The galley proof for my new novel, Arborview, arrived just as I returned from my Collegeville Institute writing fellowship this week. My editor sent the galley with explicit instructions to proof carefully. This is the final step before publication. It’s the last chance to catch typos, misspellings, and all the little dings that make you cringe when you see them in print.
But before I dive in, I want to share some of the key takeaways from my workshop, which was led by writing coach Michael McGregor. It was such a rich, vibrant experience, exploring writing and faith and the many ways they can intersect. Our group of 12 included poets, essayists, nonfiction writers, fiction writers, and clergy members. So many perspectives, so much talent—I have pages of notes to mull over. And I miss everyone already.
I definitely miss my workshop writing spot:
Here are some insights and inspirations from the week that really hit home. I hope they help you, too:
Writing needs to be human, above all.
Whatever is withheld, is lost.
Hardness of heart is, in fact, weakness. Open yourself up to what’s really inside.
Spiritual lives are ever renewed and ever fresh.
When working with language, strive for what is true, necessary, and possible.
As writers, we are trying to capture, in words, a fleeting reality that is constantly rushing past us.
A good story doesn’t resolve, but it finds a place to rest.
Be wise on the page. We tend to denigrate our own wisdom. We don’t put it out on the page. We hide it. You have to dare to be wise, to make a statement that is wise on the page. Those are the gems that stick with people. – Michael N. McGregor
Feeling stuck, discouraged? To infuse your writing with a sense of joy, try this little exercise: write about something you truly love. Whether it’s your child, or chocolate chip cookies, capture on paper all the beauty and connection and meaning it brings.
I came across the loveliest quote today that I want to share with all my writer friends who are toiling away over manuscripts, many of them in some form of lock-down. Ironies abound there, but we’ll set them aside.
I know my gift is limited. I know I cannot stand toe-to-toe with philosophers or theologians and solve for myself or anyone else the problem of evil, either natural or moral. But we who are writers can tell a story or write a poem, and where rational argument will always fail, somehow, miraculously, in metaphor and simile and image and simple narrative, there is both healing and illumination.
Take heart, friends. Keep writing to and for each other. It’s a great thing we do, even if it doesn’t always seem so.
The first 10 pages make or break your novel manuscript. Why? Well, as we’ve all been told (and in truth have probably experienced), no one reads beyond them if they’re not great.
And that goes double for agents and editors, who are wondering how they’re going to sell the thing.
In other words, your opening has to rock. I’m overhauling mine for the umpteenth time right now, and it’s moving along. Something is happening. It’s kicking and wiggling and strutting a bit. But rocking? I dunno.
I come now seeking advice. What hooks you in a novel’s opening pages? What makes you keep reading? What turns you off? Please share in our “comments” section.
Cathy has already weighed in, of course, and her advice—as usual—was spot on. Cathy has a new publication of her own, just out this week. The opening of her novel-in-progress is featured in Embark: A Literary Journal for Novelists. This nifty journal is dedicated to novel openings, and it’s becoming a go-to for agents seeking new clients. Congrats, Cath! Check out her piece. It’s going to grow into one helluva book.
Okay, truth in advertising: My publisher sponsors the Possibilities Publishing Conference, held each year at the lovely historic Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia. So yeah, I’m not unbiased. I attended the kickoff conference last year and was super impressed with the sessions, the media room, the photographer and video offerings, and so much more.
This year I honestly went expecting it not to live up to the previous one. I mean, seriously, I felt like there was no way this little event—focused less on writing itself and more on getting your writing seen and read—could pack such power again.
I was SO wrong. Starting with the first session, Maggy Sterner, part branding maven, part life coach, part therapist, all business-savvy bulldog, handed participants a shovel (you know, metaphorically) and taught them to dig deep to find out what they and their writing are truly about. They dug, and unearthed what they didn’t even know they had, or needed, to build a distinct brand. There were tears, people. I mean it was that powerful and that effective.
Do you know the difference between an Instagram post, story, or highlight? Do you know how to best use Pinterest to promote your book—how to get the most from Facebook and Twitter, and how LinkedIn fits into it all? Children’s book author Lindsay Barry knows, and she has nearly 25,000 Instagram followers to prove it. Now Poss Pub’s biggest-selling author, Lindsay led attendees on an edge-of-their seats journey into all things social media. And man does she know how to sell. Her session ran long. Because questions. So many. And discussions, and aha moments, and all of it in breathless huffs because people were so fired up about this topic they couldn’t get enough. It could have gone on for days.
“The Truth Behind the Media” offered another deep dive into an author’s work and how it can be promoted through television, magazines, newspapers, and radio. Media booker Katie Riess took participants into the minds of journalists who can either choose to spotlight a writer’s work or not give it a second glance. What an author is thinking vs. what a media person is thinking are worlds apart, and she was able to map out the differences to help attendees pinpoint best practices for pitching their stories.
And more besides, including author Laura Di Franco, who led an inspiring workshop on building your author platform through blogging, and writer and publisher Keith Shovlin, who helped attendees learn to share their work with the world through podcasting.
The “Author Marketing Mastermind” session gave authors the chance to brainstorm marketing ideas with several of the above experts in a lively, yet intimate group setting. Participants received one-on-one attention and support to meet their goals, and were even provided with a second video meeting a month later to check in on their progress and receive additional feedback.
Between sessions, authors were encouraged to take selfies of themselves and their books in the Instagram Inspiration Room, which offered a lightbox and an abundance of props and decorations. And new this year was a podcast offering, where authors were interviewed about themselves and their work and walked away with professional podcasts for their own use.
Oh, and here are a couple of new resources I learned about while I was there. And you’re very welcome:
HARO, a.k.a., Help a Reporter Out, is a massive database that connects journalists with media sources and helps them pitch their stories.
Autocrit is an editing tool that helps you fine-tune your manuscript by analyzing your words and pointing out flaws, like poor dialogue, use of adverbs, repetitive words and phrases, and clichés. At only $10 for one month’s use, I can’t wait to try this one out.
At the day’s end, I heard so many people commenting on how much they’d gotten from this event, and every one of them said something to the effect of :
“You have GOT to tell more people about this.”
So—you’ve been told. Mark it down for next year (likely in early May), and tell your fellow writers. You won’t be disappointed!
Panelists gave attendees all the tools they need to create a brand, give great interviews, effectively launch a book, and market themselves on social media. It even featured a media lounge where authors could take head shots with a professional photographer and create a video focusing on themselves and their work.
Oh, and my favorite part? The Instagram Photo Booth that offered up a professional light box and a supply of backgrounds and props so you could take social media pictures of your book. As you can see, I had some fun with this one.
Why has no one come up with these grand ideas before?
Well, maybe they have, but not that I’ve heard of.
There were also a couple of sessions on getting published—tips on self-publishing, and advice from independent publishers on what they look for when considering a manuscript.
Just for fun, the Improv Imps led a group of introverted writers through an interactive workshop to help them loosen up in front of an audience.
And check this out: Penguin Bean Designs. Oh man, I love this company. They will reproduce, even create, pretty much any design you like on a t-shirt, hoodie, tote bag, wine sack, tea towel, pillowcase, you name it. I’m getting my book cover reproduced on a tote bag for a mere $25 (based on author Lindsay Barry’s cool tote here).
All of it took place at the gorgeous Clark House in Falls Church, Virginia, and included a pancake breakfast, lunch, two snacks (we’re talking cookies fresh from the oven, you guys), and a “sip and swap” wine and cheese closeout reception where attendees could mingle and trade books.
Next year’s conference is sure to be bigger, better, and even more innovative. Keep an eye out for it by following Possibilities Publishing online. Until then, here are the best tips and quotes I collected while I was there:
On launching your book:
Create a book launch team. Strive to recruit at least 100 people who will support you in your launch by reading, reviewing, and promoting your book. This can take as little as 5 or 10 minutes a week, and in return they get advance copies of your book, return reviews for their book, etc. And the results? Session presenter Jen Hemphil, author of Her Money Matters, saw 1863 copies of her book downloaded and sold in her first month (compared to about 200 for most self-pubbed books.)
Why do we connect with a brand? Brand strategist Rebecca Gunter says it’s largely trust, quality, an inviting feel. Why do we not connect? It doesn’t align with our values, it feels yucky or false. Branding is all about feelings. How do you want readers to feel when they see your brand?
Author and holistic healer Laura Di Franco suggests you write down five reasons you don’t promote your book. Then ask, if there were no one on earth to disappoint, how would you promote it? Give five endings to the statement “My story matters because ______.”
If you do nothing else, create a signature with your book info for use on Amazon, so that when you review things, others will see your book title pop up. (Well, duh. Why am I not doing this?)
On social media:
Jennifer Crawford is owner of Social Media Rescue and Write On Social, which cater specifically to the needs of indie authors. She coached us on how to use Facebook Live as a marketing tool to reach existing fans faster and interact with readers in real time. Nifty tip: Three times more people are watching Facebook Live videos and those that aren’t live.
Use Instagram Live too. These videos last only 24 hours and are great for time-sensitive promotions, sneak peaks, and book “secrets.” And since few people are using this feature for now, it’s a less crowded area that gives you tons of room to be creative with your author brand and narrative. Instagram users in general tend to be highly engaged!
Check out these other presenters and sponsors from the Possibilities Publishing Conference!
Vijal Nathan – Washington Post’s Date Lab writer, stand-up comedienne, interview coach
Ally Machate – book collaborator, editor, publishing consultant
Meredith Maslich – CEO of Possibilities Publishing Company, Thumbkin Prints, Eaton Press
The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference happened a little over a month ago (February 8-11 in Washington, DC), and in addition to all the books, journals, and souvenirs I dragged home, I also took a ton of notes during the sessions and readings, and finally dug them out. Here are some of the best quotes, overheard remarks, and tips, most of them without attribution. Some are true gems, so please enjoy these takeaways from some great conversations about writing and publishing.
Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir (Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski)
“Prioritize clarity over adherence to the form.”
“Flash eliminates all the boring parts.”
Try writing flash stories and connecting them together for a novella or novel. This retains the strength of voice and character, and the overall tension of the book will join them and progress the story forward. (Voldemort is the big tension, little problems along the way are the smaller ones.) Tara Laskowski recommends The Desert Places as a great example of a hybrid text novel.
We All Have to Start Somewhere: How Bad Writing Gets Good (Some raw language in this one. Oh, those bawdy writers.) (Panelists: Melissa Stein, Richard Bausch, Tayari Jones, Natalie Diaz, Nick Flynn)
“Fifty Shades of Gray reads like somebody shat it out.”
“Give yourself the freedom to suck.”
“You cannot fuck it up. You can’t ruin it. You can only make it necessary to do it again.”
“Your writing isn’t bad, it’s just off. Like a sweater buttoned the wrong way. Unbutton it. Rebutton it. It’s a perfectly fine sweater.”
Distinguished Editors Panel, featuring Nan Graham, Daniel Halpern, Jonathan Galassi, and Erroll McDonald
“The author/editor relationship is like an arranged marriage.”
“Voice and territory, more than structure, are the criteria by which I judge a book. Structure can be fixed. But you can’t fix writing that’s not fresh, that’s been done before.”
You know a story is done when others you show it to disagree about what needs to be changed. If they’re all telling you a character isn’t strong enough or the pacing is slow, for example, believe them and fix the problems. But if they’re all telling you something different, it’s probably finished.
A Novelist’s Job: The Realities, Joys, and Challenges (Panelists: Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Julia Fierro, Celeste Ng)
Being busy, working, having a job, makes you more productive in your writing.
Do not think about writing a successful book. Just “be true to the work.”
Do social media in an authentic way. Use it as a place of community. If you feed into that world, it will work for you too. Help other writers (with reviews, promotion, comments, etc.) and they’ll help you.
On creating more spaces/avenues for writing to exist: “We’re all fighting hard for a piece of pie, when actually there is no pie. Your job is not to get your piece, but to make more pie.” –Celeste Ng
Also try to post enough to stay connected with people, but don’t make it seem like a sales pitch. Tweet an overheard conversation. Do a daily task, like Ellis Avery who posts a haiku every day. Another writer posts dog pictures (often with a link to his book) every day.
Loose, Faithful, and Literal: Adaptation from Novel to Screen (Panelists: Christine Vachon, Neal Gabler, Magdalene Brandeis, Melissa Bank)
Screenplays make you focus on the narrative—how to bring character and plot into what can be seen and shown.
“In a movie, action is always character.”
One panelist says she tells her students not to call themselves “filmmakers” but “storytellers.” Because there are so many different forms (like streaming services) today to bring stories to life.
A movie is a “jolt,” whereas a TV show is a life. Characters grow incrementally, and that’s a “novelistic sense of life in real time.”
NO screenplay should be more than 110 pages!
By the time the Q&A rolled around, it was apparent everyone listening to this panel was there to ask the same question: How do you get your screenplay seen? Sadly, the answers were pretty vague.
“If you’ve written ‘trash’ like The Godfather, you may be lucky enough that someone will turn it into gold.” —Neal Gabler
Write a two-page summary of why this should be made into a film. Send it to a producer you think would be interested. A 20-something intern will likely read it, and will pass it along (or not) to the producer. Melissa Bank, author of Girls Guide to Hunting & Fishing, sent a story to Zoetrope. They put her in touch with Coppola.
Ask yourself who’s your dream director? Actress? Work on those connections. “I wrote this for you and here’s why.”
“Great works rise to the top. Books come to our attention through coverage, reviews, agencies, recommendations. It just happens.”
Um, yeah. But how do you get your screenplay seen?
“It’s difficult to get things read, and to work with and without an agent. The only sure way to do it is to make the film yourself.”
Kirkus Reviews was recommended as the primary route for movie companies to see synopses of stories that might intrigue them.
Foremothers: Southern Women Writers (Panelists: Charlotte Holmes, Cary Holladay, Lisa Parker, Lisa Roney, Adrienne Su)
A panelist talked about her mother, whose family moved from the south when she was young. The kids in her school couldn’t understand her because of her southern accent, so she stopped talking—for a year. She read books out loud, practicing in her bedroom, until she lost her accent.
One panelist recalled how Lee Smith studied at the Sorbonne and loved to let people there hear her talk. She could see them taking her IQ down about 20 or 30 points as she spoke. Then she would say something that would “take them out at the knees.”
Live outside the world of your past, but find your background. You have to get away from it to look back and find your voice.
The Ten-Year Novel: On why some novels take so long to write, and what writers can do to sustain themselves. (Panelists: Tova Mirvis, Rachel Cantor, Rachel Kadish, Joanna Rakoff, Sari Wilson)
“It’s the persistence that makes you a writer.”
“My sense is that publishing has changed to the point that, a few years ago, an agent might say this book isn’t quite where I want it to be, but I’ll work with the author a year or so and get it there. No more. Books today need to be as finished and polished as possible before they’re ever sent out.”
Such Mean Stories: Women Writers Get Gritty: Women writers of the south talk about “grit lit.” (Panelists: Luanne Smith, Jayne Anne Phillips, Vicki Hendricks, Stephanie Powell Watts, Jill McCorkle)
“If we think about the reader as we’re writing, we’re putting blinders on ourselves as writers.” –Jayne Anne Phillips
“There is true fear about the power of women.” –Watts
“In fiction, I love to have that alter ego character who rises up and defends herself.” –Jill McCorkle
“I’ve probably learned more from my characters than they’ve ever gotten from me.” –Jill McCorkle
On unlikeable characters:
By giving readers the history of unlikeable characters early on, they reveal a life, and it makes the characters human. So even if it doesn’t excuse their actions, it helps readers understand why they are the way they are.
Recommended story: “Lechery” by Jayne Anne Phillips
So I’m neck-deep in the third rewrite of my new novel. How’s it going? Slowly, occasionally painfully, and all I want is to be done with it. I’m fighting my usual impulse to speed ahead, and instead slow down and stay in the scene. I’m winning the battle—some of the time.
Ever been there? It’s not that I don’t like the story. I do, very much., I’m just not convinced that my skills aren’t doing it justice. And then there’s the old “Just because I like it, doesn’t mean anyone else will.”
At times like this, I like to hop onto the Facebook feed of my old MFA writing professor Richard Bausch. A master himself, Dick is also honest about how hard this is, and he doesn’t mince words. He sets you straight, in the best possible way. All these years later, I want to say, “Thank you, Dick. Your influence is still resonating and more important than ever.”
Check out some of Richard Bausch’s rewrite advice:
“In revision, try not to think of the long outcome much. Just concentrate on this morning’s work. Just be faithful to that. Try to be as good as you can be without straining it: “This morning, I’m just going to mess with this scene. See if I can get it right, or clearer, or sharper. I’m only going to think about that. And when I’ve put in my two hours, I’m going to forget about it and enjoy things without reference to the work. The work’s done for the day. And tomorrow, I’ll come at it fresh. I don’t have to write the whole thing in one morning, so I won’t think about the whole thing. Just this. This here, this morning’s work.”
“About the heavy doubt: it’s normal; it’s the territory, the province, the wallpaper in what Jim Dickey called the cave of making. It is your talent itself that produces it. So write through it. Do the work. If you let it stop you, if you let it make you hesitate, you’re making the first and most elemental mistake, and you’re acting like a dabbler, an amateur. This day’s work. Each day.”
“Be patient, yes, and how hard that is, especially when it’s yourself with whom you have to be patient. It’s very hard, of course. But nobody ever said it would be easy. And one of the traps we fall into is thinking too much about the result–whatever we imagine or hope that might be. The real thing happening is that you are using your time in a way that answers you deep, no matter what fits it gives you, and it always feels better to have worked in a given day, no matter how badly the work seemed to go or how hard it was. To engage in the activity at all is to do something sustaining; and in fact it gives meaning to everything else. That’s why I keep repeating the mantra: this day’s work. Just this day’s work. Did I work today. If the answer’s yes, no other questions. It’s enough. Try to forget about it and go have fun–enjoy that most delicious feeling of wasting time when you have used it well earlier.”
“Someone told you somewhere, or inadvertently communicated to you sometime, that it would get easier? It gets harder, because you know more. Instead of putting down the first or second line that occurs to you IN REVISION, you think of fifty-five others that each have their advantages and disadvantages, and you start really getting down into the deeps of it, including what it is you are seeking in terms that have nothing to do with the STORY: you want others to know how deeply sympathetic you are to human troubles; you want others to have a sense of the sorrows you carry around like everyone else; you want others to know how much you know; you want others–even this–to see what you can do with a sentence, with your extensive vocabulary and your gift for metaphorical speech–and all of that has to be subordinated to the demands of the STORY that you are not even, quite yet, sure of. No, it will not get easier–its complications will change away from the ones you had when you were new; but these complications multiply, and exacerbate themselves as you grow. What you can do, simply, is accept this, and do the work. Even when it seems completely closed to you. Accept it as your destiny as an artist and go on with it. You’re not experiencing anything that everyone else hasn’t also experienced. Remember Joseph Conrad, having his wife lock him in a room and then shouting “Let me out. I’m a fraud. I never could do this.” And he was working on his twelfth novel.”
“I think that no matter how hard it is and no matter how difficult the subject, and no matter how dark your vision, writing a novel is always an act of optimism, even of faith–a generous expansion of one’s being toward something outside the self, and by definition, then, a giving forth for others of your kind. Inherently beautiful and valuable as an occupation, even if it takes years, and, yes, even if no one ever sees it. And, too, even if it is destined to be forgotten, to disappear. Wright Morris: two National Book Awards, one as a photographer, sixteen novels. Gone. Vance Bourjaily, Thomas Williams, William Goyen, George Garrett–one can’t find the books. And they were such wonderful writers. So, do the work for itself. And fuck all else. Make the record, and stop worrying about your place in the scheme of things literary.”
“I used to have terrible anxiety before I’d start a session of work–this was after Iowa, and I was thirty and should have known better. I’d pace and sigh and get a stomach ache, afraid it wouldn’t go well. Such a waste of energy, and what a lot of hell I put myself through, like some atavist cowering at a shape in the clouds. I should’ve been saying prayers of gratitude for the chance to fail my way toward something beyond me. Just for the happy fact that I had this work to do, and a place to pursue it, the need to try. I should’ve been celebrating that.”
Publishing a book is a little like following that famed “Yellow Brick Road.” Look out for witches and flying monkeys. Both seem to abound in this business. But just like Dorothy, determined writers push on. Diane Bonavist is one.
Diane’s new novel Purged By Fire came into print after years of near misses and disappointing rejection–making Diane a true survivor in very good company. Please welcome her to Write Despite.
I wanted to write a novel, but after three years of trying on my own, I felt it was time to find other writers who also wanted to figure out how it is done. At an adult ed course I met my future writing group. We were honest but kind and most important we produced our first novels.
In 1994, the group and I decided my Medieval fiction was ready for submission. I was thrilled when I quickly found an enthusiastic agent who boosted my confidence; unfortunately she couldn’t conjure a publisher for my book.
Six years later my novel found another remarkable New York agent who also loved it. With changes that he suggested, the next version hit the publishing world and sadly was again declined. Some years later, more of the same—rewrite, new agent, title, rejection.
During this time, I wrote many technical manuals, two more novels, short stories, and became editor of Tiferet Journal. I continued to write, yet the unease of unfinished business never left me. And though I was happy to spend time in the new pieces I wrote, they didn’t mean to me what my 13th century novel did; it was the book of my heart.
To evoke the stamina and resilience it takes to write, I’ve got to love my characters to death and delirium. The thought of my Medieval people never telling their story, never going out into the world, made me bereft.
A few years ago I decided to do one more revision and instead of an agent, I queried small presses where they usually deal directly with the author. I looked for publishers who knew my subject and found Bagwyn Books, the fiction division of The Arizona Center for Renaissance and Medieval Studies. And there I finally found a publisher who ‘got’ my story and was pleased to publish it.
Yes, it’s a cliché to say ‘never give up,’ but I’m so glad I didn’t. My path to publication is testament to listening instead to the voice inside that says, ‘Now is not the time to give up. Now is the time to write.’
Nobody multitasks like a mother. Cathy and I should know, because we’re both raising kids, holding down full-time jobs and writing fiction. That is until they cart us off, anyway.
In the meantime, Literary Mama is one of the magazines we love because it hits home. Take a few minutes and enjoy this Q&Awith the wonderful and wonderfully accomplished Rebecca Barry from the magazine’s May issue.
A little teaser:
“Also, one thing that really helped me was deciding not to define myself only as a writer. I’m not any one thing; I’m all these things. Sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m editing, sometimes I’m sculpting, sometimes I’m consulting, sometimes I’m hanging out with my kids, sometimes I’m taking care of my mom. Who knows what I am? The less attention I spend on defining myself, the more things tend to flow.”