Steve

Always Be Curious (The ABCs of the Writing Life)

Recently, I was speaking to a small group of writers and one asked, “What would be one piece of advice we should follow for the rest of our writing careers?”

I said, “A. B. C. Always be curious.”

Another way to put this is, “Always be learning.” I’m a firm believer that writers need to always have a “back-to-school” mentality.

When you think you know it all, it will be the beginning of the end for you.

Here are six things we can gain from always going to “school”:

  1. Anticipation. The joyful feeling that something great is going to happen.
  2. Dread. The accompanying feeling that something awful is going to happen.
  3. Fun. Put the first two together, and you have an adventure. (If we change the words, we could have Anticipation-Angst-Adventure!)
  4. Renewal. Learning something new becomes a part of you. And you become different or renewed each time.
  5. Growth. Growth happens over time and through much work and perseverance. Ronie Kendig spent eight years from the time she first began pursuing publication to the date her first novel was released. That is perseverance.
  6. Reward. There is never a “graduation” ceremony from the school of writing. It is a lifetime experience. But the rewards are great because words can change lives.

If you can, if circumstances allow, I would encourage you to attend a writers conference some time in the next 12 months. It can be like going back to school–but in a fun way. (See #3.)

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Fun Fridays – September 24, 2021

Today is National Punctuation Day! In celebration, take out a comma.

Or at least visit the official site: www.nationalpunctuationday.com.

Recently I walked into a church classroom to find a list of the 10 Commandments on the board. The first line read “No other God’s.”
Sigh.

If you want to read a fun book on grammar and punctuation I can recommend Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

So while you take a moment to appreciate the need for precise punctuation enjoy this delightful five minute repartee between Dean Martin and Victor Borge singing with Phonetic Punctuation.

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When Editorial Errors Matter

by Steve Laube

Writers make mistakes. It happens. Often an editor’s job is to be the safety net and catch those tidbits that find their way into an early draft of a manuscript for any number of reasons.

The simplicity of “cut & paste” has created more opportunity for error than ever before. I’ve seen half sentences left in their original place because the writer failed to cut and paste accurately. Many books evolve over time with additional research or new thoughts. Errors can creep in this way. I’ve seen an author actually contradict himself between chapters. There are too many details to keep straight so the writer overlooks the inconsequential trusting the editor to fix things. I remember talking to a Bethany House editor who revealed that an author accidently brought a character back to life, forgetting that the character had died earlier in the story.

None of the above examples ever found their way into the final edition of the book and the public never knew the error was made. An editor caught it and fixed it. That is why errors found in a finished and published book are so jarring.

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The Dreaded Blank Page

by Steve Laube

A clean slate. An empty canvas. A fresh start. A new beginning.
Or a potential nightmare of guilt, failure, and shame.

Thus begins the process of each writing project. This blog post began with a blank page. I wondered why I ever agreed to write a blog. I procrastinated with enough excuses to be described as legion. I told myself that no one cares what I think on any subject.

Once my episode of complaining was done I began to write. Each of my posts begins in a Moleskine notebook written by hand. The pages are littered with half-started ideas and incomplete thoughts. And this was no exception. Today’s post is the fourth one that received some scratches.

The blank page is the universal place where every writer begins. And in that moment and in that place all things are equal.

A place where the artist begins creating verba ex nihilo.*

A place of immeasurable potential and endless possibilities.

A place upon which a treasure map is drawn leading a reader to riches unimagined.

A place where worlds are spun into existence.

A place of creation, inspiration, and wonder.

Remember this as you fill today’s blank page:

The world will be a little different tomorrow because of what you write today.

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To Comma or Not to Comma?

by Steve Laube

I came across this entry in the Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. The book is a classic on punctuation (although based on British English usage it is still a great book). Read the story below and then answer the questions in the comment section.

On his deathbed in April 1991, Graham Green corrected and signed a typed document which restricts access to his papers at Georgetown University. Or does it? The document, before correction, stated: “I, Graham Greene, grant permission to Norman Sherry, my authorised biographer, excluding any other to quote from my copyright material published or unpublished.” Being a chap who had corrected proofs all his life, Greene automatically aded a comma after “excluding any other” and died the next day without explaining what he meant by it. A great ambiguity was thereby created. Are all other researchers excluded from quoting the material? Or only other biographers?

Which do you think he meant?

What other ambiguities with commas have you seen or written with your own hand?

Why should it matter? It is just punctuation.

Is punctuation important in book contracts?

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The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

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What if You Get a Book Deal on Your Own and Then Want an Agent?

One of our readers asked this via the green “Ask us a question” button.

What happens if you get a book contract before you have an agent? What if, by some miracle, an editor sees your work and wants to publish it? (1) would having a publisher interested in my work make an agent much more likely to represent me, and (2) would it be appropriate to try to find an agent at that point (when a publisher says it wants to publish you)? My fear is that querying an agent and receiving a response could take several months, but I’d need to accept a potential contract with a book publisher right away (I would think). Is it appropriate to ask the editor to speak with an agent on your behalf to speed the process?

This is a great topic but there are a few questions within the question. Let me try to break it down.

Many times have had authors approach us with contracts in hand and seeking representation (happened just last week). Of course this will get an agent’s attention immediately. But there are caveats:

a)      Who is the publisher? There is a big difference between a major company and your local independent publisher. Not all publishers are created equal (see the Preditors & Editors warnings).

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Writers Expect Good News

Writers expect good news…any day now. Is it the curse of eternal optimism?There is this hope within each writer that it will be their manuscript that is chosen for publication. And the money will rain on them like a spring shower.

Despite the odds.

Despite the competition.

Despite the cynical, horrible, no-good, very-bad agents who review them.

Expectations

Are these expectations realistic? Of course they are. It is the essence of hope. For without hope there is no reason to continue the pursuit of the craft. You have to believe that you have what it takes.

Are these expectations practical? Of course not. Who said the writing profession was “practical?”

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Many Happy (?) Returns!

by Steve Laube

Every first-time author is confronted by the reality of “Reserves Against Returns” as part of publishing economics. It is usually a shock and elicits a phone call to their agent crying “What happened to my money?”

Did you realize that book publishing is the only “hard goods” industry where the product sold by the supplier to a vendor can be returned? This does not happen with electronics, clothing, shoes, handbags, cars, tires…you name it. If it is a durable good the vendor who buys it, owns it (which is why there are Outlet Malls – to sell the remaining inventory). Except for books. Somewhere along the line the publishers agreed to allow stores to return unsold inventory for credit. In one sense, publishers are selling their books on consignment. Bargain books are actually resold by the publisher (after getting returns or to reduce overprinted inventory) to a new specialty bargain bookseller or division of a chain (which buys the bargain books non-returnable).

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The Wild Pitch

In honor of the upcoming baseball season I thought it would be fun to explore the art of pitching.

A couple years ago I was watching a Major League baseball game and the pitcher unleashed a horrific throw that sailed about eight feet behind the batter. It floated to the backstop without a bounce and everyone in the stadium wonder what had just happened. It looked like the pitcher lost his grip and could not stop his delivery. In baseball terms this is classified as a wild pitch.

Unfortunately many writers unleash a pitch on an agent or an editor before it is ready to deliver. Let me list a few actual letters I have received.

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