Monday, March 31, 2008

New Hampshire's Going For The Record!

This winter season we got a lot of snow here in New Hampshire. In fact, we’ve had the most snow in a season since 1875. On March 28th, we got about eight more inches. Unfortunately, they measure snowfall in Concord and they only got about 2.8 inches. That just doesn’t seem right to me. We get dumped on and most of it doesn’t count. Anyway, right now the record is 122 inches, set in the winter of 1873-74. We are currently at 115.2 inches. That puts us into second place. You may not believe this - I don’t believe it myself - but I’m actually kinda wishing for more snow. I want to break that record. Why, you ask?

Because I want bragging rights.

Wouldn’t you? I can just picture myself, eighty years old and sitting by the fire, telling my grandchildren in a gravelly voice, "I remember the winter of ‘07/’08 when we broke the record for the most snow in a season. It was a nightmare, I’m telling you. Your grandad had a broken wrist, leaving me to sno-blow the driveway, which was a couple hundred yards long, shovel the steps, porch and deck, and try to rake the roof with an implement that was longer than a tree. Then, just when his wrist healed, he went and injured his thumb!" At this point, I’d give a good guffaw and slap my knee. Then I’d grow serious again. "That was the year of the bad back, little ones. Most of us New Hampshirites weren’t able to fully straighten up again until August." Big sigh here. "I remember one time we had to clean up from a snowstorm…in the pouring rain!" Of course, the grandkids would ask next, "But why didn’t you just let the rain melt the snow, Grandma?" And I’d smugly reply, "Because, smart aleks, the next day was going to be frigid cold, worse than being in Minnesota, if I remember correctly. That rain wouldn’t have been able to melt all the snow in time and we would have ended up with 8 inches of ice on the driveway. Our little ice rink wouldn’t have melted until July."

Just when the grandkids thought the story was over, there’d be more. I’d lean closer. "You whippersnappers don’t know what it was like. Just leaving the driveway was an adventure. All that built-up snow and ice had created a ramp at the end of the drive, plus the snow banks were so high, you couldn’t see down the road you were trying to turn onto. You just punched the gas and hoped for the best, sailing through the air, wrenching the steering wheel to make the turn, praying there weren’t any cars coming. We were Dukes of Hazarding it that winter."

I’d probably embellish the story a bit, too. It’s one of the privileges of getting old, and of having lived through harsh times. Perhaps I had double pneumonia that year and the kids had the plague, too. I had to sno-blow uphill, both ways. We lost electricity twenty times and our pipes froze. Our roof nearly caved in from all the snow. We could go sledding off the roof. We almost lost our youngest in a snow bank. Actually, we did lose several of our sleds after one particular snowstorm.

Ahhh…Good times.

So why do I want more snow? Like I said earlier, I want bragging rights. Plus, it gives me something to aim for. Everyone needs goals in life. I’m hoping you’ll root for us. Do whatever you need to do to send us snow. Prayers. Snow dances. Whatever it takes. It’s only seven inches. But if you could, could you just have it all sent to Concord? I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, not in the least.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bad Begets Bad

I’ve often wondered who the faceless people are behind mean-spirited reviews. Take for instance the vote on Sarah Jessica Parker in Maxim magazine. What they did to Sarah and the rest of the women on the list was just plain cruel and completely unnecessary. Were they getting bored with their ‘perfect’ women? Why did they feel the need to share with the rest of the world their anger and spite for anybody or anything that didn’t meet their expectations?

I don’t get it.

Plain and simple, mean-spirited reviews are bad for everybody. When you’re mean, that negativity gets passed along, spreading just as quickly and destructively as the plague. This isn’t rocket science. Bad begets bad. I can understand why people do it, though. It’s easy to be mean. It’s easy to use cruel, snarky words to get your point across. Putting others down can make you feel clever and powerful. If you’ve been on the receiving end of cruelty, it’s tempting to do the same back. Eventually it doesn’t matter who you’re taunting. Everybody’s your target. But being a big meany doesn’t do anybody any good. It just makes people either very (and sometimes homicidally) angry or depressed and afraid. No wonder people don’t want to leave their houses. No wonder kids don’t want to go to school, or adults to work. Even worse, in this internet age of ours, people can be mean and attack you and still remain anonymous. How scary is that?

I can relate to what happened to Sarah. Not on the same level…I don’t have the whole world looking at me. But my experience was crushing all the same. I received my first bad review on Amazon recently. While reading it, I could feel my face flushing as adrenaline rushed through me. It was not a nice review, and I didn’t like reading it in the least. I can only imagine what she felt like hearing about Maxim’s vote.

My publisher warned me about getting my first bad review. To be honest, I didn’t think it would happen. Stupid, I know. And arrogant. It’s not that I think my book is so great, I just never thought it would inspire such ire. But it seems that I am not immune to getting slammed. Dang.

Of course I don’t agree with my negative reviewer’s words (though I completely agree with those who gave the glowing reviews). Still, a part of me started to doubt my work. Was it really that bad? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Are they all just being nice when they say they like my book? Is this like those people on American Idol who say their friends and family tell them they have a great voice, but who really don’t, the poor things? Am I that person?

What have I learned from this experience? Well, a few things. But one big one…when you produce something for the world, expect it, and yourself, to get spit on. Even the greats have gotten bad reviews, and lots of them. Somehow it makes it easier to swallow my own humiliation to know that people I hold in high regard had their battles with mean-spirited people, too. Misery loves company, I guess. Or maybe it’s just knowing that I’m not the only one.

Throughout the day, bad thoughts went through my mind aimed directly at the M.B. and his/her review. I was angry, but worse, I felt helpless. M.B. is in the driver’s seat and there’s nothing I can do, save write this blog, to make things better. I do think M.B. was being a little unfair and this felt more like a personal attack than an attack on my book (this person has written no other reviews, just one on my book). But then I read some reviews on a current and very well-known author that were just as mean and just as negative and just as personal.

So maybe it’s not me, it’s the reviewer! Ha!

I completely agree with freedom of speech…I think M.B. had every right to express his/her opinion about my book, even if it was a negative one. But to do so in such a vitriolic way, that’s what bothers me the most. And to do it while hiding behind a pseudonym seems rather cowardly and suspicious to me. If you want to give your opinion, if you want to stand up and be counted, then show your face, or at least give your name. If you have the right to express what you think, I have the right to know who you are. I’m putting myself out there, now it’s your turn!

At any rate, I just wanted to relate my experience so that other aspiring authors out there won’t feel so alone if (when) this happens to you. Maybe we should form a support group for Authors Suffering From Reviews. Solidarity is a good thing. Through this experience, I have gained a lot of good wisdom and support from my friends and family, and from some wonderful people who barely know me! It has also helped to write about my experience. At first I thought that maybe I shouldn’t. Why tell the world that someone didn’t like my book? I should just ignore the bad review (and I will with the rest of them - because there will be more, I’m sure), but I promised myself when I started writing this blog that I would deal with the good, the bad and the ugly of getting published. Well, this is the ugly. Anyway, maybe I can save others some grief. It’s something to hang onto, anyway.

After all this, I am reminded of Sarah in the Labyrinth who says to the Goblin King, Jareth, "You have no power over me." Perhaps, in the end, that’s what we all need to remember.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Don't Cry Wookie

Have you ever cried wolf? My kids do it all the time. Several times my youngest has come running to me shouting, "M. needs you! Come quick! It’s an emergency!" When he first started doing this, I would leap after him only to find that my middle child simply needed help putting his catapult together, or some other equally non-emergency type of thing. Usually, he just wants an extra hand. It’s not like he’s lost a hand himself. He wants my attention, doesn’t want to make the effort to come get me himself, so he tells his little brother to tell mom that it’s an emergency. This is his variation on the crying wolf theme.

But this particular son doesn’t just cry wolf…he cries Wookie.

The other day my youngest child came running upstairs to tell me that his brother needed me…he was hurt. I was gathering up clothes to bring down to do the laundry and I said, "Just a minute." Sounds callous, but when you have kids, you quickly learn what is serious and what is not. I could hear some complaints coming from the victim but no major screeches signaling serious pain. Since my kids can make a paper cut sound like they’ve just been scalped, I figured he wasn’t too badly hurt this time. So, I wasn’t in a big hurry, but I also wasn’t going too slowly, either. Just in case…

Anyhoo, my youngest runs downstairs to his brother to deliver my message. I’m not far behind him, however, and I arrive in the kitchen to hear him say, "Mom says just a minute." In response, my five-year-old roars, "Not just a minute, NOOOOWWW!" sounding just like a Wookie in distress. That’s what he does when he’s hurt or mad. He howls, and he does it well.

It turns out that he had good reason to bellow. He’d gotten his foot stuck between the slats in his chair. He wasn’t hurt, but he was good and scared and panicking a bit because he couldn’t get his foot back out. Now if I was a really cruel parent, I would’ve fetched the video camera to record the whole event so I could send it in to AFHV to win me some money. Okay, maybe I tried, but the battery was too low (totally kidding here so don’t go calling children’s services on me). With a little bit of maneuvering on my part and lots of complaining about how it hurt on his part, we saved his foot…and the chair. No saws necessary.

And this is why I never get anything done…RRRRUUUUHHHHHWWWWW!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Night Out With the Boys of the Lough

My husband and I finally got a night out, away from the kids, away from the house, just him and me. It was great. But, of course, this being my life, issues arose before the big night even started. Issue number one: I had nothing to wear. I know, I know, women say that all the time when they have a closetful of clothes to wear, but this was no exaggeration. Everything I owned that was in the least bit dressy was either too big on me, or not made for wearing in March in New England. No way was I going to let myself be cold - I’m getting to the age where if you let the cold sink in too far, it won’t ever leave. If I had to choose, comfort would come first. The characters in Sex and the City (especially Carrie and Samantha) would be appalled, but there it is.

I’m not totally without fashion sense, however. I’d prefer to have both comfort and beauty. So I went shopping…

Of course, being a stay-at-home mom, I had to bring along my two youngest ones, one of whom wasn’t feeling well and just wanted to sleep. We ran some errands first and he dragged himself around the aisles, hanging onto the cart and looking droopy. He only perked up when we spent time picking out his birthday presents. Then we headed for the mall. Unfortunately, I had delayed my shopping trip until the last minute. Perhaps if I’d gone earlier, I might have found something that wasn’t a tiny summer dress or on the sales rack and didn’t fit me! But no. There wasn’t much of anything and what there was, was u-g-l-y. My sick child kept trying to fall asleep…on the floor, leaning against the wall, on the fitting room bench. Then my two precious little boogers started fighting over the room on the bench because my youngest wanted to bed down, too.

I gave up. We went to Mickey D’s for lunch. By that point, I needed junk food. Really needed it. As I ate, I kept telling myself that I had to have something at home that would fit. The next day I searched my closet and found a few things that might work. I washed them, hung them up to dry, but didn’t bother trying them on until a half hour before we were due to leave. With high hopes, I tried on the first outfit. Too big. So I tried on the second, still foolishly optimistic. Not bad, I thought, but where are my black heels? Nowhere to be seen. I then vaguely recalled giving them to Goodwill because I never wore them. Dang. I can’t wear a skirt with tennis shoes. Can I? No…it’s a bad look. Trust me. So I tried on a few more things. Nothing worked. I looked at the clock. Agh! Ten minutes before we had to leave! I finally had to resort to a pair of dress pants and some dress shoes that I had to polish because they were a bit scuffed and more than a little dusty. The show was at an Opera House - I just hoped I wouldn’t stand out too badly.

I didn’t.

After dining out at a lovely restaurant in an old inn, we headed over to the Opera House. By then, I was thankful for my pants and sensible shoes. The restaurant had been a bit cold and the walk was refreshing to say the least. When we arrived, I was more than a bit relieved to find that I was not the only one who wasn’t dressed to the nines. But then I was disappointed. What happened to dressing up for an occasion? Nobody seems to do that anymore. At least not around here. The height of fashion appeared to be a Red Sox baseball cap paired with a Red Sox jacket.

The Opera House had been built in 1908 and as we entered the theater I could hear the swishing of ball gowns as the women swept down the aisles to take their seats. I promised myself that when I had the chance, I would search out a lovely dress and shoes for ‘occasions’ such as these. They would be comfortable, too, because I want to enjoy the performance, not constantly worrying about a girdle digging into my stomach and too-tight shoes pinching my toes. Dressing up should be fun. Remember doing it as kids?

Okay, now on to the show. The Boys of the Lough, a band that plays traditional Irish music, was the feature presentation. They were a lot of fun - four of the members were Irish and one was English. If you weren’t nodding your head, tapping your foot, or slapping your thigh, you were probably dead. Even the ghosts were joining in. I could only see four of the five boys because someone’s head was in the way, but that was okay. Biologically they weren’t really boys at all, three of the five being on the other side of forty, to be sure. In spirit, though, they were as young as could be, telling jokes, laughing, and enjoying the music with smiles on their faces. I especially liked the banter. At one point, the Irish guys were making fun of the English so the Englishman quipped back, "Yeah, they won’t even let me sleep in the same bed as them." Even though you knew they had a schtick, they seemed to enjoy every joke as though it were the first time they’d heard it.

Despite my ‘issues’ with fashion, I had a good time. You can’t help but be inspired by Irish music. It was also nice to dine out without having to explain something again to the one child who wasn’t listening to the first explanation and wants to know what everyone’s talking about. We didn’t have to clean up spilled milk or listen to fart jokes. We almost didn’t know what to do with ourselves. When we got home, we straightened up the house. My mom will watch the kids, but cleaning isn’t included. I guess that’s what we get from a free babysitter. So we cleaned up the house and went to bed. It was a great night out and we didn’t even stay out that late.

We’re already planning the next…Maybe a cruise? I can’t wait to tell my mom.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Write About What You Know

The writing experts tell us novices that we should write about what we know. If I were take this literally, I'd be in big trouble. I write about mythical worlds and fantastical creatures. I've never been to a mythical world (if you don't count my happy place) and I've never met a fantastical creature (if you don't count my family). How can I 'write about what I know' when the topic is something that I've never experienced?

Obviously, the statement, "Write about what you know" can't be entirely true. Or can it?

While writing the Anaedor series, I used my imagination, a lot. That means I made stuff up, a lot. That's what fantasy is all about. But...and here's where the experts are right...I didn't rely entirely on my imagination. I used my own experiences and knowledge of people and places to help me write my story. For example, my characters have traits and quirks and issues similar to the many humans I've observed over my lifetime. I take a little bit of behavior here, a little bit of appearance there - and voila! - I have a character, one that people can relate to.

The same goes for creating my settings. My imagination comes first, but then I use enough of reality to make my worlds seem more vibrant and attainable. To get a better feel for where I wanted Anaedor to take place, I traveled to another state. This little trip was also a nice excuse to get a break from my two-year-old. "Research, darling. Must go!" Unfortunately, I was newly pregnant with baby number two and was rather nauseous the whole time. But the main point is that I put in the work to make my book a better one. It was very hard driving around that gorgeous New England countryside, staying in a lovely B&B, eating at sidewalk cafes and taking notes. But I'd do it all again, I'd even sacrifice my own well-being, for the sake of my art.

There's no need to reinvent the wheel, however, so I also did a lot of research in books and on the internet to create my Anaedorian world. I read about myths and lore and caves galore. The internet is a beautiful thing. Use it! The library and bookstores are just as great. There's something written on just about everything under the sun, and about the sun, too, I imagine.

To write fantasy, using your imagination and doing your research is pretty much all you need to do. But what if you want to write about something more real, like being a CIA agent? Have you ever been an agent? Well, most of us haven't, or only in our dreams, so thinking like one is going to be hard. Obviously, you can still use your imagination. It's a great place to start, anyway. First, you could pretend that you are an agent yourself. How fun would that be? Just don't spy on your neighbors. There are laws against that...or so I've heard. Ask yourself questions. What's your day-to-day life like? Is it mundane and boring most of the time, or action every moment? What do you eat on the run? Cheetos and Coke? Do you have a family? Do they know you're an agent? Are you a good agent or terrible at your job because you care too much about others?

Next, you need to do some hard-core research - on the CIA, on agents, on the agency, on weapons, on training, and so on and so forth. Any time this research can be hands on, go for it. Consider the actor who is playing a barber, so spends a day or more actually doing the job. That's what you need to do. If you're up for it, try to do some target shooting. You might note an interesting reaction in yourself after you make your first target hit. Perhaps a power surge that you never expected. Experiencing what your character might can make your book that much more real.

After you've done all that imagination and research stuff, think about consulting an expert on the subject. Writers do it all the time (read their acknowledgements page). This final touch lends that element of believability that will give credence to your work. Plus, it might be fun!

In sum, when you are told to 'write about what you know' and feel like you don't know all that much, don't panic. Use your imagination, do your research, talk to people. Best of all, get out there and do things! Even if it's something as simple as sitting in the mall and watching all the people go by. Who knows what might inspire you?

And maybe, if you're watching closely, you might actually see what isn't meant to be seen...the elusive Anaedorian.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Length Does Matter

If you were thinking this blog was going to be about something else, I’m sorry to disappoint you. This article is about books…and how long they should be. That’s what you were looking for? Oh, well, read on!

The length of a book became an issue for me when I realized how long my second, third and fourth Anaedor books were turning out to be. Could such an issue as being too long really exist? Sensing it could, I did some research and found, to my horror, that for a novel, your book length should be in the range of 80,000 to 110,000 words.

The Anaedor books far exceed that 110,000 mark. They’re too big!

So why is book length important, you might ask? Plain and simple, publishers want to make money off the deal, not lose it. The more pages you have, the more it costs to publish. On the other side of it, you also don’t want your book to be too short - it will be hard to compete with other books of the same genre. People want to think they are getting more for their money and the smaller books are perceived to be of less value.

So how do you figure out your word count for your book? Well, your computer can do it for you. In Microsoft Word, you just go to Tools and click on Word Count. This neat little chart will also give you the number of pages and characters. Some say this isn’t the best way to go about assessing word count, that you should do the method below, but I found Microsoft to be very accurate. If you are handwriting your book - God be with you - you can count the number of words on 3-4 pages and average them (that means: add total number of words and divide by the number of pages you counted). Take that number (your average, say 250) and multiply by the TOTAL number of pages you have (say 200). The answer is 50,000, which means your work has about 50,000 words, give or take. This should work if you write a consistent number of words per page.

All this being said, let’s look at some real world examples that don’t follow the guidelines. Being that I write fantasy, I’m going to use fantasy authors. The Spiderwick Chronicles were clearly written for younger readers and are very short. I don’t have a word count for them, but you can do the math easily enough. They certainly aren’t even close to 80,000 words per book. They, however, are quite successful. The Spiderwick Chronicles are really one long book, but were made into a series of books. Each can stand on its own, but you won’t get the whole flavor of the story unless you start from the beginning and read all the way through. You might want to consider this option if your book is very long, and more suited to younger audiences.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (the first book in the series) is approximately 77,000 words, but Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is about 190,000 words. Rowling did follow the guidelines for her first book (and for first books/first-time authors, you really want to keep them shorter, anyway), but as the series grew, and its popularity, she had the luxury of making her books longer.

Some say that the right length is what it takes to tell the story. Others advise that after writing your first draft, you should cut about 10-20%. I’m taking both pieces of advice. With Book Two (The Return to Anaedor), I’m going through and taking out anything that doesn’t contribute to the story. I actually think that what I’m doing is making it a better story while at the same time achieving better flow (which, if you’ve been reading my blogs, you’ll know is an important topic to me).

These aren’t always hard and fast rules. Fantasy and science fiction are allowed a higher word count. Books for younger audiences are going to be shorter. Either way, if your query letter and first couple chapters are interesting, agents will bite, even if the word count is outside the guidelines.

Still, I wish I’d known about the concept of word count before writing the Anaedor series. I might have worked on being more concise, or maybe did five books instead of four. Maybe I’ll still do that. Who knows? I did feel better after starting to read Eragon the other day and noticing how long it was, especially for a new author. Then I learned that Paolini’s parents owned the publishing company he published his book through and my hope plummeted. The closest my parents come to publishing is that my mom owns a printer.

It could be worse, though…

My eight-year-old son was trying to write a book the other day to sell in the mall he wants to build this summer in our back yard. He has employees ‘working’ for him and everyone is doing their part to create merchandise to sell. One idea they had was to sell books. So my son wrote his own book. To make it more professional looking, my husband set him up in Word so that he could type out what he’d written. Even though my husband set the font as big as he could without it looking too weird, my son still had a hard time filling a page. He has realized the hard way how tough it is to type 1000 words, much less 80,000 of them. Why am I telling you this? If you are a beginning writer/author wannabe, don’t worry too much about word count. Just try to fill those pages. The guidelines are meant to guide, not stifle.

So what have I learned from this whole experience? Well, my second series is going to be considerably shorter, that’s for sure. I’ve also discovered that I seem to have to do everything the hard way. Here’s hoping you have an easier time of it!

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Marching Along

A couple of blogs ago I wrote with great fervor that I didn’t like February. Well, I’m beginning to remember that I don’t like March, either. It’s incredibly cold and wet and long and cold. Plus, I’m starting to get cabin fever. Being a stay-at-home mom doesn’t help matters. I’m not the most social person, but I do have a heartbeat. Once in a while, I like to be reminded that other people, and ways of life, do exist.

I think that one of my favorite Homerian sayings sums up how I feel. By Homerian, I mean the Simpson guy, of course. Not that other dude. "I want to shake off the dust of this one-horse town. I want to explore the world. I want to watch TV in a different time zone. I want to visit strange, exotic malls…I want to live, Marge! Won’t you let me live?"

So what’s making my March a little frustrating, you ask? Oh, the usual. My husband has injured (and possibly broken) his thumb and one of his toes in separate incidences (wrestling with the kids and a cement block that got in the way of his foot). He actually put off telling me about his thumb. Is that a bad sign? What he’d think was going to happen if he told me? That I was going to send him to his room? Hmmm… Actually, I might have done that.

That’s the problem with being a mom, you treat everyone like they’re your kid. But what do you expect when you have to deal every day with things like your three-year-old spouting his new favorite word, "Never!" at you. I tell him to put his shoes on. "Never!" he cries, like I just asked him to denounce his country or something. Or when you have to cope with hearing your kids complaining loudly about every bump, bruise or tiny cut they get. Boys could never have babies. The other day, after each one of them came to me wailing about a boo-boo that I couldn’t even see, I ended up shouting at them, "I had my stomach sliced open and I didn’t cry about that!" Not a shining moment for me in the parenting department, but it worked. For some strange reason, my kids are pretty morbid and wanted to hear the story about my c-section, so they shut up about their own owies and eventually forgot about them because hearing about someone else’s pain on such a grand scale was more interesting.

March is also the time that you start worrying about having to do and pay taxes. This year I had to figure out the whole, "I published a book so I need to figure out what I earned (not much) and what my expenses were (more than I made)," thing. It hasn’t been pretty. I kept all my receipts…somewhere. Well, everywhere. I had to gather them up and figure out what went where on the forms. You know something? Taxes are a scary thing, and they cost you money. I don’t like them.

March is also the time for mother nature to start playing her tricks. The snow starts melting and you think to yourself, "Thank the Lord, spring is here!" Then it snows eighteen inches. We’ve had times, even into April, when nearly all the snow is gone and then a blizzard nails us. I think that’s just plain cruel. Of course, it is Mother Nature we’re talking about here. And you know what can happen to mothers at this time of year.

Basically, we get tired. Tired of tracked in salt and sand, funny smells in the house, colds and flus, trips to the doctor, bickering children, and the same view day after day. I think I really need to get out of this house. Imagine the Shining with Jack Nicholson where he types over and over, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." That’s me. Perhaps that’s my mind telling me something…get out of the house, Kristina, before your finger starts saying, "Redrum! Redrum!" over and over.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Why don’t you just move somewhere warmer? My only response to that is, "Then what would I have to complain about?"

Twenty-one days left…

Thursday, March 6, 2008

What's Yours Is Mine?

The other day, I went on Yahoo! to check my email and saw a news article featuring J. K. Rowling, well-known author of the Harry Potter books (not to be confused with the lesser known J. K. Rowling who wrote about The Mating Habits of the African Shrew). Of course I had to read the article. I’ll read anything related to the world of fantasy, plus I’m a bit of a snoop that way. This particular article was about a lawsuit between Rowling and a middle school librarian named Steven Vander Ark. Vander Ark recently snagged a book deal to publish the elaborate Harry Potter lexicon he created, via the website the Harry Potter Lexicon (HPL). J. K. Rowling does not want him to publish it, noting that she has plans for publishing a lexicon herself.

Should he be allowed to publish his work, or not? What do you think? Unsure? Don’t care? Not to worry, I’ve got enough opinions for both of us.

Before checking out the HPL site, I started thinking about how I would feel as a writer if someone wanted to do the same thing using my creation (though at the moment, I could only wish for that kind of compliment on my work). My initial, gut reaction is that I don’t think I would like it very much. Why do I feel this way? Heck if I know. I only know that I can’t shut up that loud voice shouting in my head, "I don’t want you to touch it because it’s mine! Mine, I tell you!"

Though perhaps that explains why I don’t have very many friends.

Can you remember as a kid when you hated the idea of sharing something of yours, even if you weren’t all that particularly enamored of it, probably hadn’t actually seen it for months, or even forgotten that it existed? The moment you saw someone else moving in on your territory, something snapped inside you. To other people, this reaction may have seemed unreasonable, but to you, it made perfect sense. It was yours and you didn’t anyone else messing with it.

If you feel that strongly about something you don’t care all that much about, imagine how you’d react when it’s something that’s very important to you. What if you handed over the ‘thing’ and the other person broke it? Or messed it up? Or, in the case of a book, presented your work in a way that you didn’t agree with? I wish I could be a more generous person, but I guess I’m going to have to work on that one. When something is really important to me, I want to protect it and keep it safe. I wouldn’t trust anyone else to do the same. As an author, I’d feel very protective of my "baby," just as I would about my children. I wouldn’t want someone else taking over the parenting reins, why would I want them to do the same thing to my book? My precious, precious book?

I’m actually wringing my hands, Gollum-style, as I write this.

Okay, you say, but J. K. Rowling is not a kid. She should know how to share by now. But still… Do you think you would be okay with someone doing something with your work and making money off it? Really, truly okay? Take some time to answer that… If you’ve decided that you don’t care about such petty things, then you are much farther along the path to enlightenment than I am. Congratulations! You are now an honorary saint.

After coming to the conclusion that I’m immature and quite possibly a greedy guts, I thought I’d check out Vander Ark’s website, see what this lexicon thing is all about (after I looked up lexicon in the dictionary to be sure I knew what it really meant). It was a nice website, quite obviously a labor of love. Rowling has actually referred to the HPL as her "natural home" because she likes to visit it herself. As I puttered around, I came across Vander Ark’s open letter to J. K. Rowling, asking her to elucidate on certain Potter trivia. It was a nice letter, very polite and respectful. Vander Ark does not come across as a jerk or as greedy or manipulative in any way. I rather liked him. In fact, I find it hard to imagine that he himself came up with the idea to publish the lexicon, even though fans have asked him to. I have to believe he was approached by a publishing company, but I could be wrong on that.

So here’s someone who has put a lot of time and effort into creating this website. Now comes the tough question. Should he be rewarded for doing so? For being a great fan? Some have argued that he should. Of course, he’s already making money off Harry Potter by posting advertisements, so that’s something. But, if this was really a labor of love, why does he want to make money from it? Fans do great and amazing things all the time to honor their heroes (getting tattoos come to mind) and don’t get rewarded for them. It kind of goes against the whole "I’m a devoted fan" idea, doesn’t it?

Here’s another tough question: Is J. K. being greedy? She obviously doesn’t need the money, so what’s this about? Personally, I think it’s about creative control. If she gives in on this issue, people are going to really start doing everything they can to make money off Harry Potter (not that they aren’t doing that already). Being the creator, it’s up to her to police this world she’s created. True fans wouldn’t do damage, but we all know that the ones wanting to just make money wouldn’t be so careful and respectful of Rowling’s creation (I’m not at all implying this of Vander Ark, so please don’t freak on me about that - he seems to me to be one of the true fans). Perhaps for J. K. it’s an issue concerning her role as protectorate of the Potter realm, and has nothing to do with money at all.

Life is not black and white, and neither is this issue. Like I said, my gut feeling is that I wouldn’t want someone else moving in on my territory. However, life isn’t always what I want it to be. In this case, I might have to think about the bigger issue. While J. K. Rowling created Harry Potter, the world of Harry Potter wouldn’t be what it is without its fans. Perhaps I would look into a compromise of sorts with Vander Ark. Maybe he and Rowling could collaborate on the lexicon? It would make for a better world, I think.

If you’re still uncertain about the whole issue, maybe you should ask yourself, "What would Harry do?" I imagine he would tell us Muggles to give peace a chance.

Monday, March 3, 2008

I Don't Like You, Everybody Hates Me

Or How to Give and Take Constructive Criticism.

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time handling criticism. Who wants to be told that what they have created, what they have poured their heart and soul into, isn’t perfect? Not me. I want people to praise me using as many adjectives meaning greatness as they can. For some reason, though, they never do.

I think a big part of the reason why we don’t want to hear bad things about our creations is that oftentimes people don’t know how to give constructive criticism. Typically, it’s just plain old criticism. One can experience a bit of a power rush when pointing out other people’s weaknesses, mistakes, typos, bad hairdos. I think we are biologically set up to prove ourselves more fit and capable than other creatures. Plain and simple, people are hard-wired to want to say, "Nah, nah, na boo-boo, stick your head in poo-poo."

Sad, but true.

So let’s start with how to give constructive criticism. If you are ever in the position to read someone’s writing or to work as an editor, you might want to keep these suggestions in mind. They are simple, effective, and make it more likely that your suggestions will be followed in the end.

1. Start with the positives. For example, "I enjoyed the story. I love how you do descriptions and your characters are interesting." Start with the things you liked about the work. You want to encourage people to listen to you, not want to throw a rock at you.

2. When you introduce some of the issues you had with the author’s work, phrase it like this: "I had some ideas or suggestions for you, if you’d like to hear them." Not… "Let me tell you all the things you did wrong because doing so makes me feel strong and god-like."

3. Give them a chance to defend themselves after each suggestion - we all need to do that. I have found myself saying things like, "Yes, well I meant to do what you’re saying, but the baby was crying and the water was boiling over and I just forgot." Listen to the writer, say, "I can totally understand that," and then move on to your next point. Empathy is a beautiful thing, and may save your life at this point.

4. If you can, give concrete examples or alternatives. Writing an entire book (heck, even an article or a poem) can be an overwhelming process and it’s easy to lose yourself in all those words. Try to help the writer out by giving page numbers, names, specific ideas. From personal experience, I know that hearing criticism can raise your blood pressure to the point where all you hear is a buzzing noise. People will tune you out if you only point out where they went wrong.

5. Be prepared for people to not take your advice. Pretend you’re a parent.

Now, How to take criticism (be it constructive, or otherwise)…

1. FIrst of all, bear in mind that we all have a hard time hearing criticism of ourselves or of anything related to ourselves. That’s a fact of life. But you’ll never improve if you can’t listen to what others are trying to tell you about your work. You’re just going to have to leave your ego at the door.

2. In the beginning, when you are at your most sensitive, only give your work to someone you trust and who is going to be supportive of you. When your self-esteem is stronger, try people who are going to say what they mean, even if it isn’t what you want to hear. If you’re like the rest of us, you’re going to have to improve whether you like it or not. Find someone who will really help you do that.

3. Keep in mind that ‘constructive’ criticism is meant to help you. Try to keep an open mind and take lots of deep breaths when you are hearing it. People don’t always get their wording right and may not be the most diplomatic in their delivery, but they are trying to help - most of them anyway. Learn to weed out the good stuff and ignore the rest. Don’t ignore everything, though. People are typically only going to mention an issue because something about it bothered them. You need to hear that. If you don’t like their suggestion for changing it, you can come up with your own. But usually, it’s something that does need to be addressed one way or the other.

4. Make your own list as you listen. This will keep you focused and help you better understand what the other person is saying. Ask them questions. But not in an attacking manner! Not… "How could you have missed that bit of information? I wrote it in that one line twenty pages ago!" Like I said, people are going to point out areas that trouble them. So if they didn’t catch it the first time, you didn’t make it clear enough. Deal with the problem and move on. At least that problem is relatively easy to fix!

5. GIve yourself some time to absorb what you’ve heard before diving into editing, or before outright dismissing everything the person said. Time can actually make you see what your friend/editor was trying to say, when you’ve moved past how they might have said it.

Improving ourselves isn’t an easy process, but a necessary one. Most of us aren’t natural writers who are going to get everything right the first time around, as hard as that can be to accept. I’ve actually had my 8-year-old point out gaps in my story. If that isn’t galling, I don’t know what is. But he was right, and I made the changes. Several years ago, my younger sister was trying to tell me that I needed to improve on my descriptions. She said to me, "Okay, I want you to describe what we’re doing right now." So I started to do that, and halfway through, she stops me and shows me, by coming up with her own description, how inept my attempt was. That was very hard to take, especially from a younger sibling whose butt I can still kick into next week if I wanted to. But…she was right. I had a hard time hearing the criticism, but eventually I admitted to myself that it was a trouble spot and so I worked on it. It might have taken me several years to hear what she was trying to say, but eventually I got the message.

In conclusion, the only one who suffers from not being able to take criticism is you. I’m not asking you to become someone who can take any hit and not care. I’m just saying that maybe you might be able to take something away from the experience other than a desire to hurt someone. Somewhere in there might be just the right thing that helps you turn the corner in your writing. You just never know… It’s better than eating worms, anyway.