The Cocoons Are Opening

That title sounds a lot creepier than I intended. What I mean is that the butterflies are starting to emerge. The ones in my stomach. Because my presentation at the local library looms on the horizon.

I generally don’t mind speaking engagements, though I often prefer to be on a panel than be a sole presenter. Mostly I worry that the attendees will feel like I’m lecturing, that I’ll bore them, or that they won’t get what they came for—namely, that I’ll disappoint them. I suppose that’s a normal concern to have. (Is it? Please tell me it is!)

I outlined my talk months ago and had the PowerPoint partially done. Today I finished it, so I do feel more prepared now. It’s all information I’ve given at other venues in other ways, so this compilation is not entirely new, which means I’m comfortable with my familiarity with the material. That helps.

But the audience will be new to me. I think some of my writing group are planning to attend, and I don’t know whether that makes me feel better or more nervous.

All I can do is my best, I suppose. Hopefully, if all goes well, I’ll be asked to speak at other venues too. I’ve done a few small writing conferences, but I’d like to do more.

Have you ever had to give a presentation? Do you get nervous? Any tips or tricks to keep the butterflies at bay? (No, the naked audience thing doesn’t really work for me.)

Proof of Skill

Today I read an offhanded remark on a site that said something along the lines of (paraphrasing): “Well, they’ve only ever self-published, which is fine, but it’s no proof of their skill as a writer.”

Hmm.

It made me wonder: How do we measure “proof of skill” for writers?

My guess is that we mostly measure authors by their sales, simply because that’s the easiest way. It’s quantifiable and concrete. And since publishing is a business, certainly sales matter. “Oh, So-and-So sold a bazillion copies of Bookity Book? Must be a great author!”

But there are plenty of books that sell a lot of copies that aren’t all that great. I mean, it’s subjective, of course, but just as many people seem to hate Twilight and Fifty Shades as love them. So sales aren’t necessarily proof of quality. They’re really more proof of appealing to a large (I won’t say lowest) common denominator.

How else might we figure proof of a writer’s mad skillz?

Less quantifiable is “buzz.” Which is to say, how much are you hearing about a particular book or author? (And, really, how much good are you hearing about it/them?) If many people are talking about a book, there are usually two reasons: it’s amazing or it’s offensive. It can, I suppose, even be both(?)…

So does word of mouth = proof of skill? Well, it = proof of marketing skill at least. But again, there are plenty of hyped-up books that end up being big disappointments and just as many hidden jewels gathering dust on shelves, and whatever ebooks do when they’re ignored.

Does being picked up by an agent and then a big publisher mean you’ve got amazing writing skills? Based on the comment that started this post, that still seems to be the gold standard. Even as we continue to say that self-published books are often just as good, and sometimes better, in quality, that they’re often more original because of the authors’ creative freedom . . . Deep down there’s still a sense of a need for gatekeepers to validate a book or author, an idea that books need to be “good enough” for an agent or major publisher, and books that were self-published clearly aren’t or weren’t. Never mind that self-publishing is no longer a last resort for many authors; they’ve learned they make more money and save a lot of time by doing it themselves. The stigma, alas, remains.

And I must say, of big-house books I’ve read lately, I’ve noticed a lack in editing quality in many of them. Now, I don’t know if that’s down to the authors or the editors involved in those books—I suspect many of the books were hurried out without enough proofing—but I’m just saying: having an agent and a big publisher doesn’t, in my view, immediately mean an author has skill. It could mean they had a connection to someone in the industry. It could mean they had a good idea that, even half-baked, the agent or publisher thought he/she/it could sell. It could even mean—yes, I’m going to say it—that they’re the token [insert diversity here] that the agency or publisher was looking for so they could feel good about themselves. I’m sorry, but I’ve worked in publishing, and I’ve seen it happen.

This isn’t to put actual, skilled writers down. This is just to say that the way we decide whether an author is “skilled” is . . . Biased a lot of the time. Subjective to each person’s preferences. There are a lot of factors involved. Being self-published versus agented and published by a big house—that’s not a definitive guideline as to an author’s skill.

The final facet of an author’s skill might be their actual craft, from the foundations of punctuation and spelling to the more lofty question of how they use words to build a story. BUT, again, not all of a writer’s ability can be determined this way. After all, a good self-published author probably hired an editor and proofreader. So maybe the author can’t spell and doesn’t know a comma from a semicolon but found someone to fix that problem. Maybe the story had huge plot holes that a development editor helped fill in. On the flip side, maybe the editor at that big publishing house was tired that day and missed a few things.

The key thing that set me off on writing this was the very casual dismissal of self-publishing I felt underlying the comment I paraphrased above. Not just because I’ve self-published a number of my books, but because to say something like that and not maybe define your personal criteria for “skills” feels a bit like a fly-by. Every reader has a checklist, whether they’re aware of it or not, of what they will and won’t tolerate in a book. They consider the authors who tick all their “yes” boxes to be “skilled” and authors who don’t, or who actively tick their “no” boxes, to be hacks. I’d like to think that most readers are open to self-published works so long as those books tick enough of their “yes” boxes, but I’ve seen readers in online groups have that as a “no” box: NO SELF-PUBLISHED BOOKS. Sad but true. They cite poor experiences with self-published books as the reason for their prejudice, but have they loved every traditionally published book they’ve ever read? I doubt it, and yet they don’t boycott those.

I won’t claim to have answered the question of how to discern a writer’s skill. There are too many moving parts, and I think the largest part is that we won’t even all agree on which authors are skilled to begin with. What some readers treasure, others despise. What some consider classics, others consider trash.

How do you decide whether an author has skills? What’s on your reading checklist?

IWSG: October 2018

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m a mess these days when it comes to writing. I go from being hopeful and optimistic to plunging into the depths of despair and being sure no one will ever want to read my work.

By the way, look at the post below this one to enter to win a copy of my forthcoming book Faebourne. You can also read the first chapter via “Sample Chapters” on the sidebar.

Question of the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Major life events usually disrupt my writing. Even minor life events can do that. This past summer, not only were the kids home but my husband was on sabbatical. We did some traveling and a lot of outings, which was a lot of fun. We made wonderful memories. But I got almost no writing done for three months.

As for writing helping me through things, sure. I sometimes write in a stream-of-consciousness way in order to figure out how I feel or what I think about something. It’s a good way to drill down and get to the roots of problems or ideas.

Suspending Disbelief

I saw an interesting question posed on Twitter this morning: “How does an author create a tale that allows readers to suspend disbelief?”

It made me think of those YouTube videos where people pick apart movies for how unrealistic they are. We do that with books sometimes, too. So what makes the difference? Why are we willing—even eager—participants in some fiction and resistant to other?

I believe there is a natural barrier between us and fiction. We understand, when entering a book or movie, that it isn’t real. There is a sense of, “Make me believe it.” The author’s job, then, is to make that barrier permeable.

Think about all the things that pull you OUT of a story. Characters that don’t behave in ways that seem realistic, for example, or stilted dialogue. Sometimes it’s the world that doesn’t make sense. If a fantasy author has created a town or country or planet, it still must function within parameters that readers relate to. The place may be very different from Earth, the characters may be aliens, but there are some universal truths that we rely on when entering a fictional world. Touchstones, if you will. If the internal logic of the world doesn’t hold up—if every few minutes the reader is saying to him- or herself, Why did they do that? Why is this world set up this way? It makes no sense, no society would be built this way—the barrier is too solid.

So if you want to create something really different, you have to lay the groundwork of there being very good reasons for things. It can’t be because “it’s always been this way.” There needs to be an explanation of WHY it was ever that way to begin with.

Another reason people begin picking stories apart is sheer boredom. If nothing interesting is happening, the reader begins to look for something else to entertain them, and your world or characters may be the victim of their detachment. When you’re really into a book or movie, you’re carried along on a wave as the plot and characters move along. You feel immersed. Later, someone might point out a plot hole and you’ll say, “I never noticed.” But, boy, when you’re bored you notice everything.

Think about long car rides, looking out the window, trying to find anything interesting to look at. Or, if you grew up going to church, synagogue, some house of worship, think about sitting there and looking around at people, the walls, the chairs/benches/pews. Every stain, crack, speck of dust came to your attention. That’s what happens when a reader is bored, too. They start gazing at the wallpaper and noticing the wrinkles, rips, mismatched seams.

Boredom, then, is one of the particles that forms that barrier to fiction. The reader shouldn’t ask, “Why am I here?” He or she should want to be there, in your world, with your characters. They should never want to leave.

These things don’t only apply to fantasy and sci-fi, though the barrier to those is probably thicker. Authors of these kinds of books have more work to do to make their worlds and characters believable. But even real-world based fiction must give readers compelling characters and situations that, even if far-fetched, the reader can be made to accept.

I love Tana French’s books, but there is one called The Likeness that really stretched my believability. The entire premise is predicated on a detective who looks so much like a murder victim that they insert her into the victim’s world to root out the killer. The book is well written and entertaining, but I still had trouble giving the premise credence. And since no reliable reason was ever given for the, er, likeness . . . Sure, “long lost twin” is weak, but I’d believe it over random chance.

What pulls you out of stories and/or makes them unbelievable to you? Which books have you encountered with this problem? Did you finish the book or put it down? Let me know your thoughts!

You Know You’re In an M Pepper Langlinais Novel When

My son was trying to figure out what would make the list. But my books are all so different! There are some things that are in most but nothing, really, that is in all. Does that make me inconsistent? Or just original?

Still, I wanted to try.

  • You are in a big manor house of some kind.
  • Someone nearby is gay. Maybe more than one person, but at least one. Might even be you!
  • You need to solve a mystery or complete a quest.
  • A supernatural or magical element may appear.
  • Snark. You or someone near you has it.

Current Reads

With all the traveling I’ve been doing lately, I’ve been juggling a few books. I sped through the Raven Cycle and am now juggling a couple of novels: Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero and Scythe by Neal Shusterman.

I read Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements a few years ago, and it is a book that definitely stands out in my mind. Whenever people ask a blanket, “What book do you recommend?” The Supernatural Enhancements is the first thing that springs to the forefront of my brain. I find I’m enjoying Meddling Kids quite a lot, too. Think: the Scooby gang now in their mid to late 20s and dealing with PTSD as they go back to confront a case they thought was closed but . . .

And Scythe I picked up because I’d heard so much about it. I mean, nothing specific in terms of the plot, simply that so many people said it was good. And so far I agree with them. For those few who haven’t read it (I feel like one of the last in the world not to have done), it’s set in a future where mankind has all it needs because technology perfectly manages the world. Immortality has been achieved, and people can move their consciousnesses into younger bodies at will. The one thing that must be done: population control. Which is where the titular scythes enter the picture. You can probably guess the rest from there, more or less.

What are you reading? Any recommendations? Have you tried either of these?

IWSG: Pitfalls

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

Right now I’m insecure about 1. finishing this novel, and 2. giving a presentation at the local library this coming November. I know that’s a long time away yet, but I’ll be talking about writing and publishing for NaNoWriMo participants, which is why this month’s question is quite appropriate:

What pitfalls would you warn other writers to avoid on their publication journey?

There are so many! For one, don’t read too many how-to books on writing. You’ll get so worried about doing it wrong that you won’t do it at all. Also, don’t start querying the moment you finish your draft. You think you’re done—you so want to be, because you’ve been working so hard for so long—but you aren’t, not nearly. Much revision will be required! Don’t believe your baby has been born ready to walk and talk because it hasn’t. You’ve still got to raise it. Finally, be super selective about who you query. Do your research. It’s so exciting to get that nibble—or better yet, an offer! But not all [agents, publishers, offers] are created equal. So don’t celebrate until you’re sure.

My Books (in one handy graphic)

I get asked fairly frequently, “What do you write?” To which there is no short answer. If I wrote all in one genre, I could say, “I write [insert genre here].” But I write a lot of different stuff. Also, I have an irritating habit of going blank when asked what I write. So I created a handy graphic to remind myself what I’ve written (I lose count) and also show others:

These are all on my Books page, too, of course. Or you could just hit up Amazon. But I’m a visual person in a lot of ways, so seeing it all in one place helps.

Of all these, only two are available in paperback: The K-Pro and Manifesting Destiny. The rest are ebooks (and audiobooks where indicated). Faebourne will also be in paperback, though! Not that paperbacks sell all that well, but I like to have something to bring to events and show at tables.

So there is my bibliography in one quick look. Do you find things like this helpful?

TBR

As you see from the picture, my TBR (“to be read”) pile is relatively small. However, due to other obligations, I don’t read many books or very quickly any more. After all, I have to balance reading time with writing time, and that has to in turn be balanced against chores, errands, appointments, and family time. I used to read 50+ books per year. Now I set a goal of about 24—two per month—because that’s more realistic for me.

Of course, my TBR pile does not reflect my wish list of books that I still want to read but don’t currently have copies of. That’s a much larger stack, even if it is virtual.

Currently I’m reading The Dream Thieves by Stiefvater and Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero. Both are really good. Do you read more than one book at a time? I usually top out at about three.

How big are your TBR piles? What about your wish lists? What do you do if you pick up a book and decide you don’t like it or aren’t in the mood for it?