Category Archives: writing

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At least nine lives for writers

They say a cat has nine lives. I’d like to argue that a writer has many more. Literary lives, so to speak. I’ve talked on this blog before about talented authors like Sloane Crossley making the move from nonfiction to fiction, and now I’m switching it up to talk about a famous fiction author trying her hand at nonfiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri needs no introduction in literary circles. One of the world’s most accomplished living writers, she has managed to find success in her story collections and novels, including her first Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, a beautiful book which might have one of the best titles ever.

And now, just when you might think a new novel or collection is going to hit the market, she does a complete 360 and writes a memoir. And not only is In Other Words, scheduled to be published February 9th, her first nonfiction, and she wrote it in Italian! It’s about her love affair with the Italian language, and it inspired her to create a book that could be experienced in both languages (for the U.S. edition, she used a translator so those of us who do not read Italian can still enjoy the book). Here is an article that goes into more detail about the book and the author’s process from Harpers.org.

As a publishing professional, it is such an admirable and huge risk to go so far astray from one’s comfort zone and I’d guess that the decision wasn’t well received by all. Some might say it’s gimmicky, or inaccessible, but creative passion sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. And talent is talent. Plus at a certain point in an author’s career, when you’ve had the level of success that Ms. Lahiri has had, she can call the shots to a certain extent on what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.

Reviews have been glowing. Kirkus calls it “An honest, self-deprecating, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.” Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Ms. Lahiri has done with this book, and I just know no matter what I think of it that it’s going to make me long for Italy, one of the most special and beautiful places on earth, and where I spent my honeymoon almost fifteen years ago. How many writing lives do you think you have? And at what point do you decide to reinvent yourself and change direction?

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A Word on Fan Fiction

It was in my early years of high school that a classmate introduced me to the world of Fan Fiction. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever, because not only did I already have the habit of rewriting the ending to every book / movie I wasn’t quite satisfied with, but I also wondered if there were others like me, people who enjoyed doing something similar. I was happy to find out that there were a million and one!

Many years later, and with the increase of its popularity, there seems to be a debate about the benefits of fan fiction. Does it indeed help writers learn and improve their craft, or is it more of a crutch, preventing them from moving on and creating their own original works?

I will say this: Fan fiction can be helpful, but I think it depends on the writer. Some take the opportunity to be truly creative, experimenting and finding ways to strengthen their skills; others fall into a certain pattern for the sake of getting the most likes/reviews, and it’s not really about the writing anymore. Then, I guess, it’s also what you read. If a person spends time reading things of little quality, then nothing can be gained from it. I think it is important for every writer to keep in mind the ultimate reason for writing fan fiction, which is writing their own original work. And honestly, for some people it’s simply to get more out of their favorite books and there is nothing wrong with that.

I ended up being more of a fan fiction reader than a writer; however, what I did get from it was the first inclination of what I wanted to do when I grew up. I found myself at various times patiently sifting through all the different stories until finally finding one that truly struck me. It was always a gratifying feeling finding that needle in a haystack and those were the moments when I knew I wouldn’t mind doing something like this for the rest of my life (this was way before I knew literary agents existed!).

What are your thoughts on fan fiction? Here’s a list of published authors who have a thing or two to say about fan fiction. 

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Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.

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Zen writing life

I’ve been getting into yoga now that I’m inching toward my mid 40s and am suffering from a variety of aches and pains. I appreciate the deep stretching more than the deep breathing although I know the combination is what’s so good for us.

I was intrigued by this article by author Erica Black in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association’s online magazine that compares yoga to writing. I can see the connections so clearly once it’s spelled out. That idea of a solo practice, the intensity of serious concentration, and working hard on something that can be painful and difficult but is ultimately (for most, at least) rewarding and uplifting!

What do you think? Do you appreciate the connection between a yoga life and a writing life? Does it feel like an apt comparison? Does one help the other? Namaste, and happy writing!

life yoga balance yogi flexibility

ps – that is so not me pictured!

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Mixing Music and Writing

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the art of listening to music while writing. He said it helps bring him inspiration and motivation in the same way some musicians use books as inspiration for their songwriting. My friend creates a playlist of songs that match the scene he’s writing—so if he’s writing a scary scene, he’ll listen to the kind of music you might hear in a horror movie—to help him better get into the mood of the scene. While it may seem like a self-explanatory concept, there really is a finer science to it the way he sees it.

Lyrics are the most important key to inspiration. Certain word in the lyrics can trigger new thoughts, which could lead to ideas for your novel. Hopefully if you’ve picked the correct song—which is why it’s important to take seriously—those ideas will match the theme of your book. The mood of the song is important to motivation. If you’re writing an action scene, you want a song with a faster tempo. If your own heart is pumping, you’ll feel more inclined to stay in the mindset of a character that’s escaping some type of danger.

I recently tried this method, being skeptical because the process of choosing music, and not just any music but that which would appropriately match my writing, seemed like a waste of time that could be spent actually writing. I also have a very difficult time hearing people sing words when I’m trying to write down different words. However, he was so enthusiastic about his method, I had to at least try it.

And it was magic.

Because the songs I’d picked were all about the subject of my attention, the words in the lyrics didn’t send my mind spiraling off topic, and it was much easier to get into the heads of my characters when the music matched their feelings or actions. Writing became more of an interactive experience; it became not only the soundtrack for my characters but for me as I wrote. I also worked for about twice the time I usually do, and I found my writing much more imaginative than normal.

I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be using this method more, and now I’ve become so much more interested in trying out different writing methods. Any suggestions?

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First person vs. third person

It seems like I’ve been receiving a lot of manuscripts/sample chapters written in the first person lately, and while this is absolutely fine if it works for that particular story/genre, I wanted to use this blog post as an opportunity to explain some common misconceptions about the different narrative points of view.

  • The idea that a third person narrator is not as intimate as a first person narrator is false. When I ask authors why they chose to write in first person, the response usually has to do with telling an intimate story. A third person narrator can be just as intimate—he/she can express the thoughts, fears and dreams of the character, as well as take a bird’s eye view of the action, which leads me to my next point
  • First person isn’t easier to write than third person. In fact, you could argue the opposite. As mentioned, writing in the third person grants you a lot more freedom—it allows you to write a story from any perspective you want. On the other hand, first person narratives can severely limit the author’s options. The author can’t write about events that the character doesn’t witness or the emotions and thoughts of other characters. It can be restrictive. Worse yet, if a reader doesn’t connect with a character’s voice, that kills the book right there. But perhaps most difficult of all, I find that writers tend to overemphasize emotions, which quickly becomes unbearable. Don’t, I repeat, DON’T put me in a glass case of emotion.

 

will ferrell glass case of emotion

 

  • Third person isn’t necessarily better than first person. While it should seem clear by now that I prefer the third person, it is in no way, shape, or form the better point of view. Certain genres work very well in first person, particularly YA. Furthermore, some books just work in first person regardless of genre. Think about your classic unreliable narrator, Holden Caulfield (although The Catcher in the Rye would probably be considered YA nowadays). The Martian and The Bookseller, and The Rosie Project were great in the first person…or so I’ve heard (only actually read The Martian). First person can work, don’t get me wrong. I just prefer third person.

I’d like to hear from our readers. Which point of view do you prefer to read? To write? Why?

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Running and writing

When my father first moved to New York City in the late 1960s, he got into the jogging trend that had just started sweeping the nation. And ever since, nary a week goes by where he doesn’t go out once or twice at the crack of dawn and log a few miles. As a kid, he’d often ask me to join him, and I still remember huffing and puffing up the hill from 90th street to 86th trying to keep up with his well-practiced strides.

And to this day, I HATE jogging.

Of course, to make myself even more miserable, I ran cross-country in high school– it was either that or gym class. Fortunately, our coach realized that many of us were only there for the class credit and could care less about our personal bests, so practices were pretty low key. But boy did I dread the Saturday meets at Van Corlandt Park in the Bronx–getting passed left and right, the burning lungs, the brutal final sprint across an open field to the finish line, all of which was made worse by those Friday nights of experimental teenage drinking.

So yeah, I am still not a runner. But maybe that’s why I’m an agent, not a writer?

All of this brings me to this interesting piece in The Atlantic about how so many prominent writers pair their writing with a running regimen. And it does make sense—like writing, running can be a long slog, but supposedly you get better with practice. And several authors note how it’s a good way to clear one’s mind and work out story issues away from the page.

So, do any of YOU run? If so, do you find that it helps your writing?

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

Product Details

Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

Product Details

There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!

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Gig economy not new to writers

I recently read a couple interesting articles about the rise of the gig or sharing economy, and conversation on the topic still seems to be very much alive. Regardless of how to define or categorize what’s happening to today’s economy, it’s a frightening thought—the idea of getting by without a reliable, steady paycheck. Where will the next check come from? When will it come and for how much? Most panic at the mere thought of having to live in such a way.

But writers (and their agents) have been doing it since Day 1. Plenty of professions base pay on unpredictable systems of compensation such as commissions, royalties, bonuses, etc. So how do you a manage to scrape by as a starving artist?

Tip 1: Plan. To the extent you can. If you usually receive royalty payments at a certain time of the month, try to align your bills in that window if possible.

Tip 2: Save. You’ll need to rely on savings at some point. If workflow decreases or earnings drop, you’ll have to adjust. Having a healthy savings account to rely on during the tough times will make it a whole lot more manageable.

Tip 3: Budget. Be realistic. If you typically receive around $10,000 in royalties, don’t spring for a new car based on pure optimism that you’ll rake in $30,000 in royalties this time around. In fact, don’t even count on the usual $10K. Play it on the safe side and set low expectations. Anything extra is found money as far as I’m concerned.

Tip 4: World Series starts tonight. Find a betting window and put it all on the Mets. Everything. Take out a loan if you have to. You’ll thank me later.

 

David Wright Pumped

 

Do our readers have any tips? I am going out on a limb and assuming most of you are writers. Care to share?

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All the book’s a stage

Checking Facebook obsessively does have its benefits when it comes to blog ideas–a Facebook friend posted this great blog post  on writing picture books. And while the author has a ton of good advice, particularly in how to handle revision and practice one’s craft, the phrase that stuck out most for me was “think of it as theater.”

I first heard the idea of a picture book as a theater when I was an editor working with the great art director Cecilia Yung. Cecilia would often encourage artists to look at their canvases (at least in the pre-digital age) as stages, with characters as actors and background as scenery. In fact, a lot of her instructions took the form of stage direction–“blocking” and “beats,” entrances and exits. I found it fascinating that artists working in a static medium like illustration would respond to the movement language of art so effectively, and indeed, I saw numerous books transformed under her tutelage.

But the theater analogy also spoke to my roots as an undergraduate classics major. Waaay back in my early days as an editorial assistant, someone pointed out that a picture books are an excellent format for employing the Aristotelean unities of action, time and place. In other words, like ancient Greek drama, a picture book ought to feature a single action or plotline, it ought to take place in a single day, and it ought to be located in a single setting. Off the top of my head, I’d say Mo Willems is an excellent practitioner of the classical arts–pretty much every ELEPHANT AND PIGGIE does Aristotle proud!

So, for those who are looking to write (and illustrate) picture books, I heartily encourage you to take a theatrical view. Instead of a 32-page format, think of your book as 16 scenes to be filled with characters and setting. Find a single problem or action that needs to be resolved in a short amount of time in a limited setting, especially if you’re writing for younger readers whose experience of the world and concept of time are only just beginning to develop.

And if you need further inspiration, there are any number of children’s theater productions based on picture books these days–check out these guys if you’re in NYC. I can’t wait to see what they do with CAPS FOR SALE!