About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar-nominated author of six novels, including the gothic suspense Bliss House trilogy: Bliss House, Charlotte's Story (Booklist starred review), and The Abandoned Heart. Her fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, PANK, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, she grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and claims both as hometowns. Get to know her better and read her blog at www.laurabenedict.com.

So You Wrote the BEST BOOK EVER! Sorry, There’s More to Do.

 

Writers have a reputation–sometimes deserved–of being drama queens. Right this very moment, I am wearing the crown. đź‘‘ My head aches, my eyeballs are dry as ping pong balls, I just this moment came thisclose to accidentally taking a family member’s Adderall instead of a handful of ibuprofen, when I turn my head, my neck sounds like it’s filled with potato chips, and I’m at the computer two hours past my bedtime for the 13th night in a row. This can only mean one thing:

I finished my latest book and sent it to my agent today!

Maybe it’s just the sleep-deprivation, but I feel a bit…insane. I actually left the house today for the first time in let’s-not-talk-about-how-many-days. Tuesday is the day I schedule appointments and run errands (and, no, I’m not yet eligible for the Tuesday senior discounts!). I have a vague memory of mailing things, and listening to someone telling me about a friend’s son who has a collapsed lung. I could only respond, “Oh, that’s terrible.” But I think I said it about 30 times, because it felt weird to actually be talking to another human who wasn’t my husband and I was having trouble following the details. I could go on about how I’m waking up to the alarming state of our home, and the nutritional paucity of the meals I’ve been slinging to my family over the past two weeks, but you can simply picture a post-tornado scene, littered with Chinese takeout boxes and piles of unopened mail. (Okay. There aren’t really food boxes, but there’s a lot of mail, and I might have had reheated pizza for lunch.)

BUT. The state of things isn’t going to change for the next little while, because while I’ve sent off the manuscript, there’s much more to do. (Hey, I bet you thought this was going to just be a touchy-feely blog. Surprise!)

I suspect that in the long history of TKZ, folks have talked about what an agent needs from a writer in order to put together a nice package for editors. But here’s a refresher. I have an excellent agent, and she has very specific requests. Your experience may differ.

Your agent (or you, if you’re doing the submitting) wants editors to see you as somebody who: 1) has written a kick-ass book; 2) fits into an identifiable category; 3) will be a partner in selling your book. It’s pretty simple, but this is stuff you need to think about between the time you finish your book and start sending it out to agents. Yes, even before you have an agent because if you have all of this information together, you’ll be more appealing to an agent.

A clean manuscript. Tidy it up, make sure it’s double-spaced, in a legible font with page numbers, your name, and title in the header. Don’t include a picture of your cat, child, or sketches of what you want the cover to look like.

A bio. Who are you? Where are you from? Have you published anything else or won any contests? Keep it brief–around 250 words. Don’t share your hobbies or recipes or phone number (that goes on the cover page)

Oh, and do have a cover page with your name, address, phone, and email up in the left-hand corner. Title should be centered in the middle of the page, with “by” and your name below it in a smaller font. No page number on the cover page. There’s a box you can check for “different first page” in the header format menu.

Comps. This can be tough. List writers who write similar books to yours. The Amazon “Customers Also Bought” list is a good place to start. Include as many as you can. Be specific. Don’t list, say, Michael Connelly, if you write bakery mysteries, or romantic suspense. Do reach, though.

Your platform. There are tons of places on the Internet (i.e. Jane Friedman) where you can learn what a marketing platform is. Everywhere you’re found online is part of your platform. (I’m certain TKZ has info–anyone have a link?) Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, Linked In, Goodreads. No Tindr or Grindr. I confess I’m not a Snapchat-er. Does anyone here use it for promo? But your platform also includes your website, blog, and email list. (It’s never too soon to start building a mailing list. Start with people you know in real life.) Sex tapes totally count. But they can also count against you.

Professional Associations and Contacts. Networking can be challenging for introverted writers. Most professional groups have associate memberships for unpublished writers or readers. Join. Get the newsletters. Go to conferences and volunteer. Get involved. An editor wants to know that you’re out there networking with other writers and getting your name in front of potential readers Your agent will also want to know if you have writer contracts who might provide you with the B-word: BLURBS. Most writers will tell you that this is by far the most awkward and uncomfortable thing about the business. But it must be done. Blurbs from other writers not only look nice on a cover, but suggest that someone a reader might admire likes your book enough to say something nice about it. A big name can be a huge deal. If you can’t get a big name, a medium name will do. You’ll find that some writers, particularly indie writers, quote reader reviews. It’s fine, but they won’t get an agent’s or publisher’s attention. Don’t make up blurbs. That’s really bad, and you’ll get caught.

If you can get a writer to blurb your book even before it goes to agents and editors you get bonus points. It’s something my agent likes me to do before she goes out with a book.  Talk about a difficult ask…I once had a NYT bestselling writer turn me down for a pre-submission blurb, and she wasn’t very nice about it. It’s worth a shot, though. Give your book every advantage.

Be proactive in describing how you might promote your book. Newsletters, contests, ARC giveaways, guest blogs, etc. Think about reaching out to readers. Even if your publisher has a promotion budget–a rarity these days–you need to do everything you can to pitch in.

Editors. Do you know folks in the business? A friend of a friend? Your agent will have many contacts, but if you know someone, they might be able to direct you to just the right editor in their publishing house.

I think that’s it. Can you all think of anything I’m missing? Remember–You’ve put your heart and soul into your work. Honor it, and take responsibility for it. You can make a real difference for yourself.

 

 

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Choose Writing

 

 

If bet if we all had put aside a quarter for each time we heard someone say, “I’d write if I only had the time,” we could take the entire TKZ crew to Bali for a week, and bring along most of you, dear readers.

People say, “I don’t have time,” as though time were a finite thing, and not an infinite stream of possibilities. Does the idea of time as an infinite stream sound derpy and pie in the sky? Well, okay. Maybe it’s a little derpy. But it’s also true. (Oh, and yes, of course we will all die, but this fact will only serve to support what I want to say today.)

I don’t have time to write, and never have. There are eight million things in my ADHD head, all clamoring for attention. I suck at prioritizing because everything appears to be equally important. So other people set deadlines and I end up juggling them: tax deadlines, teaching deadlines, promotion gigs, car repair, pet and child maintenance. The family likes to be fed, bills have to be paid. And on, and on. It’s easy to feel like I have no time for anything I want to do.

If you don’t set your own priorities, other people will set them for you.

Being a writer is a choice. There are some writers who decide very early that their writing will be the primary focus in their lives, and every choice they make follows from that. What if you did that? What if you made writing your number one priority? What would that look like for you? Maybe it sounds pleasurable to you, maybe not. But many who’ve done that have found enormous success because they followed that narrow path. Those folks are people who, after a few years, don’t ever think twice about what comes first in their lives.

Or maybe that sounds a little freakish to you. Most of us have rather more prosaic needs. We like to have families or lots of friends. Quality of life is important. Or earlier choices we made preclude us from living like a Monk Servant of the Word.

Our writing choices are necessarily different:

We can cook a gourmet dinner, or we can heat up a can of chili and spend the extra forty-five minutes writing. We can binge-watch The Avengers or Stranger Things or The Great British Baking Show, or we can watch one episode and write for two hours. We can sleep eight hours, or sleep seven hours and stay up late to write in that sleepy zone in which weird, dreamlike ideas punch their way through our consciousness. We can take an actual lunch hour at the office, close our door, eat a protein bar, read for half an hour and write for half an hour. We can let the grass get a little too long and admire the words we wrote instead of worrying what the neighbors will think.

We can choose from a hundred different ways to nurture our creativity, even at random times. But if you’re hanging out here, words must be your poison.

Did I say poison? I did. Maybe that’s some kind of Freudian slip. It has occasionally felt like a kind of poison. For a long time I approached writing with a sense of dread, with a sense that I was doing something VERY SIGNIFICANT. Who in the heck is going to want to make time for something dreadful? One of my favorite synonyms for dreadful is formidable. If you’re thinking that what you will write if you take the time to sit down to write must be formidable, that’s a heck of a lot of pressure to put on both you and your work.

 If you’re approaching your work this way, I encourage you to lighten up this very minute.

When we’re writing, what we’re doing is not so formidable that we can’t do it in a notebook when we’re waiting in the doctor’s office. It’s not so important that we can’t jot down the outline of a scene while there are five minutes of commercials of people wearing Ralph Lauren fancy pants while they’re dancing on a glorified party barge as it floats down the Rhine. Is our writing too formidable to be present while we wait for an oil change?

Don’t make your writing an idol. Writing is not special. Writing is telling stories. Yes, there will be times when you need a chunk out of the time stream to organize chapters or write a difficult scene. But you will never have the perfect time to write. There’s no such thing.

So plunge into the stream and swim while you can.

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Do You Journal?

 

Look at all the lovely notebooks.

From the top:

Emerald Leuchtturm-Current Bullet Journal, containing calendar events, daily schedule, car maintenance, random notes taken when the appropriate journal wasn’t available.

White Paper-Masako Kubo–Stapled, not bound.  Last summer’s dream journal, reference.

Red HC Moleskine–Long term ideas for novels and stories since 2011

Light Blue Leuchtturm–Mid-End of 2016 Bullet Journal. I didn’t get into Bullet Journaling until late last year. Now using for blog thoughts and ideas

Teal Flexible Moleskine–Current Morning Pages Journal

Bright Orange Moleskine Notebook–Short story development

Buff Flexible Moleskine--Novel (Formerly The Intruder) WIP notes

Orang/Red Moleskine Notebook–Novel (Untitled cozy–Yeah, gonna give that genre a shot)

Bright Pink Leuchtturm1917 Master Slim–This started out as my 2017 Bullet Journal, but it proved too large for toting around. The 5×8 version (top) fits nicely in any purse or bag. I consider this my Journal of As Yet Unrecognized Possibilities.

For somebody who only owned one non-spiral bound notebook six years ago–the Red HC Moleskine–I’ve certainly made up for lost time. What you don’t see are the notebooks for my last three novels, the Bliss House Trilogy, because I’ve archived them.

As a young writer, I wasn’t much of a journaler. I wanted to write, but I was too embarrassed to write down things that might look silly to other people and carried around my ideas in my head. Of course, journals are meant to be private. I have no idea who I thought would want to even peek at my journals. The words were hardly titillating, the ideas tentative and unpolished. It’s not like I kept money or passwords between the pages.

But now that I’m a woman of a certain age, journals have become critical tools. Not only do I have more pressing/interesting  ideas, I also have a memory like a sieve. Journals are my full-body, writerly Spanx. They keep everything tucked in and looking, if not good, at least organized.

I’ve become very attached lately to the notion of ideas floating from writer to writer, looking for the right one to tell the story. It’s an idea I first read of in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She talks about starting to write a novel that had been sort of pestering her–but she struggled, and it just wasn’t happening. So she temporarily shelved it. But then she talked to novelist Ann Pachett, who described her own work-in-progress. And the ideas were nearly identical. But Pachett’s book was going very well, and she later finished it and sold it.

By writing ideas down, I hope to tether them at least for a while. Collect them, live with them, let them nurture themselves with the attention I can give them. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve gone back to the pages of that Red HC Moleskin when I needed a quick idea fix.

Still, it’s a rather intimidating pile of notebooks. They don’t travel easily, and I’ve only recently gotten used to having the Bullet Journal always with me. For a while I tried an app called Wanderlist, but tapping reminders and notes into my phone makes much less of an impression on me than when I write things down. Then I forget to look at the app often enough.

Tell us how you keep track of your ideas and schedule. Do you journal? Or do you go the electronic route?

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Are Words Sticks and Stones After All?

 

(Mostly stones, few sticks. Sorry.)

 

I’m going to take a big, fat liberty here, so bear with me, okay?

There’s a powerful Annie Dillard quote that has to do with churches that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”

While I happen to agree with the above, that’s beside the point for my purpose. Re-read the paragraph, and put the word “writers” in place of “Christians” and “churches.” I’ll wait…

Pretty interesting, yes? Did you ever think of the power that your words and stories might have?

Your words can influence, inspire, anger, irritate, uplift, depress, frighten, amuse, or engender admiration or scorn. Fictional stories have helped change laws and influenced social progress. There are many novels that have even inspired horrific crimes. When we read things in print—particularly if they look official, free of typos, etc.—we take them more seriously than if they’re just hearsay.

We can’t predict what effects our written words will have on the people who read them. That leads to the question: What responsibility do we have for the effects our words have on our readers?

I doubt that any two writers would answer this question the same way because there is no cut and dried answer. Words are ideas, and ideas are infinite and peculiar to every writer/reader/thinker. A scene or a bit of dialogue that seems innocuous to one reader might lead another to take to social media in protest.

As a writer, I see my job as telling the story the very best way I know how. I may want to appeal to a certain audience, but I feel my first responsibility is to the story. I start with a kind of Platonic ideal of the story I see in my head, and do everything I can to be faithful to that ideal as I write. Everything else is secondary.

But once a story is shared—even in a workshop/classroom setting—or published, it becomes something different. It’s no longer just ours. It takes up space in other people’s heads and they will react to it. We have no control over those reactions, but do we have a responsibility to predict them and change our work to accommodate them?

I’m personally familiar with a workshop situation in which a writer submitted a story that contained an abduction and rape. Several people in the workshop didn’t want to participate in the critique of the story because it triggered distressing emotional reactions in them. There were hurt and angry feelings on both sides. There’s also no clear answer here as to how the situation should be resolved. Does the writer have the right to tell the story as she envisions it? Do the other participants have the right to not be hurt or offended?

Announcing that there are potential trigger issues in a piece of work is getting more common on blogs and in academic settings. I haven’t yet seen it in the commercial writing world. Between cover art and jacket blurbs, publishers do a pretty good job of telegraphing what sort of material is contained inside. Occasionally they get it wrong and readers are misled, and the writer pays by suffering angry negative reviews based on unexpected content. There are many voices on the issue on the use of trigger warnings. Here is one pro voice and one con.

More and more publishers (and writers) are becoming proactive in another area of reader reaction anticipation: the hiring and use of sensitivity readers. Sensitivity readers specialize in checking manuscripts for misrepresentation of minorities and marginalized populations. If you’re writing about a population to which you don’t belong, you should anticipate sensitivity scrutiny of your work. Recently Writer Unboxed had a piece on sensitivity readers. It also references a widely shared Chicago Tribune article.

Writers now have access to audiences that most of us could hardly have dreamed of a decade ago. Readers, too, now have larger voices. The world appears to be demanding more from writers: to not simply be entertaining, but thoughtful and, some would say, authentic. But where should that authenticity come from? How concerned should we be with reader reaction issues as we write, and how do those issues affect creativity and storytelling?

I realize I’ve posed a lot of questions here. Let me ask you a few more: (you needn’t answer them all!)

How do you make sure your characters accurately reflect their cultural, societal, or ethnic backgrounds when they’re different from your own?

What is the most unexpected response you’ve had to your work?

Have you ever changed your work or held back because you worried about criticism or questions of authenticity?

 

 

 

 

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Writing in the Dream Zone

 

I have a good friend who dreamed the entire plot of her first novel, which became the debut installment in an enormously successful thriller series. Why can’t I have dreams like that?

My dreams alternate between blanket-clutching, dry-mouth terror and the most deadly-dull, anxiety-ridden school scenes, in which I’m either trying to remember the locker combination I had in 1974, or attempting to teach Algebra to a room full of kids who suspect I don’t know what the heck I’m doing (and they would be right).

There are so many theories on what dreams are. Just a few:

Subconscious problem solving.

Wishfulfillment

Random neuron firing

Emotional cleanup using dream symbols

Messages from the future or past

I don’t know about you, but my dreams tend to be a mix of the above, with the exception of messages from the future or past. As an adult, I’ve had some very comforting dreams about my grandparents, but I put those in the emotional cleanup category.

Dreams are as entertaining to me as a good book, and sometimes even more so because I’m participating. I go to sleep hoping the dreams are good. The only time I fear them is when I’m home alone overnight and have paralyzing night terrors about strangers in my bedroom. But most of my dreams contain vibrant colors, vivid situations and storylines, and people I don’t often see. I couldn’t enjoy them more if I made them up myself. Which, in a way, I suppose I do. It’s my subconscious at work—that part of the brain from which I suspect my best writing material comes.

But how to access that material in the waking world? As writers, we are essentially creating dreams for our readers. Stories that are like reality, but just that much better. Just that much less predictable, like any good dream.

Some ways to access the dreaming part of your brain:

Lucid dreaming: Lucid dreaming is dreaming when you know you’re dreaming. You won’t necessarily control your dreams, but you’re likely to remember them. Here’s a comprehensive list of ways to make it happen.

Dream journals: This is one of my favorites. As soon as I wake, I jot down the details of all the dreams I can remember. The exercise of writing it out makes me feel like I have a jump on my creative day.

Music: Do you listen to music as you write? It can quickly put you in the writing zone, but music with lyrics can be distracting. When I wrote Charlotte’s Story, I had this adagio on a loop for weeks. Repeated music is a great self-hypnosis tool.

Rituals: Same Bat Place. Same Bat Time. If you’re in the habit of doing deep work in the same place every time, your brain will begin to relax once it’s in sight.

Silence: I used to brag a lot about how I could write just as easily in a noisy cafe as I could in a silent room. While it’s still true, silence settles me much more quickly. You can almost hear the doors in my head opening.

Do you have trouble recalling your dreams? It’s common.The reason it’s sometimes difficult is because the brain may shut down its memory-recording functions while we’re in REM sleep.

Here’s what I find so fascinating about recalling dreams—or even having them. What if they really are simply random discharges of neurons firing up images in our brains while we sleep? That doesn’t make them any less interesting or less vital. It’s what we do with the connections between those images that makes a dream a dream. Even while we are sleeping, we are constructing narratives. How cool is that? Storytelling is so elemental to our being that we may be compelled to do it unintentionally, while we’re asleep.

That means that we are all storytellers. But to be writers, we have to externalize those narratives.

I love to wake up and share my dreams. If a dream is particularly vivid, I’ll definitely record it in my journal. It surprises me how long the narratives are. Recently I’ve tried to make sure I’m recording only what I remember about the dream. Of course, my inclination is to embellish it, to make it more of a story. Did I tell you about the one where I was babysitting a little white dog, and it ran out of the plush apartment where it lived? I searched all around the courtyard, but found it chained underwater in a big white swimming pool, paddling its heart out to keep its head above water. I felt like such a hero rescuing it. Somehow, though, I don’t think the tale would make compelling fiction.

Maybe next dream.

If you write consistently, you know exactly how it feels to slip into The Dream Zone. What helps you get there?

Have you ever dreamed an entire story or novel, and then written it?

 

 

 

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Betting On The Muse

 

A couple of weeks ago I started writing my post for today, and said, I need to think more on this before I put it out there. So I put it aside, and didn’t get back to it right away because I’m an all-or-nothing kind of gal. As in, I can only focus well on one thing at a time and I had a pretty big thing to focus on: I finished my ninth novel on Monday morning. May I qualify that? I finished my ninth novel, but the first two were practice novels, and I never sent them out. (But now that I’ve typed that out loud, I wonder why I so easily discount those two just because they haven’t been published.)

Number nine is a mess. It’s quite possibly the messiest first draft I’ve ever written. The Intruder is something new for me: a suspense novel without a hint of supernatural in it, and I’m not ashamed to tell you that it has been a little difficult to switch gears. It’s not like I’ve only written supernatural stories. Fully half of my published short stories are straight crime, i.e. contain nothing surreal or supernatural, and those first two “practice” novels didn’t contain any supernatural elements, either. But when my third novel (first one published), Isabella Moon, which was all about the ghosts, sold for actual money, I figured I should stick with what worked. I didn’t look back until about a year ago.

Writing about ghosts and demons is enjoyable to me. It’s fantasy. An escape. As writers—may I speak for us all here?—we spend lots of time in alternate realities. For me, at least, it’s not much of a stretch to envision realities in which the presence of perceivable ghosts is not only possible, but probable. And why not? There’s certainly a market for it.

Why write something different this time? I wanted to try something new, and my muse said, “Let’s go for it.”

I was struck by something the estimable James Scott Bell said in his January 29th post (in fact, the entire post was very timely for me):

“One of the nice things about short fiction is that you can get an idea and just start hitting the keys to see what happens. It’s fun. You can write whatever the heck you want to, without a huge expenditure of time.”

That feels very true to me about short stories. They’re low risk. If a new story in a new genre works out, you’ve just opened up a new door for yourself with attendant readers. On the other hand, if you’ve written five thousand words of uneditable dreck, it’s only cost you a few hours’ commitment. No big deal, and you’ve (it is to be hoped) had a good time. Hello, one night stand of the writing life.

But thinking about making such a big jump from one genre of novels to another was, dare I say, hard for me. In fact, it slowed my writing down considerably because I was afraid of screwing it up. Of looking like an idiot. I don’t like to admit it when things are hard. (Insert years of therapy here.) It felt BIG.

On the one hand, it is big. I just spent most of a year writing something very new for me. One hundred and five thousand words of new. If I thought of myself as a brand—and, seriously, I have a very hard time with that concept—then this book would be considered off-brand. My answer to that is that all of my published books are similarly suspenseful mysteries, it’s just that they also contain ghosts. How that plays with the buyer for Barnes and Noble, I’m not sure. Marketing myself as a part of a category has never been my forté, and you don’t even want to get me to hop onto my literary vs. commercial fiction soapbox. (Literary fiction is just a genre. Way too many MFA programs are still teaching people to write for Esquire magazine, circa 1972. The End.) But I digress.

On the other hand…really? I’m a writer. The words I put on the page are just words and ideas. Not pearls of wisdom or gold bricks. They aren’t even fully formed until I play with them and shape them into something readable. Writers who think that every word they spew out, or squirt out, or precisely place with the tiniest, cutest pair of word tweezers in the world is some precious, permanent thing are delusional. We are creating. Playing. And if we don’t write what we want to write (again, thanks, JSB and Mr. Bradbury), then it’s our own fault and shame on us.

Here I am, in between hands. Today I print out the manuscript to see it on paper. That’s my first step of editing. You can’t edit a blank page, but you certainly can edit four hundred pages with words on them. Wish me luck.

As I was working on this, I read a post on Facebook (I know. I get distracted.) that asked if writers found it hard to talk publicly about their writing, and I had to laugh at how many people said, “Oh, I just couldn’t.” I love that TKZ folks talk openly and honestly about their work and experiences. It’s very refreshing.

So that’s my vein-slicing for today. What about you? What’s the biggest, most public risk you’ve taken as a writer?

 

 

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To Count or Not to Count (Words, that is)

Because* I’m a writer who is thisclose to completing the draft of her next novel, I was telling someone today about how many words I wrote when I went off on a writing retreat this past weekend. (I know, I know. Another writer talking about her book. You’re yawning already. But do try to stay awake, because I promise I do have a point. And a question for you.) It’s the second January in a row I ran away from home for a weekend to write, and while I can’t yet call it a tradition or habit, I think I shall make it both.

The person I was telling isn’t a writer, and so the numbers–2K words late Friday night, 9K on Saturday, and 2K Sunday morning for a total of 13K—meant nothing to him. But he did ask me a question that surprised me: “Why in the world do you keep track of the number of words you write? Are you in some kind of competition?”

I definitely did not see that coming.

One of my best friends, an enormously successful writer, has kept track of her words on spreadsheets for well over a decade. But I also know a writer who has been writing for a half-century and couldn’t tell you precisely how many stories she’s published, let alone the number of words.

The subject of word counts comes up frequently when you’re an emerging writer. Agents only want to see a certain number of pages, and competitions, magazines, and writing workshops all set limits. When you sell that novel, there will be a word count mentioned in the contract, and when it comes time for delivery, it better be close: if there aren’t enough, it won’t meet the contract; if there are too many, it could negatively impact the production schedule and projected costs. Word counts are relevant.

But should word counts have a place in your creative life? What do word counts mean to you?

This might sound a little crazy, but keeping track of my words satisfies the voice in my head that says, “use your time well.” Word counts are by nature quantifications. Proof that I’ve written. It doesn’t matter if I’ve written badly. It doesn’t matter if I throw them out later. It doesn’t matter if I don’t even like them. I’ve written. I’ve worked. It sounds a little cold, but sometimes you have to feed the voice. (Now, these are only my thoughts. If you don’t have that scary neurosis voice in your head telling you she’s watching how you use your time, good for you.)

The softer, more right-brained view is that the more words you write, the more practiced you become. A friend of mine is fond of saying, “Writing begets writing.” This is so true. When I write, I work things out on the page. The more words I get down on paper, the more room there is in my brain for birthing new ideas. My brain feels larger, happier when it’s planning new words.

At the end of December, I started tracking my word counts in my daily blog. The person who asked me why I tracked words wondered if I was in some kind of competition. The answer is yes. I am in competition with myself. I like to know how much I’ve written, and it keeps me motivated—not just to improve the numbers as I go along, but to have some markers along the way.

What about you?

(Oh, and I wanted to share a bit of news with you all: I’m excited to have a story, A Paler Shade of Death, nominated in the Best Short Story category for 2017 Edgar Awards. I’m thrilled and honored and a little freaked out to be nominated alongside four of my writing heroes!)

*Yes, I opened this blog with the forbidden word, “because.” Please don’t try this at home.

(Photo by George Hodan, PublicDomainPictures.net)

Laura Benedict’s latest dark suspense novel is The Abandoned Heart. Visit her at laurabenedict.com and get a free ebook when you sign up for her newsletter.

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How Not to Treat a Writer (and a Bonus Guide on Building Good Anthologies)

Let me tell you a story.

On December 19th, I received an email through my website contact link suggesting that I might submit a story to an upcoming anthology of “dark and speculative fiction.” Okay, I thought. Sounds like me. Reprints were okay (if the work was requested, and it appeared that mine had been), and there was actually money involved. The stated theme of the anthology was vague and used the phrase “we may be looking for…” But I’m always game for submitting work, and women’s sexuality was one of the mentioned subjects. Okay, I thought. That sounds like me, too. Knowing that the publisher was a legit literary fiction house, I clicked through to the open call for submissions page.

I don’t want to embarrass anyone in this story, so I’m not going to get specific about all of the submission details. The story I had in mind was one I had published in Patricia Abbott’s Discount Noir, and I had long thought of expanding it. I was pretty sure it fit the women’s sexuality/female protagonist bill. Except: The deadline was to be December 30th. Yes, twelve days after I received the email, and only eighteen days after the date on the submission page.

Twelve days! It’s madness to think anyone but a few very motivated writers could put out a finished 2-5K word story in that brief amount of time. Still, I had the story on hand and was thinking of adding only a thousand words or so. As I said, I’m game. Christmas got busy, and I put it on the back burner. After a very relaxing holiday, I worked on it on the 29th and 30th. I’ll confess that I submitted it after midnight on the 30th, but it was still the 30th in Alaska, so I figured I was good. And, if not, no big deal. It was a fun exercise to work on the story.

I received the acknowledgement immediately. All was well. Then, later that same day, the 31st, I received a polite form rejection email.

There’s nothing like receiving a rejection for a story on New Year’s Eve. It was disappointing, as all rejections are. I had a lot of confidence in the story, so it was a little surprising. I went through six stages of story rejection grief, and enjoyed the seventh (an extra glass of wine), and decided the story would be a good addition to the ebook short story collection I want to do later this year.

But, wait! Less than an hour later, I received an email that I had been sent the wrong form email. They actually meant to send the one telling me they were considering the story and would get back to me in a month. They were sorry for the confusion, they said.

Ha! Ha! said I. And forgot about it the very next day.

This past Monday, nine days later, I received my response. They “love” the story, but “have since decided on a theme” that this story doesn’t quite fit. Oh, by the way, maybe I have another one that would suit their newly chosen theme? They only need it by January 16th.

*sigh*

There are so many possible responses. But the one that immediately comes to mind is a less lovely version of WTH? (That’s not the one I sent.)

My work has been in quite a few anthologies the past few decades, and I’ve edited five and published two of those myself. Yet I have never been involved in such an unprofessional exchange.

Publishing isn’t, “Hey, kids! Let’s put out a book!” Well, it can be, but the process needs to stay professional. And it would seem to me that a primary tenet of professionalism would be: Try not to alienate prospective writers.

Here’s a handy list for creating an anthology:

  • Define your theme. Make it broad, or make it narrow. Be flexible enough to push the boundaries a bit if you need to. The narrower your focus, the smaller your natural audience will be.
  • Put together a budget. Will you pay the writers in cash or copies or both?
  • Get a few writers on board that you know well so that if you will be going to a publisher, you have committed work from writers they recognize.
  • Write a proposal whether you will be shopping it to publishers or not. It will give you good guidelines against which you can measure submissions.
  • Find a publisher or, if you’re game and have some knowledge of publishing, put it out there yourself. How will it be distributed? Through regular distributors? Online vendors?
  • Decide if you want all original work or reprints or both.
  • Plot out a schedule backwards from your desired pub date. Give yourself three-four months before the actual pub date to assemble, edit, copyedit, and format the stories. Writers often miss deadlines. Build in an extra month for dawdlers or disaster. Allow writers three to six months for writing. It might as well be three because 90% of them will write the story in the last available month.
  • Scheduling six to nine months to put the whole thing together is reasonable. This is variable of course. Using all reprints may be faster—but often the writer will need to get permissions from another, larger publisher. And the larger they are, the slower they are. (It took seven weeks to get permission from one publisher for a Surreal South anthology, and we almost had to drop the story.)
  • Establish who will be the contact for all authors. Who will do the mailings and keep track of the files?
  • NOW open submissions for your slush pile, and give folks a few months to come up with stories and write them. If you have a solid core of committed writers, you have a head start. If you give everyone three months to write and submit, you’ll have plenty of time to read and choose.
  • Acknowledge submissions.
  • Get someone working on the cover art.
  • Draw up a contract. Do you want exclusive, or non-exclusive rights?
  • Choose the stories. Have a couple runners-up in case some submissions get pulled.
  • In the name of all that’s holy, send the appropriate rejection and acceptance emails to all of the writers.
  • Assemble the manuscript. Make sure all the rights are covered.
  • Plan advertising (or work with marketing dept.)
  • Write cover copy.
  • Have someone write an introduction that teases the theme and mentions all the accepted stories by name.
  • Make any necessary edits and okay them with the writers.
  • Copyedit the stories, send the manuscripts back to the writers for approval. Give them a deadline for getting back to you.
  • Get a blurb or two if you can. Put galleys up on NetGalley, etc. to encourage reviews.
  • Format, print, distribute.

NOTE: This is not a hard and fast schedule for every anthology. Big ones will take longer. Working with inexperienced writers will take longer. If you’re doing an ebook anthology of reprints or one that is very small, you may be able to do all this stuff in a few weeks.

Lisa Morton, Carolyn Haines, and I all wrote our stories for Haunted Holidays: Three Short Tales of Terror and had the book out in paper and ebook on multiple platforms in three months.

 

The point is, take your time. Think it through at the beginning of the project. Be friendly but professional in your communications with your writers. Admit it if you screw up, but don’t set yourself up for failure by setting unrealistic expectations for yourself and everyone else involved.

As a writer, what’s the worst submission experience you’ve ever had?

Have you ever put together and anthology? How did it go?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House trilogy of novels. She blogs daily at her website. Visit her on Twitter, too.

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Bad Copy: Is This the End of the World As We Know It?

You might want to stand back, or at least put earplugs in, because I’m about to have a full-on get-off-of-my-lawn-what’s-the-matter-with-kids-these-days moment.

Two years ago, I came across this captioned photo in my Weather Channel phone app. In the interest of full disclosure, I have mocked this photo more than once on Twitter and Facebook, and even included The Weather Channel folks with an @. And, yet, it remains.

Notice anything?

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Two years ago! This abomination has shown up on my phone through two entire years of daily weather events: sunshine, fog, rain, clouds, sleet, hail, ice, and thunder snow (which is a also a thing, according to the app). The weather events are described with pleasantly short, declarative sentences, i.e., “Partly to mostly cloudy. High 34F. Winds NNW at 5 to 10mph.”

I won’t bother to dig deeply into what’s wrong with the grammar of this non-sentence, because we are all adults. Agreement is a problem, of course, and “distinguish the flames” makes me spew tea all over my keyboard every time I read it. When I read the hot, flaming mess that is, “Hear these firefighters amazing story,” I suspect that the single issue the writer considered for any length of time is whether or not the phrase should have an apostrophe hanging about somewhere. That he or she made the bold decision just to leave it out is characteristic, I think, of the incredible, sans-serif confidence of the whole bizarre caption.

I have so many questions about this:

Who wrote the caption?

What were they thinking?

Who okayed it for use online?

Is The Weather Channel requiring meteorologists to write app copy? (I don’t think so. My guess is that the meteorologists write the tidy forecast copy.)

Am I overreacting?

Does The Weather Channel not know/care that they are putting out copy that is, for want of a better word, illiterate? Despite the fact that millions may have seen it?

Does this make anyone else question the quality of The Weather Channel’s work in other areas, like forecasting?

Did the same person write the caption for the image below? Or was it a different person, one obsessed with Initial Caps? (See what I did there? I can play this game, too.)

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Captions like these make me worry. The grammar illiteracy I see in both print and online newspapers also makes me worry. Though our local university paper is always good for laughs when it comes to homophones and word choices that make me grit my teeth, national and international newspapers are almost as bad. While there are still plenty of writers and editors out there who do their best to be correct, the vast majority of words we read now–especially online–are not necessarily written by people who are concerned about communicating clearly. They’re more concerned with clicks than content.

As a child, I didn’t receive much of a formal education in the finer points of grammar. Studying Spanish and French helped me a lot. But I learned nearly everything I know about how language works through reading. If I needed to punctuate something like the phrase, “children’s stories,” or was confused about whether to use “lie” or “lay,” I would search through the books–usually fiction–on my own shelves. Shelves which held a few classics, but also a lot of Nancy Drew. These days, I always find myself in tussles with (often quite young) copyeditors. (See, I told you this was going to be a kids-these-days rant.)

I’m all about the growth of language. English is so dynamic and fun, absorbing new words and concepts with lightning speed. But what happens if it softens into a constant refrain of “oh, they’ll know what I mean” excuses?

Do you have any egregious, public examples of grammar misdeeds? Do you think we are headed for grammar chaos–and is that a bad thing?

 

Laura Benedict is the author of the Bliss House Trilogy and several other books of dark suspense. Sign up for her newsletter and get to know her better at www.laurabenedict.com.

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A Criminal Obsession: Are You Guilty, Too?

I’m not sure what I was looking at the other day, but for some reason I suddenly realized (“suddenly realized” is a phrase I would warn you away from in your fiction) that my mind and life are consumed with the subject of crime.

I would make a lame criminal. While I’ve had my brushes with Johnny and Jane Law, I’ve only ever almost been arrested (juvenile offenses, and minor ones at that—let’s leave those to your imagination for now). I’m a terrible liar, meaning that I have a very hard time lying without immediately giving myself away. No poker face for me. I blush and stammer and can’t help but laugh nervously. I can feel my heart speed up and my blood pressure rise with the red in my face. Suffice it to say I would never bother to try to fool a polygraph. I’d like to say I can’t lie because of my ironclad moral code, but I suspect it’s more a lack of self-confidence.

Crime fascinates me. I know several people who have been victims of violent crimes, or have had loved ones injured or murdered. Crime is real, and I’m not a groupie of real crimes and criminals. But the stories that catch my attention first when I’m online or reading a newspaper are always crime stories: silly, sordid, violent, white-collar, rural, urban—they’re all fascinating. And I’ve never found the variety and true weirdness in fiction that I can find in the newspaper or online. (With the exception of Harry Crews, of course. Harry used to give me the vapors.)

I’m not sure when I stopped reading books that didn’t involve crime. Or watching non-crime television. Sure, I’ve read a few biographies or literary novels over the past decade, but they’ve been outnumbered by crime, suspense, and historical fiction by a factor of ten. That feels like a strange admission to come from a person who loves the classics and used to review books of all sorts for a living. (Well, even back then, it wasn’t exactly a living.)

Not long before I stopped reviewing professionally, I was a Best Novel judge for a major mystery fiction award. Talk about a baptism by crime fiction fire. I was given hundreds of mystery novels, and read a huge number of them. It felt like a whole new world to me. There were tropes and rules, and so many plots. Did I say I read them? In truth, I devoured them. In younger days, I’d read an Agatha Christie here and there, teethed on Poe, Patricia Highsmith, and Jim Thompson. And lord knows I watched Columbo, MacMillan and Wife, the Rockford Files, and David Suchet’s Poirot until my eyeballs dried out. But I never knew there was such variety in the form. So many crime/mystery niches. So much comfort and exercise for my brain in one genre.

Comfort and exercise. Now, there’s an odd combination.

I like to tell my workshops that all good works of fiction are essentially mysteries. The mystery is the unfolding of the story. Only the author is absolutely certain what will happen before the last page is turned (or in the case of a thriller, the why is more evident, and the how is the mystery). The reader is constantly imagining what might happen next, making up her own possible scenarios that might finish the story. A good book poses at least one question at its opening, and answers it by the end. The challenge for the reader is to try to get inside the writer’s head and know where she is going at least a heartbeat before the story takes her there. Why, why, why, why, why? The reader constantly asks. Every sentence has to have some kind of answer.

If you read enough mysteries or other crime novels, or if you watch mysteries on television, you will definitely be able to predict with some accuracy what the outcomes will be. That’s where the strange comfort comes in. There’s comfort in knowing a crime or mystery has been solved, or comfort in knowing it hasn’t, but that the truth rests with one of the characters we’ve met. Or that someone is punished. You can’t always get that kind of satisfaction in real life. Closure in real life can be protracted and painful, or non-existent.

Not long ago I gave an emerging writer a critique on a family drama novel. The writing was fine, and there was some decent tension in the story. But I found myself wanting to suggest heightened drama and perhaps the introduction of…a crime. Neither the writer nor her intended readers would have much liked that.

I fear I am ruined for everything but crime stories. I want high stakes. I want to live in the head of someone who looks at the world through a lens of twisted intensity. I want things to happen, frequently and with vigor and unintended consequences.

My husband has been teaching creative writing in various universities for three decades. If I were to crystalize his advice to his students, it would be: Don’t bore me.

That’s the thing about crime fiction. It’s rarely boring. If I want quiet intensity, I can read Louise Penny. Rhys Bowen and M.C. Beaton are available for deadly shenanigans. Patricia Cornwell and Kathy Reichs are immersive. John Hart and John Connolly give us unforgettable characters. Reed Farrell Coleman and Cormac McCarthy are full of grit. Lindsay Faye and Susan Elia MacNeal offer historical secrets. I could go on all day.

Crime-centric television is my playground. In the past two years I’ve watched the entire Poirot, Midsomer Murders, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis series. Also True Detective, The Fall, Vera, Worricker, Bosch, Blue Murder, Grantchester, Whitechapel, Touching Murder, Broadchurch, and a truly embarrassing amount of Nordic noir (not an exhaustive list).

We also watched The Detectorists (charming, not a crime series) and Galavant (musically charming), though I could barely sit through the Galavant songs. Almost no one dies!

I tell myself that all the combination death and destruction and darkness is a big part of my job. That living it and breathing it is okay as long as there are brief excursions into other realms. Realms I used to visit much more frequently. (On Thanksgiving we went to see Arrival, the new alien film. Meh.)

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This coming year, I’m going to make a sincere effort to read more widely and watch with a mind open to non-crime possibilities. I thought I’d start with Silence by Shūsakū Endō. Martin Scorcese has directed a film adaptation of the novel, which is about two Jesuit priests who travel to 17th century Japan to find their missing mentor. Christianity has been outlawed, and its adherents are persecuted and tortured. It sounds plenty intense, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. But it at least can’t be categorized as crime fiction. Right?

What genres make up most of your reading and viewing? Are you single-minded, reading mostly in your chosen writing genres, or do you read and watch widely?

Laura Benedict’s latest novel is The Abandoned Heart. It’s full of crime and suspense.

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