Monday, December 15, 2008

The Comedy of Delusion

One of my favorite comedic movie scenes of all time is the marching band scene from Woody Allen’s TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN. If you haven’t seen it (or even if you have) check it out.

When I watched the movie recently, I was curious to see if the scene would have the same effect on me as it did when I first saw it ten years ago. Sure enough, I was doubled over, laughing so hard I was crying. We all know that humor is an elusive, subjective thing that is difficult to nail down, but watching the marching band scene again after all these years made me wonder why it still worked.

In thinking about this, it occurred to me that the joke breaks over the audience in several waves. First of all, there is Allen’s masterful stroke of absurdity—a cellist in a marching band. Once the initial surprise of this begins to wear off, we are hit with the realization of the logistical implications of a seated musician playing in a moving group. Then we are hit again as the band passes by Virgil and he has to pick up the chair, move it forward, sit, and start to play again. And if that wasn’t enough, we are hit again and again as the band passes him and he repeats the whole silly routine over and over. Instead of getting tiresome, Virgil’s attempts at keeping up just get funnier and funnier. It’s funny because even though we know his actions are futile, Virgil seems to think he’ll eventually figure out a way to keep up. He’s continually doing the same thing but expecting a different result—a form of insanity.

Perhaps my favorite form of comedic insanity is megalomania, which is the condition of being deluded about one’s power and importance. If I wasn’t afraid of repeating myself, I would write only about megalomaniacs because of their rich comic appeal. Fictional megalomaniacs that most readily come to mind are Barney Fife from the Andy Griffith Show, Don Quixote, and my personal favorite--Ignatius J. Reilly from John Kennedy Toole’s A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES. Reilly’s snobbish disdain for nearly everyone and everything becomes hilariously ironic when juxtaposed against his own sloth and social ineptitude.

Delusion is the gap between who a character thinks he is and who we know him to be. Beyond the comedy, there is also enormous potential for self-examination by the audience. Who does he think he is? we ask ourselves. Becoming judge and jury, we are then forced to ask, Who do we think we are?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Try A Little Tenderness

A few posts back I discussed the issue of character likeability and whether a writer is obligated to create likeable characters. For the most part my answer is no, with one caveat: it is usually in the best interest of the story to make an unlikeable character sympathetic, particularly if he is immoral. As I mentioned earlier, giving immoral characters a sympathetic turn is one of the great hallmarks of skilled writing—especially when a writer convinces a reader to set aside his own moral code to root for the bad guy.

How is this done?

Character detail and depth are key, but the real secret is that an author must have a genuine affection for each of her characters. She must love them like her own children, mourning their failures and cheering on their successes, no matter how nefarious the goal. When everyone hates her character, the author has to be the one who says, “I know he did a bad thing, but give him a chance—he really is a good boy.”

It may seem like a stretch to expect a writer to be in love with murderers and thugs and all sorts of despicable personalities, but most writers understand that every character has their own point of view and a story worth telling. Better writing explores the nuances of moral ambiguity, gives voice to the voiceless, stirs compassion where normally there would be none.

In order to evoke sympathy, it’s not necessary to psychoanalyze and delve deeply into the past, though backstory can certainly help. Often, all you need to do to get a reader on your side is to show a little weakness. For example, in my novel, THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE, the main character, Francis is bullied by his oldest sister, Jackie. There is very little to like about Jackie—she is mean, emotionally stunted, greedy, and frequently uses threats and force to get her way. When I was writing the story, I knew that no one would really care for Jackie, but I still wanted to gently plead her case because she had been shaped by neglect, insecurity, and self-loathing. Despite her behavior, I knew that she wasn’t all bad.

To show her vulnerability, I constructed a scene between Jackie and her mother, Franny Pinkham. Franny tells Jackie (who is in her early twenties) that it’s high time she moved out and looked for a place of her own. Jackie does not take the news well, and in her typical fashion tries to run out of the kitchen. Franny blocks her, but Jackie plows through and ends up accidentally pushing her mother. Franny hits her head on the counter and falls to the floor. The head wound is small, but there is enough blood to make it look bad.

Given Jackie’s past insensitivities, it would not have been entirely unexpected for Jackie to leave her mother there on the floor, but really, only a sociopath would leave their mother alone and bleeding. This scene was a perfect opportunity to show Jackie’s fumbling humanity. Instead of running, she sinks to the floor and cradles her mother’s head in her lap. She still isn’t quite capable of an apology—at first she blames her mother for falling, then she says it’s an accident—but Jackie’s sudden gentleness shows the reader that she is truly sorry. Jackie becomes even more vulnerable when she says, “What do I do? I don’t know what to do.” It’s a refrain that refers not only to the urgency of the moment, but to the uncertainty of her future.

Action movie characters are often humanized by a love interest or friendship. While most of the time the hero’s actions are criminal, the audience will cut him some slack when they discover that he was once deeply in love or a very loyal friend. Usually, the love interest or the friend has been killed and our hero is a loner once again. Because he is capable of love, he becomes human in our eyes. The moral code is realigned toward this loss, and while we may or may not agree with how he handles his thirst for vengeance we can at least understand his motivation. He has now become a sympathetic character.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Write a Novel in 30 Days?

I know I promised to divulge a secret for creating sympathetic characters—and I promise to get to it soon—but I couldn’t help commenting first on National Novel Writing Month. Through the month of November, writers and aspiring writers alike are encouraged to try producing a 50,000 word manuscript. Obviously, speed is the goal here, as well as ignoring your inner censor. It’s a chance for self-critical writers to let go and just produce instead of second-guessing every word. Admittedly, the quality of the work will suffer, but by the time the November 30th deadline rolls around, the hope is that the writer will have a first draft to work with.

As someone who has spent MANY hours fretting over word choice when I should have just kept plowing ahead, I fully understand the need for momentum. I also like the community and accountability aspect of such an exercise. If someone is too afraid to take the writing plunge, this project just might be motivation he needs.

And yet I really wonder if this exercise is really all that valuable. Except in those rare instances when a writer is overcome with frenzied inspiration (like my friend Pat, for example), it’s completely unrealistic to think a writer can force himself to write a novel in a month. At best, he will likely end up with a glorified outline—not a complete novel—which is definitely a fine starting place, but not an end unto itself. At worst, he will end up with a mess of false starts, wrong detours, and shallow thinking that will require much more work to untangle than he would have otherwise had to contend with had he taken a more deliberate approach.

What I suspect might actually happen for most writers who attempt the exercise is that at the end of the month they’ll fall short of the goal. Either they won’t make the word count, or the story will be unfinished, or maybe they will hate every word that they’ve written. What concerns me is that these writers will be too discouraged to work beyond the end of the month, and that they’ll blame themselves instead of seeing that their expectations were unrealistic to begin with.

I also question the wisdom of celebrating speed over quality. It’s easy to write the first thing that comes to our heads, but the real art comes from digging deeper, past even the second or third idea that comes to us. I would argue that a writer should take more pride in a single, well-crafted sentence than a month’s worth of thoughtless purging.

The concept of a month dedicated to writing a novel would serve writers better if the requirement was a daily time commitment and the goal was determined by each writer, individually. Many writers will find that they need a push to get started, but many more will need support in the middle of their novels, when the initial inspiration has worn off and the end is nowhere in sight. It is here—in this tenuous no man’s land—where most writers abandon their stories and where they need the most support. The solution is commitment, not speed.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Post-Election Euphoria

Although I am a very political person by nature, I have purposely avoided discussing politics on this blog because there is no place for it here. Still, I find it impossible not to mention the monumental events of the past few days, and the tremendous sense of awe and relief that the election has brought. Even all the way up here in rural Maine, most of the people I have spoken with over the last few days have been incredibly moved and jubilant.

My friend Rik sent me this link from his blog showing the spontaneous rally that erupted in my old neighborhood, Union Square, NYC, right after Obama was declared the winner. I wish I had been there.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Just returned from the polls. I always find that voting--even when it's under much more mundane circumstances--is a very moving experience. Taking part in the election process is the ultimate expression of our freedom, so if you haven't done so already, I hope that you'll make voting your biggest priority today.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Character Likeability

When a reader is unable to connect to a story, a common reason is that he finds the characters unlikeable. Even if he enjoys the writing style and the plot, if he dislikes a character enough the entire book becomes unbearable to read. Scan through enough Amazon reviews and you’ll find numerous rants along this vein.

Which begs the question: Is a writer obligated to create likeable characters?

Before we can answer the question we have to define what it means to be unlikeable, because to different readers it means different things. If by unlikeable the reader means merely irritating, the answer is maybe. In general, I would say that liking or not liking a fictional character is subjective and the author is entitled to her creation. However, if enough readers find the character too unpalatable to spend any time with, the author ought to take note and consider toning it down a bit.

If by unlikeable the reader means morally repugnant, I would say that no, the author is absolutely not required to change her character. My feelings about this are along the same lines as the use of profanity in literature—in order to examine life’s big questions, sometimes it’s important to go to the dark side. The greatest conflict in the universe is good vs. evil; to ignore that fact by populating a book with only nice characters is absurd.

However, even if a reader is willing to accept that an immoral character is worthy of her attention, he may still find the character unlikeable if he is unsympathetic. Once again, the writer is not required to change the character’s moral code for the sake of the reader, but I do feel that she has an obligation to evoke a little sympathy in the reader or at least give the reader some understanding into the character’s motivations. Giving immoral characters a sympathetic turn is one of the great hallmarks of skilled writing—especially when a writer convinces a reader to set aside his own moral code just long enough to root for the bad guy.

A character need not be immoral to be unsympathetic. Sometimes his motivations are simply obscured; the reader will then find his actions puzzling and illogical. Without the transparency of motivation, the reader may find difficulty connecting with the character.

Next Time: The Secret to Creating Sympathetic Characters

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Writing What You Don't Know

About ten years ago, I created a series of teen books called ON THE ROAD. It was about a recent high school graduate named Miranda who takes a year off before college to travel across the country. I had envisioned a fifty book series with Miranda visiting every state in the union. I loved the premise and quickly found a publisher who loved it, too. The only problem—which I kept to myself—was that at the time I had never traveled west of the eastern seaboard.

Information wasn’t as widely available on the Internet as it is now, so I set about doing my research the old-fashioned way. I read many travel guides and clipped newspaper articles about popular destinations; I requested info from the chamber of commerce of several cities; I talked to as many people as I could about the places where they grew up.

Even still, the task felt overwhelming. There was too much room for error. What if my details were wrong? How could I possibly capture the feeling of a place without ever being there?

For a while, these two questions paralyzed me—until I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a travel guide, I was writing fiction. Yes, I wanted to do justice to the places Miranda visited, but the real point of the story was her own self-discovery. It was more important to stay true to Miranda’s inner journey than to worry about documenting every nuance of the landscape. It was then that I learned the magic of the well-placed detail. If you confidently scatter a handful of researched details within your fiction, the reader will often believe that you are an authority on the particular subject.

For example, at one point in the series, I had Miranda travel to Cincinnati. I don’t know much about the city, but being a foodie, I know about their famous chili. So, I stuck her in a diner, which is easy enough to describe, and had her order a 5 way (spaghetti, chili, onions, beans, and piles of cheese) just like a native. The detail is specific to the region, interesting to people who have never been there, and nostalgic for those who have. Other small details to consider: the terrain, native trees and flowers, landmarks, popular phrases and customs, local businesses, climate, etc.

Or what if you’re writing about an industry you’re unfamiliar with? Don’t feel like you have to pull a Tom Clancy and know it inside and out (although there’s nothing wrong with that) before you can write about it. Research two or three aspects of the industry really well, place them strategically in the story and move on. You don’t have to inundate the reader with detail to be convincing. Just a sprinkling here and there will suffice.

I’ll admit that writing about what you don’t know does, at times, feel a bit fraudulent. Here’s why it’s not: the purpose of fiction is often to reveal universal truths, which often requires a writer to stretch beyond his realm of experience. Secondly, a reader brings her own experiences to the work. Give the reader a few good details to hang her hat on, and her imagination will do the rest.

When I turned in my final manuscript for ON THE ROAD, I remember being a bit nervous because I had sent Miranda to San Francisco. I wasn’t really sure I could write about such a famous city convincingly. When my editor called to discuss rewrites, she was very excited.

“I lived there for ten years, you know,” she said.

Oh, great, I thought. Busted.

"You nailed it.”

I had to laugh. I really didn’t do much at all—it was her experience of San Francisco that brought the story to life. But I still didn’t tell her that I’d never been there.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dialogue Workshop: The Interview

Dialogue is a tricky beast. The key is to make it as natural is possible (when appropriate), but what sounds natural to our ears doesn’t always scan well on the page. I’ve learned a few techniques here and there to deal with different dialogue problems—today, I’m going to talk about how to avoid writing an exchange between two characters that sounds like an interview.

All writers have done this at one time or another. You have two characters and you need to convey some bit of information, so you kick off the dialogue with character #1 asking a question. Character #2 answers the question. Character #1 asks another question. Character #2 answers that question. And it continues on and on with character #1 basically conducting an interview and character #2 adding nothing to the conversation.

For example: let’s say we have two characters, Bob and Joe. Bob has sent Joe to the store to buy some soda. An hour later, Bob finds Joe sprawled on the couch, watching TV.

“Did you go to the store, yet?” said Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe.

“How long have you been sitting here?”

“A while.”

“Where is my soda?”

“On the counter,” said Joe.

“Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“It’s in my coat pocket.”

There is always a place for a character to ask repeated questions, but like all things, it should be used in moderation. This time, I’m going to rewrite the example, eliminating all but one question:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“Yeah,” said Joe, “Got back a while ago. Soda’s on the counter.”

“It’s warm.”

“I forgot to put it in the fridge, sorry.”

“You can leave the change on the table,” said Bob.

“It’s in my coat pocket if you want to get it now.”

By eliminating all but one of the questions, you can avoid the monotony of interview-style dialogue. The conversation becomes tighter and Joe has the opportunity to participate and have a little personality.

A different way to combat an interview is to answer a question with a question. This is a particularly good technique when there is tension between the two characters. Here’s the same example again, rewritten with Joe asking some questions of his own:

“How long have you been sitting here?” asked Bob.

“What are you, the TV police?”

“Where is my soda?”

“Where do you think? It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“You could’ve put it in the fridge.”

“I forgot.”

“Was there any change?”

“Are you worried I’m going to keep it?”

It’s a bit much to counter every question with another one, but you can see how answering a question with another question turns the tables and puts Joe in control of the conversation instead.

Another option is to have Joe avoid answering the questions altogether:

“Did you go to the store, yet?” asked Bob.

“It’s on the counter,” said Joe.

“It’s warm. Why didn’t you put it in the fridge?”

“The change is in my coat pocket.”

In this example, Joe’s answers come across as non sequiturs, but in the context of a larger conversation it would illustrate avoidance and closed off emotions.

Interview-style dialogue sometimes reads like the author is thinking aloud; it's almost as if
he's the one asking the characters what's going to happen next. When you catch yourself in the question and answer cycle, take a moment to dig a little deeper.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Free Indirect Style

The air has suddenly turned crisp here in Maine, signaling the onset of fall. Even though I graduated from college some fifteen years ago, this time of year always makes me feel a bit academic; I start reaching for the classics and for books about the writing process. To this end, I recently purchased a copy of critic James Wood’s HOW FICTION WORKS.

While the book is touted as a guide for writers and readers alike, I think all but the most critical of readers will find the book will find the book confusing and—dare I say it?—a tad boring. But for writers, this stuff is gold. Wood takes numerous examples from the literary canon and shows specifically why a passage does or doesn’t work. Readers may be a bit confused because it seems to me that it’s necessary to have attempted to write through some of these problems to fully understand the points being made.

The first twenty pages of the book alone are worth the price of admission and I encourage all novice writers to take a look. The topic is point of view. In brief: Wood argues that third person is rarely fully omniscient, that the narrator has a tendency to want to follow the thoughts of whatever character he happens to be talking about. Wood calls this “free indirect style”, but it is also often called “close third person”.

Close third person is sometimes likened to a camera perched on the shoulder of a character. We see everything through her eyes. This definition is a bit limiting, because it implies there still is a bit of distance—there are the narrator’s thoughts and the character’s thoughts. The camera both tells the story and tells us what the character is thinking.

Free indirect style, while basically the same thing, has a slightly different connotation. As Wood illustrates, free indirect style is more of a cross between straight omniscient narration and stream of consciousness. It allows the writer to tell the story from the narrator’s point of view and the character’s point of view alternately and simultaneously, often right within the same sentence. We dip in and out of the character’s thoughts, sometimes with just the choice of one word. Wood uses a masterful example from Henry James’s WHAT MAISIE KNEW to illustrate the point. The character we are close to is Maisie, a child. In a single passage of close third narration, James shows us three points of view simply with strategic word choice: 1) Maisie’s opinion, 2) the adults’ opinion, and 3) Maisie’s childlike version of the adults’ opinion. For further detail, I urge you to read James' passage and Wood’s analysis.

For this blog, I’ll offer a decidedly less brilliant example from my own writing. Here’s an early draft of a passage from the novel I’m currently working on. It pales against what Henry James accomplishes, but it’s enough of a taste of free indirect style to illustrate the point.

Ovid Kingsley tripped on air and landed face-down in the vestibule of his apartment building, wondering who—other than himself—was to blame for this unexpected fall. Splayed on the floor, Ovid rested his cheek on the gritty linoleum. In that blank moment between bewilderment and pain, three of his limbs swept in helpless arcs around him, while Ovid’s right arm, having failed to break his fall, crumpled rudely beneath his chest. As the pain yawned from wrist to elbow, Ovid uncoiled a comprehensive list of expletives aimed at all parties responsible for this moment: his mother and her toothpick ankles, which he’d inherited; Windy Bluffs, that pink bubble on WXYZ, who once again failed to forecast the correct time line of this sudden deluge; the anonymous Chinese laborer who no doubt incorrectly glued the soles of his shoes—just to name a few.

Most of the passage is told in the narrator’s voice, but I’ve highlighted a few words and phrases where Ovid’s voice is interjected, where his thoughts almost seem to interrupt the narration. These words are a bit more loaded—Ovid is trying to blame everyone but himself for the fall, so phrases such as “toothpick ankles” or “that pink bubble” or "who once again failed" or “who no doubt incorrectly glued” are tinged with anger. The narrator has no reason to be angry, so we know that these words belong to Ovid and not the narrator.

Free indirect style adds finesse to your writing. Rather that opting for the easy way out by telling the reader what your character is thinking, trying weaving your character’s state of mind within the narration using carefully chosen words. It will give your narration life.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Keep It To Yourself

Occasionally, I’ll drop by the Writer’s Digest forums and read some of the threads, putting in my two cents here and there. Today, I found an interesting post by a writer named Lexi, who has been showing her unfinished manuscript to family and friends. She’s found herself in a quandary because her readers are so involved in the story they're telling what should happen next. Now she’s afraid of disappointing them if she takes the story in a different direction.

The writing process is different for everyone, but I cannot stress how perilous it is to share too much too soon. Most new writers are guilty of this—when an idea is bubbling inside you, it’s very difficult not to share it with someone. You explain your story to your loved ones, mostly in hope of a little affirmation, and the next thing you know they’re too involved, adding their own flourishes and plotlines. Or worse, their enthusiasm doesn’t match yours. The reason could simply be that they can’t visualize the story’s execution the way you can, but nonetheless, it can take the wind right out of your sails. Suddenly, the story that you couldn’t wait to write is no longer so urgent for you. Without that urgency, much of the magic of creation is lost.

Or maybe, like Lexi, you’ve shared your half-written story and are so inundated with opinions that you don’t know how to proceed. As Lexi now knows, she would have been much better off finishing a first draft before sharing the story with anyone. That way, at least, she could have had the peace to stick to her own vision, instead of feeling the need to bend to someone else’s.

When I was studying writing at Colby, I had the opportunity to meet the author Gish Jen (TYPICAL AMERICAN, THE LOVE WIFE). Among the great bits of advice she shared with our class, Gish recommended that when we were ready to write our first novels, we complete the first draft before sending the manuscript to agents and publishers. Her reason was that if you send only a partial draft, the editor would have too much sway with the rest of the story and it would no longer be just yours alone. I took this advice to heart.

When writing CEDAR HOLE, I didn’t show my work to anyone for four long years. I didn’t even show my husband. In fact, I didn’t let him read anything until it had been edited and galley-bound. When I tell people this, they find it slightly odd that I would keep the story even from my spouse. All I can say is that this is what works for me. These are my characters, living in my world, and any outside influence tends to complicate matters.

I’ve also discovered that keeping a story bottled up inside is a great source of creative energy. The moment I let the story out verbally, there’s no longer a need to write it down. It already exists in the world.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Was Bookman Involved?

Here's a news story straight out of that Seinfeld library episode. I've never seen such a happy mugshot.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Remembering Martha

I’m sad to report that earlier this week a friend of mine, Martha Blowen, passed away. Martha was an artist, a papermaker, a publisher, a writing coach, and a lovely, gentle soul. With her partner, Denis Ledoux, Martha started a small Franco-American publishing house called Soleil Press, which focused on memoirs and the immigrant experience. I spent several college summers interning at Soleil Press—copyediting, typing, stuffing envelopes—getting as much publishing experience as I could soak up.

I have many warm memories of sitting around Denis and Martha’s kitchen table drinking tea, looking out at the rolling fields behind their house, talking about the creative process. Their way of life was such an inspiration. Growing up in a small, blue collar town, I had never really known anyone who had given up the grind to do just what they loved—much less for art, which was deemed a frivolous luxury. Money was sometimes tight and they definitely had their struggles, but Martha and Denis were present for their children and for each other in ways that many of us would envy. They showed me there was another way to live.

In Martha’s own words:

“And you also can create the life you want. 'Follow your bliss' is not lightly said. There will be consequences and choices to make, but there's integrity in following what you know you should be doing for yourself.”

She will be missed.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Book Notes

Hannah Tinti, a former colleague of mine from Writers House, has just released her debut novel THE GOOD THIEF. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. Read the review here and the fantastic premise and I’m sure it’ll have running to your nearest bookstore to pick up a copy.


Had lunch with Patrick Robbins last week, who is feverishly revising his novel, TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY, so he can be out of that tin can before the snow flies. I’ve been one of the lucky few to read the first draft, which is best described as HIGH FIDELITY meets THE GREAT GATSBY. I can definitely see this one on the big screen.


On a whim, I decided to see if Tess Gerritsen had returned to blogging after being severely flamed earlier this year. Happily, she has. Check out this entry about what to pack on book tour. She writes that authors have become increasingly casual over the years--if you see an author in a business suit, it means they’ve either written a business book or it’s their first tour. I had to laugh, recalling the navy Brooks Brothers suit I bought for my first tour. I never wore the suit, going instead with simple black pants and a black sweater. I’ve learned since that black is supposedly a bad choice because it makes you seem unapproachable.

Is that why my book signings were always so empty?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Even though I’m a big believer in not taking advantage of people’s kindness, I’m also a big believer in being aggressive when an opportunity is presented to you. If the favorite metaphor for opportunity is a door, I like to think that if someone opens it even just a crack, I’m going to wedge my foot in there to make sure it doesn’t close again.

Haste is your best tool for the job. When someone offers to meet with you or talk with you—no matter how off-handedly the offer is made—try to nail down a date as soon as possible. If someone offers to read your work, get it to them as fast as you can. It shows that you’re serious and keeps the momentum going while you’re still fresh in mind.

An acquaintance of mine once returned from a writers’ conference very excited—she had made contact with an agent who was interested in reading her work. She told me the news a week after the fact, and still hadn’t sent him her work. She was hesitating because she didn’t think her manuscript was in perfect shape. Every day that passed, she grew less and less confident about sending it, and it’s very likely that as each day passed she was fading from the agent’s memory. I didn’t keep in touch with her so I have no idea if she ended up sending it in. If her manuscript was ready enough to pitch at a writers’ conference, then I think her best course of action would have been to FedEx that puppy the second she returned home.

When I tried out for my first ghostwriting job, my writing sample was initially rejected. The editor called to tell me what was wrong with my sample. During the course of the phone conversation, I took copious notes. At the end of the phone call, she said, “If you have any other questions, you can call me and maybe we can meet for coffee sometime.” She said this so casually I don’t think she really expected me to take her up on it. I could have said, “Sure, thanks,” and left it at that, but instead I said, “I’m free next week—is there a day that works for you?”

I’m really not sure where this confidence came from—I just didn’t want the opportunity to slip away. The editor was caught a little off-guard but kindly agreed to meet with me, under the guise of talking more about how my sample needed to be improved…but I had other plans.

In the week prior to our meeting, I spent my time carefully going through her suggestions and studying the series to see what I needed to fix. Then I worked hard to get my sample into shape. We didn’t end up having coffee—instead, we met in her office. She let me know that she was very busy and that I had just a few minutes to ask questions. Instead rehashing our previous discussion, I presented her my revised sample and politely asked her to look it over “just to make sure I was on the right track.” She was taken aback that I was so prepared. She read the first page and hired me on the spot.

When an opportunity arises, you have to be prepared to jump on it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Seizing Opportunities vs. Being an Opportunist

About ten years ago I did something that I still feel bad about.

A friend and colleague of mine had a meeting with some producers at MTV to pitch a show—it was quite a coup for him and he was very excited about the meeting. Instead of celebrating this success with him, I started thinking about how I could benefit from this meeting. After all, I had created a book series that had great potential as a TV show, and gee, it wasn’t every day that someone I knew was rubbing elbows with television producers. Even though I knew deep down that I was crossing the line, I asked him to bring along a copy of my series treatment and slip it to someone important when he had the chance.

Never mind that I was putting him on the spot. Never mind that he had his own pitch to worry about. Never mind that slipping my treatment to the producers could make him look unprofessional. Never mind that I was jeopardizing our friendship.

When he returned from the meeting, I asked him how it went. He said he didn’t have a chance to give my treatment to anyone. He couldn’t look me in the eye when he said this, which led me to believe that he had simply not chosen to do it. I was disappointed—and ashamed of my behavior.

When you start seeking out opportunities, it’s easy to get greedy. If you’re not careful, you can start seeing the people around you as commodities. There’s a fine line between seizing opportunities and being an opportunist; you need to be aggressive enough to kick doors open, but not so aggressive that you exploit people’s kindness and personal relationships. Here are a few guidelines to help you get ahead without stepping on any toes:

1) Information is free—action is not. One of the best ways to create opportunities is to ask questions. When successful people have the time, they are usually more than happy to share their expertise. Be polite, listen with true interest, and ask the right questions and you’d be surprised what opportunities can open up for you. Sometimes they might even offer to help you out in a more concrete way. If they don’t, it’s best not to ask for any favors. There are, of course, many exceptions— you just have to be able to read the person and the situation correctly. When in doubt, thank them for their time and be happy with the information you have.

2) Assume the other person’s time and resources are more valuable than yours. If you remember this rule, you are much more likely to approach any situation in a more generous frame of mind. Sure, you might be the next Jonathan Safran Foer, but you still need to assume that most people are too busy to talk to you—because most of them are. Rather than thinking, “You’ll want to help me because I’m going to be famous someday,” you should use phrases like, “I hope I’m not disturbing you…” or “Thank you for your time” or “If you have a moment to spare, I’d love to find out about…” Then be as brief and concise as possible. You don’t have to grovel—just be considerate.

3) If someone does you a favor, be accommodating. If they agree to a phone interview, call on time. If they agree to meet you in person, let them choose the time and place, and if your schedule is busy, move mountains to be there at the time that is best for them. If they agree to read your manuscript, give them as much time as they need.

4) If someone does you a favor, don’t ask for another. Once someone has helped you out, it may be tempting to squeeze just one more favor out of them. You have to be aggressive to get ahead, right? What will likely happen is that you’ll look greedy and may even come across as a bit of a pest, which will only backfire on you. Accept the favor and then search out other opportunities.

5) A little gratitude goes a long way. This may be the most important tip to remember. If you’re meeting in person, buy them lunch or a cup of coffee. Send thank you notes. Let them know that you appreciate what they’ve done.

The main goal of showing gratitude and consideration is to be respectful of others—the side benefit is that you will build a favorable impression and maybe even a lasting relationship. Arrogance closes doors, respect opens them.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Good Enough Opportunities

A few weeks ago I watched an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares and the show had me in fits. For the uninitiated, Ramsay is a famous chef and TV personality with restaurants all over the world, who swoops into troubled eateries and saves them from financial and culinary ruin. Ramsay’s style runs somewhere between foul-mouthed drill sergeant and exasperated life coach. With a little cleaning, some blunt advice, and a whole lot of free publicity, Ramsay usually manages to turn the restaurant around.

Not so with Piccolo Teatro, a tiny vegetarian restaurant in Paris, which was the subject of the episode that made me crazy. The restaurant was bleeding money, yet it appeared that no one was making any effort at all—not even with Chef Ramsay standing by and pointing out the problems. The cook was goofy and unprepared. The restaurant’s only waitress quit the second Ramsay criticized her. The owner, the worst offender of all, was lazy and had no authority. At times, it seemed as though she cared about saving her restaurant, and then she’d do something like stay home all day (without informing anyone) because she said her cat was having kittens. Instead of making an effort, she was full of excuses.

Despite revamping the menu, hiring a young, talented new chef, starting a lunch service and making the restaurant profitable again, even Ramsay couldn’t save Piccolo Teatro. When he returned to Paris a few weeks later for a follow-up, he discovered that the owner had closed the restaurant.


It seems inconceivable that someone with so many great opportunities, with a road map to success spelled out explicitly, would just throw it all away. I can’t begin to speculate as to her reasons for giving up, but I do know that some people are so afraid of success or failure that they’ll sabotage every opportunity that comes their way, sometimes without even consciously knowing it. I truly believe that what separates successful people from the rest of the pack is not talent or money or connections—it’s hard work, perseverance, and most of all the ability to seize opportunities, no matter how small.

When I moved to New York City from a small town in Maine, I hardly knew anyone. I was 22 and timid, largely unfamiliar with city life, and had no connections. I had just enough money to last in New York but a few months. I knew my time was limited there. I also knew that if I went back home right away, my chances of having a career in the publishing business would be zip. Back home, I had been offered a great position in sales by someone who had seen me working at my summer job. The offer included a car and a great salary, and the security of being in familiar territory. All I had to do was say the word and the job was mine. The problem was, this opportunity didn’t coincide with my goal of working in publishing and becoming a writer. I was scared to be in New York, but the thought of giving up on my goals—without giving it a real try—was even scarier.

I made a promise to myself that whatever publishing opportunity came along I would take it, no matter what. It didn’t have to be a perfect opportunity, just a good enough opportunity. I didn’t have resources to wait for something perfect, which may or may not have materialized, anyway.

I found my first job through the New York Times’ classifieds. The position was for a file clerk in the accounting office of a small literary agency. It paid very little. I wasn’t sure I could handle the accounting they wanted me to do. It wasn’t a perfect opportunity (or so I thought at the time) but it was good enough. Jump in first, I told myself, and figure out the rest as it comes. I had nothing to lose.

I wasn’t there but five months when I co-worker told me about one of the agency’s clients—a company that packaged book series for teenagers. She told me they needed ghostwriters. That’s all I needed to hear. I asked around and got more information about the process. I made a phone call. I wasn’t really interested in writing books for teenagers, but I was interested in writing, period. Good enough.

Within a few weeks I had my first ghostwriting contract and was writing at night in addition to my day job. My income doubled and I was leading a comfortable existence in New York. Soon I was writing, building valuable contacts, learning everything I could about the publishing industry, and writing books along the way. Good enough opportunities turned out to be perfect opportunities. I ended up spending six productive and fun years in the city, and used all that I learned along the way to get my first adult novel published.

And as far as Kitchen Nightmares goes, the episode did end on bit of a bright note. Even though Piccolo Teatro closed, Gordon Ramsay saw tons of potential in the young chef he had hired for the restaurant, and offered her a new job in one of his own kitchens. I’m happy to say that she jumped at the opportunity.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

White Noise

Vacations are a bit of a paradox for writers. We want a mental break from our usual obsessing so we opt for a change of scene or carve out a bit of quiet time for ourselves, but in doing so we often inadvertently stir our creative juices.

This happened to me on my recent vacation. My goal was to forget about the never ending pile of work waiting for me at home, get caught up on some badly needed sleep, and enjoy lots of uninterrupted time with my family. I gave myself permission to forget about writing for the week—a little relief from the constant self-imposed pressure to produce.

Before my vacation, I had felt as though my well had run dry. Creating was a forced activity, instead of a natural one. But as soon as I managed to find a few quiet moments to myself, I was surprised to find ideas quickly coming to the surface. Without any conscious effort, dialogue and narration started flowing. It was very strange; it was almost as if the story was playing low on a crackly radio station and only when I stopped long enough to listen I was able to tune into what was being said.

It struck me that maybe part of us is always creating and that creativity is the background noise of our daily lives. How comforting to know it is always there, quietly waiting for us. All we have to do is sit still enough to hear it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Book Launch 2.0

For those of you who have published, I'm sure you've had this conversation. For all aspiring authors out there, some day you will.

Thanks to Pat for the link.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Living the Dream: An Update on Patrick Robbins

Back in April I told you about my friend from college, Patrick Robbins, who had just completed his MFA and was going off into the wilderness to live in an Airstream trailer and write his first novel. I was a little concerned for his sanity, but as it turns out, the experiment has been a tremendous success. Not only has he been tremendously disciplined, he’s managed to write the complete first draft of his novel in just 54 days!

Periodically, I’ll be checking in with Patrick to follow his process from creation to publication. I have no doubt his work will find an audience; Patrick is funny, sharp, and has a unique point of view. I caught up with him last week to see how things were going.

How's life in isolation? Are you cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs yet?

No more so than before. Truth be told, it's not as Waldenesque as you may be picturing it - we couldn't get the Airstream into the woods, what with the ground being too soft and the maneuverability issues, so instead it's parked out behind the family barn. I come up to the house for lunch, dinner, bathroom stuff, and Internet usage (on a glacial dial-up connection). So I get to interact with humans on a fairly consistent basis.

One of my friends sent me an email where he asked me, "Do you get lonely?" I gave him the above assurances, then added, "Frankly, I don't have the time to get lonely." I'm too involved with the book I'm writing, and with the people in it. Maybe when it's finished...

What's your daily routine like?

I arise sometime between 6 and 7, depending on how cloudy it is (my window faces the east), and have two granola bars, a yogurt, and a multivitamin (I've got one of those Playmate coolers to keep things cold in). Up to the house to clean my teeth and everything outside of them. My mom and I then go on a three to five-mile walk - I live on a dirt road, so it's a nice and natural way to get my brain from second gear into fourth. Back at the house, I fill a 64-ounce mug with water, topped off with just a little something sweet for flavor (cider's good, ginger ale's not). By now it's between 9 and 10, and I start to writing.

Come noon, I knock off for an hour for lunch and a look at email and postage mail. Then it's back to it at one, with another giant mug of water. (Yes, that's a gallon of water a day, for those keeping track at home.) During the school year, my nephew, who's twelve, would get dropped off here at 2:30 to wait for his mom to come pick him up; he often came down to the trailer, which usually spelled an end to my writing day. If he didn't, I could go right through to dinnertime. After that, I generally read until there's insufficient daylight (no electricity in the trailer), usually around 8:30, and then go to bed. It can take a long time to get back down into first gear, but I'd say I'm usually asleep by ten.

Have you been productive?

Some days more than others, but overall, absolutely yes. I made a habit of starting every day by writing down the date, right next to whatever the last word was I wrote the day before; that way, by the time I put the pen down, I could see exactly how much writing I'd done that day. Three pages a day was good. My record was six. One day I only got two lines. But I put an awful lot of thought into what was going to be happening to the characters, so I consider that a productive day too. There's a great story about Truman Capote: the writer Robert Ruark said to him, "I wrote five thousand words today, Truman, and I bet you sat there at that desk with your quill pen and wrote one word." Truman said, "Yes, Robert, but it was the right word."

Are you writing it all out by hand or using a computer?

The first draft is done entirely by hand. I find that I can't be creative through a machine; it's got to flow from my mind straight to the page. To Make Others Happy was written out in a beautiful six by eight blank book my older sister got for me one Christmas many years ago; I've been waiting for a worthwhile project to use it for, and this was it. I should note here that my penmanship is quite small; I was able to get an average of 35 lines of writing on a page, maybe 600 words. So to rephrase what I said above, 1800 words a day was good, and my record was 3600. That's all guesswork; I'll know the exact figures once I type it.

And speaking of typing, that's where the second draft comes in. While I can't create so well through a machine, I can do the mechanical and analytical work that's so necessary. So I'll type it out on my laptop, making edits and plugging holes as I go.

Did you outline the story first or wing it?

I wrote an outline on about fifty three by five cards. It took a week and a half to do that. The funny thing was, I didn't know what the ending would be, or where - I just kept writing what happened next. And then one day I realized I only needed three or four more cards and I'd be done. It reminded me of the riddle asking how far you could run into the woods. The answer: halfway; after that you're running out. I had thought I was going deeper and deeper, when in fact I was well on my way to emerging.

I kept the outline very loose, mostly plot points - like, one card said "Chase and Bethany go on a date." Sometimes as I wrote the book, I'd think of something that should be said or done somewhere down the line, and I'd write it on the appropriate card. Nothing on the cards was sacred, either - Bethany's name was changed to Nadine, for instance. And with some cards, especially the later ones, I'd look at what I'd written and say, "No, he wouldn't do that." Once you've lived with your characters for a while, you know them a lot better than you did starting out. But overall, those cards were immeasurably helpful for me; they helped me balance out my characters' onstage time, they gave me a place to write sudden inspirations, and they assured me that I knew where I was going.

Funnily enough, I never use cards when writing short stories; there, I'll take a premise and follow it wherever it goes. But for a novel, I had to have that pathway in front of me.

What was the jumping off point that got the story rolling for you?

TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY has its origins in a series of Peanuts comic strips that has intrigued me for decades. Lucy asks Charlie Brown why we're put here on Earth, and without hesitation he says "To make others happy." It's an answer that stays with her for several days. (I won't give away the rest, but you can find the originals in The Complete Peanuts 1961-1962; they're in mid-August of '61, I think.)

One day I was thinking about the strip and what someone who makes others happy could be called, and the phrase "joy facilitator" came to mind. The contrast of such a strong emotion with such a clinical word really stayed with me, wouldn't leave me alone. I thought of someone passing out business cards with the phrase "joy facilitator" on them, on how his business would work, on what might endanger it - a novel's got to have conflict, right? The more I thought about it, the more pieces of the puzzle I had, until I had so many that I had to start fitting them into place.

Now that you have the first draft done in record time, what's the next step?

Now it's time to type it, making all the revisions I can see it needs. Then I'll have a few people read it and tell me what they think works and what doesn't, and then I'll revise some more. It's fun to know that I can write a novel in fifty-four days, but the more important question is, how long does it take me to write a good novel?

How much longer do you plan to live in the trailer?

I think my brother in law will want it back around October. I wouldn't want to stay in it much longer than that anyway; back in May I had to wear a wool hat to bed on account of those 40-degree nights. It'll be interesting to see what happens after that.

Do you have an agent lined up?

No. I want to have something tangible and complete to pass along. If I write a good query letter, get a response of interest, and then send out something that's not my best work... I don't even want to think about it. So I'll only go agent-hunting when I think what I have is agent-worthy. My hope is that that won't be too long from now.

I can't wait to read your novel.

I can't wait for you to buy a copy! (Just kidding, Steph - for you, the first one's free.)