Monthly Archives: July 2015

Genre Lessons: Literary Fiction

Book with flowers.

Image by Pixabay user condesign.

As many of you know, I spent last weekend at the Midwest Writers Workshop. I’ll be sharing my notes and takeaways from that in a future post, but while I’m recovering and absorbing everything from the conference, I hope you enjoy this month’s genre lessons.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re discussing literary fiction. I have a hard time with this genre because these books often employ unusual structures, formats, or elements with (in my opinion) mixed levels of success. This month’s exploration was more of a look at what does and doesn’t work for me as a reader and why. But I did have a few takeaways that I think other writers could benefit from, too.

1. Know what viewpoint is right for your book, and if it feels like something isn’t working, don’t be afraid to experiment. First person plural narration is very tough to pull off, but when done correctly it’s extremely effective. In a recent read, that narration simultaneously made the main characters (a collective group of immigrants) more and less human. It gave them a voice, but one that reflected the way those outside their group saw them — as people of a certain background, rather than as individuals. The author used this narration to show their differences as well as their similarities, to convey that no two people had the same experience while also suggesting that there was a universal way to look at their experience. None of the story ideas I’ve come up with so far would work in first person plural, but with the right story, it can be a powerful tool.

2. Be careful introducing a lot of characters at once. I had this problem with another recent read — for a while, every section focused on a different character who was loosely connected to the characters from previous sections. I almost stopped reading because I wasn’t deeply invested in any of the characters. Then, when we finally settled in with one character, it wasn’t the character I cared most about. The whole time, I wanted to skip ahead to the parts with my favorite from the beginning.

This is likely a problem that not all readers would have with a book. I’m drawn to character-driven stories, and I write character-driven novels, so I’m more focused on characters than some readers. Those looking for an interesting setting or intriguing plot would likely not have the same complaint I had. So in that sense, reading this book was a reminder that not every reader will love your book, but that in no way means that it is a bad book. It just means that particular reader didn’t connect with it.

3. The right detail can be more effective than pages of mediocre description. In many cases, readers don’t need several paragraphs to set a scene; a line or two about a distinctive smell, the way a certain plant grows in a certain town at a certain time of year, or even a look at what’s out-of-place (the corn should be up to the narrator’s waist, but a recent drought/flood/blight has it barely ankle-high). These days especially, when there are so many alternate forms of entertainment, most readers aren’t looking for long flowery passages about the exact shade of green the mountain is in late spring. Give them the right sentence or two, and they’ll feel like they’re there without feeling like the story is dragging.

So, those are my takeaways for this month. Have you read any literary fiction lately? What writing lessons did you learn from it?

Conference Checklist

Midwest Writers Workshop. I’m headed to Midwest Writers Workshop for my third year in a row this weekend. I think I’ve mentioned a few times how this conference jump-started my writing career, and how much I recommend attending a writing conference — even a local one — if you can afford to do so. As I get ready for the weekend, I thought it might help first-time conference-goers to get a glimpse of my preparations. Here are all the things I recommend bringing to a conference:

  • Copies of your query, pitch, synopsis, and sample pages. How many copies you bring of each of these, and how many pages you include in the sample, will vary depending on the conference. Since I have a query critique, manuscript evaluation, and agent pitch session scheduled, I’m bringing multiple copies of the materials I sent in advance so I can make notes as I receive feedback.
  • Bottled water. It’s easy to forget about things like staying hydrated in the rush of a conference, but you don’t want to wind up bedridden at the end of the day (especially because the informal post-workshop hangouts are often the best part!). Water may be expensive or hard to find at different venues, so plan ahead and bring your own.
  • Snacks. If you’re like me, you go Hulk-angry when you’re hungry. To avoid the strain of long stretches between meals and the dilemma of do I leave this awesome panel to go find a vending machine and risk missing something, have a granola bar or other easily-transportable munchies on hand.
  • Copies of books by other authors you know are attending. Every conference is different, but if there’s a chance you may meet a favorite author, have your copy of her book with you ready to sign.
  • Cash to purchase books by conference faculty and attendees. Again, every conference is different, but at MWW there’s a table set up where all published attendees can register to have copies of their books sold. If you meet someone whose book sounds awesome, and you have cash on hand, you can buy the book and have the author sign it right there. Now you have a new friend and a personalized souvenir!
  • Business cards. It’s hard to keep track of everyone you meet at a conference, but exchanging business cards can help. When you trade cards, make a quick note on the back of the other person’s — “talked about More Happy Than Not” — and it’ll be easier for you remember that person when you connect with them later.
  • Your note-taking method of choice. I go with a notebook and pen, but a laptop, tablet, smartphone, etc. will work just as well.
  • Smartphone or mobile device. I think this is a lower priority, but if you want an extra level of engagement, you can live tweet events and follow people you meet right away if you have your smartphone with you. I don’t live tweet much, because I feel like I’m missing new information as I scramble to type out a great quote or bit of advice, but I have friends whose tweets become their notes sometimes. Social media is also a great way to get notes on a workshop you couldn’t attend — just search the conference hashtag and find tweets from that workshop or panel. This is a great alternative for those who aren’t able to attend conferences, too.

So that’s my conference checklist. Anything you would add to the list?

And if you’re coming to MWW, please say hi!

Wording Policies to Welcome Patrons

No sign. It’s been a while since I blogged about the library world, but I’ve been thinking about policies a lot lately. My library just got feedback from several community focus groups that we’ll use to update our strategic plan (policies being just one small part), and I’ve been looking at the policies/codes of conduct at a few other libraries to see how we compare.

Some words that I’m seeing a lot are “don’t,” “can’t,” “forbidden,” and “prohibited.” One library’s teen policies sounded almost like something a warden would post, with restricted hours the teens were allowed on computers, requirements that they read a certain amount of time before using a computer, and even certain hours during which teens are banned from the building (as well as certain spaces they’re banned from using there). I assume this last rule is designed to ensure teens who are skipping school don’t come to the library; but if they’re cutting class, wouldn’t the library be a better place for them to come than, say, the local druggies’ hangout? And what about teens who are homeschooled?

But I digress. The purpose of this post is not to tell anyone what policies their library should have — different communities call for different policies — but to examine how those policies are worded. Instead of telling people what they can’t do, try telling them what they can. Give your code of conduct a more positive framing. For example:

  • “Cell phones are not allowed in the reading area” could become “Please silence cell phones in the reading area and take calls in the lobby or outside.”
  • “Don’t eat or drink in the computer lab” could become “Please enjoy snacks and beverages in our cafe area, not the computer lab.”
  • “Don’t re-shelve books” could become “Please leave any books you don’t want to check out on the cart, and we’ll put them away for you.”

I know not all policies can be rewritten without the “don’ts” and the “can’ts,” but if we change the ones that can, the whole code of conduct will be a little more welcoming. And I know, my suggested alternatives don’t technically ban the behaviors the original policies do, but I think the amount of argument you’ll get over semantics will be small compared to the change in people’s perception of the library. And a note at the end of the code granting library staff the right to interpret and enforce all policies as they see fit (which most libraries already have) should take care of any nit-pickers.

Have you examined your library’s policies lately? Do you think any could be rephrased to use more positive wording? Do you have concerns about rephrasing? Please share in the comments.

So you want to self-publish…

Publish. When I tell people I’m a writer, often one of the first questions I get is, “Have you considered self-publishing?” I’ll try to succinctly explain that that’s not the right publishing path for me, that there’s actually a lot more involved than just uploading a file to Amazon or CreateSpace, and that I’d rather have an agent and publishing house on my team. But for those of you who are thinking about self-publishing, here are the main things you’ll want to do to make sure you have a quality product that reaches its target audience. (And yes, I’m treating books as products here. While writing is a creative art, publishing — including self-publishing — is a business.)

  1. Hire an editor. You shouldn’t rely solely on your critique partners or beta readers to find all the weak points in your novel. CPs are great, but in most cases they’re not professional editors. A professional editor will help you make sure your book is the best it can be. Finding the right editor will require some research, though. Look at recent books in your genre and category that you enjoyed and check the acknowledgments to see who edited them. If that editor does freelance work, reach out to him/her and ask for a sample edit. Of course, you’ll want to make sure his/her services are within your budget. I haven’t done a lot of research on freelance editors, but Jordan McCollum wrote a great introduction to finding your perfect editor and editing level on Janice Hardy’s Fiction University. If you’re looking for an editor, I recommend reading the article. (And once you’ve worked with an editor, you’ll want to hire a proofreader, too. Nothing will make me abandon a book faster than typos or grammatical errors, and I know I’m not alone in that.)
  2. Hire a professional cover designer. If you’re not a graphic designer or trained in some other type of visual art that translates well to designing book covers, you’ll want to work with someone who has that expertise. An enticing cover can draw people in, making them click from a web page with hundreds of thumbnails to a description of your book. The wrong cover could have readers passing your book because the image doesn’t match the tone or type of story they’re looking for. (Side note: make sure your cover matches the tone of your book. Otherwise you may not reach the audience you’re trying to reach, and reviewers will be quick to point this out.)
  3. Have a marketing plan. You may have a great book and a gorgeous cover, but if no one knows about it, it’s not doing you any good. Plan ahead so you can build buzz before your release date and keep the conversation going once your book is out.
  • Reach out to bloggers who review your category and genre and ask if they’d be willing to review your book. (Though you’ll want to make sure they’ve liked other books that are similar to yours, first. If your book isn’t a good fit for them, their reviews will reflect that.) If you want to do a blog tour (and you should seriously consider it if you’re self-publishing), contact the hosts of reader, writer, and related niche blogs. Keep in mind that not every blogger will post reviews; but if you ask, some may let you to give an interview or write a guest post on a relevant topic. Research the blog ahead of time so you know what type of post the host(s) may be willing to consider.
  • Consider having a cover reveal, giveaways, or sneak peaks to build anticipation before the release. Keep in mind, giveaways don’t necessarily need to be copies of your book; in fact, readers love prize packs that are related to the book. They’ll get something personal and meaningful, and they’ll still buy their own copies of your book.
  • Reach out to your local newspaper, radio, and other media and ask if they’d be interested in doing a story on a new local author. Make sure you have a media kit ready to go on your author website so they know you’re a professional, and so they can easily grab quotes, image files, and other information if they need it at the last minute.
  • Reach out to local bookstores and libraries. If you’re publishing in print as well as digital, keep in mind that most stores and libraries won’t stock a self-published book unless a customer requests it. Rather than get annoyed with your bookseller/librarian, ask your readers to request your book at their local stores and libraries. And remember, while book signings are great opportunities to connect with readers, they aren’t your only options. Ask your library if you can give a writing workshop, or if your book has a certain niche audience, see if you can do a program that connects with that audience. (For instance, if you wrote a historical fiction novel set during the Civil War, see if you can present on an interesting piece of the research that went into your novel.)

So, there’s an overview of some of the things you’ll want to do and think about before you self-publish. Have I missed anything? What else would you recommend?