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.

Maddie Dawson goes to writing class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think about it.

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

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

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

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 2:59 pm  Comments (1)  
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Lessons via ebook from Lawrence Block

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“• Have interesting things happen. . . .

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

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

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

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

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

“What makes an ending work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in: on August 12, 2014 at 3:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Hot Tub Book Club

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, keep on writing!

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