Friday, December 15, 2017

Becoming a Marketing Machine--What It Takes to Promote Your Book

It's hard for writers to hear this:  writing your book isn't your only job in becoming an author.    

Once you've completed your manuscript, put it through revision, secured an agent or not, and sold it to a publisher, maybe you think you can relax back and let everyone else handle the nasty details of getting it into readers' hands.  When I began publishing in the eighties, that was the case.  But it's not true anymore.  Now writers need to learn all about marketing and promotion.  It's part of being an author.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Writing about Sex, Intimacy, and Other Dangers

Sex is hard to write.  I've written two sex scenes in my life so I'm no expert, but I found each extraordinarily difficult.  

The main challenge was not any reservations about including sex scenes in my fiction but how to make them reveal more about character than the character's actions.  That's my personal preference as a reader, as well as a writer, and it may not be yours.  You may be a Fifty Shades of Gray kind of writer and reader, and more power to you.  But I wanted to address the topic, especially after a coaching client sent me this email.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Feedback Says My Writing Is "Dense"--What Does This Mean and What Can I Do About It?

A student in my online classes is writing a futuristic thriller about memory loss.  I've enjoyed reading her chapters in class and so have her classmates.  But recently she emailed me about some feedback she'd received that she didn't understand.  She said she couldn't find much information about online, so she was hoping I could help her with what to do with the comments.
Readers have told her that her writing can be dense and hard to get into.  As a thriller writer--and someone who is very comfortable with action scenes--this confused her.  "For my book to be accessible I want to make it as quick and easy to read as possible," she told me.   "I've tried to make it fast paced because that grabs people's attention."

Friday, November 17, 2017

How to Get Enough Distance from Your Story to Actually Write It

In January 2001, physician and writer, Therese Zink, lived through a traumatic experience:  While on an international aid mission in Chechnya, her boss was kidnapped.  "That experience got me writing," Therese says.  "I'd kept a journal since a creative-writing class in high school twenty-some years earlier and dabbled at times with more creative efforts. But after the kidnapping, I had to write." 

Little did she know how long it would take her to learn to write and to tell that story.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Magic of Showing Up--How to Design and Commit to a Writing Practice

What's the difference between a writer who gets a book finished and a writer who never does?  A writing practice.  Believe it--there's nothing more important.  Not talent, not a great idea.  It's down to basics:  putting self in chair, putting hands on keyboard or taking up the pen, and staying there past all the internal whining and doubt and misery to actually put words on the page.

But we all whine.  We all get up and sharpen every pencil in the house sometimes, instead of writing.   

Friday, November 3, 2017

Pros and Cons of Using Past or Present Tense

A blog reader sent me a great question this week:  "My writing group discussed present versus past tense when writing memoir.  A group member's editor had her switch her present tense chapters to past tense.  She had some of each.  Are there virtues of each or should memoir always be past tense?"
I get this question a lot in classes, so it's always good to know the pros and cons of using past or present tense. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Which Point of View Should I Use? A Tour of First, Second, Third, and More

I often get this question in my classes:  what point of view is best for my book?  Who is best to tell this story?  What are the differences between first, second, third, and omniscient points of view?
There's an underlying confusion about "voice" and point of view in story, which I want to address first.   

Friday, October 20, 2017

How to Build a Chapter--A Cool New Template to Try for Any Genre

This week I'm teaching on Madeline Island, a beautiful spot on Lake Superior off the shore of northern Wisconsin.  Yesterday my class of ten writers explored a new template I've been working with for building chapters.  As a review for them and a gift for you, I thought I'd share it.
Many of my book-writing students, as well as private clients, even those already published, struggle with how to build strong chapters.  Over the past year, I've been studying different templates for chapter building.  Asking myself some hard questions:

Friday, October 13, 2017

How Powerful Is the "Container" of Your Story?

Book writers must create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading. A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this task--and its challenge to most writers--in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.

Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Publishing Alternatives to the Big Five--What Is Best for Your Book?

Quite a few of my clients have released their books this past year, always a happy moment for me.  My bookshelves are crammed with gift copies, which they often send as thank-you's, and I love seeing the finished product.  And how far the book has come since we began working together, in class or privately.
Some have decided to go with agents, some on their own.  But many, agented or not, have explored beyond the Big Five NYC publishers and found alternative homes for their books. 

One author I spoke with recently said she's so happy with how her book came out, via a partner press, and she's grateful she was open to other options besides the Big Five.  Her agent even counseled her against them, and I've heard this from other authors this past year.   

Friday, September 29, 2017

An Inventory of Bad Decisions in Your Book--And Why Bad Decisions Make the Best Stories

A student in my classes complained about her writer's block.   She'd started her book with a bang, writing four chapters that just flowed out.   Then, she hit chapter 5.  Stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen.

Remembering a friend's motto, "bad decision make the best stories," I suggested this writer inventory the bad decisions in her chapters.

Friday, September 22, 2017

How Do You Know When to Stop Expanding and Start Revising?

The relationship of writer to book-in-progress reminds me of a marriage.  As opposed to a date. 

Poems, articles, columns, and short stories are all creative commitments, sure.  But  even if they linger unfinished for a while, they are short relationships compared to 350 pages of manuscript. 

With a book, you regularly re-evaluate your progress, your purpose, and your plans.  You recommit again and again.  Not unlike the work it takes to make a marriage work.
Many of my students weary of this.  Is it ever done? they ask.  When is enough, enough? 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla, a writer in my New York classes many years ago, completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II.  I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters.  I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous.  Although calling it a novel seems untruthful.  In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction.  Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ten Things I've Learned by Finishing My Novel

In August, I took a month away from work, phones, and other people's writing to focus on the final edits for my novel.  It's been a long, hard, exciting road. 

Looking back, I slightly astonished by how naive I was when I began.  It's been five years in the making, and I couldn't have done it in any less time.  Enthusiasm and determination carried me through the first two years.  I hit bottom then, and I was pulled out by taking writing classes and getting together a feedback group.  They lasted a year or so.  Then I hit bottom again, almost ditched the project. 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Your Writing Voice--How to Develop It, Recognize It, Not Copy Someone Else's

One of my long-time students asked a great question this week:  how does a writer develop voice?  

Voice is the elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith.  We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

What makes them different, distinctive? Each delightful in its own way?  That's voice.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It

Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?

In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book

Summer is teaching time for me.  I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat.  We formed a perfect community, I thought:  supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

I've always loved August in New England, where I live.   The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days.  We get winter all too soon here.  New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.

When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing.  But laziness settles over me.  And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities.  I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do.  Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Writing a Satisfying Ending: Hints about How to Wrap Up Your Story

This week I'm traveling to one of my favorite places:  Madeline Island and the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall.  I'm about to welcome a group of twenty-three writers who will be attending my workshop/retreat and my independent study week.  We'll be diving deep into our book projects for five days, free of interruptions.  Looking for breakthroughs.

One of the assignments I offer the group is to draft their final chapter.  Because the group is varied in writing experience and progress with their projects, this suggestion often gets astonished reactions.  "How can I possibly write my final chapter when I don't know what the rest of the book is about!?" 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book

When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take.  Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most?  A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write.  Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time. 

But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months.  I recently saw a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month."  I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography

My elderly aunt finished her memoirs.  She mailed me a photocopy.  It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people.  She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories.  She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family. 

Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note,"  an "account of someone's life."  A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Finding and Hiring an Editor: Why They Help, What They Cost, and What to Look For

One of the best decisions I made for my recent books was hiring a professional editor--before I began submitting the manuscript for publication.  You might say:  Why bother?  The agent/publisher will make you change stuff anyway.  And don't publishers have editors? 

Yes, you'll have to change stuff--if you're lucky enough to get that far with an agent or publisher.  Yes, there are some publishers who still offer editorial help to their writers (small presses usually do, partner publishing does, a few big houses do if you're high on the list).  But it pays to invest in your own book in today's competitive world.  Make it the best it can be, before you try submitting it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Keeping Track of Time--Timeline Organizers for Your Book

One of my online students is working on a memoir that threads two storyboards (see more about storyboards here).  He wants to be able to plot life events in chronological order; although he is clear that the story may not include them all, it's helpful for him to have everything lined up so if an event needs a cursory mention, he knows where it falls. 

He needed a timeline organizer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

How Do You Know When You're Done? Tips to Evaluate Whether Your Manuscript Is Really Ready

One of my private clients has been working on her memoir for quite a few years.  She's workshopped it through my online classes and with writing partners, and in our coaching sessions, we analyzed the structure and she made many great revisions.  She sent it to a few other writers for feedback and got ideas on what else needed tweaking. 

This week, she emailed me with the big question:  Are we there yet? 

How does a writer know when the book is cooked, ready to send out to agents?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment

It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters.  I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily.  Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established.  Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students.  This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story.  Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Launching a Debut Novel: Working with Publicists and Promotion

It's been a month of book birth announcements.  Another student from my online classes and private coaching has just released her debut novel, Eden.  Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg has launched it with great panache too--with excellent reviews on Kirkus, Booklist, Redbook, the Boston Herald and other publications.  Writer Anita Shreve calls Eden "a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos."  

I first met Jeannie at a storyboarding workshop I taught at Grub Street in Boston where she was working on a two-storyboard novel, exploring the financial ruin of a family's historic home in seaside Rhode Island and the backstory of the matriarch who decides to reveal a long-buried secret and introduce the child she gave up for adoption in her teens.  Weaving the two storyboards together was a challenge that Jeannie approached beautifully, and her excellent book is the result.  
Once it was finished, she looked over her options for publishing.  I interviewed her about her choices and what she eventually decided to do.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Saving Your Work--Ways to Keep Your Writing Safe Today

I spent much of yesterday at the Apple Store, which often starts out as fun but ends up being exhausting.   A friend's laptop had an accident:  salt water got into the hard drive, and the photo our tech took of it confirmed no recovery possible.  I had a laptop I no longer used so she took it in with her external drive and we crossed our fingers as the data migration took place.  So far, all is well.  But if she hadn't backed up her computer on that external drive, it would be a sad story.

Afterwards, in the car, we talked the various ways of saving work.  When she first got the bad news about her laptop, I read the panic on her face.  All her creative work, gone?  She hadn't ever had to recover data from an external drive (Time Machine in Apple lingo).  So she didn't actually trust that it would restore her files. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding the Right Home for Your Memoir: A Success Story

I first met Elisa Korenne in one of my online classes.  Elisa is a professional singer/songwriter with several CDs to her credit.  She was writing a very intriguing story--about moving from downtown Manhattan to the wilds of northern Minnesota, for love.

I followed her progress in subsequent classes and saw such a blossoming of the story.  It's a simple tale, yet unique:  the integration of cultures, the finding of oneself and home, all around her profession of music and storytelling.

Elisa's memoir, Hundred Miles to Nowhere:  An Unlikely Love Story, has just been released from North Star Press.  Click here to find out more.  I interviewed  Elisa to learn more about the process of finding the right home for her book. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyboarding Multiple Narrators--How to Make Sense of the Whole Story

I get this question a lot:  When a book has more than one storyline, timeline, or main narrator, how do you make sure each storyline works individually? 

And, once you have each individual storyline in place, how do you weave them together to make sense of the whole?

Friday, May 5, 2017

If You're Writing a Novel, Do You Know Its Category? An Agent's Perspective

One of the writers in my advanced online class posted this article on our weekly classroom discussion.  She asked the provocative question:  what genre are you writing in? 

Fiction, I would've answered five years ago, because they were all fiction writers in this small group.  But her question went deeper than this:  what type of fiction are you writing and how will you present it to an agent or publisher?
Publishing has gotten quite complex at categorizing novels by certain qualities.  Is it award-capable?  Does it have a happy or mixed ending?  Is it a commercial or literary plot? 

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Great Key to Building Your Story: Things Are Never as They Appear

I got some of the best writing advice this week:  In a good story, things are never as they appear. 

At first, I debated this advice:  Why not tell the truth in story?  I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books?  Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea.  But fiction and memoir writers, listen up.  There's something to this.

Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing.  In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

How NOT to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript

A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter.  She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand.  She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there.  She came home excited, shared the news with me.  "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said.  Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hunt for an Agent: Pitch Conferences, Research, and Other Fun Tools

Spring is the time of new birth, and that includes book manuscripts.  Writers have been working hard all winter and want to bring their babies into the world.  Perhaps even launch the process of looking for an agent. 

Many of my clients and students are trying pitch conferences this spring:  a place to meet agents face to face, and even get feedback on manuscripts.  Two of the prime pitch conferences in the U.S. are hosted by Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding an Agent: One Writer's Experience

I first learned about Jay Gilbertson's wonderful series of novels when he attended several of my writing retreats on Madeline Island.  Jay has a special relationship with Madeline, an island off the northern coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior.  Madeline Island is the home of the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall, but it's also the setting for his Moon over Madeline Island series.

I wanted to interview Jay about his process of finding an agent and getting his first (and highly successful) novel published.  How did he do it?

Friday, March 17, 2017

If You're Not Writing about Social Justice Issues, Will You Get Published Today?

My interview with writer Amy Hanson generated a flurry of response--and some thought-provoking questions.  Amy's story is magnificent, so please scroll down to read it, if you weren't able to.  She's a very hard-working writer who received a well-earned award and publication for part of her book.

A few blog reader, who enjoyed the article very much, also expressed concerns about the challenge of being published today.  I sifted out the best questions from the emails I got last week.  They were:

Friday, March 10, 2017

What Is--and What Isn't--Your Business When You're Making Your Art: Words of Wisdom from Martha Graham

One of my all-time favorite sources of inspiration is this week's quote from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, writing to her protegee, Agnes DeMille. 

It's been in my journals, posted on my walls above my writing desk, and shared with friends for many years. 

During a slump this week, where I wondered why I was writing my book (I'm sure many of you can relate!), I happened upon the quote again. It inspired a freewrite about what is, and what isn't, my business when I'm making my art. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Submitting Excerpts from Your Book to Small Publications--A Success Story

Amy Hanson started writing her novel, a braided narrative about a woman in Zambia and a woman in Seattle, when her third child was a year and a half. Not the ideal time to take on a book project, as she says.  She'd always enjoyed writing, although music had been her focus, but she'd gotten letters from people who had read small things she'd written, asking if she'd ever thought about writing a book.  An idea for a novel was in her head, and so she decided to just try. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Staying Organized While You Write--and Finish--Your Book

No matter where you are in the book-writing journey, at some point the sheer volume of material begins to overwhelm and it's time to look carefully at how to organize yourself.

A private client recently wrote me about this.  She's been trying to locate some "islands" (snippets of writing, or scenes) that she'd written a while back, but she couldn't remember how she'd titled them.  They were virtually lost in the mass of material on her computer.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Scene versus Summary--Which to Use for What Effect

I like picking up what I call "airport reads," just to see what's up in commercial fiction.  Airport reads are those books that airport bookstalls buy, thinking they'll take travelers' minds off flying.  It's a big coup to get your book in an airport bookstall, and over the years, I've seen more serious fiction arrive on those shelves.

Recently, I got a copy of JoJo Moyes' new book, After You.  Her novel, Me before You, a story of a woman caretaker for a paraplegic who helps him with assisted suicide, was made into a movie, and I enjoyed it a lot--good characters, tense situation.  Moyes is a master wordsmith, expertly pacing her stories.  After You is the sequel, as you may have imagined, and it also starts with a bang--the main character falls off a roof and has to return home to her parents while she heals.

Friday, February 10, 2017

False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir

What I call the "inner story" in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events.  It's pretty simple, but its success depends on something called "false agreements."  Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises.   Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn't just occur, right?  It usually happens from a series of events that create change.  To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character's journey starts.  Usually, there is something they don't fully understand.  Something they are challenged by.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Andre Dubus on Writing Memoir--A Podcast from Brevity

I admire Andre Dubus's writing, both his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) and his memoir (Townie).  This week, as I return from teaching in Tucson, instead of a lengthy post, I'm going to keep it short--and share an excellent podcast with Dubus, shared by one of the writers at my retreat.

Although the podcast is specifically about memoir, and whether a writer must live a dramatic life in order to write it, his comments can be helpful to writers from all genres.

Here's the link to Brevity magazine, which published the podcast. 

Thursday, January 26, 2017

When the World Goes to Chaos, Writing Becomes Even More Important--So What's Your Purpose with Your Writing?

I don't know anyone who thinks our world is perfect right now.   My Facebook feed is so disturbing some days, I can't read or post.  I'm not a born activist, but I do have concerns and strong opinions about what's happening nationally and globally, so that's when I turn to my writing.

I know from many published books that writing has an effect on the world.  Just last week I got a letter from a reader of my first novel, Qualities of Light.  She lives in Switzerland and took months to read and study the book (in English, not her native language), and she says she was transformed by the story.  Since the novel was released in 2009, that's a fairly long half-life in publishing.  Still touching a few people here and there, and I'm grateful my words can make a difference.

This week, I'm in Tucson, Arizona, in the middle of the beautiful and peaceful desert, with a group of 13 other writers.  I'm teaching a retreat on book-writing, and the writers come from all different backgrounds and writing genres.  Some are just beginning, some are nearing publication. 

Over dinner, we often discuss the state of the world.  Yesterday, we expanded that into the effect our writing might have on that world.  Writer Toni Morrison is recently famous for saying, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.  We speak, we write, we do language.  That's how civilizations heal." 

So what is your intent, with your writing, in this world we're in? 

Your weekly writing exercise is a break from craft, into the purpose of why you write, why we write.  What's it all about, for you?    

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?

Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago.  She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog.  She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.

Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.

The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

How to Succeed at Your New Year's Writing Resolutions--Two Ideas That Actually Work

I like playing with resolutions but I don't have much faith that I'll stick with them.  I usually get a "glory ride" on the new year's enthusiasm for about 30 days.  Then life takes over and crashes my makeover plans.  So I've adopted a different approach, and it seems to work pretty well. 

This week, to welcome in the new year, I wanted to share two ideas I borrowed from other writers.  
They are working quite well to keep my goals moving forward.  Maybe one or both will work for you!