Friday, April 30, 2010


(Ignore the 1.'s below. This started out as a regular Friday Five post, but when the journal idea grew and grew, Blogger didn't want to give up its numbers.)

My agent-sister Linda Benson has a lovely post about journals, and I thought I would give it a go as well.

I didn't always keep a journal, but I always liked the idea of writing in them and feeling all writerly. As a kid, I would start them and then forget them. One, which I started during spring break in third or fourth grade, starts with a detailed and earnest catalog of all the seashells I found on the beach that day, and ends three pages later.

Those are the seashells, fyi - in between my brother, sister, and me.
(I'm the one in the blue nightgown.)

Then, during my senior year of high school, my homeroom teacher made me read Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and one of these (not sure which anymore) said that the best way to keep yourself writing was to make sure you always had a journal. Even if you didn't have time to write short stories constantly, or (gasp!) novels, you could put something down on paper and keep your creative juices moving around in the right way without the pressure.

I was quite taken with this idea. Suddenly, I became a dedicated journal carrier, and I haven't ever looked back. I don't know if they actually do help my writing, but they've become a necessity - part confessional, part travelogue, part chronicle of all the changes in my life (even crises that I eventually forget ever happened). I write almost daily, and on days I don't write in them, I feel flat and strange. Re-reading these journals are amazingly helpful when I want to draw on personal experience. I have a terrifically terrible memory, especially for hard times, so rereading my angst helps me recognize ALL of what I felt at that particular moment.

I'll finish my current journal probably in the next week, the same journal I started on the day I started this blog - Thursday, August 20, 2009. Just in case you're wondering why this is an accomplishment, take a look:
    It's mammoth (500 pages, I think). Here's a side view - each Post-it represents the start of a new month.

    Inside, the pages are lined like graph paper, so my handwriting ends up being neat and tiny. (This is important. I'm vain about my handwriting.)

    But it's not all filled with my own notes. Sometimes I cheat and tape in printouts of new discoveries I want to keep.

    For instance, here is J.K. Rowling's 2008 Harvard Commencement Address, "The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination." I had heard of this speech, but I hadn't seen or read it. (If you haven't, you SHOULD. She's self-deprecating and inspiring and generally full of awesome.) The handwriting on the side are my comments, ie. personal response.
Okay, I've also gotten smaller, skinnier, and more colorful journals and finished them happily in a few weeks. In fact, this particular kind of journal - which hails from a fancy Spanish stationer, and which I buy from my local chain bookstore - only gets toted around during certain times in my life.

The special events, the big changes, where I want to keep a record of all the transitions in one place, and I know that finishing it, I'm not the same girl-woman/writer/person I was when I began at page one. So far, I've started these behemoths only three times - the first week of studying at Oxford University during junior year of college, the summer after I graduated from college, and most recently, the day I left my job in New York and began life as a writer.

I don't think a lot is going to happen in the next week, so as I glance at the opening pages, I'll just share a few ways I've changed:
  1. I'm less terrified and more sure of myself and my path. When I left New York, I wasn't completely positive that I was doing the right thing. The only thing I was sure about was that I couldn't continue the way I was going. Now, the future feels a little less like stumbling in the dark and more like chasing the light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. I know a heck of a lot more about my current writing process, which includes revisions. The last novel I wrote before my current WIPs, I finished in August 2006, and revising those chapters was basically re-reading them for typos. Dedicating myself to turning a first draft into the best novel it can be is totally different. For one thing, it's a lot slower than I thought.

  3. Related to my speed, I am beginning to realize my limitations as a writer. Not so much the quality of my writing, which can only improve and improve, but the volume of work. As it turns out, I can't do everything. Which means, at some point, I'll have to learn to say no - even to myself.

  4. Leaving New York, I had this vision of myself, living alone in a small town and just knocking out huge chunks of work. Now that I made that vision a reality, I realize that it doesn't work. In short spurts, it's hugely productive - that's how I finished two manuscripts in a month. As a lifestyle, I end up tweeting and blogging about the weather, because that's the most exciting thing happening at the time. Living like that long-term (ie. longer than a few months) isn't going to work out.

  5. At first, I called changing my life an act of desperation, but desperation has turned into determination, a daily routine of stubbornness. I haven't yet figured out if this is an improvement or not. I'll let you know after the next journal.
(Wow, look at that - this ended up being a Friday Five after all. :-P)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Unexpected Travel Plans

Starting next Wednesday, I'm headed back to North Carolina for a while. Here's why:

Rather than complain about the weather, I'm going to do something about it, ie. run away.

(And yes, it is snowing right now. And raining at the same time.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Five (Take 2)

  1. Dear poor neglected blog, I didn't mean to forget about you. I didn't mean to break my New Years Resolution two months in a row. And yet, I have - even though I actually have this sticky note of awesome blog post ideas right here on my printer... Hmm. I'll try to be better about this (but honestly though, it may have to wait until after I finish these revisions). xoxo, S.

  2. A dear college friend stumbled upon my blog (ahem, I mean, she asked and I sent her the link), and she wrote a poem based on the fake title from this post, The World Is Ending and All I Want Is Chocolate. Reading it totally made my day!!

  3. I recently finished Carlos Ruis Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, which I've been carrying around (unopened and unread) to all my new homes for at least twelve months. Honestly, I'm not sure why it took me so long to read it. Everyone who'd read it recommended it like whoa. Maybe you have to be in a particular mood to read a labyrinthine gothic romance set in Barcelona between 1910 and 1970, but apparently, I was in that mood when I started it last week. Anyway, THIS NOVEL IS FANTASTIC!!! It's actually one of those stories that makes you fall in love with books all over again.

    Here's one of my favorite quotes: "Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you." (209)

  4. I've been way into books for grown-ups recently. I don't often read adult novels. (In fact, sometimes I rant about adult novels, rather than read them.) Actually, since I've been keeping track of all the books I've read since last August, I can say with absolute certainly that in the last nine months, only 17% of the books I've read have been aged for adults. :-| (I am a grown-up, I promise. *avoids eye contact with old friends who stare with disbelief*) And a third of those books have been read in the last three weeks.

    I'm not completely sure what changed, but I think it might have something to do with revisions. MG or YA books, especially ones with a strong voice, get me back in the mindset of how I need to change such-and-such and move this scene to that chapter and delete that dialogue exchange, so reading them doesn't always feel like R&R (and sometimes makes it hard to sleep, to be honest, after the brain goes on overdrive).

  5. Mainly, I have been working. Desk, living room, kitchen, hair is all in a state of disarray, but otherwise, it isn't all that exciting. No, you don't get a picture of my insane hair. Instead, in honor of Earth Day, I give you a pretty picture of a tree in early early spring:

Friday, April 9, 2010

Still Alive for the Friday Five...

I've never done a Friday Five post, but I was in the mood today (ie. feeling very random). So, here we go...
  1. Storm. I don't know if anyone caught my tweet yesterday, but I had a harrowing drive back from town yesterday. For serious. It was epic. I actually wasn't sure if I would make it.

    The storm came up fast. When I entered the grocery store, it was sixty degrees and sunny. It started to snow just as I stepped back outside. As soon as I turned the ignition, the wind gusts were so strong that they shook the car. By the time I got on the highway, it snowed and blew so hard that you could see only 200 meters or less.

    Basically, a white-knuckled drive.

    Luckily, though, I outran/drove the storm. It was warmer and only sprinkling in the mountains. I thought I was safe.

    Unfortunately, the storm caught back up with me when I turned up the mountain I live on. It actually got a little scarier, because for one thing, there's the drop on the side of the highway...which I actually couldn't see since it was so high up that I was driving IN the clouds. Visibility was down to 50 meters, and the traffic crawled at thirty mph. The snow melted on the windshield and froze again, which didn't help me see any better. Once the car started to skid, but I corrected it.

    Actual visibility through windshield right before I turned into my neighborhood.
    Q: Can you find the oncoming traffic?
    (And why don't they have their lights on??)

    So, I totally made it back alive. Then I sat down (shaking a little, actually) and freewrote all my feelings/sensations so that I could use it in my manuscript. I even had a scene in mind, where my main character fights off seven dragons and then gets chased by a Giant. :-P

  2. How to Train Your Dragon. I loved this movie! LOVED it! It totally got me in the mood for a pet dragon of my own. (Sadly, that won't work for obvious reasons.) Then it got me in the mood to make sure my main character got to ride dragons. (Unfortunately, that won't work either - my main character has a pretty intense fear of heights, and she also engages in that aforementioned dragon-slaying.) Hmm. Will just have to settle for loving the movie, and possibly, purchasing it when it comes out.

  3. Shopping. I actually went to town for supplies, ie. groceries and one book. I came back with seven books (gasp! I know, but the used bookstore I visited actually had a bunch of books I wanted.). And also, gigantic binder clips.

    I've been pining after them for a long, long time. When I was an editorial assistant, we literally had hundreds of them floating around the office. They're the only clip big enough to hold a whole manuscript together. I didn't think I would miss them, but recently, I've been swimming in so many loose papers (ie. manuscripts and drafts of said manuscripts) that I went and bought some of my very own. It is indicative of my nerdiness how happy they make me. Yay!

  4. The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, ie. one of the seven books I bought yesterday. I found it in the bargain section of B&N, and while flipping through, I found this entry:

    A British house fairy, known mostly in the north of England, and as others of its kind, it likes to help human beings. They particularly like to join in with the kind of tasks undertaken by labourers, and are sometimes given the job of guarding treasure. However, the Dobie is not known for its wisdom, and often makes ridiculous mistakes or is easily confused. In parts of West Yorkshire, the name Dobby is applied to an evil fairy who leaps on the backs of unsuspecting travelers on horseback and garrottes them. Today, the Dobie is best known for its appearance in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, where it generally assumes the role of a helpful but not very bright companion to the young wizard. (136)
    I had no idea Dobby (the house-elf who first appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) was based on legend. Obviously, I had to buy the book - to find out more awesome tidbits that prove how amazing J.K. Rowling is. And also, possibly, to expand my own knowledge of magical creatures. (I knew soooo many when I was in elementary school - from reading similar encyclopedias. I'm not sure what happened.)

  5. Merlin (BBC). How have I not heard about this show until now? (Possibly, because I've been on a mountain cabin without cable for months now.) I just randomly discovered the whole first season on Hulu earlier this week.

    It's a BBC series where Merlin, Arthur, Morgana, Guinevere, and Lancelot are all about seventeen or so, and Arthur's dad, King Uther, has outlawed magic. So, while working as Arthur's servant, Merlin has to hide his magic, get Arthur out of scrapes, and basically save Arthur's life all the time while other people get the credit.

    And yes, it totally throws me off that the actor that plays Rupert Giles (ie. Buffy's Watcher) also plays King Uther.

    The banter (and friendship) between Merlin and Arthur is one of my favorite parts, but better than that, the show delves into destiny a lot, ie. knowing that you might be destined to be great someday - but meanwhile, you're still making a lot of mistakes right now. (Actually, it has a lot of similarities to my main character's dilemma.)
Hmmm. I wonder if Friday Fives are usually so long.... Oh, well.

Happy weekend!!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On Big Advances...

In my usual blog tours, I came across this post over Editorial Anonymous, which got me thinking about author advances.

With some deals reported on PW or Publisher's Marketplace, you can't help but think, A million dollars for a two-book deal! Success at last for some lucky new author!!

I don't mean to burst anyone's bubble, but deals like that are a huge gamble for everyone involved. As an ex-editorial assistant, big advances make me nervous - for both the author and the house.

(I'm gonna start with the cons, because I like to end on a happy note.)

Earning Out

With a high advance, the author may not earn out. To explain what this means, we're going to have to do a little math. Gasp! On a Friday morning too. So cruel....But I've made it easy. The explanation is smaller and thus easier to skip if you aren't in the mood.

An advance is actually an advance on the royalties of an author earns. The standard royalties are 10% of the list price for hardcovers and 6% of the list price for paperbacks. Basically, that means that when a reader purchases a hardcover for $20, $2 of that go to the author. (Okay, actually to the author and the author's agent, but explaining that makes this twice as complicated and will need be saved for another day.)

That means that at the time that you sign your contract and receive your on-signing check, you are receiving money that you technically have not earned...yet.

So, hypothetical scenario time (ie. I'm making this up): Let's say that author Sammy Smith receives a $10,000 advance for his book CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S with standard royalties. The hardcover goes on sale for $20. In its first week,
CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S sells 1,000 copies. The $2,000 that the author has earned with these 1,000 copies goes toward "earning out" the $10,000 advance. Since Sammy Smith has only paid off 20% of the advance for CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S, he hasn't actually earned more than what he received as an advance. Thus, he isn't owed any more than that.

However, let's say
CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S sells 5,050 copies in its first month. Sammy Smith has earned $10,100, thereby "earning out" his advance of $10,000. Now, he will receive royalties in addition to the advance that has already been paid - $100 in this case, and another $2 for every new CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S hardcover purchased.

Thus, "earning out" is selling enough copies of the book for the author to start receiving more royalties.

With a $10,000 advance for a $20 hardcover, only 5,000 copies need to be sold to earn out - and really, even in this economy/climate of industry upheaval, 5,000 copies isn't too tough.

Or maybe Sammy Smith's advance is $250,000 for one book, still priced at $20. 125,000 copies of the hardcover would need to be purchased if this book would earn out in hardcover. That's bit harder. (When I worked in editorial, selling 40,000 hardcover copies of a debut novel was considered more than respectable. Of course, this was in children's publishing. As I understand it, the sales for an adult title were usually expected to be much higher)

Or let's say you're Audrey Niffenegger of the Time Traveler's Wife fame and you sell your second novel at auction for $5,000,000. To earn out in hardcover, priced at $26.99, with standard royalties (ie. 10%), Her Fearful Symmetry must be purchased nearly two million times. Honestly, even though I'm a big fan of Audrey Niffenegger, I'm pretty sure that selling two million copies in hardcover only happens to peeps like Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling, and Stephanie Meyer.

(Please note: I'm simplifying for the sake of my argument. I haven't discussed paperback earnings, media rights such as film rights, or foreign rights, but they're out there.)

If the author does not earn out, then the publishing house takes a hit for the difference. Now, why is this bad for the author? The publishing houses keep track of these things, and they talk amongst themselves. So, if Sammy Smith received a $750,000 advance for CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S and it only sold 20 copies (ie. earning only $40 in actual royalties), it's going to be almost impossible for him to get another book published.


If a high advance is paid, the pressure is on like whoa. Pressure on the author to write well and revise even better. Pressure on the editor to make it so awesome that readers can't help reading about it and talking about it and buying a copy for all their friends. Pressure on the cover designer to make it look irresistible. And to a certain extent, that pressure is justified.

Strange things happen with a high advance. The book gets a lot of attention. Within the publishing house, a lot more fingers go into the pot than are probably helpful. Post publication, people in the know are judging it by the advance amount. (Would reviewers have been so harsh with Her Fearful Symmetry if the high advance wasn't common knowledge?)


More Marketing

Most books get a standard marketing plan, but if a high advance is involved, then the marketing department gets the go-ahead to spend more money, which means more marketing for the book. (More marketing can't necessarily make a book, but it certainly doesn't hurt.)

Also, if you're an author with a high advance, that means you have more than you need to live on. That means you can buy an awesome website. You can start your own merchandising and organize your own touring (since you'll be able to quite your day job). Authors with big advances can do a lot more self promotion than might have been otherwise possible.

Early Publicity

A big advance gets people talking, and it gets them talking early. Even if the new author doesn't have a website or a blog yet, a new name can get a significant amount of internet buzz with an attention-grabbing auction or deal.

Honestly, I know several series that I am eagerly anticipating, which I have only heard about since so much was written about the initial auction or deal. I am already plotting years in advance to pull strings and snag galleys. (insert evil laugh here.) :-p


What happens more often than a high first advance (from auction or whatever) is a gradual increase in advances with each new contract of a certain rising author.

For instance, let's say Sammy Smith did sell his first novel, CURSE OF THE RED M&M'S, for $10,000. Once it was published, it earned out very quickly - in the first two months, which is pretty good for an unknown author, and it continued to sell steadily.

Now that Sammy has earned his stripes, the house signed Sammy Smith for a two-book contract, each for $30,000, which makes the author feel financially comfortable enough to start working part-time in order to pursue his writing more rigorously. His second novel, HORRORS OF MILK DUD MELTAGE, sells even better than his first, and his third novel, WHEN THE CANDY SPEAKS, actually hits the NY Times bestseller list.

Now this publishing house - pleased to have nurtured a NY Times bestseller - offers Sammy Smith $125,000 for books four, five, and six. Mainly because the house knows that if it doesn't, another house will offer Sammy Smith that much (or more) and lure their new NY Times bestselling author away... (*sob* But it actually happens a lot.)

Just some food for thought....

(Can you tell that I was a little hungry for chocolate while I was writing this post? :-P)

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Long Winter

I don't mean to talk about the weather all the time (especially after about a week of radio silence), but I kind of can't get over it.

On April Fool's Day, ie. two weeks after spring officially started, I walked out to my car, and I found this:

Which is basically my car buried under 14 inches of snow. No joke.

Although I was tempted to go accuse my neighbors of messing with my head, I didn't, because I realized the snow might have a little something to do with the blizzard I saw outside my window the day before:

(Okay, so with this bad video quality, you can't see the actual snow. However, all that noise is the howling wind. The wind gusts got up to about eighty miles per hour that night. :-o)

Since then, not a day has passed without fresh snow.

the view out my window yesterday

This may be the last winter I spend in a place where winter doesn't seem to end, but right now, I don't mind it much. I've been telling people that I'm using this time in Montana as a winter writer's retreat, and since it still looks like winter, I don't have any trouble buckling down and getting to my desk every day. I know that if it were warm, I would be tempted to take a book outside and drowse in the sun rather than tackle that day's to-do list.

Sooooo, the intense weather is actually a big help, because I have plenty to do this month: revisions for two separate manuscripts, and one Intellectual Property for a five-book middle grade series. I told myself that my writer's retreat can't end until I get these things knocked out. (enter determined face here)

Then a friend of mine who lives in DC sent me this picture to remind me that spring is sprung in most of the world.

Then there was jealousy.

Suddenly, I have the itch again. The itch to move. It won't happen for a while. The HUGE to-do list mentioned stands between me and other plans at the moment, but it won't forever. Then I will need to find a new destination.

I don't remember very much of what the keynote speaker said at my college graduation, but one thing stuck with me: Find a place you want to live, and then find a job in that place.

That may seem a little backward. Many decisions to move are based on finding a new job elsewhere, especially in this economy. But I'm starting to think that the speaker's way is more helpful in the long run.

For example, the first place I lived after graduation was New York City. I wanted a job in publishing, and that was where many great jobs in publishing were.

However, New York was never my cup of tea. Raised in the South, I didn't grow up taking field trips into NYC like many kids from the Tri-State area do. In fact, despite attending college in upstate New York, I didn't visit the City even once until the spring of my sophomore year. It was a fun trip, but it was also noisy and dirty and a little too hectic for me to be completely comfortable. I remember telling my mom that I would never live in New York after graduation, unlike most Vassar grads.

Cue Senior Year. Suddenly, there's a class-wide freak-out about employment, which I joined. Since I was an English major, many people commented, "What are you going to do with that? Teach?" (Not my parents, though - they're awesome.) I was determined to prove them wrong.

There was also this little thing called editorial that I had wanted to try ever since I learned that there was a job where you get paid to read and make books.

And where were most of those editor jobs? New York.

Thus, the road into New York started getting paved with very lucky twists of fate:
  1. Without any prior experience, I secured a spring-semester internship at a publishing house. I became Queen of the Slush Pile. It was no match for my quick typing skills. (This was probably why it was easier for me not to take rejections too hard. At this point in my life, I've written more of them than I have actually received. With this kind of karma, I have been bracing myself for years now.)
  2. One of my very best friends from high school moved to New York, which meant that I had a great roommate all ready to go.
  3. I was accepted into a prestigious publishing program, where I learned a lot from big industry names and met tons of people who geeked out over books just as much as I did. (Gasp! I thought it was impossible.)
  4. My new roomie and I signed for our first apartment in the way, way Upper East Side.
  5. I was lucky enough to be hired for an editorial assistant position in children's publishing at the end of summer, and for many many months, I loved my job.
Everything slipped into place so easily that it felt a little like Destiny. Dreams were coming true.

But I still didn't love New York.

I got used to it. I blocked out the noise with my iPod. I hated the price of groceries, but I loved Pinkberry (pomegranate is the BEST!!). I hated the subway, but I loved being able to walk to everywhere. I hated the crowds, but I loved the Strand. I wasn't all that fond of my neighborhood, but I knew where to find fantastic nighttime views:

I picked out favorite places in Central Park, which I visited often.

Still, my job was far-and-away the best part of my NY life. I enjoyed even the menial tasks (ie. answering epic amounts of fan mail for one of our authors), and I was incredibly fond of everyone I worked with. When I was at work, I felt like I was in the right place, and doing the right thing.

That stopped pretty much as soon as I left the office.

Then I started realizing that I wasn't getting used to New York. I was coping with it, and at a certain point, all my coping mechanisms didn't work any more.

New York is known as "The City that Never Sleeps." My body took this very literally. After a few months, I couldn't unwind the way I needed to. By summer, I was averaging about four to six hours of sleep every night, which is never good for anyone's health. Finally, after many (literally) sleepless nights and quite a few sick days, I had to resign my position and start a new life elsewhere (as well as this blog, actually).

MORAL OF THE STORY: If you feel like you don't like a place when you first go there, you probably don't like it. You may be able to trick yourself into thinking that you can deal with it, but there may be some unforeseen consequences, ie. insomnia.

Now, I don't mean to hate on New York. Plenty of people are very happy there, and I've noticed that if you live in the outer boroughs, you're more likely to settle there for the long-haul. It just wasn't a place for me. I couldn't make a home there.

And although Montana is great place for writer winter's retreats (and I get plenty of sleep), I'm beginning to realize that this too isn't the place for me to settle indefinitely. (There is such a thing as too isolated for the long-term.)

A change is coming. As a writer, I'm lucky enough to be able to take my job with me wherever I go. As a very young person with no dependents, I have the luxury of making a decision on personal inclination without worry about the effect my choices will have on others. The next stop is coming up.

Actually, I think beaches might be in my future...