Good bye to 2014 – A Goose Song

This is going to be the shortest post ev-ah — quite simply because I have to go to bed. But it’s my last chance to wish you a happy new year — all 1000+ of you, most of whom I suspect might hail from Russia.

No matter. If you are seriously following this blog in hopes of learning something about writing and publishing in this strange new digital world, this is a valid learning: that your blogs get followed by people with the strangest email addresses. You can spend time wondering who these people are, or you can think: when I pitch my new novel, I can say I have an opt-in mailing list of…well, 1,673 to be precise.

My most important task tonight is to announce a change for 2015.
In the new year, I am going to begin work on my new novel. So, this blog is going to be framed around that experience. This is going to become a step-by-step process blog, something like Julia Powell for Novelists. Let’s hope for the success of Julie & Julia.

It’s going to start on January 13th.  I hope to “see” you then. And in the mean time, from New Zealand to Spain (that’s an antipodal pair, by the way — the antipodal point to Moscow was somewhere in the blue, blue sea), happy, happy new year!

All the best for 2015. Honk honk!

Shirin

 

Hatched!

Many months ago, I gave a picture book writing workshop to a small group of beginners. It wasn’t a long course — maybe four weeks. And it was at a community college, which usually draws a less committed student. I enjoyed the class, and then thought no more about it. A year later, I received the letter below:

Hi All,

It’s been exactly one year ago since our class together in the Children’s Book Writing Workshop at SMCCD! I just wanted to connect with you again to share an update.

For the time being, I’ve transitioned out of my career in business consulting and am focusing on growth in writing and illustrating. The workshop and my first manuscript there helped spur me on to go and do something about my love for children’s books. For your instruction and inspiration, Shirin, and also to each of you – Thank you!

I just recently launched my publishing name, Wildberry Ink, creating children’s books that integrate diversity and heart values for meaningful learning. My manuscript evolved and became my first book Commander Charlee: In Search of a Space Crew, written for young readers ages 4-7 years old.

Charlee and her family will move away from their city and home. However, Charlee has other plans and searches for a space crew to move to outer space with her. While she copes the move in her own way, she embraces her community. 

As I had initially shared in class, I imagined and created the book from the wonderful privilege and experience in serving alongside community members the past couple of years in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. It represents what I’ve learned and hope to pass on to others as well. 
Here’s a short video that launched my book. Feel free to share!

Naomi

 

So that’s what I’m doing: freely sharing. Not only Naomi’s achievement but her thrilling self-empowerment. If she can do it, so can you.

Chasing your dream is like jumping off a 6,000-ft cliff. You’ll never feel larger and more alive.

So congratulations to Naomi…and I hope we’ve both got good parachutes!

Happy writing,

Shirin

What can I say, tonight, that would be of most use to you?

The thing about writing a blog is that you feel like you have to hold up your end of the bargain. The pact is clear: you follow me, I say something at least half-way useful, at least half the time.

Well, lucky for me — and hopefully for you — some of my work this week has been judging a fiction competition. What better way to share how to please editors (which I claimed in my last blog to at least try to do) than to share an actual rubric that judges are using to evaluate your work.

1. Are you opening with a compelling hook that makes the reader/judge want to continue reading?
This is often interpreted to mean are you opening with a conflict, a crisis, a challenge: high drama? But for me, intrigue can be equally compelling: an authentic voice that makes the protagonist too interesting to walk away from; an atmosphere or setting that I want to dwell in; most effectively, something fresh or unique that signals that what I’m about to get from reading on, I will not get anywhere else.

2. Are the first ten pages an effective introduction?
In other words, is the promise that you’re making to your reader — the carrot that you’re dangling — well established by the time you get to page ten? You’d be surprised how many times that answer is no. In Dostoyevsky’s day, not a problem (although you could argue that his carrot is the beauty of his prose: you want more, you gotta read on). In our age, however, coyness is sadly a no-no. We’re busy. Your readers/judges might not need the plot, but we usually want the premise in the first ten pages.

3. Is the voice distinct and engaging?
I’ll put it this way. If you’re writing a romance, your heroine should not sound like a romantic heroine. Your heroine should sound like an alive, three-dimensional, interesting woman whom I’ll only meet in your pages. If I want to spend time with her, the only option I have is to keep reading. If I want to spend time with a romantic heroine, I can open many other books.

4. Is your manuscript appropriate for its designated category? 
A quick aside to many of my students: MG and YA are considered genre fiction, subject to forms and rules. Know your genre. MG, especially, is a citadel guarded by fierce librarians and protective mothers.

5. Does the conflict arise from the character’s motivations and goals?
Notice the focus is on the conflict arising from within the character and not out of external circumstances. Watch this one! That nuance is easy to miss.

6. When you lump that internal conflict with any external conflict, is there enough to sustain interest?
If in doubt, make it even tougher for your protagonist. Struggle keeps us interested. We prefer five-set to two-set tennis matches.

7. Does each character exhibit a unique voice, and is that voice consistent and appropriate?
This, I think, is often the hardest skill to teach. Some writers are just naturals at this. Others are always in the author’s voice — you’re aware that the character is the author’s puppet, and it’s the author who is speaking.

8. Does the story move forward?
It doesn’t have to progress at a gallop at all times, but it does have to always be taking us somewhere.

9. And the big kahuna: If this landed on my desk, wedged into a pile of manuscripts the sight of which, despite a life-long love for reading, evokes less pleasure than pain; if I don’t know you and feel no kindness towards you; if my eyes are tired; if my main need is to reduce this pile before it has the chance to grow again…would you give me an experience in two pages that would make me want to read more?
Because you can.
Completely unknown and unpublished writers have.

Go ahead and ignore my editorializing (ha ha, love it), but make this an exercise: hold up your writing to these measures. When you judge to a rubric, you see things that your more sentimental self might have missed.

Hope this helps. Happy writing!

Shirin

 

Can science teach you how to write?

Earlier this week, a fellow writer sent me a link to A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has. It gave me a lot of trouble.

I was a Bio major and remain a science geek. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite authors; An Anthropologist on Mars one of my favorite books. I thought I’d be exactly the type to embrace the concept that there are certain ways we learn, and therefore, unsurprisingly, certain ways we enjoy, and therefore certain ways we can predictably elicit enjoyment. If so, you can write to please, and I can teach my students how to write to please — and, after all, that’s what I do, right?

But no. The concept didn’t sit well with me at all.

First of all, on closer thought, I don’t attempt to teach my students how to please all identically-hardwired readers. I attempt to teach them how to please editors, and specifically, editors now. In my very short lifetime (she bats her youthful lashes), I’ve seen that change. Reading tastes change, and the publishing industry works hard to keep in step not because those tastes point to great literature, but because that way lies the buck.

So, statements for all time like “the reader [because of genetic hard-wiring] expects that the story will start making a point on page one” elicits a genetically hardwired response in me similar to that of a she-bear guarding her cubs.  Such a statement implies that all readers have always had and will always have this expectation; and all writers who don’t start making their point on page one is missing the mark; and those stupid writers are bad writers.

But how to argue — nay, prove — that this is wrong without getting into researching and understanding brain science? (Something that the author professes to know well, without once giving us a footnote or reference, or her scientific qualifications — yes I know she consults for TV and film, and has written a book.)

And then, right as I was grappling with this, in wafted the dulcet tones of Ira Glass, talking about a man who spent twelve years trying to chase down antelope to test the premise that this was the reason that humans evolved to walk upright. You don’t have to argue the cause, if you can disprove the effect.

Anna Karenina didn’t make its point on page one. It has a wonderful opening line that sets you up to expect an unhappy family, but Anna herself gets first mentioned — and only in passing — on page 33 of my copy. She doesn’t step off the train until page 146, by which time, like the Pony Express, we’ve changed horses and possible “points” at least three times.

The Jungle Book doesn’t make its point on page one either — nor for that matter on page two. All that happens in the first two pages is that Father Wolf stretches from his nap and a jackal comes by wondering if he can snoop around the cave for something to eat. What’s the point?

I’m not claiming to be in this league, but Ruby’s Wish didn’t make its point on page one.  Page one was spent not making a point but creating an atmosphere. It was a very long (and I’d like to think lyrical) “once upon a time, a long, long time ago.”

So, to be frank, I don’t think we’re hardwired to expect anything on page one. I think history has shown that the human brain and our aesthetic expectations are pliable. What we expect and enjoy changes. Remember the reaction to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring? The music almost caused a riot. The audience hated it. Nobody understood it. They weren’t hardwired to like it. And now it’s one of the most recorded works in the classical cannon (at least according to Wikipedia).

I have another writer friend who thinks that the meaning of life is not so difficult to deduce. She believes that we are all biologically still cavemen and cavewomen. When the sun is in the sky, we must take the opportunity to gather as much food as we can in relative safety. When the sun goes down, we eat that food. Then, once fed, we sing and dance, and love, and tell stories.

In my imagination — even less scientifically, in my heart that holds art sacred — the storyteller by the fire is not addressing a clientele hardwired to need to know now; he or she is beguiling an audience in the flickering light, a small group of humans huddled together who are sensitive to atmosphere, open to mystery…who can be entranced by many qualities of a first page, sometimes by just the rhythm and cadence of the words.

By this theory, our impatience isn’t hardwired. It’s our culture that’s to blame. It’s not too late to learn how to read slowly!

Happy writing,
Shirin

Burrs, Obi Wan, and my new fiction press

In June, I began thinking about publishing fiction. I read fiction. I write fiction. I edit fiction. Why wouldn’t I publish it too?

Marketing Me was wary. The problem with publishing fiction is that it is so hard to position yourself against the market. “Publishers of quality fiction.” That tagline could belong to anyone. Whereas it’s been relatively easy to create an identity for Goosebottom Books that gives you a pretty clear idea of what we’re all about.

Still, the idea hung in there. Like a burr. You know the ones. If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a creative person yourself. Those ideas that won’t shake loose, they will change your life if you let them.

That month, I helped one of my students edit a manuscript as an application for a scholarship. The work was so good I felt agitated — as if I’d taken a swig of my sister’s triple-shot coffee. (My sister can metabolize caffeine but not alcohol; I’m the other way around.)
I wanted to publish that book; never mind that only the first few chapters had been written. Those chapters not only delighted me and touched me, they made me think. They brought my mind to something that I’d never thought of much before, and they made me compassionate in my contemplation.

In the same month, I bumped into not one but two ex-students at two separate conferences. Both of them were working on wonderful, altruistic projects. Both projects didn’t scream “money.” But they rumbled, “the Force is strong.”

Then at another conference, I started talking to an author about a project languishing in her drawer. Something in her description caught my attention. “Use the Force” echoed just beyond the range of human hearing.

At this point, part of me cringed. I have a Business Jedi brother, and I could already see the disbelieving shake of his head, the single word laughed, not spoken — “Wh-ut??”

“I want to start an imprint publishing worthy fiction. Fiction with a cause — only it’s fiction that doesn’t read like fiction with a cause. It just reads like great fiction, but it has a cause.”

Follow the “whut” with some expletives.

From where I sit, the big question in independent publishing is how do you do what you love, what is worthy, what you think will be on the side of good, and not go bankrupt?

How, indeed.

Actually, at this point that’s exactly what my two ex-students asked me. And I realized, there may be a way, if we did this together: if we shared the risks that I could no longer afford to assume single-handedly; if I provided the design and marketing skills and the industry knowledge that they were lacking — and access to my rolodex and to national distribution; and if seed funding were provided by other people who also believed that the projects were worthy…

And just as this thought took shape, just as the burr untwined its spines and grew, I came across this story of a publisher combining publishing services with crowd funding. They’ve published 6,000 books this way in the last five years. Maybe I can publish six?

Anyway, now we’re four months along. I’m starting this new month by announcing my new imprint: Gosling Press, four years to the day after we announced Goosebottom Books. It’s called Gosling not because we’re publishing for younger kids (although we still are focused on kids); but because I’m taking these authors under my wing. Gosling Press is a partner publisher — we will share the investment, and share the rewards.

That’s the positioning: A curated list of partner-published, fiction-with-a-cause.

It’s riddled with hyphens, but I’m very excited.
May the Force be with us.

 

 

One small step for Apple, one giant step for self-publishing-kind

Last week, Apple unveiled its new iPhone 6 without saying one word about its function as an e-reader. E-books? A market that Amazon has drawn blood for, and for which Barnes & Noble might have lost their business? Pah, small potatoes?

The omission struck Jeremy Greenfield in Forbes, who wondered if Apple was squandering an opportunity to make waves in the e-book business. To us book peeps (read take-it-to-Amazon-pow peeps), the omission was especially galling as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are now the best Apple e-readers on the market, with larger screen sizes and improved screen resolution.  What were they thinking?

This week, Apple made another little announcement. As of yesterday, Apple has begun updating all its device users to iOS8.
So? So, for the first time, iBooks comes standard. That little orange open-book icon is going to be popping onto lots of little screens.

How many screens are we talking about? Eight hundred million. 800,000,000! I feel like putting my pinkie to the corner of my mouth and going “bwah-ha-ha” in a Dr. Evil/Mike Myers impersonation.

The latest figures released by Apple showed 150 million iBook installations as of June 2013.  So, simple math would tell the iBook self-publisher that with one fell stroke, Apple has added an extra 650,000,000 to your potential market. (This does not count any new users brought into the Apple fold by the iPhone 6.)

Of course, we should be cautious and give due respect to the word “potential.” All those people have to a) upgrade their operating system — which is something that I, myself, am notoriously slow at; b) double click on that little icon; c) find your book; d) like your book; e) buy your book. But, potentially, a market of 800,000,000. You have every right to celebrate that! (If you’d like another cut at the numbers, here’s a great article in DBW.)

And, to my mind, iBooks also extends another huge advantage to indy/self publishers: iBooks Author. This is such a powerful and elegant piece of software — something Adobe would  charge thousands for, but being Apple, easier to use and stocked with templates that are oh-so-beautifully designed.

It’s free. Yes, FREE — insert pinkie and Dr. Evil bwah-ha-ha again.
And it can bring a level of interactivity to your e-Books that is worth exploring. Its built-in bells and whistles may not be necessary for a straight novel, but are rife with potential for nearly everything else. Even for novels, the interactivity brings new opportunities. It would be very easy to put together one of those “choose your own ending” stories, for example…hmmmmm…

On that note, I have to end. I have a new idea that needs writing.

Needless to say, an extra 650,000,000 potential readers is of no use to you if you can’t get their attention. So, to help with that, here are a few promotional opportunties:

The deadline for entering the Third Annual Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for Best Independently Published Book, sponsored by Bowker and Blurb, is October 1.

Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Awards program is now open to indie books published in 2014.

And Publishers Weekly has just announced a new blog for independent authors.

Happy writing and publishing!
If you’re in the SF Bay Area, join my latest publishing course at Stanford on September 27th if you’d like a few more tips.

And, I’ll be with two other geese at Book Passage in Corte Madera on October 4th and then back again on October 6th to speak to the Left Coast Writers. Come say hello.

Shirin

With Love and Gratitude,

This week’s post is a Ted Talk that I’d like every author and illustrator I know, and as importantly every educator, to see.

Please spend a few minutes sharing this with me.
It will really fire up your resolve to keep doing what you’re doing.

With love and gratitude,

Shirin

On Labor Day Weekend: A Labor of Love

I was recently in Mendocino—not recently enough, now I think about it. While there I connected with the coast’s wonderful writing community, including the amazing Katy Pye.

Katy is a tremendously hard-working author and self-publisher, and an active conservationist. Her book Elizabeth’s Landing enwraps us in the story of a young girl finding her own power, and highlights the plight of sea turtles. It won the First Place for Fiction, 2013, in the Writers’ Digest Self-Published E-Book Awards.

To celebrate the Labor Day Weekend, here is my interview with Katy about her labor of love.


One note about my choice of music. Unfortunately, what you mostly hear is “I don’t know you but I want you…” which I’m sure spooked Katy out. But the lyrics that made this the song for Katy (and which were subsequently pulled under in the edit so that we could hear her speak—editing is not yet a strong suit, but watch this space) were:

Take this sinking boat and point it home
We’ve still got time
Raise your hopeful voice you have a choice
You’ve made it now

Falling slowly sing your melody
I’ll sing along

So that’s why I’m posting about Katy. I’m singing along. I’m all for books that serve a cause—I’ve even set up a new imprint, Gosling Press, which will soon be bringing out books that serve various causes. So yay for causes, and yay for labors of love, and yay for labor in the service of causes!

But I have another reason to be nice to Katy.
She makes the BEST lemon cheesecake EVER!

Shirin Yim Bridges

Decisions, decisions: Self-publishing a children’s book

I was recently asked to write a 500-word guest blog for BiblioCrunch, the self-publishing resources website, on “The Basics of Putting Together a Self-Published Children’s Book.” That’s a lot of information to get into 500 words. I thought the only possible way would be to delineate a decision tree. But even that didn’t work. (I like to think because I’m informative, and not because I’m wordy.) So I decided to post the full-blown version here where I have no restraints on length, and write BiblioCrunch a précis that will link here for full information. How clever is that?

So, if you are wondering what you’d have to do to self-publish a children’s book, here are the decisions, step-by-step:

1. Are you talking about a picture book or about a chapter book or novel? Mostly pictures go to 5 below. Mostly text, keep reading.

a) Do you want to be your own publisher, so that you can call all the shots, knowing that you probably will not get the exposure that a larger publisher can deliver, or is your secret hope that a successful self-published start will leapfrog you over the slush pile and end in a big-publisher contract?

Self-publishers, go to 2. Would love a traditional publishing contract eventually, keep reading.

Continue reading

1621706_10152624268543210_2901377824047875448_n

What happened to the and in fame and fortune?

This week, I was on the cover of Publishers Weekly. (Their lack of punctuation, not mine.) The whole industry buzzes about the importance of a writer’s platform. Being on the cover of PW should add a big plank to one of those, surely? Book sales should soar. Telephones should ring. Fortune should follow fame. Did it? Well, no.

I’m in the unusual position, being also a publisher, of being able to track my book sales. Most authors go out into the world and line up their store readings, and their school visits, their advertising and promotion (if they’re rich), and their pubic relations and media coverage (if they’re lucky), and have no way of telling what’s making the blindest bit of difference. I, on the other hand, can log into my distributor’s amazing database and see, in real time, how many copies of each title were ordered and shipped, by whom, and exactly when.

So, I’m sorry to have to report that I have found no direct correlation between being on the cover of Publishers Weekly and the following week’s book sales. Similarly no correlation between being on NPR and book sales. Or in the San Francisco Chronicle and book sales. Or being well reviewed and book sales. Or winning awards and book sales.

What I have found, though, is that my brand image has changed. I’ve received an increasing number of invitations to read, and to speak, and to teach. When I take up those invitations, I find that more and more people know of Goosebottom Books, and they have a very gratifying perception of our success. Opportunities that I once had to chase now come my way—being on the cover of PW not least among them. And the phone does ring. Every week more people seek out and are willing to pay for my help as a self-publishing consultant and children’s book editor.

So maybe fortune will follow fame? Maybe it’s just a long and, like the here in “hhhhhere’s Johnny!”?

I like to think of it as skipping a stone across a pond (something I’m horrendous at, by the way). Just because your stone’s not across the pond yet doesn’t mean it isn’t in the middle of a skip that’s necessary to get it there. Just because each plank hasn’t seemed to make much difference doesn’t mean they won’t eventually hammer up into a stage.

And if not—because let’s face it, the reality could be not—if not, then well, better fame and no fortune than no fame and no fortune, right?

Enjoy the writing life. As grandpa said in my book, Ruby’s Wish: enjoy it while you can.

Shirin Yim Bridges

 

 

 

Shirin Yim Bridges' journeys in writing and publishing