Archive for April, 2010|Monthly archive page

Win a Free Class!

In Classes, Craft, Publishing on April 29, 2010 at 6:45 pm


As I begin to shift some of my classes around, condensing Fiction’s Magic Ingredient into one long 8 week class, rather than two separate 4 week classes, I’m offering a super fantastic deal:

If you register for my June class, Revise for Publication, June 7-July 16, 2010, TODAY, you could win Fiction’s Magic Ingredient Part Two FREE. That’s a $149 value, 4 weeks. Begins May 3rd.

To register for the June class, visit:

The Challenge of Writing Characters: Or, Why Giving Birth Is Easier

In Craft, Musings on April 27, 2010 at 3:28 pm

You have to be careful where you say “writing a novel is hard work.” The guy that cuts down trees for a living, or the woman who manages corporate accounts generally don’t have a lot of sympathy for the process.

But I hold to my charge: Writing a novel is hard work. In specific, building believable characters is. Having grown a  human child inside my body (as opposed to a litter of kittens), I can safely compare and say that writing a fictional character is harder. At least with the baby nature takes care of itself for the most part. I didn’t have to supervise the formation of limbs or fingernails; I just had to eat right and exercise. But in a novel, I’m in charge of everything from the ground up. From brain stem to zyphoid process, my characters are golems, coming alive with my words. And frankly, labor was easier with my real child too; I only had to do it once. But the daily agony of birthing character is far more intense.

As I’m knee deep into what I guess is becoming draft three of my novel, I am learning hard lessons about building believable characters. You can research the heck out of a condition your character has, you can know what they ate for dinner every night at age ten, you can understand their longings…but can you communicate that to the reader so that the reader feels in their skin?

Yes, with a lot of work.

A few quick tips that are helping me:

  • Put your character in situations (relevant to your plot) that allow the reader to feel angry for/concerned about your character.
  • Give your character a deep, unfulfilled longing that is present internally in every scene until that longing is fulfilled
  • Write “test-run” scenes where you play out scenarios with your character interacting with different kinds of people/situations (these are often called first drafts, hahah).

Let me know your thoughts on character building.

Write Deeply

In Craft, Musings on April 25, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Some good writing friends of mine have had the unfortunate job of holding both my hands, and my head, up through the revision process of my novel.

Yesterday I had a bit of a meltdown as I sat gnawing on how to make my opening few chapters compelling, but more to the point, publishable. I began to dream up scenarios, new plot twists, actions that would take things in new Bigger, Better, 100% More Free directions…

In other words, unnecessarily complicating my story.

These dear friends of mine took hold of my wild, pacing beast, and spoke soft, gentle words in her ears. “Hey,” they reminded me, “If you write with only publishing in mind, you lose the important stuff…letting us into the heart of your character. Making us care about her.”

While I didn’t gentle immediately–that took red wine, a good book, and a night’s sleep–somehow their words did make it past the Tortured Artist into the Rational Thinking part of my brain.

And I remembered: If you aren’t writing to go deep, to get somewhere meaningful, but only with the empty and rabid hope of publishing, then what is the point?

There has to be joy in the process, and meaning in the work. And I thank my friends for holding onto the chains long enough for my agony to subside.

And still I wait for my character to open herself more fully to me. But what’s the hurry?

Buyer Beware

In Business of Writing, Craft, Musings on April 21, 2010 at 3:30 pm

A few days ago I wrote my thoughts about why I’m not 100% on-board with all aspects of self-publishing, the most selfish reason of all being that I (and many other readers/writers I talk to) need gatekeepers to help me sort through the already overwhelming amount of media available.

But this morning something else occurred to me that’s just as important. The self-publishers, especially vanity presses and some new e-publishing formats, can make a lot of false promises to the budding author that because she controls the work and gets “all the money” or most of it, she is therefore going to be able to make an enormous profit and build a huge fan base.

Remember: it takes money to make money unless you have a sudden, breakout, viral success which nobody could have predicted like The Shack (and he had an incredibly powerful church network that helped him achieve that).

So all I’m saying, to both the author and the potential reader on either end of this issue is: caveat emptor. Authors, know what you’re getting into, understand the expectations and the realistic returns, and do nothing less than give the audience the best possible product you can. Hire professionals to take you through the process. But don’t spend money you don’t have with the hopes that it will come back to you in spades.

Remember: Self-publishing works best when you already have an audience built from other sources: blogs, speaking networks, community groups, whatever!

A lovely writer and a former student of mine, Gail Larrick, weighed in on my thoughts re: self-publishing with her own experience.

Here’s a taste the of the post:

We all know how difficult it is to edit one’s own work–to see beyond what has already been done in a way that allows for constructive change. The wonder of the way a writers’ group can work together in critiquing a piece is what makes for growth in the power of the writing of all its members. As trust grows and the ability to critique deepens, creative revision becomes more possible, flexible, and effective. We as writers become more astute at “letting go” and remaining open to accepting fresh ways of seeing what we’ve written–and also more adept at recognizing what doesn’t work for us without any need for defense.

The same might be said of the exchange between writer and editor. Personally, as an editor and as a critic, my first rule is to remain true to the voice of the writer, which means that I first must recognize it, identify its qualities, defer to it, and, ultimately, enhance it. Second, I make sure that any client of mine is made clearly aware that any editorial change is a suggestion, not a compunction, and that often my change may not be the one the writer will adopt. Almost always, though, an editorial suggestion may point out that something is amiss, and it’s up to the writer to solve that issue in his or her own way. To my mind, observing those two rules is what gives value to the editor’s work. Not all editors are able (or more likely willing) to do that.

I toss Jordan’s piece into the ring of consideration not because I’m not a whole-hearted supporter of responsible self-publishing but because I think it represents a missing piece of the debate.

There’s a lot of crap out there, and a lot of it is self-published. When I first became involved in small-press publishing in the mid 60s, that wave was just beginning to swell, and it was exciting in every aspect. I was (in a support capacity as editor at Glide Publications) one of the organizers of San Francisco’s first small-press book fair, where the broad range of what was being published became visible to the public—and surprised the publishers themselves with both content and quality…

When Gatekeepers Are Good (In which I piss people off)

In Business of Writing, Musings, Publishing on April 18, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I have been thinking of how to write this post in the way that will piss the fewest people off as possible. But I’m not sure I can do that. I don’t even know if it makes sense for me to write this post. Who am I? Why does anyone care what I think about the old self-publishing vs. mainstream publishing debate?

But I’ve been thinking and talking with writers a lot and have come to one simple conclusion…gatekeepers are good. I am not wholeheartedly against self-publishing. There are people for whom it is a fantastic venue, who take it as seriously as if they were being published by the mainstream, get themselves thoroughly edited and hire professionals to design and market their product. These people understand that readers want a product that has gone through some transformation, that is designed to appeal, to entertain, or to enlighten. And they chose this route because they didn’t have the time to waste, or they had the money to invest in getting it right, or they have nothing else to lose and don’t expect it to compare to a mainstream publishing model.

I have a book published by a press so small it might as well be self-published, and I know, first-hand, the down-side of not having a big machine of marketing and PR behind you. Compare that with my book published by the mainstream, and, well,  there is no comparison.

And I believe that we all deserve self-expression, and there is nothing wrong with self-publishing something for friends, family, or the sheer joy of seeing a bound book you’ve written.

But I’m not going to lie: I want to read books that have been vetted by someone. That have been put through an editing process (and I can already hear the arguments: who says the current gatekeepers are good; crappy books get published; well known authors don’t get edited enough)…

But the main reason I find myself bristling against the self-published experience (parts of it, mind you) is not because I reject its purpose or its wonderful accessibility at all…It’s that I’m already inundated with books and media, and I need someone to do the job of sorting through it for me so that I don’t drown in it.

Now, bring on the shitstorm 🙂

Learn to Love the Pain

In 1 on April 16, 2010 at 9:23 pm

When it inevitably comes time, at the beginning of spring, to get back in shape, I want to snap my fingers and have an exercise genie magically remake my body without me having to do a whole lot of work. But of course, I gripe and grouse and pull on my swimsuit, even when all those extra bits poke out over the edges, and the glare of my winter-whitened skin causes people to have accidents in the gym. The first week or two, I don’t notice much change. I feel better, but the jiggly parts still jiggle and I weigh roughly the same. And then, somewhere between weeks three and four, there comes a moment where I realize that change is taking place. Something is different! And the more I keep it up, the more true that is.

Believe it or not, I am about to make a point about writing.

As much as we would like to believe that one or two drafts (by which many of us mean ‘a little bit of tinkering’) is going to be enough to get that manuscript completed, the fact is, it often takes many drafts. It takes me a minimum of two drafts to get to know my characters and their plot, and then another two to make sure it’s clear, demonstrated, and compelling. Then there’s the sentence streamlining…and so on.

The best thing you can do if you hunger to publish, is to embrace the process of transformation. Learn to like how each draft feels different, better, more refined than the last. Learn to look forward to the next one, when you know it will get that much better. You’ll be wearing your short shorts soon!

I know there are writers out there so skilled they can write a book in one fell swoop. And maybe you’re one of them–yours is the Giselle of manuscripts, with a “bod” so tight and effortless it doesn’t need much. But if you’re like the average person, don’t buy into the belief that if you just take that one little pill, your book will be done in a fortnight.

Work it, people. Suffer a little for your art. Learn to love the pain. After awhile, it stops hurting. And then comes the endorphin rush. Trust me, it happens in writing, too.

The Myth of Overnight Success

In Business of Writing, Craft, General, Interviews, Profiles on April 6, 2010 at 4:51 pm

Every so often, a potential client comes my way for editing services. Or, I should say, for “Overnight Success” services. This person has read several bestselling books and has great ideas for their own Next Big Thing. This person writes a manuscript, which is in and of itself hard work admittedly, and runs it by me with the expectation that I will say: “It’s perfect. Just tweak a few sentences, and then go on little writer, become rich and famous.”

This person, when told that they have the requisite amount of work that anyone who has written a first draft does, inevitably gets angry with me. They have “bought” the myth perpetuated so easily by celebrities who churn out books and the illusion that the NYT bestsellers like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code foster, that all you need is a good idea and success will naturally follow.

I know a lot of published authors whose experiences run from tiny, small press situations where they had a difficult time selling 100 copies, to blammo bestselling authors who were taken by surprise when something they lovingly gave their soul to write caught fire in the collective unconscious and hit it big.

In every case, I can promise you, not a single one of them had “overnight success.” Most of the published authors I know didn’t even publish the first book they wrote. Some not even their fifth or six. They spent years grinding out words, running them through the cutting process of writer’s group critique, revised until their eyes bled, and then put equally as much work into the process of selling a book.

Coming soon to Make a Scene are stories of what it took writers to get published. You won’t want to miss these! And feel free to share your stories in the comments.