Friday, July 29, 2011

Let's Get Professional

I spent twelve years working in the corporate environment in variety of roles that covered everything from humble jobs like "Customer Service Representative" and "Administrator" to "Consultant" and "Project & Client Manager".

I moved up through the ranks because early in my career when my experienced, successful bosses gave advice, I listened and learned how to conduct myself with that tag which we bandy around called "professionally".

So when I read agents and editors blogging about how writing is a business and you have to behave accordingly, I get it.

The problem is, it seems like a lot of writers just don't.

I think in part this is because many have never worked in a "professional" environment (read: where people wear suits, have meetings around board tables, their days are run by an hourly appointment schedule, and they're expected to communicate fluently with everyone from the CEO to the Janitor).

Now, don't misunderstand me: I'm not singing the praises of the corporate environment - frankly, I'm glad I got the chance to turn my back on it.  But I learned some useful skills there.  If you haven't spent a few years working like that, then you may find some of the points below helpful in your rise to the top of the Publishing pile:

Conducting Yourself Professionally...

1.  Means primarily being reliable, dependable and true to your word, i.e. If you have a deadline, you meet it.  If you can't meet it, you alert those who are affected by the deadline as soon as you know you won't be able to meet it.  (Note: This does not mean five minutes after the deadline has passed).

2.  Means dressing for the job.  Most of the time for a writer, this is no biggie.  You can sit around in your pajamas and Donkey Kong slippers while you're writing, no one will care.  But if you have a video conference, brush your hair, wear a nice blouse/shirt, and make sure it's a blank, or nondescript wall behind you.  Clutter is distracting and your SCREAM poster, well, screams...  Oh, and if you ever get the chance to meet your Publisher in-house in New York, wear grown-up shoes and buy a suit (or at the very least, some nice slacks, a button-down top and have your hair / make-up done if you're a woman).  Whether it's right or not, you'll be judged (at least in part) by how you present yourself.

3.  Means speaking with caution: Pragmatism is the word of the day, flexibility is the attitude that wins.  Even if the other person has been terribly unprofessional in what they've said or done, don't fight fire with fire.  Try to find a win-win situation.  If you've been put on the back foot by someone else's actions, deal with the problem first, talk about the conduct later.  Do not blame.  Do not vent.  Do not threaten.  Fix.  Solve.  Work.  Vent when you get home.  To your cat.

4.  Means taking bad news with a good attitude - even if it's fake.  People will often tell you things in business which sound aggressive, critical or LIKE THE WORLD IS ABOUT TO END.  If someone delivers that kind of news, ask for some time (an hour, a day, a week) to think about it before you respond.  Whenever it's critical that you do respond, focus on the issue, not the person who is the cause of it.   Put emotions aside until after you've put the phone down or gone home, and vent to your spouse / partner / cat. 

5.  Means being discreet (!!!).  I think this is probably the hardest one for novice writers.  Word to the wise: anything you tweet, blog or even facebook can be read by ANYONE.  Which includes the people involved.  It's a very, very thin line between sharing rejection statistics and making yourself look like a blabbermouth.  And honestly, discretion applies even more if an agent / publisher wants to work with you.  After all, if you can't keep your mouth shut about a full-manuscript request, how will you ever manage to do it about a publishing contract that's in the works?  (And PS - true discretion doesn't mean "The very best of my writer dreams just came true... but I can't tell you what it is *wink wink*).  You'll probably get away with that one, but it's hardly a testimony to your trap-shutting capabilities.

6. DOES NOT mean never having a sense of humor.  Professionals laugh and joke all the time.  But the true professional will get to know you a little first and feel out where your boundaries lie before slapping the Fat Mama joke on you, or making a crack at a colleague's expense.  It's actually harder to be funny in a way that isn't potentially offensive or shocking.  If you've got the gift, use it!  If not... maybe wait a while before displaying your rapier wit.

7.  DOES NOT mean identifying where your colleagues, competitors or suppliers are going wrong.  Quite the opposite.  A true professional has class enough to let the thing everyone knows but no one is saying be left unsaid.  (And, if it must be said, caging it in the most diplomatic terms possible).

8.  DOES NOT mean giving everyone a free pass to walk all over you.  See, the trick with professionalism is that you're savvy enough to choose your battles.  You keep your trap shut, work with flexibility, try to accommodate your agent / editor whever possible.  Then, when it's really important and you have to say no - they're ready to listen because they know you don't do that on a whim.

9.  DOES NOT mean pretending.  There's a huge difference between diplomacy (saying what you mean in simple, impersonal terms) and duplicity (saying something you know will be taken in a way you didn't mean it).  Refer to point number 8 - pick your battles.  Choose when it's really important to conflict, then you're more likely to be heard.  Because I promise you, it isn't always necessary to get your own way.

10.  DOES NOT mean never having fun.  Some of the funniest and most enjoyable relationships and conversations I had have been with colleagues-cum-friends.  In fact, most people I know prefer to make work fun.  The trick is in proving your professionalism first.  That way, people know they can trust you.  Once they know they can trust you, you'll be surprised what comes out of the woodwork.

So, what does all this look like in practice for the unpublished author?

- When writers flame their own negative reviews, roll your eyes and keep your trap shut.

- When you read blogs or tweets where people Name and Shame others in the industry, cringe and stay out of the conversation.

- Don't shy away from contentious issues if you think they're relevant, but always, always, always debate the issue, not the person who's writing about it.

- Be discreet.  Be discreet.  Be discreet - about what agents you're querying, what publishers your agent is submitting to, the upcoming contract, or anything another author tells you about their career.


Because it makes you look good.  And the pain of being careful pays out in the end when professionals want to work with you.  It's worth the wait.  It's worth the seeming isolation of not sharing news.  It's worth taking one on the chin for someone else now and again.  And it's definitely worth building relationships founded on trust. 

If you do, you won't just succeed, you'll be promoted by the very people closest to you in the rat-race.

Your Turn: Do you have anything to add?  What ways can we choose to be professional in the publishign industry - especially online? 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Advice from the Professionals

I'm sick (*bleh*) so my scintillating post on professionalism (c'mon, you know you're dying to hear it) is going to have to wait.  Instead, enjoy this interesting interview with Beautiful Creatures and Beautiful Darkness co-authors Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia.

If you're low on time, skip to 3:59 for the 'Advice to Writers' part.


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

WINNERS - Free 10,000 Word Critique

Thanks so much to everyone who entered, especially those who offered encouraging comments. It means more than you know.

Without further ado, the winners are...

Angela Ackerman (

Melody (

Mary Elizabeth Summer (

Congratulations ladies!  I'm emailing or tweeting all of you, but check your spam and / or feel free to get in touch with me at if you haven't heard by tomorrow.

Thanks again, everyone! 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Write What You Know... In Fantasy?

I am re-reading Romeo and Juliet for reasons that won't interest you.  The little collector's edition I now own has a foreword from someone I've never heard of.  In it, Aforementioned Unknown makes this observation (NOTE: It's a British publication, so all spelling is SIC):

"Reading the play you discover that the characters all act and speak as you would expect anyone to do in the circumstances.  Those circumstances might be dramatic, even violent, and the setting long ago and far away.  But the interactions make sense.  Events unfold not in the way of throw-away fiction or drama, driven by dithering, unreasonable behaviour and ludicrous coincidences, but via the credible reactions of each character to the actions of the others.

"[Consider Juliet.]... we empathise not just with her predicament, but with her rational manner of coping with it.  And that is why we are so touched with the tragedy of her death."

-Ned Halley, Page xiii of this publication

Here's the thing: Mr. Halley gives these words a delighted air, as if this resonance with the reader is a unique and uncommon trait.  Perhaps in Shakespeare's time it was.  But I would contend that empathy with the main character(s) goes far beyond 'delightful' in contemporary publiction - it's essential.

I could make all kinds of quips regarding Mr. Halley's observation that Shakespeare's characters speak " you would expect anyone to do in the circumstances..." but you and I both know what he actually meant by that:

Whatever world your characters inhabit, whatever language or colloqialisms they use, whatever creatures they may encounter, it is imperative that you bring to them an element of humanity that is common to us all.

When we're told to Write What You Know that doesn't mean one must become an expert in swordsplay to write a convincing Knight (though that may come in handy).  It means a writer's job is to identify the most common element at the core of your protagonist (and his / her opponents) which anyone can recognize.


(I.e. If that was me, I'd feel that way too.)

As my Writer Swami puts it:

"...thought it is the writer's world the reader enters, there are all sorts of opportunities for confusion.  Too often, the writer falls into the trap of writing about things--about sex, about violence, about scenery, about war, about domestic bliss or discord.  Historical fact or clinical detail overwhelm him.  The implications and evaluations, tacit in his thinking, never quite reach the reader. 

"In brief, although his work may on the face of it be cast rigidly in story form, it isn't actually fiction.  For a story is never really about anything.  Always it concerns someone's reactions to what happens: his feelings, emotions, impulses, dreams, ambitions, clashing drives and inner conflicts.  The external serves only to bring them into focus.... as the old rule-of-thumb has it, 'Every story is somebody's story."

-Dwight V. Swain, Page 43 of this publication

In other words... it isn't the words about your fabricated world that draw a reader in.  It is what you know of people.  Of feelings.  Of the human condition.  Using the focal character, you draw a picture of a world and a set of circumstances that - if the reader were in it - would evoke great emotion.

You then attribute those feelings to your focal character.  And create reactions within them and to them that also resonate for the reader.

In short, you make sure your characters act like real people... even if they speak like fourteenth-century soap-opera stars.

I may not be a swashbuckling wench with a serpent tattoo, but if you place me firmly in the head and heart of a buxom young lass who demonstrates a humanity I can recognize, I'll feel like I am.

That is what I think it means to write what you know.  Search yourself.  Search your heart.  Search your life - and observe the actions and reactions of those you love.  Understand how you feel and why, then attribute those same feelings, reactions and conclusions to your characters.  Your reader will love you for it - even if it means empathizing with a demon-blasting immortal, or a narcisistic Emperess. 

Your Turn: What other tips have you found useful to successfully deliver 'writing what you know' in fantasy genres?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

2011 Debut Author Lauren DeStefano

My son is sick and having surgery tomorrow (minor), so I'm taking a week off real blogging.  In the meantime, check out this fabuloso advice (and coolio Kittehs) from White Hot YA Author Lauren DeStefano:

See you in a few days.

(And if you want more from Lauren you can find her here and here).

Saturday, July 9, 2011

How Do You Know When Your Book is Cooked (The Revival)

A funny thing happened here on my blog:  I was wrong.

Now, now, before you go gettin' all quivery...

Last year, after an extensive round of edits with my agent that whipped my manuscript into the best shape it had been at that point (and during which time several editors asked to read it *gulp*) I wrote a post on how to know if your book is cooked.

Except, the problem was, my book wasn't.  So editors who were 'very excited about the premise', turned it down. 

It just wasn't ready.

(If you want to see why I'm eating humble-pie, check out this post, then come back here.  I'll wait....)


Now, from what I gather, I'm not the first author to have experienced this.  But it taught me something really important:

I'll probably never be finished until the book is on the shelf.  (And, based on listening to a bunch of published authors out there, I'll probably wish I could change it later).

BUT that's kind of the beauty of this industry.  We're always growing, always improving, always learning new skills (or should be). 

I think the question you, me and everyone else who's writing should ask is: Have I got the right recipe?  Whether the next step is revision, querying agents, submission to editors or self-publishing - your book might be as "cooked" as you're capable of getting it right now.  If you find yourself reading through, changing sentences, then reading through and changing them back... you've probably reached your limit. 

So, what next?  How do you know it's ready to move along?

- Find a critique group (especially with someone more experienced than yourself) and listen to what they have to say, even if it hurts.

- Read a Really Good Fiction Craft Book.

- Put the manuscript aside for a couple of months and write something else, then come back to read with fresh eyes.

- Read another Really Good Fiction Craft Book.

- *CAUTION: USE WITH CARE*: Approach any professional contacts you might have and ask their advice.

The point is, even published authors haven't 'finished' a book until it's been through several rounds of editing.  We-The-Aspiring's can't really expect to reach that level without professional help.  The trick is to recognize when you've taken it as far as you can for now, then employ one of these techniques (or any others you can come up with).  And the key to making any of these actually useful is a willingness to consider criticism as a springboard for improvement, rather than a failure of epic proportions.

Your Turn: Is your manuscript ready to move on?  What helped you feel confident of that?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Confessions of a Classics Loather

My name is Aimee and I'm a literary neanderthal.
It has been twelve weeks since I last throttled myself with classic fiction...


Okay, so the truth is a lot of classic fiction bores me, while most poetry makes me want to slit my wrists (or something less dramatic, but equally vehement).

However, there are writers in the contemporary world who I think aren't given their dues. They take my breath away with their ability to paint a picture with words. They evoke emotion and put me so firmly in their shoes that I feel like, just for a moment, we inhabit the same skin.

Here are brief snippets from two of them. (Ten points if you can name their pseudonyms without Google or clicking the links):

I can't tell you what it really is, I can only tell you what it feels like. And right now it’s a steel knife in my windpipe. I can't breathe, but I still fight while I can fight. As long as the wrong feels right it's like I'm in flight - high off of love, drunk from my hate.
It's like I'm huffing paint and I love it.

The more that I suffer, I suffocate. And right before I’m about to drown she resuscitates me. She hates me and I love it.


Day after day, love turns grey like the skin of a dying man. Night after night, we pretend it’s all right. But I have grown older and you have grown colder and nothing is very much fun anymore.

I can feel one of my turns coming on. I feel cold as a razor blade, tight as a tourniquet, dry as a funeral drum.

Run to the bedroom! In the suitcase on the left you'll find my favorite axe. Don't look so frightened. This is just a passing phase - one of my bad days.

Would you like to watch T.V.? Or get between the sheets? Or contemplate the silent freeway? Would you like something to eat? Would you like to learn to fly?

Would you like to see me try?

Would you like to call the cops? Do you think it's time I stopped?

Why are you running away?

Your Turn: Wow me with a brief sample from someone you think goes unheralded as a fabulous writer in these days and times.