Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
As a girl, I absolutely adored the Little House on the Prairie series. I would wake early in the morning, sit at the kitchen table, and devour each book. I was inspired by young Laura and her adventures on the prairie. What I could have never known then is what an inspiration Wilder the author would be for me as an adult.
Wilder didn’t publish her first book, Little House in the Big Woods, until she was 64. During the earlier part of her life, she had taught and farmed and raised a family. She had written a bit on the side for small local publications in her fifties, but it wasn’t until her retirement investments were wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash that she wrote Little House in the Big Woods. The book was published in 1932, and it was the start of a writing career that has resulted in the beloved TV series, spin-off books, and millions of copies sold. Like Frank McCourt, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes was published when McCourt was 66, Wilder is proof that it’s never too late to write a book.
I’ve previously written about why I believe that it is not only possible but in some ways advantageous to start a writing career after the age of 50 (see “Is it Too Late to Start Writing After 50?”). I am all for older writers taking the plunge, but it is important to be aware that it will be a different process than starting a writing a career at 25 may have been.
Here are a few things that are particularly important in order to start writing after 50.
First and foremost: Set realistic goals. Is this book going to change your life? No. After publication, you will not be a different fifty-plus-year-old person. You won’t be richer (most likely) or instantly more popular or somehow more glamorous. You will be pretty similar to the person you were before, only this fifty-plus-year-old person has written a book. You might get some good reviews and some nice invitations to speak, but, for the vast majority of authors, your life will not be utterly and instantly and dramatically transformed as the result of having written a book. So ask yourself: What are you hoping to get out of the experience?
Finding time to write is hard at any age, and at this stage in your life, you likely have more commitments and responsibilities than you did in your twenties. But the need for self-discipline when writing a book cannot be underestimated, and, establishing writing discipline is not easy. Stop trying to “find time” to write; you need to make time.
Also, keep in mind that writing is a solitary exercise. You must schedule and tolerate alone time. I am a morning person. I devoted time in the wee hours of the morning to write. I also write better in blocks of time, so I utilized weekends and blocks of vacation time for writing. I sought out quietude, as I don’t focus well with background noise. I found scenic places in the mountains of Woodstock, Vermont, and by the ocean in Sanibel Island, Florida, to write; changing environments over time helped to spark my creativity. While your preferred timing and choice of venue may differ from mine, you must allocate time to write on a regular basis. Document your progress in a journal, as you may find that certain days and times are more productive for you and foster better discipline. That said, it’s also important to pace yourself. If you need to take a break, take one. Walk in nature. Have coffee with a friend. Taking scheduled writing breaks throughout your writing process is a healthy habit and should help to keep your thoughts and ideas fresh. Try to balance breaks with a sense of accountability. Just make sure that you are setting goals—they could be time-based goals or word count goals—and meeting them.
When taking on something new, maintain good health by staying in shape both mentally and physically. It’s difficult to stay disciplined and write constructively if you are stressed and exhausted. A daily meditation practice (even as short as 5 minutes per day) will help you to discipline your mind—to de-stress, focus, and erase mental blocks. It will help silence the critical voices in your head. Meditation will help to train your mind to get into the “writing zone” more quickly.
Confidence and drive
As a writer, you must have self-confidence in your ideas and your ability to successfully execute the work. If you’re a bit of a perfectionist like me, you must accept that your first draft will not be perfect. Nor will your second draft.
All writers feel frustrated at times and want to quit. So, it’s not just you. You may have, at this stage in your life, reached some level of success in other arenas, so it may be exasperating to find yourself a novice again. Voice the commitment to hang in there when things get tough. I found that continually learning more about the skill of writing as well as about the publishing industry helped me to more fully embrace this new discipline. A can-do attitude is essential.
Writing is a solo endeavor, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it all alone. You may want to join a writing group or engage a writing coach so that you have regular check-ins and can receive encouragement and support as well as constructive feedback. I worked on my book manuscript with the help of a developmental editor to keep my writing on track and to have a system of checks and balances in place.
I also highly recommend teaming up with younger people in the industry. You may be accustomed at this stage in your life to dealing with the most senior people in their fields. However, while they might have some perspective because of age, you don’t necessarily need that, as you have your own. A younger person offers fresh eyes, with accompanying insights and clarity about the publishing industry. The same way you don’t want to be judged for your age, don’t assume that because they are younger, they don’t have anything to offer. A little bit of youthful energy might be just the magic ingredient that you need.
Recognize that publishing is a business. If you go through a traditional publishing house, publishers need to be certain that you have the ambition and fortitude to do all the things that it takes to sell books. Showing up with a sense of vitality will help to improve your chances of getting an agent or an editor to take on your work, but ultimately what matters is what you put on the page. There’s no reason that age needs to be a part of the conversation you have with publishing professionals. On the other hand, your life experience affect your writing and your approach to a new endeavor, so, if your age offers you an advantage, use it! I did—and I wrote a better book than I ever could have written twenty years ago. And you can, too. Just always remember: Your talent doesn’t have an expiration date.
January 1, 1806 | Stanford On Avon, Northamptonshire
“A burial is not the way to start a day, let alone a year.”
Cranny—Lucien Charles Sedgewick, 12th Duke of Cranleigh—took no comfort from his friends’ grunts of agreement. The corpse-grey morning seemed surly, as if it knew 1806 had arrived with Death as its companion.
And a close friend—Edward Melton, heir to the Earl of Highgate—was Death’s first prize.
Faust squeezed Cranny’s shoulder. “Come on, Cranny. It’s time.”
Cranny trudged over the snowy ground and under the earl’s stricken gaze, joined his friends around the funeral wagon. For the first time in two years their close-knit group of ten were together, though not as they’d imagined. Not with Edward in the casket. Even Chipper had left his sick bed and made the arduous journey north, though ill health rendered him too weak to do more than walk behind the casket.
They carried Edward’s casket into the Melton family graveyard where gravestones huddled together like hardened conspirators, forever guarding their grim spoils, even as time and the elements erased the epitaphs they bore. Solemn funerary attendants stepped forward. The urge to scream at them to be gone clawed at Cranny’s throat, but dear, departed Father’s edict—whipped into his flesh and burned by pain into his memory—prevailed.
Do nothing to bring shame on the family name.
They surrendered the casket to the attendants and soon the drone of the clergyman’s voice joined the low moan of the wind. Eyes narrowed against the whirling snow, Cranny braced himself. As the casket descended into the grave a great knot formed in his throat, every creak of the straining ropes hitting his brain with all the power of a blacksmith’s hammer striking the anvil. Edward did not belong in the waiting maw in the cold earth. Not at twenty-six.
Guilt crunched Cranny’s heart, and his blood hammered in his ears while his muscles bunched and quivered with an odd need to do… violence. Some unspeakable cur had attacked Edward and his men and left them dead or dying while the snow bloomed scarlet with their blood. And it is all my bloody fault. His chest hollowed and the ache behind his ribs sharpened, snatching his breath. His vision blurred. God’s teeth. I will not cry like a whelp. Spine rigid, he thrust his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat and pulled in a lungful of frigid air.
He would see the murderer hang. Dammed if he wouldn’t.
Another gust of wind whipped about him, its icy claws slapping at his greatcoat. What lay beyond the grave? The image of a small, white-haired ghost flashed through his head on a stumbling heartbeat. What in Hades? Perhaps the memory was a reminder that life was fragile. Transient. Perhaps it was a reminder he had yet to fulfill his obligations to his dukedom, lest he fall victim to the family curse and end up in an early grave too.
God. Death was a damned sight more appealing …
No one had more lovers,
No one needed love more
Than PLEASURE’S DAUGHTER.
She had seven lovers
But only one love and he was…
The King of England.
A “genre” is a type of something, for our purposes a type of novel. Sci-fi, mystery, detective, western, thriller, fan fiction, YA … these are just some of many popular genres of the “novel”—which, once upon a time, was itself a literary genre.
A genre implies all the conventions and expectations that adhere to it. As John Mullen explains in How Novels Work, his superbly insightful survey of fictional techniques, “A genre is not just a category for literary critics, it is also a resource for the writer. … Genre offers a challenge by provoking a free spirit to transcend the limitations of previous examples.” Genre gives the writer something invaluable: a set of requirements or constraints to work with or against, rules to obey, or flout—or both.
Novelists and critics alike haven’t always viewed genre in such a positive light. As G.K. Chesterton, whose own detective novels featured a priestly sleuth named Father Brown, lamented back in 1901: “Many people do not realize that there is such a thing as a good detective story; it is to them like speaking of a good devil.” While some, like George Orwell, admitted to enjoying Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, even Orwell drew the line at taking genre fiction seriously.
Others were even less charitable. “Reading mysteries,” Edmund Wilson wrote, “is a kind of vice that, for silliness and minor harmfulness, ranks somewhere between crossword puzzles and smoking.” Such appraisals didn’t go unchallenged. When Wilson’s views went public in 1944, they provoked more letters of protest than anything he’d ever written. Among the dissenters was Raymond Chandler, whose detective novels Wilson judged inferior to anything by Graham Greene. Chandler’s response? “Literature is bunk.”
More recently when President Obama awarded horror novelist Stephen King the Medal of Arts, it caused an uproar among critics, including Harold Bloom, who sniffed, “King is an immensely inadequate writer … [of] what used to be called ‘penny dreadfuls’”— another genre.
Given the rise in both popularity and sophistication of the young adult novel over the past ten years, it’s no longer so easy to look down on genres from the lofty heights of “literary fiction” (itself a genre, albeit with an exalted air, and not really comparable with others since its conventions aren’t fixed). Far from being frowned upon, genre is seen, especially by younger writers, as a vital and vitalizing force. More and more literary novelists—David Mitchell, Annie Proulx, Gish Jen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami, and Kazuo Ishiguro, to name a few—incorporate or pay tribute to genre through hybrid works. The Hunger Games is romance. So is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Emily St. John Mandel’s critically acclaimed Station Eleven is science fiction. Literary fiction’s subsumption by other genres and vice-versa has become so pervasive one must wonder what distinction if any can still be claimed by “pure” literary fiction beyond … uhm … pretentiousness.
Tempting though it may be to flout or otherwise challenge the conventions of genre, there’s also a lot to be said for playing by the rules. In the case of this first page, the genre is the regency romance, a subgenre of the romance novel, the conventions of which Margot Livesey outlines for us in The Hidden Machinery, her delightful book of essays on the novelist’s craft:
The lovers are unlikely in some obvious way.
They meet early and are then separated—either physically or emotionally—for most of the narrative.
There must be significant obstacles—“dragons and demons”—to be overcome.
Changes of setting, even from drawing room to street, are vital for revealing the characters and moving the narrative forward.
Many minor characters will assist the lovers on their journey.
A subplot, or two, is required to keep the lovers apart, to allow time to pass, to act as a foil to the main plot, and to entertain the readers.
Set in the time of the British Regency (1811–1820), regency romances evolved from the “novel of manners” as practiced by Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, who dramatized the domestic affairs of the English gentry. The modern regency—written long after but set in the same period—was first popularized by Georgette Heyer, who penned several dozen between 1935 and her death in 1974.
With its provocative opening (“A burial is not the way to start a day, let alone a year”), our first page holds out a model of the form. Though starting right off with dialogue has its risks (namely the confusion attendant with confronting readers with an ungrounded, disembodied conversation-in-progress), it also gets right down to business—namely the business of evoking character, as this opening dialogue does very well. We haven’t met Cranny; we don’t even know his name, yet already this dialogue nails him to the page. It does more: it nails down the point-of-view. Until further notice—to the bottom of this first page, anyway—everything will be filtered through Cranny’s gloomy sensibilities.
That filtering makes use of a technique known as “free indirect discourse” by which the narrator’s voice is colored by the point-of-view character. Note, in the fourth paragraph, the choice of modifiers and verbs (“trudged”, “stricken,” “arduous”), how they convey Cranny’s grim outlook.
Fifth paragraph: the gravestones “huddled like hardened conspirator’s”—more Cranny. All is filtered through his perspective, his personality. Though the “free” in free indirect means that it could be, nothing here is neutral, objective; everything is flavored by our protagonist’s bleak disposition. It’s the salt in this stew.
Rather than attempt to describe characters’ abstract feelings (hard if not impossible), wise writers evoke them as concretely as possible. With “Guilt crunched Cranny’s heart, and his blood hammered in his ears while his muscles bunched and quivered” this author does just that, balancing abstractions (“guilt”) with active, solid nouns (“blood/muscles”) and verbs (“hammered/quivered”). This is but one of many approaches the author uses to render Cranny’s emotional state, from dipping into his thoughts (“I will not cry like a whelp”), to precisely rendering his visible gestures (“he thrust his hands into the pockets of his greatcoat and pulled in a lungful of frigid air”).
Whatever else good writing does, it evokes character. A good rule for determining what to put in and what to leave out: If it evokes character, keep it.
Through a wisely chosen, thoroughly engaged close third-person narration, this author injects us richly, vividly, clearly and precisely into this opening scene, one we inhabit thoroughly. The weather (the wind, the whirling snow), sounds, temperature, thoughts, memories, opinions, and attitudes—all are there, as are actions, gestures, etc. “Literary” or not, genre or no genre, this is good writing.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Note from Jane: In 2014, I made the leap from conventional, full-time employment to a full-time freelance career. On the one-year anniversary of that transition, I wrote a feature about it for Writer’s Digest magazine, detailing my earnings to the dollar. In honor of the release of my new book, The Business of Being a Writer, I’m re-publishing that article here today, with those first-year earnings.
Here’s the truth: I never had a freelancing dream. I was happily and continuously employed for 15 years after college graduation. Yet as I grew in experience and knowledge, I found myself increasingly at odds with the red tape and inevitable office politics that come with even the best of jobs. I started to wonder if I’d do better and be happier on my own.
Even though I’ve spent most of my career working in the publishing industry, I doubted my ability to build a sustainable freelance life. There are so many negative messages surrounding freelance careers—how hard it is, how you have to be prepared to hustle, how it’s more competitive than ever, and let’s not forget: the great masses are all trying to write and will do so for free.
I internalized those negative messages. I thought about all the reasons I would fail: I don’t like pitching, I’m a terrible networker, I procrastinate, and I’m not willing to work long hours.
After several years of weighing the pros and cons, I made the jump, with all my fears intact. (The fears never really go away.) Now I’m one year into my freelance life, and I’ve beaten my previous annual income by more than 50 percent.
Your motivations or desires to freelance might be different than mine, but the process of transitioning away from conventional employment will raise similar questions and psychological barriers. While I was positioned to do well given my career history, it was by no means a golden ticket. Someone else with the same set of experiences and connections could find themselves empty-handed and struggling (and in fact I know of some who are). So what laid the groundwork?
3 Key Qualities of a Successful Freelance Career
Here’s the good news: You don’t need all three of the following assets for a successful freelance career. You can focus on one to begin.
1. Connections and relationships
Freelancers’ first clients often come from previous employers or an existing network. You tap the connections you already have, and build from there. Each job you successfully complete or each client you satisfy creates word of mouth. Each new editor you meet holds the seeds of new relationships with other editors. Former colleagues who believe in your work refer new opportunities your way. This is networking at its heart.
Writer Grace Dobush, who has been freelancing full-time for three years, says that the biggest thing that prepared her for success was networking. For example, she met her editor at Wired through calculated stalking: determining who at the magazine might be willing to meet her and then reaching out to editors, finally meeting one in person and developing a relationship with her. “You’ve got to create the career you want yourself, knitting together the relationships you create with the threads that interest you. No one else can do that for you.”
If you’re literally starting from zero, relationship building might not be the area to focus on, especially if you lack confidence in your writing skills or are still building your body of work. Even I personally don’t focus on building connections; instead, I try to draw people to me, which brings us to …
My biggest strength has been putting myself out into the community, continuously and consistently through online media. As marketing guru Seth Godin has said, “I think that showing up every day for 10 years or more in a row gives people a hint as to what it is you’re actually trying to accomplish.”
I’ve been blogging since 2008. I wasn’t very good at first, and even three years in, I considered my effort fairly average and a bit unfocused. I wasn’t particularly charismatic, witty, or a big personality—but I was attentive and genuinely wanted to help people. I said yes to every interview and guest post opportunity, even if it meant free labor. People tend to find me because of all my self-produced online work and the surrounding footprint through social media. When it came time to jump, I was visible to an audience I had built over years.
Similarly, Benjamin Vogt, a freelance writer and gardening consultant (and former writing professor!), says a key factor has been his attitude of saying yes to everything. “If someone asks you to talk or write an article or sends you questions, address it right away. I’d also say being far too active on social media has helped make connections.” Vogt’s passion for sustainable and native gardening led him to blog, which led him to a community, which led him to better blog posts, which led to freelance articles, which led to garden tours and garden consults, which led to a weekly column.
Today, I continue to help people and organizations in ways that don’t benefit my bottom line, to increase my visibility for paying opportunities. But you do eventually have to make difficult judgment calls on which opportunities really deserve “yes.”
Many experts advise writing or freelancing on the side until it overtakes your full-time work, to reduce your risk and experience a more seamless transition. Not everyone has the luxury of time, but if you do, then take small steps to build the assets just discussed, not to mention your portfolio. You’ll gain confidence and resources needed for freelancing—or you may realize that it isn’t actually the dream you thought it was.
When I initially started blogging and created my own website, I didn’t intend for it to pave the way to a freelance career. Rather, I wanted to build an identity that wasn’t tied to any particular company; I wanted to be visible to future employers and opportunities. The happy result? When I had only three months from the time I gave notice at my full-time job until I was fully independent, I already had four years of groundwork laid, if you start the clock from the year 2010, when I first put up my website.
Before writer and editor Ginger Moran went freelance, she took several years to explore the alternatives to full-time employment. She accepted side gigs coaching other writers, and took time to get her book and essays published. Then she added certifications as a life coach and creativity coach that rounded out her degree in creative writing. She reached out to mentors and advisors, and put all her spare time and energy into her future freelance life. “When it was time to leap, it was still scary, but it was worth the risk. I have never once for a single second regretted it,” she says
5 Steps You Can Take Right Now to Build a Freelance Life
If you’re already freelancing or writing on the side, list these gigs religiously in a spreadsheet. How did these opportunities come to you? How much did you earn? How much time did you spend on the work in relation to what you earned? It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.
Establish your own website under the name you will write or work under. (This could also be a company name.) Don’t wait until the day you open for business; do it on the day you decide you’ll develop a business.
Commit to a weekly practice that Grace Dobush did: Meet at least one new person a week. Invite a new person to coffee or lunch (and offer to pay!), or attend a networking event with the goal of building at least one new professional relationship. But, as Dobush advises, don’t meet only people who could give you work. Meet other writers, marketing people, tech entrepreneurs and nonprofit folks. Allow network serendipity to work its magic.
Research industry events or conferences where you can meet people important to your freelance life. Invest in attending that event every year; go to see people and to be seen. Plus, showing up where the opportunities are concentrated can be critical for those trying to build a freelance career outside of major cities.
Aside from proactively building connections, brainstorm how you can be more visible to your intended audience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution; everything starts with your assets and what you can comfortably sustain. My key asset was a blog. Assets you might have or build: a podcast, a highly visible volunteer position, a regular teaching gig, guest writing for influential websites, a reading or event series you organize in your town, a witty Twitter account. As writer Bethany Joy Carlson says, “I can’t control whether someone chooses to do business with me, but I can control whether and how I am getting my message out to my audience.”
While you might have a specific type of desired work, assume and plan from the outset that you’ll accept many types of gigs as you build up the more desirable opportunities. This has been true for freelancer Andi Cumbo-Floyd. “Sometimes, I think we consider ourselves to have failed or sold out if we do things that seem less artistic or more commercial,” she says, “But those things allow me the space to do what I really love. If I need to write web copy and tweets to have that opportunity, I’m happy to do it.”
One income stream I’ve developed that I never quite expected has been editing queries and book proposals. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to offer such critiques while making it worthwhile for both me and the client, but eventually I found the right model—which still continues to evolve. Writer and editor Lydia Laurenson says that this evolution is inevitable. “After ongoing conversations with other independents, you will learn that these failures and pivots are okay, and you will start to see helpful patterns in them, but the fact remains that resilience to failure is a key quality.”
Understand the Very Real Psychological Barriers
When I spoke to other freelancers about their transitions, fear was a consistent part of the equation. Dobush says, “Even the most successful freelancers have moments of doubt and are often on the cusp between making it and not making it.”
Looking back, I probably could’ve have transitioned successfully a couple of years before I finally made the move, but the insecurity of not having a regular paycheck prevented me, as well as fear of not knowing if I was suited to the freelance lifestyle.
After making the switch, what I discovered is that until you truly commit to giving up the day job, it’s hard to behave as a freelancer would because your head space, time, and energy remain consumed with traditional employment. You can be blind to the opportunities around you. At some point, you must leap and assume the net will be there. The great writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”
I find that largely true, but be careful when asking other people if you should commit to freelance. By and large, people did not encourage me; mostly, they made me second-guess myself. Even when I announced I was leaving full-time employment, despite the majority of positive messages, I still received warnings, e.g., “You’ll go from a full-time job to a 24/7 job,” and “Welcome to the cliff. No parachute, golden or otherwise.”
Even after a successful first year, it still amazes me every month to see the money come in consistently. I’m really making that happen? I’m proud of the accomplishment but fear still lurks that one day the “magic” will run out. I’ve come to accept that feeling as part of my new job.
My First Year of Freelance Income (before taxes)
Online teaching. This includes all teaching I do on my own as well as in partnership with other companies.
Consulting. My clients include authors, publishers, universities, nonprofits, literary journals, and digital media companies. This bucket is a mix of short-term hourly consulting as well as long-term arrangements that extend six months or more.
University teaching. I worked as an adjunct at the University of Virginia.
Query and proposal editing. I offer writers assistance with their submissions materials.
Writing. This is traditional “freelance writing”—where I’m paid for my writing contributions to magazines, anthologies, websites, and so on.
Manuscript editing. This is an area where I turn down more work than I accept, since I prefer other jobs.
Affiliate income. This is primarily from being an Amazon affiliate, but I occasionally get referral fees when I recommend classes or other products.
Speaking. I speak at about a dozen events per year, but they tend to pay little. I accept invitations because it helps keep me in front of potential clients and other opportunities.
Book sales. This is from my self-published work, Publishing 101, released in late 2014.
How Has My Income Changed Since 2015?
Today, the lion’s share of my income comes from helping writers with their submissions materials and business consulting with individuals, businesses, and organizations. Online teaching is next, followed by writing. In 2018, it’s possible that writing work will become my second biggest revenue generator, partly due to the success of my email subscription newsletter, The Hot Sheet. Speaking is my smallest earnings category, which I hope to change by increasing my speaking fees. I stopped taking manuscript editing work and I stopped adjuncting at the University of Virginia.
Thousands of people dream of writing and publishing full-time, yet few have been told how to make that dream a reality. Some working writers may have no more than a rudimentary understanding of how the publishing and media industry works, and longtime writing professors may be out of the loop as to what it takes to build a career in an era of digital authorship, amid more competition—and confusing advice—than ever.
Releasing today, my newest book, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), takes it on principle that learning about the publishing industry will lead to a more positive and productive writing career. While business savvy may not make up for mediocre writing, or allow any author to skip important stages of creative development, it can reduce anxiety and frustration. And it can help writers avoid bad career decisions by setting appropriate expectations of the industry, and by providing tools and information on how to pursue meaningful, sustainable careers in writing and publishing on a full-time or part-time basis.
Despite ongoing transformations in the publishing industry, there are fundamental business principles that underlie writing and publishing success, and those principles are this book’s primary focus. Writers who learn to recognize the models behind successful authorship and publication will feel more empowered and confident to navigate a changing field, to build their own plans for long-term career development.
One underlying assumption in this guide is that many creative writers—particularly those pursuing formal writing degrees—want to build careers based on publishing books. It seems like common sense: literary agents sell and profit from book-length work, not single stories or essays; and getting anyone (whether a reader or a publisher) to pay for a book is easier than getting them to pay for an online article or poem.
But book publishing is often just one component of a full-time writing career. Perhaps you’ve read personal essays by debut authors “exposing” the fact that the average book advance does not equate to a full-time living for even a single year. Such essays reveal unrealistic expectations about the industry—or magical thinking: I will be the exception and earn my living from writing great books.
My guide does offer guidance on how to get a book published, a milestone that remains foundational to most creative writing careers. But because very few people can make a living solely by writing and publishing books, it goes further, showing why this one pursuit should not constitute one’s entire business model. Earnings can come as well from other sectors of publishing, other activities that involve writing and the types of skills one picks up as a writer. Online media and journalism, for example, now play a significant role in even fiction writers’ careers, so The Business of Being a Writerspends considerable time on skills and business models important to the digital media realm. When combining these skills with the entrepreneurial attitude and knowledge this guide teaches, a writer will be better prepared to piece together a writing life that is satisfying and sustainable. In the end, some writers may discover they prefer other types of writing and publishing—and not just because it’s tough to make a living wholly from books.
If you are a writer looking for the business education you feel you never received, I hope this book provides the missing piece. While I try to be encouraging, and want you to feel capable and well informed, I don’t sugar-coat the hard realities of the business. When you decide to pursue a writing career, you’ll experience frustration, again and again, and not just in the form of rejection letters. But it helps to know what’s coming and that your experience is normal. Writers who are properly educated about the industry typically feel less bitterness and resentment toward editors, agents, and other professionals. They are less likely to see themselves as victimized and less likely to be taken advantage of. It’s the writers who lack education on how the business works who are more vulnerable to finding themselves in bad situations.
You may have heard the argument before: There are only a finite number of possible story types.
No matter how much we might wish otherwise, creativity is as limited as we are. We can never invent something truly unique. The most we can hope for is to sprinkle a dash of novelty into the same worn-out trope and, with an illusionist’s flourish, let out a cry of ta da! and hope no one in the crowd sees through the trick.
And so, the argument goes, though there are millions or billions or even trillions of stories in existence, there are really only a very limited amount of stories possible.
I’d like to argue that there are just two.
I know. You’ve probably heard a different number before. And I’ll get to that in a bit. First, though, I’m going to deal with a more pressing question:
Why should you care?
The thing is, it actually matters. Like a chef, knowing what defines the concoction you’re about to create will help you figure out how to make it work.
And how to stop it from failing.
The two categories are:
Stories about abnormal characters, and;
Stories about abnormal situations.
Superman. Sherlock Holmes. James Bond. Gandalf. Shrek. All these characters have something in common.
They’re nothing like you or me.
They’re the basis of the first type of story. Books about abnormal characters—characters that are different to the average person on the street. Maybe he has superpowers. Maybe she’s unnaturally brilliant. Whatever the case, these characters have something that makes them stand out from the crowd.
And that’s the essence of what makes these stories work. Take James Bond, for example. In Thunderball, 007 has to stop a powerful crime syndicate after they steal two atomic bombs. Sure, it’s an interesting plot, but that’s not what catches your attention. Even before you read the story, you know that Bond will dodge the bullets, survive the explosions, and defuse the bombs—all while keeping his tie immaculately straight.
It’s James Bond himself that captivates the reader.
The situation the abnormal character faces is far less important. It could be an abnormal situation—like the plot of Thunderball—or even a perfectly normal situation. In Jim Butcher’s Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours, a large portion of the book deals with Spiderman trying to coach a basketball team. If Peter Parker was just a regular person, a story about him trying to coach a basketball team would be pretty dull. But he’s not a regular person. He’s Spiderman.
And that makes all the difference.
The reverse is true as well. Even if the situation is so abnormal that your character struggles to handle it, the book can still fall squarely in the “abnormal character” category. The Dresden Files—one of my favorite series and also from Jim Butcher—is an example of such a story. Dresden is a wizard PI who frequently finds himself over his head, fighting forces beyond his abilities. Yet there’s no doubt that these books are all about Dresden. The plot may be intriguing, but it’s Dresden that sells the books.
More often that not, it’s these abnormal characters that those endless series get written about. Take James Patterson’s Alex Cross series, which is currently up to its 25th book. Think about that for a moment. What type of plot can be so complicated that it needs twenty five books to tell? But that’s exactly the point. Alex Cross doesn’t have that many books written about him because of the plot. He has that many books because his character is so interesting, readers want to keep reading about him—over and over again.
As a final note, books about abnormal characters don’t necessarily have to be narrated by that character. None of the Sherlock Holmes books are narrated from the detective’s point of view. Yet a book with Sherlock Holmes isn’t just a mystery—it’s a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
And then we have the other type of book. These stories are about perfectly normal people—people like you or me. They have ordinary skills, live ordinary lives, and go to ordinary jobs. They’re boring, and on their own, no one would be interested in reading about them.
What makes them interesting is the situation.
In Teresa Driscoll’s I Am Watching You, Ella—a perfectly normal person—overhears some people flirting and realizes that two of them are escaped convicts. The next day, she finds out one of the girls has disappeared, and she becomes consumed with guilt, knowing she could have stopped them but didn’t.
These stories work because they make you ask that one thrilling question:
What would I do in this situation?
These books work the way they do precisely because their characters are so normal. In Stephen King’s Cujo, the antagonist might simply be a rabid dog, but to Donna Trenton and her family, Cujo is a nightmare come to life—as evidenced in this scene:
As if aware he was being observed, Cujo looked up, his muzzle dripping. He looked at her with an expression (could dogs have an expression? she wondered madly) that seemed to convey both sternness and pity … and again Donna had the feeling that they had come to know each other intimately, and that there could be no stopping or resting for either of them until they had explored this terrible relationship to some ultimate conclusion.
Now imagine taking that scene and replacing Donna Trenton with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator.
Suddenly, all the horror is gone. So Cujo is a rabid dog? Terminator is a “Cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.” That ultimate conclusion Donna was so afraid of will be, “Hasta La Vista, Baby Cujo.”
But the character doesn’t have to be strictly normal for the book to still be about the situation. Frodo Baggins might be a Hobbit who wears mithril chain-mail and wields a magic sword, but The Lord of the Rings is not the tale of Frodo Baggins’ adventures. It’s all about the situation—Sauron, the One Ring, and the threat they pose to Middle Earth.
These stories don’t tend to get stretched into series. Once the character has handled the situation, we’re back to being uninterested in his or her life. Sure, we could come back and create a new situation for them, but why not create a fresh character instead? It can even be a bad idea to stick with the same character for too long. If Joe the technician keeps fighting off deadly assassins, how long can we keep reading before we begin to doubt if Joe is just a technician?
Transitioning from One Type to the Other
But your story doesn’t have to be confined to one category. Take the hero’s journey—one of the most common types of story in existence. It starts off with a normal character thrust into an abnormal situation, and the only way the character can handle it is to transition himself into an abnormal character. Rick Riordan’s The Lighting Thief is just one example of such a book.
Likewise, abnormal characters can become normal. In Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky, an entire host of superheroes lose their powers and are forced to acclimate to regular life. When they are called again to stop an unknown threat, their lack of powers creates a tense plot. How can they stop this threat as regular people, especially when they’re so used to being superheroes?
So yes, transitioning from one type to the other works.
But, failing to keep to the type you chose doesn’t.
For example, I once read a book about a man who finds out that an assassin has been hired to kill a random stranger—and he’s the only one who knows. I was intrigued, because the thought of a normal person thrust into such a crazy situation was fascinating. Will he risk his life to do the right thing? If yes, how will he stop an experienced killer?
Then, half-way through, it’s revealed that our protagonist is not quite as normal as I’d been led to believe. He’s a black-ops veteran, trained to handle crazy situations like this. In many ways, he’s more dangerous than the man chasing him.
I immediately lost my interest. I wanted to read a book about a normal person facing off against a relentless assassin. A book about a tough, deadly, trained solder facing off the assassin? Meh. The whole appeal of the book was suddenly lost.
What About the Other Theories?
Like I mentioned earlier, the idea of there being only a finite number of possible stories isn’t exactly unique. There’s an opinion that there are three, another that there are twenty, and a third that there are a grand total of thirty six. Perhaps the most widely accepted theory is that there are seven. How does my theory of two fit in with these?
However, now that I’ve explained the theory, you may already notice that they’re not exactly contradictory. It’s all about perspective. The theory of seven, for example, deals with the possible numbers of plot. My theory, however, is less interested in plot and more in what makes up the overall story.
What’s This Mean for You?
Among other things:
It’s a new way of looking at your story—are you writing about an abnormal character or a normal one?
Once you know the answer, stick with it. Don’t choose one and halfway through reveal that really it was the other all along.
It helps you decide what characteristics to assign to your characters.
It helps you decide what situations to put your characters in.
It offers insights into whether or not your character deserves a series. Normal ones usually don’t.
The bottom line is that I believe that it can help guide you; help answer questions about how to make your story work. But the last thing it’s meant to do is limit you. Yes, there may only be two types of stories in the world.
But if you take a trillion and divide it into two, you’re still left with a lot on either side.
I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there.
I do remember what happened shortly before she died.
We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.
My mother is in bed. A white canopy hangs partially down from the top. It is difficult to see her. I feel like a peeping tom. Mommy, are you feeling better?” She touches my cheek and smiles. She doesn’t talk much. I cuddle into her right arm. Smell her warmth. It is a scent of lilac I still experience when I think of her.
Dad’s face is haggard. His eyes sad. He hovers by the bed, concerned that I might upset her.
Her birth name is Evelyn. Family call her Eva. Dad calls her Honey. I call her mommy.
A week before she dies I hear my parents quietly disagreeing, not realizing their curious daughter hears them. Dad wants her to go into the hospital. She doesn’t want to. She has incurable cancer.
“They can manage the pain. I don’t know what I can do to help you feel better. You’ll be well taken care of there.”
Her voice is soft, “I don’t want to go back. They can’t cure me.”
She no longer sounds like the mother who danced with me in the living room; the mother who rubbed me dry after a bath; the mother who tickled my ears and tummy.
She does go to the hospital. I never see her again.
“Show, don’t tell.” So goes the creative writing chestnut. And like most conventional wisdom it has something to recommend it. Dramatic writing (“showing”) does more that merely tell us about an experience; it puts us right there inside the experience with a character or characters, so that we share the experience along with them. And sharing experiences—putting us into a character’s shoes, so to speak, having us see what they see and feel what they feel through their nerves and sensory organs—is what fiction, and any form of narrative writing, does best.
Which isn’t to say there’s no place for telling in good narrative writing. On the contrary, telling is no less important than showing. If showing is more dramatic, more cinematic, telling is more expedient. Telling cuts to the heart; it sums up, reflects, adds perspective, and contextualizes. It bridges the gaps between scenes. If scenes are the bricks of good storytelling, exposition (“telling”) is the mortar that binds the bricks together. To build a good story, fiction or nonfiction, you need bricks and mortar.
One reason behind the supremacy of “show, don’t tell” is that telling is, frankly, harder. To gain and hold a reader’s attention through action and dialogue is one thing. To do so through exposition is another. Intrinsically, there’s nothing sexy about cement. It’s the difference between showing someone a movie and asking them to read the screenplay. Good telling—telling that in its way is as entertaining as a dramatic scene—makes far greater demands on our rhetorical strengths, on the quality of insights and ideas and the language by which they are conveyed. With showing, on the other hand, our characters entertain our readers for us. We merely have to report what they do.
In this opening, in which the narrator recalls the days leading up to her mother’s death, we get a murky mixture of showing and telling, of experience and information, so that, while we’re not clearly lodged inside the mind of a narrator looking back and reflecting on certain events in his or her past, neither are we ensconced in the events themselves. We’re presented with dramatic scenes, but we never inhabit them—or we do, but not vividly or deeply.
Before discussing why this is so, I want to digress for a moment and talk about the title of this memoir (Loss … But Not Lost) and titles in general. Whatever stage they’re in in their drafting process, I encourage my students to at least have a working title for their stories; in fact I insist on it. The search for a good title helps them learn about their own stories, what lies at their hearts, what they are ultimately about. Is there a strong central metaphor or image, something concrete that, symbolically, may stand for the story as a whole?
One good test for a working title: if it can be applied to many if not most or all stories, then it’s probably too general, too “one size fits all.” Unless it has something to do with a song by the Beatles, “A Day in the Life” is probably an example of a too-generic title. So is “When Things Go Wrong.” And so, alas, is “Loss … But Not Lost,” the title of the work-in-question. It casts its thematic net too wide. Isn’t every story, to some extent, in one way or another, a story of loss turned into gain, and/or vice-versa? Aren’t “life” and “loss” synonymous? If an author’s best effort to arrive at a good title for her or his work results in something generic, it’s a safe if not a sure bet that the work itself suffers from a lack of thematic focus.
Now let’s go on with this first page, starting with the first two sentences: I don’t recall the day my mother died. I wasn’t there. As openings go, in more than one sense this is a non-starter, since it merely conveys in negative terms what will be obvious by the end of the page. For those who will argue that Camus’ most famous novel begins similarly (“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure”), the justification for this approach with Camus’ novel lies in the fact that the narrator doesn’t remember; that is the point of the opening, one that not only foreshadows the narrator’s death, but will cause it.
The second paragraph of this first page will also be obviated by what follows, making it dispensable. As for Paragraph #3 (“We live in Brooklyn. A small apartment on the third floor of a brick building. I just turned six; my brother, three.”), it’s purely informational, providing us with answers to questions yet to be raised by the material—which, so far, has offered us nothing in the way of an experience.
Only with Paragraph #4 do we arrive at and enter an actual experience, the scene that each of the three previous paragraphs has been pointing toward: the moment when, as a child, the narrator visits her mother in her sick bed. I would be tempted to begin here, with an experience (“My mother is in bed”), rather than with information (“We live in Brooklyn”). In due time we may learn that the bedroom is in a brick apartment building in Brooklyn, but not before having any reason to care.
But even in putting us into an experience, this opening could be stronger. Take the first experiential sentence: “My mother is in bed.” Nothing wrong with it, at first glance. Yet it misses the mark in several ways. First, instead of giving us a definitive action through use of a strong verb (“My mother lies in bed”), we get a conjugation of the verb “to be,” the least active of all verbs—the existential verb. Our sense of experience is weakened accordingly. But a larger problem here is the sentence’s failure to engage point-of-view. That this mother is lying in bed isn’t the point; the point is that the child sees her lying there. That’s the action of this scene, what’s really happening.
That the narrator doesn’t position herself (or us) in the scene doesn’t help. Is she standing, watching from the doorway, or seated by her mother’s bed? As we read on, we learn not only that she is close to her mother (close enough to cuddle with her and smell her lilac scent), but that the father is there in the bedroom with her, something we didn’t realize at first because we weren’t told—or rather because we weren’t shown the father standing (sitting?) there through the eyes of the little girl who sees him for us. When dying mother and child cuddle, as we smell the mother’s warmth and traces of her lilac perfume, we may wonder why, apart from its intrinsic warmth and sweetness, this moment comforts us so. I say because it invests us deeply, sensuously, and for the first time properly in this scene. Then the author destroys the effect by adding, “I still experience when I think of her,” wrenching us out of the moment.
As I read on, other things interfere with my ability to fully inhabit this opening scene. In the sixth paragraph, I am told that the mother’s “birth name is Evelyn.” Yet it’s not at all clear whether this knowledge belongs to the child whose perspective we share in the moment or to the older narrator looking back through memory. That the scene is written in the present tense suggests the former. But what is the likelihood that a six-year-old knows this about her mother’s birth name?
From there things move to “a week before [the mother] dies,” yet it isn’t clear whether this week follows or precedes the previous scene, nor do we know where the present scene of the parents “quietly disagreeing” occurs, in what part of the home, at what time of day. Is the mother still in bed? And where is the narrator who “hears them” disagree? The scene isn’t properly grounded; it isn’t grounded at all. Because it’s not grounded, it exists in an unstable zone between experience and information. When, at the bottom of the same paragraph, we read that the mother “has incurable cancer,” there again we are forced to wonder whose experience those words convey. True, some sentences later the child overhears her mother say, “They can’t cure me.” Yet the words “incurable cancer” are better suited to an awareness on the part of the grown narrator looking back than to a child’s awareness then.
For our readers to fully inhabit and invest deeply in our scenes, we must first, whether through a fictional narrator or through memory, inhabit them thoroughly ourselves, as Charlotte Bronte does in Jane Eyre:
Close by Miss Temple’s bed, and half covered with its white curtains, there stood a little crib. I saw the outline of a form under the clothes, but the face was hid by the hangings: the nurse I had spoken to in the garden sat in an easy-chair asleep; an unsnuffed candle burnt dimly on the table. Miss Temple was not to be seen: I knew afterwards that she had been called to a delirious patient in the fever-room. I advanced; then paused by the crib side: my hand was on the curtain, but I preferred speaking before I withdrew it. I still recoiled at the dread of seeing a corpse.
“Helen!” I whispered softly, “are you awake?”
She stirred herself, put back the curtain, and I saw her face, pale, wasted, but quite composed: she looked so little changed that my fear was instantly dissipated.
“Can it be you, Jane?” she asked, in her own gentle voice.
“Oh!” I thought, “she is not going to die; they are mistaken: she could not speak and look so calmly if she were.”
I got on to her crib and kissed her: her forehead was cold, and her cheek both cold and thin, and so were her hand and wrist; but she smiled as of old.
“Why are you come here, Jane? It is past eleven o’clock: I heard it strike some minutes since.”
“I came to see you, Helen: I heard you were very ill, and I could not sleep till I had spoken to you.”
“You came to bid me good-bye, then: you are just in time probably.”
“Are you going somewhere, Helen? Are you going home?”
“Yes; to my long home—my last home.”
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
For AWP 2018, I hired a team of writers to help me cover business-related sessions, as part of the launch for my newest book (official release date: March 16). Their blog posts are available over at the companion website for the book; here’s what you’ll find:
I’m very grateful to my AWP writing team for all their excellent work; here’s a little bit more about each of them.
Jennifer Baker is the creator/host of the Minorities in Publishing podcast, social media director and writing instructor for Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and she formerly served as panels organizer & social media manager for the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Jennifer is a contributing editor to Electric Literature and the editor of the forthcoming short story anthology Everyday People: The Color of Life with Atria Books.
Katrina Byrd is a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the Mississippi University for Women. Katrina is a writer and playwright who has received four artist mini-grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Follow her on Twitter at @ovenhot.
Travis Kurowski is the coeditor of Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century and editor of Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, which won an Independent Publisher Book Award and a Foreword IndieFab Award. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, Little Star, Poets & Writers, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at York College of Pennsylvania.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a Korean-American author and essayist. Her stories and essays have been published in The Atlantic, Witness, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, Slate and The New York Times. Lee has been a Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and VCCA fellow has served as a National Book Award judge and has taught fiction writing at Yale University. She is a founder and former Board President of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she teaches creative writing. Follow her on Twitter at @MarieMyungOkLee.
David Morgan O’Connor is from a small Canadian village on Lake Huron. After many nomadic years, he’s based in Albuquerque, where stories and poems progress daily. His writing has appeared in more than 50 print or online publications. He reviews, interviews and blogs monthly.
Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by publisher and author L.L. Barkat (@llbarkat). She’s always been a most welcome guest here, and I’m delighted to have her back after her break from blogging.
I promise it wasn’t a stunt. Since it’s been more than five years, I’m thinking you’ll give me that.
See, in late 2012, I said goodbye to blogging. I even wrote about it in a bold way here at Jane’s place. But, just this week, I started blogging again.
To the outside eye, this makes no sense.
After all, I’m still that “experienced writer” I advised should leave the blogging world. What’s changed?
For one, blogging itself.
During what I like to call The Golden Age of Blogging, reciprocity was currency. If you were going to blog (unless you’d built your audience during blogging’s Bronze Age and had the luxury of an already-built readership), you needed to engage in the marketplace of bloggers. The currency? Reciprocity.
Reciprocity operated on several levels. You had to read other bloggers. You had to get their buttons (and figure out how to get those buttons into your darn sidebar). You had to comment on their posts. At first, this wasn’t hard, because you were having fun (I know I was). But as the years went on, and your blog circle grew larger and larger and larger, suddenly you were no longer a writer but almost a kind of business owner (whether or not you knew it)—engaged in the constant exchange and glued to the screen as you tried to adapt to market conditions.
For experienced writers, I recommended walking away. For newbie writers, I suggested taking an approach that emphasized the chance to find expression, cultivate discipline, and gain experience—moving their social interactions to social media instead of their blogs, to relieve some of the burden of reciprocity.
As I come back to blogging, I come knowing The Golden Age has passed. Reciprocity is no longer key, or it doesn’t need to be. Social media, which once felt like the new play place, has now become mired in similar reciprocity issues, not to mention the feeling that you’re being accosted and bombarded.
Sometimes going back is going forward—especially if you refashion the old, sloughing off what became untenable. This is why I’m going back to blogging. While every writer won’t find my reasons of interest, plenty of writers might want to explore their possibility.
So here are five “why blog” reasons I’m excited about right now.
1. The Introvert’s Advantage
I am a very, very outgoing person. The kind you sometimes question the wisdom of (like when I recently met Neil Gaiman and arranged a shoe photo incident on the spot).
Because I am very outgoing, I always assumed (wrongly) I was an extrovert.
Without going into the details, let’s just say that years of blogging, followed by years of business promoting, left me incredibly burned out. For the first time in my life, I contemplated not getting out of bed in the morning. For months on end, I dreaded facing the day’s tasks. All I wanted was to be taken care of, except that that was not going to happen. Like most everyone else in life, I have a lot of responsibilities, and I do not have a butler like Bruce Wayne does, and I wasn’t about to let my writing die or my business die, just because I couldn’t face each new day. What to do?
It has taken about a year-and-a-half to figure out the answer to that question. And I still haven’t worked out all the details. But this has been key: I realized I must find a way to run my private life, my writing life, and my business life as an introvert.
The new blog world offers just that advantage. My blog does not have comments enabled. It does not have pictures on every page. It does not even have prominent promotion elements (not even a free newsletter signup). In short, it is a peaceful place for me and for my readers. And this is in line with the times. People are tired of online life, but they still want to read good writing and find ideas that help them live and love and laugh—in their private lives, their writing lives, and their businesses.
If I want to know “how the blog is doing” on various levels, I can measure that with Google Analytics, rather than attending to the number of comments or social media shares. This is introvert heaven. I can explore what I need to explore when I need to explore it, on my own terms. I can breathe again, letting background technology do the heavy lifting.
2. A Hybrid Opportunity
With the new blog, in one simple place I can feature the current nature of my professional life, offer readers a quick guide as to where to find my writing and my books, and I can just write. While it’s possible to functionally do this at an author website as well, I wanted that introvert’s peace I mentioned above. I also wanted a very specific voice. And this is built into the URL and name of the blog itself: llbwritesto.me.
This feels like the best of both worlds. Understated brochure and blog, both—a hybrid opportunity.
3. A Public Sandbox
I’m a writer and a business owner with a fairly large audience. People have a lot of questions about how I got where I am and where I’m going next (not because I’m that intriguing, but because they are eager to learn how to do the same, from someone who cares about their success).
It’s important to me to be able to share the complexity of my writing and business life, and to work that out in front of people, on an ongoing basis, without having to engage in a high level of personal correspondence or social media activity (refer, again, to the introvert issue, but this is also a concern for most people with a fairly large audience and active business).
Enter the blog.
Here, unlike other places I write for (Edutopia just isn’t the place for this!), I can discuss what I’m dreaming of, how it connects to the past, and the possible ways it might be worked out in the future. I can think out loud.
4. Shaping Society by Promoting Great Ideas
This winter, as part of my effort to figure out how to stop dreading the work of a writing and business life that I actually love, I majorly switched gears for a full month. I apologized deeply to two writers whose books were slated to be published, and I put their works aside until the New Year.
In gear-switched mode, I wrote my very first fairy tale and worked with an incredibly accomplished artist, to create The Golden Dress (forthcoming in May). The story surprised me. I’d written it for children, but it seemed to serve dual duty for adults who’ve not yet learned to turn a life of self-focus into a life of generosity.
The Golden Dress has given me a way forward, in so many ways, one of which is choosing to shape society by promoting the great ideas of others on the blog. My plan is to do this by listening (specifically to great podcasts), then by engaging with the ideas of the podcasters over time. The first project is an exploration of the concept of Energy from at least 30 angles—a project I’m undertaking because I’m so impressed with the vision of Joshua Spodek.
5. Blogging as a Playground
Somewhere around the middle of my burnout, I was taking a walk by myself, and I said aloud to the air, “I just want to put poets on sticks.” (If that sounds odd to you, I assure you, it’s just a cut-n-color endeavor that’s part of Take Your Poet to Work Day.)
In other words, I was exhausted from the serious demands of my business. And I wished for the key that’s been the hallmark of almost every great thing that’s ever happened through our organization: whimsy, laughter, joy, fun.
The new blog is my writing version of “putting poets on sticks.” The voice is casual. The topics are variable. The tone is quietly humorous. It’s a place to play. And, at least to this publisher, the writers who know how to play are the ones whose work tends to be most vital.
I can’t promise I won’t be here at Jane’s in another five years, quitting blogging again, for who knows what reasons.
I also can’t promise you’ll find blogging to be the exciting opportunity I find it to be.
But if you’re looking for a different way to approach your writing life or even a current blog, I suggest you give “the new blogging” a try—from sandbox, to golden dress, to playground.
I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around. I made sure to find handholds at each point in case the plane jolted again. Only when I reached the cockpit did I pull myself upright, grabbing the door frame for support.
Lieutenant Robert Jones, our pilot, smiled when he saw my reflection. “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to make sure I heard him over the grating noise. The engine must have swallowed a huge amount of sand as we went through the storm, which would explained why it was now so much louder than when we’d left Malta.
I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel like the one he gripped.
“Find the two ends of the seat belt and fasten it around you.”
A belt held him to his seat. Ah, ‘seat-belt’. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet.
“Take the yoke.”
“That half-wheel in front of you.”
I threw up my left hand between us as if it could block his words. “But. But I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted as loud as I could although he wasn’t much more than a foot away. I wanted to be sure he heard my objection.
“Can you drive a car?”
“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly lie.
For some reason, he took that as a yes though few women had driven before the war. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but you’ll just be keeping it steady. You do have to remember not to move it forward or back while you keep it steady side to side. I’ll be here to make slight adjustments.”
He took one hand off the yoke to hold up a swollen finger, looking at it accusingly as he continued to speak loudly. “I jammed my finger between two levers as I flew through the sandstorm. My own fault. I’ll be fine, but I want to take my hands off the yoke for a few minutes. So, if you’ll hold it.”
I swallowed stomach acid, put my hands on the half-wheel in front of me, and tried to suppress my worry about making some mistake that would kill us all. I still believed—even though I was on my third flight within the last two days—that the laws of physics would reassert themselves at some point since these machines were obviously too heavy to really fly.
In the cockpit of a cargo (?) plane bound from Malta to an unspecified destination, a passenger joins the pilot. The passenger is a woman; the pilot a man. Both are enlisted officers, lieutenants, in whose army we aren’t told. The ride has been bumpy. One of the plane’s engines (presumably it has several) grumbles loudly, having “swallowed a huge amount of sand” while flying through a sandstorm.
The time stamp tells us the world is at war. The Battle for Stalingrad has been joined. The U.S. is poised to deploy its 1 Corps to the Pacific Theater. Meanwhile RAF bombers armed with incendiary bombs target Düsseldorf, Munich, and Saarbrücken. As these epic battles rage below, a smaller battle unfolds in the cockpit, with Lieutenant Bowman, the passenger, fighting her fear as Lieutenant Jones (the pilot) asks her to take the wheel—or the “yoke,” as it’s called.
This scene has its intrinsic drama. First of all, we are in an airplane during a war; that in itself is dramatic. That the ride has been (and will likely go on being) bumpy increases that drama, as does our knowing that at least one of the plane’s engines is unhappy and complaining loudly. On top of these things—or riding along with them in that cockpit—is the drama of strangers, a man and a woman, meeting under strained and/or unusual circumstances. In Hollywood they call it the “meeting cute” scene: the scene in which the romantic leads first encounter each other. Since the late 1940s it has been a staple of romantic comedies.
To those who may object that the mere fact of two opposite-sexed people sharing the first scene of a novel (and a cockpit) doesn’t—necessarily—imply a romantic future between them, all I can say is … yes, it does. Not that they will (necessarily) have a romantic relationship. But the possibility has been raised and can’t be ignored. Given that, the connotations of the word “yoke” likewise can’t be ignored. Though the applicable definition here is “an airplane control operating its elevators and ailerons,” according to the OED it’s also “something that connects two things or people, usually in a way that unfairly limits their freedom.” The phrase “unequally yoked” suggests a team in which one “ox” is stronger than the other. The expression “to pass under a yoke” come from the Latin passum sub iugum, to “pass under a beam,” a ritual humiliation practiced by the ancient Romans on their enemies and from which we get the verb “to subjugate.” Will our two Lieutenants be “yoked” together in an uncomfortable or unequal relationship?
But supposing the purpose of this opening isn’t to establish a romantic relationship, or a relationship of any kind, between its two characters? In that case I have to ask myself: what is its purpose? Why start this novel here?
Maybe its purpose is to foreshadow the novel’s larger drama. Foreshadowing is a fairly common device in fiction and especially in novels. Sometimes it can be subtle, as in this bit of foreshadowing that comes in the first line of A Farewell to Arms:
The leaves fell early that year.
Hemingway’s novel isn’t about autumn or leaves. It’s about war and death, specifically the death of nurse Catherine Barkley, who cares for Frederick Henry, the hero who has been injured in a mortar attack, only to die prematurely herself following the stillbirth of their child.
Foreshadowing can also be done less subtly but no less effectively, as in the opening of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. It begins:
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Before the novel ends, Esther Greenwood, its protagonist, will undergo electric shock therapy as part of her treatment for mental illness.
An even more pointed example of foreshadowing can be found in Native Son, Richard Wright’s 1940 masterpiece about a young African American man doomed by destiny and circumstance. Wright’s novel opens with the sound of an alarm clock, shortly after which a rat appears in the one-room home shared by Bigger and his family. The ensuing chaotic scene ends when Bigger, having chased and cornered the terrified rat, executes it with an iron skillet. In much the same way, Bigger Thomas will himself be chased, cornered, and sentenced to death.
With the opening in question, the “taking the yoke” scene may foreshadow the novel’s main story, that of a woman officer who finds herself faced with challenges she never imagined or anticipated—as she never anticipated flying a plane. It would help, in that case, to be given at least a clue to the plane’s destination and (possibly) the nature of Lieutenant Bowman’s assignment.
Two other issues raised by this opening page. The first is implication. As a general rule with fiction—and with narrative writing of any kind—if a thing is implied, it’s best not to state it. Trust the reader; let implication do its work. Here, in this scene, I find many moments when the author relinquishes that trust, starting with the dialogue, “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman”—a line obviated by the pilot’s smile. Other implied statements that could be cut: “I wanted to be sure he heard my objection”; “I didn’t want to admit it…”; “… and tried to suppress my worry about making some mistake that would kill us all.” Whenever we authors state things that are or might be implied, we rob our readers of an interactive moment, of the chance to infer those implications: among the great pleasures offered by good writing.
Lastly, this intriguing and otherwise nicely written opening suffers from the common ailment known as backwards sentences, sentences in which the emphasis is misplaced. Take the opening sentence here:
I crawled forward from the cargo hold after the plane stopped throwing us around.
Nothing grammatically wrong with that sentence, but it puts the punch line first rather than saving it for last. Just as novels have plots, so do sentences. The climax of this one isn’t—or shouldn’t be—the turbulence coming to an end, but the protagonist’s arrival in the cockpit.
After the plane stopped throwing us around, I crawled forward from the cargo hold.
That sentence points toward, rather than away from, the scene that it heralds. There are a more backward sentences to be found in this opening, but I’ll let you find them.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)
Right. So you’re memoir-motivated. You’ve lived through something intense, something different, and readers will find it fascinating. You’re off to a great start with that hella-interesting story, but you’ve got to keep your readers riveted with your writing style. How you gonna do that?
Well, pop quiz. Which is more exciting: riding a rollercoaster, or watching someone else ride a rollercoaster? Yeah, duh. Same principle. To keep readers glued to the page, you write so they’re living the rollercoaster, not watching it. Here’s how.
Relive the experience yourself.
If your readers are going to put themselves in your skin and live your experiences, you need to be hyper-conscious of what those experiences looked, felt and sounded like before you write them. Starting with a list of the memories you plan to write about (more on how to develop that list here), you’re going to immerse yourself into those events, to bring back all the feels. To do that, your brain’s gotta open its doors and let you roam around. To get your brain’s consent, you need to make your brain feel safe. Phew. We’re going deep today.
So. To get access to those memories:
Isolate yourself completely. Get up at 4:30 a.m. Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Make sure nobody can see you.
Lean back, close your eyes, and mentally bring up the event. It’s in there. Let it surface.
Bathe in the details of the memory. Let yourself remember exactly what happened, what it looked like, who said what, how you felt.
If this is a struggle, write yourself a list of grit-level questions about the sensory details of the event. These questions will work like a Google search, telling your brain what to look for. A friend reached out to me for help recovering the details of her school bus bullying. I wrote her a list of questions; you can use it as a model. My list went like this:
What did the bus’s door look like as you stepped up to it? How steep was that first step? What did you look at when you got on the bus? What seat did you choose? Why? What did the seat feel like? What did you look at when you sat down?
What did you use to arm yourself against the bullies—a Le Sport Sac? Long bangs in your face? A Walkman? What were kids talking about as they walked past your seat? How did you sense what the mood was that day?
How, exactly, did the bullying start? How did your body react to it? What did the other kids do? Think micro-level—tiny shifts in musculature, in body language, in tilt of heads. Did they enjoy it, or did they feel guilty? How did you know?
What did the mean kids wear? What did their hair look like? What did they smell like? How did they move? What did you think of them? Why were they doing this to you? What were your thoughts? Your fears?
Pop in your earbuds and hit play on the music you lived for at that time. Music will flood your brain with memories. For triple points, lock yourself in a car, in a garage, in the dark, and play the music loud on the car stereo. Total immersion.
While writing my first memoir, The Dead Inside, I needed to tap into intense memories of childhood violence. So I barricaded myself in a closet. With an armchair pressed against the door. And a teddy bear on my lap. When that didn’t work, and I still couldn’t bring back concrete memories, I had to step away from the writing. I won’t write a scene with vague, broad-strokes style—borr-ring—and I won’t include a scene unless I can say, unequivocally, “I remember this happening. It’s 100% true.” This pause in my writing was frustrating and scary, as this was the pivotal scene in the book. But what choice did I have?
It came to me when I’d all but given up. For a long drive through nowheresville, I’d packed my car with CDs. Deep into Pink Floyd’s The Wall, the judgment scene came on and hit me like a short, sharp jab to the skull. This song, these lyrics—this was exactly how the event played out. I ended up writing the scene with song-lines staggering my snippets of memory, which was perfect: I needed the support of someone else’s content to recreate this unthinkable trauma. Which leads to this section’s final bullet point:
If the memories don’t come, step away from the work. Trust your brain to deliver the goods in some unexpected way.
Right after you’ve relived it, write it.
Now, quick! While the sensory deets are pulsing fresh in your brain: recreate them on paper (or pixels). Did your memories flow when you put yourself back there? Pick up your pen (or keyboard) and start writing. Did you write yourself a list of questions? Answer them and staple (or paste) your responses together into paragraphs.
Either way, consider writing first person, present tense. There’s no faster trick for ushering your readers into the experience, because when you read first person, present tense narration, you’re looking through the narrator’s eyes at events happening to “you,” right as they happen. Here, let’s try it. Read this paragraph and notice how you feel.
But wait. This was her boyfriend. He had asked her out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. She had to let him kiss her. That’s what girlfriends did. When she came out of the bathroom, he was lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He was patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wanted’ her, which should have made her feel great. Instead, it made her want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.
That was third person, past tense. Now, try reading it as I actually wrote it, first/present, in my memoir We Can’t Be Friends.
But wait. This is my boyfriend. He asked me out, officially, on the phone Wednesday night. I have to let him kiss me. That’s what girlfriends do. When I come out of the bathroom, he’s lying on the sofa, propped up on his elbow. He’s patting the cushion in front of him. He ‘wants’ me, which should make me feel great. Instead, it makes me want to sit in his armchair and pick up his remote.
Do you feel the diff? Which one’s flat, and which one crackles? In the first, you’re reading about someone else, in some vague, unspecified time. In the second, you’re reading about you, now. If your goal is to make your readers experience the rollercoaster, isn’t that the goal?
Create Vivid Settings
As 3-D as your memories may be, they have to live somewhere, and your settings need to be as lucid as your events. But don’t stress. This is the fun part, the arty part.
You know why that the huge box of Crayolas was the best? Because it had 18 different versions of, just, blue. You could draw an ocean and make people see how it got darker, deeper and colder by using those 18 blues. To make your reader feel like they should be paying rent on your settings, you write ’em like you’ve got those zillion Crayolas.
You can do that with tiny observations and details; by using those to communicate the narrator’s (ie, your) point-of-view. Here, let’s do a for-instance, with another paragraph from We Can’t Be Friends. The words that we’ll analyze are underlined.
My brain is a scribble as I step onto Sinclair’s front step, a slab of rock that dates back to the Pilgrims. There’s an inch of air between the door’s base and the floor; I can feel the heat on my toes. Sinclair’s can afford to heat the sidewalk because Sinclair’s charges three bucks for a piece of penny candy. The thumb latch door handle is soft and warm. It clacks so loud, the cashmere street ladies turn and look.
Now here’s how those words work.
“Scribble” and “Pilgrims,” frequent topics of classroom discussion, put readers into the school-kid’s worldview.
“Inch of air” creates a clear visual, while “heat on my toes” links that visual to the sense of touch.
A kid’s noticing that the store can “afford heat” reinforces the poverty mindset, where everything is measured in terms of cost—in this case, the cost of a basic need, heat.
“Soft and warm” is an unexpected—but here, strangely accurate—description of a thing made out of metal. The “softness” tells a subconscious story of an old, well-worn tool that dates back to the Pilgrims.
“Clack,” a sound-word, creates…well, sound. In your reader’s ear. So they’re experiencing this swoop of the rollercoaster.
A few questions to consider, in creating a vivid setting as seen through the narrator/your eyes:
How does this place compare to the places the narrator/you feels most at ease?
Who belongs in this place?
What details make that obvious?
How does the narrator/you fit in here?
What details make that obvious?
Be a Diction Zealot
Here’s where the hippy dippy free flow stops, and we get a little technical. We do a little self-censoring. Did your sirens go off at the very thought? Censoring? Yup, you heard me. Because here’s the deal. Without careful pruning, memoir can take the form of masturbatory brain barf. Without a ruthless eye trained on diction—the careful evaluation and choice of every single word—your life story is just that: your story. You know the guy at the party who corners you to talk a loud streak about his life, his job, his ego? Don’t be that guy. You can work toward not being that guy by using these tools.
This first one might sound like a contradiction of the jerk-at-the-party advice, but stick with me. We’re gonna morph that jerk into a captivating raconteur. When you’re writing memoir, you are writing about stuff that happened to you. So tell it exactly as it happened to you. Describe events from a your-brain-looking-outward perspective, rather than from a some-observer-watching-you perspective. This means: don’t describe how something happened; describe how it felt as it happened. What you saw. Body language. Facial expressions. Your interior monologue. Dialogue. Give us all that, and let us experience how it happened, for ourselves.
For example, I don’t “cheerfully greet” my neighbor. You don’t, either. Nobody observes their own actions, then labels how they did them. Here’s what I do: I yell, “Heyyyy, girrrrl” and watch her face crack into that grin, the one like a third martini. Maybe you go, “Mornin’ Miss Shelly” or “What’s good, man.” Whatever you actually say, however you actually say it, give us that. Verbatim.
This means no adverbs. Ever. There’s no quicker way to rip us off the rollercoaster and park us on the granny-bench than to adverb your verbs.
Let me prove it. Let’s take my neighborly greeting and adverb it up. Here’s what happens: “I yell loudly.” “She grins quickly.” Ho-to-the-hum, right? Ho frigging hum. If it’s just not you to get fancy with the metaphors—with the grin like a third martini—fine. Stick with the facts. Yell. Grin. Period. No adverb.
While we’re on the topic of being not-too-fancy, beware of thesaurus overdrive in your pursuit of good diction. Let’s turn that neighbor-greeting sentence into a cautionary tale.
Maybe “yell” is too common. Does it need spicing up? Let’s try some synonyms. “‘Heyyy, girrrl!’ I screech…” and suddenly I’m a lunatic, waking up the neighborhood. Make it “squeal,” and I better have some hot, giggly little story on tap, to justify my piglet noise. You picking up what I’m throwing down?
To be clear: all synonyms are not good synonyms. Words can have nuance and connotation. Before you slip in a thesaurus gem as a replacement, read your new sentence with an eye toward those layers. Does it accurately describe the character, the scene, the motivation? Beautiful. Does it read like you’re a first-year grad student, desperate to impress? Not so beautiful.
Still, finding the just-right word is the mark of the fine writer, and the glue that sticks your reader to the page. Thesaurus.com is my best friend, but I use it cautiously. Knowing when to seek out a better word is tough to quantify; you have to kind of … listen for it: for the spots in your writing that are vital, when you need to hit your reader with impact.
When you find those spots, take the mediocre word that you’d automatically put there, and look it up on Thesaurus.com. Then look through the lists of synonyms for the just-right replacement. To be just-right, the new word must:
Match the tone of the narrator
Match the mood of the scene
Flow, syllabically, in the meat of the sentence. It can’t make the sentence rhythm clunky.
If a word that meets these specs isn’t on the lists, look up other words that convey the same thing. This can take a long, ass, time. But when you put in the effort, when you find the just-right word, it’s grease for the tracks. That coaster just flies schwings zings up and down those curves.
Okay, you’re almost done. In your drive to write crackling, pulsating memoir, you’ve done a literary Ironman: you relived your memories, put your readers into your life’s scenes, gave ’em the sensory details, and had them think your thoughts. You’ve even done the brutal work of moderating and excising your word flow. Your memoir’s greased and ready to roll, after this one last tiny edit: take out the “ea” and replace it with an “i,” because you don’t have readers, kid. After all this hard work? What you’ve got is riders.
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