Tag Archives: writing

Writing advice, because that’s what we writers like to do

So my latest novel, Small Town Sonata, was contracted for publication by Dreamspinner Press, and I’m very happy. Hopefully, it signals the revving up of my writing career again.

So, in the spirit of that, and because someone asked about it in a Facebook group, I’ve decided to offer some Writing Advice (capitalized, to show how pompous… I mean “important” it is). Seriously, this is just some stuff I learned over the years. Take it or leave it, as you like. It’s less about writing than about some practical concerns.

I started writing in Middle School, reading articles in The Writer (which was a much better magazine then) and locking myself in my room after school to type. My mother bought me my first typewriter (personal computers were like $5,000 then), but with the door closed, the heat from the wood stove couldn’t reach me, so I had to bundle up in a blanket. Abe Lincoln would have been proud.

I still have all of that writing in a briefcase. Most of it is pretty bad. Writers often tend to start out thinking their prose needs to be Serious and Important (translation: flowery). That’s actually the worst thing for modern writers, unless you’re doing historical or literary fiction. (And even then, it’s probably not great.) So there are some story ideas I like in that pile, but I’d have to rewrite them all from scratch. But, hey, that period taught me a lot about how to write.

I wrote on and off over the years after that, but had difficulty finishing things. Eventually, I tried NaNoWriMo, and that allowed me to finish my first novel (Seidman), then another, and so on. Everything I wrote through NaNo was eventually published. (Finish what you write. An unfinished story is no good to anybody, and even one that isn’t 100% perfect has a better chance of being published than an brilliant, unfinished one.)

I write in Word and use Scrivener to keep my notes. (Tip: You can relocate the Scrivener directory to a folder in your Dropbox folder, so they’ll be backed up.) I tried writing in Scrivener a few times, but so far I’ve found it difficult. The problem I’ve had with Word is that it wants me to buy it on iPad, even though I own (=lease) it on my laptop. This has made it nearly impossible to use my iPad for writing, as I used to do.

In college, I composed electronic music, using a program called Personal Composer, which had a problem with frequent crashes (at that time). One night, after working on a piece for something like 5 or 6 hours (it was around 3am), I saved and it crashed. Because I’d only used ONE file the entire time, it got corrupted, and all my work was lost. I learned to create a NEW save, every time I work on something. My novels tend to have over a hundred save files, by the time I’m done.

For a while, I was working a corporate job, and using thumb drives to take my current working files back and forth between home and work (I didn’t have a laptop). I discovered two things about thumb drives:

 

  • They’re easy to lose. I had to completely rewrite an entire chapter once.

  • They’re unreliable. On several occasions, I saved files to a thumb drive, ejected, and discovered the files were not there. They weren’t anywhere – not on the drive, not on the computer, not even in temp files. This is when I started using Dropbox, and yes, they’ve had some problems with security, but they also keep backups of files, so when a file of mine was destroyed somehow (Virus? I don’t recall.), I was able to go to the Dropbox site and download it again.

Lastly, if you can’t get a publisher or agent to buy your novel, consider self-publishing it. I’ve read a bunch of articles which insist self-publishing is what Losers do, when their work isn’t good enough to be published by real publishers. They’re the equivalent of cavemen banging on rocks, angry that “cheaters” have discovered a box of matches.

Look, the fact is, self-publishing is relatively easy, and that’s led to the market being flooded with a lot of stuff I would have to call “poor-quality”… if I’m being kind. This, in turn, has led a lot of readers to assume our self-published work isn’t worth very much. Combined with Kindle Unlimited, authors are now forced to sell months of hard labor for pennies, if we want anyone at all to notice its existence. (Thank you, Amazon, for pulling the floor out from under aspiring authors.) This has led to more and more indie publishers throwing in the towel, so those that are left have been forced to close or severely restrict submissions.

Throw in the fact that, with so many people out of work, everyone seems to think writing might be a way to earn some income, and the end result is that traditional routes to being published, which were already difficult, are now extremely difficult. Good books, bad books, books written by the next Great American (or whatever country you’re from) Author… they’re all being rejected. It is not a sign of failure to self-publish.

Some books make the rounds between publishers for years — even decades. Do you have that kind of time? I’ve published over 30 novels and novellas between December 2010 and now — just over eight years. (Of course, I know authors with two or three times that output.) I may not be a brilliant author, but my work is being read. And that’s what needs to happen, if you want to earn anything writing.

What a lot of authors are doing, if they can, is publishing through publishers at the same time they self-publish. This is called hybrid publishing, and it has the advantage of getting your name out by association with the publisher, as well as convincing readers your stories, including the self-published stories, are professional quality. Going through a publisher can also help you make contacts with editors, cover artists, and others who can help you, when you self-publish.

And that’s a key thing: if you self-publish, you must hire a professional editor and a professional cover artist, and probably a formatter, as well. This shouldn’t break the bank, but it will likely cost a few hundred dollars. It will be worth it. Nothing screams “Crap!” like a homemade Photoshopped cover with free images everyone and his brother has used before. And if a reader skims the preview and sees typos and spelling errors on the first two pages, you’ve lost that reader forever.

But self-publishing has a much quicker turnaround than publishing houses. When I published my last Christmas novel, I finished it, had it edited, got a wonderful cover for it, and published it — all in the space of about a month and a half. I didn’t have a choice about going through a publisher, if I wanted it out by Christmas. Self-publishing also means a smaller chunk comes out of my royalties. This isn’t because publishers are swindlers, but simply because they have overhead costs.

Anyway, all this pontificating has worn me out. I’m gonna go take a nap.

I mean “write.” I’m gonna go write.

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Filed under James Erich, Jamie Fessenden, Life, NaNoWriMo, New Release, publishing, Romance, Writing, Young Adult

Writing again – and, boy, does it feel good!

It’s been a scary time for me. I haven’ been able to write since my cat, Koji, passed away last Christmas. It wasn’t just losing my favorite cat, after living with (and adoring) his crankiness and hijinks for twenty years, but that was a big part of it. It was combined with the shocking revelation that Kumar, the “puppy” Erich and I rescued the same year we married and bought a house together, was now too old and arthritic to enjoy playing with the new pup (Nelson) we rescued to keep him company, while we were busy working. Kumar is now on meds that help with his arthritis, but he simply can’t play as hard as he could have just one year ago.

Nobody likes aging and losing beloved pets, of course, but I took it very hard. So hard, I had to go on antidepressants for the first time in my life. I’ve always had bouts of depression, but in the past I could “shake it off.” Not this time. Not without help. And the reason I’m so open about that right now is, I want to encourage anyone struggling with depression to seek help, if things gets overwhelming. It helped me get functional again. Even when you feel like nothing can help, it’s worth trying.

I want to thank my friend Fred Feeley, Jr. for pushing me to work on a ghost story we’ve been writing together. That helped take the pressure off to write in my usual genre of MM Romance. I didn’t have to think about romance beats or whether the characters were likable enough or the emotional level of scenes — I could just be creepy. And it was fun. Initially, I wrote in fits and starts – a bit here, a bit there, interspersed with days in which I wrote nothing at all. But gradually the writing bug took hold again, and ended up contributing a few chapters. (This novel has been taking us a while, but it’s getting near completion!)

Alas, once my writing began to flow again, I was bitten by the Christmas bug. So I set aside the ghost story (for now) and dove into a novella about a man who visited the kingdom of the fairies as a boy, but has no memory of it. Now, fifteen years later, the fairies want him to come “home” again. It’s steeped in Scandinavian folklore, and of course it takes place at Christmas.

It’s far too late in the season for me to submit it to a publisher, if I want it out by Christmas, so it will be another self-published book, like the last few I’ve put out. (I do have one almost finished for Dreamspinner, and I hope to finish that before the end of the year.) I have a wonderful editor and a fantastic cover artist already lined up, so it should be released in late November or early December.

I’m writing every day now, and it’s wonderful. It still feels a bit fragile, as if it wouldn’t take much to shut me down again, but my hope is that, once I’ve established the writing habit again in my psyche, I’ll keep going. Being a working author has been my dream since childhood. It’s been a rough year, but it’s time to reclaim the dream.

 

 

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Filed under Christmas, Jamie Fessenden, Life, Romance, Work in Progress, Writing

When a dry spell starts to get scary…

I finished a novel in November, and usually I take a few weeks off before I dive into my next big project. But something went haywire this year. Those few weeks turned into a few months, and now the motivation to sit down and begin writing isn’t really there.

What happened? I don’t know, and it’s frightening. This post is going to be a little strange, but since I began this blog, I’ve been posting about the experience of being a writer — not just writing itself, but the way things affect me, like reviews and events in my life. So this is one of those posts, about what it’s like when things aren’t going so well.

There are some obvious things in my life that factored into this dry spell:

  1. My cat, Koji, died. This was huge. Koji was a mean-tempered old cat (about 20-years-old) who was so vicious to outsiders we literally had to sedate him when we took him to the vet. (I have a hilarious story about the mass havoc he created there once, involving slashed hands and pee splattered everywhere.) Even drugged, he growled and snarled in his crate like a demon from hell, making everyone back away in trepidation. But he loved me. I’d had him his entire life. In my arms, he was a cuddly furball, and that’s where he died, purring, when he could no longer stand up on his own power. I was devastated by his loss, just two days after Christmas.
  2. My publisher rejected a novel. This shouldn’t be a big deal, because it happens to writers all the time, but it had never happened to me. Since I published my first novel in 2010, nothing I’ve submitted has been rejected. Perhaps some of those manuscripts should have been rejected, because they didn’t sell very well, but my publisher was willing to take the risk. Now the market has changed. Publishers are closing their doors left and right, so my publisher is understandably more reticent to accept manuscripts that don’t follow tried-and-true romance formulas. This makes me sad, but… business is business.
  3. My Christmas novel didn’t sell very well. Oh, it sold. Far better than novels I’ve released in the past. It just didn’t sell as well as the two previous novels, and that put me into a funk. Especially, since I’d put a ton of work into it, and was really vested in it.  I also marketed it up the wazoo. Considering that my two previous novels far exceeded my expectations, you’d think I’d be grateful for having a banner year. (And I did have a great year, for book sales overall!) But… that’s not the way an artist’s mind works.
  4. I have a friend who is very ill. I can’t talk about it much on social media, but I’m immensely worried for her.
  5. Our dog, Kumar, is aging. He isn’t exactly at death’s door, but his muzzle has gone gray, and he is now on anti-inflammatories and painkillers for arthritis. Just a year ago, I was feeling guilty that I never exercised him enough, so we invested in a dog enclosure in the yard and got another dog to keep him company and play with him! But I was too late. He’s suddenly not in the mood to play much. The pup and he are gradually becoming play buddies, and the meds help him have more energy to wrestle, but he spent so much time snarling at the pup for trying to pounce on him when he wasn’t feeling well, the biggest side-effect of the new dog is jealousy. We spend so much time trying to convince both of them that we love them. It’s not exactly that things aren’t working out with the new dog, but it isn’t working out as I’d hoped.
  6. I feel like I’m letting people down. I’ve missed events I was supposed to participate in as a writer. I have a sci-fi novel (Martian Born) that got me into a wonderful sci-fi workshop, and I got a lot of encouragement to finish it — but it still isn’t finished. More importantly, my husband wants that one finished. I also have a romance novel my publisher was asking for, but after me telling them I needed more time to finish it too often… they’ve stopped asking. I can’t blame them, but it’s just another thing that makes me feel as if I’m drifting away from the career I loved so much…

All of these things point to a big problem with depression right now, of course. I can see that. I could go to a therapist, but like a lot of people suffering from depression, I’m not sure I want to commit to going onto antidepressants. I know they help people. I’m the son of not one, but two psychologists, and I lost an ex-boyfriend to suicide. (I.E., we weren’t boyfriends at the time, but still close friends.) I don’t want to discourage anyone from getting help, when they need it, and I’m still leaving that door open. But knowing myself like I do, I think there are some other things to try first. This may be the first big dry spell I’ve had, but it isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with my tendency toward depression.

What I do think will help is finishing this damned romance novel. It’s good. I know it’s good, and my publisher thinks it’s good (what they read of it). It’s only about two chapters from being done! I just need to sit down and force myself to start writing. Then maybe the words will start flowing again. Then maybe it will be time to finish that sci-fi novel…

And honestly, there is so much good in my life right now. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

I have a wonderful husband and a wonderful home. The new puppy is adorable and a great addition to the household (even if he does bark incessantly), and I did have a good year, professionally. My best ever, in fact.

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Filed under Jamie Fessenden, Life, Pets, Writing

An American spy struggling to conjugate Russian adjectives

bondI study Russian as a hobby these days. I used to take classes in it in college, and not only was the language interesting in and of itself, but my classmates were terrific. There were only eight of us, and we formed a Russian club. We put on dinners of Russian food and got together to study Russian obscenities when nobody was looking. We were a disparate group—Sandy, the former cheerleader who was rushing a sorority; Steve, a jock who was, frankly, gorgeous; Troy, who was pretty much a nerd (no offense, Troy, you were a great guy), and others I no longer remember so clearly. Then me. I was a nerd, too. But we were united by a common interest, and we had a lot of fun. Sadly, as we moved into our second year, we all found other friends and the Russian club drifted apart.

But over the years, I’ve been frustrated, trying to recall words and phrases from a language I once knew at least a little of. It was nearly gone, when my husband suggested I could take a class in it. I couldn’t find any classes (apart from spending a small our retirement savings on Continuing Ed through UNH—don’t even get me started). But I did discover tutors who were local.

So now I go to Barnes & Noble once a week to study Russian with Natasha* for an hour. She’s from Russia, and Russian is her native language, so I know when she corrects my accent she isn’t steering me wrong. And bit by bit, it’s coming back to me. In fact, I suspect I’m already moving a bit past where I left off in college. Of course, from Natasha’s perspective, I’m about the level of a talking monkey. (“Today… it is… warm.”) Fortunately, she’s lived here a long time, so her English is perfect.

So you’re probably wondering about the James Bond logo. That’s because I was recently asked to write a short story for an athology, and my theme was mercy. I agonized over it for a while, and then while I was re-watching the old 1964 Jonny Quest cartoon series, I had an idea: what about a secret agent during the cold war whose mission is to assassinate someone, but he can’t?

This, not surprisingly, led me to James Bond. But Rex Colby, secret agent, isn’t exactly James Bond. He’s a former US Navy man, trained by the CIA to infiltrate the Russian military. He might have shades of Mack Bolan in him, though I haven’t read one of those novels since I was a kid. Colby speaks Russian without a trace of his native Texas accent, and is the perfect man to go onboard a top secret Russian submarine in search of an American scientist who defected to the USSR with the advanced long-range sonar he was developing.

It was an interesting idea, and it might even allow me to drop in some Russian. I love doing that!

When I mentioned this to Natasha during last week’s tutoring session—”Я пишу рассказ об американском шпионе на российском подводном лодке.” (I am writing a short story about an American spy on a Russian submarine.)—I was expecting her to react to it. I was hoping she’d be amused. At worst, I was afraid she’d be offended. After all, the Russians (Soviets) are the enemy in stories like this.

She looked at me calmly and said, “Лодка is feminine, not masculine. It would be российской подводной лодки.

Oh.  Right.

* In case it isn’t obvious, I’ve changed all the names in this post. I’m no fool.

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Filed under Drama, gay, Life, Romance, Writing

Authors behaving… like human beings

So there is yet another author who got upset over a bad review and blogged about it, and readers who were angered by an author telling them how to review.  I’m not going to link to the disaster.  But I do have some things to say about this issue.

  1. I hate the distinction between “readers” and “writers.”  It’s a false dichotomy.  Every writer is also a reader.  Not every reader wants to be a writer, but many do.  The distinction is muddy, and this isn’t a conflict it’s possible to take sides on.  Unfortunately, it’s still a real conflict, and it’s difficult to talk about it without saying “readers” and “writers” (or “authors”).
  2. Self-publishing has it’s upsides and its downsides.  On the upside, it’s allowing a lot of talented people who can’t get into the hallowed halls of traditional publishing to get their work out to the world.  Some of them are brilliant, but they weren’t writing what publishers thought would sell.  On the downside, it also allows people with little talent or skill to put their work out there.  And this has caused a lot of readers (not all) to think writing doesn’t require any skill or talent, and to view our profession with derision.  They no longer think books are worth paying for, and they begin their relationship with a book on a note of hostility, already angered by the fact they had to spend money on “crap.”  This makes me very sad.
  3. Writers have no choice but to suck it up, when it comes to bad reviews.  It doesn’t matter if the review was nonsensical, it doesn’t matter if the reviewer hated the book for a stupid reason.  It doesn’t even matter if the reviewer didn’t read the book.  None of that matters.  Do you know why?  Because absolutely nothing a writer says in retaliation for a bad review will improve the situation.  It will make it worse.  Guaranteed.  Sure, a few people will rally to your defense, but just as many or more will attack you for it.  And it will cost you readers.  The worst thing to do with a bad review is draw everybody’s attention to it — people who would never have even glanced at the original review — and spew commentary about it all over the Internet.  Do you really want the first thing that pops up on Google when people search for you to be twenty blog posts about how whiny you are?  If you don’t care about people buying your books, fine, but if you do… take a breath, and let it go….
  4. Having said that, I am not on the side of readers who beat their chests and wail about Authors Behaving Badly whenever an author blogs about how hurt they are by a review.  There are two arguments I see over and over again:  1) Authors are “oppressing” readers, and 2) Readers have the real power, because they pay the author’s salary, so to speak.  The second argument is largely true.  Readers pay for our books or don’t pay for them, and that affects our income.  There are a number of authors out there who don’t really give a rat’s ass whether people buy their books — they’re in it for the art — but most of us do.  But that renders argument one invalid.  I cannot have power over someone and claim to be “oppressed” by them.  That’s nonsensical.
  5. Words are not “oppression.”  An author ranting about a review does nothing whatsoever to “oppress” the reviewer.  It’s just words.  The review was words, and the response was words.  Nobody’s freedom has been infringed upon — they both got to have their say, even if what they said was childish and inflamatory.  If anything, it’s the author who’s at a disadvantage, since an inflamatory blog post or response to a review on Goodreads can ultimately cost him or her income.  But I have little sympathy for people who equate hurt feelings with “oppression.”  As a friend and fellow author said, this is a “first world problem.”  There are people out there who are really oppressed.  This ain’t it.
  6. There’s no need to bring ridiculous levels of paranoia into this.  Yes, we’ve all heard the story about the author who flipped out and tracked down a reader at her home and then at work.  But have you heard the story about the reader who showed up at a book signing to splash ink on an author because her novel was “about her?”  Yes, whackjobs abound.  But these people don’t represent authors and they don’t represent readers — they represent whackjobs.  For the most part, authors don’t show up at reviewer’s houses and try to kick the door down, and readers don’t attack authors.  So chill.

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Happy New Year!

Cassini_NewYears_2010_fullHappy New Year!

The picture is actually from the NASA website, and was used for New Years in 2010, but I thought it was perfect, since it looks a lot like the cover of my novella Saturn in Retrograde.

2014 hasn’t been a bad year for me.  It was my first year writing full-time, and I saw two new novels published, along with two stories in the Gothika #1 and #2 series, as well as a story published for Brent Hartinger’s The Real Story Safe Sex Project, and a free story for the Love’s Landscapes event on Goodreads.  I’m also finishing the first draft of a new novel, and I’m about 2/3rds through another YA novel.

Not bad.

I don’t really know what to do for a New Year’s resolution.  Not that I really have to have one, but, you know… it’s traditional.  I’d love to lose some weight, but we all know how those resolutions tend to go.  I suppose a more practical resolution would be to increase my writing output.  I didn’t do too badly, but I tend to waste a lot of time on the Internet when I should be writing.  I often don’t get anything accomplished until the last couple hours of the day—then I crank.  That could definitely be improved.

I know a lot of people will say, “You shouldn’t worry about putting more out.  You need to worry about producing good stories first.”  Well, I do worry about producing good stories.  But the simple fact of the matter is, in order to make any money at this craft, you have to produce.  We don’t live in a society that favors artists of any kind.  A few make it to the top and bring in a lot of money, but most have to survive by having a large output, so for this we need to learn to take care of our money doing the right investments, that we can do using the tools from the The Ascent site online.  The trick is to produce more and still have it be good.

So that’s my New Years Resolution: to write more without the quality of my writing suffering.

What’s yours?

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When nobody reads your writing

386200_2673280425520_1061443511_32785704_1832786642_n.jpgWhenever an article or blog comes out in which an author grumbles about lack of sales, as author Michael Henderson did in this recent article about Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, it’s common for people to slam them as whiners who don’t respect reader’s choices to buy other authors’ works, or worse, to claim it’s because their work is obviously inferior.

I don’t like this.

Michael Henderson will probably do just fine thanks to the boost his sales received from the article thanks to wordtree—he’s at least picked up one good review from it—but I’d like to address a few points:

  1. Amazon has over 3 million eBooks available.  It’s illogical to assume that any reader is able to go through that morass of brilliant and god-awful novels and decide which are good and which are not, in his or her opinion.  Readers — and that includes every author I’ve ever known — gather data from other readers they know, advertisements, which ones use companies and which ones don’t, reviews, and what-have-you to select books.  They also browse categories and look at blurbs and covers, but none of these techniques will ever give a reader more than the tip of the iceburg to choose from.  That’s just a statistical fact.
  2. Given what I said above, there is no way to correllate the quality of an author’s writing with how many books they sell, especially if we’re talking about the low end of the spectrum.  Nobody even knows what that means, frankly.  I often think a book is brilliantly written when nobody else seems to like it, and vice versa.  And it’s impossible for any reader to decide a novel is bad if he or she hasn’t read it.  Period.  So if an author’s book has only sold ten copies, it could mean the author can’t string two sentences together (as one reader claimed of Murder on the Mountain), but it could just as easily mean only ten people have read it and they don’t have a large enough influence over other readers to make the book take off.  Assuming a book is bad because it didn’t sell is just another form of blaming the victim:  “It happened to him because he did something wrong.  Therefore, it won’t happen to me, because I know what I’m doing.”
  3. Not all authors are good at selling themselves or their books.  The nature of the profession tends to attract introverts who prefer to be by themselves, writing or reading—not running around to cons and bookfairs chatting readers up, or even getting too social on social media.  Most new authors have no idea this is even part of the deal.  It’s like getting on a flight around the world, being yanked out of your seat, and shoved into the cockpit.  “Didn’t anyone tell you you’re the pilot?  Good luck!”

Having said all that, my advice to authors who aren’t selling well is this:  Don’t bitch about it.  Okay, you can grumble a little, but whatever you do, don’t attack popular authors and complain that their books are crap.  Don’t insist your own books are brilliant—that’s not for you to decide.  And don’t insult readers by claiming they have no taste.  Just realize they need to see you and your work before they can read anything you’ve put out, and the competition for reader attention is insane.

So get out there and be friendly!

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