What makes a good book? Is it well-developed characters or a strong story arc? Is it a specific genre or a certain writing style? Don’t Google the question unless you’re prepared to sort through hundreds of slapdash opinions. Everyone has an answer, and none of them are the same. But perhaps that’s exactly what makes a good book? Maybe it’s not poetic hyperboles, dramatic irony or well-placed flashbacks as much as the author’s ability to connect with the reader as a whole- an ability to take them places through alluring and comprehensive thoughts.
“The Alchemist”, by Portuguese author Paulo Coelho, is an international best seller that has been published in 56 different languages, with over 65 million copies sold. Its captivating plot is about a shepherd boy who experiences mysterious dreams that take him on a journey to fulfill a greater destiny. The story is simple and charming. The writing style is very humble, so humble that it is one of the most translatable novels of all time, and the characters are basic, but captivating. There is no complex storyline, no unexpected ending or hidden agenda. Yet, according to the AFP and Guinness Book of World Records, The Alchemist is one of the best selling books in history. But why?
It’s easy to comprehend once you understand the author. Believe it or not, it took Paulo Coelho only two weeks to write the book in 1987, and as he explains it, it’s because the story was already written in his soul.
“When you really want something to happen,” he explains through an old king in the book, “the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.” This core value of the novel is something that all readers can relate to. It’s something that nearly everyone understands and associates with. We all have hopes, dreams and destinies that we chase. Coelho just makes it relatable through a great story.
So why then do some readers put so much value in cerebral plots or structurally complex stories? Why do they like speculative metaphysics or multiple narrators and storylines? Well, that can be like asking why do people like certain colors or types of food? For some readers, it’s the relationship that they build with the book. Larger, more complicated stories keep readers on their toes, creating a literature-romance that has them constantly thinking about where the story might go next. For others, its not so much a story they’re into, but the addictive characters that they can revisit in books with thousands of pages and multiple sequels (I know that I’m not as worried about what magical creature Harry is chasing in “The Dresden Files “ as much as what will happen to Michael, Murphy, Butters, and the slew of other side characters). Or perhaps, just like anything, some people just want a book that tailors to their lifestyle. Logical thinkers prefer intelligently written books, while dreamers enjoy stories that some might consider a bit unordinary.
Regardless what the reason, more than any other article I’ve read or theory that I can muster, there’s one element that always seems to stand out in every great book. It’s not its complexity, multifaceted worlds or innovative ideas. Then again, its not its straightforwardness or minimalism either. A great book, compared to an average one, knows how to connect with what makes readers human. Well-written settings and descriptions are a perfect compliment to a tale, but they can never take the place of identifiable plots and characters in a story.
According to the NY Times “Best Seller List,” the top three books as of 2014 thus far are “Hopeless” by Colleen Hoover, “All the Light We Can Not See” by Anthony Doerr, and “The Shoemaker’s Wife” by Adriana Trigiani. All three books are titans in their genre, yet none of them are excessively intricate. Instead, they deal with human characters and the challenges they have, whether it’s dealing with the devastation of World War II or multigenerational love. They are, for lack of better words, “human-books.”
So the next time you’re looking for a new paperback to take on your flight, or downloadable story to read during your lunch break, remember that no matter what reviews may say, no matter how many copies are sold, books are reflections of what makes us human. Think about what you’d like to get out of a story before making your selection. After all, it’s what you are as a human that makes you like the great books that you do, not the other way around.
Join me November 21st-23rd, 2014, at the Chicago Marriott Convention Hotel for the “Days of the Dead” Horror Convention. I’ll have copies of Consumed, and will be signing them, as well as giving away great prizes. There will be vampire babes and drawings at my booth, “Consumed.” And don’t forget that Consumed is due September 11th, 2014.
Days of the Dead Convention..
Chicago Marriott Hotel
50 North Martingale Road, Schaumburg IL 60173
When was the last time that you wrote without worry? I mean really wrote without hearing the naysayers, critics and self doubt in your head. If you’re an everyday writer, then it’s probably been a while. But why is that? Regrettably, a big part of it almost certainly has to do with the writing world today, and the emphasis it puts on book ratings, author critiques and reader reviews. It’s become so bad that for some writers, doing what they love also means having a nervous breakdown. But allow me to send out a plea to all of the bloggers, novelists and poets out there. This isn’t how it should be. We should be thrilled to write. We should be hungry to start our next piece, thinking about it while cooking breakfast or trying to get some sleep. Maybe it’s time for a change. Maybe it’s time for us… to get back to the basics.
I first started writing when I was just a boy, no older than nine or ten. I was one of those weird kids who was obsessed with comic books and spooky monsters, and decided that it was about time for someone to combine the two. I constantly wrote short stories and drew pictures about the misadventures of my favorite ghouls and ghosts as they tried to save the world while dealing with the pain of being a misunderstood. Back then it was simple. Someday, I’d give my homemade penny dreadfuls to Stan Lee or R.L. Stein, and they’d shake my hand and say, “Justin, I want you to write for me. When can you start?”
As time passed and high school struck, I continued to follow my favorite horror authors, getting into classics like Bram Stoker, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. But this was a confusing era, and my writing had been put on a brief hold for more “palpable” desires. After the girl craze passed, I delved back into writing, this time for my friends. I started to pen roleplaying campaigns for the guys, telling tales of eerie dungeons and nightmarish crypts for their roleplaying pleasure. The joy it brought both them, and myself, was enough for me to decide that someday I’d write professionally.
Then college came. I majored in English, concentrating in Creative Writing at a downtown university. I’d write whenever I could find time, mostly after night shifts or on the early train to school. While my professors mostly enjoyed my work, it was the first time I’d begun receiving critiques. I don’t recall ever being offended, but it was confusing to hear teachers occasionally suggest toning down the weirdness. What I also didn’t foresee was that these opinions were only the first steps towards the inevitable…self-doubt.
Cue my mid-twenties. I was in love. My fingers wouldn’t stop typing sentimental poetry and short stories involving the woman of my dreams (who would one day become my wife, score!). Later, with her encouragement, I’d convinced myself to take a serious stab at becoming an author. After several months, and with the connection of a family member, I handed my manuscript to an editor. The results, well, were not so much what I’d been hoping for.
But as tough as the criticism was, I needed it. After taking a few months off, I jumped back on the horse with new fervor and tales to tell- one of those being Consumed. For years I concentrated on the book, bleeding over my computer. I’d share my work with respected family and friends. Their assessments were constructive, but as expected, sometimes tough to swallow. Finally though, after several serious edits, the manuscript was complete. After sending it off to dozens of publishers, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had several takers, and in early 2014, signed with Zharmae Publishing. My first novel was born.
But getting your manuscript published opens you up to another world, one that involves marketing and promoting. I began doing my research, and found that sites like Amazon.com and Goodreads had some real tough critics. I read unnecessarily harsh reviews about my favorite books, some of the best of all time, and it scared the hell out of me. Who was I to think that I wouldn’t receive similar disapproval? No one wants to read a horror novel about a drug-addicted detective investigating a mysterious murder. Come October, it would be the end of my writing career. I was doomed.
Then it hit me. Call it a bitch slap from God or life’s cup of morning coffee, but I’d finally awoken from the anxiety driven stupor I’d put myself through. I’d been so crushed by the weight of what people might think, that I’d completely forgotten why I started doing it in the first place. It wasn’t to become the most popular author of all time or make tons of money. No way. I didn’t want to be trendy. I wanted to write bizarre and interesting stories as I’d done as a kid. I wanted to honor the horror novels I loved in high school. I wanted to make people happy like I did when I wrote for my friends. I wanted to be myself again, free of any worry.
Perhaps it was Paulo Coelho who put it best when he said, “I write from my soul. This is the reason that critics don’t hurt me, because it is me. If it was not me, if I was pretending to be someone else, then this could unbalance my world, but I know who I am.”
It may sound strange not cater to readers, but you’re honestly doing them a disservice by not writing from the heart. Readers can pick up on someone who is writing scared. I know I can. Instead, write for yourself and let the reader fill in the blanks. I think that you’ll find that far more people appreciate your work (even the critics) when you do it this way. Hell, maybe you can even apply this “apologize to no one” attitude to the rest of your life. Wouldn’t that be nice?
So writers, please, keep doing what you do. I beg of you. Don’t make the mistakes I did. Write those great blogs, short stories and novels, worry free. Keep penning what makes you happy and everything else will fall in place. It’s time that we put away our fears of the critics. It’s time for us to get back to the basics.
Is creativity something that we’re born with or is it something we learn? It’s a question that people in art based fields often ask themselves. Studies by major universities show that people who tend to be more creative have different biological characteristics than those who are not. But not everyone is convinced. Some studies argue that creativity is a renewable resource that can be taught, enhanced and fueled, just like any other skill. So, is it nature or nurture? Let’s use myself as an example to delve into the subject and investigate whether the artistic drive inside of you is a gift of evolution or simple upbringing.
My mother was a very talented artist in the late 60’s and early70’s. She had painted canvases spread across her bedroom, sketch pads stored in stacks throughout our basement and framed photographs of her old art studios inside her office. Even as a boy, I remember asking myself, “will I be like mom (or as we say here in Chicago, ‘ma’)?” As I think back, I don’t recall her ever sitting me down and teaching me how to paint or tell stories, yet as I continued to grow, I learned that I had quite the knack for drawing and writing. Kids in grammar school use to come to me all the time and ask if I could help them sketch a picture or think of a story idea for a school assignment. To be honest, I never gave it much thought until I decided to pursue my career as an author. Now though, I often wonder, did I teach myself to be creative, using my mom as a guide, or was it something innate that helped me become the fairly creative man I am today?
According to researcher Kenneth Heilman of the Department of Neurology and Neuroscience at Cornell University, I never really had a choice. Kenneth discovered that the brain is divided into two halves that are joined by fibers called the corpus callosum. Writers, artists and musicians tend to have smaller corpus callosums, which allows each side of their brain to communicate better, creating new ideas and associations more easily. Kenneth found that people with this phenomenon benefit through an incubation of ideas that are critical for the divergent-thinking component of creativity. So for Keneth, my brain is just wired that way due to my small corpus callosum (hey, size isn’t everything).
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Helsinki conducted a similar study associated to musical creativity. In their extensive assessment, they found that musical creativity is based on one’s natural ability to judge pitch, as well as the coordination of beat and harmony. It’s the brain’s inherent ability to reorganize information that makes one a great musician. This explains why so many musicians like Mozart had successful careers at early ages. It has always been in their DNA.
On the contrary, according to Tina Seelig, the Executive Director of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program, I, like any other creative person, slowly learned how to be as creative as I am. Through her studies, Tina has learned that creativity is a part of the “Innovation Engine”, a set of skills that can be improved by anyone with the right mindset. In Tina’s eyes, creativity is the process of creating new ideas, something that anyone can do if they just learn to think beyond the obvious. There are hundreds of paths, some easier than others, that can help you sharpen your creative skills. Through her studies, Tina has learned that we are all naturally creative, and like any other ability, some people may have more natural talent. However, it doesn’t mean that others can’t be just as creatively proficient. All they need to learn are techniques that help enhance their capacity. Much like speed reading or rollerblading, it’s a skill to be honed.
So which is it? While I want to believe that artists, much like Jedi or Hogwarts wizards, are biologically chosen to become who they are, I have to say that I have a hard time buying into that mindset. People aren’t just packaged in gift wrap and a bow, creative as they’ll ever be at birth. No, it seems to be something that slowly develops. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I’ve also met some pretty amazing artists within my day that didn’t do anything different from friends and colleagues when it came to improving their talent, yet they somehow managed to be twice as gifted as others when it came to painting, writing music, or sculpting. Maybe they’re just lucky?
Regardless, for me, it’s hard to agree with any blanket statement which states that creativity only has one explanation like genetics or daily practice. In my eyes, creativity is more than just what scientists can put under a microscope. Yes, it’s a combination of biology and skill, and yet it’s still something more. It’s an orchestra of experience, cleverness, inclination, dreams, love and chance. It’s a desire to make people happy with your work and a satisfaction that comes with conceiving something all your own. That’s something that you just can’t put into one from of scientific rationalization. Does that sound mawkishly sentimental? Perhaps. Still, it’s something I live by.
Through this short blog, we’ve studied what some experts have to say about creativity, using me as an example. But what do you think creativity is? When you examine who you are, can you explain it? Were you born with creativity or is it something that you were taught? Is it understandable or unexplainable? We as readers and writers sometimes forget that we live in a pool of creativity each day. Every blog you post or article you read is someone’s creativity put into motion. Maybe it’s time you take a second to ask yourself how you became the creative wonder that you are.
SEE THE FULL ARTICLE:
The Guardian, “Are Some People Born Creative”: http://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2013/sep/19/born-creative-study-brain-hemingway
Business News Daily, “Who Says Creativity Can’t Be Learned”: http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/2471-creativity-innovation-learned.html
One of my favorite songwriters and artists is no doubt Tom Waits. He’s witty, dark, and can write one hell of a melody. No doubt, his lyrics are sometimes cryptic, often with numerous meanings, but the guy really knows how to deliver a catchy tune. Get Behind the Mule, is a song from his “Mule Variations” album that has really stuck with me throughout my writing career. While the entire song is a bit grim, his chorus is something that always stirs in my head whenever I’m having trouble motivating myself to write for the day.
“Got to get behind the mule-
In the morning and plow.”
The line repeats itself several times throughout the song, delivering a haunting, but sensible message. Sometimes, you just have to pull your sleeves up and get the job done even if it’s the last thing you want to do. It’s easier said than done I know, but nonetheless, valid. If you’ve entered the book writing world hoping for an easy publishing process with minimal complications and easy, no mess acceptance, you’re probably not being realistic. Publishers are extremely particular, and will ferociously pick apart your manuscript to the last word. That’s because they have to be in order to do their job.
The trials are exhausting and a bit demoralizing, but you can’t let them break your formula. Read and write every day, send out your manuscript, and continue to stay focused. These are the steps that will eventually get you published. A lot of times we forget this because we don’t want to admit that it’s tougher than we’d thought. It’s okay. Long waits, rejection letters, and criticisms are part of the game. Don’t let it stop you from being productive. Got to get behind the mule in the morning and plow.
What comes to your head when you hear the word artist? For the majority of people, it’s usually Picasso attacking a canvas or Bob Dylan playing his guitar. Very rarely does someone imagine Mark Twain or Agatha Christie in front of a typewriter, regardless of the fact that they are the most prolific authors of all time. So, why aren’t writers typically considered artists? Does one have to cater to the five senses in order to be one, or is it the emotion one stirs from their work that makes them what they are? Well, as usual, the answer isn’t simple, but requires exploration nonetheless.
Type “what is an artist?” into your web browser and see what comes up. I did, and the first definition I came across was, “An artist is a person who creates paintings or drawings as a profession or hobby.” Wow, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Other definitions include, “A person who is skilled at drawing or painting,” as well as, “a skilled performer.” So, according to Webster and his friends, a writer is definitely out of luck.
As I continued to search, I found blogs and comments that support the idea that writers just are not artists. Certain opinions genuinely believe that authors, as talented as they might be, don’t fit the mold of what an orthodox artist should be. From these people’s perspectives, artists receive their title because they have a medium that is either visually or audibly pleasing. Painters create works that can be put on display. Musicians and actors perform on stage. But a writer can’t showcase their work so easily, which to these folks, separates writers from artists. Writers tend to need time, organization, and systematical knowledge in order to fabricate their work (although there are certain types of poetry and short stories that are exceptions). In addition, a writer’s creation process doesn’t tend to be as intense or swift as other types of art. There’s no splashing of acrylics along a white wall or singing until your voice goes hoarse.
Yet, as I began to explore more online opinions, it became apparent that while some individuals feel that writers aren’t technically part of the art community, the majority of people argue that writers are in fact major players. While famous authors have always been celebrated, it’s only within the last few decades or so that a new principle for identifying an artist has developed- A principle that is paving the way for authors and poets everywhere. It’s an idea that recognizes true art for what it really is at its foundation. In the words of Albert Einstein, “True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist.”
Supporters of this well accepted viewpoint feel that writing is not only a part of the art world, but one of the most complex forms of expression that there is. A writer is painting with words instead of color. They evoke emotion with their stories and accounts. They create something out of nothing, taking ordinary events and weaving them into written words that induce a mood or feelings. While a fine portrait or song can arouse happiness, anger or grief, an exceptional column or book can change lives.
Another reason why writers are increasingly being recognized as artists is that the urge that drives them to express themselves is parallel to the urge that any other artists feels. The fervor that compels a writer to convey a story through language is the same enthusiasm that a violinist uses when drawing their bow or a sculptor uses when he or she shapes clay. Most importantly, this new outlooks doesn’t just apply to writers. According to the majority of blogs and articles I read, other contemporary forms such as photography, computer graphics, film making, and fashion are just as vital, and long overdue for recognition they deserve. So long as there is passion, creation, and expression, there is art, plain and simple.
So the next time someone asks, “Who is your favorite artist?” try to resist the urge to answer with Monet or Pavarotti. Instead, try naming someone a little less conventional. While Chuck Palahniuk, Carlos Baena, and Robert Kirkman may not make the traditional list of artists, they live and breathe the same creativity of Andy Warhol and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Just because specific individuals that sculpt statues, dance in ballets or sing in operas get all the credit, it doesn’t mean that they’re the only artists out there. It’s up to us to recognize artists everywhere, be they stand-up comedians, cameramen, or writers.
“It’s an awful feeling to write something that you feel is really important…and to feel that you’re being published by people who really don’t get it and/or don’t really care.”
Recently, I’ve made mention of “the do’s and don’ts” when submitting a manuscript. Since then, I’ve had a few questions from readers about how the process works. It can be tough to try and make the right decisions when sending out your work because different publishers have different procedures. It doesn’t help that many publishers have become a bit more cutthroat then in years past due to excessive inquiries. Nevertheless, there is a basic course that nearly all of them abide by. The following are some suggestions that will help upcoming authors when pitching their manuscripts. This advice comes from research, published authors, and literature websites.
First and foremost, there’s no rule demanding exclusive submissions. Anyone telling you differently hasn’t tried to submit an article as of late. It’s tough and you need to reach out to anyone who might take it. Submit the piece to several publications. While it might be considered a bit impolite to submit the same piece to competitors, there’s nothing saying that you can’t.
Secondly, understand that review time is considerably different depending on who you’re submitting a manuscript or article to. Magazines move fast and thanks to the Internet, receive and respond to queries relatively quickly. Typically, you can expect a magazine to respond within eight weeks or sooner. If you don’t receive something by then, either move on or write them a polite e-mail to see if they are interested. Please don’t expect magazines to send a professional rejection letter. It is a courtesy, not a requirement.
As for book publishers, first and foremost, learn how to develop a pitch letter. It is the key component to selling your book. With fiction, learn how to write a fluid, immaculate synopsis. With nonfiction, try to have your proposal emulate a business request. Publishers tend not to read a manuscript unless they’re interested in your query. And like with magazines, don’t limit yourself to a single publisher and don’t wait for a reply.
Most importantly, just keep writing. Don’t get discouraged by rejections, lack of responses, or insecurities you might have about your pitch letter. This industry is getting faster and faster, with publishers looking for that next great piece of work without consideration or apologies. If they don’t like your work, they’ll move on. So should you.
I read a lot of authors’ blogs and one of the hot buttons tends to be a debate over promoting your book. Some authors feel that they should concentrate solely on writing their book so that it’s at its best, while trusting their publishers to take care of the rest. Other authors feel that using social media, going on blog tours and attending conventions is the foundation of having a successful novel. Some blogs say that trying to be a salesperson dents a writer’s reputation while other post that self promotion is half the battle. Its two different schools of thought. So which is right?
Well, it wouldn’t be a heated debate unless both sides didn’t have excellent points. Traditional authors feel that a writer’s responsibility is to spend hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears trying to perfect a manuscript that they pitch to a publisher to sell. By accepting the book, a publisher is saying that they feel that they can market it to the correct audiences in order to make a profit. So why would you get the author, who knows nothing about selling, involved? That’s like asking them to work on a car for you or fix your plumbing. Sure they’ll give it a shot, but writers tend to be lacking in marketing skills. They specialize in telling stories.
A publisher by definition is supposed to make information available to the public. That includes all of the stages of development including acquisition, editing, graphic design, production, printing and most importantly, marketing. You write, they excite. While a publisher might expect you to show up for a few promotional appointments, they shouldn’t rely on an author to turn a book into a success. That should be something that they deploy.
On the other hand, while it might be the responsibility of a publisher to help sell your book, why wouldn’t you try to help your own cause? While there’s conflicting numbers that don’t exactly prove or disprove if blogging truly helps sell books, I can tell you from personal experience that connecting with readers never hurts. I’ve seen multiple well written blogs that inspire me to continue following the author. And yes, while using Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, etc. might not drive sales, it’s a great way to understand what people enjoy while keeping your name out there. Plus, it helps target specific audiences.
Publishers are great at selling a manuscript to the general public, but they tend not to concentrate on specialized groups. Blogs, social media and focused tours are a great way to aim at an audience you’d like to cater to. For example, if I’m writing a horror novel (cough, cough, “Consumed” is in on bookshelves October 2014, cough), I might want to promote my novel to gothic book clubs, ghoulish citywide conventions and anywhere else that there’s horror readers. Promoting to people who tend to read your specific genre not only theoretically pushes sales, but it also assures better reviews. Readers of a certain style might be a bit pickier, but they also tend to appreciate elements within your writing far more than a person who just picked up any book at the airport to get them through their flight to Los Angeles.
So what does it all mean then? Should you promote or shouldn’t you? Well, although my word isn’t an official authority, I’d have to say that both schools of thought are on the right track. Yes, I’m calling it a draw. While it’s true that an author’s book should be their priority, and that being weighed down by book promotions can be a serious distraction, getting involved in endorsing your own manuscript is vital.
Managing time is tough. If you’re an early phase author who still has a day job, it’s probably even tougher. An author with a publisher has to make sure that they are spending a majority of their time working on their manuscript while allowing ample time to promote. The rule of thumb tends to be that the smaller the publisher, the more time you may want to invest in pushing your book. I’m not saying that you have to stretch yourself thin, but the occasional blog, Twitter comment or Goodreads update helps.
However, if you feel that you absolutely positively do not have enough time to both write and promote, it’s my suggestion that you abandon ship with the marketing segment. While you may be able to help, it’s ultimately the publisher’s responsibility to get the word out that your amazing book is coming soon. Your publisher can promote without you, but no one can write the book but you. Might I warn though that this is only for rare cases. In my opinion, most people, if they’re really honest with themselves, can find the time.
So the next time you’re worried about the success of your book, ask yourself, “Am I doing enough to help?” You’ve put a lot of effort into your novel. Encourage readers to buy it. It doesn’t mean that you have to treat it like a second or third job, it just means that you should put a small amount of time away every week to ensure that you’re giving the book the attention it deserves. Remember, you only get what you give.