Thursday, June 9, 2016
I recently heard this story:
A guy--let's call him Fred--managed a bar. He was only in his twenties, but he had a real knack for it. He was always coming up with innovative ways to draw a crowd. Under his management, Fred's bar became the most popular after-hours place in town. The business was wildly successful.
When Fred turned thirty, he decided it was time to grow up. He left his job at the bar and went to law school. He got his degree, passed the bar exam, and started practicing law. Fred now had a career, doing what he thought grown-ups should do. He was okay at it. He didn't love it.
One day, Fred ran into an old friend. They had lunch. The friend was impressed that Fred was now an attorney. Fred admitted it wasn't all he hoped it would be.
"You know what you should do?' the friend asked. "You should manage a bar."
Fred couldn't believe his ears. "I can't do that for the rest of my life! That's not a career!"
"But you know what?" the friend said. "You were great at it."
As I've written many times before, one of the biggest factors for success is follow-through. Starting a project is easy, but sticking with it after the initial excitement wears off and things get tough takes real work and tenacity.
But follow-through wasn't Fred's problem, was it? He went to law school, passed the bar, and became an attorney. Was he a success? On paper, I suppose, as our culture automatically equates certain occupations with success. On a personal level, though, Fred wasn't all that happy and his job performance was mediocre.
This got me to thinking that the recipe for success is really two-fold: Finish what you start AND Choose something you're naturally good at.
Fred's talent was in bar management, not law. He resisted the idea of running a bar because it didn't fit his image of success. Should Fred continue to practice law just because it seems to be a more respectable profession? Or should he focus on what he's best at? My guess is that with a little creative thinking, Fred could take those skills that made him a success and parlay them into a career that is more in line with his vision of himself.
Some people have tremendous tenacity, but they focus on the wrong thing. We've all seen those cringe-worthy American Idol auditions of tone-deaf singers that return year after year, swearing to never give up. Our hearts go out to them because we know they're never going to make it as singers and their extreme efforts, though admirable, feel wasted. We wonder why they can't turn that drive toward something they're actually good at.
Assuming you already have a gift for writing, you still need to be on the lookout for misplaced talent. A student in an MFA program may have the high-minded goal of publishing literary fiction when in fact he has the perfect skill set for writing mysteries. Another writer might think novels are a requirement for literary success, but she is great at writing short stories.
The good news is, as artists, our work will naturally guide us toward our abilities. The trick is not to let our egos get in the way. If you want to create serious fiction but everything you write comes out with a humorous twist, embrace it. If you want to be a literary writer, but you excel at genre fiction, embrace it. If you have your heart set on writing short stories but everything you write tends to expand into a novel, embrace it. Don't fight your natural abilities--embrace them.
Then never give up.
Monday, May 9, 2016
I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, but my recent trip to New York allowed me to catch a few Seinfeld re-runs. I'm still amazed at how well the humor and writing hold up. There are so many memorable lines and plots. Remember this one?
"The Yada Yada" episode came back to me after a recent meeting of my writing group. We've been meeting for almost two years now and certain patterns have been emerging in the mistakes we all keep repeating. I'm starting to think that most writing problems boil down to just a handful of common pitfalls. These pitfalls can be obvious to spot in other people's writing, but can be difficult to see in our own.
The most common problem that has been showing up in our group is the tendency to gloss over the most compelling part of a scene or plot point. The scene might start out strong, full of dialogue and vivid detail, but at the moment that requires big action or the story reaches an uncomfortable emotional pitch (in other words, the stuff we readers live for) the writer tends to summarize, back off so that everything suddenly works out, or abruptly end the scene. Rather than confront the dramatic moment, we often yada yada our way out of it. Another name for this phenomenon is "a missed opportunity".
Experienced writers are just as prone to the missed opportunity as newer writers. A few years ago, there was a much-celebrated, award-winning novel that I read that I didn't much care for. The story had all the makings of a great novel, but in my mind it fell short. I couldn't articulate what was missing until a friend of mine, who felt the same way about the book, pointed out that all the major plot points happened "off camera" with the characters discussing or retelling what happened after the fact. All the tension was kept at bay or diffused and the reader was never allowed to experience the most dramatic parts of the story.
As far as I can tell, missed opportunities are rooted in three causes: laziness, fear, or not knowing how to handle an aspect of the writing. No matter what the cause, a missed opportunity is a decision not to proceed. Rather than writing through a difficult scene, confronting our fear of failure, or researching writing techniques, we are deciding at a subconscious level not to deal with it. We are fooling ourselves into believing no one will notice if we sweep it under the rug. Maybe some readers won't, but the overall effect will be a flat story, devoid of emotional engagement.
Recognizing the Symptoms
If missed opportunities happen at a subconscious level, how do you know when they're there? Answering 'yes' to any of the following questions is a clue that you've given your story the yada yada:
Do big scenes happen off the page?
Are action scenes over within a few sentences?
When my protagonist encounters a problem, is it easily solved?
Do my characters tend to agree with one another about crucial issues?
During an emotionally intense exchange does one character give in to make peace?
Fixing the problem is simply a matter of reversing it. If big scenes happen off the page, bring them in. Lengthen and slow down action scenes. When a character encounters a problem, don't magically fix it. Remember, it's your job to make your protagonist's difficult. The more confrontations, the more obstacles, the more thwarted desires, the better. Don't back away from drama.
Because here's the truth...As much importance as we put on the beginnings and endings of stories, what really makes them compelling is how your characters get from point A to B. That's the yada yada. Don't rob your readers of the experience.
Monday, May 2, 2016
|The Flatiron Building. I walked past it every day on my way to work.|
I just returned from a trip to New York City. It was mostly a family vacation, but I took a little time out to visit some friends at my old workplace. It's been over ten years since I've visited and the experience was a little overwhelming. New York has changed so much that during my visit I often felt a little disoriented. Once-quiet downtown neighborhoods are now as bustling as midtown. Every parking lot I remember now has a high-rise sitting on it. Once in a while, though, I'd see something completely intact, exactly the way I remember it, and it brought me such delight. My connection to the city--though tenuous at best--is still there.
My husband and I drove our daughters batty pointing out our old haunts. We had a persistent need to press our history upon them. I wanted them to know I was not just someone who drove a minivan and cleaned the house, that I had a few experiences before they came along. But, alas, the girls didn't seem to really care all that much. To them, I'm just Mom and they're more impressed that I make waffles in the morning than the fact that I once crashed a swank party at The Plaza for the President of Ireland. (True story--and yes, Ireland has a President.)
|Union Square -- my old neighborhood.|
My earlier excitement has mellowed into a nervous resignation. I've set my expectations so low as to almost be devoid of ambition. When we sent CEDAR HOLE out my mantra was "Knopf or bust!" (That didn't happen, but Simon & Schuster's no slouch.) Now I'm going around thinking, "Whatever happens, I can always self-publish." I've become just as nervous about success as failure. Walking around New York, feeling the once-familiar manic pulse of the city, I kept thinking, "Can I do this? Am I up for it? Do I still have it in me?"
Over vacation I finally got around to reading BENEDICTION by Kent Haruf, the last book in his PLAINSONG trilogy. It was just as elegant and absorbing and heartfelt as I hoped it would be. It will forever have a place among my favorite books. On a related note, my writing mentor, Richard Russo has a book coming out May 3rd, the sequel to NOBODY'S FOOL called EVERYBODY'S FOOL. I will be running out posthaste to my local bookstore to buy it. In a recent BookPage interview, Russo calls out Kent Haruf as one of his literary role models:
"He was not only a great writer, but also a great man. He went about his work with great seriousness and modesty, caring not one iota about fame or fortune, but only the work, always the work."
Great advice to live by.
You can read the full interview HERE.
Thursday, April 14, 2016
Now that my agent is about to send my manuscript out to various editors, it's time to toughen my hide. The submission process isn't for wimps, I tell ya. In general, though, editors are a pretty tactful bunch. Rejections are often very benign, such as: "It's not right for my list," or "I'm going to have to pass." Passing, as we all know, also happens to be a euphemism for death. No matter how gracious the phrasing, a 'no' is still a 'no' and it hurts.
When we choose the creative life, rejection is part of the deal. The trick--which is much easier in theory than in practice--is to not take any of it personally. To do this, we need to remind ourselves that our work is not us. It comes from us, but it is separate from us. It is not a measure of our worth. When we tie our self-worth to our creations, we are begging for trouble.
Repeat after me: I am not my work.
I am a writer, but I'm also a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend, a volunteer. Writing is a big part of my life, but it isn't the only thing in it. When my writing isn't going well, I have these other aspects of my life to lean on. Success doesn't have to be tied to money. Some of my biggest successes have come from the volunteer work I've done at our local elementary school. Or from raising my daughters. I chalk those achievements right up there with some of the highlights of my writing career. If I never publish again I know I will be okay (a tad miserable, but essentially okay) because I'm not just a writer, but a whole person.
Not only do we have to detach from our work, we have to recognize that it's imperfect.
I'm sure you can find flaws in ever book you've ever read--and I guarantee someone will find the flaws in your book, too. There will be weaknesses that you know about and others that have never even occurred to you. It's okay. Writing is a learning process for all of us. Submit your work with humility. In the words of my writer friend Howard Waxman, offer up your work by saying, "This is the best work I am capable of at this moment in time." When we are humble, there's no reason to be embarrassed. We are not frauds waiting to be found out--we are artists who are learning, searching, experimenting with our craft.
We need to recognize that failure is an option.
Success is never guaranteed and it is certainly not owed to us. I've been working hard to set my expectations low. It's entirely possibly that my manuscript will not catch the interest of any of the big publishers. So I have a plan B. And a plan C. And I'm already working on something else. And I will continue to write, because that is my vocation. When I was young, I dreamed of literary stardom, because when you're young, everything seems possible. I have some life experience behind me now and I've learned that big publishing success brings along with it big responsibilities. I also know that big success is bestowed only upon a chosen few. If we are to live a creative life, we must be motivated by something other than the conventional definition of success.
So...have I managed to toughen your hide at least a little? Believe me--that pep talk was as much for me as it was for you. I know that I frequently blog about this topic, but it needs to be repeated often. Writing takes a particular type of courage that few people can appreciate. Let's witness it in each other.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Not to sound like too much of a fan girl, but I love Monica Wood.
Her work is tender and evocative. She gives the best readings. And by all appearances, she's just a decent human being.
Basically, I want to be Monica Wood when I grow up.
A few weeks ago, I saw that Ms. Wood had a new novel coming out and on a whim I asked her for a quick interview. To my delight, she agreed. Below, you'll find our conversation and a promo video of Monica describing her new book, THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY.
What does your typical writing day look like?
Years ago, every day looked about the same, but my professional life is far more complicated now. I spend a ridiculous amount of time on email, for example, managing the business of a full time professional writer. I usually have a stack of manuscripts that people have asked me to read. So my writing time is ever more precious, and I guard it jealousy. I am naturally a night owl but because I married an early bird my writing time is midday, about 10 until 3. Given my druthers, I would write all night and sleep till noon.
One thing I should mention if any young writers are reading this. I turn off all devices while writing. I don't have internet access on my laptop, which is where I write. Instead, I have a separate computer to connect to the wider world.
I had the good fortune of attending one of your events and it was the most entertaining reading I’ve ever seen. You have a terrific way of engaging the audience. You read just enough to whet the audience’s appetite and then weave in anecdotes and stories from your own life. What are your secrets for giving a great reading?
Experience helps. You learn over time to select not your best stuff, necessarily, but the best stuff to read aloud. Look for a lot of white space on the page; that's a good rule of thumb. Also feel free to heavily edit. The audience doesn't need a lot of context. I have also learned over time an audience would rather have you speak about the book then read at length. I usually read for about 20 minutes in 10 minute segments, between which I talk about different aspects of the book itself or the writing of it.
Last year your first play “Papermaker” was brought to life by the Portland Stage Company an drew wide acclaim. How did it compare to the world of novel writing?
There is simply no comparison between writing a novel and writing a play.
With a play you need constant input from readers, actors, and a good director. I was crazy lucky to have all of the above. With the play I had all kinds of people rowing the boat with me. What a difference from typing alone in a room. For years. With no input from anyone. Alone. Did I already say alone?
It must be magical to see actors embody your characters.
It is indeed magical, but it requires a huge willingness to let go. Actors are interpreting your words and you have to give them room to surprise you. Some of my favorite moments in PAPERMAKER were quite different from my original intention. Also, every performance is different. I both dread and look forward to seeing the play with another cast.
In your new novel, THE ONE-IN-A-MILLION BOY, you do something rather unusual--you kill off the title character on page two (I don't think I'm spoiling anything here!), yet his character continues to influence the story throughout. Was this your original intention, or did the idea evolve during the writing process?
Most things happen as I am writing, but this wasn't one of them. The challenge for me was to keep the boy alive for the reader throughout the book and I think I accomplished that. The boy appears so often - through lists he composed, recordings he made with his elderly friend, and flashback scenes -- that many readers forget he's dead. This challenge led to some structural quirks that I like.
Another unusual choice is that you never reveal the boy's name--why?
Every time I started to name him it felt wrong. To name him was to pin him to the earth, but he no longer is of the earth. he does actually have a name but only I, my husband, and my oldest sister know what it is. She named him.
Oh, boy, is this ever a long story! I hated this cover with a red hot passion but everyone from sales and marketing adored it. I thought it was too whimsical for the content , and I despised the literal depiction of a boy on a bicycle. My US publisher agreed to alter the cover. But then my UK publisher went nuts over the American cover, their sales and marketing people went nuts, and so I finally caved. And they were dead right, of course: most of the countries publishing this book are using the original cover. Lesson: writers should stick to writing and leave selling to the sellers.
It can be a fine line knowing when to stick to your guns and when to defer to the 'experts'. When it comes to editing, how do you react to those occasional suggestions that seem to come out of left field?
I have worked with a lot of editors over the years, and very very seldom have I had to put my foot down. I can honestly say that an editor has never given me terrible advice. This is not to say I have never had disputes, but I have always found that the best way to handle differences with an editor is to take a deep breath, step back, and try to see the manuscript afresh. They are frequently right. At the same time, we must not forget that as writers we have the right to say no. Lots of new writers are afraid to say no because they fear alienating the editor. But editors expect give and take. They thrive on it! The world will not end if you speak your mind.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Judy Sheehan and I go way back. All the way back to 2005, when we were part of an emerging writers panel at Book Expo America. We probably chatted a sum total of thirty minutes but hit it off right away. Since then, we've kept in touch a little through social media and cheered on each other's writing careers. In 2008, I interviewed her upon the release of her second novel WOMEN IN HATS, which you can read here.
When I recently heard that Judy had a new novel coming out I just knew I had to ask for another interview. She graciously obliged. Her latest, entitled, I WOKE UP DEAD IN THE MALL, is Judy's first YA novel. Having just finished the book, I have to say it's a perfect fit--this is Judy's best work yet. Here's our conversation about the creative process, rejection, and the afterlife.
In our previous interview in 2008, you mentioned working on a third novel—was this it?
Oh ha ha ha ha ha. This is possibly my third third novel. Or is it my thirtieth third novel? It’s been a long, long road. I came back to this process so many times, I considered changing my last name to Sisyphus. I still have a file called “12pp.” It’s a twelve-page story that serves as a prologue to a book. But I have no idea what that book is. I had books that I finished, books that I dropped midway because they were dead in the water, and one book that got all the way to publishers before it gave up the ghost. So please imagine the stress levels I was soaring through when my agent sent I WOKE UP DEAD AT THE MALL out into the world. And of course, now it’s going much more public. Ack!
When I started the first chapter of your book, I was laughing out loud by the fifth sentence--which is probably a record for me. What inspired you to choose the Mall of America as the setting for the afterlife?
Thank you! That was the goal! In an early draft of the book, the afterlife was its own special Mall, populated only by the dead. But then my super-smart agent suggested that I try setting it in a real Mall, and I went for the Mall of America. It felt so iconic. And there was a kind of logic in the location. The living never notice that the Mall is haunted, what with all the bright lights and free samples. And the dead have access to everything they need or want. My daughter and I even spent a few days at the Mall of America, in the spirit of research. And shoes. And Orange Julius.
As soon as I moved the characters into the Mall of America, the story accelerated in all the right ways. In this case, it feels like the living are almost haunting the dead, as Sarah and the others try to finish their unfinishable lives. And since the Mall of America is insanely big, it offered me lots of locations – a gorgeous aquarium, roller coasters, and so much more. It’s a self-contained universe over there. I now have a happy, almost proprietary feeling about the Mall of America. I never would have predicted that.
It's interesting how just the right detail can set everything in motion. I find that just a word or turn of phrase can suddenly unlock a character. How did you discover Sarah's voice?
I love this question, mostly because I have a very specific answer: parentheses. Yes, for me, it wasn’t a phrase, word, or even a sound—it was punctuation. All her life, Sarah has put herself on the sidelines. She has actively avoided being the center of attention, so naturally, her narration would contain a high volume of side comments. That’s how she’s been narrating her life for years and years. Even when she’s really just thinking out loud, Sarah has a side comment that drops into parentheses. I think/hope that her use of parentheses diminishes as the story goes along. That was always the plan.
This idea grew out of a remark a college friend said to me, during our senior year. I whispered a comment mocking a professor, who absolutely deserved the mockery, I swear. Later, she dubbed me the Queen of the Asides, and I realized that those side comments had become quite a thing for me. And now I’ve handed them off to Sarah. (And she’s eternally grateful.)
This is your first foray into the world of Young Adult literature.
What sparked your interest in this genre?
|photo credit: Paul d'Innocenzo|
My daughter got me started. When she became old enough to start reading Young Adult, I joined her because I probably have boundary issues. We even read a couple of books together. Really obscure ones, like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and IF I STAY. I was egged on by an online editorial that said that adults should not read Young Adult books. That made me want to both read and write them. Read or write whatever interests you, and don’t let an online snob stop you!
Amen! Was your publishing experience in YA different than for adult fiction?
It was mostly the same experience. And I think that this illustrates the fact that real grown-ups appreciate YA and any other genre of fiction. The one thing that's different for me with this book is the big bump forward in social media. I've had to dedicate a lot of time to ensure that I'm in touch with the YA bloggers, Twitter giveaways, Facebook pages, and author forums. Some of it is quite wonderful, since I get to create an introduction to my book, my characters, and me. But oh my, it's a lot. It makes me feel productive, but it isn't the same as actually writing. Sigh.
Meanwhile, I'm focusing on getting the word out to school librarians. Who knew they wielded so much power? I thought they were just there to shush me.
What does your typical writing day look like?
The truth is that I don't have a typical writing day because I shoehorn writing into days that refuse to be typical, or even mildly predictable.
When I'm really in the groove, the day tries to run like this: the morning is all about getting my daughter and me out the door. I go to work, where anything can happen. If it's a quiet day, well, how lucky that I brought my laptop with me. I can plug into Pandora and write. If it's a busy day, I wonder why I brought this laptop with me. Back home, I get dinner on the table (dinner is a pre-occupation for me), clean up, and then I sit down and really write. I don't sit at my desk, but at my dining table. I play my playlist or Pandora, and eat something cakey with cinnamon in it. I take breaks to check on my daughter and her homework. I write until my eyes hurt. That's when I know I'm done.
Rejection is a big part of any artist's life. How do you handle it?
Thankfully, most of it occurs over email, so I can pretend to be brave and noble about it when I reply. The truth is that it hurts, it gives me a stomachache and I hate it. I usually give myself a good 24-hour wallow, but after that, I just have to suck it up and move on. Life is busy, so wallows must be contained. The distractions of motherhood, life, and work can be a hindrance to getting writing done, but they are a balm when a rejection lands.
I get weirdly maternal about my characters, so a book rejection feels like someone just kicked my child. That would be my boundary issues rising up once more.
Just last week, I suffered a painful blow, and thought I was handling it with grim steeliness. But then an author that I barely know tweeted me that she was reading my new book and loved it. That tweet pushed me over the edge, and I had a good cry. And do you know what? I felt so much better after that.
Who do you like to read?
Kate Atkinson walks on water. I met her at a book signing, and I asked her this exact question, and it threw her. I felt so terrible, I can't remember her answer!
Kent Haruf and Dawn Powell may have spent some time walking on water, just like Kate. Reading with my daughter, Michael Marpurgo's War Horse was one of the most moving books I've encountered. I felt that Where'd You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, and Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, both completely lived up to the hype.
After 9/11, I found myself immersed in children's literature. Later, I realized that I was probably reaching for a moral, ordered universe through books. I re-read (and loved) all of the Narnia books, the Anne of Green Gable books, and Madeleine L'Engle. It was escapism, and it was specifically helpful. Maybe it set the groundwork for me writing a YA novel today.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Is it an act of hubris for me to dispense wisdom for aspiring writers? Too bad. You asked, so here goes:
Live your life. See every art form you can. Try every art form you can. Take jobs that make you learn new skills. Get your heart broken. Get confused. Read a lot -- and not just the books that seem tailor-made for you. Read things that seem unlikely for you. Talk to old people, young people, and people who disagree with you. Make some stupid choices, but not so stupid that you put your life in peril, because I'll worry about you, okay? Travel, as best you can, even if it just means finding a different commute to work or school. Pay attention.
These experiences will all enrich your writing, even if their impact doesn't seem obvious. Don't go for the obvious. Surprise us.
Friday, March 4, 2016
Sorry to leave you in the lurch for so long, Dear Blog Reader, but it was with good cause. I finished yet another round with my manuscript and have finally submitted it to my agent. For reals this time. We're finally moving ahead with it. This novel has definitely been hard-won, which makes reaching this milestone all the more satisfying.
Yet, the manuscript is still far from complete.
If my agent manages to find a publisher for it, this version will only be considered a first draft (hilarious, really, since it's actually the fourth draft). I will still have many more revisions ahead of me. I welcome the chance for new insights and suggestions because I want to produce my very best work. I want this book to be the best it can be.
This is how the next few weeks/months will go: Mr. Agent will read my latest draft. Next, he will email my manuscript to a group of editors he thinks would be excited by this kind of book. The editors (or their assistants) will read the manuscript. Some will read a little of it and decide right away if they are interested (or not). Others might be intrigued and read the whole thing. If one editor gets excited quickly, another editor who is on the fence might suddenly jump into the ring and express interest. Interested parties will make offers. If more than one publisher is interested, there could be an auction. It could be over in a couple of weeks, it could take months. Every sale is different. You just don't know how it's going to go.
Given that this is my sophomore literary effort, it will probably take a while. Things went pretty fast with my first book because everyone loves a debut--everyone wants to find THE NEXT BIG THING. Once they figure out you're not THE NEXT BIG THING, everyone is much more cautious the second time around. Back in the day (pre '90's) publishers would take on a writer with the intention of grooming her and developing her career. Conventional wisdom was that most writers didn't break out until their fourth or fifth book and publishers were happy to wait. The business climate is much different now. If your second novel doesn't make a splash, you might not have much of a career ahead of you.
Knowing this--and knowing that quiet literary novels have a harder time than most getting published--I'm still crazy excited. This is when the fun starts. Waiting to hear back from publishing houses is one of my absolute favorite parts of the process. All along the way, I'll be sure to keep you updated with all the highs and the lows that are sure to come. I am so excited to finally give you a real, up-close look at the publishing process. Stay tuned.
Also, in the coming weeks, I have two author interviews I'm sure you won't want to miss. Who are they? You'll just have to come back to find out.
Finally, the literary world recently lost a giant--Umberto Eco. Among the tributes, I found this short video of Eco imparting a little wisdom for aspiring writers. Click here to watch the short video. This is some of the best writing advice I've ever heard.