Category Archives: writing

10

Whatever Works

During a very energizing few days at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference last week, I had the pleasure of spending time with fellow agents as well as a lot of authors—published and yet to be—and I practically O.D.’d on some of the best tacos known to man (El Sitio at 2830 De La Vina St., I’m lookin’ at YOU.)

One of the highlights of my stay was attending a panel of newly-published authors who were eager to talk about the craft of writing. An audience member asked them at  one point what their “process” was. It’s a legitimate question, because it seems to me that no two authors have the same process for writing and, Lord knows, that process is not always a steady one. It can vary depending on a writer’s moods, not to mention demands both personal and professional that always threaten to encroach on writing time. Lida Sideris, author of the mystery thriller Murder and Other Unnatural Disasters, answered, “I don’t have a process. I write by the seat of my pants. No one was more surprised at who the culprit was than me.”  Another panelist, Stephen Vessels, (The Mountain and the Vortex) warned of the danger of procrastination. “THINKING about writing can take an enormous amount of time,” he said. “You can THINK about writing instead of ACTUALLY writing for years.” That would seem to tie in with the mantra that succesful authors urge upon neophytes: Write every day. Sometimes that can mean setting yourself a goal of a certain number of words or pages. If it’s ultimately not usable or requires heavy editing, fine—those are decisions that can be made later.  You can’t edit a blank page.

But there are also successful authors who depend on a germination period before they sit down to write. They may need to take time to develop possibilities and choose among them; to let stories grow in their head before the actual writing begins. They may outline the arc of a plot before actually beginning a novel.

Whatever your process is, it is just that—your process. It’s what works best for you. Would anyone like to chime in and let us know what your particular system is? I’m always eager to hear about that.

3

Being There

Last weekend I had the pleasure of being the guest of the Pennwriters Conference in Lancaster, PA, along with fellow agents Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown, Ltd. and Mark  Gottlieb of Trident Media. We spent two days meeting with writers both published and aspiring, hearing their pitches and helping them hone them, answering their numerous questions on writing and publishing. We also participated in panels and led workshops tied in with the areas in which we specialize.

It’s very much of a two-way street, because if we’re lucky, we agents come away with a new client (or several). But at this particular conference, I also came away with something I hadn’t really expected. Not to get all gooey here, but I was moved by the sense of support that flowed through the entire weekend. It started at the top, from the organizers who put it together and are dedicated to helping their membership attain their dreams of being published. And it was palpable among the writers who attended, this feeling of them being there for each other.

Friday evening’s keynote speaker, the bestselling Bram Stoker Award winner Jonathan Maberry, doesn’t always get to attend a lot of conferences with his busy writing schedule. But he explained to me that this one has always been special to him for the key reason of its ongoing sense of support. “The Pennwriters staff stays in touch with the conference attendees year round, BETWEEN conferences, and is really there for them,” he said. “And a lot of the writers also stay in touch with each other.”

As we know, writing can be a lonely pursuit. And if you’re trying to establish a literary career in a state as big as Pennsylvania, with its vast, sparsely populated regions of farmland and forest separating its beautiful cities, fellow writers might not always be easy to find. Organizations like Pennwriters do a terrific service in bringing writers together, virtually and in-person, for the feedback and coaching they need.

The sense of encouragement at the conference, and the lack of schadenfreude, were an indication to me of why the Pennwriters conference is entering its 30th year. As author John C. Houser, one of its regulars,  said to me over lunch, “One of the best things about this conference each year is seeing so many members get published.” There’s a place for healthy competition, certainly, but this is a great place for a sense of fellowship as well.

So, on that note: Reach out to your fellow writers with encouragement. You’re likely to get some flowing right back to you.

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?

0

Getting the spark back

I recently picked up Leslie Jamison’s stunning collection of essays, THE EMPATHY EXAMS, which I haven’t been able to put down. It’s one of those books that changes how you see the world, how you approach the motions of everyday living, and how you treat others. It is also a book that makes me want to think about writing and the craft of writing more.

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I know it can be tough to find inspiration—and time and energy—to write when you have a full-time job, are in a committed relationship or taking care of a family, when you want to find the time to also create and maintain sustainable and meaningful relationships with other human beings. It can be tough even if your full time job is to write. There are so many other things to be thinking about, to be concentrating on. Yet, Jamison’s essays remind me that it is exactly in these moments—full of activity and ordinary—that are so ripe with writing material. It’s little, intimate, ordinary details that can make a character truly stand out on the page and make us go, “Oh yes! I know exactly what he/she is feeling/thinking” or “I’ve been in that situation before too!” Her essays remind me that writing is essentially about people and the stories they carry with them—and so going out and observing, spending time with friends and family, people-watching in a restaurant or bar; these are the beginnings of characters and plotlines and settings.

Is there a book or collection of essays/poetry that you always turn to when you’re feeling uninspired? Is there an activity you like to do for inspiration or to get the writing juices flowing again? Who are your writing muses?

8

Listen Up!

Podcasting has been with us since around the mid-2000’s, but this past year the amount of podcast listening has increased by an amazing 24 percent. The highly addictive Serial may have had something to do with that, but what I feel excited about is the number of podcasts now devoted to books. Out of the hundreds of thousands of podcasts available to listen to at any time, there are plenty that focus on books and authors.

 

It’s now clear that podcasts can be a great marketing tool. Publishers have been doing their own podcasts; so have book critics and fans.Not only are authors being invited as guests to promote their books on podcasts, but social-media-savvy writers have started doing their own podcasts which they can make available on multiple platforms.

 

A regular personal podcast can really boost an author’s social media presence, even between book launches. And authors can help each other as well by inviting other authors to take part in their podcasts. With listernership on the rise, a personal podcast is something authors would do well to consider making a regular part of their promotional efforts.

 

If you haven’t done so yet, check out some literary podcasts like Dear Book Nerd, Slate’s Audio Book Club, and Lit Up.  For even more podcasts, covering not just reading but such topics as language and writing, this list from the Penguin Random House “News for Authors” site has some great suggestions. And if anyone knows of great book-related podcasts that aren’t mentioned here, by all means, please feel free to comment and let me know.

1

Write What You Want

 

I was at Yallwest a couple of weeks ago, and something I heard at one of the panels won’t leave me. “Write what you want.” Of course, this seems very self-explanatory, and I’d heard it about 100 times before while working toward my MFA, but something about hearing it now, knowing more about publishing, made that statement more powerful.

 

While trying to get published, it’s easy to get lost in the idea of what will sell and what won’t. I see a lot of queries with, “My book will appeal to ages X through Y and people interested in…” Well that sentence alone tells me that the writer was thinking about the marketing of his or her book. Which, in a way can be good, but at what point does thinking about marketing diminish your ideas?

 

I then thought about how knowing about market trends has influenced my writing. I’ve seen a certain pattern in my idea brainstorming. I’ll have a new book idea only to get excited about it, and then immediately shy away from it because I know it doesn’t follow the current trends. I also know as a writer, that an idea can shape into something wholly different once it becomes a story. What I thought was a poor idea could have shaped into something incredible given my passion for the subject. I could have made something unlike the publishing world has ever seen, and my fear that this would be unaccepted, has squandered that potential.

 

So, that’s why I believe writers should focus more on writing what they want, rather than what they think others want, because if you’re trying to follow a trend, you will never be unique. Originality dies that way. My advice now will always be to write what you want, don’t follow another writer or what you think you should be writing. It may get you published, but that brilliant idea you squashed in order to follow the trend could have been the next break out novel.

 

What do you think about this topic? Do you follow the trends or write what you want?

1

Music is Fuel For Your Writing

Everyone knows the expression, “Music is food for the soul.” Here’s my spin on it: Music is fuel for your writing. Last month, I had the privilege to attend one of NYU’s Media Talk series, and the one thing I remember the authors saying over and over again was that they did not necessarily enjoy the writing process (I myself can attest to that). So, what do I do to get in the writing mood? I put on some music. I have a playlist carefully put together just for my listening/writing pleasure.  I personally prefer music without lyrics, so here are a few my favorites :

Honor Him/Elysium/Now We Are Free by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard

My Name Is Lincoln by Steve Jablonsky

Song For Bob by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

In this short blog post/exercise, Melissa Tydell explains how music is key in an author’s writing journey, and I implore you all to give this exercise a try if you don’t already. You’ll never know what beat gets you writing because, as we all know…

 

14

Writing by hand

As a kid—before computers were widely available, and before I was allowed to use a computer without a strict time limit—I always equated pens and penmanship with being a Writer. There was something so thrilling about sitting down with a new notebook and a pen and filling it up with my story ideas. (I also just liked to look at my handwriting, to be honest.) I’d start a lot of stories in class (usually during math) and go for pages and pages, the scratch and flow of pen on paper so much more satisfying than equations and formulas. It will probably not surprise you that math was unfortunately my lowest grade in high school.

That love of writing by hand hasn’t gone away as I’ve gotten older. I’m picky about the writing utensils I use, whether they’re for professional, academic, or downtime purposes. There are only three kinds of pens I’ll use for writing letters, and I’ve stocked the DGLM office with my preferred inky brand (Precise V-5s, if you were wondering). But with most people writing on computers these days, I have to wonder: do people use pen and paper to write stories anymore? What are the pros and cons of writing on a computer versus writing by hand? I confess to having converted to the digital side; I occasionally will draft poems using paper and ink, but mostly prefer my laptop, to get spacing and line breaks more precise on the first go-around.

The king of all pens.

The king of all pens.

I will say that writing using pen and paper tends to make me a more careful writer. I’m more conscious of the words I’m putting down, and it’s often a useful way to get a first draft, even if I hate that first result. It’s so easy to simply backspace over something on a computer and forget the original idea that might come in handy later. With pen and paper, you see every staggering, stop-and-go moment of the process, every cross out and idea. Of course, it’s not the most efficient way to write—especially if you have deadlines looming and 200 pages to go.

But what do you think about writing by hand? Do you think it’s dead? Do you think it’ll ever truly go out of use?

 

*swoon*

4

Does writing make you crazy, or are you crazy, therefore, you write?

In our line of work, we are privileged  to have up-close, intimate access to the writer’s process.  Often, that means being privy to the heights and depths of literary creativity: insecurity, delusional behavior, neuroticism that would make Freud rub his hands with glee, grandiosity, envy, and procrastination (in fact, there’s not that much difference between an adult author on deadline and a 10-year-old who’d rather be outside shooting hoops than tackling his math homework).

No matter how accomplished or relatively sane the writer, there’s no avoiding the mind games inherent in the act of creating a book.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve talked some of our most successful, well-established clients off the proverbial ledge; how many conversations involve me explaining that there’s no way their work is total crap or their careers a travesty.  Did I mention these are successfully published authors who’ve gained accolades, had bestsellers, and whose Wikipedia pages are as full of errors as everyone else’s?

Which is why I found this infographic Galleycat pointed me to so amusing.  Thing is, the emotional rollercoaster most authors experience as they write their books is almost a necessary part of the process. In fact, without those highs and lows, your work would probably be flat and colorless.  There are a lot of things that get in the way of good writing but smugness has to be at the top of my list.  A healthy dose of insecurity and self-doubt means you’re probably on the right track…or on a track….

The Stages of Writing a Book- How an Author Feels (1)

7

Getting It Right

Publishers are crying out for diversity in children’s books, and that’s a good thing. (It would be an even better thing if diversity were more widely represented among the rosters of acquiring editors at these publishers, though things are improving incrementally in that area.)

Writers of YA and Middle-Grade books are becoming more and more aware of the importance of diversity, and are not only including more ethnically diverse characters in their books; they are also centering books on them as leading characters. But context counts here. Lately I’ve been seeing submissions from writers who seem to assign various ethnicities arbitrarily, as if they feel they are expected to fulfill certain quotas. This paint-by-the-numbers approach to diversity can look clumsy and obvious.

To accurately reflect our contemporary Melting Pot, characters have to come alive and breathe believability. What is their social fabric like in their homes and communities? What kinds of foods do they enjoy? What are their tastes when it comes to games, toys, music? And, most important, how do they speak? What are their vocal rhythms, their slang, their verbal shorthand? If they happen to be immigrants, does their speech reveal an accent, or a struggle with the notoriously difficult English language?

Dialogue is crucial; it’s one of a writer’s tools for revealing character. And if characters reflecting multiple diversities all come out sounding alike—or, worse, sounding like bland, white-bread characters from an old TV show—credibility goes out the window. And boredom comes in.

If you read or write YA or Middle Grade, I’d love to know your thoughts on what books do a good job of representing diverse characters—and for that matter, what books might have come up short in that regard. In the Age of Trump, it’s a great time for writers to be promoting diversity in their books—but it’s not something that’s easy for all writers to pull off.