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. 

I'd recovered my lost work one time, successfully.  It took a while, but the external drive was a good choice.  Before I got smart about saving my work somewhere outside of my computer, I wouldn't have recovered anything. 

I often poll writers in my classes about the ways they protect their work.  It's no longer good enough to just have one copy, on your laptop or desktop.  Here are some ways they use.  Not all these methods were popular with everyone, but they do present a wide range of possibilities.

The main piece of advice I've gotten over the years is:  Save your writing in a minimum of three locations.  Do it religiously.  How often?  I save every time I finish a writing session.  Sometimes, because I've experienced the horrors of a crash or power outage, I save every hour. 

I save in four places:

1.  Save on my main computer (desktop or laptop).
2.  Email myself a copy of the file.  If the computer crashes, I can retrieve from my webmail.
3.  Save to an external drive, like a Passport or Porsche or LaCie drive.  These are not expensive (under $100 last time I checked) and they hold a LOT. 
4.  Use a Time Machine to back up the entire computer every night or once a week, as my friend did, above.  These usually work best when stationery, at your desk, hooked up to a desktop and set to backup on schedule.

Other methods you might consider:

1.  Use a cloud option--there are many companies that will save your work or even do automatic backups to the cloud for you.  Several of my students do this and swear by its ease and security.
2.  Print hard copies.  One of my writer friends, who describes himself as a "typewriter guy" who reluctantly moved to computers, doesn't feel secure until he has printed copies. 
3.  Use a thumb drive (flash drive).  Very cheap, stores a lot, can be carried anywhere because it's the size of your thumb.  You can find these in office supply stores.  When I'm traveling, I use this instead of the larger external drive.

Your weekly writing exercise isn't about writing this week; it's about maintaining your ability to keep writing your book.  Evaluate how you safeguard your writing.  What new systems do you want to put into place this week?  If something isn't working as well as you'd like, what might you change?         

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. 

Why did you decide on this press?  How did you find out about them?  Did you research others? 

I decided to pursue North Star Press because two writers I knew and respected, one a friend and the other a writing teacher, had been published by them.  I had done a lot of research about traditional publishers, small publishers, and agents, and had already gone down all of those roads.  Amazingly, I had neglected to put North Star on my list despite what I thought had been exhaustive research.

When I finally thought about North Star, I recognized that it would be an ideal press for me and my story.  For me because I am a first-time author and a small press would give me more attention.  And for my story because North Star is based in outstate Minnesota, and my story is about moving to outstate Minnesota, so they would have the network to appeal a good portion of my target audience.
What made you choose this avenue over traditional publishing?
 
It was more that this avenue chose me!

I started trying to get my book into the world by pursuing literary agents.  I had initial success--a good 30-40 percent requested full manuscripts after I sent them my query letter.

From their responses, it became clear that my story, about a singer-songwriter moving from New York City to rural Minnesota for love, did not have enough appeal (read: potential book-buyers) for agents to approach their contacts at larger publishers.

This led me to start reaching out to smaller publishers.
   
Tell us what kind of support you got during the publishing process.
North Star offered me a writer-friendly contract that included an industry-standard royalty package and a connection to a national distributor.  They asked me to commit to buying a number of books at wholesale price up front.  They were willing to work with me on adjusting their standard contract to be the right fit for me.

They provided editing and all the backend work of getting my book into the world, in both print and electronic format.
 
I was not expecting marketing support and was not offered it.  From the beginning of my pursuit of publishers and agents, I was aware that I would be in charge of most of the marketing for the book no matter what press published my book, big or small. 

I worked with a literary publicist to start my marketing campaign six months ahead of the publication date.
   
Anything else you think might help readers make good decisions about finding the right homes for their books?
   
One of the hardest things for me was to figure out where my book belonged in the publishing world. 

My book was not the literary blockbuster of my grandiose imaginings. It was only when I looked at the realities of my story, the book market, and who I am as an author, that I was successful in finding a publisher.

I am very happy to be with a smaller, Minnesota-based publisher, as I know they have the connections that are the best fit for my book.
     
To learn more about Elisa's memoir and order a copy, you can check out her website at www.elisakorenne.com or find it at North Star Press or on
Amazon.

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?
Memoir and fiction has grown complex.   Maybe it's a reflection of our multi-tasking brains, but multiple narrators, shifts from a full backstory to a full present-time story, or completely developed stories in different locations are the norm now.  

It takes a lot more work from the writer than just a simple, chronological, single storyline.  Working with storyboards helps.  But even so, you may have your individual storyboards flowing just fine, but be stymied on how to bring them into one book.

One of my online students from Tucson, Arizona, is working on a historical novel.  She has chosen three of the main characters to be her narrators and she's built storyboards for each of them separately.  She works on one narrator's story and takes it as far as she can, then moves to another, trusting the process and not too worried about completing one before starting another, because the process is teaching her more about the book.
That's fine; she's doing the necessary first step.  But as she's completed these individual storyboards, she's become stalled out. 

"While the storyboards outline what happens to each of them, what they are involved in," she emailed me, "I'm not seeing or feeling THE STORY.  And I'm not sure how to get there."  What's the trick in making them mesh?

Five Points That Overlap
First, look for five main points that overlap.  If you're working with a storyboard, you know about the five main turning points in any book:  the triggering event at the start, the first turning point about one-quarter through, the midpoint (second triggering event), the second turning point about three-quarters through, and the final climax at the end of the book.  These are detailed on my videos and in my book, in case you want to explore further.

First, look for overlaps in location, time, or event.  Sometimes, a main event runs through the whole book and characters encounter it at slightly different times.  Or they are in a certain location where something changes, but on their own storyline.  These are the easiest overlaps to find. 

If these don't work for your particular book, freewrite, one page for each character, on what each of the five points mean for that character.  For instance, you are writing about a marriage.  What's the meaning of that moment for John, for Sylvia, for their daughter Harlow?  The meaning is where you look for overlaps if the easier ones don't work.    

Often you need to rearrange your storyboard to make this work well.  I might shift the plot or go deeper into researching meaning and make it more evident in a scene, to create strong weaving of the different stories.

Transitions
Once you've created overlap in the five points of your book, you need to work on transitions.  I could teach transitions for a whole year--they are that challenging for many writers and that important.

The best way to learn transitions is to study film.  Directors work with them all the time, moving from scene to scene.  Two of my favorite films to teach transitions are The English Patient and Sliding Doors.  You'll enjoy both films, I bet, but go beyond watching them for enjoyment and study the moment when a scene changes.  See what image is used to transition.  It'll echo or repeat slightly from the first scene to the next one.  The more arty the film, the subtler the transition. 

When I work with my private clients on transitions, I have them study key images that repeat in their story.  Then we work on a chart where the last line of each scene is paired with the first line of the next scene, to see if there are transitions in place.  Words are your vehicle for images on the page, so words must create a transition image, or bridge, that the reader can use to slide effortlessly from one scene to the next.  You can also use more obvious time transitions, such as "three days later" or "meanwhile, back at the ranch," but in modern fiction and memoir, these are employed sparingly because they are more glaring to the reader.  The best transitions are nearly invisible.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Take one of these steps--the five points exercise above or the transitions exercise below that--and set aside an hour to try it.  Apply to your book, see what you learn!  Does the weaving begin to happen?

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? 
It's absolutely necessary to know where your book fits, before you begin trying to send it to an agent or editor.
 
The article she shared summed it up so well.  Here's the link.  It's an infographic, or diagram that shows three main types of fiction--literary, upmarket, and commercial.  Check it out, and see where your book might fit.  Consider any changes you might need to make to fit in one of these categories.

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.  Each character might have their own false agreement, unique to their journey in the story.  In my current novel, one of the narrators believes that she can conquer all odds by herself, without help.  This is a false agreement because the story continually puts her into situations where she can't go it alone.  Readers can see this belief, or agreement she's made with herself, isn't going to last.  But the character is blind to that.  By the end, the character must acknowledge that the agreement isn't working.  She must reinvent herself and her agreements.  That makes up her narrative arc--the progress of this change.

I like to look at each of my main players to be sure the false agreement is in place, so they can have someplace to grow towards.

Then I thought of this writing advice in another way:  the writer knows where the story is going to end up.  What needs to happen by the last page.  But if we lay all the steps out in a straight and predictable line, the story feels just that:  predictable.  So the writer's goal might also be to continually sidetrack the reader--create false ideas that might be true, but turn out not to be.  In thrillers, these are sometimes called "red herrings."  They appear to be a bonefide clue, but they are eventually disproved. 

Then I thought of dialogue.  Skilled dialogue contains something called "subtext," which is the undercurrent, what's not being said.  In a way, good dialogue also follows this idea of "things are not what they appear."  If characters speak the truth every time you have a scene with dialogue, there's little tension.  It's like the straight and predictable path of truthful story.  Tension comes from incongruence, the difference between what's said and what's really meant. 

I began to research well-loved novels and memoirs.  White Oleander by Janet Fitch offers the young narrator's false belief that she can manage her crazy mother and have a safe childhood.  It creates such tension, even in the opening scene where the mother walks the edge of a rooftop while the daughter watches. 

The Glass Castle, a well-known memoir by Jeannette Walls, is about another young narrator who also lives in a crazy family and carries, for much of the story, the false agreement is that they live a normal life. 

In both cases, the reader can see this is nowhere near normal.  But we read on because we wonder if we're right, and if we are, how the narrator will reconcile this disconnect.

In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a large-scale false agreement exists between two countries at war.  When two young people become allies, despite the war, it busts the belief that war always trumps humanity.  They save each other at the end, disproving that false agreement, at least in a small way.

The trick to making this work is in two steps:

1.  Create a strong false agreement to start your story.
2.  Plan clues that make us readers uncertain about where it's going to go. 

Good writing doesn't predict the end.  It's anticipated but not expected, as one of my favorite teachers used to say.  Readers track the hints and clues you plant, letting us know the false agreement isn't going to hold up, but we want to be carried along with high tension, not really sure of where you will land up by the last page.

Your weekly writing exercise is to consider the two steps above.  Ask yourself, what is your story's (or your narrator's) false agreement.  Then, how does it slowly get dismantled by the end.  If you already have these two steps in place, track backwards from the last page and note how you plant the clues--be sure you aren't making the end too predictable, evolve too fast, or sidetrack into different false agreements. 

This takes focus and discipline, as a writer, but the end result is a satisfied reader.

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.
Weeks passed.  I emailed her to find out how the revision was going.  She'd gotten sick, the kids had gotten sick, politics were making her crazy, in-laws had visited, spring vacation arrived.  No time for writing, she said, knowing I'd understand.
I did.  Life comes up, gets in the way, changes our plans.  That's normal.  But I also heard something else in her voice:  overwhelm about the feedback she'd received.  It was extensive, it came from someone who really knew what he was doing, and although it excited her, it also got her inner critic up in arms.  She needed time to process the feedback and that's also normal, but she'd waited so long to take even a small step towards implementing it, she'd become strangers with her story.
That was a shame.  Because it's a good, even great, story, and she's an excellent writer who could easily take it to the finish line.
I see this all the time.  It's happened to me--often. 
My friend is a first-time author, though, so she doesn't realize the danger she's in right now.  We've discussed, she's avowed it wasn't the feedback at all (recall the illnesses, holidays, visitors).  She's good with that, she's happy with the suggestions. 
But, I thought, why isn't she writing?  That's the real proof of it:  if we write or if we don't. 
Feedback is useless unless you do something with it.  So how does a writer not give up when she gets feedback--even expert, excellent feedback? 
Feedback creates questions.  It's supposed to.  It's designed to put cracks in the structure you've so carefully built to house your story.  It's supposed to show where that structure has weaknesses or could be stronger.  It's supposed to raise questions about the characters' motivations or the use of setting details or time markers or plot logic.  One of my most troubling pieces of feedback, recently received from a beloved editor, was "I'm troubled by the logic here."  Another way of saying, "As a reader, I stopped believing the story just here." 
Super valuable to know about.  But what do you do with such a comment?  How do you keep writing?
Below is my step-by-step method for making good use of feedback.  It requires two lists, but they have saved me many times.  And I have finished and published books to prove it works.  Try it, if you wish, and see if it works for you!
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Feedback List and To-Do List for Revision
When you get feedback from readers, writers group, classmates, or editors, set aside an hour or two where you have quiet to think.  You're going to make two lists:  a feedback list and a to-do list.  Start with the feedback list.
1.  Make a list of ALL the feedback, even small changes suggested, even stuff you don't agree with.  (I usually put the questionable comments at the end of the list.)  Don't worry about making the list in any order--it doesn't matter.  Mix large and small changes.  This can take time.  Its purpose is to help your brain absorb each item individually, reducing the sheer overwhelm.  As you write the list, you may get ideas or solutions to the concerns of your reader/editor.  See below.
2.  I like to put the ideas/solutions on a separate piece of paper or document.  This becomes my to-do list.  It's much more proactive and inspiring than the feedback, which is all stuff that doesn't quite work.  The ideas/solutions are the stuff that could work, if I try it.
3.  If you don't get ideas when you're writing the first list, don't sweat it.  It can take time for the inner critic's reaction (oh no! might as well give up!) to settle down. 
4.  Once you have the list as complete as possible, choose the EASIEST item to work on first.  Make that change in your draft.  Cross it off your feedback list.
5.  Find the next easiest item; work on that.  Cross it off.  Keep going.  Save the huge global changes for last unless you get an equally huge brainstorm and want to dive in.
6.  Some changes, even small ones, have a ripple effect.  Rather than pausing to address another idea while you're changing the first one, write the new idea on your to-do list.  It'll keep.  It makes most writers crazy (at least, it does me) to multi-task too much at revision.  We tend to lose threads that way.  Stay with what you're working on, finish it, cross it off, then go to the next item.

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. 

The Loft's pitch conference is April 7-9 and Grub Street's pitch conference is May 5-7 this year.  Each offers private "pitch sessions" with agents and editors. 

Conferences can be expensive.  Success (meeting the agent of your dreams, who falls in love with your manuscript) is far from a guarantee.  It takes preparation and work to get the most from the experience. 

One of my clients, Libby Jacobs, likes to attend the annual pitch conference sponsored by Grub Street, a Boston writing school, called Muse and the Marketplace.  Last year, she met two agents at the conference's Manuscript Mart meetings who requested full manuscripts of her novel-in-progress.   She's been busy revising all winter and is almost ready to deliver. 

Libby says, "I find it an excellent way to establish meaningful contact with agents.  In addition to over 100 conference sessions on both the art and commercial aspects of writing, authors can choose which agent(s) they want to meet" through information on Grub's website about what each agent is looking for.
 
Libby used their interests to narrow her list of agents to ones seeking women's fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction, the focus of her novel.   She researched Publishers Lunch (PublishersMarketplace.com) and did Google searches to study each agent's blog and interviews, and specific titles they represented.

"When an agent available at the conference seemed especially promising," Libby told me, "I read at least parts of one of the novels that agent represented.  In my query letter, I referenced similarities with my own book, a focus on art, music, magic, etc."

Libby likes Grub's conference because not only does she get one-on-one time with an agent, but the agent also reads the first twenty pages of her manuscript, query letter, and synopsis.  She always got valuable suggestions. 

David Mura, a colleague at the Loft where we both teach, attends the Loft's pitch conference in April.  David has published nine books---two memoirs, a novel, four books of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and an essay on pornography.  "But at present," David says, "I have no agent."  His last two agents both quit being agents for various reasons, he told me, and he hoped to get an agent at the Loft Pitch Conference.  
David is probably best known for his two memoirs, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book.

"I looked for agents [on the pitch conference's list] who seemed to be a good fit first for my novel, which is a literary novel set in 1930s China, when the Japanese invaded,"  David told me. "My novel recounts the relationship between a half-Japanese/half Irish-American and the bastard sister of the warlord who rules over Manchuria."  He was also looking for an agent for his book of essays on race.

"It was difficult to find an agent whose interests covered both books," David says.  He wanted an agent of color, since racial themes were central to his work.
 
Before the pitch conference, he wrote out descriptions of both books and practiced presenting them.  As a teacher and performer, he says he's comfortable speaking on literature.  "But it's different when you're presenting your own work," he told me, "especially for someone like me whose family culture wasn't big on promoting oneself publicly.  Also as a Japanese American writer who explores racial themes, I have to present a context for the complexities of my vision yet do it in a five-minute pitch."
 
He called the experience of a pitch session similar to "the agonies of speed dating."  Since he's a published author with several books to his credit, the agents knew immediately that he was at least a legitimate writer.  "All the agents I met with agreed to have me send them my novel.  At the same time, it seemed fairly obvious how attuned the agent was to who I am as a writer and the type of work I do.  I don't think I met an agent who actually could intuit a sense of my work in such a short time."

David guesses that pitch conferences might be better suited to authors in popular genres.  After the conference, he only sent work to one agent.  "It didn't pan out," he says.  "Though the other agents asked me to send them work, I didn't feel they would be the right fit for me or I for them.   
 
His blog, where he writes about race, politics, culture and literature, is on his website: www.davidmura.com.
 
David added, "My experiences with publishing and agents have led me to the conclusion that the publishing world hasn't caught up with the diversity of writers I find in my classes and the programs and conferences I teach at. Certainly we need more agents, editors, publishers and publishing houses of color.  Recently, I was speaking at AWP to a nationally known writer of color, someone whose name everyone would recognize, but who, also, like me no longer had an agent.  I feel a huge discrepancy between the reaction when I speak in public on race or present my work in readings, and my experiences with the publishing world.  I've also had older editors or publishers who 'got' my work who were then replaced by younger colleagues who did not."

But he is very grateful to the Loft for having this conference and for the other events and programs they offer.  "We're lucky to have an institution like this in the Twin Cities," he says.  And
there are success stories from the conference--happy marriages between writers and agents who meet during pitches.  At a recent Loft Pitch Conference, Kathleen Peterson met and eventually signed with her agent Marly Rusoff.  To read about her experience, click here.

There's more to pitch conferences than snagging an agent, too.  Many writers attend to update themselves on the publishing industry and what editors are looking for in books today.  David was interested in hearing from agents about the business as well.  He says the first the day of the conference, an editor delivered a long session on writing novels.  Libby enjoys the wide range of workshops offered at Grub Street's Muse and Marketplace. 

She also advises writers to check out writing conferences, classes (on site and online), and writers' groups, to keep writing.  And to consider pitching to new agents, especially in a recognized agency.   New agents may have more time and energy to devote to you, she says.

PS  A big question I often get from my clients and students:  Should I bring my manuscript to the conference?  No.  You may be more than ready to hand the whole package to an agent who expresses even the slightest interest, but agents almost never take home manuscripts.  If they want to read a sample, they'll hand you contact information and how to send it.  When you feel ready, you can email them your pages from home.

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?

How long did it take to find your current agent and what caused the "click" with this person?
It took one year.  Over 300 rejections, and this was by agents, not editors.
What clicked was that each time an agent was kind enough to actually write a personal note with suggestions of how to make my manuscript better, I took each and every one to heart and moved my work forward.
By the time my present agent found me, my work was very polished. She also could not believe I was a he as I write in a largely female dominated genre (a relatively new genre called "Lady Lit").
 
Did your agent request rewrites before signing you?

Yes. Tons. And I loved it. If you can't take criticism, you are in the wrong profession.
What was your favorite way to research agents?  Which online sites did you use, if any?  Where else did you scout for possible matches?
I was determined to find an agent and made it a part-time job (I have had the same agent for many years). 
I went to the library and copied the Literary Agents Listing and started at 'A.' The Very BEST way to find an agent, and the only way in my book, is to find novels similar to yours and look in the acknowledgements and find out who their agent was/is and pitch them. Using the listing mentioned above, follow their submission requirements TO A 'T!' I cannot emphasis this enough.
Did you attend pitch conferences?  If you did, did it prove useful?
I did. To me, they are not for finding agents OR editors. They are good for networking to find other writers to be in contact with. This can be a very lonely endeavor and finding and connecting with others is so helpful. And, if you do go to an event where you have the opportunity to pitch your work, ALWAYS take it. Why not? It's great experience and only makes you a more polished writer. You just should always know that it's a one in a zillion an editor will take note of your novel. But there is always the chance.
 
What kinds of information did you keep track of (agent contact info, comp titles, etc.)?

All of it. You should be an expert in your particular genre. And be clear of just exactly what genre that is before you even think of writing a novel, memoir, nonfiction, letter to your mom.
ALL publishing houses use what is called comp titles when choosing their future new authors. Where do you fit on the shelf? What books came before yours?
 
Be the most polite and respectful human on the planet. Keep in mind with all our gizmos and gadgets, the world is very, very small. And the publishing industry is even smaller. Everyone knows everyone. Period. It's like one big, huge high school where everybody is vying for attention. If your work has a voice and a message that is individual and powerful and new enough; the sky is yours.
If this is not your time in the sun, push on and keep going. Writers Matter!
You can read more about Jay on his website.  When he's not writing, he's working hard on the eighty-acre certified-organic farm in northern Wisconsin he shares with his husband; they produce the nation's first pumpkin seed oil.  Jay is happy to answer questions about finding an agent.  Please email him at Jay@JayGilbertson.com.

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:

1.  Does one have to write about social issues to get published?  
2.  Do I really have to do that much work (submit to contests, go to conferences and meet people, research publications)?  Can't I just write something great?

Let's look at the social element first (question 2).  It's very true that writers who network--meet people in publishing, make an effort to be seen--have a better chance of getting their work out.  Perhaps faster, perhaps more easily.  I know a woman whose father was a famous writer; early on, she got to meet his agent socially and her dad put in a good word for her work, so she got mentored and published quite young.  Another writer I know landed a scholarship to Breadloaf, where he met his agent just because it is a great atmosphere to meet people in publishing.  Another writer interned at a publishing house in New York and met the right people to launch her career.  Some writers sign up for MFA programs largely because of the contacts they will make.

It feels slimy to me, the opposite of the pure path of making art.  I also am practical enough to recognize that who you know is a factor in all the arts.  Because art is also a business.

Question 1, above, is an even more tender subject.  One of my blog readers put it very succinctly:  "If I write about white people in little, day-in-the-life conflicts, is that passe?"

The arts have always been a society's voice in troubled times.  Art speaks out where nothing else can or will.  It's going to reflect the larger themes, the social justice issues, in an effort to help heal the society that is hurting.  Art echoes our consciousness as human beings. 

Publishers know this.  It's not that the social justice issues are "more in vogue," as one blog reader put it.  It's that our troubled times need the art that speaks out.  When a writer is able to craft fiction or nonfiction that speaks out in a moving and beautiful way, it has a greater mission than the personal.

But that leads to the real question behind these questions:  How much should I, as a writer, sculpt my writing or my career to meet these expectations?

For me, I start by writing my truth.  What's in my heart, not what I think will sell well.  My early drafts are all about me and the story.  We are in our cave, alone.  When I begin to bring the story out into the world, it ceases to be mine.  I get feedback, I make changes as I learn how the story affects a reader.  Good readers help me go deeper into the writing and I learn what the story really wants to say.  Often, a larger issue emerges.  It may still be about day-to-day conflicts, or it might grow into something bigger than that. 

Along the way, I am still careful:  it's still my truth.  It might teach me more about that truth--stuff I didn't know I knew when I began to write this piece.  You may disagree, but I personally feel that my writing must align with my values, my beliefs, who I am as a person, to really be my art. 

In her biographical film, Joni Mitchell, talked about writing a song for the radio.  She wanted to write a song that would be a radio hit.  She wrote "Electricity," a great song, and it was a hit.  She could do that--deliberately use her vast songwriting talents to craft a song that would be played a lot.  But it still was hers, her art.  She didn't, from what I could tell in the film interview, bastardize her values to get this hit written and aired.  You can still hear "Electricity" and know it's Joni, all the way.

Your weekly writing exercise is a freewrite.  Using the prompt, "my writing, my truth," explore the line you walk between writing and marketing.  What are you willing to do, what aren't you?  There's no absolute, no right or wrong, just individual choices.  It's good to know yours.       

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. 

This week, your writing exercise asks you to go beyond craft into the purpose of writing in your life. Read the quote below then freewrite for 10-20 minutes about where you see the line between what you control in your art and what you are just a vehicle for. Anyone who has spent an afternoon writing and is astonished the next day when rereading the piece will understand this idea of "being a vehicle" for something beyond you. 

Martha Graham writing to Agnes DeMille: 

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. 

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. 

 No artist is pleased . . . . .There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction: a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

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. 

Her first writing workshop with me was at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, about six years ago.  Since then, Amy has taken most of my online classes, which she says worked perfectly for a mom with small children.

Two trips to Africa, two added narrators, along with endless reading and interviewing for research, and she is now revising her manuscript in my retainer coaching program.

But the best news:  recently Amy submitted an excerpt from her novel-in-progress to the prestigious Iowa Review's annual fiction contest.  "The Soles of Her Feet" won first prize and was published in the winter issue.  Below is my interview with Amy, talking about how she achieved this.
This is a big achievement, Amy.  I know you work very hard at your writing.  What have you learned along the way?

In addition to learning the many elements of craft and how they all work together under a solid structure, I have learned the importance of doing your research and setting short term goals, often with the accountability of a writing group. I have learned to trust my voice as a writer and, even more importantly, the voices of my characters. But the biggest factor in making my story progress to this point has been to just show up. Those days I'm experiencing frustration, discouragement, or writer's block, I go back to those two words that started this whole journey: Just try.

Why did you decide to submit part of the novel for publication as a short story?

A big takeaway from an AWP conference I attended in Minneapolis was the advantage of publishing smaller excerpts of your work in literary journals. Intimidating to someone with nothing literary to list on her resume!

I had that goal hovering in the back of my mind for a year, but with three young children and a tight, frequently interrupted block of time for writing, it was a challenge to pull together a piece and submit it without compromising time spent on my book.

All changed last January when our dog, who warrants a novel of his own (think three bowel obstruction surgeries after swallowing soccer socks and a swimsuit), jumped our electric fence. I made it about three steps out our back door before slipping on the ice. Short story, I totaled my knee. I couldn't drive for eight weeks, so I turned that time of stillness into a makeshift writing retreat, working primarily on my book but also taking time to submit to The Iowa Review awards.

How did you choose this particular section?

This section of the novel really marks the beginning of my Zambian character Lila's story, even though it doesn't appear until much later in the book. For this reason, I didn't have as much backstory to add or weed out in order to make the characters and plot work. I felt it stood alone as its own story and had a clear story arc.

I also have a soft spot for the Promise Woman's story, another character in my book, and how someone so trapped and damaged can lead someone else to freedom yet is unable to manage it for herself.

There is also the word count to consider when submitting to a journal or contest. In this case, a 25 page limit. "The Soles of Her Feet" is comprised of three chapters of the book, which kind of made its own three-act story.

Did you have to rework it to become a story in itself?  

I actually didn't need to do a whole lot of reworking to make this into a short story. Mostly trimming to get the length down, which taught me a lot about revising on a bigger scale: if it's not adding to a short story, it's likely not going to add to a novel.
I had a few of my writing partners at the time, along with you, read the chapters before they were turned into a short story. So I think much of my structural editing was done at that stage.

Tell us about the submission process-how many places did you query and how long did it take before you got a yes from Iowa Review?

I got very lucky. This was the first short story I submitted to a journal, which happened to be a contest. I simultaneously submitted the same story to another journal's contest shortly thereafter, which I notified as soon as I received word that I won The Iowa Review's fiction award. I submitted at the end of January and was over the moon when they emailed to say I was one of fourteen finalists in April. I received word a few weeks later that I won first prize.

Why did you choose Iowa Review?  What did you research about them before submitting?

They are known as one of the top literary journals, and I knew I was shooting really high by submitting to them.  I have continued to be so impressed by the quality of writers they publish, and I am thrilled to now be published among them.

In addition to their high literary reputation and the amazing editorial staff who held my hand throughout this process, I love their commitment to publishing The University of Iowa Human Rights Index on their blog three times per year, which brings light to various injustices found around the globe. In their words, "to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write." The HRI currently features armed children in conflict. Social justice is something I am passionate about in my writing, along with the power of literature to make these issues personal and relevant, so to be published in a journal which maintains the same ideals as I has made for very rewarding fit.

And then there's the great Kelly Link, the 2016 Pulitzer finalist in fiction for her short story collection Get in Trouble, who judged the award contest. To have had someone as brilliantly gifted, insanely imaginative and accomplished as Kelly merely read my story was a big enough honor, let alone to receive her kind feedback. I am grateful beyond measure.

Anything else you want to share with book writers who might want to submit excerpts?

I would first encourage them to become familiar with the journal to which they are submitting. Read an issue and see if that's a place they could see their work fitting in. Then I would encourage them to take that next step and just try.

Also, it's important to turn in your best work, taking the time to revise and edit well. 

To check out Amy's story, visit one of the bookstores that carries The Iowa Review or order an issue (Winter 2016) or subscribe.  

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. 
Enjoy!