I just finished reading a book that purports to share the secrets of writing a bestselling novel, and I found it fascinating. The BestSeller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel is by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, and what it uses is text mining to uncover the shared elements of bestsellers. As I understand it, text mining (in this instance) is essentially programming a computer to look for commonly shared elements of bestsellers. The predictive algorithm the authors devised was proven to be right 80% of the time. Densely written, though also humorous in places, and a bit much to plow through (I would have really liked bullet point summaries at the end of each chapter), but thought-provoking.
Maybe you don’t have any desire to write a bestselling novel or memoir, which is fine. But some of these ideas might help you dream up kick-ass characters and write stronger prose. Take these ideas or leave them. Some of them resonated with me while others kinda had me scratching my head. And remember, the points I mention are my interpretation of what I read. What jumped out and lands in my brain might be quite different for you. I’ll go through each one:
Theme or topic
–The most prevalent topics of bestsellers were human closeness (i.e. love) and intimate conversation. Wait for it–it was actually these topics that predominated in Fifty Shades of Gray. Not sex. I swear to you this is what the book said.
–Bestsellers tended to stick to 2-3 main topics, while less successful books had more.
–Another particularly big topic was medical, as in characters suddenly having to go to the hospital which then results in human closeness as loved ones gather around. (My interpretation.) This also goes along with what we’ll learn about cycles of emotion under plot.
–Far and away the most successful plot lines were those which featured a rhythmic beat of highs and lows. Lots of peaks and valleys of emotion. The book features many charts which showcase this.
–A clear three-act structure is most successful
–The book tells the story of how J.K. Rowling was outed as Robert Galbraith, mystery writer. She changed her name, gender, genre, audience and plot. But she couldn’t change her stylistic blueprint and the computer found her out.
–Bestsellers use the word “the” more. I’m just reporting the news, folks. At first I thought this was silly, but then I wondered if it might be because of more specificity? And, as we know, the devil is in the details.
–The first sentences of bestsellers start with action or definite thought. And they just about always contain conflict of some sort.
–An understanding of everyday knowledge is essential if you want to write a bestseller.
–Bestsellers feature strong characters with agency. “They have some version of power, motivation, drive.”
–Characters in bestsellers do things! They express their needs and they have lots of them. (Need was the verb most linked to a likelihood to be a bestseller.) They also want things and they make their wants clear.
–“Readers want someone to be not to seem.”
–“Hesitation doesn’t keep the pages turning.”
–Characters in bestsellers have something magnetic that makes them stand out. They are gifted in some way, or they’ve done things others haven’t.
Fascinating, no? The book goes into all these aspects in depth and is worth a read if you are so inclined to like dissecting things. I’m not sure it’s possible or even desirable to plug in all these variables and come up with a bestselling novel. But reading these ideas made me realize that sometimes my characters tend toward the passive and that I need to make them stronger. I love the idea that the topics of human closeness and intimate conversation come up tops–those fit right into my genres of women’s fiction and romance. I love writing stuff like that, and now I know there’s no reason to hold back on it. The book has also encouraged me to go for more distinctive highs and lows of emotion.
What do you think of all this? Do you think it is possible to plug in a set of variables and come up with a bestseller? Or is the whole thing a really bad idea?
PS. There’s a book club dedicated to reading the top 100 books picked by this computer model. You can find out about it here.
PPS. I’ve actually got some room on my coaching roster at the moment. Want to make 2017 the year you actually write that book? Maybe you’d like to finish the novel you’re working on and get it published? Or perhaps you just want to start a satisfying personal writing practice. I can guide you through any of these and more. I’m revamping my coaching page and packages, so if you’re interested, just pop me an email at email@example.com. Put Coaching in the subject line so the email doesn’t get buried!
This is the second time I’ve been given the opportunity to review this book, which is updated annually, by the publisher (New World Library). I always jump at the chance, not because I need the listings (I have a wonderful, amazing, fantastic agent) but because I love reading the articles that are included. More on that in a minute.
The heart of the book, and the reason why most people probably buy it, are the listings, which encompass publishing conglomerates (the Big 5), independent presses, university presses, Canadian book publishers, literary agents, and independent editors. Herman’s book is an insider’s guide to the publishing world, with the scoop on everything. He’s an agent himself and knows whereof he speaks. What I most appreciate, though, is that I feel that he’s on the side of the writer all the way through. The listings are funny, opinionated, even arrogant at times. But I always trust that Herman is delivering the truth. And that he’s got the writer’s best interest at heart–he’s writing this book for you, for your use and benefit, and the tone of the articles reflects that.
In the agent listing section, Herman features interviews with agents. This is a goldmine, because through these you can glean tidbits about potential agents that may well help you find the right one for you. My only quibble is that I’d love a rundown, with his typical insider’s view, of each agency itself. Which would likely make the book run t0 800 pages (‘nearly 700 already).
I can’t quite figure out how Herman manages to write and update this book every year and still run a literary agency. But indeed somehow he does and he’s got a way with words as well. I just have to share a couple of his classic sentences. On the slush pile: “But trying to get published through the slush is like trying to pay for college with lottery scratch-offs.” On email: “Dealing with inboxes today is like flossing teeth after a corn-eating orgy.”
The articles are my favorite part, as previously mentioned. The essay, Literary Agents: What They Are and What They Do is excellent, as are his pieces on the query letter and the book proposal. Geez, even the glossary is helpful.
I like getting this book because as an author, its part of my job to keep up with what’s going on in my industry, and Jeff Herman helps me do that. Bottom line, if you’re looking for an agent or a publisher, you need this book. If you’re not, it’s a good reference, but probably not vital.
Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman
Once again, the wonderful folks at New World Library have offered me a book to review. And once again, I'm making slow progress through it because I keep stopping to ponder and do the exercises. I found the receipt of this book particularly serendipitous because shortly before it arrived, I announced that I was pondering offering a class on a similar topic. (And I'm, um, not anywhere near being done with that little effort.)
So, I bet you're dying to know what the book is about, aren't you? It is called Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life by Kim Schneiderman. (While it cursorily discusses the various aspects of writing a story, this book is aimed at you rewriting your own life story, not the Great American Novel.)
Since I'm making slow progress through the book (a good thing), I decided to offer you and interview with the author, who can talk about it better than I can! Here goes:
What does it mean to “step out of your story?” and how does one do that?
As I write in the opening chapter of my book, “every life is an unfolding story, a dynamic, unique, purposeful, and potentially heroic story with bright spots, turning points, and abounding opportunities for personal growth and transformation.” Most people, when I present this idea to them, accept this to be true. And yet, many people don’t think about what that means. Until something happens that challenges their outlook on life, few take the time to explore the character they’re playing, what their story is about, who’s writing their script, and how the challenges they face can help them develop the insights and skills they need to move to the next chapter.
Stepping out of your story means being able to step outside your life to view it from a novel perspective, both literally and figuratively. That means seeing yourself as the hero of your story, and understanding how all of the classic story elements, especially your antagonists, might be conspiring to help you grow, as many protagonists do over the course of the narrative. Looking at your life this way can also help you embrace plot twists as opportunities to change your life.
Does how we tell our story matter? And if there are infinite ways to tell our stories, is there a best way?
Absolutely. Telling our story is a fundamental way that we come to know ourselves and make meaning of our live. We are constantly sifting through various competing narratives to make sense of our world for ourselves and others. Whether you consider yourself a heroic figure overcoming obstacles or a tragic victim of destiny often depends on how you choose to read the text of your life and the way that you tell your story. We might even describe suffering, in part, as the result of a storytelling deficit, a failure to find a good filing system that organizes the details of one’s life into a meaningful cause-and-effect narrative, which results in an incoherent or distorted story.
While there may not be a best way, there are certainly better ways to tell your story than others. My book proposes telling your story as a personal growth adventure, using the classic story structure to reframe challenges as stepping-stones to a more authentic self and richer life. The classic story elements – protagonist, antagonist, plot, climax, etc. – serve as the architecture of a story. Once we understand how each element of the story scaffolding supports directs and supports the protagonist’s character development, we can use “the story lens on life” to reconstruct a powerful, coherent narrative from the raw materials of our lives.
What does it mean to become a good reader of the text of our lives and how can that help us?
How we “read,” or rather interpret, our story affects how we feel about ourselves, which can influence how our lives unfold. For example, reframing the story of a cancer diagnosis as a tale of finding new sources of resilience and deeper connections with loved ones feels very different from telling the story as one of divine punishment or meaningless misery. In fact, studies show that a positive narrative, and the feelings they engender, can influence prognosis. Similarly, seeing a failed relationship as a lesson in intimacy, resilience, and humility will make us feel a whole lot better, and emotionally ready for our next relationship, than shaping the story as one of self-sabotage and personal worthlessness.
This interpretative lens implies that we value character development in ourselves as much as we value it in the books we read and movies we watch. It entails seeing every person and situation that shows up in your narrative as a personal growth opportunity and recognizing the subtle, often unrecognized personal victories that build character — such as facing a fear, changing an attitude, or kicking a bad habit. This is not necessarily how society traditionally measures success. But or psychotherapists and writers, these kinds of changes mark meaningful progress in someone’s lifelong development, whether that person is a client or an imagined character.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re unemployed, and you tell yourself the story that this is just another crappy situation that defines your very difficult life. You ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Then you finally land a job interview. What happens? If you haven’t eradicated your victim story, it may unintentionally seep out during your interview through your tone and word choice, or you may secretly sabatoge yourself. This may lead you to botch the interview, which causes more suffering and only confirms your negative story.
However, what if you saw the antagonist (in this case, unemployment) of the current chapter in your life (a chapter you might entitle “A Thousand Resumes”) as the necessary force that is pushing you to grow in new ways: perhaps that you are in fact ambivalent about this career path or that you tend to get easily discouraged. In a way, this antagonist is like a personal trainer, and this conflict is the force challenging you to develop your confidence or to become clear about your career direction.
Suddenly, as you exercise control over how you view your situation, the time between jobs becomes an invitation to work on yourself and build your muscles. Through this lens, you might say to yourself, “If I were reading this chapter in a book about the story of my life, I might appreciate that unemployment is nudging me — the protagonist — to get more organized and keep persevering in the face of adversity. I can choose to embrace that challenge, and forge ahead, or drain myself of valuable energy by sinking into discouragement.” Cast in this light, the power of interpretation via the story lens on life offers a powerful elixir for heartbreaks, disappointments, and existential angst.
Does putting a positive spin on your story make it less truthful?
We spin our stories all the time. Every time we open our mouths we make choices about how to tell a tale. Depending on your audience, we may emphasize certain aspects of the story over others, or omit certain details that seem irrelevant, inappropriate, or too complicated to explain. As we tell it over and over, we might remember certain parts we had forgotten initially, or new insights might lead us to spin the story in a totally different direction.
Is one version more truthful than another? Who’s to say? And how does one define truth? Is the objective experience of the things that happen – what I call the “outer story” any more truthful than the feelings we have about what happens – what I call the “inner story?” Some people tend to favor one of these two storytelling styles. But both are “true,” as far as they are meaningful, when it comes to understanding the totality of a person’s experience. That’s why for me, it’s less important whether a story is truthful, than whether it’s personally constructive.
Finally, there are ways to find the redemptive storyline without whitewashing over unpleasant circumstances, repressing feelings, or discounting important life lessons. By reframing your story as a personal growth adventure that identifies the ways you’ve grown as the protagonist of your narrative, there is room for all manner of feelings and experiences, which imbue the story with richness and texture. And the fuller the story, the more it approximates something resembling the truth.
Is there any research to support the efficacy of the third-person storytelling exercises in Step Out of Your Story?
A number of psychological studies in recent years illustrate that recalling past events or thinking about yourself in the third person helps you see yourself through kinder, more compassionate eyes. The reason is that the third person voice creates emotional distance between you and the circumstances of your life, enabling you to see the larger story with greater objectivity. For example, University of California and University of Michigan researchers used a psychologically distancing vantage point when asking participants to reflect on negative memories. Not only did participants report less emotional pain, less rumination, improved problem solving, and greater life satisfaction when discussing matters in the third person, they also gained new insights into those memories without feeling as emotionally overwhelmed. Similarly, in a Columbia University study, students were asked to describe recently upsetting thoughts or feelings, and these bad memories were recalled with less hostility by those using the third-person perspective. In an Ohio State University study, students who recalled humiliating moments in high school in the third-person narrative were more likely to describe themselves as having overcome obstacles than those who recalled similarly embarrassing moments from a first-person perspective. The study concluded that feeling like you’ve changed gives you the confidence and momentum to act in ways that support a perceived new and improved self.
It’s also worth noting that all of this research is aligned with narrative therapy technique known as “externalization,” which uses psychological distancing techniques to prevent people from over-identifying with their problems.
Do people need to be good writers to do the exercises you offer in your book?
No. As I tell my students, your masterpiece of living doesn’t have to be a masterpiece of writing. The exercises are designed for anyone who can compose a simple sentence. The goal is not writing well; the goal is self-discovery. The goal is to write powerfully and authentically. In my experience facilitating workshops, I’ve noticed that the written equivalent of stick-figure drawings may actually teach us more about ourselves than carefully crafted (and controlled) adult sentences. Words-smithing can be about the ego, which I’m trying to help people transcend via the third person narrative. That being said, people for whom writing comes naturally sometimes use the exercises as prompts to get really creative, and have subsequently written some beautiful pieces.
Obviously, no one can predict the future. How then is it possible to predict your own character arc?
One of the ways I help readers get a sense of their character arc is by completing a character sketch of themselves in the third person narrative, assuming the role of both author and protagonist. A character sketch is a technique that helps authors flesh out the personalities and interior world of the protagonist before embarking on a novel. It involves answering a series of imaginative questions that paint a holographic picture of how the protagonist might evolve over the course of the plotline. The character sketch presumes that the protagonist is the soul of every narrative and the engine that runs the story. So, too, I want my readers to understand more deeply who they are as evolving protagonists. The more they understand about who they are, what they’re made of, and what’s driving them, the more they’ll get a sense of where they’re heading.
How can the antagonists of our stories help us grow? Can’t they also bring us down?
Many of us don’t think twice about pushing ourselves to the point of pain and exhaustion at the gym. Yet when life pushes us to exercise our emotional, spiritual, and mental muscles, we often would prefer lighter, gentler, no-impact routines. However, until we are willing to build these character development muscles, we will remain somewhat stunted in our growth, unable to actualize the full strength of what we are capable of, whether in our career, relationships, or communities.
That’s why antagonists are an important part of our story. They are like the personal trainers who push us beyond our perceived limitations to develop our flabby, underutilized emotional muscles. As with a personal trainer, we might openly swear or grin through gritted teeth. We might assign the person sadistic aspirations, thinking the trainer wants to harm or destroy us. But if we read between the lines, whether we like it or not, our antagonist can help us strengthen the underdeveloped areas within ourselves. By definition, they force us to stretch beyond our perceived limitations to discover the true depth of our own capacity to love, succeed, and overcome obstacles.
That’s not to say that we should seek out conflict for personal growth’s sake or use character development as an excuse to endure chronically painful or unpleasant circumstances. Constant pain is a sign that something is amiss. Yet any workout should include a little discomfort so we increase our flexibility to handle more intense situations with greater degrees of ease. It reminds me of something a dance teacher once told me: “Sometimes, when you begin to stretch, your muscles scream ‘no, no, no’ — they don't think they can handle the tension because it's never been asked of them before. But as you gradually ease into the pose, they relax and discover an untapped capacity for elasticity.”
Why do you ask readers to focus on the current chapter, rather than asking them to reframe something that happened in the past or look at their whole life?
While exploring the influence of the past on the present can help us understand ourselves better, we can also get bogged down in old storylines — instead of visiting the past, we might pitch camp there or continue to circle the same old beaten tracks.
The present, however, is the place where change becomes possible. It is the precise moment in the story when you, as the protagonist of your story, can take action and grow. One of the foundational exercises I ask readers to complete is to name and describe the current chapter. From there, I help them reconstruct their story element by element. Eventually, they reassemble these pieces into an empowering new narrative about where they are and where they’re heading. And here is the beauty of this process: once we name our current chapter, distinguishing it from previous chapters within our larger narrative, we may see how the present moment offers possibilities to embrace a new reality and further develop our character. This new awareness can help us get a fresh perspective on areas where we might feel stuck, reframing life's inevitable trials and tribulations as purposeful experiences that won't last forever.
Kim Schneiderman, LCSW, MSW, is the author of Step Out of Your Story. She counsels in private practice and teaches as a professor and guest lecturer at venues including New York University. She also writes a biweekly advice column for Metro Newspapers and blogs for Psychology Today. Visit her online for more information.
I was provided this book by the publisher, New World Library (whom I adore, because they always give me wonderful books to read) to review. And then I promptly forgot about it. Actually, the book got buried under a pile of papers on my desk and only was unearthed when I started cleaning up. I wish I'd found it sooner, because its a wonderful book.
And here's my problem with writing about it: I start reading it and then stop to go do some of the exercises and follow the prompts. And so I am slowly–very slowly–making my way through it. And in this case, the slowness is a good thing. There is a ton of material to absorb in this book, and for anyone wanting to explore the wild side of their writing (something to which, really, we all should aspire) it is well worth it.
You may be familiar with the author, Judy Reeves,who calls herself a "writing practice provocateur," through one of her other books. The one that's been on my shelf for years is The Writer's Book of Days. (It really has been years–I looked up the pub date, and it was 1999.) She, like me, encourages discipline as a path to letting the wild woman out–discipline as in writing every day. Besides that, what I really like about the book is that her exercises encourage digging deep and cutting loose. It is this kind of attitude toward writing that leads me back to the utter joy of it.
Wild Women, Wild Voices grew out of a workshop Reeves taught, about which she says, "And though I've been a lifelong daily journaler, it was the prompts, questions, and explorations initiated by our work that took me into the deep waters of memory and experience."
Here's a look at what the book covers, which is based on the cycles of a woman's life:
–Claiming the Wild Woman–rediscovering the deep connections with ourselves and others
–Mother/Sister/Daughter and family connections
–Loves and Lovers
–Friendship–the wild woman in community
–Artist/Creator–the authentic work of wild woman
–Life Journeys–quests and pilgrimages
–Death and Legacies–the unveiling of the wise woman
And, just for fun, here's a couple of examples of exercises (which she calls "explorations") from the book:
–Write the story of your name. Where did it come from, what does it mean, how does it fit you? Or how doesn't it?
–In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote, "Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."
Write about your "right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary."
–Have you ever met someone on a journey, and did the connection change your life, even though you may never have seen or heard from the person again?
Have fun with these explorations and do check out the book.
What kind of writing books do you like to read, if any?
So, there's this thing called the internet. And we use it for nearly all our research into anything these days. This is especially true for research on topics that have to be current, such as, well, agent and editor listings. When you have a story or novel to submit, you hit the interwebs to find a spot for it, right?
Believe it or not, back in the old days, writers had to rely on books for such research. Like real, physical books. And most of the time when you were doing research the books you needed to reference were huge and unwieldy tomes housed in the library. There were also books published by Writer's Digest and others, extensive, expensive listings of publishing contacts that were out of date by the time you bought them. Overall, it was a royal pain. So, thank God for the internet. When I was submitting Emma Jean to a gazillion publishers I used internet agent listing sites extensively.
(Alas, I'm having a hard time finding any current ones I can link to. There used to be an amazing one that listed everyone, compiled by a guy with a serious case of sour grapes, who posted every single rejection letter he ever got, and the agent contact info, too. It was a fantastic resource–but also bordered on libelous at times. I suspect he got shut down. Anybody remember this site or have a link for it? NEWS FLASH–I found it! Here's the link to part one, of seven. Check it out. The guy is relentless.)
Anyway, I digress. I hadn't paid much attention to agent listings lately (this will change soon, as I'm finishing the rewrite of my second novel–agents, I'm looking at you, yes, you, soon) and had assumed that the big guidebooks were a thing of the past. But, oh how wrong I was. Because towards the end of last year I was offered the chance to review Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. And, having my own agent search in mind as well as the needs of my loyal readers, I said yes.
I have to say, the book is pretty great. The bulk of it is a directory of publishers, literary agents and independent editors. Since I'm most interested in agents at this point, that's what I focused on perusing. And what I like about the listings is that besides the basic info about email and address, they also include a Q and A interview the agent has filled out, which really gives you more insight into them.
And that's not all–there are numerous essays throughout the book. These are written mainly by Herman and his wife Deborah. Some, like the one on digital marketing, are useless. But others, like the chapter on how agents work and how to find one are quite good. (I'll be talking more about that chapter in a future post, because as I was writing this up it occurred to me that a How to Find an Agent post would be an excellent idea.)
There's also info on writing book proposals and query letters, definitions of publishing terms, insider tips, and so on. It's quite the comprehensive book. And it's got a price tag to match–$29.99 (a bit less on Amazon).
So, the question is whether or not I would recommend this book. And the answer is….yes, if. What I mean by that is yes, if you are a newbie to the writing and publishing world. (Though do bear in mind that Herman approaches these worlds with a very particular mindset.) There's a ton of information here that will give you a good grounding in the industry. If you have more experience in these worlds, check it out from the library. Because it is fun to leaf through and read and of course, the directory part seems to be quite extensive. (But also remember that the publishing industry is notoriously fluid. You'd do well to double check any information in the book with a look at the internet.)
Do you have an agent? Did you use a directory to find one?
(For the record, I received a copy of the book in order to write this post, but no other compensation.)
Winner Announced! Using this random name picker, I fed in all the names, pressed go and waited for the winner's name to come up. Ready? Drum roll! The winner is J.D. Frost! J.D., I'm emailing your email to Patrick so the two of you can coordinate. Thanks to all who entered!
Contest Extended! I want everyone to have a chance to enter, so I'm continuing the contest until Monday, Nov 24!
(Before we go any further, be sure to read all the way to the end, because, pa dum, we have us a giveway, yes we do!)
Several years ago now, I ran across Patrick Ross's blog, The Artist's Road. Patrick had just returned from a cross-country trip wherein he had interviewed all manner of creatives and was posting videos and commentaries about each artist. Well, this was right up my alley, and I started commenting with enthusiasm. One thing led to another and Patrick and I became fast internet friends.
I've watched him as he totally and completely committed to an art-centered life, earned his MFA, and perhaps most exciting of all, published his memoir about the trip. And so I am thrilled to introduce that memoir, Committed!
The book details his trip across country in quite a bit more detail than his blog posts did, with candid stories about his own search for a creative lifestyle interspersed as Patrick drives between interviews. I found the interviews with creatives–ranging from writers to artists to musicians–fascinating and inspiring, but what I really loved was reading about Patrick's interior journey.
It's a compelling story. The book begins with a scene you won't forget, detailing a family blow-up that ends with Patrick taking his two children, in their pajamas, away from his parents' house to a hotel. Throughout the remainder of the book, we learn of his troubled relationship with some of his family, and how that has impacted his own creativity in a negative way.
One of my favorite parts of the book was the segment as Patrick's daughter Marisa came along with him on the interviews as they also journey to SCAD (the highly regarded Savannah College of Art and Design). Marisa, a devoted and talented artist, checks out SCAD as a potential college for herself–and learns a bit about her own creative journey in the process.
Because of my own interests, I've focused on the creative side in this review and interview, but Patrick also copes with–and is open and honest about–his bi-polar diagnosis. This condition has a bearing on his creativity, as he struggles to create an art-committed life that also allows him balance.
The book is just wonderful. It is a brave piece of writing and also a fascinating, meaningful one. So go read it. But first, have a look at the interview with Patrick below.
-How did you get the idea for this trip? In the book you explain that you had funders concerned with copyright law, but I'm wondering if your creative self, as opposed to your lobbyist self, had something to do with the initial concept? I talk inCommittedabout my love of driving, and how when I was about twenty-one years old I drove from L.A. to Washington, D.C., to begin my new life. I had always wanted to try the trip in reverse, but through states I hadn't driven before. When I realized the road trip would get me out of town during the build-up to the legislation, it seemed a perfect plan!
–I recall from reading your blog regularly that after you returned home from your trip you did quit your job and return to free-lancing. Did that satisfy your creative desires? Largely, yes. I had to leave that job because they never would have tolerated me spending time writing for myself rather than the organization, nor taking the time to get an MFA. I gave notice to my board the moment the trip was over, but stayed on board about four months while they recruited a successor. In the spring of 2011 I was able to take classes at The Writer's Center and apply for MFA programs, and I started one that summer. By 2012 I was ready to return to full-time work (income needs) but I had developed enough of a writing discipline to continue to write while doing a day job.
–The trip was several years ago. How have you changed since then? Has your vision of an art-centered life changed? I've learned you can embrace your creativity without it automatically meaning that you're embracing mental instability. Seems an obvious conclusion, but it wasn't to me before the trip.
–What impact did earning your MFA have on you and your creative life? Committed wouldn't exist without the MFA; it's as simple as that. Every chapter has the fingerprints of one of my instructors on it. That said, my book profiles some artists with rich educational backgrounds in the arts and others with no formal training; they're all producing art and living art-committed lives. I think the MFA came at the right time for me; leaving that job gave me an opportunity to indulge my muse a bit, and I know the lessons I learned in the program will carry forward into future books.
–I found your personal story the most compelling part of the memoir. Was it difficult to share it? Difficult would be an understatement. The original scenes I wrote were very journalistic; the narrator was not really a part of the story. When I first wrote about being bipolar I was already a year into my MFA, and while I shared it in a workshop I told myself at the time that it wouldn't actually be in the book. That's how I was able to first write about my family as well, by telling myself I was doing it solely to better learn how to tell the story but that it wouldn't be included.
–Some of the personal parts you share were very brave–how did you family react to the book? My wife and children have been very supportive throughout the rocess. They were always invited to read any draft they wanted of any part of the book. I don't know how I'd feel about someone writing about me, but they have been great.
–I am so curious to know what happened with your family. Did Marisa get into SCAD? She did! She's now a sophomore there, studying photography, and she now has a very nice camera. She took the author photo of me that's on the back of the book, and she has a photo credit on the copyright page. SCAD ain't cheap, however; it was her impending tuition bills that prompted me to return to a full-time day job.
–And finally, in the book you describe a "failed" novel you wrote. It sounded fascinating to me. Any plans to return to it or fiction writing? Philadelphia novelist Michael Swanwick tells me in Committed that he wrote out his garbage before writing work that was publishable. When I returned from the road trip I dusted off that manuscript and read through it. I was surprised at how much I liked it. But the last four years I've focused on growing as a writer, so I don't think I'd want that manuscript published even if a publisher wished, because I'm not the same writer. I do plan to return to fiction someday, but there is so much for me to explore in the creative nonfiction space right now. My focus at this point is on historical biography writing, including an essay that will appear in The Montreal Review in January about a father-son cartography duo who created an amazingly artistic atlas, the Atlas Maior or Great Atlas, the most expensive book of the 17th Century.
Thanks, Patrick! And now, here we go. All you have to do to win a copy of Patrick's book is leave a comment, telling me which you read the most of–novels or memoirs? I'll give you until the end of the week and then gather up names and use my handy-dandy random name generator to choose a winner.
Kevin sent me the book, I read it, and now I'm reviewing it.
I like this book quite a bit. It lays out in five steps the system that Kevin believes will allow you to write your novel. (The genesis of the five-step system was Kevin's own struggle to write his first novel. It took him eight years–and he swore he would not let that happen again. Can you relate?)
The five steps are as follows:
1. Genre Selection–Learn to harness the power of genre.
2. Story Structure–Select a story structure already proven to work with readers.
3. Puzzle Work--Piece together your scenes into an indispensable beat-sheet.
4. Preparatory Regimen–Sharpen your writing skills.
5. Running the Marathon–Implement protocols to stay on track and beat the biggest challenges.
Not mentioned in this rundown is his introductory chapter, which has a lot of good information in it as well.
My favorite chapters were #2 and #4. I love #2 on story structure, because I'm a story geek, and Kevin has a film background so he's well versed in various structures and he presents them clearly. Chapter #4 covers a good collection of tips for writing, such as timed writing, mind mapping and brainstorming. Kevin also mentions a technique called "Writing Down the Page" which it turns out I do all the time, but didn't have a name for. It's when you write a sketchy outline of your chapter so you have the general flow down.
This book is perfect for the first-time novelist who wants a picture of the road ahead before launching onto the journey. And seasoned novelists will find a few tips of use as well. Check it out, guys.
Do you have a favorite book on novel writing? Please share!
When I was offered the chance to review this book, I leapt at it. I have a lot of story ideas that I'm working on (a novel, several short stories, another novel all lined up and ready to go when I finish the first one) and then there are other things (like making a living) that take up my time.
So, fast fiction? I'm there.
The full title of this book is Fast Fiction: A Guide to Outlining and Writing a First-Draft Novel in Thirty Days. The author, Denise Jaden, was inspired by her experiences writing a novel during Nanowrimo, helped along by the fact that the novel she wrote the first time she participated eventually got published. She's such an enthusiast of the process that she offers her own Thirty Day Writing Challenge on her blog.
I'm good with Nanowrimo–I've participated in it and I know a lot of other writers who have, too. But what mostly appealed to me about this book was learning Jaden's techniques for writing fiction fast.
Before I tell you more about the book, let's dispel one notion right off the bat–just because something is done quickly, that doesn't mean it is bad, okay? I'm not sure how this idea got started, but it is prevalent. For my money, writing a first draft as fast as you can often means you get your deep true voice on the page better than when you labor over a draft. Of course, after completing said first draft you then go on to rewrite, revise and polish it in future drafts–that is a given.
Back to the book. So many writing books get me enthused at the beginning and then I get bored. But I've actually been working with the ideas in this one. As those of you have taken my novel-writing class or read many of my posts know, I'm a big believer in doing prep work before you start the writing. (In other words, I am not a pantser, but a proud plotter.) And this method is essentially Jaden's technique for writing fast. In Part One: Before the Draft, she takes you through all the prep work pieces that will enable you to write a fast draft. She includes tons of questions and prompts about character, setting, and plot that will help you lay out ideas for the novel.
In Jaden's world, after you've done all of the afore-mentioned exercises, you are then ready to create a story plan which you will follow in order to fast draft. I'm a sucker for anything with the word "plan" in it, so I decided to apply this to a novella I'm writing (it used to be a story but recently grew to a novella). I had some sketchy notes and a first scene written for this novella. I applied the 11 steps in Jaden's story plan(they include things like identifying what your main character wants and lining out each scene) to it, et voila, fast drafting is indeed much easier. (I've said it before and I'll say it again, not only to you, but to myself–writing works ever so much better when you know where you're going.)
Part Two of the book is a day-by-day guide for the actual thirty day drafting process. It's full of more ideas and prompts, the gist of it being that you refer to each page as you go along. I'm not doing the thirty day drafting thing, so I'm mining this section of the book for inspiration in a more random way. And Part Three of the book has some good thoughts on revision.
So, I give this book an enthusiastic thumbs up. Even if you aren't a believer in fast drafting, or if you are, gasp, a pantser, I think you'll find a lot of value in it.
What's your favorite book on writing? Do you have one that you go back to over and over or do you find yourself seeking out a new one?
I was asked to review this book and I readily accepted because, well, there's nothing I like better than receiving random books in the mail and diving into them. Here's the blurb the publisher and blog tour folks asked me to include:
Literary fiction blends with Plato’s tale of Atlantis is this metaphysical mystery that takes place on an archaeological dig on the island of Santorini. Travels in Elysium is written in an allegory style. If you would like to read an an online excerpt – we have one posted here. For more information or to get your own copy, visit the author's Amazon page. (Not an affiliate link.)
That starts to give you an idea about the book. Here's a bit more: When archaeology student and world traveler Nicholas Pedrosa is given the chance of a lifetime to work with renowned archaeologist Marcus Huxley he discovers much more than he bargained for. Set on the Greek island of Santorini, the book spans genres, including mystery, history and fantasy.
An island that blew apart with the force of 100,000 atomic bombs… A civilisation prised out of the ash, its exquisite frescoes bearing a haunting resemblance to Plato’s lost island paradise, Atlantis… An archaeologist on a collision course with a brutal police state… A death that may have been murder… A string of inexplicable events entwining past and present with bewildering intensity… Can this ancient conundrum be understood before it engulfs them all?
That is the question that our hero faces, and in answering it, he uncovers some long-held historical secrets, including the solution to the mystery of Atlantis.
Info about the author:
William Azuski was born in the United Kingdom, and is of British and Yugoslav descent. Travelling widely through the Mediterranean since childhood, his frequent sojourns in Greece included several months on Santorini in the 1970s, an experience that provided firsthand experience for this exceptional novel’s local setting. Writing as William Miles Johnson, Azuski is also author of the critically-acclaimed The Rose-Tinted Menagerie, an Observer Book of the Year (nonfiction), and Making a Killing, an end of the world satire, both titles recently republished by Iridescent.
It's Friday afternoon and it is hot here in Portland. I'm feeling pleased with myself because I got a long-overdue pedicure and eyebrow waxing and I'm sitting here wondering why self care is so hard for me. Which leads me to ponder why it is also sometimes difficult for me to receive…as in receiving love, receiving gifts (I'm always embarrassed to open them in front of people), receiving praise.
And, um, that last part, praise, is what this post is really all about. You see, I had two great reviews get published this week and I wanted to share them with you.
What this is really about for me is that I want you to visit the sites of the women who wrote (and filmed) the reviews. Because they took time, first, to read my book, and second, to put together a review and post about it.
And I SO appreciate that.
The fact that both are glowing reviews is icing on the cake. Or, since Emma Jean says I shouldn't be using a cliche, an extra present in the pile. One more day of vacation. Another glass of wine. You get the idea.
So here you go:
I've known Samantha Gluck for a couple of years now and always appreciated reading her blog and tweeting with her. (She is known as @texascopywriter on Twitter) Samantha not only wrote a review, she filmed a video! It's hilarious, and anybody who has read the book will appreciate it. Please go and watch it here. It is worth your time, I promise!
I met Ionia Martin through sheer, dumb, luck when I cold-emailed her to ask if she'd be interested in reviewing my novel on her book review blog, Readful Things. I've had such bad results in asking reviewers for reviews, I was stunned when she replied–and was gracious and friendly to boot. She gave Emma Jean a 5 star review!
What I love about both these women is that, while both are huge readers, neither of them have much of a taste for women's fiction. I'm so, so grateful that they gave Emma Jean a chance!