Friday, September 15, 2017

Strictly Accurate Memoir? True-Life Novel? How Close to the Line Do You Ride?

Camilla, a writer in my New York classes many years ago, completed a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II.  I remember it as a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters.  I also remember the dilemma she faced when she began sending it out into the world.

She wrote me, "I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous.  Although calling it a novel seems untruthful.  In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual. I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction.  Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 
"And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters.  I think these old photos really add to the story.  Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?"
 
The First Big Question:  What's Really True?
Camilla's question is common to many memoirists.  First, we must ask ourselves:  What is a memoir? 

It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life (not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it).  Most memoirs revolve around a theme or event.  Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre.  They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives. 

Now it's different.  Memoir is hot genre.  It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing.  Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read:  not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers. 
Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true.  And this has led to the big question:  How much of memoir needs to be true?  How can we really remember accurately?  And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life? 
Reliability of Memory--An Oxymoron?
Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book I Could Tell You Stories, writes about this dilemma:   "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory." 
Add to that brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something.  What's a memoirist to do?
How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?
This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers.  Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:
the emotional truth
the factual truth
Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step. 
What's in a Name?  Fake Memoirs
Some writers haven't bothered.  They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate.  Thus was born the "fake memoir." 
A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey.   His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and  Oprah denounced him on air. 
Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences.  When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves.   
But this is not new.  Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones:  Two  favorites, The Education of Little Tree (1976) and Mutant Message Down Under (1991), were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized. 
I loved both of these books.  I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life.  The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia.   Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith.  But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.
Who likes to be lied to?   I don't.  I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read. 
But I do love a great story.  I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.
So here's the rub.  The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under,  drew me in as a reader.  Good stories, well told.  It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case.  But the books still engaged me.  Am I a flawed person to think this?  Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.
So there's the line:  Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer? 
Back to Camilla's question.
True-Life Novels and Faction Books
Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today:  the true-life novel or faction book. 
Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses.  Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel." 
Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew.  And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel. 
Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has a "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night.  Where's the line here, as far as genre?  These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not.  Where's the line? 
Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.
Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion.  As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate. 
"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained.  For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real.  But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged. 
This comes back to my original question:  where do you stand on the line?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ten Things I've Learned by Finishing My Novel

In August, I took a month away from work, phones, and other people's writing to focus on the final edits for my novel.  It's been a long, hard, exciting road. 

Looking back, I slightly astonished by how naive I was when I began.  It's been five years in the making, and I couldn't have done it in any less time.  Enthusiasm and determination carried me through the first two years.  I hit bottom then, and I was pulled out by taking writing classes and getting together a feedback group.  They lasted a year or so.  Then I hit bottom again, almost ditched the project.  An agent, who did not end up taking the book, gave me excellent revision ideas.  That flattened me (she wanted another project from me, not this one, but my heart was in this book and I had to finish it).  But eventually I picked myself up and started the revisions.  I realized I needed more skill in certain areas, so I found yet another group of writing partners and a for-hire editor to learn from.  Two more years of revision and I feel confident enough to send it to my beta readers and begin the search for an agent now that mine has retired. 

But I wanted to pause, celebrate the milestone.  I remembered a cool writing exercise shared by a friend long ago, and it filled the bill. 

I'll post my own responses, then you can consider what you'd say about your book--no matter where you are in its conception or manifestation or publication process.
Acknowledging Your Progress:  A Writing Exercise 
1.  Look back on the time you've been working on this book.  It may be months or many years.  Consider who you were, as a writer, when you began, and what you know now.  
2.  Write a list of ten things you've learned. 
3.  Spend time reflecting on these, how valuable they are, how hard won, how easy. 

Note:  It may feel too self-congratulatory to attempt this.  Don't bother about that.  It's supposed to be a moment of congratulations and acknowledgement.  All writers need this kind of shine occasionally.  It doesn't mean you're getting a big head--we all know writing is hard. 
My list:
1.  One of the reasons I read is for meaning, or how the river of a theme runs under a good story.  In the beginning, I had a certain vision for my book's theme.  I learned how much bigger it was, as I revised.  I learned how to let it grow organically, which isn't easy!   
2.  This project was the most complicated I've ever tried, in terms of plot and multiple narrative voices.  It demanded much more drafting, structuring, and revising time.  I anticipated two years; it took five.  I learned patience with my own process.

3.  The characters surprised me.  Like getting to know people in real life, it took time to get to know their motivations, longings, and secrets.  I learned the most about my characters from my readers.  I learned to listen to my readers.   

4.  The original story line is vastly different from what the book became.  I had to start somewhere, but then let it grow into its own uniqueness.  I learned how hard it is for writers to give up their original vision--a painful process that took time and lots of help.  What we don't know we don't know, eh? 

5.  I had to be willing to be vulnerable on the page.  A lot of my truths, my life values, got woven into the story.  Not facts but truths.  I felt very exposed at times and I had to sit with that, decide if it was OK, dial it back if needed. 

6.  It took a LOT of editing.  I spent months just reading the pages out loud and wordsmithing.  My standards are much higher than they ever were.  I wanted it to be the best it could.  I learned how much time this takes.

7.  It also took a lot of fact checking and research.  Thanks to the keen eyes of my writing partners and experts I consulted, I think I got crash landings, explosions, and other oddities accurate on the page. 

8.  I needed a lot of rest breaks.  And new readers when my writing groups, sadly, disbanded.  I started taking classes to meet new feedback partners and fresh readers.  I learned to risk seeking them out.

9.  I learned how to pace myself for the long haul--not a skill I've excelled at much of my life (I tend to write for hours, forgetting to eat, sleep, fill in the blank).   I learned to set a timer for 45 minutes (a great amount of time to stay focused) and take a water or stretch break, or just look around and remember where I was.

10.  I needed community more than I realized.  I took steps to find others at my experience level and talk about the writing life, to get ideas and encouragement.  Writers can't go it alone and stay whole; we need other writers more than we know.

What are your 10? 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Your Writing Voice--How to Develop It, Recognize It, Not Copy Someone Else's

One of my long-time students asked a great question this week:  how does a writer develop voice?  

Voice is the elusive uniqueness that comes out in writing over time, the signature of the individual wordsmith.  We would never mistake a passage by Flannery O'Connor with one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

What makes them different, distinctive? Each delightful in its own way?  That's voice.
The elusive hunt for voice is much discussed in writing books, classes, MFA programs as one of the gateways that maturing writers face:  Do I have a distinctive enough voice?  If not, the writing may never reach readers, inspire and entertain and change lives.  We may have a good plot idea, great characters, a good story.  But eventually, to make our mark, we need to write in a voice readers will remember.
But the Catch-22:  Voice only comes with maturity.  By cultivating it, letting it arise, putting in your time.  It can't be rushed, no more than any other growth and change that works from the inside out. 
You can foster voice, yes.  That's what this post is about:  the small steps you can take to recognize, individuate, and develop your writing voice.  But that magical quality of voice only comes as you put in your 10,000 hours.
I can answer my student with these suggestions.  Hope they bring him to an understanding of voice.  Hope they spur on the work it takes!
1.  Read up.   Like learning any skill, it's best to study those who are better than you.  Read up.  Read writers who have strong voice in their work.  One of my students was learning voice and asked where to begin reading.  I told him to start with the prize-winners:  Pulitzer, Man-Booker, Orange, and other prizes are often worth looking at.  He went to the Pulitzer website and began working his way through the list.  His writing voice improved dramatically within a year, just from immersing himself in those great voices.
2.  Model.  In art classes, we paint the masters.  We sit in front of their paintings--Rembrandt, Degas, Cezanne--and paint copies.  Traditional way of creating cellular memory, eye-hand coordination, painters have done it for centuries.  Writers are scared to do this--"What if I forget it's not mine and use it by mistake later?"  I never met a painter who worried about this.  Keep clean, and model carefully, and make sure your work is yours, and you'll be OK.
Modeling is a great technique for learning rhythm and voice.  Why is a certain word used, why a paragraph break just there?  Find a passage in a work you love and type it out (labeling it as the author's, not yours).  See what your hand and eye and brain learn. 
3.  Study structure.  Most writers hate structure, the antithesis of the free-flow creativity that's writing is supposed to be all about.  Do you really think the great writers don't pay attention to structure?  Voice and most writing skills are built on solid understanding of structure, how a piece is built from the ground up.  By the time it's published, it comes across to the reader as natural, free flowing.  But there are months or years of sweat and construction behind every piece of good writing. 
Some writers print out their pages and lay them on a table, squinting at them to notice the rhythm of text and white space.  Others read them aloud.  Others ask friends to read them aloud and the writer listens.  This teaches about voice, when it's present--clear uniqueness and surprise--and when it's not.
Voice is consciousness.  Not being asleep.  Whatever you can do to wake yourself up, is how you develop voice.  Structure is one of the first ways. 
4.  Put in your 10,000 hours.  In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously said that mastering a skill takes about 10,000 hours.  In our instant gratification world, we somehow believe voice should come naturally or not at all.  Have you put in your time?  Writing every day.  Studying the great writers.  Taking classes.  Exchanging work and learning how to give feedback so you can begin to see where your own writing needs it.  Learning basic grammar, sentence structure, even spelling.
I believe each of us has a unique writing voice, dormant inside.  It's been smothered and silenced by schooling and years of criticism and self-doubt.  Rare is the family and society and school that fosters uniqueness; most ask children and young adults and adult writers to conform and not stand out.  We're easier to deal with, that way.
But if you believe you have a voice, waiting to come forth, and you are willing to put in your time to uncover it and develop it, you'll win.  It takes work to coax it out of hiding and refine it for the page.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Why Strong Dialogue Matters So Much--And Three Tips to Write It



Do you write dialogue?  Did you know that many acquisitions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?


In their book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry.  What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered.  More than one revealed this:  Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it.  If it's good, they read more.  If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.

Big pressure for writers!  Why do you think dialogue is such an indicator of a writer's skill?

Chef Test--Why Dialogue Matters So Much
I used to be a restaurant chef, in another life.  I was in charge of a small place in southern California, working the "line" with a wonderful team of cooks.

After hours, when the restaurant was closed and the kitchen was clean, we slummed.  We visited other restaurants and tasted their soups.

Why soup?  Soups tell you everything about a chef's skill.  Soups are so hard to season well, so impossible to fake.  You can cover up so-so entrees with great sauces, and chefs know this.  So in the food business, soups are the "test" for a chef's skill.  If a chef can get incredible flavor out of few ingredients in a soup, even better. 

Now my theory may not pass the Chopped! test, but it is a good analogy for understanding why dialogue is so key to good writing.  Editors know that a so-so plot can be enhanced by great characters.  Or vice versa.  The story becomes palatable.  But a to quickly learn a writer's skill, the editor uses the "soup" test--checking out dialogue.  Does it contain a lot of exposition (told information) or is there great subtext (undercurrent)?  Are the beats (pauses) placed well?  Does the writer use too many adverbs and verbs other than "said" in the dialogue tags?

All of these are like test-tasting a chef's soup.  It tells an editor a lot in just a few minutes.

You can try out my soup theory at the next restaurant you visit.  Order a bowl and taste it, as we did, savoring or rejecting it, guessing the seasonings.  It is more than a fun game, it can teach you a lot about cooking.  Then do the same with your favorite published books--scan for dialogue and see how it "tastes."

Here are a few of the most important tips from my workshop in Minneapolis.  Maybe they will help your dialogue shine!

Dialogue Tip #1:  Most dialogue is not about revealing information.
Some writers use dialogue to share something, like a relationship detail or backstory or even general information about a subject.  This is called a "reveal."  Reveals are carefully planted in the narrative arc.  If they come too early or too frequently, there's no tension.  The reader has no incentive to read on, because everything is already "revealed."

Reveals are placed at the key points on the storyboard W and toward the end of the story.  This carefully placement means that your story will build and build and the reveal will be a satisfying climax. 

Reveals are where someone says what they mean.  So most dialogue, if it's not reveals, must be about what's not being said.

I'll say that again:  Most dialogue is all about what's not being said, or the subtext.  This means what you say is not about what's at stake, what's most important.

Think Thanksgiving dinner with family--how little honest discussion there might be at that infamous gathering.  Mostly, if you eavesdrop, you'd hear subtext--what's not being said.  All the relationship tensions are underlying the conversation about weather, food, and social news.

In literature, subtext is everything--so you as the writer have to figure out the undercurrent of your dialogue and write that, rather than the truth that's beneath the surface of the water.

Dialogue Tip #2:  Enhance the emotion of the subtext by  connecting it to the setting or environment of the scene. 
In Leif Enger's brilliant novel, Peace Like a River, there's a scene at the crisis point of the story when Rube follows his brother Davy to the hideout cabin.  Rube then meets Davy's new friend, Mr. Walzer,who is quite a dangerous character. 

Rube recognizes this danger immediately, but his brother is a captive of this man.  Ruben doesn't want to do anything to set Mr. Walzer off. 

Enger presents as close to a "normal" conversation as possible in such circumstances.  No reveals are possible because any wrong word could get both boys killed.  So there's plenty of great subtext.

In the middle of the scene, the tension becomes to great and Rube's asthma flares up. 

Here's where I really appreciate Enger's skill:  As Walzer begins coaching Rube on how to breathe, the atmosphere around them gets thicker and heavier.  The metaphor of "not being able to breathe" is echoed by the stuffy cabin and the eventual loss of air in Ruben's lungs--so much so, that he faints. 

We see by these echoes that Ruben is unable to breathe on many levels.  The connection between the subtext and the stuffy cabin works perfectly. 

Finally, at the end of the scene is the reveal, where Rube takes his life in his hands and tells Mr. Walzer to shut up.

Study Enger's writing for how this is done.  And try it yourself:  If you are working on a dialogue scene and want to enhance it with the surrounding setting--a very good device--be sure the two connect in some way.  Just look for the metaphor in the subtext and see what can be echoed in the setting.

The two always work in a kind of rhythm--if the dialogue is skilled.

Dialogue Tip #3:  Use beats (intentions) to create music in your dialogue.
Screenwriters and playwrights know all about beats.  A beat is a pause, a short break in the dialogue that lets a new level of subtext emerge.  At each beat, a new level of intention is presented to the reader.  In other words, things get more complicated.

Beats are like roadmaps in dialogue.  They are placed carefully because of this one rule:  Wherever the beat occurs, emphasis falls on the word just before the beat.

That one word (or sometimes the phrase) carries all the subtext meaning, all the rising tension.  Readers unconsciously absorb this, like hopping from one stone to another in a stream, following the beats.

Here's an example: 
"I love you," he said, "not her." 

(You is the word that carries weight here.)

What if the dialogue read:  "I love you, not her," he said.  (Her gets the emphasis now, and we don't quite believe this speaker's telling the truth.)

Can you see the difference?  Hear how the intention shifts because of the beat--because of where the writer chose to break the dialogue? 

Same is true with beats that are not tags (she said, he said are called dialogue tags). 

"I know your name."  He took a pull on his drink.  "I just forgot it."  (Name, or identity, is the subtext here--and the drinking is definitely a way to forget it.)

I study favorite dialogue passages in published books, reading them aloud, to discover where to place the beats in my own dialogue.

These are just a few of the aspects of strong dialogue.  But maybe they'll help you take your dialogue to another level.

Remember, it's the key to a successful story--one that will be read and savored by others.


Your weekly writing exercise is to take 15 minutes and find a favorite published book (novel, memoir, nonfiction) that uses dialogue.  Locate a passage that, to you, really sings.  Figure out if the author used any of the dialogue techniques listed above. 


Then go to your own writing.  Choose a stuck scene.  Add 5 lines of dialogue, employing the techniques in this blog post.  See if it makes a difference.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Value of a Writing Community--To Help You Finish Your Book



Summer is teaching time for me.  I just returned from a week on Madeline Island, a blissful spot, made even more so by the twenty-three writers who attended this summer's retreat.  We formed a perfect community, I thought:  supportive, funny at times and serious at others, able to work hard and celebrate each others' growth.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Making Time for Your Writing in the Dog Days of Summer

I've always loved August in New England, where I live.   The heat and sun and sultry air just make me want to go slower, take in more of the beauty of summer's final days.  We get winter all too soon here.  New Englanders know how to make the most of summer.

When I first moved here, I thought the slower pace in summer would be perfect for writing.  But laziness settles over me.  And the allure of a thousand fun summer activities.  I'm a passionate gardener and there's always plenty to do.  Who wants to spend daylight hours indoors?

Friday, July 21, 2017

Writing a Satisfying Ending: Hints about How to Wrap Up Your Story

This week I'm traveling to one of my favorite places:  Madeline Island and the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall.  I'm about to welcome a group of twenty-three writers who will be attending my workshop/retreat and my independent study week.  We'll be diving deep into our book projects for five days, free of interruptions.  Looking for breakthroughs.

One of the assignments I offer the group is to draft their final chapter.  Because the group is varied in writing experience and progress with their projects, this suggestion often gets astonished reactions.  "How can I possibly write my final chapter when I don't know what the rest of the book is about!?" 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Instant Gratification: Dangers of Seeking It When Writing a Book

When we start writing a book, we have no clue how long it will take.  Most first-time book writers think maybe a year, two at the most?  A colleague was both relieved and dismayed to learn from a graduate-school panel of published writers that memoirs typically take seven years to write.  Rebecca Skloot, author of the best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, said her book took ten years and it couldn't have gone any faster--she needed all that time. 

But we're seduced by workshops and craft books that promise a completed manuscript, ready for agents, in nine months.  I recently saw a workshop that was called "Novel in a Month."  I participate in Nanowrimo regularly (National Novel Writers Month) and have even published a novel from that marathon, but it didn't come out finished--it needed a couple of years of revision before it was ready for other eyes. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why a Memoir Is Not an Autobiography


My elderly aunt finished her memoirs.  She mailed me a photocopy.  It was great fun to read--she's always been entertaining storyteller with interesting experiences and a great understanding of people.  She's 97 now and lives in an assisted living community where a fellow resident helped her write up her life stories.  She calls them her "memoirs," and indeed they are--an an act of remembering and a legacy for the family. 

Memoir comes from the Anglo-French word memoirie (from the fifteenth century),meaning "memory" or "note,"  an "account of someone's life."  A wonderful gift to pass on to those who know you and who want to hear your past.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Finding and Hiring an Editor: Why They Help, What They Cost, and What to Look For

One of the best decisions I made for my recent books was hiring a professional editor--before I began submitting the manuscript for publication.  You might say:  Why bother?  The agent/publisher will make you change stuff anyway.  And don't publishers have editors? 

Yes, you'll have to change stuff--if you're lucky enough to get that far with an agent or publisher.  Yes, there are some publishers who still offer editorial help to their writers (small presses usually do, partner publishing does, a few big houses do if you're high on the list).  But it pays to invest in your own book in today's competitive world.  Make it the best it can be, before you try submitting it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Keeping Track of Time--Timeline Organizers for Your Book

One of my online students is working on a memoir that threads two storyboards (see more about storyboards here).  He wants to be able to plot life events in chronological order; although he is clear that the story may not include them all, it's helpful for him to have everything lined up so if an event needs a cursory mention, he knows where it falls. 


He needed a timeline organizer.

Friday, June 16, 2017

How Do You Know When You're Done? Tips to Evaluate Whether Your Manuscript Is Really Ready

One of my private clients has been working on her memoir for quite a few years.  She's workshopped it through my online classes and with writing partners, and in our coaching sessions, we analyzed the structure and she made many great revisions.  She sent it to a few other writers for feedback and got ideas on what else needed tweaking. 


This week, she emailed me with the big question:  Are we there yet? 

How does a writer know when the book is cooked, ready to send out to agents?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Selling Your Nonfiction Book on a Proposal Alone: An Interview with Katherine Ozment

It used to be common to sell nonfiction books via a book proposal--an expanded outline, a synopsis, marketing research for the topic, and sample chapters.  I sold five books this way, back in the nineties, got good advances, and published happily.  Many agents I speak with today are less keen on selling via proposal, unless the writer has an excellent track record and a market niche (audience) already established.  Occasionally, I do hear of a great success story from one of my former students.  This week, I wanted to share Katherine Ozment's story.  Hopefully, it'll inspire other nonfiction writers who are putting together their book proposals.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Launching a Debut Novel: Working with Publicists and Promotion

It's been a month of book birth announcements.  Another student from my online classes and private coaching has just released her debut novel, Eden.  Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg has launched it with great panache too--with excellent reviews on Kirkus, Booklist, Redbook, the Boston Herald and other publications.  Writer Anita Shreve calls Eden "a masterfully interwoven family saga with indelible characters, unforgettable stories, and true pathos."  

I first met Jeannie at a storyboarding workshop I taught at Grub Street in Boston where she was working on a two-storyboard novel, exploring the financial ruin of a family's historic home in seaside Rhode Island and the backstory of the matriarch who decides to reveal a long-buried secret and introduce the child she gave up for adoption in her teens.  Weaving the two storyboards together was a challenge that Jeannie approached beautifully, and her excellent book is the result.  
Once it was finished, she looked over her options for publishing.  I interviewed her about her choices and what she eventually decided to do.  

Friday, May 26, 2017

Saving Your Work--Ways to Keep Your Writing Safe Today

I spent much of yesterday at the Apple Store, which often starts out as fun but ends up being exhausting.   A friend's laptop had an accident:  salt water got into the hard drive, and the photo our tech took of it confirmed no recovery possible.  I had a laptop I no longer used so she took it in with her external drive and we crossed our fingers as the data migration took place.  So far, all is well.  But if she hadn't backed up her computer on that external drive, it would be a sad story.

Afterwards, in the car, we talked the various ways of saving work.  When she first got the bad news about her laptop, I read the panic on her face.  All her creative work, gone?  She hadn't ever had to recover data from an external drive (Time Machine in Apple lingo).  So she didn't actually trust that it would restore her files. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Finding the Right Home for Your Memoir: A Success Story


I first met Elisa Korenne in one of my online classes.  Elisa is a professional singer/songwriter with several CDs to her credit.  She was writing a very intriguing story--about moving from downtown Manhattan to the wilds of northern Minnesota, for love.

I followed her progress in subsequent classes and saw such a blossoming of the story.  It's a simple tale, yet unique:  the integration of cultures, the finding of oneself and home, all around her profession of music and storytelling.

Elisa's memoir, Hundred Miles to Nowhere:  An Unlikely Love Story, has just been released from North Star Press.  Click here to find out more.  I interviewed  Elisa to learn more about the process of finding the right home for her book. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

Storyboarding Multiple Narrators--How to Make Sense of the Whole Story

I get this question a lot:  When a book has more than one storyline, timeline, or main narrator, how do you make sure each storyline works individually? 

And, once you have each individual storyline in place, how do you weave them together to make sense of the whole?

Friday, May 5, 2017

If You're Writing a Novel, Do You Know Its Category? An Agent's Perspective


One of the writers in my advanced online class posted this article on our weekly classroom discussion.  She asked the provocative question:  what genre are you writing in? 

Fiction, I would've answered five years ago, because they were all fiction writers in this small group.  But her question went deeper than this:  what type of fiction are you writing and how will you present it to an agent or publisher?
Publishing has gotten quite complex at categorizing novels by certain qualities.  Is it award-capable?  Does it have a happy or mixed ending?  Is it a commercial or literary plot? 

Friday, April 28, 2017

A Great Key to Building Your Story: Things Are Never as They Appear

I got some of the best writing advice this week:  In a good story, things are never as they appear. 


At first, I debated this advice:  Why not tell the truth in story?  I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books?  Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea.  But fiction and memoir writers, listen up.  There's something to this.

Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing.  In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

How NOT to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript

A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter.  She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand.  She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there.  She came home excited, shared the news with me.  "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said.  Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Hunt for an Agent: Pitch Conferences, Research, and Other Fun Tools

Spring is the time of new birth, and that includes book manuscripts.  Writers have been working hard all winter and want to bring their babies into the world.  Perhaps even launch the process of looking for an agent. 

Many of my clients and students are trying pitch conferences this spring:  a place to meet agents face to face, and even get feedback on manuscripts.  Two of the prime pitch conferences in the U.S. are hosted by Grub Street writing school in Boston and The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding an Agent: One Writer's Experience

I first learned about Jay Gilbertson's wonderful series of novels when he attended several of my writing retreats on Madeline Island.  Jay has a special relationship with Madeline, an island off the northern coast of Wisconsin in Lake Superior.  Madeline Island is the home of the Madeline Island School of the Arts, where I teach each summer and fall, but it's also the setting for his Moon over Madeline Island series.

I wanted to interview Jay about his process of finding an agent and getting his first (and highly successful) novel published.  How did he do it?

Friday, March 17, 2017

If You're Not Writing about Social Justice Issues, Will You Get Published Today?



My interview with writer Amy Hanson generated a flurry of response--and some thought-provoking questions.  Amy's story is magnificent, so please scroll down to read it, if you weren't able to.  She's a very hard-working writer who received a well-earned award and publication for part of her book.

A few blog reader, who enjoyed the article very much, also expressed concerns about the challenge of being published today.  I sifted out the best questions from the emails I got last week.  They were:

Friday, March 10, 2017

What Is--and What Isn't--Your Business When You're Making Your Art: Words of Wisdom from Martha Graham

One of my all-time favorite sources of inspiration is this week's quote from dancer and choreographer Martha Graham, writing to her protegee, Agnes DeMille. 

It's been in my journals, posted on my walls above my writing desk, and shared with friends for many years. 

During a slump this week, where I wondered why I was writing my book (I'm sure many of you can relate!), I happened upon the quote again. It inspired a freewrite about what is, and what isn't, my business when I'm making my art. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Submitting Excerpts from Your Book to Small Publications--A Success Story

Amy Hanson started writing her novel, a braided narrative about a woman in Zambia and a woman in Seattle, when her third child was a year and a half. Not the ideal time to take on a book project, as she says.  She'd always enjoyed writing, although music had been her focus, but she'd gotten letters from people who had read small things she'd written, asking if she'd ever thought about writing a book.  An idea for a novel was in her head, and so she decided to just try.