Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Ukrainian Miracle

It's amazing what a small world it is - especially here in Utah.

There is a family in my ward, the Cerans, that are in the process of trying to raise funds to adopt three older children from the Ukraine.

They've had a lot of major and minor miracles during this process, which they like to share with us at church. One story in particular that touched me - their 16-year-old son is selling his drawings to help raise the money they need. Sr. Ceran shared that they were at a track meet for her daughters, and he thought it'd be a great time to try and sell his pictures. Sr. Ceran was a little put out, a little embarrassed, and dragged her feet as she followed at a distance (which is one of the reasons I like her so much. She's not a typical Molly, she's just this very real person) and saw several people buying the pictures and giving her son more money than he asked for.

Suddenly, a man approached her son and gave him a very large bill. He refused the picture and walked away.

When Sr. Ceran saw this, it nagged at her - why would he do this? Why would someone give away that kind of money, especially to a teenager that he didn't even know? She and her son spent an hour tracking the man down, and when they finally found him, he tried to get them to leave, sort of waving them off and saying no, no, I don't want to talk about it, please take the money, no thanks necessary, that sort of a thing.

Sr. Ceran said, "I just want to ask you one thing. Why would you give so much money to a total stranger?"

The man paused, and then said, "Well, let me just say this. To someone, your son is not a stranger. And when the Lord speaks, I listen."

My father told me another story of a little girl who had a bake sale and raised a great deal of money for the Cerans.

You can imagine my surprise when I was at the website of one Eric D. Snider (and for those of you my age that went to BYU, he was the founder of The Garrens and was the humor columnist for the Universe with his "Snide Remarks"), one of my favorite humor writers, and he had this post about that same little girl, who is his niece!

From hearing stories about this blended family, these are people who have had more than their fair share of heartache and tragedy. But they've emerged from it smiling and trusting in the Lord. I can't imagine some of the pain and obstacles that they've had to go through.

And now they want to open their home and their hearts to these children, knowing that it will not be easy, knowing that all sorts of unimagined trials and tribulations await them, but knowing that these kids are part of their eternal family and relying on the Lord to help them through it.

If you'd like to learn more about the Cerans, and how you can help them, here is their family's website:

A Ukrainian Miracle

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Artist's Quest

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I was able to attend the Carl Bloch exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art recently and I was completely blown away by the talent of this artist. He painted pictures of people and places that looked like photographs, and he painted pictures of the Savior that drew out emotions in me that were completely unexpected. The thing that struck me the most, however, was at the beginning they have a little presentation about his life and it says that Carl “painted fleeting impressions from his mind.” That phrase stuck with me, not only because of how real and beautiful and skilled his work is, but because it made me wonder if he really did see those things in his head and if he, perhaps, was working off of more than just imaginings, but long-forgotten images and memories. But I digress.

The other reason that phrase stuck with me is that I believe that writers can be artists as well, and when we are writing a book we are “painting fleeting impressions from our minds,” as well. Characters can come to life on our keyboard, just as people come to life under a paintbrush. Settings and impressions can be penned on a page, just as a landscape or action painting can be brought to life on canvas. And the true masterpiece is when it all comes together, just like a finished painting---the skill, the characters, the story, they are all given life in a finished book. As writers, I think we are all looking for that perfect painting of words that will transform our imagined story into something that will touch someone or linger in someone’s thoughts long after the book is closed.

I know I will be thinking about Carl Bloch’s work for some time to come. It was so breathtakingly beautiful, with so many shades and meanings, it’s something I can ponder on and admire, from one artist to another. I want to give you examples, I want to talk about each painting and everything that I learned (they give you an iPad so you can see a virtual tour of the churches and palaces that his paintings originally hung in, they have talks from General Authorities, they have a choir singing Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, I mean, there was something incredible at each and every painting display to ponder and learn). But if I gave you examples, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to stop. Suffice it to say, this exhibit is a must-see. Carl Bloch was a true master who studied and honed his craft until he had mastered it and was able to touch the hearts of all who look upon his work.

I hope to someday reach that sort of mastery in my own craft, and while that may seem an impossible dream right now, I know that even reaching for the dream takes courage. Hopefully, I will look back and at least see progress in my quest as a writer—that I will be able to put on paper, "the fleeting impressions of my mind," and have them be appreciated, that my stories will be rich in character and skill, and touch the hearts of those who read them. Someday.

Variant Cover!

After a history of hit and miss covers (Wake Me When It's Over, I'm looking at you) I'm extremely happy to present the following:

The book will be out on October 18th, 2011. It's available for pre-order now.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Does Popularity Influence the Voting?

Jeff wrote an interesting post at the LDS Publisher blog discussing Whitney judging. The question had come up of how the Whitneys are judged/should be judged and whether or not the Whitney Awards are a popularity contest. My immediate reaction to that question—and others agree with me; Jeff included quotes from other authors on the subject—was that no, they aren’t a popularity contest, if we’re assuming that popularity=highest sales.

This is the fourth year of the Whitneys. In 2007, Best Novel of the Year went to On the Road to Heaven, by Coke Newell—a book published by Zarahemla Books, a small LDS publisher. 2008, Sandra Grey took Best Novel of the Year with her first book, Traitor, published by Covenant Communications. In 2009, the overall winner was David Farland with a self-published novel, In the Company of Angels.

In 2007, Best Novel by a New Author went to Jessica Day George for Dragon Slippers, a nationally published title. In 2008, the winner was Angela Hallstrom for Bound on Earth—a book released by Parables Publishing, a small LDS publisher. In 2009, there was a tie—a nationally published book (Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer) and a self-published book (Riley Noehren’s Gravity vs. the Girl).

Detecting a trend here? Yes—the trend that when it comes to winning a Whitney, the size of the publisher and how many copies the book sold have nothing to do with it. Winning titles might be huge sellers from huge publishers, or small sellers from small publishers, or self-published titles. If any Academy judges are influenced by a book's sales numbers, they must be a tiny minority, since the results don't show it.

Big national titles win awards, like Brandon Sanderson’s Hero of Ages (Best Speculative, 2008) or Carol Lynch Williams’ The Chosen One (Best Youth Fiction, 2009). Novels from the biggest LDS publishers win awards, like Josi Kilpack’s Sheep’s Clothing (Deseret Book, Best Mystery/Suspense 2007) and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven II (Shadow Mountain, Deseret Book’s national imprint, Best Youth Fiction, 2007). Books from Covenant Communications have taken several awards, like HB Moore’s Abinadi (Best Historical, 2008) and Michele Paige Holmes' Counting Stars (Best Romance, 2007). Cedar Fort authors have also won trophies: Aubrey Mace for Spare Change (Best Romance, 2008) and Annette Haws for Waiting for the Light to Change (Best General Fiction 2008). Small LDS publishers Zarahemla and Parables have won awards, as mentioned above in the paragraphs about Best Novel of the Year and Best Novel by a New Author. Self-published titles have taken three Whitney Awards (the two books mentioned in the paragraphs above, plus Liz Adair’s Counting the Cost, Best Romance, 2009).

I think it's very exciting that the Whitneys are one of the few places in the publishing world where sales numbers don’t mean anything.

Here are how the Whitney winners shook out, publisher-wise, in case you’re interested. For national market titles, I didn’t list the specific publisher—I figured what was more of interest for purposes of this blog was whether the book was published in the LDS market or nationally.

Best Novel of the Year:

2007: Zarahemla Books
2008: Covenant
2009: Self-published

Best Novel by a New Author:

2007: National title
2008: Parables Publishing
2009: (tie) National title/Self-published

Best Romance:

2007: Covenant
2008: Cedar Fort
2009: Self-published

Best Mystery/Suspense:

2007: Deseret Book
2008: Covenant
2009: Covenant

Best Youth Fiction:

2007: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)
2008: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)
2009: National title

Best Speculative:

2007: National title
2008: National title
2009: National title

Best Historical:

2007: Covenant
2008: Covenant
2009: Shadow Mountain (Deseret Book)

Best General Fiction:

2007 (category didn’t exist yet)
2008: Cedar Fort
2009: National title

Monday, February 21, 2011

Can You Make a Living Writing LDS Novels?

Last week, I had the chance to attend LTUE (Life the Universe and Everything.) Although it is a conference focused primarily on fantasy and Sci-Fi, it attracts writers of all genres. During the course of the conference, I ended up having discussions with several different authors that all came back to the same point. Is it possible to make a living as an LDS author?

Wow. Talk about a dicey question. It is possible? Yes. Is it possible for most authors? No.That’s it discussion done. I haven’t ticked off any authors, publishers, or friends. (A feat in and of itself.)

Which probably means that answer is too simplistic. Sooooo, let’s try this again. I will attempt to be open-minded, tactful, and yet honest at the same time.

You might wonder why this is such a difficult question to answer. Do I know roughly what all of the publisher’s pay per book? Yes. Do I know about how many books each publisher expects to sell on a given title? For the most part, yes. So just multiply A x B, The issue is that 1) every publisher has exceptions. If I say Cedar Fort usually sells x amount of books, they can come back and say, oh we’ve had titles that sell 10 times that many. And it’s true, they do have titles that sell a ton more books than normal. But is that fair to use as an example for a new author? Is it fair to set expectations to a level that is virtually unreachable for Jane Doe that just got accepted for her first mystery novel?

Issue 2) is that publishers are not fond of releasing sales numbers. Even though I suspect all LDS publishers have a pretty good idea of what other LDS publishers are doing, it’s kind of a trade secret. They might not be happy if I started spouting sales number of specific titles publicly.

So what I’ll try to do is use generic enough examples that I won’t tick anyone off, while still providing something useful to you the new or aspiring LDS author.

Let’s start with something pretty basic. Royalties. Royalties in the LDS market typically come a few different flavors. Hardback vs. trade paperback (not the small mass market paperbacks you can fit in your jeans pocket but the one that’s about the same dimensions as a hardback), and retail vs. wholesale.

’ll explain wholesale first, since it’s easier. Wholesale (sometimes referred to in contracts as gross sales price) is the amount the publisher sells the book to a bookstore for. This is usually going to be 30% to 50% off the listed price. However it can be much less if the publisher is trying to get rid of extra inventory. If your publisher pays on wholesale, the normal rate will usually be 10%, whether the book is released in hardback or paperback. So if your book sells for $14.99 and the book store buys it for $8.99, you get about $0.90 per book. If your book sells for $6.99, you make about $0.42 per book.

Retail is a little bit trickier. Trade paperback usually has a royalty in the range of 6.5% for the first 5,000, 8% for the next 5,000, and 10% for anything above 10,000. Hardback is typically a little higher. 10% for the first 10,000 and 12.5% for anything above that. Not all publishers pay the same rates, but these numbers should work for our purposes. Retail is based on the list price of the book—what’s actually on the cover. Again, most contracts have some kind of stipulation regarding books that are sold significantly below normal pricing (clearance or promotional.) If your contract has a section like this, you should ask your publisher how many of their titles are typically sold for these lower rates.

Generally royalties are paid on all books shipped for the previous six months, less a holdback for returns. So in early February I would get a check for all book shipped between July 1st and December 30th. However some publishers wait six months and then pay on a monthly basis. So in early February I would get a check for all books sold the month of July. The good things about this are that there are usually no return holds and you get paid monthly. The bad news is that you have to wait five months longer to get what the other publishers pay in one sum. While some LDS authors do get advances against royalties, most still do not.

Now let’s get to the question most would-be LDS authors are clueless about. How many books can I expect to sell? Ten or fifteen years ago, a new LDS author could sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies of a title or even more. You might think that number has gone up, since there are more LDS readers, more LDS bookstores, and more LDS publishers. But the dad truth is that it has gone way down. Why? Well for one thing, there are MANY more titles being released now. Instead of having ten to twenty fiction titles coming out in a year, readers have well over a hundred to chose from. In addition, the novelty factor has worn off. Remember how cool it was when God’s Army came out? Wow a MORMON movie! How cool was that? Roughly ten years later, Mormon movies are everywhere. And sales have gone down just like they did with books.

This is not to say that Mormon novels don’t still sell well over 20,000 copies, because they do. But they are the huge exception to the rule now. And most of the authors selling that many books started way back when there wasn’t that competition. A new LDS author with a genre title (mystery, romance, thriller, etc) can expect to sell typically no more than 5,000 copies, unless they get amazing marketing from their publisher. 10,000 is a major best seller.

Let’s run the numbers. $14.99 for a trade paperback. Whether your contract is wholesale or retail, you will get about $1 per book for the first 5,000. You will probably sell no more than 5,000 books. So you can expect to earn less than $5,000 per book before taxes. In order to make a living writing books, you would need to publish roughly ten novels per year.

Are there exceptions? Yes. I believe that at least Cedar Fort, Covenant, and DB can point out a novel or two every year that sold more than 20,000 books. Maybe more than 40,000. But the truth of that matter is that a new author publishing a genre novel should not expect to earn more than $5,000, and most will earn quite a bit less.

Am I saying not to write LDS novels? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s not just LDS publishers that have those kinds of numbers. Most independent publishers would be thrilled to have their authors sell 5,000 books. But you should not go into it expecting that after a year or two you will be able to retire at your cabin by the lake. Writing LDS novels can be a great experience. There are so many rewards that have nothing to do with money. I’ve loved writing LDS novels and I hope that regardless of what happens with my national writing career I will be able to continue writing and publishing LDS novels.

But if you are writing an LDS novel because you just lost your job and you want to make a living as a writer, you’d be much, much better off sending out resumes. LDS publishers and other authors, please feel free to point out any areas where I have been less than clear or where my information might be outdated.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Joining the eBook Revolution

by Julie Coulter Bellon

So this past week I’ve decided to take the plunge and put my first three novels out as ebooks. (Thank you librispro for helping me make clean beautiful ebooks. If you want a company to help you do this, they are the ones to have. Click here if you want to see their price list and website.) The first thing I did to join this ebook revolution, was get out the old manuscripts and take a look at them. I hadn’t read my first manuscript for five or six years now and what I found when I opened up that file both thrilled and frightened me.

It frightened me because I discovered I had once been a head hopper.

I never would have guessed that about myself. I’ve always been pretty firm as an editor and a writer that head-hopping throughout a chapter is a no-no. But here it was in my own manuscript! How had I missed it? And how had it been published with my missing it?

The part that thrilled me as I was reading along, was that it was a solid story. I had forgotten details and characters and found myself really enjoying the plot. It was sort of like reading something new, since I hadn’t read it for so long, and I thought to myself, hmmm…this is pretty good if I do say so myself. So, yay me!

I’ve now finished spiffing up the first one, Through Love’s Trials, and I’m moving on to my next one, On the Edge. Hopefully I have the same experience there and it will only need a few spiffs, and possibly some smoothed out POV edges. But I really hope I don’t find any head-hopping in there or I’m going to wonder what kind of a rookie author I really was, since I never dreamed I’d make that kind of mistake and I did. Hopefully it’s a one-time thing, but even if it isn’t, you know what else I discovered reading my old manuscript? I’ve come a long way in my writing. I think my first three books were good, I loved the characters and plots, but my writing now seems more layered, and I do a better job of telling the story. Which is also nice since I can go back with these first three manuscripts now, before they go out in ebook form, and fix a few things with the skills I’ve developed in the years since those books were published. I would hope that all writers would improve over time and it’s kind of nice to realize that it’s happened in my case. It’s been a fun ebook prep process so far, and I’ll definitely let you guys know when my ebooks are out and ready.

Anyway, I’m really excited about the idea of having ebooks out with my name on them and part of that excitement is because I’m about to buy a Kindle. I’ve been researching this for a while, brands, types, etc., and I’ve finally decided to get a Kindle 3. Did you know it can hold 3500 books? The thought of that many books makes me feel a little giddy because at the moment, my bookshelves are full. I couldn’t even squeeze one more in which makes me sad because there are a lot more I want to add to my collection. So, to have the possibility of 3500 books at my fingertips, well, my reading loving heart is in heaven at the thought. Although I’m sure my pocketbook might be taking a few hits as I “collect” these ebooks, I’m glad to see that most books seem to be priced to sell. This is going to be really fun.

Have any of you tried ebooks? Do you love your Kindle, Nook, iPad, whatever it is you have? Does anyone have any ebook secrets (as an author or a reader) that they’d like to share as I am new at all of this and anxious to learn?

(Just as an aside, Rob Wells does a podcast now with Sarah Eden and Marion Jensen. The one they did this week addressed ebooks and how they are changing the industry which was pretty interesting. You can listen to it here.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Cracking Up

Seeing as how I’ve already given myself a headache with blogging—working on a guest blog that will be posted on the AML blog next month, a post I got really neurotic about and kept tweaking and tweaking and JUST TURN THE SILLY THING IN AND STOP MESSING WITH IT—I’ve already blogged my way into insanity. I will now proceed to be crabby and incoherent, partly to make up for the fact that Rob didn’t blog yesterday, which brings up the question: is Rob still around the frog swamp? If you insult Rob and he doesn’t hear it, do you still get snark points? Discuss.

And you used to think I was a nice person, though there was that lady in my ward who said I must have a “dark side” after she read one of my books. I'm not admitting to any dark side, but just in case, DON’T MAKE ME MAD. Ahahahahaha! I’ve really cracked up. I warned you, didn’t I?

Okay. I’m calm now. Which reminds me, though it has no relevance to anything I’ve said, on Christmas night, my six-year-old daughter had come into our room to sleep in a “nest” on the floor—she has trouble staying in her own room at night. She was overtired and wound up and having trouble getting to sleep. At one point, she said, “My nose hurts, so I might thrash around and hiss,” which gave me the giggles—you know how sometimes you’re laughing so hard you have trouble explaining to your spouse what’s so funny?

And this morning, when I went into the kitchen before the early morning seminary run, there was milk spilled on the table. It had been partially wiped up, but how good of a clean-up job can you expect from a tired teenager at 6:00 AM? As we walked to the car, my daughter remarked, “Sorry about the spilled milk, but I didn’t think it was worth crying over.” That’s the kind of line that makes it worth being out of bed that early.

Anyway, what I really need is some Tylenol and a nap. Let’s see . . . I’ll try to make sense for a minute. Good news is, I’ve got some plot basics hammered out for my next suspense novel and I hope to be ready to start drafting by next week. It will be good to jump into a new project, and I’m excited about the story. And yes, I know who the villain is. I know some mystery writers get well into the story before they know whodunit, but I want to know right at the first. So much of my villain’s motives come from backstory—what happened before page one.

One thing I find tricky is trying to avoid repeating myself in storylines. This new project is my fifth contemporary suspense novel, so in brainstorming, I’ll create what-have-I-done-before lists: I’ve already used this motive or that one, and so on. Which is not to say that I can’t have two villains motivated by greed—there are only so many reasons that people kill, and it’s not bad to reuse motives, but you want a fresh twist each time. So in this new novel, I've decided that the villain is just plain NUTS. He's a neurotic writer who finally cracked up completely. Write what you know, right?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What Are Your Three Most Romatic Movie Moments?

A couple of years ago, my wife and I had friends over to the house and one of the wives asked what everyone’s favorite romantic scene from a movie was. For some reason my mind went totally blank. Ask me my favorite action scene, (The first five minutes of the first Indiana Jones movie), comedy scene (the Ned Ryerson series in Ground Hog Day), bad guy (Hannibal Lechter), fight scene (the second Mr. T fight in Rocky 3), and I’m good to go. But romance. Hmmm.

You don’t exactly win brownie points for naming your favorite fight scene on Valentines Day, though. So, with many deep sighs and significant head scratching, here are my three favorite romantic movie scenes.

1) Pretty much the whole movie The Notebook. I don’t know why, but for some reason that movie just gets me. There are so many memorable romantic scenes. My favorite is probably not the one most people think of though. It’s where James Garner’s kids come to try and get him to leave the nursing home and come home with them, He says, “Look guys, that's my sweetheart in there. I'm not leaving her, this is my home now. Your mother is my home.”

Even reading that makes my chest tighten. I think it’s because even after all the years, he’d still rather be with his sweetheart who can’t remember him than anyone else in the world. That’s the way I feel about my Jennifer, and I have no doubt I always will. So, yeah, mush.

I tried to find the actual clip. But this is the best I could do. You can hear the quote in the first couple of seconds of this music video.

2) Pretty much any old Meg Ryan movies. She just had the best smile in the world. And she and Tom Hanks were one of my favorite movie couples of all time. I could pick half a dozen scenes. But I really like this one from the end of You’ve Got Mail.

This version is actually without the dialog, but I think I like it even better because you get to focus on what an incredible job she does of portraying, surprise, confusion, sorrow, and ultimately joy (starting at about 2:11) that he’s the one who’s been writing to her.

3) I think I’m going to get slapped down on this one from some of my female readers. “Wait, you’re putting Adam Sandler in your top three romantic movie scenes!?” But yeah, he and Drew Barrymore are another of the couple that just click so well for me. Every time I come across The Wedding Singer on cable, I get pulled into it all over again.

I could list any of a dozen scenes from their movies, but one of my favorites is from 50 First Dates, where he realizes she has been singing and that maybe, just maybe, she remembers him. You’re all excited for him. And when he asks, “Do you remember me?” you are so sure she does, that when she says no, you are as shocked and disappointed as he is. That makes the scene where she shows him her paintings even more powerful. My favorite part starts right at 2:00 on the clip below.

So yeah, I don’t have a heart of stone. Silly Putty maybe, but not stone. In fact, I’ll add one more of my favorites. Just because it has my favorite actor of all time, and also because some of my own most romantic memories aren’t about going to expensive restaurants and staying in amazing hotels, but having nothing more than the love of my life and not needing any more than that. The scene starts at about the five minute mark.

Happy Valentine’s Day all. I hope you are spending it with the love of your life. And if you aren’t, I hope that you have a great movie to remind you that it won’t be long before you are united or reunited with that amazing someone that still makes your heart go crazy after more than twenty years.

Monday, February 14, 2011

An Age of Faith or Miracles?

Like many of you, in Sunday School today we had a lesson on the miracles Christ performed during his ministry.

A comment made in class struck me - the sister asserted that we didn't live in an age of miracles as previous dispensations had, that we instead lived in an age of faith where we would simply have to believe and hope and would have no physical evidence like the people in Christ's time did.

I wholeheartedly disagreed with this statement, and for anyone that knows me, you will not be surprised that I raised my hand.

I said it was a matter of context and perspective. We are given specific miracles that occurred in the scriptures - both the former situation and what the miraculous outcome was. We know about people being healed from leprosy because someone is there to say, "I saw that this person was a leper and then I saw that Christ healed them."

But what about the stranger that passes that former leper in the street? Would they have even the faintest idea of the great miracle that had occurred in that person's life? To the stranger, the former leper would be just another person.

I said great miracles happen each and every day all over the world. I feel very much that three mighty miracles have happened in my life - gifts of healing and births that should not have been possible - a child with autism that speaks and reads above his grade level and loves - I wholeheartedly know, without a doubt, that miracles very much exist in this day and age.

Not liking my answer, the sister retorted that what we have now is nothing like what happened during Adam's time - where angels walked among them or in Moses' or Noah's eras. That we have to live by faith and not have angels to instruct us.

I wasn't trying to be contentious (just explain my own point of view) and thought that if I continued, it might get a little ugly. So I held my tongue.

But I wondered - how do you know angels don't walk among us? Just because you (or I) haven't met one, doesn't mean that it hasn't happened for anyone else. I've read modern day accounts of people who were protected or comforted by angels in horrible situations. I know of fantastic stories of healing from blessings that have mystified medical science. People who have died and come back to life. Miracles very much like the ones Christ performed while on the earth (seeing as how he gave his apostles the same power to heal the sick, it makes sense). You can't know the entire world's spiritual experiences just from your own limited perspective. The scriptures are giving us specific examples from individuals' lives, but we can't hope to access all the experiences of people everywhere in our own time period.

I reject the notion that we live only by faith alone. I've seen the hand of the Lord. I've seen miracles. I live with them.

If all things of the Gospel have been restored in our dispensation, then why would the Lord neglect us with the same experiences he gave to people in times past? Why wouldn't someone see an angel? Or be miraculously healed? Alma and the sons of Mosiah saw an angel. Did their fathers? Their friends? Not everyone is given the same experiences all the time. The Lord will give us what we need, not necessarily the miracle that we want (although I testify that sometimes He does that too!).

Anyway, what say you? Do we live in an age of faith alone, or do we too live in an age of miracles?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Two More Secrets to Getting Published

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I’d like to tell you two more secrets to getting published today. Obviously, I know there are many more, but I’m focusing on the ones that I get asked most about, and the ones I spend the most time encouraging aspiring authors to do.

The third secret (the first two were discussed last week) is getting feedback on your manuscript. Now, this can be done in many ways and if you do it right, it may be hard for you. The most common way to get feedback on your manuscript is to have a critique group, or at the very least, some beta readers who will read your stuff and give it honest feedback. You definitely want to get with people who will not just fawn all over you and tell you how great you are (hi Mom and Dad!) but you want people who are willing to be honest and say, I couldn’t understand your plot here, or I got bored halfway through, or I hated your heroine. It’s going to be hard to hear, because this is the baby you’ve worked on for months or years, but it can be very valuable.

For the past few years I have been involved in the LDStorymakers First Chapter conference as a judge, a committee member, or the person in charge of it. This is a contest where five industry professionals will evaluate the first chapter of unpublished authors, and choose the winners for some great prizes. The judges give fairly extensive evaluations that are given to each entrant, not just the winners, and to me, the feedback itself is more valuable than the prizes. Yet, every year I listen to a small group of entrants complain about the feedback. Judges were too mean, or they probably hadn’t really read the chapter since they didn’t like it, or one judge liked it where another judge didn’t so I'm going to disregard the comments that didn't like it. And every time I heard these complaints I told them, “you are the author. You can disregard any feedback you want, but the hardest evaluation will probably be the most helpful.” I wanted them to know that these judges were agents, editors, authors, and publishers who had taken a considerable amount of time to evaluate their work, and those comments, as hard as they were to read, were the ones that I would look at most closely in order to improve.

Of course not all feedback is going to be useful. There are some people who just won’t like your work or have anything constructive to say about it. But it is important to really look at your feedback before you discard any of it. Seriously looking at it all will ensure that you will definitely find those gems to help you make your story stronger, but it may hurt a bit while you’re rubbing the rough edges off.

The fourth secret is to be persistent. Write something every day, even when you don’t feel like it. Even if you only write a page a day, it might not seem like much at the time, but that’s going to equal to a pretty large book at the end of the year. Writing every day also keeps you in prime writing shape and it makes the ideas flow a lot easier if you’ve been flexing those writing/thinking muscles at least a little bit on a regular basis. Successful writers are hard workers who know that there are going to be good days when the words are practically jumping by themselves onto the page, and bad days when the cursor is blinking at you and you can’t think of much to say. But a persistent author can’t give up, they must press forward and finish that scene, chapter, or book. A little at a time, slow and steady, persistence and perseverance can do the trick for authors of any circumstance.

Persistence as a writer also equates to the business end when you get a rejection letter for your new manuscript. It is going to take a little while for the feelings that a rejection might evoke in you to go away, but ultimately, a persistent writer will dust herself off, rewrite the manuscript and submit it somewhere else. The same goes for when an agent doesn’t pick you up. Feel sad, but get up and try again.

Persistence is the writer’s over-arching key to success and every published author will tell you that being an author is full of ups and downs both on the creative side of things and on the business end. And, as I’ve said before on this blog, the only difference between a published author and an unpublished author is that one gave up and one didn’t. Don’t give up.

Thank you to everyone who commented last week, and to Tim who linked to my blog and added his own ideas of the first two secrets. I’ve honestly learned so much from my fellow frog bloggers and from the commenters. It’s a privilege to be here among so many wonderful people and authors. I hope you all are moving toward achieving your dreams in the writing business and that you’ve found something useful here that will help you navigate it. If not, you can tune in to LDSPublishers site tomorrow and read Jeff’s new entry. I know I’m looking forward to it!

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Repeating Ourselves

Have you ever been listening to someone speak, and everything is going along fine until it catches in your consciousness that they’re saying “um.” Hey . . . they’re saying “um” frequently. Um. Um. Um. From that point on, you’re doomed. They might be delivering the most masterful speech since the Gettysburg Address, and all you can hear is “um." Before you noticed it, you were fine, but once you noticed, it’s hard to un-notice.

Same with books. As authors, we sometimes use a word . . . and use it again . . . and again. As a reader, you’re fine until you notice it. Once you do notice it, you start cringing. I read a novel where if ONE MORE PERSON shrugged, my brain was going to melt. Don’t misunderstand me—there’s nothing wrong with shrugging. Shrugging is good, a nice bit of stage direction. But once I noticed it was happening frequently, it started to bug me. In another book, it was a sneering blitz, if I remember correctly. Stop sneering! Next person who sneers gets a timeout and a penalty job!

It’s super easy to slip into the repeated word trap. When we’re writing a novel, days, weeks, or even months can pass between when we wrote this scene and when we wrote that scene. I don’t know how good your memory is, but I’m sure not going to remember that in the scene I wrote three months ago, and the one I wrote five weeks ago, and three weeks ago, AND last week, people were shrugging in every scene, until it was some kind of new shoulder exercise craze. In my recent manuscript, a test reader pointed out that I was overly fond of the word “adrenaline.” I hadn’t noticed that, and I’m glad he did. I was able to mix things up a bit so I wouldn’t have readers saying what IS it with her and adrenaline?

Reading rapidly through a manuscript is a good way to catch word repetition—you’ll notice things you never would have noticed while working your way through a novel slowly, scene by scene. And that’s how your readers will read it—fast—so it’s good to try it out that way yourself.

At Writing on the Wall, Annette Lyon wrote a fantastic post dealing with editing out repetitive, deadwood words in our manuscripts. In addition to watching out for “pet words” she talks about getting rid of empty words that weaken prose—her post is one you’ll want to bookmark and refer to again and again when you’re editing. Thank you, Annette!

On one of the LDS Storymakers group chats the other week, there was a discussion where people listed “red flag” words they targeted in editing. Looks to me like ALL of us have to work--every time--to cut the deadwood from our prose. I'm glad to know I'm in good company!

Monday, February 07, 2011

You Need to Hurt the Words You Love, & I Am Trying Something New

Originally, I was going to title this post killing your babies. This being a writing site, I was of course referring to your literary babies. But when I googled “killing your babies,” I decided maybe I’d come up with a different term. So let’s go with, “You Need to Hurt the Words You Love.” This is in answer to David Glenn, who asked, “What does an author do if there’s something (like a character or a situation) that they really want to put into their book, but it doesn’t do anything to help with the plot?”

The answer is probably not what he—or many of us want to hear. Have you ever come up with a great character, scene, or turn of phrase that you are absolutely dying to use ion a story? Maybe you even wrote it out, planning to use it at a certain point in your book, only to discover that as you wrote the story, that character, scene, or phrase didn’t really fit anymore.

You try to make it fit, like Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters shoving and crunching their feet in a vain effort to slide into the glass slipper. But when your critique group, beta readers, or heaven forbid, your editor read it they nixed your baby. What to do? It’s a great scene. The character is so hilariously unpredictable. The sentence in a work of literary masterpiece.

I could beat around the bush here, but let’s be brutally honest. Cut it. Chop it. Kill it. Destroy it. Trying to keep a favorite scene that doesn’t fit into your story is like sticking an exotic orchid into a vase of daises. By itself it might be beautiful. Your character really might be as spectacular as you think she is (although she probably is not.) But it doesn’t matter. The orchid doesn’t fit among the daisies. Rather than adding to their beauty, it draws attention away from them in such a way that it actually harms the arrangement.

That’s what your “baby” does to your story. Even if you think you’ve camouflaged it well, the readers won’t be fooled. They’re reading an exciting beach thriller and unexpectedly come across a character that reads like something out of Lord of The Rings. Not only does the character seem out of place, but it pulls the reader out of the story that does fit.

More than one editor has suggested writers take their favorite line and cut it out of their books. That may seem extreme, but the reasoning is sound. If there is a particular scene or line which you love above the rest of your story, there’s a good chance it doesn’t fit with the rest of your writing.

Am I recommending that you cut out your favorite line? No. I’m not quite that heartless. But I do recommend that you look closely at anything that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the story, whether you hate it or love it. Keeping the reader “in” the story is much more important than the brilliance of any one piece.

On a completely unrelated note, I’ll still be posting here and on my J Scott Savage blog, but I’m also trying something new.

You may be familiar with the LDS Publisher blog. If you’re not, you should head on over. It’s a great blog that every author who has aspirations of publishing in either the national or LDS market should read. Beginning this week, I am excited to be a regular guest blogger there every Friday. My hope is that Friday’s column will be similar to what Nathan Bransford does on his blog every Friday where he links to interesting writing news and comments on it--but focused on the LDS market, LDS authors, and their blogs, podcasts, columns, etc. There will be a little humor, a little analysis, and hopefully a lot of information that will be useful to LDS writers. I’d love to have you come by and I’d love to know what blogs you enjoy the most and would recommend for other LDS writers.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Two Secrets to Getting Published

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I often get asked what is the secret to getting published. Today I am going to share two of them with you. (I’m sure there’s more, but these are my pet secrets today.)

The first thing every aspiring author should do is to read. Now, don’t turn away because it’s such a simple answer. It’s true. You need to read a lot of books so you can get a feel for words, for plots, and for how it’s done. When you read you see the balance between dialogue and setting. You see how characters are fleshed out and how plots are paced. You start to get an innate sense of how to make a story flow.

But, “I don’t have time to read,” is the standard response. To be frank, that is a choice you make. If you want to be a good writer, it is important to be a good reader. I recently had the privilege of listening to Julie B. Beck (the LDS General Relief Society Board president) and during her Q & A session after her remarks, I asked her if she found time for recreational reading, and if so, what books were on her nightstand. She smiled and said she loved recreational reading. She had described her incredibly busy schedule earlier in the evening, and how she’d been going through a stressful time, yet she took ten minutes before bed every night for recreational reading. She was currently reading an English humor book because she needed to laugh, but she also enjoyed classics like Jane Austen, as well as biographies. (She specifically mentioned Harry S. Truman’s biography). She continued with, “sometimes I read the same paragraph over and over, because I’m tired,” but, even so, she loves to read and makes time for it. Now, if one of the busiest women I’ve ever met can find time to read, I think you can, too. Put a book in your purse for when you’re at an appointment (of course, real men will carry a man-purse so that applies.) Put a book in your car for when you’re waiting for carpool. Listen to a book on CD. Put one in the bathroom. Make reading a priority.

The second secret is to attend a writer’s conference. This doesn’t have to be a huge expense, especially if you live in Utah. For example, there will be a free conference in Ephraim, Utah at the Ephraim City building on April 9th, featuring several well-known authors who will teach classes and do a Q & A afterward. Some of the classes include self-editing, the publication process, becoming an idea factory, find time to write and much more and include such authors as Julie Coulter Bellon (surprise!), Tristi Pinkston, Rebecca Talley, Cheri Chesley, Abel Keogh, and Michael Knudsen to name a few.

If you want more advanced classes and the chance to rub shoulders with national agents and editors you have the LDStorymaker conference, which will be held in May 6-7 this year at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City. The keynote speaker will be Larry Brooks and they have three national agents as well as several local editors. Classes are top-notch and include advanced writing classes as well as beginning tracks. It is a great conference for any writer.

Of course there are many more conferences across the country and state that are well worth your time and can really help you hone your writing skills. You just have to look. Or follow authors on Facebook or Twitter. Industry people talk and usually have great recommendations for new authors.

Everyone can give different advice as to what the best course of action for a budding author is, but, in addition to being a reader and attending classes at conferences, the most important thing of all is to write. Write a little something day after day until your novel is finished. There is no better education than that. Then, when you do attend classes, you will have an edge because you can say to yourself---I’ve done it. I'm a writer and I’m here to be a better writer. It will be a little easier after that to keep yourself motivated and, as long as you stay committed, you will do exactly what you set out to do. Become a published writer.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Cyber Slippage

I discovered I’ve read 14 of the 35 Whitney Award finalists. Not bad, huh? That’s a decent dent in the reading pile. And since the deadline for Academy ballots isn’t until April 20th, that means if I read about two books per week, I’ll finish them all. That would be exciting. I’ve never yet managed to read every finalist. We’ll see if I make it this year (yes, I’ve already read the thousand-page The Way of Kings—I figured it would be a finalist, so I made sure to read it beforehand, knowing I wouldn’t have time after the announcement). In order to vote for Best Novel of the Year, Academy members have to read all 35 finalists. I might be able to read them all this year, but that will involve . . . er . . . discipline. Translated: close my email, get off Facebook, quit checking Twitter, ignore that Google reader, and go READ A BOOK.

I have this problem. I . . . um . . . waste too much time online. When I want to relax, I open my computer. But instead of quickly checking my email and glancing at Twitter and then working on a writing project, or girls camp stuff—yes, it’s already time to work on girls camp—or something else productive, I tend to putter around on email, reading blogs, Facebook, etc. And twenty minutes pass, or thirty, or forty-five, and what have I accomplished? Almost nothing, unless you count the networking benefits of dropping in on blogs or social media sites. It’s so easy to let the minutes slip away, and if I do that multiple times a day . . . that’s a lot of slipping minutes.

I do love the Internet. It’s strange now to think back to what life was like without it. I needed a zip code for a Missouri town the other day. Went to Google, and almost instantly, I had my answer. What would I have done before the days of Google? Called the post office? Gone to the library and looked it up? I don’t know. Now, we take it for granted that information of all kinds is available immediately. And what would my life as a writer have been like, pre-Internet? Now, almost everything is done electronically. A decade and a half ago, when I wanted to send my manuscript to my sister, I put the whole giant stack of papers in a binder, packed it in a box, and mailed it to her. Sounds really old-fashioned now, doesn’t it? Sort of Pony Express-like.

Along with the ease of sending manuscripts around electronically, the Internet allows me to interact with other authors and readers in a way I never would have been able to do otherwise. Since I live away from the center of LDS publishing, without online communication, I would have had very little opportunity to interact with my colleagues and get to know them. The online connections I’ve made with other authors and my ability to participate in the writing community long-distance have been huge blessings in my life.

The Internet is also the main way I communicate with my siblings and parents and with my college daughter. My daughter pops up on Gmail chat and I find out what's going on in her life--like the fact that she was down to bread and Pasta Roni yesterday, poor child. But any good thing can become a not-so-good thing if not used wisely, and I fear I've not been using my online time as wisely as I should. So now I'm setting the goal to not let so much time slip away into cyberspace--and maybe I'll be able to finish reading all 21 remaining finalists. How about you? How do you keep the Internet from becoming a timesink--while still reaping the benefits of cyberspace?

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Whitney Awards Finalists Announced!

Many congratulations to the Whitney Awards finalists, which were announced this afternoon! I was a judge this year (for Youth Fiction, both categories) and I can gleefully state that the quality is continuing to climb every single year.

The finalists this year are:

  • Courting Miss Lancaster, by Sarah Eden
  • Cross My Heart, by Julie Wright
  • The Legend of Shannonderry, by Carol Warburton
  • Luck of the Draw, by Rachael Renee Anderson
  • Meg's Melody, by Kaylee Baldwin

  • Cold As Ice, by Stephanie Black
  • Crossfire, by Traci Hunter Abramson
  • Murder by Design, by Betsy Brannon Green
  • A Time To Die, by Jeffrey Savage
  • Wrong Number, by Rachelle Christensen

  • Imprints, by Rachel Ann Nunes
  • Mr. Monster, by Dan Wells
  • Pathfinder, by Orson Scott Card
  • The Scorch Trials, by James Dashner
  • The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson

Youth Fiction—Speculative:
  • Fablehaven 5, by Brandon Mull
  • Matched, by Ally Condie
  • Paranormalcy, by Kiersten White
  • The Forbidden Sea, by Sheila Nielson
  • The Fourth Nephite, Jeffrey Savage

Youth Fiction—General:
  • Glimpse, by Carol Lynch Williams
  • Missing in Action, by Dean Hughes
  • My Double Life, by Janette Rallison
  • The Healing Spell, by Kimberly Griffiths Little
  • Wolves, Boys, and Other Things That Might Kill Me, by Kristen Chandler

  • Alma The Younger, by H.B. Moore
  • Oh Say Can You See?, by L.C. Lewis
  • The Sheen on the Silk, by Anne Perry
  • The Silence of God, by Gale Sears
  • Trespass, by Sandra Grey

General Fiction:
  • Band of Sisters, by Annette Lyon
  • Blink of an Eye, by Gregg Luke
  • The Cross Gardener, by Jason Wright
  • Finding Mercie, by Blaine Yorgason
  • Lucky Change, by Susan Law Corpany