3 things you need to earn notices, publish, and write

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sailing-boat-640There are three assets anyone needs for a career in books. See, you’ll craft a writing career out of your writing life. First you have a writing life, personal and intimate and regular. Then you move on to a writing career. Maybe not full-time, but you consider it your primary work.

The three assets are publicity, patience, and practice. Whether you choose to work with a publisher, a coach, or an editor—or strive to become one—those are three essentials. But no matter where you’re at in your career as a writer, using these three tools is crucial to finding the Joy of Writing. Sailing at the center of your journey of joy is help.

As you move into your career as a writer you’ll need publicity. At first that will be earning attention for your own work or the writing of your colleagues. Getting fluent with Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, mapping the landscape of book review websites, plumbing publicity portals like BookBub and Bookbuzz— it’s all essential to publishing yourself. However, in time, you might be inclined to form a publishing venture, at first limited to yourself and few fellow writers.

Publishing can become the province of writers when they collaborate on its business. The flavor of the business day is to corral experienced writers with popular backlists of books, and then get these authors the money they deserve. After all, traditional publishing’s payouts are changing. An author in this kind of boutique press will learn the publicity world to succeed at this venture. Such boutique publishers might even discover more great books, ones that couldn’t find a publisher, and build careers for the undiscovered authors. Very nice work indeed. Getting notice for good work is the heart of publishing.

That leads us to another kind of help: assisting creativity. This is the aid which demands patience. While an author is building skills and polishes their own books, there are opportunities to reach out and help other writers. You might be doing beta reads for your friends’ full drafts, or even catching typos in a late-stage revision of a book. Given enough of this patient work, you may hear a calling to coach writers—that’s where the asset of patience pays off. Coaches guide writers to develop books and edit the text. The level of accountability for a coach can feel greater than one for a classroom teacher. Students pass, they fail, they rate a teacher up or down in surveys: that’s what’s at stake while teaching. Sometimes a teacher only gets three or four hours in front of 30 writers and never sees their writing.

In contrast, during coaching the author will look a coach in the eye (if they use FaceTime, or they meet in a coffee shop) and say things like “Explain why I can’t have three first-person points of view for this cozy mystery.” A coach takes a breath and does their best–and later evaluates the writer’s next set of pages to see if the advice helped the author. That counsel is powered by the talent of the author and that writer’s willingness to put in the hours. You must become the hard-working author who loves to put your early efforts well behind you. Plenty of teaching happens via email and Track Changes.

Of course practice, the third asset, helps everything improve. Practice makes doing the work easier, too. (Okay, at least you don’t need as much effort to finish a section or an assignment.) In the beginning of an editor’s career the books take longer to edit well. After a decade or two of reading the writing of others and then making it better, everyone’s time is better used. The editor returns drafts with development notes sooner. An editor who can coach will have seen more styles, as well as become more practiced at preserving a writer’s tone and voice.

fathers-day-buzzNear the end of the movie Genius, the legendary editor Max Perkins expresses the editor’s worry. “We might not be making these books better,” he says. “We might just be making them different.” Your editor is your collaborator in writing, an art that people believe is solitary work. Lately a few publishers have begun to give an editor a credit on the book. Buzz Bissinger’s memoir Father’s Day is called An Eamon Dolan Book, right out on the back cover. Eamon is Bissinger’s editor, collaborating with him on three books so far. Buzz gives him fulsome praise in the acknowlegements.

With Eamon as fastidious editor and wordsmith (some chapters had more of his comments than they did my own words), what began as an earnest and rudderless first draft became a book.

An Eamon Dolan Book sounds like “A Steven Spielberg Film.” It’s Buzz’s book, yes. The collaboration was powered by publicity, patience, and practice. The first feels like magic when it works. But it’s earned by applying the other two in order to create something worthy of public notice. Buzz admits his fine memoir was rudderless, but at least it was moving. Patience helped him steer the story. Practice, of course, was the wind in his sails.

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Memoir and therapy and you

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Memoir is all about you. Writing one is, anyway. In the process of creating these stories about your history, you’ll uncover aspects of yourself. Not pretty, some of these will be—if you’re lucky, and fortunate enough to be brave about telling on yourself.

dog-therapyOne of the universal cautions about writing memoir is the role of therapy in creating it. Endless introspection isn’t attractive. There’s a saying in the movies when a stage play is brought to the screen. The tactic is to “open it up.” Parts of The Odd Couple got exterior settings in the film, for example. Opening up a memoir means letting other people into the story and being aware of their emotions. Not just your own.

That being said, memoir writing is the most personal storytelling you will do. You have the potential to examine what happened in your past and put things into the spotlight that were shadowy. Memoirs can also identify the habits and beliefs you didn’t understand, even as you practiced and followed them. One great resource to lead you is Writing Life Stories, by the novelist Bill Roorbach and therapist Kristen Keckler.

Are you narcissistic, or bipolar? I’m a bit of both, habits that can rob you of joy and love, and also get you published and elected. Own what you are and use it. If you put enough work into a memoir, you can understand your conditions and disorders with a bighearted love and compassion. Now go tell some secrets.

Memoir disclaimers might involve murder

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elegy-coverIn the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.

On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.

A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds

This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.

He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”

Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”

Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.

First Person and Sticky Points of View

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tiefast-767993In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Writing Books and Movies: Three Critical Distinctions

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A writer asked me this week, “Can I start my novel contest submission from a place other than the beginning chapter of my book?” You can start anywhere. The challenge you meet with any beginning other than the beginning is knowing who is who and where your story stands.

a_jay_shermanUsing a mid-book entry, you must establish character and underscore the theme of a book at an incredible pace. The judges will determine your ability to create characters as part of their scoring. This can be a challenge while starting mid-book. Not necessarily, of course. An author can always color outside the lines of accepted practices.

Think for a little bit, however, about why it’s important to start the sample someplace other than the start. The samples of film stories, trailers, illustrate the distinction in showing your audience your story.

First, a movie trailer may be a cousin to the book sample, but the trailer is edited so you get the essence of the story. If you can do this for a book “writing sample” (the phrase for a passage of a book sent to agents, contests, and editors) then good for you. But movie editing and novel writing have great differences. The phrases that apply here are collages and medleys for movies, and guidebooks and maps for novels. In a book you have to know where you’re at when you begin. You have a legend for a map. It’s not easy to carry a judge’s or reader’s imagination across half the story without a legend up front.

Second, visual storytelling is not the same craft as creating fiction on a page. A movie lets your eyes see settings and your ears hear actors to establish your place in the story. On talk shows, the actors are asked to “set up the clip” we watch. This takes up words to do in a writing sample, words that might help more if they’re used in dramatic, descriptive, evocative writing.

Third, you get more time to establish the magic when you’re writing a movie. Music, colors and lighting, the spoken word: they all splash over your screen in a trailer in a matter of seconds. The theme of the movie, its main questions, often roll toward you in phrases that float across the screen. “What would you do,” it might ask, “when salvation costs you everything?” In books you get this with your jacket-flap or back cover writing. A writing contest gives you a shot at this with a synopsis, if they accept one as part of your entry.

When you’re tempted to start a writing sample in mid-book for a contest, look over the categories on the scoresheet and ask yourself if you can demonstrate competence in each section. If you can see the way, go for it. You’ll probably not be the only person to so this. A judge must understand who is who and where the desires and motives lay in this new land, however.

Although you get about 300 words of synopsis to set up your clip, in the Writers League of Texas Manuscript contest, you’ll work with 2,450 words at most to show your drama. It’s not an impossible constraint to overcome. But choosing first steps in a writing sample is like crossing a stream using steps upon rocks. You find your path starting from the bank where it’s dry. Beginnings give book samples better traction.

Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

coffee-924948_1280You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these filter words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

 

 

What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

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