Scribbling Scrivener Reads: Clover by Dori Sanders

Clover by Dori Sanders is set in 1980s rural South Carolina. Told from the point of view of ten-year-old Clover, a bright girl who has already seen a lot of tragedy in her young life, the story is about her and her new stepmother dealing with the unexpected death of her father. Further complicating matters is Clover is black and her stepmother, Sara Kate, is white. The two barely know each other as her father is killed in a car crash the day of his wedding.

I really enjoyed the book especially as Sanders really captured the voice of Clover; something I think is difficult to successful pull off. Clover comes across as smart and wise, but not in a matter that ever comes across as precocious or false.

One of two big themes of the book are relationships, primarily Clover’s complicated relationship with the grown-ups in her life in addition to the relationships the grown-ups have with each other. Her relationship with her father, principal at her elementary school and which is told through flashbacks starts off strained. Initially Clover had been raised by her grandfather after her mother died. Now that her father is close by, he wishes to take over the caretaker duties. Because of this, she almost nearly refers to her father by his first name, something Gaten never corrects. Gaten is a good person and a good father, mature enough to recognize he has to earn the title of “Dad”.

A pattern develops with Clover in having a difficult time trusting her caregivers when Sara Kate becomes her stepmother. Like Gaten, Sara Kate doesn’t press Clover to accept her as a parent, mainly because she’s going through her own grief. She gives her new stepdaughter space to process her grief as well though an incident happens which causes Sara Kate to wonder if Clover is holding in her grief in an unhealthy way. As the reader sees with Gaten, Sara Kate eventually earns Clover’s love and trust, which rankles Clover’s Aunt Everleen.

Another major theme is race. Sanders is honest in how Clover’s family reacts to Sara Kate. In a way she’s a little bit subtle because as a reader it wasn’t apparent for several pages Clover was black. It’s only when Sara Kate is introduced that the reader is made aware. Gaten’s family, primarily the women, and an ex-girlfriend have the biggest issue with Sara Kate. Aunt Everleen and others believe it was a mistake Gaten married a white woman believing Sara Kate must have some defect if a white man wouldn’t love her. Because of the color of her skin, no one is willing to reach out to her and get to know her or even offer words of comfort and support. It doesn’t matter Sara Kate is nice (a bit too passive in my opinion) and makes an effort to be part of her new family. Prejudices run rampant until near the end of the book. The attitude of Clover’s family affects how she sees and treats Sara Kate initially. When Clover and Sara Kate start to get to know each, Clover starts defending Sara Kate in front of her Aunt Everleen. She’s rebuked, made to feel as if she’s betraying her family and ultimately, her race.

I enjoyed the characters though it personally frustrates me as a reader to see how if people just communicated a lot of problems wouldn’t exist. I appreciate how Sanders allows the characters to take their time in grieving Gaten, but to realize everyone has a common goal: to care for Clover, a girl surrounded by love. I appreciate the awkwardness Clover and Sara Kate have toward each other. It’s realistic and dealt with sensitivity.

I also enjoyed how Sanders uses the setting of small town South Carolina. Probably because I live in South Carolina, very near to many of the towns mentioned, that it was incredibly ease for me to immerse myself in the world. I know what the weather feels like and I’ve seen peach stands in the area (South Carolina actually produces more peaches than Georgia).

My only grip with Clover is the ending. It felt too abrupt and I would have liked to see the story continue on as the changes in the characters were just starting to happen. But perhaps that’s the point of the novel. It’s ultimately about watching these characters come to the beginning of understanding.

Overall, I give Clover four pencils out of five. It’s a quick read and while sad and deals with heavy issues, it’s not a downer.

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Weekly Musing: Where’s My Money?

Before becoming a writer, I had no idea there are different ways authors earn money. I’d heard about royalties mainly in connection with musicians. I’d also heard authors get advances but wasn’t completely sure what that meant. But I had no clue how complicated the system is until I started learning more about the business and based upon my own very limited experience.

There are three ways to pay an author. What most people are familiar with are royalties and advances. The third way is more common in short story and poetry markets and that is being paid up front. I’ll briefly explain each one as well as give pros and cons as I see it.

Advances: Advances are money paid to an author by the publisher ahead of a book’s publication. Most commonly it’s “advance against royalties” meaning the amount of the advance is paid based on what the publisher thinks the royalties will be.

Advances can be small for new authors to several millions for a best-selling author. Factors used to determine the amount are: size of the publisher (smaller publisher means a smaller advance), historic performance of similar books, author’s track record (newer author vs. established author), and the book’s topic (some genres and topics traditionally perform better than others). Usually the advance is paid in installments based upon manuscript milestones such as a signing bonus, when the manuscript is completed, when it’s accepted, and so on.

One advantage of an advance is the author earns money before even selling a single copy. Another pro is it encourages the writer. I imagine it’s a thrill to know a publisher has enough confidence in your work that they want to pay you even set one word has been written. Another positive is as long as the author meets all the agreed upon expectations, their advance is guaranteed even if the book doesn’t sell enough to cover the advance.

One of the biggest cons is advances are it’s becoming less common. Paying money to an author banking on a book is successful enough the publisher recovers at least the advance is risky. There are thousands, millions of books competing for readers and very few become best sellers. Few authors are consistent best sellers so have earned their advances. Another con is if an author does get an advance, it’s going to be smaller then what the average advance used to be. Again, the publisher is taking a financial risk and a newer author without a track record is a bigger gamble then an established author. One more downside is if you have an agent, which most traditionally published authors have, you don’t keep the entire advance. An agreed upon percentage is taken out by the agent. Another con is if your book doesn’t make back the advance, you may not get another advance from your publisher for subsequent books.

Royalties: A royalty is a payment made to an author based upon the number of books sold. If an author has received an advance, royalties are paid after the publisher has sold enough copies to cover the advance. Easy enough concept to understand, however, in practice it’s the most complicated method of payment and the one which can lead disputes between author and publisher. The reason why it’s complicated is because royalties often operate on a sliding scale. This means an author’s royalty percentage depends on how many hardbacks vs. paperback vs. eBooks are sold. The list price of each version is also factored in.

The biggest advantage of royalties is this is where a bulk of authors earn their money. Royalties are paid out on an agreed upon schedule so the author will earn money as long as the book continues to sell.

While royalties have a big advantage, they have a number of complications. Where the book is sold affects the royalty rate. Ever see a book at a chain bookstore then see it at your local grocery store a couple of years? By the time the book reaches the grocery store, the list price is much lower thus impacting an author’s royalty. Another complication is the percentage the publisher calculates for potential books returned. This causes the author’s royalty to go down. And what if the book tanks? Thankfully you’ve got the advance but if you don’t sell many copies, no more money.

Upfront Payment: With upfront payment, a publisher or literary magazine states on their Submission page how much they pay for an accepted piece. Payment varies from a few dollars to several hundred dollars. Instead of paying a set flat rate, others will pay per word up to certain dollar limit.

What’s great about upfront payment is an author gets paid upon either acceptance or publication. No need to wait around for royalties paid each month, quarter, half a year, whatever the terms of the contract are. Another plus is this makes the most sense for submitting short stories or poetry.

A negative is you take a chance the story could be worth more. Many places are only able to pay anywhere from $5 to $25 dollars, which is still better being paid nothing. It’s possible you could earn more if the story or poem were submitted to an outfit offering royalties especially if accepted by a big publisher who knows they can sell a lot of copies. Of course, with multiple authors in an anthology or chapbook everyone shares in the royalties. Naturally if a collection of your stories or poems is published then you don’t have to worry about splitting royalties.

 

A brief look into how authors get paid. Personally, I prefer upfront payment vs. royalties for short stories. One of the anthologies I have a story in is set up for royalty payment. In hindsight I realize that’s not a good idea since the royalty will be split amongst all the authors thus resulting in a potentially smaller payment. I can see where a royalty payment for a short story anthology can be lucrative but only if there are big name authors or if it’s the type of anthology the publisher knows will sell well. However, anthologies don’t sell as well as novels though with Kindles, iPads, Nooks, and other electronic reading devices becoming common place, anthologies have seen resurgence in popularity. As I aspire to become a novelist, the idea of advances and royalties are attractive. After all, it’s a relatively steady source of income and one which has the potential to grow over time.

Weekly Musing: Flashback vs. Backstory, What’s the Difference?

A common compliant I see whenever a story or chapter is critiqued in my writers group is the writer has put in too much backstory. But when I think about it, some incidents of what I and others think are backstory may indeed be flashbacks. While similar, they are different. So what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? How much is too much?

First, let’s look at flashbacks. A flashback is a scene inserted to quickly recount an event that happened before the current point in the story or before the story begins. Something causes a flashback be it a certain scent, a sound, a phrase, or something visual that sparks the character to remember a pivotal event in the past. This can be done via a variety of ways: through a character’s thoughts or actions or through dialogue as they tell someone else the event.

With flashbacks, I think it’s easier for most people to see it such as in visual mediums rather than when we read it. I think this is where some confusion comes in. What might actually be a flashback gets mistaken for backstory. And while flashbacks are one way to include backstory, they are indeed different.

What makes them different is backstory encompasses a vast array of techniques to tell the history of a character. It’s all the events which the author and the character know lurks in the background before the story the reader is given. In other words, what has happened to shape a character into the person the reader sees today.

Backstory can be told through flashbacks, dialogue, a prologue, exposition, internal thoughts, etc. Since backstory is the history of a character, it is an important literary device. It gives the reader a character’s motivation, what haunts him or her, the why of what they are doing or not doing. This is addition to the character telling and showing who they are to other characters.

A big reason why so writers struggle with backstory is because we know, or should know, the history of our character. We spend hours either thinking or writing that history down. There are countless worksheets floating about which can help with this. It’s because we’ve spent so long working on backstory that we want to use it. We also want to give the reader all the reasons why they should be sympathetic and understand this character.

The thing, though, with backstory and every other literary device, is to know how and when to use it. It should be used sparingly and only when it is needed for the story and in a variety of ways. Flashbacks help with this and are best when used to provide the reader an important event which shaped the character. They should be quick as our own memories of events tend to be fleeting. Same thing for all the other ways to incorporate backstory because too much, usually in the guise of info dumps, slows down the story’s pacing. There are times, though, we want to slow the pace down. Perhaps before or after a dramatic event in an effort to calm things down.

So while flashbacks and backstory are similar, they are different. Both should be sprinkled in. Not every story needs a flashback. Not every story needs a lot of backstory. The trick is to resist the urge to put in a lot of either. The analogy frequently used for backstory is to think of it as an iceberg. What we can see above the surface is a small percentage of the actual iceberg. Most of it lies below the surface.