Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writing Habits

The first question I'm usually asked during a reading Q & A is "What is your process?".  Funny how we writers love to compare notes on this front. I'm no exception. At the Richard Russo and Andre Dubus III event I attended a few months back, Dubus mentioned the need for absolute silence when he writes. If I'm remembering correctly, he works in a windowless, sound-proofed room in his basement, wearing a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. He reads a bit of poetry before he begins and then writes for four hours with pen (or was it pencil?) and paper. Russo, also writes longhand, I believe, but prefers public spaces like delis and coffee shops. He mentioned writing a lot at Denny's early in his career. An interesting side effect: every time he drove by a Denny's, he would get an idea for a story. 

I'm a fan of quiet, like Dubus, but a little ambient noise doesn't bother me too much. No voices, no music--unless I'm editing, in which case a little Bach turned really low is fine. I need a window. Nearly any view will do; I once wrote a book with a view of nothing but a single tree and a squirrel who stole food out of my neighbor's garbage. Have you ever seen a squirrel eat an entire New York bagel? I have. It's hilarious.

I'm the only writer I know of who works exclusively on a computer. I can't be the only one--all you monogamous computer-writers please leave a comment so I won't feel so alone. Most writers seem to start out by writing longhand and then transfer their work to a computer on the second draft. I find writing by hand too slow for my thoughts. My tool of choice is a MacBook Pro, which I picked solely for the  feel of the keyboard and the spacing of the keys. I have long fingers and most laptop keyboards cram their keys too close together for my fingers to feel comfortable. The computer program I use is Scrivener, which is insanely affordable and has all the functionality a writer could want. I'm not a shill for the company, but would gladly be one if they asked. 

My office is in a converted dining room. I write at the leather-topped cherry desk I bought as a reward for selling my first novel. Before that, I wrote at an IKEA desk and before that I used a collapsing particle board computer stand someone wanted to throw away. Above my desk is a narrow picture shelf with wedding and baby photos, notes from my kids, a few sea shells we collect on our many jaunts to the beach. Above that, there are two shelves filled with the books I refer to the most often--Irving, Updike, Steinbeck. Most of my favorite authors have John as a first name. Strunk & White is also up there, as is How Fiction Works by James Wood. Before I begin a writing session, I pull down one of the books above my desk and read a few pages to grease the wheels.  

I write in the morning, after my kids get on the bus. I've discovered that if I don't get rolling early enough in the day, the writing never gets done. I'll read over a little of my work from the previous day, careful to stop mid-scene so I'll have a jumping off point at the next session. I used to tell myself that I had to write for four hours a day no matter what, but I found that it was hard to keep track of time amid distractions and that it was too easy to get hung up on something small instead of forging ahead. What worked better was to have a daily word count. My goal is 1,000 words per day and most days I meet my quota within 2-3 hours. On the rare day when I'm really cranking, I can do it in an hour or less. Either way, it's a terrific way to stay focused. When I'm done for the day, I'm done. No matter what else I manage to accomplish that day, if I've met my quota I feel like I've been productive. 

When I'm re-writing, I usually take my laptop to the couch or outside to shake things up a bit. The goal is not word count, but trying to get through the manuscript as thoroughly and quickly as possible. From my experience, re-writing in a compressed timeframe helps me to see the flow of the narrative better and identify inconsistencies. I love the process of re-writing and can easily put in 12- hour days to get the job done.

My writing habits, like anyone else's, have developed over the years through trial and error. What works for me won't necessarily work for someone else and vice versa. What makes the sharing of habits so interesting, perhaps, is discovering those things we writers have in common. With such a solitary pursuit, it's nice to feel like we're not alone.

What's your writing process?  

Thursday, July 24, 2014


When we first start out as writers, as adults, we forge ahead with a set of expectations. We know where we want to end up, though we often have no idea how to get there. Marriage, children, a house of our own, a book deal--we know that with work and diligence, maybe a little luck, some of our goals will come to pass. A little traction, we think, is all we need to get things rolling. And it is. We push on, one step after the other. Soon we have a family, a home, or an oeuvre. We have a history. A track record. We have pushed past obstacles. We know the secret to success now and our only way forward is up.

Then the inevitable happens--a setback. Divorce, illness. We publish a book, but it doesn't sell. Or worse--our first book is a huge success, but our agent has misgivings about being able to sell our second book. Or maybe we're so paralyzed by expectations that we can't even get any words down on the page. Sometimes the setback is small enough that doesn't deter us from pressing forward. Other times, it feels like we're rolling all the way back down the hill, right back to the beginning. This was not part of the plan.

Nearly twenty years ago, when I was working as a ghostwriter for a YA series, I decided that the next logical step in my career was to develop a series of my own. I wrote a proposal for a series called ON THE ROAD about an eighteen year-old girl named Miranda who decides to take a year off between high school and college to travel across the country. The timing was great--a publishing company that was looking to invest heavily in their YA division quickly snapped it up and gave me a twelve book deal. This was just the beginning, I told myself. I was going to send Miranda to every state in the union, maybe even overseas. I was on my way up.

Or so I thought.

Around the time I finished my manuscript for book two, some huge changes started happening at my publisher. There was a change of leadership at the imprint. The new leadership decided that they needed to change focus from YA to middle grade books (the Harry Potter effect). My book contract was cut from 12 to four books. I was one of the lucky ones--others had their contracts cancelled outright. My editor left and I was assigned a new one, who was not emotionally invested in the series. Miranda only traveled as far as Florida and was in a bit of a rush getting there. The books were released with zero publicity or fanfare, just the minimum fulfillment of an obligation. I knew it was bad luck, that it was nothing personal. Still, it felt like a punch in the face.

It takes courage to press on after a setback, but press on we must. First, we have to allow ourselves a bit of grieving, a bit of taking stock. We hunker down and lick our wounds. We must be honest with ourselves--Did we play a part in this? Sometimes the answer is no, but often it's yes. Our next steps need to be thoughtful, deliberate, not reactionary. We are more wary as we proceed, but wiser the second time around. Our successes are sweeter because we know they are so hard-won. And when the next setback occurs--as it surely will--the punch will have lost some of its sting. We survived once, we will survive again.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

There's Never a Perfect Time

A friend of mine, who is a school teacher, once mentioned that when life settled down she would love to write a children's book. "Why wait?" I said. "There will never be a perfect time."

My answer was a bit simplistic, I know. My friend is very busy with the demands of work and family.   I understand what it's like trying to find a little time for oneself and how the muse doesn't always cooperate when that sliver of time opens up. Right now, I'm watching my daughters run through the sprinkler on the front lawn and I'm holding my breath, hoping it will occupy them long enough for me to jot down a few thoughts. This is the only quiet time I will have today. If I don't seize this brief opportunity this week's blog post will never happen.

This is life. We have so many responsibilities we forsake the things we really want to do. Yet how many of these responsibilities are truly necessary? Maybe fewer than we think. How much free time do we actually have? Maybe more than we realize. A little web surfing, a little TV. There is breathing room in our days, but we've found ways to fill it. Ways that might feel like we're doing something substantive but leave us feeling drained, dissatisfied. Why do we compulsively check our email all day long when we say we'd like to spend more time reading? Why do we rob ourselves of even things that bring us pleasure?

Time isn't really the the obstacle--it's fear. It's easy to postpone our dreams by blaming our schedules. It takes the pressure off. Deciding to finally take that leap into the unknown is terrifying. We are afraid to fail. Committing to action is to court disaster. So we hide behind our to-do list. It's safer that way. The decision seems to be made for us.

Time is our enemy in that we have only a finite amount of it. How much? No one knows. When we are young, we foolishly believe time is a luxury. This is not to say we should spend every minute being productive. We should spend as much of our time as we can doing what fulfills us--not on empty habits or on pleasing those who do not occupy a place in our immediate circle of family and friends. If we don't act now, then when? There will always be a problem or two plaguing us, an inbox that never empties, another holiday around the corner. There will always be an excuse we can point to  if we allow it. Years can slip away before we notice.

The perfect time is now. But it doesn't have to happen all at once.

I suggested to my friend that she buy a beautiful notebook and a pen just to jot down a some ideas. Spend a few minutes every day or week on it. Let go of outcomes, expectations. Make it fun. Just start.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Down Time

Right now, I'm in the midst of some serious downtime.

It's not exactly of my choosing. In early May, I sent off my finished manuscript to my agent and I'm still waiting to hear back. It's been a month and a half and I'm trying to be patient. Book Expo America happened somewhere in the middle and I'm sure he was busy with that. He has other clients. It takes a long times to read 156,000 word document.

But I'm trying to be patient. I'm dying to hear what he thinks.

I might just send him an e-mail in a week or two if I don't hear back, but I know I haven't been forgotten. This, my friends, is the nature of the publishing business. It's S-L-O-W. If we do manage to find a publisher, I know that my book won't hit the shelves until about two years from now. At least. If it takes a client two months to hear from an agent, you can maybe understand why unsigned writers wait upwards of 3-6 months to hear anything.

What to do in the meantime?

The smart thing to do is to roll right into another project, to get so excited about something new that I forget I'm waiting to hear back, but I'm finding that to be difficult. The kids are out of school. The neglected corners of my life need some attention. I've been re-reading a few abandoned pieces and the novel I started a few years ago--but my bookshelf, stocked with all that delicious summer reading, seems much more appealing. I'm gardening, cooking, enjoying my children, and just taking a moment to exhale. In the vernacular of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, I'm filling the well.

When I was a ghostwriter my schedule required that I produce a 250-page book every six weeks, with an additional two weeks for revisions. Even with an outline, even with such light material as comedic teenage angst, it was a tough schedule. On my own, now with considerably more responsibilities and subject matter requiring a bit more thought, I'm on track to produce a book every 5-10 years. My writing is slow, thoughtful, deliberate. I often berate myself for being so slow. I know I could work harder, put in more hours, but writing isn't my everything. And I feel almost apologetic about it.

In April, I had the chance to meet the extraordinary writer, Andre Dubus III. In the few minutes we spoke, I sensed he was also an extraordinary human being. He asked me what I did for work and I told him I was a writer. I told him I was on the verge of completing my second adult novel, which took me nearly nine years to write. I was a little embarrassed by this, citing my twin girls as one of the reasons it took me so long. I admitted I found it hard to work as much as I'd like given the demands of family life. Writing, for me, takes quiet and concentration. Family life is noisy, complicated, messy. (For example, in the forty-five minutes that I've been writing this blog post, I've been interrupted about once every five minutes.)

Mr. Dubus looked up from the book he was signing and said with the utmost sincerity, "Your life comes first. Enjoy your daughters. Wait until they're all grown up, then you can write a million books."

I wish it were that simple, but the sentiment was certainly a relief to hear. I think of it often. When I grow old, will I regret not publishing more often? Probably not. But I would definitely regret missing out on my daughters' childhoods. What's the point of writing if there's no life to write about?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Most Important Point of View--Yours

Right after college, when I had moved to New York and was just beginning to discover who I was as a writer and as a person, two brilliant young writers were making huge waves in the literary community--Junot Diaz with Drown and Edwidge Danticat with Breath, Eyes, Memory. A few years later, Jhumpa Lahiri came on the scene with her short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies. All three writers were (and still are) fiercely talented. Their works also shared the common themes of the immigrant experience and cultural marginalization. All three moved to the United States when they were very young--Diaz from the Dominican Republic, Danticat from Haiti, and Lahiri from London (though her family was from India).

I admire all of three writers greatly, but putting my young self up for comparison (a treacherous pastime all of us would do better to avoid) was hopelessly discouraging. It's one thing to compare talent--even if I fall short, there is at least the hope that one day, if I work hard, maybe I'll achieve similar skills--but another thing entirely to compare one's point of view. All three writers, by virtue of their cultural histories, had an inherently interesting point of view. I did not. I had a happy, quiet childhood and grew up in a small Maine town. Likewise, my young adulthood was focused, calm, and full of hard work.


No matter what I do, I will never be able to change my history, my cultural heritage, or who I am. My source material is far less interesting right off the bat. It's like starting a race one lap behind. This bothered me a lot early on. Who would be interested in the musings of a happy, well-adjusted person?

Two conversations I had over the past year helped me change my mind. The first was with a friend of mine who moved to the US from England five or six years ago. She confessed to me that while growing up in England she was obsessed with American culture and that a book about small town America seemed very glamorous and exotic to her. Really? It had never occurred to me that a story about rural America could be exotic to anyone. My world view, obviously, had been too narrow.

The second conversation was with my writing mentor, Richard Russo. I mentioned to him my fear of being too "normal" to be of any interest to readers and then he said the simplest, most remarkable thing--that my point of view is as valid as anyone else's.

Maybe I knew this all along, but hearing those words somehow gave me permission to be me without apology. So if you've experienced a similar feeling of self-doubt, let me pass on the following affirmations:

Your point of view is as valid as anyone else's.

You are an observer and have learned things about human nature just by virtue of being alive. 

What is dull to one person can be exciting to another. Not even Diaz, Danticat, and Lahiri 
appeal to everyone.

Your work will find an audience. 

So there. Now stop fretting and get back to work.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Curse of the Six-Figure Advance

Don't let anyone fool you--writing is NOT its own reward.

Writing is fulfilling, fun at times, and most of us would do it for free (shhhh...don't tell anyone), but a large part of the reward is putting our work out into the world and seeing what comes back. We need to see some positive results, something that tells us our time and effort are worth it, something that keeps us motivated on those days when it feels like the story is going nowhere and we don't think we have the will to carry on.

Among the markers we writers use to gauge our success (for better or worse) are bestseller lists, awards, movie and TV deals, glowing reviews from publications and fans alike, and blurbs from famous people. Oh yeah--and that little thing called a book advance. The single, most concrete measure of the worth of our words. The fact that any publisher would pay to put our words into print is a pretty heady thing, but when a publisher decides they are willing to pay a lot for it, well, that's the stuff of writers' dreams.

The bigger the advance, the better, right? Not necessarily. In fact, sometimes a bigger advance can be a bigger headache.

Before I delve into the reasons why a big advance can be problematic, it's important to understand how publishers determine what to pay for a book in the first place. When it comes to a first-time authors with no track record, it's anybody's guess how many copies of their book will sell. Publishers look at trends, the sales of similar titles, the current marketplace, and then make their best guess. That's right, guess. No one knows which books will hit the bestseller lists and which ones will tank. It's all a crap shoot. So the publisher takes a guess and makes an offer based on that guess. If another publishing company is interested in acquiring the same book they will also make a bid, driving up the price of the advance. Then it becomes not just a game of how well they think the book will sell, but how much money they're willing to risk in order to get the book. As the price goes up, the author gets more and more excited. He may feel this is a reflection of the value of his work, when really it's a competition between publishers to see who will "win" the book. The problem is, it may not be an accurate reflection of potential sales.

Oh, sure, in the short term, a big advance is a wonderful thing. It's lots of money in your pocket that you get to keep no matter how your book sells. It also means lots of publicity--a big book deal is often published in the trades, garnering attention well before publication. The publisher is more likely to make the book a higher priority on their list. And--let's admit it--being in the "six-figure club" just feels fantastic. It's like joining the major leagues.

Over the long term, though, the author's sales might fail to live up to that big advance. In fact, the vast majority of books will fail to earn out their advances. It may not seem like a big deal, I suppose, considering that you've already received a nice paycheck, but what happens when you try to get your second book published? You now have a track record. When a publisher considers buying your next book, they are going to look at your sales. Here, the size of your previous advance matters--a lot.

For instance, let's compare two authors--Author A and Author B. Author A received an average-sized advance of $20,000, while Author B received $100,000. Both earned $30,000 on sales. Who looks better on paper? Author A--she earned out her advance and collected an additional $10,000 in royalties. Her next contract offer is likely to go up considerably.

While Author B sold the same amount of books, his statement shows he still needs another $70,000 in sales to equal his advance. This shows up as a negative $70,000 in total sales. It's likely Author B's next offer will go way down, closer to the sales amount. Some publishers might not even want to take a chance on the next book. And yet both authors had the same earnings. The only difference is that Author B's publisher arbitrarily gave him a higher advance. 

So what's the take away from this? Should you say "No, thank you!" when a publisher makes you a big offer? Of course not! It's free money--are you crazy? What you need to understand is that a big advance does not automatically translate into big sales. Likewise, not being able to live up to your advance is not an indication of failure. On the flip side, a small advance need not feel like a failure, either. In other words, it's a numbers game and nothing more. The game may not always work in your favor, but it's not necessarily your fault. Don't use it to gauge your value as a writer.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Agents Are Evil and Other Publishing Myths

The recent dispute between Hachette and Amazon has brought out the publishing industry haters again. I've been reading through some of the comments people have been leaving and are shocked by the number of people who are pro-Amazon and anti-publishing. The issue is complicated and nuanced and as an author whose books are available through Amazon, it would be hypocritical for me to take a stand at the moment--but I reserve the right to do so in the future. As a consumer I have enjoyed Amazon's low pricing as much as anyone, though I will say that the company's recent practices have made me re-think the true cost of underpricing books. From now on, I will be making more purchases at my local independent book store.

What I do want to take a stand on, though, is the constant demonization of publishers and agents. Yes,  over the past twenty years the major publishing houses have consolidated to the point where there are only four major houses remaining. Yes, the bottom line is important to them--and why wouldn't it be? Profit margins have been shrinking. Book stores are closing. People are downloading books for free. The industry is in jeopardy. Contrary to popular belief, books are not cheap to produce. Every book that is published is handled by a managing editor, a copy editor, a fact checker, a book designer, a publicist, and a sales team. Then there's the cost of production and distribution.

Even though money is a big issue at the corporate level, to say that these houses are populated by cynical drones is plain false. I have worked with three different publishers in the course of my career, and every editor I've ever met is an extremely hardworking, deeply passionate, certifiable book geek. Yes, they do edit--though the writer generally has veto power, so if I book seems like it wasn't edited well maybe you ought to blame the author. (Typos, on the other hand manage to slip through no matter how carefully you edit. Quite a maddening experience, to which I can attest.) Editors are very fond of their authors and only take on projects they feel strongly about. I'm sure they all want to find the next THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, but since no one can predict what will be the next big hit, an overall love of the written word is the major motivating factor. Publishing jobs pay too little and the hours are too long for it to be otherwise.

Good agents get paid well, but they earn their keep. I worked at Writers House Agency for six years in the accounting department and have had three different agents in the course of my career (two left the industry). I can tell you that an agent's primary concern is for the author. Period. Contrary to popular belief, they are not shills for publishers. They are not unnecessary middlemen. They act as contract lawyers, editors, mediators, accountants, and career managers. Whenever someone asks me if they need an agent, my answer is always an unequivocal yes. Sure, you can get your work in print without one given all the new methods of publishing these days, but I wouldn't try it. An agent's commission seems like a small price to pay for all the services you get in exchange, plus the time that is freed up for writing instead of negotiating a contract or scanning royalty statements for errors.

I just finished writing a novel and my agent has it right now. He's going to tell me where the weak spots are so I can polish it up before we send it off to find a publisher. As he's reading it, he'll be thinking about various editors who might be excited by this particular story and with any luck, we'll find someone who will want to spend the next year working with me to make it the best story it can be. Then we'll all work together to find an audience for it. And it will be a pleasure to be surrounded by professional people who truly have a love for the written word.