A rejection story

An old country song lyric came to mind the other day when I read the email from the editor-in-chief of a planned tribute anthology to which I had submitted a short story.

The message read, in part, “After reviewing all of the submissions, I regret to inform you that we have decided to cancel the anthology due to a lack of quality. I could publish a book with three or four great stories and fill the rest with mediocre stories, but I feel it is best to just cancel the project. . . .Thank you for submitting. Yours was definitely one I would have accepted.”

Here’s where that leaves me, I think. I finally have written a work of fiction that is acceptable for publication. But the publication is still-born.

As the song says, I don’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling.

In fact, I’m becoming something of a black widow for the publications to which I’m sending material. The previous week, the editors of a different publication emailed me about a different story I had sent it. There was no indication of acceptance, but the message said, in part, that “we are marking all current submissions as ‘withdrawn’ ” because the journal “will be on hiatus till next year due to unforeseen circumstances. . . .”

Of course, every writer has his or her rejection stories. Here’s one:

“I wrote stories from March to June. There were nineteen altogether; the quickest in an hour and a half, the slowest in three days. No one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room.”

The rejectee is F. Scott Fitzgerald, writing in an essay titled “Who’s Who—and Why” that ran in the September 18, 1920 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. He is referring to the first time he lived in New York—in a rented room at 200 Claremont Avenue near Columbia University, in 1919. When he failed to make a dent in the Big Apple’s literary landscape, he retreated to the top floor of his parents’ house, at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote his hugely successful first novel, This Side of Paradise.GatsbyBook-1

I know all this, and was led to the full citation of Fitzgerald’s quote above, because I just finished reading Maureen Corrigan’s terrific new book, So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. Corrigan, a literature professor at Georgetown University and the familiar-voiced book reviewer on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross,” quotes only the final 14 words of the last sentence. But she sets it up beautifully:

“Generations of fledgling writers have taken heart from Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted recollection. . . .”

So should we all. The best way to get over having our writing rejected is to submit again, and again, and again.

We should not feel sorry for ourselves. Direct your sorrow toward those unfortunate publishers and editors who have had to pull the plug on their publications.
—Alex McNab

Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:55 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

The Sweet Small Space

quote-if-there-s-a-book-you-really-want-to-read-but-it-hasn-t-been-written-yet-then-you-must-write-it-toni-morrison-131249Hello writers, this is Adair Heitmann penning my post to you today. As you’ve seen from my previous blogs many of my posts are about the actual act of writing. As a working mother, writing has to fit into segmented blocks of time. I’m always open for inspiration on how others do it. Recently I found encouragement in a 21-year-old online issue of The Paris Review, Fall 1993, Interviews Toni Morrison, The Art of Fiction No. 134. Don’t ask me how this crossed my desk at work, but it really did.

For those who don’t know her work, Toni Morrison is an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved. She also was awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature, a Pulitzer Prize, and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Ms. Morrison was interviewed by Elissa Schappell, with additional material from Claudia Brodsky Lacour. The following is the excerpt I want to share with you. The entire interview can be enjoyed later at your leisure.

Morrison was asked about her writing routine:

“I have an ideal writing routine that I’ve never experienced, which is to have, say, nine uninterrupted days when I wouldn’t have to leave the house or take phone calls. And to have the space—a space where I have huge tables. I end up with this much space [she indicates a small square spot on her desk] everywhere I am, and I can’t beat my way out of it. I am reminded of that tiny desk that Emily Dickinson wrote on and I chuckle when I think, Sweet thing, there she was. But that is all any of us have: just this small space and no matter what the filing system or how often you clear it out—life, documents, letters, requests, invitations, invoices just keep going back in. I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that—mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.”

What I love about this quote is that she described an ideal writing experience that she doesn’t have, it made her real to me. I didn’t feel so alone with my piles of life surrounding my keyboard.

To savor the entire interview click on the following link The Paris Review, Fall 1993.

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on October 8, 2014 at 2:20 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

5 questions for bestselling novelist Edan Lepucki

CalifEdan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, was published in July. Set in the near-future, it is a dystopian yet entirely human story of a couple displaced from post-apocalyptic Los Angeles into the wilderness.

Lepucki’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, is a division of Hachette, the publishing conglomerate that amazon.com has been waging an ugly battle against over the pricing of Hachette’s ebooks. Thanks to late-night cable TV host Steven Colbert, also a Hachette author, Lepucki and California became unwitting players in a unique subplot of that battle. As part of her book launch, Lepucki traveled to Powell’s, the great independent bookstore in Portland, Ore. (photo, below), where she signed 10,000 copies of California (check out the video here). A few weeks later, she visited R. J. Julia—Madison, Connecticut’s own EdanPowellsgreat independent bookstore—for a Friday evening author reading that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog attended. Two days after that, California debuted at No. 3 on The New York Times Book Review’s hardcover fiction bestseller list.

In addition to writing novels, Lepucki is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles and a regular at the writing/publishing website themillions.com, where she dispenses advice in her “Ask the Writing Teacher” column and contributes longer features, such as enlightening interviews with her agent and her editors. At the end of Lepucki’s talk in Madison, the FWB handed her a letter posing five questions aimed at helping you and us with our works-in-progress. We told her we’d keep our fingers crossed that, eventually, after her book tour and whirlwind summer ended and her life resumed some semblance of normality, she might have time to email us some answers. It is with great gratitude to Lepucki that we can report that she has, indeed, replied.

Here, then, an FWB exclusive: five questions for—and answers from—bestselling debut novelist Edan Lepucki:

Details: “It’s small details, sensual experience, and brief memories that make a story,” you told The Rumpus. Could you expand on that? What do novice writers tend to employ ineffectively instead of those details?

If you’re writing about a person’s real, tangible, everyday experience of living you will have to include, firstly, how it feels physically to exist: how the body feels at different moments (How does the air feel on her skin? What does the room smell like?); secondly, the physical, concrete objects surrounding the character: objects in a bedroom, the way the light hits the concrete outside, etc. And thirdly, you’ll have to enter the character’s consciousness and follow his or her mind as it leaps into the past and present and future and back again. My advice is to just be with the character in all that he or she feels and sees and does and thinks. Too often, new writers forget that and move either too quickly to the abstract, or to all action.

Timelines: Your editor Allie Sommer had you create a timeline when revising California. Do you recommend other writers lay out timelines for their stories, and what’s an effective way to do it?

I don’t recommend writers do anything that doesn’t appeal to them. For me, reading my work aloud, or making handwritten notes, or retyping whole chapters helps me understand what I’ve written, but those techniques might leave another writer cold. The timeline did help me in keeping my world-building facts in order and straight in my head, but a timeline doesn’t seem necessary for all manuscripts. If your book has a lot of past events to juggle, it might be something to keep in mind. I have no special ways to suggest since I’ve only completed one timeline and it was pretty rudimentary!

Twists: You told Catie Disabato of the New York Daily News that there is a pretty big plot twist about a third of the way through California. Good novels often turn things on their head. Should plot twists be consciously planned, or should they arise organically when you are writing a novel? There is no formula for how to do it, is there?

I don’t think you should or shouldn’t do anything when it comes to writing. Whether your plot twist is organic or planned….I don’t think it matters as long as you can surprise your reader and it can feel emotionally true. My own plot twist was a surprise to me…but it surprised me before I ever started writing the book, so in a way it was both organic and engineered. I don’t think there is formula for how to write a plot twist…if only! I’d suggest simply staying with the characters and experiencing the world as they’d experience it. If they’re surprised, you will be, too, and so will the reader.

Revision: You’ve spoken about learning a lot about revision from both your editors and your teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Can you enumerate, say, three brief but critical lessons about revision they taught you?

Here are three things I’ve learned about revision from past teachers and my editors: 1. Sometimes your manuscript isn’t working because you, the writer, don’t know what its deeper subjects and concerns are. Articulating, for yourself, what it is you want to tackle, thematically, can help you focus the story, the ending, and so on. 2. If two scenes accomplish the same objective (showing what a person is like, for instance, or shedding light on the past), then you don’t need both. 3. Remember the reader and be compassionate toward them and their time and experience.

Workshops: Do you have any pointers for workshop writers who feel flooded by all of the comments and suggestions they receive from their colleagues when they go back and try to synthesize the feedback into improved versions of their stories?

With workshop, a writer can learn to separate advice into three categories: the advice that makes immediate sense and will be heeded; the advice that immediately makes little sense for the project and will be ignored; and the advice that the writer needs time to consider before deciding to heed or ignore. A story or novel can’t be written by a committee and the writer can’t please everyone. In a workshop, the writer’s only job is to listen carefully and with an open mind to everyone and try to recognize who are the best readers for the manuscript—not everyone is a good match.
—Alex McNab

Published in: on September 20, 2014 at 2:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Creative Writing: The Power of Limits

Once-we-accept-our-limitsHello to all you writers out there. This is Adair Heitmann writing to you about constraint.

I’ve just finished reading Biz Stone’s, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of the Creative Mind. Stone is the co-founder of Twitter. As a writer, you probably either love or hate the social media giant, but we’ll leave that conversation for another time.

Stone’s book encouraged me to examine how my own mind works and I’ve come away inspired. In his chapter, “A Short Lesson in Constraint,” Stone tells a few real-life stories to illustrate his point.  One is a story about his mother’s answer to his continuous query when he was a child, “What should I draw?” When she finally said, “Draw a dump truck,” limiting the options gave him a place to start.

Writers can take away a writing tip from this kind of thinking.  Instead of your character asking, “How was your day?”  Which is almost always answered with, “Fine.” Put restraints on the question, such as “How was your lunch with Steve?” This will yield a far more interesting answer.

One story tells about a Silicon Valley billionaire who invented the perfect microchip for mobile devices by accident. He gave his team no money, no time, and no resources. They came up with the technology that powers the chips that are in practically all cell phones.

Each story talks about the power of limitations. How many of you are writers who have full-time jobs outside the sphere of your personal writing? Welcome to my world. While my life is filled with what others may view as constrictions, I’ve learned to accept them. It’s exhilarating to be drafting this blog, sandwiched between work and picking up my son at cross country practice. The limits force me to think clearly about what I want to say, focus on that and that alone, then type fast. I’ll publish this blog later tonight after washing the dinner dishes.

Biz Stone says, “Embrace your constraints, whether they are creative, physical, economic, or self-imposed. They are provocative. They are challenging. They wake you up. They make you more creative. They make you better.”

Until next time, keep on writing.

Maddie Dawson goes to writing class

MDThe Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to welcome back novelist Maddie Dawson—author most recently of The Opposite of Maybe, published by Broadway Books in April 2014—as a guest poster. She tells us what lessons a veteran author can learned in a highly regarded writing course:

Here are my usual steps when I’m writing a novel.

1. An idea shows up, usually when I’m driving 65 mph on the highway, or in the shower dripping wet, or falling asleep after a long, hard day.
2. I pull over, dry off, or get out of bed (whichever action is required) and seek a pen and paper and start to write the idea down.
3. Over the next few weeks, with the help of a main character, I write 50 pages, with no idea where I’m headed with this story.
4. Then I rewrite them. Again and again. Months pass.
5. I have a house full of little scrawled notes to myself, sometimes written in the middle of the night. Some say things like: “his mother’s banana bread, the full moon, frog statuary.” Believe me, I don’t know what any of this means.
6. I write 150 more pages. This takes months. (Every few days I rewrite page 1 again.)
7. I take long walks with friends and try to think of what comes next in the plot. I write out a haphazard outline. I change it 24 times.
8. One day, months (sometimes years later) and usually at 4:10 a.m., I finish the book.

OppSee? Eight easy breezy steps to novel-writing. “Pantsers” (that is, people who write by the seat of their pants) can relate. I actually wrote (and published) five novels this way. After each one, I vowed that I wasn’t cut out for this business, that I should check out schools that teach welding. Or car repair.

Meanwhile, my agent was telling me I should learn to write faster and faster. Publishers were interested in authors who could come up with a book a year–at least, she said. Chop! Chop! Some of my writer friends were actually writing two a year, and I knew for a fact these were people with children and cars and houses and dental appointments and a normal need for sleep.

Clearly, I wasn’t cut out for that kind of schedule for myself. But wouldn’t it possible, I wondered, to maybe find a shortcut through some of my steps—like step #4, “rewrite them, again and again”? Or maybe I could even take a closer look at step #3—specifically that phrase “with no idea where I’m headed with this story.”

And then I heard about John Truby and his amazing book, The Anatomy of Story. Truby, who is an internationally renowned screenwriting guru and who has enough Hollywood and New York credentials to take up theAnatofStory entire rest of this blog post, believes that writers can save themselves a whole lot of headaches by following some simple steps before ever putting pen to paper, or pixel to computer screen.

I read the book and then I went to New York and took his weekend course last May—three glorious days of listening and learning about structure and why it’s not such a bad thing to know what you’re doing before you set out…and how, once you do even the simple step of coming up with a premise before you begin, you can save yourself months of rewriting while your characters run amok through your story, taking over with insignificant plot points, ordering you around like you’re their servant, and generally making projects take waaaay longer than they ever should.

A premise, says Truby, is simply a one-sentence statement that tells what the story is about and includes what action is going to take place to get from the beginning to the end. It gives a sense of the beginning, the main character, and then the outcome. That’s it.

You want an example? Of course you do. Here’s one from Truby himself, for The Godfather: “The youngest son of a Mafia family takes revenge on the men who shot his father and becomes the new Godfather.”

Simple, yes? But, he says, 90 percent of stories fail because the writer hasn’t thought this out in advance. (I am raising my hand here.)

Your premise is your inspiration; it’s the reason you wanted to write the book in the first place. Often it includes the “twist” that makes your story unique. And once you have that premise, Truby says, you can sit down and explore all the scenes that are going to go into your story—making sure, of course, to leave out the ones that don’t contribute one bit to your original premise.

He suggests taking weeks and even months to come up with precisely the right premise, because your ability to write this book depends upon it. Once you’ve nailed the premise, then you’re going to be able to move forward, figuring out who your characters are, what they desire and what they need, what the central conflict is, what the story challenges and problems are, how the character is going to change, and what difficult choices your main character is going to have to make.

He suggests that after you have all that figured out, you write a list of scenes that are going to take place to lead to the resolution of your premise.

And all this is before you begin writing in earnest. In other words, by the time you are starting to write your book, you have thought through all the little hang-ups in the plot, all the places that would otherwise be knocking you to the ground with despair, keeping you up in the middle of the night trying to wriggle your way out of plot details you’ve created but can’t figure out how to solve.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re imagining that all the joy and surprise of writing will be drained away if you know these things in advance, that the whole reason you love writing is for those hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck moments when your character shocks you with some revelation you didn’t see coming.

But I’m here to tell you, as a former “pantser,” this is not true. There are still surprises as you write your scenes. There are still moments that undo you, as they will undo your readers. There are twists and turns and changes that take place that will take your breath away. But they are all contained in your premise. They are all part of your vision for this book.

A plot is a character experiencing a desire which changes and morphs as the book goes on. You will constantly be readjusting the desire that your character feels as he or she moves through the story. The desire changes as you go, you know. You will find yourself still changing around scenes and thinking about what works better, but you will know where you are going, and that is a wonderful, liberating feeling.

But there was one more thing I learned from the Truby workshop, something that I hadn’t really ever thought about before, and that I think is perhaps the most important element of his workshop.

He tells writers to “write the book that will change your life.”

This is no small thing. But the book you write tells the world something of who you are, how you think the world operates, how you think human beings should behave. It is nothing short of your vision and your prescription for living.

Think about it.

And when you write that book, Truby says—and when you get to the end of it, it chances are it will speak to other readers as well.

And if, for some reason, it doesn’t sell? Well, then at least you’ve changed your life—and that’s no small thing.

Now that Maddie Dawson, author of  The Opposite of Maybe (2014) and The Stuff That Never Happened (2010), is no longer a pantser, she is hoping her new novel-in-progress, Until You Called Me, will be on a much faster schedule.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

Lessons via ebook from Lawrence Block

One evening six years ago the master crime novelist Lawrence Block LBlock(right) made an author appearance at the Westport (Conn.) Library next door to Fairfield. At that point, among the more than  100 books Block had published were four about writing. During the question-and-answer session, I asked him if he planned to write any more of those.

“God, I hope not,” he said, or words to that effect.

Two of Block’s then-existing books—Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (my favorite) and Spider, Spin Me a Web—were collections of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest. Block contributed a monthly column on fiction writing to the magazine for more than 14 years, beginning in 1976. Not long after Block came to Westport, a fan and collector named Terry Zobeck turned over copies of 77 WD articles to him that had not been published in book form, and in 2011, Open Road Integrated Media, a leading digital publisher, issued two new Block books on writing: The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion. So, while technically he hasn’t written any more writing books, he has published two more. (The other two that fill out his shelf of six are Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print and Write for Your Life: The Home Seminar for Writers.)

The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion were among the first titles I downloaded when I got a Kindle two-and-a-half years ago. I got around to doing my Bible study perhaps a year later. Now I’ve finished The Liar’s Companion.LiarsComp

While I read a lot of crime writers, Block has never been a favorite. At most, I’ve read 10 of his novels and story collections. Yet I delight in reading his writing about writing. In addition to the practical advice he imparts about storytelling and other craft elements, he offers snippets of autobiography, travelogue, anecdotage about other authors and more, all told with a sense of humor and a sense of fun that I find very appealing. Almost all of these facets come together in the fifth chapter, in which Block tells the story of the conception and writing of his 1988 novel Random Walk, including a 30-day residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (perhaps the most idyllic-sounding artist retreat I’ve read about, both in Block’s book and in the Fairfield University MFA program’s guide, Now What?). You come away from reading The Liar’s Companion and the other column collections with a fly-on-the-shoulder portrait of a working writer, one who makes a compelling case that the writer’s life is an ideal one indeed.

By the way, just this past week, NPR’s “Morning Edition” aired a feature on Block, who is 76. He may never publish another writing book, but his existing ones are worth revisiting, and I urge you to do so. For a taste of what you’ll find, here are some excerpted words of wisdom from The Liar’s Companion.

On writer’s block: “Does an out-of-work steelworker call it Steelworker’s Block? The hell he does. He calls it unemployment.”

On story ideas: “For all the books and columns I’ve written and for all the seminars I’ve conducted, I certainly spend an unseemly amount of time trying to think of something to write, and start a disheartening number of books that I never trouble to finish.”

On fiction’s essence: “One morning, struggling to get a scene right on the page, I thought to myself something along these lines: ‘Dammit, I know what happened. Why can’t I just tell it?’ And I looked up, struck by a thought.

“Because what I wanted to get on paper was not something that had happened. It was something I was attempting to fabricate out of whole cloth. . . .The whole book, along with the scene I was agonizing over, were solely the products of my admittedly overactive imagination. . . .

“I took up a pen and wrote down the following: ‘The superior fiction writer is the superior liar. When I write a novel, I am trying to report honestly and accurately about an event that did not happen in the lives of people who do not exist.’ ”

On beginnings: “First, of course, you have to attract [the reader’s] attention and draw him in. . . .

“At the same time, you want to let him know what kind of story he’s reading. . . .

“A further chore of the beginning is to make [your reader] care about the story, to convince [him] that [he] ought to give a damn how it turns out.”

On middles: “In [a] novel. . .most of the book is middle. . . .The most self-assured of writers is apt to suffer a crisis of confidence during a book’s lengthy midsection. His nightmare tends to be two-fold. First, there’s the mounting concern that the book will never be done, that the middle will extend forever, that each new page he writes will bring him farther from the beginning but not a whit closer to the end. . . .

“Also the writer is typically concerned that what he’s shouting is going to fall on deaf ears, or on no ears at all. The reader, cunningly hooked by the book’s beginning, will dislodge that hook and swim off into the sunset. . . .

“The first thing to remember is that [the reader] wants to keep on reading. . . .Once hooked by your opening, he has an investment of time along with his investment of money in your book. Every additional page he reads increases his investment and commits him more deeply to finish what he has started. . . .The reader would prefer to stay with you, to see the book through to the end. . . .

“All you have to do is keep him. . . .And how do you do that?

“• Have interesting things happen. . . .

“• Keep the story moving. . . .In the broadest sense, fiction is about the solution (successful or not) of a problem. If the reader loses sight of that problem during the book’s vast middle, he ceases to care. . . .Even if he does keep reading, you may lose your hold on his emotions. . . .

“• Pile on the miseries. . . .making the problem a headache [and] by making the problem’s solution more difficult.

“• Enjoy the trip. . . .If writing a book is driving across America, the book’s middle is an endless highway across Kansas, and there are days when every sentence is as flat as the unvarying landscape.

“There are, to be sure, a lot of interesting things in Kansas. But you won’t enjoy them much if you spend every moment telling yourself you can’t wait to get to California. . . .Forget all that. Stay in the now. . . .”

On endings: “The end of the story is the payoff. It’s the promised destination that drew [the reader in]. . .in the first place. . . .If the ending doesn’t deliver, the reader feels cheated by the entire experience. . . .

“What makes an ending work?

“Maybe the best way to answer that is to listen to a Beethoven symphony. By the time the last note of the coda has sounded at the end of the fourth movement, you damn well know it’s over. When that last ringing chord hits you, every musical question has been answered, every emotional issue has been resolved. . . .”

On enjoyment: “Why not sit up and enjoy [writing]?

“In other arts, such an argument would probably not be necessary. Painters love to paint. Musicians love to make music. Why should scribbling or tapping a keyboard be more agonizing and less pleasurable than rinsing out a brush or blowing through a reed?

“I think the answer, or a good part of it, lies in our propensity to get fixated upon the ultimate result of our work and to regard the actual process of writing as a means to an end, an arduous and time-consuming business that must be endured if we are to wind up with a finished book in our hands. With our eyes so firmly fixed upon the far horizon, how can we possibly take delight in the journey itself?”

On tenses: “The present tense distances both the reader and the writer from the events. It takes away both engagement and certainty.

“The past tense in fiction states unequivocally that a given thing happened, that it happened in a certain way. The present tense calls upon us to believe that the thing is happening now, as we read about it, that it is unfolding in some alternate universe. . . .[T]he past tense. . .carries more conviction.”

On bad news: “What takes the sting out of rejection?

“Experience, first of all. The experience of rejection, and the experience of living through it. Only by sending things out, time and time again, and by getting them back, time and time again, can we truly learn what rejection does and doesn’t mean. It means that a particular publisher [or agent or editor] has declined to buy a particular story on a particular occasion. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the story’s bad. . . .With time you begin to understand that all any rejection means is what it says on the rejection slip—the manuscript does not fit the publisher’s current needs.

“Another big help is acceptance. . . .Why? Because the acceptance is proof of a tangible sort that your work has merit, and the worst thing about rejection is its capacity to make you believe that your work is worthless and so are you. If one editor supplies validation with an acceptance, it’s a lot easier to shrug off the next batch of rejections. . . .”

So there’s a good takeaway. Keep submitting your stories.
—Alex McNab

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm  Comments (4)  

The Hot Tub Book Club

bookclub009-thumb-465x348-17081Happy summer to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann penning (or more aptly typing) today’s blog. On May 9th I wrote to you about taking three easy steps into the powerful realm of book clubs. Before that, on April 2nd, I spoke about the attraction of many people reading the same book, then discussing it. You’ll be surprised how this can improve your writing.

Isn’t that what every writer dreams of? People buying their books, checking them out of libraries, reading them on eReaders, listening to them while commuting, and then sharing strong opinions about the books in the world? This is heady stuff.

When our son was five we joined a “Family Book Club Reading the Classics” at a local library. The power of the connections made and the friendships forged in that club have lasted over a decade. In fact the book club seceded from the union of that library when it’s former director asked us to be less excited about it in public. What? Tone down our enthusiasm for reading and healthy debate? Quiet the healthy pounding in our hearts when a fellow book clubber prompted an impassioned response? Cool our fervor over heated literary discussions? No! Not this book club, we disaffiliated ourselves and became a sovereign state! We now meet on our own, in our own homes, we rotate locations and leaders.

This brings me to “The Hot Tub Book Club.” Sorry to disappoint you but swimsuits are required and it is rated PG. It’s a book club that grew organically out of two families going to watch a Young Adult movie adaptation of a YA book, then casually chatting about it over a pizza dinner followed by a soak in a hot tub. Ahhhhhh, the fellowship of book clubs.

Friendship, wholesome debate, and connections are part of the power of book clubs. For writers, we want to build our author platforms. What better way to get out and about in the community than by joining a book club? You’ll become better known in literary circles, you’ll hear what really makes a good book tick, and who knows you may meet your next agent while discussing a good book.

If you want to start your own book club, set out your intentions:
1. Will it have a leader or rotate amongst the group?
2. Will it be online (Goodreads is a place to start) or in person?
3. Will a genre rule? Fiction, new fiction, memoir, romance, recipes, self-help, gender, non-fiction, Young Adult, classics, mystery, female authors . . . the list is endless.
4. Set clear ground rules and boundaries – no personal criticisms of opinions, polite behavior instills trust, start on time and end on time.

Until next time, keep on writing!

Published in: on July 11, 2014 at 4:04 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Lessons from a novelist-in-progress

Shortly after you retire from your government job in Washington, D.C.—writing congressional testimony about economics and finance for a federal agency—you make your initial foray into fiction. You enter the first 50 pages of your debut novel, The Last Monument, in the 2011 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest, subtitled “Great Beginnings,” in the mainstream/literary category. You win! (And collect $200.)

You query agents. After sending out requested pages you establish a dialogue with one of them (though you do not become an official client). From that rep and others, you hear the same thing; they cannot sell a novel that has an unlikeable protagonist. When the book indeed doesn’t sell, you realize that the naysayers are most likely talking specifically about unlikeable female protagonists in commercial fiction. It is, you conclude, an easy thing to say.

Now what? If you are Valentine “Missy” Craig (below)IMG_0256 from Bethesda, Md., you go right back to work on novel number two. And to make sure it works, after you finish a first draft you hire a freelance editor in Westport, Conn., who spent his career at many prominent publishing houses. After he’s read a couple of revisions of your Book Two, you travel to Westport to meet him in person. And you stay overnight with a longtime friend and her nosy husband, who happens to be a regular contributor to the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.

The blogger won’t let you leave for your writer-editor lunch until he’s picked your brain for the lessons you’ve learned that other aspiring novelists might apply to their own creative writing.

Book One, by the way, tells the story of a woman who is contacted by a daughter who she gave up for adoption many years ago and how things develop. Book Two is about a woman who is dealing with the loss of her husband and child in a house fire, and incorporates the historical topic of burking, or murdering someone for medical use of their body parts.

So here they are, 10 lessons from award-winning, though yet unpublished, novelist Missy Craig:

Lesson 1. It’s all practice. “Book Two is much better written,” Missy says. “Even the second part of my first book is better written than the first half. You don’t believe it, but it is practice. Writing dialogue. Doing things subtly. It’s all practice.”

Lesson 2. Summarize your contents. “The organization [of a novel] can be tremendous, and nobody tells you that. Keeping track of all the plot lines and personalities, keeping the tone consistent. I’m now a better person at keeping track of stuff. I don’t really outline. But I have a table of contents. Each chapter is [summarized] in one or two sentences. It helps me decide where something has to be done, or expanded, or where it shouldn’t be, maybe where something is really out of order. So it’s a great organizational tool for me.”

Lesson 3. Join a group. Being part of a writers’ group “makes you sit down and write.” And try to write well, Missy adds. “You don’t want to write something really crappy and have everyone think that’s the best you can do.”

Lesson 4. Take a class. “So many people say they’d like to write a novel and they just never do anything. I’d tell them to take a course.” Missy applied for and was accepted into a dialogue class at the Washington Writers’ Center. “It was absolutely wonderful. How many times in new writers’ work do you read, ‘Pass the salt.’ ‘Here’s the salt.’ They feel like they have to describe everything that happens. First off, my teacher said, ‘I never want to hear any character say, “Pass the salt.” ’ He said, ‘Cut that out. Dialogue should be either for character development or to move the story along.’ ”

Lesson 5. Make your characters human. “What I like about novels is the character identification and caring about the character,” Missy says. “It’s very important to me for people to understand why people are the way they are, that they’re not as they appear. If I can do that, and do it subtly, that’s what I’m looking for.” In Book One, Missy held back on taking the reader inside her protagonist’s head: “I wanted the woman to be someone hard to figure out, so I didn’t want to show much interior.” There’s more inner processing with the main character in Book Two, and “it does make for greater depth,” she says. On the other hand, her independent editor “thinks the man I have in Book Two is too good to be true. Which is very interesting, because every woman who’s read it has said, ‘Oh, where are they?’ ” The editor has suggested that her male lead needs some faults, that the protagonist and the male lead are too harmonious and that the characters do too much thinking and talking and too little engaging in action scenes.

Lesson 6. Finish like you mean it. “My father wrote plays when he was young, and he never finished anything,” Missy recalls. “And he wrote novels, and he never finished them. Working for the government, people think that you don’t complete things. Believe it or not, you have to do it—on time. If I were writing a 40-page thing for the head of the agency to present before the banking subcommittee, all hell would break loose if it was not on the Hill in 40 copies Saturday at midnight. So that was very good discipline for finishing” a work of fiction. “I have to finish things. . . .It’s like a compulsion.”

But that compulsion can manifest itself as a weakness, she learned. Her independent editor said that in the final third of Book Two, “I was shortcutting a lot of stuff. He said the writing was variable. . . .It was like an outline.” And the story itself was “too pat. He said, ‘You just crossed everything off. Closed that, closed that, closed that. Everything’s been closed down. Finished. That’s not how things are.’ After awhile, you start realizing, yeah, this could be longer. Needs more explanation. More context. . . .I may need to explain some things a little more.”

Part of the unsatisfactory finish was because Missy had to deal with a health issue. But there was also her method of re-reading her drafts: “I start doing editing as I go. I have to limit myself to marking problem passages with stickies or check marks and just go back to them later. Instead of taking care of them then. But I just keep on taking care of business again and again. I can’t stop myself. That’s why my ending is not that great, because I don’t get there as often.”

Lesson 7. Be alert to boredom. This tip concerns to that familiar cliché about balancing scene and exposition. In Missy’s words, “Typically I know I’m doing too much telling, and not enough showing, if it gets boring. Telling can be boring. Often you don’t become aware of it until reading [your copy] two or three or four times later.”

Lesson 8. Read your chapters by theme. Book Two has three major themes, and, “I’ve got them separated like that” for reviewing, Missy says. “I pull out those chapters and print them—because I think it’s important to read the manuscript on paper. I review and revise the one that’s worst, the least developed, first. If it’s the mystery theme, let’s say, 10 chapters, I have them all in a row, even though they’re not in the book all in a row, so I can follow the theme through and see if it’s developing properly, see where I perhaps repeat myself. Of course, then when you put the entire book back together, sometimes you have to change other stuff.”

Lesson 9. Hire an editor. When Missy sent Book Two to the agent she had been in contact with, “She liked it, she said. But she said, ‘I don’t think I can sell it.’ It was complete, but pretty much a first draft. No doubt, I sent it too early. So she gave me the names of three editors,” and Missy hired the man from Westport. “He’s read two drafts so far. I think he really gets it. And he’s nice, too.”

In addition to telling her she needed to improve the last third of the story, the editor has helped her with characterization, such as flagging a character’s behavior with a note asking, “Where did that come from? That’s just too out of the blue. You have to expand it.” He’s also advised her to kill her darlings: “I wrote a good scene with a coyote that comes out and surprises the protagonist and her dog. The editor said, ‘That’s very nice, but what is it all about?’ It was a very nice five pages of prose, and it set mood, I thought. He wants me to throw it out.”

In case you were wondering, the editor also read Book One. In answer to agents’ objections that they could not sell a book with an unlikeable protagonist, he told Missy, “I don’t think that’s so. I’ve bought books that had unpleasant people in them.” One of the issues he had with Book One was its point of view, specifically that it sometimes had a secondary POV although it was written in third-person limited. “He told me he liked the first one,” Missy says, “but to go do something else. Which means, he gave me an answer” about its ultimate viability as a publishable work.

Lesson 10. Approach agents at conferences. “I have gone to several writers conferences,” Missy says. “I go only when I’ve completed a novel, and the only reason I go is because agents are there and they are actually looking [for writers with good books]. If you go talk to them, I find that about 80 percent of them will say, ‘Give me 50 pages.’ I think it’s very efficient. Whereas if you send a cold query, 95 percent you never even hear back from. I have sent cold queries out that moved forward, though.”

So, what was the outcome of Missy’s lunch with her editor? He asked to see one more draft of Book Two, with the idea that after that it will be ready for line editing. And then, presumably, successfully querying and signing on with an agent, followed by submissions to publishers and the next stage of its successful journey to a bookstore near you.—Alex McNab

Published in: on July 7, 2014 at 3:53 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: ,

Balancing drama with levity

On May 28, the Library and Fairfield University sponsored a joint author appearance with thriller writers Terry Hayes and Andrew Gross. Hayes, a veteran screenwriter (“Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” “Dead Calm,” “Payback,” et al.), is a first-time novelist whose I Am Pilgrim, just published in the U.S., is already a bestseller overseas. Gross, whose new title is Everything to Lose, is a veteran on American bestseller lists. One attendee was JoAnn Kienzle, a longtime member of our twice-monthly Saturday writers’ group, who writes novels and short stories and has worked as a credited scriptwriter on TV series. Here she elaborates on a storytelling point Hayes made during the discussion.

In “Regarding Happiness,” one of his many essays on writing, Charles Baxter wrote, “We all understand intuitively that reading about the happiness of others is often boring.” Baxter wrote the essay in response to readers, including his own mother, who said they wanted to read happy pieces. Why would readers seek storiesTHayesPilgrim about happiness if it is, by nature, boring?

Because, though happiness itself is boring, drama is taxing. Reading something sad, or frightening, or thought-provoking, can exhaust the reader. While creating happy stories isn’t the answer, creating levity is. Last week, when Terry Hayes (above) spoke about his new thriller, I Am Pilgrim, he explained that, while drama is critical to interesting storytelling, lightness is also an important element in writing. He pointed out you occasionally need to use something—a heart-warming moment, a funny scene—to give your reader a break from the heaviness.

When I worked in television, my agent told me something similar. He also said a key distinction between dramas is how they handle comedy. If you think about the television dramas that you enjoy—Mad Men and Breaking Bad are great examples—you’ll realize how many of the moments you remember are funny, though the shows are anchored with very dramatic scenes.

And it’s the same for novels. Writers don’t need to be able to create jokes or one-liners to create relief, they just need to be able to let their characters have moments of levity. As you are writing your next piece, pay attention to the emotion you are trying to elicit from your reader in each of your scenes and make sure there’s a balance. It will both help your reader stay engaged and make your writing more interesting.—JoAnn Kienzle

Published in: on June 3, 2014 at 1:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Three Easy Ways to Get Started in Book Clubs

bookclubs_custom-1ec58e61bccbffba94a3c846786b5fc6af15cce1-s6-c30Hello writers! This is Adair Heitmann writing about reading, discussing what you’ve read, and the impact that can have on your writing.

Do you want to add spice to your life? Join a book club. Today’s book clubs range from one-time casual book chats to long-running serious literary encounters. Welcome in the new era!

Three easy ways to get started:
1. Sign up for library eNewsletters
Libraries have book clubs, and most have eNewsletters. Go to the library’s website and sign up for the eNewsletter for all the libraries within your driving range. Book clubs will be announced via the library’s eNewsletter.

2. Dive into social media
“Like” on Facebook and follow on Twitter the above said libraries. They’ll announce their books clubs on social media.

3. Start your own book club
“If you build it, they will come.”  If you can’t find a book club that works for you, start one.* Be sure to do it with joy. Maybe create a Beach Bum Book Club so you can deepen your tan while discussing the newest fiction. Or start an After Work Wine’d Down Club, the possibilities are endless.

Synergy is important. My favorites are the intergenerational book clubs. They are lively, fast-paced, and intense.  This passion for the written word then overflows into your own writing. You can observe what people like or don’t like about a book and apply that insider information to your own writing.

When your favorite books become movies, that ignites a whole new level of interest and intrigue. Did they choose the right actors? Was the scenery what you imagined?  You can gain even more fertilizer for your own crop of books by discussing and listening to what really matters to people when a book becomes a movie. Then apply this to your own writing.

Until next time, keep on writing.

* I’ll write more about this in later blogs.

Published in: on May 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , ,

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 92 other followers