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September 4th, 2012

There’s been a lot on the Internet in this last week about publishing. The big news a few days ago was the exposure of the fact that authors (primarily self-published) can buy reviews.*Many people were shocked and horrified. Some shrugged. But there is no doubt that self-publishing is on the rise, and that more and more people are doing their own book marketing. Which means: THE INTERNET!

I happen to think this is largely a good thing, and am pretty excited about the worlds self-publishing will open. I am equally aware that as these doors open, lots of crap will flow in. There will be bad books. There will be spam. There will be loads and loads of people—who have always been around—finding new ways of separating you from your money. It’s a big and interesting world, and I have some thoughts on it. Which is why I am starting this series of posts called AUNTIE MJ’S PUBLISHING SCHOOL. And I start it by answering this question and putting in my disclaimer.

@MeFlyRocket Are there different rules for different author types, eg published, self published, aspiring / blogger etc?

There are no rules at all, for anyone. There are only ideas and practices, and they are highly individual. Anything I suggest here is my opinion, based on my experience. I do spend a lot of time online, and I do think about this a lot, so my opinions may be of use to you. If they are not, they should be ignored.

I will put a disclaimer like this in every post in this SERIES.

Q: I’m a self-published author. If I don’t just send out links to my book to authors, how am I supposed to get attention?

I’m going to say something now that’s going to sound really harsh, but it’s meant to be helpful. I say it because it is true. Knowing it can only help you.

No one owes you anything.**

Just because you write something doesn’t mean that anyone has to read it. Writing a book doesn’t make you special. Loads of people have written books. Sticking that “author” tag after your name is pretty much meaningless. It’s not an official title, or an accreditation. No matter what your book is like, the world is not begging for it. We already have a lot of books. The problem with just saying, “I wrote this, now read it/RT it!” is that it implies that just because you wrote it, the world is now supposed to recognize it and get excited about it. The world is not your mom.

I am not talking just to you. It applies to all of us. It applies to me. No one is exempt.

In terms of sending links to authors, with read/RT requests:

a). Most authors already have much, much more to read than they can possibly handle. There is no compelling reason to stop and read some random thing sent by someone they don’t know.

b). Random links from strangers look scary and virus-causing.

c). No one likes spam. And really, no one likes the implication that they can just stop what they’re doing and read your stuff just because you want them to.

d). Likewise, why would an author just blindly RT something they haven’t read?

Totally harsh sounding, right? I know, I know. But bear with me. We’re getting to the positive stuff. I just had to put out the hard stuff first. That’s me explaining why I think you shouldn’t do that. Now, what should you do?

Having said there are no rules, I keep one primary rule for myself: Be Interesting. “Interesting” is a word that can be interpreted in many ways. For example, there is a particularly odd guy who has self-published his book and spends seemingly all of his time making up new accounts for himself, which he uses to send insults to writers (usually female). He has told me, when not sending insults, that he considers this a form of art and a way of getting attention. I do not recommend this, as what this guy is, in actuality, is a dick, and everyone blocks him. That’s not interesting. It’s repetitive, for a start. And just being offensive for the sake of being offensive is boring.

So what is interesting? LOADS OF THINGS. What will you talk about? Dude, I don’t know. You’re the writer. I know! It’s totally hard! But this writing business is hard. It’s work. But if you want to write, do the work. And hard work, careful study … these things pay off!

Some more specific thoughts on things you SHOULD do. (Remember that disclaimer, it applies double to everything you see below.)

1. Figure out what you want with your online life

Why are you online? Is it purely because you want to be? Is it to sell books? Is it both? Really think about this. I tend to think that first one is best. It produces the most life satisfaction. If it is two or three, you kind of have to make it look like it is the second one. The most fun people to read and follow online are the ones who engage with the world and have things to say.

2. Talk about something other than you or your book

People need a reason to come and visit you and read what you are writing. If you are a totally new, unknown writer, your book is not that reason. Not yet.

3. Cultivate actual friendships online

Imagine you walk into a party. It’s kind of an open gathering, people who don’t necessarily know each other are mingling around. You can walk up and start a conversation anywhere. Would you just rock up, interrupt some people talking and say, “I WROTE A BOOK STOP EVERYTHING AND LOOK AT ME”? If you would do this, I would say, don’t do that! It’s awkward and selfish. Talk. Listen. LISTEN. (Listen is a big one.) Read what other people write. If you do this, soon you will have more things to talk about aside from you and your book, and you will have people who will want to have a look at what you’ve said.

4. Find the good blogs/streams in the topics that interest you and read them


5. Give it time

It’s highly unlikely that your book will just pop overnight, or that your social media profile will suddenly skyrocket. People who have loyal followings online have usually been doing it for quite a while. It all goes back to the fact that just because you wrote something, it doesn’t mean that people will just come. When you know this, you don’t get upset when you don’t get a thousand readers overnight. You know to keep working, to keep going nice and steady. You will know that you can improve. Knowing that it takes work and time is the remedy to getting depressed and freaking out. And that is how you will succeed.

Or just get a reality show or something.

* I’m going to get to this one.

** Unless you saved their life or something. Then they totally owe you.


June 9th, 2012

I am not a fan of the graduation speech. I have actually written on this topic before, but every graduation season it comes up again and I remember just how much I hate graduation speeches. I hate them with the kind of hate that usually rises when reading a list of war crimes. And I fully admit that I will do more or less anything to get out of going to a graduation ceremony, short of putting myself in a rocket and having myself fired into the face of the sun.

Why do I have these kinds of feelings about graduation ceremonies? Because they are boring. They are very, very boring. The worst ones are so willfully boring that I would like to bring criminal charges against the organizers. And they don’t have to be. They really don’t. Somehow, someone has gotten the idea that in order to make the concept of graduation legitimate, it must also be tedious, and that does not actually compute.

Of course, some graduations at some awesome schools get awesome speakers. One graduation I went to had Bill Murray as the speaker, and it was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. Neil Gaiman also just gave an excellent graduation speech that’s been making the rounds of the internet—and justly so, because a great graduation speech is about as rare as a banjo in a rainforest.

I remember my own college graduation. The speaker was some random woman whose speech was themed—and I am not joking about this—“I may have done nothing of major significance with my life, but I am not a failure.” She repeated the words “I am not a failure” fifteen times by my count, and I only started counting about halfway in. Granted, this was at the weird January graduation ceremony that didn’t really feel like it counted as much as the summer one, so I think they let literally anyone give the speech. The summer graduation speaker—the one who spoke to thousands in the football stadium—was Tom Clancy, who mostly talked about his love of submarines. I found this to be equally inexplicable, though it was clear that Tom Clancy did not think Tom Clancy was a failure, and the overall message was decidedly more spirited. And when I say spirited, I mean it was the kind of speech that usually precedes a declaration of war. In fact, now that I look back on it, Tom Clancy may have been declaring war on the University of Delaware, which explains quite a lot of things in retrospect.

If I were put in charge of all graduations everywhere (and I only assume I have not been because of some worldwide bureaucratic oversight), there would be no speeches. The entire ceremony would consist of a reading of the names of the graduates, because that’s fair, but this would be done by one of those speed-talking auction people. Rather than making graduates wait in a line and nervously cross the stage, diplomas would be fired from a specially designed diploma cannon while the 1812 Overture played in the background. Once all the diplomas had been fired, a fog machine would be switched on (just for atmosphere and to discourage lingerers) and all exit doors opened. The entire thing would take about twenty minutes, tops. Ten would be ideal. Because everyone deserves a photo, various backdrops would be available in the lobby, so you could pretend to get your diploma in space, in front of the pyramids, or from the jaws of a great white shark.

But I realize not everyone shares my views on graduations and that some of you will be forced to write and execute a graduation speech. Many of you will turn to the internet for advice on this. I’ve been looking around at some other graduation speech advice pages, and they’re basically all terrible. It is my hope that you will find this page, because I am here to help. If you must write a graduation speech, I hope you will let me be your guide.


Take it as a given that the second you approach the podium, the audience is settling in for a nice, long afternoon coma. They think you are about to say something like, “When I first entered the door of [INSERT NAME OF SCHOOL] four years ago, I had no idea what wonderful experiences I would blah blah blah blah blah…” You need to get them right from the start, and one of the easiest ways of doing this is by inserting the name of another school, or—even better—something that is not a school at all. Why not start your speech with the line, “Four years ago, when I first became CEO of Alliance Petrochemical Industries Incorporated…”? This is how you can immediately tell who is paying attention. In fact, I see no reason why you shouldn’t just give a forty-five minute annual report for your imaginary company, complete with slides and threats that sales better improve or everyone is fired.


I was watching a panel at a convention once and smack in the middle of it, one of the panelists got a phone call, which she then proceeded to answer. She half-concealed herself behind the curtain behind the speakers’ table. She talked for a good ten minutes or so. I found this so utterly entertaining that I couldn’t take my eyes off of it and talk about it to this day, so clearly this is a great way to entertain during a speech. I suggest that you write two or three very boring lines of opening, then arrange to have your phone ring. For the next twenty minutes, just talk on the phone. Then act as if nothing happened and go right to a few very boring closing lines.


It is a common jape at large graduation ceremonies to release a few mice. This happened at my graduate school graduation from Columbia University, where we sat in the rain for two miserable hours, while someone said something and mice scrambled around my chair. The real problem with this idea is that it’s a failure to think big enough. If you’re going to release something, RELEASE SOMETHING. I mean, the Kracken, if you can get it. Since releasing animals into crowds often ends badly for the animals—and I resolutely denounce all animal cruelty—the easiest workaround for this is to have several people dressed as bears run into the room.


Any speech, no matter how boring, is instantly improved by screaming the entire thing into the microphone.


This is your opportunity to shine. I want to see what YOU can do to correct this terrible situation, so I am having a contest. I challenge you to write the best graduation speech ever, once that truly ROCKS THE SOCKS.

There are no restrictions. The speech can be as long or as short as you like (bearing in mind that if you send me a 50 page speech, it had better be incredible). And I am certainly not against a one sentence speech, or even a speech that is shorter than one sentence. I want you to fully embrace the possibilities of simply telling a bunch of insane lies, of deviating from every known conception of the graduation speech.

Submit these speeches to me in writing or as a video by FRIDAY, JUNE 15th. I will choose the three I think best exemplify the spirit of what I suggest, and I will post them and let the PUBLIC see your work and choose the winner, who will get a MARVELOUS PRIZE. Submission should be sent to my email account with the subject line: GRADUATION SPEECH.

No timewasters. Only amazing speeches.


November 30th, 2011
Where do we go from here?

Dear cheapandflimsygrandeur,

IT IS HERE! The final day of NaNoWriMo. The end of the road. The last stop. The jumping off place. No matter what you’ve done with NaNoWriMo-whether you wrote 50,000 words or 5,000 or 500-you did something. Yay! Something! It’s something you didn’t have on October 31st!

So what do you want to do with it? That’s the question. Only you know the answer. NaNoWriMo is a fine journey to take on its own, just for the sake of taking it. Or you could continue and keep working on your book. Auntie MJ can not tell you where to go, but if you choose to go on, she can advise a few ways forward.

1. FREAK OUT. You did it! You did it! Time to get WEIRD! It’s time to eat strange cheeses and do some EXPERIMENTAL HANG GLIDING!

2. GO OUTSIDE. Remember outside? It’s that place that’s outside. Take this slowly. Just go to the door at first and let your eyes adjust to the light. Slowly, slowly.

3. CALL YOUR FRIENDS. Remember your friends? They are the people not in your book. The ones with the bodies.

4. READ SOMETHING. Remember other books?

5. EXERCISE. You probably need it.

6. COOK SOME FOOD. What have you been eating? Be honest with Auntie MJ.

This is a good time to get back to your regular pursuits.

Feel better? Good.

Now, what do you do about your NaNoWriMo book? Here are your basic options: something, or nothing. Both are valid. There is nothing wrong with doing NaNoWriMo just for the sake of it and just LETTING GO.

Or, you could continue working. Which involves doing more of what you were just doing, namely, sitting and writing. For an indeterminate amount of time. And this time, there is no NaNo group or shiny sticker at the end. However, there is A BOOK at the end. And the journey, no matter what, is one you make by yourself. But alone is not the same as lonely. You can join a writing group. You can show it to your friends. You can work your writing into your life.

But from this day on, it’s up to you. It’s ALWAYS been up to you. Auntie MJ wishes you the best, no matter what you decide.

And perhaps she will see you next year?

For her part, Auntie MJ is just STARTING her own NaNoWriMo. So maybe you can send advice to HER.



Auntie MJ


November 29th, 2011
Dear Auntie MJ, recently one of my best friends has started treating me like I’m insane because I talk about my characters as though they’re real people. How do I explain to him that I understand the line between fiction and reality but I like ignoring it and that I’d rather be crazy than bored or boring, without alienating him further?

Dear saidreadertorider,

Joss Whedon once said: “There’s a time and place for everything, and I believe it’s called ‘fan fiction’.” J.W. always speaks the truth.

On day 29 of NaNoWriMo, it’s time to start discussing the state of your brain.

You have come to Auntie MJ with a question, and it is Auntie MJ’s responsibility to tell you the truth as she knows it. And Auntie MJ says this as someone who often seems a few pieces of toast short of a toast loaf … when you start talking about your characters like they are real, people get annoyed. And for good reason. They aren’t.

And trust me, Auntie MJ knows you know that, and she certainly sympathizes, but … they still aren’t. When you talk about them to other people, it annoys them because you are talking about people they don’t know. You are talking about people who are members of a very exclusive club, one that meets IN YOUR BRAIN. It’s like namedropping, with an added dose of, “Maybe you should be on some medication.”

Sometimes, our imaginary friends become a big part of our life.

I say this as a friend, saidreadertorider, and as a professional. If I went around talking about all my characters like they were real, two things would happen:

1. People would punch me in the face everywhere I went.

2. No one would want to work with me, because I would be “insane.”

Quirky is fine. A quirky writer is expected, even welcomed. But insane writers are generally to be avoided. So if you plan on Going Pro, this is definitely a habit to drop.

And I’ll give you another, better reason … when you start getting friendly with your characters, it becomes harder to make them do what they need to do. You need to make your characters do unpleasant things sometimes. Ugly things. You need to have bad things happen to them. Sometimes, you need to kill them. And if you are fraternizing with them in the off-hours, this becomes hard.

It’s actually good to reserve a place where you can just BE with the characters. That place is when you are working on the story, either physically, or just in your mind. It’s okay to imagine them as you are doing things. And hey, if you want to keep doing this, Auntie MJ is the last person who is going to stop you. Auntie MJ runs a home for five hundred imaginary wayward hamsters, after all. But this is her advice on the subject, which you can take or leave at your pleasure.


Auntie MJ


November 28th, 2011
alinatheduck asked you:
Dear Auntie MJ, I am concerned that if I discuss religion and the faults in certain denominations in my NaNoWriMo novel that I will be seen as disrespectful towards religion just because my character is. How do I do my characters’ views justice even though people will think of me as judgmental and horrid?

My dear alinatheduck,

You do not make things easy on Auntie MJ. That is okay. What is the point in asking easy questions?

I can only answer this question in general, because I don’t actually know what’s in your story, what specific religions and specific views and specific arguments. And that’s fine. Let’s look at it generally. And let’s take the sentence I have italicized above:what is the point in asking easy questions? Novels, at their heart, ask questions about why we live the way we do. Why we make the choices we make. Even novels you think of as “trashy” might pose some very serious questions about love, sacrifice, loyalty, family…

Also, novels both deviate from and mirror reality in a way to shed some light on our general situation, this wonderful predicament we call life. Now, if every character in your novel had exactly the same views, the views of the author, some prescribed message … that would not be much of a novel. Because everyone would be the same. It would just be a creepy group of people who went around agreeing with each other. This would not be ideal, unless you were trying to draw a picture of a creepy society, and even then, you’d really need a contrasting character to highlight how creepy that is.

Because difference is good. Can you imagine how freaked out we would be if everyone said the same things, or looked exactly the same? This is the stuff of nightmares. This is some uncanny valley, Stepford Wives, the robots are taking over, 1984 stuff.

It is also important to remember that YOU ARE NOT YOUR CHARACTERS and that NOVELS ARE NOT LITERAL INSTRUCTION MANUALS. They aren’t cookbooks. You don’t just read straight down the line and follow everything on the page.* Novels aren’t just WORD LISTS. They are documents to be taken AS A WHOLE. So if people decide to be offended because of something your characters do, then they are missing the point of reading. And there is nothing you can do about that.

If someone has a problem with what you write, let them talk to you about it. But you can’t scrub your story of something difficult to avoid potential complaints. Trust me, those people will find something to complain about no matter WHAT you do. You’d be amazed at the passages people will pull out and scream about. There is no predicting it.

The story is a story, which means that it contains difficulties and characters with different personalities and opinions. People write about characters that are NOTHING LIKE THEMSELVES. JK Rowling is not like Voldemort. Stephen King is unlikely to chase you around a remote resort with a hatchet. Harper Lee was not promoting racism.

The fact is, we have a lot of things inside of us, a lot of conflicting, weird stuff. Writing is a way of accessing it. And that’s good. It’s a way of understanding each other, even the stuff we don’t like.

So while I do not know exactly what is going on in your book, I cannot advise avoiding these difficult things. Is it hard to write some scenes? Yes. Might people react strangely? Yes. But they also might not. And people change. And that is the point.

Good luck out there,

Auntie MJ

* In my experience with book banners, this is a common problem. Book banners tend to read with a weird and selective eye and a highlighter in hand. They aren’t reading the story-they are scanning for words they don’t like. They highlight these words to make their complaint. And they do so not because they want to help, but because they want to be seen in the local news or in the town meeting or even on the big morning television show being “righteous.” When in fact they have failed the primary reading test: the comprehension test. This is one of the many reasons it is dangerous to give in to them: you can’t let people who don’t know how to read control access to books. This is truly giving the inmates the keys to the asylum.


November 27th, 2011

lacitedamour asked you:

Is it okay for me to make up words for my novel? I have a habit of making adjectives adverbs or verbing nouns that makes the story make more sense to me, but I’m not sure if the English language allows for that.

Oh lacitedamour of my heart,

Here is a fact that people love to pull out at parties*: Shakespeare is credited with adding 2,000 words to the English language. Did you know that? Now you do.

And yes, English allows for the making up of words. We even have a word for it! Neologism. A newly coined word or phrase. But I will point out that neologism has a second meaning in psychiatry: a word used by a patient with a mental disorder that has no meaning except to that patient.

Which is to say this: yes, you CAN make up words. Many fine novels, plays, and poems contain totally made-up words. But it is ALSO true that English is a RICH language that has grown in leaps and bounds since the time of Shakespeare. No one can actually COUNT how many there are, but the Oxford English Dictionary estimates that it is somewhere around a quarter of a million. Chances are, that word you seek ALREADY EXISTS. You also might invent something that you think makes sense, but actually is just kind of weird (see second meaning of neologism).

However, weird is often good. For example, there isJABBERWOCKY, which is almost entirely composed of nonsense words, and yet it is awesome.

So there is no answer for this. But since Auntie MJ likes to provide some guidance, I would suggest looking to see if there is a word that might mean what you are trying to express. If you look up the word in a dictionary or a (shudder) thesaurus, you can find related and similar words.

With loving frubosity,

Auntie MJ

* Not very good parties. Also, symposiums, awkward silences, and at any gathering with more than five English and/or Theater majors in one room.


November 26th, 2011
katwaterflame asked you:
Do you do research for your books? If so, where do you find the research items?

My dear katwaterflame,

Auntie MJ has an MFA, a fact she sometimes brings up, but only SOMETIMES, and only in the right circumstances. This is largely because no one cares. But it is relevant here, because Auntie MJ has an MFA in nonfiction writing and learning HOW to do research was a major component of that degree. Nonfiction books, of course, are almost entirely research based (memoirs being about the only exception, and even then, you’d be surprised). They gave a very loose rule in teaching us about how to do research for our books, which was taken (I believe) from Truman Capote: you do about four times the research you actually need. Or, to flip it around, you’re probably going to use about 25% of your research.

Now, that number is OBVIOUSLY not going to hold true in every case, and it can’t be measured anyway. It’s just to give an idea of the relationship between how much you find out and how much of that stuff you actually use. And it’s more to give you an indication of how much work you need to do. In nonfiction, it’s usually a LOT. It’s a massive part of the job. It was supposed to indicate just how well we had to know our subject, and how selective we had to be when we were presenting it.

But I have written eleven works of fiction now, and I have some experience in transposing this lesson.

Some works of fiction require research. Some do not. Which ones need it? Well, ones with historical content. Or realistic content that requires a level of actual knowledge in order to pull off the story. FOR EXAMPLE, if you are writing a EXCITING SUBMARINE DRAMA, you kind of need to know how submarines work. If you are writing a POLITICAL THRILLER, you need to know quite a bit about politics. If you are writing a MURDER MYSTERY and have to kill someone, you probably need to know the details about how they die and how that would actually be investigated. If you are setting your book in a certain city, you need to learn about that city. If you are writing a book that features a character with an illness, you’ll need to know about that illness.

And that’s all sort of assuming a present-day reality. When you get into historical fiction, then the amount of research multiplies. Then you have to research ALL OF IT.

I would never be able to say how much research your book would need. Only you can figure that out. It’s usually pretty easy to identify the spots that require the research. If you are writing a scene that involves getting into a tank and you have no idea what it is like inside of a tank, that’s something you need to research. If you are writing a murder mystery set in 1940 and have no idea what was going on in 1940, then you probably need to pause, spend several months or a year or more doing nothing but researching 1940. Or you should set your book in a different time, because there is little point in setting it in a time you know NOTHING about.

As to the finding of research items, well, that is a BIG SUBJECT. Hopefully you have learned/will learn how to research in school. When researching, there are two KINDS of sources: primary and secondary. A PRIMARY source is a thing from the time or person or event. For example, an actual letter written by someone involved. An actual page of the investigation report. An interview with someone involved done by you. Photographs of the thing or person. A secondary source is a book or documentary, etc. on the subject, something that has taken a bunch of primary sources and interpreted them. (Here’s a handy article explaining these two things.)

You find your materials in quite a lot of places. Libraries, for one. Sometimes you actually visit the place, or go to an archive, or speak to people involved, or observe something in action. But the basics of research usually involve reading until you know your subject well.

That being said, you can OVERDO it. If you just need to know what the inside of a tank looks like, you don’t have to go INSANE and learn EVERYTHING about tanks. You have to learn where to draw the line, and this comes with experience. I wish I had an easier answer.

The best thing I can advocate is LEARNING about how research is done. It’s a learned skill, and one you can use in ALL ASPECTS of life. Many colleges and universities offer a course in how to use their resources. TAKE THIS. Take anything that is offered that is like this. In terms of what you can do RIGHT NOW, there are some good internet sites on how to research. Here’s one guide from Scholastic. Here’s another from Cornell University. There are loads more out there.

Also, libraries have TRAINED RESEARCH LIBRARIANS who know the science of research. Go in with your questions (as specific as possible) and ask for help.

Happy hunting!

Auntie MJ