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I wrote this article a few years ago, when I first embarked on my writing journey. When I re-read it a few days ago, having just resurfaced from a fabulous writers conference (another topic for another post!), I realized it applies perfectly even today. So, here goes….

Posted originally on March 28, 2011

The other day, I was watching “Chopped Champions” on Food Network. (“Chopped” is a show where four chefs compete against each other; one chef is let go–or chopped–per round of cooking, based on the criteria of judging they have.) In the episode I was watching, four winners from previous rounds came back to butt heads with each other for bigger stakes.

As the kitchen in the show grew hotter, I began to realize the uncanny similarities between cooking and writing. I took away some basic lessons from that one episode–lessons that are not new, but ones we tend to take for granted.

  • Take time to prep your ingredients: The judges tasted grit in the dish one of the contestants had prepared. The chef had neglected to clean the main ingredient–sea urchin–thoroughly. Instead of impressing the judges, her dish turned them off. She was “chopped” instantly.
    • Lesson: It is important to sweat the basic stuff. When writing a new novel/story, research the period and place as much as you can. This will add authenticity to your world-setting and your characters will feel real.
  • Depend on your dish: One contestant got promoted to the second round even though his dish did not meet the judges’ approval. This happened only because one of the other chefs had left dirt in her main ingredient. However, in the very next round, that guy got chopped because he didn’t season his dish very well.
    • Lesson: Do not depend upon others’ failure/success to give you a boost. It only goes so far. When it comes to writing, do not concentrate on the existing trends or non-trends in the industry. By the time you finish writing your book those same trends may be out of fashion or more likely would have jaded the readers. Write about a subject you are passionate about, that you believe would make a fascinating read.
  • Seasoning is important: The chef who got chopped in the second round had forgotten to season his chicken. From what I deduced by then, this chef was not bad to begin with (he had to be good to have been titled “champion” in a previous tussle), but then he had probably begun to coast along rather than letting his passion for cooking to come through in his dishes. This apathy had cost him his advancement to the next round.
    • Lesson: However good a writer you are, if your story is missing the seasoning–a heart–then it won’t go anywhere. You, the writer, has to believe in the story before the reader will.
  • Your previous dish won’t speak for you: The lady who was let go because she left dirt in her food entered this competition as a favorite. I could tell that the judges were almost reluctant to let her go, but the mistake she made was not a simple one to overlook. 
    • Lesson: You are only as good as your latest product. Even a successful writer can rest on his/her laurels for only so long.
  • Cook to the best of your ability and then stand back: The chef who won in that episode was the least experienced of the lot. However, he cooked passionately and to the best of his abilities. This finally proved to be the best strategy.
    • Lesson: It is better to be constantly improving and growing in your trade than to be a flash in the pan. Don’t aim to be a one-book wonder. It’s important to realize and accept the fact that not all writers are created equal. However, one doesn’t need to be über-talented to be a good writer. Keep up your passion for writing and your work will shine as a result.
  • Concentrate on showcasing your best dishes: Two of the contestants kept getting worked up by peeking at others’ prep work during the cooking rounds. The third one kept his nose to the grindstone, so to speak, and concentrated only on creating his best dish every single time with the given ingredients. He won.
    • Lesson: Don’t let others’ success or talent intimidate you. Everyone has their own slot in every field. Keep on the lookout and you’ll find your groove.
  • Use the ingredients you know to the best effect: In one round, as I already mentioned, the contestants were given sea urchins as the main ingredient. One of the chefs had never worked with it before, and he was nervous about it. In the end, though, he took the best route possible: among the rest of the ingredients he had, he chose the ones he knew best and paired them with the sea urchin and created a sauce. He was basically faking it. It worked. That sauce blew away the judges.
    • Lesson: If you have to fake it, then do it confidently. It is good, even paramount, to do a lot of research before you embark on a new novel or story. However, sometimes, no amount of research will seem to be enough. For example, if your story takes place in the next millennium, chances are high that your imagination goes the extra mile than real, hard research. In such a case, remember you are the one with the most expertise when it comes to the world you are building.

What lessons (about life, writing, painting, sewing or anything at all) would you like to share with the rest of us today?

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According to Wikipedia, the term literary fiction came into existence around 1960, to distinguish serious fiction from the many types of genre or popular fiction (these latter are categorized as commercial fiction).

Literary fiction is more character-driven while commercial fiction is plot-driven. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the former does not have any plot (or is not at all genre-based) or that the latter doesn’t have strong characters. It’s just that one is more dominant than the other in each of the types.

From my research into this subject, here is my summary of what makes a particular book one or the other type of fiction:

What marks a work of fiction as literary?

  • Maturity of style/voice
  • Content that is more serious and thought-provoking
  • Deeper analysis of characters’ psychology
  • Richness in imagery

What are the more distinguishing features of mainstream commercial fiction?

  • Specific genre(s)
  • Fast-paced narrative
  • Compelling plot-lines
  • Wider mainstream appeal

It is safe to say that commercial fiction tends to have faster pace and beat and heightened drama, while literary fiction delves deeper into situations and the characters’ responses and reactions to them.

Some opine that literary fiction should be considered a genre in itself.

As with anything else related to the field of writing, what sets literary fiction apart from commercial fiction is somewhat subjective.

Here are my questions for you for the day:

  1. Do you believe that commercial fiction sells more easily than literary fiction in today’s market?
  2. As a reader, which do you prefer: a literary piece or a story with commercial leanings to it?
  3. If you’re a writer, which side of the spectrum would you place your work?

Here are my answers to the questions above:

  1. Yes.
  2. I think the classics I like to read are considered literary pieces, but I also read a lot of mysteries, whose genre makes them commercial fiction.
  3. Hmm… this is a toughie. The novel I’m currently working on is historical fantasy, which is a legitimate genre. It has a strong plot, but also a protagonist who drives that plot. And, my style tends to focus on imagery among other things, which means that my WIP has characteristics and elements that are specific to the definition of both literary and commercial fiction.

             So, basically, my answer is: I’m not sure!

All I know is this:

I aim to be true to my original vision and write the book so it entertains. Hopefully, it will also leave the readers thinking about it at least for some time after they have finished it.

Fair enough? :0)

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Recently, I began to read chapter books (younger middle grade) for research purposes. I started with books by the prolific author, Judy Blume.

I instantly observed a trend in these books. The more I read the more obvious the pattern seemed. Finally, it got to the point where my research came down to reading for the sake of noticing the trend rather than the content and how the plot is handled.

I realized then that I needed to get the question burning inside me answered before I could get back to reasonable research mode.

That’s when I decided to pose the question to Laura Backes, one of the editors of Children’s Book Insider Newsletter.

Here’s the question I posted in the chat forum in CBI Clubhouse (by the way, this site holds a wealth of information about writing for children. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!) and Laura’s answer to it:

  • Hema : Laura, as a novice to writing children’s fiction, I come across the phrase “show, don’t tell” quite a bit. However, now that I’m reading chapter books (by Judy Blume, among others), I notice that for this age group, most authors tell more than show. The narrator is usually made to give a funny account of the incidents rather than showing them. Is this the norm for this age group, or is it a case of “established authors get away with breaking rules, but not unpublished ones”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

 

  • Laura Backes : Hema: Good question about “show, don’t tell.” First of all, if you’re reading novels that were written before the early 1990’s (as were many of Judy Blume’s) then there will be more telling. That’s just the older writing style. Today, editors expect authors to do more showing. And if the story is written in first person, then essentially the entire book is the narrator’s dialogue. Telling takes place more often in dialogue.

“Showing” is most important when describing a character’s traits (don’t say she’s “sweet”, show us her sweet nature through her actions), a character’s feelings (avoid phrases like “he felt sad” or “she was scared”; instead, use body language, action and dialogue), or in describing the physical aspects of a person or setting.

Ah! So, it was not the age group for which it was written, but the “age” of the book itself that dictated the style that I observed.

As Laura so rightly points out, writing style seems to have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. In the past, it was not such a no-no to just make one of the characters (or the narrator) “tell” a bit of the back story, while “showing” for the rest of the book. But, not so now!

Writers have to be extremely wary of falling into the trap of telling a story as opposed to showing it. (Hmm… does it mean that the word “story-telling” should be changed to “story-showing”?)

I’m not saying that this new trend is bad; not at all. “Showing” an incident makes it stand out better than “telling” it. This technique also makes the book better and interesting — it keeps the writing more active, even if the method itself is a little harder to master.

I began to mull over how this shift in writing has come into existence, and why it is so rooted in the publishing industry (I never noticed how this works in adult books, but I’m guessing it is about the same, but I’ll stick to children’s literature here) now.

I came up with the following reasons as to why this writing model may have become the vogue:

  • Children have so many ways to entertain themselves (aka distractions): video games, T.V shows, interactive toys, and movies to just name a few. Yes, there are books, too, but they don’t figure at the top of this list for the majority of the kids. Why? Because they are the least interactive of the lot.

So, books have some stiff competition and cannot afford to be considered boring even for one page, or they’ll be set aside for better entertainment devices. One way for books to avoid being overlooked is to get as close to being interactive and sensational as possible.

 

  • Children these days are so used to everything (toys, shows, movies) imagining things for them ready-made that they are prepared to tax themselves a little less than the previous generations by reading something and imagining it for themselves. “Showing” helps them picture what’s going on in the book a little more easily.

 

  • From parents’ perspective, a DVD costs almost the same as a book. If a book fails to grab the attention of their child, then why not spend the same amount of money wisely on something (like the DVD) that does successfully keep the kid’s attention?

 

  • All things considered and with the economy the way it is, agents, editors and publishers do not want to back up any book that may not have captured the imagination of a large audience, and does not promise to keep the attention span of the children and their parents for a long time.

Basically, the parameters of what makes a book “good” have changed and are evolving every day.

A couple of decades from now, we may see technological advances that we cannot even imagine today. I wonder where that leaves books?

What changes and trends in writing styles do you suppose those advancements will demand from writers?

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I participated in a webinar led by agent Mark McVeigh a few weeks ago. He had invited a group of writers, who follow his blog, to this webinar; I happened to be one of the lucky participants!

Mark worked as an editor for eleven years, most recently as editorial director at Simon & Schuster’s Children’s Publishing Division, before he opened his own literary agency, The McVeigh Agency.

He spent 90+ minutes explaining the nuts and bolts of the publishing industry: how to get a literary agent, how to present your work in the best possible light to people in the business, and how to make connections with editors and others in the industry. He left plenty of time at the end to answer the questions that we had.

His presentation was clear and concise. (He was a sixth grade teacher before he entered the publishing industry and his experience in that field and his love for teaching came shining through during the session!)

And the added bonus? None of us had to rush to the airport on time, take a two/three hour trip to get to the destination, or check into a hotel in order to attend the seminar.

We used a web tool to connect, so we could not only hear each other, but also see each other. All we had to do was log in from wherever we happened to be at the time for which the session was scheduled!

Do you want to grow as a writer? Then you have to hear Mark’s advice in that area:

  • Write every single day.
  • Get into a routine to write.
  • Be part of a critique group – online or face-to-face or both.
  • Become involved and immersed in the writing community.
  • Work on different genres for different age groups: get out of your comfort zone.

At Mark’s suggestion, a number of the participants, including myself, immediately formed an online critique group.

I found out soon, much to my delight, that this group is pretty eclectic in the genres and age groups for which it writes. I belong to a wonderful face-to-face critique group already, and now I’m very excited about being a part of this new one also.

Overall, it was a pretty cool session — one which gave me a chance to not only learn from one of the pros of the publishing industry, but also connect with a bunch of like-minded writers who are willing to learn and grow alongside me.

I hear Mark is planning on conducting more of these webinars, which don’t require anything special besides a webcam on your computer. Keep your ears to the ground!

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I mentioned in my post last Monday that I happened to go to an Agent/Editor Day ten days ago, held by the local chapter of SCBWI.

I already shared with you my impressions from the topic discussed by Rachel Orr, the agent from Prospect Agency.

Now I present my impressions of what Margaret Miller, the other speaker for the day, had to share with all the writers gathered to hear her talk.

Margaret Miller is an editor for Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA, having moved there from Harper Collins Children’s Books in summer 2008. Authors she has worked with include Dan Gutman, Daniel Pinkwater, Philemon Sturges, Ann Rinaldi, and Kathy Lasky. At Bloomsbury, she will focus on middle grade and Young Adult fiction, with a few select picture books.

Margaret’s topic for the day was:

Working with an Editor: Your Bill of Rights – What to expect when you’re working with an editor when you, the writer, decides to submit your work directly to an editor at a publishing house without the aid of a literary agent.

Margaret basically explained the nuts and bolts of the relationship between an editor and an author at various stages of the book’s life:

  • Before a writer submits his/her manuscript to an editor.
  • When a writer gets an offer from an editor.
  • During the editing process.
  • After the editing process is finished.

She had this to say about what an editor means to an author:

  • an advisor
  • a champion
  • a therapist
  • a cheer leader
  • the one person who will read your manuscript with the utmost attention

She encouraged writers to:

  • keep their relationship with their editor professional (it means do not call her every single day, please!)
  • choose an editor who will help them to fulfill their vision for their book and
  • choose a literary agent to represent them, if possible.

One point that Margaret made in the course of her talk heartened me, because it is one aspect of the publishing industry today that keeps me awake at nights: book promotion by the author.

Let me explain.

Looks like in this technology-crazy world (sorry, I know that’s a strong statement, but isn’t it true though?), everybody’s attention is being pulled in several directions every second. So, most everyone is, whether willingly or unwillingly, trying to promote themselves and/or their products.

Authors and their books are no exception. Even if each publishing house has its own publicity and sales force, authors are expected to work hard at self-promotion and also at publicizing their books.

This includes school visits, making use of internet as a tool, book signing tours etc.

I hear everywhere these days how important it is to brand yourself, as an author, in order to promote your work. This means hosting your own web site in addition to blogging, face-booking, tweeting, and networking in all sorts of ways that you can think of.

That is all well and good, but the amount of time that an author has to put into publicizing his/her one book is time that the author spends on:

  • not working at her craft
  • not putting time into his next project
  • not working at improving her style and content
  • not networking with a very important group of people: his core critique group
  • not taking some time to relax and rejuvenate herself, before she can tackle all those ideas hammering at her brain

Yes, these all worry me.

That’s why I loved what Margaret had to say before she went on to answer questions:

It is good to network, but not networking won’t necessarily make or break your book.

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I have never been more in awe of whoever it was that had coined the phrase “Ignorance Is Bliss”. Truer words have not been spoken. That person must have been knee-deep in documents related to the world of writing when s/he had an epiphany and yelled those words out.

No, seriously, the more I research the publishing industry and the business side of writing, the more I become aware that it is an infinite ocean.

The art of writing – though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong – is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the slope, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key.

So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits with your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process.

It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for almost a year — I’ve been lucky enough to find my peers (now my dear friends) on my first try.

I’m told this is not always so. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group, in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.

 

  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.

 

  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.

 

  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.

 

  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

 

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.

 

  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.

 

  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.

 

  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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