Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Promises, Promises

Ok, Promising Writers, this post is going to be a major buzzkill. So if you don't think you're in the mood for a reality check, then you may want to duck out now. But if you can handle it--and I think you can--it might be worth your while.

The purpose of this blog is to offer encouragement and advice, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I made everything about the publishing business seem peachy keen, now would I? Every now and again it's important to manage expectations. If you know what to expect, then you aren't so crushed when something unpleasant happens. And it will. It happens to everyone.

Getting published is incredibly exciting, especially for the first time. When I got my first gig as a ghostwriter I was so thrilled I could hardly sleep for weeks. Several years later I developed my own series (ON THE ROAD) that briefly captured the attention of a television production company. I ran on pure adrenaline for months. I count the day my agent sold my first literary adult novel to Simon & Schuster (THE GREATEST MAN IN CEDAR HOLE) as one of the best days of my life.

In the early stages of any deal, there's definitely a honeymoon period when everyone is swooning over your work. Editors and sales staff will praise you. If there is buzz about your manuscript, movie producers might come calling. There might be talk about media appearances, tours, promotions, contests, bestsellers' lists, on and on. It is so easy to be swept up in all the excitement--but don't. I'm sorry to say that much of what is promised or merely mentioned probably will not happen.

So many things can happen that appear to be a sure thing then just dry right up. I once thought I had a twelve book series sold that ended up being cut down to four due to a personnel change in the publishing house. I've been contacted by TV/movie producers who seemed very interested and then never contacted me again. I've heard many publicity campaigns that never came to fruition. One of my foreign publishers thought I might make the bestseller list in that country and my book tanked. I've been told, for sure, that my book was going to be featured in a magazine that virtually makes bestsellers, only to have it cut just before publication. My first big disappointment crushed me for a long time. When the last one happened, I celebrated my 'almost' victory by going out to dinner. I ordered a martini and toasted the magazine that nearly put my name on the literary map.

Cynics like to demonize publishers, but I've hardly encountered anyone in the business that I haven't liked. Nearly everyone I've met is professional, dedicated, and their love of books is very real. So is their excitement when they come upon a project they really love. They, too, can get carried away. They might want to give you all the resources they can to give your book a push, but corporate demands, budgets, and shifting priorities can get in the way. Things just happen. And the truth is, even the best editors really can't predict what will resonate with the public and become a bestseller. A lot of it is largely out of their hands.

So, how can you insulate yourself against disappointment?

Expect the Unexpected. Yes, things will go wrong. To you. To everyone. That's life.

Set Your Expectations Low. It's okay to get excited about potential good news--as long as you keep it in perspective. There's rarely a quick path to wealth and stardom.

Don't Count on Anything Until It's Signed, Sealed, Delivered. Your contract is not valid until it's signed by both parties. Consider any talk of publicity, celebrity blurbs, movie deals, etc. to be merely idle chit-chat until something is actually happening toward that goal. Even then, don't consider it real until it has actually happened. Seriously.

Don't Spend a Dime Until the Check Clears. Tattoo this one on your arm so you don't forget. I used to work in the accounting office of a literary agency and I can't tell you how many authors got themselves in a bind by spending money they didn't have. So what if you just signed a contract for $100,000 advance? It could take months for the publisher to cut you a check. Don't spend a dime until it's actually in your bank account.  And then, if you're really smart, you'll sock away a portion for taxes and save the rest until your manuscript is finished, delivered, and approved. Do you know what happens in that rare instance that the publisher doesn't like your finished work or that you fail to deliver it? You have to give the money back! Not so easy to do, once you've spent it.

Be Grateful. Even when things go wrong, be happy and humble about the things that do go right. Because they will. Many things will go right, things you would never expect. A bookseller might fall in love with your book and spread the word about it. You might win an award. A high-profile newspaper might give you a rave review. A town you've never heard of might choose your book as a community read and ask you to speak. You might become a celebrity in a foreign country.

Prepare yourself. Anything can happen. That's half the fun.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Performance Skills

Recently, had the honor of being one of the judges in a writing competition hosted by my local library. At the awards ceremony this weekend, each of the winners read their work aloud. It was an interesting mix of performances--some of the writers (more than I would have expected) obviously had lots of public speaking experience and were comfortable reading before a crowd, while others looked a little bit nervous and out of their element. Unfortunately, the winner of the category I was judging--fiction--was away at a writers' conference and so I didn't have the opportunity to meet him. His story was read by my friend Emma, a librarian and organizer of the event.

While I'd really enjoyed the winner's story on the page (obviously), Emma's reading was stellar. As she read the piece she was bringing the story alive, elevating it. It wasn't just that the words were being read aloud, they were being read well. Emma was hitting the comedic beats with such impeccable timing that she was taking a sweet, humorous story and making it hilarious. The audience went wild for it.

After trying to figure out how I could hire Emma to do all my future readings, I began to wonder how some of the other pieces we'd heard that afternoon would have come across if she had been the reader. Conversely, I wondered how some of the pieces that were presented by confident readers would have sounded in less capable hands. This really drove the point home for me that author readings were less about the writing and more about the performance.

One of the best readings I've been to in recent years was by Monica Wood, author of WE WERE THE KENNEDYS. While many readings follow a simple format of introduction/10-15 minutes of reading/Q and A, Monica talked about how the book came to be, techniques in memoir writing, and her recent trip to Ireland. She even sang a duet with her husband! She interspersed these anecdotes with five-minute bursts of reading. Truth be told, I don't think she read much at all--just enough to whet the audience's appetite for the book.

The thought of having to perform for an audience probably strikes terror in the heart of most writers--I know it does mine. We are, by nature, a more introverted breed, better suited to sitting alone at our desks than getting up in front of a room full of people. But publicity is part of the job, and with some practice, it can actually be fun.  I took a reading seminar with author, playwright, and actor, Howard Waxman, and here are some of the things I learned:

1) THE AUDIENCE IS ON YOUR SIDE. It's in their best interest to root for you. Think about it--if you do well, they'll be entertained. If you're shaking and mumbling, they'll be squirming in their seats, feeling your pain.

2) YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE SHAKESPEARE. Don't apologize for not being the greatest writer who ever lived. There will always be someone better than you and someone worse. It's not a contest. Simply say to yourself that this is the best work you are capable of at this moment and be proud.

3) BE SELECTIVE. Pick a scene that will sound good out loud. Dialogue, action, and humor all play well to an audience. Long narrative description will put them to sleep. Don't be afraid to edit your scene for brevity, clarity, and time constraints. Don't forget to explain anything in the scene that the audience won't understand out of context.

4) PRACTICE! PRACTICE! PRACTICE! Time yourself. Slow down, then go half that speed. E-NUN-CI-ATE. Exaggerate. Animate. Give each character a different voice. What feels over-the-top to you will most likely just barely register with the audience. A good exercise is to practice reading children's books aloud as if you are reading to a group of preschoolers (or, better yet, find a real group of preschoolers to read to!). Taking an acting class is also helpful.

5) HAVE A FEW ANSWERS READY.  Instill confidence in yourself during the Q and A period by having the answers to the most frequently asked questions ready. At every reading I've ever been to, someone has asked about writing habits, the creative process, favorite books, etc. Know your answer beforehand. Also have a few comments ready in case no one in the audience is brave enough to ask questions.

6) ENJOY THE EXPERIENCE. Think about how lucky you are to have the opportunity to share your work. As nerve-wracking as public speaking is, it's a nice contrast from the lonely work we have to do from day to day. You may even find, with enough experience, that you'll love it.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

National Novel Writing Month

It's almost November--also known as National Novel Writing Month or, more awkwardly, as NaNoWriMo. Writers from all over the globe are challenging themselves to produce 50,000 manuscript pages by the end of the month, which roughly translates into about 175 book pages. That's a slim novel, just a hair past novella territory, but novel length nonetheless. I'm reading Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane and it comes in at 178 pages. The cover says it's a novel. I'm not about to argue with Neil Gaiman.

Do I think you can write a novel in a month? No. Not really.

There are always notable exceptions, of course, but they're rare. A great novel is more than just a word count--it's well-developed characters, an absorbing story, precise language.  In my experience, plots and characters never behave as you want them to and despite your best intentions, the story will take on a life of its own. This is a good thing. This also means there will be a lot of decision-making and problem-solving along the way that can take a lot of time to sort out. If you want to create depth to your storytelling, you need time. Pacing, rhythm, good dialogue--all take time. Quality can't be rushed.

If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to kick-start your novel idea or to develop the discipline of writing every day, toward a goal. A deadline can help you ignore your inner censor and keep pushing through--a problem for anyone working on a first draft. I plan on participating by keeping up with a daily 2,000-word count, even though I'm in the middle of a novel I've been working on for several years. Will it be finished by the end of November? Absolutely not.

Need some inspiration? Here are some of my favorite writing books:

How Fiction Works by James Wood

The Forest for the Trees: An Editor's Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Mid-Book Crisis

Now that my novel is chugging along well past the midpoint, I've decided to plunge back into social media--and I'm quickly discovering it's still the same time-suck that made me temporarily abandon it in the first place. I've just joined Twitter (@stephdoyon) and I'm thoroughly enjoying the distraction. When I start looking for ways to procrastinate in the middle of a project it's a sure sign that I'm facing what I like to call "The Mid-Book Crisis."

For those of you who don't know, I spent my formative writing years as a ghostwriter for a teen series called Sweet Valley University. I also wrote a few books for a series called Fearless and a quartet of my own called On the Road, about an eighteen year-old girl who takes the year off before college to travel the country (or at least she was supposed to, until the series was canceled--but that's a future blog post). The point is, I've written fifteen books and it doesn't matter whether the story outline was handed to me or I developed the plot on my own, whether it was a teen book or a literary novel, I've always run into a crisis of confidence at exactly the same point in every book--right around the middle.

Beginnings are tough in their own right--there's nothing tougher than facing a blank page. On the other hand, there are so many ideas and hopes and characters that beginnings are also full of excitement and energy. An unwritten story is full of limitless potential. Characters develop and situations unfold. It's an exciting process of discovery.

After the beginning is established, characters assert themselves and conflicts arise. There are past details to fill in, threads to follow. Tension mounts. Then the plot starts moving toward a climax and  characters must make a key decisions. Action must be taken. This is the big moment...

And that's when the crisis hits. This is the moment when I freeze.

I know when I start to approach the midpoint of a book because suddenly I'll find myself cleaning the house, surfing the Internet, blowing off my work schedule. I'll get an idea for another book or a short story and start writing that, instead. Right now I have an idea for a humorous memoir about the writing business and I'm just itching to get started on it. And before that was an epic I started set in San Francisco and Shanghai at the turn of the twentieth century. Both of those sound like more fun than what I'm currently writing. Anything to avoid the work at hand.

Why is this the midpoint so difficult to face? Because it signals the death of possibility.

Every story starts with an infinite number of choices (characters, genres, plots, point of views, techniques, voices, etc) and slowly, through decision-making and the process of elimination, I am now confronted with the product of my choices. Worse still, if I'm true to my character, there is really only one perfect choice he can make at the climax. It's all been building to this moment. The grand story that used to exist only in my imagination is now specific and concrete. It's also flawed and not quite what I thought it would be and there's a fear that all the work I've put in is not quite adding up to something worthy of all the years I've spent on it.

But here's what I've learned: No creative endeavor ever quite lives up to our lofty visions. Every artist is afraid of failure. Some believe that it's better to shelve the piece and always wonder, than to complete it and be disappointed.

This is the real point of failure for most. Ask any writer and they'll admit to having at least one unfinished manuscript tucked away. But you have to press on. You're so close. The groundwork has already been laid, the hard part is over. Once you reach the climax of the story, the consequences of the characters' actions are inevitable. And then a beautiful thing happens--the last third of the book nearly writes itself.

Do you have a story you're afraid to finish?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Time to Start Blogging Again...

It's kind of shocking how long it's been since my last post (don't look), but now that I'm well past the mid-point of my latest novel, it feels like the time is right to revive this puppy. My hope is that within the next several months, as I finish the first draft and attempt to get my second novel published (second adult literary novel, that is--I've written 13 young adult novels) I'll be able to share the process with you. Publishing a book is a wild ride--the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It's full of fantastic surprises and crushing disappointments. So why not share all the juicy goodness?

Part of what will make this particular journey interesting is that it's been eight years since my last book came out. It has also been eight years since my twin daughters were born. Notice a correlation? Some people are able to juggle a career and family at the same time, but I was not able to do that very well. So I decided to enjoy my children, write when I could, and try to forget that I was falling behind my peers. I have to constantly remind myself that life is not a contest and that comparisons are damaging.

The reality, though, is that I've essentially been out of the publishing business for eight years and during that time it has become a completely different animal. People I've made connections with have moved on. E-publishing is now a big deal. Social media has exploded. I'm fascinated by the changes and terrified, too.

Will you join me? It should be an interesting ride.