I just finished reading two very mediocre books, both very atmospheric, but without much story because the story was buried somewhere in that atmosphere (and, in one case, lyricism, as one book was written by a poet and she was so in love with her writing she didn't realize there wasn't actually a story). I'm not going to tell you what either book is because one is a Pulitzer Prize winning 'classic' and I don't feel like debating its merits. The other was represented by an agent I'm going to send my current novel to so, a little self-preservation is called for!
While dragging myself to the final chapters of these books, I realized that what's missing is fear. In writing, a healthy dose of 'OhMyGodICan'tBelieveI'mWritingThisI'mGoingToHellOrAtLeastI'llTotallyFuckItUp' is necessary. I didn't feel either writer standing too close to the edge (note the title of this blog...).
It's your job to challenge yourself. Sit in the dark corners tied to a chair so you can't leave and meet what comes for you. Climb into the snake pit and pull the cover over your head. I guarantee you, not only will it scare the crap out of you, it will thrill you no end.
So what freaks you out to write about?
For me it used to be sex. I was raised Catholic and--well, enough said, don't you think? I thought it was a victory just to have sex without being married, let alone write about it in all its nasty glory. Then a professor gave us that assignment in class one day: write what scares you. So I did. I had just started writing a novel for my honors class and my professor's challenge took the work to a whole other level. I realized I couldn't just write a sex scene. It had to go deeper than that. (I think there's a joke there somewhere...)
The novel was about a girl using her sexual escapades to kill off her good girl image. The culminating scene took place in a strip club where the female main character had to enter a live peep show booth to strip and do whatever the man she was with told her to do.
I stalled as long as I could with research (not that kind!) and, with the deadline looming, got to work. Let me set the scene so you know how difficult this was for me. At the time I lived with my parents to save money and because I worked full time as well as went to school full time in the evenings and had a dog I needed fed and walked in my absence.
So picture sitting in your childhood bedroom with the dolls your mother insists must not be hidden in the closet, pictures of you as a kid (one in your communion dress and veil), children running around playing and screaming right outside your window, and your mother knocking on your door about once an hour to ask you some silly question because she doesn't get the whole writing thing and must absolutely know right this minute if that's your laundry in the dryer and what do you want for dinner?
And you're supposed to write what?
I needed to park in a dark alley off of The Block in East Baltimore with a bottle of gin, but I'm not that brave and I'm not a drinker. So it had to be done in my bedroom in my parents' house.
It took me 26 hours to write the 10 page scene. Sixteen hours on Saturday, another ten hours on Sunday. In a way, I actually think where I wrote it helped. The tension of location versus content, my Catholic past versus my writing future. I was conscious of that tension the entire time and kept pushing and pushing against it, making sure I felt very uncomfortable the whole time. That's key: discomfort. Add disgust, sweaty palms, and some nausea and you've got the magic formula.
Here's how you can make it happen for you:
Tell yourself it has to be complete by a certain time and you're not allowed to do anything but write until the piece is finished (meals and bathroom breaks excepted).
Tell yourself no one will read it, close your eyes and write. Sometimes it's easier if you can't see the words.
Pretend you are another writer, for whom this subject is no big deal. She/he wants to shock and surprise. Let her/him at it.
No deleting anything. Get all the way through first. Then leave it alone for at least three days, preferably a week. If you want to delete something at that time, delete only what doesn't serve/move the story or the characters, that's all. Don't delete something because you're worried what other people will think of you.
Do something nice for yourself once it's over. You might be high on the accomplishment, you might be exhausted, but find a way to appreciate your effort. A movie, a trashy book to read that doesn't tax your brain, a new pair of shoes, a phone call to a friend to relate your harrowing experience and be told you're awesome.
After that weekend, going back to write other sexually explicit scenes leading up to the peep show was a piece of cake. I enjoyed it. And now I can say 'been there, done that' about writing sex. Sure, there are different types of sex, different degrees, and I could try writing them all, but that was the edge for me, and it was enough.
You'll be uncomfortable, but also have a great time with it because once you get past doing it the first time and realize you didn't spontaneously combust, you can appreciate the line you crossed, you'll feel more confident in your abilities, and you can look forward to shaking up your readers.
So what's your edge? What scares you to write? Is it sex? Religious fervor/obsession/possession? The truth about your parents' marriage? The truth about your marriage? Death? Murder? Abuse? War? It doesn't have to be something big, humans are cruel and horrible in many small ways, but go for something big first. Go for broke. Get twisted.
If you're working on something right now, look for the dark side and run straight for it. What you write may come out awkward, cliché, maybe too soft. The important thing is to keep pushing into the ugly. Don't let anything hold you back. You will get somewhere you never expected and, whether you use what you wrote or not, you'll be a better writer for it.
I dare you.
Christine Stewart is a writer/editor in Baltimore and program director for literary arts with her state arts council. For editing services email email@example.com, and join her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter.
By Mary L. Tabor
So you wanna get published, right? So you think only a big house can get you anywhere worth getting, right? So, you think you need an agent first thing, right?
I thought all these things and have the credentials to prove that I’ve been on a literary journey: English major, Phi Beta Kappa, teacher, professor, MFA degree, literary journal editor, literary prize winner. But no big house and no agent.
Instead, I did what some may think is crazy. I went with a product development company that dabbled in publishing. But my book got out. And I went to work. I have an active public Facebook page that is linked to my Twitter account, a website always under revision as new stuff happens and I write a blog where I try to post at least once a week.
Today’s post that you are reading would have been this essay. But this site begged for it and it’s theirs. But later you may see this post on my blog. Go check out this: How to buy a dress and end up with a book party.
I don’t tweet about my memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story much, though some. I don’t blog about my book much, but some: actually, I blogged the book while I lived it—that’s the first crazy-some-say thing I did before the product development company found me—and that accounts for the banner of a blog that deals not with erotica but with literary thought, interviews and essays on writing and books.
Now you’d think a book with this sordid, unconventional history wouldn’t be doing very well, right? And, indeed, I’m not getting rich. But is that what we artists are really about? Okay, a girl could hope but that’s never been the goal: The work will out.
But get this: The small print in the visual for the book from Amazon says, #7 top rated in the Kindle store for Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Arts &literature, Authors.
The week before it was #5 behind The Diary of Anne Frank and Steven King’s On Writing.
And guess what: The book party at Upstairs on 7th (aka: “How to buy a dress and get a book party”) resulted in the promise of another book party by one of the women who came.
Then I went to dinner with a banker-friend I know and told him what happened. He called his wife and is planning another book party in another dress shop and he’ll be providing the wine.
Is there a moral? Ain’t no good here at morals. But I will say this: If you put your heart and soul into your book and you’ve edited it like crazy with a cool eye, had others eyeball it and critique it, then find a reputable publisher and work—yes that means you—to sell one book at a time. Because like the memoir I wrote, it’s all personal.
PS: Another piece of good news: A new and much more experienced indie publisher has taken my memoir. Be sure to check out the second edition (more edits and a prologue) now from Outer Banks Publishing Group.
(Re)MAKING LOVE: a sex after sixty story, second edition, is available on Amazon, the Kindle, Barnes & Noble, the Nook, iBook, Sony ereader, the Outer Banks Publishing Group Bookstore and in other electronic formats from Smashwords.com.
We're talking about the likable ones here, so the best formula, I believe, is this: for every subversion, meet an expectation. For balance.
I'll tell you why you should write them after you give them a try.
|Doug Roberts with one of his cats|
When I read Doug Roberts' book, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, it was one of those stories that completely engrossed me where I couldn't put it down until it was finished.
Inspired by true events in the early 1970s, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK captures what it is like to live in a dictatorship with secret police monitoring your every move – an atmosphere of fear that still pervades today in many countries in the Middle East.
What makes Doug's book so appealing is that what he wrote today about events 40 years ago is still going on today in many parts of the Middle East. And all of these events are carefully woven into a love story that will make you fall in love all over again.
Here is an interview with Doug about how he came about to write The Man Who Fooled SAVAK after 40 years.
Q. The release of your book coincides rather well with Arab Spring. When did you start writing it?
A. In the summer of 2008. A woman I’d met on line named Erica Murray was interested in Iran so I started writing to her about it. I started doing some very preliminary research into the history and politics of Iran in 1971 in order to refresh my memory of things I had experienced when I was in Iran during that time. The book was completely finished several months before the uprising in Tunisia.
Q. Even though that was 40 years ago, there are many common elements with what is happening across the Arab world.
A. Yes, especially the fear people experience when living under an autocratic regime is something I hope I have captured, and as the book proceeds, the breaking out of that fear. Perhaps it will give people hope. Just like in my book, the methods used by various dictatorial regimes to maintain control seem to be taken from a common playbook: trample a free and independent press, keep the people fooled, use an iron fist to silence dissent, eliminate fair trials, use torture to extract confessions - the list goes on and on.
Q. But when you wrote the book, you weren’t thinking about that.
A. (laughs) True! I don’t have a crystal ball and the Arab Spring was as big a surprise to me as the rest of the world.
Q. Can I ask you about one of the characters in your book? Was there really a Junior?
A. Yes there was. I think Junior made the story possible to write. We really did sell our liquor and cigarette rations to him. I recently learned from a fellow who served in ARMISH/MAAG just before I arrived that Junior mostly dealt with the domestic workers, the Iranian nationals who worked at the bachelor quarters where we lived.
Q. I’d like to ask you about another character, Mihan Jazani. She is a historical figure, the wife of the Bijan Jazani who founded one of Iran’s guerilla movements. It appears that she’s a friend of yours on Facebook.
|The Man Who Fooled SAVAK|
Q. How were you able to remember so much about what happened then? It was 40 years ago after all.
A. I was assisted in several ways. I had some writings I had done about Iran when I was in journalism school at Kent State in 1972. I had a large number of slides that I’d taken when I was there. Those were crucial in reviving old memories. A huge help was finding a 1977 map of Tehran on the (now defunct) Tehran American School website. I was able to use the exact names of places, even street names. The fellow I’d mentioned earlier who told me about Junior had sent me a copy of the ARMISH/MAAG directory, which was very useful. Finally, talking to people I worked with at that time was extremely important, namely Heidi Eftekhar and Barry Silver, who are characters in the story. I obviously couldn’t remember all events specifically, but I found I could generate them as needed by being very specific in my language. I would take seeds of ideas and extrapolate and grow them into full blown events. For example, a certain lecherous officer really did say to Heidi, “I think you’re a woman who needs a lot of loving.” I took that and ran with it. Last, but also important, the Internet was a valuable tool in researching the historical incidents in the book.
Q. So, where does the novel part come in?
A. Some of the human rights related events are novelized, but they’re very accurate in their portrayal of the times. I’ll leave historians to figure all that out. They will have their work cut out for them because I’ve spent a lot of effort weaving the story line into the history of those days.
Q. How close is your character Doug Roberts to the way you actually are?
A. That’s a really good question. (laughs) I had originally intended that Doug the character would be an extreme version of myself. But after having read my book now over and over, I’ve come to see that what’s extreme are the circumstances he’s in. Doug the character is a lot like I was back then: ok in the smarts department, and a little too cocky sometimes. He’s not very romantic or knowledgeable about women, but does all right in spite of himself. (laughs) There’s an element of male fantasy in the book I suppose. In the story, I have two charming female lunch companions in addition to Fari my Iranian girlfriend/fiancée.
Q. But you really were friends with Heidi Eftekhar your co-worker in the story.
A. I still am. Heidi and I communicate regularly by email and her input on the book was immensely helpful. Miss Farou is the fantasy. She actually didn’t like me all that much. (laughs).
Q. I get the impression you had a lot of fun writing your book.
A. It was pretty trippy for me at times. I would totally submerse myself in it. For example, I had written the scene describing how I spent New Year’s Eve in Iran just a couple of weeks after New Year’s Eve in real life. When someone asked me about how I’d spent my New Years, it shocked me as to how much effort I had to put into pulling up what I’d actually done versus what I’d just written. That was a little scary.
Q. What do you think people will get out of your book?
A. I’m sure everyone will get a little something different, but what I’d like for people to take from it is that, like in the story, life may present you with some extreme circumstances. When that happens, keep a level head and your wits about you. Try to see beyond what appears to be happening on the surface. There will always be some good things happening at any given moment. Try to focus on that. To get through your ordeal it’s a good idea to engage all your friends to help you and your faith if you have that. Most important of all: never give up.
The Man Who Fooled SAVAK is published by Outer Banks Publishing Group and is available as an ebook on Amazon Kindle and in various ereader formats from Smashwords.com
With all the buzz around the iPad, you don't need to be psychic to predict that Amazon would sooner or later develop a comparable color screen tablet device.
Well the sooner is here. Amazon is now accepting iPads and other devices as trade-ins for their new touch-screen color tablet at http://amzn.to/jbdaq2
Steve Windwalker reported in the blog Kindle Nation Daily that Amazon is well on the way to preparing to launch the device sometime this summer. Here's what he wrote about the trade-in program.
"It extended its relatively unknown Buyback program, previously associated mostly with textbooks, movies, and video games, to include a wide range of electronics products including the iPad, the iPhone, the Samsung Galaxy, the Motorola Xoom, and all kinds of other devices that might — if you could trade them in for a decent sum — prepare the way for you to buy a Kindle tablet, both in terms of the need to replace functionality and the financial wherewithal to make the purchase."
They actually want you to own their new Kindle Color version knowing full well that owners of iPads and other color tablet like devices wouldn't buy the new Kindle after shelling out $500+ for their current iPad or similar device.
It's another marketing first for Amazon to grab the lion's share of the spawning tablet market, and I'm sure it won't be their last.
You can also read Amazon's press release about the trade-in program on Steve's post on Kindle Nation Daily.
This may seem beyond obvious, but a piece of writing, whatever it is, has a value system, the level to which the piece holds. The high value parts are the focus, they are what drives the story and why readers read it, the lower value parts get less page time; they are there to support the high value parts.
Another way to look at 'high value' parts is to think of them in terms of them being the spark that will get an editor's and reader's attention. That moment, when reading the book jacket, where your heart beats faster and you know you have to read it.
Unfortunately, all too often, I read work, both from clients and published writers, that focuses too much on the low value and skirts the high.
Why does this happen? Surely it's an easy black hole to avoid? It happens because writers write around the parts they are afraid or nervous to take on, or know they are not skilled enough to take on. Or perhaps are too lazy to take on. So they pay lip service to those parts, write just enough to get away with the basics, and focus on the unoriginal, low value that we can get anywhere to fill the rest of the story.
Poets know this better than fiction writers because it's easier to see in a poem. Anyone who has discovered (or been told) that the real poem is in stanza four, or the poem really starts with the last line, knows what I'm talking about. Poets have lots of practice at recognizing and correcting value issues.Let me give you an example. A recent client wrote an essay on the history of crying in his family: the first time he could remember crying, who did and didn't show emotion in his family and how that affected him growing up, his relationships with women, etc. It was fairly medium to low value. That was the bar he'd set.
Suddenly, on page five of a seven page essay, he introduced the memory of his father leaving the family, being estranged for years, then how he moved in with his father to reconcile, it didn't work, he moved out again and that was a time when he cried--for the loss of his father a second time and the opportunity for them to be close.
All this in one paragraph. Then back to the regular essay.
Hello?! See the difference there? Once you hit this memory in the essay you don't give a crap about how he cried the day he went to kindergarten but his mother didn't. The dad memory IS the essay, and it's not about crying. High value. And it shouldn't come on page five of seven.
When I pointed this out he told me that he was keeping it as is, he thought it was a good random surprise, that this style of writing always worked for him. I have no idea who told him that, but that person was wrong. Once you've established the value level in a piece of writing, you can shift it, but once you do, the high value level is where it's at. You must shift at the right moment and write to that level. Otherwise you just look like a writer who doesn't know his/her own story.
I'll give you a published example. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson is a story about a stereotypical older English widower living in a quaint quirky village. I would say this is low to medium value, as the quaint, quirky village is hardly new, nor is it ever really original; by now the characters are rather stock, only the names are different. Anyone who watches PBS or BBC America can get plenty of that action. Or if you've read Austen, Christie, or Barbara Pym, for example.
The high value appears when you find out that Major Pettigrew becomes romantically involved with the local shopkeeper, a Pakistani widow. And this liaison is one of which the village doesn't approve. However, if you buy the book you get a maximum of about 40 pages of Major Pettigrew's and Mrs. Ali's romance, the other 300 or so pages are quirky, quaint village with meddlesome characters that are very recognizable and so rather boring.
The ending is absolutely insane, and not in a good way. It goes completely off the deep end into a serious shift in value at the last moment--lower, this time, which can also happen (there's a crazy auntie with a gun and a suicidal nephew standing on a cliff, it's really laughably bad). This shift is very much unearned and completely at odds with the tone of the book and the characters of the Major and Mrs. Ali.
(Disclaimer: I think Ms. Simonson is a good writer, but the book was poorly structured and had too many themes.)
The take away or moral of this lesson?
You can't toss us into the trenches for a minute, once in a while, then go back to the sandbox and leave us there for the bulk of the piece.
You must be able to catch yourself and see when you are drifting into the low value parts for most of your story, out of fear or nervousness (perhaps ambivalence or absentmindedness too), and STOP yourself.
The best way to do this is to have an outline or list of the significant, hard core high value moments and make sure they are the focus, that they show up at the appropriate time, and that the value doesn't drop too low for too long in between. If the value shifts higher, you must reevaluate and either rethink the piece with this new higher value as the focus, or leave it out. If the value shifts even lower - delete! The middle ground is sloppy, lame, and should be avoided at all costs.
Look, if you're not feeling excited, terrified, and nauseous all at the same time, you're writing to the low value parts of your story and playing it safe. The ideas freaking you out as you write them down--making you sweat and making you high--are why an editor or reader will buy your book.
Anything less and you're cheating yourself and your readers--if you get that far!
Chris Stewart is Program Director for Literary Arts with the Maryland State Arts Council, also known as "The Brutal Cheerleader" by her editing clients! Join her Facebook Page: http://www.facebook.com/ChrisStewartTheRealWriter
on her blog, the subject of query letters and pitches came up yet again. What she seems to grasp is that you can't have a good pitch or query without a good novel to back it up. Does that go without saying? It should. But if so, why do thousands of writers send out dull or bad queries, and pitch agents or editors with novels that don't stand a chance?
If you follow a model for a good pitch, i.e., a 150-200 word punchy synopsis-like summary that produces the first major plot point but doesn't give away the climax, and you're sufficiently self-critical, you should finally come to an understanding of the worth of your project. Keep in mind that by forcing your story into that specific model, by forcing yourself to "fill in the blanks" so to speak, you're inevitably led to understand the major strengths and weaknesses in the novel itself.
For example, if the body of the pitch, once heard or read, evidences zero plot tension or dramatic complication, it might well be the result of no real antagonist (among other things) available to create one (this is a common failing with new novel writers), and if this condition proves true upon further discussion with the author then we have a case of the pitch tail successfully wagging the novel dog. In other words, the weak or vague pitch led the author to understand why the novel wasn't working, thus strongly encouraging a rewrite from the very first page.
a presence on Facebook, of course, and it's rather attractive (as if that matters--it does) and functional (links to worthwhile info for writers). FB, as everyone knows, is a must for credibility these days, and though I had to be dragged into it, I finally gave in and accepted the judgment. Am I sorry? Not yet. Then of course, there is the incessant drone of Twitter.Com. I was even more reluctant to engage in bouts of tweeting every week, but the prevailing tribal vibe lured me into it. Could I have resisted? Of course, but would it have been worth the resistance? I can't tell yet.
Next, and don't hang me for this one, we even joined SQUIDOO. Yes, it's rather silly, with squids and all, however, the interface for including all types of video, lists, blog rss, and info is top of the line. If you can just ignore the undersea marketing fluff, you're doing something worthwhile. Let's hope other people think so. And I did zap those horribly annoying "infolink" adverts in the text--you know, the ones that are green and underlined and when you mouseover them you get a BS pop-up window with an advert that has nothing to do with your purpose in life?
And what is in the future? Yelp? Digg? Wet Paint? Is it all necessary? God, I hope not. We would all rather focus on what we're good at: working with writers. From Social Media Today:
Community is the catchphrase which is connected to the Internet ... 41 percent of users trust the information published on Facebook, and if posted by a friend, the trust level grows to 64%. Social media is really all about building relationships.Okay, so there it is. If we can get 64% of people to trust us on Facebook we're building relationships. But when will real life make a difference?
Maybe a money back guarantee would be better?
Just a cute little piece on writer types with novels to workshop and pitch who are talking about one of our Algonkian Writer Conference events in New York. Will it prove it's possible to learn, be inspired, and have a good time all at once? Seriously though, this one is what we call the American Idol of our events. We have no Simon as such, and we don't tolerate that type of person, but we're firm and no gratuitous unproductive back-slapping is allowed. Following days of tension, on Saturday night, at our Post Pitch Cool Down, drinking is mandatory, followed by various forms of absurd behavior, if deemed appropriate. Whatever works for purposes of catharsis.
If you want follow up information and commentary, link to http://nycpitchconference.com.
And if you wish to learn more about Algonkian Writer Conferences: http://algonkianconferences.com