On the Road to Immortality

June 29, 2010

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work….I want to achieve it through not dying.

–Woody Allen

The New Yorker had an article by Lauren Collins about the rare book room in the main branch of the New York Public Library. In Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Jack Kerouac had underlined this sentence: “The traveler must be born again on the road.” I guess you can never tell where you’ll find a good title.

The moment you make the first keystroke on your book, you are on the road to being born again. Transforming an idea into a book transforms the idea. It’s black-and-white magic: creating something out of nothing but your knowledge, craft, and imagination.

When you or your publisher publishes your book, you are born again on the road to literary immortality as an author. It’s been said that people only die when they’re forgotten. As long as people read your book, you live as an author. Books are an endearing, empowering, inspiring form of immortality.

Taking the World by Surprise

Unexpected phenomena like the roads taken by  J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Stieg Larsson are surprising. But roads most successful authors take start as narrow paths and broaden as their careers develop. They continue to write books that attract a growing number of readers.

If that’s the road you’re drawn to follow, stay on it. If not, there are many kinds of writing, paths to success, and ways to succeed as an author. So pick the path that best suits you and what you’re passionate about writing.

Three Prompts to Help You Decide

Capture the essence of your life in one line: write your epitaph.

Summarize the life you’d like people to read about: write your obituary.

List the trade-offs on your road: the good news and the bad news. One list will be longer, one stronger.

You’re welcome to share your responses with readers if you wish.

May all your keystrokes be rewarding!

Using OP’s Suggestions For Your Book

June 24, 2010

Your book is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

–Samuel Johnson

If you want to write a book that is both good and original, the right critique group will help you. My previous post answered novelist Pam Chun’s question about critique groups, but Pam, author of When Strange Gods Call, had another question about them: How do you decide if the group has workable ideas for your book?

The short answer: Trust your instincts. If you think the ideas will strengthen your manuscript, try them. If they consistently don’t help you, you’re in the wrong group.

Your Book as a Frigate

Emily Dickinson was right: A book is a frigate. It’s hammered together with thousands of pieces of wood. Changing a piece at one end of it may affect the other end of the ship and make it less seaworthy. An editor once said to me that a good writer always knows when an editor is right. But the more effort an idea will take, the surer you want to be about its effectiveness. Thinking through how an idea will affect the rest of your ship will help you decide if it’s worth pursuing.

The more effort trying an idea will take, the more reluctant you may be to try it. Yet you may not realize the value of the idea until you do, because its value may not be the idea itself but what it leads to. One of the joys of writing is discovery: trying something that sparks a new idea that illuminates or transforms your work. If you don’t let your ship explore the high seas of creativity, you won’t discover the treasures your imagination has waiting for you to find. Let the spirit of play inspire you to explore new possibilities.

Getting Past Sweat Equity

The more you’ve done on your manuscript, the more committed you may feel to it, although your sweat equity may make you less able to judge its value. How far along you are with your manuscript, how many drafts you’ve already done, your patience, and your determination are also factors that may influence your decision to try an idea.

Jacqueline Susann did each draft of her novels on different colored paper. But computers make it easy to experiment and to keep track of your drafts by just numbering them in your header. It also simplifies making use of a previous version if you decide it’s stronger.

You will spend your life trying things, not all of which will work. You must trust your instincts and your common sense. Ultimately, it’s your book, you must decide how best to write it and whose advice to follow. As you mature as a writer, you will become better able to decide whether to set sail for parts unknown.

Three Ways to Keep Making Your Group More Effective

  • In the rapidly evolving world of publishing, you have to keep learning if you want to keep earning. You want to belong to a group whose members are committed to keeping themselves and each other up to date on industry news and trends.
  • Have an annual get-together or retreat in a new setting to discuss how to improve the group.
  • Some writers don’t like to read while they’re writing, because they’re afraid of being influenced by other authors. But one way to increase the value of your group is to make it a reading group as well. Discussing what writers can learn from favorite books and successful authors will improve your work and your ability to help others.

Talking about books—about writing and publishing as well as books the group discusses–can be a good way of auditioning each other before starting a group. It will give you a sense of

  • how compatible members’ tastes are with yours
  • how perceptive they are
  • their ability to help you hone your craft
  • their commitment to learning and growing as writers

A critique group will enable you to be a better, more knowledgeable writer. It will also be a source of enduring relationships. For the sake of your craft and career, join or start one as soon as you have something to share.

Three Cheers for Critique Groups!

June 22, 2010

When I want to read a good book, I write one.

–Author Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

If you want to write a good book, a critique group will help you. A client, novelist Pam Chun, author of the prize-winning novel The Money Dragon, asked two excellent questions about critique groups that I’ll try to answer in this post and the next one.

First question: How do you know when a critique group is good for you?

The short answer: If you’re receiving feedback and ideas that you can use, learning about craft, and enjoying the process, the group is working.

More than ever, you need feedback on your work to make sure it’s as strong as it needs to be in today’s demanding marketplace. This is equally true whether you want to sell your book or self-publish it, so you won’t have the help of a staff editor. A critique group gives you the chance to learn from what you tell others and they tell you.

Whether you join a group or start one, at first, it’s an experiment. You get a feeling for how best to work together. Effective groups are self-sustaining. They last decades. Groups that don’t deliver for members lose them. Members will not always show up. Not all members will stay with the group. You may have to try more than one group to find the right one for you.

A Working Marriage

Like your relationship with an agent or editor, your relationships with members is a working marriage that has personal and professional aspects to it. You want to enjoy each other’s company, but you also have to be able to help each other. There are three aspects to this:

  • Having members with knowledge, experience, perceptiveness, and creativity
  • Combining truth with charity, starting with virtues of the work being discussed
  • Being reliable about fulfilling one’s responsibilities to the group

Members can

  • offset the solitude of writing
  • be a source of encouragement
  • forge lasting friendships
  • provide information about agents, publishers, promotion, and the industry.

But the relationships between members may also interfere with their ability to tell each other the truth about their work. So members have to balance friendship and objectivity.

Joining or Starting a Group

How carefully your group is organized will help determine how well it will help you. You can do it any way you and other members wish, but you do have to agree on 

  • the kinds of books you discuss
  • the feedback members need such as word choice, plot, character, setting, and structure; the subjectivity of members’ reactions to your work will help you appreciate the conflicting responses your book will generate
  • the criteria for joining: writing experience, the quality of a writing sample, personality, accepting members on a trial basis
  • when, where, and how often you meet
  • the size of the group; some groups have forty members, but the smaller your group, the more often you have the chance to get feedback
  • how the group works:

             * how much of a member’s work you discuss at one meeting

             * how much time you devote to each member’s work

             * how many members’ work you discuss at one meeting

  • how to handle refreshments
  • whether everyone receives a copy of what’s to be critiqued in advance at the previous meeting or it’s emailed so members can mark it up
  • health issues such as smoking and allergies
  • finding a coordinator if you need one
  • how to say no to those not yet ready to join
  • when and how to suggest someone will be better served by another group

Besides giving members feedback on their work as they write, members also have to read completed manuscripts for form and content to help make sure they’re rejection-proof.

In the next post, I’ll give you three ideas that will make your critique group more effective.

I look forward to your questions, especially those I can answer! Meanwhile, keep at it and happy hunting for the critique group you need.

Growing a Tribe of Believers

June 17, 2010

All the great things that have been achieved in the world have been achieved by individuals, working from the instinct of genius or of goodness.

–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A recent Thomas Friedman article in the New York Times quoted Curtis Carlson, the chief executive of SRI International: “This is the best time ever for innovation for three reasons:

First, although competition is increasingly intense, our global economy opens up huge new market opportunities.

Second, most technologies — since they are increasingly based on ideas and bits and not on atoms and muscle — are improving at rapid, exponential rates.

And third, these two forces — huge, competitive markets and rapid technological change — are opening up one major new opportunity after another. It is a time of abundance, not scarcity — assuming we do the right things with a real national growth strategy. If we do not, it rapidly becomes a world of scarcity.”

Friedman’s column was about kick-starting new businesses, but change “markets” to “media” and “growth strategy” to “strategy for change,” and you have the reason for the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference. The world has abundant needs, and the creative, passionate, dedicated people it needs to meet them.  What people need is the vision and leadership to mobilize the will to do what we must to ensure the future we want.

This is where writers come in. Writers have the opportunity to be the voices, visionaries, mentors, consciences, and inspiration for change. They can summon us to our highest selves. It is easier than ever to

* Reach readers around the world online with a blog, articles, videos, podcasts, interviews, and comments on what others write

* Grow a tribe of believers who share your goals and help you achieve them

* Use your writing to change the country and the world

The larger and older an organization, business, or institution is, the harder it is to change. That’s why we can’t rely on government, business, or religion. Non-profits are helping, but they are limited in what they can accomplish.

Americans are open to new ideas. They’re pragmatic about abandoning what fails for what works. United by the same needs, problems, desires, and the willingness to do the right thing, Americans will accept change.

Facebook exploded from an idea to 500,000,000 users in six years.  You cannot stop an idea whose time has come.  What’s needed is a barrage of ideas, forcefully and eloquently presented in all media with urgency and relentless determination, tempered with compassion for the human condition.  

Anyone can participate at any level in this transformation. The author James Baldwin wrote: “The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself.” There is no time to lose. Start making demands.

The San Francisco Writing for Change Conference will take place, Saturday and Sunday, November 13 and 14, 2010 at the Hilton Financial District. The keynoters will be Dan Millman, author of The Way of Peaceful Warrior, and John Robbins, author of The Food Revolution, www.sfwritingforchange.org.

Writing Like a Reader

June 15, 2010

A Dave Coverly cartoon in Parade showed an editor holding a manuscript, sitting across a desk from a writer and saying: “We love all the words in your manuscript, but we were wondering if you could maybe put them in a completely different order.”

Isn’t arranging the right words in the right order the essence of writing? The craving to create beauty, meaning, and order is part of what makes us human. But one person’s order is another person’s chaos.

Dick Cavett once had the surrealist painter Salvador Dali on his prime-time interview show. Dali answered Cavett’s questions with simple words. But they were strung together in a way that made them incomprehensible. He talked like a man from another planet with an English vocabulary. To get your words in the right order, follow these three steps:

  • Read like writer.

Be a devoted fan of the kind of book you’re writing by reading as many of them as you can. Your favorite books inspire you to write and enable you to establish criteria for your books. But you also need to read like a writer: to read between the lines. Analyze what combination of content, structure, and writing makes them effective. Look for what they don’t contain that might present opportunities for you.

  • Write like a reader.

Write with a book buyer’s mindset. Balance what you want to write with what book buyers want to read. As a fan of books like yours, would you be excited enough about your book to buy it, despite all of the past, present, and future competition it will face?

  • Let your early readers assure you your work is ready to submit.

As the proud parent of a bouncing new proposal or manuscript, you’re going to be too close to your work to judge it objectively. You need a community of early readers to tell you it’s ready to submit. Being in a critique group to get feedback as you write is helpful, but you also need feedback on the finished document before you submit it.

When your book is published, you want to be confident that, with the help of your readers, you and your book are primed for prime time.

Engaging Your Readers for Life

June 9, 2010

New York is a city where something exciting is going on all the time, most of it unsolved.

–Johnny Carson

Elizabeth and I are back from BookExpoAmerica and meeting editors in New York, and solving the mystery of why we go is easy. May in Manhattan heats up by the end of the month, but it’s a delightful time of year to be in the Big Apple.

The cozy, funky basement apartment we rent in a federal brick building on a quiet, tree-lined street in the West Village makes an enjoyable oasis from which to visit editors, promote our conferences, and meet with friends and family. (We also saw the wonderful production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones.)

Going to BEA is the only way to get a sense of the state of publishing in one place. In addition to booths on the floor of the huge Javits Center showcasing publishers’ fall books, there are signings, free galleys, talks by authors, and panels on subjects of interest to publishers and booksellers.

Thanks to our marketing director Barbara Santos and the BEA, we had a booth for the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference (November 13-14, 2010; keynoters: Dan Millman and John Robbins; www.sfwritingforchange.org), and the San Francisco Writers Conference (February 18-20, 2011; keynoters: Dorothy Allison and David Morrell; www.sfwriters.org).

BEA was more upbeat this year than last, reflecting the improving economy. Even with 22,000 attendees, the convention is an annual reunion, because there are people, including out-of-New-York editors we only run into at BEA, as well as the unexpected pleasures of meeting people from around the country in a line, at a panel, or at an author breakfast. Booksellers and publishing people are in the business because they want to be, so their shared passion unites them as members of the family of the book.

Attending BEA, at least once, is a valuable experience for writers. It gives you a perspective you can’t get elsewhere on the business and the enormous flow of books into which yours will merge.

When we first went in the late sixties, it was held in the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. on the steamy Memorial Day Weekend. The holidays have always been the most profitable time of year for booksellers, so publishers used the convention to promote their fall books. Publishers had book jackets spread out on tables and special offers for  booksellers who ordered at the convention. I remember the air conditioning failing, but it was a bustling, relatively small event that gave independent booksellers the chance to meet with publishers.

The word from this year’s convention that stuck with me and will help you is engagement, because building communities has become as essential as writing, promotion, and having a platform. The web enables you to become engaged with potential book buyers who see whatever you choose to send forth into cyberspace: your site, your blog, your articles or short stories, your videos, your podcasts, and your profile and comments in social media and elsewhere.

Engaging a growing community of people you want to read your books is one of the web’s greatest opportunities for writers. Go get engaged. Your readers are waiting for you. Some of them will become life-long fans.