Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Writer's Brain - and Heart

Not long ago, I took a writerly side trip. You know how it goes. You’re getting back to your novel after a few too many days away for celebrations and family and a whole lot of other things that matter a lot, plus a few that only matter a little but still manage to snag your time, and you’re trying to get into the swing of your narrative because you know if you get to a certain spot you’ll be truly engaged and the story will carry you off the way you hope it will carry your future readers, but that spot teases and hides till you reach a little epiphany: it’s time for some research.

I won’t go into how and why I ended up researching prehistoric humanoids with over-sized brains, but it did get me thinking, not only about how to use the information in my story but how much nicer it might be if writers had the generous 25% bonus brain of a Boskop.

I stumbled on the Boskops in an excerpt from the book Big Brain by Gary Lynch and Richard Granger, reprinted in the December 28, 2009 issue of Discover magazine. These neuroscientists believe that skulls unearthed in Boskop, South Africa in 1913 come from a giant-brained group that flickered, sputtered, and died off approximately 10,000 years ago.

Lynch and Granger contend that in relation to their large cranial capacity, the Boskops had small, childlike facial features reminiscent of…well, maybe you've caught one of those Twilight Zone marathons?

Extrapolating on potential brain capacity, the authors believe these hominids may have boasted IQs averaging 150 and stretching to 180, not to mention an “inconceivably large” frontal cortex.

“While your own prefrontal area might link a sequence of visual material to form an episodic memory,” they write, “the Boskop may have added additional material from sounds, smells, and so on. Where your memory of a walk down a Parisian street may include the mental visual image of the street vendor, the bistro, and the charming little church, the Boskop may also have had the music coming from the bistro, the conversations from other strollers, and the peculiar window over the door of the church.”

The Boskops were a tad pre-Paris, but you get the idea. Higher IQ, heightened sensory memory. If only we writers had Boskop brains. Then there’s this:

“Longer brain pathways lead to larger and deeper memory hierarchies. These confer a greater ability to examine and discard more blind alleys, to see more consequences of a plan before enacting it. In general this enables us to think things through. If Boskops had longer chains of cortical networks—longer mental assembly lines—they would have created longer and more complex classification chains. When they looked down a road as far as they could, before choosing a path, they would have seen farther than we can: more potential outcomes, more possible downstream costs and benefits.”

If writers got three wishes, surely this would one: to imagine more deeply, while knowing the narrative costs of following one thread over another.

But there’s a downside to this super-sized thinking. Lynch and Granger speculate that aside from the difficulty of birthing large-headed babies, the Boskops may have been overwhelmed by their own potential and frustrated by their inability to make good on it. And there is that little extinction problem.

More important than wishing for long-lost genes is doing the best with what you’ve got, the way . pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly did. An aspiring poet, Lilly attempted but never achieved publication in Poetry magazine. Undaunted, she applauded the positive tone of her rejections and, in 2002, donated $100 million to further the magazine’s mission of advancing poetry.

The Boskops may have us beat when it comes to brains, but our hearts – well, that’s another matter altogether. In this season of giving, consider the many ways you can open your hearts to others within the literary community.  Recommend books you love; every author appreciates sincere word-of-mouth praise. Mentor an emerging writer. Donate your time, talents, and cash to a literary nonprofit like 49 Writers. Attend readings, signings, and other literary events. Support the innovative efforts of other writers on crowdsourcing sites, in journals, and on blogs.

When you finish a book, take a minute to leave your thoughts at online sites like Goodreads and Amazon. You’ll be giving the gift of social proof while helping readers find books they’ll enjoy. Like, comment, and share. Email writers to let them know you enjoyed their books. The few minutes you take to write your email will multiply into days (if not weeks) of encouragement for the author. 

Just yesterday I received this from a reader: 

That book blew me away! Thank you for it. Write more. Soon. I'm greedy . . . At this point I'm a raging fan! 

Sent from an iPhone, the note took only seconds to write. But what a gift. Never mind the size of my brain; my heart is warmed beyond compare.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Trouble with Speed Writing

Back in the 70’s, the craze was speed-reading. Now it’s speed-writing, with authors churning out book after book at lightning speed.

They’re only words, right?

Here’s the thing: readers have access to all the words they want, for free, on the internet. They don’t need your book or mine. Not unless it’s truly worth reading.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all about fluency—pushing through to the end of a crappy first draft, so you can see what you’ve got. Too much deliberation along the way, and you risk writer’s block. That’s why initiatives like NaNoWriMo, spurring writers to complete a novel draft in a month, make good sense.

To complete a book-length draft is no small achievement. But keep in mind that in the glow of your accomplishment, your draft will look better than it really is. Don’t be fooled. Don’t circulate it prematurely among agents and editors. Don’t hit that “publish” button too soon.

Particularly in the self-published e-book market, some authors are churning out book after book, each one completed in only a matter of weeks. A few have even found readers, some in substantial numbers. But if you look closely, you’ll see that most successful of these speed-writers first hit the market during a unique moment in publishing history, roughly between 2009 and 2011, when readers (of genre fiction, primarily) were just discovering how much bang they could get for their e-book bucks.

That era is already fading fast in the rear view. The authors who found their followings during those golden years continue to speed-write for their loyal readers, with decent though moderated success. These days there are exponentially more e-books to choose from, allowing readers to be a lot more discerning, quick to slam those with weak plots and flat characters and typos on every other page.

Traditional publishers sometimes push authors to speed-write, too, especially when the topic is timely and they want the book out right now. It's called "crashing a book." Too many crashes, and your writing looks pretty ugly.

Pace yourself. With ten years between books, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt is proof that readers will wait. 

Get it right, because books are forever.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Tips for the Successful Author: Flexibility

If you’re an author, you already know the importance of discipline: stick with your project and one day you’ll finish. And if you participated in NaNoWriMo, you know you can hit that finish line a lot more quickly than you’d ever imagined.

Now what?

First, you figure out whether your book is ready for market. If it’s a first draft, odds are that it’s not—not yet, anyhow. That’s where flexibility comes in.

When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and, of course, a thick skin. But flexibility was one trait no one said much about, and I believe it’s among the most vital.

I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice. Neither do I mean staying on your feet as the revolving doors of publishing present changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing, not to mention ever-increasing ways to publish. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.

It’s possible that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But not long ago, I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. As I look back on the journey, I’m glad I stayed flexible throughout the process. It made all the difference in the end result.

Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary Non-Fiction, Jon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekhovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to write about. His patient died.

“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”

Profiled by Kevin Nance in Poets & Writers, fiction writerBen Fountain tells how he learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera was published, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. The editor didn’t suggest a revision—Fountain had already done several. He advised him to scrap it.

As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. After the editor’s rejection of his novel, Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days”; Fountain’s novel went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul, while with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved flexible.

When you’re flexible, it’s easier to be objective about your work. It’s easier to avoid the mistake of trying to publish too soon, when your book is half-formed. It’s easier to understand which rejections are happening because the book isn’t ready and which are happening because you haven’t found the right agents (or readers) who love the book the way you do.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Indies First: Authors and Booksellers

I know, I know. The holidays are coming up way too fast. It's the season of gratitude, and yet your mind is all caught up in that holiday gift-giving extravaganza that begins...well, let's not go there.

This year, how about mixing it up, gratitude with gift list, by showing some love to your favorite independent bookshop? On Saturday, Nov. 29, Indies First brings authors into local bookstores to help hand-sell books. I'm excited to be joining Eowyn Ivey and Don Rearden, playing bookseller at Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska.

Saturday is the second annual Indies First celebration, an effort launched by bestselling author Sherman Alexie and taken up by the American Booksellers Association. The plan, as Alexie explains it:"We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends' books...I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing)...What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand-selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own?"

I'm with Alexie - not much could be better. Indies First plays right into one of my secret but (usually) suppressed urges: to tug the sleeves of strangers whenever I spot titles I love on the shelves of a bookstore.

So mark your calendars and devote a portion of Small Business Saturday to visiting one of those great little bookshops where there's a lot more going on than just monetary transactions. And if you're in the Anchorage area, head on over to Palmer to Fireside Books. Eowyn, Don, and I would love to see you!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Bounce: How Smart Authors Handle Rejection

Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. Bounce is what you need, a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, at least not for most projects. At some point your book must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce: when early readers don’t like it, when reviews are lackluster, when even your mother doesn’t seem impressed, when your sales figures are an embarrassment.  

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write, edited by Sherry Ellis. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because you’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. Let’s say you share a chapter from a nonfiction project with your writers’ group, or with other early readers. Two of them misunderstand what you’ve written. Another objects to your use of present tense, which you thought was strategic. You duly note these objections, writing them down the way you record all reactions from first readers—without responding or defending your work. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or justifying what you’ve got on the page. Still, it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue you’re having with your writer self: these people just don’t get it.

Thankfully, another reader likes the chapter, a lot—no bounce required. Then your four writer friends launch into a lively discussion over whether you should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe you should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. These are all approaches you’ve considered and rejected, but you write them all down, because—guess what—sometimes you’re wrong. When they’re done, you thank them and gather up their written critiques.

One person. One person liked your chapter. The rest, not so much.

Even as you sum this up in your head, you know it isn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest—maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary—is critical.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve gathered. Your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But since you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. You make a master list that includes even those items you’re certain you don’t want to change, so you can study it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce you go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what you hope your book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of your first readers’ comments, at this point you especially rethink the voice—what makes yours as captivating, at least in places, as the voice in books you admire.

Then you review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Everything is laid out and up for grabs. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, you realize, has more to do with choppiness, a real concern you’ve been glossing over in the draft. You also consider why you made certain decisions in the first place and whether that reasoning still holds.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it won’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck that is your manuscript and, by some miracle, it starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why. 

That, my friends, is the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross you bear as the uniform you wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever you symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then your readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: you’re a real writer and you know how to bounce.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Business Creep: How Much Should You Worry about Book Promotion?

If you’ve published a book, either the traditional way or on your own, you know what I mean by business creep: the way the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing, can take over your life. For as much as we hear about buzz, there have to be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation.

“I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Like Harper Lee, they say, or J.D. Salinger. But today’s writers who think like this have for the most part will fail to thrive. A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing; Haruki Murakami, for one. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do—create—and what we must do—help sell our books.

These days, much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With ten million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a Goodreads post titled “The Anatomy of a Book Discovery” uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.

Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis is how a “following” that’s built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice is overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, some of your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your time on the business part of this grand adventure.

If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market—growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance—you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.

While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.

A profile of Emma Straub by Eryn Loeb in Poets & Writers magazine brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has more than ten thousand followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, one reader at a time.

As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to benefit you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Is It Done Yet? How to Know if Your Book is Ready to Market

Sculpture by Marcel Buhler, courtesy Cream Contemporary

Scan advice from agents and editors, and you’ll find a common thread: too many writers send off their work before it’s ready. Reader reviews of self-published books echo this concern. But how do you know when a piece is as good as it’s going to get?

This is trickier than it sounds. Part of the fun and frustration of writing is that a piece can always get better. Most published writers will tell you they’ve wished for changes even after their work came out in print. And while much writing goes off half-baked, it’s also possible to overcook a piece, to fiddle with it till it falls apart on the page, or to play with it more or less forever, thus staving off any chance of rejection.

Let’s assume you’ve engaged in that recursive process of discovery, prewriting and drafting and revising until you have what feels like a decent draft. You’ve let it set awhile, and in the most objective of ways you’ve approached it again. You’ve gotten critiques from a few trusted readers. Is it ready for market?

Even when your instinct tells you a project is ready, it’s good to go one more round, taking time to move through the project chapter by chapter, doing the same sort of writer-as-reader analysis you’d do on a good published book by another author. If your piece is an essay or short story, so much the better – there’s a lot to evaluate.

Hand write your notes, both in the text itself – marking lyric moments, best parts, surprise and delight – and also in a free-standing list. Handwriting keeps your right brain involved in what’s essentially a left-brained pursuit.

Here’s what I look for. When it comes to revision, I’m not a big fan of checklists, so beware. This sort of analysis too early in the project can stifle creative energy. Plus this is my own personal list,  keyed to what I find engaging in narrative (fiction and non) and slanted toward my own shortcomings. Your ready-for-market survey might look quite a lot different. 

  • The basics: notes on time, point of view, narrative distance, voice, and length.
  • Beginning and end: Copy down the first and last sentences in order to study the frame for the piece.
  • Scene and summary: List these, in order. For the scenes, note ways in which characters change from beginning to end. Note how backstory, if any, works in.
  • Characters: What do the characters know about themselves? What are they blind to? Which feelings are articulated? Which feelings need to be articulated? In what ways are they larger than life?
  • Arc: Where’s the set-up, the climax, the denouement?
  • Surprise and delight: What feels most fresh and alive in the piece? Consider word choice, metaphor, humor, voice, plot, character.
  • Suspense: Foreshadowing, not overdone. Consider what’s not said, what’s withheld, and conversely, what’s revealed and where.
  • Language and details: Where’s the sharp, smart language? The humor, if any? Make sure nothing’s overwritten or over-explained. Even after a few rounds of revision, I find myself lopping off ends of sentences, where I’ve said too much.
  • Lyric moments: Identify the ones you’ve got, and look for places where they should be.
  • What it’s about: If you thought you knew and now you’re seeing something more, less, or different, that can be good, as long as you make the most of what you discover. Pay attention to how the focus is revealed to the reader. Sometimes it’s too obvious, sometimes it’s too subtle. Every story is two stories: identify both.
  • Where you copped out: Consider the ways in which your project could be more than it is – more emotional depth, more distinctive voice, richer language, more layers.
Beware, too, the opposing tendency: to hold back your work indefinitely, for fear it's not good enough. If you've done everything here, it's time to move the book on to a few trusted readers and/or an editor who'll help you see past your blind spots. Have courage! This is why you wrote the book, yes? So it will find its way to readers, once it's the best it can be.