Friday, December 19, 2014

Imagining Your Finished Book--A Three-Part (and Very Encouraging!) Brainstorming Exercise

Winter can be a bluesy or beneficial time for writers--depends how much you enjoy holing up with your words and ideas.  Sometimes it helps me to think from the end, visualize where I am heading, especially when the days are gray and my writing feels just as blah.

Many pro writers use this "thinking from the end" idea--novelist Roxanna Robinson mentioned how she writes to an image when she begins a book.  But you can also use it like creative visualization, thinking about the real end of your writing journey, when your book is finished!

So, with the blog taking a holiday break next week, here's a three-part creative visualization exercise to keep you brainstorming your book's completion.  I hope it'll feed your writing right to the New Year.  (It's from my part 2 online class, which still has some spots open for January term, if you'd like to join us--to keep your book alive and kicking until the sun shines again.)

Three-Step Creative Visualization Exercise for Book Writers Who Want to Actually Finish Their Books

Step 1: 
Grab some paper and a pen or your laptop.  Set the kitchen timer for 20 minutes.   
Write, without editing or censoring anything, about how you might feel when your book is finished. When it is published.

Let the writing go wherever it goes--even if it brings up concerns and fears about this, which it might, as well as excitement.   

Step 2: 
Find a piece of 8-1/2 inch x 11 inch white paper that you can fold in half lengthwise to resemble a blank book cover.   Find a published book you love to use as a guide. 

Grab 4-5 magazines and a pair of scissors, some glue or tape, and a big sheet of paper.  Set the kitchen timer for 30 minutes and scan the magazines for the perfect image for the front of your book when it is published.  You can also do this online with images from google or 

Print the image or cut it out and paste it to the front of your book cover. 

You know those blurbs that are on the cover of books after they are published?  In your wildest dreams, who do you want to write a blurb for your book?  Which reviewers from The New York Times, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly might read your book and rave about it?  Draft some stellar reviews for your book and paste them to the back cover.

Some of my students go all out with this exercise, adding a bar code and back cover copy and even a spine.  Get into it--it's really fun (and actually helps you feel like you might someday finish!).

Step 3: 
Design your publication party. 

When books are published, someone (friends, relatives, book clubs, even the publisher sometimes) will throw you a publication party.  What would you just love to have at yours?  Music, food, literary stars, speeches, thousands of books sold?  Set your kitchen timer for 20 minutes and list all your wishes.

Put these up where you can see them, in your writing room or on your desktop or phone.  They are big boosts for doldrum days.

Happy holidays and see you again toward the New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Take a Break from Words: How Image Boards Help Your Writing

One of my workshop students with her image board.
Flummoxed by the main character in my novel-in-progress, I got the idea to browse internet photos to see if I could capture her in image rather than words.  What might she look like?  If my novel became a movie, who would play her?   

Scrivener, my all-time favorite writing software, allows cut and paste of online images.  I found my main player, then I went on to create a gallery of faces of everyone in the book.  Once I saw them, they came alive in a new way.   

I printed my gallery and pasted them on a large foamcore board to put on my writing office wall.  In the months that followed, these characters were a LOT easier to write about.
Image boards are used by many professional writers--they can chart the plot points in your story, detail the setting, or allow you to visualize your characters better.  Call them storyboards for the right brain--the image brain--they work when words can't.  Often, images open up deeper levels of story for me.   

Sue Monk Kidd, author of the novel, The Secret Life of Bees, and the memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates, spoke about how a single image helped her write an entire novel.   She found a magazine photo of a black Madonna, and she placed it in the center of what would become an image board. She used it for her writing, to remind her about her goal.   

Image boards also reveal surprising information about your writing.  Check out this week's writing exercise, a favorite in my online classes and workshops. 

Your Weekly Writing ExerciseImage Board Analysis
1.  Search magazines or internet sites for photos for your story as a whole, a character you're struggling with, or your setting.  Gather at least 20 photos.  Don't overthink the process--sometimes you'll be attracted to an image without consciously knowing why.  Choose it!

2.  Arrange your images on a board or blank document.  Place them in a way that's pleasing to your eye.

3.  Squint at the image board.  Using this analysis exercise, adapted from writer Sheila Asato of Monkey Bridge Arts, (, ask yourself these questions:

* Where does my eye travel through the images?  Where do I begin and where do I end?  Note these images:  see if they relate to the beginning of your story and the possible ending.

*  Close your eyes and open them, quickly look at your image board.  Where does your eye land first?  This image may relate to your book's "inner story," or its deeper meaning.

*  Locate two images that contrast the most.  They could be two pictures that look strange together, or one could be black and white while the other is color.  This often refers to the point of highest tension in your story, the question that remains unanswered, or the unmet challenge your book speaks of.

*  Look at the types of pictures you chose. What are they, mostly--images of people, places, animals, landscapes, buildings, the ocean, the sky, abstracts? How does this predominant type of image tell you something about your book's main focus, the aspect you feel most comfortable with?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Unexpected Therapy: Need to Get Over It? Write about It!

Writing is unexpected therapy--more and more studies are finding this true.  We get healthier the more we write.  

How can that happen?  (Especially if you're stuck right now, your writing may feel far from a healing act!)

One of my students, who recently published his first novel, sent me an article in the Harvard Business Review this week.  Writing is being featured in leadership development workshops now; it's helping executives "digest" difficult experiences in their careers. 

One of the participants wrote about a traumatic time when he was working on assignment in Nigeria and visiting one of his company's oil rigs.  He and five others were taken hostage, and two of the hostages were shot.  Writing about it in the class helped him process the trauma, which surprised him. 

But this isn't such new news, folks.  Writing is one of the first of the arts to be studied for its healing potential. 

The studies don't reveal what you might expect, though. 

It's only certain kinds of writing that actually allow us to get past trauma, to process it on the page. 

When we get stuck in our writing--overwhelmed with heaviness, negative self-talk, critical thoughts, even strong symptoms--we aren't using writing to heal.  Curious about that?  Read on.

Writing as a Way to Heal
The Harvard article cited work by James Pennebaker, a social psychologist from University of Texas, who many years ago wrote a ground-breaking book called Writing to Heal.  From his research, Pennebaker discovered the keen connection between writing and healing from trauma.  Over the years, he's received grants from NSF and NIH to study this connection, and the evidence has become more and more solid. 

But the surprise, to me at least, came when I read a book by one of Pennebaker's colleagues, Louise De Salvo.  In Writing as a Way of Healing, De Salvo cites research that proved daily writing of a certain kind and quality reduced serious medical symptoms and promoted healing.  Immune function, depression, and a host of other large and small illnesses showed marked improvement with writing therapy.

But the therapy only worked if three specific elements were present:

1.  Writers included how they felt at the time of the trauma.
2.  Writers also included how they felt now, in the present, looking back--comparing then and now in terms of emotional impact.
3.  Writers described the trauma using sensory details (smells, sounds, etc.).

When one of these elements was missing, the writing was not therapeutic.  It could even make the stuckness, or the illness, slightly worse. 

So cathartic writing, venting on the page, didn't do it.  Surprising, eh? 

For ten years, I've worked with this formula myself, tested it out in my classes and editing work, and shared it with colleagues.  It's always proven true.  When I write difficult scenes, drawing from my history, I try to incorporate all three elements somewhere in the chapter or section of the book.  If I am writing memoir, I include the three steps for myself as the narrator.  When writing fiction, I have my character do all three of these steps. 

It works.  Load gets lifted.  Unexpected therapy! 

Test it out yourself.  First, check out the Harvard Business Review article, see what you might learn about healing via the writing process.  Then look at a piece of writing where you are stuck, feel uneasy, don't quite know how to finish.  Which of the three steps are you missing? 

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Letter to Your Inner Critic: How to Stop the Invisible Sabotage to Your Creativity

This week, my beginning-level online class is facing the Inner Critic.  I think it's great timing, with the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, to offer ourselves a little creative forgiveness by getting to know this inner voice that can so often derail us from our book writing efforts.

Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are.  Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, even give it names.  Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?"  Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head about taking it all so seriously.  Most are discouraging, even menacing. 

But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage our efforts to make art, to do our writing. 

Some writers tame the voice with alcohol or drugs or other medicating behaviors.  You've read about all those famous writers who couldn't write--or even function in their lives--otherwise.  But it's not the only way.
Getting to Know the Critic Inside You 
Believe it or not, each of us has a negotiated contract with our Inner Critics.  We aren't the victims of these voices.  We developed them on purpose, as a kind of gatekeeper to protect the most tender, creative parts of ourselves.  If we grew up in an environment dangerous to creativity, the Inner Critic will be a real warrior by the time we're adults.  The contract has been in place for so many years, it's hard to believe we have any control over it.

Most writers, when first becoming aware of the Inner Critic, choose to fight it instead of re-negotiating the contract.  Common wisdom suggests that a fight makes sense--using any means we can. But in my experience that often turns into a never-ending battle.  Taking time away from our writing.

The way that's worked for me is this:   Get to know your Critic and make it an ally, not an enemy.

Get to know the signs of the Inner Critic's influence.  For me, when I begin to think about how something will sound to others, versus how it sounds to me, the Inner Critic is getting agitated.  It can be both strong and sneaky.  And it can appear in different guises at different stages of the writing process.

For instance, when you explore and plan your book, the Inner Critic might tell you that you don’t have a good enough idea.  It will rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough.

If you get passed that, begin to write your book and form your islands or chapters, the Inner Critic can try to convince you that you need feedback from your best friend or partner--right now!  Get encouragement, ask them if the draft is worth continuing.  This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend asks about missing commas, and you remember you are lousy at grammar so why bother writing at all?

It can sneak in as you revise, too.  Maybe you're trying to gear up your book's inner story, its theme, or the pacing, those essential fine-tuning steps each book writer must implement.  The Inner Critic will tell you to focus on marketing now instead--get that query letter written.  Or it will even tell you to edit out the juicy parts because all your relatives will shun you when they read them.

It really rears its head as you try to sell your book.  In full battle mode, the Inner Critic can keep you awake at night with nightmares about rejection letters and the award your writing friend just won--and how you don't have a chance.

So, first get to know it.  Then you can begin to look past its irritating qualities into what it's really there to do--for you.

The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper  
For most of my writing life, I fought the Inner Critic as an enemy.  It was only when I was writing my second self-help/memoir that I realized the Inner Critic's benign efforts to protect me.  I'll share this story, from my book Your Book Starts Here, to illustrate the gatekeeper aspect of this inner voice.

I was writing a chapter about my business bankruptcy which happened during the 1980s recession.  It was a terrible time in my life, and yet I knew I wanted to include it in my book, since I'd learned so much from it.

As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about the failure I still felt.  I noticed I was writing more slowly, even reluctantly, as the voice inside my head got louder.  “Why bring up this all over again?” it argued. “Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be.”

But I persisted, angry at its interference.  Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic.  Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?

After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others’ experience. How could I do this if I couldn’t get past my own Inner Critic?

So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite--write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a “treaty” letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.

Then I re-negotiated my contract. 

I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn’t have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could’ve imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.

My book, How to Master Change in Your Life, was finally published, and I got more letters and comments about that bankruptcy chapter than any other.

My intuition was right-people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise: A Letter to the Inner Critic  
This is an exercise we use in my Part 1 online class, Your Book Starts Here.  Try it yourself this Thanksgiving weekend.  It's a great way to bring more awareness of--and more thankfulness for--your Inner Critic, the first step to re-negotiating your contract with it.

1.  Describe your Inner Critic.  What does it sound like?  Can you picture it?  Does it remind you of someone in your past?

2.  Now ask the Inner Critic what it’s contributing to your life.  Listen inside for anything that might come, even small things it does for you.  How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you connected to others? How does it keep you responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?

3. Finally, thank it for its help in these areas.  If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.

4.  To close the exercise, write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for a week.  Re-negotiate your contract.  Tell it you’ll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom.  Ask for its help in letting you try it.

If you'd like, mark on your calendar to follow up in a week.  After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you’ve noticed. Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?

Friday, November 21, 2014

Reflecting Surfaces: Using the “Landscape” to Make Character Come Alive

A memoirist in one of my online classes was trying to write about the sadness she felt at her father’s unexpected death. Her feedback group gave her an unexpected response: while it was clear she was very sad, when they heard her speak of his death, her feelings on the page were abstract, hard to really grasp.

“They don’t feel any of the sadness I feel,” she told me. She cried as she wrote, so this bland response confused her.

When I read the chapter, I too noticed how distant the writing felt. My take-away was an almost-intellectual sorrow, a wistfulness. Not a strong emotion.

A very intelligent woman, this writer worked as a psychologist. She knew people, she understood how they ticked. But she hid the true landscape of her character, herself, behind this thoughtful approach to life. It had infiltrated her prose.

When I spoke of this, she got it. She knew it was a key to enlivening her writing. So she tried different ways of bringing herself to life on the pages of her memoir: using more body sensations, more gestures, refining her action and dialogue. It was only when she began to work with the inner and outer landscape of each scene, that her character was revealed. And in surprising ways that actually surprised her too-and taught her more about her own grieving process.

Novelist Elizabeth George, in her book Write Away, refers to this the “landscape” of the character as the inner and outer beliefs and history we live within. I see it as a large “container” that reflects back ourselves as we interact with it. You could say it includes our culture, beliefs, spirituality, even our history. Like any reflecting surface, it shows our inner and outer workings.

You have these reflecting surfaces all around you. Look at the room or car or office cube where you’re sitting right now, reading this post. Doesn’t it reflect something about you? Maybe your choices made manifest in color, shape, texture; in photographs or art. Maybe in its order or disarray. Maybe in the music playing on your phone, the food nearby. Even the temperature you’re most comfortable at.

What can you find out about your characters on the page, those real or imagined people you seek to make more vivid for readers? How can you place these characters in landscapes or containers that tell your readers more about this person, and whether they should invest in that person’s story?

You can start with outer setting, the outer container, as revealed through the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch (texture and temperature), and smell. It always helps to place readers in certain time of day or night, in a room or garden or other specific location, to let them know how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround the character. Some writers skim over these details, thinking they slow down the prose. Bad call. These sensory details are the main transporters of emotion for a reader.

If you don’t believe me: Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.   Not too much, but some of these details, will build believable landscape for the reader.

So start there. Even before you sink into the intellectual territory, build the outer landscape. Remember that readers engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing and make up our own minds about the people who inhabit it.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Character Cards--A Cool Way to Enhance Your Storyboard (and Story!)

Three elements are essential to all books, no matter the genre:  there must be conflict, there must be believable character (real or imagined), and there must be place, or atmosphere.  Characters are fun to work with.  Even if you're writing a real-life tale with people who existed in history or as your potential readers, you need to know them.  The reader depends on you to present your characters well.

Tracy Sayre, founder of Writers Work, runs writing conferences in New York City and the Catskills, among other location.  Tracy recently watched several of my youtube videos and designed a very unique W storyboard using character cards.  She said she watched the storyboarding video many times while writing her novel and came up with this version of the traditional storyboard.  The photos below show her character cards and how she places them on the storyboard as the characters enter her story.


The character cards help her "think of the actor who would play my characters in the movie version," she says.  "I make cards with their pictures and a list of the character's gestures, fears, goals, and other helpful info to keep in mind. I place the cards on the storyboard in the moments that the character first appears."

She says this helps her be certain that important characters aren't brought up too late in the plot--a very good piece of advice to all writers.

Tracy's next writer's retreat can be seen here, if you'd like to spend four days writing and learning this winter.  She'll give a discount to anyone who mentions this blog post.

You can watch all my videos on storyboarding, container (setting), and other tips for writers here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Structure Advice for Wordsmiths: Why Good Writing Comes After Good Structure When Developing Your Book

We all admire wordsmiths, those who can sharpen and hone words until they sing. I have the pleasure of working with many top-notch wordsmiths in my book-writing classes:  writers well-published in magazines, blogs, newspaper columns, reviews.  You'd recognize their names, you'd admire them too.

Two such wordsmiths attended my workshop last week at the Loft.  Both are working on books and have learned from editors that they need to beef up their book's structure.  

Editors are trained to see structure--weak or strong.  They are helpful to book wordsmiths who have excelled in short pieces but never attempted a three-hundred-page project.   

I've been on both sides of the table.  I worked for twelve years as a magazine writer and syndicated columnist.  My job was wordsmithing six hundred to six thousand words--short pieces.  I didn't have too worry too much about structure, although the piece had to flow well.  But it was a picnic compared to the seven-course meal of a book manuscript.

When I began working as an editor in publishing, I learned how few writers know structure tools.  Maybe because writers have long depended on editors to help with structure.  But now, many writers need to learn this skill.   

So how do you analyze your work for structure?  Does it hang together to carry a reader from page one to the end?  Where does it slump?   

Why Good Structure Comes Before Wordsmithing
In early drafts, books must be more about content and structure than wordsmithing.  Reason:  no use decorating your house until the walls are up.  Wordsmithing a poorly structure book is like try to hang draperies on framing.  But what are the steps to analyze your book manuscript? 

So many skilled and experienced writers, facing their first book, don't know where to start.

When I worked as an editor, I used a special chart, which I'm sharing with you this week.  It helped me analyze the structure of a book by either scene or chapter.  Basically, it looks at the purpose of each part of the writing and whether the parts form a cohesive whole.  Parts are simple:  the conflict, people, and place in each chapter.   If the structure is strong, these three elements will give a certain take-away--the reader will get a point or purpose.   

Once you have listed all of these elements, plus the take-away, for each chapter, you ask the big question:  do the points line up?  Do they create a unified message or theme or purpose for the book as a whole?  That's the flow of strong structure.
The answer is usually no.  Most of us writers are blind to the big picture as we write our chapters.  The chart helps us see where and how blind we've been, so we can repair those chapters, bring them into alignment with the larger story.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise 
You'll need a large sheet of paper.  Or several 8-1/2"-by-11" sheets of computer paper turned horizontally (landscape format).  Or the ability to create a spreadsheet on your computer.  Use whichever works best for you.  Create five columns.
  1. In column #1 list your chapter numbers or titles.
  2. In column #2, jot down a few words about the main topic or conflict of each chapter.  (What is this chapter about, what happens, what's the primary conflict?)  I use shorthand here: "Barb meets Joe on the farm" or "first day at school."  Brief is good.
  3. In column #3, list the primary location.  If the chapter moves locations, list them all.
  4. In column #4, list the players.  Who is in the chapter?
  5. The fifth column is the reader take-away.  What's the reader going to get from this chapter?  What's its purpose?  This is the hardest one, often requiring some thought or consultation with others who can read your chapter and give you a reader point of view.
  6. Once you have the columns filled in, read through them.  Asterisk any that either don't have a clear take-away, have more than three locations, or don't have a primary conflict.   These are the ones to rethink.  
  7. Finally, look through each of your columns separately.  Do the conflicts vary enough?  Are they showing a rising and falling of tension (some being small, others more dramatic)?  Do the main players in your book reappear often enough so the reader won't lose track of them?  Are the locations meaningful and not too plentiful (I try for no more than 5-7 locations if possible--more than that is hard to keep track of.)
You will very likely come out of this analysis with a good-sized list of chapters that work well.  And a list of those that don't quite.  Now work on the content, beefing it up, filling in the holes or deleting what is not serving the book.

This work requires some ruthlessness.  Many times I've found weak chapters to be my very favorites, but they do not serve the larger story and I must either set them aside (for another book, perhaps) or rework them.

Save your wordsmithing for after the work of structuring.  Once you have a strong building, you can spend as much time as you want choosing the drapes.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Self-Promotion versus Creating Community--Where Is the Line for You?

Fame has always been a hot topic of discussion among writers.  An unsavory one.  A necessary one.  If we long to be published, we ask those who are published:  How did you get there?  We read the bestseller lists and wonder about the process of climbing to such recognition.  Once we have that contract, that great agent, we still must struggle to get our work received, recognized, reviewed.  It gets wearying.

Because, for many of us, all we really want to do is make art.  We want to write.  We want to sink into the worlds on our page. 

I signed on for this book-writing gig because I believed in my topic.  I wanted to share ideas with others, be part of the creative community.  I loved talking about writing and I loved (most of the time) to write.  I didn't dream of bestseller lists; in fact, when my first book won a national award, I didn't even go to the awards ceremony in New York City.  I'd gotten a second contract and was desperate to get more pages written. 

Time passed, I published more nonfiction books.  They sold well; one was the publisher's bestseller for that year.  Then I switched genres, went into memoir and self-help.  They sold well too, and I was proud to talk about them on radio and TV, even though I didn't know much about how to do either.  My publisher suggested I hire a consultant to teach me how to look good on camera, and it helped.  Sold more books, publisher was happy. 

Then my first novel was accepted.  It was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner, mentioned in a New York Times interview, and discussed on WNPR.  But it sold terribly.  Readers sent me lovely letters and emails about how much they adored the story.  But a roaring commercial success it wasn't.

I blamed the publisher.  I blamed myself.  I blamed that serendipity of the industry which limelights some and not others.  My book was, is, good.  But it languished.  I wondered what I could've done better.  I told myself I just didn't enjoy the pushy promotion that success requires of writers today.

A recent encounter with one of those well-published, successful novelists led to an interesting discussion.  I wrote her asking what went wrong, what I could've done differently or better with my beloved book.   "This is Every Author's Lament unless you've written Gone Girl or Wild or are Malcolm Gladwell," she wrote back.
She says she just writes books, she doesn't look at the numbers.  "I feel it is my job to write books as long as someone wants to publish them." 

And that's why I got into writing.  Because I wanted to write books.  It was good to hear it from someone else.  An important reminder.

This week I also came across a wonderful article about making commerce versus making art, written by a first-time author who is encountering these big questions as she promotes her book.  It's very thought-provoking, for anyone who is in this crazy work of creative expression.  Check it out here and as your weekly writing exercise, spend some time freewriting about where you are on the continuum.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Self-Publishing: No Longer Just the "Vanity" Option for Today's First-Time Authors

Can you really self-publish?  Or is it career suicide for a writer? 

My indie-released songwriter friends never understood why writers are so hung up about self-publishing.  Musicians have long separated from the labels and ventured out on their own, releasing their own CDs and working with indie distributors like cdbaby.

But we writers have been told for decades that unless we get an agent and go the traditional route, we'll never be taken seriously in our writing careers.

I believed this.  I went the traditional route for my first eight published books:  two agents, traditional publishers and small presses, advances and royalties, book tours, the works.  Each experience had its ups and downs.  I worked with some wonderful editors and publishers and some not so.  I loved my first agent and fired my second.  I went solo (no agent) with several small presses and enjoyed the personal attention. 

But for most of my career, I stayed away from the stigma of "vanity press," or self-publishing, because I still bought the myth:  it was a fast route to career suicide.

Besides, I wanted the marketing and distribution help a publisher could give.

Those first-time authors who have braved the submission routes and maybe gotten published are laughing by now:  "marketing and distribution help" is rare these days.  Times have changed.  Advances are also few and small now, as most publishers don't have the upfront funds to back a new author.  There are exceptions, of course:  two of my students recently scored good advances.  But most are being told, You're lucky to get published by us, in kinder words.

Great editors still exist, but many publishers don't quite follow the same careful editorial procedures I benefited from as a writer starting out in the 1980s.  Manuscripts today must arrive in pristine condition--the writer's responsibility, not the editor's. 

Even more challenging for writers:  Agents and publishers demand a platform, which is an industry term for a solid marketing plan and media presence.  Most new writers must start a blog and plan just how they will promote their book. 

We writers are more than just wordsmiths with a good story now.  We have to learn how to sell our books as well as write them.

For this, writers get 7-1/2 percent of sales, which for a $14.00 trade size paperback amounts to about $1.13 per copy.  We do the marketing work, we hire editors before submitting it.  The publisher prints the book as orders come in (print on demand) in most cases, not wanting to carry inventory, or does a short run of less than 500 copies to see whether the book will sell.  Agents take 15-20 percent of everything.   

It's not all gloom and doom--please, remember the exceptions!  There are still fairytales being made.  But many writers writers are thinking seriously about their options now.  Many are looking again self-publishing, figuring out the system themselves, crafting their lower-cost e-books and selling them for 99 cents a copy to drive up sales.  Some are making money.  Even if they self-publish a printed book, through Create Space or Lightning Source, they can make up to $10.00 a copy after expenses are paid back (for typesetter, proofer, cover designer, and editor).   

Self-publishing requires money up front, for a printed book.  Less or none for an electronic book.  But if you're going to have to market it yourself anyway, why not make $10.00 a copy instead of $1.13?

But . . . and here's the catch, as there always is:  Neither traditional publishing nor self-publishing will sell your book for you today.  If you self-publish, you will still need to market.  Here's the link to a fascinating article from Publishers Weekly, about three self-published writers and their post-publishing experiences. 

But it is also worthwhile to find out the potential, explore your options.  Don't be swayed by the traditional route when there are more opportunities for writers than ever.

And don't forget the many success stories about first-time authors who've self-published.  Writer Darcie Chan was rejected by over 100 literary agents and dozens of publishers, then went on to self-publish her debut novel and sell over 400,000 copies on Kindle.  Think this kind of story is a fairytale?  It's happening more and more.

Self-publishing is still a controversial topic.  But as the industry takes one hit after another, it's an option many writers are considering--and succeeding with.

For more success stories about self-publishing also check out chapter 25 of my book, Your Book Starts Here.  

Friday, October 17, 2014

Learning versus Performing Mode: How Each Influences Your Writing Right Now

As a writing teacher, I deal with discouragement every day.  Not about my teaching, although that can certainly arise.  I face the discouragement of my students, as they learn new skills.

Most challenging of the skill-building classes I teach is the advanced-level online book class.  Twenty writers from all over the world gather to learn the art of revision.  

Revision is truly the long-distance drive of writing a book.  You've got the draft, you're enthused (astonished!) to have actually completed it, and now you want to make it sing.  But revision skills are totally different than drafting skills.  Even if the person is a good writer, they might not be able to revise.  And it can lead to deep discouragement.

As usual the third week of class (typically when rubber meets road),  I got three separate emails from discouraged students who wanted to give up.  They are all good writers.  They have good books-in-the-making.  But they don't have revision skills yet.  So, not really knowing what they didn't know about revision, these writers entered this advanced class keenly desiring to hear what's good about their writing.  Consciously or unconsciously, they craved encouragement and validation.  (Most of us secretly hope our book manuscript is already a beautiful symphony, even at draft stage.  From God's mouth to our pen, and all that.  And I go there often, so I am not making fun!) 

But usually, it's not music yet.  Not quite even a catchy tune.  There are clunky sections and whole chapters that are not really needed (but the writer loved too much to assess well).  There's work to be done, next steps to travel.  

It takes excellent readers to show you where you might go next. 

And the readers in this class are good!   Since they are also working on their manuscripts, they develop a keen eye to what's working and what's not.  Within a small work group of 4-5 writers in similar genre/skill level, they read and give feedback each week on chapters and ideas.  I add my feedback, I moderate the groups, and I get the private emails of discouragement and respond.

Keep going, I say.  You have a ways to go.  It may not be easy but it'll be worth it.

So say the writers who have gone on to publish, after taking this class.  I remind them they can do this too.

But why do writers get discouraged in the first place?  Ira Glass talks about this in his wonderful video on the creative process.  He says there's often a gap between our taste and our skill level.  We love good writing, and when we read ours, we see how far we have to go.  In our instant-results culture, the idea of 10,000 hours put into your craft is still foreign.  It takes time to refine.

This week, I got another clue to why writers get discouraged. 

I've been enjoying the newest book by science writer, Daniel Pink.  It's called Drive, and it's about the surprising new research on what motivates us.   Pink talks about the two modes of work:  I'll rephrase them to learning mode and performance mode.  These exist in every arena of life.  But this new research shows that people who approach creative work from a "got to do it right, right now" mode (perform well) may do great for a short run but fail in the long.

Those who approach their project (say, writing a book) from a learning mode will stick it out, get better, and succeed way beyond the performers.

I ask my discouraged students:  which mode are you in, right now?  Are you competing with yourself, with others, with the dream of publishing?  Is your  own refined taste blocking you from being a humble beginner and allowing yourself time to really develop your skills?

The mode you choose determines whether you'll find enjoyment and actually succeed.