Saturday, February 27, 2010

When is your manuscript done?

A coaching client came to me with this question recently. She'd done a number of drafts of her manuscript, was down to moving commas around, and had a nagging suspicion it needed something, but she didn't know what.

So we talked for a while, and I realized she needed to create a checklist for herself. Her work is nonfiction and so that's what we focused on. Here are some ideas for such a list.

1. Have you done your pre-marketing? Do you know where a bookstore will shelve your book (category)? Have you made sure the content makes that clear? Do you know what current popular books are most like yours (selling point)? Can you clearly state how yours is unique? What is it about your format or your take on things that is truly different? Why is your book better than what's already out there? Publishers are looking for books that will sell many, many copies, not just a few. How will they be able to promote yours?

2. Does your book answer all the questions a reader might have about your subject? Writing out the 50 questions exercise (see blog from Feb 17) can just as easily be done after your book is drafted. Is there anywhere you haven't gone sufficiently deep (readers always want to know "how" and "why" some assertion is true)?

3. If your book offers exercises of any kind, are they both familiar (so readers will be comfortable with how to do them) and innovative (so that readers value the newness of what you offer)?

4. Have you secured permission for any quotes or citations that are copyrighted? (Note that reference to another text within your text, or a citation within your text, usually does not require permission.)

5. Have you done as thorough a self-editing job as possible?

6. Have you had 3-4 trusted readers give you specific feedback on ways to improve, add, delete, or clarify text?

7. Have you had your manuscript professionally edited?

8. If #1 was done early in your process, have you updated the answers to those questions with any new books on the market?

9. Have you made all tweaks and changes and revisions from the answers and input from all the above?

10. When you've completed 1-9, set your book aside for at least a month and then read a printed out version carefully, colored pen in hand, and make any last tweaks. Transfer those to the electronic document, run spell check, and you should be good to go!

If you've got other ideas along this line, please share them with us.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Right-brain fatigue

I'm back today from the writing retreat. Five full days to work on the novel. I completed 7 chapters in draft form with many remaining questions and issues. I like that part of the process. I'm on a One on the Enneagram personality chart and we love lists and organizing our thoughts.

Yesterday, I wrote three chapters and reworked one. It was the most productive day of the five. Perhaps because I could feel the time dwindling and the luxury of spending all day every day with my characters evaporating for the time being. And it may well be that I had so wonderfully primed the pump that I had much to say.

I wrote from 9-12, continued writing in my head over the silent lunch, wrote from 12:30 to 2, took a long walk on the beach, wrote again from 3-4:30. I could have gone all writing all night.

Not surprisingly, I woke up brain weary. I'd stayed so far to the right in my imagination all day yesterday that I couldn't do any more writing; I'd drained the well. I got up with leisure, wrote in my journal, packed for the trip home, and then spent about two hours asking myself questions (no answers yet) about the chapters to come but mostly staring out at the bay at high tide.

I didn't judge any of the ideas or organize them or decide whether they were feasible. I just wrote four pages of notes that may well serve me the next time I sit down to write.

Then I came home and did physical things like unpacking and grocery shopping and cat petting and bed changing and mail sorting and email answering. I feel more or less back in my life and tomorrow I hope to be back into both parts of my brain.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wallace Stegner and the reality of publishing serious literature

I’m continuing my reading of Wallace Stegner’s book on writing. One of the most poignant pieces is an essay entitled “To a Young Writer.” I’m unsure of the date of the piece, but Stegner died in 1993 so it’s at least nearly 20 years old.

The young writer in question is a woman, and gifted at the craft. He makes it very clear to her that her chance of earning a living, gaining fame, and being successful in any traditional way through her writing are minimal even though her work is brilliant and sensitive and powerful. It will not speak to the masses, he says.

Should she write anyway, he asks? Perhaps. But only perhaps. Will she write and publish if she marries and has children? Probably not, for the kind of thoughtful writing she does takes everything from a person. But if she is called to do it, she must do it.

There are many readers out there who treasure the beautiful, the sensitive, the meaningful. But as every aspect of American culture becomes “busnified” (in my years as a college professor, I watched the transformation of higher education from an education model to a business model, where students were clients and the customer was always right), so too is publishing less and less about talent and beautiful writing and more and more about the bucks to be made.

Is it still worth writing great literature? Of course, but it is not worth pinning your life or your livelihood on. That is what Stegner is saying, I think, and it is worth considering.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Advice from Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner was a wonderful novelist of the West. I loved Angle of Repose, The Spector Bird, and Crossing to Safety. My borther-in-law David, who is also a Stegner fan, gave me a little book for my birthday by Stegner: On Teaching and Writing Fiction. It seemed appropriate to bring it along on this writing retreat and I've been reading in it all week. Below is Stegner's advice on technique:

1. Start in the middle of things; begin in motion.

2. Stay in motion by not letting the summary intrude; keep the summary feeding into the scene in hints and dribblets, by what Ibsen called the "uncovering" technique.

3. Never explain too much; a reader is offended if he cannot participate and use his mind and imagination, and a story loses much of its suspense the moment everything is explained.

4. Stay out of your story; pick a point of view and (especially in the short story) stay with it. Nobody has less right in your story than yourself.

5. Don't show off in your style. The writing should match the characters and the situation, not you. This applies as well to obscenity and profanity as to other matters. Where character and situation call for them, they belong; elsewhere they may be a sign that the author is trying to catch someone's attention.

6. Nothing is to be gained, except a breaking of the dramatic illusion, by attempts to find substitutes for the word "said" in dialog tags. "Said" is a colorless word that disappears; elegant variations show up.

7. Stopping a story is as hard as saying good night. Learn to do it cleanly, without leftovers or repetitions.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Writing for the joy of it

I'm taking a creativity coaching class from Eric Maisel, and Eric stresses helping all creative clients move towards the marketplace. I really value Eric's wisdom and experience in working with artists and writers, but this is one place where I sometimes disagree, especially for writers.

If you're smart in today's literary market, you're writing a novel about zombies or vampires, futuristic disasters or sci fi, romance or mystery. That's what's selling--escapist fiction--and if you're a new author, you have a chance. If you're smart, you're not writing serious, literary fiction, which is very hard to sell, especially for new authors. But that's like not designing evening wear if that's your passion but instead designing fleece hoodies for the mass market.

I still believe in writing for the joy of it. In writing for the intrigue of your story, for the love of words and characters, for the message about life and living that you want to convey. I believe we need to write the stories that we have to tell and share them with the world and maybe that world is your writers group, or your family, or your close friends. Or you put it in a pdf up on Kindle and see who might bite. To tailor our work specifically to the marketplace seems somehow out of integrity with what we have to express.

Second, if you're writing a novel or a book of nonfiction, you must love the process, the learning, the honing, the editing, the rewriting, the sheer process of the craft. If you don't, you're in for a lot of tedium. Writing a book takes most of us several years at least. That's a lot of your free time to spend doing something that you don't enjoy for a fleeting possibility of fame in a fickle marketplace. As a college professor, I used to advise students to major in something they loved reading and studying instead of being ultimately driven by what might get them the highest-paying job. What if these are your last four years to live, by some circumstance, I'd ask. What do you want to spend it doing?

So if you're called to write, I encourage you to do it. Tell the stories that are yours to tell.

Marketing something you love, when you come to that point, will be that much easier than marketing something you did just to sell.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Day 3 Showing up to the page

Of all the things that writers and other creatives do, showing up is the most important. If you don't show up to your journal or your canvas or your computer, nothing will happen. And each time you do, you reconfirm to yourself that you are committed to the act of creating.

I've had trouble showing up to the page today. Yesterday when I was writing chaper 13, it all went really smoothly. I was in the flow, in the zone. The dialog came pouring out, the purpose of the chapter in the overall scheme of the book I knew in advance. Best yet, my characters sparked off each other and I could feel the tension I needed to write. So, of course, I expected more of that today, that I was on a roll.

So when it didn't start easily, I gave myself a bit of a break. I read a little Wallace Stegner on writing fiction. Nice thoughts, good ideas but he didn't hold the answer. I sat out in the main room with a couple of others who were reading, thinking that maybe I was just a little isolated, a little lonely. But the restlessness didn't pass and I came back into my room and sat down at the little fold-up table I'd brought with me and I got up and paced around my room and sat down and checked email and then went into the bathroom and straightened up all my toiletries so they were in perfect alignment and then I remembered my vitamins and I decided I needed more tea and I went out to the kitchen and everybody was hard at work and I felt, well, left out of the game somehow.

So I marched myself back in here, sat down with a piece of paper and did a list of scenes that might go in my book next and I realized Al had to confront Ellie about her scars and her silent past and so I just plunged in. It wasn't great, it may not even be good. But I got going finally. I showed up and stayed in the seat. Whew!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Day 2 Writing Retreat: Writer's block

When I arrived yesterday, it had been nearly 7 weeks since I'd worked on the current novel. That didn't mean I hadn't been writing. I write in my journal every morning. I'd written a couple of long papers for clients, and I'd been blogging every day on two blogs for a week. But the novel had sat neglected.

I'd like to be able to say that I've spent the last 7 weeks thinking about the plot and characters, writing in my head or solving problems or creating new angles, but that would be a lie. I haven't given it much thought. I get too busy when I first come back from a trip, then I get an odd kind of shyness about it. I make all sorts of excuses, the kinds of excuses and procrastinations that are as common among writers as air pollution in big cities. I can't work on it because I only have an hour; guess I'll check email instead. I can't work on it because I might get interrupted; guess I'll watch a documentary on Netflix. I can't work on it because I don't have a clear direction; guess I'll get something to eat. All kinds of other tasks take priority.

Well, I got here and there was plenty of time even on the first day. But did I get started? Of course not. I could have. We had a silent afternoon after lunch, but I read Kim Stafford's memoir of his dad and I took a long nap, and I played canasta, and I looked out the window, and I wrote my blogs. And, and, and.

As a long-time exerciser, I am well familiar with the opposing forces of momentum and inertia. I don't dare not exercise for more than 3 days at the most or inertia begins to wrap its wily arms around my limbs and I get leaden and just don't want to go the gym. By the fourth day, momentum has been replaced almost completely. It's as if the two exist on a spectrum and I've more than crossed the balance point and am on the slide to sloth.

The same thing happens in my writing life. I go away on retreat, start writing every day, make great progress. I get to spend most of the day every day for a week thinking the novel, planning the novel, writing in my head, living with the characters. A fine head of writing steam builds up and I am more than rolling, I am flying, it's going so well.

Then I head home, still full of the story and determined to live my creative life differently but no such luck. There's a full litter box and a big stack of mail and clients to see to and appointments to keep and friends to catch up with and marketing to do. And then 7 weeks have gone by and I feel shy again.

But after breakfast this morning, I opened the file, read the first 14 chapters I'd written, and made some tweaks. Sounds promising, right? Well, then I froze again. That's editing work. I can do that without a problem. But what about the new stuff that needed writing?

So I made myself plunge in. I decided to write a chapter that might not go in at all. That way there was no pressure. And in 4 hours, I'd written about 3 pages and I could see where I was going to go next. And maybe, just maybe I'll use some of that "extra" chapter.