Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Best of 2010: Books

A list of 10 (okay, 12) great reads from 2010:

The first four were Whitney winners in April:
Counting the Cost, by Liz Adair
The Last Waltz, by G. G. Vandagriff
The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams
In the Company of Angels, by David Farland

I love the language and stories and so much more about these books. (I loved lots of other Whitney books, but I read most of them in '09, so I'm not counting them here.)

Favorite Romances of the year:
Courting Miss Lancaster, Sarah M. Eden
Cross My Heart, by Julie Wright

I'm betting these will both be Whitney finalists (both of these writers have been finalists before). They're so good that I'd be surprised if one of these two books doesn't take the award for Best Romance.

Side note: Sarah's next book, Kiss of a Stranger, just hit stores!

Favorite National titles:
The Hunger Games and series, by Suzanne Collins
Loved all three books. Lots to discuss and think about. Disturbing, but in a good way.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Wow. Had to stay up late, tears streaking down my cheeks, to finish this one.

The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Finally got around to reading this recommendation from Melanie at Write Stuff (She was the first of many to tell me I'd love it. I did.)

Non-Fiction
Mother Had a Secret, by Tiffany Fletcher
A touching memoir on a fascinating topic: a daughter's journey dealing with her mother's multiple personality disorder.

For the Kids
The Fourth Nephite, by Jeffrey S. Savage
Hands down, my kids' favorite bedtime book for the year. Even my youngest, who has a hard time listening to chapter books, was all over it.

The "I'm More Culturally Literate" Title of the Year
A book I should have read a long time ago:
Dune, by Frank Herbert

Interesting, but not something I have to ever reread. I have to remind myself what a ground-breaking book it was when it first came out some 40-ish years ago.

One Fun Tidbit
In 2010, I officially read more books than in any year since I've been tracking my reading (1997). Titles so far in 2010: 72. And I might finish a couple more by the end of the year if I hurry.

I'm guessing that the Whitneys played a big part in my reading volume, plus reading some books on the Kindle (I read faster on the Kindle, and now I have my own so I don't have to steal my husband's, woot!). Then I added a couple of books by listening to them on my iPod in the car and on the treadmill.

Next year, I hope for a slightly higher number, even if by one, just to say I broke my record again.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas and Our Troops

This is the first Christmas after the release of Band of Sisters, and the one where, in my story world, the soldiers would be home and celebrating their first Christmas with their families. Even though they exist only in my head, I find myself thinking about Brenda, Jessie, Nora, Kim, and Marianne and how they're doing right now.

So for my last post before Christmas, here's a little something to remember our troops by.


(I'm looking forward to buying more Flat Daddies for families in 2011. Donate with the button in the sidebar.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflections on Costco

Over the last couple of months, I've had a lot of book signings and other promotion.

Most of these signings have been at Costco, which is new for me. I've never before had a book at Costco. Some things I've learned:

Many staffers at Costco are the bomb. (South Ogden, Murray, and West Valley City especially rock. Love those guys.)

One Costco, however, has a total loser working the wireless phone booth. (Although he was delightful entertainment to listen to.) Based on a conversation with a coworker (fifteen feet from me, but apparently clueless that I could hear every word), he'll easily get married to a hot chick as soon as he gets a better job and makes more money. So he totally won't be single like, at 35. The hot chick doesn't need to know how to cook more than chicken nuggets.

Some people enjoy striking up the most bizarre conversations. One guy decided to tell me how much caffeine is in chocolate (way more than coffee, according to him, which not even almost true). Then he launched into a speech about how the "hot drinks" section of the Word of Wisdom was cautioning early Saints to not drink soup too hot, because a lot of people were doing that and burning their throats. (Call me crazy, but I'd like to think Joseph Smith and company were a bit smarter than that.)

Finally, he insisted that the only reason tea was added to the Word of Wisdom (except wait; wasn't it soup?) was a tit for tat. If the women hated tobacco so much, then THEY had to give up something too. And of course, ALL the women came from Liverpool (wait; including Emma, born in the STATES?), where they drink, yep, tea. That conversation left my brain going, "Wha-hahaaa?"

Some people forget a writer at a table is a real person with feelings. One woman leaned in, pointed at the book, looked my body up and down (yes, I could lose a few pounds) and tapped the cover, saying, "Don't you know that's fattening?!"

According to totally non-scientific reactions, the book might sell more if it were diabetic/gluten-free/dairy-free/fill in the blank. Since it's not, it's my obligation to write a version like that.

Utah is far more diverse than I ever knew. I expected to see a good Latino population, and I did (but in greater numbers than I expected). But I had no idea the Wasatch Front also had so many people of Asian, African-American, and Polynesian descent. It was downright fascinating. Maybe we aren't so pale and pasty after all!

I can now go into almost any Costco and walk straight to where they hide the table/chair/cloth and (sometimes) easel for book signings.

Most Costcos are set up almost identically. Except in Sandy. That one will totally screw you up if you're used to the regular layout. I got lost there. Twice. In one day.

A shocking number of women wear 4-inch heels to shop AT COSTCO. That's like walking a 5K with knives shoved in your heels. Worse, many of these women, balancing precariously on spikes, are very pregnant. Absolute masochists, I tell you.

One sweet male worker at a Costco I visited several times reminded me of Dori on Finding Nemo. Every time he passed by (several times during each of 3 signings at that store) he cracked the same joke as if it were the very first time he'd ever seen me or the book.

When the former president (George W. Bush) is coming to sign at the same store in a couple of days, a news station will show up, move you over to the clothing section, and interview the manager. It's hard to be offended by getting upstaged by the former president.

In spite of the giant poster with the book cover, cute layouts of the book, and the words "Author Here Today!" people will still assume you're a store employee.

Nothing seemed to be a sure-fire way to sell books. Sitting at the chair and talking to customers sometimes worked, but other times the table seemed like a barrier. Standing and approaching customers sometimes worked, but other times scared people away. I tried all kinds of things, and in the end just talked to as many people as I could, handed out a gazillion recipe cards, and hoped for the best.

(See THIS POST for a few things I just might have experienced over the last two months or so.)

An astonishing number of people previously bought lots of cookbooks but have collections that reached critical mass in 2010; they simply cannot buy one more. (Or they're totally lying to let me down easy.)

If a woman has nothing but bulk spinach in her cart and is so thin I could tap her with a finger and knock her over (and/or is wearing workout clothing, and/or I can see her ribs), chances are, she won't be interested in my cookbook.

A surprising number of elderly people no longer cook. A surprising number also live in assisted living centers. Yet they shop at bulk warehouse stores. A true mystery.

It's awesome seeing people from my past, even when neither of us remembers the other's name and the conversation starts out with stares and pointing and, "Hey, didn't you go to my high school?"

It's the AWESOMEST ever to see people who came specifically to see me and buy a book. Had lots of that and appreciated it every. Single. Time.

Thank you to every single person who came to support me (and those you came more than once). You rock!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mixed Bag

Today I woke up to the tragic news about the devastating fire that destroyed the Provo Tabernacle.

If you know Provo at all, you know what a huge loss this is. For me personally, it's part of my childhood and teen years as well that went up in flames. We had stake conference there. I graduated from seminary there. Friends performed in concerts. Others competed in piano competitions.

So many memories.

And that's not even considering the historical loss. I hope they rebuild (if they don't, the center of Provo will have a massive hole in it, emotionally and visually), but even if they do, the original pioneer woodwork, the old organ, all of that . . . gone.

On a slightly happier note, sweet friend Sherry Ann Miller posted a review of Chocolate Never Faileth on her blog, Miller's Musings. She came up with holiday gift ideas for my recipes, things that never occurred to me.

Deirdra Coppel interviewed me on her blog the other day, A Story Book World. (I must say, she asked some fun questions.)

Also:
Book signing today
Fashion Place Seagull
11:00 - 12:30


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

WNW: More on Passive Voice: Hi, Ambiguity!


A couple of weeks ago we discussed what passive voice is plus when it's actually okay to use it, even though writers are told over and over again to avoid it.

That post got some comments (hey, that phrase was passive :-D) about whether some sentence structures were passive, and I promised to clarify.

The example cited was:

She was excited.

IS that passive? It does have the key word was in there.

The answer: No, that sentence is most definitely NOT passive.

Except. English has some great ambiguity built into the underlying context. So all by itself and out of context, no, that sentence is not a passive construction. But it could be. (We'll get to that in a second.)

A similar example, showing why it's NOT passive:

Sarah was sad.

That sentence can't be passive; nothing (or no one) is being acted upon. We're just describing a state of being for the subject (Sarah), not what's happening to her.

You could make that kind of construction passive:

She was excited by putting up the Christmas tree.

Check it out: now it's passive. She's not just in a state of excitement; she's being acted upon (putting up the tree), which makes her excited.

Here comes the funky ambiguous part:
This kind of sentence construction (he/she/it was ____) is ambiguous in English because the sentence could imply that something is being acted upon.

Basically, in some contexts, you could figure out what's making the person excited (versus the fact that she just IS excited).

If you have an entire conversation (or, in writing, a paragraph or whatever) where we know why she's excited, what's causing the excitement, then it's passive. In Sarah's case, we know her excitement is because of the Christmas tree.

So "She was excited," while not grammatically/structurally passive, becomes contextually passive.

Upshot there:

She was excited could be passive . . . or not. Technically it isn't from a grammar standpoint, but the final meaning depends on what the speaker intends.

Again, based purely on the structure, and if we're just explaining her emotional state, then no, it's not passive. Not even close.

Another ambiguous example:

The turkey was cooked.

We could simply be stating a fact about the turkey: We have poultry that is not longer raw.

Say a story explained how they knew when it was time to eat Thanksgiving dinner:

The turkey was cooked.

That's not passive. It describes the state turkey. (It's toasty hot, juicy, falling off the bone, and ready to eat. Yum. Pass the cranberry sauce.)

To make it passive, we need the person who did the cooking to be implied:

The turkey was cooked.
[And we, the reader/listener, know Paula did the cooking. The turkey was cooked by Paula = passive.]

(Is this making any sense?)


Here's my linguist dad's key way of explaining passive voice:

Passive voice is when the grammatical subject is ALSO the logical object.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Reader's Guide to How Publishing Works

At recent book signings, I've had a lot of people ask questions about publishing, stuff that as a writer, you almost forget you didn't know once upon a time and had to learn.

Here's a basic run-down on what publishers do (and don't do) and how a new writer goes about it.

You do not pay a publisher to put out your book.
A legitimate publisher considers your book to be their product, and they invest a lot of money into it to make it successful. That money includes editing (many rounds of editing and revisions), copy edits, proofing, typesetting, and things like graphic design, printing, shipping, and distribution. As a result of all that, they have a lot of overhead and keep most of the money.

But they do NOT ask the author for money. Companies who do are called Vanity (or, the nicer term, Subsidy) Publishers. If you go with one of them, you're essentially self-publishing. (See below.)

Vanity publishers have a very bad reputation, especially those who pretend they're legit and are doing YOU a favor. ("Just pay us $4,000, and we'll publish your amazing book!" Ha. Run. Run like the wind! An example of this type of deal: Publish America.)

(Check the Predators and Editors site to check for shady agents, editors, and publishers before signing anywhere.)

The Writer Is Paid Royalties.
Royalties are based on book sales. Statements (and checks!) usually arrive twice a year. (If you ask me how my book is doing, I can't tell you until I get my next statement.)

Royalties are based on a percentage of the book price, usually retail, although sometimes it's wholesale, with royalty percentages ranging from 6.25% to 15% (lots of factors go into the number, which I won't get into now).

Larger publishers often offer advances. An advance isn't just free money. It's money that the publisher is gambling will pay off. If Joe Author gets a $5,000 advance, he gets no more money in royalties, EVER, unless royalties he would have earned from books sold exceed $5,000. When that happens (which doesn't always), he's "earned out" his advance and will then receive royalty checks.

Advances are pretty rare in the LDS market (unless your name is big enough that the publisher knows that a book by you is a guaranteed check in the bank, and I can think of maybe four names like that). I know a few authors who've managed to get advances, but they're very few and far between.

Some math: You can end up waiting years before seeing a dime on your work. I began work on Chocolate Never Faileth May 1, 2009. I'll see my first dime from it February 2011. And that's a FAST turnaround.

More math: There's not much chance of making really good money from publishing a book, especially fiction. (Non-fiction, with someone who has a big platform, is another animal.) A novelist could very well get about sixty-five cents per copy sold. (So pop that dream of a mansion and a Mercedes. Ain't happening.) The rich novelist, especially of a single book, is a serious myth. (It happens, sure, but you have a better chance of being struck by lightning.)

Return Reserve
Another issue is returns. The writer is paid on books ordered by and shipped to stores, not on books that actually walk out of the store in a customer's hand.

So your royalty check may not reflect actual sales. This can come back to bite you when a bunch of stores (especially ones who buy in bulk, say WalMart or Costco) return cases of unsold books.

What happens: your royalties account goes into the red. You were already paid on those books. While you don't need to cough up money to pay your publisher back, you ARE in the red until future royalties add up to be enough to get you into the black again.

This is why return reserve is so common. For example, my publisher withholds 10% of my royalties earned in every check to cover any possible returns. (And then we both cross fingers, hoping that returns don't exceed 10%.) If, after the next 6 months, we don't end up with lots of returns and I'm in the black, I get that 10% paid in my next check.

What's a pain is when you're in the black from other books but a different book gets lots of returns. Your royalties for your new book are then cannibalized to pay for the returns of a past one. (Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything . . .)

Agent or No Agent? (And What Does an Agent DO?)
Whether you'll need an agent depends on the market you're trying to break into. The LDS market, for example, is small enough that agents simply couldn't making a living in it. It's rare that an agent negotiates a deal here. (It's happened, usually with authors who already had an agent for another project. I could list a few examples, but it's pretty rare.)

Even authors who have agents for national project often negotiate their own LDS publisher contracts. One fun example was Dean Hughes, who was working on his Children of the Promise series, unbeknownst to his national agent, who thought he wasn't doing much work (ha!) and surprised him when she sold a nine-book series for him to write.

For most national houses (versus regional or niche publishers) you will need an agent just to get in the door to be considered. Agents are the gatekeepers who pass along manuscripts to editors that they feel have promise so editors aren't wading through what's called the "slush pile."

Agents have relationships, connections to the publishing world. They're the ones with the Rolodex. You don't. They can sell your book to the best house. You can't. They negotiate the contract. After a book is sold, they can go on to sell foreign rights (which can be a pretty hefty amount of money, if you sell rights in lots of countries), movie rights, and so on.

Agents take 15% of what you earn, WHEN you earn it. That may sound like a lot, but getting 85% of, say $90,000 is a whole lot for more than 100% of $5,000. Agents earn their money.

One big caveat: NEVER pay an agent anything upfront. Run from an agent who asks for reading or other fees. If they have costs to be reimbursed for (copies, postage), that'll come out of a royalty check. You should never be paying them anything directly. They get paid when you do.

How Do You Approach Publishers/Agents?
When I started, we didn't have Professor Google to help. I had to rely on the book edition of Writer's Market. Now they have an online version, and you can find a multitude of blogs out there written by agents and editors on how to write a query and how to approach publishers. (So much is out there, you really have no excuse for not educating yourself.)

Publishers Take so Much Money; Why Not Self-Publish?
A couple of reasons: first, the chances of your book being professionally edited, typeset, and having a great cover are pretty sad. (Self-published books usually LOOK self-published.) That means fewer sales. (People really do judge books by their covers.)

A second, and possibly bigger, factor is that publishers already have distribution arms, relationships and histories with bookstores. Indie writers don't. Bookstores are generally wary about taking on books that don't come from a reputable publisher, especially because they usually can't return unsold books to the author the way they can to a publisher. (This is especially true if the writer used a print-on-demand company.)

It doesn't do a writer much good if they have flat of 4,000 copies of a book in their basement and they can't sell them. Sure, you'll make several bucks per book, but if you're selling under 100 copies, where's that getting you?

E-books
They're changing the face of publishing. How far and in what ways remains to be seen.

One issue is that there are SO MANY e-books out there, so readers still need a way to vet the good from the bad. Publishers still provide that service.

That said, a lot of self-published e-book writers are making pretty good money. But they market as much as they write. They get professionally designed covers, get their books edited, interact with e-book readers, usually have multiple books for sale, and more. It's not an easy route. It's work either way.

I have one Kindle book so far (soon to be three). My first novel, Lost Without You, went out of print some time ago, and after the rights reverted back to me (and after a minor rewrite), I got it onto the Kindle last summer (it's also available on other e-reader formats through Smashwords, which includes Apple, Kobo, Sony, and more).

Sales were slow at first, but they're picking up. And while I'm not going to get rich off it, having the book there is getting me more readers all the time. And here's one great thing: the book won't go out of print again. Ever. I can get more sales as the months go by, not fewer.

For more on this, I was interviewed by the Kindle Author blog today. Check that out for more on my experience with Lost Without You and e-books.

I'm hoping that by February, my grammar guide and my second novel, At the Water's Edge (also out of print), will be available on the Kindle and other e-book formats.

Those are the most common questions I get about publishing. If you have more, throw 'em at me, and I'll add them to a future post!



Wednesday, December 08, 2010

WNW: Things We Say Wrong--Right

Found a fun video showing a lot of incorrect usage and pronunciation in English. It's really funny and worth taking a look/listen.

Two of my favorite bits:
"Text messaging has erased any sense of spelling you may have gleaned"

"I could care less."

But . . . I have a few beefs.

First, watch the video. Then read my rant.




Okay . . .

First off, he says that if you feel bad that's incorrect. He insists that the adverb form is needed: you feel badly.

See, here's the thing: feel bad is just fine.

In fact, it's more correct . . . unless he's discussing the sensing capability of his nerve endings and how they just don't work anymore.

Then he could feel badly, because he'd be NUMB.

Aside from that example, the fact is that you don't always need the -ly adverbial form, which he brings up multiple times, like with talk different vs. talk differently.

It comes down to FLAT ADVERBS, something this dude could use a lesson on.

(For a quick lesson, check out Grammar Girl's explanation. She points out that flat adverbs go back the 1600s. They're more popular now, but hardly new.)

And then there's this complaint:

a whole nother apple

Here's the deal: English has lots of pre-fixes (like UN as in unsolved puzzle), and suffixes (like FUL, as in thankFUL), and many others.

Just about every language also has IN-fixes, where the "fix" is sandwiched in the middle of words. English doesn't support infixes very well, but guess what?

A whole nother is essentially an English INFIX.

They exist, dude. Deal with it.

Also, alternate pronunciations aren't wrong just because they exist. Yes, words are sometimes pronounced incorrectly, but if, over decades, more than one pronunciation is considered acceptable by the educated masses, the others will be added to dictionaries.

This happens with English a lot, since most of the planet speaks it (at least as a second language), and many, many countries have it as a national language and speak it with their own pronunciation and variations.

(I'm not about to tell an Aussie that his way of saying "mate" is wrong. Are you?)

Thing is, LANGUAGE EVOLVES. (Read that post for yet another rant.)

From Chaucer's and Shakespeare's standpoints, our English would be ridiculously "wrong." But no, it's not wrong. English has just CHANGED over the centuries. A lot.

The final kicker of the video would be really funny if he weren't still harping on the adverbial thing.

I wanted to absolutely love the video. I loved parts. But he lost a bit of credibility on some points. Sigh.

Note on last week's WNW: Got a few questions on passive voice, including whether something like "she was excited" falls under that umbrella. Will discuss that soon!

Monday, December 06, 2010

Author Interview: Jonathan Langford

Nearly a year ago, as a Whitney Awards judge in the General category, I read No Going Back, by Jonathan Langford. I knew little about it going in, but I admit to being somewhat wary. This was a first-time novelist taking on a daunting task of telling the story of a faithful LDS young man who struggles with same-sex attraction. Basically, he's a faithful, gay Mormon.

One thing that surprised me (in a good way) about the book is that it wasn't, as I expected, a didactic, preachy story where the author had an agenda he was determined to whack the reader with so often that there's no way to avoid getting the message. (Something that did happen in another nominee I read.) I talked about the difference between the two back in January over at the AML blog.

As my long-time readers know, I don't review books here, but I do sometimes interview writers. So here's my interview with Jonathan Langford, whose No Going Back did end up being Whitney Award finalist for Best General Novel.

How long have you been writing and how did you get started? (When did the bug bite you?)

I had a poem published in The Children’s Friend (its title back then) when I was 8, I think. Does that count?

I’ve always had an interest in stories and writing, and used to spend a lot of time thinking out plots for stories when I was younger. Mostly science fiction and fantasy. A lot of them were interactive stories that my best friend and I would make up spontaneously and act out. Then in college, I was part of a creative writing group at BYU with several people who later became published sf&f authors, including Dave Farland, who’s a good friend of mine. I always seemed to do better at editing and critiquing other people’s work than producing my own, though.

Eventually, I got into informational writing, which is what I do professionally now. I enjoy that — but I also felt that something was missing. Then a few years back, about the time I turned 40, it was like something in the back of my head went “Ding! Time to start writing stories again!” I floundered around for several years, working on fantasy stories that never seemed to get anywhere (though I still have hopes for some of them). Then I started working on the idea for No Going Back, and everything seemed to come together.


Where did the idea for No Going Back come from?

For me, story ideas come from imagining a particular character in a specific situation. We’d been talking on AML-List, an email discussion group sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, about the relative lack of stories about faithful Latter-day Saints who are also homosexually attracted. A friend of mine, Rex Goode, who is same-gender attracted but also a faithful member of the Church, explained how people in that situation often are misunderstood both within the Church and within the gay community, which has no sympathy with their desire to live according to Church standards. And then in the middle of that discussion, an idea popped into my head — from wherever it is that story ideas come — for a story about a teenage LDS boy whose best friend (also LDS) confides in him that he’s gay, then is eventually outed and encounters difficulties at school and Church for being gay, even though he’s committed to live by Church standards. I had a picture in my mind of the story ending with the non-gay best friend kneeling at the sacrament table and having a hard time forgiving the members of his ward for the tough time some of them had given his friend.

So originally the story wasn’t going to be about Paul, the boy with homosexual feelings, but rather about Chad, his best friend?

It would still have been largely about Paul, but from the point of view of his best friend. At the time, I was envisioning it as a short story. I put the idea on a back burner, though, because I was busy trying to work with my fantasy ideas at the time. A few years later, I was feeling thoroughly stuck with my other stories, and so I started thinking about this one again. Things started clicking, and I saw how this could become an entire novel. A big part of that was adding Paul as a point of view character, and developing the character of his bishop—who also happens to be Chad’s father—more thoroughly. And then I started writing, and things proceeded from there.

What research did you have to do for the book?

I wound up researching a lot of picky details, such as what kind of music was popular among teenagers in 2003 and what movies were being released. Then I had to watch some of the movies and listen to the music. I interviewed the advisor for our local high school’s gay-straight alliance club, and I attended a meeting of PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). I went online to check out what priesthood manual was being used that year, and then was able to borrow one of the lessons pretty much as is for what turned out to be one of the funnier scenes in the book. Research can be a pain, but it delivers gifts to the writer. Doing your research and then finding a way to stay accurate within what you found often results in much better stuff than if you just follow your imagination. At least, that’s what I found.

I mentioned on the AML blog that I appreciated how you didn’t approach the topic in a didactic way. Did you go into the book with a message you were trying to convey? Did the story grow organically?

The story grew organically, but I also had some things I wanted to communicate along the way. I wanted to give a sense that it was possible to experience homosexual attractions but also to be quite sincere in wanting to follow the Church’s teachings. I wanted to communicate a sense of the difficulty of being pulled between the world’s way of viewing this issue and the Church’s teachings on this topic. On a broader scale, I was hoping that reading this book might prompt people to think about positive ways they could react if someone told them he or she had homosexual feelings, and to stimulate more discussion of the issue from that perspective among Church members. I didn’t mean to advocate any particular answers, but simply to increase understanding and compassion—along with telling a compelling story about characters whom the readers would hopefully care about. Without that part, all the positive messages in the world won’t get you anywhere.

Back when I was teaching freshman composition in college, I used to tell my students that they should be able to create a thesis statement for their argument papers beginning with the words, “I am arguing that . . .” Generally speaking, you shouldn’t be able to do that with a story. I’m not saying that good stories never come about that way, because Milton and Vergil (among others) might have something to say about that, but as a general rule, stories aren’t about themes but rather about experiences. Inevitably the stories we create will reflect our morality and the way we believe the world works. On the whole, though, story-writing—and reading—isn’t really that much like writing and reading an essay or a how-to manual. As someone who’s written plenty of essays and how-to manuals, I can definitely attest to that.

What was the most interesting thing you learned through the process of researching/writing NGB?

I learned that a lot of what I thought would work for me as a writer, and what I’d heard other people say worked for them, didn’t necessarily work for me. For example, the tactic of writing quickly and then going back later to polish proved to be an absolute disaster for me. I almost literally could not bear to read the stuff I produced that way, which kind of defeated the purpose. Instead, I found that I need to take the time to write as well as I can the first time around — with a lot of revision afterwards, of course. And I found that when my writing quality starts going downhill, I have to walk away from it for a while before writing again: an hour, a day, whatever.

That’s only an example. For me, the process of becoming a story writer was filled with surprises. It still is.

I also found myself surprised at just how definite my conceptions of my characters became over time. Often during the editing process, I’d react to a proposed edit by thinking, “No, he wouldn’t say it like that. Instead, he’d say __.” Once a reader referred to one of my minor characters as homophobic, and I said, “No, he’s not homophobic, he’s . . .” And I spouted about five minutes’ worth of explanation about things I hadn’t realized I knew about that character and his motivations.

What is your writing style? Are you an outliner or a by-the-seat-of-your-pantser? Somewhere in between?

Somewhere in between I think. I’ve tried outlining my other stories, and in fact I typically use outlining in my informational projects, but I found that when I outline my stories, I tend to stick too close to the outline and the stories never come alive. On the other hand, when I go in without any idea what comes next, my story wanders all over the place and never acquires any focus.

With No Going Back, I had a good idea of most of the major plot points and how the story had to end. The rest I worked out as I went along. I wrote the story from beginning to end, but I also jumped ahead many times to write a scene that I had just imagined or that I knew had to come further down the line. That helped me in several ways. For one thing, it gave me something to work on when I was either away from the computer or stuck on my current scene. Second, it allowed me to work on scenes while they were still fresh in my mind. Third, writing later scenes often helped me in writing earlier sections by giving me a clearer idea of where the story was going.

What is one big thing you’ve learned through the process of publishing your first novel?

That if you want people to read your story, book promotion can take almost as much time as writing the story to begin with—or more. That may not be true for authors who are working with larger publishers that have a bigger advertising budget. However, I’ve heard authors at every level make this kind of statement, so I suspect it’s true whatever your sales figures may be.

To be honest, though, I don’t really mind. For one thing, it gives me a chance to talk with people about my story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t want to do that. I’m a bit like a proud papa who keeps dragging out all the pictures of his clever children. The bigger challenge for me is to learn when it’s time to shut up about it.

What’s been the biggest surprise about the publishing process?

The cheap answer is that the biggest surprise is that it ever actually happened! My family has been hearing about my writing for years. They were all quite surprised when I actually finished a novel and got it published. Actually, I think they were more surprised at my finishing it than at its being published.

Aside from that, I don’t think I experienced that many surprises. Maybe that’s because I’ve been around authors and book publishing so much over the years. Probably part of it also is due to having been published by Zarahemla Books, which is pretty much a one-man operation. I’m quite happy with the way Chris Bigelow (owner of Zarahemla Books) treated me, but it’s probably true that I haven’t experienced the “genuine” publication process as it might occur with a larger publishing house.

Maybe I’ll have a better answer when/if I get another novel written and published for the national market . . .

Which authors are your biggest literary influences in the national market?

That’s an interesting question. It’s not the same as asking which are my favorite authors, is it? I’d have to say that writing No Going Back, I kept thinking about Chaim Potok and The Chosen, partly because he does such a good job of showing religious belief as part of an ordinary life, and partly because it’s so thoroughly a novel about friendship, which at one level is what No Going Back is about too. And The Chosen is about relationships between fathers and sons, which also play a role in No Going Back, though not as big. I also have to put in a plug for juvenile sf&f writer Andre Norton, whose novel The Crystal Gryphon, which I reread many times as a child and adolescent, does a fine job with alternating viewpoints from highly sympathetic and distinctive characters—something I attempted in No Going Back. And then I’d say Willa Cather, who does an excellent job of telling quiet stories about ordinary people that are nonetheless finely crafted and heartfelt. You care about her characters—and you like them. And you feel that you know them.

There are probably many other authors who have influenced me as much as these three, but they’re the ones that come to mind right now.

In the LDS market?

I haven’t read as widely as I’d like among LDS authors. Of those I have read, probably the biggest influence is playwright Tom Rogers. His plays illustrate how universal themes can be dealt with powerfully within the context of specifically LDS stories. Maybe Dave Farland, to some degree, though he’s published more on the national scene than in the LDS market. Reading and critiquing his work over the years—and hearing him talk about it—clued me in to the fact that people grappling with, thinking about, and talking over ideas can be an interesting element in a story.

How does being LDS impact you as a writer?

Being LDS impacts me as a writer in many ways. One of the most important is that my reasons for wanting to write stories have a lot to do with my LDS beliefs. In the LDS way of thinking, one of the principal goals of mortality is to develop compassion and understanding for other people, all of whom are literally sons and daughters of God and as such, our brothers and sisters. Fiction is a superb tool for doing that. Being LDS also places a religious value on developing one’s talents, as an act of service to others and an act of worship to God.

At the same time, being LDS means there are a lot of other things that have to take priority over being an artist, like taking care of your family and doing your home teaching. I’ve heard people speculate that this kind of split attention might mean we’re never likely to have world-class LDS artists. I don’t buy that. As best I can tell, all art, whether by Mormon artists or not, is created under conditions of distraction. I don’t think we as LDS artists are any worse off in that regard than anyone else.


Any advice for aspiring authors?

Keep writing, and follow your instincts. And remember that being a writer, even a very good writer, doesn’t give you a pass from being a good person. Story writing is important, but so is turnip farming. Take your writing seriously, but don’t deify it.


Read the first half of No Going Back for FREE on Zarahemla's website.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

WNW: When Passive Voice Is OKAY

Don't use passive voice; use active voice.

Ever heard that writing rule?

It's a good guideline, for sure, but like any writing rule, exceptions abound.

First, what is passive voice?

Passive voice shows up when something or someone is being acted upon rather than doing the acting. It's usually a weak way to construct a sentence or a scene because your characters are like chess pieces being moved around and having stuff thrown at them rather than actually doing anything themselves.

Often passive voice can be changed with a little tweaking, and doing so almost always results in a stronger sentence.

Consider:

Tom was hit by a car.

This is passive because the car is the one actually doing the action. Tom is the recipient of the effect.

The car hit Tom.

That's active, but it's still a bit telly.

Since the first sentence (Tom was hit by a car) was rather non-specific (ie telly), let's do better on both counts. Let's show AND use active voice:

A red Jeep squealed around the corner, its headlights staring Tom in the face. He dove for the sidewalk, but too late; the grill smacked into his torso, and tires rolled over his legs. A pop and a crunch, and then silence, save for Tom's heavy breathing and a sensation of shock eclipsing the pain in his broken legs.

Now the car (or, the Jeep, since we're adding specificity) is acting. Tom's still on the receiving end, but the action is much better.

Passive voice is one reason writers are cautioned to avoid WAS constructions. They aren't all passive voice (contrary to what some writers teach or have been taught, haha--that was passive voice), but it's a clue that you might be dealing with it.

So here's a fun detail: sometimes you WANT passive voice.

1) Use passive voice when the common sentence construction demands it and changing the sentence to active would call attention to itself. Such as:

He got arrested.

Sure, that's passive, but it's also the way that term is generally used. Pointing out that police officers did the arresting is kinda silly, and it would detract.

(Note that here and in many cases, it's GET/GOT that's the key for noting passive voice, not WAS.)

2) When you're deliberately trying to avoid pointing out the person/thing who acted.
Pay attention to commercials or company communications: they rarely accept responsibility for anything, and they do so by using passive voice:

"We regret that your washing machine was improperly installed" keeps it passive and the focus on the washer.

They'd never say, "We regret that our technician installed your washer improperly," because then the spotlight is on their shortcomings and gives the customer ammunition for a refund.

You can do the same thing in your writing. Mysteries are rife with passive voice when we don't know WHO done it: "The victim was stabbed five times." Trying to avoid passive voice there would feel a bit acrobatic and awkward to the reader.

Another case to use passive voice: when you're deliberately trying to hide the person who is acting.

"Mom, one of the car's headlights got smashed," a teen says, and then slinks to their room, hoping Mom assumes it was a hit-and-run in a parking lot or something, even though the teen is the one who busted the light by driving into a lamp post.

Or when a teacher walks in to see chaos and says, "What's going on here?"and the class replies, "The same thing that happens every day."

(Careful not to point out that THEY are the ones doing whatever they shouldn't be.)

To sum up:
  • Passive voice is when the sentence shows what is happening to who/what but avoids using the subject of the action as the subject of the sentence.Most of the time, passive voice is weak and should be avoided.
  • WAS/GOT tend to signal passive voice.
  • But not all sentences with those words are passive voice.
  • Use passive voice when you (or a character) want to conceal who is doing the action.

Okay, so let's try it: After Thanksgiving, I'm amazed at how much pie GOT EATEN.

Ahem. (See? With passive voice, I admit to nothing . . .)

Coming Soon: Firsts and Lasts

UPDATE: Firsts and Lasts is now live as an ebook, and it'll soon be available in paperback as wel! Get the ebook HERE . I've got s...