Friday, March 17, 2017

If You're Not Writing about Social Justice Issues, Will You Get Published Today?



My interview with writer Amy Hanson, generated a flurry of response--and some thought-provoking questions.  Amy's story is magnificent, so please scroll down to read it, if you weren't able to.  She's a very hard-working writer who received a well-earned award and publication for part of her book.

A few blog reader, who enjoyed the article very much, also expressed concerns about the challenge of being published today.  I sifted out the best questions from the emails I got last week.  They were:

1.  Does one have to write about social issues to get published?  
2.  Do I really have to do that much work (submit to contests, go to conferences and meet people, research publications)?  Can't I just write something great?

Let's look at the social element first (question 2).  It's very true that writers who network--meet people in publishing, make an effort to be seen--have a better chance of getting their work out.  Perhaps faster, perhaps more easily.  I know a woman whose father was a famous writer; early on, she got to meet his agent socially and her dad put in a good word for her work, so she got mentored and published quite young.  Another writer I know landed a scholarship to Breadloaf, where he met his agent just because it is a great atmosphere to meet people in publishing.  Another writer interned at a publishing house in New York and met the right people to launch her career.  Some writers sign up for MFA programs largely because of the contacts they will make.

It feels slimy to me, the opposite of the pure path of making art.  I also am practical enough to recognize that who you know is a factor in all the arts.  Because art is also a business.

Question 1, above, is an even more tender subject.  One of my blog readers put it very succinctly:  "If I write about white people in little, day-in-the-life conflicts, is that passe?"

The arts have always been a society's voice in troubled times.  Art speaks out where nothing else can or will.  It's going to reflect the larger themes, the social justice issues, in an effort to help heal the society that is hurting.  Art echoes our consciousness as human beings. 

Publishers know this.  It's not that the social justice issues are "more in vogue," as one blog reader put it.  It's that our troubled times need the art that speaks out.  When a writer is able to craft fiction or nonfiction that speaks out in a moving and beautiful way, it has a greater mission than the personal.

But that leads to the real question behind these questions:  How much should I, as a writer, sculpt my writing or my career to meet these expectations?

For me, I start by writing my truth.  What's in my heart, not what I think will sell well.  My early drafts are all about me and the story.  We are in our cave, alone.  When I begin to bring the story out into the world, it ceases to be mine.  I get feedback, I make changes as I learn how the story affects a reader.  Good readers help me go deeper into the writing and I learn what the story really wants to say.  Often, a larger issue emerges.  It may still be about day-to-day conflicts, or it might grow into something bigger than that. 

Along the way, I am still careful:  it's still my truth.  It might teach me more about that truth--stuff I didn't know I knew when I began to write this piece.  You may disagree, but I personally feel that my writing must align with my values, my beliefs, who I am as a person, to really be my art. 

In her biographical film, Joni Mitchell, talked about writing a song for the radio.  She wanted to write a song that would be a radio hit.  She wrote "Electricity," a great song, and it was a hit.  She could do that--deliberately use her vast songwriting talents to craft a song that would be played a lot.  But it still was hers, her art.  She didn't, from what I could tell in the film interview, bastardize her values to get this hit written and aired.  You can still hear "Electricity" and know it's Joni, all the way.

Your weekly writing exercise is a freewrite.  Using the prompt, "my writing, my truth," explore the line you walk between writing and marketing.  What are you willing to do, what aren't you?  There's no absolute, no right or wrong, just individual choices.  It's good to know yours.       

Friday, March 10, 2017

What Is--and What Isn't--Your Business When You're Making Your Art: Words of Wisdom from Martha Graham

One of my all-time favorite sources of inspiration is this week's quote from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, writing to her protegee, Agnes DeMille. 

It's been in my journals, posted on my walls above my writing desk, and shared with friends for many years. 

During a slump this week, where I wondered why I was writing my book (I'm sure many of you can relate!), I happened upon the quote again. It inspired a freewrite about what is, and what isn't, my business when I'm making my art. 

This week, your writing exercise asks you to go beyond craft into the purpose of writing in your life. Read the quote below then freewrite for 10-20 minutes about where you see the line between what you control in your art and what you are just a vehicle for. Anyone who has spent an afternoon writing and is astonished the next day when rereading the piece will understand this idea of "being a vehicle" for something beyond you. 

Martha Graham writing to Agnes DeMille: 

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. 

It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. 

 No artist is pleased . . . . .There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction: a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Submitting Excerpts from Your Book to Small Publications--A Success Story

Amy Hanson started writing her novel, a braided narrative about a woman in Zambia and a woman in Seattle, when her third child was a year and a half. Not the ideal time to take on a book project, as she says.  She'd always enjoyed writing, although music had been her focus, but she'd gotten letters from people who had read small things she'd written, asking if she'd ever thought about writing a book.  An idea for a novel was in her head, and so she decided to just try. 

Her first writing workshop with me was at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, about six years ago.  Since then, Amy has taken most of my online classes, which she says worked perfectly for a mom with small children.

Two trips to Africa, two added narrators, along with endless reading and interviewing for research, and she is now revising her manuscript in my retainer coaching program.

But the best news:  recently Amy submitted an excerpt from her novel-in-progress to the prestigious Iowa Review's annual fiction contest.  "The Soles of Her Feet" won first prize and was published in the winter issue.  Below is my interview with Amy, talking about how she achieved this.
This is a big achievement, Amy.  I know you work very hard at your writing.  What have you learned along the way?

In addition to learning the many elements of craft and how they all work together under a solid structure, I have learned the importance of doing your research and setting short term goals, often with the accountability of a writing group. I have learned to trust my voice as a writer and, even more importantly, the voices of my characters. But the biggest factor in making my story progress to this point has been to just show up. Those days I'm experiencing frustration, discouragement, or writer's block, I go back to those two words that started this whole journey: Just try.

Why did you decide to submit part of the novel for publication as a short story?

A big takeaway from an AWP conference I attended in Minneapolis was the advantage of publishing smaller excerpts of your work in literary journals. Intimidating to someone with nothing literary to list on her resume!

I had that goal hovering in the back of my mind for a year, but with three young children and a tight, frequently interrupted block of time for writing, it was a challenge to pull together a piece and submit it without compromising time spent on my book.

All changed last January when our dog, who warrants a novel of his own (think three bowel obstruction surgeries after swallowing soccer socks and a swimsuit), jumped our electric fence. I made it about three steps out our back door before slipping on the ice. Short story, I totaled my knee. I couldn't drive for eight weeks, so I turned that time of stillness into a makeshift writing retreat, working primarily on my book but also taking time to submit to The Iowa Review awards.

How did you choose this particular section?

This section of the novel really marks the beginning of my Zambian character Lila's story, even though it doesn't appear until much later in the book. For this reason, I didn't have as much backstory to add or weed out in order to make the characters and plot work. I felt it stood alone as its own story and had a clear story arc.

I also have a soft spot for the Promise Woman's story, another character in my book, and how someone so trapped and damaged can lead someone else to freedom yet is unable to manage it for herself.

There is also the word count to consider when submitting to a journal or contest. In this case, a 25 page limit. "The Soles of Her Feet" is comprised of three chapters of the book, which kind of made its own three-act story.

Did you have to rework it to become a story in itself?  

I actually didn't need to do a whole lot of reworking to make this into a short story. Mostly trimming to get the length down, which taught me a lot about revising on a bigger scale: if it's not adding to a short story, it's likely not going to add to a novel.
I had a few of my writing partners at the time, along with you, read the chapters before they were turned into a short story. So I think much of my structural editing was done at that stage.

Tell us about the submission process-how many places did you query and how long did it take before you got a yes from Iowa Review?

I got very lucky. This was the first short story I submitted to a journal, which happened to be a contest. I simultaneously submitted the same story to another journal's contest shortly thereafter, which I notified as soon as I received word that I won The Iowa Review's fiction award. I submitted at the end of January and was over the moon when they emailed to say I was one of fourteen finalists in April. I received word a few weeks later that I won first prize.

Why did you choose Iowa Review?  What did you research about them before submitting?

They are known as one of the top literary journals, and I knew I was shooting really high by submitting to them.  I have continued to be so impressed by the quality of writers they publish, and I am thrilled to now be published among them.

In addition to their high literary reputation and the amazing editorial staff who held my hand throughout this process, I love their commitment to publishing The University of Iowa Human Rights Index on their blog three times per year, which brings light to various injustices found around the globe. In their words, "to suggest the global political and socioeconomic context within which we read and write." The HRI currently features armed children in conflict. Social justice is something I am passionate about in my writing, along with the power of literature to make these issues personal and relevant, so to be published in a journal which maintains the same ideals as I has made for very rewarding fit.

And then there's the great Kelly Link, the 2016 Pulitzer finalist in fiction for her short story collection Get in Trouble, who judged the award contest. To have had someone as brilliantly gifted, insanely imaginative and accomplished as Kelly merely read my story was a big enough honor, let alone to receive her kind feedback. I am grateful beyond measure.

Anything else you want to share with book writers who might want to submit excerpts?

I would first encourage them to become familiar with the journal to which they are submitting. Read an issue and see if that's a place they could see their work fitting in. Then I would encourage them to take that next step and just try.

Also, it's important to turn in your best work, taking the time to revise and edit well. 

To check out Amy's story, visit one of the bookstores that carries The Iowa Review or order an issue (Winter 2016) or subscribe.  

Friday, February 24, 2017

Staying Organized While You Write--and Finish--Your Book


No matter where you are in the book-writing journey, at some point the sheer volume of material begins to overwhelm and it's time to look carefully at how to organize yourself.

A private client recently wrote me about this.  She's been trying to locate some "islands" (snippets of writing, or scenes) that she'd written a while back, but she couldn't remember how she'd titled them.  They were virtually lost in the mass of material on her computer.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Scene versus Summary--Which to Use for What Effect

I like picking up what I call "airport reads," just to see what's up in commercial fiction.  Airport reads are those books that airport bookstalls buy, thinking they'll take travelers' minds off flying.  It's a big coup to get your book in an airport bookstall, and over the years, I've seen more serious fiction arrive on those shelves.


Recently, I got a copy of JoJo Moyes' new book, After You.  Her novel, Me before You, a story of a woman caretaker for a paraplegic who helps him with assisted suicide, was made into a movie, and I enjoyed it a lot--good characters, tense situation.  Moyes is a master wordsmith, expertly pacing her stories.  After You is the sequel, as you may have imagined, and it also starts with a bang--the main character falls off a roof and has to return home to her parents while she heals.

Friday, February 10, 2017

False Agreements and How They Drive Characters in Your Fiction or Memoir


What I call the "inner story" in fiction or memoir just refers to the transformation of a character or narrator through a series of outer events.  It's pretty simple, but its success depends on something called "false agreements."  Without this transformation, and the false agreements that propel it, a story is just a list of crises.   Readers want to witness growth.
Transformation doesn't just occur, right?  It usually happens from a series of events that create change.  To make each change real for the reader, we have to consider where the character's journey starts.  Usually, there is something they don't fully understand.  Something they are challenged by.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Andre Dubus on Writing Memoir--A Podcast from Brevity


I admire Andre Dubus's writing, both his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) and his memoir (Townie).  This week, as I return from teaching in Tucson, instead of a lengthy post, I'm going to keep it short--and share an excellent podcast with Dubus, shared by one of the writers at my retreat.

Although the podcast is specifically about memoir, and whether a writer must live a dramatic life in order to write it, his comments can be helpful to writers from all genres.

Here's the link to Brevity magazine, which published the podcast. 
Enjoy!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

When the World Goes to Chaos, Writing Becomes Even More Important--So What's Your Purpose with Your Writing?


I don't know anyone who thinks our world is perfect right now.   My Facebook feed is so disturbing some days, I can't read or post.  I'm not a born activist, but I do have concerns and strong opinions about what's happening nationally and globally, so that's when I turn to my writing.

I know from many published books that writing has an effect on the world.  Just last week I got a letter from a reader of my first novel, Qualities of Light.  She lives in Switzerland and took months to read and study the book (in English, not her native language), and she says she was transformed by the story.  Since the novel was released in 2009, that's a fairly long half-life in publishing.  Still touching a few people here and there, and I'm grateful my words can make a difference.

This week, I'm in Tucson, Arizona, in the middle of the beautiful and peaceful desert, with a group of 13 other writers.  I'm teaching a retreat on book-writing, and the writers come from all different backgrounds and writing genres.  Some are just beginning, some are nearing publication. 

Over dinner, we often discuss the state of the world.  Yesterday, we expanded that into the effect our writing might have on that world.  Writer Toni Morrison is recently famous for saying, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work.  There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear.  We speak, we write, we do language.  That's how civilizations heal." 

So what is your intent, with your writing, in this world we're in? 

Your weekly writing exercise is a break from craft, into the purpose of why you write, why we write.  What's it all about, for you?    

Friday, January 20, 2017

Weaving Storyboards--Which Is Your Dominant Story?

Natalya was in one of my storyboarding classes at Grub Street writing school in Boston a year and a half ago.  She also describes herself as "an avid reader" this blog.  She sent me a very good question about weaving together three storyboards for her current novel.


Storyboards are basic structuring tools that help a writer plot a storyline.  Many books have more than one storyline.  Consider The Time Traveler's Wife, which has three (the current story, the time travel story, the backstory).  How did this author so successful weave these three storylines together, making a cohesive whole?

It's not easy.  It's also impossible for most writers to manage just by writing through the story and never stepping back to examine the structure.

I recommend first creating separate storyboards for each storyline.  You need to be clear that each storyline is strong enough on its own.  Many times I've begun a book and not noticed when one of my storylines dropped out midway through.  Readers will always notice and disengage.  So do the structure work first thing, if you can.

Natalya also has three storyboards for her novel-in-progress.  The first is the storyline of her main character in the present time.  The second storyboard shows the same character during World War II.  She says this backstory is "an integral part of the narrative and requires its own story line vs. being presented as flashbacks."  She also has a third storyboard that shows the "secondary main character or, more precisely, the main character's main helper in the present time."

Her three storyboards seem to work individually, which is great news.  But she is struggling with how to integrate them.
Research comes first.  I always look at other authors when approaching this task.  For instance, how does Anthony Doerr do this in All the Light We Cannot See?  Does he alternate chapters by different narrator, or does he offer a chunk of chapters from one of the storylines?  The Time Traveler's Wife is another good resource.  Two narrators, three different storylines.  How does this author handle it?

There are only a certain number of combinations, so look first at published examples.  Then, try modeling one.  Take your own material and test it out using one of the structures.  If you love Time Traveler's Wife, do exactly the same with your first few chapters as Audrey Niffeneger does with hers.  Test it out.  When does she bring in the backstory storyline, when does she offer a chapter from the female character's point of view, when from the male's?  Mimic the structure and see how you like it.

If that structure doesn't appeal to you, or doesn't really fit your material, try modeling from another book you love.  Usually, within a few tries, I land on a structure that suits my book.  Then I go back to my own material and make that structure my own.  I tweak and change until it's uniquely mine.  It's a tried-and-true technique in many art forms.  Remember, you're only modeling the structure, not the writing itself.

Some writers also like to choose a dominant storyline and place those chapters at pivotal moments in the book (if you're familiar with the W storyboard from my classes, this would be points 1-5).  That cues the reader that this is the most important story.  Usually, that story is the present time one, narrated by the main character. 

Your weekly writing exercise is to try this! 

If you'd like to really practice this and get weekly coaching from me, check out my upcoming online class, Storyboard Your Book! starting on January 25 for eight weeks.  Hopefully, this technique can help other writers struggling with the same question.

Friday, January 13, 2017

When Your Fiction Is Really about You (Even a Little), Do You Need to Protect Yourself?

One of my private coaching clients successfully finished her revision last year.  Her next step was to find close ("beta") readers for the manuscript so she could get feedback on anything else that needed tweaking.


The novel, her first, is loosely based on her own true story.  She chose her sister, two close friends (one of whom was a writer) and her daughter (also a writer).  They read, they commented, but they mostly had concerns about the autobiographical nature of the story. 

My client wrote me:  "A couple of them have asked me whether I want to put this story out there.  The themes are so universal I have never been too worried about [it being autobiographical].  But it has caused me to think about whether I should try to change the location, place names etc.  Or even use a pseudonym.  I know you caution about having family/friends read too soon, perhaps for this type of issue, but I couldn't go much further without this step."

First, readers who know you will ALWAYS wonder if your fiction is autobiographical, even if it's not.  They want to know how you came up with the ideas, how you were able to present them so authentically in the story.  They immediately suspect that if you're writing about divorce with such poignancy, you've been through it too.  It's always been my experience, as a writer. 

It's also a kind of "duh"--authenticity in story comes from two places:  either we lived the experiences or we have compassion and good research skills and can capture the experiences vicariously.  I work with hundreds of writers and easily 75 percent start first novels from a true-life experience. 

Such feedback--do you really want to put this out there?--is valuable because it may be telling you that more revision is needed.  You may still be processing the story.

Early drafts are often processing drafts--the writer is getting the experience on paper for the first time, perhaps, and using the character to understand it.  (This is why many first novels never see the light of day.  We've done our work with them and they don't need to be out there.)  When the processing is over, though, and you are still fascinated with the story, you move to the next step:  How can you make this truly fictional?  Or do you want to publish this as a true-life novel, which is also a respected genre?

Once I've processed the true story behind my fiction, I begin to see what I can change.  I usually change the location, the era (year), the backstory, the gender, and the appearance of characters as much as I can.  An old man becomes a young boy, a small town becomes a village in another country.  As I do this, the story takes wings in a way it couldn't when I was sticking to what really happened.

So, the answer isn't a simple one.  If you are concerned from these kinds of reader questions, ask yourself if you've got anything else you can change.  What are you still wedded to, in the true story?  What can you let go of?  Or are you fine about the autobiographical part being exposed?  Your choice entirely.

An exercise to find the answer:  If you're a fiction writer, choose one of your pieces of writing and go through it as a curious reader might.  Make a list of anything that mimics your own life, in any way.  Then pick three of these items to change.