Monday, March 30, 2015

Being Part of the Writing Community

Over the past week, I had the pleasure of attending two book signings for first-time novelists. The first was for my longtime friend Patrick Robbins, who just published his novel TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY (Three Wide Press). It was heart-warming to see Pat surrounded by copies of his book, as well as the crowd of friends and family who came out to support him. A friend stood by with a camera to snap pictures for a memory book (including the one below). It reminded me a little bit of a graduation party--one of those precious few days in a person's life when you are showered with so much love and support and admiration and pride. It can be overwhelming and humbling in the best possible way. Pat's busy with promotional duties at the moment, but soon I'll have a follow-up interview with him to fill you in on all the details about his road to publication.

Patrick, me, and my daughter, Kate.  (photo credit: Emily Richards)

The second event I attended was a literary introduction series co-sponsored by The Author's Guild and Richard Russo, who currently serves as one of the guild's vice presidents. Russo has long been a champion of young writers (myself included) and understands how difficult the publishing landscape is right now for unknown authors of what he describes as "hard-won novels" or literary fiction. To help these writers get discovered, Russo has launched a reading series where established writers interview up-and-comers whose work has caught their attention. There will be a few of these readings in Portland, Maine and in New York City, with the hope that they will eventually roll out across the country.

The featured author of the night was Eddie Joyce, author of SMALL MERCIES (Viking), a story about a Staten Island family devastated in the wake of 9/11. While I was waiting for the even to start, a woman sitting in the row in front of me turned around and noticed I was reading the book flap. She touched my arm and said, "It's a wonderful book, you know. My son wrote it." We both started to laugh and I offered my congratulations. As it turned out, Richard Russo happened to be her favorite author. Joyce and Russo share a publisher, so the young author's editor suggested they send Russo a galley in hopes that he might blurb the book. The fact that Russo had chosen her son's novel to feature among the enormous pile of requests he regularly receives was a stunning turn. Other members of Joyce's family were in attendance and once again, like my friend Pat's signing, the room was filled with the most wonderful spirit of excitement, joy, and awe.

One of the goals of this literary series is to not only to help new authors break out, but to establish a sense of community among writers. When it came time for the question-and-answer portion of the program, a man stood up and acknowledged that it was a difficult time for writers and asked what we, the public, could do to support them. It was such a brilliant question--so many questions in this type of forum are limited to the "inward" pursuit of writing, such as inspiration and process. How often do we, as writers, look outside ourselves and to the larger community of writers to see how we contribute to the culture as a whole?

Both Russo and Joyce stressed the importance of shopping at your local independent bookstore. We all know the economic arguments for shopping locally, but the added advantage to both writers and readers is that local bookstore owners read widely and can make recommendations. By developing a relationship with your local booksellers, they can learn your tastes and suggest new writers you might like.

So often it feels like we writers are at the mercy of a difficult industry, but the events of this past week made me feel empowered. If we--members of the writing and publishing community--decide to come together and support one another by attending readings, purchasing books locally, and taking a chance on lesser-known writers, then just maybe we'll begin to turn the tide in our favor.

In what ways do you support your writing community? Please share your thoughts. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Questions to Answer Before You Give an Author Interview

When I was getting ready to go on my first book tour oh-so-many years ago, I spent a lot of time preparing for interviews and appearances. I had banners and posters made up for book fairs, created a tour schedule, purchased tasteful clothes and good pens for signings, sent out press releases and mailings, carefully selected and edited excerpts for readings and spent hours practicing reading aloud. In short, I felt I had done everything I could to get ready for the tour.

Unfortunately, I failed to do the most important thing of all--which was to understand my book.

I had thought that working on a manuscript intensely for five years made me an expert on the work. Hardly. It wasn't until I had a live interview for a writing website that I realized how underprepared I was for discussing it. The interviewer typed the very simple question--"What is your book about?" and I completely froze. I stared at the blinking cursor for five long minutes, prompting the interviewer to ask if I was all right.

It's not that I didn't know what my book was about, exactly. It was a novel that spanned forty years and followed two boys into adulthood. A whole lot happened in between, but nothing I felt I could pin down in two sentences. Or at least two interesting sentences. Much of what is appealing about literary fiction lies in the telling more than that concept. Or at least that's what I told myself. As I discovered too late, you still need to have a pitch.

Over the course of the next month or so, as the reviews started rolling in, I started getting a little perspective on what the story was about. Through other people's eyes I began to see themes and connections that I didn't realize were there. I know it sounds strange to be so removed from the story, but sometimes you can be too close to a project to see it properly.

I decided that in order to feel more comfortable discussing my book I needed to approach the story like a reader. I thought about some of the questions I was asked during my first interview and began writing down the answers. Basically, I wrote a report on my own book. I also came up with a list of commonly asked questions that I had often heard asked at readings and answered those, too. Even a question as simple as, "What is your favorite book?" can be difficult to recall in front of an audience. By taking a little time to think about my answers beforehand, I felt much more confident with each subsequent appearance. By the end of my book tour I had my pitch down and I was a bit more relaxed when answering questions.

Here are ten commonly asked questions I try to think about before I do an interview or reading:

1. What is your book about?

2. How long did it take you to write it?

3. Where did you get the idea for the book?

4. What is your writing process? How often do you write?

5. Who/what are some of your favorite writers/books?

6. How did you get published?

7. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

8. What are your thoughts on self-publishing/print-on-demand?

9. What advice would you give an aspiring author?

10. What are you working on now?  

Share your experiences. How do you prepare for author interviews?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Care About the Work, Not the Result

One of the best books I've read recently is comedienne Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. Part memoir, part advice book, it's chock-full of wisdom for anyone in a creative field. One of my favorite lines in the book is: CARE ABOUT THE WORK, NOT THE RESULT.

Creativity, Poehler says, is where we find our joy and comfort. We need to put our effort into making the highest quality art that we can. This is THE WORK. It's what sustains us, nurtures our soul. It's what we'd want to do even if we weren't getting paid for it. The work is what is in our control.

THE RESULT is something else entirely. It is how our work is received. The result is agents and publishers and bestseller lists and awards. It's our career--and much of it is outside our control. Poehler describes career as "a bad boyfriend" who "ignores you and doesn't call, who flirts with other people right in front of you. With a bad boyfriend, you're never satisfied." You'll always want more.
The best way to handle a career, like a bad boyfriend, Poehler says, is to ignore it. If you ignore it, it will come to you.

While this approach may work with bad boyfriends, it's easy to wonder if the analogy is truly apt for writing careers. How can we ignore our careers? We all know that in a crowded marketplace we have no hope of getting noticed if we sit idly by. It seems easy for Poehler to say 'ignore it' when she's among the most famous comedians of her generation. She can afford to ignore it, while the rest of us can't.

'Ignore' is perhaps the wrong word here, though I think her sentiment is essentially correct. Poehler references Buddhism many times throughout the book and what I think she's trying to espouse is the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. Yes, we must do all of those things required of us to bring attention to our work, but we need to free ourselves from caring about what happens afterwards. For instance, we should definitely schedule author appearances but try not to be upset if the crowd is small. We do what we can and then recognize the rest is out of our hands. We should promote our work to the best of our ability, but not be disheartened if it doesn't hit the bestseller list.

The hard truth is that fame and fortune in any creative field is a crap shoot. While we'd like to believe that if we work hard enough we can make ourselves successful in the most conventional sense of the word, luck and timing have a great deal to do with it. It's impossible to know what will strike a chord with the public. Just look at what is popular in current culture right now. What we choose to elevate as a culture is funny and unpredictable.

My daughters both participate in a computer programming community on the web. The most popular program? A three-second animated loop of dancing yams. Thousands of people like it. Personally, I don't get it--they look like orange polar bears to me. The point is, it's impossible to predict what is going to take off. I doubt even the kid who created up the program could have dreamed it would receive so much attention. [Actually, if you look at his comments in the sidebar, he's just as surprised as anyone.]

Instead of being discouraged by outcomes, we need to put our energy not into what we can't control but into the work itself--the very thing that sustains us. Do it for yourself and no one else. Take pride in creating your very best work, then let the rest go. The work must be its own reward.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Giving a Generous Critique

The first round with my writing group went well--but boy, was I nervous. I started having flashbacks of the creative writing seminars I attended in college. While most of my fellow students gave thoughtful feedback, we were all young, a little tactless at times, and maybe a little competitive, too. There was always a student or two who seemed to have an ax to grind and the tear-down could be brutal. Let's just say it was good training for future Amazon reviews. Luckily, this time around was a more pleasant experience.

Because our work is so personal, we writers can sometimes be--how should I say?--a little self-absorbed. Today, I want to turn the tables a bit. Instead of thinking about how others critique us, let's pause a moment and think about how we critique others.

If you're not currently in a seminar or writing group, there will come a time when someone will ask you to read their work. Remember--you're not required to read every manuscript someone hands you, but if your schedule allows and you're so inclined, then take a little time to share your expertise.

Here are some things to think about when you give a critique:

Always Ask First. The first question I always ask is, "What do you want from me?" There are so many ways to critique: readability, grammar and typos, structure, missed opportunities, etc. You don't want to spend an hour or two proofreading when all the writer wanted was a general impression. Ask the writer how to approach the piece.

Honor the Work. Keep in mind that it probably took a lot of courage for the writer to show you the piece. Approach the work with respect.

Consider the Writer's Ability. Writers of different abilities need different kinds of feedback. Beginners need to be reassured. Be supportive by focusing more on the overall mood and tone. For more experienced writers, you can delve into the technical aspects. Advanced writers often appreciate a detailed critique. Generally, the more advanced the writer, the more thorough the critique.

Be Complimentary. Every critique needs to begin with a word or two of praise. Sometimes that can seem like an impossible task, but with a little careful thought you can always find something to admire. If you have nothing positive to offer, the writer may dismiss everything else you have to say, even if it's valid.

Allow for Differences of Opinion. This is a tough one for me. By nature, I'm both opinionated and a fixer, which means I often have strong feelings for what I think a story needs and how the writer ought go about fixing it. While my intention is to be helpful, I have to remind myself that the writer has her own vision and style. There's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. I still share my thoughts on how to fix a problem, but try to offer them more as examples of how it could be done rather than dictating how it should be done.

Opinions can also get in the way when you are asked to critique a piece that falls into a genre that you don't like. Good writing exists in all genres. Keep an open mind and judge the piece on its own terms. For example, don't judge a YA dystopian story by the same standards you'd apply to a literary satire. They are entirely different beasts with their own rules.

Provide Useful Criticism. Even if you love the piece from start to finish, there's always something that can be improved upon. Dig deep. Really give the writer something useful and specific to work with. If you have no suggestions for improvement, the writer might feel that you're not being honest or that you didn't take the time to give it a careful read.

Above All--Be Kind. No story is worth ruining a relationship over. It's always better to be kind than to be clever, supportive rather than competitive. A good, thoughtful critique is an act of generosity.