Good Writing Advice: Not everything you write has to become a novel

Said another way: Don’t take yourself too seriously.

On Monday I went to see Lauren Oliver. After her reading, Ms. Oliver took questions and talked a bit about her writing process. She mentioned at one point that she is ALWAYS working on something, and that if she finished one book on Tuesday she would start another on Wednesday.

“WHAT?” squeaked my inner editor. “How!”

And so I raised my hand and calmly asked her, “So how much do you have planned going into a new book?”

She answered,  “Nothing.”

Then she laughed and said that wasn’t entirely true; she’d been writing long enough that she always has a steady stream of ideas on backlog to work from.

Still, a principle remained: she always had to be working on something, and as such was willing to write without being secure in the knowledge that what she writing would end up a novel.

“I’m not sure why people think that way,” she said (referring to a writer’s mindset/need to have ALL work end up a book). Earlier that evening she’d mentioned writing 40 pages based on her first core concept for Rooms, and having to put it down for a while because 40 pages in she’d realized she just “hadn’t found the story’s heartbeat.”

So what’s the big stigma with false starts? Why are we (am I) so afraid of them? They’re still writing, aren’t they?– and don’t they allow us to explore possibilities, conduct trials and errors, flex our writing muscles? Are they not still valuable? Do we not learn from them?

Perhaps more importantly: Wouldn’t a mindset of exploration free us from the crippling pressure of writing a book in the first place?

What’s in a reading? Some observations as attendee, as author

A former professor once said that she liked to think of readings as gifts: something that one gives one’s audience. That listeners can enjoy and take meaning, amusement, solace from. Or anything, really; it’s the author’s gift to give. What it does is, by and large, up to them.

I am fortunate to live in a city never wanting for literary events. This year, especially as it was one of my writing resolutions to attend more readings, I have had the chance not only to experience these events, but to observe just what sort of “gifts” their authors are giving.

Here are some observations I’ve made– both as an attendee, and as an author taking notes for the hopeful Someday she might be on the other side of the podium. First,

As a listener:

1. Most readings consist of the same parts: introduction/stand up (the author introduces him/herself and drops a few well-chosen lines to get listeners laughing and engaged); the actual reading of material from the book the author is there to promote; open Q&A with the audience; the signing of books.

2. Every author reads differently. Some authors read a great deal. Some don’t. Some read from books other than what they are there to promote, or in addition to it, and some read what they’re working on now or just wrote that morning.

3. Distraction happens. People sneeze. Babies cry. Small children, and occasionally long lines of teenagers thread through the audience or before the podium at THE MOST inconvenient occasions. A speaker can either read on, or, as David Mitchell did, take it in stride: acknowledge a running child with, “Hello, little person!” a throng of teens with “Hi guys!” and a crying infant with “It’s my reading, and he can cry if he wants to.” For me, this last approach really harkens back to the gift-giving aspect: rather than shaming these people or willfully ignoring them (or indeed competing with them for the audience’s attention), one is reaching out to the source(s) of distraction in a respectful, playful, and even inviting manner. Thus rather than a nuisance, it becomes a bit of fun for the audience, and parents/sneezers/wanders-through are more likely to feel gratitude than embarrassment. Might even gain some new listeners.

As an author:

1. There is more than one way to engage with an audience. What a speaker can do beyond speaking is perhaps limited by context, but there’s a certain amount of room for creativity here. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, at one point discussed the small indulgence of appreciating smell, and as a sort of enhancing prop passed around vials of some of her favorite handmade scents.

As someone with classroom experience, I could see engagements taken in other directions, too: shows of hands. Short games. Trivia with candy/literary/other prizes. As long as it’s relevant.

2. What a presenter can give is not limited to a great performance. I’m thinking specifically of David Sedaris here, who makes a point of giving his listeners (particularly teens, who it is rarer to see at readings) some kind of physical token to take home. He gives small things, random things: tiny plastic toys, postcards,  bracelets, hotel shampoos, packets of honey mustard, things from his pockets, sometimes things former listeners have gifted him (like a small box of chocolates, which he couldn’t eat).

Obviously this is one to exercise good judgment with, but for Mr. Sedaris’s standard genre (humorous creative nonfiction) it’s both amusing and appropriate. And what an unusual, lasting impression it makes!

3. If you’re trying to generate interest in something other than your book, a reading may be a good place to do it. I have seen newsletter signups passed around (Rubin) and authors promoting another author’s book alongside their own (Sedaris). Both alluded to these extras only briefly, and did so in a non-intrusive way.

Again, though, it’s all about relevance. Most readings are not places for promoting political agendas, etc.

4. If you don’t want to take pictures with people, you don’t have to. As a presenting author, you can work with the bookstore/library/school etc. staff to establish some ground rules beforehand. While some speakers are naturally photogenic and happy to pose with those getting their books signed, others would prefer not to pose, and some would rather not take pictures at all. David Sedaris mentions a sly trick in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: he asks the bookstores to put out a large sign forbidding photography, and makes it sound like it’s their policy that photos not be taken.

5. Engagement doesn’t have to end at the event. Many authors are on social media, and some take to the Tweets (/tumbls, etc.) after a reading to continue engaging with people who came to see them.

BJ Novak favorited my Tweet. I felt Twitter famous.

When I learned that my manuscript made a reader I’ve never met or spoken to laugh and cry multiple times — in GIFs

First I was like:

image

Then I was like:

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and:

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and:

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and:

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I’d say “My work here is done,” but it isn’t. Cause revisions.

And that whole publication thing.

But still.

–Reposted from my tumblr.

Good Writing Advice: Start with the logline.

What is a logline? Well, if you’re an author, you may have had that classic moment where you tell someone you’re writing a book, they ask what it’s about, and then you ACTUALLY HAVE TO TELL THEM. A logline is that crisp, convenient, one-sentence-ish premise that falls effortlessly from your lips in answer, smoothly summing your story and sparing all parties embarrassment in a single breath. You know– that description you can give for like any book or movie ever, whether you liked or watched or even finished reading it or not. That you definitely don’t stumble over when describing your own work. Goodness, no.

Because chances are you are sensible: that at some point you’ve developed a brief oral pitch to use as a flotation device. Me? I know what it is to flounder. I floundered a lot with my first book. I still splash a bit, but I’m getting better with time and each subsequent novel.

One thing that really helped in defining my last book, both to myself and to others, was starting with the synopsis. Plotting roughly what was going to happen before I actually started writing not only gave me a road map for the novel ahead of me; it made it easier to talk about.

That’s why I can really get behind screenwriter Blake Snyder, who emphasizes the importance of starting with a good logline in his screenwriting book, Save the Cat!:

“If you don’t have the logline, maybe you should rethink your whole movie.”

The same should hold true for books. If you can’t answer what your story’s about (in Snyder’s words: “What is it?”) succinctly and compellingly, there’s a chance that you don’t really have one.  Or that it needs work. And why waste time writing something that doesn’t sing to you and to others? Without a north? A logline is your novel at its barest: the bones upon which the story rests. It only makes sense to build from the foundation up.

That said, I am curious to hear your thoughts, fellow writers! I know there are pantsers as well as plotters out there, and some people feel stifled by any planning prior to writing.

What is your approach? What do you find works best?

Read what you love.

“It was as if some people believed there was a divide between the books that you were permitted to enjoy and the books that were good for you, and I was expected to choose sides. We were all expected to choose sides. And I didn’t believe it, and I still don’t.

I was, and still am, on the side of books you love.”

—Neil Gaiman, in his Newbery Medal acceptance speech for The Graveyard Book

Word Counts vs. Balance

I recently mentioned that with my WIP (my shortest yet) I have had some difficulty hitting my previous daily word counts. While in top form (i.e., during Nanowrimo when I am pushing myself) I can write upwards of 1,700 words a day, with my current project I am rarely making it over 1,200, and usually call it good after 1,000. So lately I’ve been asking myself: What is this? Is there something wrong with me? Am I settling for less? Am I lowering the standard? Why aren’t I pushing myself to do more, and should I be?

The answer: Perhaps– but I also think word count isn’t everything, and that there is merit in dividing my time more evenly between Writing and Things That Are Not Writing, because the latter feeds the former.

To arrive at a more conclusive answer, let’s examine some of the other ways I’ve been spending  potential writing time during the first draft of this novel, and whether those ways add to or detract from the writing experience.

Non-writing ways I commonly spend potential writing time:

  1. Exercise. Physical health is hugely influential in mental and creative energy. Use of time: GOOD
  2. Social activities. Recreation is fun, different environments are stimulating, and the meeting of minds invites new ideas and innovation. Use of time: GOOD
  3. Netflix. Stories on the screen. It’s like visual reading? Use of time: SUSPICIOUS
  4. Reading. Writing is a language and a craft, and studying it is how you learn. Use of time: GOOD
  5. Tumblr. It’s, er, author social media. And I get to see what my favorite authors are doing! And book news! And agent advice! And clever GIF sets! GIFs = laughter = soul medicine OKAY OKAY OKAY, Use of time: MORTIFYING
  6. Art projects. The right brain wants its turn, too, and there is little more spiritually nourishing/creatively regenerative than music + colors/pens/magazine scraps to paper. Or, you know, Photoshop. Or, uh…learning to make GIF sets for Tumblr… Use of time: GENERALLY GOOD

In the end I feel it is a game of balance. If you push yourself too hard, you will burn out and close up and struggle to get any words on the page. Conversely, if you spend too much time on Netflix or in Tumblrland, you will never write anything.

CONCLUSION: I could probably be getting more writing done. Since timed sprints (particularly 45 minute ones) have been working for me lately, I am going to try to fit in at least one more of those each day. I think we should be mindful of our distractions, but at the same time not give so much of ourselves to our writing that it ends up being counterproductive. Balance is key.