Oct 27, 2010

Action Creates Clarity

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I read.  I read a lot. I buy a lot of books and my family frequents the library so often that everyone there knows us by name.  When we had a chance to go on vacation, but it meant missing the kids' monthly book clubs, the kids begged to stay home and go to Book Club.  And yeah, I swelled with pride just a little.  I'm raising readers.  (And we scheduled the vacation for another time.)

One of my favorite things to do while the kids meet to discuss books?  I like to stretch my boundaries. I check out the new books, I look through books people leave on library tables, and I explore areas of the library less familiar to me.  Last week I pulled a book out of the business section:  Flip by Peter Sheahan.

Honestly, with business texts, I find I'm a skimmer.  I look through a book and some idea catches me, bounces around inside my head, and I quit reading. If it's a particularly good business book, I do this several times.  Sheahan's book had a couple bouncy ideas.

The way Sheahan defines "flip" intrigued me from the start:  "A shift in mind-set and thinking; often a counterintuitive approach that reflects the hard reality of the business landscape as it is today, and not as it used to be."

I think Sheahan went on to say stuff about business models and strategies, but by the third mention of CEOs, I was off in my own thoughts completely.

Sheahan used the word intuitive to mean familiar.

I'm an intuitive person. I trust my gut about things all the time.  As novelists, many of us rely on intuition. Why did we add that weird device in the third chapter?  Who knows.  But when it reappears in chapter ten, we think we must be brilliant.  There's something in our creative psyche that knows how to do this.  We're amazing, yeah?

Plus: we get better at following our intuition as we write more books.  So: our brilliance multiplies the more we write. Man, we are so good.  Intuition must rely on deep, creative talent, yeah?

Or it could be familiarity.

After we see a device or strategy working in our novels, we try again the next time with more confidence.  We trust ourselves more.  The path becomes familiar--and we call it intuitive.

So, okay, that's kind of damaging to our notion of collective brilliance, but it's also so very exciting.  Why? Because it blows away the myth that "real writers" borrow their talents from gods or muses and simply channel wisdom to the page, fully-formed and ready to publish.  The fact is that real writers write.  The more they write, the better they get. The more they write, the more intuitive the process becomes.

Maybe intuition is primarily (not exclusively) a path of conditioning.  We act without thinking and we choose the familiar.  If this is the case, Sheahan's proposal that we act counter-intuitively makes a ton of sense, especially in publishing.

I mentioned this Jane Friedman interview a bunch of times on twitter last week.  The woman is brilliant.  Or intuitive.  Or conditioned really well or something.  I suggest downloading the mp3 and listening to it more than once.  Friedman talks about the dream of "the published author" and how that dream has not changed with the reality of the industry.  She calls it "a process of re-education." Keep in mind that this is a transcription, so the words flow better when you hear rather than read them, but I know some of you won't take the time. This is important:

"Where I encounter the most embittered people aren't necessarily the ones who are unpublished. It's the ones who did kind of achieve that first book publication, or maybe they're even a little further down along, but now they're like frustrated that all that they thought that was going to happen---hasn't."

Are you getting this?  Yeah?  The dream is broken.

And the dream isn't just broken for those yearning to see the name of a big publishing house on the spine of their book. The dream is also broken for most people who do.

So why do we continue looking for something that isn't there?  Friedman says, "A lot of books that are traditionally published aren't selling that well, but people do still want that validation."

Wow.  And holy crap and stuff.  This is such a game-changing thought.

No wonder agent rejections hurt so much.  Authors are seeking validation!

Oh wow.  Talk about looking for love in all the wrong places.  If this were the plot of a book, all of us writers would be telling the hero to move on.  This isn't going to end well.

And I'm not saying there isn't a place for agents.  If you're dealing with a big publisher, you're going to want a literary agent.  There's a practical need.  But if you haven't established a big audience (see "Readers Are Everything"), then you probably aren't going to need a big publisher.  And if you don't need a big publisher, you're probably not going to need an agent.

So what to do?  Peter Sheahan would say you need to "flip" the idea.  Act counter-intuitively and embrace the reality as it is today.

What does that mean?  Quit looking for validation from agents and publishers. Just stop it.  If you're waiting for your book to be published by Scholastic or Penguin so you feel brave enough to admit to your parents that you wrote a book?  Stop it.  If you don't expect anyone to take you seriously as an author until you see your book taking up key shelfspace at Barnes and Noble?  Stop it.

You are an author once you author something. You owe it to yourself and your work to hone your craft and improve your skills. You don't need anyone's validation to write a second book.  Dude, you don't need anyone's validation to write a third or fourth or fifth book.  Forget that.  Forget it.  Okay? Gone.

Do not stop writing because your first or second or umpteenth book was rejected by an agent. Do not do that.  Okay?  You're working through the steps of an old, broken dream. You are not broken.  The dream is broken.  You see the difference?

What you need to do?  Listen to smart people like Jane Friedman when she talks about re-education.  Listen to someone like Peter Sheahan.  When the old is gone, you have to flip the old ideas into something new. Sometimes this means acting in ways that feel counter-intuitive.  Why?  Because in this case, counter-intuitive means unfamiliar. That's all it means.  You're not giving up.  You're exploring.  You're finding a new way.

And this brings me to another of Sheahan's ideas that keeps bouncing around in my head.  This one resonated with me because I'd just experienced the truth of it:


I'd been looking for clarity.  You know, the way you look for a lost dog: I'd been calling her name. "Clarity!  Clarity!  Where are you, Clarity?"  I asked around even.  "I lost Clarity!  I looked in all the places I expected to find her, but she's gone.  Have you seen Clarity?"

When looking didn't work, I waited.  I studied where she might be.  I went to conferences and listened.  I stayed open to possibilities.  And you know what?   No Clarity.  None.  I considered the fact that Clarity might be dead---gone forever.

Then an agent request for revision pushed me back into the world of Claire Morgane and I found something amazing:  my work seriously did not suck.

If you're laughing, I know it's because you've had similar thoughts about your own work---especially if it's gone through a round of agent submissions and rejections.

After spending time in Claire's world, I made a decision.  Forget Clarity.  The dream is broken anyway, so I may as well have some fun.  I decided to stay in Claire's world.

This is what Sheahan calls "action orientation."  He says you have to "do away with your commitment to microplanning everything and let loose with some bold and courageous action."

Isn't that funny and delightful?  Talk about validating! It's okay to take the unfamiliar path. (Yay!) It might even mean that you're brilliant.  Or at least very smart.  Or that you learn from experience.

But this is the big, serious, weird, wonderful thing:  as soon as I made a decision and moved forward, CLARITY appeared, knocked me on my ass, and started giving me big, slobbery dog kisses.

Agent rejection means, "I can't sell this to a publisher."  Publisher rejection means, "I don't have a ready-made audience for this work."

The broken-dream approach is to mold yourself into what sells.

The new approach?  Improve your work on its own merits and build your own audience. Readers are everything. I know.  I said that a couple blog posts ago, but it's still true.

But wait!  I'm not just repeating myself.  Here's the twist:  you need to find your own clarity.  It might be similar to what I'm doing.  It might be completely different, but I wish I'd read Sheahan's book last January rather than discovering this on my own:  Action creates clarity.

Do something.

You might even try doing something counter-intuitive.

Let loose some bold and courageous action.

Be brave.

Create your own damn dreams---and follow them.

Oct 23, 2010

Writing a NaNo Anthology of Friday Flash

In Readers are Everything, I wrote about posting short stories as gifts to readers.  Develop an audience by giving away writing of quality.

Time management becomes an issue.  If I let myself, I could spend all week preparing for one Friday flash and then the rest of the week responding to comments and reading the stories of others. While this would be fun, I would no longer be working on my novels.

My solution?  NaNoWriMo.

If I write 50K words of short stories, I'll have a year's worth of stories for my website.

I wasn't sure this was a legit idea for NaNo, but I'd heard of NaNo Rebels, so I pursued it anyway.  Being a rebel sounds nice, yeah? Then I read "Am I a rebel?" and I was kind of disappointed to find out I'm probably not.

This is from the above link:

  • I'm writing a collection of short stories. Am I a rebel?
    Probably not. There's no actual rule on this one. We define a novel as "a lengthy work of fiction." However, we the moderators feel that since you find short story collections on the shelves alongside longer works of fiction, if they're related, they count. They need to have some common theme, or linking thread that weaves them together that makes them a single, "lengthy work of fiction." Which leads us to the next:

  • I'm writing a series of unrelated essays/short stories/vignettes. Am I a rebel?
    Probably. Again, there's no official rule on this one, but if you're just combining unrelated work to get the 50k, it's probably not a novel.

So the only tiny, little problem I have:  the idea is quite likely a scrunchy little bit of INSANITY.

I've written novels quickly.  One scene leads to another, the whole book gains momentum, and words flow.  Stories are cute little monsters that devour entire days in the writing of 300 words.

So I waited to announce my intention until I tested the water.  For three weeks, I've been building up to writing two stories per day.  These aren't for inclusion in the NaNo anthology. This is water-testing. This is strength-building.

I still don't know if I can do it.

One story a day almost killed me the first week. Then I added one story plus a story built on a novel outtake (again, these results are not for NaNo). Finally, I worked up to writing two original stories a day.  This required serious stretching and anguish, but I did it.  And yet, even working at this level, I'm not sure I'll make it to 50K.

But you know what?  My exploration and strength training resulted in 19 stories written in Claire's world. I've posted four of them on Claire's website. If I write like hell all through NaNo, I'm going to have the results I want, even if I don't meet the 50K.

And you know what else?  That means I can start writing novels again on December 1st. Once a week I'll edit a story and get it ready for the site, but I won't need to write new short stories while I'm working on a novel.  (And honestly, it's difficult for me to work on anything else when I'm absorbed in a novel.)

If this works, I can take a break from traditional novel writing to write another anthology next November.

What do you think?  Anyone want to write their own anthology while I'm writing mine?

And hey--no matter what you're writing, rebel or not, If you're crazy enough to attempt 50K in a month, I'd love to be your NaNo buddy.  My identity there is same as twitter: johannaharness.  Tweet me and I'll be sure to add you back.

Let the games begin (you know, soonish).

Oct 21, 2010

Cluster Plotting (novel planning)

There are many ways to plot a novel.  No one way is right. Some people have great success planning their novels as they write. If you already have a process that works:  Hooray!

I'm always changing my planning. At one point I thought I was searching for the perfect planning technique, but now I think I'm simply changing my process to fit who I am today--and what I'm writing today.

For me, the important thing is that I keep a spirit of playfulness in my planning.  Writing is fun!

This week I re-posted links to two methods I've used to plan in the past:

  1. Phase Drafting

  2. Big Board Planning

It may be that you take a look at a bunch of different ideas and mix things up for yourself.  If so, also:  Hooray!

I'm only including the basic steps here.  If you'd like more information, please do watch the video.  It's about ten minutes long and I go into a lot more detail.

Need more background about clustering? Check out the blog post I did about clustering as a process of discovery.

Cluster Plotting (as tweeted in steps to @JCRosen):

1. Best thing w/ clustering: If you cluster by hand, creates a left-brain/right-brain buzz. Must use circles, lines, words.

2. Don't pause until you must--then recognize the insight/question that made you pause. Fascinating to me that this works. A bit of magic.

3. Do the plot through-line first. Central question to satisfying ending. Just a bubble for key steps.

4. Each bubble should be delicious. You don't have to give it all away in outline. Just know where you want to lose yourself.

5. When you see the really delicious bubble, it's probably a subplot. Follow it in parallel to through-line.

6. See if you can make that subplot reconnect to a through-line bubble near the end (but not at the end).

7. Then move to arc. Identify bubble where everything changes in book. This is midpoint. Connect that to the word count goal for your novel.

8. Set-up should be done early. Which bubble is that? Put it on your plot arc.

9. Btwn set-up & midpt: Catalyst for action, debate, subplot introduced, no turning back.

10.  At midpoint, the clock is set and the stakes rise. There is a force pushing you toward the end of the book.

11. From midpt to next 1/3 of downward arc: bad guys close in. At the end of this section, it appears all is lost.

12. Next short section is dark night of soul (should be abt 3/4 through book by end).

13. Final 1/4 of book: hero finds a new way home. There can be false ending followed by rise of bad guy, & a 2nd triumph.

14. Don't worry about fleshing out every scene for NaNo. You can do that in rewrites.

15. The best part abt assigning word count is pacing. I always write long, so a limit makes me focus on the best parts.

16. Once I have the structure, I can look at how much time passes, what day it is, day or night, etc.

17. I can also examine character location.

18. And I can plan all this without taking away the spark & fun of writing. I don't know the details, only that I need to get from Pt A to Pt B.

Need more?  Here's the video.  Enjoy!

Oct 19, 2010

Big Board Novel Planning

I just re-posted my older blog entries about phase drafting.  This entry revisits Big Board Planning. I'm combining both the earlier blog post and the related photo essay.  When I finish this entry, my next post will be about how I'd go about planning a novel today. (Process is an evolving thing and I choose to think that's as it should be.  What works for me may not work for you.  What worked for me today may not have worked for me yesterday.)

Original Post:  September 1, 2009

Today I finished the first chapter of the new book.  Whoohoo!  So much time went into planning for this first day.  The difficult part is not figuring out what to say.  It’s figuring out what parts of the story will fit into this particular book.    I have the whole concept in my mind, but writing random bits of the concept into each book does not make for good story-telling.

Each book needs its own story, its own arc, and each story contributes to the larger mythology of Claire’s world.

Preparing to write First Words today, I’ve been playing with my existing outline, moving things around, asking how I will build up to specific plot points.  Sometimes I can’t see it from my computer work area and I need to go to the big boards where I can spread out.

Yesterday my 11yo daughter asked to participate with me in what she called “a writing party.”  I passed her a big board and some stickies and a bin of Sharpies and she pulled out the outline of her own middle grade novel.  And we worked together.

As I explained some of my planning method, I set up my own board with blank elements, before adding detail.  I took some pictures of these to share with you all.  I hope it’s helpful to those of you who choose to do planning.

Too often people tell me they don’t outline because it’s too boring or their muse rejects the idea.  That may well be true, but it might just be that you’re outlining in a boring way.  For me, it’s more like writing a rough, rough draft on sticky notes, notecards, and napkins--and then shuffling the whole thing into a pile and putting it together like a puzzle.

I don’t do dull outlines.  I do, however, plot and structure my novels.

My Big Board Planning Photo Essay from September 1, 2009 is now a YouTube video. Yeah!

Phase Drafting (Novel Planning)

It's NaNoWriMo time again and the chatter moves to novel planning.  I'm posting a couple older posts on the topic and then I'll add the way I'd plan a novel today (a constantly evolving process).  This first discussion of phase drafting comes from September 3rd, 2009.  There are two blog posts combined here.  The first is my own exploration of writing a "pre-rough draft" and the second shows what happened when someone on twitter pointed me to phase drafting.  Enjoy!

An Extra Step:  The Pre-Rough Draft:  September 3, 2009

I’m experimenting with something new as I write the second book in the Claire Morgane series.  I’m adding a step.

I’m not sure if this is necessary.  It may be like the two cups of coffee I poured myself on accident the other morning.  Maybe it’s like washing dishes before you put them in the dishwasher.

Or maybe, quite possibly, this will be useful.  No way to know without trying.

My extra step is writing what is either an extraordinarily detailed outline or a rough, rough draft. It could be described as either.  The step fits between outlining on my big boards and writing the rough draft.

It looks like this:

  • Book Name

  • Main Plot Description

  • Subplot #1 Description

  • Subplot #2 Description

  • Questions raised in 1st book

  • Settings for this book, including new settings

  • Character tables, including new characters

  • Chapter content for each chapter: very detailed.

Some of the chapter material is detailed enough to transfer straight into the rough draft.  Much of it is summary of action to be written later.  This mss will end up being between 15-20K words.

My thought is this:  It would be much easier to edit a draft in this stage than a final draft.  Unpredictable things happen when ideas are fleshed out.  Characters go their own ways.  New characters appear out of nowhere.  Some characters never develop and need to be removed from the draft.  And oh the plot holes!

With my last book, I spent a very long week re-organizing material in my first chapters.  It was complicated but not impossible.  The whole time I had a question buzzing in my mind:  how do I organize the next book so I won’t have to do this again?

I wrote my first chapter on September 1st.  I like it.  But a nagging voice in the back of my head is telling me, “That’s probably not really your beginning.  Nice hook, but not great.”  And yes, it’s also a comforting voice that says, “Oh never mind, you’ll come back to it and it will be fine.”

But I’m stubborn and I want to know:  is there a way I can write better first drafts?  And the logical part of my brain says, “Of course.  Improving your craft is what it’s all about.”

So after my second chapter began intertwining the main plot and a subplot in unproductive ways, I called a stop to construction.  I don’t want to balance the rest of the book on my head while I reconstruct this foundation again and again and again. I want a good, solid foundation for everything that follows.

The problem is that, even with an outline, our stories surprise us.  To build a solid foundation, I could suppress the surprises, but I don’t want to do that.  I like the surprises and I think they make the story more real.  So the other option is trying to discover the surprises in a condensed format:  the pre-rough draft.   Then I can edit the hell out of the pre-rough draft before fleshing out the scenes.

Honestly, I have no idea if this will work for me.  And if it does work for me, I have no idea if it would work for anyone else. I do believe it will improve my writing, whether or not it’s a strategy I adopt long-term.  Maybe it’s the extra support I need for this book and I’ll learn enough through using it that I won’t need it for my next.

Phase Drafting:  September 3, 2009

I wrote my last blog entry about the pre-rough draft and immediately received a response from @ShawnScarber who pointed me to “It’s Just A Phase” by Lazette Gifford.

This is one of those days when I want to hug Twitter.  I have an idea, I put it out there, and someone comes back with a wonderful reference that moves me leaps and bounds ahead of where I was.  Yippeee!

When I first heard the phrase, “phase drafting” I thought the author referred to adding another phase to the writing process.  My thought:  you do drafting in phases.  Outline.  Pre-rough draft.  Rough draft.  Revision.  Revision.  Revision.

Then I printed out the article from Lazette Gifford and really studied it.  And I realized that she’s not using the word “phase” to relate to a phase in the writing process.  I had to let go of my pre-conceived ideas to understand.

In her vocabulary, a phase is a piece of a scene.

Oh, that changes everything.  Gifford’s idea is much more advanced than anything I was considering.  It’s so much more wonderful!

I think this is an outlining style that even a pantster would adore.  (Pantster=someone who plots on the fly, by the seat of one’s pants.  Still lost:  origin of the phrase.)

I was attempting to do the pre-rough draft by writing more about each chapter.  It was going okay, but the ideas weren’t flowing as well as they do in full rough-draft writing.

By breaking scenes into phases, the action flows.  There may be 300 or more phases to be developed in the rough draft.  Each phase becomes a writing prompt.

Gifford also presents good ideas about how to keep your writing on track for word count, how to set goals, when to add or subtract phases.  Her short article is a gold mine of information.

I admit when I first read through the article, I was distracted by the speed at which she was able to write using this method.  (I think that may be the reason it took me a while to understand her vocabulary.  Her words about writing a novel in days kept bouncing around in my head like writer-candy.)  As I think more about those of you getting ready for National Novel Writing Month, I can really see how this would help.  And hey, who wouldn’t want to write better faster?

Oct 16, 2010

Focus your author identity (Yeah? Yeah.)

I'm not going to tell you how many times I had to abandon this post and begin again because I didn't have enough focus--ironic, yeah?  (Okay, five times. I restarted it five times.  Also: I suck at keeping secrets.)

I'm warning you right now:  I'm talking about a topic you probably already know about and many of you don't like the word associated with it, so I'm not going to say it.

What you need is focus.

Go back to basic essay composition:  thesis, supporting ideas, conclusion.  Everything relates back to the thesis.  It's not enough to write a well-turned phrase.  You also have to have something to say.  The thesis helps a reader understand your point.  Communication with the reader is good.

When you're writing a story, it's a good idea if you the author know what the story is about.  You know:  the thing that holds the story together.  The focus.

When you're writing a scene, you should know how that scene fits into your story and why it's important. You should know how to focus the scene so it makes your point.

All these are craft-oriented examples and generally accepted (except in experimental forms, which are beyond the focus of this essay).

Remember:  readers need focus if you want them to stay with you.  (If I suddenly started talking about ducks and geese and ignored this essay on writing, you'd be confused--and a bit annoyed. And really, ducks and geese are fine topics.  I rather like them.  And also many species of birds.  But they're not the focus of this essay. You may already be irritated by this parenthetical note because it strays so.  Annoying, yeah?)

When you're presenting yourself to readers as an author, they'll be looking for your focus the same way they look for the focus of your work.  Are you that travel writer who talks about food?  Maybe you're that guy with the humor column in the newspaper.  Maybe you're that creepy author who signs his name in blood at book signings.  Maybe you're even that romance writer who also writes mysteries and has two names but we can usually only remember one of them.  Or you're that psychologist guy from Colorado who writes mysteries.  Or you're the one who writes YA free-verse stories about addiction.

I'll say it again:  just like in your writing, readers are looking for your focus.  They want to know what you're about.

Can you be more than one thing?  Sure.  Just like I can write about ducks and geese anytime I want, but I'm going to annoy you if I keep bringing it up here.  (It's Canada Goose by the way. Canadian geese are honkers with a Canadian allegiance.)

If you mush up all the things you want to be, if you run together all your gorgeous, vibrant colors, you end up a very pretty shade of mud.

You're that one writer.  You know:  the one no one can remember.

And yes, someone will bring up authors who are known for more than one thing, but the fact you're identifying each thing separately? That means they didn't get all mushed together.  They are separate, wonderful parts of the same person.  Like a double scoop ice cream cone, each scoop remains separate.

If you want to do this, it's best if you have something unifying:  like the ice cream cone identity.  What other than genre holds all your work together?  Do all the different stories balance precariously atop a grand family name with deep roots?  Or maybe your genre scoops all find themselves adrift at sea.  Maybe your characters are all named Jim and you can be that author with characters named Jim.

Readers don't want to know your focus so they can limit you.  They want to know your focus so they can remember you and understand you.

At a party, a fine host will make an introduction between guests by telling them something they share in common:

Host: Jim, this is Johanna.  She's an author who enjoys ducks and geese.  Johanna, this is Jim.  He's a goose in the books of that one author whose books all are about characters named Jim.

Johanna:  It's nice to meet you, Jim!  I love geese!

Jim:  Honk!

Probably you're not going to have something in common with all readers.  Probably all readers are not going to like your writing.  That's okay because there are a lot of readers and a lot of writers.  If you make your focus clear enough, you'll be introduced to readers who are apt to like you.

Host:  This is Johanna.  She writes humorous YA fantasies about a paranormal girl in The New West.  This is Jim.  He's a clairvoyant character in the works of that one author who always names his characters Jim.

Johanna:  It's great to meet you, Jim!  I'd love to hear your thoughts about Claire.

Jim:  I knew you were going to say that.

So here's the thing:  Readers need a focus to remember you.  If you provide mud, they probably won't remember you unless one of two things happens:

1. Your publisher provides a focus for you.

2. You do or say something so foolish it creates an identity you do not want.

I'm sure there's a number three possibility here wherein you're discovered by someone amazing who loves your work.  But you still have to own your own cool.  Being tangentially related to cool is not enough.

How do you avoid being pigeon-holed by a publisher, being marked forever as the hopeful author who picked fights with agents, or being the wannabe writer sibling/friend/spouse of the famous dude?

You define yourself.

You tell the world who you are.


You say it so many times you can say it in your sleep.

You pitch it.

You put it on your website.

You make a logo.

You create yourself a focus so clear that it morphs into its own weird pitch.

Host:  This is Johanna. She writes those weird paranormal stories set in future Idaho.

Jim:  I think I've heard of you!

Johanna:  Aren't you the one with all the characters named Jim?  I keep seeing them everywhere!

Oh.  And also:  Branding.  (I'm bad at keeping secrets.)

Oct 9, 2010

Readers are everything.

Last week in "Happy Trumps Smart," I talked about choosing a writing path that gives me energy and makes me happy, despite prevailing wisdom about how the industry works and what I should be doing.  In just a week of following my heart, my writing paradigm has shifted and so much has come into focus for me.  I'm not sure I can pull it all together in a single blog entry.

I can tell you this:  for the last six months, I've been confused.  I've been listening to conference speakers, reading industry blogs, and talking to other writers.  The one thing I have not been doing--my biggest short-falling:  I have been ignoring my readers.

Now, before you object that I'm pre-published and have no readers, I'm going to counter that with a simple bit of truth:  readers come first.  What?  Yeah.  Readers come first. That's the one piece of the puzzle I've been missing all this time.  Once that single piece fell into place, everything else followed.

Readers are everything.

The one, single reason so many of us strive to find an agent:  we want people to read what we're writing. That's the traditional paradigm, right?  You write something that you think is pretty darn good.  You try to find someone to publish it, so readers have access to your writing.  Once they have access, then they get to decide whether they like you enough to buy another book.  Your first book published will probably not be as good as your successive books, but professionals commit themselves to helping grow an audience and career.  That doesn't happen anymore.

You know all this talk about platform?  I used to think it was about showing you had the qualifications to write a book.  For instance, if I'm going to write a book about turnip farming, I should have some turnip farming qualifications:  some education, some experience.  But that's not really what platform is about--not the way it's being discussed right now anyway.  What everyone really wants to know is not whether you have the necessary qualifications to talk about turnip farming, but whether there is an audience who wants to read more about turnip farming.  So if you regularly speak on the subject and fill arenas and go on talk shows, the publishing industry gushes and says you have a platform.  What they're really saying?  You have an audience.  They can sell your book because you already have readers. Do they want you to have your facts straight and all your qualifications in line?  Sure.  But no one cares about your qualifications to write about turnip farming if your book won't have readers.

The other bit we keep hearing over and over again:  no matter how you publish, expect to market your own book.  Everyone groans.  Shouldn't the publisher and bookstores sell the book?

The discussion here always revolves around how to get an audience for your book after it's published. Yeah?  Forget it.

Why?  Because it's not going to happen.

If you don't already have an audience to create buzz for your book, you will not get the shelf time to make it happen.  Take a look at this blog entry from Northshire Bookstore (@NorthshireBooks) and you'll get a better idea of what's happening to shelf time.

Of  course, it could be that your book hits the shelves at precisely the right time when a cultural spark creates demand for it.  But you know what?  You have no control over that.  I'm sorry.  You don't.  Agents try to predict the books that will hit this sweet spot.  Publishers try to predict it.  They have better market research, but they don't know either.

About a year after I queried my first book, I started querying my second.  My initial approach?  Take a look at the list of agents I queried with my first book.  I'd already done the research.  Plus I had even better data because I kept notes about agent responses.  I had a better sense for how agents interacted with the world based on their interaction with me as a pre-published author.  (You know what they say about watching how your date treats the waiter?  Yeah.  No matter how an agent treats clients, I don't want to work with someone who treats people badly. I don't care if you let me into the cool club if you're mean to others. Period.)

So I took my list and went back into my favorite querytracker and. . . oh wow.  You know how many agents on my list left the business in that last year? Close to twenty percent.  And some of these people were agents I would have crawled through glass to have represent me!  Out of curiosity, I went back to the rude list and saw the percentage was considerably higher.

This threw me into a tailspin.  How could I tell if any agent would be in the business long enough to sell my book?

Ultimately, I didn't query that book. I didn't self-publish.  Instead, I just sat down and cried.

This business is filled with good people just trying to make a living.  Inside the publishing industry, there's a lot of pain.  These books I'm writing are not pieces to be moved around the board and I'm not willing to go all-in with just any agent.  I'm not that kind of girl.  I want someone who will still be there in the morning.

Here's the hard truth:  I need to be the kind of author who gets signed by the kind of agency that will be around tomorrow.  And what keeps the agency in business?  Sales.  And what drives sales?  Readers.

And this is where people cry about unpublished authors not being able to get an agent and it's a catch-22 because it takes an agent to get published.  Maybe this used to be true.  It's not anymore.  Quit saying it.  Just stop. It sounds true, but it's not.  First of all, if you are already published, but your book didn't sell, it's not going to help you.  You are probably in a worse position than if you never published.  Harsh.  I know.  Because nobody cares if you're published if you don't have readers.  Second of all:  you don't need an agent to build a base of readers for your writing.

You're starting to see the theme here?  Readers.  Readers, readers, readers.  Readers are everything.

We can be asked all the questions about platform and publishing history and marketing and bio, but really all anyone wants to know is if you have a reader base already.

And this?  This is the amazing and wonderful thing for writers:  you can build your own audience.  How?  The same way you build any relationship:  earn your readers' trust.  It's not a gimmick.  There are no shortcuts.  You have to earn it.

The primary investment you need from readers is their time, not their money. Books are relatively cheap for the experience they provide.  Great readers frequent libraries as well as bookstores.  If you write it and readers want your work, they will get it.  It's not about the money.

So how does a pre-published author develop an audience?

Give away writing of value.

Also, to be fair, don't require a full measure of trust from the beginning.  You and the reader?  You  just met.  You may or may not have been recommended by a friend.  Readers want to see what you have to offer.

A stand-alone, short story has more value than an excerpt.

Why? Because a stand-alone story satisfies the reader.

An excerpt leaves the reader unsatisfied until the book is purchased and read.

An excerpt is a sales pitch.  A short story is a gift.

If you want to build trust with your readers, gifts are better than sales pitches.  Always.

You have to decide the best distribution method for giving away your valued writing.

If it feels smarmy, it probably is. Treat yourself and your writing with respect if you expect others to treat you and your writing the same way.  So you know what?  Don't spam people.  If you do, everyone assumes your work is the quality of spam.

Give away your work in a context that reflects value.  For my YA novels, I'm experimenting with a reader-based website (http://www.clairemorgane.com) and a newsletter.  The great thing about both these options is that they provide data about the size of my readership and how it's growing.

Because here's the thing, The Big Thing, I finally realized:

Publishing options are all about distribution.

You don't have to decide how you want to be distributed until after you build your audience.  I keep saying it.  I'll say it again:  readers come first.

I'll go one step farther:  you don't need to worry about getting an agent unless your readership requires mass distribution.

Talking to agents about mass distributing a book with no established readership is like walking onto a factory line and asking someone to make a million gizmos because your grandma wants one.  Maybe a million people will also want your gizmo, but you'd better have some data to back that up.

I'm taking a new approach over the next six months.

I'm putting all my time into my readers.  I still have queries out there.  I have eight partial/full requests fulfilled and awaiting replies.  I'm still open to and excited about working with an agent and publisher.  But whether or not I sign a contract has very little to do with my path forward.

My challenge, no matter how my work is distributed? Build a relationship of trust with my readers.

When I have a better idea of the size of my readership, then I worry about distribution of my novels.  If I have a small, devoted following, I go indie.  If distribution needs warrant a big publisher, finding an agent becomes that much easier because I have the data to show there's a need.

I have so much more to say about my plans for Claire and my middle grade novel and building up the #amwriting community.  As writers, we need to choose the path of empowerment and make decisions based on the things we can control. We're all in this together and we can help each other. I'll be talking more about this in the coming weeks.

Oct 8, 2010

Parnell Hall

I really adore Parnell Hall's sense of humor.  I found this juxaposition in our local thrift store and couldn't stop laughing.  If you haven't seen the video that made this so funny to me, I'm including it here too: "Signing in the Waldenbooks."

Oct 2, 2010

Happy Trumps Smart

A few days ago I re-posted an essay I wrote almost a year ago:  Energy. The basic premise set forth there has been guiding my life since I started writing seriously almost two years ago.

As I trimmed and prepared that entry for inclusion on my new web site, I had to ask myself:

How am I doing?

And you know what?  Not bad. I'm doing okay. But, honestly? I've been letting a lot of things on my hate-to-do list crowd forward and stress me out.

I need more days like the one in the picture here--exploring the Wonderful Weird that makes up my world.  This carving is a lion marking the original Fort Boise.  I think he looks like a giant beaver-lion who might affectionately and accidentally hurt you.  He makes me happy.

So why am I not spending more time simply being happy? After some soul-searching, I have to admit I know.  And I've known for some time.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've been keeping the list of things that make me a good author, a good writer, a marketable writer--and I've been measuring myself against that list, always focusing on my inadequacies.

When I started writing, I broke a big rule.  I did this mostly because I did not know there was a Big Rule.  My mistake?  I fell in love with a series character. I wrote my first book and, high on the experience, I wrote the second.  I was halfway through my third when I started reading the many posts advising writers that this was a waste of time and energy.  The reasoning was solid and logical:  if the first book doesn't sell, you've put all your time and energy into a whole string of books that won't sell.

So I stopped.

The story was still written on my heart, but it wasn't smart to write it.

I spent three months working up other ideas and grieving.  I even wrote a contemporary middle grade novel with characters I love.  But yeah, not as much as I love my series character.

When I went to my first conference this past summer, I went there prepared to pitch my middle grade novel.  That's me, doing the smart thing with my career. I had a couple luke-warm requests, but more suggestions for improvements than anything else.  That's fine.  Farther from my heart, it's easy to make changes.

And yet, somewhere along the way, I started talking to agents about Claire Morgane again.  As soon as I did, everyone asked for pages.  That's me, being happy, not smart. How many more rejections did I need to get for this novel?

In the couple weeks between conferences, I revised my middle grade work, preparing to pitch it.  That's me, being smart. My MG is a stand-alone.  It has a tight focus.  It's a really good, little book.  It's the responsible child of my novel creation.  I know it will get into print eventually because it's just good.

But it's also done. I can sell it now or I can sell it five years from now or ten years from now--and it doesn't really matter. There's simply no hurry.

So you know what I did, right? Yeah, I prepared for two weeks to pitch that MG novel and then I went back to my next conference and I talked about Claire.  More requests.

My rejections for Claire are funny.

The rejections for my middle grade submission are all about the market and whether there's room on the shelf.  My rejections for Claire are always about Claire.  She's not what people expect to see.  I get long rejections that are emotional reader responses to the story and then one line at the end that says, "oh I don't think I can market this."  And I also get rejections from people who I picture tipping their heads as they write, "huh?" or, you know, the professional equivalent.

I did meet an agent at one conference who connected with the creative spark in me. I sent my Claire manuscript and received a different kind of rejection, one that said, "I can't represent this yet."  We talked on the phone about revisions and all the things she suggested made sense to me.  She wasn't looking for a different book; she wanted me to improve the book I'd written.

I spent a month revising and I've resubmitted, but I have no idea what kind of response I'll get.  It's such a big revision and it feels distinctly possible that the story is too much changed from the manuscript I originally submitted.  Of course, I also worried my beta readers would hate this new version too--and all responses have been overwhelmingly positive.  So who knows?

I let manuscript requests sit while I worked on the revision and they're all sent now too.  I've received a couple rejections that made me giggle.  Or they made Claire giggle anyway and her laughter filled my head.

Because here's the thing: after spending a month with Claire, she's back in my head.

And on my list of things that give me energy, writing Claire's story is right up there at the top.  So you know what?

Happy trumps smart.

I'm following my heart.  I can't turn away again.  And I'm so incredibly happy.

So where does happy lead me?

  • I updated Claire's website.

  • I'm directing my enthusiasm for Claire to readers rather than agents.

  • I posted my first Claire short story on her website.  I will add more.  These are not excerpts.  They're stand-alone stories from her world.


  • Because it makes me happy.

  • Because being happy makes my life better and it makes the lives of those around me better.

  • Because I love this character and I really believe others will love her too.

  • Because I don't need an agent to have an audience. Agents want writers with an audience. It's not their job to create one for me. It's not the publisher's job.
I create my own world and see who shows up for the party.

You're all invited.

I can't promise there won't be heartache, but I promise there will be happy along the way.

Oct 1, 2010

Thank you.

Today @agnieszkasshoes of Eight Cuts announced:

For my work creating and building the #amwriting community, I've been awarded The Christopher Al-Aswad Prize.

The prize is "for outstanding contribution to breaking down barriers in literature and between literature and other arts."

Chris Al-Aswad created Escape into Life.  If you're not familiar with Chris, stop here and take a second to go to this tribute page and read his poem, "The Pleasures Are Fleeting."

Beautiful, yeah?  I know.

So I'm a little intimidated to be given a prize that honors the memory of someone so beloved and talented.  There's really no way to do this justice.

So I just say thank you.

Because nothing else feels significant.

Thank you, Chris Al-Aswad. Your passion lives on in those who remember you. Because of you, amazing people are showering the #amwriting community with their creative talent and generosity.  Having never met or talked with you, I know you are the reason.  Thank you.