With the joys and blessings of the holidays upon us, The Writers Group blog is on hiatus until 2009. Thank you for taking time to stop by and share your thoughts with us in 2008. We wish you the following:
* make time to write, to think, to plot, even if you find yourself amid chaos;
* take a warm cozy moment or two to read;
* enjoy spending your gift certificate to your favorite bookstore, preferably independent, and cherish the books given to you with love from those who care for you.
Happy holidays, and cheers to a productive and personally rewarding 2009!
Amy, Lisa, Lynne and Hannah
Monday, December 22, 2008
With the joys and blessings of the holidays upon us, The Writers Group blog is on hiatus until 2009. Thank you for taking time to stop by and share your thoughts with us in 2008. We wish you the following:
Friday, December 19, 2008
Writers, as creative as we may be, are not able to imagine the true details of the many professions we envision for our characters. Wikipedia does not suffice. We need to get out there and find individuals who live and breathe, as our characters do, to interview. How to turn away from our solitary world where we have complete control, and get out there to do the job right?
Q) Do you have advice on the best way to get an interview with someone you want to speak with for research purposes? One of the characters in my book had a niche job that I know I don't know enough about, but I've located someone who would be perfect to speak with. How do I go about getting a busy person to speak with me for informational purposes?
I do a lot of research before I ask for an interview. Being prepared is critical to conducting an informative one and in being seen as professional. By doing your homework, you'll have a better sense of who to approach and specifically what you're after. Don't waste your subject's time by asking the obvious things you have access to by reading books or searching online. Make the experience worthwhile for both of you by going deep. The interviews I've conducted for my work-in-progress gave me some of my best insights into my characters' motivations. I strongly urge you to round out your research by going to a primary source. And always send a thank you afterwards, and again via your acknowledgments once the book is published.
Call and ask. It's amazing how helpful people are -- and flattered that you're interested in their lives. As for questions, allow your natural curiousity free reign and make a point of going to their environment. It's crucial to the detials, to the setting, the character to be present.
People are amazingly kind and always flattered when anyone wants to peek into their lives, nevermind someone who might turn knowledge into a story. I've interviewed complete strangers on things as arcane as bioluminescence (glowing plankton!). Take a deep breath, and be professional. Write the person a brief but thoughtful email or letter. Explain you are a writer and you have a character doing a similar job, and need to understand the whys and wherefores and hows. Estimate how much time the interview will take and tell them. An hour? At their convenience, of course! Go in prepared with questions based on the story, going beyond the job to things like the temperament of people who do that job, what motivates them to go into that field, terms that might have useful secret or double meanings. Explain your basic theme; what comes to mind professionally for them? Why did you make your character this way? You are genuinely interested in who these people are; enjoy the conversation and write a follow-up thank you. And credit them when the book comes out!
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
So much detail to put in just the right places. How does anyone ever write a novel? There are tricks, of course, passed along from writer to writer. Not to over simplify -- or over promise as per our header here, but here are our best suggestions in a nutshell.
Q: I've written my first draft and there are sizeable clumps of information that need to be threaded throughout. What's the best way to do this? I started an outline, but got sick of it. I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird about plot treatment--summarize chapter by chapter what happens. I'm thinking this might be the best way to go. I know the chronological thread of my MC's life, but I want to start when she's an adult, then go back and insert background on her past, her relationship with her mother, her job, her relationship with her boss, how she met certain friends, all while keeping the main story moving forward. Without it all becoming a huge mess. How have you done it? Hannah's Thread Obsessed and Millefeuille post were helpful, but maybe a little more nuts and bolts about how to work those threads? And Lynne's post on journals hit home. I had one character as an ex-Marine, then realized it didn't really fit his personality! Exactly what does a thread consist of--subplots or just the chronology of each character?
Like Amy, my storytelling process is more organic than plotted or outlined. I don't choose jobs or homes or life circumstances for my characters, these come to me over time. And the time I spend thinking about my characters--listening to their story, wondering about their predicaments-- far exceeds the time I spend putting words on the page. That said, as you mentioned above, I keep a journal for each novel. Not only do I jot down plot points as they come to me, but I note what threads I'll need to go back and tighten in revision. Writing fiction, for me, is equal parts art and science. I strive to write for the story, then I go back to be sure I've been true to craft. As my dear friend Michael Lowenthal once said, "Let readers dismiss the work on taste, not talent."
Outlines? Plot treatments? Chapter summaries? It all sounds so technical. I'm afraid I can't help you with this one because my process is more organic and very simple. In terms of threads, I introduce them the way I'm introduced to other people's stories in real life: in bits and pieces. When I'm getting to know someone, they don't tell me everything of their past and present right away, and they almost always hedge the truth. Time teases out the story, trust, circumstances, a shared experience. It's a gradual process. And then, finally, there's the big revelation and you realize the clues were there all along. It's simply a matter of identifying each story in your novel, and ensuring each is told as fully, as richly as possible, and all sharing a common thread.
I always do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, for my own work and when I read for others. Hallie Ephron teaches a High-Low Revision process; she explains it in her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which is perfect for any kind of novel. Whether or not you're an outliner, and I'm not, you do need to see your first draft from higher ground and follow each character through. The draft is very organic for me, messy even. Once it's complete, then comes the work to make sure it doesn't stay that way! I do synopses on a couple of sheets of lined paper, with 3-4 lines per chapter. Line one is the synopsis, with the date in the left margin and setting, then a quick description of key points. When I've got them all down I go back and make little notes -- one or two words -- thread by thread, character by character, on what info gets revealed to whom when ("R 2 K, dad issue"). Leaving yourself little space makes you focus. What really does happen here that is important to the reader/story? Best to do this with a cup of hot tea to one side, in the comfiest office chair you own. The few hours it takes are well spent!
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
There are lots of ways to immerse a learner in the craft of writing. And every writer should be prepared to be a lifelong learner. But which way is the right way for you?
I've pretty much ruled out going back for an MFA (I'm in my early 40s with school-age kids, and can't quite justify the cost right now, and I'm not looking to teach any time soon), but I keep wondering if that's the right decision. I wonder how the workshops and teaching in a decent low-residency program compare to the workshops and teaching I've gotten at writers' conferences and online. And of course I wonder if the credential helps open doors. I can't say for sure that my fiction is literary; I think it's halfway between literary and commercial. I'm wondering if any of you went through a similar decision struggle, or if not, why not.
Like you, when I came to writing fiction my life circumstances made getting an MFA a challenging proposition. Full time business to run, full time wife, mother and homemaker. It wasn't going to happen. And I already had a masters degree in education. I never toyed with the low residency programs either, though I think they are a fantastic option and know some amazing writers who teach in them. I have taken numerous courses at Grub Street and have benefited from every single one. The means by which craft is learned and then honed is a personal decision. Having written two novels, I can say the learning is ongoing. Each experience teaches new things and reminds me I will never know it all. My advice is to examine the way you learn best and then to fill your writing life with as many different opportunities to learn as you can. And if you do choose to get an MFA, be forewarned. Even when you complete a program, you're learning won't be through.
I would love to get my MFA. It would please me to no end to devote many, many hours to reading excellent books, parsing it with like minded people, devote time to critiquing their work, having the same done to mine. Wait, I have that already...
So, do I think an MFA opens doors? Maybe Iowa and a few others. Do I believe it makes for a better writer? Maybe, maybe not. I believe the writing is more organic without it, but some people would absolutely benefit from honing their craft. Do I think there's the tendency while enrolled in a MFA program to write to a particular schematic. Yes. Evalaute your goals for the program. If you're doing it with the intent of getting published, you don't need it. If you desire an MFA for the pure joy of wallowing in literature, with the intent to expand your breadth of knowledge, go for it.
Knowing writers who made it with and without an MFA, the bottom line is this: having the stick-to-it-iveness to make the time to learn from others and also to share critical reading support. If you have options like the fabulous Grub Street in Boston for classes -- and will get yourself to them -- and a great writers' group or reader, an MFA is not necessary. A low-residency MFA is a solid middle ground between this Do-It-Yourself version and a formal MFA, requiring you to make the commitment (not unlike how some use a gym membership to force themselves to exercise!) in a way that fits your life. If that is the push and structure you need, I heartily recommend such a program!
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 7:28 AM
Friday, December 12, 2008
Mystery. With her stupendous prose and intricate characterizations MacKinnon has penned a winner - Hardcover
Tethered A Novel by Amy Mackinnon
Read the full review
Tethered is the first book in recent memory that I absolutely could not read fast enough to see how it comes out. The book is deceptive. Is it a mystery? Is it a literary novel? At first it seems to be a rather interesting, if uncomplicated, story about a young woman, Clara Marsh, who works in a funeral home as an undertaker; assistant to the funeral director, Linus Bartholomew. She's had a rather difficult life – orphaned at an early age then raised by an overly strict Bible-thumping grandmother – thus she is pretty much a loner. So when she encounters a little girl called Trecie in one of the mourning rooms I was expecting a story about how Clara begins to relate to the youngster and eventually overcomes her inability to connect with others. Boy was I wrong. .... Read full review.
Reviewed By Donna Chavez
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 8:05 AM
Thursday, December 11, 2008
You've been waiting and waiting, emailing for hints, finally it's Thursday and Lissa Warren is back with the answer to that question every writer asks. And who better to ask than Lissa, Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press and author of that must-have, The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity:
Q) We've heard again and again that writers need to help promote their work once their books are published, but not every one knows how to do this (other than buying THE SAVVY AUTHORS GUIDE). What are your best author do's and don'ts?
A) Lissa Warren: It’s true—these days, authors need to be actively involved in the promotion of their books. They need to be partners in the campaign—not just the recipients of it. Here are my do’s and don’ts:
Create a website for your book—and keep it updated. By adding new content on a regular basis—even if it’s just your latest media coverage and your newest events—you’ll make it a place people want to come back to, rather than a place they visit once.
Be agreeable. If your publicist asks you to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday to do a phoner with a small radio station in a city no one has ever heard of, do it—not just because you never know who could be listening and what it could lead to, but because publicists tend to work extra hard when authors are cooperative.
Follow the news, and let your publicist know what’s happening in the world that you can speak to, and what your take is on it. She can then use that info to get you more coverage. Don’t have a publicist? Then send out a well-crafted pitch via email yourself. When news is breaking, the media needs experts and will sometimes be receptive to authors even when they’re pitching themselves.
Write—and try to find a home for--op-eds and original articles (preferably tied to your book) that mention the book in your bio line.
Blog. Start your own blog, or blog for established ones like the Huffington Post.
Secure some speaking gigs for yourself. Bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, universities, corporations, churches, synagogues and JCCs, professional conferences—there are tons of places to talk. Check with your publicist to see what she’s pursuing—then fill in the gaps. If it seems like too much work, investigate the possibility of enlisting the services of a lecture agent.
Consider hiring a freelance publicist or outsourcing for a radio satellite tour and/or Web campaign for your book. They’re not cheap, but they can really help you get the word out.
Be hard to reach. If you don’t have a cell, get one (and return messages from your publicist and from the media promptly). Same goes for email (and check it frequently so as not to miss opportunities). The three months before and after your book comes out are not a good time to take a vacation—so don’t.
Be your usual unselfish self. Every book has a very small window in which to succeed—usually a couple of months after it pubs. You may need to set limits with family, friends, and even your employer. To the extent that you can, try to view promoting your book as a full-time job.
Don’t have unrealistic expectations. It’s good to aim high, but not everyone can be on Oprah or Fresh Air, or reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Start small, start niche, start local—then build from your base. And remember: publicity begets publicity begets publicity.
Engage in shameless self-promotion. Find ways to put yourself out there that aren’t tacky. For example, in any press material you create don’t say your book is fascinating—make it sound fascinating. Don’t praise the book yourself, but instead quote positive reviews and provide blurbs by other authors.
Fail to do your homework. Spend time researching shows, publications, and Websites that might be appropriate for your book. Before going on a radio or TV show, try to listen to or view it online—or at least check out the show’s website. Before speaking with a reporter, Google them to see what kind of things they’ve covered in the past, and what their approach has been.
Be a forgettable interview. Go into every interview armed with 3-5 talking points—things you’d really like to convey that you think will resonate with the intended audience. Learn how to sound bite well. If necessary, hire a media coach to help you. And the same goes for your reading/talks—select your passages carefully, time yourself (20-30 minutes is usually sufficient for a bookstore talk), and practice your delivery. And be sure to send thank you notes once the segment airs or the article runs/posts.
Forget that this is supposed to be fun. Most people never even write a book, much less get it published. Try to enjoy your time in the spotlight.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 6:42 AM
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
I'd continue to query, but with two caveats. Are you absolutely sure your manuscript is in the best possible shape to stand out? And are you querying a very targeted group of agents? Being thorough on both counts is the key to query at any time of year.
Send away! Conventional wisdom states you should wait until the beginning of February -- what with the holidays in December, New Years, and then the assumption that agents' inboxes are full to crashing in the weeks following. Most people follow that advice, but I didn't. I queried my top pick the end of November, and sent the rest the first two weeks of December. All of the agents I queried were working away and responded immediately. If I were you, I'd query right up until December 17 and then take a breather until mid-January. Good luck and let us know how you make out.
She's away for the holidays. Merry Christmas, Lisa!
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 6:46 AM
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
While every agent or editor delights in finding the high concept novel with page turning pace in the slush pile, what's to become of the more sedate literary novel? In the midst of the changing landscape in publishing, many worry that their novel doesn't have the right stuff. Do you? Does yours?
Q) My novel has been called "quiet" by a few agents who've rejected it. Even those who have complimented my writing say they don't know how they would position it in the crowded market. I love my novel as is and feel that it will eventually find a home. I have no interest in revising it to give it a big hook. What advice do you have for a writer like me?
It's true that selling literary--in fact all--fiction is tough these days. The shelves are certainly crowded and it takes a lot of promotion to stand out. That said, there are wonderful books being published that are literary, quiet and still deeply rich in texture and tone. I suggest you step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your novel. Are the characters richly drawn and as three dimensional as your best friend or next door neighbor? Is your story original and compelling? Great writing is a must no matter what your genre, but in truth, today your work does need to stand out in some way in order to break free from the stack.
Ah, the quiet novel. When I think quiet, I think Last Night at the Lobster or Out Stealing Horses, Old Man and the Sea or The Stone Diaries. Each is a gem, two were awarded the Pulitzer, all have enormous heart. If no one is telling you there's a structural issue, that the voice is a mere echo, and the characters flat, then I would persevere -- but perhaps not now. I believe in the pendulum swing philosophy, that literary gems will once command the attention they deserve. As Lynne said, the climate is not welcoming to many novels right now, but this too shall pass. Believe.
It sounds to me as though your decision's made; you say you have no interest in revising it to give it a "Big Hook." But, allow me to play devil's advocate... I challenge you to tell yourself WHY you don't want to revise it. Are you intimidated by the work it would entail (we're all too busy these days). Do you fear you won't be able to come up with an idea? Perhaps you owe it to yourself and your novel to rethink your decision.
Perhaps you could have someone else read it for you; and if you've had it read by one or two knowledgeable friends, try a third or even a book doctor. You don't need to do what they say, but the knowledge might be useful. If it's a marketplace issue, would a chapter or a deleted scene be worth crafting into a short story? Many a first novel came from a published short story that drew someone's attention, and a credit in Post Road might be nice to have under your belt.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 6:02 AM
Monday, December 08, 2008
Joining us this week at the Writers' Group to answer your question is industry insider and all around nice person, Lissa Warren.
We first met Lissa at a Grub Muse and the Marketplace conference where she hosted one of the most informative panels that year on author do's and don'ts. Lissa is an author herself of the book every serious writer should own, The Savvy Authors Guide to Book Publicity and is senior director of publicity at Da Capo Press. Can you think of a better person to ask your PR questions of? Check back on Thursday when she answers this:
Q) We've heard again and again that writers need to help promote their work once their books are published, but not every one knows how to do this (other than buying THE SAVVY AUTHORS GUIDE). What are your best author do's and don'ts?
Lissa Warren has worked in the publicity department of several prestigious Boston publishing houses including David R. Godine, Houghton Mifflin, and Perseus Publishing, and is currently Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. She is an experienced promoter of both fiction and nonfiction, with particular expertise in the areas of business and biography, health and history, poetry and parenting, sports and science, and music. She has worked on such national bestsellers as The Cluetrain Manifesto, Greenspan: The Man Behind Money, Flatterland, Smart Mobs, Faster Than the Speed of Light, and Touchpoints Three to Six.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 6:54 AM
Sunday, December 07, 2008
Have a question? Don't be shy! If we can't answer it, we'll find someone who can. Write to us at: WritersGroupQuestions@gmail.com
In the coming weeks, look for Q&As with special guests such as Lissa Warren, author of The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity and a Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press (you know, that great publisher of Cancer Is a Bitch by Gail Konop Baker), as well as the dark one himself, Evil Editor.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 3:56 PM
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Have you ever given a gift that elicited an unexpected response? Received a cold stare after giving a sweater two sizes too big or found yourself sleeping on the couch because of a vacuum cleaner or blender? If so, don't take your chances this holiday season. We have a sure way to stay out of the doghouse. Buy books. Buy books. Buy books.
Watch this video and then buy books.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 11:50 AM
Friday, December 05, 2008
Thursday, December 04, 2008
We'd gotten a question on inspiration, and began thinking of memorable inspirations for stories we'd come across. One we love was the crazy kernel that Mameve Medwed nurtured into Of Men and Their Mothers. Rather than answer the question ourselves, we thought we'd bring back a "Best Interview" so you can hear the story again from Mameve yourself!
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Like Olympic divers, braving the jump and going to the depths, writers also need platforms of their very own to take it to the limit. Are platforms carved in stone based on who you are and what you've written, or can one build one afresh?
Q) I am revising my first novel and am starting to investigate next steps. The word "platform" comes up quite a bit. Can you define this simply? Or suggest how I might define what I have, or how I might achieve it? I am a teacher and have never been published before.
As a writer of nonfiction, I’m going to give it to you straight. You need a huge platform to sell books and get paid speaking engagements. TV & radio appearances—regularly. A column or freelance assignments from major newspapers and national magazines--consistently. And events that attract loads of participants—in the hundreds. Have I frightened you yet? I haven’t meant to, but it is my intention to be brutally honest. Hear this: readers of nonfiction want to hear from experts. They want to know you and trust you before they buy. Publishers know this. So should you.
For fiction, platform takes on a different relevance, but it is relevant nonetheless. Certainly you don’t need to have the same kind of platform—though it certainly won’t hurt if you do. Your platform in this case serves a more indirect role. Do you already have contacts with television producers, radio hosts, and magazine editors? If so, you’ll be more likely to garner media attention for your fiction, though you will have to come up with appropriate pitches. (For example, with Life Without Summer, I’m pitching parenting, marriage and grief angles to get coverage for the novel.) While some may say having platform for fiction is less important, in today’s marketplace you’ll need it--and whatever else you have up your sleeve--to stand out.
Publishing being what it is, a nonfiction author needs to have a national platform related to her book proposal to get a book deal. That means if you're writing a cook book, you should probably have your very own show on the Food Network. Bam!
Fiction, well, that's a bit different isn't it? Most everyone will tell you to start building your platform now in order to get a book deal, do something related to your genre -- for literary fiction get an MFA and teach at Iowa -- or publish a magazine article related to your novel's plot -- if it's about a brain surgeon, write about your experience being wide awake on the OR table as neurosurgeons removed that non-malignant tumor.
Personally, I think people need to be more concerned with writing a magnificent story about characters readers will know in their bones. If there's a good backstory about the author coming to write that novel, great, but that's not what will keep up long into the night, reading and falling in love.
Interesting question. When I did a manuscript mart (when an agent reviewed the first twenty pages of my YA WIP), I was surprised when she told me to try to get any bylines I could in publications that deal with autism - my MC's brother has autism. It didn't make a lot of sense to me then and, if I'm honest, it still doesn't make sense now. I am writing fiction, not non-fiction.
Given that platform translates literally into the credentials you stand on as you leap into publishing, it's not too late to add to your credentials, either. Examine newspapers and magazines you enjoy to better understand their style, and pitch or submit articles or essays. Get creative and if you are not already involved with a program or non-profit that might relate to one of your themes or threads, make those connections and create relationships that way.
Tuesday, December 02, 2008
How many genres can you name and do you know yours? Here are a few we came up with: literary fiction, commercial fiction, women's commercial fiction, mystery, cozy mystery, thriller, suspense, African-American fiction, manga, chick lit, magical realism, young adult, middle-grade, children's picture books, poetry, memoir...
Your blog is great. I have a question I was hoping you might address. When you were querying, did you pitch your book as fiction or as a specific genre? I'm struggling a little with this question, and Amy's book, Tethered, seemed to share some of the cross-genre issues, as it sounds a little darker than women's fiction, more literary than a genre mystery, etc. Thanks.
For so many reasons, (see Amy’s response) you will need to know your genre. And you’ll need to know it very early in the process of trying to land an agent and a book deal. If you don’t know yours, start by finding comparison titles. In one of my first meetings with marketing, a member of my team suggested that fans of Deep End of the Ocean and Good Grief would love Life Without Summer. (These were the comparison titles my agent and I came up with for her original pitch.) Without getting into the pros and cons of branding, knowing your genre—and being comfortable with it—is something you should take control of early. The way you take charge is to identify your niche, and then to own it. It will follow you for the life of your book, and beyond.
Oh, and Life Without Summer—upmarket women’s fiction.Amy MacKinnon
Great question. I wish we could market books as good stories, but people need labels to simplify their worlds. Agents need to know in that query letter because they have to make a snap judgment about requesting pages; editors need to know because they need to decide if it suits their list and how to pitch it to marketing (yes, it's true, the marketing department helps decide if a publishing house will buy a manuscript); bookstore buyers need to know in order to properly shelve it; and readers need to know because they very often have narrow tastes and little time.
My book does cross many genres yet I had to pick one so I melded two: I queried it as literary suspense. But if I had my druthers, I'd put it on the shelf marked good story.
YA or middle grade? That was the choice I faced when I queried agents. YA is edgier, but my first attempt at a novel was pretty tame. (That's changed a bit). But middle grade? That sounds like something my nine-year-old would read. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and if memory serves, I queried with both. One agent was offered YA, another agent middle grade for the very same book.
Thankfully now, I'm solidly in the YA category, at least with my 2 WIP's. But the series I'm working on with my nine-year-old son...that's a whole new question. Sigh, I think I'll have to ponder that a bit further...
Tess Gerritsen pitched her first novel as a mystery with no luck. Then she changed one (1) word in her pitch. Cross out mystery, replace with thriller, and bam! Interest. On the other hand, Lisa Scottoline once said to never pigeonhole your story in a query. Describe it in your brief paragraph with key plot points and enough flavor of the work to let the agent decide for him or herself, especially if you're walking the literary-commercial line. I'm with Amy. I'd be happy to sum up reader responses: made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, couldn't put it down. Wouldn't it be great if we could label them as to where they'd fit in Hallie Ephron's book 1001 Books for Every Mood?
Monday, December 01, 2008
I've never won the lottery, or got a job because I knew the boss, and I didn't know a single person in publishing when I landed my first agent back in 2001. And of all the people I've met in my journey so far, not one landed their deal without doing so the old fashioned way. They did their homework. They networked like mad. And above all, they wrote a great story.
No one can help you get published, but you! Plain and simple there is no easy way to do it. Now certainly networking by attending conferences, author signings, and taking classes can help in innumerable ways (This equals doing your homework, learning about the industry) but at the end of the day, this process is not a linear one. In fact the journey requires you to travel through the narrow gate.
I know lots and lots of people in the publishing business, everyone from authors to agents to editors. When I completed my manuscript, a few authors offered to refer me to their agents and a few agents offered to read a full. Maybe it's the Aries in me, but I wanted to do it on my own without ever having to wonder if the work was good enough. Of course knowing someone is no guarantee your work will get published, still I didn't want to argue with "that doubt" the rest of my life.
Going it alone is exciting. It's like that first time you borrow your mom's car and drive to a friend's house. Will you make it there? Who knows, but it's all up to you. Write well (as Miss Snark says) and you'll find an agent who falls in love with your work. BTW, there will be agents who pass you by; it's not for them. Stick to it and surprise yourself!
One word: persistence. Or many words: Finish your manuscript, make it the best it can be. Find an agent who believes in you. Keep yourself positive and excited about what may happen, what you will make happen. The business is a hard one; go into it with eyes wide open and a readiness to handle what comes your way and still find every drop of joy. No joy, don't bother. Network, and keep networking. The first contacts you make may not be the right ones. Do your research, and know whom you are approaching and why you are approaching them. Don't assume any open door will stay open, or even that you may want it to do so, or that any closed door will stay closed. Keep sending letters. Every journey is unique. Take classes and more classes, and listen to new thoughts on your manuscript, as long as you are faithful to its core and know how it might be made better. The world can be your oyster; you need to know it and explore it for it to open wide.
Friday, November 28, 2008
Great memories. But what do you have from those halcyon days? Maybe the western town but no stagecoach. Maybe.
Do you have any books from when you were a child? I do. In fact, one of the first gifts my mother gave me when I became a mother was a box filled with my childhood picture books. The Little Mommy was my favorite. Years later, seeing my daughter pour over the same illustrations, sounding out An-na-belle as I had a quarter century before became one of the singular moments of my life. Later there were my Judy Blumes, Madeleine L'Engles, Nancy Drews to share -- all of which found their way to my own children's nightstands and now their bookshelves. When the time comes, I'll pack them into a box, wrap them in something pretty, and give them to my grandchildren. Imagine?
I don't have my kitchen set, my Rockem Sockem Robots, or any of those video games from my childhood to pass along and I'm pretty sure my kids wouldn't have much liked them anyway. Something bigger and shinier is always around the corner.
But stories are timeless. Precious. They inspire and comfort and teach.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Here's a Thanksgiving treat that won't put on a pound and could lift the weight from your literary shoulders now and again! We promise not to tease you any longer about any guest starting this week, and yes, we are posting her a day early so you can enjoy and ponder her response as you hit the road or the kitchen.
Q: I'm facing a terrible writer's block. Threads head into dead ends I can't get out of and characters don't act or speak the way they should, no matter what I do to force them back toward my outline (which seemed right when I started). What tactics can you suggest to keep things flowing and get back on track?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Okay, so maybe you heard Houghton Mifflin is no longer acquiring manuscripts. I know, breathe. Or you read this post by Editorial (Ass)istant and you're scared your book won't catch an agent's eye or sell to any of the twenty editors to whom she's submitting. Scary stuff. But take heart, where there's a will, there most certainly, undoubtedly, is a way.
Q: Okay, I know the chances of making it as a writer have never been good, but the bad economic news I hear every day has to make my chances worse. What I need to know is whether or not there's any chance now for me. And before you tell me I need to write well, let me say that I'm no J. K. Rowling. All I ever hoped for was to be a mid-list author; I love to write and I want to make money on the side. Go ahead ladies, make my day and say there's still a chance for me or tell me to give it up. I can handle your version of the truth!
My answer contains both good news and bad news. The bad news—and the reality is—there will be fewer book deals in the coming months and years. So whether you want to hear it again or not, this means you must write well. Very well. Pen a story strong in narrative drive. Work hard to unravel the secrets of writing a novel.
Yet this reality has an up side, too. In my opinion, fewer books should be published. Being an eternal optimist, I think this economic downturn will force editors and publishers to acquire only the best books, working with talented writers who have career potential. Fewer acquisitions will mean more focused campaigns for promoting the ones they do buy. Economic concerns aside, your challenge will always be to write the best book you can. And for goodness sake, readjust your attitude. Don’t aim for midlist, hoping you’ll be offered pocket change. Aim high. Don’t settle. And of course, write well.
Until you want this with every fiber of your being and you're willing to dedicate nearly all of yourself to your writing, no, I don't believe you have a chance. Writing isn't about the money, it's not about dabbling here and there, and it should never be about shooting for mediocrity. It's about pouring your soul onto the page.
Well, all I'll say is that children's books were published in the Great Depression. You've heard of the Tales of Babar, right? What about The Little Engine That Could? That's right, both of these published in the worst of times and from what I here, the news today, unemployment, etc. doesn't even come close.
Oh, by the way. I asked this question to my husband (A Marketing Man). He said simply: Publishers need product. And the piece I heard on NPR the other day said that authors like you, my friend, are now often referred to as "content providers."
And I promise you, between now and Christmas, Publishers Marketplace will annouce sales; just last week I read about an auction and a pre-empt for two children's book authors.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
If you have characters in your head who beg to come alive, whispering to you about a set of situations that make you laugh or cry or shake with fear, and they won't leave you alone no matter what you read or hear, then read and hear us instead. Get them onto paper. Fill the edges of their world with details and beauty. You can't get published if you don't finish a manuscript, so take control of what you can. Write, and read, and study, and revise, and connect and believe.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Amy here. When I lived in Washington, DC, I rented a WWII-era studio on Capitol Hill. Fabulous. Every day I walked to work and passed Folger Shakespeare Library; the Supreme Court and Library of Congress; and, the most beautiful building on earth, the United States Capitol. One day, a woman befuddled by her map stopped me and asked, "Where's the Capitol?" I pointed to the ginormous building before us. A couple of Congressional aides strutting by snickered (yes, they absolutely did), and she wilted a little. I reassured her that there's no such thing as a stupid question. None at all.
Having worked for the most convoluted bureaucracy on planet earth, the United States Government, I can say with utmost sincerity that publishing is a close second. Lots of unspoken rules and unknowable expectations. I don't know what I don't know and neither do you. Ask away; we'll give it a go or pose it to one of our special guests. So if you have a question, whatever it may be, know you're safe here: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q) I have representation for my first novel from a successful agent. Many editors have reviewed my full MS and have said that they enjoyed my writing and characters but found that my novel lacked narrative drive. I have revised extensively a few times, but am getting the same concern with each submission. I used to think that my novel was getting better each time, but for the first time I think it may be getting worse. I'm afraid I'm removing too much in order to achieve the "what happens next" suspense factor. Can you offer any advice about what editors are truly looking for when they assess a novel for narrative drive?
Imagine that every detail you give readers is a stone you ask them to carry for a long journey up a mountain. As the load becomes heavier, the reader will reevaluate his or her load, asking if each is integral to the experience. Once at the mountain top, all the stones the reader carried for no reason will add up to pile of bad feelings and negative impressions of the author.
Narrative drive is story force. If you’re in what you believe to be your final revision, before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor, you must take accountability for every sentence, every word. When you come upon dialogue that says nothing, cut it. When you read scenes that do nothing to move the story forward, sorry, they must go. Glorious phrases that don’t tell the reader something worth carrying—kill those little darlings. When you revise with narrative drive in mind, you will eventually get to the heart of your story. After this humbling experience of accountable revision, you may have to go back to the drawing board to add scenes rich in conflict, loaded with compelling details. Now is the time to rework the piece with the goal of asking your readers to care, inviting them to embrace what you're asking them to hold.
In a word? Compelling. Suspenseful. Page-turner. Even children's picture books -- take Where the Wild Things Are -- make us care deeply about the character and wonder what will happen on the next page. Do that.
All you have to know is this:
YOUR CHARACTER MUST SUFFER FROM THE TORTURE OF HER INTERNAL ANGST.
This will drive your narrative and this will force the reader to stay up late into the night to find out what happens. Things must get bleak for the old MC, then bleaker still. She has to want something so, so badly, but in chasing it, she must face the worst decision and struggle of her life.
Now, if you want to know how to achieve this, it's a simple answer as well. YOU must suffer internal angst in the writing and revising. What you must do is - as Amy says - up the stakes. Then, add a surprise, shock yourself. Next, sit somewhere by yourself in the middle of the night and think of one more thing to make it worse for your character. Tell yourself this isn't good enough and make it more compelling. This is not fun. I know. It's actually torture, until you have a breakthrough. This feels like heaven on earth. I know, I had a breakthrough last night.
What you cannot do is think that an okay story is good enough to make it. IT WON'T.
Yes, you can do this if you are not afraid to go back to square one and look at the story again and again, until it sings. You can do this!
Not that a group blog needs narrative drive, but like a novel, we do not want to wallow in repetition, nor do we want to put down words for their own sake. So I offer this as you do revisions. Everyone works differently, but this helps me. Absorb every wise word above, and then sit down with a cup of tea and write an abbreviated summary of each scene, each chapter. Two lined sheets of paper at the most. Identify troublesome passages. Highlight where they are and take a close look at them and how they fit into the whole. Why does the reader need that section? Do we need it at that moment, in that way? What physicality in that scene provides movement and action, even if the passage takes us into a character's thoughts? Does this involve the reader, or simply inform? Sometimes it helps to reread a book like The Time Traveler's Wife, that ties every moment in time, every thought to a purpose. Dig at it and explore the why. Then return to your own work. Sometimes I find when a section is not pushing the narrative forward, something is missing in the story that my brain tried to fill without success. Why did I write that passage, what did I want to say, and how can I deliver with more impact? Doodle your thoughts next to your summary. You will find yourself finding ways of being more compelling, of upping the stakes, and before you know it, you will be adding words and not deleting them, and the result will be exactly what you need.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Our local, independently-owned book shop may not be around come January. The owner said as it stands, she won't be able to make payroll after the holidays. The same scenario is playing itself out across America. You've heard sales are down sharply this quarter at Barnes & Noble; Borders is in even worse shape. As if it weren't bleak enough for writers.
What can you do? Act locally, my friend. Walk into your neighborhood bookstore and buy books, lots of them.
This holiday season, give the gift of reading. Buy books for friends and family, and be sure loved ones know books are on your list. Can you think of another gift that can be handed down through generations; shared and discussed passionately among friends; used and used again; and can help make your dream of being published come true by teaching you how to write?
And while you're at, post this image, or one like it, on your blog. Save yourself, save your local small business, save an industry. Buy a book.
Friday, November 21, 2008
Posted by Lynne Griffin
When I saw the advance praise for the new novel, Belong to Me, by Marisa de los Santos, I was delighted. A big fan (along with millions of other readers) of her first novel, Love Walked In, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. De los Santos delivered with her second gem. After finishing Belong to Me, I contacted Marisa asking if she’d like to be part of our author spotlight series. And lucky for us, she agreed.
Lynne: Can you share with our readers a glimpse inside your literary life? Marisa: I taught literature for many years at the undergraduate level. And spent most of my time writing poetry. The idea for Love Walked In came to me after I had my first child. It was published in 2006 and before it was off my desk I started writing Belong to Me, which was just published in April.
Marisa: I taught literature for many years at the undergraduate level. And spent most of my time writing poetry. The idea for Love Walked In came to me after I had my first child. It was published in 2006 and before it was off my desk I started writing Belong to Me, which was just published in April.
Lynne: How great is it to have two novels out in a two year period?
Marisa: It’s been wonderful, really. Belong to Me has brought new readers to Love Walked In. It’s been very special to have new life to that book, through my latest. I love hearing from readers who’ve really connected with Cornelia Brown.
Marisa: I started on Belong to Me, when Love Walked In wasn’t even off my desk. The characters wanted to say more, so I wrote it before Love was published. For me, each book evolves over time. I don’t have lots of ideas that I can pick off a shelf. I write the book I need to write at the time. Belong to Me has a different mood, a different tone. I worried people might not like it because the characters are in different places in their lives. In Love Walked In, there was lots of room for play. Belong to Me is more serious, but it had to be written that way; it’s a more grown-up book. My third is not a continuation of last two. But who knows about my forth.
Lynne: I know you’ve had the same editor for both books, but not the same publishing house. Can you tell us about that?
Marisa: After Love Walked In was published, my editor moved to Morrow. I will be there for my next two books, as well. It’s very nice to have a home. It’s been a very positive experience, and I think that has to do with the fact that I’ll be with them. It works for me—and for them—to think long term about our efforts. It would only make sense; it’s an investment.
Lynne: Any words about your agent and editor relationships?
Marisa: I’m very fortunate to be close to both my agent and editor. All the relationships are very personal, with your agent, editor and publicity staff. For me the experience has been extremely positive.
Lynne: How do you balance writing and promoting?
Marisa: The times I’m not writing are just as important as when I am. The first time I was on the road, I remember sitting in a hotel room trying to write. I wasn’t in my space. I’m a homebody when I’m writing. I need total immersion, as much as you can get of that when you have a family. That’s what I need, I figured out. So now when I’m promoting, I’m writing less. But I do a lot of the working out of the story in my head, so I’m always doing that.
Lynne: Tell us about your writing routine.
Marisa: During the school year, when my kids are in school, I write between 8:30- 2:30. Each day I start by reading pages from the day before, and then I plunge in. I write sentence to sentence, and I don’t know my story until I’m writing. I have a vague sense, but the story comes as I write. My first drafts take a long time because I fine-tune as I go. I don’t have numerous drafts, but more of a thorough continuous draft. I send my manuscript to my agent in chunks. She’s a great editor. I’m very at home with her.
Lynne: What’s most important to you as a writer?
Marisa: I can’t write for an audience. I never want my books to lack integrity because I’ve not been true to my story and the characters. I value my audience, but I have to write what I have to write.
As a writer and a reader, characters are paramount to me. I love language, but I get impatient when books don’t have a story to tell. The highest compliment I can get is that my characters feel real. The books I go back to over and over again—the ones that become part of my life—are the ones where the characters are alive.
The way I write is character-driven. I don’t plot, I let the characters tell me what the story is.
Lynne: How are you contending with your new found success?
Marisa: It’s all wonderful. This whole publishing life for me has been full of serendipitous things, some incredibly miraculous things, but it doesn’t change my daily life. The thing that brings it home for me, isn’t the sales figures, it’s the email, the conversations with readers. The fact that my books are touching people, reaching people, that’s the best thing.
I’m grateful things are happening now that I’m happy, and my life is firmly in place. It is all a great privilege to be doing this, though there was no big identity shift, because I’d had always been a writer. The real relationship is between you and the work; nothing changes that, and nothing should.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with the people I’ve worked with; they’ve been dedicated to me and my books. I know I’m blessed and I live in a state of gratitude.Thank you, Marisa, for sharing your time with the readers of The Writers' Group. Your insights are incredibly valuable.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 7:03 AM
Thursday, November 20, 2008
So to recap, we asked Moonrat (aka Editorial (Ass)istant), a woman we know to work at one of New York's finer publishing houses (see Monday's post), to answer a simple question:
Q) When you read a manuscript, at what point do you stop reading, knowing you'll decline, and at what point do you feel your pulse quicken, expecting to make an offer?
Moonrat: At the risk of quoting a Tom Cruise movie... Remember when Jerry McGuire walks in the door and gives Renee Zelwegger a long take-me-back speech? I know you can see where this is going.
You really should have me at "hello." The proposals that really get me start so strongly that I can't resist them. If you don't start strongly, then (on my desk, at least) your book will have to distinguish itself in spite of itself.
Notice I say "proposal" and not "manuscript." The reason is that "hello" comes well before I start reading your first page. Really, "hello" comes when your agent calls me on the phone and pitches your book to me. To this end, you can help your agent out by working together to brainstorm the perfect pitch line--one that catches my attention and is memorable. There are ways of pitching the same book that can make it more or less attractive to an editor (who, keep in mind, will have to sell the concept to her money-minded publisher and sales department, not to mention about a jillin other people). Stay away from generic praise and focus on what is special and unique about the book--"A beautiful collection of lyrical linked stories" means much less to me (and, thereby, to my boss) than "What happens to a tight-knit small-town community when they discover a secret in their church basement?"--even if we're talking about the exact same book. I know it sounds horribly commercial and low-minded, but a memorable pitch will set your manuscript apart from the other 15 beautiful and lyrical books I have on my desk at any given time.
Not that I encourage you to underestimate the importance of your first page! If you do, it may be the only page of your manuscript I read! On the other hand, for almost every book I've ever bought--let me think, are there even any exceptions?--I've already known at the first page that this book was one I was going to care about. It's a combination of the sellable hook and how caught up in the writing I get at the first page.
If a book does not speak to me with its first page, I give it the benefit of the doubt and continue reading closely for at least 20 pages. After that, I'll skim to 50pages. But as I turn each page and still fail to be engaged, it becomes less and less likely that I will change my mind.
It's true. I make snap judgments. But I'm not too proud to admit it. I hope that that is information that authors can make work for them, though. I sincerely doubt I'm the only editor who works like this!
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Q) I have been writing on and off for most of my life. Nothing published, and frankly, nothing close to being published. Recent conversations with loved ones (read husband and parents) make me wonder if I am wasting my time; I spend at least three or four hours a week on my writing. How do I know if I'm just wasting my time or not?
Doing what you love is never a waste of time. Yet from your question, I’m not feeling the love. If you spend three or four hours a week writing in a journal or dabbling with a short story, and you enjoy it, great! If you’re writing with the goal of being published, I’m afraid I have to be honest. You’ve got more than an uphill battle.
The single most important character trait of successful writers is drive. Good old fashioned work ethic, coupled with passion to tell a good story. One you are certain only you can tell. Even if you’re driven, there will be times when your story has you by the throat. You will wrestle with it in your dreams, it will distract you from your day job, and you’ll find you willingly skip leisure time in favor of stealing just one more hour at the keyboard.
Writers write for all kinds of reasons, publication being only one. If you write solely for self-expression, go for it. If you want more from your writing, you’ll have to give it more of your time and energy. Some days you’ll be wrung out from giving, and still, whether it’s a day later or a week later you’ll go back to it. You won’t be able to stop yourself.Amy MacKinnon
Wasting your time doing what? If you enjoy those three or four hours writing, then it's not a waste of time. I enjoy reading and baking, and even spend a fair amount of time doing so each week. Is that a waste? I take pleasure in each, a vastly underrated pursuit.
If, however, you're writing with the intention of getting a book published, then perhaps it's time to re-evaluate your commitment to your dream. Find your story and write it through to the end. Just that one story. Do so with intention (it will be published, it will be the best writing I'm capable of at this point, I will tell a great story with honest characters). Like everything else in life that matters -- relationships, education, career-- your writing demands a consistent investment of time and devotion.
As for your family and friends, think twice before sharing your writing life with them until you are published. In all likelihood, they perceive you as another person, not as a writer. And because they love you, they'll be quick to point out the many, many obstacles along your journey in an attempt to protect you. Your job as writer, as one who dares to dream big, is to see your way around all of the brick walls. Remember, publishing is persistence.
You don't. End of story.
I can't tell you how many times I've had near panic attacks wondering that very same question. Although, I can almost guarantee that I've poured even more hours into my writing than you have. What helps me is to think of the alternative to writing: what else would I be doing with my time? I would spend my evenings watching either Stephen Colbert of Two and a Half-Men, or likely both (I could tape one as I watch the other).
For me writing is as much about who I am and what my dreams are than whether I will be published this year, next year, 2012 or 2020. Writing helps me love myself and I long to become. Simply put, I am a writer, published or not. If you feel at all like I do, than, frankly, do you have a choice?
I have been a writer all my life, personally and professionally. The challenge of being a published author of fiction is its own unique beast. Ignore the others; listen only to yourself. If you want to be a published author, take writing as seriously as you have your professional career (workshops, books, network). Take it as seriously as you do your family (What to Expect, He Says She Says, playgroup wisdom, counseling). Take it as seriously as you do your garden, your decorating, your boat, your fishing, your skiiing, your tennis, your golf. There is a craft, skills that need to be acquired and practiced and polished. If you were to study for an MFA, your thesis would be "a book-length novel of publishable quality." That is your goal. The question is not when it will happen, but do you want to make it happen? If you answer yes, keep writing and revising and learning and moving ahead.