On the Creative Mind

I see inspiration as an energy bar like the one floating above your character’s head in a video game. The act of creation drains that bar, and your task is to fill it again by reading, looking at art, taking trips to new places, or even just creating a new experience locally.

Like many of us artistic-types, I struggle with boredom, depression; a dry well where flowing creativity should be.

During the height of the economic crisis, as an unemployed college graduate (possibly unemployable with a BA in English), I withdrew from the world to live at my mother’s house in the suburbs temporarily. I applied for jobs daily, sending emails into a vacuum or the HR trash chutes. It was great prep for the rejections I will inevitably face as a professional writer, but drained my capacity to think of anything else.

I decided to use the lull in employment opportunities to write and finish a book.

I rewrote the first chapter of a work in progress six times. Trapped in a woodsy Plymouth village with no car and no job, I didn’t pick up my pen or paintbrush. I wallowed.

Then one day, my brother borrowed a truck and stole my bed. He put it in the spare room at his apartment in Boston and I had no choice but to follow.

I moved back to the city, miraculously found an only-slightly-above-minimum-wage job and started to dream again. Paying a bill or two late, I was able to take a writing class at Grub Street and wake my hibernating mind.

My brother and that class are to blame for starting the landslide of joining Grub Street, SCBWI, and my beautiful Every-Other-Sunday critique group who feel like family now. I’ve made great friends involved with the Boston Speculative Fiction Meetup Group and the spectacular Boston writing community.

I still struggle with keeping that inspiration bar filled, but what I learned from all of this is that inspiration comes from outside stimulation. The more I do and the more I see, the more I write.

So scrape together enough money to take the class you always wanted to, join a free local meet-up group, turn off the TV and read and read and read some more.

Monotony will become daydreaming and from that will come creation.

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this:

A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.
To him… a touch is a blow,
a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy,
a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover,
a lover is a god, and failure is death.”

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create – - – so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation.

By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.”

-Pearl S. Buck-

Ten Books that I Still Think About

Many of these I read as a child; a lot of our favorites from that time stay with us. But a few more contemporary works have snuck in there. I can’t resist a good fantasy.

In no particular order:
1. Charmed Life by Diana Wynne Jones

An orphan boy named Cat Chant finds out he is a powerful enchanter who has nine lives that were transformed into a book of matches. The betrayal of the sister he saw as a mother figure, a girl who used his lives in order to selfishly give herself more power really interested me. 

2. Catherine Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Funny historical fiction. A medieval lord’s daughter, who subverts the trope of beautiful Ladies who are quite well behaved, is really rude and plays pranks and plays with the pig boy. I was enchanted.

3. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery

Another girl who gets in trouble because she likes to read and use her imagination. The moments that stayed with me were when Anne’s adoptive parents were put out that she wasn’t a boy that would help out with farm work, and when Anne accidentally got drunk with one of her friends.

4. Remember Me by Christopher Pike

A ghost tries to solve her own murder. I like Christopher Pike. He starts a story with a horror trope and it usually jumps the shark in the middle (see: The Grave). But this book, oddly enough, was linear and explored ideas about the afterlife and what it means to live and die.

5. Bronwyn’s Bane by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

This played on my weaknesses. An annoyed princess with a curse to speak only lies grows up pissed off and has to go on an adventure. Just awesome. …I think I should go reread it.

6. Stardust by Neil Gaiman

An original fairytale. ‘Nuf said.

7. Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo

Fantasy inspired by Russian folklore with a very clever antagonist flip. Is he good or bad or good? The system of magic is also quite different than what I’ve seen before.

8. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

I’m really over retellings of the common fairytales like Cinderella and Snow White, but a sci-fi cyborg Cinderella with one leg set in a future Asian country? Hard to resist.

9. Valiant by Holly Black

Probably my favorite book by Holly Black, and I know I’m not alone. The world is gritty and the fey live in the city and trade their magic as drugs for street kids. The main girl is kick-ass, but has depth that a lot of “strong female characters” don’t have these days. We also get a little Beauty and the Beast retelling thrown in.

10. Hatchet by Gary Paulsen

A spoiled rich boy’s plane crashes in the wilderness. With no hope of rescue, a dead pilot, and only a hatchet, he survives.

 

I should note that all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books would be on this list, but I figured it might not be as interesting that way.

Boston/New England Area Events

I always find a lot of great events around Boston, many of them book/writing-related. I always forget to invite people until the last minute, so I’m starting this series of Event Round-ups!

So here are some things on the calendar:

Bookbuilders Bowling Night

Where: Sacco’s Bowling Heaven in Davis Square

When: April 10th from 6-8pm

Cost: $6, and pre-register

Why?: Networking and bowling! Only $6. And bowling!

https://www.bbboston.org/

 

Special Collections Meeting at the Boston Public Library

Where: Commonwealth Salon – The Boston Public Library in Copley Square

When:  April 17th 830-10am

Cost: Free and Open to the Public

Why?: If you can get into work late I bet it would be worthwhile. I know Special Collections are open and accessible to all, but I’d like more information about what they have and how to research. I’m a browser rather than a special requestor. Being a history nut and bibliophile I’m curious about the subject of the meeting.

http://www.bpl.org/news/calendar.htm?trumbaEmbed=view%3devent%26eventid%3d104792422

 

New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators

Annual Regional Conference

When: May 3-5th

Where: Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel – Springfield, MA

CostNOW SOLD OUT

Why?: Highly highly highly recommended to local Kidlit writers and authors. There’s more of a focus on craft and learning than at the other regional conferences, it’s a manageable size and I’ve always met great people there. Jane Yolen and Lin Oliver are frequent flyers.

http://www.regonline.com/builder/site/Default.aspx?EventID=1108084

 

New England Book Show/Dwiggins Award/ Annual Meeting

Where: Boston Symphony Hall

When: May 7th

Cost: $45

Why?: Dinner included, new book show, looks like a great place to meet more people in the Boston literary scene.

https://www.bbboston.org/

 

Information Session with Lorin Rees of the Rees Agency

When: May 11th at 11am

Where: Coolidge Corner Public Library

Cost: Free and Open to the Public

Why?: Obviously, if you want to go the traditional publishing route you’ll need an agent. I suspect aside from Lorin talking about his specific agency we’ll get into the basics of querying and what agents are looking for these days. I’ve been to many agent talks. It’s always worth it.

http://www.wnbaboston.org/images/event-lorin-rees/meet-the-mgent_flyer%202013.pdf

 

A Conversation with Damien Ecchols and Shaka Senghor

Where: MIT Media Lab – Cambridge MA

When: May 15th at 6pm

Cost: $12, must pre-register

Why?: Damien Echols was wrongfully imprisoned for twenty years and wrote a memoir of his experiences. Shaka Senghor was incarcerated but overcame it to become a motivational speaker and youth mentor. They have stories to tell, and I’d like to hear them.

http://www.bostonbookfest.org/bookfest/schedule_detail/schedule_lounge_lit_a_conversation_with_damien_echols_and_shaka_senghor/

INDIES: How Independent Publishers & Bookstores are Surviving & Thriving in Today’s Market

This was a panel put on as part of Bookbuilders of Boston‘s Spring Workshops. It was hosted at Emerson College. Well worth attending; the cheese plate was delicious.

Our panelists were: 

The affable Ned Lomigora, a sales rep at Zeeen, an online promotional platform for authors that especially works with Indies. He specializes in analytics and digital media. He’s also a presenter and contributor for WordPress Boston.

The illustrious Dale Szceblowski, the General Manager at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, one of the hubs of the literary scene in the Boston area. He’s been in the book-buying and book-selling business for 30 years. Vice President of the New England Booksellers Association.

And the perspicacious Judith Rosen, a Senior Bookselling Editor and the New England correspondent at Publishers Weekly for 15 years. Previously she has worked in marketing and publicity for trade publishers, Wordsworth Books, and wrote a regular column for the Boston Herald.

Obviously, they all had differing points of view from their positions in the market:

Running an independent bookstore, Dale sells books and works with authors mostly from traditional publishing. Much of his sales are physical books as opposed to e-books.

Ned works largely with independent authors and small presses to market books to their audiences online through social media and analytics. Presumably, many of the sales resulting from the promotion of Indie authors will be e-books.

Judith is in between, writing about the business from her experiences working as an independent bookseller, promoter, and traditional press publisher but now as an outsider observing trends through a “journalist-neutral” lens.

The panelists were quite respectful of each other despite Dale and Ned being almost diametrically opposed on either side of the business.

Here are some highlights:

Note: Some quotes may have been edited or truncated in the transcribing.

 

Bookselling:

Dale: “The advantage to owning an independent bookstore as opposed to a chain is that we’re able to constantly respond to the local market/local audience.”

“With Borders gone and Barnes and Noble floundering, it’s become a mini-renaissance for independent bookstores. [Porter Square Books] is largely successful because we see ourselves as community based.”

Judith: “Rent has been a difficult factor [in bookstore closings], in fact that’s what doomed Borders.”

Borders had long term leases with steep rents on many of their properties. Their margins couldn’t make up the difference. 

 

Promotion:

Judith: “Authors need a platform. An author is much better starting with a tight narrow audience and gradually widening it out.”

Ned: “In order for the average author to succeed you have to do things yourself. The hardest thing is to find the right audience for the book. It’s more art than science. Narrow down the focus. Figure out who the ideal audience is. Then you build. It’s more profitable to own 50% of a small market than only 5% of a large one.”

Dale: “I’m amazed with the different ways for people to find out about books now. People are coming from everywhere. We seem to get preorders 6 months in advance of publication. It used to be only one or two.”

Ned: “One person with personal knowledge is better than 100 strangers to get someone to read something.”

 

Book events:

Dale: “Events are how we introduce readers to writers, but we put on all kinds of events.” Sometimes, they’re even called on to sell books at individual’s book launches at their homes.

“We happen to be one of two stores selected by Neil Gaiman to take pre-orders of signed books. It showed the power of social media to drum up business for booksellers as well as authors.”

Main reason PSq Book was chosen? “His wife Amanda Palmer likes the egg-rolls at our affiliated cafe located in store.” You can still pre-order signed copies from Porter Square Books.

Sales resulting from book events? “15 years ago, if 30% of the audience bought the book the event was considered a success, nowadays it’s closer to 15%.” These days: Larger audiences and fewer sales.

-

Bookstore of the Future: 

Judith: “My friend told me she would not open a physical bookstore again until it was clear what the Bookstore of the Future would look like.”

What’s the Bookstore of the Future? “The origin of the term came from “Store of the Future” from the National College Association when they started streamlining what an academic bookstore would be by removing all trade books that weren’t in the curriculum. Still exceptions like the COOP of Harvard University, but mostly it’s now this way across the country.

“To independent sellers “Bookstore of the Future” means getting around the problems that come with competing with e-books, Amazon, and “show-rooming.”

I’ve heard this term thrown around occasionally. What is show-rooming?

Show-rooming is when people come in to browse titles and then buy their books elsewhere like at Amazon. Some people say publishers should pay booksellers for show-rooming since the publishers will still get the sale.”

-

Technology: 

Ned: “Anyone can publish a book these days; It doesn’t mean it will sell. There isn’t a systematic way to use technology to help you promote and sell your book [but] the technology exists already we just have to harness it. Look at the industries that have already used this technology successfully and see how they do it. We should be able to do it in publishing.”

 

Ebooks

Dale: “80% of Amazon’s sales are still physical books and products. Our focus is on connecting physical books with readers.”

Porter Square Books has an online and ebook presence but it only makes up about 1% of sales. From this I can surmise that people shopping at physical bookstores still buy paper books.

“Very high resistance to e-books among baby boomer generation and older.”

 

KOBO vs. Kindle:

KOBO e-reader is an e-reader to compete with Amazon Kindle and allow consumers to purchase e-books that support their neighborhood bookstores.

Judith: “Porter Square Books did well and sold over 100 KOBO over the holiday season 2012. Amazon shipped over 750,000 Kindles across the US during the same time period. Even if the 15,000 Indie bookstores did as well it would not be close to the same amount of sales.”

-

Highly interesting and informative panel. I met several other writers and publishing pals in the audience.

 

2013 is Going to be a Good Year

2012 was a mixed bag of some good and some devastating bad, but I believe the universe will do us a good turn and 2013 will be great. Here are some of my goals for the year of Lucky 13.

Personal:

Go to the gym more. This is the traditional resolution for a reason. IT IS NECESSARY AFTER THE HOLIDAYS. Especially when you work in an office and there are cookies EVERYWHERE.

Learn how to use new technology. I got a space device touchscreen e-reader for Christmas. I asked for it so that I could read manuscripts without killing trees for my internship, but right now there are babies better at touch screens than me.

Save Money. Stick to my budget. Increase  my biweekly deposit into my savings. Every time I resist the siren song of take out, “spend” the money it would have cost by putting it into savings.

Take risks. Yeah, I like having at least a day a week that I do nothing and talk to no one. I’m still happiest reading by myself, but its time to be bold. Go for every opportunity life presents. Drink, Celebrate life, Be merry.

Career:

Day job. Be on time. Work as hard as possible. Prove myself. Go home.

Internship. Check in. Keep going if possible, grab another if I can.

Writing/Reading World Goals:

Query CURSEBREAKER. I’ve been holding back for a long time and I’ve been in limbo with this project. Although the extra revising time was good for it, I’m ready for the next step even if it’s rejection.

Write. Write at least two short stories to query the sci fi/fantasy lit mag circuit with. In the next few months I want to plan out my next novel. Ideally it will be finished by 2014, with a final push in November.

SCBWI, ReaderCon, Boston Book Fest. Go to as many conferences and book events as financially possible and make more friends in the community. First stop: the SCBWI conference in New York in February.

Critique Groups. I’m lucky enough to be part of two professional quality crit groups at the moment. Every-Other-Sunday and The Boston Speculative Fiction Writing Group. I want to be a valuable member to both and continue to give quality feedback to these talented writers.

The Challenge:

Read 50 books. I’ve seen a lot of these challenges on Goodreads, and while I bought a lot of books in 2012 I didn’t always make the time to read them. My personal challenge will be to read at least 50 books in 2013 of any genre. I will try to advertise my progress as this one means a lot to me. I’ve got to keep up on all the great titles coming out this year.

I want to revisit this in June (halfway through), so that I remember to keep on track. Its going to be an ambitious new year. Happy New Year. May good things come your way.

Book Rec for Traditional Publishing

My friend, fellow YA writer and book blogger Ellie, won a giveaway on Marissa Meyer’s blog recently and shared the bounty with me.

I had heard of the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market before, but assumed I didn’t want a copy before I was ready to sell. I was so so wrong as it is great inspiration fodder. I read through much of it at the gym that night and poured over the lists. I can already tell it’s an invaluable resource, so I ordered my own hard copy, despite my vow to wait. I have very little discipline.

The book includes inspirational interviews with NYT bestselling authors on their process, ways to keep your submissions organized, and a comprehensive list of literary agents, editors, and magazines that except and repped and unrepped submissions. Great for freelancers.

This is also the Children’s Writers edition, so you don’t have to spend time filtering out the people who don’t accept YA, MG, or PB manuscripts. This information is available online, but it’s so much more convenient to have it already compiled for me as I start doing my research. I also enjoy having hard copies of lists around. Helps me concentrate.

I spent a good deal of yesterday flipping through while being nervous about the hurricane. Below is my Sandy Survival kit complete with book cuddling cat.

See? Sabby loves it too.

Now I’m off to go freak out about my NaNo project and contemplate how late I’m going to need to stay at work for the next few days because of Sandy…

Querying!

Some of the advice I’ve collected:

  • Lead in with a hook
  • But NEVER lead in with a question
  • Make accurate comparisons
  • DON’T EVER MAKE COMPARISONS
  • Make sure you have a bio paragraph
  • Who you are doesn’t matter, it’s about the writing
  • Make sure to mention books you liked that the agent has repped
  • Don’t just insert random titles to flatter, they don’t like that

So… that info is a little conflicting. It’s all from different sources: Agents themselves, authors who have queried, and querying writers. It’s from direct resources and live speakers at conferences.

No talk I’ve been to has completely universal advice. That’s because all people are different, it depends on the individual agent, even within the same agency, what they do and do not want to see.

The best advice is the simplest:

  • Make sure you have no typos. Typos make English majors cry.
  • Have friends read the letter that know what a good pitch sounds like AND friends that are versed in business letters. You want to sell yourself and your product in the best way.
  • Many agents are on social media or have blogs these days. Cyber stalk them (in a non-creepy non-invasive lurking type way) and find out what their pet peeves are. Most of them are totally open about what bugs them about submissions.
  • FOLLOW GUIDELINES. This is the most universal advice I have seen. Every agency does it differently. Some want three chapters inserted in the bottom of the email, some only take an attached PDF of ten pages, some don’t want pages at all until they’ve read the query, and there is the rare agency that still only takes paper submissions.
  • Find out what the agents like to see and what they’re selling. Many have a page of what they’re interested in. Look at those and see if you loosely fit in or have a unique twist to yours, then query away.

ALSO: Unsolicited phone calls are usually unwelcome, and those who call usually don’t know who to talk to. I know because I’ve gotten two calls from author-hopefuls in the past two weeks, and I am about the last person in the company that could help them.

If this is important to you, then DO YOUR RESEARCH. You will be rewarded for it by having a query that is actually read and considered rather than deleted because you didn’t follow the directions. That’s what those worksheets were for in school, to teach you how to follow directions.

If you still fail, don’t despair. Every agent is a special little snowflake.

THE SECRET: Agents are human people with reading preferences. Maybe they’re sick of paranormal romance or dystopia right now. Move on and find the next.