Monday, 23 June 2014

The trouble with my Kindle library

Piles and piles of books
I don't have a Kindle, but I've been downloading e-books to the app at a much faster rate than I can read
them. I still buy the occasional hard copy—ill-advised since I ran out of shelf space years ago and the bookcase I bought last year filled up instantly with the piles that were sitting on bed, chairs and desk—but most of my book purchases over the last five years have been of the digital variety.

Since I plan to put a dent in my TBR backlog this summer, I decided to 'get organized' (always a dangerous undertaking for me) by dividing the Kindle titles into categories. The result was as follows:

1: Books by writers I know. (scores, maybe hundreds)
2: Classics to be read or re-read. (scores)
3: Books on eating, cooking and generally living more healthfully. (a handful)
4: Books on e-publishing (a few)
5: Novels, biographies and memoirs NOT by authors I know. (a few)
6: Miscellaneous titles, like the experimental baby books for my granddaughter. (a few)

The problem with my Kindle library became clear: apparently, I own scores, possibly hundreds, of books that I bought or downloaded free simply to support authors I know. I have little or no interest in reading maybe 95% of these books, so what do I do with them? I have to wade through these to get to those that I actually plan to read. I'd like to delete the unwanted books but feel guilty about this although I know I'll never get around to reading, for example, love stories that pair humans with vampires, dragons, tigers or wolves, those that are gruesome, weird and humorless (I can read gruesome and weird if there's humor involved), and those by authors I've sampled whose writing doesn't grab me for one reason or another.

The other categories are fine: I'm picking my way through the Fanons, Alighieris, and Flauberts that I've been wanting to read, like, forever; I've started on the books by authors I know that I do want to read, such as Jamaica Dreaming by Eugenia O'Neal that I read in its entirety yesterday, and William Doonan's Mediterranean Grave; don't plan on reading any more books on e-publishing for a while; and I'll schedule the 'healthful living' books for maybe every other month. But that first category is headache-inducing.

Do you buy/download lots of books you don't plan to read just to support authors you know? What on earth do you do with them?

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Shortlist oasis

I sometimes describe my writing career (I use the term loosely here) as a desert with the occasional oasis that makes it all worthwhile. What is the desert comprised of? Years of toiling in the dark, the laborious search for agents and publishers, the chimerical nature of the publishing industry that follows neither the rules of logic nor of commerce, the clogging up of online bookstores with the slush pile (there, I've said it, and I'm by no means referring to the worthwhile, well-written and edited indie books out there)...

...The shrinkage and near-disappearance of the author advance.
...The social media time-suck requirement that does little unless the writer is already established.
...The fact that some publishers are still robbing writers blind.

Sand, sand, lots of dry sand.

But every now and then something thrilling happens that makes it all worthwhile. Signing with my agent back in 2006 was one; she was the first industry professional to validate my writing, and one of my first fans. The first sale to a publisher, the first release, the first sighting of a book with your name on it in a bookstore, the first (and every single) fan letter, the good and great reviews, the writing network built up over years, the kindness of strangers...

My latest oasis experience has been the shortlisting of one of my stories for the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. I'm not ashamed to say it made me delirious with joy, partly because I'm well aware that genre writers, especially those who dabble in romance, are not taken seriously by the literary establishment. But that aside, it just feels good to have one's work recognised in this way. For the rest of the month, drinks are on me!

Thursday, 20 March 2014

New release: Give Me the Night

This novel has had quite a journey to publication, but here it is at last. Give Me the Night will be available in stores March 23.


Run, Naeva, run!
Leaving her island home and fleeing to Miami to escape a man who has a yen to kill her should have simplified life for Naeva, but she stumbles immediately into a torrid romance with the yummy Dr. Avery Dubois and has to fend off the advances of her slightly sinister boss while dodging the claws of the felines at the agency where she works. Wracked by nightmares and shadowed by her pursuer, she struggles to find a new normal, but when the long-lost cousin who takes her in on her arrival starts putting his demented plan into action, her life begins to careen out of control once more...

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The name crazies

Multiple Identity Disorder?
I'll admit right up front that I have more name issues than the average human. I started life with four names--three given plus the surname, a surname that became a compound when I got married and added a hyphen and the surname of my spouse. After the wedding, all I had to do was flash a marriage certificate (cost: 25 cents for official stamp) and changes went into effect on all IDs, accounts, permits and passes.

One divorce later, I discovered that reverting to the maiden name was not a simple matter of dropping the hyphen and second surname that no longer fit. No siree. I needed an affidavit. I paid for that piece of paper (cost: $50) and went along my deluded way thinking all was well in Namesville.

Four years ago when I went to renew IDs and passport, I discovered that all was not well; I needed a deed poll (cost: $2000) because the first name I'd carried all my life was actually the third on my birth certificate. I paid up and figured my naming ordeals were over.

Fast forward to 2013 when a certain government agency advised me that my married surname (the hyphenated compound one) was still my legal name even though I have a passport, two IDs and an affidavit that say otherwise. An affidavit is not a legal instrument, they claimed, and as such their hands were tied in certain matters until I got a second deed poll (cost: another $2000) to officially revert to my own goddamned maiden name. I think I lost consciousness at that point. When I came to, I shut up and put up.

So that was the end of that, right? Alas, no. Name issues continue to haunt me. I write in several genres and I've got one name for the romance fiction persona, another for the spec fic, and yet another version that I reserve for lit fic and the long-neglected memoir. Now there's a mystery novel in the making and I'm considering a new handle for that too, but I've had it up to here with my multiple identities, not to mention the feeding and watering of various social media places that keep them all separate and tidy.

What say you? Should I just keep the ones I already have? Abandon all but my 'real' name? Let one of the existing names do double duty for the mystery? Or should I put on my big girl shorts and add yet another identity to the mix? This thing is driving me bananas and I'm tempted to wipe the slate and just go by The Writer Formerly Known As...

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Setting the scene

Pigeon Point Tobago, setting of a scene in Cafe au Lait
Settings, both in my reading and writing, are often as important to me as character and plot. I treasure writers
who can bring a location, time and social context so vividly to life that I feel I've not just read about a place but actually spent time there. What is setting precisely? It's the overall atmosphere (place, time, society) and the particular physical setting of each scene.

Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, Miami, from Give Me the Night
When I think of alluring settings, Gerald Durrell's Corfu stories come to mind. His stories which are set in Africa, Argentina, Guyana and other places are equally compelling setting-wise. If I ever make it to his zoo on Jersey Island, I'm sure I'll recognize the place. I can even recall the smell of animal droppings in his backyard in England when it used to be cluttered with animals in cages--though I've never visited that island. I can hear his neighbors quarreling over the fence about the squawking of the exotic birds and screeches of the primates, just as I'm painfully familiar with the colonial India of E.M. Forster, the dust-clogged Canadian prairies of Farley Mowat, and the blistering near-mystical Australian outback of Arthur Upfield. Yes, I'm a setting whore of sorts.

The settings in my books are usually places I know intimately, such as the Caribbean and South Florida, or that I've imagined intimately, such as the post-apocalyptic barren permafrost wastes in my speculative short story, Bird. Whether the scene is a placid
Arctic tundra, similar to the landscape in Bird
beach or a tropical swamp, a Miami metropolis of highways and metrorails or a lichen-covered polar wasteland, I labor over the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures and rhythms that create that elusive element, setting. To me, these are as important as the speech patterns, personal tics, actions and psychological journeys of the characters. As such, I prize highly the review of an Amazon UK reader who said she was on Google Maps the entire time she was reading one of my stories, following the characters around. This, to me, is proof that the setting came alive and excited the reader to the point where she was living the story, an immersion that's essential to my reading experience, and which I try to create for my readers.

How important is setting to your writing? Do you labor over it, or is it a mere backdrop to that all-important element--the plot?

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Burned: Why I hesitate to give advice to new writers

Head in the clouds
Sunny Frazier's article "Fame and Fortune? Fugetaboutit" over on Novel Spaces brought back memories of the times I almost injured friendships in my zeal to help aspiring writers come to terms with the realities of the publishing industry. Those experiences taught me to leave people to their illusions unless they specifically asked for my input.

First there was the case of Friend A. He is not a reader (except for the publications of his particular religious sect) and it shows in his writing which is unwieldy and preachy. He was out of a job and decided, since I had just snared a publishing contract, that he would write a memoir and make some fast money. Fast money? This was around 2006/2007 when Amazon's KDP platform did not exist. I explained the process of getting a book published and the time involved, but he brushed all of that aside. He'd get a big advance that would take care of all his expenses until the royalties started pouring in. Okay...

This brought us to the work that has to be done before signing that lovely contract—you know, the querying of agents and publishers. At the time few agents were accepting e-queries and the process involved lots of printing out of letters, synopses and sample chapters and mailing them to another country (my friend lives in the Caribbean, as I do) with International Mailing Coupons or return envelopes with US stamps on them. And before that, I informed Friend A, a lot of research had to be done to find the agents/editors who might be interested—online research with ultra-slow dial-up connections (remember those?)... My friend's response?

"Oh, you know all about that stuff so you can do it for me."

I think my jaw must have hit the floor at the same time my eyebrows collided with the roof, knowing as I did the years of hard work and research that led to that first publishing contract of mine. (And I'm not even talking about the writing itself here.) Hadn't I just explained all of this to my friend? Yet he thought I had a few spare months or years lying around, late nights included, to do this on his behalf. It was at this point that I began to write off his publishing aspirations, because writers must be willing to do the work. You're not willing to do the work involved? Then you're not serious, buddy. But a friend is a friend, so I hung in there and kept trying to help...

I took a deep breath and moved along to the actual writing. His book was going to be a memoir, and he had written an introduction and a few chapters. I told him the same rules apply as with a novel: there must be a narrative arc, it must be interesting and written in a style that makes the reader want to keep reading. Since it was a memoir, though, he needed to tell the truth, so he would have to excise all the intriguing anecdotes about fighting his (nonexistent up to that point) agent and editor to the death for "creative control" and "joining the ranks of the literati—damn them". He also needed, I told him, to leave out the parts about his vast qualifications to write the book and how much the reader stood to gain from reading the story—and let the story stand on its own.

He was horrified, and his first thought was that I was being malicious. Then he recalled our many years of friendship and that nothing I had ever done or said before provided a sound basis for such a conclusion, so he resolved that it must be the publishing industry that was rotten and biased and I was just showing him what he would have to deal with "out there". At that point he decided he would not waste his time and talent on such a system, and he moved on to other dreams and plans.

Friend B is another story. He also has a lot to learn, but makes up for his shortcomings with his love for and dedication to writing. He does the work, and has been doing it for many years. He puts in the time to learn more about the craft, constantly challenging himself. At some point he decided he wanted to have something to show for his years of effort, so he self-published an anthology on Xlibris. There was just one problem: he believed the royalty checks would start pouring in from the very next month. When I tried to tell him a bit about the reality of self publishing at the time, he got an angry glint in his eyes and a certain set to his jaw. I knew what he was thinking: that I had gone and gotten a publishing contract and now I was  trying to rain on his parade. I was being a wet blanket. A purveyor of negativity.

I shut up. He went ahead with his plans and at last check, after five years, he had not yet sold 10 copies of the book. He continues to ask my opinion and advice, though. The difference now is that he pays attention. I don't know everything, but I share what I do know. I'll always try to help Friend B to the best of my ability because he works hard and loves writing stories. I hope that he finds some measure of success in publishing, whatever his definition of "success" might be.

So, unlike Sunny, I no longer try to put new writers right about the realities of publishing. When they ask in person or write me for advice, I point them to helpful websites. And I don't read their manuscripts unless they are paying me to edit them. I've discovered that to some aspiring writers, it's all about fooling around with a fuzzy dream of immediate fame and fortune. They aren't interested in the years of toil, setbacks, and disappointment, with rare moments of bliss, that go into the making of a real-world publishing career.

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

What have you done for your writing lately?

As a writer you're never done learning. This can be daunting, especially when you stumble across a book that blows you away—like The Portrait of Dorian Gray did to me two years ago—and you realize that even given multiple lifetimes you might never attain anything close to the genius of an Oscar Wilde.

But few of us have such lofty aspirations anyway. We just want to write what we enjoy in such a way that readers enjoy it as well. Many readers, preferably. We gain pleasure from the realization that each book we write is better, craft-wise, than the one that went before. And the way we ensure that we get better at what we do is to hone our skills. How do we achieve this?
  • Reading widely should not even be on this list because it's a given: writers of fiction are--or should be--great consumers of fiction. The former state grows out of the latter. I have met too many aspiring writers who say they don't have time to read, or only read the Bible, or only read sci-fi, or romance, or some other narrow slice of the wealth out there. To paraphrase Stephen King: anyone who doesn't have the time to read has neither the time nor the tools to write.
  • Fall in love with words, if you aren't already. I know people, including some editors, who are miffed when they stumble across unfamiliar words in a manuscript. I happen to love authors who challenge my vocabulary and teach me exciting new words. I'm not referring to to those, particularly in the literary arena, whose paragraphs are minefields strewn with obstacles to clarity, or the ones who engage in thesaurus overkill. Expand your vocabulary and use your new tools to telling effect. 
  • Challenge yourself by taking writing courses. I did a fiction writing course last year, and followed up this year with a poetry writing course. I can tell you, that poetry class was a challenge! The class days were the highlight of my week; it was fulfilling to spend three hours reading, critiquing, discussing, learning, and just being in the creative zone with like-minded people. As a consequence, I wrote more, and I wrote better. 
  • Befriend writers on social networks. Most of my online contacts are writers. I have learned much from them about the business of publishing, about writing craft via their favorite books on the subject, about their workspaces, their problems and their solutions to writing and publishing issues. I've learned where to go for cover art and marketing advice. These writers are my lifeline. 
  • Attend writing retreats, residential workshops, conventions. I haven't been to any of those, but from all accounts, the laser focus of a writing retreat and the energy and excitement of conventions are invigorating. In addition to learning new skills, atendees often end up making new friends for life and discovering valuable industry contacts. 
These are just a few ways in which I boost (or plan to boost) my writing. What have you done for your creativity lately?

Liane Spicer

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

I'm the language police and you're under arrest!

Back in 2007 when I was still new to blogging I was unceremoniously pulled over by a helmeted laptop cop, a regular visitor to my blog, who cited me for misspelling ad nauseam. I Googled the expression and discovered that my version, ad nauseum, did not exist. Duh, I told myself. The expression is derived from nausea, so where on earth did I get that second u? I did a quick search of the blog and found I had misspelled the word not just in the current article, but in another I had posted a few months earlier.

My gratitude for that citation was profound. I had always been a little--okay, a lot--impatient with writers who inadvertently break the rules of the language in their Internet scribblings (and, needless to say, in their books). Yet I had made this egregious spelling error on my own blog, not once, but twice. I was mortified, but thankful for the directness of the language cop. I admired her seeming inability to shrink from what some might consider a sensitive issue. I imagine that all writers are sensitive about errors in their work; I know I am, which is why, unlike my blog friend, I rarely point out glaring errors in the writing of authors I know--the exception being friends who ask me to edit their work and clients who pay me to do so.

Correcting minor errors in articles submitted by guests of Novel Spaces is something I do routinely. As a blog administrator, I also correct typos, incorrect formatting, and sometimes language errors in members' posts, not routinely, but now and then when I stumble across them. What I never do is send an e-mail to the author citing him or her for the mistakes.

I know, I know. I'm a craven coward who dreads causing offense or embarrassment. I've seen the reactions of writers across the web to having their errors pointed out, heard the screams of "Spelling police!" and "Grammar Nazi". I also have time constraints like everyone else; it's more efficient all around to just make a quick edit and move on. But I never do this without a little pang of remorse. The spelling-cop (who became a good friend) ensured that I'd never again embarrass myself on the world wide web or anywhere else by writing ad nauseum instead of ad nauseam.

What do you do? Do you point out language errors to writers as you find them in the knowledge that every word we write, even informally on the Internet, reflects on us professionally? Or do you just you move along knowing that we all err at times?

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Writing advice from the greats: Henry Miller

In my last two posts on writing advice from the greats, we looked at Kurt Vonnegut's 8 tips for writing great stories and 6 writing tips from John Steinbeck. These guidelines worked for Vonnegut and Steinbeck, and they'll work for you. I've been guilty of doing the opposite of what successful career writers do: I've worked on too many things simultaneously so I began to feel overwhelmed and could not focus on any; I've wasted time waiting for inspiration or the right 'mood' to get down to work; I've edited to death instead of finishing and starting a new book... My transgressions run the gamut, and some are an ongoing challenge, but re-reading proven advice from the masters always gets me back on the rails.

We'll wind up the series with some advice from Henry Miller. Enjoy!

Henry Miller's 11 Commandments

  1. Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  2. Start no more new books, add no more new material to ‘Black Spring.’ [Or, finish your WIP!]
  3. Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  4. Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  5. When you can’t create you can work.
  6. Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  7. Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  8. Don’t be a draught-horse! Work with pleasure only.
  9. Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  10. Forget the books you want to write. Think only of the book you are writing.
  11. Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.
There it is - the best writing advice I've found. You'll find many other authors repeating the tips in these three articles. My own advice is to take what works for you and dump the rest. Take Miller's #11, for example. You can't always write first; children, day jobs, illness, general vicissitudes of life can get in the way. But if we make our writing a priority and follow much of the advice at least some of the time, we'll stand a better chance of completing the stories we want to write.

Happy writing!

Liane Spicer



Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Writing advice from the greats: John Steinbeck


John Steinbeck
In my first post on writing advice from the greats, we looked at what the Slaughterhouse-Five author, Kurt Vonnegut, had to say about writing good stories. The good writing advice does not stop there; John Steinbeck famously claimed that no one has been able to reduce story writing to a recipe, yet even he had a few ingredients of his own for creating good stories.

John Steinbeck's 6 writing tips:
  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
Even the writers who claim there are no rules admit that there are a few that they live by. The only one I've taken to heart is that you never, never show anyone your work until the first draft is complete. Do you have one unbreakable writing rule? Please share it with us.

Next up on Advice from the Greats: Henry Miller's 11 commandments.

Liane Spicer