Category Archives: writing

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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…

 

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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*

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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)

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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.

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The book proposal

I know, I know, I have blogged before about doing a book proposal and how important it is.  But, it seems from what I am seeing recently that I am not getting through.

In the last couple of months, I find that clients are really rushing to get their proposals ready.  In doing so, they are making mistakes – both large and small – and ultimately prolonging the process of creating this very important document.

Book proposals really are the backbone of the non-fiction publishing process.  They identify an idea, discuss who the reader will be for that idea, both demographically and statistically, and discuss other titles which would be comparable, in terms of audience, to the one the author is proposing.

Proposals provide a structure for the book and demonstrate (with a sample chapter) the author’s writing ability.

Finally, with a bio and links of supporting material, the proposal highlights the author’s credentials and platform.

I tell my clients that doing the proposal is probably more difficult than writing the actual book but that once they have a proposal that a publisher wants to buy, they will have the blueprint for their book.

I also tell them “better late than lousy” and I mean that because a poorly constructed and written proposal will not sell in this challenging market.

So, take your time in creating your book proposal.  Think it through carefully and consider every element.  Taking the necessary time to do this right is important and will ultimately pay off.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Let me know what you think.

9

A Happy Medium

The novella—a long-ignored literary form—has been back in the news the past couple of weeks.

First, James Patterson announced the start of his latest project, BookShots, which will specialize in both digital and print books of no more than 150 pages each. Some of these he will write himself; some will be the work of other writers. Each will sell for under $5.

Now comes news of the death of the incredibly prolific, much-admired Jim Harrison, whose most distinguished fiction was in the novella format.

Both of these events brought a lot of focus to the plight of the poor, neglected novella.

Novellas certainly boast an illustrious lineage. Great ones were written by Henry James, Herman Melville, and J.D. Salinger, among many others. It’s hard to pinpoint why the novella has fallen out of favor, especially in a world where so many people claim not to have the time to read an entire book. As Patterson points out, his BookShots will be readable in one sitting.

There are times when the novella form is exactly what a story demands. The length of an average short story may not be sufficient to properly tell a tale, but that same tale might have to be overstretched to fit the scope of a true novel. Patterson’s idea is a fine one, and it promises to bring mid-sized books out of the shadows and back into the bookshops, drugstores, convenience stores, and supermarkets. You may even start finding them right by the checkout stand.

And if people start reaching for a new novella instead of The National Enquirer, the battle will already be won.

I’d love to hear from those of you who have favorite novellas–books that you feel found their ideal length—not too long and not too short.

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When did you know?

When I was a kid, I had zero interest in being a writer. Rock star/shortstop for the Yankees/King of England–those were some of my early career aspirations, but writer never made the cut. In fact, no one I knew ever said they wanted to be a writer when they grew up. In high school, my friend James told people that he was going to be a poet, but I think that was more to get the girls than a serious vocation…

And yet, some people know from an early age that they want to be writers. Like Joyce Maynard, who describes how she made to-do lists at the age of 6 or 7 of the things she planned to write: “Write a play. Write a poem. Write a story. Write a book.” Talk about ambition! Then, there’s a certain friend from college who once told me that since she was a kid she wanted to be a novelist. And while med school and raising a family took her away from writing for years, she rededicated herself to it and recently scored a book deal.

So, readers, I’m curious–when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Was it from an early age? If so, did you stick to it all the way through or come back to it later in life?