Friday, June 5, 2009

Experiences With Writing And Critiques

~Sia McKye~

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
~Eleanor Roosevelt

I work hard as a writer. I write everyday. Journals, articles for various publications, and on the books I’m readying for publication. I enjoy writing. I like the creativity of choosing the right words for something, or picking a great introduction for the authors I promote.

I was lucky, I suppose, in that I’ve always been encouraged to explore my creative side for as far back as I can remember. I have oral storytellers in my family. There’s a tradition and a style with telling oral stories as opposed to writing the stories out. A different emphasis and description choices—part of it is in the sound of the words, the tone and voice inflections used, and the flow is a bit different. Certain words are used as a memory points.

As a kid, my siblings and I would entertain us with stories. Sometimes we’d do a round robin sort of thing where each would take over the story at a certain point and continue it. Some we wrote down some we didn’t. As I was the family chronicler guess who did most of the writing? We created elaborate ‘let’s pretend’ scenarios and then play them out either that day or over the course of a week or so. It was always fun.

In school, all my writing projects were partly creative in writing style. It didn’t matter if it was a science project if words were used I was creative—I could never just slap words on the paper. As you can imagine, History and English projects received the most attention from me. I had teachers encouraging me to pursue creative writing—especially English teachers. “Why aren’t you writing stories? You have a gift you should pursue it.” In second grade I won my first writing contest and over years won others with stories that were published in Weekly Readers and various other school sponsored things. While it was fun and I enjoyed it, I was also looking at other things I wanted to do or to be. Career choices were based on a certain amount of creativity, radio, newspaper, and promotion. The career choices got in the way of serious writing although I was always scribbling something—poems, family history; you should see some of my journals. I’d see something interesting and create a snippet of a story around it, or rewrite the romances of those in my family that were unfortunate enough to breakup or divorce. I got into a bit of hot water over a few of them, I can tell you.

My sister and I discovered Harlequin romances. They were so simple yet were entertaining. We figured, well heck, we could write romances just as good as what we were reading. We did, too. Today we were visiting and talk turned to some of our attempts. I pulled out some of our earlier efforts and oh how we laughed. Some were just awful full of passive voice and lots of exposition. We picked out phrases and descriptions and laughed ourselves silly. There were a few that actually were promising and only needed some editing and critiques. We just never had anyone to show those stories to that could do that.

When I got serious about my writing, and wrote my first novel, I made a cazillion mistakes. I was such a newbie. What saved me was entering a contest and in the course of that contest, I came into contact with real creative writers. That was my real prize—feedback and serious critiques, that and learning terms. What the hell did they mean when writers and judges would say ‘good bones’ and ‘need to work on POV’? Keep in mind, I hadn’t taken any writing courses in at least ten years and fiction-writing styles had changed considerably in that time. I didn’t win the contest (which was a romance writing contest where you also received critiques from other writers and contestants) although I finished in the top 20% out of about 1200 entries. Not bad, considering the mistakes I made.

I like to receive honest critiques. If something isn’t working, I’d like to know that. I take my work seriously. I don’t hand my work to just anyone. I tend to pick those who know what they’re doing, whose opinion I value, and who write the same genre or similar genre. I like suggestions, questions, and I also love it when someone reads something that they really like or makes them laugh and they mention it. The contest taught me the need for a tough skin, which was reinforced by the first serious critique of my manuscript.

The poor thing about bled to death with all the red lining. CPR was difficult but it survived and so did I. But you know what? She was right. She wasn’t harsh, but she was to the point and honest. She’s a published author and one for whom I have a great deal of respect.

I’ve always said if you want someone to tell you your writing is wonderful, hand it to your family or your mother. I call that blowing sunshine and butterflies. You want honesty then give it to a fellow writer you respect. And then listen to what they say. Give yourself think about it a bit—once you get over the shock.

When I critique, I’m never brutal or critique to hurt. I don’t believe in destructive critiques at all. There’s no point to them. Constructive critiques improve your writing or style. That’s what we want, suggestions or pointers on how to make the story stronger, make the characters more realistic, or how to plug those holes in our manuscript big enough to drive a Mack truck through.

I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and why, by doing critiques. Contest entries were quite an eye opener. Not just in just what I could see, but by reading the comments made by others which trained my eye both in what was being critiqued and how to look at my work with a more critical eye.

If someone is really bad…that’s a harder one. I’ve read a few that were really bad. Should they scrap it and start anew—oh, absolutely. I look for the good things that are working and I usually ask questions to see if they’re serious about writing or this piece or just playing at writing. I might say, this is a good idea but the way you’re presenting it hides the idea. Have you thought about…? I ask questions, why, what, where, and how.

I may have been writing all my life and won contests but that doesn’t make me a great writer. Critiques do that and the willingness to listen and learn. A willingness to sharpen your craft and be willing to put your manuscript on a strict diet to trim away the excess fat so you can see those great bones in your writing.

What has been your writing experience? How do you feel about critiques? What have you learned?
Sia McKye has spent over twenty years in marketing and promotion. She's written and published various articles on writing, marketing, and promotion. She's a Marketing Rep by profession and also writes fiction.

Sia is married to a spitzy Italian. She has a ranch out beyond the back 40 where she raises kids, dogs, horses, cats, and has been known to raise a bit of hell now and then. Aside from conducting various writing discussions and doing numerous guest blogging engagements, each week she promote and share authors’ stories, on the laughter, glitches, triumphs, and fun that writers and authors face in pursuit of their ambition to write—Over Coffee

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Edge of Night

"Sometimes I feel as if the marketing is the tail wagging the dog."

Hannibal Jones is back and stirring up trouble again! This time with the Russian Mob and a beautiful woman with secrets.

My guest today is Austin Comacho, author of five books in the Hannibal Jones series.

Most authors work hard on their manuscripts so as to have them published. The focus is always on the making of the story and making it the best it can be. Once it hits the publisher it takes on a life of it's own. There are edits, revisions, line edits, deadline after deadline, Galleys, ARC copies, and...promotion. The transition from writer to published author can be overwhelming. Even authors with several books under their belt find this time nerve wracking as all the 'what if's' attack.

So, what's it like those few days before release and the insanity of promotion begins? Austin shares his thoughts:

Just three days before my big book release party I feel as if I’m poised on the edge of a knife with spectacular success on one side and abysmal failure on the other. I’m not worried, exactly, but there is a certain amount of uncertainty. Anxiety? Maybe apprehension. A lot of time and effort has gone in to getting to this day but now we’ve reached the point where it’s too late to do more, too late to make a difference. Nothing left to do for now but wait. Will the Washington Metro area turn out to cheer my successful book launch, or will I be listening to crickets chirp and my wife’s sobbing while hundreds of dollars worth of wine and h’or douvres go to waste?

My lovely wife Denise put much time, sweat and tears into setting up a fabulous event in a fabulous place, to attract the local literary leadership. This event will be a bellwether, an indictor of how well I can expect to do at the first bookstore event, at the Borders Superstore in Waldorf, Maryland. And THAT event will be an indicator of the life Russian Roulette will have.

Russian Roulette, my latest novel, was a labor of love. The Fifth in my Hannibal Jones mystery series, the book allowed me to continue the rising and advancing of my protagonist’s spirit and I want to share that experience with as many people as possible. Goodness knows I’ve done all I could think of to make the book explode onto the scene. I’ve tried old school paper marketing, internet marketing, and personal appearances.

The old school way begins with free books. After mailing out review copies to all the usual suspects I gave away another stack of books to anyone who would promise to post a review in four different places on line.

I got a bunch of blurbs from favorite mystery writers who are also pals. I bought print ads in Mystery Scene and Crimespree Magazine. I bought a list of 5,000 mystery readers so I can send each of them a postcard announcing the new novel. And I sent personal letters to each of the 47 bookstores in this country that specialize in mystery fiction informing them of the imminent release of Russian Roulette and respectfully asking (alright, begging them) to order a few copies. I also promised them a pizza party for their staff if they sell 50 or more copies of Russian Roulette. Yeah, I’m shameless.

For the on line audience I got a book trailer produced and made a promotional video for Russian Roulette myself. I launched a blog tour, appearing on several mystery and literary blogs, and I’ll be on 10 more (at least) in June. That is not my favorite kind of writing, but it is essential in the 21st Century to get the buzz mill running.

And I’ve arranged for a dozen personal appearances at writers’ clubs and book stores. That’s the easiest part for me. I love being face-to-face with readers, explaining my books and discussing their favorites to find if my work is a good fit. Writing aside, this is the best part of being an author. And every hand I shake is another potential fan for the whole series. Someday, that could even make this writing addiction evolve into a decent living.

Sometimes I feel as if the marketing is the tail wagging the dog. My wife Denise is very supportive but sometimes I think she misses the point. I don’t get discouraged if a book doesn’t sell a million copies because it’s not about the sales. It’s about the writing. It’s about that process that spins random straw thoughts and ideas into golden chapters.

I know I won’t get rich from sales of Russian Roulette, but the book deserves its fair share of attention. It isn’t simply a good story with a social conscience, putting good characters into a complex puzzle of a plot. It is the distilled embodiment of all the hours I could have spent with my lovely wife Denise but instead chose to give a keyboard my attention. It is the concentrated essence of her hopes that I will one day achieve my dream. At its core are the lunch hours I spent creating instead of relaxing, the early mornings, the late nights, the surreptitiously stolen moments when no one was looking. It deserves the eyes of an appreciative public, and I want so badly to give the book what it deserves.

But the ugly truth is that a book does not become popular in the marketplace just because the author wants it to be. No matter how good it is, you can’t force a book into buyers’ hands. You can’t will a novel onto the best seller list. You can only do your best to draw attention to your baby and hope that you stumble upon that magical combination of writing quality, buzz, distribution and timing that will raise your literary voice above the din of the thousands of worthy contestants whose fiction enters the lists every year.

So here I sit, three days before the kickoff of my own big game, poised on the edge of night. But is that dusk I see approaching, or the glow of dawn?
Austin S. Camacho is the author of five novels in the Hannibal Jones Mystery Series (including The Troubleshooter, Blood and Bone, Collateral Damage, Damaged Goods and Russian Roulette) and two in the Stark and O’Brien adventure series. His short stories have been featured in three anthologies from Wolfmont Press, most recently Dying in a Winter Wonderland – an Independent Mystery Booksellers Association Top Ten Bestseller for 2008 - and he is featured in the Edgar nominated African American Mystery Writers: A Historical and Thematic Study by Frankie Y. Bailey.

He is also a public affairs specialist for the Department of Defense. America's military people know him because for more than a decade his radio and television news reports were transmitted to them daily on the American Forces Network.

He was born in New York City but grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York. He majored in psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. After three years, he enlisted in the Army as a weapons repairman but soon moved into a more appropriate field. The Army trained him to be a broadcast journalist. Disc jockey duties alternated with news writing, video camera and editing work, public affairs assignments and news anchor duties.

During his years as a soldier, Camacho lived in Missouri, California, Maryland, Georgia and Belgium. He also spent a couple of intense weeks in Israel during Desert Storm, covering the action with the Patriot missile crews and capturing scud showers on video tape. While enlisted he finished his Bachelor's Degree at night and started his Masters, and rose to the rank of Sergeant First Class. In his spare time, he began writing adventure and mystery stories set in some of the exotic places he'd visited.

After leaving the Army he continued to write military news for the Defense Department as a civilian. Today he handles media relations and writes articles for military newspapers and magazines. He also teaches writing classes at Anne Arundel Community College and is deeply involved with the writing culture. He is an active member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, Sisters in Crime, American Independent Writers, the Maryland Writers Association and the Virginia Writers Club.

Camacho has settled in Springfield, Virginia with his wife Denise.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Finnish Connection With K.A. Laity

I have been fortunate to have a great many interesting authors on my blogs, writing fiction and non-fiction, memoirs, and various types of literature.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce to you K.A. Laity. Kate is a multitalented author and teaches medieval literature, film, New Media and popular culture, on a college level. She has also written a fascinating collection of Finnish short stories based on medieval myths and folklore. This folklore is unique in many ways as these myths were a type of poetry with music. There are many cultures that have used songs to recount and remember their oral histories.

Please welcome Kate and feel free to ask questions. Be sure to watch the video of Kate playing the Kantele. The link is at the end of the article.

Many thanks to Sia for hosting me today!

When I try to tell people about my new short story collection, Unikrja, the first thing I have to do is explain how to say it and then what it means. "Oo-knee-kir-ya" is how you say it and it means "Dreambook." In what language, you ask? Finnish.

Yep, as in from Finland.

I try to imagine what's going through people's heads then: Scandinavia, right? Nokia? Lordi? President Halonen looking like Conan O'Brien? (My pal Ulla Suokko was in one of his fake ads!)

It's an uphill battle, so it only gets more difficult when I try to explain the mythology that inspired the stories and the play. They come from The Kalevala and The Kanteletar, the twin tomes of Finnish myth and folklore. The stories and songs that make up these collections are very old, but were gathered together in the nineteenth century as a surging sense of national pride grew. The tiny nation straddles the dividing line between the Baltic and Scandinavia, and had been dominated alternately by its two larger neighbours, Sweden and Russia.

A doctor with a fascination for folklore, Elias Lönnrot set out to collect examples of the old tunes and stories that people told to try to capture what he saw as a vanishing way of life. In The Kalevala, he arranged these stories in runos to link together story arcs. You can read an English version online, but let me acquaint you with some of the recurring characters who show up in my stories.

Väinämöinen is the eternal sage. After Ilmatar the goddess gives birth to the world, he is the first human born. He knows all manner of magic. I've always found it fascinating that much of Finnish magic comes from know the true names of things and being able to sing them. At one point, Väinämöinen faces a young challenger who thinks he can take on the old man, but he gets sung right into a swamp. The panicky Joukahainen offers his sister's hand in marriage, which starts another theme for the old magician: he never gets the girl.

Aino is the sister offered to Väinämöinen. Her parents think it's an advantageous marriage, but the beautiful young maiden finds little appeal in being joined to the ancient sage and finally drowns herself to escape. She comes back, however, as a salmon to taunt Väinämöinen, so she lives again. Väinämöinen's mother suggests he should go north to find a bride instead.

Louhi is the witch of the northern lands. There's a great split in the Kalevala between the people of the south in Kaleva and those in the north, so they're always portrayed as adversaries. Louhi, while seemingly as powerful as Väinämöinen, inevitably the stories depict her as "evil" which just sat wrong with me. As you might guess from our name, Louhi's Daughters, my friends Minna and Kasha shared the opinion that we were getting a rather one-sided view of Louhi and in our performances we tried to give a more balanced picture of this amazing woman. Our very first performance together was a retelling of the Aino story, which also proved a resonant touchstone for Unikirja.

While The Kalevala has a series of narrative threads, The Kanteletar is a looser collection of songs grouped by who sings them, i.e. men, women or children. There are also a number of ballads that would be sung by everyone. Not surprisingly, one of the songs is all about the kantele, the national musical instrument of Finland. The name of the collection is kantele plus the feminine ending, so you might think of "Kanteletar" meaning the spirit of the kantele, the source of all the songs.


K. A. Laity ( is the author of Unikirja (Aino Press 2009), a collection of short stories based on the Kalevala, Kanteletar, and other Finnish myths and legends, for which she won the 2005 Eureka Short Story Fellowship and a 2006 Finlandia Foundation grant.She also wrote Pelzmantel: A Medieval Tale (Spileld Candy 2003) as well as other stories, plays and essays. She teaches medieval literature, film, New Media and popular culture at the College of Saint Rose. Her news blog title comes from her first student film, Un Amor Peligroso or the Wombat's World; it was also the title of a zine she used to publish.