Why You Need To Write a Series

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Warning: Hacks for Hacks tips may have harmful side effects on your writing career, and should not be used by minors, adults, writers, poets, scribes, scriveners, journalists, or anybody.

What started as a tiny germ of a story has exploded in your brain like a Mentos in a bottle of Diet Coke. If you want your readers to get a taste of your frothy soda-splosion, you owe it to them to write an entire series. Here are a few tried-and-true methods to turn your ideas into a multi-book bonanza:

People in the know say that if you can’t sell the first book, nobody will want the rest of the series. However, it’s equally true that those people can shut their fat, stupid faces.

First, the Benefits

  • There’s no wrong way to write a series. In fact, if you leave a manuscript out in the spring rain, its spores will sprout sequels like mildew in your shower.
  • With just a bit of padding, extra scenery, maybe an animal sidekick or two, you can expand nearly any idea into a trilogy. It’s a great way to get paid three times for basically writing one book.
  • Writing a series saves you the trouble of crafting satisfying conclusions, character arcs, etc. You’ll deal with it in the next book! Oops, I mean the book after that! Of course, this will catch up to you when you get to the final book. But much like your chemistry final you didn’t study for until the night before the exam, one heroic effort of panic and suffering can make up for an entire semester of slacking off, mostly.

Strategies

sequel

photo by Claudia & Jerome

  • Multiples of Three: When writing a series, you have to write at least three books. No one knows why.
  • Build your momentum. Some writers spend years crafting their first book, sweating every comma until the manuscript practically sings. Who has that kind of time? Once you finish writing that first book, just keep going. Churn out as many books in your series as you can, as fast as you can. People in the know say that if you can’t sell the first book, nobody will want the rest of the series. However, it’s equally true that those people can shut their fat, stupid faces. They haven’t read your sequel to your unpublished novel, have they? When you sit your throne of skulls atop your pyramid made of hundred dollar bills from your mega-major deal, their pathetic mewling will be but the buzzing of flies to your ears.
  • Class is rule number I. Use Roman numerals to denote the order of your series (Part I, II, III, etc.). It makes your work look classy and sophisticated. Why do you think the Super Bowl is so popular?

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“Visionaries on the Decks”: Storytelling

 

iStock_000003642265_Medium Bondarchiuk

“To Declare Your Story’s Intent”

There are things important to you. You hurt. You know stuff. I don’t. You see things that I cannot…You have everything you need, including the courage to declare your story’s intent.

— Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction

Not for nothing am I looking forward to the November 3-7 Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in bewitching Salem, Massachusetts. The final day, a Friday, as you might know, is given over to our good WU colleague Don Maass, who’s going to stand his 21st Century Fiction concepts on their feet and explicate them in a daylong seminar.

Don Maass

Don Maass

This material, which appears in Chapter 8, is some of the best of the entire book. For me, it’s the heart of what his subtitle describes as “High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.”

Your novel definitely is about something, and that something is sharply defined, it’s just that you’re not letting yourself see and commit to it…Take a stand. Decide what’s important, what hurts, what you know that your readers don’t, what it is that people (including your characters) urgently need to see. That’s your missing focus, the refining fire that will turn the ore into steel.

It’s a careful line Maass walks here. Partly an answer to the question of what has become of literary fiction today, 21st Century Fiction insists on, maybe demands, an author’s awareness of what he or she is doing in a book. But it never urges preaching, lecturing, haranguing, or — forgive me — “man-splaining” the work or its mission to the reader.

And this is not only difficult for even the most skilled and exacting of novelists, it turns out. It’s also fiendishly tricky for many publishing-community wonks whose pleasure it is to guess and predict and define and decry where the industry! the industry! is going in its sometimes unseemly stagger through the digital determination of its future.

This, too, is storytelling.

Debates in this community of pundits tend to break out, rash and rash-like. What seemed a productive day spirals down into a sighing scrimmage of comments on a blog post. Here come the opinion-slingers again — God forbid they sit one out — rather sadly advancing a tiny turf warfare that can keep them from seeing new techno land-grabs much like the ones they missed years ago.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Provocations image by Liam Walsh

But once in a great while, the debate turns on itself. The discussion is about the discussion. It can be in such moments that we learn the most.

When it happens, it’s a public edition of the private challenge Maass hands to the author who’s lost his way.

As we stumble into one of these moments in the community’s circular conversation, the digital diaspora of book publishing’s energies is clearer. It’s more worrisome, too, maybe. Clarity does that. In a world of arts gone to mobile devices and a tradition of letters gone to Reply All, obfuscation can be a comfort.

Nevertheless, yesterday, Thursday, just such a moment arrived. While many in the Writer Unboxed community dislike paying attention to the “high-impact storytelling” that goes on as their industry tries to redefine itself, I believe wearing those blinkers is a terrible mistake. I think you need to monitor and engage in the dialog of a field that now expects you to know what’s going on. If you want to be an author regarded as a business-savvy professional,  you can do no less. That’s my provocation for you this time.

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Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?

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Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—some reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for September 21, 2014. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Do you think it’s compelling? Reminder: “compelling” is much different than “interesting”—it means that you are irresistibly urged to turn the page by what you’ve read. Following are what would be the first 17 lines of Chapter 1.

Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. Like the army itself. Which is how they found me. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not always. Not completely.

They started looking two days after some guy took a shot at the president of France. I saw it in the paper. A long-range attempt with a rifle. In Paris. Nothing to do with me. I was six thousand miles away, in California, with a girl I met on a bus. She wanted to be an actor. I didn’t. So after forty-eight hours in LA she went one way and I went the other. Back on the bus, first to San Francisco for a couple of days, and then to Portland, Oregon, for three more, and then onward to Seattle. Which took me close to Fort Lewis, where two women in uniform got out of the bus. They left an Army Times behind, one day old, right there on the seat across the aisle.

The Army Times is a strange old paper. It started up before World War Two and is still going strong, every week, full of yesterday’s news and sundry how-to articles, like the headline staring up at me right then: New Rules! Changes for Badges and Insignia! Plus Four More Uniform Changes on the Way! Legend has it the news is yesterday’s because it’s copied secondhand from old AP summaries, but if you read the words sideways you sometimes hear a real sardonic tone between the lines. The editorials are occasionally brave. The obituaries are (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
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Why You Don’t Need to Rush Your Writing

rushThe truth can be told at last: I am the world’s worst dilettante.

In my life I have learned to rock-climb, ski, speak French (all badly). I was deputy press secretary for New York State in Dukakis’ bid for the presidency in 1988, a job I got through volunteering in hopes of meeting a nice single guy.  I worked at The New York Times back when the presses were still in the basement of the building on 43rd Street, was fired from six ad agencies and spent two years at People Magazine. I went to horse camp, worked on advertising shoots so I know what gaffers and sparks do, how difficult casting is to get right, and how boring most of the time on set is.

I went fox hunting once and jumped a five bar fence. Terrified. With my eyes closed.

I didn’t meet my husband till I was 32 so I know lots about wild disastrous relationships (most of which I couldn’t possibly discuss in public).

I spent a decade racing 30-foot sailboats and flying in tiny Cessna planes with my best friend’s rich husband. I was never much of a sailor, but I could take orders fairly well. OK, slightly-below-average well.

I’ve crossed the Canadian Rockies in a helicopter, paddled a kayak next to a giant sea lion in Desolation Bay, picked oysters and mussels and clams out of the sea and eaten them that day (on an advertising shoot). I’ve been to book festivals in China, New Zealand, Germany, France, Italy, Armenia, Scotland, Wales and Texas.

I survived 18 hours of childbirth and conversations about drugs and sex and body image with my teenager.

I had breast cancer, chemotherapy and radiation, lost all my hair and didn’t know if I was going to die. I wrote most of a book that year.  I inherited the family depression gene.

I’ve ridden a horse through the Black Mountains in Wales, seen a moose a few feet away, nearly passed out drunk at a Harvard “final club”, sang Monteverdi in Chartres Cathedral and Beethoven’s Ode to Joy with the Boston Symphony.

I saw Talking Heads and Elvis Costello and the Clash in tiny clubs in NY and London. I played bass guitar at CBGBs in NY and miniature golf with David Letterman in his office.

I met with a Hungarian policeman at 10pm in his tiny bleak office while two teenagers explained in Hungarian that I couldn’t afford the bribe he required.

I watched a black foal born to a pure white horse at the Lipizzaner stud in Szilvásvárad, Hungary. I took up riding again at age 50. Since then, I’ve had five concussions and no longer jump.

I studied steel sculpture with Anthony Caro, but didn’t understand a word he said for the entire time I was on the course. It discouraged me from ever taking art seriously as a profession, which was no bad thing.

I learned to play the piano, badly.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

I’m not very good at most of the things I’ve done in my life.  Except for writing. I’m a fairly good writer. I wrote my first book when I was 46.

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It’s a funny world.

cowflyingA lot of humorous novels build the comedy into the characters.  We watch two hapless lovers stumble toward each other in rom-coms or pull themselves out of increasingly bizarre situations in screwballs.  You can write this kind of humor with nothing more than insight into human nature and enough love for your characters to laugh at them.  But you need a different set of skills to create a book where the comedy is built into your fictional world, whether it’s the alternate aristocracy of Jeeves and Wooster or the physics-bending fantasy of Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld.

A funny world has to be consistent, for instance.  Not in terms of its physics or metaphysics – in fact, the bafflegab  can be less plausible in parody worlds.  But place you create has to have a consistent comedic sense.  A cosmos in which spaceships travel by creating random whales in low earth orbit feels like the same sort of cosmos in which the answer to the great question of life, the universe, and everything is 42.

Some time ago I edited a book set in an alternate universe in which some fictional characters in our world – Sherlock Holmes, Romeo and Juliet, James Bond – had actually lived.  Some, but not all – Romeo and Juliet were real, but Hamlet was not.  In fact, it quickly becomes clear that fictional characters are only real in the alternate universe when it lets the writer get away with a gag.   The gags weren’t bad, but the ad hoc nature of the world made it harder to believe in, and thus harder to enjoy.

One way to keep your world consistent is to think of it as just another character, with its own sensibility and voice.  Continue Reading »

Wanted: Grim Reaper As Writing Coach

The Grim Reaper - geograph.org.uk - 522625

The Grim Reaper by Trish Steel [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, through pure serendipity, I stumbled across an intellectual exercise which I’d like to recommend to all my fellow writers.  I believe it will be of particular benefit to those of you who  a) are overwhelmed with life and yearn for a reset button b) wish to clear away the cobwebs of smugness and complacency, or c) like me, write genre fiction that others might call “quiet” or, in a cruel moment, “escapist schlock”.

The procedure is as follows:

Step 1: Have an appointment with a new-to-you medical specialist and agree to go through a number of baseline tests.

Step 2: In the interest of saving time, review your results together over the phone. Without accounting for the fact that you’ve met for a grand total of twenty minutes or that you’re missing visual cues, assume that you understand his speech patterns and way of using subtext. For example, that brief hesitation as he explains a particular number? It’s not due to a brain glitch or the distractions which inevitably accompany a hospital practice. Rather, he’s attempting to deliver exceedingly bad news in an artful manner.

Step 3:  Because you prefer to fall apart in private, keep the extent of your devastation to yourself. Don’t ask clarifying questions and whatever you do, don’t cry until you’re finally off the phone.

Step 4: Once you’re over the worst of your shock, determine to flex your proactivity muscles. Read the medical literature. You’re on the lookout for what you can control.

Step 5: While revising the plans for your life, realize you can’t optimize them without information from your healthcare team. A full week after the original phone call, obtain your specialist’s email and fire off a list of questions.

Step 6: Discover you misunderstood one key piece of information and spun everything else forward in such a manner that—were Thomas Hardy alive, and were you to apply your talent for gloominess to fiction—he would view you as a serious rival. (As it turns out, not only are you not declining, you’ve actually improved your health.)

Now, why in the world would I recommend that writers go through such an exercise, Unboxeders? (Because, as you no doubt surmised, this was what I got up to during my summer vacation.) And why would it be true that I’m grateful for the experience? That I occasionally wish for—even long for—a few more days in the tortuous head-space of steps 2-5?

Before I answer that question, can I suggest you give yourself a few minutes to consider how you’d respond if you learned you had only a few years left on this mortal coil? Pull out a blank piece of paper or open a fresh text document. Give yourself time to envision a comparable scenario to the one mentioned above. (You’ll know you’re there when the hair on your nape is standing on end and your bowels are starting to shift.) Got it? Now, jot down everything you notice, and since this is a writing blog, after all, pay particular attention to your insights about fiction and its role in your life.

While I realize this is a highly personal exercise, in the interest of sparking ideas, here’s some of what I noticed during the gift of that week:

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On Rejection and Renewal: A Note to Aspiring Novelists

JuliaBlog

Photo by Scott White

Our guest today is Warren Adler, best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner, and Danny DeVito. Adler’s international hit stage adaptation of the novel will premiere on Broadway in 2015-2016 (to be produced by Jay and Cindy Gutterman). Adler has also optioned and sold film rights for a number of his works including Random Hearts (starring Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott Thomas) and The Sunset Gang (produced by Linda Lavin for PBS’ American Playhouse series starring Jerry Stiller, Uta Hagen, Harold Gould, and Doris Roberts). In addition to the Broadway Production of The War of the Roses, in recent development are The War of the Roses – The Children (Grey Eagle Films and Permut Presentations), a feature film adaptation of the sequel to Adler’s iconic divorce story, Target Churchill (Grey Eagle Films and Solution Entertainment), Residue (Grey Eagle Films), and Capitol Crimes (Grey Eagle Films and Sennet Entertainment), a television series based on his Fiona Fitzgerald mystery series. Adler’s forthcoming thriller, Treadmill, is slated to be released in September.

I believe in big dreams. I believe, too, that one should confront them with courage and realism and beware of those who wish to take advantage of this hunger to create and share their imagined world with others. Stay inspired and keep up the good fight!”

About today’s post, Warren says, “Considering that writing a long work of the imagination (a minimum of 70,000 words which traditionally defines a novel) is time consuming and labor intensive, and considering that a reader must consume many hours in reading such a work, one can only admire the tenacity and dedication of those who follow the path of writing and publishing. Most are convinced that their novels offer insight, enlightenment, awareness and psychic value to the lives of those who will take the time and effort to read their work. They strongly believe in their talent.  Many dream of that movie deal or adaptations in other languages and many harbor the validation of honors, prizes and celebrity. Who would dare inhibit such glorious aspirations? Not me. I believe in big dreams. I believe, too, that one should confront them with courage and realism and beware of those who wish to take advantage of this hunger to create and share their imagined world with others. Stay inspired and keep up the good fight!”

Currently Warren is offering a big giveaway: an unlimited number of eBooks, for each of his five novels slated to be made into films/TV series/Play in 2015 and 2016. They include The War of the Roses: The Children (movie), Target Churchill (movie), American Quartet (TV series—“Capitol Crimes”), Washington Masquerade (TV series—“Capitol Crimes”), Trans-Siberian Express (Movie), and The War Of The Roses (Broadway Play 2016). Follow this link to the giveaway.

Connect with Warren on his blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

On Rejection and Renewal: A Note to Aspiring Novelists

You’ve spent months, perhaps years, composing your novel. You’ve read and reread it hundreds of times. You’ve rethought it, rewritten it, and revised it, changed characters, dialogue and plot lines. Writing your novel is the most important thing in your life. It has absorbed your attention, almost exclusively. Both your conscious and your subconscious mind have been obsessed with it. You have read parts of it to your friends, family, former teachers. Most think it’s wonderful.

You have finally considered it finished. Armed with optimism and self-confidence, you obtain from the Internet a list of agents and begin to canvas. You agonize over whether to send your precious manuscript to one agent at a time or to a number of agents. You choose the first option. Just in case, you send it electronically, unsure of whether or not this is now standard practice. You have high hopes. You are aware of the massive changes in the publishing business, but have chosen to take the traditional path as your first option.

Weeks go by, then months. The agents are, you believe, reading it in the office, passing it around, deciding to take it on. You live on such hopes. Finally you call the agent’s office. They haven’t a clue as to who you are. Somehow, they are reminded and search through the piles of manuscripts in their office, find yours and send you back a standardized letter, perhaps out of politeness made to look like an original.

Well then, you tell yourself, it is only one agent’s opinion. You send it off to another agent. A letter comes back swiftly, similarly worded. You get bolder, send your manuscript to two agents at a time, then three, then every agent you can find. Nothing happens. “Good luck on getting published,” they tell you. “Not for us.” Sometimes there is a personal, scribbled note that says something nice and you live in its glow for days.

Years go by. You start another novel, but you are less optimistic now, less confident, unsure. You tell yourself you have not paid enough attention to the marketplace. You begin to analyze what is selling, what is not selling, what is being published. You read books on the bestseller lists and are certain you can do a lot better. You try to use these books as a guide to what is selling and you write accordingly. Nothing helps. You are continuously rejected.

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Everything You Need to Know About the @Reply

photo by Steve Snodgrass

Okay, tweeps and future tweeps! So far in my column we’ve covered getting started on Twitter, the retweet, the #hashtag, and basic Twitter etiquette. Today I’m going to go over the ins and outs of another Twitter staple: the @reply, also known as a mention. (Still not sure if this whole Twitter thing is even for you? This post might help you decide.)

Terminology

First and foremost, what’s that at symbol for? The at symbol (@: read as “at” in common speech) followed by a username is called a “handle,” and it’s how you “tag someone” on Twitter. To do this correctly, you put their username directly after the at symbol with no spaces between, like this: @AnnieNeugebauer. Typing this on Twitter automatically activates that chunk of text as a link that directs you to that user’s profile; it also notifies the user that they’ve been mentioned.

A “reply” is technically when you answer a tweet directed at you by directing one back to that person, using their @handle.

A “mention” is when you “tag” someone in a tweet that isn’t necessarily a reply, also done by using their @handle. (So a reply is also a type of mention.)

How to See Your Mentions

So how do you know when someone is mentioning you? All of your mentions show up under your “notifications” page found at the left of your Twitter screen. Your mentions will be mixed in with notices of favorites, retweets, and new followers. Your mentions will also appear in your main timeline if you’re already following the person who’s mentioned you.

How to Reply to Someone

Let’s say someone mentioned you in a tweet. How do you answer? Beneath the text of their tweet, in smaller font and toward the right, is a list of options that includes “reply,” “retweet,” “favorite,” and “more.” Click on “reply.” A text box will open with their @handle automatically pasted into the beginning. Simply type your response after that (leave one space) and click “tweet.” Your reply will appear in their notifications!

How to Know What Someone Is Replying To

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The Surprising Importance of Doing Nothing

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Photo by Alice Popkorn (Flickr)

Pop quiz! Studies have shown that creative people are known to:

A) Daydream. A lot.
B) They lose track of time.
C) Have wandering minds.
D) Stare at the wall. A lot.
E) All of the above

If you picked E, you are correct! Successful creatives spend much of their time so deeply immersed in their own internal worlds that, in the eyes of the world, it often appears that they’re doing nothing.

But of course, we know how very untrue that is. Our minds are busy working. Synapses are sparking, neural pathways firing, different corners of our brains coming together, making connections, leaping around seemingly unrelated topics, playing with ‘what if’ possibilities all the time.

The act of thinking used to be a respected one. It was understood that in order to have well-formed ideas and opinions—or even just make good decisions—we had to think about things. But that process doesn’t seem to be held in as much regard anymore. In our productivity-enamored, technology-driven, instantaneous response world, the act of thinking is often considered, at best—quaint, and at its least flattering, an indication of a slow mind. We’re expected to make snap decisions, instantaneous judgments (with or without all the facts, no less!) have ideas gush forth in brainstorming meetings or large, communal bull pit type offices. Then, once the idea has been decided upon, we’re expected to produce, produce, produce non stop in a straight, continuous line until a project is finished. Frankly, I’m exhausted simply writing that paragraph.

So what if your brain doesn’t work that way? Well, now you can take heart in the knowledge that many creative peoples’ don’t and in fact, if your brain doesn’t function that way, perhaps it is due to its creative nature.

For some writers, it takes time to peel off layers of ourselves and weave them into our work. It takes time to observe and study human nature, collecting and appropriating mannerisms, emotional dynamics, and dramas, and then incorporate them into our stories. Continue Reading »

How a Book Coach Can Jumpstart Your Writing Career

It happened again last month. A writer emailed to say that she had finally finished her manuscript and it was now ready for my professional feedback. “I’ve wanted to get it to you for months,” she wrote, “but I had to make sure it was finished first.” Uh oh, I thought. I wasn’t being mean — that was hard won experience talking. I knew this person was a good writer. That’s almost never the problem. The problem I feared was that she was about 300 pages too late, and I’d be reading a well-written, story-less, plot-filled novel that went nowhere. Which meant I’d have say to her what I almost always have to say to writers – even well published writers — who come to me with finished manuscripts: “Let’s go back to the very beginning and nail the story before you begin

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help.

to spin a plot.”   I take no pleasure in the fact that I was right.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make is waiting too long to seek help. I’m not talking about writers’ groups to cheer them on, or writing workshops to learn about craft. I’m talking about serious, professional, story-focused help so they can get their story right, right from the start. Because learning to “write well” is not the same thing as learning to write a story. And without a compelling story, the result is — at best — what’s known in the trade as a beautifully written, “So what?” And at worst, merely a bunch of things that happen.

In this regard, I practice what I preach. I worked with a coach on my first book and on the proposals for my next two books (on which my publisher instantly made offers). I work with her when I develop speeches, talks and articles. I can’t imagine working without her. I’d feel like an orchestra without a conductor, an athlete without a coach. This outside assistance helped catapult my career to a whole new level – and it can do the same for you.

But what is a book coach, exactly? Continue Reading »

What It Really Takes

4722580008_7d28e80511_zThe other day, I was doing a quick skim of the September/October Poets and Writers, the subscription I never have time to truly savor because I am too busy (as most of us are) with the more insistent facets of my life: family, part-time teaching job, part-time curriculum writing job, part-time fiction writing job, full-time adventures with my mental health challenges, always-dirty toilets and dishes and clothes, kids’ carpools and music lessons.

But one article caught my eye, partly because it was short and partly because it had the word Perversity in the title. On my best days, I am 20-30% perverse.

In this article, Perversity of Spirit, Rufi Thorpe describes a young student and the question he asks her, with palpable desperation, over a cup of coffee: Do I have what it takes to be a writer?

As I read his earnest question, I recalled the intensity with which I, a newer writer, sought the answer to that same question. I wonder if you, too, have hoped someone would answer that question for you. I bet you have. I think most of us have.

But after sixteen years of practicing fiction, I now understand that no one can determine whether we have what it takes because most of us start out as really lousy writers. If we’re lucky enough to be gifted with a bit of natural talent, then we’re only semi-lousy. Every new writer resembles a yet-to-be inflated balloon, a stubby brown acorn, an unsharpened pencil. No “expert” can know, just by looking at our early writing, whether we have what it takes. No one can know and quantify our potential.

Still, back in the day, I was desperate for someone who would tell me to keep going, to keep writing. Someone who would assure me that I wasn’t like that weird and talentless magician or roller skater or yoga poet juggler who put himself on America’s Got Talent.

Except that I was like that weird yoga poet juggler. I cannot bear to even glance at my Early Work because it would make me armadillo myself into a tight little ball of shame and embarrassment. But I didn’t realize how bad I was because when I shared my first fiction-ish “story” with my dear friend, Dana, she didn’t tell me that my attempt was ridiculous. She didn’t point out my story’s storylessness. Instead, not knowing whether I had what it took, she urged me to keep going. What a gift.

Eight years later, with a complete manuscript under my belt, I forced myself to meet with a developmental editor at a writer’s conference. He read the first pages of my manuscript and said he was willing to work with me. While he lived in California and I in Seattle, I mentioned I would be visiting my parents who lived ten minutes from him. Would he care to review his editorial feedback in person? He was delighted.

A few bits of information: 1) I believed the manuscript needed only a few touch-ups before I could start querying agents. (You see where this is going.) 2) This fellow had worked with Toni Morrison. He wore an ascot. He had four+ decades of experience in the publishing industry. 3) Though I had nothing so impressive on my own resume, I thought, No matter! My manuscript is polished. 4) Did I mention I thought my manuscript was polished?

A few of his written comments via email: Continue Reading »

On the Quilting of One-Liners (and the Second Coming of Once-Dead Darlings)

Julianna post

photo (adapted) by jude hill

There are wire bins in my office, marked with the titles of different projects. One bin, however, is just labeled “Ideas.” Sometimes I throw plot lines in that bin. Sometimes I’ll write the title of a possible future novel — with nothing else because I don’t know anything else but the title.

Mostly, however, I toss in one-liners. I don’t put these one-liners in a word document because I like the physical reminder — they sit in bins on shelves in my peripheral vision. Physical space is important. It’s why I worry about e-readers. How many times have I been saved because I shoved myself back from my desk and gazed at my bookshelf. Invariably when I do this, my eyes land on a title, and I pull the book out, open it randomly, and find some footing. Some writer — with some random lines plucked from the middle of a book they wrote ages ago — throws me a life jacket across time and distance via language and image, and I’m thankful. I don’t claim to understand that process. I just know it works for me. I need the bins to be part of my terrarium.

The bins are also important because they remind me that I don’t just have a bunch of blank pages to fill. I have something to fill them with. I don’t have to create from nothing.

And so you might now be able to imagine the way I often work — a process of quilting, assemblage by way of parts. In fact, when I come to the end of a novel I’ve written, I can usually open the book, point to a line, and explain where it came from. It’s also how I like to judge a book I might want to read. I’ll take in the opening sentence and then flip through it, land on line, flip again, land on a line, flip again, land on a line, and then decide. Does the mystery of the gaps between the random lines hold my interest?

Here are a few one-liners from my recent novel — The Future for Curious People — co-written with Gregory Sherl. They aren’t all exact quotes from the novel, but close. Some of these lines are his, some mine, some a mix, and some may have started out as scrawl on a scrap and dropped in a bin. These are certainly the kinds of bits that fill my Ideas bin. Continue Reading »