Saturday, June 30, 2012

Must a Novelist Read Mostly Novels?

I love math. I know this is strange coming from a writer, but it’s true. I think that, when so often mired in the vast gray area that is language and narrative, I find solace in the black-and-whiteness/wrong-and-rightness that math offers. I find elegant beauty in a spreadsheet, the way you can put in the numbers you have, arrange them just so, and find answers—real answers, correct, indisputable answers—to big questions. I love statistics and charts, and (while they can be interpreted in many ways to many ends) numbers themselves do not lie.

All of this is to say that I’ve come across some interesting numbers in my life as a writer and reader. As you may know by now, my preferred medium is the novel. I consider myself a novelist. While the vast majority of my life is spent on business writing, writing novels is my calling. It’s what I love the most; it’s what I do for fun. I do it even though I’m not making money on it.

Now, keeping in mind who I am as a writer, let’s consider who I am as a reader. Out of the last 30 books I’ve started and/or finished (and you can verify this for yourself), it breaks out the following way:
  • 1 graphic novel (2, if you count Eric Drooker’s Howl here)
  • 2 books of poetry (1, if you count Howl under graphic novels)
  • 3 short story collections
  • 7 novels
  • 17 non-fiction books

And it is important to point out that, out of those 7 novels, I only finished 4. (I no longer finish novels that I am not enjoying by the midpoint. #YOLO.)

This list, of course, is limited to book-length material, but I also extensively read short works—essays, articles, scholarly papers, Supreme Court rulings—and I would estimate that, in recent record, 95% of this reading is non-fiction. (Though, I did recently read “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” and "The Extinctionists" on Instapaper.) The last new book I bought, which I am practically drooling to crack open, is also non-fiction. When I put on my stereo while I’m cleaning, I’m far more likely to listen to Radiolab than Radiohead (though, when I’m writing, I listen to Radiohead more than anything else…). If I want a quick bite of television, it will be a TED Talk before it’s a sitcom.

What does it mean that well over 50% of what I consume is non-fiction, that only 14% of my reading consists of novels that I actually finish?

This recent revelation is throwing me for a loop. Is it possible for a novelist to love something more than novels? Am I secretly a non-fiction writer? Have I been hacking away at the wrong destiny?

Here is my answer to these questions. I am a learner and a seeker. This is why I read; this is why I write. I am drawn to non-fiction because it gives me raw materials: information, facts, the stories of how real people lived and live. Fiction is the means by which I synthesize this information into the philosophies and ideas I want to explore. In The WarMaster’s Daughter, I tackled gender issues, war, religion, the meaning of “family.” My new book, Bugged, explores psychology, neuroscience, entomology, and medical ethics. Non-fiction inspires me with the patterns and anomalies of the existing world. It teaches me what we’ve collectively figured out, and where we still have incredibly complex questions.

On the other hand, the ideas in novels, by and large, are already synthesized. The author is asking questions in a particular way, making particular points, choosing which themes and ideas rise to the top. This offers intellectual and emotional pleasure; that’s why we read. However, it’s not the stuff that makes me want to push my fingers into the clay. To extend a metaphor, I find a set of paints much more inspiring than a painting. I love to experience a beautiful painting, but the only thing I can learn from viewing a painting is craft. The art comes from living and learning and synthesizing all the ideas that exist in the world. Van Gogh did not paint because he saw another painting; he painted because he experienced the world.

So what does it mean about me as a novelist that I don’t gorge myself on novels? I supposed I’d rather my readers judge that for themselves. I hope my books are appealing to the learners and the seekers out there; I hope they appeal to fiction and non-fiction lovers alike.

What about you, dear reader? When you take an honest look at what you consume above anything else, what is it? Does it surprise you? Is what you really like different from what you think you like? How does what you read affect what you write? 

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Child-Free Question

I typically focus on writing and publishing in this space, but every once in a while something important comes up that demands a forum here. Recently, one of my favorite online magazines, Slate, began running a series of articles about women who choose not to have children. They invited readers to "submit your testimonies on why you are child free and happy."

From Slate:
Recently, Slate columnist Katie Roiphe raised the possibility that the choice not to have children remains a taboo, that no matter what we say to our childless friends at dinner parties—that we envy them, that we wish we, too, could go out every night and wake up at 11 on Sundays—we “secretly feel sorry for or condescend to or fail to understand women who don’t have children.” Not that the child-free owe us any explanation, but we are asking for one. More like a full and proud defense. Our aim here is to clear the taboo once and for all.
I submitted my answer to their request, but it was not published (in my opinion because it wasn't a cutesty, happy, inspiring story like they wanted). So I am printing it here, because I think it is an important part of the conversation. 


You’re right. I don’t owe you any explanation. I appreciate the chance at a forum, but the questions that live in people’s hearts about this “taboo” are not ones I have answers for. For me, this issue is not a taboo. It’s not that I can’t talk about it; it’s that I don’t want to.

It’s so difficult for child-free men and women (but women especially) to provide a “full and proud defense” because, when we vocalize the very reasons that have led us to this decision, the reasons sound more like judgments and condemnations of those who make the opposite choice. Can a mother hear me say, “I am not having children because [insert any reason at all]” and not hear, even just a little, “I am not having children because I’m better than you”? Whether parents feel sorry for us or feel jealous of us, we’re still on the receiving end of some very negative emotions. Bad juju.

Let me make an analogy: I was a religious person for a very long time. Several years ago, I stopped being religious and stopped believing in God. I “came out” in an essay published on an atheism website, but my non-belief is not something I talk about much in public because I don’t want to answer the questions that inevitably follow. I don’t want to “defend my choice.” I also don’t want to convert you. I just want to be. And many people feel that way about religion, so it’s socially accepted as one of those hot potatoes not up for discussion—a taboo. Like politics and many social issues, it’s hardly ever a polite discussion because the questions people typically ask are not borne of curiosity. They are borne of antagonism. People are itching for a fight. People want to know if you’re with them or against them.

This battle has been foisted on the child-free by a society with little intention other than to judge us, or to examine us as cultural curiosities. There are sides now. I never wanted to be on a side. I don’t want to judge your choice. I don’t want to convert you. I just want to be.

But this child-choice issue is different from religion and politics in that you can’t easily check a box and affiliate yourself. If you have a child, you are firmly in the camp of “parent.” If you do not have a child, however, there’s this weird other camp I like to call, “But.”

“But you two would make such wonderful parents.”

“But you’ll change your mind when your biological clock starts ticking.”

“But I want grandkids.”

The expectation is that if you are without children, you are in a “pre-” state of parenthood, rather than a “non-” state of parenthood. I could write you a lovely little essay about “why I am child-free and happy,” but declaring my intentions does little good, because there’s always the “but.” I don’t know how many times I’ve told my own mother I’m not having children; she still thinks I will, eventually.

And so the child-free seem unbearably difficult to pin down, even though we’re vocally and adamantly self-pinned. We don’t want to offer up the “full and proud defense” because it always devolves into a waiting game that everyone is playing without us. At what point do I “win” this argument that I don’t even want to have? How many avowals do I have to make? How old do I have to get?

I will never be able to give anyone a reason why I’m child-free that will make them say “aha” and move, satisfied, to another topic. You seek enlightenment where there is none to be had, because you are not really seeking enlightenment at all; you are seeking a mirror in which to validate your own choices. Either I will validate those choices or I will not, but it has nothing to do with me and everything to do with you.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

An Open Letter to Book Bloggers

Update 7 July at 2pm: I have posted a follow-up to this post its related comments here. Please consider reading both posts before commenting, as many points of contention are addressed in the follow-up.

Dear Book Bloggers:

I am setting up a blog tour to promote my independently published novel, The War Master’s Daughter. Through this effort, I have had occasion to visit many of your sites to learn about what you do, how you connect readers to great books, and what your reading interests are. I think, by and large, what you do is a really terrific service. However, I must say that I was particularly dismayed to find so many sites where I read this or a similar line, sometimes bolded or underlined for emphasis:

"I will not review self-published books."

Dear bloggers, while I understand the source and continuation of the stigma on independently published work, I do not understand it coming from you. And this is why:

Traditionally published book reviews appear in established magazines, journals, and newspapers. Book reviewers are paid for their work. A team of publishers, editors, graphic designers, and support personnel work together to put out a high quality product, leveraging traditional methods and channels of operation. Because of existing infrastructure and fickle audience tastes, traditionally published book reviews tend to focus on the same general crop of books—traditionally published ones (and even then, only those with a relatively high profile).

Book bloggers, however, are different. You are mavericks. You love to read and to help other readers find new books to love, and you didn’t get hung up trying break into tough traditional markets. You chose to go it on your own. But more than that, you are entrepreneurial and multifaceted. You are your own editors, your own designers, your own marketers. You work every day to build your audience and you strive to put out a quality product. You are leaving behind traditional methods of reaching an audience in favor of a model that is more flexible, more dynamic, more democratic and personal. You chose direct ownership over your work AND over your own failure or success. That’s incredible.

You know what? That’s what independent publishers and authors do, too.

That you would close your hard-earned doors to people who have the same entrepreneurial spirit as you is at best disappointing. At worst, it’s duplicitous and condescending. You chose to go the non-traditional route. So why do you only review the same books the traditional reviewers are looking at?

I’ll keep this part of the rant short, but suffice it to say that when you hold The War Master’s Daughter in your hand, you will find it impossible to differentiate it from a book that went through the legacy publishing machine. What is a “self-published book” if you can’t tell that it’s self-published? If a tree falls in the woods . . .

I’m not going to lie about my book and tell you that it was legacy published. I’m not trying to put one over on you. “I accidentally read, loved, and reviewed a book that the author put out herself! I was DUPED!” But if I didn’t tell you I put it out myself, you wouldn’t know, short of looking me up on the web and seeing me proudly proclaim it.

Dear book bloggers, you ARE self-publishers. Don’t forget that. The next time you are laying in bed at night trying to think of your next post, considering a new platform, wondering whether you should hire a professional to design your site, or worrying your audience is too small, remember the other people who are doing the same thing: authors. Consider not rejecting us outright and consider considering each book on its own merits of first impression. Is it available in print? Does it have a nice cover? Are you hooked after two pages? That's what mattersnot the imprint.

After all, if all the authors and publishers suddenly said, “I do not give my book to self-published book reviewers” where would you be?

Respectfully yours,

Elly Zupko
Publisher, SMLX Books

P.S. To all those bloggers who do consider “self-published” work, and especially those who don’t even differentiate books based on publisher, thank you for all that you do. (A special shout-out to my very first blog reviewers, The Action Prose and Alien Red Queen!) Please help others to see the light.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Keep On Truckin'

I admit defeat: 1,000 words per day was an impossible goal for me. My job has become more demanding than ever, with my creative energy levels almost fully depleted by the evenings. (But that's another story.) So I've recalibrated to a much more sane 500 words per day. It sounds low when you compare it to, say, Stephen King's stated daily count of 2,000 words. However, King doesn't have a 9-5 with a 45-minute commute each way. I have about 4 hours by the time I get home from work till the time I need to be in bed, and in that time, I have to have dinner, do any necessary chores (dishes, laundry, vacuuming, bathing...), interact with my partner, and squeeze in any reading and/or writing I want to do.

I could probably write 1,000 words of crap, but I've already stated why I think that's a bad idea. In fact, I've also stated why I think it's a bad idea to work via word count at all. So why do I still have a daily word count at all (hypocrite!)? Why am I still keeping this chart?

  1. I need the motivation. I need a goal, and I need to meet it. 
  2. Words written are what show progress toward a goal; time spent does not. I need to SEE the progress.
  3. It's pretty.

So maybe I was wrong before; maybe I was right but I'm not smart enough to heed my own advice. In any event, I still have a daily word count goal. And I'm finding that 500 words is perfect for me. I find that I can accomplish it even after a bad day at work, and that makes me feel satisfied and productive--key to keeping up a daily writing pace. I find that after a fairly calm day at work, I can accomplish twice my goal or more, and that makes me feel like the queen of the world. And it also means that when I have a particularly godawful shit day at work and can't do anything but pour myself a gin and tonic and stare at the wall, I don't lose much ground. 

So I'm making measurable, consistent progress, AND bonus: I feel good about myself. I'm about one-third through the book, and it's going to be exhausting as a marathon to get it done. Keeping myself feeling GOOD about myself and my writing each day, again and again, is the key to progress. Feeling accomplished without feeling overwhelmed is awesome. I know what burning out feels like. I don't, I can't burn myself out on the thing I love most in the world. 

The slope may be shallower, but the progress is still upward and onward. I'm aiming for publication by December 2012. Can I do it?

Sunday, June 10, 2012


I'm behind, but mind the gap: the gap is closing.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Writing Myths – Myth #2

As I’m working away on my new novel, I’m learning there is advice out there that might not be everything it seems on the surface. Over the next few posts, I will debunk some of the myths I’m facing during this process.

Myth Number 2: Don’t edit while you write.

For over a week, I was really, really on a roll. Thousand words a day, no problem.  Then, suddenly and seemingly without cause, I dreaded the idea of going back to my draft. This premise has been my obsession, my passion. What could cause this story to be the bane of my existence, seemingly overnight?

The answer was my unquestioning adherence to Myth #2. Still in the NaNoWriMo mindset, I firmly believed I would only lose ground if I went back and edited—nay, looked at—anything I had written. I was running down the dark corridor of a maze as the lights snap off behind me as I moved forward, the only direction available. But the problem with that was that I couldn’t go back and see if I had missed a crucial turn along the way. So I just kept getting more and more lost, and feeling more and more helpless because—as I clung to my rules, feeling deviation would cause me to fail—I had no clear ability to find my way again.

(And I could feel Future Elly getting pissed at all the clean-up she’d have to do during the editing stage.)

After a lot of long showers and laying awake in bed, I realized that the problem was that I had started at the book in the wrong place. I had skipped set-up and went directly into conflict. I hadn’t drawn the arrow back all the way, so my characters didn’t have enough trajectory to carry the rest of the book. If I had stayed dogged to the “rule” of not editing (and just going with it), I would have continued to struggle because I was building on an unstable foundation.

A Better Way: Structural editing is A-Okay. In the Twin Peaks pilot, there is a scene where an aspiring teen writer asks her older sister Donna, “Which do you like better: ‘The blossom of the evening’? Or ‘the full flower of the evening’?”

Watching it last night, I thought to myself, If that girl is writing a novel, she is NEVER going to finish. A haiku, maybe. But when you’re writing the big’uns, you can’t afford to stop your first draft progress by lingering over word choice like that. You take care of that in the second or third draft stage, but to worry about it before then, you’re going to lose the precious momentum that allows you to figure out the bigger problems of plot and character during the first draft stage.

So the “rule” stands at a copyediting and proofreading type level. But as for structural editing, it’s a must, and it can't happen early enough. You have to go back and at least skim what has come before, because—unless you are way more organized than your typical creative personality, or a genius (plenty of sins can be forgiven if you're a genius)—you’re going to forget things, confuse yourself, and/or end up with an inconsistent mess.

An example: When I worked in publishing, I content-edited a thriller that went on to sell quite well. But I’ll let you know in on a secret. It was the second in a two-book deal for this author; if not for that, it would have gone in the rejection pile. There were significant plot holes, including that he killed off one his main characters, then brought her back to life! How do you miss something like that? This probably happened because he was moving in a forward trajectory only. I can’t tell you the editing work and rewriting that went into getting that book ready for publication. A lot of it could have been saved if the author went back to do some structural editing as he drafted.

So while you don’t want to get hung up on what kind of flower your evening is, you do want to keep the light on behind you. Think of this as making switchbacks. You can see the path you just came from, but as you seemingly moving backwards, you’re really moving upwards.

See you at the top of the mountain!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Stuff Your Eyes With Wonder: Ray Bradbury Remembered

I am not one to get worked up over celebrity deaths. Seeing all the knee-jerk “R.I.P.s” on Facebook after a celebrity death, no matter whether banal or shocking, tends to make me smirk derisively. The R.I.P. reads much more like, “I heard about it first.” Or “I care suddenly about this person in a way that is not at all fake, really.”

So I was caught off guard today when I read about the death of Ray Bradbury and found myself with a lump in my throat. It’s not as if I knew the man personally. But what I felt was genuine sadness at his passing. You’ve probably noticed that even this blog, which I’ve been keeping for over 5 years, is named after a quote from Bradbury’s seminal work, Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury’s writing has been more influential on me as a reader and as a writer than any other single author. And since I self-identify as a reader and writer above anything else, I feel this loss strongly.

I want to quote something from the introduction of my copy of The Martian Chronicles. Written by Clifton Fadiman 8 years after the book’s first publication in 1950, this intro was included with the 19th printing of the book in 1967. 
“[The Martian Chronicles] is not exactly a classic, but it is a book that has lifted itself out of the ruck of its competitors. It sounds a truly individual note: nobody writes like Ray Bradbury.”
I couldn't agree more. I don’t think Bradbury is the best writer, but he is one of my favorites, and that’s what matters. Nobody writes like Ray Bradbury. I feel strong nostalgia for his writing because it was some of the first fiction I read as an adolescent that actually stuck with me, and I find that it has held up into my own adulthood. But I also feel another kind of nostalgia when I read Bradbury, a type of nostalgia that is essentially American—a longing for something simpler in the face of complications like war and technology. Bradbury came up in the dusk of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and he personifies a nostalgia for a time when the gap between science fiction and science fact was so much wider.

Further in, Fadiman nails the essence of the writer, who was at that time not yet 30 years old and would go on to write hundreds of short stories and ten more novels, including Fahrenheit 451—one of my top 3 novels of all time: 
“Mr. Bradbury has caught hold of a simple, obvious but overwhelmingly important moral idea, and, quite properly, he will not let it go. That idea—highlighted as every passing month produces a new terrifying lunacy: sputniks, super-sputniks, projected assaults on the moon, projected manned satellites—is that we are in the grip of a psychosis, a technology-mania, the final consequence of which can only be universal murder and quite conceivably the destruction of our planet.”
Oh, what the last six decades must have been like for Mr. Bradbury. “There are too many internets,” he said. “There are too many machines.”

In December 2011 (coincidentally the same month I published my first novel), Bradbury conceded to allow Fahrenheit 451 to be published as an e-book, despite his disdain for the medium (and the obvious irony given 451’s subject matter), provided that Simon & Schuster allow the e-book to be digitally downloaded by any library patron. Given the recent hubbub around the Big Six and e-lending, that is kind of a big deal.

What’s missing from much modern science fiction is not the imagination—I believe that part is alive and well. What’s missing is the morality. This was where Bradbury shined: rather than being an observer and a documentarian with a cold impartial eye to our “terrifying lunacy,” he chose a side. But he did it with beauty and grace and imagination, and that is why his work will last forever.  

Truly: rest in peace, Ray Bradbury. I hope with all the fibers of my writerly, readerly being that you passed away in a state of hope rather than defeat. May you now be in a place of wonder, light, and beauty that is worthy of your own brightest imaginings. 
“Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” 
–Ray Bradbury

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Writing Myths – Myth #1

I’ve been working pretty consistently on the new novel now for longer than I have on any recent project. It’s been 7 days in a row now that I’ve consistently hit my daily word goal of 1,000 words. This is the first time I’ve ever written this consistently and this productively when not involved in NaNoWriMo. These might be the first tentative baby steps toward being a real, live grown-up writer, and not someone just playing at it. That said, it’s only been 7 days, and I’m bound to soon stumble and hit my head on some unprotected corner of a coffee table.

This experience of writing consistently (which is, after all, the one piece of advice that really doesn’t differ from one successful author to another) has taught me that there is advice out there that might not be everything it seems on its face. So, over the next few posts, I’d like to debunk some of myths I’m facing during this process.

Myth Number 1: Set a daily word count and write until you hit that goal.

If you follow this blog or have read the Acknowledgments in The War Master’s Daughter, you know that I credit NaNoWriMo for my finally being a published author. Now that I’m questing after my first non-NaNo book, I look to the aspects of the contest that made me successful. The one that comes to the forefront is that lovely little bar graph that shows your word count progress. Boy does it boost your confidence. Boy does it motivate you. So I created my own little bar graph and my own daily word count goal, attempting to mimic the driving force that got me to write for so many days in a row.  

However, in practice, I have found this particular piece of “advice” to be the most damaging. Sure, the daily word count goal might work for NaNoWriMo, where the goal is a certain number of words, and really nothing else. But, as other WriMos know, we all end up playing little tricks with ourselves to pad out the requisite 1,666 words/day. Contractions, begone. Evil adjectives and adverbs, you are welcome on the doorstep of this bizarro writing world. Characters, your middle names have never been so important.

Following this technique, I’ve written just over 15,000 words of my new book, or about 20% of my anticipated total final length, and 7,000 of these words have been over the last 7 days. I was impressed with my progress—until I went back and read some of what I’d thrown in there. A lot of those words are utter crap. A lot. WriMos are familiar with this phenomenon, encountering it during the celebratory (or funereal) December read-through. Haven’t we all had that moment of “What was I thinking?” And “How is it possible that I wrote that badly for that many pages?”

Perhaps setting a daily word count works for you if you have the luxury/curse of writing fiction for a living, and you need some sort of self-imposed deadline to make your writing take precedence over, say, cleaning the refrigerator, alphabetizing your DVDs, or vacuuming your cat. But when you have a finite amount of time—cut in on by a 9-to-5 day job, weekend social obligations, and chores that actually need tending—setting a word count goal is a recipe for churning out crap. Yeah, you might find you occasionally pen something diamond-like, but fast writing develops bad habits of lazy writing. The mentality of “I’ll go back and fix it later; gotta gotta gotta get words down NOW” takes the art and concentration out of the writing process, turning it into something mechanical akin to shoveling dung. You can’t write mechanically and write beautifully, unless you are some kind of prodigy or a consummate professional with decades of dedicated experience. When you’re an amateur—as in, doing because you love it—writing for quantity instead of for purpose turns out to be a huge waste of time.

And you’ll hate yourself when you get to the editing stage.

A Better Way: Set a daily time goal.

As Pablo Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Rather than spitting out 1,000 words, no matter how long or how short it takes (which, predictably, correlates with how much time you actually have until you are required to be doing something else), schedule daily writing sessions in manageable blocks.

Set one of those cheap, plastic kitchen timers for 60 minutes, then sit in your chair with your work open in front of you and don’t do anything else except work. You might write 1,000 words. You might write one sentence. But promise yourself (and keep your promise) that you won’t do anything other than write. And if you’re not physically creating words and sentences, you’re staring at your page, thinking about writing. Don’t do “research.” Don’t check Facebook. Don’t fold the laundry. Do the work. When your timer dings, you can stop—or not. But you’ve put in your time. The quality of the results will be higher.

Moreover, you’ll develop good habits. You won’t put down words with the intention of fixing them later; you’ll put down words with intention. Efficiency will come with time and habit—then you’ll have the best of both worlds.