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?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Will Write For Food

I'm a latecomer to artist/musician Amanda Palmer's TED talk, but her thoughts on the changing relationship between artists and fans may be even more relevant now than it was in 2013. In her talk, Ms. Palmer argues that artists shouldn't sell their work--instead, they should give it away for free and trust that their fans will be generous enough to support them.

Ms. Palmer gives numerous touching examples from her own life where this patron/artist model has worked for her: an immigrant family that gave up their beds for the night so her crew could have a place to stay; a nurse that drove across town to deliver a neti pot when Ms. Palmer requested one on Twitter; a sheepish downloader who handed her a $10 bill by way of apology. It's clear that Ms. Palmer has many fans and this system really works for her.

I love her message of allowing people into your life and not being afraid to ask for help. I'm a firm believer that most people have generous hearts and jump at the chance to help when given the opportunity. I admire the close relationships she's developed with her fans and how she uses social media to connect with them.

Still, I have to admit I'm struggling a bit with the overall message. Somehow, it feels like this barter-economy cheapens art.

Part of the reason why the music and publishing industries are experiencing growing pains is that no one can seem to agree on how much a creative work is worth.  Even Hachette and Amazon can't agree on the price of an ebook. We can price out the cost of paper, bindings, and distribution to determine the physical cost of production, but when the book is turned into a digital format it becomes immaterial. We are forced to put a value exclusively on the content.

How do we quantify the personal experience, the imagination, the skill that goes into writing a book? Even if we determined that a writer should only be reimbursed an hourly wage--say, for the sake of argument, a paltry $1 per hour--most books would costs thousands of dollars to produce. As a culture, we view the artist's time as free, and by extension, their work, too. We balk at $24 hardcovers and $12 ebooks, but happily fork over the same amount for a meal out, alcoholic drinks, or another t-shirt that we probably don't need.

Ms. Palmer touches upon an economic truth--an object's value is based on what someone is willing to pay for it. Sadly, a great many of us have decided that we don't want to pay much at all for books or music. Has our collective attitude toward artists gotten so low that Ms. Palmer's barter system looks like a viable option? Why must the artistic economy be any different than any other form of commerce? When we see the doctor, he doesn't treat us for free in hopes that we'll offer him a chicken dinner in exchange. At a store we don't grab a pair of jeans off the rack and offer the cashier what we think it's worth. Shouldn't we view artists and their works with the same respect?

What do you think? Is Amanda Palmer's patronage model a clever solution to a shifting paradigm    or does it devalue art?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Never Begin at the Beginning

Start as close to the end as possible.
--Kurt Vonnegut 

Right now I'm in the midst of a heavy re-write and my first task is to cut to the chase, both literally and figuratively. My novel is broken up into three parts and involves an elderly art history professor named Ovid who is no longer able to care for himself. In the first third of the novel, I establish Ovid's current living situation, the relationships within his family, and pertinent information about his past. In the second part, Ovid decides he doesn't like that he's losing control over his life and makes a break for it. The last third involves the family's search for him.

I love writing from Ovid's point of view. He's verbose, a little cranky, well-read, and sees the world through the lens of art. His voice is very rich. The problem with loving a character too much is that you run the risk of falling in love with him and then he can do no wrong. While he yammers on apropos of nothing, boring your audience to tears, all you do is sigh and say, "Isn't he dreamy?"

When I was writing the first draft, I thought I had enough writing experience under my belt to recognize when I was spending too much time setting the stage for a story--but apparently not. After reading the first third of the manuscript, my agent told me the story was "a little slow." Really? This surprised me. I thought it actually moved at a pretty good clip. "Just wait until you get to Part II when he runs away," I said. "That's where it really starts to pick up."

Bingo! And just like that, we found the real beginning of the story.

So now I'm trying to condense, clarify, eliminate, and combine scenes from the first third to get to the real beginning as quickly as I can. Now that I know where the real story begins, I can see that so much of what I thought was the real beginning was just a lot of thinking out loud. It was more of an exercise in discovering character and not entirely pertinent to what was happening. While this exercise was useful to me, it wasn't necessarily useful to the reader.

I have to wonder though--how much of the problem here is me being long-winded and how much is the impatience of the modern audience? Is it absolutely crucial that I cut to the chase right away? Couldn't I just dabble a little bit in character or mood like Henry James? It makes me think back to the mid-1990's when record stores started putting in listening stations. Customers would skim through the first few songs on an album and if they weren't impressed would walk away. Musicians responded by "front loading" their albums--putting their best songs first in order to grab the listener right away, instead of putting the songs in an order that shaped the listening experience.

Are writers now expected to "front load" their novels in order to capture the short attention spans of today's readers? Are today's story beginnings much further into the plot than they used to be?

What are your thoughts on story beginnings as a writer? As a reader?