed continuously—I never stopped creating my little stapled books in elementary school. I eventually switched to the blue nooks given out for tests. I ran out of pages as my inspiration grew—I moved on to bound journals with decorative covers and thick spiral notebooks. By high school, I was immersed in fantasy trilogies such as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, the Dragonlance series, and Lord of the Rings. A longtime fan of Dungeons and Dragons and White Wolf’s Vampire series, as well as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, I created my own worlds and alternate universes, complete with maps, languages, illustrations, and so on.

In 1987, I spent my senior year in what was then West Berlin—amidst my adventures in punk concerts and many kinds of beer, I completed the first book of a fantasy trilogy. In some cardboard box is the notebook, all handwritten, with watercolor paintings to illustrate the story.

My early years at UMass were focused on nonfiction. I missed Berlin, and avidly tried to commit every detail and memory to paper. It was the focus of most of my expository writing class. I never lost sight of the fantasy trilogies, but I wasn’t focused enough yet.

Then the unthinkable happened. In July 1994, my stepbrother was walking to work and was killed by a man driving too fast, who lost control of his car and crashed up over the sidewalk. My brother died instantly, inches away from his best friend. My world collapsed, and I turned to writing in order to survive the intensity of my grief.

Inspired by The Crow starring Brandon Lee, I created a dystopian world in which my brother could continue to exist. I changed his name, idealized him, made him a successful rouge, and the story rambled for more than 400 pages before I ran out of energy to keep it going. The plot was unfocused, and it kept me mired in sorrow. It was time to move on, and I began a new fantasy trilogy that he would have appreciated.

Then came graduate school and a disastrous marriage. Creativity, though not gone, was smothered. Four years passed. At the end of the marriage and the first grad degree, the Muse visited again. A short story I had written in that time stood out among the rest, but it was very different than it is now. It was a ten-page short story called Dracula’s Wife.

With my new life, I created in solitude. Each night after work, I wrote until midnight and beyond. I spent every weekend in, doing research. Three hundred pages each in first and third person, before I settled on first person. It became the focus of my master’s degree, and I traveled to Romania to continue my research. I tried getting published at a time when the traditional publishing industry was undergoing vast changes. Frustrated and impatient, I struck out on my own, forging my own path. Let the market decide, I insisted. So if you’re reading this, thank you. I’m grateful that you’ve found The Veiled Mirror, or one of the other stories.

In a sense, every book I write is dedicated to my brother. We were inseparable for years—both loving the same kinds of stories. He was a brilliant artist, on his way to becoming quite well-known in the world of graphic novels and books for role playing games—old White Wolf tomes display his art—if you see the name Matthew Korteling, that’s him. We promised to help each other—I’d help write his stories, develop ideas, and he would do illustrations for mine.

MBK 1994 Wall

New novels are underway, some resurrected from older versions. A long list is stationed by my computer, reminding me of how important it is to stay focused. No matter how busy I am, I always find time to write. And the characters my brother drew, framed and in each room of my home, smile down upon me.

(Originally published October 2010) 

Boston Book Festival 2013

Boston Map BPL

The fifth annual Boston Book Festival took place on the same weekend as the Head of the Charles Regatta and a game at Fenway. It was a perfect fall day, and downtown Boston flourished with all the activity. Just like last year, there was such an abundance of sessions to choose from, and as I arrived in Copley Square, I sat on the steps of the library, not just to capture a few portals for the Enlightened (yes, I’ve succumbed to the lure of Ingress), but to make some last-minute decisions about where to go.

After having read so much Shakespeare in an academic environment, I was curious about Shakespeare and Leadership, led by Richard Olivier, son of the great Lawrence Olivier. After coming to the realization that acting full-time wasn’t precisely his niche, he remained in the world of theater, and developed a course in leadership through examining Henry V. As he explained it, there are great myths in Shakespeare’s plays, and these old stories can be used for personal development via what he called “mythodrama.” So, old Henry V became a case study for project management and strategic planning, and we were walked through the process of facing challenges, confronting self-doubt, and re-energizing followers through a more collaborative style of leadership. Emotional intelligence and the ability to recognize whether you are the right person doing the right thing was also discussed via the proverbial “dark night of the soul.” Mr. Olivier occasionally turned to reciting portions of the play to enhance his points. A PowerPoint display breaking the lessons of management in regard to the trajectory of the play loomed over him. I expected to see an org chart, but alas, there was none. The session was funny and enlightening.

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Any time a panel on historical fiction happens, I have to be there. A session called Imagining the Past featured Amy Brill, Michèle Forbes, Dennis McFarland, and Julie Wu, and was moderated by Michelle Hoover. One of the first topics discussed was the term “historical fiction” itself. Many of the authors on the panel objected to the term, as they felt it made it into a genre and disconnected it from the literary world. Compelling and inspirational stories transcend time and evoke universal emotional truths, so if a story is set in the past, does that mean it fits within a genre? If so, then what is the formula that makes it so? To the point of one of the speakers, history feeds into everything, so naming it historical fiction is a redundancy. It seems to be an influence of marketing departments within the publishing world. One of the speakers noted that it’s about branding: if it’s considered “women’s historical fiction,” then the cover has to have a pretty cover with a girl and a florid, serif font. If it’s a work of literary fiction, then the cover has to be abstract with a modern, non-serif font. Coming from the publishing world myself, I recognized this and it was very interesting to consider. Sometimes I’m surprised at how people label my work, but if it pleases them, then who am I to argue? However, am I missing potential readers because of how it may be branded?

Researching historical fiction was a core issue on the panel, and I was relieved to hear that like me, most of the authors are easily tempted by book after book, in hopes of getting the details just right. The biggest challenge in getting obsessed with research is that when writing it into the story, you don’t want to spool it all out and find your narrative lecturing the reader on everything you’ve learned. On the opposite side, Julie Wu talked about dealing with a paucity of resources when trying to write a topic that is essentially forbidden by governmental censorship. As the balance of censorship continued, Amy Brill talked about losing all of her research on a flight, and having to start over. In the next iteration of writing the novel, she learned to focus more on the story, rather than relying on the research to guide her through it. It’s a tough lesson to learn. I was heavily reliant on my notes for the first two novels. In the third, which will be published next year, I did substantial research, but I’m turning to those notes less frequently than before. The characters have taken charge and are telling it themselves, and I’m using the notes to verify events as I go.

The third session I attended was also about history, and like the first, was incredibly crowded. The Abbey Room of the Boston Public Library was so jam-packed that each aisle had rows of people sitting on the floor. As we wilted in the heat, we were swept up in a fascinating discussion with Megan Marhsall, biographer of Margaret Fuller; Eve LaPlante, biographer of the Alcott family; and Carla Kaplan, author of Miss Anne in Harlem, a book that explores the subversive white women who embraced black culture in the Harlem Renaissance in the ’20s and ’30s. Each of these books covered amazing aspects of history. It made me want to learn more about Margaret Fuller in particular, but I was especially taken by Carla Kaplan’s account of women who eschewed their lives to join a culture that was suspicious of their presence. These women became shunned from the world they came from and weren’t fully accepted by the one they wanted to be in. And through these profiles, we see seeds of the dramatic shift that became the focus of the twentieth century with the Civil Rights movement. An interesting thread of discussion revolved around the commonalities shared by all of the women profiled in the books: that many had no father and were mentored by older brothers, that there was a lot of anger at their second-class status, and they were usually lower-income and had to forge ahead on their own. There was often a sphere of isolation, a uniqueness that characterized these women—much like the ones I write about. My notebook was filling up rapidly.

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The final session I attended was called Obsessives, and featured Joshua Kendall, Jason Anthony, Ty Burr, and Margalit Fox, and was moderated by WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook. While I love to write about food in stories, Jason Anthony’s description of how starving explorers survived in Antarctica provided me with no appetizing inspiration. Penguin brains and blubber? No, thanks, I’ll pass. Margalit Fox’s account of Alice Kober, who helped decipher Linear B after evidence of the language was found in the ruins of the Bronze Age palace of Minos on Crete, gave me even more fodder to add to my list. Fox once described herself as a rescuer of lost souls. If I could name one obsession of my own, it would be the same. Alice Kober, though she devoted her life to decoding this ancient language, received none of the credit for it until Margalit Fox wrote about her. It was a man’s world. Everything was. And like Fox, I’ve found myself on a path of finding obscure women’s stories and sharing them. It was a theme that came up throughout the day. One day, I hope to share some of those stories with the crowds at the Boston Book Festival, too.

(Originally published October 2013) 

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Boston Book Festival 2012

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Hurricane Sandy, the “Frankenstorm,” is upon us. Fortunately, the Boston Book Festival had a sunny fall day for their event yesterday. I had hoped to attend for the past couple of years, and was thrilled to finally be able to go. This hub of literary activity has been taking place since 2009, and they have a substantial archive of recordings from their events from previous years available on their website.

There is an amazing array of exhibitors’ tents to peruse while deciding on which sessions to attend. Big publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, academic and independent presses, literary magazines, and organizations such as Boston’s literary gem, Grub Street, surrounded Copley Square between the Boston Public Library and Trinity Church.

The first session I attended was The Hobbit: There and Back Again, at the Boston Common Hotel. When moderator Ethan Gilsdorf emerged from behind the panelists’ table wearing a toy sword, he told the crowd, “If it glows blue, you know what to do.” Author Corey Olsen, known as the Tolkien Professor and president of the Mythgard Institute, gave an interesting presentation about Bilbo’s character development in The Hobbit, which proved to be much more complex than most people probably give it credit for. The artwork Tolkien created was also featured, and the importance of his often-overlooked masterpiece, The Simarillion, was underscored repeatedly. After The Hobbit went into a second printed a month after its release in 1937, the publisher wanted a sequel. Tolkien hoped to publish the source of his mythology for Middle Earth, but it was too serious for their tastes, and thus came Lord of the Rings, to continue the story of the beloved hobbits. I left the session in search of the Gandalf for President button, a throwback to the burgeoning popularity of the series forty years ago.

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The next session I chose was A Conversation about The Iliad, where author Madeline Miller talked about how she developed her novel, Song of Achilles, using Homer’s epic as inspiration. As someone who writes historical fiction, I found this session especially inspiring. Miller articulated the challenges of incorporating an ancient text into a modern novel very well, and the description of her creative process helped me figure out some challenges of my own that I face as I work on stories inspired by ancient Mesopotamia.

At Graphic Novels: Drawing the Story, Chris Ware’s presentation was amazing. His new work, Building Stories, is told without a beginning, middle, or end. The reader is invited to read separate pieces of the work in any order. This innovative concept demonstrated that print still has a place in the world of reading, as an art form in and of itself. Chris Ware’s work was a highlight of the event, and I loved hearing how he developed his stories.

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The session I had been looking forward to since I first saw the schedule posted online a few weeks ago did not disappoint. The Future of Reading gathered the luminaries of the field for a discussion I could have taken pages and pages of notes from. Nicholas Negroponte, chairman emeritus of MIT’s Media Lab, Tufts University professor and neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf, Robert Darnton, director of Harvard Library and proponent of the Digital Public Library of America, Houghton Mifflin executive Cheryl Cramer, and bestselling author Barutunde Thurston engaged in a lively conversation about the evolution of reading. As in many other sessions, the concern was voiced that close reading is fading, and that with superficial reading, the ability to go deep and connect with a text through inference and interpretation is being diminished. There was also concern for multitasking while reading, and checking social media and playing games on a tablet now compete for dedication to reading—“attention is the new currency,” stated Thurston, and it definitely rings true. However, the positive side of the discussion was nicely summed up by Cheryl Cramer, who stated that in today’s digital era, reading is boundless, borderless, personal, and social. The global reach of texts though digitalization and self-publishing will have a great impact on literacy and the ability to broaden the market to all literary tastes. There is no way to do this session justice in a brief blog post. It was being recorded, however, and as soon as that session is available online, I will definitely post links to it.

It was a great day. When filling out the survey, I felt one item was particularly worthy of sharing on Twitter. When asked what could be improved, I let my inner sci-fi nerd loose and tweeted that a TARDIS would be useful, so we could travel through time and attend *all* of the sessions hosted. The Boston Book Festival is a great lead-in to National Novel Writing Month. I can’t wait to see what they do for their fifth anniversary next year.

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(Originally published October 2012) 

Fear of Crickets: Facing the Audience

QHP event poster

“The conflict with the sultan escalated for months. I tried to lose myself in my work. That was easy enough with two palaces to maintain…” Reading those lines was easy. What I could have improved on was the introduction that opened my reading. I typed a paragraph above the novel excerpt to explain the scene in context, hoping that would keep me on track, but I knew it was important to make eye contact with the audience. I didn’t lose my place, but I did lose myself in the audience, trying to read their expressions. An awkward start, but that was the only point where I felt awkward, but I soon got into the rhythm and the rest of the reading went very well.

I did a reading and book signing at Harvard’s Queen’s Head Pub on March 24. The event was organized by group I belong to, the Harvard Staff Artists Community, which started nearly a year ago. I had done three readings previously, before the novel was even published. Two were at a local bookstore, a reading for about 8 authors, organized by a fellow alumna from the Harvard Extension School literature and creative writing program. The first one was great, smooth intro, people laughed. At the second reading, while I was being introduced, I tripped on a purse strap and fell on my way up to the podium. That is my personal benchmark for public speaking nightmares. Whenever presented with a speaking engagement, I say to myself, “Well, just as long as I don’t trip and fall on my way up to the podium, I’ll be fine!”—and I usually am. The third reading was part of a thesis presentation just before I graduated with my master’s. In a huge auditorium, I let the sea of shyness overcome me, as the AV guy came up on stage twice to adjust the microphone and tell me to speak louder.

I used to be terribly shy. I’m not nearly as shy as I perceive myself to be anymore. Maybe it’s the cumulative experience. Maybe it’s age. Regardless, I’m starting to enjoy doing readings much more. At the Queen’s Head Pub, I opened for a string quartet that played Latin music. An unusual situation, but the artists’ group wanted to show that at every performance, they want a variety of talent and art forms. It’s a lovely setting—typical Harvard, lots of woodwork, various items from around campus to decorate the place: photos and trophies, shields and so on.

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Several members of my writer’s group were there in support. The intro went well, and I stepped onto the stage. Yes, the microphone needed to be adjusted, but I immediately spoke more audibly, and made sure to use lessons learned while studying music years ago: don’t speak too closely into it, don’t “pop” the words. Half the pub was reserved for our group, the other half was business as usual with students. While I read, far off, I could hear students gathered around tables, laughing and talking amongst themselves. The bartenders poured pints and the clink of glasses was constant. Rather than a distraction, I found the atmospheric noise comforting, which surprised me.

If I were to give advice, I’d say rehearse. Read the excerpt at least once a day up to the reading. Related to this, as a writer, make a habit of reading your work out loud. It’s the best way to identify grammatical problems, and helps you figure out the “rhythm” of your writing. It’s one of the best pieces of advice I’d ever received. After every chapter: read it aloud, revise, read it aloud again. And so on.

Also, make time for Q&A. Repeat the question, so that other people can hear. Bring extra pens. Nothing like signing a book only to have the ink trail off into nothing. It’s hard to be creative on the spot…I’m one of those people who doesn’t do well when signing birthday cards at the office…but I like the creative prompts I’ve been given when signing a book. At this last event, I was asked to do a sketch, a variation of the Her Raven Domain logo. So I drew the moon, the star, and the twitter bird, with a word balloon, saying “Follow me on Twitter!”

As a writer, I have a tendency to be introverted, wanting a quiet environment…but to succeed as an author, it’s all about putting yourself out there and being dynamic as possible. Networking is one of the keys to success. And I’m finding it’s a lot of fun.

HSAC Reading

(Originally posted in March 2010)