How to be a Real Writer (Spoilers: You Are One Already)

There’s a whole bunch of Writing Advice out there. Like too much. It’s really overwhelming at times. A new writer could drown in it, if not given a Good Advice vs Bad Advice life preserver. When I was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my writing (still am) and trying to navigate the terrifyingly choppy waters of publishing (still am) I followed a lot of White Rabbits down a lot of White Rabbit Holes. There was a lot of Writing Advice down it those holes. I drank some and I ate some. Some was good and some was bad.

A good deal of it was bad.

Some very bad, as if Voldemort and Maleficent had a child and instead of becoming a Evil Wizard Queen that kid decided to use their wicked lineage to start an Evil Writing Advice Blog to lead astray burgeoning writers. This life choice would be disappointingly diabolical to that kid’s parents, I’m sure, but still very dangerous to writers who might stumble upon that blog. A White Rabbit leading them down into a dark tunnel that never ends.

Evil Laugh

I read many the Malemort Writing Advice Blog in my day, filled with the type of advice that I would look back on now and be baffled that anyone would take it seriously. But much of this advice was spouted by Real Writers, ones who had Made It and needed to tell you how to Make It too. I hope most up and coming writers will do their proper research, and eventually see these kinds of blog for what they really. Some of that advice is is really damaging, but that damage can be mended.

Today, however, I would like to discuss one type of truly horrible and destructive Writing Advice that I still see propagated from time to time in my Twitter feed and it makes me SMDH every time.

“To be a Writer you have to write every day.”

Angry Tom

This is the single most damaging piece Writing Advice I have ever encountered. It’s not like bad advice on how to format your query letter, or an arbitrary number of Twitter followers you need to have to get an agent’s attention or any other such nonsense. Not only is the “Write Every Day” advice wrong, it’s actively harmful to people struggling to find their identity as a writer.

Putting in the words is hard. We all have other commitments that take time away from the writing. Especially when you’re just starting out and trying to find that balance between your writing time and the rest of your life. This advice put even more pressure an already difficult task. There is a lot of stress that goes along with this work. Pressure to finish a book. Pressure to find an agent. Pressure to get published. Pressure to be a bestseller. It doesn’t end. If you don’t put the words in everyday, you’re just a wannabe. Unless you write every damned day, you’re a phony. A fraud.

You are not a Writer.  

Fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland wrote a fantastic post about Evangelion and Identity last week. It’s difficult for a new writer to find their identity as a Writer. Impostor Syndrome is one of the hardest things to overcome. We’ve all suffered it, and we surely will again. The fact this advice might strip away the identity of someone as a Writer, just because of some arbitrary measurement of progress or achievement is heartbreaking to me. It’s unfair. It’s wrong. 

Sad Asuka

Self care is one of the most important aspects of being a writer. I’ve learned this over the years. Burnout, sacrificing sleep and personal time in the name of  forcing yourself to write, even though you just can’t, will turn you against the work. It will make you hate it. You know what’s going to make you Not A Writer faster that not writing every day? Not writing every day or ever again because you burnt yourself out and hate writing now.

So, my friends, I want you to repeat after me:

You are a Writer

Still plodding slowly but surely through that first manuscript that somehow is already 150,000 words long and is only three quarters of the way done?

You are a Writer.

Putting the finishing touches on that Poe/Finn Bromance turned Romance fanfiction you’ve been working on since The Force Awakens came out?

You are a Writer.

Working on the next manuscript while you’re out on submission, furiously rechecking your inbox every five minutes and freaking out every time your phone vibrates?

You are a Writer.

Doing final edits on the last volume of your huge, New York Times Bestselling YA Dystopian Werewolf Romance Epic with a movie option starring Ariana Grande?  

You are a Writer.

So go forth and write, you beautiful goddamn Writer.

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Evangelion and Shards of Identity

asuka
I’ll talk about Evangelion. I promise.

 

We see the word identity a lot these days. “Self identity.” “Cultural identity.” “Identity politics.” “I identify as…” It’s part of the human condition to constantly question who we are as individuals, as a society, as creatures who live linearly but exist non-dimensionally.

Any one of us can name a number of roles and characteristics that define us for ourselves and others: male, female, agender, parent, person of color, spoonie, bisexual, candlestick maker, superhero, whatever. Each of us is some amalgamation of descriptors that can only start to sum up the who and what of the stuff between our ears. And as intersectionality becomes a more widely recognized and emphasized facet of politics and personality, our society is coming to realize that each of us is more than our nationality, sexuality, or vocation.

asuka head tiltBut in spite of that recognition, most of us have one particular piece of identity that encapsulates the core of our being, something about ourselves we elevate and hold sacred. Maybe it’s mother or woman or lawyer or artist. American culture prioritizes the career: when strangers ask us about ourselves, we say things like, “Oh, I’m a web programmer.” It’s not what we do, it’s who we are, even if, facing our maker, that’s not the only standard by which we would wish to be judged or defined.

In part, it’s a social shorthand, a code for our place in society. When I say, “I’m a writer who moonlights as a web marketer,” I’m saying: “I’m a self-identified artistic person who works with technology as a way to supplement my income—oh, and you can likely guess that because I work in a non-essential field with a computer, you can assume that I have at least a few pennies to rub together, I’m educated, and this is probably a path I chose rather than one that was forced on me.”

Whether or not the conclusions you then draw about me based on your own experience and identity are correct is a different issue.

Self-applied taglines like this are useful, of course, but when I do it often, what I choose to publicly emphasize can begin to be reflected in my own internal hierarchy of identity. What should be a core identity, a hub around which my personal constellation of self rotates, instead becomes a gravitational identity, without which none of my secondary identifying articles can be sustained. And if that personal star of self categorization changes or, worse, implodes, I’m left with nothing but a collection of unrelated, rudderless characteristics with no basis and no direction.

Fellow Scribe Brian O’Conor and I have been rewatching Neon Genesis Evangelion for our podcast, The Young Podawans, and during this rewatch, I’ve been intensely sympathizing with one of the show’s most unlikeable characters, Asuka Langley Soryu. She’s red-headed, loud, impatient, unkind, competitive, and, above all, reckless. But that’s not why I identify with her. Rather, I see myself in her internal conflict when she begins to lose her central identity.

After a really awful defeat, Asuka’s ability to pilot an Eva begins to fade and, as a result, Asuka begins to wonder what her purpose really is; if she can’t pilot an Eva, why does she even exist?

asuka love self

I may not be a mecha pilot, but I do know what it is to wonder who you are after a perceived failure at something to which your identity is pinned. I think most writers rely on the creative act to give them a place in the universe. It’s a career that requires so much input of self and such dedication over so many years, all other things can begin to seem secondary to its pursuit. And if you aren’t writing, or can’t write, who are you? What’s your point?

That road leads to clinical depression, and that’s why it’s so important to recognize the intersectionality that exists within you, without reference to cultural mores or your place in society. I may be a writer, but I’m also an artisan and a gamer and a geek and an animal lover and a pagan and so many more things that I could fill an encyclopedia simply with ME. My existence does not disintegrate when I take away once fragment of identity, even when it’s one of those core characteristics. Although my entire sense of self may shift to accommodate the new arrangement, I exist even beyond the most random collection of traits by which I may identify. Nothing can take that away.

asuka smile

It’s not always an easy thing to see. But Asuka’s crisis is one that so many of us face, and the heart-wrenching realism of her struggle to reclaim any sense of worth without her former identity is part of what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion such a powerful show. While it’s not, perhaps, the most uplifting demonstration of a battle with depression, it does illustrate that this struggle is one that exists outside the ephemeral web of political climate and social commentary.

The bottom line is this: Identity is not fixed. It’s never too late to question what makes you yourself. And if something changes or breaks, that does not change the central YOU that exists underneath the labels and social cues. Even if that internal sense of self is a work in progress, it’s not something that anyone or anything else can take away.

 

St. Patrick’s Day Reads

220px-saint_patrick_28window29As many of you know, my Irish/Celtic heritage is something that I often talk about, and happens to be pretty important to the way that I think about myself and the world around me. As many of you ALSO know, I’m not always a huge fan of the way St. Patrick’s day is traditionally celebrated in the United States. You know–green beer, rowdy parades, drinking in the streets, etc. Don’t get me wrong–I love Saint Pat, and the way his story has spread. But I think this holiday should be a celebration of the way Ireland and the Irish have influenced our culture, our literature, our movies, and ultimately, the very country that we all love.

That’s why I’m coming to you today with my favorite books written about Ireland, by Irish authors, or inspired by Irish mythology!

How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill

Not only did Saint Patrick bring Christianity to Ireland, but he instilled a tradition of literacy and scholarship that would make Ireland a place of learning even while the rest of Europe was literally burning. A fascinating look at medieval Ireland.

The Hounds of the Morrigan, Pat O’Shea

Centered on the adventures of a young Pidge and Bridget, this novel is firmly rooted in Irish mythology. Demon hounds, evil serpents, wicked goddesses, and helpful foxes!

Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin

Eilis is a young woman struggling to find work in 1950’s Ireland. But when she emigrates to the United States, she is torn between a new life (and love) and her homeland. Now a major motion picture, in case you’re feeling lazy.

The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

A gorgeous, imaginative, and slightly creepy tale set on a fictional Irish island, where the locals participate in a yearly horse race. The creepy part? The horses they race are carnivorous fantasy beasts they capture from the sea.

Dark Mirror, Juliet Marillier

The first of Marillier’s Bridei Chronicles, this novel follows a young nobleman fostered by a powerful druid. But when the Fair Folk abandon a strange young child with the druid, the child could be Bridei’s destiny…or his doom.

Wizard Children of Finn, Mary Tannen

When Fiona and Bran follow a whistling young man into the woods, they are sucked into an ancient Ireland where magic abounds. As they journey to the mystical festival of Samhain, they grow close to a young warrior named Finn McCool who may hold the answers to their mysterious heritage.

The Secret of Kells

Okay, this one’s kind of a cheat, because it’s not a book–it’s a beautiful, intricately imagined animated film. Follow Brendan, an apprentice in an Irish monastery, as he seeks to finish the historical Book of Kells, with the help of a Aisling, a strange forest spirit. Steeped in Irish mythology, this animated film isn’t just for kids!

However you choose to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, be safe and full of joy! Lá fhéile Pádraig sona dhaoibh! Happy St. Patrick’s day to you all!

 

A Primer on Audio Books for Indies

Image purchased through Adobe Stock
Image purchased through Adobe Stock

I’m very excited that for my third audio book, Been Searching for You, I just signed an amazingly talented narrator in Ashley Clements. We start production late next week. Meanwhile, the audio book of Camelot’s Queen (Guinevere’s Tale Book 2) is about halfway through production, with Serena Scott Thomas as narrator, and the one for Daughter of Destiny (Guinevere’s  Tale Book 1), also with Serena Scott Thomas, is on sale now.

With all this activity, one of my fellow Spellbound Scribes asked me what goes into the making of an audio book. The following is based on my experience, and is only meant for indie authors, as traditionally published authors would work with their agents to sell audio rights and likely would have a different process. It also covers only digital files, as CDs are only produced for big-name authors nowadays (according to the studio I’m working with) and are usually cost-prohibitive for indies.

Which Distributor?
One of the first choices you’ll have to make if you decide you want to make an audio book is what company you want to partner with. Indies have several choices:

  1. Blackstone Audio accepts submissions.I’m not sure if they handle distribution or if that’s on you.
  2. You can work directly with a studio and then use a company like Author’s Republic to get your book out there. (There are other companies that do audio distribution, but this is the only company I’ve researched that I would be comfortable using.)
  3. ACX (Audiobook Creation Exchange), the indie arm of Audible, which is owned by Amazon. I’m going to focus most of my post on their process because they are the ones I use. With them you have to decide if you want to grant them exclusive distribution rights (which means your book will only be available on Audible, Amazon and iTunes) for which you get 40% royalties or if you want non-exclusive (which means you can sell it wherever you want), in which case ACX pays 20% royalties. I went with exclusive because that covers the three main places people download books from. The down side is that you can’t get into Overdrive and other library programs that way.

Cost
I will say up front that producing and audio book isn’t cheap. With ACX, you have the option to either do a royalty share with your talent, where you get 20% of royalties from sales and your narrator gets 20%, or you can pay an up-front fee based on your talent’s cost per finished hour. This could range from $50 per finished hour to several hundred, depending on who you choose. ACX has a handy tool that lets you input your word count and then gives you an estimate of the number of finished hours so you can estimate your cost. It could be in the hundreds or several thousand depending on the length of your book and your narrator’s fee.

Here’s a hint: if you have a series and want a consistent narrator, put that in your job description. Some narrators offer discounts for multi-book deals. You’ll still have put each one into ACX’s system, but the subsequent times you wouldn’t need to do the audition process.

Auditioning Narrators

The audio book cover of Daughter of Destiny. You will need a separate cover, so you can either do it yourself or have your cover designer make one, as I did.
The audio book cover of Daughter of Destiny. You will need a separate cover (they are a different size & you should credit your narrator), so you can either do it yourself or have your cover designer make one, as I did.

Once you’ve listed your project on ACX (a fairly straightforward process that involves “claiming” your book from Amazon’s listings and following on-screen directions for things like what your project is about, how you will market it, what your deadline is, etc.), your next step is to audition voice talent. Many authors choose to narrate their own books, but I wouldn’t do this unless you’re a trained actor. The difficulty of controlling and changing your voice to the extent needed for a quality audio book should not be underestimated. These people are called talent for a reason. Some authors choose to wait for people find their audition listing and come to them, but I would advise against this. ACX gives you access to its full listing of talent, complete with samples you can listen to, for free.

You can even filter the thousands of actors/actresses by gender, voice age, accent, and other criteria that may be important to you. For Guinevere’s Tale (all three books in the trilogy), I chose a general British accent because my POV character is a British Celt, then noted in the job the other accents I thought I may need (Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Breton French).

To me, listening to the auditions is the most fun part of the process. I knew pretty much immediately if someone was a no or was in contention for the part. Make a list of the people you like and contact them, asking them to audition (an audition script, a short snippet from your book, is part of what you upload when you set up your project). They will be more than happy to audition for you, I promise! Be sure to write back to each person, even if you don’t choose them, so they aren’t left in limbo. (Plus, it’s good business and polite.)

When you’ve settled on your first choice, you will make an offer through ACX’s system. Your talent has 48 hours to respond. You may negotiate or come to an agreement immediately.

In the case of Been Searching for You, since I had Ashley Clements in mind, knew she’d done audio books before, and I was familiar with her work, I contacted her directly. She said yes, but because she doesn’t have her own studio, she works with Deyan Studios in LA. So I talked with them about their services and fees. Once we had a signed agreement, they contacted Ashley and extended an offer and she agreed. In this case, no audition was necessary, but they have a casting service and large pool of talent if that’s something you choose to pay for.

Research
The next step after you and your narrator(s) sign on the dotted line is for you to provide them with information that will help them get into character. The most obvious part of this is the script they will read from. This includes any author’s notes or previews of future books you’d like them to read. Some authors re-write their books for audio, adding in extra “he/she said” tags to help the reader follow along, but I don’t think this is necessary. As an avid audio book consumer, I can tell you that a good narrator will be able to change his/her voice so that you can easily tell what’s dialogue, thought and narration.

This is also where you put together a sheet with any words that might have an unusual pronunciation. This can include character names/places/foreign language phrases/unusual words. My historical fiction books had significantly more words on their list than my contemporary did. My mindset is if you think it might be questioned, tell them how you want it pronounced; better safe than sorry.

You also will give your narrator direction about each of the characters (at least the main ones; how much you care what the secondaries sound like is up to you). I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do this. I give a bit of insight into their minds, motivations and relationships with other characters, then talk about any vocal requirements I have (accents, certain tones – haughty, meek, etc. – moods). Because I cast my characters in my head, I also give the actor or actress that inspired the role. And in case they want additional insight into my brain, I give them the links to my Pinterest board and playlist for the book. (My theory is that you never know what will inspire people and you want your talent to give the best performance possible.)

Many studios offer research services for a fee, but I like to do it myself because no one knows the book or its characters better than the author.

Recording Process
This will vary a bit depending on who you use. For ACX, your narrator will have to submit the first 15 minutes for your approval. At that point, you’ll listen and offer any notes you have, both on general performance and on changes that need to be made (lines read wrong, things that are hard to understand, etc.) Once you both agree the first 15 mins are fine, your narrator will record the rest of the book.

How you do edits will vary. Serena and her producer upload files in batches so I can listen to them and get notes back to them on both performance and script variation. Deyan Studios is going to have me listen to dailies, which are the recordings done each day. They prefer that I give artistic feedback on the performance first, then once the whole thing is done, listen to it one last time to make sure it matches the script. Either way is fine with me.

There’s not a set time frame on how long this takes. You’ll need to negotiate with your talent up front if you’re on a firm deadline. (Personally, I find it best to work around their schedule.) My first book took three months from start to finish, but part of that was due to my narrator getting sick, both of us going on vacation, the holidays and then issues we had with the Screen Actors Guild paying Serena (they were slow). Ashley plans to record Been Searching for You in three days. So as you can see, it may be really quick or not.

Payment
In ACX, once you agree you have finished product, you pay your narrator if you are doing an up-front fee. I don’t know how it works if you’re doing royalty share. My guess is that you reaffirm your agreement and move on to the next step. With Deyan Studios, I paid half the fee up front and will pay the rest when it’s done.

Distribution
Congratulations, you have an audio book! After payment is confirmed by both parties, ACX does one final quality check and then handles getting it on Amazon, Audible and iTunes for you. It usually takes about a week for the quality check and another few days for the books to appear on Audible and Amazon. (My book still isn’t on iTunes, even though it came out at the end of January, but I hear they can take up to 60 days.) If you use ACX, they pay you on a regular schedule.

Whew! That should cover the process. I love it. Despite the cost and length of time it’s going to take me to make it back, I firmly believe that audio books are a sound investment in your career. They are the fastest-growing type of book and have been heralded by many industry experts as the wave of the future. It’s easy to see why: we’re all so busy, audio books let you read on the go, whether you’re in your car, on the train, cleaning house, working out, or whatever.

Someday I may do a follow-up post on marketing audio books, but I haven’t had time to put much effort into marketing mine yet, so that’s a subject for another day.

What questions do you have for me about the audio book creation process? I know I missed stuff. Shout at me in the comments and I’ll tell you what I know. Emmie has audio books out as well, so she may be able to talk about her experiences; I’m not sure what her process was. 

Better late than never: A few writing/writer tips

So, as you can see, I’m posting a bit late today. Every once in a while the Spellbound Scribe of the week will forget their turn to post and we scramble to catch up. This week was my turn to post and to forget. So here I am, desperate to get this up today!

Last night, when I was falling asleep, I realized I’d forgotten to write up my post for today. I laid there and tried to think of something to write that wasn’t just self-promotion, because those can get a little boring (don’t worry, there’s some self-promotion at the end, don’t want to disappoint!). And I came up with a great idea! I even thought of the opening paragraph! Huzzah! I’ll wake up in the morning and write it straight away! I thought.

But, of course, because I didn’t write the idea down, I forgot it.

So that leads me to a new idea for today’s post. Tips for writing/writers.

1. Write your shit down. This seems like an obvious one, I know, but we all need reminding. We all think “eh, I’ll remember.” Or, “No, this is such a good idea there is no way I’m going to forget it.” You know what? Maybe. But what if you don’t? What if you don’t remember that perfect fix for that plot hole? What if you don’t remember that awesome name for a character and you end up with calling him Bob? What if you’re already late with a blog post and, because you thought of an idea as you were falling asleep, you’ll forget it? My phone charges on my nightstand, I could have easily opened the note app and jotted down my idea. I have a notepad there too. But I didn’t. Don’t assume you’ll remember. Write your shit down.

2. Back up your work in multiple places, continuously, as you write. Tuesday I went to open a manuscript doc that I finished back in September to finally start editing the rough draft, but when I did, only half the doc would open. The MS is just over 75k words, but for some reason only 39k would load. Half. Half the book wouldn’t load. I closed and reopened, closed and reopened. But still, just 39k words. Then I checked the properties and saw, yes, the file was just 39k words. Half my book was gone.

Luckily, when I’m writing a book, I will email myself every day the latest version. Sometimes I’ll only email myself every new 5k words, or 10k, but more often than not, I’ll email myself every day even if it was just a new 1k words. So I was able to go into my email and find “Completed First Draft of XXXX”. Crisis averted. I do also have an external flash drive where I save all of my completed drafts, but usually just the finals, not the roughs. I like email for multiple copies because of the unlimited space. Don’t depend on your computer or Dropbox (I’ve known friends who’ve depended solely on Dropbox to find that the only version saved in there was a corrupted one. Not cool.). And, with email, if your computer crashes, or your external hard drive does, you can log on to any computer, open your email, and bam! You’re back in business.

3. When editing, read your MS in different formats. Often, writers are staring at the same computer screen for months, writing their books. So, you’re used to seeing your MS this way. It is an easy way to miss things because your mind sees it the way it’s supposed to be. Open your doc on a tablet or ereader, read it the way you imagine thousands of people one day will, use the highlight and note functions to keep track of mistakes or edits. Print out your doc and go old school with a red pen – I do this. If you can’t do these thing, enable the speech option in Word and have your computer read the story to you. Yes, it’s a bit robotic, but you’ll hear mistakes. Change it up so you can be the best self-editor you can be.

4. Don’t only self-edit. It is so terrifying when you’re a new writer (yeah, okay, not just when you’re new) to ask people to read your work and give you feedback, but it is vital to becoming a better writer. You don’t have to take the notes you get, but hearing reactions from outsiders really helps. An honest beta reader/critique partner will help you make your work stronger. And they might even catch some mistakes you missed. Multiple sets of eyes are good. And you can build your own critique group, which helps with morale and getting through the tough times of writing. If you don’t have anyone who can or will do this for you, there are resources out there, look for them. I, for example, offer professional critique services. *cough*

5. Give yourself a break. Notice earlier I said I was just starting to edit the rough draft of a book I finished in September? It’s now March. When you finish a project, whether it’s the rough draft or the final, take time off. We have to replenish our wells of creativity, collect the spoons we’ve given out, we need time for ourselves. Go read someone else’s book for fun. Take a day trip somewhere. Sleep in. Binge watch something on Netflix. Go to a museum and see some beautiful art that isn’t the written word. You can’t be creative day in and day out without taking a break. This, I think, is what leads to writer’s block. Not a lack of ability or that your story is bad, but that your mind needs a break and replenishment. Don’t finish a rough draft one day and then two days later think you’ve had enough time to come back to it and start editing (no I did not take five months off from writing, but I did leave that particular book alone because I knew I needed a lot of time away from it. I worked on other projects in the meantime). Yes, sometimes, you can finish one book and are still able and ready to write something new. Go for it, if you think you can, but remember, it’s okay to take time to play.

(Now for that shameless self-promo. Just wanted to let everyone know that I’ve revamped my Patreon account and am actively working on it. I hope, if you’re a reader/fan of mine, you might check it out. For $3 or more a month, you’ll get access to exclusive posts of fiction and rewards depending on your level. I’m hoping to make it worth everyone’s while, so please have a look.)