Category Archives: writing

2

Work spaces

My son’s orchestra teacher sent him home with an assignment this past weekend: Film your practice space and tell me why it inspires you or helps you focus while you practice.  The resulting two-minute video showed my son leading a very limited tour of one corner of our den where his viola and guitar lessons and practices routinely take place.   Showing his teacher that the area was comfortable, brightly lit, teeming with musical instruments (my husband is a guitar collector), with enough room for his music stand, not to mention  easy access for our nosy standard poodle to hang out, earned him an A.  The point of the exercise, I believe, was to make kids aware that where they practice their instruments affects how much and how well they do it.

Given that I’ve spent most of my life looking for that perfect work space for my at-home reading and editing, I found this assignment charming.  My ideal situation would be a quiet, well-lit room, with little to no through-traffic, a comfortable chair—with ottoman for stretching out—a nice side table to stack papers and nearby shelves to keep supplies at easy reach.  The most important thing about this platonic ideal of a work space would be nothing that could create a distraction from the task at hand.  In my H.G. Wells moments, I envision some kind of force field that completely neutralizes iPads, Kindles, iPhones, laptops, televisions, etc., while in the room—basically the room equivalent of noise cancelling headphones.

My reality is a corner of my living room or my bedroom with multiple, every few minutes, interruptions from my husband looking for something only I know where he put, my son listening to the baseball game (or Sponge Bob) loudly nearby, the dog needing to be let out every time someone walks past our house so she can bark at them and then ask to be let back into the house again, my parents calling, texts making my iPhone buzz…. You get the idea.

And this is just me trying to edit, not write.  Which is why I really enjoyed this piece by Victoria Patterson in The Millions.  There’s nothing new about the need writers have for a space conducive to their writing—just ask Virginia Woolf—but these days, when our attentions are so under siege, it’s especially important to find that one place you can get down to the business of creativity.

What’s your writing space like?

Successful query breakdown via an author and her agent

kristi-belcamino-author-writer

I was recently asked by my talented client Kristi Belcamino to join her in a guest post for Writer’s Digest in Chuck Sambuchino’s “Successful Queries” series to share her query letter and my response. I shared why I was drawn to it and ultimately went on to represent and sell the book. I love this kind of thing because it feels so simple and yet I know for prospective authors looking for advice this kind of feedback, which includes a real life example, can be really useful.

Book publishing is obviously an inherently subjective business so what appeals to me is not necessarily what appeals to others. However, when I look at a successful query letter, I find there are certain things that are generally done well.

In Kristi’s case, she introduces herself and her background in a way that is intriguing. An actual female crime reporter? Bring it on!
Then we see a first line that sucks you right in: Gabriella Giovanni has never met a man more exciting than a murder. I’m beyond interested to know more about this character.

She goes on to CLEARLY and CONCISELY pitch the book in a way that makes you want to read more. My best advice for writers looking to pitch their books in a query letter is to try to write the jacket copy of the book. You can go into greater detail about the story and characters in a synopsis or follow-up email, but for me (and again, this is subjective), I want to see the elevator pitch because if you can describe your work in a clear, concise and compelling way, then I can too when I speak with editors on your behalf.

Finally, she offers additional information about her writing background which shows me that not only has she received good feedback from industry professionals for her work, but that she also has worked hard on her book and takes her writing seriously.

Take a look at our post and let us know what you think and if there’s anything else you see in Kristi’s query or my response that’s worth targeting. Happy querying!

blessed-are-those-who-mourn-book-cover

0

To fiction or nonfiction, that is the question

I’m a big fan of Sloane Crosley. Her first collection of essays, I WAS TOLD THERE’D BE CAKE, offered a voice of a younger generation that was so distinct it set the stage for another collection of essays and now, a debut novel called THE CLASP. Good writing is good writing regardless of the category but it’s interesting to me to see authors who can go back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. There are many talented writers who try their hand at both successfully. Think Ann Patchett or Joan Didion; even J.K. Rowling had her Harvard graduation speech published in book form.

I have authors on my own list who have tried their hand at both. From my experience, they are usually better at one or the other and once they have some success with finding a publisher they stick with that. One of my most prolific fiction authors doesn’t seem interested in nonfiction, despite a few prods from me. And another who has only done nonfiction so far has teased me by talking about doing a novel at some point. I love the idea of this creative exploration.

I found this piece on Crosley’s publisher’s website interesting for aspiring or established writers because it goes into the psychological mindset of switching from one category to the other, or in her case the idea that many writers move seamlessly from fiction to nonfiction but it’s a different beast when it goes the other way. While the feelings Crosley has experienced crossing over are hers, I suspect there are some common threads that other writers would agree with. She feels fiction is a lot harder, she says that “publishing nonfiction feels like reading poetry on stage and publishing fiction feels like doing it naked while playing the piano.” I look forward to reading the novel and seeing how it compares to her nonfiction.

What do you think? Fiction or nonfiction or both? I say if you have the talent, spread it around!

The Clasp

0

Failed Writing Motivators: Do Not Attempt

As a writer, I’m always on the look out for the next motivating factor. The one ritual, the quietest coffee shop, the most caffeinated drink, the tastiest cake, the awe-inspiring view, or the most mind-clearing alcoholic drink that will get to me the status of writer’s nirvana and allow me to write an instant classic. The problem with motivators is, like a sugar-high (which many of them definitely are), they don’t last long. They work for a week before I have to find the newest and more improved device.

Well seeing how I’ve been through plenty, I wrote a list of my worst failures so you can do yourself a favor and steer clear of them.

Enhanced Coffee: Regular coffee blended together with purified (grass-fed-only cow’s milk) butter ghee and a special brain performance coconut oil. Okay, I was alert. But the process of purifying butter to squeeze out a few more words was not worth it. Plus, I didn’t sleep that night or the next.

Driving: While working on an opera that takes place in cars, I drove around downtown Los Angeles for hours. Until I got a ticket for texting. “I wasn’t texting, officer. I was writing opera,” didn’t go down well.

Wine Bars: The new coffee shop. If Hemingway can do it, why can’t I? Except what Hemingway probably left out of his quote, “Write drunk; edit sober,” is how much longer his editing process was than most.

I do know that successful writers say the only way to be successful is to have a routine. But don’t you have to be successful before you can do that? With day jobs, families, etc, and no cooks or maids or PAs, routines are not easy to come by, so I’m still in favor of the ever changing motivation tools.

What are you some of your failures or successes with writing motivators?

3

Finding Time To Write In the Busy Season

There is much rejoicing on Twitter and the general social media parade: fall is (almost) here. It is almost time for scarves and boots, the pumpkin spice takeover, a breath of relief at cooler temperatures, and the crispness in the air that seems to perk up everyone’s steps. The ushering in of fall also means a renewed flurry of activity in publishing as everyone shakes off the residual sand and rays of sun from their vacations and gets back to work. Fall (and spring) seem to be the busy seasons: something in the air is conducive to productivity and bursts of energy.

As lovely as these busy seasons are, as a writer myself, it’s been hard to find time to sit down and write (much less read) with all the new activity at hand. By the time I get home, it’s time to make dinner, say hello to the other humans in my house, prep for the next day, and go to bed. Making a literary life for oneself proves much more difficult outside of the academic setting. Many writers also hold full time jobs, have active families or a significant other, and are engaged in the process of going about the business of the everyday world.  So I suppose I ask: how do you find the time in your day to find the mental space to write or engage in creative work? How do you set aside time to unwind and pull a book off your ever-growing “to-read” stack?

And, on a more fun note, with all these new books to curl up with as the days get shorter: What books does everyone have in their fall queue? What are the best things about fall in your opinion? 

fallbooksmagnum

6

Do you need kids to write for kids?

When I was a children’s book editor—even before I was married—people often asked if I had any children. After all, how could I understand what books kids might like to read if I didn’t have kids of my own?

It always struck me as an odd question–does a pediatrician or a teacher need to have kids to know how do her job? So I was very heartened to read Maile Meloy’s essay in the Times last weekend, and how she answered the question. In fact, her answer is so good that I have to print it in full:

“I write fiction, so I’ve written about many things I haven’t actually done. The novels would be very boring otherwise. But the thing I did do, for longer than anything else, was be a kid. Having had a childhood, I think my qualifications are pretty good.”

Amen! I only wish I was that pithy back when I was a childless editor–mostly I just fumbled out an answer or used the pediatrician/teacher analogy and got labeled as snarky…

To her credit, Meloy does allow that a parental perspective can be useful for a children’s book writer, particularly when it comes to parent characters (duh). And as a parent now myself, I appreciate how some writers (like Meloy’s brother) can write books for their own children that end up appealing to the general reading audience.

But I strongly agree with Meloy that tapping into one’s own childhood is most valuable for writing for children (that and reading widely in the field, of course). And I’d add that for writers who happen to be parents, keeping one’s own childhood in mind is a better strategy than observing your kids or, worse, using them as sounding boards. Kids are programmed from birth to tell parents what they want to hear, but if you can draw out the essence of your own childhood, you just might find the truth–and isn’t that what all writers strive to show?

1

Take Me On An Adventure

I immediately wanted to take a road trip after reading this article. The accompanying map routes 12 different literary road trips with points for each pitstop in the novels. Most importantly, it includes a quote from the books describing each place so you can understand how these literary masters were affected and changed by the setting.

Last year, I went on a trip through Utah, and I can remember the driving almost as well as the places we stayed. I can remember driving through Salt Lake City with a perfectly white crescent moon hanging low in a light pink sky. And those mountains! They way they envelop the city feels spiritual. I felt like everything had meaning in that moment, everything was significant. I fell deeper in love with my boyfriend just because he was there to experience it with me. I understood then why people write about road trips and the significant ways they can affect your relationships and appreciation for life. I realized why I love road trips even though I hate driving. It’s not about going from point A to point B. It’s about what you see, what you learn, your perspective shifting as quickly as the passing scenery.

I was recently editing a road trip novel for a friend of mine. Everything was perfectly in place, and yet, I couldn’t quite understand why I felt something was missing. It wasn’t until I read a part where they were driving through Utah that I suddenly realized that the characters hadn’t once commented on the scenery. The setting hadn’t changed them at all. What’s the point then? Why not just stay in one place?

I would love to read more road trip novels. I want to be able to feel in the words the same importance I felt driving through Salt Lake City to Park City to Zion. I want to be able to see the mountains and the blaring stars and the sunburnt skies. Take me on an adventure.

0

Fall fiction, and a few debut author stories

Not that I want to rush summer, which is my favorite time of year, but I did get a little excited when I saw this roundup of big fall fiction in Publisher’s Weekly, which really is right around the corner. Fall is always the time when big books are released, in both the nonfiction and fiction categories.

The list is pretty eclectic but the one common factor is that all the books are debuts. Someone took a chance and felt that these books could stand out in a very crowded and difficult marketplace. I’m always eager to get a sense of what publishers are excited about in terms of not only plots, but also writer backgrounds and pedigrees. Has their short fiction been previously published? Do they have an MFA from a prestigious program?

In the case of this list, it’s a mixed bag. There’s a lawyer from Reno, an MFA from NYU, and a former magazine book editor. But my favorite story is about an author who had been rejected by 60 agents (and that’s after getting her MFA from Columbia, people!) before sending her novel to a few independent publishing houses. Eight months later, a fellow student from Columbia was working as an editor at Soho Press and asked her if the manuscript was still available. INTO THE VALLEY by Ruth Gahm will be published this fall.

Check out all of these stories. They are interesting and fun, and look for the books this fall. If PW is profiling them, there’s a good chance at least a couple of them will do really well. Which ones do you want to read? Any other books you’re excited about for fall?

0

“WORK all the time.”

I love Jack London. I love him because he struggled through life, never gave up, and got better because of it. He never begrudged life or nature for its callousness. He was never the type of writer who gave up after a single rejection, or even after a hundred. And more than that, when he did become successful, he never stopped working. Proof of that can be seen in his “Getting Into Print,” published in 1903, which you can read here.

There’s a lot to be said for the try and try and try method, but something I found fascinating about London’s efforts is that he continued to write new things. If he received a rejection, he moved onto the next project. His prolific nature and his ability to continue writing new projects when his old ones failed, allowed him to grow as a writer. Not that a single rejection means a your work is a failure, but if something is consistently not working, why dwell on it? Revise it, and in the mean time write something new. Most importantly, as London says, “And Work. Spell it in capital letters, WORK. WORK all the time.”

What more can you do?

1

Lessons from a ghostwriter

The work of a writer can take on many forms. Whether it’s articles, nonfiction, short stories, fiction or some combination of all of the above (thinking of Stephen King, Ann Pratchett, our own David Morrell and many others). But I think it’s safe to say all writers do one thing over anything else – they write.

So I found this article in PW interesting as it is written by a ghostwriter or collaborator who had worked with several authors on their own nonfiction projects, and then she decided to write her own memoir. It’s a bit of an unusual hybrid to have a ghostwriter penning a memoir, but it worked for her, and she learned some things about her own work from working with others. The lessons she offers are worth reading because she shares what she learned about her own life from writing about other people’s lives, and how she applied it to her own work.

I think there is takeaway here for writers in general. Especially her last idea that you are responsible for your own story, not other people’s reaction to it. That is such a widely applicable concept as a writer because so much uncertainty and fear exists in putting your work out there for others to see. Even seasoned authors sometimes complain that they can’t handle a bad review, or they feel terrible when they see a negative comment about their book on Amazon. We’re all just human, after all. And it takes real guts to write, and share your work with others. Bravo to Sarah Tomlinson and to all authors for overcoming their insecurities and sharing their work with the rest of us.

Take a look and see what you think. Any other tips you can share for improving your own writing from working with others?