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.)

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ghostwriting Part V--Inside a Ghosting Job

We’ve finally reached the last installment of the ghostwriting series. Let’s get this over with so we can move on to something a bit more interesting, shall we?

Once you land a work-for-hire agreement with the series of your choosing, your editor may hand you a packet which contains a series bible, a few story outlines, and a book or two. The series bible tells you everything you need to know about the series thus far; major story arcs, important backstories, physical descriptions and names of all the characters and places, relationship details and personalities. It’s important to know this info inside and out. I would also recommend reading as many books in the series as you can handle so you can thoroughly digest the tone and style. It will make your work much easier.

The outlines you are likely to be given are the outline for the book you've been hired to write, plus the outline of the book that comes before yours in the series and the outline for the book that comes after yours. These outlines can run somewhere around ten or twenty pages and hit the major plot points of the story. They are sometimes written by the creator of the series, and sometimes they are written by an editor, who then shows it to the creator for approval. You are not allowed to deviate from this outline, but luckily there is a lot of wiggle room with settings, transitions, and all the little nuances that take a ho-hum story and make it gripping.

When I was ghosting, I had six weeks to write my first draft. My outlines were around 20 pages or so and I was expected to flesh it out into a 250 page novel. I’m a pretty slow writer, so I found the deadline to be a challenge, but I always found a way to get my work done on time. As I mentioned before, ghosting for a series is a bit like riding an escalator—when one person stops at the bottom, it puts a lot of people in trouble. Be sure to respect your deadlines.

After turning in the first draft, my editor would take about a week or two to look the manuscript over. Then it was returned to me with comments. I would look over her notes and ask questions about anything that needed clarification, then I would have two weeks to make the corrections. Sometimes the changes were substantial; other times, they were minimal. If you do your work correctly, once you turn in the revised draft, that should be the end of it. If not, you might have to do a little more fixing, but this is usually pretty rare. Once the editor approves of the final manuscript, she will submit the approval to the accounting department so that you can receive the final installment of your advance.

That’s basically all there is to it. If you work well under pressure and don’t mind writing for teenagers, then I highly recommend using work-for-hire as a first step to a writing career. If you are professional and reliable, ghosting can open many doors. Over the years, several editors of mine have moved on to bigger and better things—one wrote a best-selling series of her own that became a movie. Developing good relationships, even at this level, can become beneficial later on when you have higher aspirations of your own.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Ghostwriting Part IV—Landing the Gig

Finally, after weeks and weeks of waiting, the envelope you’ve been waiting for has arrived. Maybe it’s a rejection letter. Being rejected from a teen series might carry with it an extra bit of sting—you know you’re capable of writing gorgeous prose and meaningful stories, so you might be tempted to throw up your hands in disgust and say, “What do they know? I can write a story a thousand times better than this junk.” Don’t let yourself become bitter. I assure you that the people working on these series are highly educated and are well-acquainted with good literature. What a rejection simply means is that you weren’t right for the part. As I mentioned before, hiring ghostwriters is a lot like finding actors for a movie. If you were a casting director, would you have given the role of Forrest Gump to Al Pacino? Probably not. Several years ago, I tried out for a series (after having thirteen teen novels under my belt, mind you) and was rejected. Even though I had a lot of experience, my writing was deemed not edgy enough. That was fine by me—I have no interest in being edgy.

Instead of a rejection, you might get a personal letter encouraging you to re-submit your sample or even try out for another series. This is what happened to me when I tried out for my first ghosting job. The editor thought I had potential, but my sample wasn’t quite up to par. I wasted no time finding out what my weaknesses were and re-submitted the sample within a week. As soon as she received the revised sample, I was hired on the spot.

Maybe you won’t be rejected at all the first time around and instead you'll get a call from the editor. Congratulations--they’d like to hire you to write for the series. You are thrilled—you’re also scared out of your mind. Take a deep breath, enjoy the moment…and brace yourself because you have a lot of work to do in a short period of time.

Before I get into the writing side of things in my next post, let’s cover the business side first. This will be one of the very few times you’ll hear me say this, but you don’t need an agent. That’s because work-for-hire contracts are pretty much set in stone. The pay scale and royalties (if there are any) are pre-determined. Series are run on tight budgets and there is little room, if any, for negotiation. Newbies are given a set price. If you like ghosting and want to do it regularly, my advice would be to write at least three books before asking for more money. At that point, if you proven yourself to be professional and indispensable, you should have no trouble getting bumped up to a higher advance. Other than that, there’s nothing else to negotiate that you can’t handle on your own. It’s generally a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

When you accept your first work-for-hire job, you'll probably be offered a one-book contract. This is a good thing. It’s better not to be locked into anything the first time around, just in case you discover that ghosting isn’t right for you. After that, I would recommend not signing up for more than three books at a time, which equals about six months of work. You never know what might crop up in your personal or professional life, and it’s best not to be tied down for too long.

Upon receiving your contract, read it thoroughly. It will be short and straightforward. Pay attention to the word count required and mark the deadlines on your calendar. Series deadlines are critical. Imagine that the series is an escalator and the writers are the passengers. If someone suddenly stops at the bottom, everyone is in trouble. Ghosting is an opportunity to establish your reputation as a professional writer. Act accordingly.

Finally, put your advance check in the bank until your manuscript has been accepted. Work-for-hire agreements—especially your first—are more fickle than the average book deal. It’s better to hold onto the advance until you’re sure it’s going to work out than to scramble to return money you’ve already spent.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Ghostwriting Part III—The Audition

Before I continue with my series on ghostwriting, I’d just like to I apologize for the sudden infrequency of my posts. Family life has been overtaking my writing life in a big way lately, so I’m not posting as often as I’d like. Soon I hope to have a little more time for work, so thanks for your patience.

Now, onto the business at hand…

Trying out for a book series is a lot like auditioning for a role on a television show—even if you’re a terrific writer, you might not be suited for the part. You can, however, increase your odds of getting the job if you do your homework.

While you’re waiting to receive your guidelines from the publisher, it’s critical that you read at least two or three of the most recent books in the series. It won’t be difficult to get caught up in the action—most series are like soap operas, written so that it’s very easy to jump into the story—but what you’re really trying to do is absorb the style and tone of the series. Keep an eye out for key descriptions of places and characters which are often repeated from book to book. Notice how chapters start and end. Really study how the story is constructed, until you feel that you can almost predict how a character will react to a certain situation or person. Read until it becomes second nature to you.

The guidelines sent from the publisher might contain an outline of a book that is currently being written. Depending on what they require, you might be asked to write a chapter from that outline. If you’ve done the reading I’ve mentioned above, the audition chapter will be much easier. If you haven’t, expect to trudge through it, stopping to look up details along the way.

When writing your sample, keep in mind that the goal is to make your work blend in as much as possible with the series. Avoid showing off. Save the verbal acrobatics and large vocabulary for your own personal writing. What’s really going to wow the editors is your knowledge of the series and the smoothness of the storytelling. Dialogue is key; every character should have a different way of speaking. Conversation is often short and snappy and heavy on banter, but always moving forward toward a plot point.

The single most impressive thing you can do when writing an audition sample is to cultivate an air of suspense. Series rely on hooks to keep their readers interested and you should show the editors that you know this. The best ways to build suspense are to reveal information slowly—feeding the reader little bits as you go—and constantly raising questions that must be answered. Ideally, every chapter should end with a question that begs to be answered and so should your writing sample. Keep the editors wanting more and maybe you'll find yourself with a writing gig.

Next: What happens once you land the job.

Friday, June 6, 2008

As I Remember It...

I still have a few things to cover regarding ghostwriting, but today I thought I’d take a break to remind everyone that David Sedaris’s new book, WHEN YOU ARE ENGULFED IN FLAMES came out this week. Sedaris is one of the most consistently funny writers I’ve ever read. For those of you who haven’t discovered “Jesus Shaves” in ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, I urge you to check it out. For some reason, every time I read that story I end up calling up one of my friends to read it out loud to them--only I end up laughing so hard I can never get through it. I’m really looking forward to adding his latest work to my bookshelf.

There’s a piece by Steve Daly on Sedaris in this week’s issue of Entertainment Weekly, in which the topic of fabrication in memoirs is discussed. Sedaris defends his right to exaggeration as a humorist, but Daly writes that the backlash against artistic license in memoirs has perhaps led him to sprinkle in some qualifiers like “in my memory” and “as I remember it”. This saddens me a little. Humor sometimes lies in the conviction with which the story is told, and I worry that this softening of language will ever so slightly dilute his work. I’ll have to read it and to find out.

Ever since James Frey’s public flogging on Oprah, there has been a hypersensitivity surrounding the truthfulness of memoirs. Is all this fact-checking really necessary? What’s at stake here? I understand that some people feel duped when they find out a memoir is partly manufactured, but it’s important to maintain a little perspective. These are not people we know personally. Their exaggerations cannot have a significant impact our lives. Memoirs should always be taken with a grain of salt.

Demanding that memoirs be 100% truthful AND entertaining at the same time is a tall order. Stories require pacing, structure, suspense, and conflict to keep us interested. Life is full of slow resolutions, loose ends, and rambling conversation. In order to shape a part of one’s life into a story, the memoirist must craft the story using time compression, the merging of stories or people for simplicity’s sake, and the editing of verbal exchanges. Plus, there is always the problem of accurate memory. The resulting work, while playing fast and loose with the individual details, usually paints a version of the truth as a whole, according to the writer’s point of view—which is precisely the point of the memoir. As we all know, truth is fluid by nature, depending on each person’s observation of a situation.

For those of you who remain convinced that a memoir should be rigidly factual, try this exercise. Write an entertaining, engaging, artful story about some event that happened to you five years ago, not forgetting to include precise dialogue. I think you’ll find the exercise to be nearly impossible to complete without some embellishment.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ghostwriting Part II: How to Land a Gig

Browse through the middle-grade or teen sections of any bookstore and you’ll find all kinds of series in every genre imaginable. Some series are published every single month for years on end, adding up to a staggering number of books. Are these books the work of a single, hyper-prolific insomniac? Not likely. Some are started with the best of intentions, with a single writer who writes maybe the first twelve books or so. Other series are merely created, only to have the grunt work farmed out from the get-go. Either way, most series are written by a rotating team of ghostwriters.

And this is where you come in. There is a very high turnover for ghostwriters, which means publishers are always looking for new talent. Writers-for-hire are a fickle sort, chasing down multiple jobs, flitting from one project to the next, launching their own work. This means that on any given series, there might be a job waiting for you.

The first step is to find a series that appeals to you. Let's say you’re not into teen fiction, but love science fiction--find something with that slant. Read a few books from the series. Is this something you can see yourself writing? If not, move on to something else. You have to find yourself interested in the series to some degree or your writing won’t ring true and the work will feel more like a job than a joy.

Once you’ve found a series you like, look at the copyright page. On it, you’ll see the publishing company and its address. All you have to do is write to the publisher (this is one of those few times when I’ll recommend contacting a publisher directly) and request the series guidelines, which is essentially an audition packet. Your letter for requesting the guidelines is simple:

Dear So-and-So:

I’m interested in writing for X series. Please send your guidelines to the following address. I’ve included a self-addressed, stamped envelope for your convenience.

That’s all. You don’t need to write a full-fledged query proclaiming your virtues—that will come later. I would write ATTN: X Series on the envelope to expedite the process.

Sometimes you’ll see another company listed with the publisher on the copyright page. This is the packager. In this case, you’d want to write your request to the packager instead of the publisher. A packager is a company that puts together many different series—from the acquisition of the series ideas, to the hiring of ghostwriters, to the editing and book design. Basically, a packager IS the publisher, and the publisher becomes the printer and distributor. It’s a little confusing, but the point is that you’ll have to write the above letter to the packager instead. What’s great about working with a packager is that if you develop a good relationship with the editors it can lead to many writing jobs for different series. You may also get the chance to pitch ideas for your own series.

Next time—how to "audition" for a series.