New Release: The Beginning and the End

My September story is now available for Kindle and Kindle apps! Click here to buy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have to say this month has been an odd one as far as short story creation is concerned. I started this month’s story with this cover photo and title:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But as I wrote the story, the title changed, and the photo had to change too. I had intended the story to be more about the house/inn but it became more about how relationships begin and end. To figure out the significance of the dandelion on the cover, you’ll have to read the story. Also got to have a little fun with the type this time around.

I’m really looking forward to writing my nonfiction book next year on how this year’s experiment worked and how you can make writing more intentional. September was a perfect example of initial inspiration having served its purpose and then needing to be discarded for the good of the story. Too fun.

Only three more short stories to go!

LastThree

Overcoming the Fear of Inadequacy

This is a picture of my son.

CalvinSelfPortraitMarch2013Age4

It is a self portrait made back in March when he was still four years old, sent home in his personal file when he left his daycare/preschool and started kindergarten. Being four, this is as skilled as his self-portrait could be, even though I know he really sees himself more like this:

Do you ever feel like your talent may not live up to your own expectations?

Does that fear keep you from trying something great?

In almost any creative endeavor, we have an idea of what we want the end result of our efforts to be. The knowledge that our labors–our writing or painting or sculpting or songwriting or drawing in crayon–may never quite live up to the perfect standards we have in our heads can keep us from trying. One can feel paralyzed by potential.

But one must still write. One must still create.

My son may not be a real ninja turtle, but he is taking karate lessons.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

If you don’t try, you can’t fail. But if you don’t try, you can’t succeed either.

You’ve got to start somewhere.

Wildflower Wednesday: Joe-pye Weed

Joe-pye weed

Common Name: Joe-pye Weed

Scientific Name: variously Eupatorium maculatum and Eutrochium maculatum (depending on the source)

Habitat & Range: wet, full sun meadows and along streams and lakes

Bloom Time: summer

About: A tall perennial you can get at most nurseries or native plant sales, this may look like a milkweed, but it is in fact part of the aster family. If you have a pond on your property, this is a perfect plant to edge it. It’s tall (some varieties can reach 10 feet!) so use it as a backdrop to smaller plants in your native or cottage garden. Even though it likes moist soil, its extensive root system means it will tolerate drought. It’s not too picky. Other pluses: it attracts butterflies and deer don’t like to eat it.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

(also Better Homes & Gardens online plant encyclopedia)

Writers: Some Advice on When You Should Give Up

I was reading an article Monday about a couple that both wrote novels and decided to self-publish. Good for them, I thought. It seemed from the beginning of the article that they were just looking for an outlet for their creativity. But then I came across this quote about why they decided to self-publish instead of look for a traditional publishing contract:

“It was disappointing,” she said. “How long do you decide to torture yourself with getting rejected by every publisher in the business before you decide to say you know what, my story’s good enough that it doesn’t really need the approval of a bunch of business people?”

But how many agents and publishers had they queried? Ten each. Ten.

Ten is “every publisher in the business?” No. No it is not. Despite the Big Five, there are still hundreds of publishers and there are thousands of agents.

The couple says that the reason they didn’t have the patience to wait out more rejection in hopes of finding someone who would champion their book is because of their age. Are both in their 80s? Nope! Both are in their 40s.

That’s fine. I may disagree that their age precludes patience (and I’m starting the home stretch toward 40 myself) but of course anyone who wants to can go it alone, and it’s a great choice for a lot of people. I’m self-pubbing short stories every month, so who am I to criticize? And their genres (sci-fi and fantasy) tend to do better in ebooks than many others. But here’s the hard reality: between the two of them, they’ve sold about fifty copies.

This is what traditional publishers (those “bunch of business people”) can generally guarantee: you will sell more than a few dozen copies. You may not be the next bestseller, but you will sell more because your book will be more visible. It will be in physical bookstores, which, yes, people still shop in. It will be sent out for reviews (these authors had to pay Kirkus to review their books). It will get professional editing and proofreading (I haven’t read either book, but a “look inside” one of them on Amazon reveals fourteen en-dashes that should be em-dashes [or commas or sentence breaks] and a distracting slew of ellipses on just the first couple pages).

Those “business people” aren’t sitting in a huge conference room somewhere, gleefully rubbing their hands together and sending out rejections because they don’t “approve” of a story. They love books. They love helping authors improve their books. They love seeing books get into the hands of eager readers. They love their authors (despite what some online rants from bitter authors would have us think) because their authors are the ones who make the whole business possible. Without stories, there’s no business.

I’m glad that these two are putting their books out there. I hope they sell a ton of them and it sounds like both are working on their next novels. They are doing it as a creative outlet. Maybe they don’t care about sales or paychecks from it since it is not their primary employment. And that’s just fine.

But I don’t want anyone to read their rationale, that ten “business people” didn’t respond positively, and think that if you didn’t get a contract after ten queries that there’s no point in querying more. Or that the people who work in the publishing business are heartless or just out to make a buck.

Everyone–everyone–I know in the business (hundreds and hundreds of people) are in the business because they love to read, love to write, and think a good book is its own reward. They simply love good storytelling and they want every book to reach as many readers as possible because they want an author to be read.

Maybe at the tip-top of the Big Five there are some full-on “business people” who are only in it for a fat paycheck. There are the Rupert Murdochs of the world, naturally. But for every one of them, there are thousands of agents, editors, marketers, publicists, and production people who are in it for the love of a good story. They are not a gauntlet of stick-wielding sadists who are looking to pummel an author with rejection. They are an army of supporters who want an author to bring his or her very best to the world.

Thing is, you don’t generally get published by asking just ten people to look at your work. It does take time and tenacity. So many great stories go unread simply because their authors gave up too quickly when faced with the fact that they might not be the next big thing right out of the gate.

Full disclosure here: For my first novel, I have queried 117 agents. Agents I’ve researched. Agents who I know rep my sort of story. Agents who have said they are looking for new clients. Today, one of those agents (number 113) is presenting my proposal to her partners. Together they will come to consensus on whether or not to take me on as a client. If it happens, I’ll be very happy that that particular leg of the journey toward publication is complete. But I’ll also know that it’s not over because then my agent will have to convince a publisher to take on my novel.

If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be disappointed. But then I will start researching more agents who might be a good fit for me and my writing. Or perhaps I’ll self-publish (after getting a professional edit on my own dime) and move on to the next novel, which might strike a chord with an agent where the last one didn’t. Who knows.

The point is, I believe in the publishing industry and I still see value in it. Maybe it’s because I have an inside track on it (I work for a traditional publisher). I love a lot of aspects of self-publishing and it is the right route for certain people and certain projects. But it’s not right if you’re just doing it because you’re impatient. Rejection isn’t just part of the game, it’s an essential part. Because it should make you a better writer.

Had I self-pubbed after I got my first ten “no thanks” responses to my query I would have published a book that wasn’t ready, that was inferior to the book it is now in more than one way. If these two authors had queried agents who rep their genre and were looking for new clients, the rejections they received should have been the first clue that there was something in their writing that needed improvement.

From my 117 queries, I received 11 very helpful rejections and one specific request for revision and resubmission. That’s 10% who read at least a portion of the manuscript and had a lot of positive things to say about it, yet had reservations for a variety of reasons. One of those rejections was a hard one to take because it had a lot of criticism in it. But even that one, when I had let it settle in, contained helpful revision advice.

My manuscript is far stronger now than it was when I sent my first query to an agent in early April of 2012. Yep, that’s nearly a year and a half ago.

So what’s my advice on when you should give up on your dreams? Never. Even some of the greats were told at various times by various people that they lacked talent, their stories were uninteresting or unmarketable, and that they should pursue another line of work. Keep working, keep improving, keep trying.

And for goodness sake, have the humility the learn something from those “business people” in publishing.

Oh, and you don’t have to take my word on all this. Turns out agent Rachelle Gardner was thinking about some of the same things this week!

On Writing Well: Enjoying the Process as Much as the Product

For about the past year I’ve been in some nebulous writing space when it comes to my next novel. While I’ve been pounding out short stories each month, I’ve also been furiously scribbling notes in parks, in the car, at restaurants, and at my desk. I’ve been creating massive family trees and designing sets. I’ve been writing scenes and sketching outlines and placing them aside, not quite sure where to go next.

I’m calling this conglomeration of activities the “germination stage” of the new novel. And this past week the germination phase came to a close as I entered the “gathering stage.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A little bit at a time, I have gathered together what seem like the best of my ideas and put them into a structure I think will work for telling my story, which will span from 1859 to the present, encompassing several generations of a family’s history, but which I have determined I will tell through three separate POV characters. The scope of this novel has created unique structure issues for me (my first novel takes place over a few months and was written entirely from one perspective). The uncertainty about just how to tell the story has stymied my efforts to actually write the thing. So last week I sketched out 30 chapters and essentially outlined the entire novel, something I’ve not done successfully in the past.

In addition to the outline, I’ve gathered scads of images: railroad maps, house plans, photos indicating clothing styles and covering historical events, garden designs and tree profiles, quilt designs and furniture examples, photos indicating mood and available technology. I’ve taped all of these to two pieces of foam board (connected in the middle with packing tape so they fold up and can be made to stand up on the floor or a table). It’s sort of a primitive Pinterest board where I can see everything without accessing the internet (which, generally, one should avoid doing if one wants to get any writing done).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The process of gathering is just as beneficial to me as the actual product. It makes me review everything I’ve been thinking of, makes me order events in my mind, makes me realize where events need to be foreshadowed in earlier chapters, shows me what I need to research. The product itself (the boards) will serve as a road map for my writing and as inspiration when words aren’t coming easy.

Sometimes we have an idea for a story that balloons so much that it’s hard to keep everything straight in our heads and we lose sight of the main thrust of the narrative we want to create. In times like these, going through your own unique process of gathering and ordering your ideas is so useful. Now that I have all of these words and images on my little idea boards, I feel mentally ready to start tackling this project. Everything is there, I just need to breathe life into it.

Have you been avoiding a big writing project because you just didn’t know where to start or how it would all hang together? Perhaps you should try making it more visual. Get it out of your head and into reality and maybe you’ll find the pieces fitting together in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, since my gathering is done, I need to get on to the next–and most exciting–step: writing a world into being.

Giddiness, Goals, and Giveaways

Hi friends. I don’t typically focus on stats and numbers in this space (yawn) but I noticed this week that A Beautiful Fiction reached 900 followers. This made me understandably perky. And then I thought, What if I could reach 1000 by the end of the year? Wouldn’t that be cool? And I answered myself, Yes, Erin, that would indeed be cool.

So beyond my goals to write and publish a short story each month (which is going just swimmingly, I can assure you) and to secure literary representation for my first novel (which may or may not happen in the coming month, but it’s a possibility), I’ve added a third goal for the year: to reach 1000 followers on the blog. Hey, it could happen. And if it does, I’m prepared to go a little nuts.

So, if by 11:59 PM on December 31, 2013 I’ve gotten to 1000 followers, all twelve short stories I will have written this year will be available as a free download on January 2, 2014 (my 34th birthday) as a thank you to all of you.

How can you help make this great giveaway happen?

1.) One easy way is to click the Follow button on the righthand side of the screen if you are not already an official follower of this blog. You’ll get new posts emailed to you automatically–and nothing else. No spam. No ads. Just blog posts. That’s it. When I blog you’ll know about it and you’ll be among the first to know about future giveaways and promos!

2.) When you read a blog post that speaks to you, please share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter or email it to someone you think would enjoy and benefit from what I write about here.

I may occasionally remind everyone of this opportunity (for newcomers who don’t go back to read this post) but I promise not to be obnoxious about it.

If the blog reaches 1000 followers earlier than the last night of the year, the giveaway will happen earlier as well. So if you’ve been enjoying this space as much as I have, please share it with your friends–and then get 12 short stories totally free on your Kindle.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program…

Wildflower Wednesday: Swamp Milkweed

Swamp Milkweed

Common Name: Swamp Milkweed

Scientific Name: Asclepias incarnata

Habitat & Range: wet meadows, swamps, streams, lakesides

Bloom Time: summer

About: Host to the Monarch butterfly (along with Common Milkweed, which can be distinguished from its more delicate cousin by its much larger leaves and duller flowers), this is perfect for your butterfly garden if you’ve got some consistently wet spots on your property. I tried them (purchased from a native plant sale, not taken from the wild) in an area of my yard that is often soggy in springtime, but the summer sun dries out my soil too much and there’s too much shade there, so they never took.

This photo (like those of the Boneset a couple weeks ago) was taken along the shore of Lake Louise (properly Thumb Lake) in the northern Lower Peninsula, but this plant can be found throughout the state.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

Destination Lansing: River Trail

Oh, it has been ages since shared a Destination Lansing post with you!

This is the time of year when I love to start getting back outside, taking walks and taking pictures. Running through Lansing, largely in a generally north-south orientation, though with tributaries jutting off here and there, is a modest river of asphalt called the River Trail.

Lansing River Trail, MI

It follows not one but two rivers, the Grand through downtown Lansing and the Red Cedar past Potter Park Zoo and Michigan State University, carrying travelers by bike, roller blades, or feet through woods, under concrete bridges, and by parks, museums, and markets. One trip on the River Trail and you can see almost all that Lansing and East Lansing have to offer represented in some way. In fact, here’s a list off the top of my head of where you can get and what you can see if you start on the southern end of the trail on Jolly Road (right by the 7-Eleven there) and head north:

Hawk Island County Park (fun and relaxing yearround)

HawkIslandDream

Scott Woods Park (GORGEOUS in the fall, but great anytime)

AutumnSplendor

Mount Hope Cemetery

EndofSummerFawn

Fenner Nature Center

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Red Cedar River Natural Areas

RiverTrail01

Potter Park Zoo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Impression 5 Children’s Museum

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lansing Center

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Lansing City Market

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Downtown Lansing and the Capitol Building

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Adado Riverfront Park (which, depending on the day, may include various concerts or events)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Brenke Fish Ladder

Old Town (and all the cool shops and restaurants therein–like Elderly Instruments and Pablo’s Panaderia, where you should order the torta sandwich with pork on their life-changing homemade bread or the huevos y chorizo with warm, homemade flour tortillas)

The Turner-Dodge House and Heritage Center

If you take the spur that heads east along the Red Cedar River, you can get to MSU and East Lansing, including these destination spots: The Breslin CenterThe Kellogg CenterBroad Art MuseumMSU Gardens, and Sanford Natural Area. All the way up to Hagadorn Road, where you can stop for dinner at Sultan’s Restaurant for some shawarma and falafel.

And I didn’t even list all the awesome restaurants in both downtown Lansing (like the Tavern on the Square or Mediteran or Troppo) and downtown East Lansing (like Dublin Square or Woody’s Oasis).

grassheads

The trail is open yearround. Even in winter it is plowed to allow regular foot traffic and biking for those of us who don’t have cross country skis. So, if you took the notion, you could bundle up and bike down to Hawk Island County Park and go snow tubing in the wintertime.

But of course, my favorite time is fall.

PotterPark03

Wildflower Wednesday: Wild Parsnip

Wild Parsnip

Common Name: Wild Parsnip

Scientific Name: Pastinaca sativa

Habitat & Range: wet, sunny fields and roadsides

Bloom Time: spring and summer

About: Not all flat-topped wildflowers are white. A few of them are yellow. Growing right along with the Yarrow and Queen Anne’s Lace from weeks past I spotted Wild Parsnip (not to be confused with the white-flowered Cow Parsnip, which I mentioned in the entry on Water Hemlock). All of these photos (along with many others) were taken on the same day in one small area on Mackinac Island near Mission Point Resort. Like Queen Anne’s Lace and Water Hemlock, Wild Parsnip is part of the carrot family and is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies. Like Queen Anne’s Lace, this was a European garden plant that has escaped. You can only eat the long taproot of this plant in the first year of growth (after that it gets too woody). But beware of the parts of the plant that sit above the ground. If you are sensitive to it, the leaves can cause photodermatitis if touched. This means that after you touch the plant, if you are exposed to sunlight, your skin can blister and weep (eww), so wear long sleeves and gloves. Very inconsiderately, this plant’s flower looks like dill, but one look at the leaves and you will know it’s not.

Reference: Wildflowers of Michigan by Stan Tekiela; Adventure Publications, 2000

What if you lived in a world where it was illegal to touch another human being (or even your own face)?

Hey folks, I want my former GVSU writing center supervisor’s novel to happen and I want you to help! If you read dystopian fiction (a la Margaret Atwood); are concerned about the health ramifications of factory farms, overuse of antibacterial soaps, and food supply disruption; or wonder what it would be like to live in a world where touching another human being (or even your own face!) was outlawed, please consider supporting this kickstarter campaign! She only has 9 days to go and about $1300 more to raise!

I read an earlier draft as a beta-reader/friendly editor and so I know that this is a really fascinating what-if story based in some pretty frightening science. Hope you’ll support her!