Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It



Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?


In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life.  I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.

After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed.  We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.

Why soup?  Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake.  You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this.  So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill.  If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better. 

Now my theory may not pass the Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing.  Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters.  Or vice versa.  The story becomes palatable.  But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue.  Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup.  It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.

You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit.  Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings.  It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking.  Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis.  Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!

Dialogue Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Dialogue Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Dialogue Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.

These are just a few of the aspects of strong dialogue.  But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.

Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.


Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue.  Locate a passage that, to you, really sings.  Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above. 


Then go to your own writing.  Choose a stuck scene.  Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post.  See if it makes a difference.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book



Summer is teaching time for me.  I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat.  We formed a perfect community, I thought:  supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.

On Thursday evening, we traditionally have an open reading time, where writers at the retreat can choose to share a small excerpt of their book-in-progress.  I ask them to choose someone else in the class to read it aloud for them--it's a wonderful gift to the writer, who hears new things.  Without exception, the writings were excellent.  We applauded, commented on what we loved and what we wanted more of.  It feels, always, like a celebration and an acknowledgement of what was achieved in just five days.

This week, my two summer online classes are ending.  For the final assignments, each writer shared a revision of a piece posted earlier in the course.  Again, without exception, the writings were top level.  As were the comments from the class.  I gave some next steps to consider for each piece, but really, there was such improvement, my feedback was mostly cheers.

Whether online or in person, writing community is essential for anyone working on a book.  You can't go it alone, not easily. 

Many of the writers in the online classes are already getting together and planning how to keep exchanging work.  Retreatants are emailing me about connections they made in the Madeline Island class.   I'm very pleased--because it's something I believe in, deeply, and foster in my classes, always.


I couldn't have produced the books I've published--or the novel I'm just finishing--without a writing community.  Sometimes it's one or two colleagues to exchange chapters with, sometimes it's a monthly or weekly writers' group that keeps me generating pages.  

Writing community does this for me:

1.  Provides accountability
2.  Gives me feedback
3.  Helps me not feel alone during the long haul of writing a book
4.  Lightens me up when I feel down about a rejection
5.  Keeps me from the edge of crazy (especially when writing fiction or memoir)
6.  Normalizes the writing life
7.  Gets to know my story almost better than I do, and is able to point out my blind spots and give me new inspiration

Maybe you're in a writing group that is slowly falling apart, getting stale, or becoming more social than creative, and you know you need to freshen things but you're not sure just how to do it.  Or perhaps you're newly invested in your book and need more rigorous accountability, soon. 

Writing communities ebb and flow, just like any relationship.  It's important, I've found, to be honest with your partners/groups and let them know if you need more or different.  I just got emails this week from two writing partners, whom I adore and appreciate but who have been derailed from writing with life lately.  They're back, and I'm ecstatic.  But while they were away, I searched and found other avenues to get my feedback.

This week's writing exercise is to assess your writing community.  Do you have one?  Is it serving you well?  If not, what might you do next?



Friday, August 4, 2017

Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

I've always loved August in New England, where I live.   The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days.  We get winter all too soon here.  New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.

When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing.  But laziness settles over me.  And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities.  I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do.  Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?

Other writers also let their books languish in summer.  One colleague has three school-age kids.  Camp gives her small pockets of writing time during the day, but it's hard to keep momentum going on her book. 

Another complains about visiting family, trips to the beach or lake, parties that go on into the wee hours keeping her from writing.

We agree:  it's fine to enjoy summer, to wait for snowbound days.  After all, who really cares in the long run?  There's no rush to finish unless we have a contract--which most don't, in today's publishing world that demands complete manuscripts on submission. 

No deadlines mean we control our own writing time.  We self-propel.  That's good, and not. 

Ever notice the proliferation of summer writing conferences?  It's not just because people have more free time.  It's because we need reasons to write in summer.  We go to a conference, we get juiced.  We may exchange emails and promise to help each other's accountability.  I saw my students do this at a writing retreat I taught last week.  So many of them were re-inspired.  Many set goals.  How many will keep them?

It's an important question, I've found.  After a few days or weeks without writing, it's harder to locate the trail of your story.  Much harder to find a way back into it.
Motivation comes from two sources:  internal and external.  As you get to know yourself creatively, you learn which is your gold mine.  I have internal motivation for a while--quite a while, because I've been doing this writing gig for decades.  But eventually, even I wear out my discipline.  That's when I bring in the external motivation.  I set myself artificial deadlines:  a writers' group who expect pages, a writing partner with whom I exchange a chapter a week, an editor I pay to read my manuscript.

If you know this about yourself, you make it happen.  For me, the paid editor is absolutely the most motivating--because my hard-earned money is behind it.  But I have also found excellent writing partners and value them for accountability, especially if we both are producing regularly.

Some tricks I've learned to keep writing in the summer:

1.  Sign up for a fall class that offers workshopping of pages or chapters.  You'll need to be ready to submit in week 1.  So you take time now to choose a piece and work on it.  Potential embarrassment is also a good motivator, as well as the money you pay for the class.

2.  Don't slack on deadlines with your writing partner or group.  Know the summer excuses--travel, kids home, parties, family visiting--and decide to write anyway.  Find those who feel as serious about it as you do.

3.  Get an app that nags you about word count (google word count for writers and you'll see many), or use a goal setting feature on Scrivener or other writing software.  It may annoy you enough to keep writing.

4.  If you're motivated by closure, read this great article about Jerry Seinfeld's calendar technique.  Writers in my online classes have used it and loved it.

5.   Pay someone to keep you writing--and to help you along the way.  Set up a delivery date three weeks or three months from now, with just enough pressure to force you to work now to get ready.  (That's my method.  It works.)

This week I got an email from a writer I've worked with before.  He is a CEO and super busy, but he's trying to finish his book.  "I'll need you to kick-start me come September," he said.  So we arranged that he'd get back to his book in August, after travel eased.  He'll be working all month, preparing the manuscript to send me for feedback.  He's excited to have the deadline. 
When I scan a summer day's many options, when a friend calls and wants to go to the ocean, when the family is having a cookout, when the garden is a jungle and needs my immediate attention, I can easily put aside my writing.  But then, there's my desire to finish this novel. Backed by a deadline of mid-August to get revised chapters to my paid editor. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to assess your motivation for your writing.  Is internal (self-discipline) motivation enough for you to keep working on your book these next weeks?  Do you need an external motivator?  Scan the options above and see what might click for you.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Writing a Satisfying Ending: Hints about How to Wrap Up Your Story

This week I'm traveling to one of my favorite places:  Madeline Island and the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall.  I'm about to welcome a group of twenty-three writers who will be attending my workshop/retreat and my independent study week.  We'll be diving deep into our book projects for five days, free of interruptions.  Looking for breakthroughs.

One of the assignments I offer the group is to draft their final chapter.  Because the group is varied in writing experience and progress with their projects, this suggestion often gets astonished reactions.  "How can I possibly write my final chapter when I don't know what the rest of the book is about!?" 

I'm used to these reactions.  I have a good reason.  Almost all of the writers go for the idea and many of them are delighted by the result.

Writing the final chapter isn't as hard as it seems.   Here are two articles that tell writers what to look for--and what to avoid.

From The Atlantic.
From The New Yorker.

Enjoy!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book

When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take.  Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most?  A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write.  Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time. 

But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months.  I recently saw a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month."  I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes. 

Instant gratification.  We're trained towards it in our culture.  It's exciting to think that you can produce a publishable book from idea to finished draft in one month, isn't it?  That's not much of your life to give.  But it's an illusion, truly.  If you believe it, if you can actually do it, more power to you.  Let me know, and I'll be at your book-signing launch.

Most writers don't want to spend their whole life writing their books, but they also feel constantly behind if they believe this myth of producing a quality manuscript that fast.  It might be relief to hear than most writers take between three to six years to write and revise their first book.  The second one, maybe less.  Or maybe, like me, you get interested in a much more complex structure and you take a little longer.  I'm on year five with my current novel and it's close to being really done this time.  I needed all those years, all that learning, all the help and mentoring I got, all those mistakes I made (sending it out too early, suffering through rejections) to produce a story that astonishes me now--especially when I recognize what I didn't know about it when I began.

A friend who struggles with how long a book takes shared an excellent writing exercise that I'll pass along this week.  It helps calm the urgency, the feeling of being behind, and the seducing whine of instant gratification, to let the writer get back to work.

Your weekly writing exercise:  Where I've come and what I've learned so far

1.  Take 20-30 minutes and remember where you were when you began this book project.  If you can actually recall your location, the life you lived then, any other details, bring them forward.

2.  Begin making a list of what you've learned since then.  On my list was ten or more items about my characters alone.  Plus dialogue.  Plus plotting!  Plus, plus, plus.  Write for as much of the 20-30 minutes as you can, including even small learnings you know you've made.

This exercise is a mood booster, at minimum.  It also helps the writer become more satisfied with where they are and honor what they've learned, so it's easier to keep going.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography


My elderly aunt finished her memoirs.  She mailed me a photocopy.  It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people.  She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories.  She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family.
Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note,"  an "account of someone's life."  A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

But if you're gearing towards publishing outside of family and friends, you need to know how memoir now differs from autobiography.  Modern memoir focuses on a salient part of a life, not the entire trajectory, as an autobiography might.  Rarely does modern memoir start with birth and end with death, or wherever the writer happens to be. 

I like to think of modern memoir as a snapshot of a certain period of time that was pivotal.  It offers a perspective to the writer.  It may have changed the writer's life in a big way.  That's where we begin.  We need to find that pivotal moment, first, then explore it for its universality so readers other than family members will get something out of it.  
 

You have your life behind you, and it may sound hard to pick just one pivotal moment.  So in book structuring, we expand that to five moments.  Maybe the start of a change, the next step, the next, a setback, then a step forward.  I think of This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff which begins with a drive across country with his mother.  That drive triggers a whole series of events that change him completely.  What might be your memoir's triggering event and what does that moment lead to? 

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching my once-a-year workshop on memoir, Writing Your Life, at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  One exercise I love, which we use in the workshop, is to look at a ten-year period that seems likely to offer a pivot for the story, then explore it for meaning and change. 

Once the writer lands on the pivot of their memoir, it's easier to reach out from it to find the intersecting storylines--what might have happened years before that led to this moment, what happened years later that came as a result. 

You can also choose where to place the weight of your memoir, once you know this pivotal moment.  Some memoirists write about the time leading to this moment; some write about the aftereffects--the living with, surviving from, reconciling or not.  A memoir can often be built on any of these, or sometimes all of them, with the event in the middle.

The event is the first step.  Then, brainstorming on the lines that radiate out from it to find the story's threads. 

Deciding the pivotal moment, then choosing the direction forward or backward, leads to the third step:  how to weave in the different threads of past, present, and sometimes future.  Most writers feels they have to include all their childhood, maybe twenty, thirty, forty years of smaller but significant (to the author) events.  Otherwise, how will the reader understand the big change?  This is where the storyboard comes in so handy.  Memoirists create two or more storyboards, or maps of their storylines, then learn to weave them together like a braided rug. 

I have two favorite examples of this.  Wild by Cheryl Strayed is the simplest.  H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald is more complex, because not only does the writer thread together the current story of training the hawk, Mabel, but also her backstory and that of writer T.H. White who was also a falconer.  Reading these books, we wonder how it's possible.  But dissecting them via a storyboard shows the route.

This week's writing exercise is a freewrite that offers a taste of what we explore in the workshop I'll be teaching on July 22 at the Loft.  Set a timer or your phone alarm for 20 minutes and begin a list of the most important events in your life, so far.  No censoring, no editing, no explanations needed, just let it get on the page.  Then begin to ask yourself if any are related or linked.  Can you create a chain of events from several or many?  Do they have a common result or theme, teaching you some important lesson about life? 

And if you're interesting in joining me on July 22, click here to go to the Loft's website for more information.      

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Finding and Hiring an Editor: Why They Help, What They Cost, and What to Look For

One of the best decisions I made for my recent books was hiring a professional editor--before I began submitting the manuscript for publication.  You might say:  Why bother?  The agent/publisher will make you change stuff anyway.  And don't publishers have editors? 

Yes, you'll have to change stuff--if you're lucky enough to get that far with an agent or publisher.  Yes, there are some publishers who still offer editorial help to their writers (small presses usually do, partner publishing does, a few big houses do if you're high on the list).  But it pays to invest in your own book in today's competitive world.  Make it the best it can be, before you try submitting it.

Editors come in various shapes, sizes, and price ranges.  I worked as an editor, both freelance and in-house, for three decades and I'm familiar with the types of editors you can hire.  Each type of editor plays an important role in getting a manuscript to where it's ready for submitting.  You may be able to cover many of these bases yourself, but check the list and see what you feel capable of doing on your own and what you'll need help with.

1.  Structure editor or coach.  This is my area of expertise and the only kind of private editing I do anymore.  I find many editors don't offer this level of work, assuming writers can handle it, but so many writers are unaware of its importance.  A structure editor reads and evaluates your entire manuscript to analyze the whole-book structure, the character or narrative arcs, and the individual chapter arcs, among other aspects.  Coaches help you learn how to do it--and are usually less expensive to hire because you do some of the work under their guidance.  I mostly coach, because I like to work with writers who are trying to improve their skills for the next book.  We use a special chart I developed when I worked freelance for different agents and publishing houses as a book doctor.  


When structure analysis is complete, you have a complete revision list to use as you work on finishing the manuscript.  You should know what's wrong, what's right, and how to fix it.  Structure analysis does not take care of wordsmithing, or fine-tuning language (like copyediting).  It is the building of the house--the framing, the foundation, the sheetrock--not the window curtains.  In my opinion, you can't put up curtains if you don't have a frame, so most copyediting is useless if the structure isn't working.  

Cost varies.  To just get a manuscript analysis, you might pay $900-1000.  I learned that often writers couldn't implement the changes, so I added an eight-week coaching time to the agreement, so I could coach them through the work, and charged a bit more for this service.  You can pay $2000 or more, depending on who you hire. 

2.  Developmental editor.  One publishing house I worked for, I mostly did developmental editing.  It's hard work but great fun too.  There are still quite a few developmental editors who work for the big publishing houses, helping the same writers for their entire careers.  A developmental editor will go through your manuscript after you've finished and implemented the structural changes as best you can.  They work with in-line comments (Word's tracking feature or another software) to ask questions about things like character motivation or plot threads that aren't yet realized on the page.  They might question your sidetracks and comment on places in the manuscript where they stumble or lose interest.  


Good ones are out there but hard to find.  I ask around--colleagues, writers who have published, teachers of writing classes.  A great resource are instructors at writing schools or local colleges.  You can pay anywhere from $2000 for one read-through with in-line comments to many times that if you revise and need another read.  Some charge by the page ($7-10 a page) or by the hour ($40 an hour).  I've paid close to $2500 for top-level developmental editing for one of my books and it was worth every penny.  I learned a lot too, and I'll be smarter my next book.

3.  Copy editor.  Copy editing is the final stage of cleaning up your manuscript before it goes out into the world of agents and publishers.  They work at the word choice, sentence, paragraph level, correcting grammar and spelling, making sure the copy is clean.  They correct cosmetic mistakes.  But they can also fact check, check for continuity (consistency of how you describe stuff, like the yellow car or someone's name), and do some developmental editing as well.  I find there are a lot of general editors who do both developmental and copy editing, but I prefer to get the developmental editing done first--otherwise, I might revise then have to copy edit again, wasting time and money.  You can find copy editors on a google search.  Sometimes, you can test them out with a sample, see how they do without investing too much.  Copy editors charge by the hour or word, and the cost varies widely, depending on your skill as a wordsmith.  Most copy editors charge an average of $35 an hour or between 14 and 16 cents a word.  Many are able to edit about 10 pages an hour.  

It's good to have two things before you hire on with an editor:  (1) detachment from your work, as much as possible--by nature, editors find what's wrong and if you're not ready to hear it, the editing process can be super painful; and (2) a rapport with the editor.  It's a fairly intimate process, having someone comb through your work, and it's nice if you can trust them and honor their skills.

If you're wondering about editors, use this information as your weekly writing exercise.  What kind are you ready for?  Search online and see what you find.  Maybe start the process.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Keeping Track of Time--Timeline Organizers for Your Book

One of my online students is working on a memoir that threads two storyboards (see more about storyboards here).  He wants to be able to plot life events in chronological order; although he is clear that the story may not include them all, it's helpful for him to have everything lined up so if an event needs a cursory mention, he knows where it falls. 

He needed a timeline organizer.

I find timelines organizers essential for both memoir and fiction.  I create them for my novel characters and my real-life people, so I can make sure I'm including correct dates, enough time passing between events, and realistic growth and change on the page for each person.
My student wanted a software application that would allow him to enter dates and events.  Then to print out the timeline to work with alongside his storyboard.

He said he would do this manually, but it's cumbersome--and I agree.  He also wanted to keep the timeline on his laptop so he could add events, take them out, and reprint as necessary.   

I didn't even have time to respond to his email when he sent back a great link for this video which explains a timeline organizer using Excel.  Click here for the link (and thanks, Tom!). 

Use this link to explore whether your book is developed enough to benefit from a timeline organizer--it's your weekly writing exercise.

Friday, June 16, 2017

How Do You Know When You're Done? Tips to Evaluate Whether Your Manuscript Is Really Ready

One of my private clients has been working on her memoir for quite a few years.  She's workshopped it through my online classes and with writing partners, and in our coaching sessions, we analyzed the structure and she made many great revisions.  She sent it to a few other writers for feedback and got ideas on what else needed tweaking. 

This week, she emailed me with the big question:  Are we there yet? 

How does a writer know when the book is cooked, ready to send out to agents?

The short answer is:  We don't. 

But there's more to say.  There are signs, or so I've learned, that I've done as much as I can without industry feedback (agents or publishers). 

Most writers get their manuscripts to a point where they either (1) can't stand looking at it anymore and have to get it out there or (2) have covered all the bases, gotten high-level feedback, and feel confident that it's ready. 

If you're in the first group, hold off.  Being "done" or just fed up is never a good indicator that the manuscript is also done.  I'd advise putting it away for six weeks, six months, a year, while you work on something else.  Let it sit, get some more education and practice, to help you get over your boredom and stall out.  Then come back to the book.  I'm speaking from my own sad experience here.  I've sent out my manuscripts in the past just because I couldn't wait any longer, but it was done out of impatience, not because they were ready.  I needed more time, and I learned that by accumulating many rejection slips.

Tragic result:  you may never pick up that manuscript again.  It wasn't ready, you got no's, and you slammed the door shut on what might have become a good book. 

If you're in the second group, and you've really worked the process, test it out with a few submissions.  The average for response, according to a writing colleague who worked privately with a professional in the industry, is about 1 "interested" to 75 "not interested."  That's not a great encouragement, but it's reality.  You may, however, get gold from just the submission process:  good feedback from agents.  That's very valuable.  One agent who rejected a past manuscript of mine gave me a long email of tips on how to revise, and I used them with gratitude.  She could see what I couldn't, and it made a much better book.

For either group, here's the to-do list that I always use before submitting.  It might seem like too much, so pick and choose what you prefer.  Your weekly writing exercise, if you're wondering if you're at this stage, is to try one or several of these.

1.  Revise a lot.  Maybe 10-20 versions is average.  Some, like myself, do a lot more.  Never, ever, send out an early draft just because you want someone to say it's great.  Heartbreak city, ahead, if you do that.  Fair warning.

2.  Assume you don't know what you don't know.  Get a small group (a class is great) where you can workshop the manuscript in chapters or maybe the entire thing, with peers, so you have peer-level feedback.  It's not as valuable, in my experience, as paid professional feedback, but it's a great step forward.  Pay attention to what you hear.  Don't take it personally, keep it about the book.  If more than one person says the same thing, points out the same weakness, really pay attention.  Back to revision!

3.   Find and pay a professional editor or coach.  I am one, people pay me, but I also hire one for my own books.  Even though I am well trained, I can't always see the weaknesses in my own writing (nobody can).  You can find these gems through the internet, via colleges, via friends.  I found my current editor through another student in a writing class I took.  He's worth his weight in gold.

4.  Run the manuscript by beta readers.  These are other book writers at your level of skill, who may want to exchange full-manuscript reads.  They'll have more in-depth comments than the peer readers.

5.  And one more time, even if you've done it several times already, read the entire manuscript aloud to yourself.  You'll catch stuff.  We always do.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment

It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters.  I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily.  Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established.  Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students.  This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story.  Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.

I first met Katherine at one of my storyboarding workshops at Grub Street in Boston.  I was immediately taken with her book idea--how to find grace outside of traditional religions--and her experience as a journalist.  She signed up for my online storyboarding class after the workshop, and I got to watch her book structure evolve through the twelve weeks.  By the end, she had an excellent outline and synopsis, ready to present to an agent. 
Katherine has a wealth of writing experience as a journalist for Boston Magazine and National Geographic, among others.  So I wasn't surprised to hear, not long after the class, that she'd signed with an agent.  Her book, Grace without God:  The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age, was published last year to stellar reviews.  It was named a Best Book of the Year by
Publishers Weekly and Spirituality & Health and recently received the Gold Nautilus Award in the category of Religion/Spirituality of Other Traditions.
Her search for an agent was short and sweet, but inspiring because she had a great proposal that took into account book structure, she knew her audience, and she knew what she wanted. 
I interviewed Katherine this week to discuss the agent search and what she learned. 
 
Tell us how you found your agent.
I had been writing a series of reported essays on parenting, but I felt that my 4000-word articles weren't doing justice to the topics I was writing about, topics such as my generation's inclination toward overparenting, raising kids in a digital age, and why so many people are leaving religion. I wanted to turn one of these rich topics into a book. My friend, a published author who was finishing a new parenting book herself, suggested that I get in touch with her agent. Once that personal connection was made, the rest came quickly. I emailed the agent some writing samples, along with a description of my book idea, and we set up time for a long phone call to discuss the possibility of working together.
 
Did you attend pitch conferences?  If you did, did it prove useful?
 
Years ago I attended the Muse and Marketplace, held each year by Grub Street Writers, and I submitted a sample of another book I've been working on for years, a memoir about my brother's suicide. In that case, I was pitching editors, not agents, because I was (and still am!) more interested in how to make that book work structurally. I came home with a clear and honest assessment of the chapter samples, including a suggestion about structure that was very helpful. It was well worth the extra money.
 
What caused the "click" with this agent?
 
Because my agent came through the personal referral of an author I trust and admire, I felt a certain level of comfort from the start. From there, I was mostly curious about other books the agent represented and if we would be a good match. So I studied her website to see who her other authors were and the kinds of publishers they'd ended up with.

The "click" for me was really the immediate comfort level I felt when we talked over the phone. I appreciated her calm, thoughtful demeanor and just knew I would enjoy working with her. For me, that is perhaps the one most important component of an agent-author relationship: You have to like your agent as a person because you will spend a lot of time with him or her and not always the happiest of times, but also frustrating, deflating, and stressful times. Be sure you trust the person completely. If an agent gets on your nerves, talks over you, or just doesn't grab you for whatever reason, find someone who's a better fit in terms of personality. It's a lot like dating; make sure you notice if any alarm bells go off during the courtship phase. For me, I had none of those, and the relationship continues to be a strong one.
 
The agent read through my material, we signed a contract, and then we went through some rounds of editing on the proposal before sending it out. Different agents work to different degrees on the proposal writing itself, and I was happy that mine liked to get in and offer editorial comments and advice. People seeking an agent should be sure to discuss this aspect of the publishing process upfront and figure out if editorial feedback on the proposal is something you need a lot or a little of.
 
What would you recommend to new writers looking for their first agent? 
 
If you have the time and money, meeting agents face-to-face at a conference during a short pitch session is a great way to go. It's like jumping into the deep end of the pool but with a little inner tube around you. You get to meet with an industry professional while also honing your sample material and practicing your pitch. So, even if you don't end up signing on with the agent you meet, you'll learn so much about the process, not to mention about your own work. Another good way to find an agent is to see which agents are mentioned in the books that you love. A word of warning though: If the book is big, the agent will likely be big as well, and as a first-time author you may not be able to land a giant fish. So read industry magazines with an eye for new, up-and-coming agents, the smaller fish trying to become the big ones. Last but not least, if you're struggling to land an agent, keep returning to the work. I wrote articles and essays for nearly fifteen years before I found my book and landed an agent. So don't give up hope. Just keep writing until you have something they can't resist.
 
If you'd like to check out Katherine's book, here's a link.  You can also visit her website at