Friday, June 28, 2013

What Women Read - A Guest Post by Vaughn Roycroft

Today I (Kim) would like to introduce Vaughn Roycroft, an epic fantasy writer I met through the Writer Unboxed group on Facebook, where we are both on the moderating team. He is a frequent commenter on our posts here at What Women Write and, having beta read the first book in his trilogy, I can say he's not bragging when he says the Skolani will greatly appeal to women. (I'll let him explain why.)

Here's Vaughn! 

Brave or Foolish? Yep, besides being a writer, I’m a dude. And I’m here on a blog called What Women Write talking about what women read. As of this moment, I haven’t decided if this idea is brilliant or daft. I’m leaning toward the latter, but what the heck. It’s almost Independence Day here in the US, so I might as well light this thing up and see if it’s a lovely skyrocket or a complete dud.

Why Should I Care? After all, as I already mentioned, I’m a dude. And it’s summer—high season for poolside page-turning. I’m all for reading whatever inflates your air-mattress, no matter who you are. As long as you’re reading, I’m all for it.

I must admit, I hadn’t thought much about who reads what prior to finishing a draft of my trilogy of epic fantasy manuscripts. Then I suddenly had beta-readers, and a funny thing started to happen. It happened so slowly, I didn’t notice at first. It took a brilliant post by my mentor, Cathy Yardley, to yank it to the forefront of my oh-so-observant male consciousness. Do You Know Your “Right Reader?” forced me to examine the facts. Of the trilogy’s dozen or so readers, the ones for whom the work best resonated were preponderantly women. And it’s only become more evident since. It seems my Right Reader is female.

Who knew? Not me. I’m not sure why this initially bothered me. Maybe I was just surprised. But my business background soon brought me back to my senses. I knew the importance of a target market. I realized not only that I shouldn’t be bothered, but that I should gladly embrace it. As Cathy points out, your Right Readers aren’t going to be your only readers. But they will be your advocates. And in a business driven by word-of-mouth and recommendation, that’s a priceless commodity.  

Image by Iwan Nikolaevich Kramskoj - 1866
Women Really Read This Stuff? I guess that the surprise was due to my genre—epic historical fantasy. I mean, I did not spare the battle scenes or violence. And my work is loaded with all the usual geeky tropes, like foreign-sounding names and special swords (heck, I even have special swords with foreign-sounding names). But I’ve come see it should not have been a surprise—for several reasons.

#1- Diversity: (This one will be obvious to the readers of WWW.) Of course women are as diverse in their tastes as men. So, of course, their reading and writing preferences are going to be just as diverse, if not moreso. (Forgive me, guys, but since I’ve been monitoring gender trends, I’ve met far more women who read widely, across genres and fiction plus nonfiction, than men. It’s just anecdotal, and maybe simple coincidence, but lately I’ve discussed books with so many men who tell me they only read nonfiction.) Since discovering my Right Readers, I’ve met so many women who both write and read epic fantasy. Maybe this was initially surprising to me because y’all are so much less likely to wear your Frodo Lives tee-shirts in public than us male geeks.  

#2- I write strong females: In fact, they’re kickass, if I do say so. One of the most fantastic elements of my work is the creation of an all-female warrior sect called the Skolani. I’ve written about why I created them in a post called Regarding Kickass Warrior Chicks. To quote from the article: “With the addition of the Skolani, I hoped to create a genuine historically-correct atmosphere in which my male and female characters could approach one another with the same respectful consideration as would two males–to have the opportunity for males and females to appraise one another both inside and outside the realm of sexual attraction. I wanted my male and female characters to be friends, comrades, occasionally lovers, or even esteemed foes, all within the context of a believably historical setting.” I suppose it shouldn’t have been a shock that my female characters would appeal to a segment of female readers.

#3- Calgon, take me away! So I’m a guy who likes an occasional lingering bubble-bath. So what? (See? I’ll bet you’re becoming less and less surprised my work appeals to women, huh?) Seriously, as a reader, I want to be transported. I want to be taken somewhere I couldn’t or wouldn’t go in real life. Also, I not only want to feel something while I read, I want to be left feeling something afterward.
Whose Fiction? In an interview by Amy Nathan, my friend Therese Walsh, co-founder of Writer Unboxed, was asked how she defines Women’s Fiction. Therese answered, “For me, women’s fiction makes you reflect on your life in a meaningful way. It isn’t escapist fiction. It isn’t light or even fun. It might make you cry—even sob—then leave you to consider: Why did that touch me like that? What does it say about me that this book resonated so authentically? What have I learned here? Good women’s fiction leads you to a thoughtful place and connects you with your innermost self.” I really like this description. Maybe they should’ve called it “Mostly Women’s Fiction.”

The Total Literary Package: If you take out Therese’s line about escapism, you have my favorite kind of book. I already loved history when I read The Lord of the Rings at age eleven, and fell in love with being transported (escapism, I suppose). And it might have been partly due to reading my mom’s castoffs in my youth—books like The Thornbirds and The Far Pavilions—but not only do I love the way historical settings transport me, I also enjoy the emotional evocation of an entwined romance element within an epic tale. Wrap all of that up for me; I’ll take it. Set me poolside and I’m a happy reader.

And I attempted to write the kind of story I love to read. So if this is something I share with a segment of female readers, I’m thrilled. Since discovering my Right Reader, I can say something my geeky high-school self would’ve never dreamed to ever be remotely accurate: “Chicks dig me.”

Now it’s your turn. Feel free to set me straight. Am I being brave or foolish to presume to tell the readers of What Women Write about what women read? 

About Vaughn Roycroft:

In the sixth grade, Vaughn’s teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and storytelling. After college, life intervened, and rather than writing fantasy fiction, Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ he and his wife left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their getaway cottage near their favorite shore, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. In addition to polishing his epic fantasy trilogy, Vaughn is a moderator for the Writer Unboxed Facebook Community as well as a regular contributor to the WU newsletter, Writer Inboxed. 

Get a glimpse into Vaughn’s writerly world at

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lazy Summer Days

by Elizabeth

Some of us are lazier than others. I'm going to count myself in the former group. While I can, and do, get the job done, it's been a lifelong struggle to get industrious, and I know what is necessary to spur me on to action. That takes an absence of laziness in itself, so for me, getting stuff done is the kind of the albatross of my life. Of course I do get things done (my kids are clean, fed, get to school in a timely fashion; I've completed two entire manuscripts, a Bachelor's degree, and the litter box gets cleaned), but given my druthers, I'd probably take more time to not do stuff.

But that always makes me feel lousy.

So I put on my gym clothes (once I'm dressed, actually going to the gym is the easy part), I make lists and strike the items off the list throughout the day, I make my bed each morning both because it makes me feel like I'm off to a good start and because I know a woman who could afford to pay someone a full day's wages to do only that in her home, yet she does it herself because that's what you do, and it inspired me. I walk the dog, fix the dinner from scratch more often than not, I sit down and write.

My son, a fellow contradiction, in a blur of activity.
Which makes me feel good.

But now it is summer. My schedule really needn't much change just because we are past the solstice, other than not throwing the kids out the door by eight o'clock, but there is something about these June, July, and August days that whispers to me it's okay to be lazy. Okay to sleep in, to skip the list, to let the writing wait a while. The litter box never gets a bye, though.

Honestly? I'm not sure if letting the excuse of summer, slow glasses of lemonade and lolling in bed until the sun is high in the sky, is the best idea. My nature, as I said, is torpid, but the past ten years I have made a real effort to overcome that as much as possible. I don't feel too vain admitting I'm pretty proud of how much I've managed to change and improve. I like this more industrious version of myself better, I feel better for it, mentally and physically, and I think those around me benefit from this 2.0 version as well.

Our childhoods are so brief, adulthood long if we are lucky, yet the impact of those early years never seems to waver. My thirteen years in public school, followed by another six of college (let's keep that our little secret, shall we?), those long summers of glee and sweat and boredom and fun, have shaped my expectations for the now more numerous years that have followed. Summer is a time to relax, let the rhythms and schedules loosen, be lazy.

Which makes me feel lousy.

What is really funny is that I am a terrible relaxer. Whether facing a free hour at home or a free week on vacation, I have a lot of trouble letting everything around me go, grabbing that sweating glass of lemonade, and just letting life slide by without any intervention of my mind or activity. I know, I know, I just wrote how lazy I am, how indolent--which means I am a freaky or perhaps typical contradiction: one who cannot let go, but who at the same time struggles to be proactive. Which means that, left to my own devices, I get a whole lot of nothing done. Make the list, though, decide on some specific task and bestir myself to get to it rightnow!, I get a good amount of useful stuff done.

Which makes me feel better.

I have some really  great leisure time planned for this summer, and I am really looking forward to those days. I also have many more days without a specific plan or agenda, and I am perpetually responsible for the smooth running of four human lives. I feel bad when I'm a  slug, I feel good when I get stuff done, and I feel great when I get stuff done and then exhale  into a state of deserved relaxation at the end of a fruitful day.

It's summer. The days are lazy. I should be, too, to a certain extent. But not too much. I've come too far to let go of the person who can get something done. The person I like better. The person who might not be published yet, but who has a better chance at it than the one who doesn't get the job done.

Monday, June 24, 2013

They Have Stars Here, by Chris Raia

by Joan

I’m pleased to introduce Chris Raia, a young writer at the cusp of his career. Over the past two decades, I have watched Chris grow from an observant, quiet one-year-old to a rambunctious teen and then a big-hearted college-graduate. Recently I read one of Chris’ stories in progress and was blown away by his wit and charm. I think you’ll be seeing more from him.

I am Chris Raia, and I sometimes like the writing thing. I very much enjoy black pens, the Oxford Comma, and sitting in beach chairs on driveways. I also like short, quirky author bios because I think they're fun. I like writing very simple stories about strangely simple characters, because I like to think strangeness makes people real. Want to chat? I'd love to! Send me an email at chrisraia (at) gmail (dot)com.

They have stars here

A few months ago, as a graduation present, my father and I went on a trip.  Twenty-four hours after I walked across the stage and received my diploma, my dad and I checked into Southwest Airlines in Baltimore to board a plane to California.  From there, we'd drive to Yosemite National Park to sleep in a tent, attempt to create fires, and look at pretty nature.  It was to be a father/son bonding experience of the grandest proportion.

And it was.

I brought a notebook because that's what people who like to consider themselves writers do when they visit places that people consider inspiring.  It's a pretty cool notebook.  It's tiny and leather and has a fancy cloth bookmark, and if you saw me writing things in it, you'd assume I'm deep and artsy.

While I was there, I kept convincing myself I'd write something fantastic.  That I'd find a new combination of words to describe the natural beauty of Yosemite Valley.  But then I realized, a lot of people have visited Yosemite before me.

Here's what John Muir jotted down in his notebook years ago.

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

Holy shit, right?  That's pretty good.

I was going through my cool, leather notebook the other day.  Here's what I wrote one night:
"Butterfly leading the way. Waterfalls. Sam and Nikki. York, England. Larry and William. Tent is up. Half Dome. Squirrels aren't afraid of people. Neither are the lizards.  Karen and Carl. Carl's dead dog is buried at Happy Isles. We went to Inspiration Point. Iranian Texans warned us about bears. Steaks in the rain. The beer is cheaper than water here. New Asian neighbors. They're cooking noodles, which is awesome. Scotch. The universality of kids jumping in puddles and the universal happiness they get from it. Rock Climber thinks he's "one with earth," which is probably bullshit. I hope our tent doesn't leak."    

Clearly, I'm not John Muir.  I can't describe scenes poetically.  I don't know how to make beauty come to life.  So I just wrote down aspects of the trip I wanted to remember.  And I'm glad I took that route.

I guess it's good to know that lizards aren't afraid of people in that section of California.  The fact that beer was cheaper than water was pretty fantastic.  And Sam and Nikki from York, England are the most adorable couple I'll ever meet.  But nothing I wrote down was really important.

But then I turned the page to the next night's thoughts.  It's only one sentence, written in enormous letters that take up the entire page.  And I think I nailed it.

"They have stars here."

It may sound silly.  It's definitely clichéd.  But it's true.  There were stars, and I liked looking at them.  I'm glad I wrote it down, because now I remember why it mattered.

The campsite my father - who we'll call Joseph as we move forward - and I stayed at had a tent, a metal box to store our food as to prevent bears from murdering us for our 99 cent powdered donuts, and - my absolute favorite piece of outdoor furniture - a picnic table.  Every night, after getting back from a hike or a drive or a tour, we'd sit at that table and have a nightcap with a Solo cup of red wine we bought at a Safeway before checking into the campsite.  It was a two-dollar bottle of wine, and it was just as disgusting as it's price.

During those nightcaps, we'd talk about the day.  We'd talk about what we wanted to do when we left Yosemite and went on our way to San Francisco.  But that night - the night with the stars - we didn't talk about anything.  I laid down and just stared.  I like stars.

Joseph and I have always had a great relationship, which is nice.  But in the weeks before our big trip, you could say we were sort of on the rocks.  I had just graduated, I didn't have a job lined up, and I wasn't exactly searching.  I completely shut down whenever he tried to help me.  His questions - and my doubts about the future - annoyed me, and I annoyed him because I'm a pain in the ass.  It got to the point that whenever we had a conversation, I'd lash out, and we'd both sit silently until somebody left the room.  I feel terrible about that.  I feel worse because, even though it was my fault, I know he felt terrible as well.

But that night, it was a different form of silence.  We had just spent four nights together in one of the only places in America where people are truly alone, and we had done this without fighting, arguing, or physically maiming one another.  The job conversation didn't matter. The stars put everything in perspective.

After three glasses of shitty wine in silence, Joseph said something.

"I hope you're having a good trip with me, because I'm having a great time."

It was as genuine a sentence as I've ever heard. It was nice.

People say there's magic in Yosemite Valley, magic you can't feel unless you're there.  I don't know anything about magic.  I'm not John Muir.  I'm certainly not one with nature.  I wrote in a tiny notebook for a week, and even though I didn't write a single sentence that really matters, I'm glad I had it.  It helped me remember something important.

I don't know where I'll be tomorrow, or the next day, or ten years from now.  But that day, in that moment, I was sitting on a picnic table sharing a two-dollar bottle of wine with my father.  We were happy.  And there were stars there.

That seems worth remembering.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Revising Your Novel

By Susan

This morning, for the first day of summer 2013, I enjoyed my coffee on my Texas patio before diving back in to my day's work of revising my manuscript. I called my father to wish him a happy birthday and we exchanged news. And at the end of our conversation he said—as he has ended every conversation with me for the past few months"Turn in the manuscript."

I suppose it appears to him that I am sitting on this draft. He read an early version in March, and—because he is my father—loved it. Yet just because a draft is complete doesn't mean that it is the best possible draft you can submit, whether to agents with a query letter, to your agent, or to your editor. Editing as you go ensures that you have fewer errors—that's true. But revisions are not line edits. To revise is to step back and see your work differently. Revision is to go deeper.

In the course of the past few months, I've learned some tips about my own process that might be helpful to any writer while tackling revisions. Of course, each writer has his or her own way of working, but I've found that by gathering every tool possible from other writers, I've been able to fine-tune what works for me and for this manuscript. I've learned that even though the first draft may take months or years, you're not doing yourself any favors by letting it loose in the world without taking the time to revise. Here are some tips:

1.     Take things apart—and don't go easy. Break down chapters by sentence, paragraph and scene. Take out weak verbs and flimsy metaphors. Watch for overused phrases and words. Find and hone your theme. Writer Don Roof says, "I've found the best way to revise your own work is to pretend that somebody else wrote it and then to rip the living shit out of it." I couldn't agree more. Grade each chapter as though your are your own writing professor. Sometimes this is the only way not to hurt your own feelings.

2.     Ask yourself: Is this scene my very best work? Treat every scene in your manuscript as the most important one. Would you read this scene aloud at a book signing? Submit it to a contest? Seek publication as a short story? I found myself saying to myself, "Well, this one's not so great, but look at the next scene!" The problem with that logic is that agents, editors and readers aren't going to get past the weak scenes to find the 'good ones.' Make every scene the best it can be. I've completely rewritten several chapters—adding richness and detail, cleaning up dialog, creating symbolism—just because I asked myself that question and answered it honestly.

3.     Take as much time as you need. Sometimes, time is your best editor. Think through the order of your action: Is the tension building? Are you ending each chapter with a reason for the reader to turn the page? Do you need to raise the stakes for your protagonist and push him to risk more? Answer these bigger questions with long walks and yoga. Maybe yard work or preparing a meal. Maybe you need to sit in the sand and stare at the ocean. Whatever works for you, just be sure that you take the thinking time that you need to figure out your best solutions. Then don't be afraid to make the improvements you need to make.

4.     Rediscover your characters. Make sure they find their way through your manuscript. What is each character's goal, purpose, role and challenge? Are they interesting enough, compelling enough? I'm not of the school that they have to be "likeable" enough, but they must drive the action. Do they need more backstory, or less? Are they real and rich, or thin and stock? Give them quirks. Allow them to get angry and make mistakes. Above all—make sure they grow because of their choices and develop as the plot unfolds. No character should arrive at the end of a novel the same person they were going in; they've either gotten better or worse. Push them to become who you've created them to be.

5.     Embrace change. Read your manuscript from start to finish. I suggest print it on paper and not read it from the screen. Make notes in the margins. Then allow your revisions to take you somewhere you don't expect. If the plot changes, don't suppress it—allow it to flow. Sometimes, you'll have to reign it back in, but sometimes it will take you somewhere glorious. Don't be afraid or too stubborn. Think of yourself as a storyteller—not just a writer. And allow that story to be the best one you can possibly tell.

6.     If you can't trust yourself, work with a partner you trust instead. Critique partners need to be a unique combination of cheerleader and coach. Do they know how to push you to bring your best work to the forefront? If they are constantly full of praise, they're not the right reader for you. At the same time, if their criticism is vague, you won't know where to start. A good critique partner doesn't rewrite every sentence for you, but they can see holes in your plot, weaknesses in characters, and can provide ideas for pacing and tension. And be careful: don't overuse a critique partner to the degree that they are too close to your work to advise, too tired of it to help, or no longer able to take as much time as you feel you need. Remember: sometimes the only cook you need in your kitchen is yourself.

7.     Give yourself deadlines, but also the permission to break them. Don't rush your own creative process. Keep it beautiful and remember that it is your art—no one else's. If you are under an editor's deadline, be fair and gracious if you need extensions, but also work to have realistic goals to begin with. Setting goals will keep you from abandoning your draft when it gets difficult. And it will get difficult.

8.     Infuse it with love. If you're not writing something because you love it, perhaps you should rethink why you write. Do you love the process, the characters, the setting, the story? Make each sentence feel like a poem. Use beautiful language, but don't overdo it. Vary your sentence length to give it rhythm. And love it as though it's your favorite song—even though you might get sick of it, you can't help but sing it over and over.
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