Category Archives: articles

7

Actors and writers, a mixed breed

I might have mentioned at some point on the blog that I was a child actress. It’s a part of my past I don’t talk about all that much, but I started auditioning when I was eight and worked pretty steadily until I was almost eighteen. Sometimes it feels like another life, it was so long ago now, but I was a professional actress in commercials, films, on stage, and I was even on a soap opera for a year. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with many great actors, some of whom have gone on to write books (I would love to sign up a client from my acting days, and recently had coffee with a woman I auditioned with when we were kids!). One of those actors is Andrew McCarthy. We did a cute television film together called The Beniker Gang. I think you can still occasionally find it on cable somewhere.

I was happy to see that Andrew has gone on to become a prominent and well-regarded travel writer in his older adult years. He also published a critically acclaimed travel memoir in 2012 called The Longest Way Home. So when I saw this article with him doling out writing advice on Writer’s Digest, I thought it was worth sharing.

There are a couple of reasons I wanted to pass this on. First, he offers some solid suggestions for looking at the world through a creative and unique lens. And the advice he dispenses for travel writers is more widely applicable for any genre. Ideas like find your hook in the details, and focus on storytelling, are useful tips.

But more broadly, I like the emphasis on seeing where creativity can take us. Actors and writers have a lot in common. They hone their craft with the intention of engaging an audience, whether it’s a live audience at the theater, or a person curled up on their couch enjoying a good book. The goal is to enlighten, entertain, and elicit a reaction or feeling of engagement from the audience or reader. So, even though it’s been years since Andrew McCarthy and I worked together in a film, we still have a lot in common in our publishing careers. He tells stories, and I sell those stories with the purpose of sharing ideas with others. We’ve found a creative process that works for us.

My takeaway of this is that we should all listen to our inner creative voice, and be willing to go wherever it might lead us. What other outlets do you explore that help to keep your creative juices flowing?

3

Speed Limits

Writerly corners of the internet have been abuzz this week about this little piece in the New York Times: Impatience Has Its Reward: Books Are Rolled Out Faster:

The practice of spacing an author’s books at least one year apart is gradually being discarded as publishers appeal to the same “must-know-now” impulse that drives binge viewing of shows like “

House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad.”

While 24-7 internet culture may be shifting our entertainment expectations, digital publishing is surely of influence as well, with its quicker production schedules and near-instant distribution options. Digitally published authors often hope to capitalize on the binge impulse by including sell pages in the back of their e-books with links to their other titles. As the article quotes,

“It’s so much easier to buy books online,” Ms. Weis said. “The temptation is right at your fingertips because you don’t have to go to the bookstore. We have to play to that.”

As with any new innovation, an accelerated pub schedule is not going to be one-size-fits-all success for every book. As traditional publishers experiment with some of the speedy strategies that have served self-pubbers well, they’re accepting some risks alongside the advantages:

But for many writers out there, all this talk of release dates and market trends is still ahead of you, in the tantalizing future when your book is published. It’s a dream come true for readers to discover your work at all! Don’t be impatient as you pursue this dream – the most important place to slow down is before your project even gets to the market. Not just writing a great book, but revising and re-writing, polling beta readers, incorporating professional editorial input. Digital publishing can seem like a quicker path to the finish line, but it’s still more of a marathon, even a relay, than a sprint.

What do you think? Is the binge-watching spirit of Netflix spreading to the book business?

Do authors need plenty of time to hone their work and build anticipation, or should they shift their focus to publishing schedule that feeds a (hopefully) hungry market?

1

What’s in a name?

Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people.   My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting.  Makes sense.”  I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior.   So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas.  After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?

 

But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study.  In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.  Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov.  Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel?  Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work.  I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.”  And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.

All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial.  If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors.  Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation.   But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon?  Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.

Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles.  Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect.  Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.

What do you think?  Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”?  Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out  your empathy/social decoding tools?

 

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*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.

12

Covers and gender

Not sure what’s in the air, but there’s been an awful lot of chatter about covers and gender lately. Lauren just sent me a link to this piece, and then there was this, which reminded me of this.

I’m forever fascinated/disturbed by the accepted wisdom that boys don’t want to read about girl characters, but girls will read about anything. First, I’m just not sure it’s true. I don’t think we have the marketing information to back it up. But second, and more importantly, if that is the case, what the hell are we all doing wrong in raising our boys? Are we still such a sexist society that for girls to read about boys is acceptable, but for boys to read about girls isn’t manly?

The pieces above raise interesting questions, and I’m curious to hear how you think this affects you. Do you think your audience is limited by a gendered cover? And do you find yourself writing for one gender or the other purposefully? If so, what do you think that means for our culture?

1

Book Therapy

Reading fiction is normally associated with pursuits of escapism, venturing off to far-off lands, dislocating your imagination from reality, taking a cerebral vacation, or as Marion Garretty puts it “A book is a chance to try on a different life for size”.  A book is the perfect portal to transport oneself to preferable climes, especially when it is snowing in March!

What if, though, fiction was used as the tonic rather than the escape route when we are all feeling a little troubled, blue or downcast? I came across this article in the New York Observer which speaks to this question. At the Centre of Fiction, they run a program called A Novel Approach that has a team of ‘bibliotherapists’ who will prescribe you with a year’s worth of reading after a 45-minute consultation. The dialogue between the patient and the bibliotherapist in the article goes from the comical, when they discuss the root of the patient’s unhappiness, to the surreal when the patient answers which literary figures he would have over for a dinner party.

After said consultation the patient receives a reading list as a prescription with instructions, “No more than one per month, client to be shaken and stirred.” Would you ever be tempted to see a bibliotherapist? Or do you prefer to self-medicate?

1

Manufacturing a bestseller

There’s been a lot of hubbub recently about authors gaming the bestseller lists, spurred by this story in the WSJ last week. While the company mentioned in the article may be new, the phenomenon is not. Business book authors, in particular, have used similar tactics in the past, hiring companies that would have copies of their books purchased from stores that report to the New York Times to get onto their list. Publishers do their own version of this, sending authors out on tour to pump up first week sales in select markets in the hopes of getting on regional and national lists.

The ubiquity of Nielsen BookScan data has made gaming lists harder, since it’s no longer just newspapers calling around to certain stores and asking what’s selling. Sales are much more easily verifiable, so pumping up an underperforming book isn’t as easy. Then again, when you can order copies of your book online, you no longer need buyers in different cities to make yourself look good. All you need is a credit card!

All this talk reminded me of an amazing story I read on The Awl a while back about a radio DJ named Jean Shepherd who orchestrated an amazing media hoax back in the 50s. He enlisted the help of listeners of his late-nite show to try to get an non-existent book onto the bestseller list. There are a lot of twists and turns, and I’ll let you read the story instead of summarizing. It’s worth the time.

And, it just goes to show, nihil sub sole novum.

2

Starting 2013 off right with some help from writersdigest.com

I know we are well on our way to forgetting all about our new year’s resolutions, and is it me, or does the holiday break already seem like an eternity ago? So, instead of complaining about all that work that is already piling up, let’s try to focus on good intentions for the new year, and reminders of ways to do better.

This post from my favorite go-to site for writing advice, writersdigest.com, collects in one great piece the most popular 19 writing articles from the site for all of 2012. It’s so nice to have a bunch of cool pieces collected in one place. Many are about grammar. I mean who hasn’t wondered about the usage for who vs. whom, and aren’t you dying to read about the 12 Clichés All Writers Should Avoid (the comments are particularly entertaining – anyone ever attend a cliché party?)?

It also includes some free downloads and motivational tools like the 12-day plan of simple writing exercises which seems just perfect for, well, right now. Enjoy, and hope these pieces give you the inspiration you need to be your best writing self in 2013 and beyond.

3

Women take note and start reading

Late one night, I was online and came across a link to a Huffington Post piece someone had tweeted about. I followed the link and it took me to this amazing compilation of articles written by, about, and for women in 2012. It’s an eclectic list, covering a broad range of topics (although weight issues and body image seem to be an overly recurring theme). I had read some, heard about others, and a few were introduced for the first time. It struck me while checking out these pieces how many had direct connections to books. Some of them are written by published authors, and others are the basis for upcoming books.

Many are compelling, most well done (some very well done) and worth your time. I really enjoyed Emily Rapp’s piece, as well as the clever review of Tiny Beautiful Things by Anna Holmes, and Jessica Valenti’s piece about women’s desire to be liked. She also links to an upcoming book by Facebook senior exec Sheryl Sandberg, someone I’m so happy to see writing a book for women in the workplace – I talked about how great it would be for her to write a book years ago. And as a mom of daughters, I thought Jennifer Weiner’s piece addressed some important cultural issues about body image that are worth further exploration.

After you’ve taken a look, do you think there there articles here that you feel you’d like to see broadened to book length? I often look to articles for book inspiration, and this list makes me glad to do so. I read some of these articles into the night, and there were a couple that had a real emotional impact.

Good writing is infectious and makes you want to find more of it. These articles exemplify that. I love reading about women’s issues, our struggles, and our hopes for a better world. It makes me want to work harder to find important books that will change lives and inspire. Enjoy these pieces and let us know which ones affected you.