Archive for the 'writers' Category



How to write well, inspired by Richard Bausch and Shania Twain

Can good writing be taught?

I don’t think so.

But I do think good writing can be learned.

Just like singing.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an essay in The Atlantic’s fiction supplement about the silliness of how-to manuals for writing while I watched Shania Twain mentor American Idol contestants.

Not surprisingly, the essay got me thinking. Very surprisingly, so did Shania Twain.

Richard Bausch said,

If you really want to learn how to write [then] read…One doesn’t write out of some intellectual plan or strategy; one writes from a kind of beautiful necessity born of the reading of thousands of good stories…

Shania said something to the effect of, “To make it, you can’t just be a great voice, you have to feel it.”

Let’s ignore for a moment how the market rewards timely topics and strong platforms. Those who are great writers, great storytellers, are more than marketing.

And learning to write, like learning to sing, begins with more than talent and desire, more than “a great voice.” It begins with “feeling it.” It begins with a deep, consuming love for the source material.

So, the first and most important step to becoming a good writer is immersion.

Wallow in stories and language, in song and melody. Luxuriate. Find what you love, what you hate, what bores you to tears. Read it all and keep reading. I agree with Bausch. Writers never really move on from this step. Reading is the foundation for writing. Reading is writing’s raison d’être.

Second, practice.

Write to sound just like those who swept you away with their tales, or phrasing, or high notes. Write to sound nothing like them. Write everything, from recipes to essays, novellas to poems. Realize that craft and artistry take hours, days and years of practice.

Third, hone your voice.

Make each word and rhythm and story your own. Riff a little. Or a lot.

Fourth, embrace your constructive critics.

They will tell you what you need to hear, even when it hurts. Peers, judges, readers, editors…even, maybe, one or two really good books about reading and writing. Listen to the advice that resonates, drop the rest of it. Then go back to the first three steps.

Finally, perform.

Let yourself feel it. Read it back. Does the rhythm and the story flow? Does it make your audience feel it, too? Put your writing into a reader’s hands and see what happens.

Most likely, a writer’s reward won’t be money or fame. The reward will be knowing your writing is part of the backbone, the foundation. Your work is there, in a reader’s library, along with Shakespeare, waiting to sweep someone away.

My personal TOC

There are a lot of solid wrap-ups for the Tools of Change for Publishing conference making the rounds today. DBW’s webinar chose TOC Take-Aways as today’s topic, though technical problems and catch-up work prevented me from listening. Mark Coker had a piece, as did Publishing Perspectives. [Update, 2/27/10, a few more TOC links: an insightful observation about the value of chance and open-mindedness at conferences from Debbie Stier; Kirk Biglione’s DRM slides; Don Linn’s observations; and a summary of Tim O’Reilly’s speech on Teleread.]

I’m still working my way through my notes, which are way more detailed than usual, thanks to typing them instead of writing them. But I do have some personal take-aways from the conference.

1) It’s really fun to take your computer into a room with free wifi and interesting speakers. I took notes, looked up URLs as they popped up on the big screen, added books to my Goodreads to-read list as they were mentioned and had my RSS feed right there for reading should I get bored, which only happened once or twice. I wish actively using your device was socially acceptable at every conference.

2) Social media is the new SEO, especially when it comes to selling more books via word of mouth. I found the panels by Bob Carlton, Chris Brogan and Angelina Ward to be immediately applicable in my daily business.

3) Analytics will become (or have already started to become?) the new sales numbers. The amount of information that will soon be available…I mean, you can actually know if the book was bought and not read. Or, if the reader started, but then lost interest at page 20. As one presenter put it, you’ll know the multiple differences between those who read at 2 am in bars and those who read at noon during lunch. Talk about niche markets.

4) Technical guys who can create their own version of xml, automate all of their publishing systems (e.g., turn a 2-day process into a 37-second process), publish all of their royalty data for everyone to see and make money…well, they make me wish I could write a book about code and publish it with them right now.

5) I don’t like to feel that my content is brought to me by sponsors. I found suspicion creeping in every time there was a product related to a presentation, even when some of the products were ones I want to try.

6) Mobile is everywhere, even in emerging markets. The coverage is only growing. So who needs ebook readers?

7) And the most important point: It’s all about the customer–know them, meet them, talk to them, engage them, give them all the information you can, give them their choice of devices and formats, add value for them. Then maybe you can publish what they will pay to read.

Jill Sorenson rocks!

So I just left the Tools of Change conference where I managed to write 10,000(!) words while taking notes on my tiny, heroic Eee PC; met several people I had previously known only online; and learned that Marian Schembari and I have the same networking technique.

My plan was to drop by my favorite wifi hotspot, the library, on my way home to figure out which tiny item I might be able to write about today. But as I was riding the train downtown, I started reading a manuscript by Jill Sorenson.

Now, I can’t put it down long enough to think about all of the things I learned at TOC. I keep getting distracted by the eerie atmosphere of a somewhat deserted island surrounded by man-eating sharks and the steaming reunion romance about to play out between two people I totally want to see get together. (Thank you, Jill, for sending this one to me.)

So pardon me while I decompress from the digital conference by doing some old-fashioned paper reading.

Saturday reading

Yesterday, I read a manuscript I couldn’t put down. It wasn’t an acquisition of mine; it was a draft that a co-worker urged me to read.

It was paranormal, with a romance. It had problems, she said, but she wanted another opinion.

My opinion? The motivations and character arcs were all over the place. Some plot elements were too conveniently tied up. A couple of times, I rolled my eyes at the heroine’s decisions and her reasoning. The secondary characters were underdeveloped.

And yet…

I still found the story compulsively readable. I wanted to know what happened. When I had to put the pages down to take Charlie to a birthday party, I thought about them the entire time.

What would the heroine do? What had happened to the women before her? Who would she love? How would it end?

How could a book with so many problems still have that good-book magic?

I’ve been thinking about it all morning. These are the three things I think made the difference:

1.) The first three chapters were well-written. The characters were interesting, the pacing was just right, the premise was established and there was a hint of suspense. The author set up a few intriguing questions right away, and because those chapters read so smoothly, I really wanted to know the answers. I was, in effect, hooked, and willing to give the author leeway when things went south.

2.) The heroine. She began the story in a very difficult situation and only reluctantly accepted her call to adventure. I empathized with her. I liked her. I wanted to find out how–if–she beat the odds.

3.) The author’s voice. Conversational in a Twilight way, that voice pulled me in. It suited the genre and my expectations, and made me feel like I was hearing the tale from a trusted friend.

This first one isn’t even published, and I wish I had the sequel already.

Finding 1000 True Fans

The conversation surrounding The Millions’ interview with a book pirate is fascinating.

Within the civil and well-written discussion, someone linked to The Technium, a blog by Kevin Kelly, and his post about gathering (and nurturing) 1000 True Fans. He posits that an artist can make a living wage if they cultivate a small but dedicated fan base and have direct interaction with their customers.

Later, in a follow-up post, he provides some of the monetary information he received from artists attempting this method. The results were not really a living wage.

However, both of his posts were written in 2008, and dovetail nicely with that other 2008 classic Here Comes Everybody. Now, since it’s 2010(!), and mobile and Web technologies are even more a part of everyone’s lives, surely there is someone making a living wage off their work through direct fandom.

The two examples of cultivating fandom that I can think of (Coelho and Doctorow) are also dependent on the old media systems as a launching pad and support structure. I’m betting there are some self-published or digital-only authors who have nailed this formula for supporting their work.

Jaron Lanier, a musician featured in Kelly’s post, has been looking for musicians who fit the following criteria:

The musician’s career is not a legacy of the old system (such as Radiohead). The musician has not merely gotten a lot of exposure, but is earning a living wage. I’ll define a living wage as a predictable income sufficient to raise a child. Finally, most of the musician’s income derives from sources that would still be robust in an “open” world that is highly friendly to massive, unregulated file sharing. These include live performances, paid ads on the musician’s website, merchandising, and paid downloads (like iTunes), but does not include label contracts, movie soundtrack placement, and other revenue streams that rely on old, declining media.

If you know of any authors who fit Jaron Lanier’s definitions (or if you are one), leave a comment! Let us know how it’s done.

Team publishing at Hol

While I was slightly disconnected from the Internet over the holidays, I curled up with my laptop and read all the accumulated newsletters and links that had piled up in my inbox.

Publishing Perspectives’ feature on Hol Art Books caught my attention for two reasons.

First, their launch title, Museum Legs, was one I noted at the Brooklyn Book Fair. I accidentally went to the fair with no money, and had to write down interesting titles for later purchase or library loan. Museum Legs was at the top of the list.

See, my husband likes art museums, especially those with lots of visual art. (Think the Met and the Guggenheim.) I like the kinds of museums meant for history buffs and kids, especially those that allow a lot of of touching and encourage a lot of imagining. (Think the American Museum of Natural History or the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.)

Too much time amid visual art makes me ornery, and I can’t stay at a museum for more than an hour or two without finding a well-lit corner and pulling out a book. My husband says this is because I try to see everything, all at once. I think he’s being generous.

No matter the cause, my inability to make my way through the Met has always felt like a moral failing. Until I read the back cover copy for Museum Legs.

If you’ve ever considered going to an art museum and then thought, errr, I’ll do something else… If you’ve ever arrived at one and left a little glazed and confused… If you’ve ever thought, I might read an eight-page article about art museums but not a whole book… Then this is your story.

Museum Legs—taken from a term for art fatigue—starts with a question: Why do people get bored and tired in art museums and why does that matter? As Whitaker writes in this humorous and incisive collection of essays, museums matter for reasons that have less to do with art as we know it and more to do with business, politics, and the age-old question of how to live.

Finally, someone was talking about the way I interact with museums!

Second, the PP article discussed Hol Art Books’ team publishing model.

At Hol, anyone can propose a book project. There are no acquisition editors to man the publishing gates. The only guideline is that a book be related to the visual arts.

Any publishing professional can apply to work on a project. The hope is that they only choose books that look interesting to them.

The key is that no one–not the publishing team, Hol Art Books or the author–is paid until the book sells.

Hol prints and distributes the books; the team works only on books they love; and the author works closely with the team and the publisher to create the book they most want to write (or see translated.)

As I’m learning from Clay Shirky, sometimes love is a more powerful motivator than money. Since this team publishing model seems to be based mostly on the team’s love of, or belief in, a project, I want to explore the model further.

First, I’ll read Museum Legs to get a sense of what comes out of a team publishing effort. Next, I’ll think about applying to one of the art book projects, if there are any that really speak to me. (With my aversion to art museums, this is a long shot, I know.) Then, I’ll think about how this team publishing thing might work in other areas, like romance.


DISCLAIMER

I work as an editor at Harlequin, but the posts on this site are all mine and don’t represent my employer's positions, strategies or opinions.
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