The Soundtrack for Life

What songs are in your life's soundtrack?

What songs are in your life’s soundtrack?.

“There’s a soundtrack for Life in Spades?” People have asked when I mention certain songs that relate to the characters.  Yes, there is music mentioned throughout the book as the women work through their challenges of love and family.  And yes, there is particular music I think of in my own head when I consider Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie’s stories.

While I’m working on a writing project, whether my next book or blog post, I listen to the Life in Spades “soundtrack”, as well as other music I’ve pulled up on my iPod or Slacker.  Depending on whether I’m writing, editing, re-reading, or trying to get over a stumbling block, yes, the genre changes.  Although I can write to Bruno Mars, I have to edit with instrumental in the background.

Music plays such a key piece in our lives, so it’s not surprising really that it would play a part in our creativity and productivity.  Every major life event has a song.  Birthdays, weddings, holidays.  Even births invoke certain songs – Isn’t She Lovely? – as do deaths – Precious Lord, Take My Hand.  Getting on the school bus, whistling on our way to work, going to bed after a long day.  And just as we celebrate life’s milestones with song, our memories are triggered by music, too.  What song did your mother hum to you as a kid?  Where were you when the Thriller video premiered? (And if you are not old enough to have that as a living, specific memory, well, just keep that to yourself.)  What was your first music concert?  What grade, who were your friends?

It was a source of entertainment to consider what music Gina, Laura, Sherry, and Cookie would be listening to as they got together for a game of spades, went out for happy hour, and swept across the dance floor.  It also gave my brain another creative puzzle to figure out.

Sam Cooke crooning “You’re nobody unless somebody loves you,” spoke to Laura’s feelings as she struggles with her feelings about being a professional escort and what that meant for her personal life.  Later, Porgy & Bess illustrated the universal choice of choosing the man who loves you versus the one who can provide things that you think you want.  Cookie’s heart recognizes that love may be lost, but there are second chances and that’s okay, as David sings to her from the music festival stage.  As Sherry gulps a drink, sure that all she wants is to dance with somebody, we wonder, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”  And what is playing on Gina’s iPod as she runs behind Alex. Is life really, so simply “Black & White”?

Music in our own lives is fun, it’s memories, it’s a time marker.  In Life In Spades, it serves as mood and texture for who the women are.  As the author, it kept me humming along as they bopped and shimmied along onto the page.  I hope my readers feel like tapping their feet along to their story, too.

 

Share in the Comments – What songs mark important moments in your life?

An Afternoon of Books & Lunch at Busboys & Poets

I don’t know what took me so long, but I finally made my way to Busboys & Poets.  I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Andy Shalal, the owner, at the Hurston Wright Awards, and my daughter had studied the Harlem Renaissance in school recently; I took these as signs to visit the namesake restaurant for one of the premiere writers of the era, Langston Hughes.

Busboys & Poets, Washington DC

Busboys & Poets, Washington DC

The restaurant is cozy, reminding one of a friend’s chic dining room, that is, if you had a friend who had 20 or so tables and modern art hanging in their dining room.  There were proper tables, as well as pillow-laden couches surrounding low coffee tables as dining options.  We enjoyed a delicious meal – including a great crabcake. And being from Maryland, Baltimore specifically with a good amount of time on the Eastern Shore, I am a bit of a crabcake snob.  This one was truly meaty and tasty.  For dessert, my daughter ordered the vegan cookie and ice cream. She’s not a vegan, but for some reason, likes vegan cookies.  And for a vegan cookie, it was really pretty good; so much so that I’m looking for a recipe to try at home.  (Feel free to share if you have one.)

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Pesto Lasagna @ Busboys & Poets

Shrimp & Crab Fritters

Shrimp & Crab Fritters @Busboys & Poets

Crabcake sandwich

Crabcake sandwich @Busboys & Poets

Vegan cookie & vanilla ice cream

Vegan cookie & vanilla ice cream @Busboys & Poets

After lunch, we hung around in the bookstore part.  I get e-books, and of course, Life in Spades is available on Kindle and nook, but there’s something about physical, touchable, flippable pages.  I am one of those dinosaurs who still wander to the bookstore to kill time and walk out with a stack of books.  As we did this time.  I was excited to be in a book space filled with writing by people of various races and nationalities.

A selection of books at Busboys & Poets

A selection of books at Busboys & Poets

And something I haven’t done in years? I bought a book of poetry.  I love poetry, but admittedly, sadly, rarely buy poetry books.  I picked up Jamaal May‘s debut collection, Hum, and look forward to folding myself into a chair with a cup of tea and gliding through his words.  I also bought Hannah Weyer‘s On the Come Up and James McBride‘s The Good Lord Bird to add to my to-read pile.

As far as hanging out with your kid moments? I enjoyed having my daughter along.  Like me, she’s a reader and has commented before on the lack of diversity in teen books.  There was a bookcase of young adult/teen reads, from which she selected a couple of books.  I was excited to see that she was learning about the Harlem Renaissance in school – the cultural history and the literature.  She knows of the Cotton Club, Hughes, and learned to do the Charleston.  I wonder if I had been exposed, if I had known about Black authors when I was in middle school or high school, what would I have done with that knowledge?

Selection of books, including teen/young adult, at Busboys & Poets

Our reading stack from Busboys & Poets

For one, I would’ve been introduced to Janie and Teacake much sooner in my life.  But at least, I’ve also finally made it to Eatonville, named in honor of Zora Neale Hurston and located across the street from Busboys & Poets.  We enjoyed a delicious dinner there (I had the pecan pie for dessert) last month.

I’m happy to check both of these local “must do’s” off the list – and to return to both soon.

Chocolate Cake with Caramel Latte Frosting

One of the most common questions I get while promoting Life in Spades – whether at bookclubs or book festivals or (wo)manning my booth at a community event – is “are any of the characters based on you?”  The lovelorn baker, the don’t-wanna-be marathon runner, the divorcee, or the escort?  Nah.  All these friends climbed out of my imagination.  But that’s not to say that we don’t share some of the same characteristics, likes and dislikes.

Cookie, for instance, does have a dream job.  Baking all day in her self-owned bakery?  Would love it!  Absolutely.  During the holidays, I step into the full-time baker role. I don my apron, stack up my recipes (I often make the same cakes and pies, but have a terrible memory for recipes), pour myself a drink, and start baking.  My regulars are red velvet cake, pound cake, sweet potato, pecan and apple pies.  I supplement those according to my mood at the time – carrot cake, peanut butter cake, Hummingbird cake, upside down cake.  I really like the ten-layer Smith Island Cake, but haven’t made that in a while.

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Chocolate cake is my ultimate favorite cake – chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, with chocolate ganache, with chocolate shavings… Get it?  But as much as I love it, well, I don’t need to eat too much of it or my next most popular activity will be buying new clothes.  I did however make a chocolate cake to bring in the new year.

I used a chocolate cake recipe from Southern Living, which has great, full-butter, all-sugar recipes from before the trend of healthy, low-fat, reduced sugar baking. And, as always, had to experiment with some aspect of it, so I went with the frosting.  Sitting on the kitchen counter was a new package of Caramel Crème Latte Drink Mix I had just unpacked from a Tastefully Simple order, so I decided to make Caramel Latte Frosting.

Use flavored coffee drink mix for a delicious cake frosting.

Use flavored coffee drink mix for a delicious cake frosting.

Caramel Latte Frosting

Mix the following together – in your mixer or by hand, your preference.  Makes enough to frost a 2-layer cake.

  • 2 sticks – butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1 pound – confectioners’ sugar
  • ¼ cup – Tastefully Simple Caramel Crème Latte drink mix.  Adjust to taste.  You could also try another powdered coffee mix you have on hand, for instance, International Cafe or something similar.
  • 1 tsp – vanilla
  • a few tablespoons of milk – for desired consistency

This tastes delicious with chocolate cake. Especially for people who may not like or want chocolate on chocolate.

Enjoy a slice with a hot cup of coffee.  And a good book.

When Your Muse Takes a Break

You’re going along, tapping away on your keyboard or scribbling in your notebook, the story, the words, the ideas are coming to you at a good, creative pace.  And then all the sudden – your characters sit languidly on the couch, they drive down the street just staring out the window, or they take a nap. Now what?

When it seems that my beautiful writing muse has taken a lunch break, I need something to call her back, or at least a substitute until she returns.  I’ve found a few useful techniques to get the story going again.

Read what you’ve already written.  Maybe you are in a “no edit” mode, but this doesn’t violate that rule.  Reading over what you already have might show a hole in your plot or raise your own question of “why’d they do that?” or “how did they get there?”  Filling in the answers will get your brain cells firing for a while and then may push you to the next point in your writing.

Read something else – a book, the newspaper, the comics.  I have no scientific evidence of such, but I believe reading other materials gets your brain cells working, too, and often an idea, possibly not related at all to what you just read, will fly your way from left field.  But sometimes it is related.  Perhaps reading about the Ravens game on Sunday, you will decide to send your character out to throw a football with his son. Or his girlfriend. Or kick the relationship to the curb.  Or grab a crabcake for lunch on his way to Edgar Alan Poe’s house.

Consider writing prompts.  Elementary school teachers use them, so they must be good.  Prompts are generic suggestions of situations for your character or plot to spur your creativity.  There’s books, there’s online sites full of them. I’ve posted some on my Pinterest page.  For each story, for each writer, the prompt will veer the story into its own path.  For instance, a prompt may say “a stranger offers your character something to eat or drink.” In one story, the character may be a young girl who shrinks and wanders down a rabbit hole; in another, a man may be meeting the love of his life at a bar; yet another, the main character may awaken days later to find a tiger in his bathroom.  Or perhaps, your character will be the stranger.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Refer to writing prompts to get your creativity going again.

Describe your surroundings.  Whether in a coffee shop or sitting in your office, describe what you see.  What kind of chair are you sitting on? Who else is in the room or area with you? What do you smell, hear?  Describe someone who has just walked by.  Where are they going, what are they leaving?  You’d be surprised what characters might walk into your next story.  Indeed, this is how I found “Michael” in my novel, Life in Spades.  He walked in and sat next to me in a train station.

Take a break, too. When the muse is gone, don’t futilely beat your head against the keyboard.  Hit “save” and walk away.  Check Twitter, see what your friends are doing on Facebook, go for a walk, call your mother, fix yourself a drink. Do something totally not related to the story. I’ve been happily surprised when the “perfect” line or turn of plot comes to me while swimming laps or wandering through the grocery store picking up dinner.  Sometimes your muse wants to sneak up on you and it can’t do that when you’re sitting there looking for her.

Will everything you right using these techniques be part of your next great novel? Not necessarily. But neither is whatever you were going to right while trying to break through your writer’s block. Perhaps, though, it will intrigue your muse enough to wander back and peek over your shoulder.  And if all that doesn’t work? Eat chocolate.

 

Share any other techniques to get your ideas going in the Comments below.

Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards

The Hurston/Wright Legacy Award Ceremony was held last Friday in the historic Carnegie Library in Washington DC. I had the pleasure of attending and celebrating Black literature, as Founder Marita Golden put it, “without controversy or explanation…where brilliance is assumed.”

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from the Hurst/Wright Awards program

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, the author of Wench, was the entertaining and thoughtful Mistress of Ceremonies for the evening.  Her excitement about the authors reminded me how we all have, or should have, someone to look up to.

Frances with Dolen Perkins-Valdez

Frances with Dolen Perkins-Valdez

As a student of Black literature in college, to the point that some thought it was my major (it was not; in fact, although I took all the classes that were offered, there weren’t enough to qualify even as a minor), one of the poets I read was Sonia Sanchez.  She was present at the Awards to read her original poem for the occasion, in honor of one of the organization’s namesake, Zora Neale Hurston, entitled “Belly, Buttocks, and Straight Spines.”  I prefer to read poetry to get the full meaning, but I enjoy hearing it for the sound of the interpretation by the author.  Sanchez is proof of why.  Her words melted into a rhythm where they barely had definition but you take the meaning and are moved by the flow and the song in her voice and the patterns of sound in English, speckled with snatches of French and Spanish.  This living legend of Black literature was an inspiring way to kick off the evening.

Sonia Sanchez

Poet, Sonia Sanchez at Hurston/Wright Awards

And the winners from the evenings were…

Northstar Award – U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway who reminded us that as writers, all of our work is grand advocacy for the important work of social justice.

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U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway accepting Northstar Award

Ella Baker Award – Eugene Allen, the author of the Washington Post article that inspired the movie, The Butler.

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You have to share Eugene Allen’s excitement as the theme from The Butler plays and you hear Forest Whittaker say “I’m your new butler.”

Ella Baker Award – Isabel Wilkerson, for her epic history of the Black migration from the south to points north and west, Warmth of Other Suns. The book was titled after a phrase from the other namesake of the organization, author Richard Wright.  Wright was preparing to move from Mississippi to Chicago in 1927, comparing himself to a seed being moved to a better place to grow.  Wilkerson suggested that his and other Blacks’ relocation from the southern states to the east coast, Midwest and west coast, was not only about moving, but really about freedom and how far we would go to find it.  This is one of those books you hope will be part of the required reading in American history classes and the discussion of reasons for migration.

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Isabel Wilkerson (center) accepts her Award for Warmth of Other Suns.

Nonfiction Award – Fredrick Harris, author of The Price of the Ticket, about the election of President Barack Obama.  And congratulations to nominee Natalie Hopkinson, author of Go-Go Live.

College Writers – Justin Campbell won for an excerpt from his yet-to-be published novel, Sitting on the Knees of God.  I’ll be getting this book whenever it comes out, for the title alone.

It doesn’t take much more than a good cover and a great title to get added to my list of considerations, and the nominees for Fiction are filling up my to-read list.

  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards
  • Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson
  • The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
  • The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (already on my “read” list and reviewed)

Fiction Award winner – Gathering of Waters by Bernice L. McFadden.

BMcFadden

Bernice McFadden accepting the Fiction Award from Edward P. Jones

And if all the literary goodness wasn’t enough, the evening was wrapped up with cheese, dessert, wine, music, and a copy of the book, 12 Years a Slave (thank you, because I am so behind on my movies.)

HWAwards-12YearsASlave

Program Hurst/Wright Legacy Awards & Twelve Years a Slave

Plan a Writing Day

When my writing group meets, we usually have sent each other our selected drafts before hand, had time to read them over, and scribble or type comments.  Face to face, we discuss our comments, ask questions, maybe even brainstorm a few ideas for someone who is stuck.  Recently, we decided to switch things up. We would write, enjoy breakfast, and talk about our writing. All of us have attended a writing retreat at some point, whether a day long or a weekend, and we planned to harness this collective writing energy to file a few more pages in our novels-to-be.  I’ve done this in the past with my scrapbooking friends, too. It’s all the creativity bouncing in the air, it spurs you to want to grab it and make something beautiful, too.

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Coffee, laptop and a lot of ideas. All ready for a productive writing day.

Select a place conducive to your work.  Places like Starbucks and Panera are generally welcoming of folks hanging out for a few hours, but be mindful that they are in business to make a buck, not be your secondary office. Don’t take up more than a reasonable amount of space, do buy some coffee and food as “rent” for your space, and do be kind to the staff.  And if they give you the side-eye or keep coming by to clear up your table, that might be the gentle hint that your time is up.  We found a nice small coffee house that served breakfast and a light lunch and kept an eye out for a morning or mid-afternoon crowd. Of course, if your budget and calendar allow, you can plan for a weekend or a few days away from your regular life.  Be sure to invite me if you go this route.

Come prepared to write.  You don’t want to start off your day drumming the table trying to think of something to write. Jot down a few ideas before you come, think about where you want to jump in on an piece that’s already in progress.

Pack your supplies for writing. Are you a paper and pen kind of person or do you need your laptop? Don’t forget your cord or charger.  You may also want to bring headphones if you are one of those people who are easily distracted by conversation at the next table.  What else do you normally have? Do you need chocolate to keep you going, a special stress ball to help you think? Don’t forget your must-have writing accessories.

Prepare for writer’s block with prompts.  What happens when you get stuck?  What are your characters going to do next, where are they going to go, what’s going on? Don’t waste your time staring into the ceiling. Before our writing day, I wrote out a few writing prompts on index cards, ready for anyone to grab one if they needed a little push.  Perhaps you will stick with the idea, perhaps it will get your brains cells to think of something else, totally not even related. It’s all good. A few of the prompts to stick in your writing notebook:

  • Your character is stuck in traffic.
  • Someone offers your character something to eat or drink.
  • Describe one of your character’s flaws.
  • It starts raining.
  • Your character sees someone they think they recognize.

Watch your time. It’s easy to get carried away in the social aspect of the day. Set an agenda, allowing enough time to write (maybe 2 hour blocks), talk about your writing, enjoy a snack or meal, according to your goals for the day.

Have fun! This is what you want to do, right? Enjoy it.

Need more writing prompts? Check my Pinterest page – When Your Muse Takes a Break – for more ideas.

Literary Pieces: A Book Review and Bookclubs

Last Saturday turned out to be a literary puzzle of several interlocking pieces, making this picture of the day:

Life in Spades for Ms. Terry McMillan (Authors Pavillion, Congressional Black Caucus)

Life in Spades for Ms. Terry McMillan (Authors Pavillion, Congressional Black Caucus)

My morning started out with notice that a book review for Life in Spades had been posted.  Probably the thing that made me most nervous after sending my novel out into the world for readers to read it, wass waiting for reviews.  Readers have posted on Goodreads and Amazon (thank you!), but this was a book-blog review, a little something different.  Thanks to  Reads4pleasure.com for posting their thoughts, rating Life in Spades with 4 “chairs” out of 5. They mentioned that “if you enjoyed Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, you’re going to love Life in Spades.”  That was piece one.

High on those comments, I finished up my coffee and went to the Congressional Black Caucus Author’s Pavillion.  And as it turned out, who was on the panel?  Ms. Terry McMillan,  along with fellow authors Victoria Rowell (yes, Drucilla from The young & The Restless) and Chyla Evans, and representatives from popular bookclubs discussing the relevance of bookclubs in the digital era of reading.

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The Authors Pavillion at the Congressional Black Caucus

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Author Terry McMillan, Chyla Evans, Victoria Rowell on Authors Pavillion panel

Victoria Rowell has written several books on her adoption as a child and the adoption of her child.  Chyla Evans, interestingly, wrote her novel Fourth Sunday, with five other authors (the book is listed as written by B.W. Read).  They started out as a bookclub, then decided to write a book. I mentioned to her after the panel that I barely got along with myself while writing, I was impressed that they were successful with six writers.

Chyla Evans and a few of her fellow writers, who make up "B.W. Read"

Chyla Evans and a few of her fellow writers, who make up “B.W. Read”

The panelists made a few points that I thought were quite useful for new writers, like myself.

  • Bookclubs want authors to be approachable. One of the women mentioned asking for an author to visit her club and the author’s agent wanted to charge a considerable amount, in the thousands. Obviously, that’s outside of the scope of your regular bookclub, so they had to pass.  Ms. Rowell reiterated this notion, mentioning how she tries to be very flexible in meeting bookclubs whenever and wherever she can fit it in.
  • The readers mentioned getting book recommendations from all over the place – reviews, word-of-mouth, online sites.  This makes sense to me as this is how I pick my own books to read.  I browse the new fiction section at Barnes & Nobles, yes, the bricks and mortar one with real books inside.  I read reviews, but admittedly, only about the first paragraph because I don’t like knowing too many details about a book before I read it.  Probably the majority of my books are from friends who said, “here, you should read this.” The take away for me was to get the book out there, get it in as many venues as possible.

Of course, I can’t go to a book anything and not come away with anything.

As Ms. McMillan signed her new book Who Asked You?, she graciously accepted a copy of Life in Spades. Will she read it? Who knows, but it felt very special to have my debut novel in the possession of one of the most successful modern Black women writers.

I picked up The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer).  It’s about a young man in African that helps to uplift his village by building a windmill.  It seems one that I can share with my children.

Here’s the line that got me to pick up the third book: “Booker’s Baltimore is equal parts The Wire and Cosby Show.” What? Two of my favorite shows of all time. It could only be better by throwing in Big Bird or a shipwrecked tour boat.  And then Sheri Booker read from her newly released Nine Years Under, about a girl growing up in one of Baltimore’s funeral homes, maybe a page or two.  Her reading was reminiscent of slam poetry – which I always think sounds so aggressive, but is very attention getting. It was the interesting contrast of this tone with the touching passage she read that caught my attention. I had the book in my pile by then, her reading just solidified my decision.

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That was all piece number two of the puzzle.

The last piece, I left from there and headed to Baltimore to meet with a newly formed bookclub for their first meeting. I was honored that Life in Spades was their first pick and thank them for having me join them.

I rounded out the evening with dinner with my sister-in-law and her family, enjoying a great big bowl of shrimp and grits and peach cobbler.  Then what can you do after that, but go home and go to sleep?

Reading with Book Clubs

I’ve been in a book club for years, as a reader. I’m obviously not unique in this membership, it seems most people are in a bookclub or would like to be.  (And yes, there are that bunch who definitely do not want to be in a bookclub for a myriad of reasons – time, they only want to read what they want to read; I get it.)  My bookclub meets loosely, about once per month, reading books by women of color, unless there’s a book that we all agree we will make the exception for, and we’ve been together about 10 years.  We’ve hosted authors in person and by phone (before there was Skype).  Now I’m on the other side, as an author.    Here’s a few tips, gleaned from my experience on both sides of the book for a successful and enjoyable book club.

Read the book.  I realize that expectation becomes a joke for some book clubs, but in truth, that really is the whole point. Of course, life happens and sometimes, even given a month, you don’t get around to reading the book, but do try. Perhaps, by page 25 you didn’t like the book and put it aside. That’s okay, at least you tried.

Discuss what you will read and how you will select a book.  Although people say, “oh, I read everything”, I don’t think that’s actually true.  We all have our preferences and dislikes. Me? I don’t read horror or anything particularly violent (yes, I’m a scaredy-cat).  Your group might settle on a theme of what you will read or what you won’t.  Then decide – will the group come to a consensus on the next selection, will you select several months/meetings head, will the host get to choose?

Set your rules. How often will you meet? Will there be refreshments? A meal or coffee and cake? Who will host or where will you meet? Is there an attendance requirement, do you have to RSVP?  How will you communicate in between meetings – FaceBook, evites, email, by phone?

Decide who can join and how. Somehow you selected your initial group; what about new members? Do you want to keep your group to a particular size? 6-10 seems like a good number; its small enough for a good discussion and large enough that if a few people can’t make it, you still have a decent number to meet.  Can members just invite a friend to come along or do prospective members have to be approved? One of my current bookclub members used to joke that she was working on her application and waiting for us to accept new members; we really aren’t that tough, but I have found some clubs that do have a formal process for accepting new members.

Discuss your book budget.  Do selected books have to be available in the library or are members willing to purchase every book?  If purchased, will you select them when they are new in hardback, or only when they are released in paperback? Check with your local library about getting bookclub holds on books or your bookstore about reserving a quantity for your members to ensure that they can get the selections.

Keep the book discussion related to the book. Probably the biggest joking comment about book clubs is that they are just excuses to get together and chit-chat about everything but the book.  But if you’ve read that book and really want to talk about it, it’s no fun when the discussion gets carried off to what happened on TV or what’s on sale at Target.  One way to accomplish this is to designate a person to manage the questions and discussions; it could be the host or another member.

Have fun.  That is the whole point, right?

What are some of the rules in your bookclub?

Start with One Word, Then Add Another 49,999

Back a few Novembers ago, I came across this crazy idea of writing 50,000 words in one month. Not just any 50,000 words – but in coherent (mostly), related (kinda) sentences that told a story.  With countless cups of coffee, endless bowls of M&Ms, and less sleep than is probably healthy, I managed to finish a skeleton of a 100 page idea.

How did I come up with that magic number of 50,000, other than it just sounds like a nice, round, impressive number?  And why in November, which is, for most people and especially a mother of 4, a crazy month of Thanksgiving planning, Christmas shopping, and lots and lots of baking? Because it’s NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month.  Started in 2009 and now run by the Office of Light and Letters, NaNoWriMo is an annual challenge to wanna-be-writers to get those characters and plots and scenes out of their brains and on to paper in a minimum of 50,000 words.  What you do after you hit that magic number or November 30, whichever comes first, is up to you. I chose to keep going. Another 250,000 words and I lost count after about 15 rounds of edits, and it all became my debut novel, Life in Spades.

Now, there’s Camp NaNoWriMo in July for those who don’t want to wait until November to begin your literary challenge. And of course, if you’ve missed Camp, too, you can always go it alone.  Either way, it’s going to take a little preparation to write 50,000 words.  Here’s a few things I learned along the way to get your started.

Set up Camp. Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have a writing desk or office, or maybe you are taking up part-time residence on the kitchen table in between meals. Find a comfortable space and at least for that writing time, make it yours.  Set up our laptop, get your favorite coffee cup, put up a picture of you on your last vacation.

Figure out your Camp schedule.   How long is writing camp and when will you be there?  A month, a week?  Will you get up early and write before your normal day gets started? Stay up late? Write during your lunch break? Or perhaps you can you take 30 days off and disappear from your regular life.  Plan to write during that time every day. That’s not my idea – Steven King, Walter Mosley – I imagine most successful writers – would tell you you’ve got to write everyday. But those two, I know do say that for sure, both in their books on writing.

Plan your Camp agenda.  How many words are you going to write in your novel, how many years will you cover in a memoir, how many poems will you compose?  Break that goal down into manageable, not overwhelming chunks.  50,000 words in a month? 1667 words/day in November or 1613 words/day in July.   Do the math, make a sign, post it on your wall.

Tell your family, or room-mates, or whoever else lives with you. They need to understand why all of the sudden you cannot hang out watching reality TV and playing Wii Dance Revolution and why you are muttering about some group of imaginary people. You don’t have to tell anyone else if you don’t want to. It depends on how many people you want asking you, “are you done yet?”  Send them a text every now and then to let them know how you’re doing.

Pack provisions.  Snacks, your favorite beverage to keep you well-fed.  Bring a creative diversion for when you can’t think. I keep a ball winder (for yarn) and a crochet project handy for when I need to let my mind wander.

Carry a notepad and pen, or smartphone or iPad. Somewhere to write down ideas. Once you start writing on a consistent basis, you will start making connections to your story while going about your normal life. You will see a dress that one of your characters would look great in. You will realize that the street you want your character to speed down has been closed off and turned into a market square. A plot turn will become suddenly evident to you. You’ll want to write all this down, ready for when you get back to your writing desk.

Write, don’t edit. Just write. You will cut drastically into your time and word count by going back and editing – because the editing will never end.  If you have a compulsion to go back and re-read, then just edit the big stuff – the character was short not tall, Black not White, it was a rainy day, not a sunny day. Edit the stuff that really matters, then get back to the story. Leave the fine tuning until after you’ve hit our goal.

Take notes – briefly. I didn’t come upon this until several full revisions into my novel, when I finally couldn’t keep track of every little detail in my head. Use notecards and write the main point of each chapter and any important details.  Your character breaks a leg or loses her voice, it’s summer time or Tuesday. Refer to those cards as you go forward.  If you are not going back to make edits, make notes on those cards for when you are ready to go back.

Get started. And let me know how it’s going.  I’ll be writing right along with you.

The Business of Self-Publishing

This past weekend, I attended Book Expo America, the largest publishing event in North America, in New York City.  Specifically, I went to the uPublishu Conference for self-published authors and as a Power Reader, a public pass for access to the Exhibit Floor.  I came away with a couple totebags full of books (a good number for the kids) and pages of notes and useful tips from the industry experts leading the conference sessions.

FFatBEAFor authors or aspiring authors who are considering self-publishing (a growing number, these days), I would suggest that you arm yourself with industry information.  Not necessarily a conference in New York City, but check in your local area for workshops, read websites and blogs and books about the business side of self-publishing, in addition to honing your writing skills. Self-publishing is, afterall, a business, not merely an extension of writing your book.

Self-publishing business vendors had information booths at the Conference. Companies that will help you with your editing, marketing, printing – everything you need to get your book on paper and out into the world. “I’m self-publishing – what do I need all those folks for?” you might be thinking. Here’s the point – you are an aspiring author; you’re not an aspiring copyeditor or illustrator or PR professional. One thing I’ve decided in my own venture is that I can’t do it all – I don’t have the skills nor the time, and it’s a better investment to pay a professional for a job-well done, than to save the money and do an amateur-ish job myself.  Of course, each person has to inventory their own skills, time, money and figure out what they can do for themselves and what they need to hire someone to do.

I attended workshops on consumer demographics (did you know women account for 60% of physical book purchases, about the same for e-books), social media, and niche marketing.  Guy Kawasaki, author of APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur, was the luncheon keynote speaker – a great speaker and a lot of useful information jam-packed into lunch.  My husband has seen him speak at tech-folk conferences, too, and agrees that he’s a really good speaker. Check him out if you get the chance, in the meantime, you can read the book.

You know a workshop session was good when you can’t wait to put something you learned into practice.  I’ve already tried out two or three tips from the conference.  Here’s a few notes that you might also find useful.  (Note, I’m a blogger, too – so I think some – all? – of these are useful in that arena, as well.)

  • Know your audience. This was a workshop itself in which they reviewed industry data, but the message is pretty much right there – who are you targeting? Other than perhaps a dictionary, most books are not for “everyone.” What is the profile of your reader – male/female, age, income, buying habits, eBooks/paper books?  Your marketing plans will be determined by this information.
  • Engage in social media. It’s not just about having a Facebook page or opening a Twitter account, but using those media as effective marketing tools.  Cindy Ratzlaff is a digital brand marketing expert and lead a wonderful session about enhancing your Facebook page, maximizing your 144 characters, and interesting author uses for sites such as YouTube and Pinterest.  Speaking of which, you can check out my Pinterest page – follow along, pin to my boards, or share some of your own pins.  From her session alone, I have a long list of homework; you can take advantage of some of her Twitter Tips available on her website.
  • Be your authentic self. As a writer, as a blogger, in your presentation on social media – be yourself.
  • Be creative in marketing your book, be willing to try out a new idea (that fits with your audience profile).  Something a little out of the box?  Author Maria Murnane, one of the workshop presenters, has a Facebook page for her main character, Waverly Bryson.  It’s a different way to interact with her readers and potential readers.  It might not work for everyone, but it does for her character.  Consider your book, your characters, and figure out what marketing tactics work for you.
  • Do not become an author to make money or become famous, do it because that’s what you want to do. Guy Kawasaki gave this advice as one his “Top 10 Tips” for self-publishing, but I think you could replace “author” with any other thing – doctor, actor, ditch-digger – because the bottom line is, all of these things take a lot of work and you may or may not become rich and famous doing those things, so you are better off doing something you really enjoy and if the riches and fame come along eventually – wonderful!

One of the other ideas I picked up?  Using Animoto to make video collages of your photos.  Here’s the one I made this morning from my Spades Night and Book Launch for Life in Spades. (Note – there is music, so lower the volume if you are at work or in the library or in the Quiet Car on the train.)

Make a video of your own at Animoto.