Friday, November 29, 2013

5 Grievances Every Author Faces (and how to deal with them)

Writing books is for masochists. No, seriously. There's so much grief and misery that goes into the process of taking an idea and turning it into a novel that we authors often find ourselves wondering, "Why did I get myself into this?" At the same time, we can't make ourselves stop, so we just rant and complain and sigh, then slink back to our keyboards. And then we get into our stories, and we can't imagine doing anything else. You could say we're a bit bipolar.

Here are five things I find myself complaining about the most (with cat pictures).

5. Some people think all authors should be perfectly secure beings all the time.

No doubt, some people will read the above and think, "Well, if you don't enjoy writing, why don't you just quit?" Such comments crop up whenever someone posts about how hard it is to be a writer. Which makes sense, since ramblings of that nature tend to be self-pitying, and the source of the problem is entirely voluntary. However, we all need to vent from time to time, and what we're really looking for isn't a lecture, but a sympathetic ear.

It gets even more frustrating when the venting turns to "My book sucks! I'll never be good enough!" And someone replies with an oh-so-condescending, "Well, if you don't think your book is worthwhile, you shouldn't be writing." Again, I can see their point, but that kind of response is not helpful. We authors can be sensitive beings, and we already have little gremlins in our minds telling us to stop doing something we love because we can't handle it, or because we'll never be good enough.

The gremlins aren't entirely unreasonable, since the vast majority of writers will never be the next J.K. Rowling or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that's what makes it worse. Part of you wants to listen, so when an external force comes in and reinforces their gloomy message, the blood starts boiling. "Hey! I'm sorry I'm not a perfect egomaniac who thinks everything I write is the next Pulitzer Prize winner!"

Zen Kitty lets the gremlins' words slide off her mind, like water off a rock.
Solution: Ignore 'em. The gremlins, both internal and external, will always exist, but that doesn't mean you have to listen. So stick your tongue out at them, thumb your nose, and remind yourself of all the reasons your book is the best thing ever. And if the rest of the world doesn't see it, well, their loss!

4. Word count envy

Before I started writing, I never thought in terms of word count. In fact, I barely even thought about book length. I noticed that the "Harry Potter" books got progressively fatter and that "Animal Farm" seemed awfully small compared to the other assigned high school readings, but otherwise, I really didn't give a damn. If anything, I might ask about how many pages a book is, or how thick it is (as indicated by space between forefinger and thumb). 

 Now, I know that the average book is 64,000 words long, and that anything over 100,000 words is frowned upon for a first novel (Artificial Absolutes was 141,000 words when I submitted it to Red Adept... oops). Why do I know this? Partially because of genre conventions and submissions guidelines (no one would read a 300,000 word chick lit book), and partially because I started hanging out with other writers online. 

 Writing is a long and tiresome process, and it's easy to procrastinate. So many writers will set word count goals for themselves to keep on track. The ultimate manifestation of this habit is NaNoWriMo (that's National Novel Writing Month to the novs out there), where people join a virtual writing community (which also holds local in-person writing sessions) and aim to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Which is why right now, my Facebook newsfeed is blowing up with statuses like "OMG, wrote 5,000 words of the new book today and am exhausted!" 

Meanwhile, I haven't written anything new since June, even though I have plenty of projects on my plate. Between my time-consuming day job and editing the two books I have in the pipeline, I just don't have time. So part of me starts getting defensive when I see all these people creating so many words, even annoyed. I know I should be happy for them, and I do my best to cheer them on, but the bratty part of me wants to stomp my foot and say, "Knock it off!" At the same time, the insecure part of me wants to crawl under the covers and weep about how I can't keep up with all these awesomely productive people.

"Like I'm going to count all these words."
Solution: Repeat after me: Word count hardly matters. Yes, it's a good indicator of whether you're within your genre conventions (do NOT submit a 300,000 word novel claiming it's light-heared chick lit). And yes, it can be good for setting goals. But the number of words produced pales in comparison to the quality. George Orwell's masterpiece-turned-classroom-staple Animal Farm is only about 30,000 words more. Same goes for John Steinbeck's classic, Of Mice and Men. Meanwhile, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, at about 190,000 words, is far too long for the children's section by most standards, but who cares? Whether you can pour out an epic in three months or require two years to compose a spare, quick-to-read thriller, the thing that matters in the end is the book itself. So just smile and congratulate the mass producers and remember that everyone is different, and people work at their own pace.

 3. Rules, rules, rules 

You'd think that if you were pretty good with grammar, you'd be a good writer by default, right? HAH! Not so much. There are all kinds of rules about writing fiction that, while absolutely mandatory, are strongly, strongly encouraged.

Don't use dialogue tags. Don't use too many adverbs. Don't make your sentences too long. And those are just the most basic, easy-to-correct-for ones. There's also the word count conventions I mentioned above (don't write a YA novel that's the length of Infinite Jest). And the tenets of fast-paced storytelling (start your book by dropping the reader in the middle of a scene and end the first chapter with a cliffhanger to keep the pages turning). And the edicts about handling descriptions (don't stop your story to describe something, don't not describe anything). And, of course, the ever-present "show, don't tell."

Of course, none of these are set in stone, and many authors and editors will laugh if you bring them up ("There are no rules to writing! You can't restrict art!"), but the fact is, most people, whether they are conscious of it or not, expect authors to adhere to them. Which can be frustrating because it feels like you're being tied down and boxed in, but at the same time, you know the rules are there for a reason (overlong descriptions bog down action scenes, too many dialogues tags interrupt characters' conversations without adding anything, etc. etc.). 

"Just write!"
Solution: Pick your battles. Some things, like the bit about dialogue tags, are annoying to deal with (since you have to come up with actions and gestures and whatnot to indicate who's talking instead of having "he said" after every other sentence), but relatively simple. Others may require more maneuvering, and changing your work to fit the guidelines may stifling. Hey, rules are made to be broken. While it's a good idea to be aware of them, you don't have to treat them as the letter of the law. Especially since editors often disagree about which ones are important (one editor might hate long descriptions, another might love them).

 2. "I love it! Now, change everything!" 

Writing a book is freaking hard. Not only is it a ton of labor, but you pour your heart and soul into the story. Each character is a piece of you, and each idea came from the innermost parts of your mind.

So when you send your book off, be it to your friends/family for feedback or to an agent/publisher for consideration, you want to be told that this is the most brilliant thing they've ever seen. You want honesty, of course, but you want the honest answer to be, "Holy cow, this is the best thing to grace the earth since Nutella! And here is a detailed description of all the reasons you are a genius!"

Of course, it's never like that. Most agents/publishers will send you a form rejection (if they reply at all). Friends and family can be plenty supportive, but their feedback is colored by the fact that they are friends/family, so you never know for sure if they really loved your masterpiece or if they're just being nice.

The most valuable feedback is often also the most frustrating. Readers are picky, and editors even pickier. If your book is picked up for publication, the first thing you think is, "Hooray! They love me!" Then come the edits. You're told that this dialogue you love is pointless, or that plot line that's close to your heart leads nowhere, or these characters you thought represented your inner demons are flat and uninteresting. It's crushing, and after scrolling through a sea of red, you find yourself wondering, "Did they like anything about this book?!"

"Hey, I didn't add all those comments for my health!"
Solution: Take a deep breath and remember: Editor knows best. Also, they're not dictators. If there's something they want changed that you really want to keep, then you can negotiate. The editor flagged it because it wasn't doing what you intended to (for example, that description you thought was so heartfelt comes across as whiny), but if you think it's important, find a way to make it work. The same can be true even before you reach the editing stage, when you receive comments from honest beta readers. These, of course, need to be taken with a bit more of a grain of salt, since it could just be that your book's subject matter or tone doesn't line up with the reader's tastes. But remember, people are toughest on the things they truly care about. So when you open your document to a sea of red, smile, because that means the editor (or beta reader) found your story compelling enough to invest tons of time and energy into trying to make it the best it can be.

 1. Waiting, always waiting

I'm a very impatient person. The book world, however, is a slow-moving animal. That's because of the nature of the product. Books take ages and ages to write, edit, proofread, lay out, and design. And once they're out in the world, people take ages and ages to read them (some fast readers can finish a book a day, but many more take weeks or even months to get through a novel). But we writers have already invested so much time in our literary babies, we just want to see them go off and fly already.

So it's hard having to sit around waiting for the ball to be in your court again. Especially once that coveted publishing contract is signed. You think that means your book will be churned out and let loose in the bookstores, but no. It enters the editor's queue, so it'll be months before anyone even looks at the manuscript. And then edits come back, and you have much more work to do than you expected (see Grievance #2). Then you finish your changes, hand it back and... wait some more.

It feels like an awful lot of work with no tangible reward, since you're just toiling and toiling, but there's still no book to show for it.

Waiting means not working.
Solution: Answer me this: What date was Anna Karenina released? How about The Hobbit? Does anyone remember? Unless you're a literary scholar studying one of those two works, you probably don't know and don't care. It's the quality of the book that matters, not how quickly the publisher got it out the door who-knows-how-many years ago. The only time release dates matter is if you're trying to catch a particular trend, but chances are, if you're writing to jump on a bandwagon, your publisher knows this and will fast-track you (I'm pretty sure that's what happened with Divergent, catching the Hunger Games-spurred dystopian wave). Otherwise, the release date really doesn't matter in the long run. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy the down time before you have to go into crazy marketing mode. Or, you could always work on your next book.

Monday, November 25, 2013


Mia Grace, author of the Young Adult time travel novel Correlation, talks about her background and inspirations.


Book description:

When the past and the present collide… 

Hailey Kent knows how she wants to spend the summer before her junior year in high school: hanging out at the pool with Jenna, her BFF; riding her new trail bike on Vermont’s country roads; and flirting with Jenna’s hot older brother, Cody. 

Hailey’s plans are shattered when a post-graduation accident puts her brother into a coma. Feeling guilty for not stopping him from going out that night, she seeks solace in exploring an old house and its overgrown gardens. 

A mysterious correlation of events propels her back in time to the Vietnam War era, where she realizes she can use her knowledge of one boy’s fate to save his life. 

But first, Hailey needs to convince him of her sanity.

Hi, Mia! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us about your background as an author? What got you into writing?

Hi, Mary, and thank you for having me on Zigzag Timeline!

I guess the urge to write novels has always been with me. I’m enthralled by a good writer’s ability to transport readers to another time and place, and it’s a skill I’m constantly working to acquire.

I’ve been writing novels for about thirty years, starting in the early 1980s. Back then, I hand-wrote them on whatever paper I could salvage, including the flip sides of form letters and old telephone bills. That seems so archaic now, in the world of computers, but I have reams of scribbled-on, mismatched sheets of paper to prove it!

In my other, more practical, life, I write and edit articles about consumer issues related to food and nutrition, so I guess I’m just addicted to wordsmithing.

"Correlation" tells the tale of a young American girl in 2013 who gets sent back to 1968. Why did you choose this particular time jump to explore? Why send a modern teenager back to the 1960s?

The 1960s were the years of my youth and young adulthood, and they were incredibly tumultuous years politically and socially. Women’s lib marches, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam war protests all occurred during that period. My generation fought and died in Vietnam, and it was a tragedy that changed our lives.

When I decided to write about a girl who seeks to change history, I immediately thought of that war and the young men who died in it. I wanted her to care about that and to attempt to save at least one young man’s life.

Bicycles are featured fairly prominently in "Correlation" and serve an important role in the plot. Why bicycles?

I needed a means to send Hailey back into the past, but I didn’t want it to simply be some invisible portal that she mistakenly slipped through. A bicycle from that era seemed like a logical means of transportation into the past (if there can be such a thing!). The bike gave her freedom to travel in and out of the time period, as needed.

I noticed that Hailey is an easy character to sympathize with, since her emotions really come to life in the book. What was it like getting into her head?

Getting into her head was a challenge for several reasons. First of all, I’m not a sixteen-year-old and haven’t been for a long time! Secondly, I had to imagine what it would feel like to have a family member hanging onto life by a thread after a tragic car accident since, fortunately, I’ve never experienced it. The hardest part, however, was giving authenticity to her reaction to the time-travel experience. How would the average person respond to the notion that she may have just gone back in time by forty-five years? How long would it take for her to recognize and accept it, rather than assume she was losing her mind? It’s one thing to be okay with it in a story. It’s another to try to come to terms with the possibility in your own life!

What are you hoping readers get out of reading your book?

I think the idea of attempting to change history is a fascinating one—is it history if it’s been changed?—and I hope that readers will be inspired to ask themselves relevant questions. If you could change history, what might the unexpected ramifications be? How are things in life intertwined, and if you were to change one thing, what else might you affect? Are we victims of fate, or are we responsible for our own outcomes? Is there value in lamenting past mistakes, or do we need to accept them and move on because they can’t be changed?

What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Describing scenes? Dialogue?

My favorite part is creating characters with interesting personalities, especially people with whom I would like to hang out or handsome men I’d like to know better. My favorite character in Correlation is Susan Wells.  She’s known love and loss and then found happiness, and she’s a survivor and a good, kind-hearted person who has the wisdom of her years.

For me, one of the hardest things about finishing a novel is knowing I won’t be spending time with its characters anymore. It’s like having good friends move away and never hearing from them again. I completely understand the lure of the sequel, because I also want to know what happens next to my characters!

What’s the most challenging aspect of writing, in your opinion?

My biggest challenge is killing my darlings—giving up my favorite, super-clever, amazingly well-written phrases and astoundingly creative passages that just plain don’t add to the story and must be sacrificed for the good of the whole.  To say I’m not a fan of the editing process would be to put it mildly.

Why did you choose to write a young adult novel? What is it about the genre that appeals to you?

The young adult age group includes readers who are old enough to ask the big questions about life but may not have delved too deeply into them as yet. They are the ones who seek answers to how and why things happen and are experiencing those “coming of age” moments that define who they will be as adults.

Because I have had female young adult readers in my family for the past ten or so years, and have another entering that age group now, I’ve enjoyed first-hand their excitement over a book that speaks to them. I want to write one of those books.

How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a writing process, or do you wing it?

I only have time to write on weekends and a few evenings a week, so writing a book usually takes several months. I may have a general idea of where a story is going to go, but basically, I wing it and often don’t know how the story will come out. I’m more likely to create characters and put them into an interesting situation, then let them run with it.

That said, Correlation was a novel that had more of a known outcome than most that I have written. For that reason, it was actually harder for me to write, because I’m not usually that structured.

Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing "Correlation"? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that took unexpected turns?

When I first described the old abandoned house, I had no idea that the cabbage rose wallpaper would hold any significance to the outcome of the story. It was just one of many random things remaining in the desecrated rooms and had no other purpose at the time I introduced it.

While I knew where the story needed to go, I wasn’t sure how Hailey would convince the 1960s’ Peter Wells that she wasn’t some drug-addled girl who thought she was from the future. Knowledge of historical events that would happen in his lifetime was a given, but the personal touch of his sister’s obsession with papering her bedroom evolved all on its own.

I do love it when that happens!

Thank you again, Mary. I loved your questions!

Thanks for dropping by!

Correlation is available in e-book and paperback formats at the following online retailers:

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Saturday, November 23, 2013


An interview with diplomat-turned-thriller-writer James Bruno.


Hi! Welcome to Zigzag Timeline. Can you tell us about your background as an author?

I’ve written four novels and one nonfiction book (soon to be published). My first three novels have all been Amazon Kindle bestsellers, including attaining #1 ranking in paid Political Fiction and Spy Stories. My fourth thriller, “Havana Queen,” was recently released. I’ve been covered by NBC’s Today Show, The Washington Post, the Huffington Post, Christian Science Monitor, SiriusXM Radio and other media. I’ve had three good agents, my last also representing the Stieg Larsson (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) series. I now go it alone.

What got you into writing?

Twenty-five years in the federal government placed me in situations which made me say, "Fiction can't rival this." So, I cut short my diplomatic career to have more fun writing stories which encompass the chicanery and fecklessness of government. If you thought Washington was out of control, then don't read my books. They'll only confirm your worst fears about how things are done in our nation's capital.

What was the first idea you had for your book, and how did the story grow from there?

My latest thriller is “Havana Queen.” The magical and sad country of Cuba got under my skin during my service there as a diplomat in the mid-90s. Yes, there was the intrigue: being constantly surveilled and harassed by Castro's secret police; the politically charged yet constructive monthly meetings with Cuban military officers on "The Line" at Guantanamo Naval Base; cork-screwing in for a landing at GTMO as mine fields exploded by accident on the Cuban side; attending policy discussions at the White House.

Among your characters, who's your favorite? Could you please describe him/her?

“Havana Queen’s” Larisa Montilla is a deliciously wicked antagonist in this spy thriller. She is Castro’s chief of intelligence, the communist regime’s highest ranking female. Larisa is ruthless, yet seductive; hard, yet vulnerable. And she conceals a deep secret which is found out by the protagonist, FBI agent Nick Castillo. This gives the plot an extra charge and intrigue.

What's your favorite scene from your novel? Could you please describe it?

“Havana Queen,” Chapter 43. Cuban spy chief Larisa Montilla confronts her nemesis/lover, FBI agent Nick Castillo, minutes before he is to face a Cuban firing squad. Her feelings are conflicted. Nick combats mortal fear. The reader is kept guessing as to what will happen next. A real cliffhanger.

What's your favorite part of writing? Plotting? Describing scenes? Dialogue?

Description is my forte. I have a keen eye for detail honed from my training as a news reporter.

How long does it take you to write a book? Do you have a writing process, or do you wing it?

“Havana Queen” took over three years of intensive research, writing, editing and launch. I put my heart and soul into it. I maintain a running outline to keep the plot on track.

What is it about the genre you chose that appeals to you?

I spent twenty-five years in a career that plunged me into war, diplomacy, espionage, and national security decisionmaking. It’s what I know. So, I follow the old adage: Write what you know.

Are there any books or writers that have had particular influence on you?

Joseph Conrad, John LeCarre, Graham Greene, Daniel Silva.

Did you ever surprise yourself when you were writing your book? Characters who took on lives of their own? Plot elements that took unexpected turns?

All the time.

Thanks for stopping by!


Page-turning suspense on power gone awry
Available at all online book sellers

Friday, November 22, 2013

SPOTLIGHT: Encante / Aiyana Jackson

Today, I'm spotlighting Encante, a novella by Aiyana Jackson available on Amazon.

Deep under the ocean, Simeon Escher, protégé to the leader of the order of Loth Lörion, finds himself an unexpected guest aboard the submersible, Narwhal. Home to a crew of humans, and strange mer-folk few people are aware exist, Simeon is swept up in their quest to find a world within a world, a possible safe haven from the insidious reach of the Kabbalah. Yet how can he think about his mission when the captain's niece fills his every thought, distracting him from all that’s important to him, including his own fiancée.


‘“I have trouble sleeping,” he told me, as if by way of explanation. If he was in any way drunk, his words showed no sign of it. “I come here for the ambiance.”
I glanced around us. “I can well understand why. I’m afraid I was having a similar problem. Forgive me; I should not be wandering the ship alone.”
“And why not?” he asked. “You are our guest; if you see fit to wander the ship alone at night, I say let you. Wander wherever you choose.” He laughed as if something were painfully amusing, and I wondered if perhaps he was a little tipsy after all. “I’ll say nothing to stop you,” he assured me. “Hell, I’ll encourage you.” He leant closer to me. “I’d even suggest you try the places I couldn’t show you earlier.”
“So there were areas you kept hidden.”
Axel snorted. “Areas? People more like. My uncle is concerned you will not understand the . . . racial demographics of our society.”
“You mean the encante?” He nodded. “There is more to your relationship with them than Everett would have me believe, that much is plain. It has been obvious since I arrived, if for no other reason than this is my fourth visit to Idele, and I have never before seen one of them. I have never even heard mention of their race, on this world or any other. They are of a lower class?”
“Class?” Axel exclaimed. “Franklin Garrett is of a lower class; Bridger Quinn, is of a lower class. Even Reuben Williams, our third mate, the man in whose bed you should even now be sleeping, is of a lower class.” Axel shook his head. “The encante are not separated from us by class, Mister Escher, but freedom.”
“You mean to say they are slaves?”
“Of course they’re slaves. You think they wear those god forsaken machines of their own volition?”
It took me a moment to catch up. “The tails?” I considered the implications of a species who could breathe underwater and swim at great depths, living in a submersible with ready access to open water. “They keep them from escaping somehow?”
“Yes, one of Amos Newton’s finest inventions, don’t you think? A device which allows its occupant to swim outside the ship enough to remain healthy, perform maintenance and other duties, but which incapacitates them should they try to stray too far.”
“Amos Newton?”
“Newt, as my uncle calls him. He finds it humorous, what with the majority of Newton’s research having to do with our amphibious cousins.”
“That is truly abominable.” I caught myself. “My apologies, it is not for me to criticise your—”
“No, sir, you’re quite correct, it is abominable.”’