January 25, 2009

Publishing's a Business

Publishing's a Business
By Dorinda Ohnstad

The publishing industry is a unique business, but a business never-the-less. As a business it seeks to make a reasonable profit. In fact, the Board of Directors of each publishing house has a legal obligation to its shareholders to act in their best interest by doing all they can to make a reasonable return on the company’s investments. That means that the focus of the industry is not on the best interests of writers, but the best interests of shareholders. That doesn’t mean that writers aren’t critical to the industry’s success, because clearly they are. There exists a tenuous symbiotic relationship between the two. However, we can’t overlook the fact that profits are the ultimate motivating factor of the publishing industry (as they must be), even if that is not the key motivation of most writers. As writers we shouldn’t begrudge that fact.

Publishing houses are well aware that reader preference is the driving force behind sales. However, identifying what readers want is very different (as well as very difficult) as compared to other industries. In that respect, publishing is more akin to the art world. You can ask art collectors what they’re interested in purchasing, but it would provide little assistance to the industry. One floral picture is not the same as the other, so knowing that collectors want florals isn’t enough. In addition, even if one could define exactly what type of floral painting was desired that would still be insufficient. How would an art dealer get someone to paint that picture? As artists we can only create what we are inspired or driven to create. Our work is our own.

While the publishing industry will never be able to “design” their products to meet market needs, it will continue do its best to predict what readers will buy. However, the industry’s choices are limited to what is offered to them by writers. Each submission will be viewed through the marketability lens, but every investment will still be a calculated gamble. This makes publishing a difficult industry to be successful in, but at the same time it also makes it an exciting one. A Twilight or a Harry Potter is always lurking around the corner.

As readers I think that most of us relish the unpredictability of the publishing industry. We relish finding that new voice, the new series, new book, new author that captivates us. It’s almost euphoric. I wonder what it would be like if that weren’t the case. What if the industry could be predictable and formulaic? I don’t think I would like it; nor do I think that readers would benefit. I don’t think writers would benefit either. If writing could be reduced to a formula then new voices would be unnecessary—too risky an investment. The publishing industry would continue to work with the same proven commodities. Not good for the rest of us wanting our chance to be published.

So where does that leave us? I believe that as writers we continue to write what we’re driven to write and we write it to the best of our abilities. The publishing industry should continue to do its best to make good investments. And for those writers desiring to be published, we move forward knowing that anything is possible. Just ask Stephenie Meyer or J.K. Rowling. It’s a new year with new opportunities. Perhaps your turn will be next. I know that I’m hoping that 2009 will be my year.


January 18, 2009

Rejection and Criticism

I wrote this for another blog, but I think it's an important subject that needs to be revisited.

If you’re a writer and want to be published, you need to be able to accept rejection–it’s part of the process.

Recently I spoke to a short-story writer who once visited a critique group I belong to and I asked him what he was doing with his writing. He said he no longer sent it out because he didn’t like being rejected–so he only shares his stories with friends. This man is an excellent writer–though his stories had some flaws. As I look back, I remember that he didn’t like having his work critiqued either and that’s why he didn’t continue on with our group. I think what he’s decided is sad, because eventually he’d probably have found a market for his work and more than just his friends could’ve enjoyed his stories.

I knew another excellent writer who sent her manuscript to about three publishers or agents, was rejected and that was the end of her sending out her work. Oh, she still writes–but she doesn’t ever submit her work. She is able to take criticism in a writer’s group and make suggested changes or rewrites.

When I taught a weekly writing group, at times I’d get a new student who would read their few pages and be horrified when I pointed out problems. Made me wonder why they bothered to come. Believe me, when I’m critiquing anyone’s work I always talk about what is good first before giving any suggestions.

Frankly, I don’t understand the mind-set that can’t take criticism or rejection. My first book was rejected nearly 30 times before it was accepted by a publisher. Each time it was rejected, I worked on it some more. At the time I didn’t know nearly as much about editing and rewriting as I do now.

Even though I now have over twenty published books, I still attend a weekly critique group. I would be disappointed if they didn’t find something to help make the book better. I use my fellow authors as a first editor.

Rejection is part of getting published. Never take it personally. It can mean many things, the publisher or agent was having a bad day, they are interested in a similar book already, it isn’t the kind of book that they like. Always pay attention to what is in the rejection letter, especially if it’s handwritten and has some actual comments about your writing. No matter what happens, work to fix that book or move onto another. Never, ever give up.


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January 11, 2009

Germanic vs. Latin word choices

When I was in college, I had a great lecture on the difference between Germanic and Latin words and how they pertain to poetry.  I'm going to do the best I can at remembering (so if I mess up a few details, please forgive me), but the general idea is very useful not only to poets but to all writers.

The difference between these two types of words can elicit all kinds of emotions.  Germanic based words tend to be longer/multi-syllabic, more technical, and a bit rougher sounding.  Latin based words are less harsh than Germanic words.  The difference between the two is kind of similar to the difference between "happy chords" and "sad chords" on the guitar.  Each choice elicits a different emotion.  A few examples:



The general/loose rule (for practicality's sake and not for technical sake) is that if something has a soft sound, and doesn't have a lot of syllables, it is a Latin-based word.  If it sounds a little more jolting and sounds like a word you'd find in a medical journal, then it is a Germanic based word.

I purposefully choose certain Latin words to soften a certain parts of my poetry pieces if I want to highlight mixed emotions.  If I want to catch the reader's attention in a mainly Latin-based poem, I use a Germanic word.  The change in the sound and/or appearance of the two different word types alerts the reader subconsciously to stop, regulate and listen (okay maybe it's not Hammer time).  

When I'm ending a poem on a different note than I began, or if I want the reader to really sit with a line, I will change the word type.  In one of my love poems, I used the word "saliva" after using some pretty images and easily flowing words.  I did this on purpose, and it jilted some of my readers.  Thus, my word choice was successful at doing the work I wanted it to do.  I wanted the readers to pay attention to the last lines of my poem.  They sat uncomfortably with the word, and (hopefully) remembered and thought about it later.  Sometimes metaphors, similies, rhymes, and other devices just don't quite portray exactly what I am trying to say or have the reader feel.  I like writing poems that elicit strong emotions--playing with diction is one of my favorite ways to create this effect.

Not only poets can benefit from these word choices, a novelist may want a scary, gruff character to use Germanic based words in dialogue (and likewise, a softer, more feminine character to use more Latin-based words).  Even though Germanic words tend to be harsher, if one cleverly inserts them into a Latin-based piece, one may be able to have that Germanic word become very beautiful.  This switch up will surprise the reader and make them feel like your piece is interesting and different from all the other books they've read in your particular genre.

Another way to use the difference between word types is in this following example:

Let's say you have a serial killer with a soft side as one of your characters, you may highlight this personal trait of his by inserting some soft words into his speech at a time where the reader may not expect it.  Maybe this serial killer is fond of a particular child that he would never harm, so he talks to her with kind words, whereas he talks to others whom he might kill in another way.  Or maybe he's about to kill someone, and for a moment he has second thoughts.  His speech may reflect this, as he alternates between harsh and soft words.  You may even be able to make a Latin word sound scary, if you place it in dialogue in a murder scene.  Likewise, if you have a very feminine character who suddenly becomes very pissed off, you may want to throw some Germanic words into her vocabulary to highlight her current emotional state.

Another way to use this dichotomy is if you shove a pretty Latin word into a rough sounding paragraph (or piece of dialogue) to try to make that Latin word ugly (did the word "shove" just make you feel awkward?).  If you succeed, you may be able to elicit a confused or disturbed response from the reader.  This is important for mystery or suspense books, where you want to alert the reader or create foreshadowing, but you don't want to tell them what is going on quite yet.

Understanding the difference between these two types of words can greatly benefit one's writing, as it is a powerful and overlooked literary device.  Pitting these two types of words against one another may be able to help you create the emotional drama you want to have in a scene, but just can't seem to figure out using normal literary devices like plot and setting.

So next time you type, think about what area of Europe your words come from.  :)

January 4, 2009

Character Occupations

What do your characters do for a living?
This is one of the most important decisions you can make about the people who populate your story.
Write what you know is the adage that gets thrown at writers with great frequency. What I personally know about different type of jobs is on the low side. So where do I go for ideas for the livelihood of my characters?

Look in newspaper classifieds. Almost every newspaper is online now. Every town, city, or country is open for possible job information. If you find something with possibilities follow it to the company site and go to the human resources page. Most will give a very specific breakdown of all duties and responsibilities. Don’t forget to check out education and training requirements. This will give you insight to background information for your character.

Check out job search sites. I have become very familiar with many of these sites and they are a great resource for jobs and the quick breakdown of sub-fields of interest. If you want your character to be a doctor you need to know what kind of doctor.

The Library is still a great source of research for jobs. They used to print small books on specific types of jobs but most of those are gone from the system. But the biography section and the periodicals are still great avenues for both contemporary and historical personalized information.

Have you ever done a personal interview? There is so much information you can find without doing the interview it is tempting to just bypass it. But nothing else can give you the emotional connection like actually talking to the person that does that job everyday. These everyday situations can bring your protagonist or antagonist to life.

In all this fact finding don’t forget to use the imagination that got you into this in the first place. What did you want to be when you grew up? There were lots of different jobs I wanted to do as a child and that list changed as I got older. Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be an astronaut or a ballerina? Now you have the opportunity to play dress up in your writing.

When you have all your information gathered and you are ready to show off your new character you can use their position to help plot your story. Put his job on a scale from one to ten. Make one the worst possible thing that could happen to his job and ten the best thing that could happen.
For a lawyer losing a case could be the worst and winning could be the best. Try taking it a step further. The lawyer gets disbarred and loses the job completely. So starting at that point he works his way back up the scale fighting the conflict, and discovering more about himself along the way. At ten he may decide he doesn’t want to be a lawyer anymore. He wants to be a writer and that is his best thing.

Remember no job is perfect. It is the mundane responsibilities that fill most days on the job but these don’t make for great fiction. So finding ways to turn up the heat and make those responsibilities and obligations intense will keep your readers involved.

What did you want to be when you grew up? And no fair saying you wanted to be a writer.