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
 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Launching a Debut Novel: Working with Publicists and Promotion

It's been a month of book birth announcements.  Another student from my online classes and private coaching has just released her debut novel, Eden.  Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg has launched it with great panache too--with excellent reviews on Kirkus, Booklist, Redbook, the Boston Herald and other publications.  Writer Anita Shreve calls Eden "a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos." 
I first met Jeannie at a storyboarding workshop I taught at Grub Street in Boston where she was working on a two-storyboard novel, exploring the financial ruin of a family's historic home in seaside Rhode Island and the backstory of the matriarch who decides to reveal a long-buried secret and introduce the child she gave up for adoption in her teens.  Weaving the two storyboards together was a challenge that Jeannie approached beautifully, and her excellent book is the result. 
Once it was finished, she looked over her options for publishing.  I interviewed her about her choices and what she eventually decided to do. 
How did you get started with researching publishing options for Eden? 
Two years ago, I met April Eberhardt at Grub Street's annual writing conference, Muse and the Marketplace.   April describes herself as a "Literary Change Agent" and she introduced me to She Writes Press, an indie press based in Berkeley, California.  I followed up with my own research on SWP, as well as similar presses.  I was lucky to have a mutual friend with Brooke Warner, the publisher of SWP, and heard wonderful things about her.  If you just follow Brooke on social media for a week or two, you will get a sense of her passion and energy and commitment to her work.
 
When Eden was ready for submission, I sent it to April and she agreed to take me on.  We talked a lot about my goals:  Whether it meant more to me to have the prestige of publishing with a traditional house, or whether I wanted to get my story out, have it be the best it could be, then move on to the next project. 

We also talked about how much control I wanted to retain, and how much I was willing to invest in the book. 

I decided not to hold out for a traditional house because:  a) it was a long shot,  b)  I wouldn't have control over when they'd decide to release my book, and c) I'd be doing a lot of my own promotion anyway. 

April was happy to explore any route on my behalf, but at this point in my life I was certain of which way I wanted to go.  

Tell us about the process of working with She Writes Press.   
After Brooke's initial read, she connected me with an editor named Annie Tucker who worked with me, chapter by chapter, for many months.  I feel like every suggestion from Annie really made my book better.  It was fun to work with her because she was just as excited about my book as I was.  I was close to the ninth or tenth revision at that point! but who's counting? 

The work we did was creative but was also very practical at times in terms of making decisions toward publishing, including many hours on brainstorming a new title.  Our aim was to have our work done in time for my book to be included in the May 2017 catalog because I think my release is well suited for "summer-read lists" and a Mother's Day promotion.
 
The other two huge things that She Writes Press offers is top-notch cover design and distribution.  I was involved in the conceptual process, and was then presented with about fifteen options to choose from. I can honestly say I loved all of them.  I polled friends and family for weeks in order to decide on which one to go with--a lot of fun. 

For distribution, SWP uses Ingram Publisher Services, the same service traditional publishers use, so from a retailer's POV, my book is no different. Ingram also has a terrific sales force and Brooke has worked tirelessly to develop a tip sheet for my book so the salesforce can go out and sell it.
 
In addition, SWP offers a large community of other authors to be a part of.  We are all a part of a very active Facebook group where we share strategies and help each other.
 
You secured excellent blurbs and pre-publication reviews for Eden.  Did you work with a publicist?
I hired Crystal Patriarche, whose firm, Booksparks, is under the same umbrella as SWP.  My project manager at SWP and my publicity team are able to work together, again, just as if they all worked at a traditional house. 

Booksparks developed my website last summer and helped me get the ball rolling in all sorts of ways in order to make my launch successful. 

Anything else you'd like to share from your experience with other debut authors? 
Make as much of investment in your book as you are able to.  I think this is important.  From editorial support to publishing, to publicity, I feel very satisfied in the process and in my book's chances to be well received.   Even though my royalties will be higher with SWP than with a traditional publisher, I don't  expect to break even on this book. If I do, wonderful!

But I'm also making this investment to set myself up for my next book  which I am hard at work on.
 
Eden: A Novel was released on May 2.   You can purchase it from  www.jeanneblasberg.com or on Amazon.
 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Saving Your Work--Ways to Keep Your Writing Safe Today

I spent much of yesterday at the Apple Store, which often starts out as fun but ends up being exhausting.   A friend's laptop had an accident:  salt water got into the hard drive, and the photo our tech took of it confirmed no recovery possible.  I had a laptop I no longer used so she took it in with her external drive and we crossed our fingers as the data migration took place.  So far, all is well.  But if she hadn't backed up her computer on that external drive, it would be a sad story.

Afterwards, in the car, we talked the various ways of saving work.  When she first got the bad news about her laptop, I read the panic on her face.  All her creative work, gone?  She hadn't ever had to recover data from an external drive (Time Machine in Apple lingo).  So she didn't actually trust that it would restore her files. 

I'd recovered my lost work one time, successfully.  It took a while, but the external drive was a good choice.  Before I got smart about saving my work somewhere outside of my computer, I wouldn't have recovered anything. 

I often poll writers in my classes about the ways they protect their work.  It's no longer good enough to just have one copy, on your laptop or desktop.  Here are some ways they use.  Not all these methods were popular with everyone, but they do present a wide range of possibilities.

The main piece of advice I've gotten over the years is:  Save your writing in a minimum of three locations.  Do it religiously.  How often?  I save every time I finish a writing session.  Sometimes, because I've experienced the horrors of a crash or power outage, I save every hour. 

I save in four places:

1.  Save on my main computer (desktop or laptop).
2.  Email myself a copy of the file.  If the computer crashes, I can retrieve from my webmail.
3.  Save to an external drive, like a Passport or Porsche or LaCie drive.  These are not expensive (under $100 last time I checked) and they hold a LOT. 
4.  Use a Time Machine to back up the entire computer every night or once a week, as my friend did, above.  These usually work best when stationery, at your desk, hooked up to a desktop and set to backup on schedule.

Other methods you might consider:

1.  Use a cloud option--there are many companies that will save your work or even do automatic backups to the cloud for you.  Several of my students do this and swear by its ease and security.
2.  Print hard copies.  One of my writer friends, who describes himself as a "typewriter guy" who reluctantly moved to computers, doesn't feel secure until he has printed copies. 
3.  Use a thumb drive (flash drive).  Very cheap, stores a lot, can be carried anywhere because it's the size of your thumb.  You can find these in office supply stores.  When I'm traveling, I use this instead of the larger external drive.

Your weekly writing exercise isn't about writing this week; it's about maintaining your ability to keep writing your book.  Evaluate how you safeguard your writing.  What new systems do you want to put into place this week?  If something isn't working as well as you'd like, what might you change?         

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding the Right Home for Your Memoir: A Success Story

I first met Elisa Korenne in one of my online classes.  Elisa is a professional singer/songwriter with several CDs to her credit.  She was writing a very intriguing story--about moving from downtown Manhattan to the wilds of northern Minnesota, for love.

I followed her progress in subsequent classes and saw such a blossoming of the story.  It's a simple tale, yet unique:  the integration of cultures, the finding of oneself and home, all around her profession of music and storytelling.

Elisa's memoir, Hundred Miles to Nowhere:  An Unlikely Love Story, has just been released from North Star Press.  Click here to find out more.  I interviewed  Elisa to learn more about the process of finding the right home for her book. 

Why did you decide on this press?  How did you find out about them?  Did you research others? 

I decided to pursue North Star Press because two writers I knew and respected, one a friend and the other a writing teacher, had been published by them.  I had done a lot of research about traditional publishers, small publishers, and agents, and had already gone down all of those roads.  Amazingly, I had neglected to put North Star on my list despite what I thought had been exhaustive research.

When I finally thought about North Star, I recognized that it would be an ideal press for me and my story.  For me because I am a first-time author and a small press would give me more attention.  And for my story because North Star is based in outstate Minnesota, and my story is about moving to outstate Minnesota, so they would have the network to appeal a good portion of my target audience.
What made you choose this avenue over traditional publishing?
 
It was more that this avenue chose me!

I started trying to get my book into the world by pursuing literary agents.  I had initial success--a good 30-40 percent requested full manuscripts after I sent them my query letter.

From their responses, it became clear that my story, about a singer-songwriter moving from New York City to rural Minnesota for love, did not have enough appeal (read: potential book-buyers) for agents to approach their contacts at larger publishers.

This led me to start reaching out to smaller publishers.
   
Tell us what kind of support you got during the publishing process.
North Star offered me a writer-friendly contract that included an industry-standard royalty package and a connection to a national distributor.  They asked me to commit to buying a number of books at wholesale price up front.  They were willing to work with me on adjusting their standard contract to be the right fit for me.

They provided editing and all the backend work of getting my book into the world, in both print and electronic format.
 
I was not expecting marketing support and was not offered it.  From the beginning of my pursuit of publishers and agents, I was aware that I would be in charge of most of the marketing for the book no matter what press published my book, big or small. 

I worked with a literary publicist to start my marketing campaign six months ahead of the publication date.
   
Anything else you think might help readers make good decisions about finding the right homes for their books?
   
One of the hardest things for me was to figure out where my book belonged in the publishing world. 

My book was not the literary blockbuster of my grandiose imaginings. It was only when I looked at the realities of my story, the book market, and who I am as an author, that I was successful in finding a publisher.

I am very happy to be with a smaller, Minnesota-based publisher, as I know they have the connections that are the best fit for my book.
     
To learn more about Elisa's memoir and order a copy, you can check out her website at www.elisakorenne.com or find it at North Star Press or on
Amazon.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyboarding Multiple Narrators--How to Make Sense of the Whole Story

I get this question a lot:  When a book has more than one storyline, timeline, or main narrator, how do you make sure each storyline works individually? 

And, once you have each individual storyline in place, how do you weave them together to make sense of the whole?
Memoir and fiction has grown complex.   Maybe it's a reflection of our multi-tasking brains, but multiple narrators, shifts from a full backstory to a full present-time story, or completely developed stories in different locations are the norm now.  

It takes a lot more work from the writer than just a simple, chronological, single storyline.  Working with storyboards helps.  But even so, you may have your individual storyboards flowing just fine, but be stymied on how to bring them into one book.

One of my online students from Tucson, Arizona, is working on a historical novel.  She has chosen three of the main characters to be her narrators and she's built storyboards for each of them separately.  She works on one narrator's story and takes it as far as she can, then moves to another, trusting the process and not too worried about completing one before starting another, because the process is teaching her more about the book.
That's fine; she's doing the necessary first step.  But as she's completed these individual storyboards, she's become stalled out. 

"While the storyboards outline what happens to each of them, what they are involved in," she emailed me, "I'm not seeing or feeling THE STORY.  And I'm not sure how to get there."  What's the trick in making them mesh?

Five Points That Overlap
First, look for five main points that overlap.  If you're working with a storyboard, you know about the five main turning points in any book:  the triggering event at the start, the first turning point about one-quarter through, the midpoint (second triggering event), the second turning point about three-quarters through, and the final climax at the end of the book.  These are detailed on my videos and in my book, in case you want to explore further.

First, look for overlaps in location, time, or event.  Sometimes, a main event runs through the whole book and characters encounter it at slightly different times.  Or they are in a certain location where something changes, but on their own storyline.  These are the easiest overlaps to find. 

If these don't work for your particular book, freewrite, one page for each character, on what each of the five points mean for that character.  For instance, you are writing about a marriage.  What's the meaning of that moment for John, for Sylvia, for their daughter Harlow?  The meaning is where you look for overlaps if the easier ones don't work.    

Often you need to rearrange your storyboard to make this work well.  I might shift the plot or go deeper into researching meaning and make it more evident in a scene, to create strong weaving of the different stories.

Transitions
Once you've created overlap in the five points of your book, you need to work on transitions.  I could teach transitions for a whole year--they are that challenging for many writers and that important.

The best way to learn transitions is to study film.  Directors work with them all the time, moving from scene to scene.  Two of my favorite films to teach transitions are The English Patient and Sliding Doors.  You'll enjoy both films, I bet, but go beyond watching them for enjoyment and study the moment when a scene changes.  See what image is used to transition.  It'll echo or repeat slightly from the first scene to the next one.  The more arty the film, the subtler the transition. 

When I work with my private clients on transitions, I have them study key images that repeat in their story.  Then we work on a chart where the last line of each scene is paired with the first line of the next scene, to see if there are transitions in place.  Words are your vehicle for images on the page, so words must create a transition image, or bridge, that the reader can use to slide effortlessly from one scene to the next.  You can also use more obvious time transitions, such as "three days later" or "meanwhile, back at the ranch," but in modern fiction and memoir, these are employed sparingly because they are more glaring to the reader.  The best transitions are nearly invisible.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Take one of these steps--the five points exercise above or the transitions exercise below that--and set aside an hour to try it.  Apply to your book, see what you learn!  Does the weaving begin to happen?

Friday, May 5, 2017

If You're Writing a Novel, Do You Know Its Category? An Agent's Perspective

One of the writers in my advanced online class posted this article on our weekly classroom discussion.  She asked the provocative question:  what genre are you writing in? 

Fiction, I would've answered five years ago, because they were all fiction writers in this small group.  But her question went deeper than this:  what type of fiction are you writing and how will you present it to an agent or publisher?
Publishing has gotten quite complex at categorizing novels by certain qualities.  Is it award-capable?  Does it have a happy or mixed ending?  Is it a commercial or literary plot? 
It's absolutely necessary to know where your book fits, before you begin trying to send it to an agent or editor.
 
The article she shared summed it up so well.  Here's the link.  It's an infographic, or diagram that shows three main types of fiction--literary, upmarket, and commercial.  Check it out, and see where your book might fit.  Consider any changes you might need to make to fit in one of these categories.

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Great Key to Building Your Story: Things Are Never as They Appear

I got some of the best writing advice this week:  In a good story, things are never as they appear. 

At first, I debated this advice:  Why not tell the truth in story?  I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books?  Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea.  But fiction and memoir writers, listen up.  There's something to this.

Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing.  In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative.  Each character might have their own false agreement, unique to their journey in the story.  In my current novel, one of the narrators believes that she can conquer all odds by herself, without help.  This is a false agreement because the story continually puts her into situations where she can't go it alone.  Readers can see this belief, or agreement she's made with herself, isn't going to last.  But the character is blind to that.  By the end, the character must acknowledge that the agreement isn't working.  She must reinvent herself and her agreements.  That makes up her narrative arc--the progress of this change.

I like to look at each of my main players to be sure the false agreement is in place, so they can have someplace to grow towards.

Then I thought of this writing advice in another way:  the writer knows where the story is going to end up.  What needs to happen by the last page.  But if we lay all the steps out in a straight and predictable line, the story feels just that:  predictable.  So the writer's goal might also be to continually sidetrack the reader--create false ideas that might be true, but turn out not to be.  In thrillers, these are sometimes called "red herrings."  They appear to be a bonefide clue, but they are eventually disproved. 

Then I thought of dialogue.  Skilled dialogue contains something called "subtext," which is the undercurrent, what's not being said.  In a way, good dialogue also follows this idea of "things are not what they appear."  If characters speak the truth every time you have a scene with dialogue, there's little tension.  It's like the straight and predictable path of truthful story.  Tension comes from incongruence, the difference between what's said and what's really meant. 

I began to research well-loved novels and memoirs.  White Oleander by Janet Fitch offers the young narrator's false belief that she can manage her crazy mother and have a safe childhood.  It creates such tension, even in the opening scene where the mother walks the edge of a rooftop while the daughter watches. 

The Glass Castle, a well-known memoir by Jeannette Walls, is about another young narrator who also lives in a crazy family and carries, for much of the story, the false agreement is that they live a normal life. 

In both cases, the reader can see this is nowhere near normal.  But we read on because we wonder if we're right, and if we are, how the narrator will reconcile this disconnect.

In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a large-scale false agreement exists between two countries at war.  When two young people become allies, despite the war, it busts the belief that war always trumps humanity.  They save each other at the end, disproving that false agreement, at least in a small way.

The trick to making this work is in two steps:

1.  Create a strong false agreement to start your story.
2.  Plan clues that make us readers uncertain about where it's going to go. 

Good writing doesn't predict the end.  It's anticipated but not expected, as one of my favorite teachers used to say.  Readers track the hints and clues you plant, letting us know the false agreement isn't going to hold up, but we want to be carried along with high tension, not really sure of where you will land up by the last page.

Your weekly writing exercise is to consider the two steps above.  Ask yourself, what is your story's (or your narrator's) false agreement.  Then, how does it slowly get dismantled by the end.  If you already have these two steps in place, track backwards from the last page and note how you plant the clues--be sure you aren't making the end too predictable, evolve too fast, or sidetrack into different false agreements. 

This takes focus and discipline, as a writer, but the end result is a satisfied reader.

Friday, April 21, 2017

How NOT to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript

A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter.  She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand.  She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there.  She came home excited, shared the news with me.  "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said.  Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.
Weeks passed.  I emailed her to find out how the revision was going.  She'd gotten sick, the kids had gotten sick, politics were making her crazy, in-laws had visited, spring vacation arrived.  No time for writing, she said, knowing I'd understand.
I did.  Life comes up, gets in the way, changes our plans.  That's normal.  But I also heard something else in her voice:  overwhelm about the feedback she'd received.  It was extensive, it came from someone who really knew what he was doing, and although it excited her, it also got her inner critic up in arms.  She needed time to process the feedback and that's also normal, but she'd waited so long to take even a small step towards implementing it, she'd become strangers with her story.
That was a shame.  Because it's a good, even great, story, and she's an excellent writer who could easily take it to the finish line.
I see this all the time.  It's happened to me--often. 
My friend is a first-time author, though, so she doesn't realize the danger she's in right now.  We've discussed, she's avowed it wasn't the feedback at all (recall the illnesses, holidays, visitors).  She's good with that, she's happy with the suggestions. 
But, I thought, why isn't she writing?  That's the real proof of it:  if we write or if we don't. 
Feedback is useless unless you do something with it.  So how does a writer not give up when she gets feedback--even expert, excellent feedback? 
Feedback creates questions.  It's supposed to.  It's designed to put cracks in the structure you've so carefully built to house your story.  It's supposed to show where that structure has weaknesses or could be stronger.  It's supposed to raise questions about the characters' motivations or the use of setting details or time markers or plot logic.  One of my most troubling pieces of feedback, recently received from a beloved editor, was "I'm troubled by the logic here."  Another way of saying, "As a reader, I stopped believing the story just here." 
Super valuable to know about.  But what do you do with such a comment?  How do you keep writing?
Below is my step-by-step method for making good use of feedback.  It requires two lists, but they have saved me many times.  And I have finished and published books to prove it works.  Try it, if you wish, and see if it works for you!
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Feedback List and To-Do List for Revision
When you get feedback from readers, writers group, classmates, or editors, set aside an hour or two where you have quiet to think.  You're going to make two lists:  a feedback list and a to-do list.  Start with the feedback list.
1.  Make a list of ALL the feedback, even small changes suggested, even stuff you don't agree with.  (I usually put the questionable comments at the end of the list.)  Don't worry about making the list in any order--it doesn't matter.  Mix large and small changes.  This can take time.  Its purpose is to help your brain absorb each item individually, reducing the sheer overwhelm.  As you write the list, you may get ideas or solutions to the concerns of your reader/editor.  See below.
2.  I like to put the ideas/solutions on a separate piece of paper or document.  This becomes my to-do list.  It's much more proactive and inspiring than the feedback, which is all stuff that doesn't quite work.  The ideas/solutions are the stuff that could work, if I try it.
3.  If you don't get ideas when you're writing the first list, don't sweat it.  It can take time for the inner critic's reaction (oh no! might as well give up!) to settle down. 
4.  Once you have the list as complete as possible, choose the EASIEST item to work on first.  Make that change in your draft.  Cross it off your feedback list.
5.  Find the next easiest item; work on that.  Cross it off.  Keep going.  Save the huge global changes for last unless you get an equally huge brainstorm and want to dive in.
6.  Some changes, even small ones, have a ripple effect.  Rather than pausing to address another idea while you're changing the first one, write the new idea on your to-do list.  It'll keep.  It makes most writers crazy (at least, it does me) to multi-task too much at revision.  We tend to lose threads that way.  Stay with what you're working on, finish it, cross it off, then go to the next item.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hunt for an Agent: Pitch Conferences, Research, and Other Fun Tools

Spring is the time of new birth, and that includes book manuscripts.  Writers have been working hard all winter and want to bring their babies into the world.  Perhaps even launch the process of looking for an agent. 

Many of my clients and students are trying pitch conferences this spring:  a place to meet agents face to face, and even get feedback on manuscripts.  Two of the prime pitch conferences in the U.S. are hosted by Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

The Loft's pitch conference is April 7-9 and Grub Street's pitch conference is May 5-7 this year.  Each offers private "pitch sessions" with agents and editors. 

Conferences can be expensive.  Success (meeting the agent of your dreams, who falls in love with your manuscript) is far from a guarantee.  It takes preparation and work to get the most from the experience. 

One of my clients, Libby Jacobs, likes to attend the annual pitch conference sponsored by Grub Street, a Boston writing school, called Muse and the Marketplace.  Last year, she met two agents at the conference's Manuscript Mart meetings who requested full manuscripts of her novel-in-progress.   She's been busy revising all winter and is almost ready to deliver. 

Libby says, "I find it an excellent way to establish meaningful contact with agents.  In addition to over 100 conference sessions on both the art and commercial aspects of writing, authors can choose which agent(s) they want to meet" through information on Grub's website about what each agent is looking for.
 
Libby used their interests to narrow her list of agents to ones seeking women's fiction, magical realism, and historical fiction, the focus of her novel.   She researched Publishers Lunch (PublishersMarketplace.com) and did Google searches to study each agent's blog and interviews, and specific titles they represented.

"When an agent available at the conference seemed especially promising," Libby told me, "I read at least parts of one of the novels that agent represented.  In my query letter, I referenced similarities with my own book, a focus on art, music, magic, etc."

Libby likes Grub's conference because not only does she get one-on-one time with an agent, but the agent also reads the first twenty pages of her manuscript, query letter, and synopsis.  She always got valuable suggestions. 

David Mura, a colleague at the Loft where we both teach, attends the Loft's pitch conference in April.  David has published nine books---two memoirs, a novel, four books of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and an essay on pornography.  "But at present," David says, "I have no agent."  His last two agents both quit being agents for various reasons, he told me, and he hoped to get an agent at the Loft Pitch Conference.  
David is probably best known for his two memoirs, Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity and Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei, which won the Josephine Miles Book Award from the Oakland PEN and was a New York Times Notable Book.

"I looked for agents [on the pitch conference's list] who seemed to be a good fit first for my novel, which is a literary novel set in 1930s China, when the Japanese invaded,"  David told me. "My novel recounts the relationship between a half-Japanese/half Irish-American and the bastard sister of the warlord who rules over Manchuria."  He was also looking for an agent for his book of essays on race.

"It was difficult to find an agent whose interests covered both books," David says.  He wanted an agent of color, since racial themes were central to his work.
 
Before the pitch conference, he wrote out descriptions of both books and practiced presenting them.  As a teacher and performer, he says he's comfortable speaking on literature.  "But it's different when you're presenting your own work," he told me, "especially for someone like me whose family culture wasn't big on promoting oneself publicly.  Also as a Japanese American writer who explores racial themes, I have to present a context for the complexities of my vision yet do it in a five-minute pitch."
 
He called the experience of a pitch session similar to "the agonies of speed dating."  Since he's a published author with several books to his credit, the agents knew immediately that he was at least a legitimate writer.  "All the agents I met with agreed to have me send them my novel.  At the same time, it seemed fairly obvious how attuned the agent was to who I am as a writer and the type of work I do.  I don't think I met an agent who actually could intuit a sense of my work in such a short time."

David guesses that pitch conferences might be better suited to authors in popular genres.  After the conference, he only sent work to one agent.  "It didn't pan out," he says.  "Though the other agents asked me to send them work, I didn't feel they would be the right fit for me or I for them.   
 
His blog, where he writes about race, politics, culture and literature, is on his website: www.davidmura.com.
 
David added, "My experiences with publishing and agents have led me to the conclusion that the publishing world hasn't caught up with the diversity of writers I find in my classes and the programs and conferences I teach at. Certainly we need more agents, editors, publishers and publishing houses of color.  Recently, I was speaking at AWP to a nationally known writer of color, someone whose name everyone would recognize, but who, also, like me no longer had an agent.  I feel a huge discrepancy between the reaction when I speak in public on race or present my work in readings, and my experiences with the publishing world.  I've also had older editors or publishers who 'got' my work who were then replaced by younger colleagues who did not."

But he is very grateful to the Loft for having this conference and for the other events and programs they offer.  "We're lucky to have an institution like this in the Twin Cities," he says.  And
there are success stories from the conference--happy marriages between writers and agents who meet during pitches.  At a recent Loft Pitch Conference, Kathleen Peterson met and eventually signed with her agent Marly Rusoff.  To read about her experience, click here.

There's more to pitch conferences than snagging an agent, too.  Many writers attend to update themselves on the publishing industry and what editors are looking for in books today.  David was interested in hearing from agents about the business as well.  He says the first the day of the conference, an editor delivered a long session on writing novels.  Libby enjoys the wide range of workshops offered at Grub Street's Muse and Marketplace. 

She also advises writers to check out writing conferences, classes (on site and online), and writers' groups, to keep writing.  And to consider pitching to new agents, especially in a recognized agency.   New agents may have more time and energy to devote to you, she says.

PS  A big question I often get from my clients and students:  Should I bring my manuscript to the conference?  No.  You may be more than ready to hand the whole package to an agent who expresses even the slightest interest, but agents almost never take home manuscripts.  If they want to read a sample, they'll hand you contact information and how to send it.  When you feel ready, you can email them your pages from home.