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?

Entries in the book business (17)


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.]


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


Judging a book by its cover

The old adage about books and their covers is sage advice when it comes to people or houses or pretty much anything, even books. But wise or not, if we didn’t actually judge books by their covers, the book industry wouldn’t spend a signficant amount of time and treasure trying to concoct the perfect alchemy of design, subject, and layout that will get a potential buyer to actually pick that book off the shelf.

For all that time and treasure, you’d think there were extensive marketing studies to determine what sells and what doesn’t. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Every book that makes it as far as a bookstore shelf already faces ridiculous odds actually being sold, so it’s truly mystifying that publishers don’t work harder to help themselves when it comes to the cover art. This recommendation is particularly brilliant, especially since it comes with the authority of someone who has that firsthand experience with book selling.

So here’s what I propose to help save yourselves money: create a group of power-indie handsellers, folks with years of experience who know their business cold and excel at recommending books to readers.

I mean, right? It seems so obvious, yet the idea of consulting the people who actually, you know, sell books is apparently a revolutionary thought in the publishing biz. Which means that for every cover that entices us to pick up a book, there are dozens more that are utterly forgettable in their sameness. Or worse, make us cringe. What gives, publishers? Sure, a good design takes some work, and the design that has that something special can be as elusive as a winning lottery ticket, but surely some missteps are avoidable?

Science fiction and fantasy are some of the worst culprits, by the way. I love sff almost as much as I love my cats, but the cover art for a fair majority of books in this genre seems to wallow in a special hell of awful. I’m not even talking about the pulpy-type of covers, which have a so-bad-it’s-good kind of appeal, but the kind of covers that scream, “I’m a socially-challenged teenage boy who spends way too much time playing WoW and making design schematics of ships on Star Trek.” (Or worse, the kind that scream, “CLEARLY I HAVE BEEN EXPERIMENTING WITH HALLUCINOGENICS SOMEONE TAKE AWAY MY AIR BRUSH.”)

There isn’t anything wrong with socially-challenged teenage boys, of course, nor playing WoW or being a huge Star Trek fan. But not everyone who reads sff falls in the center of that Venn diagram. For me personally, covers with ridiculously muscled men, scantily-clad women, and oddly stylized backgrounds of space ships, futuristic cities, mythological creatures, and alien landscapes, or any combination thereof, are more likely to induce a “DO NOT WANT” than an “Ooooh shiny!”. If a book cover makes a reader embarrassed to read it on a bus, then there’s something seriously broken in the art department.


The myth of balance

I have to agree with Kameron Hurley about the realities of finding balance as a writer:

“I spend my time like a person who knows there isn’t a whole lot of it, I suppose. I enjoy what I can, when I can, and carve out pieces for one to give to the other when necessary. Maybe there’s some cosmic overall life balance to be had, but if that’s so, it’s something only other people will be able to see when they look at the long, crazy arc of my life, long after I’m all gone to dust.”

True not just for writers, really. Anyone who spends their days juggling multiple responsibilities — most of us, I suspect — knows it’s a delicate act that depends on a combination of sacrifice, timing, organization, and no little amount of luck. It’s so delicate, in fact, that there are days when the slightest disruption can send the whole chaotic affair crashing down on our heads.

In a typical day, I spend 10 to 14 hours at my day job, which almost always includes at least a meeting or teleconference (often two, three, four, or more), receiving at least several dozen emails and replying to all but a few of them, overseeing two departments, and meeting at least two daily deadlines. None of that includes my actual work, that’s just the typical topography of my day. I fit what work I can in the valleys between the mountains and hills of that topography. I eat my lunch at my desk most of the time and my two work-from-home days are reserved for focusing on as much work as I can get done without the interruptions of being in the office. Although it doesn’t always work out that way; there are often teleconferences on those days, as well, and the email barrage can sometimes be as bad or worse. I’m fortunate to enjoy a great deal of flexibility and autonomy in my job, but its demands nonetheless make it a pretty rigid aspect of my life.

I get home between 6:30 and 9:00 unless I have an outside commitment or obligation thatcuts my day shorter. Dinner is generally dependent on how late I get home. If I can manage to get home by 7:30 or earlier, I will make some attempt at making a meal that requires some form of cooking. The later it gets, the simpler my meal plans become: a single pan entree, something I made ahead and stocked in the freezer, a sandwich, leftovers, cheese and crackers and veggies…toast. I feed the cats, eat, and put together my lunch for the next day. Since I also post on my website about my lunches, I write up the post about it during this time so that all I’ll have to do the next day is snap a pic of my lunch, insert it in the post, and publish it to the site.

After that, I try to do at least some nominal housekeeping chore. Dishes, usually, since not having a dishwasher means they pile up quickly. Some (most?) days, nothing gets done and we just have to live with a messy house until the weekend. Other days, the tottering piles of dishes are a safety hazard and must be bumped up the priority list. The housekeeping is dependent on how late it is, how tired I am, how behind it is, and how motivated I am to be doing something else. Which I generally am.

Then it’s writing time, which includes not just the actual act of writing, but revisions, noting story ideas, story research, industry research, etc. If I’m not in the mood and feel like pushing myself is going to be detrimental instead of helpful, I try to spend at least some time doing something creative or otherwise creatively rejuvenating — working in my art journal, reading for pleasure, or watching a favorite show or movie while I catch up online.

How long I do that is somewhat dependent on when the Prince is headed home. He gets home anywhere between 9 PM and 1 AM, depending on what subject his class is covering that day and whether or not he rode his bike to work. I stop what I’m doing to spend time with him and give the poor kitties some undivided attention.

Somewhere in there, I try to catch up on my various social accounts — LJ, twitter, Tumblr, DreamWidth — some number of the ridiculous number of blogs I follow, comments, and email replies. (This part of my day is important for two reasons: 1) to keep up with people I care about, as much as I can; and 2) as part of the increasing requirement that writers who wish to be published must have an established online presence in all these forms and others.) This is also the time when I try to post to any of those sites or this one if I have something to post about. These things may be bumped up the priority list if I’ve neglected them for a few days or they may take a backseat when I just can’t fit everything in and need to drop something from my task list.

This is also when I get ready for the next day to minimize how much time it takes to get ready in the morning (and thus, allowing me to sleep later): laying out my clothes, taking a bath (since we don’t have a shower), packing my work bag, preparing lists for any errands I need to run during lunch or on the way home. And Eru bless the miracle of online shopping, automatic bill pays, and grocery delivery because this is the only time of our day that we can fit any of these tasks in.

Oh, and if I need to do any work for my website clients (about four to seven evenings every month), then pretty much everything except the basic functions are put on hold until that’s done.

The Prince works a similarly long day (or longer!) on a schedule shifted from mine, which means that we only see each other for a few hours (at most) in the evening, and very briefly in the morning before I leave for work. I stay up late so we can maximize our time together on weekdays, which means going to bed between 1:30 AM and 2 AM and getting up at 7 AM. If I’ve really hit a writing groove, the Prince goes to bed without me and I stay up until I can’t keep my eyes open so I don’t waste that opportunity to make progress on the story.

Most people are doing a similar juggling act, whether it’s trying to incorporate a similar artistic pursuit into their daily life or something equally demanding like raising kids or starting a new business. Sometimes, we benefit from the help and support of people who love us*, but one way or another, we find a way to fit in the things that are most important. That includes being willing to redefine “most important” every day, and living with the fact it will only rarely all be in balance. Rarely, if ever.


*I am incredibly fortunate in this department. The Prince does as much or more than I do to keep the household functioning and still manages to fit in the occasional thoughtful things that can make all the difference on a challenging day. Like the morning I’m running late for work, remember just as I’m starting the car that the needle was well past ‘E’ when I coasted to a stop the night before, and realize that he somehow found time to fill the gas tank. I have no interest in diamonds — things like this are a billion times more priceless.


On talent, and the subjectiveness thereof

Have you ever read a well-regarded book with slight bafflement as to what all the fuss is about? I don’t mean a popular book that takes the reading public by storm but proves to be embarrassingly hacktastic (I’m looking at you, Bridges of Madision County), but one which wins a respectable award or three, is highly-rated on Amazon, GoodReads, etc., and you see or hear recommended from multiple sources. Not even necessarily a “best of the year” sort of book, nothing that’s going to win a Pulitizer, but just, you know, a well-recommended-by-those-whose-opinions-on-such-things-you-trust sort of book?

Yeah, I’m reading one of those right now. It’s genre fic*, has won a notable genre award or three, and I’ve seen it on many recommended lists, everything from The Onion A.V. Club to the people on my f-list who have a good record of interests that dovetail with mine. I read the author’s blog regularly and admire his/her boggling prolificacy. I in fact had sort of started to develop a complex as this author has continued to churn out one book after another, posting daily word counts that simply exhaust me, and announcing new deals and short story submission acceptances that make me suspect this person is either superhuman or has access to some sort of time suspension device. (To keep myself from getting too discouraged and developing a full-blown complex over it, I just remind myself that every writer is different, and we all have our different paths. Different, not better, not worse. I am not prolific. My stories take a long time to develop, are complicated and require much research, planning, and layering, and are subject to competition with the fifty trillion other demands on my time. I am not this author, and that’s okay — the world doesn’t need two of us.)

*I make the distinction not because it matters to me, but simply to differentiate that no, this is not the sort of book written by an MFA blowhard and lauded by a bunch literary critics at The New Yorker who pride themselves on recommending shit that’s not in any way an enjoyable read. Lit fic gets caught up in its own importance as often as not, too busy shoving its intellectual whatever in your face to get on with the business of the story or the characters or both. I’m all for the transcendental story that transforms us, but those stories are rare, lit fic or otherwise. There’s plenty of good, terrific, and even life-changing lit fic out there, and plenty of it that emphatically isn’t, and the only bad thing about it is that it’s championed over genre fic as if it’s somehow better. Oh, how greatly I beg to differ with that opinion. I’ve read my share of just about everything you want to throw at me, lit fic or otherwise, and let me tell you, there are just as many good, terrific, and yes, even life-changing stories told under the genre umbrella as under the literary one, and the entire publishing world would be well-served if they would stop with the haughty disdain for all things mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, or romance.

ANYWAY. I’m enjoying this story, don’t get me wrong, and it has many things to recommend it. It deserves to be on those recommended lists for being an engaging, interesting, and imaginative read (I think — I haven’t finished it yet). But there are plenty of things about it, particularly about the writing, that I find mediocre. It’s chock full of exposition, for one thing, and only thinly-disguised (or not disguised at all) “as you know, Bob” exposition at times. There’s a dismaying amount of telling rather than showing, and far, far, FAR too much description of mundane action that’s utterly irrelevant. Doors closing, putting on seatbelts, taking a drink, whatever. You put some of those details in to enhance the story, provide detail or color (or even to drop in as throwaways that become important later), but I don’t need to know that a character opened the door, walked through it, and shut it. Most of the time, I don’t really give a shit that the character went through a door at all. As a reader, it does nothing but pull me out of the story or bore me or both. Unless it’s important to the story or the character, it’s a distraction. Make the action count, make the dialogue count, make the scene count.

That’s not to say I’m not guilty of these sins. I totally am. (Oh my god, my verbosity, let me show you it.) Even good, well-respected writers are guilty of them. But it’s the kind of thing that you fix during revisions. You need to be one ruthless SOB in revisions, and you hunt those weaknesses down and kill those suckers dead, dead, dead. I’m no paragon of writing ability, and obviously, I haven’t been published, so I don’t claim to have all the answers. But at the very least, you’d think this kind of stuff would’ve been tightened during the editorial stage. (The editor in this case being a good one with a sound reputation.) So I’m left scratching my head saying to myself, “Really? Nobody redlined this in a draft somewhere?”

It’s not a dealbreaker for the story. I am, as I mentioned, still enjoying it. But it’s disappointing and instructive that even the stamp of approval that publishing gives you doesn’t mean that you don’t have a lot of room to improve. And it’s a reminder that even for an author who’s getting a lot of buzz and generally making it big may not be as big of a talent as you let yourself believe.


Got my pitch critique!

Yep! Received my pitch critique Tuesday afternoon. I’m pretty stunned by their turnaround, considering they had 200 participants in the workshop. Especially considering the detailed, instructive feedback I received on mine.

I’m immensely pleased. I won’t have to chuck it and completely start over, and I have a clear idea of where I need to really focus my improvement efforts. They even said that “this is a strong start for your pitch”, which was very encouraging and makes me feel like I’ve got the right idea for my approach, I just need to refine it.

So back to revisions on the ms and refining the pitch. Then: query!


Random Friday

I have links! Of writerly sorts of topics!

  • April Henry posted earlier this week about a really fun and fascinating project called The Novel Live! in which 36 NW authors take turns writing an entire novel in six days, a kind of marathon-relay-writing adventure. It’s wrapping up tomorrow, but you can still catch the live stream of the project in action. Like, actually watch the writer in action AND simultaneously see the words s/he is writing appear on the screen AND chat with the writer to offer suggestions, comments, etc. (LIVING IN THE FUTURE OMG STILL THE BESTEST). This has to be one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s a fundraiser for a good cause, as well.
  • How Can One Afford To Be A Writer? (Spoiler: You can’t. Do it anyway.)
  • Okay, this one isn’t really writerly, but I just love it so much I’m posting it everywhere like a crazy person. The God of Cake, from one of my favorite blogs, Hyperbole and a Half. Just…go, click and read it. I promise, you will love me for making you.

Random Friday

Well, writing-related random, anyway.

First: porn for the book lover slash interior decorator in all of us. Or is that only me? No, porn is for everyone!

Second: if I had an agent like this, I would send her cookies made by Sal every week. (Seriously. If I got an acceptance letter from Agent Kristen, it would be almost as good as getting a letter of acceptance from a publisher.)

Have a great holiday weekend, everyone!