Writer’s Cramp is the blog and site for B. Jenne’ Hall, writer, genius, and pathological optimist. She’s written her first book, is working on her second, and she’s trying to get published. Which from all accounts seems to be as approximately attainable as the gift of flight, but who doesn’t love a challenge?


Pretty much this

Imagination doesn’t just mean making things up. It means thinking things through, solving them, or hoping to do so, and being just distant enough to be able to laugh at things that are normally painful. Head teachers would call this escapism, but they would be entirely wrong. I would call fantasy the most serious, and the most useful, branch of writing there is. And this is why I don’t, and never would, write Real Books.

— Dianna Wynne Jones





Merciful Zeus, I have finally cracked that damned 200k barrier. I have been flirting with that benchmark for excruciating months, once coming within a few hundred words before realizing that I needed to write a transition scene to accomodate the change I’d just made by removing a different scene (and with it, about 2,000 words), and I may have thrown a temper tantrum at that point. But no matter what revisions I made, I couldn’t seem to get below about 202,000.

So late Friday night, after I bid my dear husband The Prince good night and settled myself at the computer for a marathon writing session, I gave myself a stern talking-to. “Tonight, Self,” I said, “you are not allowed to go to bed until this word counter right here in the lower left-“, tapping the screen firmly for emphasis, “says 199,999. Sooner or later or not at all, it’s entirely up to you, but head does not meet pillow until there’s no longer a two in that far left digit, understood?”

More than two thousand hard-fought words later, (and a few times of waking myself up when my head tapped the keyboard) at 5:30 in the morning, I watched that counter finally, finally drop to 199,999. I waited just long enough for the file to save, then closed the laptop lid and hied myself to bed.

This is pretty much akin to running a marathon in 12 hours: it was slow, ugly, and painful, but at least I can say I did it. There’s still much revising left, and that word count is going to fluctuate the entire way. I may have to break out smelling salts if (when????) it creeps back over the 200k mark again. But chances are now better than ever that this book isn’t going to kill me.


When your characters crack you up

Revising Book 1, and added the following to the party scene at Agrostis:

Grant bowed to her and broke off to speak with two of the estate craftspeople who shared his interest in the estate’s plumbing, confirming Tatiana’s suspicion that he was as much fun at a party as he was the rest of the time.

Probably as gauche as a comedian who laughs at his own jokes, but it gave me a chuckle nonetheless.


It's that time of year again!

Next week is Banned Books Week, in which we celebrate books that have been challenged, restricted, or banned by moralizing busybodies and narrow-minded idealogues who think it’s their job to dictate what everyone else can and can’t read, believe, and think.

This year is the 30th anniversary of BBW. It is to weep that we even have to have this discussion at all, nevermind that we have been celebrating BBW for 30 years. This beautiful timeline highlights the books featured each year during BBW, including the typical objections to that particular book. It includes the usual suspects — The Color Purple, Catcher In the Rye, The Satanic Verses — and others that boggle. (In the Night Kitchen…really? Really?? And don’t even get me started on To Kill A Mockingbird being on that list.) And it’s an insight into how much further we have left to go in tolerance, open-mindedness, and enlightenment before we can call ourselves a civilized society.

So strike a blow against censorship and read a book next week. Even better: read a banned book.


Pretty much how I envisioned it


The Sobering Reality of the Childhood Dream

I’ve been reading quite a lot about writing and publishing and getting an agent and all the ins and outs of the business for quite some time now, and let me tell you, it’s sobering to learn about the industry. Any romantic notions you have of writing your book, getting accepted, and then you quit your day job and write for a living die a swift and messy death as soon as you start learning about the industry.

You think the work ends after you’ve written the book, suffered through revision after endless revision and are ready to send it off?

Nope. Then you start the work of finding an agent*, which requires a lot of research. The information about agents and the querying process takes a not insignificant amount of time and effort. You’re (understandably) expected to do your research to learn not just the industry, but the vagaries of the particular part of the industry you’re hoping to be published in (especially true in genre writing). But finally, you’ve compiled a nice list of potential agents. The rest is pretty straightforward, isn’t it?

Nope. Once you find agents (and verified that they represent the type of book you’ve written), you then need to find out whether they’re accepting unsolicited submissions and whether they’re currently accepting submissions. Then you need to make very careful note of each agent’s submission guidelines, because they’re all different and making a mistake can mean the difference between getting your query read and getting it summarily binned. Some want query letters only, some request queries with the first five pages of your story, some the first chapter, some the first fifty pages. Some request a synopsis, which itself can vary in length and style. You submit to agent after agent, carefully following each individual submission guideline, hoping to find one to accept you. And miracle of miracles, an agent offers to represent you! They work with you on yet more revisions, and then they start shopping you around. Whew! It was a lot of work to get this far, but now you’ve got an agent so you can relax and focus on writing your next book, right?

Nope. They submit to publishers over and over and if you’re lucky, an editor agrees to take a chance on you. After having pitched it to their editorial session, of course, and hopefully not gotten shot down in the meeting. Then yet more revisions and drafts. *(Unless you’re submitting to a house that accepts unagented submissions, in which case you do that work while you’re trying to find an agent, but the steps are all the same.) You might spend months working on revisions, and in the meantime, getting lost in the shuffle of the publishing list for that year or the next. But hopefully at some point, you’re nearing the end of final edits and work begins on cover art, marketing plan, etc. You have no say in the cover art, book size/layout/type, and depending on the publishing house you’re contracted with, little to no say in marketing. If they’ve devoted any budget to marketing. Most books aren’t allotted any (again, depending on publishing house…smaller houses give more marketing push because they can’t afford to have as many “flops”, but that also means they can offer less and can take less). But at least now you’re done, right?

Nope, just getting started. You’re expected to self-market, and cross-market, and any other kind of marketing you can do to promote your book. You may be the only one doing marketing for your book (see above). You should have a blog and a website now — and really, should’ve had one when you were shopping agents — but you’ll want to be careful, because you can’t step on the toes of your publisher’s marketing. Which you may not be told what they’re doing. It’s hard to get anyone on the phone, and the marketing people don’t take authors’ calls. And any marketing you do is on your own dime, including attending conventions and symposiums. Which you’re encouraged to do, to increase your chances of success. (Of course, if you’re shy and introverted — most writers are — this can present something of a problem.) But surely, by this point, with all your hard work, you’re done, right? You’ve at least made some money, right?

Nope aaaaand nope. You’re expected to keep producing, because most publishing houses aren’t going to invest in a one-shot deal. So you should have something already going by the time they accept that first work, and somewhere in the midst of all that other work up there — and your day job, more on that in a minute — you’re supposed to be writing, writing writing. You need to be able to demonstrate that you’re a producer.

Yeah, and don’t quit your day job. Even a moderately successful book won’t pay enough to cover your bills and of course you still need insurance. And obviously to actually do your day job, you have to, you know, be there. So any writing-related activities have to be done in your spare time, just as the first book you wrote was, except then you were only writing a book, not writing a book and promoting another one. So, you know.

Pretty sobering post here about what you can realistically expect to make on a book. He comes up with a figure of about $13,000 paid out over 8 years, if all goes well, and that seems to match everything I’ve read on this subject. I was already prepared for that number, so it didn’t depress me as much as the timeline did. Eight years. I’ve been reading lots of author, editor, and agent blogs, so I’ve seen timelines of a couple of years, too. But ballpark, I’d say 4 to 5 years is probably normative.

The reality is that if I’m ever able to quit my job to write full-time, it’ll only be because we’ve pared down our expenses to an absolutely minimum and The Prince makes enough to support both of us. Despite grandiose ideas of bestsellers and movie rights, I will probably never make enough money on my writing to live on it.

I say this not out of depression or discouragement, but just to say this is what it is. If I’m ever lucky enough to be published, that in itself is going to be the big accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned. It’s not going to go beyond that. In all likelihood, any subsequent books I write won’t be published. I’ll still write them, and I’ll still share them. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m shooting for my one chance and if nothing else comes of it, at least I did it once.

[I originally wrote and shared this post in a different forum a few years ago. The Neil Gaiman quote got me thinking about it again, so I thought I’d share it here. It has been slightly edited from the original.]



As a writer, I need an enormous amount of time alone. Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials. It’s a matter of doing everything you can to avoid writing, until it is about four in the morning and you reach the point where you have to write. Having anybody watching that or attempting to share it with me would be grisly.

— Paul Rudnik

(via Writer’s Relief)


The Art of the Book Cover

It’s ironic that a book’s success can hinge so critically on its cover, that a textual medium is so dependent on the visual. Not only does an author need to write an amazing story and refine it to a shiny polish, and successfully navigate the path from final draft to publishing (in whatever form). But that author needs a cover that helps its chances at success. (Or at the very least, doesn’t hurt it. Which is surprisingly harder than you’d think.) Ideally, that author will get a cover that helps a whole lot. And very, very rarely, that author will get a cover so iconic that it spawns imitators for years. (Which isn’t to say that an iconic cover equates to a superb book. Obviously.)

A book cover needs to entice you, the reader, to pick it up, to give it a look, to consider it, to buy it, and most importantly to want to read it. A hefty task, especially in the crowded market not just of books vying for our attention, but in the crowded market of entertainment, period. Unless there are other sources encouraging you to choose that book — a recommendation from a friend, a review that intrigued you, a building buzz that puts it on your radar — chances are, the first impression you get from the cover decides that split section reaction: “Huh. I wonder what this is about?”

So, how, exactly, does a book cover accomplish all of that?

Chip Kidd recently gave a TED Talk about the art and philosophy of the book cover. Not just the cover, but the design of the book itself. He talks about several books he’s done covers for, sharing the evolution of thought behind the designs and how they encapsulate a story visually. And how a book’s cover can become as iconic as the book it covers.


post image credit: by Lienhard Schulz (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC-BY-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons


How to disassemble a book in 29,341 easy steps

While I can’t say that the last four months of blog silence is due to non-stop Book 1 revision and/or Book 2 writing, I can say that I have made a crapton amount of progress on Book 1 revisions since my post-birthday(!!) writing retreat.

Which is to say that the word count issue that’s been hanging over my head like Damocles’ Sword is no longer an issue.

No, I haven’t gotten below 200,000 words. Yet. But I have steadily gnawed at that count for months now, and got down past 210k earlier this month. The night I reached that milestone, I refrained from running down the street at 4 AM in my Killer Rabbit Bunny Slippers screaming “TWO HUNDRED NINE THOUSAND EIGHT HUNDRED THIRTY ONE!” at the top of my lungs in order to maintain my cover as a mild-mannered nerd. I did, however, indulge in a blackberry Hot Lips soda and a celebratory dance that would make Elaine Benes look like Michael Jackson.

Success tied to the elimination of words by the dozens is a death by a thousand papercuts, let me tell you. For almost two full months, I thought I was going to be stuck at 214k forever despite steady work. Down by 211 words, up by 218, down by 129, by 16, up by 10, down by 24, up by 113. I was cutting things, but changing so much that I needed to write all new material, as well. Overall, I cut out several thousand words during that time, but it always netted out at the end of each writing day to some ridiculous number of only two digits. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

One of the realizations that hit me while I was on my self-imposed writing retreat earlier this year is that I was going to have to rewrite the book. Again. It took some weeks for that to sink in, but as I took the plunge with the first couple of chapters, it became impossible to ignore. Revisions to the first few chapters necessitated bigger changes to the next few, and the next few, and rethinking some plotting and characterization and key details, and somewhere in there, denial turned to acceptance.

The good news is that I’m only a quarter of the way through and I’m already below 210k. That number includes many earlier revisions to later chapters, so it’s not strictly true that the count is going to continue to drop linearly as I keep going. But at this point, I feel confident not only that I’ll get below that all-important 2k, but that I’ll be well below it. This is A Very Good Thing.

But that’s not even the best part. The best part is that these newly revised chapters? They’re better. They’re making the book better, tighter, faster. That’s what revision is supposed to be, making the book better, and it is, and it’s making it easier to cut things that seemed impossible to cut before. I knew it as I worked on them, and preliminary feedback from a few people confirms that I’m right.

Not everything is magically better yet. There’s a whole book left to rewrite. And I still have a notebook full of plot problems and character issues to address, fixes to make, and timeline changes to correct. The kind of knotty problems that trigger my instinct to curl into a fetal position and mumble incoherently to myself. But thanks to my dear and delightful writing coach, Jen, I have a detailed and ambitious writing plan for the entirety of my vacation to address some of the biggest items in my notebook of problems. Said plan involves not just writing goals and agendas, but menu recommendations, art project suggestions, and costuming ideas. It is seriously amazing.

So, I’m off to write things down on index cards with different colored sharpies and affix them to fluorescent colored posterboards. I’ll keep you posted as I progress through the plan. Wish me luck.


Creative Retreat

view from a hotel room in a seaside townWith so many demands on my time, it’s become increasingly difficult to carve out large blocks of it for working on my book. So difficult, in fact, that I started to nurse a dream of holing up in a hotel room somewhere with my laptop and my story notes and work non-stop of my book. I could keep odd hours and stay in my comfy clothes and live off of cheese and crackers while I puzzled out how to pull apart my complicated story and put it back together again.

When real life kept intruding on my efforts to work on the big revision ideas that resulted from Jen’s feedback, pulling me away for days or even a week at a time, I decided the only way I was going to make the progress I’m determined to make was to turn that little hermit-y dream into a reality. So I booked a reservation at a mid-price hotel in a seaside town for three nights. On my reservation special requests, I wrote, “I’ll be on a self-imposed writing retreat. A great view for inspiration would be much appreciated.” The hotel very kindly obliged with a third floor corner room with views both south and west across water. At check-in, the clerk asked me if I was writing a book about their town. Sadly no, but I suspect their town will find its way into the story nonetheless.

The weather has kindly obliged, as well. The town was delightfully misty and fog-bound when I arrived and the forecast is for a satisfying winter storm coming in tomorrow. Just the thing I needed to feel all writerly.

And so here I am, story notes spread out, story files open, a cup of tea at hand. Let’s hope it’ll be a long, long night.