Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Finish the Book


I typed this happily last week, on two different manuscripts. One is Cold Spell, a book that over the past three years has shape-shifted from the story of a woman who searches for her missing mother to the story of a woman who’s obsessed with a glacier. The other is No Returns, a novel for younger readers that I drafted five years ago with a good friend, then set aside.

If you’ve ever finished a book, you know it’s a lot like getting a diploma. There are parts of getting there that you love. There are parts you hate. At times the process seems endless. Getting to the end feels heady. It feels scary. You feel nostalgic. You feel proud – and well you should – but doubt plagues you. Are you really finished?

Endit is a state of mind. It’s also a process. Unless you recognize both of these truths, your elation at ending – and quite possibly the success of your book – will be short-lived.

To get to the finish, and to help you know when you’ve arrived, keep these precepts in mind:

  • When the end’s in sight, there’s a natural tendency to hurry things up, which hurts the pacing of your book. Writing may feel like a marathon, but trust me: a sprint to the end won’t satisfy your reader.
  • You’ll finish your book many times before you’re through. Cold Spell isn’t really done; it’s ready for the proofreader. No Returns isn’t finished either – only the latest draft. If you’re a serious writer, concerned about quality, you’ll enjoy multiple Endits. You’ll finish multiple drafts of every book You’ll finish at least one round – likely more – of line edits. You’ll finish a copy-edited version. Set up these gates for yourself and celebrate an Endit as you pass through each.
  • Use deliberate strategies to become more and more objective about your work. If you compose on the keyboard, print out your manuscript and do the next pass on paper, or send it to your e-reader so it looks like a book. Try reading your whole book out loud.
  • If you can afford it, hire a developmental editor and a proofreader. For a cheaper alternative, try your book out on beta readers, the more objective the better. They’ll let you know when you’re finished.
  • Don’t be seduced by your achievement. Know where you’re most vulnerable, and once you’ve finished your draft (not before!), set your radar on your known weaknesses. Every writer worth her ink (that includes digital) should know, front and center, her three greatest strengths and her three greatest flaws as a writer.
  • Kafka had this one-word reminder posted at his writing desk: Wait. Build wait time into your process, preferably a few weeks after each pass through the book. You’ll be amazed how much more you’ll see, and how much better your book will become. Just don’t wait forever. 

For more about endings in fiction, check out this post from the archives.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Goodbye, Cursive: Why I’ll Miss You

I spent second grade trying to please Mrs. Rebscher. She had a paddle, and she wasn’t afraid to use it on any seven-year-old who got out of line. Under her watchful eye, we worked hard on our penmanship. Graduating from printing to cursive was proof we were growing up.

If Mrs. Rebscher could see what a mess I’ve made of my handwriting, she’d be reaching for that paddle. My signature is almost as bad Jack Lew’s loop-de-loops, my day-to-day cursive only slightly more readable.

Still I was sad to learn that longhand is going the way of the typewriter. The Common Core State Standards don't require it, so more and more schools are swapping out the teaching of cursive for lessons in keyboarding, which is deemed practical, fast, and efficient - the same advantages that cursive once had over printing. Before long, cursive will be like Gregg shorthand, a quaint and old-fashioned novelty, or like calligraphy, an art practiced by people with too much time on their hands.

I understand we have to move on. But my sadness is not just nostalgia. There are good reasons why I’ll miss cursive:

·        Longhand reveals who we are in ways that printing does not. If you want to check this out for yourself, write the sentence She sells seashells by the seashore. Then go here for a little analysis. Through this short exercise, I learned that the slant of my letters affirms that I’m open and like to socialize. The size of my words indicates that I’m well-adjusted and adaptable. The way I write e’s and l’s shows that I’m somewhat skeptical and unswayed by emotional appeals (sorry, PTL Network).
·        Handwriting changes as we change. It documents our growth. As years intervened between Mrs. Rebscher and me, I quit connecting some of my letters. My loops have gotten larger. Other letters have compressed. My handwriting may not be all that readable, but I like it. It’s me, all grown-up (mostly). 
·        In losing cursive, we’re not just losing a way of writing. We're losing a way of thinking. Longhand encourages right-brained messiness. Poetry, brainstorming, revision notes – for these, keyboarding just doesn’t cut it. And the kinesthetic activity of the hand on the page, joining letters, makes us feel close to our work. That’s why there are still authors who draft whole books by hand. One of them is Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children. In a recent interview with Poets and Writers, she reports how writing by hand brings her close to the text. “It sounds silly,” she says, “but it used to be that when I was reading aloud from a book at a reading I basically knew it by heart.”

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Revision for the Rest of Us: Five Strategies for Writers

In prepping for a stint at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference next month, I came across this from author Katherine Paterson: “I wish for every writer in the world an editor like Virginia Buckley.”

I was among the lucky ones; Virginia Buckley edited my first two novels. As Paterson notes, she had a gift for seeing beyond a messy draft to a real story. Guided by her gentle prodding, revision was easy. One of my deep regrets as a writer was letting an agent convince me that I needed to cast my nets beyond her shores. I would have learned much more, much quicker, had I stuck with Virginia.

These days, editors like Virginia Buckley and the venerable Maxwell Perkins (check out Susan Bell’s The Artful Edit to learn more about how he helped Fitzgerald shape The Great Gatsby) are hard to come by. Editors are busier than ever. So are agents.

If you have the money – a few thousand dollars or so - you can hire a freelance editor. If your concept of publishing is to throw your book at the wall and see if it sticks, you can forego editing altogether.

For the rest of us, here are five editing strategies:

·        As Bell explains in her book, there are two types of editing. She calls them macro and micro; micro is often called line editing. Once a draft is finished, it’s tempting to jump straight to micro-editing: clarifying sentences, correcting language, fixing discrepancies, adjusting the balance between showing and telling. But most drafts are best served if the writer first takes the macro-view, finding and fixing problems with intention, theme, structure, foreshadowing, character, and continuity of tone.
·        Editing is not mopping the corners. It’s probing the entire structure, from the ground up. Treat your book like a house constructed by a well-meaning faulty builder. Search from foundation to rafters to find the weaknesses. Trust me: they’re there.
·        Editing happens in rounds, each one circling closer to the book’s truest and finest form. Don’t think you can do it once and be done.
·        When editing, don’t be the writer. Be the reader. Get distance from your manuscript. Though you’ve worked hard on your draft and you’re dying to move forward, don’t do it. Wait. Wait several weeks if you can. Then come at the book in the most objective way you can find. For me, this entails uploading my manuscript on my e-reader. That way, it looks like a book. When the waiting is over, I read with pen in hand, jotting notes in a simple lined, spiral notebook. Because I can’t fix as I go, I avoid micro-editing too soon. I write in longhand so I can get wild and messy on the page, bracketing, drawing lines and arrows to connect ideas, circling important points, writing in the margins. When I’ve finished re-reading, I have several pages of notes to guide my revision.
·        Engage trusted readers. Not your family, not your friends. No one who’s worried about hurting your feelings. Your trusted readers should be smart and tough. They’ll be fallible – but so are you. Either address or dismiss each comment they make. For every comment you dismiss, you should be able to articulate why. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Hybrid Publishing: An Interview with Adam Glendon Sidwell, author of The Buttersmiths' Gold

It may be that we’ll look back on 2013 as the year of The Big Shift in publishing, the year the market tipped in favor of the Indie Author. 

Who’ll curate? How will readers find books they love? How will authors find time to write and publish and promote? These are among the questions I explored with Adam Glendon Sidwell, whose second book, The Buttersmith’s Gold, came out last week. 

On the day it launched, Sidwell’s first book, Evertaster, rose to number 51 on the Amazon Bestseller List. “And the funny thing is,” Sidwell wrote in a post for A Storybook World, “there was no one to do my marketing but me.” Sidwell had “an amazing agent” and together they had tried for years to place his work, but as editor after editor championed his story, the final decision at each house they approached was the same: “We don’t know how to sell your book.”

Evertaster was a hybrid venture between the publishing house you created and
your literary agency. Tell us a little about how this worked. In what ways has this
collaboration been helpful for you and your book? Will The Buttersmiths' Gold be
a similar collaboration?

My agent at Trident Media Group, Alyssa Henkin, provided the editorial insight and review that helps when putting a book together. Working with Alyssa is great, since she also was an editor for years at Simon & Schuster. We worked on the manuscript for two years together. Then they take care of all the copyrighting, and ebook creation, and I handle the print product. The world of publishing is wide open right now, and cooperation like this is possible. The Buttersmiths' Gold will be a similar approach.

The Buttersmith’s Gold is being marketed as a novella, which isn’t a term one
hears much in association with children’s books. Tell as how you decided on that
genre, and what it means to you as the author.

I'm calling it a novella simply because it's a shorter book -- 124 pages. Don't worry, it's not a Latin American Soap Opera! I wanted to do a story about Torbjorn and Storfjell from the first book, but this wasn't a sequel. The Buttersmiths' Gold is a spin off story, and you see novella being used to describe shorter books all across genres. It was the most fitting description.

What do you think are the top ways in which young readers found out about
Evertaster? In what ways are you replicating and refining the marketing reach for
The Buttersmiths' Gold?

It's really been word of mouth. Often from my mouth to their ears, but something they hear about with a lot of buzz. I've been sure to build up the Facebook page and the excitement surrounding the book there. Then I had a book trailer that explains the general idea succinctly. And after that, I spent a lot of time touring and meeting people. It was great. I will continue to tour with The Buttersmiths' Gold.

To what extent do you find young readers embracing the e-book format? In what
ways do they find out about e-books as opposed to printed books?

I was surprised to find out how far behind the e-book format lagged the print version! Only about 6% of my book sales are ebook. Which says a lot about young readers on ebook -- they're not there -- yet.

What advice do you have for writers who wonder how to balance the demands of
marketing with the time they need to create their books?

If your marketing is selling more books, keep doing it. Don't get caught up in time-drainers though. And you better ask me that question again after I've finished The Delicious City -- because it's the exact question I'm asking myself right now! I hope I'll have an answer for you then!