Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sell That Book!

Image source: wikihow.com

Do you dream of selling your book to a big New York publisher? 

I’ve done that, but the market is ever-changing, and so it’s always nice to get an update on what counts most in today’s acquisition decisions.

Here, a few items of note from a recent session on the subject with literary agent Jeff Kleinman:
  • A manuscript must deliver. That means an agent or editor can’t put it down. It’s gush-worthy.
  • Want to impress a big publisher with your social media presence? You’ll need at least 25,000 followers—and that’s just in one spot, not combined across platforms.
  • Publishers want big books, the ones that will generate big sales.
  • If you write fiction, agents and publishers most want your first novel.
  • If you write fiction or memoir, your manuscript must have narrative urgency.
  • If an agent or editor tells you that she didn’t fall in love with your manuscript, that generally means the characters aren’t strong enough.
  • Your log line, or sales handle, is crucial. It should represent your core understanding of your book. Drill it down. It has to travel, meaning that it’s pithy and repeatable.
  • You should know exactly where your book would be shelved in a bookstore.
  • You should know the audience for your book, not in general (i.e. middle-aged women) but in terms of clearly delineated groups.
  • When your book goes before a publisher’s sales team, it’s good to have two noteworthy authors lined up endorse it—not at the meeting, but in cover blurbs if the book is accepted.
  • A huge problem: authors send out their work before it’s ready.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, her views here are her own.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Writing Zone

Every now and then, my husband catches me staring off into the distance, paying no attention at all to what’s going on around me. The Vanasse Zone, he calls it.

Actually, it’s the Writing Zone, where we writers yield to the creative happenings inside our heads. When you’re a writer, the Writing Zone is the place you most want to be. Ideally, it happens while you’re at the keyboard, putting words on the page. Ways you’ll know you’re in the Zone:

·         Words flow so quickly your fingers have a hard time catching up. You don’t second guess every line. You simply write
·         As you go with the flow, you’re excited about the discoveries that are unfolding in your work. But you don’t stop to laud them. You keep writing.
·         Unintended inspiration shows itself. Snippets of what you’ve read and experienced make their way into your project without any sort of planning.
·         After your writing session has ended, the ideas keep coming. You run back again and again to your notebook to jot them down.
·         When you catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, you’re wearing a goofy grin. You’re in the Zone. What could be better?

Our best work happens in the Zone. How to get there? It’s not all that hard:

·         A short opening ritual helps. Prolific novelist Alexander McCall Smith plays background music of a different type for each of the series he writes. You can read about my ritual here.
·         Quit trying to sound writerly or brilliant or important. Let the authentic voice for your project lead the way.
·         Nix the perfectionist. There will be time later to assess and revise. For now, just write.
·         Ditch your linear expectations. If you get stuck in the middle, jump ahead and write a scene or section. Write a few. Then go back and connect them.
·         Once you reach altitude, find your cruising speed and stick with it. It’s all about the words on the page—in the end, that’s the only way to get and keep momentum.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Writing Advice to Ignore

Many years ago, I went bowling with a big group, all of us related in one way or another. I love to recreate as much as the next person, but in general, bowling isn’t my idea of a good time, and this particular outing became especially fraught as one by one, nearly everyone in our group—fortified by beer—tried to turn me into a bowling superstar with his or her advice.

Hold the ball this way. No, that way. Pivot here. No, like this. Slide. Don’t slide. Swing back more. Swing back less.

Not a fun night.

Advice is lovely, as long as it’s measured and proven and consistent. But in our eagerness to help, we often fail to consider how contradictory and even potentially damaging a bit of oversimplified advice may be.

Here, some common writing advice worth ignoring (or at least thinking through):

§  Focus on the main character: While it’s true that readers will want to empathize with your protagonist, it shouldn’t be at the expense of your secondary characters. Even minor characters should be memorable.

§  If your work is literary, emphasize character; if you write genre fiction, emphasize plot: Character and plot are too deeply intertwined to be separated. No matter what the genre, readers expect engaging characters and riveting stories.

§  Show, don’t tell: A common beginner’s mistake is to substitute exposition for scenes that show rather than tell. But don’t overcorrect. If you eliminate all telling, you’re missing out on opportunities for reflection, emotional depth, and narrative distance.

§  Reveal what you know: In some ways, good writing is like a comedy act—it’s all in the timing. Knowing when and where to withhold is essential to creating narrative tension.

§  You’re either a pantser or a plotter: These are fun, handy terms for describing a writer’s process. A pantser writes by the seat of her pants; as words spill onto the page, she watches her work find its shape. A plotter plans out her book, then writes to the plan. But while some of us may lean in one direction or the other, our best writing often comes from a combination of pantsing and plotting.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Characters Strategies for Compelling Fiction

Characters that fail to engage are among the most common reasons that books are rejected or poorly received. What are your characters hiding from you? What are they hiding from themselves? Learn to develop compelling, multi-faceted characters and you’ll captivate readers.

From a recent workshop I taught on character development, here are three exercises that can help breathe life into characters that haven’t yet come into their own:

·         Interview your character, allow him or her to answer in voice. Start with three easy warm-up questions, such as where the character grew up or her favorite color. Then ask at least three harder questions: What are you keeping secret from your creator? (The creator, of course, is you, the author) In what way is your creator not being fair to you? What do you think about your capacity for love? For examples of insightful questions plus answers in voice, check out the Paris Review interviews with your favorite authors.
·         Make a Johari window for your character. I make these on index cards, with the traits in pencil so I can change them and move them from pane to pane as my characters reveal more of themselves on the page.
·         As suggested by literary agent Donald Maass, answer these questions about the connection between you and your main character: Why are you writing this story? How does it connect to you? What in your protagonist’s experience parallels your own? What need is most like yours? What fear is closest to your own darkest dread? What decision has an impossible cost, a cost you’ve paid yourself? When in the story could you be sitting in your protagonist’s place? Why there and then?

Always to be generous with your characters. Don’t lock them in. Allow them their complexities and contradictions, as long as they’re believable within the context. Allow their development to happen in layers, aided by the insights of good readers and editors. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ten Tips for a Successful Author Appearance

Deb Vanasse at book festival

Once your book has launched, how do you make sure it continues to get noticed? One way is to make author appearances. I’ve not actually kept count, but my guess is that I’ve made over a hundred.

Here, ten tips for a successful author appearance:

·         If you’re going to solicit opportunities for appearances, make sure you have a specific program to offer, one that dovetails nicely with the goals and audience of the venue.
·         Be clear about the length of your program and what it will entail. Attention spans are short. In terms of audience satisfaction, less is oftentimes more.
·         If possible, coordinate with a single contact person at the venue. Ask about anticipated audience numbers and demographics. Make any equipment needs clear. For groups of larger than thirty, I generally ask for a microphone.
·         Program fees will vary with the venue and the extent to which the author is known. If there’s an opportunity to have your books available for sale, that may compensate for there being no program fee.
·         If you’re bringing books for sale, make sure to give the coordinator a list of titles and prices in advance. You might also ask about preparing a flyer that can be circulated in advance—especially effective for school programs.
·         Ask the program coordinator about how the program will be promoted. Using social media, piggyback your own promotional efforts onto theirs.
·         If you’re not entirely familiar with your program, rehearse beforehand. If reading is involved, your practice should include making eye contact with the audience.
·         Public speaking is one of the top all-time fears. Fear conquering tricks include looking slightly above the faces instead of directly at them. Engaging the audience with gestures and a small amount of movement across the stage can also help to put you at ease. If you’re overly nervous, join Toastmasters so you can practice speaking with confidence.
·         If sales are allowed, don’t hawk your books. Mention them no more than twice, at the beginning and end of the program. Greet people from your sales table, but don’t accost them. And don’t haul multiple boxes of books into the venue. For all but the most popular authors, what you can carry yourself, in a single load, is probably plenty. You can always keep an extra box in the car in case you run low.
·         Bring business cards, bookmarks, postcards—anything to help the audience remember who you are. If appropriate for the audience, provide an opportunity to sign up for your e-newsletter.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Treat Yourself to a Writing Retreat

Sunrise at Tutka Bay Writers Retreat

Sleep on your writing; take a walk over it; scrutinize it of a morning; review it of an afternoon; digest it after a meal."
~A. Bronson Alcott

Like a note held long in a song, a pair of eagles glides effortlessly across a crisp September sky as sixteen writers prepare to leave Tutka Bay, refreshed and renewed thanks to a gracious couple who for the last three years have opened this little pocket of paradise to writers. The stillness, the energy, the community, and the restoration fostered at the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat will no doubt make Carl and Kirsten Dixon godparents to much fine writing conceived at their maritime hideaway. But the retreat sells out early each year, and even those lucky enough to snag a spot find themselves all too soon back in the daily grind, their transcendent experience already seeming a collective hallucination.

For writers, retreating is crucial. A getaway to an almost-island like the one at Tutka Bay is the perfect getaway, but it’s not the only way to achieve or maintain a retreat state of mind. Within our daily routines, we must covet retreat, which means simply that we must consciously balance away-ness with being, stillness with energy, community with solitude, and learning with practice. The retreat state of mind yields refreshment, opening, insight, and change, all critical to our craft.

“Writing is utter solitude,” Kafka says, “the descent into the cold abyss of oneself.” But you can’t operate solely in the abyss, which 2012 Tutka Bay Writers Retreat leader Pam Houston calls “a very strange and self-absorbed place.” Writing is a dance between living and stepping back from that living, between falling into yourself and engaging in community and the literary dialogue.

Life is where our stories find us; retreat, be it for a week or a day or a quarter-hour, is where we find them. The retreat state of mind involves paying attention. It involves spending time in what Houston calls “the forest of not knowing.” Space and time away from daily demands restores balance. It encourages generosity with yourself and others. It reminds us of the value of patience, and of backing away. It calls us into solitude and nudges us back toward community and the restoration offered by good writer friends.

Because our business is words, writers are way too good with excuses. If only I could get away for a week or a month or a year, we say. Then you’d see what I can really write. But retreat is a state of mind. The daily grind that we long to escape generates the raw material for our work. Writing happens in living, and in getting away. It happens in solitude, and it’s enriched by community. Even when you can’t pull away to a place as remarkable as Tutka Bay, you must find and use the reset button in your head, where retreat is a state of mind.

Invest in your writing by signing up today for the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat. Instructors Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes are both engaged writers who explore issues of considerable social and political importance. Gary has been praised for his “deadly accuracy in language and form,” Ann for her care for the shape and ring of sentences. Join them in their separate genre breakouts and joint craft sessions. Bring along your knowledge, questions, and short samples of your own work that might be worth sharing because they’re problematic, pretty damn good, or somewhere in-between. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Time Management Tips for Writers

Ah, summer! No matter where you live, it feels so fleeting. What’s an author to do?

I’ve known writers who refused to write in the summer—and not coincidentally, these writers haven’t published much. While writing’s not all nose-to-grindstone, it is hard work, and unless there’s anything other than a self-imposed deadline looming, most of us find it far too easy to fill our time with other activities.

Don’t get me wrong: For writers, breaks are important; in fact, it’s when you’re less task-focused that you’re more likely to experience “aha” moments of insight. Walking, in particular, has been linked to creative break-throughs. But beware distractions that keep you from the task at hand. Recognize them for what they are: a means of dodging the tough work of getting words on the page. Learn to recognize the difference between a break that helps you access the more creative parts of your brain and a break that’s merely avoidance. 

Know what has the greatest tendency to pull you away from your project, be it email or social media or even housework, to which writers have been known to resort when they’re feeling stuck, or when they’re dreading the hard part of beginning. Recognize that starting each writing session is the toughest part (which is why rituals help).

Once you engage in your work, it becomes its own source of pleasure, as long as you’re not overly hard on yourself. Keep your focus on process, not product. As you give yourself over to the act of discovery, the product will take care of itself.

In a recent interview on my book What Every Author Should Know: No Matter How You Publish, the interviewer kept circling around to questions of time and how writers should manage it.
Here, excerpts from that interview, with several tips on managing your writing time:

My favorite tip from your book is the 80/20 rule: 80% of your writing time on creative efforts and 20% on production and promotion. What do you use to keep track of creation/revision, reflection, immersion, community, and promotion and marketing time? How do you apply this rule if you suffer constant interruptions from what you call a “side trip” or other non-literary commitments like a full-time job or small children?

Mostly, it’s a matter of looking closely at how your days unfold, and then making adjustments where you can to preserve your craft time first, your time for creation and revision. When are you least likely to be interrupted? Alice Munro, one of my literary heroes, wrote short stories while her children napped. Once you’ve found that “sacred time,” be it 10 minutes or six hours, you have to commit to its purpose. No checking emails, no surfing for research, no staring at the screen for long periods. Just write. Everything else gets worked in around the crafting. Reflection is fun because it happens best when you’re going about the everyday business of living. I get my best insights while walking the dog, taking a shower, and right before I fall asleep. As for keeping track, all I use is a cheap spiral notebooks, one for each year. On each page I keep my to-do list for the week. What I can fit between those lines is about what I can get done in a week, after my creative time.

I’m most impressed with how you keep your web site and presence on a variety of social media fresh and engaging. How do you “systematize your involvement so it’s not a huge time-suck”?

I start my weekdays with 10 minutes on Twitter, then set it aside. I jump on Facebook only when I’ve got down time—when I’m waiting in line or enjoying a midday cup of tea. I set aside an hour or two every Thursday to draft two blog posts, one on an aspect of writing or publishing for The Self-Made Writer, and one on my work in progress for the WIP Wednesday feature on my website; I post both in advance. Cindy Dyson of Dyson UXDesigns recently revamped my website for me, and in addition to infusing it with this incredible energy, she also became very protective of my creative time, so she set it up to require minimal maintenance while still managing to maximize the ways in which I interface with readers. If I’ve got lots of news to share with friends and fans, I’ll use Buffer to schedule posts.

In the last section “Live the Life,” you offer important lessons you’ve learned about maintaining “bounce”: a blend of confidence and strategy. What tools do you recommend for generating ideas, managing promotional strategies, juggling several projects at once, and not giving up when you feel the universe is against your writing?

You have to believe not just in yourself but in the project you’re working on: that you’re speaking truth in the best way you know how, truth that in some way will better this world. You have to love what you do for its own sake. When I read about how writers need first and foremost to affirm themselves, it saddens me. What a set-up for failure! Writers are some of the least-affirmed people I know. But you know, sometimes when it feels like the universe is against our writing, maybe it’s actually trying to help us out, by prodding us to do the better work we can do if we forego the ego and take a learner’s stance with every project. The best writer’s tool, honestly, is joy: in what you do, in your approach to your life and your work. Regardless of external rewards, a writer, by virtue of her craft, enjoys a bountiful existence.

Deb's book What Every Author Should Know, No Matter How You Publish, is now $2.99 in e-book. It's also available in print.