Friday, March 25, 2011

Wowza...this is like Christmas, without the eggnog stomachaches or the fist fights in parking lots over the LAST space

So, I guess this is a little anticlimactic, only because I didn't plan things very well. But considering it's the first time I've done it, I've been a little too scatterbrained to do it properly, what, with all the research, networking, reading of fine print, re-reading the MS 42 times to look for errant commas, etc. HOWEVER, my Tweeps are setting me straight (thanks, Angeline, Heather, Evelyn, and Tiffany!), and I am making notes so that next time--which will be sometime this fall, me thinks--I'll do it right.

Without further ado, Sleight: Book One of the AVRA-K is now available on Amazon and Smashwords. A print version will be available soon, and as such, I will do another blast of marketing when folks can get their hands on a physical copy of the Precious.

Just a quick tutorial: SMASHWORDS is an amazing site that offers the book in multiple formats. Here's a screenshot from the site:
If you have a Kobo or a Nook or Sony ereader, you can download the ePub format. If you have Kindle for PC/Mac, you can download the Kindle format here, or from Amazon, of course. If you want to read on your computer, there is a PDF, doc, and plain text version (those look a little more squished together, but the words are intact). A version WILL be available for iPad via the Apple iBookstore, but it will take a little longer. In the meantime, I'm told there is an app for iPad from Kindle, so check it out. These formats are CRAZY! Now you won't feel like you're left out of the loop if you want to download and read it but you're lacking a Kindle. And like I said, I will pimp the hell out of the print copy, as soon as those happen. Stay tuned.

I did get the book out to reviewers (nine so far!), so that's good. (Want a review copy? Comment below and we'll chat!) My mom bought her copy this morning--my FIRST sale--after months of wanting to know when she was going to be able to read it. The Kindle has revolutionized everything. It was really a lot of fun to call her in California at 8 a.m. and say, "Hey, Ma. The book is up. It started appearing on Amazon around 2 am. Sweet!" We squee'd a little after she downloaded it wirelessly onto the Kindle (amazing!), and then she handed the phone to my dad and sister while she read the first five pages (she reads like a fiend), and then they all told me how awesome I am. Folks & baby sisters are so good for that. Well, mine are. Maybe not yours. Sorry if your people are evil. Send me an email and I'll send you my shrink's name/number.

IN THE MEANTIME, TONIGHT we're having a party on Twitter. Starts around 6 pm PST, and the hashtag'd keyword to start following is #TGNO (Twitter Girls' Night Out). The info is HERE, from Angeline Kace's blog (BTW, GO to her blog and help her pick the new cover for her book!):

Thanks for the support, all of go buy a book and ensure that Book 2 will get finished.

OH! And I'm going to be arranging guest posts around the blogosphere. Angeline is going to help me put together a giveaway of some sort, I think, eventually, but in the meantime, I'll be haunting other people's blogs -- so STAY TUNED. If you're looking for GUEST POSTS, drop me a line.

ONE LAST THING: If you find TYPOS, I want to know. Heather has already emailed with one she found in Chapter 4, and I will be compiling a list to send to the formatter to get things fixed. I WANT TO KNOW. You won't hurt my feelings. I'm a copy editor, yeah, but this is my work. I've looked at it so much, it's going to happen, for sure.

Over and out, babes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

On semicolons, worrying about worry, and Random News Crap

Dirty Grammar Bite
It's been a while since I've done one of these. I have two pressing issues wrestling for attention in my grammar brain, but in the interest of keeping this post shorter than prior attempts, we will pick...which one, which one...semicolons! Yay!

Okay. Here's the deal, folks. Stop using semicolons as commas or periods. They have been called "super commas." Take it from the experts, though. The Chicago Manual of Style (section 6.57) says:

The semicolon, stronger than a comma but weaker than a period, can assume either role, though its function is usually closer to that of a period. Its most common use is between two independent clauses [i.e., complete sentences] not joined by a conjunction.

Mildred intends to go to Europe; her plans, however, are still quite vague. [Semicolon is used after an adverb ("however"), between the two clauses.]
We were going to go out for dinner; my dad decided we should order take-out instead.

The two sentences that are joined by the semicolon are closely related.

Another possibility: use in a series. From CMOS 6.60 -- When items in a series involve internal punctuation, they should be separated by semicolons.

Ex: We were traveling to Los Angeles, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle, Washington, on our trip.

If you have further questions, I'm just that nerdy that you can email me and I'll see if I can figure it out. Long live Chicago! 

Now. In other news... If you have been following along, or if you know me at all in the "real" world (instead of Middle Earth, which is where I sometimes feel I live), you would know that I am a high-anxiety worrywart. I worry about everything. While I've touched on this before, it is worthy of reiterating as research indicates that worry and type A personalities are more prone to secondary cardiac effects as fallout from this worrying/anxietal behavior. Of course, this gives me something else to worry about. I could have a heart attack from worrying too much. And now I'm worried about having a heart attack. It's a vicious cycle, the head biting its own tail.

My book (Sleight, if I haven't shoved it down your throat enough yet) went to the formatter on March 10. Yeah, I fretted about every comma, every semicolon, and then sent it off. The first proof came back late on the 19th, and once I saw it on the Kindle (very exciting!), I found more stupid things to fix. Not the formatter's fault at all, just ridiculous repetitions I should've caught WAY before now. I'm embarrassed more than anything.

But it's now the 23rd, and I'm wait-wait-waiting for the final to come back. 52 Novels is great (the formatter) -- it's not him I'm kvetching about. It's me. For some reason, I cannot write anything else with this thing sitting out there, waiting to be returned. Once it's home, I can begin the tedious process of uploading to Amazon and Smashwords, as well as other places, so that I can get it out to the reading public (i.e., my mom). These things take time. I've had some gracious folks ask about the book, so I want to be able to say, Yeah, it'll be available on _______. So far, that hasn't been possible. It's the uncertainty, the vaporous game plan, that's starting to eat at me a little. I want to get it out to early readers for some early reviews. I know that Smashwords can take hours for an upload, and that Amazon can be equally as fickle, depending on traffic. The whole indie thing is cool, save the marketing efforts. That might be killing me a little. I spend so much time on Twitter and Facebook and stalking Kindle Boards and reading blogs that I haven't written a single thing in...never mind. You don't want to know.

Which brings up one other thing: I see that a lot of writers do guest posts on other people's blogs. How the hell do you come up with stuff to talk about? I mean, unless someone wants to hear about the intricacies of the comma splice and how to avoid it, or maybe 101 ways to avoid doing domestic-related chores, I don't have a lot to say. I don't really know what the hell I'm talking about (yet). This might change. I feel like I'm missing out, not doing guest posts. Again, what will I post about? I have a hard enough time not boring people to tears on this blog.

As if that weren't enough, there are always earthquakes to worry about. I live on the West Coast. Geologists are saying we're next in the Ring of Fire for the Big One. I really need to go buy a campstove and some beans. Today. Just in case.

Someone once told me that I should write all my worries on a piece of paper, and then torch it in the sink. I tried it, and ended up with second-degree burns on my hand when I almost caught the kitchen curtain on fire. Maybe I should've burned the sucker outside...  Anyway, the worries were still there. I didn't feel less attached to them. I just felt sore and sticky from the burn gel.

Folks are sweet. They tell me to relax, meditate, let go and let _______, take a bath, take a breather, take a walk, take myself out for Me Time, have tea, have chocolate, have a beer, have three beers. None of it works, but thanks for your advice. I'm still going to worry. I'm still going to fill my arteries with worry molecules that will coalesce into something resembling a blockage. And I will worry about how much it's going to hurt when the blockage catches up to me. Man, I hope I'm not driving...over a bridge...with my kids in the car...during a power outage--or an earthquake.

Time for Random News Crap:

~Friday on Twitter is #TGNO, i.e., Twitter Girls' Night Out, to celebrate the completion of Heather Hildenbrand's second novel draft,, yeah, to celebrate Sleight's publication. It better happen soon (the book coming home) or else #TGNO might be preempted. Check Angeline Kace's blog for the details. Party animal...

~I have a kick-ass review of Walter Mosley's latest release The Thrill Is Gone AS WELL AS an interview with the inimitable Hannah Moskowitz over at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog. DON'T MISS OUT!

~AH1N1 is trending on Twitter because an outbreak has swelled in Merida, Venezuela.
~RIP Elizabeth Taylor. She had four kids--two sons, two daughters--I had no idea!
~Filming on The Hobbit started on Monday in New Zealand! Follow progress here:
~Rebecca Black's parents are looking at a new investment in the near future: therapy.
~Apparently, the use of "asstastic" is bad. I thought it was good. Anything in front of "-tastic" that is bad makes the word bad, too (so "cracktastic" is bad. I thought it was good). Thanks, Keyboard Hussy, for that clarification. And I'm not even blond.

Next time on the Planet: the subjunctive (wha???), goal setting, and untangling social media. Unless something better comes along.

I gotta go shower. Eskimo the Cat says hi.

(As always, Tweep me: @JennSommersby // Facebook: Jennifer Sommersby and/or Jenn Sy)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Just a quickie, lovelies...want to share the buzzzzzzzz

This is the cover of my book, on my Kindle. And after this cover, there are _____ pages of story. (No pages numbers on the Kindle? I thought they remedied that...) It just came back from the formatter last night, and now I get (have) to read it again to look for HTML glitches and weird spacing. It's pretty cool to see it like this. Pretty damn cool.

When everything is all purty and as perfect as can be, it will be available on Amazon, Smashwords, (for Kobo users) and CreateSpace -- .mobi, ePub, and print formats to cover all the bases. I write for readers. Well, and my ego, but she's a fickle little bitch, anyway. I hope readers are more pleasant.

What fun...the sun is shining here. What's it doing in your neck-o-the-woods? I promise something funny for tomorrow. Okay, I promise something for tomorrow. I don't know how funny it will be. My estrogen levels are low. I'm funniest when they're peaking. Man, I'm not going to be funny at all during menopause. I might even be super mean. I should start practicing my I-am-smiling-even-though-I-really-don't-give-a-shit-about-your-adorable-baby/puppy/new boyfriend-face.

X's and O's, lads and lassies...

Thursday, March 17, 2011

On building characters, your good/bad traits, and dirty little secrets

Julia King posted an interesting and engaging conversation on her blog the other day in which she listed the things she loves, and the things she hates (not necessarily in that order). And it got me to thinking...yesterday was the birthday of my evil villain, Lucian Dmitri. On Tuesday, I was screwed up on which day of the week it was (happens OFTEN) and I Tweeted his birthday prematurely, but I'm sure that sort of thing would suit Lucian just fine. He'd love the attention, and he'd laugh at my stupidity for mentioning his birthday a day early. Then he'd look at me with those sinister eyes, offer to buy me dinner, and likely kill me before the night was over. But the way I'd die? It would probably be very, very satisfying. For him, not me.

In saying all that about Lucian--a person who doesn't exist--I realized how silly this string of conversation truly is. He's fictional. He ain't real. He's not going to buy me dinner or laugh at me, although I swear to God, my characters sometimes feel like they will lead me to my death, the rope tight around my chafed neck, with the constant worrying about personality traits, who they've tortured most recently, who's in their sights for future mayhem, the works. What color is their hair/eyes? Do they like broccoli? (That's the best way for me to construct a character different from me. I hate broccoli and will only eat it if force-fed. If you force-feed me broccoli, I will return your favor by promptly barfing it all over you. So, if you're bringing me that green tree-looking demon vegetable with the intent of rectifying my wicked, wicked ways, don't wear your Sunday best. 'Cuz I'll barf on you and ruin that pretty new overpriced shirt you've been saving for Sunday.) How do we go about building multifaceted, fascinating people without being cliche and overwrought?

Multiple reasons can be cited as to why my latest project was YA. Sure, there is the fact that my daughter is in that age group and I was completely floored by the success of a handful of YA writers (come on--we all love money, and the flood of YA in the market is ample evidence to support that I am not the only writer whose eyes were dazzled with dollar signs). There is the fact that my dear young friend Alysha finished her zombie novel two weeks before her fifteenth birthday, and I was inspired (terrified) by the approaching culmination of my third decade on the planet. But--most importantly--I wanted to write someone who was not me. I've started many projects with a main character, a woman, in her thirties, saddled with domestic responsibilities, thrown into impossible situations from which she is expected to emerge victorious. She's me. She's always me, or some incarnation of who I think is me. It's the write-what-you-know adage, and we all struggle with it at some point in our writing.

Thing is, I'm boring. I don't want to write about me because I live with me day in and day out. (So do four other people, and there should be a special holiday in their honor, sort of like Veteran's Day or All Saints Day.) So instead, I wrote about Gemma. She's 17, far from my current age. She plays the violin. She lives with a circus (though some could say that isn't far from my life). She is brave and smart and quiet and powerful. She is who I wished I were when I was 17.

And this brings up an interesting point of discussion: how do you build characters? Do you see traits in the people around you and then mesh them into a ball of a human, sort of like squishing tiny rocks and sequins into a wad of Play-Doh? Writing classes will drill that into your head--create believable characters--so even when we're writing about fairies and werewolves and shapeshifters (which I haven't done), we still incorporate elements of the people in our environment. Writers are notorious for being personality vampires, i.e., we watch people and steal their tics, their idiosyncracies, their secrets. No one wants to read about a boring housewife whose day is comprised of laundry, carpool, and cooking. But if we make her a housewife who practices witchcraft in the kitchen while her kiddies are at preschool, or a housewife with an anger management problem who, with her gas-guzzling, menacing, muffler-free Hummer, chases down squirrels and little old ladies in crosswalks, or a housewife who has a raging case of eczema that makes her scratch until she bleeds and a part-time job at a bank from which she is embezzling funds to support her drug/pole dancing/shoe habit, now we're talking. We've just taken her from flat and mundane to spicy and extraordinary.

You've heard it before: the best characters are ordinary people put in extraordinary circumstances. They are the heroes among us. They are Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins and Katniss Everdeen and Hamlet. (That is why Bella Swan fell flat. She's boring, and not at all heroic. Sorry. Truth hurts. Oh, stop telling me to be nice. You know you agree. All that whiny and simpering and lack of action makes my molars ache. I want to scream, "Grow a set, woman!" You can nod your head now. Her "mother" will never read my blog. And even if she did, she's laughing last, soaking in a tub of $1,000,000 bills. Wait--do they even make those? I get excited when I find a fiver in the bottom of the washing machine...)

Think about your bad traits or habits. To make you feel better, here are a few of mine:

~I cuss a lot.
~I hate exercise and thus, I avoid it like the plague.
~I judge too quickly, myself and others.
~I often assume the worst and thus have low self-esteem.
~I chew on my lips obsessively.
~I have a short fuse and a big mouth.

Think about your better attributes, now that you've torn yourself apart. Mine? Wow. This is tough.

~I am good with commas and most parts of grammar.
~I am painfully loyal.
~I'm really good at making macaroni & cheese from a box.
~I know how to clean the hell out of a house.
~I sometimes say funny things, often for my own amusement.
~I defend my friends and loved ones with vehemence.

After compiling a list of your own faults/strengths, think about what an interesting character you could build by mushing these things up into the form of a person. Try not to be obvious--it's easy to pull out the Psychiatric Physicians' Desk Reference and embed OCD or depression into a character. What if she has Tourette's, though, and she acts out at a PTA or business meeting or at the council of elders? Sure, Tourette's isn't funny, but it sort of is. It can also be wildly disruptive and destructive. My daughter has a growth condition. She's going to be 4'8" forever. We laugh about it because what else can we do? Cry because she's short? Because she has to use a stool to put dishes away or because she will have to have her pants tailored forever? My daughter is an interesting character because she has been handed the short straw (pun intended) and she's learning to weave it into gold. That alone makes her extraordinary.

One caveat: Not everyone is interested in building a character who's funny, especially given the context of a specific project. I realize that. Even so, in a work of gritty or taut or heartrending fiction, it's still important to give your characters dimension. My only complaint with the protagonist in The Hunger Games was that she felt too cold. Then again, that was part of her personality, and as such, it totally works. Not every heroine is going to be touchy-feely, and Katniss is reflective enough throughout the story to let the reader know that she processes things very deeply. That's why the character works so well against the impossible life-and-death backdrop of the Hunger Games.

What about the weird people you've known in your life? Inspiration can come from any one of these folks. And it can come from people you don't even know are weird, people who have dirty little secrets. EVERYONE has a secret. Over the last few years, I have been floored by the discovery that the fine people in my suburban neighborhood have an assload of unmentionables that never see the light of day, at least not until something happens and the nuclear family springs a radioactive leak. You think everyone around you is normal...but too much normal hints at an unspoken abnormal lurking in closets and between mattresses and on computers in darkened dens at 2 in the morning. It's freaky, and reassuring, all at the same time. What are your character's secrets? Are they big enough to bring him/her down if discovered?

Let your guard down. Create a character who resembles you in a number of ways, and then destroy him/her and rebuild that person into someone who will face the extraordinary with panache. Give them weird tics and habits and pet peeves. I should've done more of that with Gemma. Sure, she's interesting enough, but I'm writing a character right now for another WIP who's dealing with a husband in the midstages of sexual reassignment. Jules is feisty and driven, but she's also sad and scared. She's going to miss her husband when he goes from "Aaron" to "Eryn." How will she deal? How will she explain it to their young son? Will she start drinking again? Will she start chewing on plastic straws because smoking is passe and unhealthy? What hilarity will ensue from shoe-shopping with the family, when Mommy and Daddy are fighting over the last pair of black patent Manolo Blahniks with the peacock-feather toe?

Go. Build someone weird. Then share him/her/it with me and the rest of the world.

When you're done with that, go to the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog and check out my interview with the crazy-talented Hannah Moskowitz. Talk about extraordinary...

Monday, March 14, 2011

On busy weekends, #TGNO, genre bending, and pretty pictures. And a toilet.

Forgive me, people, for I have sinned.

It's been five days since my last confession post.

I've always wanted to say that. With the "confession" part left in. My family is Irish Catholic, but that's like saying humans were once chimpanzees. It's been a long time since anyone in my immediate family has found themselves in a confession booth (or made a nest out of branches in a tree far above the ground--though, my baby sister is an artist, so I don't know. Maybe she's made a nest in a tree lately. If she hasn't, maybe I should suggest it as an installation piece. I know, my genius is staggering).

Anyway, let's tiptoe backward out of this room before we piss someone off, and talk about a bunch of other random nothingness that seems to be unrelated to the world as it sits right now. I didn't feel like posting this weekend. Sure, we had a soccer tournament both days, a soccer year-end party Saturday, a piano lesson that stabbed its way into the middle of said party, another kid who had her acting workshop and then babysitting duties and then a birthday was a busy weekend. Adding to the melancholy, the tragedy in Japan on Friday and saying au revior to my son as he left for Afghanistan late Saturday night...yeah, I just didn't feel funny or interesting or even much like talking.

But it's Monday, now, and the molasses in my veins is thinning a bit (coffee does that). A shout-out to my newest batch of friends (who knew Twitter could be so friggin' awesome?!) and cheers to our first-ever #TGNO (Twitter Girls' Night Out). We had Angeline and Brittany and Heather and K.C. and Wenona and Author Tiffany and Jaime, and even Aussie Paul stepped in, even though he's not a girl (we issued him a virtual bra so he'd feel at home, although it was one of my lame A-cups, so, sorry, Paul...not very womanly, I'm afraid).

I was feeling kinda low, kinda quiet by the time Saturday night rolled around, so not much (beyond the family commitments) happened here in the 'sphere. Sunday morning I received a text at 4:03 am from my son, telling me he was heading out to North Carolina. At 8:30, he texted that he was finally leaving American airspace. He's Facebooked a few times for mass updates to family and friends, and they're in a holding pattern somewhere on the other side of the world. I'm going to try really hard not to perseverate on this, not to talk about it and bore everyone to tears, but I need a few more days to wrap my head around what's going on. In the meantime, when you hear about suicide bombings and soldier casualties, do whatever it is you do that amounts to a prayer and devote a thought or two to Blake. He's a good boy. And Afghanistan is a scary place.

Okay, done with that now. Moving on...oh! I know. Yesterday I managed to get the blog updated with pages (thanks for the help, Angeline!) and have added some more content (a Contact Me and Book page). I figured out Google Analytics after all the talk of page hits around Twitter, so now I can see how many (or how few) hits I'm getting. Got the new domain set up and pointing where I want it. I upgraded my Mac's operating system (yay, Snow Leopard and iLife '11!), so now I can actually use the Kindle interface. And I set up my author page at GoodReads, so if you haven't found me yet, do so now. I promise lots of hilarity shall ensue.

That is a lot of stuff. Maybe I should just take a nap...

A writing-related topic now: genre bending. I never thought I would write for a YA audience. But my daughter and her friends, one of whom finished her book just a few weeks before her 15th birthday, encouraged me to give it a try. So I did. And it was so much fun! It's important to note one thing: YA is not technically the genre. Paranormal, urban fantasy -- those are the genre identifiers, just as romance, thriller, or erotica would be. (I will never write erotica. I have one mushy-love scene in my YA and I had to go away from my house to write it so no one would see me blush. I know -- the fact that I have four children is a miracle. Refer to the above lapsed Catholicism for justification of my prudish ways.) YA is actually the demographic, i.e., the intended audience, like middle grade or children's fiction. And when I was shopping my novel about town, I labeled it a "YA/crossover," as it has elements that would appeal to not only YA but to an older audience, as well. The way it stands, the perfect demographic for me is 16+. Gemma, the main character, is 17, going on 18 in a few months. The book has sporadic coarse language, mature themes, a character (or two) who smokes, another one who drinks, and another one who murders people whenever he sorta feels the need. Not necessarily appropriate for a 13-year-old reader.

Some folks put disclaimers in their books, akin to what we'd see for a movie, but I'm not going to jump on that bandwagon just yet. Traditionally published authors aren't disclaiming their stories. I feel it's up to the reader, or the reader's parents, to be savvy book buyers and investigate for themselves. Otherwise I could be cutting off a potential customer before they plunk down their $2.99 for the ebook. And I know it's not that bad. Seriously. I've read stuff before in other YA titles that made me cringe.

I know there is a fair bit of discussion about whether YA writers are "writing down" for their intended audience. The sentiment I've seen across the board from many writers is no, I don't write down, but come on -- teenagers don't understand the nuance and cataclysms of adulthood. Of course we're writing down. We can put our teenage protagonist in a very adult situation (war, rape, starvation, poverty, etc.), but the character, if he/she is true to who they are at that moment in time, will only be able to process that information with the 15, 16, or 17 years they've lived. Remember to apply your filters; the easiest way to build an unbelievable character is to make her wise beyond her years. I know there are kids out there who are definitely old souls, who understand things in a way that is different from their peer group, but that doesn't necessarily mean that said child is going to process in the same manner an adult would. Keep that in mind. While we're at it, remember that teens don't want high-falutin' language that we might see in a literary fiction piece. There are YA titles that are written as literary fiction, but they are labeled as such. We may strive for heartrending works of literary fiction, for our work to be recognized as literary at its core, but few achieve it.

Alas, I don't know how long I will stay in YA. I have two more books to finish this series, and I do have another idea for a YA-centric project, but there are two grown-up projects sitting here staring, whispering, at me, too. Getting back to the topic of genre: have any of you written for more than one genre? Did you do what some authors have done (Stephen King/Richard Bachman, Nora Roberts/JD Robb) and employed a pen name? That seems like an awful lot of work. And I'm such an airhead, I'm afraid someone would address me by my pen name and I'd end up ignoring them. I'm just wondering if I'm shooting myself in the foot by writing across multiple genres after spending so much time building a YA platform. I guess it doesn't much matter at this juncture...sort of like wondering what you will wear to the Oscars before the film has been financed or even written, huh? I'm interested in your opinions on this matter,, really, I am.

Thought of some Twitter lingo with my new foray into the realm of Tweeps: "tweetdropping" is when you crash someone else's conversation. It's fun. Try it. And "twimpotence" is when you can't think of something clever/smart/entertaining to say. Like I said above, the genius is staggering. You may kiss my feet now.

Why is there a half-finished beer on my desk?

And why do the neighbors have a toilet on their deck? Please tell me they're not going to plant flowers in it.

I leave you with the three photos I entered in an amateur photography contest over at Melissa Crytzer Fry's blog ( I don't know when (if) they'll get posted, but they're pretty to look at nonetheless.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On word repetition, stuff that makes your ass go funny, and tattoos

My focus needs focusing.

You know why? Because I'm drinking a diet Coke that has been sitting on my desk for three days. I can't stop checking Twitter to see if anyone's mentioned me for #WW (Writer Wednesday) because I am just that needy, and because I used the word "focus" or some variant of it thirty-four times in my manuscript. Freaking THIRTY-FOUR times. (Granted, there are 119,000 words, so it's a frequency of only 0.000285%, but still. Thirty-four? Annoying as hell.) It's a sign. I need some focus.

My best friend is from South Africa. She says funny things, with her funny accent that for the life of me I cannot replicate, and she paints beautiful paintings. One of the more notable things she says: "Ohhh, that just made my ass go funny." She might say it if I tell her I just saw a cat get run over by a car (which I did), or if I tell her about smashing my finger in the door (done that), or if I tell her about these photos I saw online of this guy's leg after he had most of the flesh of his calf removed due to a terrible bout of flesh-eating Strep. You get what she's saying -- and your ass really does go funny when those images, those thoughts of "omigod" enter your brain. Right? (Maybe you're tougher than we are. My best friend is sorta squeamish, and it is rather like a party trick to say things that will make her blurt out, "Oooh, you just made my ahss go funneh." That's what her accent sounds like.)

There is definitely something making my ass go funny today: my manuscript is due at the formatter bright and early tomorrow morning. Omigod, you mean all this talk about turning this into a book is really going to happen? You mean, I'm going to be like the folks who have literally taken me under their wings in the last two weeks and pushed my Twitter followers into the triple digits, like Heather Hildenbrand and Megg Jensen and Angelina Kace and Tiffany King and Angela Carlie and Ashley Bray and Kara Helen, writers who have crossed over and are now called authors? Did you know there's a difference? Writers write. Authors publish. I'm freaking out a little, hence the lack of focus, and every time I think about the MS coming back to me in its finished form--yup, you guessed it. My ahss goes funneh.

So...yeah...after I wrote the post the other day about being afraid of stuff, I started to obsess (I do that) about another big milestone happening this year. I'm sorta turning...40. When I was in my twenties, I went through a divorce. I moved in with my parents, my then-3-month-old daughter in tow, until I could get my bearings, go back to school, get a job, all that. The woman across the street (super weirdo lady) had a bumper sticker on her crappy car that read "39 Forever." And guess what? She died. At 39. So she really was going to be 39 forever. I'm careful not to say stuff about not wanting to turn 40, because then I might jinx it and maybe I really won't make it to 40.

For my 37th birthday, I got a tattoo--William Shakespeare's autograph on my right forearm.
It's bad-ass. You can say it. The neighbor said I was having a midlife crisis and wanted to know if my husband was offended that I had another man's name inked forever into my flesh. Considering he paid for it and held my other hand while the needle scraped its way into my tender cells, I'm guessing he wasn't offended.

For my 39th birthday, I got another tattoo. This time, it's Joan of Arc's signature:
(Her name in French = Jehanne.) I'm fully protected now. I have creativity flowing through my writing arm, and courage streaming through my punching arm. (Okay, that's a lie. I punch right-handed. And I'm a weenie, so it's usually me getting punched. If there's a fight. Which there hasn't been since I was, like, 12, when Scott T. turned my sister's wheelchair off mid-ramp and she tipped backwards and struck her head on the asphalt. I punched him then. But I'm prepared nevertheless...oh! There was that one time when my step-sister chased me through the house with a rolling pin because I wouldn't stop making fun of her boobies, but let's leave that one alone. In case she's reading. Shout out to Sandi and her boobies!)

Maybe the tattoos are part of some lame midlife crisis. Maybe the desire to publish my book fits in there, too. I'm not getting any younger. And waiting for NYC to validate my existence is not helping the cause. I have to remind myself that this last year in the query trenches has not necessarily been a waste. I started querying a year ago Easter. Easter Sunday, in fact. The first one went out to Daniel Lazar at Writer's House. He answered me back in two hours and asked for the full. He read it, passed on it, told me to rewrite a few things, and then he'd reconsider. So I did just that, but I rushed it. I should've waited a month and brought in more beta readers/critique partners, but I didn't. I was panicking. I gave the MS another go-through, changed a ton of stuff, and then resubmitted. And he shook his head no again. Devastating. I think that one cost me two days hiding under the covers.

Things went on like this for the whole year. Suzie Townsend asked for a full (and I love her, so that was big). Then she said no. It sat at Random House Canada for three months, and I had high hopes because some important decision makers were reading it, one of whom told me that they liked it so far and were going to take it to the editorial committee. Then the rejection came in on December 12, and it stopped my life. Catastrophic is the best way to describe what it did to me. The kids tiptoed around me. Husband made pancakes. My youngest (6) wrote me a note that said I was the "best writer in the whole wide wrold," typo included.

A few other agents have asked for fulls, and partials, but most haven't bothered responding with even a thanks-but-no-thanks, the last of whom was just in February, an agent from Toronto. I was getting better at hearing no--not great at it, but better--when I started to consider the unthinkable: publishing it myself.

I don't know if you guys do this -- tell me if you do so I don't feel like the last kicker to be chosen for the dodgeball team, as per usual -- but writing anything can be very difficult if you slip into the mindset of No one's ever going to read this, so what's the point? My artist friends tell me that you write/paint/sculpt because you have to, because not doing it will eat you alive. Okay, so fine, yeah, writing keeps my Prozac dose lower, but moving forward with a project that is dead in the water? It sucks. NOW I feel energized, like there is something to write for, that I have to finish Book Two (and Three?) because someone might want it. Maybe. The point is, there now exists "hope" where before there was only "no."

I've stopped shopping for that perfect pen to use at book signings, stopped worrying about dyeing those new gray-ish hairs so people won't snicker at me being almost 40, and that energy has been redirected into where it should've been all along: in the words. Oh, and on Twitter.

I won't go on ad nauseum, but the thought of having the work out there is definitely making my ass go funny. And yet, I'm confident that the new contacts, dare I call them friends, I've made in this incredible community of writers and authors will make the transition easier, even if the book tanks.

And that, my friends, is enough to pull any sorry suck outta bed every morning. Now I'm going to go finish this flat diet Coke so I can hack at the word "focus" and send my baby for its day at the formatter. Tweep me: @JennSommersby.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On reviews, hearing you suck, and falling to Twitter

I'm not afraid of anything.

Okay, I'm lying. I'm a terrible liar. My face gets all blotchy and I can't make eye contact, even though I know people know I'm lying when I blink and look away because in the police academy, they taught us that perps will look away and avoid eye contact when they're lying. Or, they'll blink. A lot. I do that. (Yes, I completed a police academy, albeit a reserve academy, because I'm just that bad's the part where I don't admit that I got my scrawny ass kicked on a regular basis and talked my then-husband into having a baby so I wouldn't have to become a real cop. Best. Decision. Ever.).

I'm afraid of lots of stuff. Lightning, thunder, spiders, and bridges top the list. Prose constructed minus the use of serial commas. I'm terrified of the dentist, of dying before my kids are old enough to call me for advice about Geritol vs. Centrum Advanced, and of driving off one of Vancouver's many bridges and plummeting into the icy depths (I run survival drills in my head where I successfully roll down all the windows and unbuckle everyone's seat belts before we slam into the wall of water, after which we will all swim to the surface and be rescued by the Coast Guard and/or a boat full of hot fisherman who have cookies for the kids, Irish cream for me).

Now I'm afraid of something new: reviews.

WHAT am I going to do if someone hates this book? Seriously? Husband keeps reminding me that it's definitely going to happen, that someone is going to say something terrible and mean and "she shouldn't quit her day job" because it's impossible to make all of the people happy all of the time and blabbity blah blah. That's why I don't sing in public. I don't want to get shot or have someone turn a fire hose on me because they think I've caught on fire and thus explains the discordant undulation and ear-piercing vibrato.

I come from a long line of oversensitive people. Man, my mom--she's the worst. If you look at her the wrong way, she bursts into tears. She cries when her clients yell at her (Mom's a kick-ass kitchen designer. If you live in Southern California and you're in need of a killer kitchen, she's an uber-designer. Just don't yell at her.) She cries when my 27-year-old sister and I are fighting. She cries at the grocery store if someone tells her a sad story and she only has $5 to give to them for their child's kidney transplant. (She might be a bit of a sucker, too, especially when we see that same fellow behind the 7-Eleven just moments later chugging a bottle of Colt 45.) So I come by this need to people please quite naturally. I want people to like my work. I want folks to feel that they haven't wasted their time, or eventually, their money. And since I'm only allowed to call my shrink twice a week AND I'm out of American Oreos, I need to keep my sensitivities in check.

This sounds stupid to even say out loud. Machiavelli would rip me a new one, tell me how it's never good to let the enemy see your weaknesses and certainly, don't come right out and admit them. (You're not my enemy, though, right?) I mean, duh, we all want other folks to like us and read our work and tell the world of our brilliance. We don't want 2-star reviews (and worse) and snarky comments popping up in the Amazon stream or on Twitter. It's like telling us our children are ugly (which, for the record, mine are not. The last one is sorta funny lookin', but he's wicked smart). The other day saw a fair bit of commentary on blogs and Twitter about how GoodReads has had to change their policy about writers commenting on reviews that may not be as magical as one would hope--but who are these writers who are actually taking the time to go in and refute a review? (It was GoodReads, wasn't it? Correct me if I'm wrong.)  If you have time to go in and comment on someone else's comment/review, your time would be better spent learning how to make your writing suck less. YES, I know--this advice from someone who, at this juncture, has received one written review of the novel. (It was a good review, so I can't provide commentary with any weight as to the devastation of hearing I suck. It's going to hurt. Bad. Like a super-heated fork tipped with snake and spider venom, stabbed into an open, infected wound, over which is poured hydrogen peroxide and ammonia. And lemon juice.)

However, if the vomitus from Mean Reviewer Person is riddled with spelling errors and incomplete sentences and sounds like it was written by a 2-year-old or your ex's inbred cousin, then, again, I remind you what my mother often told me growing up: consider the source. Like the time that pesky Andy McCarthy cut in line again on the new slide and stuck his tongue out at me, and after school, I told my mom I was going to call him a fu*ker but instead decided to consider the source. (Maybe I didn't quite grasp the whole concept, but at least I got to say fu*ker at age 8 without the usual soapy snack.) It was very easy for me to criticize painters and paintings until I actually picked up a paint brush for the first time ever. Which I did, about two weeks ago. It was excruciating. See?

The same is true for us. Writing is hard. I could insert some overused quotes here that equate writing to blood draining from arteries, but you get the point. (And thanks, Lauren, at Back to Earth Designs, for being so patient with me while we giggled our way through Tofino's landscape.)

The POINT: It got me to thinking about the whole process of critiquing each other's work. There are a lot of writers who won't review other writers. Again, lots of debate in the blogosphere about why writers reviewing is a bad deal. It's the readers we want to connect with, right? I had someone ask me once, "Why do you care what other writers say about your writing?" Omigod, I SO CARE! But I also care about readers--and THAT is the circuitous way of me saying that I'm freaking out about those first reviews. I think an ulcer has reactivated in my gut. *squirt squirt* 'Scuse me. Gastric juices abound.

We're all people pleasers. That's why we're writers who are grabbing this publishing bull by the testes and saying, "Down, demon! You're mine!" And, unless you're one of those people who really doesn't give a rip about what others say, I'm guessing that I am not alone in this darkened room with my insecurity. There are lots of us here, aren't there? I can hear you breathing...oh, man, I think someone just farted...

This past week, I finally joined the Twittersphere and set to expanding my virtual connections. This exercise has reassured me in one thing: we're all in this together. The gals at DarkSide Publishing have certainly figured this out, as have the collaborators at Independent Author Network, Red Willow Digital Press, and numerous other sites springing up every day, the writers becoming partners in this grand adventure.

Don't believe everything the reviewers are saying (unless they're consistently saying you should take up dog walking as a profession). It would be like being a virginal 17-year-old and believing your boyfriend when he tells you he probably is infertile because he only has one...

Wait. I could be sued for defamation if I finish that sentence.

New friends are so much fun. I had no idea. If you haven't found me on Twitter yet, I'm @JennSommersby.

Time for chocolate!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

On cussing, eating Ivory soap, and the limits of the F Word in YA

So, in case you've missed it because you're not following me on Twitter (@JennSommersby) or on Facebook (Jenn Sy and/or Jennifer Sommersby), the review for a cracktastic book is up at Best Damn Creative Writing Blog:

Okay, I'll stop now. I just get very excited about this stuff. Like a puppy who piddles on the carpet. But I did talk to Blake Crouch via email, and he's a damn fine human. You should read this book, unless you're squeamish, or have a problem with swearing. It is what it is, but you're sort of a wussy if you can't handle a few "F" bombs now and again. Come on--the story is filled with really bad people trying to brutally eliminate you. You'd cuss, too. I'd wager on it, if I had the first clue how gambling works. But I don't. In fact, in our house, when the lottery tickets are purchased, I'm not allowed to touch them. I might jinx 'em. (Did you know that in Canada, if you win a big fat lottery, you get to keep ALL the money? The Queen doesn't take her cut, not like Uncle Sam. You're jealous now, aren't you? I knew it. But I can't play the lottery because I jinx the tickets. Someone else has to touch them and hang them on the fridge. Ask my friend Lauren about the time we bought LottoMax tickets, and I wouldn't take the ticket from the clerk. Crazy white lady...)

SPEAKING of cuss words (do people really call them "cuss" words? Am I regressing into childhood vernacular?) ... I've got a problem. I mean, I think it's a problem. I sort of cuss like a sailor. I'm pretty good at turning on the filters, i.e., no swearing in front of small children (unless they're my own, and then that rule sort of gets thrown into the garbage disposal 'cuz they're my kids and they often do things that bring swear words to the front of my mouth before I even realize it). When I'm doing the photography stuff, I'm usually pretty aware of not swearing in front of strangers and their offspring. Popping off a resounding "Shit!" when I knocked the camera over last weekend was a slip-up, but it was well deserved. (Knocking over the camera snapped the Pocket Wizard right off the flash plate, and voila! $250 down the tubes. Shit!) I don't cuss at the elementary school, unless we're in the drive-through at the front, and THAT place is a profanity marketplace all by itself. Some people are so incredibly dense and selfish when it comes to dropping off their Pretty Pretty Princesses. "She can WALK, lady! It's only some effing RAIN!"

A little history: As a wee lassie, I played soccer. Eight years worth, thank you very much. (I still sucked after eight years of trying. When puberty was slow to come, I was getting my ass kicked on the field by much bigger girls with fatter thighs and bigger biceps, so I quit. Yeah, I'm a quitter. But I was 4'11" and 100 lb. at 14--didn't wear a bra until high school--so cut me some slack.) The year I was eight, my team was the Terminators (long before the former governor of California took hold of the name and made it his). And this one ref we had on a regular basis, a total cow as I remember, was super lame. Called all the wrong stuff, never penalized the other team for being stupid, everything we think about refs when our team is getting killed on the pitch/field/ice. One game in particular, she blew her stupid little whistle one too many times, and I called her out by dispensing with the F Word. Loudly. It sorta just slipped. In return, she handed me a red card and sent my wee arse to the bench for the remainder of the game.

Worst part of it? My mom was the coach. I ate Ivory soap that day. But it didn't stop me from cussing. There was an incident in 6th grade with my then-friend Ester, but that's a different post entirely.

The POINT, and I am trying to make one: How much is TOO much when it comes to your writing? As I was writing Sleight, I kept in mind my audience: teenage girls, ages 15+, enough angst to keep the pubertals interested but enough drama to (I hope) attract older readers. My girl Gemma is 17, so she's right on the cusp of being a grown-up. The four teen beta readers I "employed" were fine with the language, but another beta reader, an adult, had an issue with the occasional colorful language spewed by my characters. This reader went in and changed my "damns" and "what the hells" to "darn" and "what the heck" -- you get the idea -- and I promptly changed them all back on the third rewrite. There is one use of the F Word, but it's necessary. REALLY necessary. I tried on different word combinations, but they just didn't have the same oomph. And in that scene, nothing short of oomph will suffice.

I've spent a lot of time worrying about this swearing conundrum in the YA realm, and then I picked up a copy of Hannah Moskowitz's Break. It's an amazing book, and the F Word plays prominently in the story, but not gratuitously so. If you're hypersensitive to profanity, this might not be the book for you. But Hannah is a sublimely talented writer, and if anyone can make it work within this context, it's her. After finishing Break, I went back into my manuscript and replaced those words I felt had been wrongly sanitized. I was inspired by Hannah's bravery, and felt that a little naughty language peppered here and there was worth its weight. It needs to be there. Come on, people -- they're words. And I'd be a liar if I didn't fess up to the fact that fu*k is one of my all-time favorites. What other word can say so much with so little?

I throw it to you, now. How much is too much?

Next post: On handling criticism, my strategy for doing so as I head into indie publishing (will involve Irish whiskey and chocolate, no doubt), and how Dr. Foran destroyed me when, after years of teachers/professors telling me I could write, he said that my work sucked rocks. I was 25. That day still haunts me...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On rules, and breaking the hell out of them (and more on Blake Crouch)

(Just so you know, this post was started Monday. It is now Tuesday. THAT is my life.)

Friday night, I finished Blake Crouch's breakneck story, RUN. It's awesome. A review is coming post haste, as soon as I can find five spare minutes between editing photos and buying groceries. Likely tonight, part two of Castle isn't on (I have a rabid crush on Nathan Fillion), no one has a project due tomorrow, and I should be able to give the children enough Dimetapp to get them to fall asleep and stay asleep. (Children's Nyquil is pretty effective, too. Just sayin'...)

What I want to address now, however, separate from the proper review of Crouch's work, is the importance of rules when writing: learning the rules, understanding the rules, and then breaking said rules.

Here is a cursory list of rules UNrelated to writing that I have been fed randomly throughout life. Maybe you can relate to a few:

1. Don't stick a fork in a toaster that is plugged in.
2. Don't play golf during a lightning storm.
3. Always make sure to have at least one (1) tampon in one's purse at all times.
4. Use adverbs under threat of torture involving bamboo skewers and snake venom.
5. Never marry a man who, a week before the wedding (his second go-round at the altar, your first), tells you that he won't be a "real" cop until he's been married at least three times. Ummm...yeah.

In kindergarten (and possibly before if our parents didn't spend too much time at the golf club's Saturday-night Hit & Giggle with the concomitant hangover that lasts all day Sunday, sometimes into Monday), we learn the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. We learn the rules of coloring in the lines and taking turns on the slide (Andy McCarthy didn't learn these rules. He used to cut ALL the time. Jerk face.) Cough into the crook of your elbow instead of your cupped hand; wash after using the restroom (please tell me you learned this one); it is mean to kick animals (especially beagles).

As we advance in our academic careers, teachers outline the rules pertaining to proper use of verbs and adjectives and commas and semicolons. If the teachers are awesome, like so many of mine were, we are taught how to take those glorious parts of speech and form them into melodic, complete sentences. Even if we're writing about the life and times of the common garden slug, we can, if we follow the rules, craft genius. A slug can sound quite glamorous if you put the words in the correct order and jazz up your prose with some interesting editorial on the viscous quality of slug slime. The potential is there. It's up to you to give it life.

But herein lies the dilemma: we become slaves to the rules. We are so worried about violating Strunk & White or even my own version of the bible, the Chicago Manual of Style, that the rules get in the way of our voices. I've heard it enough times in the creative writing classes and programs I've been involved with that it deserves repeating: Learn the rules, and then learn how to break them. With style.

Blake Crouch is one such writer who has done just this. His writing style, his "voice," screams at the reader through the pages. The sentences are incomplete. (I'll bet Word had a field day with all the green underlining to alert the writer to fragments.) The thoughts spill into each other, sometimes with such force that you're not sure if you will be able to keep breathing through the rest of the page. By breaking the rule about forming complete sentences, Crouch establishes a killer pace and visceral tension throughout the entire story, so much so that the reader will experience a physical reaction, likely in the form of a pounding heart, as he/she reads on. THAT is exactly what he wanted to do. The broken rules in his work set the scene for a kick-ass, throat-clenching blitzkrieg that forces you to keep reading. I dare you to put it down. (You'll pick it back up again. The dishes can wait. Tell your kids to eat Cheerios for dinner. Milk's in the fridge...)

The first time I came across this style of writing, where the author intentionally employed broken or fragmented sentences, was with Annie Proulx in The Shipping News. I didn't finish the book for a year because it drove me mental, all the starting and stopping and incomplete thoughts. That was before I was willing, or ready, to accept the notion that just because there are rules out there, shoved in my mouth like a bit, I don't have to be a bite down so damn hard. Blake Crouch obviously knows the rules--dude's got lots of books out there and has co-written with some heavy hitters--and he's an expert at making those rules his bitch. He's not a slave to them; he commands the rules to fuel the adrenaline rush that soaks into every single page. It works. The only bummer thing about it is, you'll finish the book so fast, you're going to want more. (Don't worry. Crouch has an impressive roster of titles from which to feed your need.)

Some writers want to toy with convention in an effort to be avant garde, and sometimes it works. We had a hearty discussion in a writer's group back in '07 about the use of second person ("you") as the protagonist in a story. The only time I've ever seen this work was in Chuck Palahniuk's Diary. Loved that book. I tried to write a short story in second person. It sucked. Big time. But, hey, I gave it a go. I'd be interested to read other second-person attempts, if you know of any that won't make my eyes bleed after the first three sentences. (My story made my eyes bleed. I ruined what could have been a saucy little tale by trying to be all tricky and clever. Dumb me.)

Another writer who has toyed with convention, successfully, is Chris Cleave in Incendiary. The whole fantastic story is told in the form of a breathless, ranting letter to Osama bin Laden, in the voice of a woman who has lost her son and husband in a terrorist attack. I didn't know what to expect when I picked it up back in '06, though the early reviews glowed. I bawled by the end. It was incredibly powerful.

The point of all this: Turn off your inner editor. Pick up an ax and do a little chop-chop-chopping of the rules. See what happens. Just don't be like that douche I saw at a writers' conference once, the guy who stood up when it was his time to address the speaker and went off on how he didn't have the learn how to spell or form sentences because one day, we'd all be standing in line to read his bestseller and to breathe his air, simply because he was THAT much of a genius. Did I mention he was a douche?

Now, go write something. I have to edit pictures from my headshot sessions last weekend before I have parents chopping down my front door with their pick axes. I leave you with my dear duck Jovie and her best friend Zuzu enjoying a spot of coffee at Duckbucks.