Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Interview With Poet Gary Rainford

I recently had the pleasure of hearing poet Gary Rainford read from his new collection of poems, Salty Liquor at an event called The Joy of the Pen, a literary awards reception sponsored by the Topsham Library.

Two things that are immediately striking about Gary. The first is that a love of language oozes out of his pores. The second is that he is eager to share that love with his audience. The minute he stepped out from behind the podium to read, he captivated everyone in the room. He is a family man, an educator, a resident of Swan's Island, and a unique talent. His winter tour schedule is as follows:

  • January 22 at Topsham Public Library, 6 PM, reading/book signing 
  • February 15 at Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick, 1PM where he is a guest poet at Longfellow Days, a month long celebration of poetry  
  • March 19 at Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY, 1 PM, reading/book signing.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of Gary's readings, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, he was kind enough to share his thoughts about poetry, the creative process, and the writing life.

Congratulations on your new book of poetry, Salty Liquorand on receiving an Honorable Mention at the Joy of the Pen Literary Awards. I, like the rest of the audience, were captivated not just by your poetry but by your performance as well. You seem to have a genuine love of language that you're eager to share. 

Thank you. I do love language. Words have texture and configuration. A poem has texture and configuration, like a spectacular sunrise or sunset--it has that feel. Tom Waits has a song called, “That Feel.” He's talking about music, of course, songs, but that feel is everywhere. We know that feel when a movie scene twists our insides. We know that feel when we bite into the perfect combination of chocolate and salt. We know that feel when January's wolf moon cracks open the cloudy sky, like it did this morning at 4 AM when I got up to light the wood-stove and work. And I know that feelwhen I find it in a poem. I love that moment. And when we love, sharing spectacular moments makes perfect sense. How often do we call out for somebody to look outside the kitchen window with us to see a red tailed hawk or eagle soaring across the field or sky? Or some other occurrence that strikes us as original or spectacular? Similarly, I love sharing and performing my poems.  

Writers tend to be drawn to one literary form more than any other--why poetry? 

Poetry is an opportunity to tell stories, shape language, and it's a vocation. Although I've been writing poems since I was 12ish, two events during graduate school determined my way: 1. In 1991 I read a biography, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. I had never heard of Jeffers before but I was hooked on his poetry instantly and his way of life, living quietly and apart with his family on the rugged Carmel coast, honoring hard work while making poems. 2. A year later I was trolling poetry titles at Tower books and You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski hit me between my eyes like a sledgehammer. I devoured that book of poems and everything else he wrote. Bukowski and Jeffers taught me about life as poetry, and since my mid-twenties I've been carving out my own way as a poet. 

It’s been said that Maine has more writers per capita than any other state. As someone who grew up elsewhere, what do you think it is about Maine that lends itself to the vocation of writing? 

“We need the possibility of escape,” says Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, “as surely as we need hope.” Maine is the perfect escape, especially for writers. Sublime ocean vistas. Mountains to the west. Farmland up north, if you have carrots and cabbage in your heart. Wild spaces still exist in Maine. Wild spaces are powerful and un-center creative people; they makes us recognize an important fact: we are not the center of the universe, or our community, or our household. Wild spaces remind us that we are all in this soupy chowder together. Plus, compared to other states I've lived, New York, California, and Oregon, Maine is affordable. The short story writer and novelist Doris Betts says, “Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life,” and I wholly agree. Life is expensive today, but a quality life, a writing life, is still possible, here, in Maine, The Way Life Should Be, if you're clever and independent.

Tell us about your writing life. Do you have a special writing space? What is your process?

My process doesn't change much, but my writing place is seasonal. Which means this time of year, especially when it's -9 degrees like this morning, I write as close to the woodstove in the kitchen as possible. The other six months I work upstairs in my office. Writing is a job. I wake up at 4AM, Monday-Friday, stoke the woodstove, microwave the cup of coffee I brewed the night before, set my laptop on the cutting board on top of the washing machine, and tap keys. I generally work on two to five poems at once, minimizing and maximizing documents as I need them. I take Saturday and Sunday off, unless I miss a morning due to extenuating circumstances, like my daughter recently who had pink eye and couldn't sleep and wanted to be with Daddy when he got up. I write for two / two and a half hours and wrestle as much inspiration out of this time as possible. Then my family begins to stir, and it's time for other things. Throughout the day I use an app on my phone or scraps of paper to keep notes about the lines or stanzas I'm working out in my head. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes . . .

Your poem "Nautica Pub" is about a waitress who reminds you of your grandmother, whom you describe as "a marked down, irregular sales event at Reny’s [a discount retail store] and a wrinkled chain smoker." The audience loved that line--it was a knockout. Another poem, "Smolder" is about your brother's substance abuse. Do you find it easy to write honestly about family, or do you approach the topic with some hesitation?

Every poem I write tries to capture what I believe is honest and real. My intent is never hurtful. Like I said before, poems have sunrise or sunset moments, moments of awe and/or discovery. My job is to flesh out that awareness, and the tools I use are the details of my life. My oldest brother has been sick with drugs for nearly 40 years, my mother is getting old and foggy, my body is not as strong as it used to be, and that is just the way it is. My observations are not unkind, I don't think, just literal. I learn a lot about myself by reflection. Reflection reminds me to act kindly, the way I want to be treated. My poems are reflections too, screen-shots of everyday life—it all contributes to who we are, where we are heading. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems before I landed on what I call a narrative-lyric style. Before this my work had no bones, breath, or conscience. In 1997 I was in my late 20s and published my first poem, “English Class For Stupid Kids,” a piece about me during high school. That poem discovered a public voice, one that looked outwardly as well as inwardly for muse, one that recognized the possible presence of readers. You have to write for yourself and you have to write for readers. Kurt Vonnegut said plot keeps readers reading, and as a technician of poetry, I believe plot keeps readers moving from one line to another to the next stanza. Readers connect with real people and real places, so I write without any hesitation about my personal experiences. If my grandmother were still alive, she'd light a cigarette and laugh like a rusty hinge at my description of her.   

I've never thought about plot applying to poetry.

I transferred to Stony Brook University as a junior, a declared computer science major, but not for long. One of my first classes was History of the English Language. My peers languished over our assigned texts, but I couldn't get enough. Beowulf, an 8th century epic poem, was one of our first readings—plot driven. Dante's 14th century epic poem, Inferno—plot driven. Evangeline, A Tale of Acadia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--plot driven. T. S. Eliot's, Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, published in 1915—plot driven. And just a few years ago contemporary poet Stephen Dobyns published, Winter's Journey. These are not epic poems in structure, like the others, but they are all plot driven: protagonist, narrator, conflict, action, setting, and language-economy compel these compact poems. I think plot in poetry is an example of everything old is new again. I was never formally taught about plot in poems, either, but our lives are all plot driven, every second, which is likely why I love working with this ancient and primitive structure.

Humor seems to be an important component to your work. Is it something you strive for or is it just a natural extension of your voice? 

This is all I need is one of the last scenes in the 1979 movie, The Jerk. Steve Martin's character, Navin Johnson, ascends from rags to riches, but by the end he's descending back to rags. Drunk and devastated he leaves his wife and mansion yelling, “I don't need you. I don't need anything.” As he shuffles away, pants around his ankles, Navin grabs an ashtray and says, “This is all I need.” Then he grabs a paddle-board, “This is all I need.” Then a TV remote control, matches, a lamp, a chair, and a magazine before the scene fades out, Navin slurring, “This is all I need.” The drama is tragic, but it's a hilarious scene. When I helped my mother relocate from upstate, NY, to Florida, recently, a similar tragicomedy played out. She was very stressed and agitated, not 100% ready move into a condo, but the house was being sold in less than three days.  As we headed out the door, so I could drive her to Logan Airport in Massachusetts, she stacked up miscellaneous items in her arms, including two full honey bear bottles, box of prunes, empty picture frame, backscratcher, teabags, mini open shampoo bottle, dog toy, and in my head I heard her saying, “This is all I need.” If you didn't cry, you had to laugh. Humor, for me, is medicine. I don't intentionally build humor into my poems, but if it arrives wearing a Bozo nose and white grease paint, I'm helpless. Who doesn't love to laugh? “The most wasted of all days,” says E. E. Cummings, “is one without laughter.” I cannot agree more.

In addition to being a poet, you also teach writing. How does teaching inform your work?

Every second I clock with students is a second I clock working on my own poetry. Teaching--literature, composition, and creative writing--is practice, and to prove I'm not a hypocrite, just ask my seven year old daughter how often I tell her, Practice makes progress. Teaching is additional time sharpening my ability as a thinker, reader, proofreader, editor, observer, decision maker, leader, backseat driver, skills I bring to every line I compose, every stanza. Talking to his students in The Triggering Town, a collection of essays, Richard Hugo says, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me.” And an unintentional consequence of teaching is learning about yourself, which is key for developing your own original voice and writing style. As a teacher, I give myself to others. As a writer, I give myself to others. Writing and teaching are joined by similar fates, the pursuit, insight, and medicinal effects of knowledge.   

 Tell us about your newest poetry collection Salty LiquorWhere does the title come from?

Salty Liquor is about fatherhood, family, hardship, and the power of place. Salty Liquor is not a euphemism for frozen margaritas, sea-salt rimming your glass, like some people first think.  The title is the closing line from the poem, “Low Tide,” which refers to the liquid inside a mussel shell, that last briny taste of delight, that complicated reward. Poems contain salty liquor too. It's the salty juices language leaves behind after we read poetry, a residue of words. Yesterday, at Town Office, a neighbor said she was thinking all morning about a line I wrote, “The path is lit with honey,” from the poem, “Clover.” She said she feels more like she's stuck in honey than lit by it and needs to make some changes in her life. That's the salty liquor talking.

Here's a poem from Salty Liquor--perfect for this time of year.


It’s early. A gaunt morning moon 
is a frozen hole 
in the gray, still sky. 

The Captain Henry Lee, our ferry, 
won’t be crossing today. 

The island, cut off, locked down, 
is without electricity. Or telephone. 

Giant and collapsed ice heaves 
like megaliths 
clutter Mackerel Cove. 

The roads are frozen. Snowdrifts 
are frozen. Deep, artesian well 
casings are frozen. Domestic hot water 
pipes are frozen. Septic lines, frozen. 
Gas lines, frozen solid, too, 
and my pickup truck wouldn’t start 
last Friday. 

Buddy at the dump described oil 
in his Cherokee as slushy. 

January doesn’t thaw 
until the very first purple crocus bulb 
blooms in May.
(Rainford, Gary. Salty Liquor. Unity, Maine: North Country Pres, 2014. Print.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

5 Goals and 1 Wish For 2015

I'm not a fan of New Year's Resolutions. They are usually framed as promises we make to ourselves that rely on frequency of action (I will go to yoga 3x a week) or rigid discipline (I will never eat sugar again) that are too difficult to maintain. Instead, I'm more of a fan of setting yearly goals--it keeps me  focused but allows me a little flexibility in how I achieve those goals. At the end of every year, I like to review my list to see how I did.

Here are the professional goals I reached in 2014:

1) READ MORE. I nailed this one, mostly because I was purposely vague. I'm a slow reader and it's hard for me to commit to specific numbers. Still, I upped my game on this one and it felt good.

2) GET 100 TWITTER FOLLOWERS. Again--I totally hit this one out of the park, mostly out of ignorance. I had joined Twitter and didn't realize I had to reach out to get followers. I was hopelessly stuck at 40 followers for a month or two, so 100 seemed like a reasonable stretch. Then my friend clued me in and now I'm up to 1,200 followers--still a modest number. By the way, if you'd like to follow me, I'm @stephdoyon. Thank you!

3) FINISH FIRST DRAFT OF MANUSCRIPT. I did this and it felt beyond great. No tricks here, just a lot of focus and hard work.

4) START BLOGGING AGAIN. Finishing my manuscript allowed me to return from blogging hiatus and I've really enjoyed it, though generating content isn't always easy.

Goals I didn't reach:

1) SELL MY MANUSCRIPT TO A PUBLISHER. For the past five years, every time I see my accountant for tax prep I tell him, "I didn't make any money this year, but I will next year." And every year I'm wrong. It looks like I'll have to say it again in February. I'm sure my accountant stopped believing me a long time ago, anyway. This was a painful goal not to achieve, but Mr. Agent says the manuscript isn't ready yet and he's so brilliant I tend to believe him. 

But that's all in the past...Let's look toward the big, bright future, shall we?

Here's my list of 5 professional goals for 2015:

1) READ 52 BOOKS. I'm now ready to commit to a number! Look at me, being all brave and stuff. I might have to stock up on slim novels to accomplish this goal. Among the books on my list--Middlemarch by George Eliot (never finished it in college--I read too slowly to keep up) and re-reading Kent Haruf's Plainsong trilogy. RIP, Mr. Haruf. You were inspiring.

2) POST MORE OFTEN. This one's dicey. Right now, I'm averaging 2 posts a month. I would love to post once a week, but I find it often intrudes on my limited writing time. More is all I can strive for this year, whatever that may turn out to be.

3) CONTINUE TO BUILD PLATFORM ON SOCIAL MEDIA. In addition to the blog and Twitter, I've been dabbling in Goodreads and Pinterest. I've also tried to be more active on trade-related Facebook sites. It's been fun to see how all these platforms work together. My goal is to slowly raise my profile through social media, so I'll have an audience in place when (fingers crossed) my next book is published. The trick though, is not to waste too much time on it.

4) FINISH SHORT STORY. I'm not a short story writer. I have a tendency to e-x-p-a-n-d. Still, short story writing is a great discipline. I have an old story that's been kicking around in the drawer for a while that I really want to finish. To this end, I have joined a writing group.  

5) FINISH MY MANUSCRIPT. This is my top goal of the year--whip this damn manuscript into fighting shape. I. WILL. DO. IT.  And if all goes well...

My 1 Wish:

1) SELL MY MANUSCRIPT TO A PUBLISHER. I've realized that this is more of a wish than a goal, because goals are things in your power and getting published is largely out of my control. All I can do is create my best work and the rest is out of my hands. I really hope this happens. If not, I may need to find a new accountant.

What are your writing goals and wishes for 2015?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Swinging the Ax

I was so hoping, Dear Blog Reader, that by now I'd finally be in the throes of the publishing process and would have tons of juicy insider bits to share with you. Unfortunately--like most things in life--my journey toward getting this book published is not going according to plan. As detailed in my post The Summer of Crazy, my agent says I have some more work to do. I've spent the last three months revising the first third of the manuscript and now I have to do it again.

This is no small revision. I'm eliminating a plot that's going nowhere, changing all the characters' relationships toward each other (which basically means that every line of dialogue and every action between them has to be reconsidered), and get the story moving sooner. It feels a lot like building a beautiful piece of furniture, taking an ax to it, and then trying to rebuild it from the splinters. It's hard to make the pieces fit, but incredibly satisfying when they finally do.

What is surprising me about the process, though, is just how much stuff I'm able to cut out every time I go over it. Even though my prose can hardly be described as "lean", I like to think that I tell a pretty tight story. There are many points in the process where removing a paragraph or scene seems to jeopardize many other parts of the book. More often, though, in an effort to get the plot rolling faster, I'm finding just how much I can cut without affecting the story at all. It's scary and liberating and disconcerting all at the same time. Once I start swinging the ax, I can't stop. I wonder sometimes if I'm getting carried away. Am I going, once again, in the completely wrong direction?

Then I heard a great piece of writing advice from an unlikely source...The Princess Diaries 2 movie.

I had trouble determining if using the original movie poster image on my blog fell under 'fair use'. Let's pretend this is a royalty-free picture of Anne Hathaway, shall we?

My daughters were home sick (they're twins--they do everything together) and wanted to watch The Princess Diaries 2. When the movie was over, we watched the deleted scenes, introduced by director Garry Marshall. One scene in particular caught my attention. Anne Hathaway was poking around the hidden corners of the castle and found a secret passage hidden behind a wall. We follow her for several minutes in the hidden room until she discovers something that plays an important part later on in the movie (I'll refrain from spoiling it for you). While Hathaway's discovery is crucial to the plot, the director ended up cutting the scene. In the final cut of the movie, you see Anne Hathaway disappear behind a hidden wall and that's basically it.

 Marshall explained that he cut the scene because it had slowed down the pace of the movie and there was still enough information there for the audience to fit the pieces together. And that's when he said something so simple and so brilliant it should be heeded by directors and writers everywhere: "You think you have to explain everything, but you don't."

This bit of wisdom reaffirmed when I had been discovering during my revision--much of what I'd written was explanation of things that didn't need to be thoroughly explained. I'd found moments when I'd gone on for paragraphs about a bit of background when one sentence was enough. Rather than describing how a character feels toward another character, a line of dialogue could convey the relationship instead. Other things didn't need to be mentioned at all. As long as I was aware of the forces shaping my characters, I didn't need to clue the reader in on everything.

Art is shaped not only by what is present but also by what is absent. Sculpture is formed by what is removed. Rhythm is defined not only by the beats but by the rests. Fiction comes alive not only by what is written, but by what is left out. Simple, obvious, but not always easy in practice.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

9 Favorite Books for Writers

Looking for a good book about writing? Here are nine books that have resonated with me throughout the years. I keep nearly all of them with arm's reach of my writing desk.

For Beginners

One of the biggest hurdles for someone who wants to begin writing is gaining enough confidence to get started. These three books inspired me to get into the habit of creating.

1. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. This was the first writing book I ever read and is a perennial classic for beginners. Goldberg uses gentle wisdom, Zen practice, and anecdotes about life in New Mexico to inspire writers to create without fear.

2.  The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. This is a great book for those occasions when you want to write but feel stuck. While the tone of the book is a little over-the-top at times, Cameron does a terrific job of unlocking the potential in people who might otherwise view themselves as non-creative types. Even though I read this book over a decade ago, her insistence on daily writing practice and on 'filling the well' by engaging in all kinds of creative pursuits still speaks to me.

3. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. The minute you sign up for Creative Writing 101, this is the first book on your required reading list. (Or at least that's the way it used to be. I'll assume nothing's changed since the book is still in print.) The book is an introductory course on craft unto itself as Gardner digs deep into literary theory and analysis. It belongs on every writers bookshelf.

For Aspiring Authors

Once you understand the basics, it's energizing to read about successful authors and the creative process.

4. On Writing by Stephen King. Half memoir, half writing manual, King's book has become a modern classic. The story of how his wife rescued his Carrie manuscript from the trash bin and the enormous success that book would bring is riveting, emotional, and well worth a read for those dreaming of literary fame.

5. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters by John Steinbeck. This book is a collection of letters Steinbeck wrote to his editor as a daily exercise while writing East of Eden. Best to be savored in small bites, it's the kind of book to read at the beginning of a writing session, when you're trying to drum up enough motivation to get to work. Discovering that even Steinbeck had moments of doubt and distraction has a way of soothing the soul on those days when writing feels like a chore.

6. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. When the work gets bogged down or I have a professional setback, Dillard's lyrical prose puts me back on track. This slim, quiet book is a good reminder to focus more on the urge to create and the discipline of writing than on elusive publishing success.

For Professionals

These books are helpful for writers who are already published or are on the path to publication.

7. How Fiction Works by James Wood. This book is incredibly dense and will be most helpful to those writers who are already familiar with the process of writing a novel. Much of what Wood writes about will seem too abstract for the beginning writer, but it's packed with insight for those with writing experience. It's important to remember that Wood is a critic and some of what he expresses is opinion rather than gospel. Still, I've found it to be an invaluable addition to my library. There is so much to absorb, I recommend reading it with a highlighter.

8. The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity by Lissa Warren. Published in 2008, this book is a bit old and I would love to see a revised edition that includes social media. Still, there is a wealth of information here that will never be out of date--such has how to prepare for media interviews, write press releases, and hire a publicist. The bottom line that echoes throughout the book, and one that any writer should constantly keep in mind, is that authors are largely responsible for their own publicity.

9. Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame edited by Robin Robertson. Before you go out on your first book tour, you must read this hilarious collection of most embarrassing moments by 70 well-respected authors. Then, when you're sitting there at your signing, twiddling your thumbs because no one has shown up, instead of feeling sorry for yourself you'll just be glad that you weren't like Margaret Atwood who was forced to sign copies of her book The Edible Woman in the men's underwear department of clothing store. Many of these stories so cringe-worthy and so unbelievably horrible you'll want to throw the book across the room--but you won't because it's just too damn funny.

What are your favorite books for writers?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

9 Great Gifts For Writers

Got a temperamental writer on your holiday list and don't know what to buy him/her? Here are some of my favorite tools of the trade.

1. Great Pens.  My husband picked up a few of these awesome MUJI Gel-Ink Pens ($1.50 each) for me during a layover at JFK. The ink doesn't skip, bleed, or leak and writes like buttah. He brought back three different points, but the .7mm point was my favorite--especially for the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. The pens quickly disappeared as soon as my daughters discovered them which had me reaching for my second favorite pens, the Uni-Ball 207 Impact Gel Pen, Bold Point.

2. Travel Notebook.  Although I do most of my writing on my computer, I try to keep a small notebook handy to jot down ideas. I love Moleskin journals--especially for travel. They are so beautifully made, it's a pleasure to write in them. This Moleskin Classic Reporter Notebook ($12.95) appeals to me because it opens flat and has a slim profile.

3. Writing Software. I'm not a shill for the company, but I would be if they asked. Scrivener 2 for Mac OSX or Windows ($38-$45) is the best writing tool I've ever purchased. It's a very deep program and and requires a little time investment in watching some free online tutorials before you get started, but the hours this program has saved me is totally worth it. Whether you're a novelist, screenwriter, non-fiction writer, or student, Scrivener keeps your ideas, notes, and sources organized. My favorite feature: moving scenes is as easy as a quick drag-and-drop instead of the cumbersome cut and paste routine found in traditional word processing programs.

4. A Hot Beverage. It's impossible to start the writing day without some sort of hot beverage to get the gears turning. I like to fill my little FORLIFE: Q Teapot with Jasmine Silver Needle or Earl Grey Lavender tea. I was never a coffee drinker until a trip to Europe, when a friend introduced me to the world of espresso and now I have an unreasonable attachment to my Nespresso Citiz Machine ($249) and their Roma coffee.

5. Reading Journal.  I received this adorable little What I Read Reading Journal ($8) for Christmas last year and I just love it. Think of it as Goodreads for Luddites. It helps me keep track of what I read and my impressions of each book--a crucial aspect of the writing process. 

6. Membership to a Professional Writers' Association.  There are writers guilds and associations on both a state and national level that exist solely to promote the interests of authors. Some offer of group medical insurance, legal and contract advice, opportunities for  education, promotion and networking. Memberships vary from $25-100. No working writer should be without a guild membership!

7. Gift Card to a Favorite Café. I usually work at home. I resisted working at a café for a long time because I'm easily distracted by noise and the thought of someone reading over my shoulder. A week of cabin fever several months ago, however, forced me out of the house. I couldn't believe how much work I got done. Two things I had failed to realize about the beauty of working in cafés: 1) Your butt stays in the chair because you're not about to go wandering off without your computer, and 2) If you don't go out of your way to establish WiFi access, you can't get distracted by the Internet. Now I like working in cafés, especially when I have a deadline looming. And it sure is nice to have a gift card tucked in my wallet, waiting for me.

8. A Private Office. This one is for you big spenders. The ultimate luxury for a writer is a private retreat and I've been eyeballing this customizable, pre-fab beauty from Studio Shed for years. While I won't be able to afford it anytime soon, maybe some lucky reader can get one and tell me how wonderful it is. Just looking at it makes me feel peaceful and productive.

9. A Book on Writing. Nearly every writer loves reading about the process--it makes us feel we're accomplishing something, even when we're not. What are my favorite writing books? You'll have to check my next blog post, when I list my 9 Favorite Books for Writers. 

What are your favorite tools of the trade? Please share!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Unless You're an Apple Pie, Not Everyone Is Going to Love You

Who is your audience? Do you write to please everyone?

Genre writers have a pretty good handle on who their readers are, but those of us who write in the more nebulous categories of general or literary fiction don't always have a good grasp of our audience. Since our work transcends literary boundaries we sometimes make the mistake of thinking it transcends demographic boundaries, too. We want our book to be the one that everyone is reading in the subway car, on the beach, in the airport. We want our book to be the one that cuts across all audiences, that appeals to grandmas, hipsters, and middle-aged men alike. We secretly hope that our book will be the one that will unite the world and usher in a period of world peace--or at the very least, be at the top of the bestseller list for an obscene length of time.

I'm a firm believer in dreaming big, but there's no point in shooting for the unattainable. You can't be everything to everyone. There's almost nothing you can create that will hold universal appeal. Take the demographic groups I cited above--grandmas, hipsters, and middle-aged men--what common interests could these three diverse groups possibly share?

Universal appeal is rare and usually contains sugar.

Stereotypes aside, the point I'm trying to make is that unless you're a homemade apple pie, odds are you're not going to be able to make everyone love you or your work. And that's okay.

In a recent interview with America's Test Kitchen, celebrity chef Mario Batali discussed his process for designing a restaurant. His advice to budding restauranteurs? Articulate your concept in two or three sentences so that potential customers can decide if they want to be part of that experience or not.

Likewise, the very successful big box store, Target, designs their stores to appeal to college-educated, female consumers aged 30-50, many with children still living at home. What do Mario Batali and Target have in common? They are not trying to be everything to everybody. 

This is not to say that you should pick a demographic and then write toward that particular group. As writers, our audience tends to pick us--not the other way around. When I was working on a publicity strategy for THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, I imagined my audience would be made up of middle-aged ladies who were avid readers. When I attended a few book groups, however, the older ladies had a tepid response compared to the younger members of the group. Now, several years removed from the release of that book I have a much clearer (and surprising) idea of who made up the core audience--95% of my fan mail, positive reviews, and mentions in favorite book lists has come from men, ages 25-35. Not that I Google my book or anything...

The take away here is obvious, but worth remembering: You should always write for yourself first, but when your work reaches the wider world don't feel slighted if it doesn't suit some people's tastes. Having a narrow audience can be a good thing. In the words of author Paul Coehlo, "If you try to please everyone, you will be respected by no one."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Company and a Deadline

The book club I belong to just finished reading NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern. It's a beautifully written novel about a circus that appears out of nowhere in the middle of the night. The visual and fantasy elements are just breathtaking. I don't want to give anything away, so let's just say that this is Morgenstern's first novel and it is so highly accomplished for a young writer that I can't wait to see what she'll do next.

During the course of the book club's discussion, one of the members mentioned that NIGHT CIRCUS had been a NaNoWriMo project. For those of you who are unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month--which just so happens to be November. Writers who are up for the challenge pledge to write 50,000 words during the course of the month. For accountability and commiseration, you can register your project at the NaNoWriMo website and discuss your work on the message boards.

When it was revealed that NIGHT CIRCUS was a NaNoWriMo project, the reaction among the book club members was interesting. "She wrote all this in a month?" one woman said, waving the thick novel in the air. The members were astounded by such a feat but fully believed it was possible. The two writers in the group (I, being one of them) shook our heads. "No, she didn't," we assured them. "You can't write something like that in a month."

But how could I be so sure? Just because I couldn't pull it off doesn't mean someone else wasn't capable of it. I mean, anything is possible, right? Literary history is peppered with stories of writers hitting a vein just right and having the story pour out in one quick burst. Still, it was highly unlikely. If the book club believed it was possible to complete a novel in a month, then I started thinking that many NaNoWriMo writers must believe the same thing. It begs the question, "Just how much did Erin Morgenstern manage to write in a month?

Apparently, I'm not the only reader who's wondered the same thing, because Morgenstern's website has a FAQ page that addresses the NaNoWriMo question. Basically, she participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge over the course of three Novembers and then took the writing she produced and spent the next two years discovering the story. During that time, the manuscript went through countless changes. In fact, Morgenstern says that she wrote over 100,000 words that don't even contain the main character of the finished novel.

I'm not going to say "Told you so"...but....

Morgenstern writes on her website: "I think NaNoWriMo is a brilliant idea and gives you two magical things: company and a deadline."

Well put. All this, fellow writers, is a roundabout way of saying that while the NaNoWriMo challenge is a valuable exercise, it's important to keep it in a proper perspective. If you are expecting to produce a finished manuscript by the end of the month, you will most likely be disappointed. Doing so would verge on the superhuman. The one goal to keep in mind is to produce a lot of words and to push forward without listening to the inner perfectionist that loves to keep you paralyzed with self-doubt. If you work hard, at the end of the month you will end up a wonderful jumping off point. And that's when the real work begins. Who knows? Maybe you'll write something as wonderful as NIGHT CIRCUS.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo? Have you had success with it? What is the value of it for you?