Book reviews

Finding Your Fingerprint: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 12 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-11 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Sometimes ‘platform’ is used as shorthand for a writer’s celebrity factor…Think of your platform as a fingerprint: your background, education, and network affect what your platform looks like in the beginning…platform can’t be built separate from your creative work. (The Business of Being a Writer, page 173)

I met Friedman while I was a student at my MFA program. Her talk to us was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “platform” used with regard to a writer’s resume; and, at the time, I just filed away my notes from her talk and logged the phrase in my head.

But I was coming to an MFA from a different perspective than many MFA students do, I think: I was already an established writer and editor and had credits and a publishing history to speak of. In short, I already had a “platform”; I’d just never referred to it as such.

But as I gain more distance from my past as a writer, I am beginning to realize that maybe I never did really have a platform that I could really call consistent. For a long time, I specialized in writing about the outdoors and the environment. (I discovered the personal essay around this time, too, and have never really left that behind.) Then I realized I wasn’t very good at reporting, so I went into marketing and copywriting, and actually, I’d write anything if it kept me in funds while I was working on my novel. I stayed there for awhile, but I found I missed editorial, so I went back to dabbling in that by way of some freelance writing in the environmental world and eventually found a home in editing and critiquing longer work.

I once heard a respected businesswoman say that she believed you should reinvent yourself every six or seven years. She said she based that on some biological fact about people’s cells: every six or seven years, we get a whole new set of cells–by then, everything should have turned over. Okay, I buy that. And it’s kind of nice to believe so.

But how are you ever to build a platform if you are, like me, perpetually curious?

Well. You can specialize–really dial in to one thing or another. That wasn’t something I was really willing to do. I’m interested in too many things to confine myself to studying one thing. Or you can do what I think of as layering. I’ve pulled the lens way out on myself, and if I were to envision it, my platform would now look pretty broad.

I’ve been called a “renaissance” type of person, and while I don’t exactly love that idea–jack of all trades, master of none, is the impression I get from that description–the truth is that sometimes, your personality is what ends up defining your platform. And at the end of the day, what feels right is sometimes just plain right.

Here’s what feels right to me right now:

“Hi. My name is Yi Shun. I’m an expert in working with words.”

Here are a few things to consider for when you start thinking about your own platform:

  • Consider what fires you up, what makes you lose time when you’re working on it.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to the basics that Friedman lists: your education, your background, and your network. What do these things say about you?
  • Whatever your platform is has to jive with your personality. For instance, I know a friend who loves to write about outliers, and that’s because he has aspirations to be an outlier himself, although he’d never abandon his family to do so. Another friend is fascinated by extreme sport, and so his professional life has tinges of extreme thinking in it–he regularly pushes and challenges his team to go outside of their comfort zones.

What would you say your platform is? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Getting Creative with Audience: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 11 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-10 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

In a section on Building a Blog Readership, Friedman posits a few methods. One is “Create Guides on Popular Topics,” and in it, she writes,

“If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably come s naturally. Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise…If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider a few examples…”

Friedman then goes on to list a few tactics, including a travel guide if your book is strongly regional, a list of favorite reads by genre/category, or an FAQ around a strong “avocational pursuit” that influences your novels.

Please indulge me while I do a little beating up of myself. For bucket’s sake, my novel is based in Taiwan. And Las Vegas. And New York. My character is obsessed with self-help books. And diaries. 

Listen. You are never going to be able to hit all the marks when it comes to marketing your own books, or building your own platform. Someone somewhere is going to look back on your marketing efforts and see big, black, gaping holes, and if you’re very unlucky, that someone will be yourself, say, two years after your book has been published.

Woe. Oh, woe.

Listen. This is why they created the Internet, so that we can correct our own mistakes. And now, I would like to tell you a little bit about Marty Wu’s Taiwan, or, rather, the Taiwan that *I* know, which made me feel like my heroine needed to go there.

Taiwan 101, for those who might someday want to visit

Nomenclature

My mother calls it “Our Little Sweet Potato Island.” This image has stayed with me for so long that, whenever I look on a map for Taiwan now, I half-expect to see a tiny orange blob in the middle of the ocean, Not only that, I expect to see little tendrils of roots, sprouting into the water on any map.

My late dog used to lie on his belly on the floor, one leg tucked in and the other–*sproing!*–canted out at an angle. From above he looked like Taiwan, and thus like a sweet potato.

Black-and-white dog lying on belly with one foot out

Do not call Taiwan the sweet potato island when you visit. No one will know what you are talking about.

You might see it on older maps as “Formosa.” This is the name the Portuguese gave it in 1542. It was named this for a very long time, well into the 20th century. Although it carries with it a lot of baggage, my parents, at least, never seemed to mind it being called that, since it translates to “Beautiful Island.”

Language

“I speak only Taiwanese, not Mandarin,” is a common refrain for me when I go back home.

The people who have come over from the mainland to make their homes on Taiwan are usually perplexed. “But…are you uneducated?” one said to me. Silly cow,** I said back, this is Taiwan.

In the south, more people speak Taiwanese than in the north. In Taipei, the capital, you will find people who speak English. And most signs are spelled out in both phonetics and Mandarin, although Taiwan seems to have not decided on a system of romanization of the Mandarin.

Ah, the Mandarin. Yes. This is the official language of Taiwan. This is a hangover from the many years we were occupied, and then, the post-war years, when we were under martial law. Also, Taiwanese can be written, but it doesn’t have a strong written tradition.

Which I kind of love. Hearing a story told in my native Taiwanese is probably close to one of my top ten experiences.

Weather

Hot. Sticky. Rainy in the afternoons, providing brief respite from the humidity. Winter is the best time to visit Taiwan, hands down. We took a November visit one year, and although it rained a fair amount, it was still utterly beautiful. I’ll always aim for a winter or late fall visit. I’ve also been in December, and I loved it then, too, although the humidity made it feel like it was summer.

Bring layers. Light sweaters are a good thing.

Geography

In the mountains, there is coffee and bamboo.

There are hot springs in vinegar distilleries, at which you can taste the produce.

In the fine, fertile fields of the west, you’ll find such fresh vegetables that you’ll never want to season with anything but a little bit of salt, ginger, and garlic ever again.

Further southwest, mudflats are everywhere, and so are oyster beds. Have some oyster and dried-radish omlette; you’ll never be the same.

In the woods, out on the flats, in the cities–wherever  you go, eat the fruit.

Cuisine

Oops. See “Geography,” above.

Places I have Been and Loved

Anping Fort, or Fort Zeelandia: I love it because it is the last memory I have of my second uncle before he passed away. You will not have these memories, but you will find it very weird that there is a Dutch fort in the middle of Taiwan. Also, around the fort there are people making candy and you should buy some and eat some.

Kaohsiung: I love this city. Another uncle teaches at the medical college there, and my cousin teaches Mandarin for foreigners at yet another university. My aunt, an artist and loosely the inspiration for Marty’s aunt in the novel, had an exhibition at the art museum here. You will not have such memories. But you can walk along the Love River, and go to the wonderful department store, and have good coffee and a kick-ass Taiwan breakfast, all within just a few miles of each other.

Taroko Gorge: The waters through this gorge used to run so clear and so blue, but then there was an earthquake in 1999, one that really rattled the entire island. Since then, the locals say, the waters are still blue, so deep is the gorge, but they are very, very cloudy. It doesn’t matter. This is an extraordinary place and you will walk away knowing there’s nothing else quite like it in your recent history and probably in your near future.

TouLiu: This is home for me. It means nothing to you, except we grow great fruit and coffee. If we go together, though, I will make you visit. There is a street here called “Taiping Old Street” which is…I don’t know. It’s the place I eventually set some key scenes. But it’s also a place of great pain: the Japanese occupied Taiwan for a very long time, and this stretch of shopfronts has been preserved to recall this era of architecture and history. How strange, to remind oneself every day of this period, while you are going about your daily marketing.

japanese colonial architecture on Taiping Old Street in Taiwan

Anything else you need to know

Call me. I will talk your ear off. I will show you my photos. The place will steal your heart, and then some, and you will be happy you went.

Mostly, though, you are likely to be interested because you know me. Maybe you have read my novel, and you are a little bit interested in the things that drive Marty.

What drives us to visit a place, after all, but the stories we’ve heard about it, and the stories we hope to find for ourselves?

I do have tips for you:

  • When you get an idea for anything tangentially related to your book, write. it. down. You do not want to be kicking yourself for later.
  • Don’t forget to review this sheet of paper on which you will write things down. Do not pull a me.
  • Think of your book as a reader might. What things will this reader discover in your pages that would make them curious, or want to Google something or another?

What exciting things can you think of to do with the book you’re working on, or the books you’ve published? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Idea Generation: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 10 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-9 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Oof. I am all kinds of behind this week. And I have missed the regularity of writing these posts. I have also already broken one of Friedman’s rules for building platform (more on that a little later in this series) but totally reneging on the schedule I built for myself.

Welp. If it helps any, it is partially because I went to the dentist. I believe that is all that needs to be said on a variety of levels.

But I digress. This week’s post almost came without a quote from Friedman’s book, because the information was so broad. What you need to know is that writing for magazines and periodicals—what Friedman terms “traditional freelance writing” is the subject here, and that

“By studying a publication carefully across two to three issues–or the span of a few weeks online–you can get a sense of what material is written by editors and what’s regularly assigned to freelancers.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 150.)

Friedman then goes on to list thirteen categories—types—of articles that might be assigned to freelancers over three pages. Over my career, I have pitched or written-for-hire all thirteen of these categories, and reflecting on those had me falling down a rabbit hole of nostalgia in which I remembered the era of my career when I spent entire days coming up with article ideas and then crafting pitches around them and landing some of them.

That time was, by far, one of the most productive of my life. I don’t do this any more, for a variety of reasons, the most significant being a change in the things I wanted to spend my time doing, obviously, but I honestly don’t think my brain has ever been happier. I look back now, me with my hyper-organized (by some measures) mock traveler’s notebook and my tri-color pen and my time tracker, and I wonder, how the hell did I do it?

Let me introduce you to the Fat Li’l Notebook.


First, a caveat. This is not the exact model I used back in my heyday. The one I prefer is actually called The Fat Li’l Neatbook, and it is so rare now that Amazon has it listed at nearly $6, whereas its cousin, this thing with the spiral binding and the therefore-raggedy pages when you tear them out, is just $3.

But you want to know what I did with this notebook. Well, let me tell you. I would take it to the Barnes and Noble, and I would sit down with it and get a stack of magazines that interested me, and then I would page through them all, loosely, and just let my brain run wild. Every time I got an idea for a story or a feature or whatever that might be good for a magazine, I’d write down a capsule description of the idea, and then I’d notate somwhere the magazines that idea might be good for.

I used one sheet per idea. Whenever I found sources or tangents that would add to that idea, flesh it out more, I would add it to that sheet of paper. Eventually I had something I could pitch, and then I would put together a few pitches and send that idea out.

And when I had completed an assignment or at least pitched it, I would either rip it out or cross out the page (I can’t remember which I did. There must have been a reason I preferred the version of the notebook without the spiral binding, but that could be either because I hated the feel of the thing OR because I tore out the pages; I don’t know.)

This method did two things: One, it allowed me to never run out of ideas; two, it made me feel smart whenever I paged through it. It made me full like I had a full, functioning brain.

This is not something that cannot be overstated.

See, some creatives are very, very good at beating ourselves up. We might have produced something lovely at some points in our lives, but there are the days when whole hours will go by, and we feel like we have done nothing. Hell, there may be weeks that go by without us feeling as if we have done anything worthwhile. And so, seeing a fat little notebook with something written on each page is a very valuable thing.

I don’t know what I did with that original notebook. I know there were still ideas in it that I hadn’t written up yet.

In fact, now that I’m remembering it, I may go back to this methodology. I get ideas for essays, short stories, things to pitch to outlets, all the time. But I’m no longer storing them anyplace, which means if I don’t find time to act on those ideas in a reasonable time period of having an idea, well, it just goes into the ether. This is not a good thing.

Anyway. I’ve digressed a little bit, but I do have some actionable tips for you:

  1. Write your ideas down someplace. (Duh.)
  2. Read widely. You never know which publication might jar an idea in you.
  3. Read the publications about the things that interest you. Your interests can easily become the areas in which you become an expert.
  4. When you come up with ideas, don’t overthink them. Just jot down things that interest you. Consider a good exercise for your brain.

That’s it for this week! On Friday, look for another post from this series.

What’s your favorite method of keeping track of ideas? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On a Writer’s Responsibility: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 9 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-8 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Whatever deadlines you’re given, respect them…authors are notorious for missing their deadlines…The worst thing you can do is let a deadline pass by in complete silence or avoid contact with your editor.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 129)

Dear Reader,

It. Is. Confession. Time. I have never, ever told this story in public, and I have never actually even told it out loud, I don’t think. It is the most mortifying thing to ever happen to me, and I did it to myself. I have zero excuses for it, but I lived to tell the tale so you don’t ever–ever–do something this stupid, this disrespectful, to anyone else.(Also, I should say that Friedman is specifically talking about working with book editors; this post is about working with a magazine editor, but it still applies.)*

It was 1999. I was 25. It was my first foray into freelancing, both writing and editing, and I had landed an absolute dream: a part-time editing job with a very well-respected trade publication, in a field I really cared about. The hourly rate was good, the hours were 20 hours a week, exactly what a young freelance writer needed to get her legs under her, and I had a lovely office to go to, with a cohort of people whose faces I still remember today.

I did a good enough job that when my contract ended, and the in-house editing team needed someone else to continue editing a specific section for the publication, they asked me. I said yes. I left the office feeling pretty good about myself.

And then the wheels fell off the goddamn wagon. I can’t really remember what my life circumstances were. I’m sure they were what any 20-something-living-in-New-York’s were: random parties accompanied by random hookups, probably a breakup somewhere in there, parental units 3,000 miles away wanting to know what the frick this “freelancing” was anyway, and where was the husband that would save me from my peripatetic “career,” whatever. I am sure I felt “overwhelmed” and like I warranted some “self care.”**

Whatever the hell it was, I then proceeded to do this:

I blew it off.

But Yi Shun, you say, gently, because I maybe look like I am about to throw up recounting this thing to you, Yi Shun, what do you mean you blew it off?

I mean exactly that. I full-on ghosted the assignment, ignored the deadline, did half the work, whatever.

It was awful. Every time I walked in from whatever it was I was doing (not editing, obviously), I avoided looking my answering machine in its little red blinking eye. I knew it would be my editor, with his gentle voice, asking to speak to me. And I can still picture him to this day: gentle voice, sad, downward-at-the-corners eyes, deeply understanding. If I had had my head screwed on straight, I’d have gone into the office, talked to him, told him I was unfit for the gig and to hire someone else.

If I could go back, I’d tell 25-year-old me this.

To this day, every time I see his last name (it’s not an uncommon one), I flinch a little.

I can’t remember exactly how we ended the relationship. I’m sure it ended badly for me. I don’t remember how I felt. I don’t remember if I actually completed the assignment, no matter how late it was.

Worse, although I never made this particular mistake again, I made a mistake similar to it later: I took an assignment I knew I wasn’t ready to take. That ended badly, too.

Since then, though, I haven’t done anything like either of these two circumstances. I’ve worked hard to overcome that memory of myself, although the experience of writing this has proven I’m not quite over it. The experience has also shaped who I am. If anything, I’m an overcommunicator now: if a thing *smells* like it’s going to be late, even, I ping my editor. And I expect the same of both my clients and the people I manage: if it *looks* like it’s going to be late/go off the rails, I want you to tell me.

This experience has also likely shaped me in a positive fashion, although I wish I’d learned this lesson in a way that didn’t come at the expense of someone else. The lesson I learned is this: Whatever it is, it is fixable. Whatever it is, we can make it work. Whatever it is, it will be okay.

I also learned this: If you feel like you can’t do something, it’s okay to pass it on to someone else. Spread the love. I do this a lot now, too.

I guess I’m okay, in the end. I do still wonder, every once in a while, what my career would look like now if I had done the right thing back then. But you could say that of a lot of choices I made in that early part of my working life. I think immaturity had something to do with it. But I’m glad I’m here to tell you about it. I’m glad that I can share this story with you now. I’m glad you are there to read my work, even though I was young and stupid and dangerous.

We’re almost at the end of this post. It has been the hardest 1000 words for me to write in a very long time. I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve told you. I see my editor at this trade publication is still working in this industry, and when I’m done here I may write to him and point him to this post and tell him how sorry I am, and how glad I am that he is doing the work he does now. He was nice. When someone does something stupid to make me angry and I have to remind myself to be nice, I channel this editor. And that will kick off the list of takeaways I have for you this time:

  1. Be nice. Niceness is underrated. Not everyone will remember you for it, but some people will, and in some cases it will change their lives.
  2. Be prepared to take a hard look at yourself. Whatever work you are being approached to do, be honest about your skillset and your capabilities and time commitments, even if it means losing the assignment.
  3. Be ready to pass the work onto someone else if you can’t complete it. Build a bank of people you trust whom you’re ready to pass the work onto. Offer your managers/editors a chance to get to know another great editor or writer.
  4. If you have to push back a deadline, communicate that. Give your editor plenty of time to act on this new deadline.
  5. Bonus lifeskill: Be considerate. I know, this sounds like People 101, but remember that every action you take is likely going to affect someone else. I don’t even want to know what knock-on effect my f*ckwittery had. I know it probably made some people’s lives harder.

Okay. That’s it for now. I am going to go open a box of Cheez-Its and inhale it. Thanks for reading. On Friday, come back for a peek into my freelancer’s brain, as we explore part of Friedman’s Chapter 17, “Traditional Freelance Writing.”

*Just to give you an idea of how awful this is, I have taken many breaks between the writing of this post’s title, and completing the post, and it will have been an hour since I wrote this first paragraph. Loathing. I am loathing this task. You want to never feel like this. So don’t do anything even remotely approaching this thing I am about to tell you/have told you about.

**More likely I was just arrogant.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Great Book Hooks and Query Letters: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 8 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-7 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

Figuring out what’s truly special about your story, and expressing that ina compelling way–this is the toughest part of writing the query. I recommend you start with one of the following prompts:

  • What does your character want, why does he want it, and what keeps him from getting it?
  • State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”

(The Business of Being a Writer, page 108)

For this post, I’m going to try an experiment, and then I’ll give you an exercise. I’m going to de-engineer my debut novel into a query hook. The book’s been out for over two years now, so I’m at the point where I’ve forgotten some of it, maybe enough for me to approach the thing with fresh eyes. I’m not even going to reference the jacket cover. And then I’ll decipher what’s working and what isn’t working for each of the things I’ve written.

watercolor of bear fishing, using a book on a line as bait.

Looking for an agent? You’ll need a good query, with a great hook.

Really? *Rolls up sleeves*. Here we go.

“What does your character want, why does she want it, and what keeps her from getting it?”

Marty Wu wants to open a tiny costume shop of modest bearing, just to see what it’s like to have something of her own, but even though she can front the shop by herself, even in rent-crazy New York City, her desire to be a good daughter and do something her overbearing mother is proud of is smack-dab in the way. Before it’s too late, Marty must find a way to bridge the gap between what she wants and what she thinks she should do: Stuck as she is between two cultures, there may not be a middle ground for this heroine.

“State your character’s name, give a brief description, describe the conflict she faces, and convey the decisions she has to make.”

Marty Wu is a hot mess. She’s making bank at a job she hates, but her utter terror of upsetting her overbearing mother prevents her from making any significant moves. Her dream of  opening a boutique costume store seems far out of reach. But when a bad career mistake jeopardizes the only livelihood she knows, Marty must make the choice between what she’s always been told is her filial duty and what she really wants, and she must take the right steps before her dream slips away from her entirely.

What’s working?

In the first selection, I use a lot of specificity. As I noted somewhere before, specificity is king no matter what you’re doing. It adds texture, color, access to emotions.

In the second selection, I mirror the style of the actual book much more closely. There’s the “hot mess” reference–I have yet to meet a person whose lips don’t quirk upon hearing that phrase–and “making bank,” and there’s also a hint of added tension here, as I give the reader something to worry about, with the added hint of drama and a bad career move.

What’s not working?

In the first selection, there isn’t a whole lot to worry about. There aren’t any stakes, to use a common term in fiction: there isn’t anything for the reader to concern herself with. Will she, or won’t she? It’s hard to care, since Marty doesn’t seem to be fighting against anything but an idea.

In the second selection, I can hear the voice of the movie-trailer voiceover guy with every sentence. In short, it all seems very dramatic, but really there’s a lot of grey area: She needs to “find the dream she wants to pursue.” Here, some more specificity would allow me to up the ante quite a bit.

What’s the answer?

In this case, I think a nice blend of the two would work well. And here’s what my publisher came up with, for the back cover blurb, which, essentially, is what you’re writing:

 

Here, you can see my publisher came up with a succinct listing of all the things that are in Marty’s way, and also plays on Marty’s biggest obsession–her self-help books–to help get readers interested in her journey. She also underpins the book’s dual existence–Taiwan and America–and gives us a hint that things may not work out entirely well for Marty.

Instead of some tips this time around (Friedman’s questions are a great place to start), let me suggest this exercise:

Pick one of your favorite books, one you know well. Write both versions of Friedman’s prompts, above, for the book. Don’t cheat by looking at the back cover. Now do the same for a recent read, one you’ve just now gotten to know. Compare your version to the back cover of each, and see where you deviated and where you met up with the eventual back cover. And dissect each, based on what’s working and what isn’t. 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Word Count: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 6 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-5 can be found here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Publishers think about the books they’re considering in terms of word count…The average book in today’s market is 80,000 words…If you have a manuscript that’s between 20,000 and 40,000 words, you haven’t written a book. If it’s fiction, you’ve written a novella.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 89.)

The agent, whom I already really liked as a person, and whom I really, really wanted to like me, leaned across her wine glass. “I need you to write 6,000 more words,” she said, all wide eyes and guilelessness.

Four and a half years later, I still admire the way she delivered this news. Calmly, evenly, as if there were nothing to these 6,000 more words. I like to think that I reacted with just as much calm and guilelessness, but on the inside, I am pretty sure I was screaming, to paraphrase a friend, “OH SURE LADY I’LL JUST WRITE THOSE WHILE I’M POOPING, SHALL I?”*

What the agent was trying to do was get my book into saleable condition. See, the thing sat neatly at 55,000 words, which is neither novella nor novel.** She knew this was problematic. I was beginning to know it. What I didn’t know was that adding those 6,000 words, which would stretch into 7,000 (about 25, 28 pages), would change some crucial things about the novel. All I could hear was that without these 6,000 more words, this novel would be a no-go.

I had gone to grad school to fix what I knew was a key flaw in my writing. For the longest time, I couldn’t put a solid finger on conflict, and page-turnability. I learned a lot while I was in classes there, but while you can fix a thing academically, you’ll never really know or understand what the solution looks like until you test it in the real world. My thesis, which was the book I was pitching, had passed muster for graduation purposes, but I had queried a number of agents already, and despite high personal response rates to both query letter and sample chapters, I wasn’t getting the solid bites I wanted.

This agent, though, had actionable advice. And it was time for me to put practice to work and get the book into a form an agent could work with.

How was I going to add 6,000 more words, though? Where would I put it? I knew this wasn’t going to be the kind of change that involved more character descriptions here and there, more little personality quirks or long passages of lyrical description of setting. In the first place, my character isn’t the type to wax lyrical for very long, and since the book is told in diary format, that wasn’t going to fly. Second, the character’s a little self-centered, so she wasn’t going to do anything that involved a whole lot of descriptions of other people.

What I ended up doing was introducing a whole new character, an archetypal bad boy for my character to be distracted by. And even though he started out being a distraction, the introduction of this character, just a little less than halfway into the book, had serious ramifications for the rest of the novel.

Most importantly, the addition of this character added depth to my own main character, my protagonist. She was forced to make some choices that didn’t even exist before, thereby granting her an agency she didn’t have before.

And, of course, the addition of this character allowed me to reach the desired word count.

I no longer remember the book as it was without this addition, and I’m reasonably sure I couldn’t stand to look at it if I dug up an old draft.

I didn’t end up going with this agent, but I will always be grateful for the advice she gave me. It may not seem like much, but I’m sure she knew that asking me to add that many more words and pages would force my character into a situation that would give her more to do.

Takeaway tips:

  • Be open to advice from people whose job it is to sell your book. Assume good intention, always.
  • If you ever do find yourself in a position to need to add words, don’t look to tinker. Look to revise.
  • In my editing for clients, I often see a lack of conflict. If you’re looking for places to ramp up the story, look for places where your character lacks agency or where conflict is lacking.

What’s the biggest revision job you’ve had to do? Tell me about it in the comments below.

The next post in this series will occur at the end of next week, as I’m deployed for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency, for the rest of this week.

*I really, really wish I remember who gave me this line. Whoever you were, thank you.

**I also wish this could be a post on how frustrating it is that there is this weird no-man’s-land between 40,000 words and 60,000 words, where no one actually knows what to call your book in terms of length. Alas, it has no answers in this regard. Sorry.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 4

Welcome back to Brain Flotsam, the weekly feature that touches on things I heard, read, and saw that made me go Hmmmm. Here’s what I encountered this week!

A tour of the British Isles in accents! I haven’t vetted this with my English pals yet. But I found it a very useful lesson in both accents AND *cough* geography.

I’ve decided to stop saying and writing “Best of luck.” To my ear, it sounds disingenuous, almost sarcastic–“Yeah, good luck with that“–and it nearly assumes that whatever it is the person is attempting, s/he’s going to need luck to get it done. I think “all best” is a good way to go.

I just started watching Star Trek. It feels a little bit funny, to immediately “know” that Spock is half-human; that the thing he’s doing to that guy’s neck is the Vulcan neck grip; that the guys in the red shirts are all likely to die. There’s no element of surprise or discovery for me. But still, I’m enjoying it to pieces.

I had a shock this week after reading a most undemanding book. It was called Penelope Goes to Portsmouth, and the edition I was reading had this cover on it:

PenelopePortsmouth2

I read it as light, fluffy, frisky modern lit. Like I said, it was completely undemanding work. But then I went to enter the book into Goodreads, and up popped this cover:

PenelopePortsmouth1

And suddenly I was like, o WOW. I had no idea I was reading outdated old-lady romance garbage! We are, as ever, visual creatures, aren’t we? (Capsule review: This book was really fun to read, if not predictable and not assuming a very sophisticated reader. But it was a nice, quick, one-day diversion.)

Pockets. Pockets are on my mind. Nearly all of my dresses–even the nicer ones–have pockets in them. I look for them. When I am out, I keep business cards, a small notebook and pen, lip balm, in them. And sometimes I store things in them–other people’s business cards, for instance. But pockets are also good for memories. This week I found this in the pocket of a dress I last wore in December, in England:

IMG_3735

It is a tiny propeller off a tiny airplane that was a toy in a Christmas cracker. It immediately sent me back, briefly, to an awesome evening with great friends. Pockets. Good for finding memories.

Tune in next week for more Brain Flotsam!

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I talk to one of my favorite authors

The LA Review has my essay, “Communiques to Mr. Lee Child,” up on its web site. Go look here, and see what I think of his character, Jack Reacher, and why I love Mr. Child’s work.
And okay, maybe what I think of Tom Cruise, too.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

7×7=one grateful blogger

Awhile ago, my Whidbey colleague Charlotte Morganti nominated me for a 7×7 link award! I wish I knew what the origins of this award was, but more important, I’m just happy that I’m getting an award! It’s my first!

Also, one thing about Charlotte, before I go on to the requirements of the award–she’s by far the most diligent blogger I’ve ever come across. She decided she was going to start a blog, and then, bang! She’s been keeping it up, regularly, with great writing tips and interviews with luminaries like Alan Rinzler. She also does great book reviews, and is the author of an as-yet-to-be-published hardboiled detective novel in the vein of Dashiell Hammett. So yes, you must follow her blog doings.

Now. On to this award. I must do several things in order to account for this award. I must list seven items in each of three category.

First, seven things about me you probably don’t know:

  • I don’t like very spicy food. That is to say, I don’t like things that flame your nasal hairs out and make you sweat. I’m much more apt to buy a mild tomatillo salsa than I am an “extra hot” salsa, for instance.
  • I am a sucker for the American Standards songbook.
  • I can’t dance.
  • I struggle with my weight. Part of this is my inherent laziness. The other part of it is my love/hate relationship with exercise. The final part of it is genetics.
  • I think everyone should have their own personal style. This is not to be confused with trendiness.
  • I adore button-down shirts and in general prefer neat dressing to slovenliness.
  • I love to cook. And I prefer to do it with friends in the kitchen or nearby.

Now, 7 posts from my own blog that I like:

  • Chris Hondros, in Memoriam: Chris was the photographer for one of my first-ever feature articles. He died in Libya almost a year ago.
  • Book Review: Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane: I write book reviews at my site every once in awhile, but I like this one because it deals with something I think is super important in books–characters one can identify with. Also, it gave me a chance to write a bit of a love letter to Dennis Lehane’s characters. And okay, maybe Lehane himself. 🙂
  • Speaking the Gospel: This is a brief roundup on why everyone should try public speaking. I almost never write posts about business, but this is one of those things that I’m both good at and that I feel strongly about, so I did this one. It’s just a list of reasons everyone should love to speak publicly. And yes, you read that right.
  • Iron Girl, Iron Guy, and the Iron Maiden, Part I and II: This is the story of our Ironman competition. We trained for six months and had a blast, and I’d readily do it again. I loved this race. It was awesome. (Yes, yes, okay, in retrospect.)
  • A Phone Conversation: This is exactly what it is, a phone conversation between me and Mr. Gooddirt. I think it’s hilarious. It pretty much pegs Mr. Gooddirt.
  • Track Rats: This is part of a series I’m writing called “The People in My Neighborhood.” It’s about the folks who populate my life. This one is about the people who first really made me feel like I was a part of my physical neighborhood.
  • An Open Letter to Do-Gooders: I’ve deployed to Haiti twice as part of the ShelterBox Response Team. While I was there I noticed a few things. This letter is obviously not from ShelterBox itself, but it’s my perspective of what people who really want to help in a disaster situation should and shouldn’t do.

Phew. That was hard. This next one will be easier. 7 blogs I like, and, in turn, pass the 7×7 award on to:

  • GrassDirtCorn. My friend Hollie Butler is very special to me. I’ve known her since I was 18. We were camp counselors together. And we used to write letters. Now Hollie tackles some good things–and not-so-good things–in her blog on food, health, and general life. I love it.
  • DaphneUnfeasible. My friend Kate Schafer is a great literary agent. And she has good, important things to tell writers, on her blog.
  • ChelsKnorr. My friend Chels Knorr just started her blog. She’s off to a bang-up start. I think what she has to say is intriguing. I think the way she says it is beguiling. G’wan, take a gander.
  • Manhattan Nest. I’ve just started reading this one. I almost never have patience with blog posts that are this long, but I love Dan’s sensitivities and his design sense. So he’s hooked me. If you like mid-century design–or design at all–you need to take a look at this.
  • The Sherman Foundation. Thomas Sherman makes great, pithy remarks about things that matter to me–art and design and marketing. I appreciate his respect of my time and attention span, but more important, I respect his wide-ranging definition of design.
  • Harvey Briggs. Harvey’s been involved in advertising everything from cars to pantyhose. I can’t remember how I found him, but I’m thrilled I did. Another master of pithy copy, Harvey often points me to really interesting advertisements, but more important, he has interesting, commentary-provoking things to say. Every. Single. Day.
  • Kate Gale. Is a librettist, an editor, a smart, smart woman, and a wicked conversationalist. Again, short, loads-of-fun commentary. Well worth a peek.
  • Nancy Norton. I’ve written about Nancy before, but I think you should go over and take a peek at her blog. She spends part of the year near Toulouse, France, and aside from the part of me that’s an inveterate francophile, I’m always amazed at the things Nancy ends up doing and seeing–and sharing with us.

Okay. That’s it from me. Thanks to the blogosphere in general for this, and, more specifically, thanks to Miss Morganti.

 

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.