Iceland: Facts for Fiction

If you’re considering Iceland as a setting for your next book, I highly recommend, it. As one friend put it, it’s “otherworldly.” It’s known for amazingly beautiful, natural underground hot springs like Blue Lagoon. Fantastically colorful cityscapes. Volcanoes. A geyser (Geysir) from which all other geysers are named. The spot where European and North American continents split (tectonic plates). Waterfall after waterfall. Some great music. Black sand beaches. And sure, where Game of Thrones has filmed.

Unfiltered photo from my camera! Copyright Bitsy Kemper

Having recently spent a week there, I want to share some ways this landscape can make for an interesting background–if not supporting character–in your next book. Here are some random facts as told to me by historians and locals (that I backed up by other sources):

  1. Names: Besides being crazy long with letters that look like a fly got stuck on the page, there are some things you need to know before you name your Icelandic character:
    • Parents who want to give their child a name that’s never been used in the country before have to get it approved by a governing Icelandic Naming Committee. Really.[https://www.island.is/en/icelandic-names/] I’ve heard they are pretty easy going, as long at it’s not disparaging or derogatory (or, I’m guessing, something like Moon Unit [sorry Frank Zappa] or YouTube). Imagine the fun you’d have with the backstory of the first person named Jane or Pepe!
    • Brothers and sisters have different last names. That’s because the child takes the FIRST name of the dad and adds -son if it’s a boy and -dóttir (daughter) if it’s a girl. A family might have kids named Christopher Vincentson, George Vincentson, and Carolyn Vincentdóttir. (Of course their names wouldn’t be so Anglicized but you get the idea.) The mom can choose to not acknowledge the father and use only her name, although it’s not very common. In that case they’d be Christopher Elisabethson, George Elisabethson, and Caroyln Elizabethdóttir. Rarely, the child can use both names…Christopher Vincentson Elizabethson. [https://wsimag.com/culture/2248-the-peculiarities-of-icelandic-naming]
    • Phonebooks list names alphabetically by first name! Wouldn’t that be a great nugget to sneak into your novel? Well…assuming it’s in a time period when phonebooks were still commonly used…
  2. Space: The population of the ENTIRE COUNTRY is about 340,000, of which about 220,000 live in the capital area of Reykjavik. Think about that…there are fewer living in all of Iceland than in the city of Raleigh, NC; the capital has about as many people as Chesapeake, VA. Average capital city commute time? 11 minutes. (Not a typo. Eleven minutes, door to door. Can you imagine the luxury?) [https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/iceland-population/,
    http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/reykjavik-population/,
    https://www.icelandreview.com/news/commuting-takes-an-average-11-6-minutes/]
  3. Capital: The city looks more like a town with homes that have been there for generations, with many of the same families living in them since they were hand built. Although there is a (small by US standards) industrial area with high rises, the main part of town has homes and historic buildings side by side everything else. Everything is accessible. Even the Prime Minister’s office is smack in the middle of town, a lovely but nondescript two-story building with no guards or parking lot, that anyone can walk up to. (Due to the high wind, almost no buildings in the main downtown are taller than a few stories.) But even though the capital city is lovely and beautiful and the only “real” city on the island, do you really want to write out “Reykjavik” 600 times? Consider picking a smaller town outside the capital so you don’t have to spell it over and over–or force your reader into trying to read and pronounce it in their head over and over. (FWIW “ray-kuh-vek” is the simplified way to say it…RECK or REYK-ya-vek or REYK-ja-vick with a very soft/minor j sound is how I’ve heard locals say it.) Just know almost all towns have equally awkward names, spellings, and pronunciations, at least by American standards. Maybe make up your own city name. Your call. P.S. The cathedral in the center of the capital city is a landmark that seems to be one many people recognize, and is a common tourist meeting place since it can be seen from far distances and is easy to find while walking from almost any point around town. The church was built in an art deco style of the New York Chrysler Building and is supposed to resemble their famous erupting geysir. P.P.S. The city, and well, island, is pretty darn windy, no bad hair jokes!
  4. Weather: beware of stereotyping.
    • You picture a vast snow-covered land, right? Well surprisingly, there is very little snowfall! And even less accumulation. Reykjavik only gets an average of two to three inches of snow per month in the winter. Due to the natural warm springs resting underground, most snow melts soon after it lands, making for little need to shovel driveways or pave roads. Compare that to Alaska, that might get two feet in January! Virtually no snow May to Oct. Note: it rains often throughout the year in Iceland. Precipitation numbers will be different from snowfall. [https://weatherspark.com/y/31501/Average-Weather-in-Reykjav%C3%ADk-Iceland-Year-Round]
    • Don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” Since it does rain at least a little bit almost every day–or at least it seems like it, that doesn’t mean it’s a hard rain. It might be a light mist while cloudy or while sunny. Or ten minutes of hard rain that fades out like nothing ever happened. Given the year-round island wind (told you it was windy!), no one but a tourist carries an umbrella, as it’ll just be blown inside out or down the street. I like that a variety of same-day weather might make for a fun backdrop, especially if your character is wishywashy or their future uncertain.
  5. Landscape:
    • There are 600 different types of moss covering land and rocks. [https://grapevine.is/mag/articles/2017/12/07/the-life-and-death-of-icelandic-mosses/] They’ve been around since the Ice Age. Some take 100-150 years to regrow if disturbed, kids are told, so they are taught at a young age to respect and stay away from it. Don’t have characters running off the beaten path. Or if they do, it’s has to be hugely significant.
    • There’s a saying that if you ever get lost in an Icelandic forest, just stand up. 🙂 The Norse deforested most of the original land when they arrived a thousand years ago, using trees for ships, warmth, housing, etc. Around 1950 a plan was put into place to start replanting. Most trees are relatively new to the island, and therefore not very tall. So don’t create any dense forest scenes! Hmm, actually, a pre- and post-1950s landscape might make for some interesting comparisons in character growth.
      [https://guidetoiceland.is/best-of-iceland/the-forests-of-iceland]
    • You’ll find one of the biggest glaciers in Europe on the island.
      [https://www.icelandontheweb.com/articles-on-iceland/nature/glaciers/vatnajokull] (Honestly makes me wonder how many European glaciers can there be to compare it to?) Great place for a character that leads expeditions, ice hikes, or conservation efforts, wouldn’t you say?
  6. Drinking: How’s this for a fun fact? Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 until 1989. Seriously. [https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31622038] Overall, I found Icelanders to not be big drinkers. Or drinkers at all. Stats agree; studies show they drink less than other cultures: in 2014 there was a reported lifetime abstinence for 14.1% of the drinking age population, and 32.1% of not drinking in the past 12 months, compared to, say, Denmark that had 4.5% and 11.4%. [https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/global_alcohol_report/msb_gsr_2014_2.pdf?ua=1] Any bar scenes you put in might need to have a larger percentage of visitors with the local beer (say, Gull–pronounced sorta like ‘gulsh’) or vodka (say, Reyka) in their hands. Don’t ask me how I know, lol. Drinking age is 20.
  7. Prices and food: Ah, gee, don’t get me started. Prices are out of control.
    • A pint of that draft Gull beer? $12-$15 (1450-1800 krona). FOR ONE. Mojito? That’ll be $24, please. I got a vodka soda and was charged the equivalent of $22 for the vodka, and an additional $5 for the cute little bottle of seltzer. Dinner meals will cost a solid $40 each for nothing too fancy. Chinese food, Italian, Mexican, etc, all available. And all AT LEAST $25 a meal; most closer to $35. If you’re itching for just a burger and hit a version of a TGIFridays, you’ll get a pretty good burger and fries (only served medium/medium rare) for $25. Iced tea (no refills) $3-$5. I bought a large bottle of Icelandic water in California before I left, for $2, and the exact same one IN ICELAND was almost $4. Explain that to me? But I digress.
    • Their economy seems to be doing well, although some still understandably complain about inflation. <No political discussion will be had here!>
    • Their meal staples are lamb (pretty gamey I hear, since they are only fed a clean diet of grasses) and lots of fish dishes. They are vegan and vegetarian friendly, but are quick to make jokes about the lifestyle (as are the rest of the world, it appears!). Lots of farming generations there…sheep and cows…so the older generations are slower to warm up to meat-free diets.
    • Also they breed special Icelandic horses too but not for eating! It’s a pretty big exporting business; the horses can fetch upwards of $8,000-$20,000 each (told you everything there is more expensive!). They are smaller than other horses but have a unique gait.
  8. Oh–and one more set of random interesting facts: Taco Bell and Dominos are there. McDonalds is not. Nor is Uber. Both are banned.
  9. Ack, I could go on and on but I started this three weeks ago and keep thinking of new things to add. You get the picture, right? If not, see below 🙂 I think this is good enough for now. I hope you do too. Time to hit the PUBLISH key.

One stereotypical and broad-sweeping comment I will make is that I found the Icelandic people to be truly kind and nice and open. While once a secluded country, it’s slowly getting more diverse with people from all over the world moving in and finding a happy home, whether it’s in the fishing industry, aluminum, retail, educational, tourism, whatever. So if you’re looking for a unique main or supporting character you don’t have to limit yourself to the “typical” Icelander. Because just like with every other country in the world, there isn’t one.

There are plenty of ways to make your characters and setting stand out. Iceland just might be one of the better ways.

Let me know if you do!

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Do you Want to Write For Hire? Take This Quiz to Decide

workforhireagreementredquestionmark

You may have wondered if Work For Hire is right for you. If you’re considering writing in the children’s book industry, I’ve created a quiz that might help. It’s based on my personal experiences as well as several colleagues I interviewed. [To give you some perspective on collective experience that I’m drawing from: I’ve written 16 kidlit titles for hire so far; picture books, chapter books, and YA–most of them as part of an existing series where the other titles were written by several other people. The fellow writers I talked to have authored close to 100 for-hire titles total.] We’ve all written for different editors and publishers, on different topics, in different genres, with different parameters. Every contract was in some way unique. But generally speaking, Work For Hire has similarities that differ from traditional publishing.

It’s not for everyone.

Is it for you?

First, a definition. “Writing for Hire” means a contract from a publisher or third party—usually from an outline, writing samples, or pitch—to write a book as assigned. For them. It

—might have pre-established characters and settings

—might be ghostwritten under someone else’s name

—might include a “tie-in” or “media-related” connection to an existing product, entity or trademark, such as a movie, comic book, game (typically referred to as intellectual property rights, or i/p)

Lawyers define it as “an exception to the general rule that the person who creates the work owns the copyright. If a work is made by an employee within the scope of their employment or if it was a specially commissioned contribution…it may be a work-for-hire. The employer or hiring party is considered to be the author and thus the copyright owner. A work-for-hire agreement must be signed by both parties before the creation of the commissioned work.” (emphasis mine)

Sometimes you work directly for a publisher. Sometimes you work for a middleman, called a book packager or book producer, who in turn works for the publisher. The book or series might be your idea, but is more likely their in-house idea that they are hiring out for–usually part of a series such as early readers featuring popular TV characters like Spongebob or a history series for K-3rd grade.

Bottom line is: you write it, they own it.

Quiz time:

  • Do you prefer innovation over purely-from-scratch invention? (More like, say, creating a collage than painting)
  • Can you work with a pre-existing format, one you didn’t create?
  • Can you write in someone else’s voice, and/or match the general tone/voice and target age range of an existing series?
  • Are you okay handing over your work and having someone else do whatever they want to before going to print–even though it (probably) has your name on it?Do you take direction well? (See earlier reference to pre-existing format and matching voice)
  • Are you good at research, note taking, keeping files of resources and interviews?
  • Can you handle rewrites without arguing? (See all of the above)
  • Are you good with deadlines–possibly short ones? (Typically in the six-eight month range, start to finish)
  • Can you handle someone else telling you exactly what needs to be done, then possibly changing gears midstream?
  • Are you okay getting a flat fee, with no royalties? (Note: there is a chance you’ll come out ahead this way. Slim chance, sure, but a chance.)
  • Are you okay with the fact that even though it has YOUR name on it, the contents and everything about it may not have been your preference or decision?

If most answers are Yeses, you might be on the right track.

If most questions made you clench, well, relax. Before you get too nervous, know that the publisher isn’t out to screw you. They don’t want to mess up your work on purpose. Their goal–like yours–is to get the best possible product in the hands of their customer/reader; but the main caveat is it’s usually the best product possible created in the shortest amount of time. You might disagree on what the best product ultimately looks/reads like. (It doesn’t matter though. They have final say. On everything.) Just know they really do have the best interest of the customer in mind. They want to sell books! This is their business! They fully understand a crappy book won’t sell as well as a well-written one. They don’t want to put their reputation on the line for shoddy quality. They have your back; their name is on the cover, too.

There are feel-good questions to ask yourself about Work For Hire too:

  • Would you like a shorter time to market? (That is–getting your book on the shelf faster? Most WFH is on the shelf within a year, vs up to potentially 2 to 5 or even 7 years later going the traditional route.)
  • Would you like getting paid in a timely manner? (Many pay half the fee upon acceptance of contract and the other half upon submission/completion of the work)
  • If the project is cancelled, would you still like to get paid some of the contracted amount? (Make sure you’ve got a “kill fee” in your contract!)
  • Do you like direct feedback on how to make your assigned work better?
  • Do you like taking an idea and running with it? (Assuming you are okay when they need to rein you back in)
  • Do you like a clean set of rules, with a detailed schedule, giving you less time to goof off online and on social media? [Maybe that’s just me, lol]
  • Do you like being in control of which projects you agree to and which you decline? (It’s always okay to say no thanks)
  • Do you like researching and choosing which publishers and packagers you work with?
  • Do you like having a built-in opportunity to work with the same WFH people again? (Assuming you’re not a jerk to work with…)
  • Do you like learning about new topics you may have never considered writing about?

And most importantly:

  • Do you want to get published?!

If you took this quiz and are a yes (wo)man, then Writing For Hire is for you! Give it a try!

How to go about finding Writing For Hire opportunities will be the topic of my next blog… Hint: it takes just as much effort as pitching your current manuscripts! But worth it.

If you’ve had experiences similar or in contrast to these Quiz questions, tell me about in in the comments. I love hearing anecdotal WFH stories.

Shopping at IKEA

Image result for image ikea warehouse

I dreamt that I was in IKEA, looking for a replacement piece for something from my kid’s room. I look all over the warehouse, up and down every aisle. You know how big that place is! Had people helping, looking part numbers up on the computer, nothing. Two hours. I’m out of options, on the ground floor near the register, when I decide to look a little closer, turn it upside down…and… It’s a Lego piece.

Isn’t that how writing is sometimes? You exhaust every option trying to figure out a story arc or plot point or character tic, get nowhere, only to one day–usually in the middle of the night when you have no pen and paper nearby–look at it from a different angle, and realize all this time you’ve been shopping at IKEA for a Lego piece.

Image result for image blank lego face

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is STEP AWAY. We think we need to WORK THRU IT. We can do this. MARCH ON. We got this. MAKE IT WORK, DANG IT. We won’t be defeated!

And yet, by powering on, we might be getting in our own way. We are so focused on fixing the problem–the FIX–that we aren’t examining THE PROBLEM. We aren’t holding it in our hands, placing it up to the light, looking at it from different angles. If our eyes are only set on the finish line, we can’t see the road we’re on, or we forget WHY we’re on the road in the first place. And we’ll stumble and fall and make all kinds of messes, not to mention waste all that time (ours as well as other people’s).

So how about this: the next time you’re struggling with something, set it down. Don’t think about it.

Go for a walk. Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” A Stanford University study confirmed it. Walking boosts the creative formation of ideas, both in real time and shortly after (“Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, American Psychological Association, 2014). Neuroscientists say exercise, even mild forms like a walk around the block, releases dopamine, which helps us feel relaxed and all around in a better mood. That makes the chances of having great ideas more likely. Ditto for taking a shower, hopping on a bike, or going for a drive.

Work on something else. Set your work down for a while. Literally place it in a file and don’t plan to look at it for two months. OK, fine, six weeks. What’s the rush? Ben Baldwin, who created a company that helps predict who will succeed at which job and why, points to the benefits of freeing your mind for a bit. “The subconscious mind runs in the background, silently affecting the outcome of many thoughts. So, take a break and smell the flowers, because while you’re out doing that, your mind may very well solve the problem that you are trying to solve or spark a solution to a problem you hadn’t considered before,” he said in a WSJ article packed with advice from entrepreneurs about creating ideas.

Force connections. Just for fun, force your main character to do something, well, out of character. Place them in a situation they shouldn’t be in, in a predicament they would hate, or trapped in a room with the person they dislike the most. Writer’s Digest suggests “forcing your character into a corner,” among other creative tips. See what happens. You don’t have to keep the scene, but you may find a side of the character you didn’t notice before. Maybe there is a descriptive part of the location–a balcony or city–that you can keep and use elsewhere. Even if you use none of it, you’ve forced your own creative brain out of its comfort zone. Odds are, your brain needed that push!

The point is, when faced with a challenge, the answer isn’t always to power through. Sometime it’s better to let go, just for a little while, to get a better look at the situation. Maybe you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Don’t waste your time at IKEA when what you really need is a Lego piece.

Author Platform: Maximizing Social Media

Social Media

slick image from jsums.edu

Last post we defined Author Platforms. So tell me, what is an Author Platform, do you remember? It’s how you show your unique qualities that “brand” you as a writer or artist…with the ultimate goal of leading to book sales. It’s a long term goal, not a RIGHT NOW CLICK HERE goal. No one likes the CLICK HERE RIGHT NOW guy, amiright?

Social media is one of the main ways you create your brand. Since most of your readers will never meet you in person, it’s how most of your readers get to know you. This post is gonna look at ways to maximize social media so you can give yourself the best platform. We’ll talk through some real examples, screenshotted below.

If you need to take a step back and get a basic primer on Twitter, check out https://bitsykemper.wordpress.com/2014/07/15/twitter-101-the-basics-for-writers/

General social media tips to support your Author Platform:

  1. Be you, all the time.
  2. Have fun! Every tweet/post doesn’t have to have something to do with writing or illustrating, but each one should still reflect who you are and what you stand for. Remember the part about the real you needing to shine through?
  3. Sorry to say this, but people are people. And by that, I mean selfish. I’m not judging. It’s fact. We are always asking ourselves WIIFM? As in, What’s In It For Me? No one has time, and we make decisions in a snap. You need to do whatever you can to convince me, quickly, that what you have to say will benefit me. And then come through. So don’t just tell me your book trailer is finished and give me a link. Tell me what the trailer is about, what I’ll see, why it’s worth watching. I need to know WIIFM or I’m not going to click. Even if I like you. I just don’t have time.
  4. Other people are selfish–but you need to be giving. Stop talking about how great your product is. Let us figure that out on our own. Your book really should be able to speak for itself…or at least let others do the talking. A tweet like”Another great review, my work is profiled yet again! Click to see the latest url.2937y5/iji…” gives me no incentive to click. It’s blatant bragging. But what about “What an honor to be included in this roundup, check out the other Best 2016 Reads by Buzzfeed at url.8724r34r/…” or “Thanks for the kind review, Donna, it was nice being your guest blogger this month. I bet no one can guess how many puppies were harmed in the making of that video! [link to Donna’s website].” Do you see the difference? One is “Look at me!!” Another–the preferred method–is “There’s something in this for you, have a look.” You want to be of service. Your book or link or review just happens to be one way to help. [See #6, below.] Continue reading

2016 NY Writers Conference: Who’s With Me?

NYConflogo2016

I’m headed to one of the largest children’s book writing conferences in the world: the SCBWI Winter Conference (why our annual winter conference is in NY [where it’s supposed to be 8° this weekend] and the summer conference is in LA, I’ll never understand, but that’s another topic.) And OVER A THOUSAND fellow writers and illustrators will be there too. The event boasts many top (dare I say famous) editors, agents, art directors, authors & illustrators in the children’s publishing world. It’s going to be a fantastic few days of learning, inspiration, and friend making.

The large mix of attendees is weighted a little heavily towards the beginner, with many in the intermediate and many many in what I’d call the “seasoned professional” category. The NY conference is a little different from other SCBWI conferences in that, given the proximity to so many publishing houses, it practically rains editors and agents. You’ll see them at conference keynotes, intensives, panels, awards ceremonies, heck, even elevators. Some of them just show for the Art Show or Gala Dinner. Many of them are either new or overworked and don’t travel much, so you won’t see them elsewhere.

If you’ve never been, and have wondered if it’s worth it, I have to give it a hearty YES YES, two cramped writing thumbs up. And not just because I love my NY roots and will find any excuse to go back. But because it’s a writing experience like no other. It’s not a pore-over-your-workshop-notes-and-guarantee-yourself-an-aha-moment. It’s a wow-I’m-really-a-writer-surrounded-by-other-writers-and-this-is-where-I-want-to-be-moment. If you don’t have one of those while you’re there, well, you might not be a writer after all. And that’s OK, too. Isn’t that an important learning moment as well? No matter what you walk away with, I promise you won’t regret your decision to attend. There’s a reason a thousand people from around the world will be at this thing.

Now if you happen to be one of these thousands of fellow conference attendees this week or sometime in the future, and are fearing for your life because you’d rather be in your jammies creating in the privacy of your home and not in the middle of a grand ballroom surrounded by all these cat ladies, here are some conference tips to maximize your trip.

Conference tips:

  1. You’re not going to get a contract (seriously, toss that thought right now), but you WILL make contacts. These connections might lead to a contract some day. But don’t pressure yourself, or others. Listen. Learn. Be present. Follow some new people on Twitter and Facebook (follow this blog!). It’s kind of like college-you aren’t really there to memorize the Periodic Table; you’re Continue reading

3 Ways to Rock Your Bio

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, right? Your bio may be the only time someone decides if they’re going to invest more time or energy into getting to know you, into hiring you, or into trusting you. So you want to put your best foot forward. Make that both feet.

audience

This image was brazenly and randomly stolen off the internet

1. Know Your Audience  What is the bio for? A book flap? Conference? Website? School visit? Who is reading it? Make sure your qualifications match the reason you’re there as a speaker, writer, professional. You’re a complicated (yet attractive) beast with many facets. You can’t possibly put everything down every time; nor would you want to. Play up your experience for that circumstance, adapting as needed. If you’ve written a piece on molecular biology, your stint in improv has no place in that bio. Your experience as a second grade teacher might, if the piece was written for grade schoolers. If it’s for college level, though, just mention being a teacher. Do you see what I mean? Highlight what uniquely qualifies you or makes you stand out for that situation. Do your audience the Continue reading