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.