Sunday, April 21, 2013

Speakeasy Tales: Takeaways From the Writer's Retreat in Paradise

The inaugural Speakeasy Writer's Retreat is history. I realize I risk sounding like a sycophant, but can't keep from raving about the wonderful group of writers and editors (and the venue -- what's not to love about the Stanford Sierra Conference Center near Lake Tahoe?) who made this weekend so wonderful.
Fallen Leaf Lake: The view from my window. ::sigh::

The faculty included editors chosen for their engaging personalities as much as for their impressive expertise in the world of children's publishing. They hung out with the writers attending, encouraging conversation and questions.

I learned a lot in the past few days. For what it's worth, here are some of my takeaways:

*  Even the publishing pros don't agree on exactly what constitutes the dividing line between Middle Grade and Young Adult. But they all agree that the writer shouldn't sweat over making the distinction. The writer's job is to write the best story possible, with the most authentic voice. Market definitions come later.

*  The jury is still out on whether New Adult merits its own genre.

*  Sometimes, showing an editor an unpolished work in rough form is the fastest way to get the most helpful advice.

*  Nothing compares to having an editor ask cogent, informed questions about one of your pet projects, especially when those questions are followed by, "That sounds great! I love those kinds of books." Yay, validation!

*  After forty-odd years on the planet, I am still powerless to exercise any form of self-control when faced with a buffet.

*  Several editors regularly reread favorite books to remind themselves of "what good writing is."

*  No one is more underpaid than authors, except maybe editors, a fact that doesn't keep either party from thoroughly enjoying their work.

*  Publishing is a difficult industry. It's not fair. It's not predictable. Success is often as reliant on luck as it is on talent.
*  Many editors admire writers for their bravery, their stick-to-itive-ness, and their perseverance. At no time during the entire retreat did I hear an editor talk about an author with anything but the greatest respect.

*  It IS possible to survive without cell phone reception.

*  In the same way that those who are married are not necessarily more loveable or loving than those who are single, writers with agents are not necessarily more talented than those who are still unagented. It's just a matter of persevering until a writer finds an agent and an editor who are a good match.

*  Never underestimate the value of taking some time away from your regularly scheduled life to interact with and support people who share your dreams.

A heartfelt thank-you to everyone involved in making this year's retreat a reality. I know I am not the only one who is leaving recharged and re-inspired!

Friday, April 12, 2013

"I Love Your Story Anyway!" -- Tales From the Unintended Audience

"I know I may not be the intended audience... and I love your story anyway!"

This tweet from accomplished improv musician Stan Stewart (@muz4now), a faithful reader of "Dear Alderone," got me thinking. Since September, I've been serializing "Dear Alderone" online. It's a middle-grade novel, which means that its target audience is tweens. It features two 14-year old female protagonists bonded by blood, separated by several decades,  connected by crisis.

I wrote a story I wanted to tell: a story that I would have liked reading when I was 14. But you know what? I'm not picky at all about who reads or -- perhaps more importantly -- who likes it.

The wonderful thing about words on a page (or screen) is that they are equal-opportunity communicators, readily conveying their information to anyone willing to decipher them.

Skippyjon stays!
I know what it's like to devour a book, getting caught up in the story, all the while cognizant of the fact that the author did not have me in mind while writing. I like Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl series, though I have nothing in common with an uber-rich, genius boy intent on world domination. And I flat-out love Judy Schachner's Skippyjon Jones books -- so much so that I  was crushed when my cat-crazy 10 year old daughter announced that I could give them away because she was "too old" for them.

"Noooooo!" I wanted to yell as the books came off of my daughter's bookshelf-- be instantly rehomed in mine. Skippyjon stays.

Here's a little-known writer's secret:
Anyone who loves what I write is my intended audience.

Here's another one:
Nothing makes a writer's day like hearing from someone who appreciates a good story.

If you are a rabid reader of an author's work, it doesn't matter whether or not you are in the publisher's target market. Want to really make a writer's day? Some simple ways to spread the love:

*  Tweet 'em up. Whether or not the writer is on Twitter, compose a tweet personally recommending your favorite read to your followers. For the cherry on top, add the #amreading hashtag. 

*  Blog About It. If you have a blog, dedicate a post to a book, series, or writer you like. Google loves that kind of stuff almost as much as authors do.

*  Keep the Comments Coming. If the writer has a blog, drop a short comment stating how much you enjoyed a particular book / story / article. It's not that we're pathetic or emotionally needy. (Ok: Some of us are.) It's just that most writers get more than enough negative feedback. For some reason, the people who *don't* like what we do have no problem telling us. I mean: name one other business that names the vast majority of its missives "rejections." You have no idea what a supportive comment praising one's work can do to boost the creative muse.

*  Read. Review. Repeat. Reviews -- especially good reviews -- are like reserves of gold in a wildly fluctuating economy. If you really want to keep your favorite writers producing more stuff for you to read (instead of, say, trading in their mad typing skills for a hairnet and practicing their delivery of the catch phrase "would you like fries with that?") write a well-thought out, reasoned review and post it in appropriate online, visible places. Amazon is one such place, to be sure, but don't neglect other online booksellers who cater to people who might not want to enrich the all-powerful 'Zon.

*  Share and Enjoy. Like a book? Talk it up. Then lend it to a friend, so that person can help you spread the word. In fact, you could start a kickass trend by purchasing a physical copy of your favorite paperback, inscribing something like "I liked this book so much I wanted to share it with the world. Read it. Enjoy it. Then, when you're done, leave it in a public place for someone else to discover!" and leaving it behind in a coffeeshop, or a bus stop, or a train station, or a doctor's office, or... You get the picture. 

So here's to all the dedicated readers out there. It doesn't matter whether or not you are in the segment of the population to whom a book is marketed. It's not about the marketing; it's about the reading!  

Friday, April 05, 2013

Privacy Fencing

I don't know about you, but I find the "My Lowe's" commercials downright creepy. In this one, they know what color I've painted my living room -- and want me to think that's a good thing:

Here, they've gone into the bowels of my basement, noted, recorded, and stored what kind of air filters my furnace uses -- and act as if they deserve a cookie for keeping track of my stuff:

Lowe's isn't the only big business that makes me cringe. It's just that its commercials are so prevalent, and it's so in-your-face about invading my privacy and mining the data that is me that it seems less like a hardware store that serves me and more like a giant Borg box that wants me to be part of its collective consciousness.

And though I feel increasingly in the minority, I am not OK with this.

I fear that mine is the last generation to have any privacy whatsoever.

Accessing what's in our heads is big business. We've moved beyond deliberately sharing our personal information via social media sites. (Don't believe me? Believe the analysts who have concluded that because the under-20 crowd is eschewing Facebook, the tell-the-world-what-you're-thinking site that now wants to track your movements and know where you are at all times because you leave your phone with the app running at all times is passé.) With modern technology, the human interface is rapidly becoming superfluous.

Take, for instance, the brain-scanning headphones that save you the trouble of making your own personal play list. No -- these puppies, which feature their very own EEG sensor, will determine your mood based on your brain waves, and play an appropriate song to match. (No mention is made of what might happen should these bad boys fall into the wrong hands of someone who would then make them play Barry Manilow alternating with RATT until your EEG showed signs of psychopathy.)

We live in an age when our memories are not our own. Just ask neuroethicist S. Matthew Liao who is studying the ethical questions associated with, say, giving soldiers memory-erasing drugs which would, conceivably, eliminate PTSD. Doing so could also create a situation in which morality of any kind becomes as irrelevant to society as knowing how to cure deerskin. 

If we are capable of telling a human to do a thing, and then equally capable of erasing any knowledge of that action, what, exactly, have we become?

In a very real way, mankind may be one of the most endangered animals on the planet. Oh, sure, we're reproducing like crazy. But if the data crunchers have their way, we'll soon be relegated to nothing more than a lengthy series of numbers and preferences. Our data, not our DNA, defines us.

Right now, scientists are in the process of being able to visualize a person's dreams. See, here's the thing: my dreams are mine, dammit. They are not home movies that need to go viral and either provide entertainment or cause undue concern, based on the vagaries of my subconscious on any given night.

We teeter on the verge of Total Demystification. If we continue down this path, wonder, self-expression, and personal discovery may soon be relics from the past. Every thought we think -- from "I hate this television show" to "Yowza! I wonder what those abs feel like" will be mind-mapped, databased, and deconstructed before we've had time to react to it. In this brave, new world, will "individuality" and "privacy" become taboo?

"It's for your own good," we're told. One of the worst party lines is, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you won't care who knows about it. Only terrorists / serial killers / sex offenders / shoplifters / drug lords / paranoiacs / conspiracy theorists are worried about privacy." (This kind of statement lends itself to a brilliant leap of inductive reasoning. ::evil eye:: "Saaaayyy -- Maybe YOU're a terrorist / serial killer / etc.")

This stuff makes me shudder. Seriously. When did we become a population that embraced Big Brother? At some tipping point in recent memory, we went from being private citizens, each with his or her own thoughts, desires, and secrets, to being "privacy fences," willing to tell all to anyone who wanted to know.

I don't know about you (and frankly, I don't care what color you've painted your house), but the thought of my life being relegated to nothing more than a mass of data makes for very disturbing dreams. They're disturbing, but they're mine...

For now.