Category Archives: Publishing

Kissing (Scene) and Tell Me

I know; two posts in a year! I’m trying to spend more time writing in 2018, because to write well, I have to slow down. I need active and passive think time, and the ability to walk away for a while, days even, and let questions and analyses dribble out of my brain. I have to clean house and read the whole internet first (too bad it’s so much longer than it used to be). I would really like to slow down.

And lately I’ve been especially struggling with two brains–one, the technical side that wants everything to be correct, the one that runs hot, the one that remembers how to hyperfocus, and details from that time before we were showered with praise for multitasking, and the other the curious, analytic brain that makes predictions and sees patterns and appreciates the bigger picture. When those brains are on at the same time, they’re both the worse for it. How do you turn off half your head? Also, I’m procrastinating on something I don’t want to do by writing this post. Yes, I am suitably ashamed and also sort of pleased that I am doing something I’m not supposed to. (Roll your eyes at flimsy rebellions here; spare me your disdain. I’m trying.)

But what I’ve been thinking about even more is reading. I’ve had a half-dozen different people ask me, just recently, how to become a better writer. Maybe how to improve their first crack at writing a story, or whether they should take some course or follow some career path, or go to some event. I want to say: Wait! The best thing you can do for your writing is read more.

Reading–and reading well–is a whole post on its own. But taking my advice in hand, painfully, as I’ve pinched a nerve somewhere, I am working on a very modest goal of reading 100 published books in 2018 (manuscripts don’t count), and I’m on track for that. I’ve read a handful of picture books, some middle grade, adult fantasy and nonfiction, graphic novels in MG/YA/adult, and and some genre and contemporary YA. And one…I don’t know what it was besides a pointless mess and I have no idea where it came from or why it was a book but I must have downloaded it by accident. I bounced out of two of the books around the 50-page mark, but I’m not missing out on anything, I promise. And you don’t have to read all of books if you don’t want to. It’s not my job to like things, and it’s not yours either.

I have more of a walking commute than a train one, and I get carsick reading on the subway. Most of my all-pleasure reading so far has happened on the subway platform (thanks MTA for regular overcrowding and delays that average I dunno 3 hours a week on lines I ride) and escalators (really deep stations), and I’ve also been trying to schedule 20 minutes before bed. I’ll probably finish book #32 tonight. If you need a kick in the pants, start with a small kick, like reading a chapter of a book a day, and you’ll find the groove. And I hope you’ll be finding polished work that you can absorb, enjoy, analyze, and be nourished by.

All of that leads up to: I read a book. I’m no longer in the business of reviewing what I read, and I could write a whole post on that and who gets to review and when and why bad reviews are good indicators that you’re reaching an audience beyond friends and family…

Anyway, I read a book. I’m going to be very vague about this book, because I know full well it’s typeset now and all, and written years ago at this point, and frankly, when I’m going to describe could have happened in any number of books.

I got to the last quarter and there was a kissing scene.

It was a good kissing scene!

Here are some reasons I thought it was a good kissing scene:

  • I found the characters who were kissing to be interesting. (Let’s not have the “likeable” discussion right now. Your eyes are probably glazed over already if you read this far.)
  • There was physical tension in the scene–the characters were in close contact, and aware of each other before they kissed. There had been other opportunities for them to kiss, but those hadn’t panned out, for various reasons, so there was a will they/won’t they vibe, too.
  • In the kissing, there was a nice mix of feelings and emotions and descriptions that were familiar along with unexpected, exciting, vivid sensations!
  • There was plot tension, because the stakes were changing around the characters–and the fact that they kissed meant that the stakes got an extra layer of change.
  • There was relationship tension; it was clear that the kiss signaled a verification that the characters had passed some point of no return, and that they were probably going to have a lot more points to deal with in the future, based on this moment.
  • There was emotional tension, because the characters both represented things that the other hadn’t dealt with yet. (In fact, it was a play on a classic romance trope! And was working in that moment.)
  • The characters liked and wanted the kiss! I liked the kiss! I’d have that kiss! (Other kinds of kisses: not discussed here.)
  • And in all, when those tensions were finally resolved, finally (always make the reader, or at least me, wait for it), they were more changed and renewed–there was new tension, instead of straight resolution!

A lot of the time, kissing scenes are boring and unbelievable, and don’t feel necessary or useful to the plot, and I don’t really need them to be in every story, and I’ve honestly read so many that it feels like there’s nothing new in most of them, so when there’s a good one, I’m extra pleased! Delighted! And this was like the third good kiss I’ve read this year!

So…why was I utterly dissatisfied, even disgruntled, afterward?

I flipped back through the (e)book. The writing wasn’t absolutely amazing, but it served the story and mostly didn’t throw me into editor brain mode. There was plenty of action and adventure, an interesting antagonist, and enough world building that I knew what was going on, and not so much I felt infodumped on. I hadn’t been excited about the premise, yet it had me engaged well enough to keep turning the pages instead of picking up something else. The characters were familiar types, but different enough and developed enough that they weren’t stock or mere outlines of interesting people, people that readers are often told to think are interesting instead of the characters just being interesting. I was, in the grand scheme of things, satisfactorily entertained.

What was my problem? I even went to Goodreads to see if I was missing something, and of course, as you can expect, the 1-star reviewers all had some different, or conflicting, reason why they hadn’t been happy readers. P.S. If you’re an author don’t read your reader reviews; they’re about the reader and not you and maybe not even really about your book; I didn’t like it so I gave it 1-star is not about you; plenty of people use the star system for reasons other than ratings, etc.

Anyway, here’s what I think, and I’m curious if there might be other reasons.

  • First, the two kissing characters didn’t get enough page time together, and when they did, they weren’t interacting with each other in sustained ways. By that, I mean that while they were on each other’s minds (at least in one direction; the POV was 1st person) for plot reasons, there wasn’t a lot to go on in terms of why they’d like each other enough to kiss. Or, hey, hate each other enough to kiss, because that was possible too!
  • When they met, in scenes, their interactions were brief and often utilitarian, or focused outwardly on action only, without an undercurrent of more…anything, and the longer scenes had a power imbalance that meant the smaller clues that they’d eventually be kissing didn’t land as much as they might have if the power imbalance had been addressed more or more intertwined with attraction (and attraction doesn’t have to be about, or all about, thinking a character is hot–it’s often as good or better if there’s some other sort of connection, or some other sort of connection that’s tied up with a little physical or mental want). In fact, there were a lot of weighty themes that weren’t directly addressed in the overall action plot, and didn’t necessarily need to be–but if if they’d been addressed in the emotional plot, that would have strengthened things a lot.
  • I knew the characters would kiss, but I wasn’t anticipating it because of the characters; I was anticipating it because I know how stories work. I didn’t get, say, a moment where they had to repeatedly grab hands to enter a throne room in the customary way turning into a comforting warmth turning into fingers entwined just a little too long. Or a irritatingly wry comment turning into a phrase that makes the character smile to outright funniness leading to appreciative laughter. (Neither of these examples is from the book I read.) There were some hints, of course, but they weren’t linked, and didn’t build on each other in a way that said these two characters would be interacting in a way different from how those two characters would interact with characters they would never kiss.
  • I’m sticking this in the middle because I don’t even remember if this was in the book–story details drain out my ears as fast as I pull them in through my eyes, much to my ongoing dismay–but I just want to generally complain about the word “falling” and the phrase “falling for them.” Please, if you love me, and even if you don’t, find some other way to say this. Or find something else to say.
  • It wasn’t until, oh, 10% of the book leading up to the kiss that the characters got to spend significant time together focused on their characters over/in tandem with their immediate actions, to go through things that involved making decisions together, to show the reader how they’d work together or react to things if they had to be a team instead of individuals–and even then, that section fleshed out the non-POV character and didn’t show me why that non-POV character liked the POV character so much.

Don’t get me wrong–there was lots I did like about the book, and I picked up the sequel right away. I figured out I’d also pre-ordered the author’s book coming out later this year, too, so good job me using up those ebook credits. I’ll probably stay up irresponsibly late tonight finishing the sequel.

Overall, though, a lot of ideas were laid out on the page but never fully examined, never pushed beyond what had to happen, minimally, for the plot to move on, never used to drive things in as razor-sharp a way as they could have. There was plot! I wished for more, though, and the book had a framework for something awesome that didn’t quite come to be.

I can see what I think this story wanted to be, and I wish I could have read that book. And then, highest honor, have read it again. I guess I just wanted to drag this story up a mountain, yelling at it to keep trying to get what it deserves, to go for every bit of better it could be, and be able to slap it on the back and tell it YEAH when it made it to the highest peak.

The moral is: it’s tough to trace and balance all of the different plots and types of plots, if you want to use those terms, all the way through a whole book. How is…another post. Happy–when this posts it will be–Wednesday!

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Attending the Denver Publishing Institute

Every year, I think, hey, I should post something about the Denver Publishing Institute, also known as DPI. And every year, I forget to publish this post until after the deadline to apply…including this year. This is endlessly amusing to me, because I remember finding out about DPI right after the deadline, and then, the next year, when I thought about it again, the deadline was the next day, and then, the next year, the people I  requested letters of recommendation from were met with misfortune, and then…

At any rate, I’ve been meaning to post something about DPI simply because there isn’t much online about it, and that–I think–causes people to dismiss it. There are reasons you can’t find much about it on the internet. One reason is that the program administrators ask participants not to post about it online, and this isn’t a bad reason; many of the participants are just coming out of college, and haven’t had to sort through what is or isn’t good to put online (in ways related to finding and keeping jobs). And–ha ha!–I graduated long enough ago no one can tell ME what to do any longer. More seriously, I think I can tell you about DPI without compromising their ability to do what they do best.

Another reason you can’t find much about DPI online is that the program includes some annual surprises, and DPI doesn’t want people to spoil them. Yet another is that the course includes (a wealth of!) proprietary information that professionals share under the condition that participants will hold that information in confidence. And, too, the course is demanding, so once things get underway, there isn’t much time to do anything other than enjoy the intense immersion in the publishing course (and do your homework)!

But let me back up a little. You don’t have to enroll in a summer publishing course–or a degree, or workshop, or even necessarily have an internship–to find a job in publishing. (You may or may not ever find a job in publishing, and that’s completely unrelated to taking a summer course! Alas.) There are many paths to take, and while this gets glossed over all the time, publishing happens in all corners of the country, and involves many different functions. A summer publishing course can be a good way of exploring whether or not pursuing publishing is the right career choice, and of jump-starting your job search and connections through the purveyance of a great deal of information. It can, also, be the prompt that, no, what you really want to do is something, anything else.

There are three major summer publishing institutes that I’m aware of. They’re all about a month to a month and a half long, all connected to graduate education, and while they cover slightly different   ground, they’re part of the same ecosystem. There’s DPI, Columbia, and NYU. DPI was the only summer course I considered; it was close enough that I could live at home and thus didn’t have to pay for room and board. I also was interested in the particular bent of this program, which I’ll write about below.

You can find information about Columbia and NYU elsewhere; I didn’t attend either, so my opinion is no more useful than any other (though I did go to NYU for graduate study). But I will tell you about DPI.

What Is It, Really?

The way I think of DPI is this: It’s the summer course for people who know they’re really interested in books, and aren’t/aren’t quite as interested in exploring other areas (newspapers, magazines, digital, etc.). It was established by people in the NY book industry, and many of its instructors work in publishing in New York. It also addresses and includes lots of other kinds of publishing, from university presses to regional presses to packagers, and speakers come from all across the country. Essentially, publishing that happens outside NYC is valued and respected, and it’s understood that it’s just as valid of an option as working in NYC. For me, this was a big selling point.

There are introductory/informational mini-workshops that happen throughout the institute. These might go on all day, or be an hourlong lecture on law, or finance, or sales, or distribution, or running a bookstore, or literary agencies, or something else. All of these  provide opportunities to ask questions and get real insight into the vast–if still relatively small–publishing industry. Beyond that, the institute is split roughly in two halves: the editing workshop and the marketing workshop.

The editing workshop begins with instruction on the structure and function of the reader/readers/reader’s (choose your style guide adventure) report. (Fun fact: While I sometimes use the structure and approach I learned there, I have never been asked to write a report in exactly that fashion, presented as the standard, outside of the course! Mileage varies.) You then work through substantive/content and line edits, and you’re graded on your edits. At the same time, you’re taking a copyediting (copy-editing, copy editing) workshop, so you’re functioning both as “regular” editor and managing/production editor (depending on the terminology used at any given company). This is tough. A lot of people get very frustrated; they think they know how language works. They think they know grammar and spelling and punctuation. They think they know how to give appropriate feedback. And…it’s harder than it looks. Most people come out of this part of the course deciding they don’t want to work in editorial, perhaps even feeling freed from editorial (the one job they’ve heard of) and I think that’s part of the point–your passion for books, your skills, and your education are needed and useful and a fit for lots of career paths. Somewhat unfortunately, this part of the course made me more sure that I did really want to work in editorial!

The other “half” is a marketing and publicity workshop. You’ll write press releases, come up with marketing plans, design book covers (what, you didn’t know that was really a marketing piece?), and present ideas. Marketing, like writing well, is embedded into nearly every function in the publishing industry, and this workshop is vital. If you were the kid in school who always chose to make a TV or radio commercial for a project instead of writing a paper, you will thrive in this part of the course.

I never, ever, ever willingly made a commercial, so by the end of this unit, I knew that I wouldn’t want to work in publicity or marketing, so that information was incredibly useful. Instead, I was able to identify better fits for my personality and interests. The conventional wisdom is that you should take on any publishing job to get in the door and that you should do it well, and then, if it’s not a fit, transfer to another function. This is both good and bad advice. If you’re at the start of your career and just out of college, or if you are pretty open to any role, yes! Use this strategy. If you’re switching careers, like I was, I think you have to have some direction and focus and reasoning, and be pursuing something other than job, any job, to be taken seriously. I also think that if you have some reason that you really don’t want to work in a certain area, and you know that you’d be really bad at working in that area, it’s fine to not pursue jobs in that area.

Don’t quote me on this, but I think that both NYU and Columbia include large-group projects, where you’re assigned a role at a publishing company, and then you come up with an imprint or company. DPI doesn’t do this. I think the upside of not doing this is that the focus becomes more about trying lots of different things and evaluating your skills and proclivities as an individual through your assignments (group projects do exist, but they’re at a minimum). I have mixed feelings and other educator-y thoughts on this, but they’re kind of unimportant. I just include this detail in case it’s a dealmaker or dealbreaker for you.

Finally, there is a career workshop, where you hear from graduates and employers, get resume help, and participate in mock and real interviews. Alas, I can’t tell you too much about this, because the year I attended DPI was the nadir of the depression, and publishing was pretty much only laying people off, not hiring them. The relatively light opportunities the year I attended were not at all the fault of DPI. Typically, publishers and publishing-related companies seek out students for interviews and positions at the end of DPI, despite rumors to the contrary. (I think some of those rumors stem from a misunderstanding of DPI as a whole–it’s not that people don’t have the opportunity to go to NYC, it’s that not everybody wants to, and that there are publishing-related opportunities in the west. It’s a little bit of a challenge that you’re not in NYC if you decide you want to be in NYC, but it’s not going to completely ruin your chances, either.)

I did have an interview with a major publisher and some other interview opportunities, and even in the troubled times, there were people who were hired right out of the program. Some folks banded together and moved to New York and began applying for jobs. Some accepted opportunities closer to home, or enrolled in graduate school, or studied something like copy editing or design so that they could freelance, or became teachers or journalists. Some people took their newfound knowledge back to their employers and used that to strengthen university departments, or online initiatives, or church communications. I went back to work full time at the position I’d held before the recession ($ needed desperately), since the nearest publishing opportunities were two hours to the north or south of where I lived and–to be honest–I wasn’t particularly interested in either, and definitely not interested enough to move or commute. I looked for, and found, three online internships, as well as one “job” that I count as an internship because I was never paid. There are many more online internships now, but you have to be quick and prepared to apply whenever they appear–people have found out that they exist! I have had a really unconventional career path; may yours be more usual, if that’s what you want.

Who attends?

People just out of college. Librarians. Teachers. Career changers. The majority of people have just finished undergrad, but there will likely be a group of nontraditional students. Some know they want to go into publishing; some do not. Some are sent by their employers. Some live nearby; some are international students.

Why attend–or why not?

I think the best reason to attend is that you are interested. Maybe you’re not sure if publishing is where you will, or want to, end up, but you’re seriously considering it. DPI–and any of the summer courses–is an opportunity to network, to learn about the industry so that you can go into interviews (and informational interviews, and internships) with some knowledge and confidence, and to get a feel for the industry and lingo so that you’re not learning everything on day one. This can definitely help make those first few months of work easier–you won’t have to ask what every single term means!

One day, toward the end of the course, a classmate told me that she felt like her brain was so full, expanded, overflowing. That was at the point that I realized my experience was completely different. I’d been reading books and articles and following publishing for years at that point, so most of the information was familiar; what I didn’t know was how to see the big picture. I was creating connections between all of the separate pieces–I was building a neural network, so to speak. I was understanding the how and the why. I got synthesis.

But why not attend? Money; all the courses are expensive. Maybe you’re burned out on school and need a break and now is not the time to go back. Maybe you want to do something like legal, design, copy editing, fact-checking, indexing, educational/subject matter consultation, or writing, and more focused coursework would be more useful (and except for legal, these are often freelance positions, so the only boss you need to impress to get hired is you). You don’t need a summer course to get an internship, and you don’t need a course to get a job. Do they help? Sometimes. But so does proximity and networking, and maybe you’d be better off working all summer and saving money so that you can move where the opportunities take you. You can get a lot of information by reading industry publications like Publishers Weekly and free newsletters from Publishers Marketplace and elsewhere. And, in the end, having a summer course won’t help you skip any steps on your career path.


Apply for scholarships from the course you attend! I wouldn’t have been able to go otherwise.

Think carefully about what you want to get out of DPI, or any other course–networking, course credit, knowledge, synthesis, career change…and weigh the pros and cons of going this direction.

Do your homework early and often. By this, I mean read everything you get, order your books, and, yes, do your assignments before you arrive. Once you’re there, you might throw out 95% of what you had–because the assignment got revamped or because you got smarter–but it’s going to be much easier to revisit your work than to start from scratch, especially when you will have Assignments and Projects Not Previously Mentioned to take care of. Okay, maybe this is just me, because I have pulled one all-nighter in my life and vowed to never do that again; I don’t work that way! But seriously, it’s going to be demanding, and you’re going to want to…

Enjoy your free time! Do get to know people and explore wherever you end up going. I didn’t stay on campus, so it was harder to connect with my classmates, and I knew the area well, but I know that others loved the opportunity to go hiking in the mountains or to explore Denver. I’m sure that exploration holds true anywhere. Essentially, take all the good you can from your experiences, and you’ll come out all right.

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