0 Jeff Salyards | Monthly Archive | April
Archive | April, 2012

Howling at the Moon!

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This is one of the guest blogs I posted on the Night Bazaar a few weeks ago. That’s a great place where writers getting published by Night Shade Books get to hang out and riff on all kinds of fun writerly stuff. If you haven’t dropped by, you should–never telling what kind of gypsy treasures you might turn up there! Anyway, the topic for this week was whether you depend on a lot of feedback as you work, or fly solo for the most part. Enjoy. . .

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Some writing is collaborative in nature–sitcoms, some movie scripts, plenty of nonfiction. But writing fiction, with few notable exceptions, is generally a solo effort. You cloister yourself and labor away in solitude, trying to take some idea that is beautiful, sublime, terrifying, or fantastic in your head, and translate it into words on a page that capture the essence of what spawned them. Sometimes you fail at this; sometimes you fail a lot. And it’s all on you—you can’t point the finger or blame a poor working relationship with another writer. When you bomb, it’s a poor working relationship with yourself or your ideas. And boy, that’s no kind of fun to face.

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Ultimately, though, if you keep after it and revise long enough, you’ll create something you feel pretty good about. Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s solid. You think. But you’re still so close to the writing, sometimes it’s hard to tell. And that’s when it can be really worthwhile to show the work to someone else, to get validation or confirmation that what you’ve produced isn’t complete drivel.

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In college and grad school, I participated in a lot of fiction workshops (some might say too many!). You can learn some really good habits in them, but some pretty lousy ones, too.

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In theory, a workshop is full of smart, savvy, sensitive students who provide constructive criticism in a safe environment. In practice? Well, it doesn’t always play out that way. Some writers are incapable of providing anything less than barbed, nasty feedback, and while most professors won’t tolerate that crap, I’ve been in some classes where they not only ignored said nasty asshats, but thought it would be a fun social experiment to actively encourage the writers in the class to act out their worse possible instincts. If a bloodbath ensues, hey, good times!

It can be hard to separate yourself from your work. After all, you wholly invested yourself—to you, both the process and the end product couldn’t be more personal. But at the end of the day, readers are just judging what’s on the page. Not your intentions, hopes, or the demons you wrestled with to find the words, only the words, and whether they’re the right ones or not.

In most workshops, you have a gag order while the rest of the group discusses your piece. So it can be really tough to sit back in silence and listen to the group hash out their opinions of the work, particularly when they are ripping it to shreds. You want to spring to its defense, provided context, or call them all asshats. So, you either develop thick skin in response to stinging criticism, or you end up a wailing neurotic mess. I’ve seen the latter happen. It ain’t pretty.

Thick skin is good. That’s one thing most workshops teach you. And with any luck, if you do enough of them, you also develop the ability to objectively critique your own work.

By analyzing someone else’s work each week (and not just from a lit. crit. angle, but looking over the nuts and bolts shop stuff) a writer begins to develop a critical apparatus. You identify problems and solutions in the text, think about the myriad of choices the writer made throughout, and how different choices might have improved the story.

And as you refine those skills, if you are receptive to what others in the group say about your own work, you also get a decent antennae for what works or fails in your own stories, what your own strengths and weaknesses are.

But therein lies another of the potential pitfalls of writer’s groups. Sometimes, ten people will have ten wildly divergent opinions about your story. Even if those readers are collegial and not snarky, that doesn’t guarantee they will provide coherent or useful commentary. Some days, you walk away thinking, “Well. . . apparently my story is fantastic, melodramatic, overripe, truncated, brimming with authentic sounding dialogue, corny as hell, too long, too short, with a beautiful-heinous-mediocre title. Thanks for that.”

Trying to appease everyone in a writer’s group is usually impossible, and sometimes dangerous to the work itself. You dilute your ideas, soften all the edges to avoid offending anyone at all, or end up with a Frankenstein monster of a story with disparate parts and bad skin tone.

The trick is discerning what feedback is really applicable to your stuff, and what works for you. And that goes back to defining your own ability to self-critique or recognize the wheat from the chaff.

Since leaving school, I haven’t done the writer group thing. When I’ve needed/wanted another opinion, I’ve usually asked a select writer buddy or two to review my work. Only one beta reader actually read the manuscript of Scourge of the Betrayer from start to finish before I started shopping it around.

However, as I recently wrote in another post, that might not have been a good thing. No matter how much you trust your own judgment, you can still miss problems inherent in the text that jump off the page to other readers. It’s easy to think that just because writing is solitary that you have to go it alone in the whole endeavor or can only depend on yourself.

Getting feedback, wherever you find it, can be really useful and instructive. Sometimes even lone wolves need to hang around the pack for a little bit, even if they end up running back into the wild on their own after a good group howl.

Imagination Nation

The imagination is a beautiful thing, and watching your kids develop theirs is one of the great joys of parenting. This usually manifests itself in the what if game. What if I had a long tail and could hang from trees? What if I had an eye on the back of my head? What if I belonged to a different family that didn’t have other sisters or bossy parents?

Gabrielle (age 5) got a very serious expression on her face today, which always means a doozy is coming up. She said, “Dad, what if I had a super big tongue. Like a whale’s. Then I could lick the whole world.”

Now, no father wants to think about his daughter licking the whole world. But a whale tongue? Seriously, gross.

Open For Business

Scarlett (just turned 3), loves to run around naked. A lot. When Kris or I want her to put something on, usually when she’s running in front of the big windows too much, we either say, “Nobody wants to see your inappropriates” or “nobody wants to see your business.”

Well, the other day, Scarlett was butt naked and darting across the living room in front of the open windows. She must have caught a look from mom, because she made a preemptive strike, stopped, saying, “Nobody wants to see my business, right mom?”

Mom said, “That’s right, Scarlett.”

Scarlett got a huge grin on her face, turned around, bent over to show mom her little brown eye, and said-sang, “Look at my business!”

Going, Going, Gone. . .

The first Goodreads giveaway is going out the door. I ran it for a week and 761 people registered to win an autographed copy of Scourge of the Betrayer. Which, considering I edited the copy midstream and Goodreads took a day to approve things, haven’t run an ad on Goodreads yet, and nobody knows me from Adam or Abdul, seems like a pretty decent number.

So, congrats to Laeser Tyburn—I hope you enjoy the book!

People might not *completely* judge a book by its cover, but it can certainly intrigue or turn people off in 2.5 seconds. I know how fortunate I am in having a kickass, uber-awesome cover–it can only help drum up interest for the book. I’ve heard horror stories of authors hating the covers their publisher came up with, so hats off to Night Shade Books.

I’ll be running another giveaway here shortly. Stay tuned.

Give it Away, Give it Away, Give it Away Now. . .

OK, I promised not to be negligent and pull a disappearing act. But I swear I’ve been busy. Just not, you know, on this blog. I’ve been writing guest blog posts left and right though. That probably isn’t the right thing to say, is it? “Sorry I haven’t been home having sex with you; but it’s OK–I’ve been out banging other people!”

Sorry. But here I am again. Blogging where I  belong. Begging for forgiveness. Promising never to stray again to try to be more attentive. That’s got to count for something, right?

I started my first Goodreads giveaway this week. Being a complete neophyte to any promotional activity at all, and an infrequent Goodreads participant at best prior to this, I have no frame of reference. But it feels like it’s going well. Almost 450 people have registered to try to win a free autographed copy in the five days since I posted it. And one of those days was a total wash, because I’m kind of a jackass and decided to add “AUTOGRAPHED COPY” to the header of the giveaway, not realizing the good folks at Goodreads would need to re-approve the thing. Which makes sense, I suppose. I mean, I could have put in a picture of two camels having sex. With a small Norwegian man. So I guess they need to check to make sure the authors aren’t up to any crazy shenanigans.

So, there are a couple of days left on the first go around. I’m going to run a second giveaway hot on its heels though, with probably two or three copies, and probably for two or three weeks instead of just the one. This, in conjunction with running an ad on Goodreads. Which I’ve heard helps with traction and exposure.

Of course, it’s hard to track how much good this all does in getting my name out there or boosting sales. But I figure the giveaways only run me some postage, which won’t be terrible unless someone on the other side of the planet wins. And you set the cap on the ad, and being a cheap bastard who has to pay for milk for three thirsty girls, I won’t be ponying up a ton there either. So I figure it can’t hurt, right. Other authors seems to think this helps, and while that might be only anecdotal, it’s all most of us have to go on in the promo game, so why not?

I was going to use Goodread’s funky little giveaway widget, but apparently WordPress doesn’t allow Java script, so just visualize a cool widget right here that tracks how many awesome readers are trying to get a free copy of the book. If it helps, imagine the widget naked. I know I do.

Box of Betrayal

I returned home last week and discovered a couple of boxes sitting on the front steps. We hadn’t ordered anything recently, so unless the UPS guy was drunk again, I was pretty sure it could only be one thing, even though they showed up a week earlier than expected. My wife arrived at the same conclusion at the same instant, shrieked, and gave me a punch in the arm that would have made Mike Tyson circa 1988 proud.

I raced out of the car, ran up to the boxes, and nearly tripped over one. Which probably would have ruined the moment if I went flying into the door, twisted my ankle, and fell in the bushes. At least for me. The neighbors might have enjoyed that.

The boxes were as heavy as expected. My heart was hammering away in my chest like, well, a pulpy, muscular hammer. Which, let’s face it, is gross and not especially useful. But this was the moment I’d been waiting for my whole writing life. What else was my heart supposed to do?

My advance copies were in my hands. It was finally real. The proof was in front of me—I was a published author at last. Unless it was an elaborate hoax, in which case I would spend the rest of my days in prison for murdering the sick bastard prank-puller.

In my haste to rip the boxes open, I almost impaled the scissors in my leg. But somehow I managed to keep flesh (and more importantly, the books) intact.

I thought I’d share a few quick snaps from my craptacular dumb phone. It’s amazing it even has a camera, but it’s the best I could manage right then. . .

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