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.
 
"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."
 
Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about a fantasy world, some write flowers, some write about growing up with addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds.  
The key is something called "container."
 
This week I'm gathering some new material for my fall online class, Strange Alchemy, which begins October 25 and focuses writers on container in their story.  What is present, now, and how can it be enhanced?  How does container intersect with character--so that you understand a character better by the setting that echoes their motivations or emotions?  How does an event come alive in a perfectly depicted container?
If you have any doubt about the importance of container, think of films.  Imagine The Matrix being shot on a farm in rural New Zealand.  Or that classic, West Side Story, taking place on a ranch in Kansas.  Container may be something you completely overlook as you draft your story, or it might be your favorite aspect.  Not enough container means your reader won't engage emotionally with the characters or events--because (and here's the kicker) container is the main vehicle for delivering emotion and meaning in story.
This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.
 
Tough Material, Great Container
In my Strange Alchemy class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking. 
 
Some writers are repulsed by such a topic, others feel it's terribly pertinent to today's world.  We always have a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affects us so much, and in the end, we usually realize it is because of Miller's extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the larger environment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined. "It's counter-intuitive," is the comment I get most often--"you would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response." 
 
Good plot creates momentum, yes. It drives the story forward.  But it's container that brings forth that emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report. 
 
Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's classic book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.
 
Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.
 
How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:
 
1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)
 
The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.
 
It's an astonishing container.
 
This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?
And if you'd like to join a stellar and warm community online for my Strange Alchemy class which begins in a few weeks, here's the link to check it out.  You need to be working on fiction or memoir to benefit most from the class, but all levels of writers are welcome. 

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.   
 
I get emails each week asking about these alternatives, so I thought it might be good to give an overview in this blog post.  Even if you are far from ready to publish, it's good to know your options.
 
Big Five:  The parent companies are Penguin-Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Macmillan, but there are so many imprints (or specialized publishing arms) within these.  They rule the publishing world, in a way, and it's harder than ever to get in the door.  Agents are required.  An agent I spoke with said that these publishers, if they accept your book, give you about two to six weeks to make a splash.  After that, the book goes to backlist, which means it's hard to get and gets no attention.  The author is still responsible for all publicity, unless you score a really great deal.  Advances are minimal.   Authors do not front money, and most (so I've been told) do not earn back their advances through sales.  Standard royalty after advance is paid back.   
 
To me, it's a bit like the lottery.  You may win, you may not, and it'll take a lot of luck and hard work (and your own money to hire a publicist--around $5000 on average--to help you get the reviews, blurbs, and promotion you'll need for that splash).  Some of my clients have scored, and I cheer them on.  But it's a long shot for most first-time authors.  Luckily, there are many other options.
 
Mid-size, academic, and small presses:  Included are J.P. Tarcher, Harbinger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, Workman, John Wiley & Sons, W.W. Norton, Chronicle, Tyndale, and quite a few others; most university presses; and small, specialty presses.  Some require agents, some do not.  I sold most of my books to small or mid-size presses.  I had an agent for five books, then he retired, and I used my contacts to sell directly.  Both avenues worked well although I got a better deal with the agented books, which may have been the times.   Advances are small, if at all.  Some of my clients have gotten excellent publicity help from their press; others have not.  These presses also expect the author to promote heavily, possibly hire a publicist too.  My books are (mostly) still available and I found the presses (mostly) wonderful to deal with, often offering high-quality editing.  Authors do not front money for production; standard royalty package. 
 
Partner publishers:  These are sometimes called hybrid publishers.  The author and publisher pool resources to produce the book--meaning, the author fronts money and earns it back through sales, unlike the advance/royalty system with the publishers mentioned above.  Usually these books are sold via amazon and other online stores, rather than in bookstores, although there are exceptions.  Ideal for the writer who has more money than time, because partner publishers walk you through the publication process and service you with professionals (design, editing, promotion).  Some of these presses require submission and have certain criteria for which books they accept (examples are Greenleaf and She Writes Press).  Author makes better royalty fees than traditional publishing, usually, but less than indie (self-) publishing.
 
Assisted self-publishing:  So many writers want to control their own books, but they don't know where  to begin to get them out there.  To service that need, a flock of companies have started up that allow you to buy a complete publishing package:  editing, design, etc.  Unlike partner publishers, you keep all the sales from your book, but you're also completely responsible for getting it to readers once it's produced.  Some examples of this kind of publisher:  Dog Ear Press, Book in a Box, Girl Friday.  But research these presses carefully.  Many companies are not as trustworthy as they should be.  Both Jane Friedman and Mick Rooney (Independent Publishing Magazine) are great resources.
 
Self- or indie publishing:  This is purely DIY, so writers who opt for self-publishing without assistance need to get their own team of production help unless they are whizzes at desktop publishing and copyediting.  Two very reliable companies headline the indie front:  CreateSpace (amazon.com) and Ingram (Spark).  Clients have also used iUniverse and others, with mixed results.  You pay everything, you do everything, you get everything, including complete control.   I self-published one book; my team costs were about $2000. and it was a very satisfying experience, despite all the work.
    
For more details on this, check out Jane Friedman's free e-newsletter--very valuable information on all things about publishing in our times.