Friday, May 25, 2018

Interview with Chris Jones--Behind the Book: Eleven Authors on Their Path to Publication

I'm always fascinated with how debut authors make it into print.  And I know and respect Chris Mackenzie Jones from my years of teaching for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he works.  So when his new book came out last month, I was keen to find out how he did it.  Below is an interview with Chris which explains his idea for the book, how he found an agent and publisher, and what happened during the editing process.

Tell us how you came to write this book.  Did you see a need for it? Was it a subject that fascinated you?  Anything you want to share, please do.
In my almost nine years at the Loft Literary Center, I've run into hundreds-maybe thousands-of aspiring writers. I've listened to their ideas, questions, confusions, and doubts. And one of the things that became apparent to me over these years is that there are blind spots for most writers as they try to publish a first book.
I want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the books and resources already out there on craft, creativity, and the business side of publishing. But I've noticed those excellent books tend to focus on one issue: either issues of craft, or creativity and motivation, or publishing and marketing.
My book doesn't attempt to improve on those already excellent resources.Instead I tried to extend a broader lens by showing the complete paths to publication.I did this by interviewing a wide array of modern authors and weaving together their stories. 
I tend to learn best through example, so I felt that portraying the stories of diverse debut authors would be the best way to demonstrate potential paths. My goal was not to depict a replicable path, but instead to share and illuminate the major decisions a modern author needs to consider, so that aspiring authors could better prepare themselves for the process.   
Share your publication process, if you can (many of my readers are nonfiction authors).  Did you submit a proposal? Why did you choose this press?
I came up with the idea for this book several years ago. I had never seen a book like it, but I didn't really know if something else like it existed, or if it was even a book that would be marketable. So I contacted Dawn Frederick. Dawn is the owner of Red Sofa Literary agency and also teaches several classes at the Loft. Over a cup of coffee, I explained my idea to her. She said it sounded intriguing, so we talked a lot more.
This led to me developing a book proposal and eventually a sample chapter, and then signing on with Dawn to represent me. She began pitching the book to several publishers, and I was so excited when the University of Chicago Press indicated an interest because their series of books on writing and editing are such valuable resources. I met with editor Mary Laur, and she told me two things.
First, she was very interested in my book. Second, she thought I should change the entire structure of the book, which I admit was daunting. I had initially envisioned having each author interview-and the story of that book's publication-appear as a standalone chapter. But Mary challenged me to instead think about the steps in the publication path, and to weave the stories together within that framework. This made the book a much more challenging project, but I'm so grateful because it also made it much stronger. By focusing the chapters on topics like support networks, setbacks, various craft issues, etc., it allowed me to cut out repetitive stories and get to the meat of the issues. It also meant the book was better organized, and easier for aspiring writers to browse for ideas on specific challenges or questions they have.

How is this book different from other books on writing?  What does it offer readers?
I may have already answered this a bit in the first question, but basically, it attempts to paint with a broader brush the complete story of modern authors bringing their first book into the world. The chapters are broken down by topic: idea generation, developing a writing process, finding support, dealing with craft issues, developing authenticity and depth in the work, approaching revision, navigating potential publishing paths, dealing with setback, preparing to publish, promoting the book in the world, and then lessons learned.
So while there are already excellent resources out there that cover these topics, there are few that cover them all at once.My hope is that this format can better help an aspiring writer envision their own unique path.
How did you find your debut authors?  What was it like interviewing them?
I started by developing a master list of potential people to invite. My initial criteria were three-fold: 1) they needed to be a debut author, ideally within the last five years, but certainly within the last ten; 2) they needed to be diverse in their backgrounds, genres, approaches, and stories; and finally, 3) the authors needed to have found some level of success.
This last criteria was the most vague for me. I didn't just mean runaway bestseller, because that is not the only kind of publishing experience. In fact, it's the exception for a debut author. So instead, I wanted to find authors who would label their first book, in one way or another, a success for them. Maybe it won an award, maybe it gave them the credibility to move onto an even more successful project, maybe it sold way more than they thought it would. But in one way or another, these books could all be called successful.
Oh, and of course, there was a fourth criteria: were they willing to do it? This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill interview process. I asked a lot out of these authors. I conducted two- to three-hour initial interviews  with them and had several email follow-up exchanges. They were each so generous with their stories and their time. This project could have died on the vine if the authors weren't open and generous, and to a person, they surpassed my expectations.
What were the biggest challenges in crafting the structure of the book?
It was definitely changing the structure-from profiling each author chapter by chapter to breaking it down by subject matter instead. This also meant I needed to wait until all the interviews were scheduled and completed before I could start to write much. Then I needed to comb through the transcripts of the long interviews and look for themes and commonalities, so I could create a structure, then go back again and categorize their comments into the planned structure.
Finally, I needed to bring their thoughts together, and describe their stories in ways I hoped would be engaging or thought-provoking for others. When I read interviews with multiple people, one of my favorite things is when it feels like people that weren't in the room with each other are talking back and forth. I don't know if I've achieved that here, but I hope I have, because that was one of my goals.  
Anything special or unique that you learned along the way?
Yes! When I set out to write this book, I never intended to find a single path that others could follow. There is no one path, and it would be silly to try to suggest otherwise.
But I think I was surprised by something on this matter. There is something related and shared between all the stories in my book, and I think it might be the biggest lesson an aspiring writer can learn.
Every writer I interviewed faced a big moment of setback or doubt-big enough that they thought about quitting. That includes me, by the way.
What I learned in writing this book is that the most important trait an aspiring writing can develop has nothing to do with writing chops, insider connections, or strong branding and marketing plans.It has to do with finding the will to carry on. Faced with personal and professional doubts and setbacks, these writers kept writing and kept trying to improve. They persevered.
For more information or to order Chris's book, click here.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Charts and Lists: The Fun of Organizing Your Story Structure

This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories.  You can access it here.  The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story.  (Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)

So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure.  Storyboards are useful to a point.  But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.

In Rowling's chart, you'll see a column for the date of that plot point, the plot point itself, a column called "prophecy" which alludes to the greater meaning of that event in Harry's story and the prophecy that haunts him, as well as several other interesting things she keeps track of.  Even if you're not an HP fan, it's educational to see how much charting goes behind the scenes with books by savvy writers.  

In my private coaching, I use three to four different charts, depending on where my client is in the process of developing her or his book.  Basic charts in fiction or memoir help track what's happening, the outer story, and how it relates to the narrator or main character's growth.  In nonfiction we look at "talking points," the nonfiction version of plot points, and how they sequence like stepping-stones to get the point across.  In all genres, we look at the difference between writer's intention and reader's take away, which can be vast, illuminating, and essential in revision.  More advanced charts examine the inner and outer obstacles for the character or narrator and how the reader perceives those within the narrative arc.

For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to start a chart.  First, make a list of things you track in your story.  Here are a few to consider:

Outer event--what is happening onstage (visible, audible, movement perceived)
Date of this event/day and time
Who is narrating this event (point of view)
Who else is present
Location (as specific as possible)
Primary sense in the scene (used by writer Celeste Ng--a very cool thing to consider)
Your intent as writer for this scene--what does it deliver?

Once you have your list, use Excel, Word, or an app, or create a handwritten version like Rowling's, and begin charting the first 25 pages of your story so far.  It can be rough, even just ideas.  Work forward as much as you can.

I recently redid my own chart for my second novel and discovered some missing elements, which, when fixed, made the chapters sing.  I hadn't even realized what wasn't yet in place.  That's the beauty of charts.  They don't feel creative to most of us, but they organize the writing so more creativity can shine through. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing about Your Life--The Good, the Hard, and the Beautiful

Two of my students/clients have just published memoirs this month.  Both have compelling--and difficult--stories to tell. The process of writing about your life for publication is not for the faint-hearted, as Chris Bauer and Mary Knutson can attest.

I also know their books have taken a lot of time, years, in fact. They have each experienced discouragement and exhilaration. I interviewed them for my blog this week, knowing they'd have good insights to share.

Friday, May 4, 2018

How to Deal with Memory and Emotions When Writing a Memoir

Several clients have emailed me lately, asking how to deal with the flood of emotions that comes with writing memoir.  "Memories bring back the feelings, especially traumatic ones, and I get stalled out with my writing," said one client recently. "Do you have any tips for handling these overwhelming emotions so I can keep writing?"

I'm very familiar with that internal flood.  When I was writing my second memoir (a spirituality memoir with self-help components called How to Master Change in Your Life), I remember working on a chapter about business failure and bankruptcy.  Reliving that terrible time was so difficult, I actually had to run to the bathroom and throw up.  Other times I'd get so stuck, I couldn't write one word.

Friday, April 27, 2018

False Agreements, Misbeliefs, Core Misunderstandings--How They Drive the People and the Plot in Your Book

For my birthday this month, I got an anniversary copy of A Wrinkle in Time. It has been a LONG time since I read that book, but I loved it. Basic reason: the characters are unforgettable. Especially the narrator, Meg. I enjoyed revisiting her story and considering the false agreement that makes her so memorable.

False agreements are where characters start out in a story. It's the belief they have about the world, which is usually limited or not entirely true. The false agreement drives the character's journey to a larger consciousness. That's why many of us read--to find out what they'll do, as they face the limits of their false agreement. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

How I Got My Agent--An Interview with Debut Author Kathleen West

Kathleen West came to several of my online classes in the early days of writing her first novel.  She got structuring help and good feedback, and later we worked together privately to help her develop the character arcs for the multiple points of view in her woven narrative. After four months, she felt ready to finish revising on her own and start querying agents.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Imagine Finishing Your Book! A Three-Part Exercise for Encouragement

When the book journey feels way too long and the end is nowhere in sight, I use this short but encouraging exercise to help me vision my way to finishing my book.  You may not need it now, if you're rocking along.  But there may be a time when it's useful.  It has been for many of my clients who get stuck in the doldrums of are-we-there-yet?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Chapterettes, Prologues, Introductions, and Other Spare Parts--What Purpose Can They Serve in a Book?

I happen to love small pieces of books:  prologues, introductions, forewords, even epilogues, and epigraphs (those quotes or small things planted before each chapter).  Such add-ons often get derided in writing classes, but they still serve a unique purpose. 

I fought one of my MFA advisers who hated the idea of a prologue in my young-adult novel, and won--it got published to good reviews.  
No one complained about the prologue, which ran two pages at most. 

So why so many warnings and controversies?  What do these small elements contribute to a book and why would a writer be wary of them? 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Too Much Reflection? How to Make Sure Your Story Doesn't Stall Out

One of my blog readers sent me a wonderful question last week.  It's a question that many writers struggle to answer.  It had come to mind when she read my post a few weeks ago about creating enough pauses for meaning within the flurry of events in your story.

But what about the opposite? she wondered.  If you're not an event writer, and maybe you write in too many pauses, how do you work with that tendency? 

Friday, March 23, 2018

Building the "Why" of Your Story--Inner and Outer Purpose for Characters Is the Key

Characters are it, in both fiction and memoir, if you want to publish.  Of course you have to have a good plot, something happening.  And your characters have to be externalized enough that we readers feel they're believable, interesting, intriguing.  But characters drive a story, and no more than in today's publishing market.

Several of my clients have had happy news these past weeks--agents or book contracts--and almost all of them have emailed me about their agent or editor loving the characters.  Those who get rejections know that this is also the most common complaint:  I just didn't fall in love with your characters.