Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Unanswered Questions

As someone who loves it when the ducks are lined up, I used to hate unanswered questions. Problems I couldn't solve, dilemmas unresolved, drove me nuts. I worked hard at applying solutions to every problem.

I felt great when the issue got fixed. I tallied up answers like gold.

Then I began writing books. Books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft. My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who taught me the power of the unanswered question.

This may not be your issue--at all! But if it is, read on.

Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.

I've often asked my book-writing classes to begin a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.

I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.

Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?

Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?

Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.

This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.

Your muse is talking.

PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So Your Book Is Finally Written and Published--How Do You Launch It?

If you're in the very lucky position to have (1) finished writing your book, and (2) sold your manuscript to a publisher, you'll soon be facing an exciting question:
How do I want to launch my book?

You're about to be on stage--and that's a good thing. Long ago, publishers did this work and writers stayed behind the scenes, but readers of this blog who are savvy to the changes in the book publishing industry know that publishers no longer launch a book for you, unless you're a proven best-seller. You do your own singing. Often there's very little publicity budget once your book is published, and most publishers depend on writers to do the legwork, find the reviewers, and set up their own book events to help readers find out about their books. You can't be shy now--you have to believe in your book enough to design, dream, and deliver a successful launch.

I can hear those trigger fingers moving, but before you click away from this post ("I am nowhere near launching anything!"), read a bit further. Even beginning book writers might have fun with this week's exercise. It's a way to design your book launch but also work with a tried-and-true universal principle of thinking from the end. In other words, what you put your focus on, manifests. Put your focus on publication, and it might work.

This week's exercise is in two parts, and we begin with famous cartoonist Scott Adams.

Scott Adams Did It
Dilbert's creator, Scott Adams, was said to have penned a positive statement about his cartooning career each day. He wrote it fifteen times. The theory is that his focus was shifted, over time, to the potential instead of the fears. I don't know what he wrote, but it was something like, "I will be a famous cartoonist." And so he was.

I love this exercise. I use every time I am wanting to manifest something really good--like an excellent book launch--and remind myself of the potential rather than the fears in this crazy life of writing books. The exercise works best if you keep the statement beneficial to more people than yourself (another universal principle).

Some examples of this exercise from my writing students: "I'm delighted with my published book." "My published book is everything I've dreamed it could be." "Readers are loving my book and it's changing lives for the better." "My book is practically writing itself--and I am thrilled at how it's coming together." "My writing feeds my soul."

As I prepare for three book events for my new novel, Qualities of Light (see below for dates--please join me!), my positive statement is: "My book events are easy, delightful, and full of joy, and people are so inspired by my novel."

It focuses me on the highest dream. Try it yourself, at whatever stage in book writing you are right now. Make sure to write the statement fifteen times--because something shifts around the tenth or eleventh time you pen that statement. It starts to click in the change of attitude.

Part 2 of the Exercise
Once you've set the tone of your book launch, it's time to get specific. Ask yourself:

1. What venue would I enjoy most (a bookstore, a writing school, a gathering in a community center or art gallery)? No limits nowadays. Just be sure you can accomodate the crowds you hope for, there's plenty of parking, and the venue is open to the public.

2. What format would make my book shine? At a minimum, authors will often read an exciting excerpt (about 10 minutes max), answer questions from the audience, and sign books at a table. But you can also conduct a free workshop on your book's topic, talk about how you wrote it, offer a panel discussion of contributors, etc. Think about your best result (see part 1 of exercise) and what would bring it.

3. What publicity do I want to do ahead of time? Are you up for radio/TV/print interviews? Posters and postcards? Email to friends and family? Publicists say that people need to hear about something six times before they are hooked enough to buy or show up, so spread the word in more than one way.

Using the inspiration from your positive statement, written fifteen times, brainstorm on the specifics. Spend 10-20 minutes on this part of the exercise. Benefit: You focus on the potential, not the fears.

Please join me for the book launch of Qualities of Light, my first novel,
if you're near any of these locations:

Tuesday, October 13, 7:00 p.m.: Hudson Valley Writers' Center, Sleepy Hollow, NY (Westchester County, on train line from NYC), http://www.writerscenter.org/ for directions.

Sunday, November 1, 2:00 p.m.: The Hickory Stick Bookshop, Washington Depot, CT, http://www.hickorystickbookshop.com/ for directions.

Thursday, November 5, 7:00 p.m: The Loft Literary Center, Minneapolis, MN, http://www.loft.org/ for directions.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Reading My Own Novel--A Lesson in What Happens When You're Not Looking

The week I got my first copy of my new novel, Qualities of Light, I was like a raft floating in serene blue water. It had happened at last. Holding it in my hands was a thrill. I didn't even open it for a few minutes. Then I gave myself two days and read it cover to cover.

A wonderful editor accepted the book and a wonderful press has published it, but I spent a year trying to sell it before that happened. I'd kept notes from agents and editors who'd seen the manuscript that difficult year. These agents and editors sent me brief or beautiful rejection letters--and I kept many of them. The helpful ones encouraged me. The agents and editors who were kind enough to take time from their busy workdays to tell me why they rejected my manuscript, what they'd recommend changing. This kind of information is gold to the writer struggling to publish.

The most constant comment: "Begin the story in chapter 5." Chapter 5 is where the main character begins to fall in love. I couldn't figure out why everyone thought this was the main story of the novel. To me, the main story is the complex relationship Molly has with her artist father. But everyone else disagreed.

Eventually, I heeded the advice. The last helpful editor sent me detailed suggestions, including the now-familiar "Begin with chapter 5." So I jettisoned the first four chapters. I put them into my "extras" file on my computer and wove the best bits into other chapters. Now the book starts right in with the love tangle instead of the family tangle.

Rereading it this week, I saw why it works. As deeply as I was interested in the family tangle, most readers love a love story. That's what they wanted.

Why We Writers Need Readers
These agents and editors--and my writing partner and writing groups--did me a great service. Their comments forced me to go back to what I was originally excited about in this novel when I began writing it nine years ago. It was the unlikely romance. The family tangle came later, when I was searching for a subplot to give tension to the story.

Once I rediscovered, via helpful advice, the real center of my story and rearranged it accordingly, I sold it within a month.

We writers want to keep our ideas "pure" and untouched by others' opinions. This is downright snobby, a typical ego-driven artist viewpoint. I'm there often, and it never serves me. Most readers, if they're intelligent and kind, will point the writer back to her original focus. They will help the writer weed out the sidetracks that don't serve the story.

This Week's Writing Exercise
Make a list of feedback you've gotten so far about your book. What's the most consistent comment? Is it, like with my novel, to begin somewhere else, with another focus? Why have you listened or not listened to this feedback? What has changed in your writing because of it?

Then make a list of the readers in your life--people who have read your work and given you feedback. Send the most important one a thank-you note. Tell her or him why you appreciate the feedback, what it's taught you.