Thursday, February 21, 2013

the auto mechanic and the cello: when writing advice goes wrong


As INTERN, I wrote plenty of writing advice posts on this blog. As Hilary-the-bumbling-novelist, I've sometimes found myself at odds with the very kind of advice I used to give. Most writing advice is geared towards a certain kind of linear, straightforward book, and lately I've been realizing how few of my favorite novels fit that description, and how tragic a mistake it would be for aspiring authors to let the available writing advice dictate the kind of novels they write—to let the tail wag the dog, in other words.

If you were an alien surveying online writing advice, it would be easy to believe that all earthling novels consist of "scenes and sequels" or that each one needs a "main character" and an "impact character" or that scenes must alternate between positive and negative or that x must follow y. If you were an alien with the good fortune of being beamed into a library, you discover that in fact there are a plethora of fine novels in which there are no scenes whatsoever, or that the impact character is a kitchen sponge, or that x never follows y at all.

In celebration of the beauty and diversity of the novel form, here are some rules that deserve to be broken.

Advice: "Scene = goal + disaster."

When You Should Ignore It:

Some novels, such as The Hunger Games, lend themselves well to the goal + disaster pattern, where each scene looks something like this:

            "character needs to reach her wounded friend BUT she falls into a snare"

            Or like this:

            "character needs to get to his best friend's wedding BUT he gets pulled over for             speeding."

Plenty of great books have been written in this style. But plenty of novels do not work through a string of clearly identifiable goals and disasters. If you read a few pages from The Perks of Being a Wallflower or Where Things Come Back, you'll encounter narrators who seem to meander, talking about their friends and families and favorite books, weaving a story through a process of subtle accumulation rather than scene after straightforward scene.

If every writer subscribed to the goal + disaster scenario of novel-writing, we would not have The Edge of the Alphabet or Near to the Wild Heart. We would not have Holden Caulfield. The goal + disaster pattern lends itself well to a certain kind of narrator and a certain kind of story, but not to every narrator and every story.

Advice: "Conflict on every page."

When You Should Ignore It:

After reading this sort of advice, it can be tempting to fire off a novel that consists of nothing but characters arguing, falling into snares, and experiencing setback after crushing setback. There is no time for self-indulgent things like description and philosophy and character development—on to the next flight of poison arrows!

Novels need to breathe. What would Life of Pi be without its discussions of zoo animals and swimming pools? What would Infinite Jest be without its digressions on just about everything? Great novels have a richness and texture that come from more than just conflict, conflict, conflict in its most obvious sense. Tension can be created in all sorts of ways, on all sorts of timelines. The literal, "conflict-as-plot-setback" technique is not the only one—nor should it be.

Advice: "Raise the stakes."

When You Should Ignore It:

Sometimes, we use so-called high stakes situations to distract readers from a weakness in our writing. The protagonist's voice isn't working and the plot is unoriginal, but hey, there's a meteor hurtling towards earth and we're all going to die!

Most people can make a car crash or an invasion of enemy warlords exciting, but some of the most beautiful and interesting novels manage to create devastatingly high stakes in tending an apple orchard or trying on a pair of shoes. Alternatively, a novel can show the emptiness and confusion of a world in which there are no stakes—in which goals and their achievement are themselves an ambiguous and problematic terrain. The thing at stake may not be the lives of millions or the outcome of a war, but a worldview or question of existence.

**

There are millions of ways of writing novels, but the vast majority of writing advice applies to only a handful of common techniques. You won't find a blog post or magazine article that teaches you how to write The Tiger's Wife or Look At Me or House of Leaves; this is the problem with reading too much writing advice as opposed to conducting your own studies of actual novels you admire.

This post isn't to say that the novel-writing advice in books and on the internet is useless or wrong; but neither should we let it blind us to the infinite possibilities of form and structure, or make us adhere to patterns and formulas that may not be appropriate for our own particular projects. Would you look to an auto-repair handbook for instructions on tuning a cello? Why expect any and every piece of novel advice to apply to your story and writing style?

Trust yourself. Take risks. Be curious. Above all, don't let anyone fool you into thinking you need to treat your cello like a Toyota.

Friday, September 28, 2012

how not to be awkward at book festivals, part 2: the awkward book panel


Last weekend, I went to a rather awkward book festival. On Tuesday, we discussed the Awkward Book Booth (check the comments for some brilliant reader suggestions). Today, some observations on the Awkward Book Panel.

There is nothing like an awkward panel to make book festival goers wish they had gone on a brewery tour instead. There you are, trapped in your rickety folding chair while three authors you’ve vaguely heard of say a whole lot of nothing for forty-five minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute question period in which even more nothing gets said. When the panel’s over, you can’t remember a single thing anyone said—you can’t even remember what the panel was supposed to be about. Why are you even here? Why did you think you would find this stimulating? Can we go home now?

If you are a panel-bound author, here are some ways to make things less awkward for your audience:

Know thy panel-mates

There is nothing more awkward than a panel where three authors who have obviously never heard of another spend forty-five minutes avoiding eye contact and otherwise pretending that the fact of one another’s company onstage is nothing but a mildly embarrassing coincidence.

In contrast, there is nothing more fun for a book festival audience than a panel where three authors have obvious chemistry—teasing one another, responding to or expanding on one another’s points, and generally promoting the illusion that authors all belong to one big club, complete with friendships and rivalries and much creative feuding.

If you are assigned to a panel with two authors you’ve never heard of, for heaven’s sake reach out to them before the event. Look them up on the internet. Give them a call or e-mail and introduce yourself. Perhaps you can go out for a beer the night before the festival. Perhaps you can trade battle stories of panels past. Perhaps you can discover some interesting fodder for the panel.

A panel is not a one-woman (or one-man) show. No matter how engaging you and your panel-mates may be individually, things will be awkward if the three of you don’t create something larger and more interesting together.

Be supremely tweetable

In this age of live-tweeted book festivals, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea to spend some time before the panel jotting down thoughts and statements about your panel’s topic, and asking yourself whether any of them could be re-worded to be more tweetable.

This idea will probably make some people shudder (part of me is shuddering as I write it) but if you want to get the most out of your time investment and reach a wider audience than the fifteen or twenty people sitting in those folding chairs, having some highly tweetable comments is a good way to do it.

And even if you’re not lucky enough to have an iPhone-happy audience member live-tweeting your brilliant thoughts, chances are you will still be more succinct and memorable than you would have been otherwise. (this is not to say that you should prepare for your panel by coming up with sound bytes at the expense of deep thoughts on your subject. the tweetable stuff should emerge from the deep thoughts, not exist for its own sake).

Don’t count on the moderator to ask good questions

In a perfect world, a panel moderator’s questions would be scientifically calculated to draw out your most brilliant remarks and wittiest anecdotes.

“Well, Jim,” you would say. “This reminds me of a conversation I had with President Obama the other day…”

In real life, your panel moderator will probably kick things off by reading factually incorrect bios of you and your fellow authors in a monotone, then asking questions of such galloping incoherence you will wonder if your festival-provided bottle of water has been dosed.

Classic job interview wisdom holds true for book panels: think about what you REALLY want to say, then find a way to say it, even if the actual questions are duds. Which facts, opinions, and anecdotes would be most interesting to your audience? Can you find a way to work them in? A panel with uninspired questions is just as disappointing to the audience as it is to the authors. We WANT to hear the juiciest things you have to say.

Never underestimate the power of unexpected delights

The people attending your panel are probably hot, cranky, hungry, and uncomfortable in those horrible folding chairs. If you can make our panel-going experience any less physically unpleasant, we may actually pay attention instead of day-dreaming, texting, or scouring the festival program for more stimulating events for which we could ditch your panel halfway through.

Can you get away with passing out cookies? You could lift us out of our existential misery with cookies. If cookies are too crumbly, what about a bag of Hershey’s kisses? Licorice? Tic-Tac? ANYTHING?!?!?

Point is, if you hand out a treat, we will suddenly feel clever for attending your panel, and we will spend the whole panel thinking “I can’t wait until this panel is over so I can tell my friends about the free cookies they missed” instead of just “I can’t wait until this panel is over.” And if you’re really lucky, our moods will be so brightened by the unexpected treat, we will actually listen and ask questions and remember to buy your book.

In cases where handing out food items is inappropriate, you can still delight your audience with something unexpected—a prop? a great story? a handout? a surprise announcement? Whatever it is, make us feel lucky to be there, lucky not to have missed it, and eager to tell everyone about what happened.

*
Have you ever been to a book panel? What made it good? What made it awkward? Are author panels even worth it, or are they generally just exercises in awkardness? Who’s the best author panelist you’ve ever seen, and why did they stand out?





Tuesday, September 25, 2012

how not to be awkward at book festivals, part 1: the awkward book booth


This weekend, I went to a medium-sized book festival with a mission: to observe which authors were successfully selling books, and why.

Like all situations where you are meeting face-to-face with the producer of an item you may or may not want to buy, book festivals can be sort of awkward. This particular festival was especially awkward, as many of the booths consisted of lesser-known, debut, or self-published authors who were selling their books “cold” with no name recognition to ride on. As a person who will herself claim the illustrious title of Lesser-Known Debut Author in about eight months from now, I am very curious to find out how other LKDA’s were making it work (or failing to make it work).

To begin with, some pointers to authors who are selling their books at booths or tables:

Team up with other authors

I found myself shying away from booths where an author was sitting with stacks and stacks of a single title. Why? Because it’s already awkward enough to walk away from someone’s booth without buying anything, but it’s even more awkward, not to mention personal, when you walk away from the ONE BOOK into which someone has poured their hopes and dreams.

I was much more likely to approach booths consisting of several authors with several different books, because then it felt like browsing, which is fun, instead of crushing someone’s dreams if I failed to make a purchase, which is not.

Unless you are supremely engaging and/or well-known, having your own booth at a book fair is a recipe for awkwardness. On the flip side, if you team up with two or three other authors in your genre, people will feel less pressured and will be more likely to chat, browse, and buy books. Even better, you and your author-friends can talk up one another’s books, instead of (awkwardly) talking up your own.

Be supremely engaging

You would be amazed how many authors were either sitting in their chairs looking bitter and possibly murderous or aggressively flogging draw entries for (totally unappealing) prize packs consisting of their book, a dubious piece of confectionary, and a whole lot of cellophane.

Authors, I could be charmed into buying almost ANY book. I am a huge sucker. Really, I am. But you don’t charm someone by guilting them into entering your raffle. You charm someone by giving them an EXPERIENCE.

Listen. Most people wandering around at these small book festivals feel vaguely disappointed and at loose ends. The festival is not as exciting as we’d hoped. We spend most of our 1.5 laps around the tables thinking about where to go for lunch. We WANT to be engaged in a brilliant conversation. We WANT something memorable to happen to justify our presence here on a Saturday afternoon.

So dress beautifully. Stand up tall. Engage people in conversation—not because you want them to sign up for your mailing list, but because you are genuinely interested in who they are, what they’re reading, and where they bought that delicious-looking falafel because you want one too. Forget about selling your book. Forget about your #%$% prize draw. Be silly if you want. Stay loose. Be the one person at the book fair who is in on the joke. People will be flocking to your booth. You will be fighting them off with bats.

Make me a deal

One preconception I didn’t even realize I had is that buying a book at a book fair is supposed to be cheaper than buying it in a store, or it should come with some sort of bonus. Maybe I’m just spoiled from too many trips to Vancouver’s Word on the Street festival, where you can buy an entire grab bag of new books from Arsenal Pulp Press for ten bucks. Either way, I found myself not just disappointed, but mildly put off when a book for sale cost its full cover price, without some added bonus to make up for it.

Part of the point of going to a book festival—at least, for me—is snagging a whole lot of books and magazines that are either cheaper than regular books or come with a fun incentive. Example: three back issues of a literary journal for $10, new book comes signed by supremely engaging author who has brightened your day with her delightful banter, buy all three of supremely engaging author’s books for $30 instead of $14 each, etc. etc.

If you are not offering festival goers a special deal or experience, why the heck should they buy a book from you instead of getting it cheaper on Amazon or not buying it at all?

Write a book people want to read

There is nothing more awkward than a book nobody wants to read (authors of hastily self-published memoirs of alien abduction, I AM LOOKING AT YOU.) No amount of free cupcakes or prize packs can change this.

So write something saleable. Be supremely engaging. Make it less awkward for all of us.

*

Have you ever been to a book festival? What makes you more likely to buy a book from a particular table? Does anyone actually enter those prize-pack draws? What’s your advice for Lesser-Known Debut Authors trying to make their way in the book festival world? 


Thursday, September 13, 2012

gas in the trunk: why your conflict isn’t working (and how to fix it)

 One of the most cited reasons agents and editors give for declining manuscripts is “there wasn’t enough conflict” or “the stakes weren’t high enough.” For this reason, writers have learned to pile on conflict—checking for internal and external tensions in every scene, giving each character a backstory wound, defining clear and compelling story goals, etc.

But while these strategies can and do lead to stronger story telling, they can also backfire in confusing ways. Over the past six months, the freelance editor version of myself has noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.

“What’s going on here?” I found myself thinking again and again. “There’s so much drama, but I don’t give a tinker’s damn.” (No damns at all! Not a one!)

It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It’s like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it’s not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it’s in the tank—and conflict sort of works the same way.

Here are some of the weird places writers mistakenly stash their story’s fuel.

1. Conflict pertains to every character EXCEPT the main character

One thing I’ve seen a lot of lately are outlines that look like this:

Bonnie McPhee is a thirty-year old osteopath whose life has just hit a wall. Her boyfriend’s sister is facing life in prison, her parents’ house just got foreclosed on, and her neighbor’s son got diagnosed with leukemia. Then she makes a startling discovery about her great-grandfather’s past.

This story has so much drama—prison! deadly diseases! financial crises! dark family secrets!—but the protagonist’s role in them is unclear. Where’s Bonnie in all this? What does she stand to gain or lose? Why do we care that she resolves a dark secret from her great-grandfather’s past? What about her?

Obviously, it is possible to craft a great novel in which the protagonist’s friends and family are embroiled in crises—maybe the whole point is to show your MC’s journey from being a doormat with no life of her own to refusing to let other people’s drama dominate her existence. But if that’s the case, you have to really show that journey and develop it just as much as you’ve developed the other crises; in other words, make it into a conflict.


2. Conflict is MC’s, but does not relate to overall story goal

Another common place where conflict tends to drift off course is in a novel’s subplots. Here’s an example:

Joe Kerp wants to be the first blind person in space, and is taking exhausting astronaut training sessions in his spare time. Along the way, his house gets broken into by a neighborhood thug, his mean coworker tries to get him fired, his girlfriend runs off with his best friend, and a freak snowstorm kills his prized plum trees.

Yes, our protagonist is subject to many trials, but they feel random and episodic—nothing connects to anything else. Because the conflicts don’t connect to the larger story, the scope of their impact is very limited: you get a string of minor setbacks, none of which have any game-changing effect on Joe’s goal of becoming an astronaut.

Now, if the neighborhood thug stole his top-secret astronaut files, and his girlfriend proceeds to run off with said neighborhood thug, and it turns out Joe is the center of an international space conspiracy, that’s a different story. In general, conflict works better when it is tightly to connected to the internal and/or external story goals.

3. Backstory wound does not relate to story present

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If your novel contains a zillion flashbacks to the day your protagonist’s little brother drowned in a swimming pool while your protagonist stood by, helpless, you’d better make sure that themes of guilt and helplessness come up in the present story’s conflicts, whatever those conflicts may be. Otherwise, all those flashbacks are going to fall into the category of drama for the sake of drama—which does not make for compelling storytelling.

Now, two more quick/self-explanatory ones:

4. Conflict fails to escalate or develop

You’d be amazed how many ostensibly high-stakes novel outlines look like this:

Ch. 1 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 23 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 49 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 50 Bomb resolved! The End!

Sure, you can have a bomb on your cruise ship for the entire novel—but no matter how big the bomb is, you still need to find a way to raise the stakes. Maybe the only way to defuse the bomb is to throw all children under age ten overboard. Or to dump oil on the last remaining coral reef. Or…

Keep things moving. No conflict is “too big” to stagnate.

5. New conflicts are piled on instead of developing existing ones

You know how annoying it is when, instead of picking one movie on Netflix, somebody makes you watch the first ten minutes of fifteen different movies while they make up their minds? And just when you’re getting interested in one movie, they pull the plug on it and switch to a different one, and then a different one after that? So many manuscripts read like this:

Ch. 1: There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 2: Phone call from protagonist’s mother. Bank is reposessing the house!

Ch. 3: Protagonist discovers dark secret from great-grandfather’s past!

Ch. 4: Also, the ship’s captain and crew are all strung out on heroin, and protagonist is a former addict!

Ch. 5: Also, dead whales are floating up beside the ship—why?!?

Readers get tired of investing emotionally in plotlines that repeatedly get yanked out from under their feet. If you choose to put a certain conflict in your novel, commit to it.

*

I feel the need to mention that any one of these so-called conflict “problems” could work fabulously as conscious, well-executed artistic decisions or constraints. I could imagine an incredible, Waiting for Godot-style bomb-on-cruiseship story in which the conflict literally never escalates. Or a novel in the vein of Slacker in which there is no single conflict running through the entire story. My intention here is not to list “rules”, but rather observations on the most common failure modes in a certain type of manuscript.

Long story short: no matter how your novel is structured, make sure the gas is in the tank. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wasted energy…

gas in the trunk: why your conflict isn’t working (and how to fix it)

 One of the most cited reasons agents and editors give for declining manuscripts is “there wasn’t enough conflict” or “the stakes weren’t high enough.” For this reason, writers have learned to pile on conflict—checking for internal and external tensions in every scene, giving each character a backstory wound, defining clear and compelling story goals, etc.

But while these strategies can and do lead to stronger story telling, they can also backfire in confusing ways. Over the past six months, the freelance editor version of myself has noticed a peculiar phenomenon: manuscripts with loads of conflict that are nevertheless deadly boring.

“What’s going on here?” I found myself thinking again and again. “There’s so much drama, but I don’t give a tinker’s damn.” (No damns at all! Not a one!)

It turns out these writers had misplaced their conflict in various ways. It’s like keeping gasoline in the trunk of your car instead of putting it in the tank. Sure, you have gas, but it’s not doing you any good. Gas is only useful if it’s in the tank—and conflict sort of works the same way.

Here are some of the weird places writers mistakenly stash their story’s fuel.

1. Conflict pertains to every character EXCEPT the main character

One thing I’ve seen a lot of lately are outlines that look like this:

Bonnie McPhee is a thirty-year old osteopath whose life has just hit a wall. Her boyfriend’s sister is facing life in prison, her parents’ house just got foreclosed on, and her neighbor’s son got diagnosed with leukemia. Then she makes a startling discovery about her great-grandfather’s past.

This story has so much drama—prison! deadly diseases! financial crises! dark family secrets!—but the protagonist’s role in them is unclear. Where’s Bonnie in all this? What does she stand to gain or lose? Why do we care that she resolves a dark secret from her great-grandfather’s past? What about her?

Obviously, it is possible to craft a great novel in which the protagonist’s friends and family are embroiled in crises—maybe the whole point is to show your MC’s journey from being a doormat with no life of her own to refusing to let other people’s drama dominate her existence. But if that’s the case, you have to really show that journey and develop it just as much as you’ve developed the other crises; in other words, make it into a conflict.


2. Conflict is MC’s, but does not relate to overall story goal

Another common place where conflict tends to drift off course is in a novel’s subplots. Here’s an example:

Joe Kerp wants to be the first blind person in space, and is taking exhausting astronaut training sessions in his spare time. Along the way, his house gets broken into by a neighborhood thug, his mean coworker tries to get him fired, his girlfriend runs off with his best friend, and a freak snowstorm kills his prized plum trees.

Yes, our protagonist is subject to many trials, but they feel random and episodic—nothing connects to anything else. Because the conflicts don’t connect to the larger story, the scope of their impact is very limited: you get a string of minor setbacks, none of which have any game-changing effect on Joe’s goal of becoming an astronaut.

Now, if the neighborhood thug stole his top-secret astronaut files, and his girlfriend proceeds to run off with said neighborhood thug, and it turns out Joe is the center of an international space conspiracy, that’s a different story. In general, conflict works better when it is tightly to connected to the internal and/or external story goals.

3. Backstory wound does not relate to story present

This one is pretty self-explanatory. If your novel contains a zillion flashbacks to the day your protagonist’s little brother drowned in a swimming pool while your protagonist stood by, helpless, you’d better make sure that themes of guilt and helplessness come up in the present story’s conflicts, whatever those conflicts may be. Otherwise, all those flashbacks are going to fall into the category of drama for the sake of drama—which does not make for compelling storytelling.

Now, two more quick/self-explanatory ones:

4. Conflict fails to escalate or develop

You’d be amazed how many ostensibly high-stakes novel outlines look like this:

Ch. 1 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 23 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 49 There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 50 Bomb resolved! The End!

Sure, you can have a bomb on your cruise ship for the entire novel—but no matter how big the bomb is, you still need to find a way to raise the stakes. Maybe the only way to defuse the bomb is to throw all children under age ten overboard. Or to dump oil on the last remaining coral reef. Or…

Keep things moving. No conflict is “too big” to stagnate.

5. New conflicts are piled on instead of developing existing ones

You know how annoying it is when, instead of picking one movie on Netflix, somebody makes you watch the first ten minutes of fifteen different movies while they make up their minds? And just when you’re getting interested in one movie, they pull the plug on it and switch to a different one, and then a different one after that? So many manuscripts read like this:

Ch. 1: There’s a bomb on the cruise ship and we’re all going to die!

Ch. 2: Phone call from protagonist’s mother. Bank is reposessing the house!

Ch. 3: Protagonist discovers dark secret from great-grandfather’s past!

Ch. 4: Also, the ship’s captain and crew are all strung out on heroin, and protagonist is a former addict!

Ch. 5: Also, dead whales are floating up beside the ship—why?!?

Readers get tired of investing emotionally in plotlines that repeatedly get yanked out from under their feet. If you choose to put a certain conflict in your novel, commit to it.

*

I feel the need to mention that any one of these so-called conflict “problems” could work fabulously as conscious, well-executed artistic decisions or constraints. I could imagine an incredible, Waiting for Godot-style bomb-on-cruiseship story in which the conflict literally never escalates. Or a novel in the vein of Slacker in which there is no single conflict running through the entire story. My intention here is not to list “rules”, but rather observations on the most common failure modes in a certain type of manuscript.

Long story short: no matter how your novel is structured, make sure the gas is in the tank. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wasted energy…

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

shelfspy #1


I love inspecting other people's bookshelves. They occupy this funny space between something private and something on display. It almost feels like spying—but is it?

I took this picture of my current bookshelves this morning, with the intention of posting it here. I thought it would be easy—take a picture, post it, done—but I found myself wavering, wanting to edit it for the camera, remove some books and display others more prominently, show off some aspects of my reading life while downplaying others. 

Finally, I just took the picture without changing anything. This is what's on my shelf. More books cycle in and out of my house than I can keep track of, but these are the ones that have earned at least a temporary stay of execution from the used book store where most of my reading material ends up.

So spy away. And if you post a photo of your own unedited bookshelf on your own blog, leave link in the comments—I'd love to see it.



Thursday, August 30, 2012

lasagna for fifty: why writing with a book deal is a whole different game


One thing I did not expect when WILD AWAKE sold is that writing when you have a book deal is very different from just writing. It’s the difference between cooking a meal for yourself at home and cooking for a restaurant full of people: sure, it’s still lasagna, but there are all sorts of new demands and constraints and variables and pressures for you to deal with in your shiny new professional kitchen.

Suddenly, the lasagna needs to be ready at a certain time, and the seasoning needs to please dozens of people, and it can’t be burnt on the outside but frozen on the inside, the way you sometimes eat it at home.

“Why am I so stressed out all of a sudden?” you wonder. “I friggin’ love making lasagna!”

Here, dear writer, is why.

Deadlines are real.

When you have a novel under contract, there are going to be times when you get your manuscript back from your editor with a note like this:

Hey author! Not to freak you out, but if you don’t have this revision back to me in two weeks, we’ll have to push the pub date for this book to the year 2089.

And you’re like: “OMG! LOL! SNAFU! SOS!”

Deadlines aren’t always that brittle—there is usually some amount of wiggle room built into the schedule, although how much depends on the publisher you’re working with, the genre of book you’re writing, whether or not it’s a series, and how much cred you have as an author (are you a well established literary genius who always blows her deadlines but produces masterpieces every time? or are you an unproven debut author whose novel may or may not be a masterpiece worth waiting for?)

Before the book deal, you could write when you felt like it, let the manuscript languish in a drawer for three months in the winter when you got depressed, or decide lasagna is a pain in the ass and go out for Chinese food instead. When you sign a book contract, you might have the most flexible and understanding editor in the world—but you’re still “on the line” to produce an amazing piece of writing in a certain timeframe, and that can be more daunting than you might expect.

You’re not allowed to leave the kitchen until the counters are clean.

One of the great things about working with a publisher is having a bunch of really smart people read your book before it comes out. One of the annoying thing about having really smart people read your book is they spot all the teensy inconsistencies you would otherwise have been too lazy to iron out—for example, they check to make sure that the scene in which a certain character refers to it being Monday actually takes place on a Monday (cue a trip down the insane rabbit hole that is trying to fix your novel’s timeline).

But they also hold you to a higher standard on the bigger picture aspects of your book, and if you’re not used to being sent back to the drawing board for a stronger ending, a clearer character arc, or a more convincing solution to a plot problem, you might not be prepared for how exhausting it can be. Even if you’ve had beta readers and critique partners, it’s not the same as having an editor, agent, and publishing team whose own careers depend (to a greater or smaller extent) on the quality of the book you ultimately produce.

In short: if there are crumbs and splatters on your countertop, you’re going to have to stay and clean them until that kitchen is sparkling. Your “good enough” may not be the same as your editor’s “good enough” (and thank god for that!) The truth is, your first published novel may well be the first time you have ever been forced to truly confront your own weaknesses as a writer—not skim over them, not move on to another project before they are addressed. There’s a lot of pressure there. It’s a great and necessary pressure, and one that should leave you a better writer, but it should not be underestimated going in.

Rumplestiltskin wants your baby.

If you signed a multi-book deal without having written the second and third books already, you have made a promise to deliver something enormous—something that will consume years of your life and reams of emotional energy. Knowing that your unwritten novel has already sold can be a wonderful feeling—you have security, you have an editor you know and trust, you know what you’re doing for the next two years. But writing a second novel someone has paid you for and is counting on you to produce is very different from writing a first novel whose publication is only a lovely dream.

Unless you are an exceptionally chill and clear-headed person, you will probably feel some amount of anxiety about this sold-but-unwritten book. When you sit down at the computer, you are not just writing—you are writing The Book. Asking a particular story to be The Book is a lot of pressure to put on a fledgling idea. Instead of exploring it with an open mind and letting yourself make mistakes as you did with your first novel, you burden it with demands and expectations: it needs to be perfect, it needs to come out a certain way, it needs to work OR ELSE.

No matter how flexible and understanding your editor may be in reality, you may nevertheless be paralyzed by the idea that, whereas you were free to tinker and meander as long as you liked for Book 1 and could have chosen not to finish it at all, you are now beholden to Deliver a Novel, and there isn’t time for failed experiments of the kind you were content to dabble with before.

You’re about to find out what’s behind Door #3.

Before your novel is published, everything is still possible. You might shoot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. You might get a blurb from the Pope. Your novel might be chosen as an Oprah’s book club selection, or win a big award, or be integrated into highschool English curriculums nationwide. All these mights are very exciting. It’s like being a contestant on The Price is Right—will there be a shiny convertible behind that door? A yacht? A new house?

As long as the prize remains obscured, the possibilities are boundless. But when your novel comes out, those infinite possibilities solidify into a single reality. And even if that reality is amazing—glowing reviews, brisk sales—there can be a strange and guilty sort of disappointment mixed in with the joy. After all, what real-life outcome could possibility compete with infinite possibilities? Publishing a novel means finding out what’s behind the Door #3 of your imaginings, and that is a more dangerous endeavor than you may realize.

*

There are, of course, many wonderful things about writing when your novel is under contract—encouragement, validation, access to talented people, a feeling of momentum and purpose and definite goals. If I have focused here on the more dire/existential crisis-y parts of writing under contract, it’s because I myself was unprepared for them and startled to learn of their existence. You can adapt to the pressures of writing under contract and learn to thrive in those conditions as with anything else. But it will never be the same as making lasagna at home.

I would like to know: If you are not-yet-published, have you given any thought to how things might change for you as a writer and artist once your novel is under contract? If you have published a book or are under contract, what do you have to say about that experience?

Monday, August 27, 2012

dark house, empty bowl: on leaving the world for a novel (and making it back alive)


My novel sold almost a year ago. Since then, it has gone through two or three rounds of revisions and two rounds of line editing. At the end of last month, I drove down to the Hay and Feed store to pick up my copyedited manuscript (UPS doesn’t deliver this far back in the canyon) and spent the next two weeks making my final changes.

For the first day or two, I treated the copyedits casually. After all, the book was already written. The problems that had confounded me in earlier revisions, I had safely solved. All I had to do now was sit back, relax, and strike out an occasional adverb with my pencil.

But on the third day, it hit me: this was my last chance to make changes larger than a word or punctuation mark here and there. After this, any weak scene would be weak forever. Any lame line of dialogue would have its lame self stamped onto paper thousands of times when the book went to the printer. Any garbled almost-truth would stay that way forever, straining for meaning and falling short.

Over a long revision process, it can start to feel like you have infinite chances to get things right. That, even if you don’t nail that chapter on this round, the answer will surely bubble up by the time the manuscript comes back to you again. This is not to say that I didn’t strive to get things right on every previous revision; but there’s something about a finish line that makes you question even the scenes you had previously considered strong, and the paragraphs you had gotten used to skimming over without really reading, so convinced were you that they were in the clear.

From that point on, casual went out the window. For the next ten days, I hardly left the rickety card table I’d set up in the neighbors’ spare room. I went in and out through the back door, avoiding the patio where my friends sat talking in the shade, pre-empting human interactions with averted eyes and a rushed hello. Eating was an annoyance I profoundly resented. Similarly conversations longer than a few words. I felt keenly that this was my last chance to say something true with this novel; my last chance to take as many “almosts” as still remained and push them until they were there.

In my determination to put everything I had into this last chance, I lost my sense of taste and smell. If you asked me which clothes I was wearing, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. If you asked me which plants had blossomed by the back door I barged in and out of several times a day, I wouldn’t have been able to guess. My body hurt, and by the eighth or ninth day a profound exhaustion made it harder to work for longer than an hour at a time, although I was wary of straying more than a few feet from the stack of paper on my desk.

I did find the truths I was pushing for—a few of them, anyway—but a few that really mattered. I dropped off the manuscript at the UPS counter in the nearest biggish town and we drove on to San Francisco. As we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my mind was still on the manuscript, running through the new sentences I’d written the previous day. But the moment I stepped out of the car, something inside me shattered. There were flowers everywhere. The wind was cool. The air smelled of eucalyptus. I stood on the sidewalk and cried.

*

There’s something violent about attempting something that requires your whole being, whether it’s finishing a novel or fixing a car the morning before they tow it away—to use up everything you have in its service, to focus on the task with such intensity that the “you” who is sitting at the table is a light-starved animal denied the experience of its own senses. It’s hard to come back into the world after cutting yourself off from it so completely, wrenching to realize how painful the separation had been. It’s like coming home to realize the dog has been locked inside for three days without food or water: pure anguish as you fumble desperately for something to feed it.

As writers, we are constantly mining our own experiences—not just events and emotions, but the subtle experiences of our senses, the smells and sights and sounds. But there are times when the act of writing demands that we cut ourselves off from the very things that allow us to write in the first place, and when that happens, something is depleted that needs to be replenished in a real, physical, bodily sense. We can’t live in our heads, drawing on a tired archive of sensory information collected months or years ago. We need to live in the world, in the flowers and wind and eucalyptus, encountering them directly moment by moment. This is the only way the animal of the self will survive when our art calls us away for days or weeks. This is the only way to ensure it will still be alive when we come home.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

and then it was August...

Why hello friends!

Hilary here.

It feels ever so rude to let the INTERN part of this blog slurk off into the night without saying goodbye, especially since you have all been so friendly and generous and welcoming for so long, but there is a time to take off your cape and duck mask and speak in your real voice, and that time has come for me.

With that in mind, How are you all? I have missed you so much in these past few months of fretting and procrastinating and wondering how, exactly, to talk to you without my duck mask for protection (note to self: just freaking do it.) What are you writing? How are things going? What strange or shocking things have you learned? What have been your brightest victories and your worst disappointments? In short, what have I missed in this period of most egregious slurkery?

I am living far from the city now, in a cabin full of books on a dry and spiky mountainside in northern California. Our internet consists of a single ethernet cable shared between six adults; brawls frequently ensue. I have been so worried, lately, that I am not a Real Writer; that I am a girl in a duck mask holding a bag of plastic jewels; that I have lost my way and will never find it again. Sometimes I think I need to live in a cave for fifty years before I can say anything that's really true. I make all sorts of plans, about caves and mountaintops and scratchy robes, and end up loafing around in the hammock frowning at the treetops, wishing I was more rigorous or fierce or brave than I really am.

Objectively, though, things are pretty good. There is a king snake living under our cabin who eats the mice, and a skinny little green snake in the pond who likes to poke his head out when you're swimming, and a million tiny lizards darting across the dusty road; there is a telescope for moon-watching and a basket for mushrooms; what else do you need?

I have various pieces of news about my book, which has a new title (again) and is now called WILD AWAKE, and many pent-up thoughts about writing and publishing that have been piling up in my head while I've been trying to sort this whole INTERN/Hilary thing out. Mostly, though, I've just missed you, and I hope you all feel just as welcome in this space as you did when it was INTERN.

More to come over the next few days and weeks. For now, hello again. It's nice to meet you—for real this time.

Monday, June 4, 2012

five signs you're about to land an agent: observations from a freelance editor


Over the past three years, INTERN has written manuscript critiques for many would-be authors, of whom some have gone on to find representation, go on submission, and basically get the publishing ball rolling, and some have not (at least, not yet). One of the neat things about freelance editing is that you get to be a fly on the wall throughout other writers’ journey towards publication, and INTERN has observed some interesting patterns amongst her clientele. Here are some factors that differentiate the soon-to-be-agented writers from the writers who have a little further to go.

1. They’ve been at it for a while.

In INTERN’s experience, the novel that lands the agent is almost never a client’s first manuscript. In fact, the clients who get in touch with one of those ecstatic “OMG agent!!!” e-mails a few months down the road have almost always written two or three other manuscripts, and perhaps even done a round of querying for one of them before deciding to move on.

See also Querying Euphemisms, “This is my first novel.”

2. They already have a grasp of some of their manuscript’s problems.

In general, writers who accompany their manuscript with an e-mail along the lines of “I know the middle section’s dragging, but I can’t figure out what to cut” or “the plot gets all tangled up after page 200, ack, help!” are closer to representation than writers who have no idea how to gauge the quality and/or doneness of their own manuscript. The ability to self-assess is a strong predictor of future writing success (at least, among INTERN’s self-selected and completely unscientific sample of editing clients).

The less experienced the writer, the more they tend to expect a yes/no, pass/fail type answer: “Is it any good? Do I have talent? Huh, huh?” Because they are less able to identify their manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, they assume it must either be uniformly good or bad.

In contrast, writers who are a little further along tend to ask a very different type of question: “What do I have to do to take this manuscript to the next level?” They have some awareness of their manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, even if they can’t quite put their finger on the specific reasons that certain things are failing to work.

3. They are willing to make drastic changes.

An editor’s mandate is to make a manuscript the best it can possibly be. With that in mind, a critique or editorial letter will sometimes recommend massive and seemingly mind-boggling levels of plot changes, restructuring, and reimagining.

In INTERN’s experience, a disproportionate number of clients who e-mail a month or two after a critique saying, “Okay, so I went ahead and deleted Character A and rewrote Part II to take place in Setting B while scrapping plotlines C, D, and F and WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THIS BEFORE?!?” end up agented within the year.

This is not to say that writers who decide to move on to another project instead of investing the time and emotional energy in resolving a quagmirish manuscript are wrong. Far from it—it all counts towards #1, experience, and besides, INTERN can hardly think of a change more drastic than moving on to another project completely.

4. They value improvement for its own sake.

The soon-to-be-agented writers get just as excited about the prospect of finally nailing that subplot/scene/ending/character as they are about the possibility of getting an agent and book deal. The manuscript isn’t a means to an end (“get me an agent and a book deal and faaaame!”) but a thing worth perfecting in itself, because it is right and proper to do your craft well.

Love for the craft is a strong indicator of future success because it means that the writer in question is more likely to carry on in the face of the inevitable stumbles and disappointments—to hang in there long enough to get to the “agented” stage.

5. They are friendly and professional.

This is undoubtedly a result of INTERN’s highly unscientific sample pool, because lord knows that plenty of cranky, unreasonable and downright insane writers get agents and book deals every day. But it bears noting: 100% of INTERN’s editing clients who now have agents are well-organized, articulate, friendly, and reasonable —or perhaps more to the point, they are capable of projecting a well-organized, articulate, friendly and reasonable image in their communications, regardless of how stressed out, incoherent, frantic or insecure they feel on the inside.

**

This is not to say that every writer who has been at it for a while, who is invested in honing his/her craft, who is willing and eager and earnest and well-researched will find an agent and go on to happy book dealdom and do it in a timely fashion. Some books are harder to sell than others, and the publishing industry is insanely fickle and slow and unreliable. Suffice to say that the writers whose eventual agenting INTERN has been lucky enough to hear about have all shared certain qualities* (other than the obvious, talent).

*for what it’s worth, INTERN suspects that #1, experience—as in sheer number of hours spent writing and revising—is the most important of the five, as it tends to lead to the other four automatically. So if you are a not-yet-agented writer who is reading this and wondering how it applies to you, take heart and write more.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Publishers Weekly: The Deals You Don't See




Publisher Shells Out for Crime Novel by Retired English Teacher in “Nice” Deal

Small Press Throws Down for Middle-Aged Poet’s Chapbook in Three-Figure Deal

47-Year-Old Mother of Three Sells Debut Novel in 1-Book Deal

Trade Publisher Quietly Acquires Midlist Author’s Sixth Romance Novel in Low-Key Deal

Venerable Press Finally Makes Offer on Literary Novel It Has Been Sitting On For Eleven and a Half Months

**
Friends: publishing is not all six-book mega-deals and twenty-year olds winning national book awards. Most book deals are small-to-medium, and most people getting book deals are not teenaged geniuses, contrary to what you read online.


You are valid if you are 20 or 32 or 47 or 64 or 71, if your advance is three hundred bucks or ten thousand, if you are fashionably obscure or completely unknown. The models are Photoshopped.

Love, INTERN.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

what would Tsitsi do? thoughts on filtering in the age of how-to

In moments of writerly desperation, INTERN has been known to go on wretched binges of advice-seeking, looking for answers in all the wrong places: cheesy novel-writing handbooks, questionable blog posts, even more questionable collections of "tips" on character arc and theme. She clicks through tab after tab in a terrible fever, not even reading but scanning, scanning, scanning, looking for the article that will say, "hey INTERN, on page 213, your character really needs to have the opposite reaction of the one she's having now." At the end of such a session, she feels drained and sheepish and no better equipped to tackle the problem at hand than she was when she started—yet the very next time a quandary appears, it's back to the search engine and the 808.8 shelf in the library again.

We live in a culture of how-to, and INTERN has been as guilty as anyone at encouraging it. The internet has taught us that there ought to be a certain type of answer for every question—not "go for a long walk and think about it," but "do step A and then step B and then step C and your character question will be resolved." Not "study it for years and seek out true teachers," but "sign up for this two-week seminar and emerge a novel-writing wizard." This is not to say that books, blog posts, seminars, etc. don't have their place, for they certainly do. But the binge mentality that can arise from the availability of so much information is a worrisome thing, and is surely the enemy of good writing.

A few months ago, Techie Boyfriend caught INTERN in the act of one such bender—which, speaking even more to its shamefulness, INTERN was doing in secret. The tabs were lined up on the screen; the library books were in a pile on the desk.

"What are you doing?" said Techie Boyfriend.
"Go away," shrieked INTERN.
Techie Boyfriend peered at the screen. "50 Ways to Nail Your Ending? Close that thing. Let's talk."

INTERN snarled at him, defensive. Just like other kinds of binges, this one was less about nailing INTERN's novel ending, and more about dealing with anxiety by cramming it full of something else—in this case, writing advice INTERN knew in her heart she didn't need.

Eventually, INTERN allowed herself to be coaxed away from the computer.

"Who's a writer you really admire?" said Techie Boyfriend.
INTERN thought for a second. "Um. Janet Frame."
"Would Janet Frame be reading that website you were just on?"
"Noooooooo."
"Think about that."

INTERN did think about it. She thought about it for a long time. And the more INTERN thought about  it, the more she realized the writers she most admires—Rivka Galchen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Virginia Woolf—would not be caught dead reading article after article purporting to teach them how to, quote, "nail" ANYTHING.

Again, this is not to bash writing advice books, or workshops, or articles per se—but merely to question the ways in which we consume them and, at their tip-centric worst, allow them to distract us from the deeper work of learning to write.

INTERN has a new rule for how she consumes advice or instruction of any sort, and here it is: what would Janet Frame do, or David Foster Wallace, or Tsitsi Dangarembga?

Remember what kind of writer you want to be, and shoot for that.

**

Is INTERN the only one who is prone this kind of bingeing in moments of anxiety and self-doubt? Are you careful about how you consume writing-related advice? Which writers do you most want to be like? In what ways is the writing advice industry helping writers? In what ways is it hurting or distracting us? INTERN wants to know!


Monday, April 30, 2012

what the querier meant to say: publishing euphemisms for all

A few days ago, the Guardian posted this handy guide to decoding publishers' euphemisms at the London Book Fair:
We don't have sales numbers yet – trust us, you don't want to know
I loved the opening – boy, the middle needs work
National publicity and marketing campaign – there's no budget, so you're on your own
I've read the book – I've had it read
To which INTERN would like to add:


Queriers' Euphemisms:


This is my first novel: 

I have nine other manuscripts in various stages of completeness sitting on my hard drive: three hilariously angsty ones I wrote in highschool, three hilariously pretentious ones I wrote in college, two post-college attempts at science fiction that ran into unsolvable plot snarls somewhere around the Xxordon Galaxy, and a NaNo about two old ladies who sneak around shooting people with poison darts.

This is my first novel that's really, actually ready to query. At least, I think it is. *deep breath*

NIGHTS OF SWEATY ENTANGLEMENT is complete at 95,000 words:

NIGHTS OF SWEATY ENTANGLEMENT is 95,000 words long. And it's complete in every way, if by "complete" you mean "spell-checked."

I am a long-time fan of your publishing blog, Irascible Agent:


I left one comment on your blog ten minutes ago.


Thank you for your time and consideration:

In the name of the father, and the son, and the holy ghost, amen. *kisses rabbit foot* *twirls sage bundle* *buries five dollar bill in the back yard* *commences checking in-box*

Authors' Euphemisms:


I bought these boots with money from my advance:


I used my advance to pay off my health insurance, car insurance, cell phone, electricity, gas, and internet bills and to purchase one hallucinatorily overpriced block of goat cheese at the food co-op. I found these boots in the alley next to the dumpster.

I'm working on my web presence:


I have spent approximately ten thousand hours looking at other authors' web presences and despairing of ever being as popular, friendly, good-looking or sociable as they are.

I'll have that Author Questionnaire back to you by Friday:


I will spend between now and Friday freaking out over the fact that no, I do not have any "friends, acquaintances, or professional contacts in the national media" and wondering it that LA Times reporter I met at a party one time and awkwardly Facebook friended counts as a professional contact.

Line edits are going great:


I have not changed out of my unwashed Goodwill bathrobe in six days and the neighbors are starting to worry.

**

But seriously, if anyone can help INTERN out with that "friends and acquaintances in the national media" thing, she will let you borrow her (extremely soft and fuzzy) Goodwill bathrobe. Oh, fine, you can borrow it anyway. Just don't wash it.