Thursday, December 31, 2009

So the Thing Is...I'm a Novelist

Let me begin with apologies and a hat tip to my favorite blogger, Barb Cooper, who would have a trademark on the phrase "So, the thing is..." if it weren't too common to be protectable. I've really endeavored to avoid that phrase in my writing over the past six or seven years, since I was first introduced to Barb's funny and enlightening column. But the truth is, I used it a lot before I met Barb, and sometimes it's simply called for. In this case, I think it's especially appropriate because Barb's column was all about underlying truths, and this is a big one.

I've made my living in a variety of ways, from making salads to practicing law and virtually everything in between. I've taught, trained, consulted, written curriculum and I've answered phones, placed calls, run cash registers, poured coffee, sorted mail, typed letters and even fried eggs. And, for many years, I've been fortunate enough to make my living writing.

I've written for newspapers, magazines and websites. I've written educational materials, consumer legal information, parenting articles, musician bios, writing and publishing advice, local histories, and profiles...and those are just some of the things I've been paid for writing. I even wrote a book. And the fact that I'm able to make my living working with words is an unbelievable blessing.

But here's the thing: I'm a novelist. I wrote my first novel at 10. I wrote most of another one in college and finished one while I was practicing law. I finished another one during NaNo six or seven years ago and a third during the same period three years ago. I also have a fourth half-finished and a fifth barely begun but which I'm entirely in love. Whenever I get a free minute, I write a novel...and I almost mean that literally, since two of my novels have been written in less than a month while I was working full time.

Here's what I don't do: I don't sell them. It isn't that I CAN'T sell them (or at least, if it is that, I haven't found it out yet). It's simply that in almost two decades of writing novels, I've sent out exactly three submissions. And guess what? The only novel I've ever submitted is the one that I care least about, the one that I'm not invested in.

Sounds like fear, I know, but I think it's just laziness. See, a funny thing happens to me when I write a piece, whether it's a book or an article or a blog post. I finish it, and then it's over for me. I move on. I don't look back. I've never read most of my articles in print; I don't even have copies of most of them. It's all in the writing for me.

But a long time ago I had to make a decision about writing. I never needed anyone to read what I wrote and so I didn't bother to publish for a long time...and then I realized that so long as I didn't sell my writing, I was always going to have to do something else for a living. I realized that publishing was the ticket to having time to write. For some reason, it's taken me another decade to realize that that principle extends to novels, too...and it's novels I really want to be writing.

So this is it. It's purely coincidence that this realization dawned on New Year's Eve, and I don't make New Year's resolutions. But this year, I'm going to start acting like a novelist.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Putting NaNoWriMo to Work for You - Even if You're Not Participating

November is national novel writing month, and for many people that means signing up over at the NaNo site and gearing up for the challenge, receiving pep talk emails and following the progress of your fellow writers online. The challenge has inspired many aspiring writers to push beyond their previously perceived limitations, but it's not for everyone.

I've discovered, however, that NaNo doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. For those who want to start a new novel from scratch and knock it out during go girl (or guy). I'm rooting for you. But if you don't think that's realistic, set your own goal and calculate your own pace and use the energy and buzz surrounding NaNo to help you keep your momentum going, whether that means writing for an hour every day or aiming for 20,000 words in the month or whatever works for you.

I think that the greatest value of national novel writing month for aspiring writers is that it says "Do it now." What "it" is turns out to be far less critical. This year, I'm finished up editing on a novel I wrote a couple of years ago and have been letting sit, and then I'm returning to work on one that I started in 2003 and never finished. Neither qualifies for NaNo and there won't be any new, complete work when I'm done, but the fact that it's November is important for me anyway. It's important because I can classify it in my mind as the month I'm "supposed" to focus on these things, the month it's okay to take time out and immerse in my writing.

You can, too. Whether it's editing an old novel or finishing one you have in progress or cranking out a few short stories or writing some non-fiction articles for submission or focusing on your research for an upcoming non-fiction book or even just blogging every day, this is the month to make writing your priority and see what you can get done...and the fact that thousands of other people are working alongside you can be very motivational, even if you're not working exactly the way they are.

So what are YOU going to do for national novel writing month?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Writing and Memory

A question that pops up in my search stats fairly often is "Does writing really help you remember?" I've even answered the question generally, on my search engine question blog. I think it's clear that, in several respects, the answer is "yes". But today, I've been thinking more specifically about how writing helps memory as a writer.

I've been an avid journaler since the age of 9, which means that much of my life has been documented and remains available for review. That's not really memory, I know, but it has an impact in a way I might never have learned to capitalize on but for a conversation with another writer in a dive bar in Champaign, Illinois back in my early twenties. Over an unbelievably cheap pitcher of beer and quarter fish sandwiches, I mentioned my journals and he told me he was jealous.

I didn't look back at my journals much, and so his meaning wasn't immediately clear to me. When he elaborated, it forever changed my fiction writing. "You know what it was like," he said. "It's right there down on paper. You can look back and think you remember what it was like to be 17, how you felt about something in the moment, but you don't really know. But have it right know what it was like because this is what you put down right then." And just like that, I held in my hands the key to getting inside the head of a young character.

But today, I started thinking about memory and writing in a whole new way. I remembered, today, the first time I met a certain young man. Though it was more than twenty years ago, I remember what he was wearing. I remember my reaction. There are many possible reasons, including randomness of memory or the momentary import of that meeting, but I think that the reason I recall his sweater, the jeans he wore, even where he stood is that I wrote it down. Where I wrote it, what happened to those words, I have no idea. If I ever re-read them, it was many years ago and I have long since forgotten. But I have an image in my mind that I don't believe is the real one. I have an image in my mind that I think arose out of my own words. I have seen it happen with the most insignicant of moments, the turning of my gray moccasin on pale concrete after midnight, things I would never have had cause to recall decades later.

But what does this mean, this memory of the record of a memory? It is not unlike, I think, the way we sometimes believe that we remember long-ago scenes we've seen in photographs. But what is its impact, really, on memory? Does it enhance, or does it alter? And does the ability to see that moment forever as we saw it in the moment somehow eliminate some other memory, the one we would otherwise have seen through the filter of time?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Submission Guidelines...Take 'em or Leave 'em?

I've written before about the rules an aspiring writer can ignore and the ones he can't. Some of the ones that can't be ignored may seem pretty silly (in fact, they may be pretty silly), but at the end of the day it doesn't matter. If your excellent article is never published because the editor didn't like your paperclip, perhaps the editor was unreasonable..but that knowledge won't get you a paycheck or a clip. In the simplest possible terms, it would be pretty damned stupid for you to miss out on a paying writing gig because you couldn't be bothered to read the guidelines and find out that the editor preferred that pages be folded in half (or in thirds, or not be folded).

There are always those writer-hopefuls who say indignantly, "Well, if an editor is going to throw out a submission just because it's stapled, I don't want to work with her anyway!"


You'd rather remain unpublished? Well, okay then.

But for those who want to make a living writing and are willing to invest a little effort to get there, paying attention to guidelines is important. No, not every editor will toss a submission because of a minor technical violation, but you don't know which will.

I've been giving this a lot of thought recently because about a month ago, I posted an ad on Craig's List seeking submissions for my webzine. The posting brought a flood of traffic to the site, but only a fraction of that traffic made it to the submission guidelines page. The ad also brought a flood of inquiries. Maybe, given the fact that so few of the visitors from Craig's List had made it to the submissions page, it shouldn't be a surprise that the guidelines posted on that page were roundly ignored.

I received submissions approximately half the length of the pieces we publish. I received satirical pieces, though we don't publish satire. Perhaps most perplexing, I received dozens of emails and resumes with no information whatsoever beyond publishing history...although the very brief ad text said directly "we don't care about your publishing history or your credentials".

I did, I must admit, dismiss those inquiries fairly quickly. When (several times) I came across a blank email with nothing but a resume attached, I didn't even open it. I even got a little annoyed. But what really jumped out at me were the submissions--and even just email inquiries--that clearly indicated that the author had been to the site, read the guidelines, looked around at our other articles, and then attempted to submit a piece or make a pitch that FIT OUR SITE. Those submissions, because they were so few and far between, made an impression on me. Enough of an impression that if for some reason a piece didn't fit, I responded personally, explaining why and inviting the author to edit and resubmit or to submit another article.

In a nutshell, all those sloppy writers mass-submitting without reading guidelines, tailoring their pitches, or removing their paperclips are creating an excellent opportunity for the rest of you. You can make your submission stand out just by doing what you're told. Of course, the quality of your work will have to stand up to a closer look, but getting the closer look is easier for the conscientious among you when the careless so outnumber you. Make the most of that edge.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What if Writing Happened Out Loud?

This evening, I took my daughter and a number of her friends to see the remake of Fame, and during the movie something crystalized that's been nagging at me for quite some time: writing is the only art that occurs almost entirely internally. When a musician picks up a guitar or sits down at a keyboard to practice or to compose, for instance, that experience is to some degree shared with anyone in the vicinity. Notes and chords, ready or not, reach nearby ears--even if the musician is unaware.

Visual arts are quieter, of course, but anyone who walks past a painter or sculptor at work catches at least a sense of the creation, can see what kind of work is in progress, what colors dominate, what feeling the piece conveys. Writing alone is different, isolated, hidden during its creation. Certainly someone could peek over the writer's shoulder as he scribbled on his pad or tapped away at his keyboard, but it would take effort, very close proximity, focus on the work before him. Nothing meaningful is, or could be, communicated at a glance, across a room, through a closed door. The writer's art exists in his mind alone until the moment someone turns to his work with the sole purpose of reading or hearing his words.

How does this change the process, I wonder, the fact that a musician creates out loud, that an artist's work is readily visible while it is in progress, but that a writer's product can only be absorbed with effort?

Friday, September 25, 2009

Self-Publishing Revisited

Some time ago, I considered the pros and cons of self-publishing fiction. As I mentioned then, I'm not against self-publishing in general; I did quite well with a self-published book several years ago and definitely think that in the right niche with the right marketing plan, self-publishing can be lucrative.

However, I had (and have) reservations about self-publishing fiction. Quite by chance this evening I ran across a post that led me to a blog about this very process. As if self-publishing fiction weren't challenging enough, this author has self-published a children's book and is handling his own promotion--a tough job for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the inability to price competitively. He has a clear plan, though, and I'm watching with interest; if you're toying with the idea of self-publishing in a non-niche area, I strongly suggest that you follow along and see what you can learn, too.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Writing for a Living in the Internet Age

Recently, a friend started a discussion on Facebook about whether this was a good or bad time to begin a career as a professional writer. The question, which referenced both the decline of print media and the proliferation of unpaid bloggers, seemed to contain the assumption that it was not.

It’s an issue that’s ripe for discussion, both because there are valid points on both sides that bear consideration if one is embarking on a writing career and because the insights of the people who see opportunities in today’s market may be useful to anyone who hasn’t yet worked out how to make the most of the changes.

Those changes are sweeping: a shift away from print to online media, international competition that impacts pay scales, the ever-growing volume of free content available online, shifting publishing and distribution models for longer works, and more.

Writers and New Media

Print media is declining. That’s not up for discussion. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that professional writing opportunities are decreasing. The market is changing, and those jobs many think are disappearing have actually just moved out of our lines of vision. The answer may be as simple as looking over your left shoulder or off to the right, rather than staring straight ahead at the spot where the work used to be.

The Decline in Print Media is Matched (or Outmatched) by an Increase in Online Opportunities

The first step toward building a successful writing career in the digital age is understanding the opportunities. The new opportunities aren’t just web-based versions of the old ones. Web writing looks different, and writers must bring new skills to the table, and market themselves effectively by showcasing those skills.

For example, most paid web writing gigs require:

-faster turnaround

-lower word count

-Google-friendly text

-shorter paragraphs

-more visual formatting

Those aren’t difficult changes to make, but they require consciousness of the differences. A web publisher is looking for writers who can create web-friendly copy in a format that works for both search engine spiders and Internet audiences. It’s up to the writer—new or seasoned—to let a publisher know he can produce content that’s competitive in that environment.

This can be a problem for seasoned print writers; someone who has spent years writing feature articles for magazines may have a portfolio full of high-profile clips that simply don’ t reflect the skills a web publisher is looking for. The copy is typically too long and too dense; the paragraphs are probably too long and there are undoubtedly too few headers. Headlines and subheaders aren’t written with search engines in mind, and the visuals have most likely been handled by someone else.

If your name is big enough and your credentials rock-solid, someone will see past that…but if you’re a mid-level writer you should be prepared to prove yourself all over again in a new arena.

Results are Measurable Online

The goal of most paid writing has always been to sell something, whether it’s copies of a magazine or advertising space or a specific product. Online, though, it’s much easier to measure how effective those efforts are, down to the individual article. Whereas a print publisher knows only the number of copies of a particular issue sold and some rough information about the demographics of those purchasers, a web publisher knows exactly how many people opened your article, how long they stuck around, where they went when they left, whether they came back, and who linked back to you.

That means that where you’ve been published is no longer the primary credential; instead, a writer must build and be conversant in his stats. Some writers will have to learn a new language in order to sell themselves: hits, unique visitors, bounce rate, time on page, click-through rate and inbound links. These are the currency in which online value is measured, and if you have no idea what I just said, it’s time to learn.

When You Land the Job, It Won’t be the One You’re Used To

Thus far, we’ve only talked about landing writing jobs in the new world of web-based publishing, but that’s only the first step. Once you get the gig, of course, you have to do the job—and the job is a somewhat different one than most writers are accustomed to. (See, just look at that. I REGULARLY end sentences with prepositions, and I have no trouble getting writing work in this brave new world. Nothing is sacred.) And, of course, pay scales and compensation systems are different, as well. More on all that in future posts; for now, please share your thoughts and experiences on making the switch from print to cyber-publishing.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Jacquelyn Mitchard's No Time to Wave Goodbye

The sequel to Jacquelyn Mitchard's first bestselling novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, came out yesterday...and I don't have it yet. Of course, I wasted no time in ordering No Time to Wave Goodbye, but I ordered it through Amazon--not because I didn't want to or have time to run out and pick it up at Borders, but because it doesn't take all that many sales in a short period of time to make the various Amazon lists that boost publicity and, in turn, more sales. Now that it's in transit, though, I'm having a hard time getting interested in reading anything else.

If you've been here before, you know that I am a constant admirer of Mitchard's writing. I love her style and, above all, I love the truths that are dropped into her writing like surprise chips of chocolate in a creamy vanilla ice cream. As I've mentioned before, her novels always make me nod. "Yes, that's true...that's exactly right." Even though, of course, I might never have consciously entertained that thought before.

So I haven't even had the opportunity to start No Time to Wave Goodbye, and I can't comment intelligently on it. But the book's release does have me thinking about character development. It's been thirteen years since The Deep End of the Ocean made its splash, and we've all lived a lot of life in the interim. My daughter was an infant when I read it, and now she's teetering dangerously close to high school. We've all lived, laughed, cried: some of us have married and divorced (or divorced and married), some of us have had children, graduated from college, watched parents die, moved across the country. We are, most of us, in some way different people than we were in 1996. And yet, we care what became of this fictional family.

That's what we have to do, as writers, isn't it? Create stories and people so rich and deep that we forget that nothing actually happened to those characters after the book ended and feel as if they're somehow out there continuing to live their lives and their struggles?

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Worst Book I've Ever Read

Yeah, that's not really what I'm going to talk about. If you've read my post about the best book I've ever read, you probably won't be surprised to discover that I'm not going to try to pick an all-time low. But earlier this evening, I was reading a thread on Blog Catalog where people were nominating worst-ever books, and it got me thinking about what bad writing can mean to us as writers.

First, and perhaps most obviously, it can teach us what not to do. Many writers and editors and writing teachers suggest that the best way to develop a good sense of the language and improve your own writing is to read good writing on a regular basis. Sometimes, that provides direct lessons--sometimes we note a particular device that works well and adapt it to make it our own. But more often, we simply absorb the flow of good writing and it helps, almost unconsciously, to tune our ears. Reading too much bad writing, of course, could have the opposite effect; we don't want to immerse ourselves in badly-written prose to the point that it starts to sound normal.

But those clunkers jump out when someone else gave birth to them, don't they? The occasional tour of some poorly-constructed text can be an excellent lesson in What Not to Write.

More importantly, at least in my personal experience, bad writing creates perspective.

I was about sixteen when I read The Novel that would change my life. Though I'm not inclined to award the title of "worst book I've ever read" to anything, this book stands out in my mind as having been the worst book I'd read up to that point. It struck me how bad it was; it was hard to focus on the story because the writing was so very questionable. And that made it the most fascinating book I'd ever read.

You see, at sixteen I'd already known for years that I wanted to be a writer. I'd already been filling volumes--journals, short stories, bad poetry--for five or six years. But "writer" sounded a bit like "astronaut" or "rock star" back in those days. And then I held that paperback novel in my hands, published by an imprint of a major house, and thought, "I can do better." Not even "someday"--right then and there, in that moment, I was confident that I was a better writer than that published author.

Years later, I had a similar revelation looking at a short novel by a best-selling author. It wasn't that this novel was bad, but that it was so concise and simple. I was convinced that it couldn't have taken more than two weeks to write. That changed my perspective on the likelihood that I could write fiction while working full time, and the new perspective turned out to be correct: I've completed two separate novels in just about exactly 40 hours each, something I would never have undertaken without that flash of insight.

If you're an aspiring writer, read good literature. Study your heroes. There's no substitute for immersion in well-turned phrases. But every once in a while, make sure you look up and look around. Make sure you're aware of the full range of what's out there, and develop a realistic view of where in that spectrum your own work falls.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Conundrum of Successful Characters

Like most writers I know (perhaps most HUMANS), I am a fan of Robert Parker. I'm not particular, either. Naturally, I started with Spenser, but I love Sunny Randall and I'll take Jesse Stone. Since Parker published his first Spenser novel when I was 8 and seems to have put out a new book approximately every 14 minutes for several years, I still sometimes discover novels I haven't yet read. I'm always delighted when that happens, and I couldn't have been more delighted when I discovered that I'd never read the very FIRST Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript.

I brought it home, dove right in, and....didn't like it.

Now, this happens sometimes: I'll read one or two books by an author and get all swept away, and then I'll pick up another and be disappointed. But I'd hazard a guess that I've read between 25 and 30 Robert Parker novels, and I enjoyed them all.

The thing is, in The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser wasn't yet the character he is today. He didn't HAVE the character he has today. When people told him that he wasn't as amusing as he thought he was, they were right. And he drank too much and didn't make very good decisions. I didn't like him all that much.

Obviously, over time, his character evolved; undoubtedly, when Parker turned out that first novel, he didn't know that Spenser would become a cultural icon. If I hadn't been 8 years old when this book came out, if it had been the first Spenser novel I ever read, I'm not sure that I would ever have discovered the others.

But something else jumped out at me that made even more of an impression than the evolution of the character. Spenser described himself, in 1973, as "approaching 40". That was 36 years ago, which has the man currently "approaching 76". Of course, that's glossed over--his character remains perpetually middle-aged, as he must if Parker is going to continue to crank out those books (and I hope he does). But an author gets into a bit of a bind when he announces an age like that. It's important to character development, sure, but who thinks, when he's describing a character, "I'm going to have to have this guy viable in a street fight 36 years from now"? I'm guessing no one--and suspecting that if anyone did, it would paralyze his writing and pretty much ensure that his character didn't have this kind of longevity issue.

But it raises an interesting issue for fiction writers. Should we expect our characters to take on lives of their own and move beyond the plans we have for them? And if so, how do we keep their options open while still fitting them into the stories we've woven?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Moral Clarity: A Review of 36 Pages

I'm jumping the gun, I know, and this can't rightly be called a review. I was jumping the gun last week, too, when I emailed several friends and suggested that they buy this book, even though I hadn't yet reached page 20.

Some time ago, I wrote about why I can't ever answer the question "What's the Best Book You've Ever Read?" "Best" is just such a nebulous term. There are most entertaining books, and best written books, and the books that touched me the most, and books that made me think.

But in the end, I favor the books that make me think, even when they're novels. My favorite experience with a book is barely being able to get through it for the need to set it aside and write about the ideas that have sprung into my head while reading it. When I'm torn because I need to keep reading and I need to stop reading to write, that's my idea of a good book.

With that standard in mind, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists may be a great book. And I may never finish it, but I'll have reams of new writing by the time I get to the end.

It's true that points of disagreement, holes in the presentation, are part of my motivation to write and extrapolate and expound, but Neiman herself points out that the book isn't and can't be an exhaustive analysis of the philosophers and philosophies she incorporates.

Even now, I'm resisting the temptation to slip in a little paragraph or two on the oversight in the treatment of religious philosophy on "good", and I really want to analyze Socrates' assertion that loyalty and good can be at odds, but I'll bite my tongue. Or something. If that all sounds dense and intimidating to you, don't be fooled--it's easy reading and I'd probably be done with the book right now (instead of on page 36) if it didn't keep sending me off on these tangents.

If you think, if you like to think, if you'd like to start thinking, I can't recommend this book enough. At least the first 36 pages. I don't hesitate to make the recommendation on that basis because I've already gotten my money's worth out of those 36 pages.