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

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.

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)  
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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)  
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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  Comments (1)  
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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.

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