Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Super Ghostwriter--Part I

Let’s re-open that age-old superhero debate that for some reason never grows tired—if you could have the power of invisibility or the power of flight, which would you choose? If you said invisibility (the right answer, by the way), and you are also trying to figure out how to break into the publishing business, then you might want to consider ghostwriting.

I spent most of my 20’s moonlighting as a ghostwriter for a series of popular teen books. The pay was decent (but not enough to live on), the schedule was rigorous, and the glory was minimal. But I learned a hell of a lot about discipline, cultivated relationships with editors, developed a reputation as a professional person, and came to understand quite a bit about the business. After six years of ghosting, I felt as though I had learned just as much about writing as I had in college, and was equipped to develop and sell my own teen series.

In order to be a good ghostwriter, you have to be comfortable with invisibility. Your writing must be seamless, conforming into a pre-determined style to execute a story that someone else created. You have to understand that you are merely fulfilling someone else’s vision and that they will get all of the glory and most of the money. You must love the product as though it were your own, because readers can smell insincerity from a mile away.
Even within the strict framework of ghostwriting, there plenty of opportunities for creativity. As long as the dialogue is consistent with the character, it’s all yours. You may be given major plot points, but there is often a lot of leeway as to how you get from point A to point B.

And even being invisible has its moments of quiet glory. Once I was in a bookstore, loitering in the teen section to see “my” book on the shelves and I saw a girl looking at a copy. She read a little and decided to buy it. A small part of me wanted to tap her on the shoulder and tell her I wrote it (as if she’d believe me) but I didn’t. It was thrilling enough to know someone was about to read my words.

In my next few posts, I’ll talk about what a ghosting job is like and how to go about getting one of your own. It’s easier than you might think.

Monday, May 19, 2008


I just came across this great children’s book published in 2004 entitled ISH, by Peter H. Reynolds. It’s such a great testament to the creative process that I just had to give it a mention.

The story is about a boy named Ramon who loved to draw. One day, Ramon draws a vase of flowers and when his big brother sees the picture he laughs at him. Ramon is understandably upset, and from that moment on, he has trouble drawing. Everything he draws doesn’t look right anymore and he throws them all away.

So, after trying for months to make his drawings look “right”, he decides to give up. He soon discovers that his sister has been taking all of his discarded drawings and taping them to the walls of her room. She points to the vase of flowers that Leon laughed at and says it’s her favorite. Ramon complains that it doesn’t look like a vase of flowers. His sister says, “Well, it looks vase-ISH.” Ramon agrees, seeing his work in a new light.

Suddenly, Ramon feels his creative juices flowing again. Instead of trying to draw perfect reproductions of the world around him, he starts to relax and draw “ish-ly”. His work becomes comfortably abstract. He finds his style.

One morning he wakes up with a feeling that can’t be captured and decides to just enjoy the feeling instead of drawing it. And as the story ends, he “…lives ishfully ever after.”

I won’t belabor the points the story is making, but here are a few things I’m taking from it:

1) Art is subjective. So obvious, but so easy to forget. It’s a given that some people will love your work and others will hate it. Don’t be discouraged when they do.

2) Don’t strive for perfection. It can be paralyzing. Give yourself permission to experiment and fail. Instead of trying to nail it right away (which is an all-or-nothing pursuit), strive to get ever closer and closer to your goal.

3) The process is just as important as the outcome. ‘Nuff said. And don’t feel that you have to turn everything into art. Sometimes it’s good to just sit back and enjoy life.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Knowing When to Stop

I just received a nice e-mail from a fellow blogger who describes herself as someone who has spent nearly four years working obsessively on a single screenplay, writing and re-writing it in various genres. Without knowing very much about her or the screenplay it’s hard to judge if all this re-working is necessary—it very well could be. But her situation did get me thinking about a question that all artists are forced to answer at some point: When is it done?

While I’m a firm believer in meticulous and sometimes drastic revisions, there comes a point in the creative process where re-writing produces nothing but diminishing returns. Perhaps you dwell too long on your choices, changing a word here and there, over and over again but not adding any real meaning or quality to the work. Maybe you hack the piece to death repeatedly every time you’ve found yourself stuck, hoping a new approach will help you find what’s missing. Or maybe you’re like Grady Tripp, in Michael Chabon’s WONDER BOYS, who just keeps writing and writing until he has a 2,600 page manuscript with no end in sight. No matter what the problem is, there comes a time when you have to think about letting go.

Unfortunately, writing is so subjective that there’s no definitive way of knowing when a piece is finished. There is no such thing as perfection, so one could argue that there is always room from improvement. That said, if the story is solid and the voice is clear and you’ve re-read the piece for mistakes, it’s fair to say it’s ready to send out. Don’t fret about a word here and there. If you use that as an excuse, you’re doing nothing but procrastinating.

If your story runs on and on with no end in sight, it’s time to take stock. Three things could be happening: 1) You love your story so much you can’t bear to see it end 2) Your self-worth is so tied-up in this project that you’ll be devastated when it’s over, or 3) You took a wrong turn somewhere and kept going when you should have ended it.

The third reason is easy enough to remedy; just find the point in the story where it should have naturally ended. The other two reasons are a little more complicated. I would suggest a trial separation. Put the piece away for at least three months. Give yourself a chance to fall in love with a new story. If you invest your energy in something else, you’ll have more clarity when you return.

Finally, if you’ve tried every which way to make a piece work and it’s still not happening, it might be time to call it quits. Perhaps, somewhere down the road, you can return to it again and you’ll have no trouble seeing the problem. Or, better still, there are probably a few parts that are worth salvaging, pieces you can take away from the story to create something new. It’s painful to give up when you’ve invested so much emotion, time and energy, but even with the best of intentions, but the truth is that sometimes stories just don’t work. Sometimes you’re better off just letting go.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Separating Life and Art

There’s a woman at M.J. Rose’s blog, Buzz, Balls, & Hype, who’s afraid her creativity has gotten out of control. Her vivid imagination compels her to project scenarios onto real-life events until they are blown way out of proportion, leaving her anxious and emotionally drained. In essence, she has trouble separating her personal life from creative life.

This woman’s plight reminded me of a story I heard many years ago about a certain famous singer/performance artist who also had trouble separating real life from art. The artist’s teenage son was in the hospital, critically ill, and according to the story (if it is to be believed), the artist brought in a tape player to record the sounds of his respirator, which she thought would make a good addition to the piece she was working on.

The artist’s story is an appalling example of the inability to separate work from reality, and yet, who among us hasn’t done the same thing to a lesser degree? We all mine our lives and relationships for creative material, whether consciously or unconsciously. Likewise, I would venture to say that most of us are also like the woman in the first example, who let her imagination run amok in real life. It’s no coincidence that there are high rates of hypochondria, depression, and addiction among creative people.

Mining for material and creative projection are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps we mine the lives of the ones we love because we don’t trust our ability to come up with interesting material on our own. Likewise, we dream up terrifying scenarios when reality isn’t quite as interesting as our fiction. Both are rooted in fear.

Such habits are destructive to our art and to our lives. It is important to make a clear distinction between work and reality, making certain that they don’t mix. That means refusing to see our family and friends as potential characters, even when their stories seem more outrageous than fiction. It also means being present in our relationships and not allowing ourselves to take mental notes of our conversations with others for use later. It’s fine to be inspired by the people and events in our lives, but reality ought to be used only as a jumping off point and not a direct source of material.

Some writers believe that there is nothing more important than the work; that finding “truth” is paramount, even at the expense of others. I would argue that nothing is more important than how we treat other people. If our work suffers because we refuse to exploit others, then so be it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Signing Off

I have a book signing coming up in another month, and I have to admit that already I’m starting to dread it. The signing is part of my college reunion weekend, which means it’ll be filled with friendly faces and old friends, but still I’m feeling a bit nervous. Book signings, for an unknown writer, are exercises in humiliation.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love being a writer and I’m absolutely grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to be published. For those of you about to embark on your first book tour, or those who will in the future, please understand that I’m not trying to scare you. All I’m doing is setting expectations, so that when you have a reading or signing of your own that is less than stellar, you’ll know that it happens to everyone. Think of it as a rite of passage.

One book that I think all writers should read before their first book signing is MORTIFICATION edited by Robin Robertson. It’s a collection of essays from famous writers about their most horrific book tour experiences. The book is incredibly fun—both cringe-worthy and hilarious at the same time. Who would have guessed that Margaret Atwood was forced to sign copies of THE EDIBLE WOMAN in the men’s underwear department of a store early in her career? Or that Matthew Sweeney had a loose tooth fly out of his mouth during a reading and the audience scrambled to find it under the seats? Or that some famous, unnamed American novelist had to rush off stage during a reading to throw up in the bathroom, only to leave her lapel microphone on so that the entire audience could hear her retching in the bathroom? You have to read this, my fellow writers—if not for the schadenfreude, than at least for the knowledge that you are in good company.

My own book tour horror stories aren’t quite as bad by comparison, but were humiliating enough at the time. Now I just think of them as funny stories from the trenches. In the spirit of fun, I submit the following:

It’s Not The Firm.
A man came up to me and asked me a few questions about my book. I was grateful for this—I was nearly an hour into my signing and no one had approached my table, let alone made eye contact with me. He grabbed a copy of the book, sat down on the floor beside my table, and spent the next twenty minutes reading the entire first chapter. He laughed so hard he started drawing attention to the table. Finally, when he was done, he handed the book back to me and said, “It’s not my type of thing—I only read John Grisham.”

Make Mine Extra-Crispy
One of my signings was at a bookstore/gift shop in a resort town. Instead of having a table in the book department, I was given a very small child-sized desk to set up my display—in the gift department. The reasoning was that I’d be more visible, which was fine, but it was also a little odd to be sitting next to displays of lollipops, super balls, and a barrel of (I’m NOT joking) rubber chickens. The signing was scheduled during the dinner hour, which meant the store was completely empty most of the time. Time ticked by so slowly. To keep myself busy, I rearranged toys and did my best to make the rubber chickens look enticing.

When I returned home after the signing, I dashed off an e-mail to my publicist to tell her about the signing. I thought the whole rubber chicken thing was funny, but I guess it didn’t come across in the tone of my note. Without my knowledge, my publicist complained to the bookstore that I shouldn’t have had to sign next to rubber chickens (can you just imagine this conversation?). I didn’t find out, of course, until the following week when I had to do a signing at another branch of the same bookstore chain. The manager introduced herself, handed me a rubber chicken key chain and said, “A little something for you to remember us by.”

Doesn’t Radio Count for Something?
A man once asked me if I’d ever been on television. When I said no, he moved on to the author at the next table and asked him the same question. He said yes, and without even looking at the book, the man bought a copy.

Not Much.
A number of people have asked me to sign a book, telling me they had no intention of reading it but wanted to see how much it would fetch on e-bay.

If You Buy a Book, I Can Go to the Beach
I postponed my family’s vacation by a day to participate in a book festival. I felt a little guilty about it, but fifty authors were signing at the event and it seemed like a great opportunity. When I arrived, I made my way past tables with stacks and stacks of books, looking for my signing table. After making three loops around the tent with no luck, I asked one of the coordinators to help me. It took a lot of searching, but we finally found the table. It was in plain sight—the problem was there were no books. Out of fifty authors, mine was the only publisher that neglected to ship my books. What’s worse is that I knew this sort of thing happened from time to time and usually carried a spare box of extra copies with me just in case, but in the midst of packing for vacation I had forgotten bring it. Somehow the coordinator managed to scare up three copies, and I spent the first day of what was supposed to be our vacation at a very empty table, trying to convince people to buy my three measly copies. It took all day.

Who Can Afford a Stylist?
A woman looked at my author picture on the back of the book, then looked at me, then looked back at the book. She then said, “You don’t look a thing like your picture--it’s amazing what stylists can do!” She then proceeded to list the reasons why she wouldn’t be buying my book, which included that she had just bought a muffin and that she was saving to send her son to college.

Smile, You’re Getting Paid
On a rainy Saturday afternoon I gave a reading at (another) empty bookstore. [Side note: Bookstores are always embarrassed when there’s a low turnout—usually they say the time of day, the weather, and other extenuating factors are to blame. And while you’d love to believe them, you just know that if Stephen King were making an appearance, there’d be a line down the block.] The emptiness of the store was emphasized by the ten rows of chairs they had optimistically set-up. Just before I was about to despair that I’d have to stand and read to no one, four hip-looking kids took seats in the back row. I’d wished they had sat a little closer so I wouldn’t have to shout, but what the heck. It was great to have an audience.

During the reading, I kept looking up at the kids. They looked like college students, maybe even writing students. They were listening, but with bored affectation. I could tell they wanted edgy—like a Chuck Palahniuk gross-out that would have them scrambling for the bathroom—but all I had to offer them was old-fashioned subtlety. The jokes that usually got a laugh were met with stares. I kept expecting them to take off in the middle of the reading but they stuck around, leaving me to wonder why on earth they were there.

When I was done, I asked if anyone had any questions about the book or the writing process. Not a peep, a smile, or a nod from the back row. I told them I’d be happy to sign a copy of the book if they were interested. Having been dismissed, the kids got up and started shelving books. They were employees.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An Interview with Judy Sheehan

I had the pleasure of meeting Judy Sheehan at a panel reading for young authors at Book Expo America a few years ago. She stole the show as she read an excerpt from her first novel, AND BABY MAKES TWO. Actually, she didn’t read the story so much as she performed it, using different voices for each character and delivering the lines with perfect comedic timing. It came as no surprise when I learned of her theatre background: Judy was one of the original cast members/creators of the long-running, off-Broadway hit, Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding.

Judy decided ultimately that acting wasn’t for her, but went on to be an accomplished playwright. She became the playwright-in-residence at New York’s prestigious Looking Glass Theatre. One of her plays, Alice in Ireland, has been produced all over the United States and has won several awards. She has also created a series of musicals for children.

Eight years ago, Judy traveled to China to adopt a child. Her experiences as an adoptive mom and single parent informed her first novel, AND BABY MAKES TWO. I found the story to be laugh-out-loud funny and very poignant. Now, with the release of her second novel, WOMEN IN HATS, Judy has decided to tackle another subject close to her heart—the theatre.

SD: In this blog I’ve discussed the difficulty some writers have getting themselves to sit down and write. Do you struggle with discipline?

JS: Yes – you can tell when I’m getting ready to write because my house is immaculate and my laundry is done. Sometimes, I’ll do all that stuff and more, before I sit down to write. I’m very resourceful when it comes to not writing. But I’ve developed a few tricks to force my sense of discipline towards writing. First, I have to retreat to a wifi café, rather than write at home. I can distract myself with tea and something to eat (I have a manic need for a chocolate chip cookie when I write). Getting myself fed takes a little while, but it doesn’t require nearly as much time as cleaning the bathroom. When I’m home, I can find a million distractions, while the anonymity of the crowd at the wifi café forces me to focus on my work.

Next trick: my iPod. I have a playlist that is designed to serve as musical wallpaper for writing. I’ll pick a song that gets me started, and then have an almost Pavlovian response to it, so that I have to put my fingers on the keyboard and get to work. It also adds to that isolation that I need so that I can have tunnel vision between me and the screen.

My final trick: I don’t start writing, I start re-writing. I’ve heard lots of people say that you should just keep moving forward through a book, but I break that rule. I’ll go back to yesterday’s writing and revise what I did. It gives me a kind of traction to get me going. And it’s slightly less intimidating than starting on a fresh blank page.

SD: Is your approach different when you are writing a play versus a novel? Are plays easier because you’re just writing dialogue or are they harder because of it?

JS: Novels have felt infinitely harder for me—which really makes me wonder why I’ve taken them up. Plays require me to leave room for collaboration with actors, directors, and so on. I have lots of room to set them up, but I never want to restrict them or narrow their contribution. I certainly don’t want to make a good play sound like it’s easy to write—it isn’t. But a novel works at a much higher level of difficulty.

The weirdest part for me here is each book seems to get harder. The first book was tied enough to my own life that I absolutely knew where I was going. The second book was a mash-up of two plays (new math – 1 play + 1 play = 1 novel) and I had a clue about the road I was traveling, although I did get lost a few times. The third book, which is currently in progress, is the biggest challenge yet. I’m not completely confident that I’ll survive this one.

SD: I’m assuming one of the inspirations for this book was the play you wrote by the same name.

JS: That play absolutely inspired this one, and the play itself was based on watching a friend of mine direct a play many years ago. This was to be his break into commercial, big-time theater, whereas he had been more of a fringe, not-for-profit guy up until then. The play was an unmitigated disaster in every way. He called me in to doctor the script, but the playwright wouldn’t let anyone touch it. At the time, it was a nightmare, but we both laugh about it now.

But I also wove in the story of another play, Alice in Ireland, which has a darker feel to it. Leigh takes on a lot of Alice’s mother issues. Bridie Hart, Leigh’s mother, came from that play. At this point, I feel that I know Bridie so well, I could write any scene or situation for her, and know exactly how she’d behave. Bridie is a good time.

SD: In AND BABY MAKES TWO, the main character, Jane, struggles to achieve her dream of becoming a mother. In WOMEN IN HATS, Leigh Majors (hilarious character name, by the way) has to contend with her difficult and very famous mother in order to make her dreams come true. Are these two books companion pieces?

JS: Not really, but it’s becoming clear to me that I have mother issues! Mother-daughter is one of the most wonderful, pain-in-the-ass, overwhelming and important relationships we have, and it offers such a wide array of stories to tell. I’m the tenth of twelve children, and my mother seemed to be a force of nature. She died almost ten years ago, and it seems as if she’s now passing into legend. Maybe she has turned out to be my muse. The book I’m writing now has four generations of women and girls in the same family, so I’m taking the whole mother issue to a new level.

SD: Your work deals with issues that confront the modern woman: single motherhood, finding the courage to break out of one’s comfort zone, perfectionism and fear of failure. You let us feel that it’s ok not to live up to impossible standards, which is something women don’t hear enough of.

JS: I hope that this is true. I hope that the women I write about are flawed, but brave and very recognizable. As the author, I have to live with these women for a long time, so I have to like them. If they intimidate me, I don’t want to spend a lot of time with them. Essentially, I’m just writing for myself, I suppose. Leigh and Jane have very different stories, but they both end up thawing from their sort of rigid state at the start of the book to a warmer, messier state at the end. That’s a more fun place to be.

SD: I love the way you are able to make a story both funny and poignant at the same time. Is humor something you purposely use to maintain a sense of levity, or is it a natural extension of your voice?

JS: When I was growing up, humor was really the coin of the realm in our house. If you could make it funny, you could get away with murder. At this point, it’s almost an unconscious choice for me to seek out the comic perspective in any story. For a while there, this reflex made me dismiss my writing as Lite Reading or Chick Lit. But I’ve had a few people talk to me about the grief that the characters experience, the darker events and the serious storylines. I’ve let them convince me that the books have really got substance.

When I was writing some of the more emotional scenes in my books, I really got caught up in those feelings. I was miserable and depressed after I wrote the mother’s funeral scene in AND BABY MAKES TWO. But I was elated after I wrote the adoption scene in that book. Obviously, I’m a method writer.

SD: What concerns you as a writer?

JS: That everyone will discover that I’m a fraud. Seriously, I question myself pretty harshly, all the time. I worry about being cliché, about repeating myself, and about boring the reader. Are all writers completely insecure about their work? In addition to all this, I worry that my worries make me cave in too easily to suggestions, edits and revisions. So yes, I worry about worrying. It’s a sickness.

SD: I find there is a certain incompatibility between the writing life and family life. Writing requires you to be in your head a lot, while family life requires you to be present. How do you handle the disparity?

JS: Writing life and family life are polar opposites. The only way that I can get my writing done is to carve out time, separate from family time. On Saturdays, my daughter’s godfather takes her to a dance class, and then sometimes to a park or museum afterwards. I’m writing during that whole time. When I’m really disciplined, I fire up the laptop while she’s settling into bed at night. I go right from lights out, to writing. That part is especially hard to do, and it sometimes makes me feel like a martyr, which is a very bad thing. I’m single, so there is no partner to take care of (or to take care of me). It’s hard. I remember hearing Anne Lamott say that “if you can’t write under your current circumstances, you can’t write.” That line scared me into a tough work ethic: I have a full-time job, I’m a single mother, and I’m writing my third novel. God, that was an exhausting sentence to write. I get my sense of drive from my mother, as you might be able to tell. There are times when I wish that my life were simpler. I wish that I didn’t want to write. But I do. And I believe that I always will.