Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Business Creep

I first thought of business creep as the dance of an author between creative work and the business side of writing, especially promotion and marketing. Then I started paying attention to the genuine creepiness that can slip in on the business side, as in the recent carjacking of a literary agent perpetrated by a writer that she’d rejected. How had the crazy guy tracked her down? Her frequent postings on Twitter and Facebook told where she was and what she was doing.

Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates book buzz via blogs and Twitter.

For as much as we hear about buzz, there must 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.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.

A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing. 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.

Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With 10 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 recent 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: how a “following” 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 can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.

Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, 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 writing time on the business part. 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.

The profile of Emma Straub in this month’s Poets and Writers 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 10,000 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, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Nobel as a Discover pick for this fall.

“I see how some writers have really great relationships with bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with everyone you can to help things go well – and not in a gross, networky, slimy way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”

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 you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Humility: Why Writers Need It

Writers walk a fine line between humility and confidence. We’re fundamentally insecure creatures, not so much because we write, but because we’re human. At its best, insecurity makes us authentic. At its worst, it breeds pompous asses masquerading as writers.

Much as we must believe in ourselves and our work, a writer’s humility serves her far better than trumped-up self-assurance. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector,” said Ernest Hemingway. “This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.” It's a radar that must be pointed not only at our work but also at ourselves.

In This Won’t Take But a Minute, HoneySteve Almond says writing is a process of decision-making, nothing more and nothing less. “If you refuse to pass judgment on these decisions,” he says, “if you walk around thinking you’re the Messiah, you’ll wind up settling for inferior decisions, by which I mean imprecise, contrived, masturbatory ones.” We must learn, he says, to second-guess our decisions without second-guessing our talent.

In a follow-up essay, Almond notes that art is first and foremost about the transmission of love, of the kind ascribed in the gospels to Jesus Christ. (By the way, Almond is Jewish.) “You love people not for their strength and nobility,” he says, “but, on the contrary, for their weakness and iniquity.” Only as we humbly acknowledge our own weakness can we love it in others, including our characters.

When you’re full of yourself – and we all are at times – your work is full of you, too, and not in a way that speaks meaningfully to readers. In Walking on Water, author Madeleine L’Engle reminds us of how readily ego gets in our way. “The important thing,” she says, “is to recognize that our gift, no matter what the size, is indeed something given us, for which we can take no credit, but which we may humbly serve, and, in serving, learn more wholeness, be offered wondrous newness.”

This fall Deb is teaching an online Children’s Literature Apprenticeship and a Anchorage-based workshop called Description and Detail: The Glint and the Squint through the 49 Alaska Writing Center.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Beat a Retreat

Sunrise at Tutka Bay Writers Retreat

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 this year’s 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. Though she writes fiction, Houston says she never makes anything up whole cloth. Her stories grow from glimmers of experience – visceral, powerful scenes and images. One-third of her time is spent in teaching, one-third writing, and one-third in travel, which serves as a retreat of sorts when coupled with attentiveness.

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.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Growing Great Writing: Trash, Time, and Turning

We aren't running everything, not even the writing we do.
~Natalie Goldberg

Here’s what I was up to this summer when I wasn’t planning weddings or revising novels. We bought and assembled an 8 by 12 foot greenhouse. I started every single plant from seed. We had 10 cubic yards of dirt hauled in, then shoveled it ourselves into raised beds. A little rain, a little sunshine, and presto: I’ve been harvesting daily for the last several weeks.

We’re not big fans of pesticides, so our little garden is organic. That means compost. We’d already been making it on a small scale, as a way of cutting back on trash that gets hauled to the landfill, and we’d already had the fun of watching steam pour from the pile as it worked its magic. Now we’ve got two compost piles going, and we’re more serious about our process. You can get really serious about composting: calculating ratios of green to brown, brewing up compost tea, adding worms in a little condo-style set-up.

Fundamentally, though, composting is a simple, natural process that requires only trash, time, and turning. From Natalie Goldberg I first heard composting used as a metaphor for writing, and I think it’s a good one. The best insights in our work often come only with time, and they often grow from bits and pieces of our experiences that we’d meant to throw out.

When we’re in the middle of a situation, we don’t have the perspective to write well about it. Goldberg quotes Hemingway, who wrote about Michigan from a café in Paris. “Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan,” he said.

Goldberg describes turning as she sees it in her students: “They are raking their minds and taking their shallow thinking and turning it over. If we continue to work with this raw matter, it will draw us deeper and deeper into ourselves, but not in a neurotic way.”

About two years back, I took a little inventory of the “trash” in my life, experiences I took for granted along with some I’d rather forget. One: my mother wrote me a letter saying I’d never see her again. Another: I enthusiastically turned from agnostic to deeply religious, then lost a good chunk of what I thought I believed in.

These were difficult, painful experiences. As they happened, I couldn’t write about them in any sort of meaningful way. But time does its work. Though I expect I’ll never fully understand them, I eventually gained enough perspective to begin writing about them.

Then came the turning. I drafted part of a novel – I called it Cold Spell - about a woman who discovers the mother who walked out of her life. More time, and more turning, and the novel, still called Cold Spell, turned out to be about a woman obsessed with a glacier. The tension still involves mothers and daughters, with faith and doubt also playing heavily.

Another project began when I hiked the Chilkoot Trail. It was a great experience, not trash at all, but I tried to write about it too soon. Years later, my thoughts got their legs. I zeroed in on Kate Carmack, an Indian who for a season packed loads for white men over the trail; she went on to marry – and got dumped by - the man who claimed first rights to Klondike gold. More sifting and turning, and I’ve got the first narrative nonfiction to fully explore the gold rush from the perspective of women and Indians:  Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold.

Trash, turning, and time – as with gardens, that’s where most good writing comes from. Hang onto the bits and pieces of your life that seem so common as not to matter. Discard no experience. Discount nothing. Allow time to do its work. Turn your thoughts over once in awhile, even (or especially) the ones you believed were most fixed. One day you’ll find them steaming, rich material for a bountiful harvest.

The literary equivalent of worms? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Try This: Little writing exercises are embedded throughout Writing Down the Bones, many of them grounded (sorry!) in the act of composting. Here’s one: “Learn to write about the ordinary. Give homage to old coffee cups, sparrows, city buses, thin ham sandwiches. Make a list of everything ordinary you can think of. Keep adding to it. Promise yourself, before you leave the earth, to mention everything on your list at least once in a poem, short story, newspaper article.”

Check This Out: There’s a special place in my heart for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Right after reading it for a workshop I was taking, I drafted the manuscript that became my first published novel. It’s a classic text on process that frees up the way we think about writing.