Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Brave Heart of a Writer

Last weekend, I delivered the keynote address at the Anchorage Young Writers Conference. Here, excerpts from my speech:

Before I became a writer, I never thought of myself as brave: I never pulled anyone from a burning building, never jumped into a freezing river to save someone from downing, never faced down a cold-blooded killer. I’d rather curl up in front of a fire and read about those brave deeds in a book.

Now I understand that writing is one of the most courageous things I’ll ever do, and that I have the brave heart of a writer. If you’re a writer, I suspect you’ve got one, too.

You might recall the film Braveheart, released in 1995. It’s the story of William Wallace, a real man who lived in 14th century Scotland. At the time of his birth, a treacherous king had invaded from England. This king kills his father and brother; only William Wallace survives. His uncle helps young William escape to Rome, where he studies in order to improve himself as a man and a warrior.Returning to Scotland, William marries in secret because the king has a policy of taking his liberties with any new bride.

When their marriage is discovered, William’s wife is murdered, but this only makes him stronger. He rallies the Scots against the evil king. Captured, he’s told to beg for mercy; instead he cries “Freedom!” When William is killed, his trusted friend Robert the Bruce surprises the English by leading the Scots to freedom, in a tribute to William Wallace.

The story of William Wallace is a story of courage. It’s also a story of success out of failure, and the truth is that in this business of writing, for each and every one of us, even the most widely read and highly acclaimed, there’s as much failure as success. That’s where your brave heart comes in.

Like William Wallace, as a writer, you’ll feel invaded: your time, your confidence, your pride. Others around you will fail. Determination, persistence—these are what carry you through. In sixteen years, I’ve been fortunate to have twelve published books. But I also have that many manuscripts—maybe more—that have never been published. I have dozens and dozens and dozens of rejections. You must decide that you’ll be a survivor.

Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” Or, as the wise author Lemony Snickett once wrote, “At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough, and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”

Remember when William went to study in Rome? Periods of retreat and study are essential. Learning makes you strong. Read voraciously; read as a writer who studies the art and craft. Read what your favorite writers say about writing, and you’ll find this common thread: the more we write, the more we realize what we still have to learn. Three years ago, I had the good fortune to study with a fine author and an expert teacher, David Vann. Though he now lives in England and New Zealand, David grew up in Ketchikan. When I studied with him, I’d already published several books. But I wanted to do more: to write a novel unlike any I had written before, covering territory I’d not dared before. When David showed me how language itself could be the way into a story, something clicked. The book that had been spinning inside me fell into place. The next day, I began writing it. Next fall, that book, called Cold Spell, will be published.

You’ll recall that when William married, he did so in secret. With your brave hearts, you know the value of a secret: that there are times to withhold your work until it’s ready. You’ll also know the power of a secret within a story.

When things were at their worst, William Wallace gave his all. Despite the odds, your brave heart demands your best, your all. Revise, revise, revise. I revised one of my novels four times, cover to cover.

Like William, you’ll grow strong from defeat. What you do is not for your own glory. The stakes are higher than that: Quality. Art. Your own best self on the page. “It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” said poet e.e. cummings. That’s what being a writer’s all about. Your moments of weakness, when you’re most vulnerable—those are your chance to show the world what you’re made of. Like most writers, my best work comes from probing those places I’d rather not go: how I was bullied in grade school, how scared I was the first time we moved, how abandoned I felt when my mother wrote me a letter and said I’d never see her again.

Remember how William Wallace was told to ask for mercy and instead he cried “freedom”? Like him, your brave heart will speak truth. What is truth? That’s a big question. So let’s just say here that for the writer, the truth is what author Steve Almond calls “the capacity to expose yourself on the page.”

Finally, like William Wallace, you will dare to have trusted friends. You will help one another against the odds. You’ll be bold enough to cheer each other on. I might not be published at all if it were not for my friend Claire Rudolf Murphy, an author who was also a teacher. In one of my stories, she recognized the potential for a full-length novel. She introduced me to her writers’ group, where I got good feedback on my project. When my book was finished, my friend Claire told me to send it to her editor, well-known in New York publishing. She didn’t worry about whose book, hers or mine, would get more attention or sell more copies. She helped me because we were friends. It’s easy to feel jealous when someone else wins an award or gets published before you do. But your brave heart has no room for competitiveness. When we honor each other, we all win.

Will you be afraid? I hope so. A wise young man one said “Without fear there cannot be courage.” As a child, this young man used to write short stories and poems. He loved the library. He loved to read. When he was fifteen, he wrote the first draft of a novel. The next year he revised it. The following year, with the help of his family, he proofread the manuscript and designed a cover. A well-known author, Carl Hiaasen, read the book and was so impressed that he recommended it to his publisher, as my friend Claire did for me. You probably know this young writer. His name: Christopher Paolini; his book: Eragon, the first in a series that to date has sold over 33 million copies.

Without fear there cannot be courage. Embrace that fear. Learn all you can, and keep learning. Persist. Give it your best. Persist. From defeat, come out stronger. Speak truth. Persist. Persist. Persist. Honor your friends, and compete with no one but yourself.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Get Published!

We love options. 

Exhibit A: your neighborhood coffee stand, where baristas whip up your double tall half-decaf extra hot skinny vanilla and your friend’s triple vente decaf light foam half-and-half hazelnut sugar free.

But present us with too many options, and we need help. 

When it comes to publishing, authors these days have hundreds, if not thousands, of options. That’s a good thing, until you start mucking around trying to figure out what’s best for you and your book.

Traditional, Indie, or hybrid? Agents? Multiple submissions? Sub-rights? Digital rights? Author services? Fee-based? Twitter? Facebook? LinkedIn? Google Plus? Blogs? Blog tours? Discounting? Distribution? Covers? Blurbs? Reviews?

It’s confusing. It’s overwhelming. It’s enough to make you want to curl up with your double tall half-decaf extra hot skinny vanilla and forget about publishing altogether.

But what if help came in the form of authors who’d been there, authors with success in both traditional and independent publishing, authors who’d studied the changing marketplace? Acclaimed author Dana Stabenow proposed that she and I offer a forum like that, to share with writers what we know about publishing options and how to sort through them.

A fantastic idea, I agreed. So I’m beginning to draft a series of “Get Published” workshops that might look something like this:

  • Your Goals: One book, or a career as a writer? The arc of a book and a writer. The realities. An overview of what’s involved in getting a book to its readers.
  • Your Project: Is it ready? The steps you should take to make sure, plus a one-on-one consultation with a published author about your project.
  • Your Options: Traditional publishing. Independent publishing. Pros and Cons. How to decide. Resources. The hybrid author.
  • Your Submissions: Entering the traditional market. Networking, including social media. Resources. Agents vs. direct submissions. Craft an effective query; one-on-one consultation with a published author
  • Your Indie Publishing Venture: Digital and print production. Digital and print distribution. Digital and print marketing, including social media.
  • Your Strategies: Budgeting time and money; balancing art and business; sustaining momentum; the value in waiting; accountability; adjusting expectations; making it happen

Dear readers, what do you think? Would a series like this be helpful? Would you sign up for the whole series, or would you want to attend a la carte? What’s missing from the line-up? Is anything included that shouldn’t be?

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Writing Style, Writing Voice

The very first workshop ever offered through 49 Writers was called “Finding Your Voice.” With funding from the Alaska State Council on the ArtsAndromeda Romano-Lax and I taught the class in a packed room off a coffee shop. We had to turn students away.

Voice is tough to teach, and we knew that going in. But it was fun, too, because it pushed us to think. “Extremely informative and thought provoking,” responded one of our students when we asked for feedback on the workshop. “Voice is an area glossed over or skipped entirely in many writing workshops, perhaps because it’s so difficult to define,” said another. 

Perhaps most memorable was the student who told us that she went straight home from the workshop and wrote poem after poem after poem. That was nearly three years ago, and she’s still writing.

You still hear as much about voice as you did back then. How agents, editors, and readers are looking for distinctive voices. How voice can actually open the way into your poetry or prose. But for all the how-to posts and advice about plot and character and marketing, you won’t see much on voice. Voice feels intuitive. Squishy. Undefinable. To teach, it’s as hard—and fun—as ever. For a writer looking to break through to the next level, to get energized about writing again, to craft a piece that commands notice, I can’t think of a better angle of approach.

When 49 Writers Executive Director Linda Ketchum asked if I’d teach a voice workshop again this year, I knew straight away that as successful as that first course had been, I’d do a lot of revamping. Maybe it’s the nature of the writer to chase new material. Maybe I’ve never figured out how to do things the easy way.

In the years since that first workshop, I’ve had fun tossing around ideas about voice with other writers. (If you attended the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference this year, you might recall a certain spirited discussion on voice with my new friend Sean Hill on the Writers’ Myths panel.) Like the poet in that first workshop, I left a 2010 writers retreat with a clamoring voice in my head, a voice that had to come out. That voice engendered a novel that’s now in the last round of revisions with a publisher (Fall of 2014 release). I’ve also re-released my very first novel—and believe me, when you do that, you’ll see how much a writer’s voice can change over (ahem!) sixteen years. I’m also doing the final revisions of a novel I co-wrote with a friend. Our voices couldn’t be more different, but on the page, they’re playing nicely together.

“Sound and Fury: Find and Free Your Writer’s Voice” begins this Thursday, Oct. 17, at 6:30 pm. In four sessions of two and a half hours each, we’ll do writing exercises that will help you discover the depth and breadth of your voice. We’ll challenge some common understandings of voice and style, and how they converge with content. We’ll listen for how published work sings on the page—and for where it falls flat. We’ll consider how voice plays into decisions of narrative distance, point of view, persona, character, and dialogue. We’ll help one other revise for that distinctive voice agents and editors say they want. We’ll celebrate our unique and evolving voices, and we’ll commit to action plans to make sure our enthusiasm and progress extend beyond the last workshop session.

As of this writing, we have room for a few more students. If you’d like to join us, sign up before Thursday, Oct. 17.

Co-founder of 49 Writers, Deb Vanasse has authored twelve books. Her current projects include Cold Spell, a novel about a woman who’s obsessed with a glacier, a narrative nonfiction book called Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Last Great Race for Gold, and No Returns, a middle-grade novel co-authored with Gail Giles, featuring three boys who accidentally summon the devil. She lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of AnchorageAlaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Alaska Book Week! Five Good Alaska Reads

On my shelves are dozens and dozens of Alaska titles in a dazzling variety of genres and styles, books I recommend often, including some authored by good friends of mine. This week, Amy Fletcher of the Juneau Empire asked me to list five of them for a feature that runs on Thursday, October 10, in honor of Alaska Book Week.

Five - only five - out of all those books! I decided to reach back in time for those that have inspired my own writing: character-driven narratives with a brilliance of atmosphere, internalized tension, haunting language, and a keen reliance on place. Just thinking about them makes me want to drop everything and read them all over again.

  • And She Was, by Cindy Dyson: Brilliantly interwoven in this novel are the sagas of long-dead Aleut women and a troubled cocktail waitress, an outsider in the fishing boomtown of Unalaska in the 1980s. A page-turner with scenes and images that will stick with you for a long, long time.
  • Blessing’s Bead, by Debby Dahl Edwardson: Edwardson gained well-deserved recognition for My Name is Not Easy, a National Book Award finalist, but I have a special fondness for this middle-grade novel, rich with history and quiet tension. Like Dyson’s book, it interweaves past and present.
  • Just Breathe Normally, by Peggy Shumaker: A poet, Shumaker has crafted a memoir of excruciating beauty, pivoting on haunting images and scattered memories from a horrific accident in Fairbanks. A tribute to the power of the human spirit.
  • Road Song, by Natalie Kusz: Honest, original, wise, elegant, riveting, sad, and courageous­—these are among the adjectives that have been used to describe Kusz’s story. I couldn’t agree more. This is no ordinary memoir of a family’s move north.
  • Ordinary Wolves, by Seth Kantner: I love everything about this book. Flinching from nothing, it rings true in all the ways a novel should, plus it transports you to parts of Alaska you’d likely never otherwise know. It should be required reading for every Alaskan.
No matter where you live, here's hoping you'll celebrate Alaska Book Week with a great Alaska title. For the full feature, including "good reads" picks by other Alaskans, check the feature in this Thursday's special Arts section of the Juneau Empire, which also includes an article about Running Fox Books. And if you're in Anchorage, don't miss the Great Alaska Book Fair this Saturday, October 12, at Alaska Pacific University, where I'll be sharing a table with the lovely and talented Cinthia Ritchie. We'll have goodies and bookmarks and book giveaways, plus books, of course.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Book Reviews: How Should Writers Respond?

I’ll begin with a confession: I haven’t closely followed the recent Goodreads reader-writer wars. What I gather through my informant—a niece who’s quite active on Goodreads and has a love for books so deep that she recently organized a campaign to get a book un-banned in her former school district—is that certain reader-writer discussions over reviews escalated to the point that Goodreads declared a new policy of removing comments that target authors personally, comments that were aggravated when authors jumped into the fray by responding to reader reviews.

Slow down, people, and take a deep breath. Reader response is part of what you signed on for when you decided to publish a book. To rail back at unfavorable reviews is more than unprofessional; it’s downright childish.

As a writer, you should covet the responses of readers, good and bad. As it happens, this month I’m leaning heavily on reader responses to guide the pre-production polishing of two of my novels—Cold Spell, a literary crossover in women’s fiction, and No Returns, a middle grade novel co-authored with the lovely Gail Giles. So I’m in a good place to offer these tips for authors who want to know how to best approach the reviews they get from their readers, both before and after publication.

·        Check your ego at the door. Your book is not you. It’s not your baby. Not everyone will love it or even like it; as author Cindy Dyson points out, if someone doesn’t hate it, you’re probably not doing your job. Your book is the product of your best creative efforts, and yet it can always be better. You did set out to write the best book you could, didn’t you? Then your attitude toward each and every reader response should be gratitude.
·        Every response is a gift, but that doesn’t mean that you have to use it. Upon close examination, you may decide a particular comment isn’t right for you or your book; if that’s the case, stash it away. I know this is tough when the review is published online, but reviews are what they are. Learn what you can from them, and move on.
·        Whether a review comes from a beta reader or is delivered after publication, be methodical in your approach to it. Set your emotions aside. Read the comments. Sort them. Wait. Repeat as necessary. Use both sides of brain: analyze, and also let your intuition have at it.
·        Consciously hold back your defenses. Criticism is not an attack. Keep in mind that if you’re any kind of a reader yourself, it’s the rare book you’ve found flawless.
·        Consider where the comments are pointing. Often a reader’s response is only an opening to an area that needs work; the real problem may lie elsewhere. For instance, if a reader says your character isn’t memorable, that doesn’t mean you should give her spiked purple hair and a third eye. It may instead mean that you need to reveal more of her complexities and vulnerabilities.
·        Never dismiss a comment out of hand. Make response notes for yourself, in which you carefully and objectively consider each response, good and bad, and decide whether to act on it, either in a revision or your next project. Sometimes,  a comment is merely a reflection of taste.
·        If you solicit comments from beta readers, allow time in your production or submission schedule to process and act on them. If the comments come in the form of post-publication reviews, don’t argue them, and don’t rewrite the book. Your project has met the world. If you released it before it was ready, you’re a better and wiser writer now, and you’ll learn from your mistake. If your book deserves to be forgotten, it will be. Prudence, judgment, discernment—all of these boring attributes serve a writer well.
·        The only response you should have for your readers is “thank you.” (See point number one: cultivate an attitude of gratitude.)