Thursday, May 30, 2013

Poverty of ideas: the fifth kind of creative block

My friend Kristi Holl, whose book Boundaries for Writers I recently reviewed here, shared a fantastic article on her Facebook page about creative block.

Since I just spent three frustrating hours yesterday staring blankly at my keyboard, this couldn't have come at a better time. 

The author, Mark McGuiness, talks about seven different kinds of block. As a solitary writer, only six of them concern me, but I confess that at one time or another, all six have been a factor. Sigh!

It's Block #5 that intrigues me the most. McGuiness writes:

5. Poverty.

I’m not just talking about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor [italics my emphasis], have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.

I had never thought of poverty in these terms before, but I like that way of looking at creative block. I think it was my problem yesterday. When the roofers working next door started playing insanely loud, insanely obnoxious radio music yesterday, I had to flee. I  packed up my portable office and sought out the cool peace of the stacks in the college library. It was the first day of the summer session, and I swear I was the only patron in the entire library. It should have been writer heaven, right?

Wrong! I sat there for nearly three hours and didn't get a thing done. Well, not true. I revised the last chapter I had written in my middle grade novel, but I couldn't make any headway in the new chapter. I couldn't see what the characters were doing. I had poverty of ideas.

I think perhaps the problem for me is that I was in a space where I felt constrained physically. Is there such a thing as a kinesthetic writer? That seems to be what I am, because my daily walks always seem to kick my mind into gear. This morning on my walk, the first line of the chapter came to me, whole and complete. And I suddenly had a clear visual image of where my characters were. Of course, I've got a stack of manuscripts coming in this morning to be edited, so no writing for me, not today.

But I'll jot down that line, and maybe storyboard the chapter on some index cards. It's like depositing money in the bank, so that when I am able to sit down to write, I won't be idea-poor again.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Flying the flag for my nephew

Memorial Day means a lot more to me this year since my nephew Andy enlisted in the Army. He just turned 21 two days ago, but he already bears the scars, both physical and emotional, of his harrowing service in Afghanistan last year.

So I remember him and all the other men and women who truly do make a sacrifice to serve. Their families sacrifice  as well, and also deserve our thoughts and care and concern.

I also remember my dad, who died in February but who served in Army intelligence during the Korean conflict; my brother-in-law Brian, a retired Navy captain, who spent a year in the Green Zone in Baghdad; and all the men in my husband's family who fought during World War II. Some of them didn't make it home; some suffered in prisoner of war camps and on the Bataan Death March.

The words "thank you" don't seem like nearly enough.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Goodreads giveaway still open!

Just a reminder as we head into this holiday weekend that you can still enter the Goodreads giveaway for my book, Spontaneous Combustion. I'm really excited by the response so far! You can enter until June 11th; five winners will get signed copies from me.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spontaneous Combustion by Nancy Butts

Spontaneous Combustion

by Nancy Butts

Giveaway ends June 11, 2013.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, May 17, 2013

Lawsuit v. Penguin: self-publishing as a servant's entrance?

The publishing industry is undergoing a metamorphosis that is painful and confusing for all parties involved—especially writers. E-books, the dominance of Amazon as an online bookseller, the concentration of so-called "traditional" publishing power in the hands of the Big Six houses, and the rise of independent or self-publishing are all mutating the business of books—and no one, not even the alleged experts, can predict with any degree of certainty what the final outcome will be. What publishing will look like in ten years—or even in two—is a mystery that keeps many of us running to the medicine cabinet for daily doses of Prilosec.

Since my own foray into indie publishing last month, I promised a blog post on the ups and downs of my experience. But that will have to wait. Today I think it's more important to publish four links about the new class action lawsuit filed April 26, 2013, against Penguin and Author Services Inc., which it owns. Under that Penguin umbrella are a host of other self-publishing services, such as AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Trafford Publishing, Xlibris, Palibrio, and Booktango. ASI is also the force behind self-publishing imprints with traditional book publishers like Simon & Schuster (Archway Publishing), Thomas Nelson (WestBow Press), Hay House (Balboa Press), Guideposts (Inspiring Voices) and Writer's Digest (Abbott Press).

I've had students and manuscript clients who have published books with some of the services listed above, and who said they were satisfied with what they got for their money. I've also had clients who were so traumatized by their experiences with these same services that they couldn't even bring themselves to share the details with me. They seemed to take the blame onto their own shoulders, and were too ashamed to talk about it. 

Well, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit isn't ashamed. In Emily Seuss' blog, Jodi Foster (no, not the Oscar-winning actress) is more than willing to talk about her experience with iUniverse.

I have not researched this particular lawsuit thoroughly, though this Mick Rooney blog post at TIPM takes a balanced look at it. Also, Victoria Strauss at the excellent Writer Beware blog reports on it as well. 

Until I can write more intelligently about the lawsuit, I'll withhold comment on that. What I will say now is this: it has always made me deeply uneasy that major publishers such as Simon & Schuster—even Christian publishers such as Thomas Nelson—should offer two separate paths to publication. If you aren't lucky enough to get an actual contract where they pay you to publish your book—and give you all the editorial and promotional services that go along with that, for free—there is a back door, a kind of servant's entrance. You can still have that affiliation with S&S or Nelson, sort of—as long as you are willing to pay them for the privilege. But does that buy you the same careful editing, the book design, the cover art, or the promotion that a contracted author receives? Somehow I doubt it.

Now that may not be a fair representation of how these self-publishing imprints of traditional publishers work, but that's how it comes across to me. If any reader has published a book with one of these imprints, I'd love to hear about your experience.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Boundaries for Writers: review of a new e-book by Kristi Holl

My husband and adult son are on vacation; I am not. Now it’s true that they are spending the precious days of their vacation painting the front porch, and I thank them for that. It’s a wonderful albeit belated Mother’s Day gift. But the other day, as we all took advantage of the glorious spring weather to be outside—them scraping and painting, me sitting outside with my iPad Mini and notebook—they couldn’t resist teasing me. “Pick up a paintbrush,” they said. “Why aren’t you working?”

And even though I knew they were just teasing, I admit that my blood started to boil, just a teensy bit. Because I was working. Perhaps they are to be forgiven. As the late E.L. Konigsburg said at an SCBWI conference many years ago, “Sometimes writing looks a lot like doing nothing.” But after more than two decades of seeing me pound away at the keyboard in the corner of my living room, you’d think my family would recognize me working when they see it. Yes, I was outside, and yes, I had what may have looked like a toy to them. But the fact is that I was studying a book and making notes to write this review; and I was also researching and brainstorming and drafting not just one but two freelance articles.

Fortunately, the title I was studying at the time was Kristi Holl’s new e-book, Boundaries for Writers. So even though there was a little voice inside me whispering, “Well, maybe you are slacking off. Maybe you should pick up a brush and start helping them with some real work,” I resisted. I remembered what she said about boundaries, about guarding my writer’s heart, and I just smiled and said, “I am working.” And I went back to my notebook with a smile.

Kristi knows her stuff. She is the author of 42 books, both for kids and for adult writers. Though we’ve never met, I came to know her about a dozen years ago when, as a rookie instructor at the Institute of Children’s Literature, she asked me to do a web chat with students about the craft of writing. Since then, I frequently refer my ICL students to Kristi’s books and articles about what she calls “writer’s first aid.” She has some great tips for time management that can really help those of us fighting to squeeze writing time into lives already crowded with a host of obligations, commitments, and responsibilities.

Her latest book is in one sense a sequel to her first aid books, but in a way that plunges deeper into the problem of finding time to write. Sure, you can look at this as an issue of time management. But in this book, Kristi goes far beyond that. Her brilliant insight into the problem of why writers can't write is that it is an issue of faulty boundaries: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. This was a revelation to me, a moment of clarity.

In her opening chapter, Kristi talks about how walls—far being divisive or isolating—are the key to “guarding your writer’s heart.” I found myself hearing this line from Robert Frost’s poem as I read: “Good fences make good neighbors.” For writers, they certainly can.

In order to be more creative and productive, Kristi advises that writers repair their broken walls—or boundaries—whether those have to do with protecting your writing space or shielding yourself from the sting of rejection. She gives specific advice about how to deal with people and situations that are sabotaging your writing time. I still can't get over the story of one writer whose wife deliberately gained fifty pounds to punish him for "neglecting" her so he could write.

Resistance from family and friends is usually more subtle than that, to the point where sometimes we don’t recognize it for what it is. Kristi prepares writers for that, and also for the sneakiest of adversaries: ourselves. On page 24 she writes, “Sometimes we are our own worst enemies when it comes to damaged boundaries.” We allow ourselves to get distracted when we’re supposed to be working, or fritter away our writing time with a nonstop barrage of worries. I especially liked Kristi’s solution for dealing with what I call the Panic Bird. Make a fifteen-minute date with yourself during which you are allowed to worry. Then whenever your thoughts drift from your characters to whether any editor on the planet will ever buy the manuscript on which you are working, remind yourself sternly, “Nope, Mr. Panic Bird, you aren’t on my calendar until 5. I’m writing until then.”

She is also sensitive to the fear of many of us have that we are being selfish or neglectful of our families when we set boundaries so that we can write, and she deals with that, too. For Christian writers, she even has an entire chapter devoted to biblical references that support setting such boundaries.

Like so many others, I always seem to be struggling to carve out and safeguard my writing time, but I never before thought of this as being the result of boundary issues. Kristi’s book provided me with fresh insight and resolve that I think will help me, along with many others writers, to spend more fruitful time at our desks.

Note: this book is only available in PDF format as a direct purchase from the author's website. Click through on the book title above to get there.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Goodreads giveaway for my new book

I'm kind of late to the party; can you believe I only recently discovered Goodreads? But now that I have, I'm sponsoring a giveaway for autographed copies of Spontaneous Combustion. You can enter until June 11th; there will be five winners.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Spontaneous Combustion by Nancy Butts

Spontaneous Combustion

by Nancy Butts

Giveaway ends June 11, 2013.

See the giveaway details at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day gift—from a stranger in Istanbul

Istanbul...Constantinople...Byzantium: this ancient city has gone by many names, and its turbulent history has fired the imaginations of many writers [including the Irish poet William Butler Yeats]. Today, on Mother's Day, I received a wonderful gift from that city, in the form of an email from a Turkish writer about my my book, Spontaneous Combustion.

Here is an excerpt:

"Your book arrived yesterday and today I sit in a coffeeshop in Istanbul, my yellow marker in hand reading, nodding, and laughing, taking notes while furiously marking passages in your book. I am lost for a while in the book, look up and discover I am still in Istanbul."

I love that that my words were able to inspire and transport her. This particular person is herself a writing teacher, and runs something she calls a "writer's house." I'm not sure what that is, but it intrigues me; I think I want one!

But what is really making me smile is the image of someone in Istanbul, a world away, sipping Turkish coffee and and laughing and scribbling notes while reading something I wrote. Truly, books can bridge all kinds of distances, both physical and cultural. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Good news!

It was a struggle yesterday to get to my desk. I was able to postpone that visit to the vet because Yukon's growth seems to be spontaneously shrinking. But I still had to take care of him, shoo my family down the driveway, finish all my chores and errands, and complete what I've started to call my morning rounds (this means checking and updating all my social media sites).

After all that, it was difficult to switch gears and go from mommy mode to writer mode. And at first I wasn't sure I was going to succeed. But I forced myself not to flee from my desk, not even when the 20,000 words of the book that I've already written seemed as foreign and incomprehensible to me as if someone else had penned them—in Klingon!

This is where the freewriting advice I've heard from so many others saved me. When you get stuck, don't stop—even if it means writing "I'm a worthless hack without a single original idea" over and over. OK, so you shouldn't write that! What I do is insert what I call placeholders into the manuscript. If I'm not sure what a character should say or do at any moment in a scene, I'll write something like, "Arlo has some reaction here." And then I'll move forward to write a real passage about the next thing that I do see clearly. This sounds stupid, but it always works for me. When I come back to that scene the next day, during revision, I will discover that now I do know what the character is doing. Then I'm able to take out that placeholder and weave in a snippet of dialogue, internal monologue, or action.

In the end, I was able to write a solid opening scene for my chapter after all. So now I can lead my characters down the cracked, weed-choked sidewalk and into the haunted house at last. What fun!

I had more good news this morning: I sold an article to the SCBWI Bulletin! Thank you, my dear friend Vijaya, for suggesting that I submit there in the first place.

The bad news though is that it's one of the pieces on my Free wisdom page, which means I have to temporarily take down. So I apologize, but the article about using a Kindle or iPad as a way to get fresh eyes when proofreading a manuscript will have to disappear from the site—just for a while.

However, the good thing about the SCBWI Bulletin is that unlike some other publications, you retain all rights to anything you publish there. So after a decent interval, I will be able to publish the proofreading article again.

Friday, May 10, 2013

While the mice are away...the writer will play

I am going to have the house to myself for 72 glorious hours, so I am racing around this morning trying to get all my chores and errands done; I want to free up every moment of that time to write! For me, this is the best vacation—having the rare solitude to work on my book, a middle grade novel that is my twisted spin on ghosts and haunted houses.

This is the book I've wanted to write since I was eleven, and my father gave me a copy of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. In my book, Spontaneous Combustion, I share this wondrous first paragraph of Jackson's novel.

“No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
I can only hope to write something this good, but that's my inspiration for the weekend.

That is, if my dog lets me. A gruesome growth appeared overnight on his face yesterday, looking like a hitherto-unknown species of ginormous tick, or a part of his brain extruding through his Newfish fur. Ugh! It doesn't seem to be causing him pain, and he's not acting sick, but still I'm worried. Of course the vet was closed, but with a huge sigh I made an appointment for today. There goes my writing sabbatical, I thought. I'm going to be nursing a 130-pound dog after cranial surgery instead.

But there's hope! As of this morning, the growth seems to be deflating like some kind of disgusting balloon. So maybe it was just a hematoma; poor Yukon might have gotten bitten by something, or scratched his face when he was nosing around the honeysuckle and getting stuck in my neighbor's bamboo plantation. I'm crossing my fingers that it will heal on his own, I can cancel the vet appointment, and Yukon can go back to being my Muse for my weekend of writing.

Wish us both luck!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reluctant convert to e-readers

Normally it's hot and sunny in the part of the world where I live, but for the past few days it's done little but blow chilly gusts of rain. So Saturday I allowed myself a treat in which I haven't indulged for far too long: I actually spent the entire day reading—bliss! I finished a YA fantasy by Cornelia Funke entitled Reckless. It's the first in a trilogy; the second installment, Fearless, was just released. And I also read a book for lay readers by philosopher Stephen Cave called Immortality.

Both were library books; I am so grateful for the wonderful inter-library loan system in my state. I can sit at my computer, order books, and then walk the four blocks down to the local library to pick them up when they arrive. And did I mention this is free?

Three versions of The Hobbit: Hardcover (l), iPad Mini, and Kindle Paperwhite

But slowly over the past eighteen months I have shifted more of my reading to the digital realm. My neck surgery last Halloween accelerated that process. When I was recovering from the operation on my cervical spine last fall, I wasn't allowed to bend my neck forward for even five minutes to read a paper book. So I started buying e-books, loading them on my iPad Mini, and propping that up at eye level so I could keep reading. And to my surprise, I actually liked the experience.

Why did that shock me? Because all my previous experiments with e-readers had failed miserably. Despite being a consummate geek, I didn't like the digital reading experience. I missed the heft and smell of a real book in my hands, especially a beautifully-designed and bound hardcover one. I felt disconnected from digital books, as if they weren't real. 

I had tried three different Kindle models—the Kindle 3 with keyboard, the so-called Kindle Lite, and the Kindle Touch—and returned them all within 30 days. The screens were hard to read in the dim light of my 1880s-era Victorian house, and it was awkward and difficult to do simple things like turn pages. I also tried the full-sized iPad, but it was too big and heavy to hold for my marathon reading sessions.

But then I got my iPad Mini, with a leather cover that makes it look and handle like a book, and my resistance to digital books faded. I love the backlit screen, which allows me to read anywhere, anytime—even outside in the shade. All other reports to the contrary, the LCD screen doesn't tire my eyes at all, and the contrast and clarity far outstrip anything that e-ink readers like Kindle or Nook have on offer. I also like that the Mini displays books in color: far more like the "real thing."

So over the past seven months since I got my Franken-neck, I'm now doing about half my reading digitally. I was so inspired I even wrote my first Kindle book: Spontaneous Combustion. And last week I welcomed the Kindle Paperwhite into my home. I was prepared to send it right back, given my previous experience, but this one is a keeper. Though I still prefer the iPad Mini, the Paperwhite's backlit screen finally has enough light and contrast to be readable by my LASIK-ed eyes: and it's a joy to read in the bright sunshine. Since I do a lot of my reading outside in the backyard—when it isn't raining, that is—this is essential. Amazon got the software right this time, too; I find the Paperwhite much more intuitive to use than its older siblings, though still nowhere near as easy as iBooks on the iPad Mini.

Though of course no digital device is going to make reading as straightforward as it is on a paper book. What could be easier than simply turning the pages?

Besides, to me, a physical book is a treasure, something to cherish. That's why I own four different hardcover versions of The Hobbit, for example; I do that with many books. I'm never going to feel that way about a digital book file on an e-reader. So I'll continue to download books to my Mini and Paperwhite to read, but when I find a title that I love, I'm still going to buy a hardcover version, the more elegantly-bound the better.

Time to get another bookshelf!