On our fridge we have a New Yorker cartoon. A dog is sitting on a mountain ledge at the feet of his guru. The caption reads: "The bone is not the reward--digging for the bone is the reward." I keep it there to keep me humble. About my writing, and my 10,000 hours.
A past MISA student sent me a great article about this (thanks, Tom!). As a beginner so many times during my life--in writing, in playing a musical instrument, in kayaking, in painting--I know well the impatience we can have to have it all now. To be good enough immediately, to show unexpected genius, to land that incredible deal, because we have such innate skills. We want to not practice writing, we want to just be a great writer. Right?
Practice is the tedium, but practice is also the path. Ask anyone who has mastered a skill how many hours they've put in. Very few are gifted with it. They've dedicated the time and attention.
Your weekly writing exercise this week is to calculate your distance to those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell cites as being necessary for mastership at any skill. This article shares Oprah's view of this theory. Interesting links throughout, if you want to click through. If the link doesn't work go to www.cnbc.com and search for either name above.
First comes the wild idea. It grows gradually in the inner room of your creative self, until you can't ignore it. You have to get it down. This burst of energy propels you through an important starting gate--past ideas ruminating inside to ideas on the page. Maybe they're externalized for the first time, and they generate other ideas. You write for months, years, whatever it takes to shape your vision. This initial timeline is very individual: if it's your first book, you may need a lot of time to dream. Or, if it's been generating inside for years, it may come forth in a mad rush.
It's exciting, this idea to vision stage. And eventually, you have a draft. It's way rough (I love writer Anne Lamott's name for it: shitty first draft), but without it, you ain't got nothing, as they say. So you start here.
Next gateway is to figure out what the real story is, inside all the mess. You take the document on your laptop or pages piled onto your desk and rework, over and over. You get feedback, you rework some more. A lot of emotions come up. A lot of resistance, usually: hate, passionate love (how amazing! how unique!), and eventually some neutrality. I find this part can take two or three years, to locate the real book within the initial draft.
The key to this step is moving from writer view to reader view. A writer must--and I believe this so strongly, from working with thousands of writers--release their personal attachment to the story, and let it become what it is meant to be.
Readers will not care if it's your precious idea--they want it to relate to them, too. You might think of this step as moving from the personal to the universal. Finding what, in your personal vision or story, will speak to others and touch their lives too.
It takes a lot, for most writers. Some never manage it. They are too attached to what they originally saw. I say this from years of editing experience, working with publishers, helping writers cross this threshold. I say it with much compassion, because I have to do it too--and it's often a bitter medicine to swallow.
Essentially, you, the writer, must let go in order to see your story from a reader's eyes. You must absent your hovering presence and let that story speak for itself.
That's when you really can begin to revise.
Robert Boswell, author of The Half-Known World, calls all our drafts to this point "transitional." I find this accurate--and true for all genres, including prescriptive nonfiction, which often works with outlines and talking points and much planning. Until we get past the transitions of refining the manuscript towards the universal view, the reader view, we're not ready for certain revision tasks.
Steps to Revision I trained as an editor for eighteen years. Both as a freelancer for various publishers and a salaried manuscript editor for a small press in the Midwest, I worked with experienced pros who were steady, careful, and kind enough to instruct me. I learned there are indeed clear steps to take when polishing a manuscript. It's not a blind ride. Each editor has their own method, but many overlapped.
From my eighteen years, four main steps evolved. There are many more, but I'll share these with you today--maybe one will be helpful to your revision process.
Step One: Find a Workable Editing Method When you've gotten to the reader view, you are ready to begin working on fine-tuning the manuscript. First, find a good editing method that fits you.
Decide if you're more comfortable editing by paper or on screen. It's really a matter of personal preference. I tend to work onscreen until the document gets impossible to hold in my mind. Then I work with revision charts and printed pages.
It's important to find a method that lets you "see" the whole book, not just its parts. My charts check for three main features in each scene and chapter: (1) is there an outer event, (2) what is my intent for that scene or chapter as writer, and (3) what is the reader's possible take-away about the characters, narrator, or message of the book. I create a big Excel document or a chart in Word for this step then enter all the data for each scene, each chapter. Tedious, yes. Revealing, absolutely. I can immediately see where I slipped out of reader view into my own limited intent.
(At my Madeline Island workshop in a few weeks, we'll be working with these charts. I'll be taking writers who are ready to move to reader's viewpoint through the necessary analysis that allows it. Click here for last-minute registration.)
Step Two: Weed Out Blah Verbs
Even though your manuscript as a whole fits your reader view now, you may still have spots of less conscious language choices. One typical area is blah verbs. We choose verbs in haste when drafting, and we may overlook their weakness. Here's a short checklist that many professional editors use.
1. Scour out the verb "to be": search for "was" and "is" and replace with more active choices.
2. Remove "had" as much as possible. "Had" is past perfect and is really only needed in the first instance of a flashback. Then most pros slide into simple past tense. For instance: "She had been a chef years ago. She landed a good job at Circus Maximus." Notice that the "had" places us in the backstory, but after we are there, we can move to simple past, with "landed."
3. Eliminate "ing" verbs. Gerunds are useful but slow down the pace. Compare: "He wired the alarm" with "He was wiring the alarm"--fast, punchy versus languid. Occasionally, languid verb forms draw out tension, but if you search, you'll be astonished how often you've unconsciously used them.
4. Replace "walk" and "move" with more vivid actions. "They moved across the field" versus "They sped across the field." Quite a difference.
5. An adjunct to weak verbs is often the overuse of adverbs. Wipe them out as much as you can if you've opted for "ly" descriptors instead of punching up the verb choice. Adverbs slow down the pace. Use them cautiously; sometimes they are essential, but can you get rid of most of them?
Step Three: Continuity Check Revision means making sure all details are consistent throughout your manuscript. Here are the three biggest offenders to double check:
1. Verify the movement of weather and time of day, chapter to chapter. Make sure these are consistent and evolve logically. We can't go from midnight to midday without notice. I make a chart and double-check it against my chapters.
2. List all major items in your story--vehicles, physical details, room locations, possessions--anything that appears frequently. Use the checklist to search for each. Verify that you've used the same descriptions. A man with flaming red hair in chapter 1 who is suddenly bald in chapter 10 needs explanation.
3. List all names--place and people. Check for consistency. One of my mom's pet peeves (she's a voracious reader) is the author who changes a main character's name from Elise to Elaine mid-book.
Step Four: If It Still Doesn't Sing . . . Checklists for Content If you still find yourself swimming in unease after these changes, you may need to go back to your content and upgrade it. Here are five small questions I ask myself, to bring content to another level:
1. Does each person in the story show inconsistencies? Humans do. We're generous and stingy. We're sweet and snarly. If your players aren't two sides of their own coin, stop protecting them. Show everything.
2. Are the places and peoples unique enough? I make lists of how each person differs from the others, then do the same with each location. Push this as much as you can.
3. Are there enough fights? Do they range in intensity? If not, add some. Conflict makes prose move.
4. Are there enough secrets? Do you reveal them too soon? Can you delay more, to build tension?
5. Does each chapter have a clear and definite purpose? If not, can you change it? Or eliminate it?
This Week's Writing Exercise Pick one of the steps above. Try it out this week on a chapter or your entire manuscript. See how it works for you. Then try another, if you wish.
Slow and steady--most editors I admire have these qualities. It's something we writers may not come to naturally, but the revision process will certainly teach us better!
As I often do when I need a jump start into a new book I'm writing, I signed up for an online class this summer. My class is good, with writers of varied skills and experiences, all exploring new narrators, characters, plots, and other ideas for their next manuscript.
Our instructor assigned us a well-reviewed contemporary novel to read and analyze during the course: Chemistry by Weike Wang. It's generated a lively discussion, because, well, the narrator isn't lively at all.
In Chemistry, which is written in the appealingly conversational style of Where'd You Go, Bernadette? the narrator is admittedly lost. Her PhD program in chemistry is stalled out, she can't answer her boyfriend's proposal of marriage, and she doesn't know if she wants to move from Boston to Ohio. The story is more about her lack of reactions to each event, punctuated by small bursts of anger (breaking five beakers in the lab) at her indecision and life's unfairness, than any actions she takes to drive the story forward.
To me, good book structure is based on two types of fuel. One is what happens from without--the events that cause a reaction in your narrator. The other is what happens within--realizations and decisions that are based on her reactions to these events. Within story structure, ideally there is a variety of these two fuels.
I use the W storyboard template to test them. Usually points 1 and 3 on the classic W storyboard are externally generated (view my video here, for more about this). The fuel comes from without. Something happens to the narrator that changes the game. Because of this external game-changer, the narrator has to react, make decisions. Or maybe he doesn't; he just hangs in there for dear life for a while. But eventually, the events should lead to fuel #2, the moment of "I can't take this anymore," where the narrator acts in his own behalf and makes a change. That's fuel from within. Usually points 2 and 4 on the storyboard use this kind of fuel.
Strong story structure goes back and forth in these main turning points--some fueled from without, some from within. You can also chart movement within each chapter, see the type of fuel you're using, make sure it's varied.
A book that offers nothing but external fuel (things happening to someone) can get tedious after a while. We don't see growth and change happening internally, decisions being made, will be exerted. The narrator remains a victim, which is essentially boring. The other extreme is also a deadend, in my opinion--all comes from within, and we aren't witness to the cause and effect that creates authentic change. When both are employed, you have a lovely balance, a rhythm, a believable person in charge of the story.
I'm midbook in Chemistry now, and although the writing style still delights my mind, my heart is cold to this narrator. I'd stop reading if I didn't have to read it. Things are happening, but the narrator has no reaction except angst and stagnation. No decisions are being made on any front. My reactions range from mild annoyance to irritation to boredom. The book got high praise from reviewers but it's not my kind of story because nobody is driving this train.
If a narrator stops driving the story, by the logic of cause (something happening) creating an effect (a reaction) creating another cause (the action she or he takes in response), is the story moving at all? That's a question to ask yourself for your weekly writing exercise. If you want to take it further, break down your story by external and internal fuel. What kind do you use, where? Is there variation, or do you depend wholly on one or the other?
I "grew up" as a writer in the era of NO BACKSTORY ALLOWED. I was given examples of stories and books that had zero backstory and engaged readers completely. So I worked hard to eliminate any pesky references to the past--whether summarized as backstory (background of the story) or presented as flashbacks in scene.
I got published, and all was well in my writing life sans backstory for many years. Flash forward to my MFA experience and advisers who began to cure me of my antagonistic attitude towards stalling out scene with flashback or inserting large swaths of the past as summary. These writers hinted that backstory was important, even as an explanation of character motive. Why people do what they do was becoming more interesting to readers than what they did.
My favorite books started having backstory sprinkled here and there, expertly placed, of course. Sometimes, as a reader, I didn't even notice we'd moved to the past. I also gained a lot more information and understanding of character from these little hints. So I began to practice ways to do it myself.
It's like that old conundrum of "show, don't tell," which has been drilled into writers for decades. Maybe it came about because writers do tend to "tell" their stories in their formative years. But all "show" doesn't quite work either. It has to be a balance.
Same with backstory. So I was thrilled when I came across this article in Poets & Writers magazine about the uses of backstory, aptly titled "I Wasn't Born Yesterday." It's the basis for your weekly writing exercise, if you want another view on how to insert the past more elegantly into your fiction or creative nonfiction. Here's the link. And if it doesn't work, go to www.pw.org/content and search for the title above. (Thanks again to Alison Murphy for sharing this link.)
After you read the article, take a 10-page section of your manuscript, however rough, and underline or highlight all the backstory--anything that takes place before the story begins. For instance, if we're in a hovel listening to a storyteller relate an event that happened fifteen years ago, the present-time story is taking place in the hovel and the backstory is the story he's relating. You'll learn some interesting things about your tendencies with backstory. At least I did!
I've long admired the novelist Alexander Chee, not just for his writing, but for his approach to writing. It's sensible, it works, and he shares his tips and ideas generously.
I'm taking an online course with Grub Street to kick start my next book, and the instructor, Alison Murphy, shared a wonderful article from the Yale Reviewwhere Chee offers 100 things he's found about writing a novel. The insights are so useful, and not just to novelists but anyone writing a book-length work, that I thought I'd share as this week's writing exercise.
Click here to read the article. (If for any reason the link doesn't work, go to yalereview.yale.edu and search for Alexander Chee. Enjoy!
You've been working hard on your manuscript and it feels in reasonable shape. Plus, you're reading articles and books about writing the perfect query letter. A sort of urgency, maybe even FOMO (fear of missing out), is growing inside. Is it too soon to begin the query process?
An all-important question. I can almost predict when a writer will ask it. What stage of manuscript, what stage of experience. I've asked it myself many times--because it's almost impossible to know when is too soon, when is too late. I'll share some of what I've learned in my own publishing journey and advice from those who have an inside view.
Most agents I talk with say that writers send their queries out way too early in the process. Most agents, nowadays, will want to see the manuscript or at least a very polished sample, if they like your query. Gone are the days when memoir or fiction writers could sell based on a query or proposal (memoir-hybrids, which combine personal experience with investigative topics, still sell on proposal). So your query, now, is an introduction to your complete manuscript and a promise that you have it ready.
Jane Friedman, in her excellent guide to publishing, Publishing 101: A First-Time Author's Guide, recommends waiting until you're absolutely sure. You only get one chance with an agent, 99 percent of the time. Friedman asks writers: "What's the rush?"
That's the question that fascinates me.
It's about two things: (1) your ability to hold creative tension and (2) your insight into your manuscript's readiness.
Holding creative tension is a learned process. It's not a skill most of us have when we begin. Signs of not being able to hold it are asking for feedback immediately on anything you write. Or getting bored and moving around your manuscript's topics a lot--not being able to go deep, just broad. I see it in myself whenever I am writing something challenging, maybe a topic that's out of my comfort zone or a section that demands a new skill I'm not quite confident in yet. I stop writing, go pace or eat or clean. If I do this enough, I recognize it as the inability to let the creative tension build inside. I discharge it too soon, because it's uncomfortable. If I hang in there, I often break through to a new level.
I see it in writers who break a cardinal rule of book writing and ask for feedback from friends or family on first drafts, saying, "Tell me if you like it." Really a silly question--what's the person going to say? If they love you, they'll probably say yes. You won't believe that, of course, because the request comes from the Inner Critic who is looking for permission to stop (Scroll down to last week's post for more about that). So you'll keep circling until you find someone who has a comment. But on a first draft--are you kidding?! Why does anyone need comments on first drafts, except encouragement to keep going.
Note that I'm talking to myself here, too. I've done this, many times.
Creative tension comes from lots of time. It's part of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours required to master any skill. Don't get down on yourself for not having it honed yet--it's like scolding yourself for not being a concert violinist after a year or two of lessons.
Holding creative tension is like watching a water balloon fill. The more you can wait, the more power you gather. The more muscle you can build.
The second reason writers want to query too soon is confusion about where their manuscript is, in the long journey to publication. They've written solo, without feedback. They've held the creative tension. They've got a good draft. But how good? How do they know where they stand?
Two sources await. One is peer review--writers groups, writing partners, classes. You've put tons of effort and time into this manuscript, so take a little more and get some feedback from your potential readers. I always use classes, groups, and partners at this early stage. They are the best response for the money and time, usually. Select a class that offers feedback from both instructor and other students, if you can. You won't be "workshopping" your entire manuscript but you'll get a sense if some of it works. Writing partners are often able to exchange chapters or larger sections. You find them in good classes. Most writers who go on to publish work this part of the process thoroughly before they go on to the next source: paid coaches and editors.
Friedman recommends hiring a professional to read your manuscript before you begin to query. You need someone who has been published a lot, someone who knows the industry and can tell you where you stand. If you haven't used the first step, of peer review, professional review will probably shock you. Editors don't hold back. I like to coach writers for several weeks after my review, because I know the shock effect of the professional feedback I give--writers are often stunned, and they need to be gentled through the steps of fixing, rethinking, restructuring. But many editors just report and leave you to it. Because this level of feedback costs thousands (up to $10,000 a manuscript by some editors), it's very worthwhile, again, to make use of peer review first. Make this one count; get your manuscript to a point where you get your money's worth.
I usually hire a pro a few times, in the journey of a book, because the first round tells me so much. I need another round because I am not sure of my fixes. I want a green light before I begin to query.
When you're ready to query at last, you'll have a complete manuscript (unless you're writing prescriptive nonfiction or memoir-nonfiction hybrid), a solid query letter that's also been edited by a pro, and a synopsis of your book. These are the items in hand. One agent I spoke with recently gets over 200 queries a week. When she likes something she asks for a sample (the first 20-50 pages). If that passes, then she'll want the full manuscript. Sometimes these requests come within weeks of querying, sometimes within months. If you're not ready, if you want too long to send what's asked for, you fall out of the agent's close vision and you may have to begin again.
Querying is so tempting. Enough already, I usually feel, when the urge to query arises. I'm tired of the long haul of writing, I want those fast rewards. I want a guarantee that I'm writing something interesting and publishable. I rein myself in, return to less-costly routes to get my answers. Save querying for when I'm really ready.
But most writers query too soon. We pile up those rejections--so many are obviously form rejections, telling us the agent's assistant's assistant read no more than the first line. We go back to basics and start again, crossing those agents off our future lists, since they won't look again at the same project. It's an expensive habit, to query too soon, but it's how we learn there's a smarter way.
Everyone faces the Inner Critic, no matter how experienced they are. Professional writers, even those who have published widely and won awards, might give it names. Sue Grafton calls hers "the ego," the part that's always concerned with "how are we doing?" I think of mine as an elderly, worried aunt, trying to keep me safe. Some Inner Critics are funny, joking with you inside your head as they mess with your mind--maybe teasing you about taking writing so seriously. Most are discouraging, even menacing.
But rarely is this inner voice truthful--its job is to sabotage all efforts to create art, to do anything with our writing that takes us out of the known and acceptable.
So why is such an obstacle there, in the first place? Is there a chance we, ourselves, create that critical voice? And is there any way to make friends with it, silence it enough so we can keep on writing?
I'm not talking about taming the voice with alcohol or drugs or other medicating behaviors. (You've probably read about famous writers in past and present who couldn't loosen up enough to write--or even function in their lives--otherwise.) That's not the only way.
How to Recognize the Inner Critic
I believe each writer has a negotiated contract with her or his Inner Critic. We've known each other a long time and we aren't the victims of these voices. They developed on purpose, as a kind of gatekeeper to protect the most tender, creative parts of ourselves. Maybe we grew up in an environment dangerous to art and creativity, and the Inner Critic is our inner warrior. In most cases, the contract has been in place for so many years, it's hard to believe we have any control over it.
I also believe that most of us, when first becoming aware of how the Inner Critic is keeping us stuck, choose to fight it instead of re-negotiating the contract. Common wisdom suggests that a fight makes sense--using any means we can. But in my experience that turns into a never-ending battle. Taking time away from our writing. Which is the Critic's plan, anyway.
Here's a way that's worked for me and what I teach students and clients in my classes who are serious about finishing their books: (1) Get to know your Critic and (2) make it into an ally, not an enemy.
First step: Get to know the signs of Inner Critic influence. It can be quite subtle. When I begin to think about how something will sound to others, versus how it sounds to me, I go on alert. When I find myself avoiding my writing for days, it's also a good sign that the Critic is hovering. Especially when I sudden feel that overwhelming urge to clean the entire house.
I've also found it appears in different guises at different stages of the writing process.
For instance, when you first begin to explore and plan out a book idea, the Inner Critic might rumble in the background, causing doubt that your ideas are serious enough or good enough, or asking why you think you have the creativity and stamina a book will take.
If you pass that gateway, the Critic might convince you to get feedback right away, before you even write a chapter. Ask someone close, it whispers, like a friend or partner--no matter that this person doesn't read books, or even like fiction. They'll tell you the truth, right? This, of course, is a not-so-subtle sabotage attempt, made real when your friend mentions missing commas, or your partner doesn't comment at all.
Critical voices sneak in as you revise, too. As you're fine-tuning steps, the Critic will tell you to focus on marketing instead--get that query letter written, send the manuscript off now, why wait. Or edit out those juicy parts because your relatives will shun you when they read them.
Believe me, it rears its head as you try to sell your book. In full battle mode, the Inner Critic can keep you awake at night with nightmares about rejection letters and the award your writing friend just won--and how you don't have a chance. Or if publication happens, the fears that all your secrets--and inadequacies--are laid bare. Plus, look at those terrible reviews.
Damaging, eh? Damn right. Time to get to know it so you can see past its irritating qualities into what it's really there to do--for you.
The Inner Critic as a Gatekeeper
For most of my writing life, I fought the Inner Critic as an enemy. It was only when I was writing my second self-help/memoir that I realized the Inner Critic's benign efforts to protect me. I'll share this story, from my book Your Book Starts Here, to illustrate the gatekeeper aspect of this inner voice.
I was writing a chapter about my business bankruptcy which happened during the 1980s recession. It was a terrible time in my life, and yet I knew I wanted to include it in my book, since I'd learned so much from it.
As I wrote, the Inner Critic began flooding me with feelings of shame about the failure I still felt. I noticed I was writing more slowly, even reluctantly, as the voice inside my head got louder. "Why bring up this all over again?" it argued. "Totally in the past, not helpful to anyone else. Let it be."
But I persisted, angry at its interference. Suddenly I had to run to the bathroom. I was very ill, vomiting and dizzy. As I lay on the bathroom floor, the cold tiles against my face, I wondered if this was the work of the Inner Critic. Had it escalated the sensation of shame so strongly, that it turned into a physical reaction?
After a while, I came back to my desk. I was shaken. How could I keep writing if I was going to make myself sick? But I knew in my heart that the bankruptcy story was important in my book. During the 1980s recession, I met so many people who were devastated by failing businesses and personal loss. I wanted to help them with my own and others' experience. How could I do this if I couldn't get past my own Inner Critic?
So I did what I tell my writing students to do: take a break and do a freewrite--write outside my story. I located my writing notebook under the manuscript pages. I began writing about being literally sick with shame. As I wrote, I got the idea to start a "treaty" letter to this Gatekeeper-as-Inner-Critic, thanking it for its help in keeping me safe all these years. I wrote about how I appreciated its role. I wrote how I understood why it brought caution to my writing life because it had my best interests at heart. With each sentence, I felt a lessening of tension in my gut, a softening in my heart. No longer waged in battle, I was able to see my Inner Critic in a new way.
Then I re-negotiated my contract.
I asked it kindly to step aside, to let me write this chapter. I explained why I needed to write it, reassured the Critic that this story didn't have to end up in the final book. I just needed to get it on paper. When the letter was finished, I closed my notebook and went back to my desk. The chapter flowed out better than I could've imagined and the Inner Critic was noticeably calmer the rest of that writing session. My Inner Critic only wanted to protect me from the shame of fame: people looking at me in a different way because I told about a business failure many years before. By collaborating with this gate-keeping voice, instead of rejecting its help, I was able to proceed.
My intuition was right-people needed to hear about self-forgiveness for big mistakes.
Your Weekly Writing Exercise: A Letter to the Inner Critic
This is an exercise we use in my class, Your Book Starts Here. Try it yourself if you're finding yourself stalled out or fighting your writing. It's a great way to bring more awareness of--and more thankfulness for--your Inner Critic, the first step to re-negotiating your contract with it.
1. Describe your Inner Critic. What does it sound like? Can you picture it? Does it remind you of someone in your past?
2. Now ask the Inner Critic what it's contributing to your life. Listen inside for anything that might come, even small things it does for you. How does it keep you safe? How does it keep you connected to others? How does it keep you responsible? How does it make you feel intelligent? How does it bring you respect of peers?
3. Finally, thank it for its help in these areas. If more comes to mind as you write, add your gratitude about those.
4. To close the exercise, write a request to the Inner Critic: ask it to step aside for a week. Re-negotiate your contract. Tell it you'll be exploring a new avenue in your writing and you feel you need freedom. Ask for its help in letting you try it.
If you'd like, mark on your calendar to follow up in a week. After one week, spend five minutes freewriting about any changes you've noticed. Are there fewer blocks in your creative process? Is your writing any different? Do you experience less negative self-talk?
Many writers I talk with are masters at procrastination, yet they manage to complete and publish books regularly. What's that about?
Here's what I've learned:
* they've also mastered a particular kind of self-talk
* they use routines or disciplines
* they work with self-imposed or other-imposed deadlines
* they promise themselves rewards when they meet a writing goal
I know about these. A professional journalist for over twenty years, I'm seriously driven by deadlines from agents, editors, and publishers. Deadlines make me get that writing done and kept me generating a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times syndicate for twelve years without missing one. Same with magazine article when I'm contracted to write. Getting paid made all the difference.
Externally imposed deadlines carry weight for me, and I don't procrastinate on those. But internally imposed ones, they don't do the same. Books, before I signed a contract with an agent or publisher, were completely in my timing. Nobody really cared if I completed them or not. I had to set my own deadlines, via editors-for-hire, writing partners, pitch conferences, or classes. I knew I wouldn't get my books done without this.
You've probably heard about Gretchen Rubin's new book, The Four Tendencies. Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, which launched her into the stratosphere as an author. I find her writing and ideas both terrifically annoying (because she's so often right) and intriguing. I do buy and read her books, snark about them for a while, then find myself using her philosophy to my advantage as a writer and human being.
The Four Tendencies is all about how we are motivated. Based on her research, she came up with four tendencies and believes most people can find a home in one. I don't care for the names she gave the tendencies, but again, after much grumbling, I find they fit well. I'll describe my take-away about them, from her book, and how they seem to apply to writers I know or work with.
Upholders are both internally and externally motivated. They'll get things done because they want to and because they promise they will. They can be rigid but they are very disciplined. Rubin herself is an upholder. One interesting caveat is that upholders will reneg on promises they feel go against their best interests, even if others are depending on them. They do what makes sense inside. As writers, they know how to structure ways to get their writing done and they will often produce well and be proud of it.
Obligers are externally motivated. They will only perform if they know someone is counting on them. They have a terrible time getting something done if they do not have a deadline that is connected to a team, a boss, a friend or family member who is depending on them. They show up beautifully for others, less so for themselves. They do great if there's a class where they are noticed if they don't turn in work, or with a coach or editor they pay to keep them producing.
Questioners are internally motivated. They do something only if it makes sense to them. They'll ask lots of questions and do tons of research to find the best way to do whatever they've decided to try. Sometimes the research can become an end in itself and keep them from writing, but they may not be able to comply with deadlines, if their questions aren't answered. Once they are, the questioner is good to go.
Rebels are the group that will hate to read this, hate to be categorized at all. They will not be motivated by anyone's deadline, neither other people's or their own. In fact, being true to themselves, what is happening inside, is vitally important to them, almost more than accomplishing anything. If someone suggests an idea or a new skill, rebels usually reject it immediately. They have to come up with the idea themselves for it to have merit. Unfortunately, they miss out on a lot of good stuff they could learn, but Rubin says rebels have a weakness: they'll do something out of love. In other words, if they love their book and REALLY want it to grow, they might listen to another writer, a teacher, or a coach. As long as that person says, "Your choice, but here's an option," the rebel is usually able to still follow their inner direction and get something done.
Read more about Rubin's four tendencies and take her little quiz here. Think about your own. Then, ask yourself how you might use this knowledge, even a little bit, to make your writing life happier, more successful, and more creatively satisfying.
And while you're musing, here's a great article on the latest way to procrastinate, called "procrastibaking," courtesy of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and my student, Rita (thanks, Rita!).
I'm always fascinated with how debut authors make it into print. And I know and respect Chris Mackenzie Jones from my years of teaching for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he works. So when his new book came out last month, I was keen to find out how he did it. Below is an interview with Chris which explains his idea for the book, how he found an agent and publisher, and what happened during the editing process.
Tell us how you came to write this book. Did you see a need for it? Was it a subject that fascinated you? Anything you want to share, please do.
In my almost nine years at the Loft Literary Center, I've run into hundreds-maybe thousands-of aspiring writers. I've listened to their ideas, questions, confusions, and doubts. And one of the things that became apparent to me over these years is that there are blind spots for most writers as they try to publish a first book.
I want to emphasize that I have tremendous respect for the books and resources already out there on craft, creativity, and the business side of publishing. But I've noticed those excellent books tend to focus on one issue: either issues of craft, or creativity and motivation, or publishing and marketing.
My book doesn't attempt to improve on those already excellent resources.Instead I tried to extend a broader lens by showing the complete paths to publication.I did this by interviewing a wide array of modern authors and weaving together their stories.
I tend to learn best through example, so I felt that portraying the stories of diverse debut authors would be the best way to demonstrate potential paths. My goal was not to depict a replicable path, but instead to share and illuminate the major decisions a modern author needs to consider, so that aspiring authors could better prepare themselves for the process.
Share your publication process, if you can (many of my readers are nonfiction authors). Did you submit a proposal? Why did you choose this press?
I came up with the idea for this book several years ago. I had never seen a book like it, but I didn't really know if something else like it existed, or if it was even a book that would be marketable. So I contacted Dawn Frederick. Dawn is the owner of Red Sofa Literary agency and also teaches several classes at the Loft. Over a cup of coffee, I explained my idea to her. She said it sounded intriguing, so we talked a lot more.
This led to me developing a book proposal and eventually a sample chapter, and then signing on with Dawn to represent me. She began pitching the book to several publishers, and I was so excited when the University of Chicago Press indicated an interest because their series of books on writing and editing are such valuable resources. I met with editor Mary Laur, and she told me two things.
First, she was very interested in my book. Second, she thought I should change the entire structure of the book, which I admit was daunting. I had initially envisioned having each author interview-and the story of that book's publication-appear as a standalone chapter. But Mary challenged me to instead think about the steps in the publication path, and to weave the stories together within that framework. This made the book a much more challenging project, but I'm so grateful because it also made it much stronger. By focusing the chapters on topics like support networks, setbacks, various craft issues, etc., it allowed me to cut out repetitive stories and get to the meat of the issues. It also meant the book was better organized, and easier for aspiring writers to browse for ideas on specific challenges or questions they have.
How is this book different from other books on writing? What does it offer readers?
I may have already answered this a bit in the first question, but basically, it attempts to paint with a broader brush the complete story of modern authors bringing their first book into the world. The chapters are broken down by topic: idea generation, developing a writing process, finding support, dealing with craft issues, developing authenticity and depth in the work, approaching revision, navigating potential publishing paths, dealing with setback, preparing to publish, promoting the book in the world, and then lessons learned.
So while there are already excellent resources out there that cover these topics, there are few that cover them all at once.My hope is that this format can better help an aspiring writer envision their own unique path.
How did you find your debut authors? What was it like interviewing them?
I started by developing a master list of potential people to invite. My initial criteria were three-fold: 1) they needed to be a debut author, ideally within the last five years, but certainly within the last ten; 2) they needed to be diverse in their backgrounds, genres, approaches, and stories; and finally, 3) the authors needed to have found some level of success.
This last criteria was the most vague for me. I didn't just mean runaway bestseller, because that is not the only kind of publishing experience. In fact, it's the exception for a debut author. So instead, I wanted to find authors who would label their first book, in one way or another, a success for them. Maybe it won an award, maybe it gave them the credibility to move onto an even more successful project, maybe it sold way more than they thought it would. But in one way or another, these books could all be called successful.
Oh, and of course, there was a fourth criteria: were they willing to do it? This wasn't just a run-of-the-mill interview process. I asked a lot out of these authors. I conducted two- to three-hour initial interviews with them and had several email follow-up exchanges. They were each so generous with their stories and their time. This project could have died on the vine if the authors weren't open and generous, and to a person, they surpassed my expectations.
What were the biggest challenges in crafting the structure of the book?
It was definitely changing the structure-from profiling each author chapter by chapter to breaking it down by subject matter instead. This also meant I needed to wait until all the interviews were scheduled and completed before I could start to write much. Then I needed to comb through the transcripts of the long interviews and look for themes and commonalities, so I could create a structure, then go back again and categorize their comments into the planned structure.
Finally, I needed to bring their thoughts together, and describe their stories in ways I hoped would be engaging or thought-provoking for others. When I read interviews with multiple people, one of my favorite things is when it feels like people that weren't in the room with each other are talking back and forth. I don't know if I've achieved that here, but I hope I have, because that was one of my goals.
Anything special or unique that you learned along the way?
Yes! When I set out to write this book, I never intended to find a single path that others could follow. There is no one path, and it would be silly to try to suggest otherwise.
But I think I was surprised by something on this matter. There is something related and shared between all the stories in my book, and I think it might be the biggest lesson an aspiring writer can learn.
Every writer I interviewed faced a big moment of setback or doubt-big enough that they thought about quitting. That includes me, by the way.
What I learned in writing this book is that the most important trait an aspiring writing can develop has nothing to do with writing chops, insider connections, or strong branding and marketing plans.It has to do with finding the will to carry on. Faced with personal and professional doubts and setbacks, these writers kept writing and kept trying to improve. They persevered.
For more information or to order Chris's book, click here.
This week, I've been studying a page from the book-structure chart used by mega-successful author, J.K. Rowling, for her Harry Potter stories. You can access it here. The chart is handwritten and hard to read, but it's fascinating to see what she uses to keep an overview of her story. (Thanks to Rita, one of my private clients, for sharing the link.)
So many published writers, when interviewed, talk about the need to organize their story structure. Storyboards are useful to a point. But charts and lists come in very handy when the first draft is complete and you're on to revision.
In Rowling's chart, you'll see a column for the date of that plot point, the plot point itself, a column called "prophecy" which alludes to the greater meaning of that event in Harry's story and the prophecy that haunts him, as well as several other interesting things she keeps track of. Even if you're not an HP fan, it's educational to see how much charting goes behind the scenes with books by savvy writers.
In my private coaching, I use three to four different charts, depending on where my client is in the process of developing her or his book. Basic charts in fiction or memoir help track what's happening, the outer story, and how it relates to the narrator or main character's growth. In nonfiction we look at "talking points," the nonfiction version of plot points, and how they sequence like stepping-stones to get the point across. In all genres, we look at the difference between writer's intention and reader's take away, which can be vast, illuminating, and essential in revision. More advanced charts examine the inner and outer obstacles for the character or narrator and how the reader perceives those within the narrative arc.
For this week's writing exercise, I encourage you to start a chart. First, make a list of things you track in your story. Here are a few to consider:
Outer event--what is happening onstage (visible, audible, movement perceived)
Date of this event/day and time
Who is narrating this event (point of view)
Who else is present
Location (as specific as possible)
Primary sense in the scene (used by writer Celeste Ng--a very cool thing to consider)
Your intent as writer for this scene--what does it deliver?
Once you have your list, use Excel, Word, or an app, or create a handwritten version like Rowling's, and begin charting the first 25 pages of your story so far. It can be rough, even just ideas. Work forward as much as you can.
I recently redid my own chart for my second novel and discovered some missing elements, which, when fixed, made the chapters sing. I hadn't even realized what wasn't yet in place. That's the beauty of charts. They don't feel creative to most of us, but they organize the writing so more creativity can shine through.