Sure Cure for Writer’s Block

Inspiration-light-bulbHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you about inspiration and lack thereof. Does your creative well ever run dry? Are you faced with deadlines and have nothing to write? I’m hesitant to call it writer’s block because that has negative connotations, but it’s a phrase we understand.

As a writer it’s helpful to know my own mind, body, and spirit. We all have an internal and very personal barometer guiding us. Mine is a spark, a sense of being fully alive, energized, when I feel that ignition I know I’m inspired and ready to take action.

I knew I was stalled this morning because:

  1. I didn’t have a bright idea
  2. My energy was depleted

When my creative juices are stagnant my brain feels like it’s filled with yesterday’s porridge. I knew staying  in that mood too long would be productively paralyzing. Feeling idea-less for less than a minute I Googled “inspiration for writing” and a plethora of links appeared. I briefly scrolled through them:

Finding Your Muse

Top 10 Sources of Inspiration for Creative Writing

9 Sources of Inspiration for Highly Successful People

Nothing grabbed me. Ho hum, I’d already heard it, read it, or written about it. Determined to keep pace with my deadline I opened my dog-eared quotes binder. I flipped through pages, scraps of paper, and jotted-down notes, nothing inspired me.

Continuing to roam through the Robin’s-egg blue binder my fingers lit upon a small , 5 x 4″ plain white envelope with a March 2012 postal stamp on it. It was from a letter a friend wrote while she was living in Hawaii. I wondered why I had an empty envelope in my quotes folder. Then I turned it over, on my way through the binder. Out of the corner of my eye I saw there was handwriting on the back. My friend had written a quote by William James.

“A new idea is first condemned as ridiculous and then dismissed as trivial, until finally, it becomes what everybody knows.”

This spoke to me! My blood flow perked up, my energy increased, I knew I’d found my own kind of inspiration! It wasn’t a how-to list, it wasn’t a walk in nature, it was a message dropped by the universe that spoke directly to my heart.

Let yourself get to know your own internal barometer. When you do, I’ll bet you never experience writer’s block again. Let us know your favorite cure in the Comments section below.

Until next time, keep on writing.

The Pulitzer Prize winner on POV

Point of view is a continual—and often confusing—focus of attention in storytelling critique groups. Had we been keeping track, it wouldn’t surprise us if POV issues have arisen at least every other session of our six-years-and-counting semi-monthly writers’ group meetings at the Library.

The other day Anthony Doerr doerr(right) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel All the Light We Cannot See. The Pulitzer committee describes the book as, “An imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.”

The announcement led the FWB to look up some of the author interviews to which Doerr had posted links on his website. In an exchange between Doerr and author and columnist Courtney Maum at the National Book Foundation site (ATLWCS was a 2014 National Book Award, Fiction finalist), Doerr addresses the question of POV with intelligence and clarity. After reading this excerpt, please click through to the entire interview for more writing wisdom from Doerr.

CM: In reading through past interviews with you, I’ve been surprised to see All the Light We Cannot See described as a novel that oscillates between the viewpoints of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan, because the truth is, although Marie-Laure and Werner are the book’s main protagonists, the novel is peopled with the voices of so many other characters: Etienne, Von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Dr. Hauptman—the evil Volkheimer is given an entire section near the end. To me, the degree to which you let tertiary characters come in to support the narrative felt almost experimental. Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?

Anthony Doerr: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor.doerrbook The perfumer, for example, had several more chapters from his point of view in earlier versions, as did Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.

When I teach graduate writing workshops, I often see a severity regarding point of view—students like to point out sudden movements: “You broke POV here, you broke POV there.” Students are right, of course, to highlight moments when a narrator breaks into or out of another character’s thoughts, especially if the writer makes that shift unintentionally.

But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays. Ishmael assumes Ahab’s thoughts in Moby-Dick, or Madame Bovary opens in first person, then promptly becomes a third-person novel.

In [The Great] Gatsby [F. Scott] Fitzgerald establishes what appears to be a strict POV rule: “This novel will be narrated by Nick [Carraway], who will have to guess at Gatsby’s thoughts.” Before long, though, Fitzgerald shatters that rule (“[Gatsby] knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath…”)

That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.

In short, there are rules about shifting points of view in fiction writing. But they can be broken—when an author as skillful as Doerr knows what he is doing.—Alex McNab

Published in: on April 29, 2015 at 12:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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Listening to Richard Price talking about writing

At the top of the list of attributes contributing to his reputation as an author, RPriceRichard Price (right) is known for the way he makes his characters talk. Perhaps not surprisingly, Price himself is a unique talker, never more so than when he’s talking about fiction writing. For example:

“Writers have it the worst of all the creative artists. All you do is sit on your backside and rearrange the 26 letters of the alphabet. . . .”

That quote, a Fairfield Writer’s Blog favorite, comes from Chuck Leddy’s interview with Price in the November 2008 issue of The Writer. In his introduction to the Q & A, Leddy crystallized the appeal of Price’s fiction—beginning with his smash 1974 debut, The Wanderers, published when he was 24—with this sentence:

“Readers and critics alike immediately saw Price’s breathtaking ability to capture urban landscapes and craft dialogue that mixes grab-you-by-the-throat realism with streetwise humor and unspoken yearning.”

Price, now 65, grew up in a working-class housing project in the Bronx. He graduated from Cornell and earned an MFA in creative writing at Columbia, as well as spent time at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in creative writing.Whites

Turn to almost any page in The Whites—Price’s latest bestselling novel, about the interwoven professional and personal lives of a group of New York City police detectives—and you’ll hear those distinct, idiomatic voices that reveal story, character and more. You hear them in his other eight novels, from his sophomore effort Bloodbrothers (1976) to Clockers (1992—a National Book Critics Circle best fiction finalist) to Lush Life (2008—a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist).

You hear them in his many screenplays, beginning with “first time out of the box” Oscar nominee for Best Screenplay “The Color of Money” (1986), as well as “Sea of Love,” “Night and the City,” “Mad Dog and Glory,” “Kiss of Death,” “Ransom” et al. And you hear them in his TV scripts for “The Wire,” winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Series for Price’s work in the fifth season of the HBO show.

The February 2015 publication of The Whites—“by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt,” (while it is not the whole story, “there are contractual reasons why I needed to use the pen name to duck out of obligations I had to another publisher,” Price told Interview magazine)—was accompanied by a flood of new interviews with Price. The FWB Blog has mined those pieces as well as several classic Price Q&As (including Leddy’s) to compile this post of Price’s instructive thoughts about many elements of writing fiction, including, of course, dialogue.

Breaking through. “I wrote The Wanderers when I was still in [graduate] school. The book started out basically as assignments for my creative-writing classes at Columbia. Being published almost felt like the prize for handing in the best term paper. I didn’t even know I was working on a book. I was just writing: It’s time to write another one of these stories about these guys, the Wanderers. In class I read what turned out to be the first story of The Wanderers, and everybody hated it. Then Dan Halpern, who had started the literary magazine Antaeus and was a student in class with me, said, ‘Well, I like it. I’d like to publish it. Can I have it?’ I’d never been published. It took a year for it to come out. Meanwhile, I had gone off to Stanford on a fellowship in their creative-writing program. Out there in Palo Alto, I felt so isolated from my past life that a great need came over me to crystallize my memories of the Bronx, my adolescence, the textures of a life to which I knew I’d never return. So my need to write about these mooks kicked into high gear—it was all tied into homesickness and disorientation. I was writing in the same manner and for the same reason that someone would whistle a tune as they navigated a dark and creepy forest.

“When it was published in Antaeus, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote me a letter saying, I’d like to see more stuff like this if you have it. By the time I got that letter I had ten stories, about two-hundred pages. Houghton Mifflin bought the book for like four thousand bucks. My editor straightened out the grammar. I didn’t even know I was doing what I was doing. I was twenty-four when it was published.”—The Paris Review “Richard Price, The Art of Fiction No. 144” Spring 1996. Interviewer=James Linville

Attitude adjustment. While an undergrad. . .and a grad student. . .“I had been coming on with twice as heavy a Bronx accent as I ever had back home, I acted twice as streety.. . .I was a middle-class Jewish kid who went to three colleges. . . .In the end, it took a middle-aged construction worker to straighten me out. After hearing me do a reading [of The Wanderers] and field questions for an hour at the New School one evening, the guy waited for everybody to leave, stepped up and started to talk. He was a World War II vet, lived in the Bronx all his life, had three grown kids, and at the age of 50 was proud to be in his first year of college. . . .He shook his head in amused sadness and tilted his chin at me. ‘You really went to Cornell and Columbia and wrote a goddamn novel? Yeah? Cause that’s amazing. My daughter went to Bronx Community, and she speaks better English than you.’ ” —“The Fonzie of Literature,” The New York Times Book Review, October 25, 1981. Bylined article

Autobiographical fiction. “Whatever you write is autobiography, because every kind of character hits a crossroads and has to make a choice in life, and that choice is informed by your sensibilities and you sensibilities evolved out of your life. So it’s sort of writing about yourself without the self-consciousness.”—The Believer May 2008. Interviewer=Alec Michod

“After the fourth book, I ran out of me.”—Conversation on stage at New York’s 92nd Street Y with David Simon, creator of “The Wire” February 23, 2015

“Part of the jam that I was in as a novelist [after his fourth novel, The Breaks], was that I kept going back to my autobiography for material. . . .Life is hard enough without it having to be perpetual material, too. I felt like a cannibal eating his own foot. Once I became a hired pen out there [in Hollywood], for the first time in my life I was forced to leave my own autobiography to research my characters’ lives, and I learned, with great gratification, that talent travels. If you have enough imagination and empathy, you can write about anybody. That was probably the only good thing, tangible good thing, that came to my writing through screenwriting; knowing that I could go anywhere and learn and bring it back home and turn it into art.”“An Angle of Special Vision: An Interview with Richard Price by Neal Gabler” in 3 Screenplays: The Color of Money; Sea of Love; Night and the City by Richard Price, 1993

“The scripts forced me to write about things that were not my life, which is the opposite of what I had been doing as a novelist.”—Cineaste April 1996. Interviewers=Albert Auster and Leonard Quart

Research. Price has become celebrated for his research methods, going on ride-alongs with police and hanging out in the urban locales where he sets his stories. Unlike a reporter who asks a list of specific questions, Price says he gathers information by “osmosis,” which he records in notebooks. “You come back and you have stenographers’ notebooks and they’re piled as high as your chin. That’s just a bunch of notebooks. The challenge is to take all that material and to forge a shapely allegory for what you saw. That was Clockers.”— 92nd Street Y

“Just because you saw something doesn’t automatically make it art. You have to do something with that. And it has to be in harmony with all the billion other things you saw. These are the little building blocks. It goes back to that giant jumble of stenographers’ notebooks. What are you going to do with all this stuff?”— 92nd Street Y

“I just want to know the parameters of plausibility, and then I want to lie responsibly. All the notebooks? I don’t know that I ever opened any of them once I got home.”—The Washington Post March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Neely Tucker

“Whatever was important to me, I don’t need to look up in my notes.”—PBS NewsHour March 2, 2015. Interviewer=Jeffrey Brown

[And for The Whites?] “I did zero research for that book.”—The Washington Post

“I have so much in my head from going out since the ’80s and having absorbed things from people on both sides of the law. . . .It is fiction, so you’re supposed to use your imagination. But I had such a reservoir of incident.”— New York Magazine, February 13, 2015. Interviewer=Boris Kachka

Starting. “The most difficult thing is making the transition between hanging out and writing the first sentence of the novel.”—The Believer

After continuing to regale his editor with anecdotes from his lengthy research for Clockers, finally the editor asked Price, “ ‘What’s the first sentence of the book?’ It was like being talked off a ledge. I did so not want to hear that.”— 92nd Street Y

“I was simply afraid.”—The Paris Review

“I’ll do anything not to write. It’s so hard to get to the place of writing, because when you start writing, it’s like you leave your own body and have to inhabit these characters. . . .It’s worse than jogging. It feels so excruciating before you do it. You’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it, you’re thinking about it. And all of a sudden you start doing it. You go, ‘Oh.’ I’ve always use the example of people who jog and hate to jog, so they’ll mess around for four hours getting new sneaker laces, saying, ‘Wait, I want to watch this thing on ESPN,’ then you go out and jog for half an hour and then you’re done. You spend four hours getting to the half hour of the jog. If I could just eliminate [that] factor. But after a number of years you just accept that’s who you are, that’s how I roll. And once I get started, I’m in.”—92nd Street Y

Process. Once he’s at his desk, Price said he is writing “about half of the time. Typically, what I’ll do is write a page, reread it, edit it, write half a page more, and then I’ll go back to the very first thing I wrote that morning. It’s like the nursery rhyme ‘The House That Jack Built,’ where you go back to the first line of the poem and go all the way through, adding a line each time, and then back to the first. So, I don’t know whether I’m editing, reediting, or writing something new, but it’s kind of a creeping, incremental style of writing. I always sort of half-know where I’m going.”—The Paris Review

Structure. “ ‘He just gets so engrossed in the mental mystical algebra of what writing a novel is,’ ” said his wife, novelist Lorraine Adams. “The process involves months of making lists, taking notes, writing character sketches and possible scenes, and mapping out the story on pieces of paper that he shifts around the dining room table, as if trying to put together a puzzle.”—The New York Times February 11, 2015. Interviewer/reporter=Alexandra Alter

“I’m terrible at structure. I know what I want to write about. I know my characters. . . .The most difficult part for me is, ‘What’s the story and how does the story get laid out?’ I’m so much more interested in my characters and situation, but I’m not so hot on, ‘This happens and then this happens.’ That’s why I gravitate toward police investigation. . . .If you follow the orderly procedure of a police investigation, you get a spine to your story. I’ve been leaning to the procedural thing to help me lay a skeleton that I can lay muscles and veins and a skin on.”—Interview, February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Jeff Vasishta

“[Narrative structure] grows from incident. . . .[A] particular incident pulls everything together out of this complex landscape. . . .Before I start writing anything, I have to be able to sit down and verbally tell someone the story in a couple of minutes. I start out with the crudest of outlines, but there are big gaps between particular incidents. I start filling in this outline as I go on. But it seems that the minute you think you know where you’re going, the physical act of writing complicates everything. . . .All these nuances and surprises begin coming up that you’d not anticipated.”—The Writer November 2008. Interviewer=Chuck Leddy

“[My] sections might be tight but I’m a bit of a windbag. If you had Lush Life in one hand and Clockers in the other, and were you on a bench press, you could build up your chest with those doorstops. There’s no sin in writing a long book. The sin is if it reads long. The short scenes provide a rhythm that helps sustain a longer length.”—The Daily Beast February 19, 2015. Interviewer=Dan Slater

“What I’ve been doing in the last several books is alternating perspective. . . .Each alternating perspective is slightly ahead of the other. . . .There’s always something going on that the other person doesn’t know, and this advances the story.”—The Daily Beast

Dialogue. “I love the art of yackety-yak. I love that because what keeps me fresh as a writer is improvisation. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“My affection for and fascination with how people speak started out really early. Before I was a writer I was a mimic. . . .Some kids were into athletics. For me it was always the ability to imitate and mimic. And as I got older, I acquired writing skills, and all of a sudden I could do that on paper. . . .— 3 Screenplays

“[I]t just hit me that you can make the ear work for you on the page. Good dialogue is not somebody’s ability to write authentic speech as heard in real life. If that was all there was to it you could just push a button on a tape recorder, go get a sandwich and when the guy’s finished speaking, push Off, and then go collect an Oscar or a book award. Good dialogue on the page is the illusion of reality. It is the essentialization of how people talk. You’ve got to know how to edit what people say without losing any of the spirit.”— 3 Screenplays

“Street people, cops, urban people, I know how to make them crackle.”—Interview

“The plan [to use only the Harry Brandt pseudonym] failed once the words came out of anybody’s mouth. Once I’m writing, I’m writing. I can’t be Richard Price Lite.”— New York Magazine

Details. “I’m always looking for details. It’s like you’re watching an orchestra, and all of a sudden you’re drawn to the fact that the French horn player is blowing spit out of the valve. That’s life. The spit coming out. I look for these small, small things that resonate into bigger things. I don’t write about social ills as much as I write about the details.” —The Daily Beast

“I’m constantly over-stuffing. . . .You do get emotionally attached to everything you see. My first instinct is to overstuff because I can’t bear throwing anything away. And that’s when an editor comes in and says, ‘You know, one or two observations like this one here are probably more potent than twelve. I think you made your point.’ And then you say, ‘No, no, no. But what happened here, on the twelfth time, is different!’ So you need someone to [say], ‘Enough!’ ”—The Daily Beast

Fiction. “I’m allowed [to make it up.] It’s a novel. It’s not a documentary.”— 92nd Street Y

“I think it was Norman Mailer who said that the fact that something really happened is the defense of the bad novelist. At some point I got so hooked on research that after a while it seemed out of the question to make things up. Ultimately, everything in Clockers was pure fiction, but in the beginning I had to learn enough about the texture of truth out there in order to have the confidence to make up lies, responsible lies.”—The Paris Review

Readers. “I want to present people and let you decide what it’s about.”— 92nd Street Y

Reading. “I’m very protective of myself. I once made the mistake of reading Sophie’s Choice while I was trying to write The Breaks. It was like trying to sing while somebody else is singing another song in the background. I just got completely off course, not that I had much of a course to begin with.”—The Paris Review

Writers workshops. “I’d rather kill myself than subject myself to a [writers’] workshop. I used to teach in MFA programs. I have an MFA. You just never know what people are going to say and why they’re going to say it.”—Interview

Editors. “I work closely with my editor [John Sterling, Editor-at-Large at Macmillan]. . . .The most important thing is not who’s publishing you, but who is your editor. If you have a great editor at a lesser house it’s better than being at a high prestige house but with an editor you’re not clicking with. To me it’s all about the editor.”—Interview

“This [The Whites with the Harry Brandt co-byline] isn’t 100 percent Price,” editor John Sterling said. “It’s maybe 90 percent.”—The Washington Post

Revision. Asked how much revising he did on Clockers, Price answered: “About a year and a half’s worth. I had an endless, interminable draft, well over one thousand pages, with no ending in sight. I gave it to John Sterling, my editor, and with him I went back and started on page one and attacked the manuscript for a number of things: consistency of tone, a narrowed point of view, filling in all the holes in the plot. I tried to weed out excessive writing and cut down on the personality of the narrative voice. We wound up going back to page one three times and working our way through to page one thousand-plus—eighteen months of rewriting. Sterling would say, You have too many speakers, too many points of view, and your narrative voice is too florid. There are still some big-time problems with consistency of tone. Let’s start on page one again. It was like wrestling a zeppelin.”—The Paris Review

“When I revise, I look at my story’s structure and my sentences. Sometimes I shuffle my structure, move my scenes around. I want my sentences to be taut and rhythmic. But the hardest words for me, or any writer, to put down are “The End.”—The Writer

Finishing. “With this book [Lush Life], I saved the editor for the end, but when I had to turn it in, it wasn’t a submission, it was an intervention. He had to come to the house and it was there on my computer and he had to sit next to me and talk very softly, like, ‘Come on, just push the Send button,’ and I’m like, ‘But I don’t understand the transition between the cop and the synagogue. . . .’ ‘Oh, that’s OK, we’ll work on it, come on, just push the Send button.’ ” —The Believer

Final words. “[A]t a writers conference in Tampa. . .I gave the keynote speech. . . .I told them three things: First, you have to keep writing. Don’t talk about it. Just write. Second, you need to figure out what your story is. If you haven’t figured out what you story is, the writing will never amount to much of anything. Third, you have to be really patient and also be kind to yourself. Because nobody really cares if you haven’t been published yet. . . .You have to become your own support group.”—The Writer

“Whatever I’m doing, I’d rather be writing a novel.”— Grantland February 17, 2015. Interviewer=Amos Barshad

—Alex McNab

 

 

Published in: on April 15, 2015 at 1:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Remembering Colleen McCullough

Our colleague Margaret Rumford (top right) MRshared the following remembrance of a best-selling author at the Library’s monthly Writers Read open mike night in March. The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to present it here.

Over the years the impulse to write to Colleen McCullough (lower right), the renowned author, to congratulate her on her success came and went. When she died on January 29 this year, aged seventy-seven, her obituary upset me more than I would have imagined. When we met, The Thorn Birds, that blockbuster novel which sold more than thirty million copies, had yet to be written. OneCMcM learned over the years that she, an Australian maverick, shunned publicity and eventually moved to the remote Norfolk Island, a subtropical paradise lost in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and New Zealand. The island had once been a penal colony. There she married a local man, a descendant of the survivors of the mutineers on the Bounty. To get in touch after she became rich and famous seemed self-serving. Besides, I respected her privacy and felt sure she would not remember me—our time together had been brief.

We met in 1972 at a summer party in Stratford, Connecticut, and, finding we both hailed from the Antipodes—she, Australia and me, New Zealand—there was a lot to talk about.

I remember her as a tall, well-built young woman, with thick brown hair, a broad rosy face and an infectiously raucous laugh. She had a way of listening intently, which invited confidences, and although she was three years younger, I thought her very wise. Despite that, my impression of her then was that she had a fairly run-of-the-mill lab job at a hospital in nearby New Haven—Yale.

What I didn’t know was that at the time McCullough was writing her first novel, Tim, later made into a movThornBirdsie starring Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie. While at Yale, the success of Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, inspired her to write The Thorn Birds. When I read The Thorn Birds, I thought the first quarter of the book, when she writes about New Zealand and Australia, could become a classic. Once she gets to Rome, I wasn’t so impressed. But what did I know? She went on to write seven 1,000–page novels about the life and times of Julius Caesar.

Our hostess at the summer party was my friend Christine. After she had danced on the table to Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Night,” wearing a mini-skirt, cowboy hat and boots and cracking a whip, the evening broke up. What could possibly follow that?

Before Colleen left she handed me her card. I was impressed to discover she was a neuroscience researcher at the Yale Medical School. Earlier on, I had told about my hyper-active daughter, Hilary. The child, then nearly three, was a handful and driving me to distraction. “Get in touch,” Colleen said, enveloping me a hug, “I think I may be able to help you.”

A week later, Colleen met Hilary and me on the steps of the Yale Children’s Hospital. She had arranged appointments for Hilary to meet with a battery of specialists. Hilary, taking to Colleen immediately, clutched her hand and skipped off alongside her, while I was told to amuse myself and meet Colleen in the cafeteria at noon.

The result of the tests was that Hilary maybe should take Ritalin. In those days, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was something I’d never heard mentioned. After some discussion, I decided to keep her off medication and change her diet. The doctors agreed that could be a sensible first step. The most important memory I came away with at the time, however, was everyone agreed I was a wonderful mother and that Hilary was a delight—if a handful! The boost to my morale was life changing, for which I am eternally grateful to Colleen McCullough.

Some years later, after the movie and television series of The Thorn Birds, came out, Christine said, “Isn’t it great about Colleen’s success. Who would have guessed?”

I must have looked blank, for she followed up with, “Remember, you met her at our house?”

“I did?” not connecting the Yale Colleen with the famous author.

“Yes, she helped you with Hilary.”

If that wasn’t a mind-blowing moment, I don’t know what is.

Sadly, I forfeited the opportunity to thank Colleen McCullough for her compassionate intervention, which made all the difference to our lives, and also to congratulate her. I really do regret it.—Margaret Rumford

(Editor’s note: Margaret is a member of the Library’s Wednesday writing critique group.)

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 12:24 pm  Comments (1)  
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6 Simple Rules Every Writer Needs to Know

tips-for-writerHello writers, this is Adair Heitmann writing to you today. Spring is in the air, it’s a time to refresh, renew, let out the old and bring in the new. We’ve spoken about building your author’s platform in this blog before. I’m going to continue that thread with six basic rules for amazing content marketing.

Content marketing is any marketing that involves the creation and sharing of media and publishing content in order to acquire and retain readers, customers, followers. Traditionally advertising has used content to disseminate information about a brand, and build a brand’s reputation. As a writer that’s still true, you need to develop your brand. It’s also important to build relationships in the digital community. No matter what online platform you use — Facebook, Goodreads, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, Instagram, the following guidelines apply to them all.

1.) Be consistent
Choose how often you can realistically post, tweet, or publish. Then do so. For some of us it’s once a month, for others, it’s once a day. Find the rhythm that fits into your schedule.

2.) Be useful
Remember the 80/20 ratio of success. 80% of your posts should be interesting useful content. Making it easily shareable is part of the magic and fun of social media networking. 20% of your content includes call to actions, such as registering for a workshop or buying your newest book.

3.) Be authentic
When we are true to ourselves and others, we build trust. Even vulnerable content can resonate with people.

4.) Tie into your reader’s emotions
Easier said than done, yet it’s achievable. If you are feeling something, it’s more than likely your readers are too. When we can give voice to the whispers, we deepen our relationships.

5.) Be where your audience is
If you’re like me, you don’t have time, resources, or inclination to create and share content equally across every social media network. Pick and choose based on where your audience is.

6. Tell, don’t sell
Nobody wants to be sold something every time they hear from you. They do want to follow you or learn more about you and hear how you view the world, if you give them a good story. Use storytelling to create content that people actually connect with. Find ways to create vignettes in your communications.

As the winter ground breaks open with new buds of springtime growth, let your writer self show fresh colors to your online community.

Until next time, keep on writing.

 

How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 2

For Alison McBain, searching digitally for a publication to which to submit your creative writing is like seeking a job. You have to do your homework, you have to be organized and you have to make the right impression. Here she talks about researching places to send her work, matching a piece’s style to a publication’s, keeping track of her stories’ progress, the specifics of getting paid and more.

HER MARKET RESEARCH

Learning what’s out there. “Pretty much when I started writing for publication, I didn’t know the markets very well,” McBain says, “so I just started reading. Almost every site that I submit to I read ahead of time. It’s sort of like doing research for a job interview. You have to research the company you’re applying to.”

McBain does not rely on the listings in the back pages of the writers’ magazines to find venues to submit her work. She uses the internet. For many writers, the go-to standard of online search sites for fiction and poetry (as well as nonfiction) is Duotrope. But Duotrope charges an annual subscription fee of $50. McBain opts for a free alternative, The Grinder, which is still in a beta format. “I love the Grinder for looking at markets but once every couple of months it goes down for a couple of days as they’re adjusting,” McBain says. The online directories identify such useful information as genres and lengths of stories, submission periods and deadlines, response times, payment scales and more. You can customize your search for publications according to many of those criteria. “I also like Flash Fiction Chronicles a lot,” McBain adds, “because, as I said, I like flash fiction. They do just sort of a list form, and it’s not everybody.”

Then there are the opportunities she learns about through her online writers group. And finally, “I also have a calendar for upcoming deadlines.” Many she picked up “through Grinder or through my writers’ group. Some markets I just keep track of, like Glimmer Train. Their Fiction Open call is two months of the year, June and December. [The most recent Open deadline was January 15, 2015.] So whenever that happens, I know.”

HER SUBMISSIONS

Be stylistically aware. When she finds a publication that matches her genre and payment goals, McBain scouts it further by reading previously published pieces. “The thing that I most look out for is, first of all, style,” she says. “That’s a big one, because you can write a story that’s maybe a little bit outside the genre, but if it doesn’t fit stylistically, they won’t accept it. One of my most recent publications, FLAPPERHOUSE, does experimental. The work has to be sort of a merging of almost a poetic voice with the storytelling, which wouldn’t fly at a place like On the Premises. Experimental is definitely not what they’re looking for. So even if I took the same subject matter, I would write it in a different style. A more straightforward story.”

HER TRACKING SYSTEMS

An onscreen demonstration. In addition to her writing, the main thing for McBain as a successful 21st century writer “is organization. It helps that I used to be an office manager for several different companies.”

Looking at a big, color-coded Excel spread sheet, McBain says, “This is my master [chart]. It shows where each story has been submitted, the date, rejected, the date, everything. Some of these I wrote and haven’t submitted yet, or I need to edit them, or perhaps I need to finish them. I have a second chart of story ideas; it’s just a list, basically. And there are the ones I was writing for deadlines that I didn’t make.”

She clicks to another color-highlighted screen: “For my book I keep track of all the places I submitted it to, which draft got queried or went out to which agent, the rejections, places to research afterward. This is all the places it’s out to right now.” She tracks her poems as well.

“This is a big thing, knowing where a story has gone.” You must be careful. “Occasionally—I think I’ve done this twice—I sent a piece to the same place more than once, because I changed the name of it. Of course, that’s bad.” Luckily, she was not called on it either time.

She tries to update her charts daily. “I have maybe 40 stories out right now. Every day I’m figuring out what I need to do. The organization can take more time than writing.”

McBain also uses a popular website: “A lot of this is also duplicated on QueryTracker. But I always keep my own backup system, because sometimes the system might go down and were all my updates saved?”

Moving up the ladder. Online magazines have slush readers who take the first cut at reviewing submissions. (In fact, one of McBain’s Library Writers’ Salon colleagues, Ed Ahern, is a slush reader for the online publication Bewildering Stories.) In the digital world, a writer often can track her story as it is assessed. “Some magazines have a specific tier system: editor, assistant editor, etc.,” McBain says. “In the information age they’re really great about telling you if you get bumped up. I submitted to Plasma Frequency magazine. They have three tiers: slush [including her Scribophile writers group leader Alexis A. Hunter], assistant editor, editor. My piece got all the way up to the editor, and got rejected. But each time I got a notification.”

Two go-to places for book writers. “I did a ton of research before sending out my book,” McBain says. “[Agent and author] Noah Lukeman did a fantastic how-to,” How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent [available for free downloading as a .pdf at his website]. “He suggested sending out eight pieces or query letters at a time. Every time you get those eight things back, revise your query.

“I also entered some contests online where a professional agent would edit your query if yours was one of the ones chosen. And there’s Pitch Wars. It’s run by [author] Brenda Drake. You send in your query and your first chapter. All these different published writers choose a mentee. They help polish up your book and then they end up pitcBOTF_Lo-Rez-Coverhing it to 20 agents. They do all genres. Mystery, fantasy, literary, young adult, adult. It’s all free. It’s all online.” [The 2015 Pitch Wars submission window opens August 17.]

Don’t forget anthologies. At least two of McBain’s works are in recently published anthologies. “Someone in my writers group posted something about an anthology open to everyone,” she says. “The one thing the writing guidelines talked about was they were looking for humor. That was something I hadn’t done, written literary humor, and it would be a fun challenge.” The subject of the collection, in fact, was writers coping with rejection, and its title was to be Blood on the Floor. “I actually included the line in my poem, which is ‘Bloody Ink.’ I got the editors’ attention because I took it right out of their submission guidelines.”

For the anthology Abbreviated Epics, the call was for “something under, I think, 3,000 words. I rewrote the Minotaur myth as a short story, ‘The Lost Children.’ I have a classics background. In an early version of the myth, it wasAMcBBook not set in stone what the Minotaur looked like. Some versions said it had the body of a bull, the head of a man, instead of the opposite, which has now become very popular. So I just followed this idea, what if it was opposite? And they were siblings? I went from there.”

HER PAYMENTS & AWARDS

Why payment matters. “There are several reasons that I feel getting paid for writing is important,” McBain says.  “First of all, there are terms built into one’s status as a writer that depend on pay scale.  For example, ‘semi-professional’ payment is 1-4 cents a word.  ‘Professional’ payment is 5+ cents a word.  Membership to certain writers’ associations, such as the Science Fiction Writers of America, depends on having made a set number of ‘professional’ sales.  I could make a hundred ‘semi-professional’ sales, but never be able to join SFWA.  Someone else could make three ‘professional’ sales and become a member.  So in order to be seen as a serious writer on a certain level, you have to consistently get paid a certain amount.

“Other than that as a goal, I always hope that my writing brings something of value to the reader, and so I am thrilled to receive even a nominal payment for my work.  I know that journals don’t make money anymore, and few writers are able to quit their day jobs.  But receiving that $5— or $50 or $100—will always be a thrill.  An added value is placed on something that already I love to do.  And that is really very cool.”

Fast start. McBain uses contests as an incentive to submit, and has been rewarded for doing so: “I won second prize in On the Premises Contest # 22 for ‘Grandmother Winter.’ At the time, the prize was $140 (they have since increased the prize money to $160). It is highest payment I’ve received for a story. ‘The Maybe Baby’ won the Patricia McFarland Memorial Prize at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Both of these were early in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus in my writing career—so [it was] a good way to get started again!  No other prizes since then.”

Lesser amounts. “The lowest payment I’ve received for a story was $5 for flash fiction,” McBain says. “Poetry tends to pay less than fiction on average, so most of my published poems have paid $5-$10.” She is not completely averse, though, to submitting to a nonpaying journal. “Some places I go to are for exposure. A Public Space [an independent magazine of literature and culture based in Brooklyn] is one of the top 50 literary magazines. But they don’t pay. I’ll send stuff to that. But mostly I get some nominal fee.”

Reader input. The two-way nature of the digital world raises the question of whether online magazine readers can influence which writers get published and who among them gets paid. McBain’s assessment: “There are some online magazines and journals that are interested in reader feedback, sometimes to the extent that it affects pay rate for the writers, although I don’t know of any magazine that directly equates page views with writer payment. One magazine that has a public submission queue for writers is Crowded Magazine, where all stories posted to the queue are visible to members and can garner comments. I don’t believe this affects the acceptance/rejection rate, though, but is used more as a critique tool to help writers improve their writing. Another magazine that encourages reader participation is Mash Stories.  Readers cast votes for their favorite stories, but there is also a jury of editors who moderate the choosing of a finalist for each quarter—so voting might help steer the judges toward a winner, but doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a most-voted story will win the cash prize. A third magazine that does directly rely on reader feedback to award cash prizes is SpeckLit. The editor chooses which stories to publish online, and each quarter readers vote for their favorites and the winner receives additional compensation.”

Is she a pro? McBain answers cautiously: “I guess I would define myself as a professional writer once I get my book published.” The FWB would beg to differ. McBain pursues her writing seriously, and she gets paid for it. Thus, she is a professional writer.

HER FUTURE

A nonfiction idea. McBain’s grandmother, who had Japanese ancestry, was in internment camps for parts of World War II. “I’m hoping to someday write a book based on my grandmother’s life,” McBain said. “My grandmother’s first husband died in the war fighting for the U.S. After his death, she returned to the internment camps to rejoin her family, which was where she met my grandfather, who was recovering from a wound he’d received in the war.  Originally, it was thought he’d die from his wound—he’d been shot through the kidney and received his Purple Heart in the hospital from a chaplain.  They were married for more than 50 years.” The love story, however, is only half the tale McBain plans to tell, the other being the negative effects of the treatment of American citizens of Japanese ancestry during and after the war. One example: “As a result of the camps and racism after the war, my grandparents tended to turn their back on Japanese things—they didn’t teach their children the language although they could speak it, and they didn’t keep up Shinto/Buddhist traditions although they had been raised with them.”

HER FINAL ADVICE

Cultivate creativity. Even if you do not write every day—and McBain doesn’t—she recommends that you “be creative every day. Sometimes I work on rescuing stories from my rejection pile and I’ll send them out again. Or I’ll do art. Or I’ll do a handcraft. Encourage your creativity.”

Keep on believing. Don’t give up on placing work you are proud of. McBain recently sold a story after nine rejections, which may sound like a lot but is not by conventional standards. “If you love it, you’ll find a home for it,” she said.—Alex McNab

Published in: on March 17, 2015 at 11:17 am  Comments (1)  
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How to succeed as a 21st century writer, part 1

Are you familiar with Devilfish Review, which bills itself as Quarterly Literature, Speculative and Otherwise? Or Specklit: A world of wonder in 100 words? How about On the Premises? FLAPPERHOUSE? The Literary Hatchet? Abyss & Apex? Flash Fiction Online?

Alison-McBain-150x150They all are publications in which Alison McBain’s short stories and poems have appeared in the past year. McBain (right), a regular attendee at our monthly writers’ salons at the Library, is a quintessential 21st century writer. Her writing and publishing world—including her writers group—is predominately a digital one. And unlike a lot of storytellers whose creative writing appears online, she gets paid, albeit modestly, for hers.

Now a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of two, McBain first published two pieces in a college literary journal in 2001. She didn’t submit them; her professor picked them out of class assignments and put them in the magazine. Three years later McBain published a single piece in an anthology. Then, after a nearly decade-long hiatus of work, marriage and motherhood, she wrote a young adult novel in 2013 and began querying agents, thus far without success. So at the start of 2014, she rebooted her creative writing approach, turning to short stories and poetry that she sent out into the world of digital publishing. Her writing covers a spectrum of categories: literary, flash fiction, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy. Her goal that first year: 10 acceptances. By mid-October, she had met her target. She’s well into her second 10 acceptances two months into 2015. And, it bears repeating, she gets paid for her writing.

The Fairfield Writer’s Blog (FWB)—whose late-middle-aged comfort zone tends to gravitate toward authors, publications and the protocol of traditional legacy publishing—spoke at length with McBain recently about how to succeed as a 21st century writer. One point rang loud and clear: The digital domain has substantially increased the opportunities for writers to publish their work. Which is not necessarily the same thing as publishing it successfully, as McBain does. Her website features links to several of her published pieces, as well as a monthly blog (often about writing topics) and, debuting most recently, a section of thoughtful book reviews. Here is the first of a two-part post about what McBain had to say about writing, critiquing, submitting, persisting and more in today’s digital world.

HER BACKGROUND

Tech tools. “I grew up near the Silicon Valley, so all my friends my age were working for Google and Yahoo,” McBain says. “I was like the tech dummy, honestly. I would always get them to fix my computer. I guess I sort of grew up with digital technology. I’m used to it, even if I wasn’t very knowledgeable about it. I don’t have a tablet. I don’t have a smart phone. I always carry a notebook with me so if I get ideas, I write them down. I am a little bit old fashioned that way. Most of my work is done on my desktop computer at home. I need my space. I’m not really great at working on the laptop.”

The ease of online. Two simple benefits of being a digital writer/submitter, in McBain’s view: “You don’t have to print out your submissions. You don’t have to wait for the mail.”

A wakeup call. “I’ve always loved writing,” McBain says, but she admits that “I wasn’t really pursuing it very strongly. My grandmother had worked on a book, for 20 years, about her father, who had immigrated from Holland. She had translated all his letters, which were in Dutch. On her 90th birthday, she self-published her book and she had a big publishing party in Canada, where she lived. We all went up. She and I would always talk about writing. I said, ‘I guess I have 60 more years to get my first book out.’ She was like, ‘Don’t wait that long.’ Then a couple of years later she had a fall and she passed away. So that motivated me. At that moment, I said, I’m not going to wait anymore. I’m not going to put it off to ‘someday.’ I’m going to do it now.”

Longform to short. After finishing her YA novel in 2013, McBain spent six months editing it as she researched submitting it to agents. “In my query letter I had the couple of publication credits from years ago but I didn’t have anything recent to show,” she says. Agents “want to see recent experience, that you’re still relevant, I guess. So I started updating my resume, so to speak, with short stories and poems, because they’re so fun to write. They’re short. And you don’t have to spend a year or more.” Originally, her novel topped 100,000 words. The manuscript that is out there now “is shorter. I cut a lot. . . . I’ve had some agents request pages, chapters, the whole book. There still are a couple agents looking at it but at this point I don’t feel. . .I started submitting my novel at the end of 2013 and I’m still at it in 2015. I’m going to start my next one. You’ve got to be a rolling stone.” Translation: Don’t let any moss gather on your keyboard.

HER WRITING

Seeing a story. McBain’s productivity can make another writer envious. She says, “For stories, unlike poetry, I can pretty much sit down and write. It’s almost like reading a story. You have the story in your head and you just have to put it down. I feel like the strongest stories I’ve written are the ones where I can just see it happen. I’m a very visual type person. So I can see the characters.” While she begins a story knowing its full arc, she concedes that can preclude the fun of finding out what’s going to happen. But not always. “That’s the nerve-wracking part. It’ll go off in a direction you don’t think it’s going to.” One common element of good story, though, is “it’s about the internal journey, some growth in the character.”

If it isn’t obvious already, suffice it to say that McBain writes fast. “I think the most I did was 8,000 words in one night,” she says. “A couple of stories.” In fact, “Sometimes I’ll write something and submit it the same day. It usually gets rejected, but. . . .”

Meanwhile, her list of ideas is always growing: “I’ll picture some background and I’ll build a story around that. Or I’ll read an article and say, ‘There’s a story there somewhere.’ Eventually I’ll get the time and the mood to write it.”

Moving among genres works to her advantage. “I feel like it keeps my writing fresh,” McBain says. “I do write a lot, and sometimes subconsciously I’ll fall into these motifs where things will reappear. I’m trying not to do that, obviously. So in order to keep it fresh, you try to find something different.”

What makes a story “literary.” McBain believes “it’s where there’s something deeper going on besides the surface story. Mainstream is, you simply read the story and enjoy it. Literary is, something that shows something more about the human condition. You can have literary elements in genre fiction. That’s actually the way it’s going for a lot of science fiction and fantasy. They want deeper stories than just, I got shot with the ray gun.”

Strengths & weaknesses. “As a writer you are always trying to improve everything,” McBain says. “People in my writers group have mentioned that I do dialogue very well. And pacing. I guess the way I define pacing is when you are reading through the story there is no point where you have to stop and go back and re-read it. Your eye just naturally keeps on reading the story. You’re drawn in. There’s no point where something pulls you out. I feel a lot of writers struggle with that. I struggle with it, too. Sometimes I rush toward the ending because it’s like, ‘I know where this is going.’

“My weakness may be description.” As in, there’s not always enough. “There are two types of writers, ones who write too much and have to cut and ones who write too little and have to add. I’m the second type. I usually have to add more to my stories.” Her 100,000-word novel notwithstanding.

Cutting & saving. For McBain, the chore is “easy because I am doing short stories. You often feel like, ‘Oh this is such a great part.’ But it doesn’t really fit into the main narrative so I have to take it out. I never throw anything away. It’s all saved in a file. No, I have never rescued something that got cut from one piece and turned it into a successful story. But I’m optimistic. It’s not wasted time.”

Flash fiction & poetry. While there is no definitive word count for the former, the maximum is no more than 1,000 words. “I’m sort of in love with flash fiction,” McBain says, “because I feel like it’s so much harder to write a complete story in such a short space. It’s like poetry. You edit so much out that you’re just giving a glimpse into a story and allowing the reader to draw the rest of the story for themselves. I think that’s a lot of fun.” Such is not always the case with poetry for even as facile a writer as McBain: “Sometimes it’s hard. I have to be in the mindset to write poetry. Because it’s almost like another language.”

An inspiration. “In short stories, I think the only person who does the same breadth of writing [that I aspire to] is Margaret Atwood,” McBain says. “I’ve always read her. She does literary. She also does poetry. She is active, she judges contests, she’s doing tons of stuff. She’s Canadian, too. I’ve always really admired her.”

Forget fan fiction. While megasellers-turned-blockbuster movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey have been birthed online, the temptation to write material derived from someone else’s original characters and settings holds no appeal for McBain: “I know people are doing it but I feel there are enough stories out there. I don’t need to borrow.”

HER WRITERS GROUP

First reader. “Always my husband,” McBain says. “Often he puts his finger on exactly what’s wrong with a story, which is great. He helps pinpoint any problems, and I’ll rewrite another draft.” Interestingly, he’s not an editor or writer “He’s a chef. One day he said, ‘Why don’t you write about chefs?’ So I did.” The result: “On the Fly,” published at Flash Fiction Online.

Online options. McBain has found an online writers group home at Scribophile. “I tried out three other online writers groups before,” she said. “Some of them were great, but they just weren’t for me. Critters Workshop is great. The writers are really professional, really great writers, good critiquers. But it was too slow for what I was looking to do. You had to put your writing in a queue, so you might not get a critique for a month. I write a lot, so that didn’t work for me. WritersCafe.org I didn’t stay at for very long. It didn’t seem to have a lot of professional writers. They weren’t aiming to get published. They were just writing for fun, which is great, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. Then Critical Writing Group, the Yahoo group, had a great moderator, but they weren’t very active; they were very active like maybe five years ago.”

At Scribophile, she joined a worldwide group of thousands of writers before finding a sub-group focusing on specific themes that has about 290 members. It is under the direction of Alexis A. Hunter, who is a slush reader [aka. Assistant Editor, First Reads] at Plasma Frequency magazine [a Magazine of Speculative Fiction] and has had more than 50 stories published at various sites. McBain says that between 30 and 50 of the sub-group’s writers “are actively writing and submitting their work every week. They submit to a lot of places. Not everyone critiques everything. You have your people who you exchange critiques with.” In a forum area, she also exchanges information about “other things like acceptances, submissions and target markets. If there are special calls [for material for a specific magazine or anthology], we’ll start a thread so people will know. I’d say about a quarter to a third of the submission deadlines or calls I find out about are through my writers group. And people can post their rejections and have a good sigh.”

The help she gets. “The group basically does a critique [on the copy] going line by line. They’ll go, ‘This section is awkward’ or ‘This needs better pacing.’ So when I print it out I can see for myself what I did wrong and then rewrite it.’ ” If that sounds similar to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature, McBain concedes that in many ways it is, indeed, “just like that.”

But the comments also address big-picture issues: “The stories I usually run by my critique group are the ones that I’m not happy with in some way. You can’t put your finger on it, but there’s something missing. Usually they’re really great at saying things like, ‘This character doesn’t go on a long enough journey.’ Or, ‘The ending comes too fast.’ ”

Color-coded critiquing. McBain called up a story of hers on Scribophile that a critique colleague had annotated by highlighting different passages in colors. Green signified comments he’d made, yellow flagged repetitions and other loose places, and red indicated writing he would cut. “It’s a great system,” she said. “It’s all online. Some people, every time they get a critique, they edit their piece [right there on Scribophile]. I don’t. I let people go nuts, and then at the end [I revise]. You also do feedback on the critiques, so people can get better at it, too. I think that’s the main point of critique groups, to learn how to self-edit. I used to run every single one of my pieces through critiquing. But now I can self-edit enough after being on here almost two years. I’ve never learned so much as I have being on here, because you’re seeing all types of writing.”

Giving and receiving. To make sure each writer gets equitable time in the online critique group, McBain says, “Scribophile uses a system called karma points, [which you earn] every time you do a critique of another writer’s work.” You spend your karma points to keep your own work active for others’ critiques.  After a certain period of time or a certain number of critiques, your piece is moved out of the critique spotlight and you must spend more points to reactivate it. “The system. . .keeps writers constantly critiquing others’ work in order to receive critiques of their own,” McBain says.

“Scribophile really is one of the most efficient and organized writers group sites I’ve run across on-line. I’d definitely recommend it for any writers who, like me, don’t necessarily have the ability to get to an in-person writing group on a regular basis.”—Alex McNab

Next: Researching and executing online submissions.

Writing Goals: Welcome the Unknown

o-NEW-YEARS-RESOLUTIONS-facebookGreetings at the start of a new year, this is Adair Heitmann. During this season of resolutions and new beginnings, I’m going to play a different drum beat, and then march to it.

But first . . .

Walk Slowly
It only takes a reminder to breathe,
a moment to be still, and just like that,
something in me settles, softens, makes
space for imperfection. The harsh voice
of judgment drops to a whisper and I
remember again that life isn’t a relay
race; that we will all cross the finish
line: that waking up to life is what we
were born for. As many times as I
forget, catch myself charging forward
without even knowing where I’m going,
that many times I can make the choice
to stop, to breathe, and be, and walk
slowly into the mystery.

– Danna Faulds

Instead of linearly thinking about your New Year’s writing goals I invite you to walk in the mystery instead. Consider that allowing yourself time and space to be in unknown territory might take your writing to new levels. As a meditator for over 40 years, and as a consultant in the health and wellness field, I’ve experienced and studied the power of letting go and being present in the moment. There’s inspiration and discovery to be found when you don’t know what’s around the bend.

Complete the following exercise and let me know how it works out. Close your eyes after you’ve read the upcoming question and permit whatever pops up to be the right answer, without edits or judgment. Question, “Where might being in the mystery of my writing lead me?” Go ahead, indulge in something new, it only takes a few seconds. Trust what comes up, then write it down.

Having already done the exercise I’m looking forward to letting the nuances from it guide my work this year. I’m excited about the possibilities and breakthroughs this attitude will bring. I’m not viewing my writing goals as a task list to accomplish and check off, rather I’m embracing unknown possibilities instead.

Until next time, keep the flow of words going.

About the poet: Danna Faulds is a long-time practitioner and teacher of Kripalu Yoga who incorporated writing into her spiritual practice years ago. She is a former librarian who worked in law school, college and public libraries before turning to full-time writing.

 

 

 

What an independent editor can do for you

The Fairfield Writers Blog has written several times about the value of hiring an independent editor on your path to finding an agent and publisher for your manuscript. Your options are many. You might enlist a writing partner or a colleague from your writers’ group. Or the presumably-more-experienced leader of your group. You might engage an editor whose reputation comes via word of mouth from someone you trust, or you might approach one of the many who advertise in the classified sections in the back pages of the writers’ magazines. Or, in 2015, you might decide it is time to spend top dollar on a seasoned professional who has worked as an editor at one or more major publishers. A person with a proven track record of discovering future bestsellers and guiding renowned authors in the highbrow literary universe. Here’s the story of one of those editors, and what he and those like him can do for your writing.

When Richard Marek received the phone call telling him that an editor at Atheneum had accepted his novel Works of Genius for publication in 1987, “it was one of the great days of my life,” he told the Fairfield Writer’s Blog.

Not long after hearing the happy news, Marek continued, the editor “wrote me a nine-page letter, saying, here are the mistakes that you’ve made. You have to fix this. It was humiliating because they were things I would have caught in anybody else’s novel. But I just missed them. They were part of my soul,” Marek said with sarcastic emphasis.

“To say an author is objective [about his or her manuscript] is almost an oxymoron. There are no authors with much objectivity.”

Even one with an inside-publishing resume like Marek’s.

Marek spent four decades in the upper editorial elevations of the New York book-publishing world. Among the houses he worked for: Macmillan, World Publishing, The Dial Press, G.P. Putnam’s, St, Martin’s Press, E.P. Dutton and Crown. Among his various positions: acquiring editor, editor, editor-in-chief, publisher, president and editor-at-large.

He edited books by such literary lights as James Baldwin and John Yount. He gave bestselling thriller writer Robert Ludlum his start by purchasing, editing (for more than two years) and publishing The Scarlatti Inheritance for Dial, then continued to edit Ludlum through the debut of the writer’s most famous character in The Bourne Identity. (Jason Bourne was first played, on TV, by actor Richard Chamberlain, and later in films by Matt Damon.) He ran his personal imprint, Richard Marek Books, at several houses.

Today, at 81, Marek hones the works of aspiring authors as a member of The Independent Editors Group (IEG [www.bookdocs.com]),  a consortium of experts co-founded by his longtime editorial partner, the late Joyce Engelson, and the late Jerry Gross. He also has ghostwritten numerous books, including Trisha Meili’s bestselling I Am the Cedalma-and-richardntral Park Jogger. Most recently, he and his wife, Dalma Heyn (right), co-authored A Godsend: A Love Story for Grownups (Prospecta Press, 2012).

Marek playfully calls himself and his IEG colleagues “a bunch of old geezers who had quite successful careers as editors. . . .We all have solid resumes. We get together once a month. We invite agents and editors to our meetings. It’s a way for us to keep up with what’s going on in the business. Not that I can tell you what’s going on in publishing with any more logic or knowledge than anybody in the business. But we try to find books that are publishable. There are not many of those. Our job is to make the book better.”

Granted, publishing has changed since Marek’s days as an editorial executive. And the changes continue at a furious pace, with the unabated growth of digital publishing, self publishing, online sales, social-media promotion and marketing, supposedly shortened reader attention spans and more. But there are many elements of spinning a compelling story by putting words down on paper or computer screen, then sharpening the story and its characters and polishing the writing, that remain timeless. In short, says Marek, “Editing is editing.”

On a late-summer afternoon in our neighboring town, Westport, Conn., Marek discussed the role an independent editor such as he can play in helping you move closer toward your goal of getting published. And he shared several instructive tales and writing tips from his long career.

The Independent Editor

How writers find him. “The writer thinks the book is done,” Marek says. “She or he will probably send it to an agent, if she has any contacts at all, or find agents to submit to in Publisher’s Marketplace or another directory. And the agent will call me or one of my colleagues. But the agent will have not taken on the book. The agent will say, ‘I might do something with this if. . .’ and we rarely talk about what the ‘if’ is. I don’t like that. I want to see the book with fresh eyes.” A writer also can approach an IEG editor directly through the website linked above.

Getting started. “Almost invariably the writer will call first and interview me, then make up his or her mind, based on what I have to say and my prices.”

And how does Marek know the writer has the chops to be a worthwhile client? “Bad writing is easy to spot. I almost invariably ask for the first 10 pages of the book just to see if the writer can write. Not judging the book. Just judging about whether to take on a client. Based on that reading, I will decide whether to work on it.”

The cost. “We all charge different amounts. But it’s about in the same range. Somewhere between five to ten thousand dollars.”

How do you charge? “I charge blanket fees. But I charge in two ways. I charge for a reading and report on the book. Those are very careful. Here are the strengths, here are the weaknesses. This is what’s wrong with the characters. Here’s where the plot falters. Maybe you can fix the plot. For that kind of report I charge depending on the length of the book.

“The next step is to edit the book with the author, generally in 50-page stretches. And I charge per page. Or they can finish the whole book, rewrite it completely and I’ll edit the whole book.”

The format of the report. “It’s generally a long précis, a long criticism. This doesn’t work because, or this does work because. And then many pages referring back to the manuscript—page 87, what do you mean by? Or this guy would never say that. Whatever. But that’s the kind of report I think almost all of us write.”

Why not just workshop? “I’ve talked at writers’ workshops,” Marek says, “but I’ve never experienced having my book analyzed by a group of peers. I think writers are going to be shocked by the weaknesses in their book that independent editors identify, that their workshop peers are either too timid or too unknowledgeable to point out.”

So do you rip a writer’s work to shreds? “I am very tough, because it’s silly to be anything else, and very fair. I try not to be insulting. I’m very humble, because I’ve been humbled. And I am always looking for new customers.”

Who is the customer, the writer or the referring agent? “The author is my client, not the agent. My only obligation is to make sure that the edited book first goes back to that agent, if he or she has recommended me in the first place. Maybe he or she will take the book when I finish with it. That happens a lot. That’s probably the most common way for us to get where we want. After that, if the agent says no, then I’m free to contact anybody.”

So then you’ll try to help the author find another agent? “We all have our agent friends or colleagues. And we will call up somebody and say, ‘This is really good. Take a look at it.’ ”

The magic words. When he was an acquiring editor, what Marek wanted to hear from an agent who said they had a manuscript for him was, “You’ll like this.” Today, as an independent editor who has worked with a client on a book manuscript, “because I know the agents, I can say to them, “You ought to read this,” and they will read it. Not necessarily like it, but they will read it.”

The Publishing Veteran

Good writing. “Jane Austen. George Eliot.”

What makes good memoir. “You have to really be honest. Most memoirs are  lies. You’re leaving out something, or you don’t want to insult somebody or you forgot something. The real memoir writer, Augusten Burroughs or Mary Karr, these people are unflinching. What puzzles me is why the [aspiring memoir] writer thinks other people are going to be interested in it. Who cares? Sorry, that was a terrible thing that happened to you. Next book.”

What makes a good ghost. “It’s somebody who can capture the voice of the person he’s ghostwriting for. I think one’s own interest in the subject and one’s own interest in the person he’s working with also matter. Trisha Meili and I got along wonderfully. The [Central Park] attack made it impossible for her to stay on a narrative. So we worked on a very detailed outline. I’d say, ‘No Trisha, that’s for the next chapter. You talk here about this.’ I’ve pretty much given up ghost writing. It pays well, but it’s a lot of work.

Patterson’s lesson on pacing. Marek worked as a ghost rewriter on James Patterson’s novel Hide and Seek. “One of the scenes I wrote was a description of the [protagonist] record producer’s office,” he says, “which was supposed to give you an idea of who this record producer was, and what his personality was like. Jim said, ‘It’s got to go.’ I said, ‘Why? It tells you who the character is.’ And he said, ‘It’s too slow.’ It was a couple of paragraphs. He taught me more about pace: you cut out the superfluous.”

Does bad writing mean bad storytelling? “Not necessarily,” Marek says. “One of the worst written books that I can remember is An American Tragedy. But it is great storytelling. And that’s why [Theodore Dreiser] was so successful. He was a terrible writer.

“So was Robert Ludlum. Terrible! Bob was a play producer and he and his wife were both actors in New Jersey. We had a Robert Ludlum school of bad writing. And our favorite part of that school was redundancy. Bob wrote sentences like, ‘The soldiers stood rigidly at attention.’ And I would call him and say, ‘How else can you stand at attention?’ Or my favorite, ‘The general made an audible noise.’ Try to make an inaudible noise. But Bob was a good storyteller and had this knack of finishing chapters that was really terrific.

“I was at McMillan, which had a policy for young editors. If we got a book in that we liked, we needed two readings. Get a colleague to read it, too. Obviously, pretty soon we didn’t bother with the second reading. We just said, great book, go to it. Alan Rinzler, an editor there, got The Scarlatti Inheritance in and gave it to me for a confirming reading. It was a long book. I said, ‘I don’t have to read all this, do I?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘just say that it’s got a wonderful central character and there’s a plot in there somewhere.’ Meantime, Alan was fired for something unrelated. My boss came and said, ‘I see you’ve read this.’ I said, ‘Oh yes.’ He said, ‘Well you can have it.’ So then I read it. No choice. And it had a plot somewhere in it and a terrific central character. It took Bob Ludlum and me two and a half years to get the book into some kind of shape. It was fifteen hundred pages long. It finally went down to 500. And we had a good time doing it. He had a real skill, right out of the gate, of closing a scene so that you wanted to go on to the next scene. And the book was a huge success.”

Getting it done. A writer’s productivity, Marek thinks, “comes out of desire and dreams and whatever. If an [aspiring] writer reads books on how to write, that can help a lot.” Rather than recommend present-day, step-by-step or screenwriting-influenced manuals, Marek cites three evergreen works: Henry James’ essay, “The Art of Fiction,” originally published in the September 1884 issue of Longman’s Magazine and reprinted in his 1888 anthology Partial Portraits; the late novelist and professor John Gardner’s book, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers, first published in 1983; and former publisher and editor-in-chief (at Stein and Day) Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing (1995), which Marek calls “the best book for the first-time writer that I know.” [Four years later, Stein published a follow-up, How to Grow a Novel.]

Current clichés. “Cliches drive me nuts, unless the character is somebody who talks in clichés,” Marek says. “I just finished editing a book in which every character “paused for a long moment.” Well, pause for a short moment, or just pause. In terms of characters, my pet peeves these days are terrorists and heroes who are too heroic. Right now, if there’s an Arab who shows up anywhere in the first three chapters, I don’t want to read it. Any kind of terrorist.”

A novel that did not need editing. “I was the acquiring editor of The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I was crazy about [Harris’ previous book] Red Dragon. It has this great character, a minor character, a minor character in both books. Hannibal Lecter. Minor is not the right word. A subsidiary character, although he takes over the book.” By the time the full manuscript entered the production process, Marek had left the company. “Tom wanted me to read it anyway. I wrote him back and said ‘This is wonderful.’ The Silence of the Lambs didn’t need editing. Obviously one could have changed some sentences.

“What a book! He’s a master. I think it was torture for Harris to write these books. All books are autobiographical. These demons are inside his head. Every morning he woke up and he realized he had to face them. He said it was really scary and tough. So I think he’s faced them less in his later books.”

Two that got away. Marek recalls, “When I was in regular publishing, I used to go to Breadloaf in Vermont every summer and give a lecture. I made really good friends with a fellow named John Irving, who said, ‘You ought to publish me.’ I said, ‘Sure.’ He had had a dismal career at Random House with his first books. Later, he called me and said, ‘I’ve written only a first chapter and I’m not sure where this book is going. It’s about a tailgunner.’ I read it. He was obviously a very talented writer. I said, ‘How much do you want for this book?’ He said, ‘Fourteen thousand dollars.’ I said, ‘You don’t have a book that comes close to earning back that kind of advance.’ He said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. See you.’ Not long after, a guy I knew came up to me at a publishing party and said, ‘I’ve just bought the most wonderful book.’ It was something called The World According to Garp. He was right and I was wrong.”

Years later, “I read a book by a published writer and I kind of liked it. It was about a guy who joins a law office. I might have bought it. We bid, I think, $50,000. I don’t remember what the final sale price was, but it was  above that….I said, ‘The second half of this book doesn’t work.’ And I was wrong. The book was The Firm by John Grisham.”

Two pillars of compelling fiction. Conflict and characterization.Conflict, it seems to me,” Marek says, “is the most important thing in plotting any novel. And conflict comes out of the clash of character. Conflicts ought to grow from a simple meeting of two people on different sides of an issue.”

Good characters are “people who you care about.” Such characters, by the way, do not have to be likeable. “Let’s go back to Lecter,” Marek says. “Lecter’s the best example of a villain who’s totally captivating. If you can do that, you’re going to be published.”

“The mistake people make is concentrating on the plot and not concentrating on the characters. Everybody has idiosyncrasies. And most writers don’t write them in. . . .

As superior examples of characterization, Marek cites three protagonists from crime fiction. First, “the best thriller writer in the world is Arthur Conan Doyle, probably, and Sherlock Holmes a great character.” Second, writer Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander. “That is my idea of a truly wonderful central character. He’s a Swedish detective who has every flaw in the book; he’s exhausted and he wants to quit.” Third, author Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles Police Department detective Harry Bosch “is a totally believable character with a background. His mother was a prostitute. She was murdered. There is a whole backstory. And I can’t tell you a single plot of a Michael Connelly book. But I sure can talk about Hieronymus Bosch.”

Last, Marek offers an example of classic characterization from literary rather than commercial fiction: “If you pick up Ulysses and read ‘Stately, plump Buck Mulligan. . .’ you know you’re in the head of a really good writer. Those two adjectives are terrific and you get a picture of somebody in the first four words.”

Beware labels, buzzwords and formulae. When asked about oft-used statistic that 90 percent of the people who read novels are female and how that means selling a men’s novel these days is harder than. . . .Marek breaks in and says, “ I don’t even know what the term means—a men’s novel. What’s John Irving? God knows his characters are very male and very testosterone-filled, but he’s read by both women and men. And I can’t think of a better writer than George Eliot, and she was a woman and she created wonderful female and male characters.”

Did he ever use the buzzword “platform?” “Never. It’s totally new to me now. It means a launching point or. . . .who do you know in the industry. There’s no platform in fiction.”

Any advice for overcoming the common problem of a muddle in the middle of one’s bogged-down novel? “I don’t think there’s any formula. I really don’t. What happens in the middle of the book? It should keep your interest.”

What about the supposed importance of knowing what genre your work-in-progress falls into? “I think you should not be thinking of that. Because if you’re thinking about a genre, you’re probably going to be imitating somebody else. What I would say to writers is, be yourself. Don’t try to be someone else.”

The decline of in-house editing. Conventional wisdom holds that today’s in-house editors don’t actually edit because they’re under too much pressure to search for and acquire the next mega-seller. Marek’s opinion? “I don’t mind it. The publishing house exists only to make money. And I felt pretty much that way myself. I wanted to be a financial success. Few books were. I could point you to some dogs that I published. I think if you’re a true editor, however, you’ll want to get your teeth into the book anyway. Even if it’s behind the publisher’s back.”

Why you can’t get your book accepted. If a manuscript has good writing, good characterization and good storytelling, what’s going to keep it from getting sold?

“It’s commercial appeal,” Marek says. “Now. That didn’t used to be the case. Tom McCormick, who ran St. Martin’s Press for years, and for whom I worked for a long time, was happy if a book sold 3,600 copies—provided he had only paid an advance of $2,500. And he did that with a whole bunch of books. But that’s when library sales were hugely important to publishing, and they are not anymore.”

The key to success? Marek imagines it this way: “My first boss told me that there was, for exercise in the Pantheon, a room for writers. The god of writing would lie on his bench eating chocolates—he was a fat guy and didn’t get much exercise—and he had a dartboard at the end of his room. Every once in a while he would throw a dart and when it hit, that publisher or that writer was going to be a mammoth success and there was no reason.”

A final admonition. “Books are never finished,” Marek says. “I’ve re-read my novel, which I worked on for three years painstakingly, sentence by sentence, and I see things in there now that I regret, that could be done better.”

—Alex McNab

 

Published in: on January 18, 2015 at 5:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Calling all Writers: Volunteer!

j0439384-600x564Hello writers, this is Adair Heitmann penning my post to you. Let’s talk today about a topic we rarely discuss. The forbidden word is volunteer.

“Oh no,” you exclaim, “not that, I don’t have time. Don’t make me!” Well, I won’t make you, but I’ll share a story with you.

Back in 2008 during the economy downturn, I wanted to increase my writer’s platform. I also wanted to become a member of a writer’s critique group. My name was on the wait list of Fairfield Public Library’s Writing Critique Groups. They were full. One year passes. I inquire again, the groups are still full, but I was asked if I’d like to volunteer to start and lead a new group. “Oh no, ” said I, “I am too busy!”

Time passes, I inquire again, and am extended the same invitation, basically, “If you start it they will come.” Wanting to join a local group so badly, I succumbed. Fast forward to 2014, I’m still leading a fabulous writing group and I’m co-authoring this blog. I’ve gone on to lead creative writing workshops, how to build an author’s platform, and social media programs at other libraries. I’ve even landed a full-time job at a library . . . and it all started by volunteering.

But enough about me. I know other writers who volunteer on Fairfield’s One Book One Town committee, and others who chair author talk committees. What better way to learn how to improve as a writer than to attend author talks and hear first-hand other writer’s successes and challenges? How else can you learn about publicity departments at publishing houses than to be in contact with them on behalf of your volunteer position for a local library? You aren’t tooting your own horn, you’re doing a good service.

Other writers I know volunteer every few years at big book festivals. It’s a win-win situation. Writers give back to the community, expand their professional networks, are seen in the marketplace, and build their author platforms, all while doing something they love and for a cause they believe in.

“Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another. ” ~Erma Bombeck

During this season of gratitude we are grateful for all the volunteers who help make literary connections happen, and for you, who spend time with us here online. Happy Thanksgiving.

Until next time, keep on writing.

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