Friday, June 24, 2011

Comes the Revolution

For some of us – for me at least – it showed up too fast. We weren’t ready.  We’d counted on more time to prepare and while we were counting the storm broke over us.

Like so much in this la nina/el nino year. Floods rushed in. The wind struck. For some of us there were hailstones big as Buicks.

Next thing we knew – the landscape had been transmuted. A few familiar structures remained but not enough for adequate shelter. Mostly there was the unfamiliar – and disorientation.

What to do? What to do first? How to find out how to do it? Who to trust that they actually know what they say they know – especially if we have to pay them for their alleged expertise?

I don’t know about you but I absolutely hate looking foolish. I pride myself on being in on what’s happening – up-to-date with current information – what Malcolm Gladwell calls a maven. I take pride in all of that and pride goeth before a fall. Another observer of the zeitgeist said that.

So here’s the skinny. The challenge/prospect/unfamiliar landscape of internet marketing can make me feel way out of sync – miles behind the curve – beyond foolish into stupid.

I’m not going to mention any names but more than a few writers have confided that they feel the same. And that they/we also feel fear.

Agents – editors – our grandchildren tell us we have to get with it or we’ll wither and die and drop off the career vine. That sounds as if it could be accurate. So what do we do?

We can lay out lots of dough to those new media pros I mentioned. And believe me when I say lots of dough. There are two problems with that.

Cash flows have become cash trickles for many of us. Plus – when we hire the doing done we shut ourselves out of the know. Which means we’re out of the power circle also and that’s a precarious place to be. A place where we’ll live in dread of the wild weather I was talking about earlier.

My solution would be that we share what we do know – pass on our knowledge power instead of hoarding it. Each one teaches many.

I don’t know what form that would take. Maybe it’s happening already. Maybe right here on the web. If it is – would somebody point me and many of my overwhelmed colleagues in that sharing/happening direction asap – please?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hook Them in the Heart

“What makes a book a pageturner?”

I asked that question of a legendary editor who had ushered many pageturners into publication.
“Heartstrings,” she said. “You must pluck their heartstrings.”

She meant you have to make your reader care if you want her to fly through your words as if life depended on finding out what happens next.

How do you fill that tall order and plant the narrative hook so deep in your reader’s psyche that she can’t bear to tear herself away?

You must tell a story whatever you are writing – novel, memoir, narrative nonfiction or how to open a can of tomato soup. Make it into a story, a story happening to a person. Make us care what happens to that person enough to keep turning pages to discover her fate.

What inspires us to care about the person at the center of your story? Make that person struggle mightily. The mightier the struggle, the faster pages fly. Make your person struggle with grace, and you set the hook deeper still.

You are setting that hook in the reader’s heart, plucking her heartstrings. This is a story, in which she cannot help but become involved.

She pulls for your person to pry the lid off that tomato soup can in time to feed the hungry hoard and save her finger from a near fatal nick in the bargain. Her triumph is your reader’s triumph, and that reader will remember her time with your work as an absorbing, satisfying experience.

Most important, in writing career terms, that reader is eager to read your next heart-hook story whether its fast flying pages are made of paper, pixels or flashes of lunar light.

Another huge plus happens even before you get to the stage of having a reader to hook. You hook the editor you are submitting to or the agent you hope to attract.

Good luck with all of that, and keep on writing whatever may occur.

What Attracts an Agent?

What attracts an agent?

It is appropriate to ask this question in intimate relationship terms, as if you were courting a much sought after object of desire, a person very likely to reject you. For writers, that is precisely what’s going on when it comes to searching for an agent match.

The question is asked me this time specifically in reference to the dreaded Query Letter. Dreaded because so much seems to ride on it and, in fact, too often too much does. May I offer a trick and a tip for surviving query letter hell and perhaps thriving as well?

The trick is to take back some of the power you automatically give away in such out-of-power-balance situations.

Most agents say that a query letter is all they want to see. Not only does the agent have the veto in her kit bag, the power to thumb up or down on a writer’s work. She is also narrowing the performance arena to virtually no-win parameters.

How do you display your ability to write fiction in a one-page business letter? The same question applies to memoir, dramatic/narrative nonfiction and all but dry-as-dust nonfiction any type.

This catch carries a number much greater than twenty-two. So what have you got to lose? You might as well go for taking back some power. Here’s a Tip re: doing that. Send a few pages of text plus a short synopsis along with the obligatory query letter.

Of course, those pages must be smokin’ hot. Your dramatic opening must catapult the agent into a fast-paced, wonderfully written manuscript. The momentum must be so unrelenting that only someone ready for the pallbearers could put your pages down.

Your equally thrilling synopsis follows suit. BTW, a future blog will tell you how to create such a synopsis with minimum angst. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, back to your submission scenario. The agent is at the end of your scintillating synopsis, panting for more of you and your project posthaste.

Okay, I exaggerate a little, but that almost overwrought state of drama and urgency is precisely what you must create. Anything less lacks the mega tonnage necessary to blast an agent out of the ennui typically induced by reading far too many humdrum submissions. A few hours of that kind of reading, and the mind glazes. Your assignment is to shatter that glaze to smithereens.

Will she forgive you the few added pages of reading? Literary agenting is talent scouting. The joy of the work is in finding a new, wonderful, eminently marketable voice. Make that your voice, and she will forgive you anything. Make that your voice, and you will have gone beyond attracting an agent. You will have begun to worm your way into her heart.

A Call to Arms

A Call to Arms

Do you have your psyche on your side?

I’ll be addressing that big question from a number of angles in the future. For now, I’m concerned with the sector of your psyche that houses your fighting spirit.

If your goal is to get your work published or keep your work published or have your work better published, you are in a battle – a battle that requires you to be a fierce fighter.

The battleground metaphor applies to a writer’s perennial position in the publishing world, not only during these difficult economic times, but always. You must sharpen your weapons for the assault and keep those blades keen for the duration of your career.

You may have an agent or some other professional advocating on your behalf. You must not hand your career over entirely to these intermediaries and figure you’re off the hook. That’s very bad strategy, exactly opposite to being a savvy professional yourself.

You must be a warrior on behalf of your work. Let me say that again. YOU MUST BE A WARRIOR ON BEHALF OF YOUR WORK.

Feel the intensity of that. Take it in. Get it on gut level. You are commanded to make a powerful, unswerving commitment to do battle in service of your career. Only the most ferocious power and intensity will do – from this moment on for as long as you maintain your career.

No saying, “I can’t do that aggressive thing. It’s just not me.” This has to be you, the new you if necessary or the person you behave as if you are.

Of course, you must avoid lopping off something you need with your massive broadsword, something like your professional relationships.  You must be the sword of steel in a velvet scabbard, the velvet of diplomacy.

You know how to do that. You know how to do all of this. You are smart and brave. You may only have been waiting for permission to unleash the fighter within you. Consider that permission granted.

Welcome, Warrior, to the fray.

Get Up - Stand Up

We hear lots about platform these days. The thing you stand on to declare your presence to the world, and the presence of your book.

You poke your head above the crowd and say, “Here I am, worthy of your attention.”

Many of us flap around trying to figure out how to do that via the internet. I flap with you, born with neither thumbs texting nor fingers tweeting.

I accept the challenge because this is where I need to be. You, as an author building your career, need to be here also.

BUT – I won’t throw out my baby with the bath water, my baby being Public Speaking. In fact, I urge you to get a tub and jump in.

Okay, I hear you. You’re a solitary writing person. The idea of getting up in front of a crowd is way beyond your comfort zone.

My response – DO IT ANYWAY.

Start close to home where they won’t mind the clamor of you gagging over the heart in your throat or knocking in your knee zone.

So – what should you talk about? Talk about whatever this particular audience needs to hear and wants to know. Keep it about them, not about you.

Stand your book in front of you. Hand out a flyer telling who you are and what you do. Have your creds mentioned when you’re introduced. Sell and autograph in the back of the room at breaks.

That’s it. The rest is them, them, them.

Object lesson re: how well this works – Nora Roberts. I remember when she began speaking, first to local writers’ groups around the country. She was funny, warm, informational and inspirational. After her talk, she was in the crowd, talking one on one, making us her own one fan at a time.

Last year, at the RWA National Convention in Orlando, she did it again. Still making herself heard on behalf of all of us, despite longstanding bestsellerdom. It works for Nora. It can work for you.

Get up, stand up. Stand up for your life. Your writing life.

Memoir Mysteries

On Tuesday mornings all through last year, women met in the living room of my yellow house on Pink Tractor Farm and investigated the mystery of their own real-life stories.

Together we assembled the tools of excavation. We created a safe place among all of us for telling stories that touched deep places inside each one of us. We brought our whole, full hearts to the enterprise. We mustered our willingness to be open whatever risk that might involve.

Most of all we assembled our eagerness to answer the question that lies at the heart of every well crafted and well told mystery story. What is the truth here?

In our case, we weren’t looking for universal truth or even a truth that the other real-life characters in our real-life stories might agree with. We were looking for our own truth, the truth at the center of our hearts, our emotional truth.

We went about this exercise of archeology into the depths of our own mysterious histories by gathering the evidence. We gathered that evidence in the form of stories by collecting the episodes of our own experiences.

We focused on our best episodes in storytelling terms, those stories from our mysterious histories that are most dramatic, most powerful, most intense and sometimes those episodes that are most funny.

The investigation, the search, the dig down deep into the archeological site of each of us was only the beginning. After that, the crafting happened.

Stories have the power to make sense of our lives. That sense evolves naturally out of shaping each experience, each episode, each moment into a gem of a scene with a beginning, a middle and an end, then polishing it to a luster that shines true for each of us.

Suddenly, the fog surrounding the mystery of ourselves and our often confused and stumbling passage through the decades of our existence begins to clear, at least for the patch of time and heart that is occupied by each individual story. Suddenly, we see light and feel it also where there may have been questions or, more potently, silence and secrets.

Then we speak. We cast aside silence and secrets and share our stories with pride and trembling in this safe place we have created where the brave act of speaking is shared and applauded.

That is what happened in my living room. Women who had not considered themselves writers found the words that said almost truly what they wanted to say. They honed those words and in the process became writers of themselves.

It was a glorious time, those two hours each week, so much so that I intend to spread the experience from my long-time living room in the Pacific Northwest to my new living room in New York City, perhaps as soon as later this year.
I will invite other women to join me for the discovery of their gems of personal emotional truth. I will guide them toward telling those stories in all their dramatic wonder with skill and beauty. The mysteries will unfold and unwind and untwist from the center of the heart. It will again be glorious.

I can hardly wait.

Notch Up Your Discipline in a Space of Your Own

Virginia Woolf said that every woman needs a room of her own. I modify that to this: Every writer needs a space of her own. I’m headed back to city living again soon so that space will more likely be a corner than a room, but I intend for it to be my own.

What do rooms and corners have to do with discipline? Well, we must all make it a top level tenet of our work ethic to provide that space for ourselves.

Declaring yourself a serious writer is essential to forcing yourself and the world to perceive you as such. A crucial step in that process of declaration and perception is recognizing you and your craft as deserving of consideration and accommodation.

The first of those accommodations requires that you stake your claim to a space of your own. Spacious or cozy, elegant or monastic, this is the place where you will write.

It is not the place where other people’s priorities take precedence over your own. It is the place where you put into action your serious commitment to your work, your determination to write.

The people in your life may need to be schooled in the importance of this work to you and to the satisfaction of your soul. Only you can establish this truth in their consciousness of who and what you are.

It may take a while and it will definitely require a campaign on your part to incorporate this awareness into their estimation of you, but it is worth the effort.

That campaign for recognition and acknowledgement begins with schooling yourself. You must recognize and acknowledge that your desire to write deserves to be served.

You perform that service by making space in your geography for your work – the geography of your physical place and geography of your personal psyche.

Thrills Sell

Do you read the bestseller lists? You should. You’ll find lots there to learn about what’s happening in the publishing business. Agents and editors acquire authors to represent and books to publish according to their marketability. The lists are a gauge of marketability.

If you want to know what’s selling, the titles are right in front of you. If you want to divide those titles into categories, that information is right in front of you also. If you’re a novelist, you’ll notice that two genres consistently dominate the charts – romance and its associates and suspense and its associates. Let’s talk about suspense novels.

Check out the lists and you’ll see suspense titles everywhere. Whether the author leans toward the mystery novel format like Stieg Larson or romantic suspense like Mary Higgins Clark and Nora Roberts or flat out thrills the knickers off us like James Patterson, suspense sells.

Why is that? In my opinion, it has to do with the nature of the fantasy. In romance or relationship stories, for example, the very basic fantasy begins with love lightning. Two folks meet and sparks fly. Then they’re pulled apart by the struggles and complications that make up the plot of the story. Finally, they are reunited by the undeniable power of the love between them.

The suspense fantasy shares this level of story intensity and heightens it by adding mortal danger. In romance, emotional life is at risk. In suspense, physical life is at risk and, if the author is market savvy, emotional life also. The more risk in any story, the better, if your goal is to capture a reader, hook that reader deep and not let that reader to go till The End.

In a suspense novel, the main character, about whom we’ve been made to care a great deal, is struck by the forces of chaos that free float in the universe and from that moment on he is scrambling and clawing to survive. She must use every weapon in her arsenal, and I’m not just talking about gun firepower. This character will need to discover depths and perhaps even dark corners within, where the skills to survive whatever the cost reside.

This main character we want so much to triumph is up against an extremely formidable adversary. The more evil that adversary, while still being believable, the better. The fight will be to the death. Dire consequences will ensue if our hero does not win out in the end. The more dire those consequences, the better.

Our hero does triumph, by the skin of the teeth and at a personal cost. In this triumph lies the secret to the popularity of this genre. We live ourselves in a universe where chaos swirls about us in every direction. We’re terrified that these malevolent forces will touch down in our own lives. We’re further terrified that, if this happens, we won’t have what it takes to triumph.

Suspense fiction tells us tales of triumph over malevolence. Our hero makes it through and carries at least some of the rest of the cast to safety also. This is a reassuring fantasy in a time when reassurance is sorely needed. So if you want to write what readers want to read, consider suspense. The result could be a career thrill.

Do You Need a Love Scene?

Please, don’t mistake this for an inappropriately personal question. I’m referring to your fiction, specifically to your fiction written about and for adults.

The easy answer to the question is that sex sells. Which is true but shallow. The commercial viability of titillation cannot be denied, but it doesn’t touch the heart of the story.

That must always be your first concern – the heart of the story. You create the world where this heart beats. To keep it beating from start to finish must be your priority. You must keep it beating, not only with hot blood, but with truth as well – truth, as in authenticity.

Here’s the bottom line on that score. If you are telling the story of an adult character and you omit or avoid that character’s human sexuality, you’re not telling the full authentic story of her life or his experience.

More to the point in storytelling terms, you’ve squandered an opportunity – for drama and intensity, for conflict and struggle. You’ve missed a chance to tell the most powerful story possible about your character.

No situation possesses more potential for struggle, both internal/emotional/psychological and external, than two adult humans traversing the minefield of sexual attraction. Add the vulnerability of these characters gambling with love to the mix of your story and you have fireworks at your fingertips.

What storyteller would take a pass on that? Certainly not a storyteller – an author – who hopes to attract a wide audience to her stories.

Which brings us back to “sex sells” – or does it? Readers are drawn to stories that portray romantic/love/sexual relationships because this is the stuff of life’s deepest mysteries.

This is also, as I said, a minefield – dangerous ground we’ve all ventured onto at various times in our experience with varying degrees of success and satisfaction. There be dragons because there be more questions than answers.

AND – there be rich storytelling material. Rich and universal.

I believe that this is the true explanation for the strong sales potential here. Touch the tremulous territory of the libido, and you also touch the heart. The heart of human life at its most sensitive and fragile place.

This is tough stuff to write, even tougher to write well. Future posts will tackle the problem that poses.

In the meantime, do you need a love scene? If so, how explicit should that scene be? Only you can answer these questions for your story and for yourself as a writer.

I don’t generally use this space for promoting my own ventures. In this case, however, I could be of help in your struggle to write effective love scenes. With my seminar, “How to Write About Sex and Respect Yourself in the Morning.”

Let me know if you’d like me to present this seminar to your local writers’ group. I’d be pleased to teach you how to put love in your fiction and, more crucial still, to love doing it.

Care-acter Is Key

Let’s revisit the challenge of hooking your reader in the heart and expand upon it – to hooking your reader beyond fiction into memoir, dramatic nonfiction and almost any kind of writing you might choose to do.

The term “hook” can be elusive so let’s find another, more viscerally recognizable. We’ll call it connection. The reader is caught by a connection – specifically, a connection of the human sort. Touch the reader in a human way, and that reader is yours.

In fiction, the nature of human connection is evident. Create a character with whom the reader can identify. Do that by creating a character with whom the readers wants to identify – a character that reminds the reader of herself on her better days.

This character is no paragon – neither mastermind nor flawless epitome of anything other than one thing. That one thing is decency. The character with whom most readers comfortably identify is decent, decent, decent. In the thick of it, he manages to do the decent thing.

This principle holds true almost intact for memoir. The writer tells the story of a character named “I”, not a perfect being by any means but a human among humans doing the best she can. She fails on occasion, but tries nonetheless. The trying is key to the decency. Doing one’s best is, after all, the best one can do.

Dramatic nonfiction employs the elements of fiction writing. Chief among those elements is creation of the character at the center of the piece. The difference between this creation and a fictional one is that this character once lived, breathed and walked the earth in human form.

Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that we will want to read about him, however celebrated he may have been. Portray the decency amidst his humanity, and the connection is made with the reader and with yourself as writer in the bargain, because you’ll be hooked by him as well.

That brings us to the most crucial connection of all, the connection the reader makes with you as the voice telling the story or inhabiting the memories or revealing the subject. Yours must be a voice the reader wants to spend all those pages or pixels with as a close and trusted companion. Find your own authentic place of decency, your own noble attempt to do right by your writing, and you will make the deepest reader connection of all.

This is the connection – from author voice to reader consciousness – that transcends one particular work and reaches beyond it to your next and your next after that. Make that connection straight and true and you might just make your career a great success by becoming the voice the reader longs to experience again and again.

Connecting at author voice level applies to anything you might write, even the most practical service nonfiction. Tell that tale in a voice the reader trusts, and the hook is planted all the way to “The End” because you have made the reader CARE – about your character, your life, your object of attention and about you the author – the most essential care-acter of all.

When Lunch Was More than Nibbling

The agent-editor lunch is much more of a rarity these days than when I was back in New York dividing my day in the middle to break bread sticks with my opposite number from some publishing house.

Literary agenting is a task intensive business. There was always too much to do. For an instant at about 11 a.m., I’d think, “Oh, damn, I have a lunch today. Then I’d remember. Lunch with editors was my business.

I’d wear a black suit whatever the venue. I’d take the subway because taxis are too slow. I’d arrive early to settle into my agenda.

The editor would rush in out of her crowded day. She’d exhale the stress of her morning over chit-chat, ordering something appropriately light and taking a sip of iced tea or bottled water with a twist.

All very social, very nice, and that generally continued to coffee and agenda time. Inaugurated by a casual question about what submission she was reading that turned her on and why it did so. Progressing to manuscripts she’d recently acquired and why she chose them.

Bingo! Pay dirt! This was the point of it all – dropping everything midstride, rushing across town, even the black suit. She was telling me where her head, her tastes and her company’s needs were meandering right at that very moment book project wise.

I never took notes during those lunches. Instead, afterward I would find a quiet spot – my favorite, the tea room at the Pierre – and strategize.

My brain had been busy all the while – through lunch chat, brain picking over espresso, my fast jaunt to Fifth and 61st. Mining client projects for pay dirt of our own.

Out came phone and notepad – these days it would be a Blackberry. Plans were promulgated. Authors were alerted. Fast mail was insisted upon – hard copy only. Email is too ephemeral.

Whatever I’d divined to be this editor’s desire du jour would be messengered to her the next day. The message being, if I considered this submission urgent enough to bother with a messenger service, maybe she should stick the package in her tote and give it a read that very evening.
We talk about social media being all about relationships. Those lunches were all about relationships also. Relationship of the agent to her business, the editor to her publishing list, the author to her career trajectory.

I’m glad I retired before access to that resource dwindled. Plus, I would dearly miss those amazing restaurants.

Celebrate Good Times

Be sure to celebrate each and every triumph.

You sit down in front of blank page or screen. You come up with words one after the other. You disappear into your work for an experience of time and space transcended. Upon your return to what others refer to as the real world, your words are there, set down in your own way toward your own purpose. What could be greater triumph for a writer than that?

You find a new idea or a new approach to the idea you’ve been working on or the way around a thorny problem in your writing path. These are further triumphs. You must celebrate them all in the way that for you best honors your work and your accomplishment. Yet I find too few of us remembering this.

We hardly ever fail to lend lots of time and even more energy to things that don’t feel like triumph – rejections, opportunities for doubt, times when inspiration seems to have passed us by and appreciation along with it.

Yet we too often fail to lend much of anything, especially time or energy, to lifting our hearts and inner voices in gladness and gratitude for what does feel like triumph. Times we know beyond any doubt, even our own, that we’re on the right track – or the incandescent gift of a fresh thought – or those wondrous moments when we actually appreciate ourselves.

Each of these happens for all of us at one time or another. Too often we let such bright experiences pass without much notice. Too often we take them for granted as if they were nothing particularly special. When this occurs, it is a blessing squandered and denial of a possibility for joy.