Usually New Year’s Day is a time where I reflect back and clarify goals and feel positive about moving forward in the new year. This year was kind of a muddle. What do I do with my manuscripts? What genre are they? How much more work do they need? Should I be putting more time in as a freelance editor, instead of writing?
As nothing came together, I did what I do when I need clarity: put the questions “out there” and then walked away. Over the next few weeks, some ideas came to me—not specific answers but general guidance. As of January 2019, I think these things are true. (If you disagree or have alternate ideas, please share your thoughts in the comments.)
Things Authors Should Do
Regardless of how you decide to publish, doing these things will help you:
Find your readers (or, for beginners like me, potential readers). Preferably, connect with them directly (e.g., they subscribe to your blog or sign up for your mailing list). Also connect with them via an intermediary (e.g., a social media platform).
Hone your craft and keep revising your manuscript. Learn through classes, webinars, conference sessions, reading about craft, working with various types of editors, and using beta readers. Each time you think your novel is done, learn more and then see if you want to revise again.
Read everything in and around your genre and sub-genre. If like me, you don’t have good comparable titles, read as many possibilities as you can. I have recently categorized them on a shelf in my library. Know exactly where your book fits and, therefore, who your readers are.
A Word About Publishing
This seems to be the current state of publishing, based on what I’ve gleaned from fellow authors and agents at conferences:
A handful of books/authors are discovered and cherished and published as they are, and are allowed to change the industry. Most authors, though, have to write what already sells to get published traditionally.*
In addition, since most publishers require authors to have an agent, the author must either write what appeals to a certain agent or find an agent who already likes what the author writes (or who thinks it will sell).
So there it is. I’d love to hear any universal truths you’ve discovered or questions you are mulling over.
*Please note: I’m not saying anyone has to write what already sells. Just that it seems to be what it takes to be traditionlly published.
Last month I participated in a workshop on character led by Barbara Claypole White. Here are some of the tips that helped me.
Deep Characters Take Work
Barbara’s books are known for their deep characters—her goal is to have each character’s voice so distinct that the reader will know who is talking even if she uses no dialog tags!
Barbara shared several exercises she goes through to get to know her characters and allow them to develop in her mind. For example, she asks herself questions, like “What scares me about you?” She explores the character’s backstory, which may or may not make it into the book. She interviews characters to get to know them. She creates character notes and boards to refer to. She comes at each character from many angles: What is their body language? What flaws do they have? What contradictions? Personality types? Voice?
She advised the class to cherrypick the techniques that seemed useful, since her method is hers and will differ from other writer’s.
My first reaction to all of the ideas was, Oh God! This is so much extra work! I have to spend time writing out an interview with my character, and I can’t even use the writing in the text? No, thank you!
But as I’m continuously learning, the craft of writing is much more than the simple first layer of thinking out a plot and putting it onto the paper. Maybe I felt rushed because I was participating in NaNoWriMo at the time, or because I feel so eager to have a fiction book published. But I want my first fiction book to be good, too!
The Low Hanging Fruit Tips
So, I started with the tips that seemed most manageable to me, applying them to the novel I was writing for NaNoWriMo. Even before I left the class, the tips had generated some new ideas—ideas I could add to my draft.
My two main characters are Cailin (a nerdy art history student who lacks self-confidence when it comes to dating) and Anders (the heir to an estate who doesn’t trust himself to know when a woman really likes him, and not his money). Here are some of the tips I used:
What is each character’s greatest fear? Cailin: opening up to love someone. Anders: disappointing his grandfather, who left the estate in his hands.
What is each character’s contradiction? Anders is a famous, wealthy bachelor who appears regularly on magazine covers, but he finds public attention tiring and likes to spend time at home alone, reading. Cailin is studious, careful, and rule-abiding, but when she sees that Anders needs help, she ventures into uncomfortable situations.
Think about a negative quality of a character and a time it became a positive. I thought about Anders being a workaholic as he manages his family estate, and his brother who likes to drink and party, and this led me to a scene with them as boys, where Anders drinks with his brother and has fun, but is ashamed when their grandfather catches them. This leads to a schism between the brothers. (So, I didn’t complete the exercise, but I did discover a new development.)
Make lists of themed words for your characters. For example, Cailin is an art history student. As she and Anders drive through a city, she is likely to notice the architecture. Anders likes gardening. He is likely to notice the trees along the street or the flowers in planters outside a restaurant.
The concept of third-level emotions and digging deeper to find them. For example, Cailin’s creepy art history colleague hits on her in their study room. She is repulsed by him and turns him down, and eventually he goes away—for now. How does she feel? -She feels unhappy because she has to tolerate his advances. -She feels angry at him for hitting on her at work, which she knows is inappropriate. -She feels frustrated with herself that she doesn’t know how to turn him down assertively. -She feels angry at herself for not trying to turn him down assertively, which might be uncomfortable. -She feels angry at herself for being a coward.
Amid all this consideration of my characters, random truths popped out. Like I had Anders focused on estate security as a teen, but his character would be more interested in managing the gardens. But he overachieves and wants to impress his grandfather, so he works all over. It felt like the exercises were loosening things up in my brain, allowing the characters’ truths to escape.
Do I Want to Do All This?
One exercise bugged me: the “fresh smile” exercise. Barbara had us write sentences to replace a simple “he smiled” with a more complex image. For example, “he gave her the honey-I-swallowed-the-canary smile.” Classmates read sentences aloud. A lot of them were similes, which made me not sure I liked them. Things like, “His smile twitched like a dying fish.” “His smile faded like a closing scene.” (I just made those up.) It felt like middle school writing class. I thought, isn’t it nice to just read, “He smiled”?
But now, rereading the notes from the class, some of the examples do seem good. Maybe this can be done well or it can be done too much or badly. Maybe “His smile faded faster than the end of an eighties rock song” would be more specific and illustrative. (Or maybe it doesn’t work at all.)
Given how productive the two-hour class was, I think there is value in going through Barbara’s tips and spending time developing my characters. Now that the rush of writing for NaNoWriMo is over, this time spent seems less like a waste and more like part of the craft of writing.
Since setting up my blog subscription list, emails to the “Thoughts” category subscribers have not been working. Each time I tinker with that email campaign, trying to fix it, I want to test it. So, this post is a test, but to avoid sending subscribers an empty post (assuming my tinkering worked), I thought I’d share some thoughts about NanoWriMo last month.
What Is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo is the nickname of National Novel Writing Month, which occurs in November. At the website https://nanowrimo.org, writers can register (for free) and commit to writing 50,000 words in November. There’s a handy tracking tool that displays your word count and shows if you’re on track. There are also “write-ins” around the world where writers gather to work, an online forum and pep talks emailed out from successful writers, and a Twitter community where writers share their experience (using #NaNoWriMo, #NaNoCoach, and more) and support each other.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo three times now: In 2014 I wrote my science fiction thriller, The Knowledge Game. In 2016 I wrote a fairytale romance called Rose Fair. And this year I wrote a light-hearted contemporary romance called Kensington.
My NaNoWriMo Experience
This year, for the first time, I outlined the plot and character arcs of my novel in advance. Having an outline made the writing process easier. But I still went through some stages as the weeks passed. From what I’ve read online, these stages are universal among writers. In fact, Week 2 has earned the nickname “the muddy middle.”
Here is a representation of my NaNoWriMo experience using cat GIFs:
October: I outlined my plot and could not wait to get started.
November Week #1: I jumped right in and had no trouble writing. The opening scene seemed fabulous, and then one fabulous scene after another came tumbling out.
November Week #2: After a week, it became hard to write. I had to make myself keep typing, and everything that came out felt boring and terrible. I fell behind.
November Week #3: I’d wake up in the morning thinking, Oh God, I have to write AGAIN? I felt like the time-to-make-the-donuts man from TV when I was a kid. I managed to catch up in my word count, only to fall behind again.
November Week #4: In the home stretch, things eased up. I could see my word count getting closer to 50,000, word by word.
And suddenly I was there!
November 30: Theoretically, I wanted to keep writing. But I was so happy not to have it hanging over me! It was hard to be motivated to do much of anything for a few days.
Writing and Revising
I should add that the point of NaNoWriMo is to get a first draft out—not necessarily a GOOD first draft. It’s okay to leave a note-to-self in the manuscript, like “verify this” or “insert correct furniture style here.” I use an “xx” each place I need to fix, so that I can find them easily using the word processor’s search function.
Many rounds of revision will follow. A first step might be finding places where you “tell” something instead of showing it (e.g., “Jack looked sad” might change to “Jack stared after Aurora, his eyes misty, his smile fading”). You might read your dialogue out loud and make it sound more natural, or remove adjectives and adverbs in favor of better nouns and verbs (e.g., “He walked slowly” might become “He trudged”).
This year, I found myself writing more carefully, trying to avoid some of the mistakes I’d made in the past that led to heavy revisions. The outline helped a lot—while I did incorporate new ideas during November, I didn’t get wildly off track, writing scenes that I’ll just have to cut. I also avoided writing “knowledge dumps” that would take the reader out of the story. Still, I have lots of work to do now, turning the draft into a book.
Last weekend I participated in a Local Author Book Fair at the Orange County Library. The organizer signed me up for a ten-minute slot reading from my work. I picked what I call the “Go Cow” scene of my bicycle journey memoir, Somewhere and Nowhere.
Why I Picked “Go Cow”
Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming
I set the scene before beginning to read: Mary and I were two-thirds of the way through our cross-country bicycle trip and had stopped in Cody, Wyoming, the “Rodeo Capital of the World.” Of course we had to go to the rodeo. But I had never been to one, and I had some incorrect ideas about what it would be like. I pictured lassos flying and cowboys thundering around the arena, but not the tiny calves skittering across the dirt in terror.
So at first, we were disappointed by the violence and harsh treatment, and there were several rounds of “calf roping” to go before events like racing and bronco riding. But then, a child behind us started calling “Go cow!” We joined her, and cheered when a calf escaped the arena without being roped.
Calf roping at the Cody Nite Rodeo
I usually read this scene because (1) it is free-standing, not entwined with events that happened previously, (2) it doesn’t include too much internal drama, and (3) it’s somewhat funny, and I can use voices. But I also feel a little uncomfortable, thinking the scene doesn’t represent the book accurately, because much of the books *is* about the internal drama, that is, how being on the road helped me see the thought patterns that were keeping me down, so I could start to overcome them.
What Was Different This Time
I pictured this… (photo by Melissa Newkirk on Unsplash)
I describe the theme of the books as, “It is better to live in the present moment.” This theme manifests in many ways: not being stuck in the past, not worrying about the future, not being lost in daydreams. I realized that the Go Cow scene actually has a deeper point, related to this theme. It was my daydream about rodeos that led me to have expectations, and to form misconceptions about what the rodeo would be like, which led to disappointment when the reality didn’t match. I might have still disliked the rodeo, but I wouldn’t have been as disappointed if I had gone in with no expectations, just waiting to see what it was all about
…not this (photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash)
This time when I introduced my memoir, I spent a little longer describing how I wrote it, before setting the scene for my reading. I described how a theme emerged that I wanted to share—the benefit of living in the present moment—and what this theme meant in my life. As I spoke about the theme, I saw audience members nodding along. Seeing that recognition on their faces gave me such a boost. I wanted to connect with people who might benefit from seeing my thought patterns exposed, by recognizing similar patterns in themselves. I felt happy that I had reached someone.
Rethinking My Audience
When Somewhere and Nowhere first came out, I tried to brainstorm as many audiences as I could: people who’d benefit from the theme was on top, but also bicyclists, people interested in traveling cross-country, maybe fans of other introspective travel books like Becoming Odyssa or Wild, or readers of books about outdoor adventure. But I never felt comfortable with all those audiences.
After the talk at the library, though, I thought, the one audience I do feel comfortable trying to reach is the original one: people who might benefit from reading my book, because they struggle with over-thinking and avoiding the present.
Then I started reading This Is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). It’s a modern take on marketing, which is no longer about advertising but about solving a problem for your audience. Godin describes finding your audience not as a demographic but as a “psychographic” (p. 28–29), and about the value of marketing to the “smallest viable market” (p. 31), which will ironically lead to growth.
The affirmation from an expert is just what I needed. I want to help solve a problem: people who’d like to be present and happier but struggle to change their mental patterns.
Those people are whom I wrote the book for. I’d be confident marketing it if I described it with that audience in mind. So I have some work to do rewriting my marketing materials!
I’ve been busy the last two months, and I’m glad to report I’ve been doing a lot of writing!
I’m super excited for the first ever Hillsborough Local Author Book Fair, sponsored by the Friends of the Orange County Public Library. As you may know, Hillsborough boasts a disproportionately large number of famous authors, and many of them will be signing books and giving readings: Jaki Shelton Green, Lee Smith, Allan Gurganus, and more. The lesser-known authors (ah-hem) will have our own tables to talk to readers and sell books. The event is 10 to 5 on November 24, with book sales from 11 to 4. There’s an event page here: bit.ly/OCFriendsBookFair
As of posting, there is one spot left in my Science of Bread class at the Folk School, January 6 to 12. (Register here.)
Last weekend I attended the NC Writer’s Network fall conference in Charlotte. I had some excellent sessions about the craft of writing: scene sequencing, writing authentic characters who are different than you, and detailed world-building. I also learned about pitching a novel to an agent or editor.
On November 1, I started writing Kensington, a contemporary romance, as part of NaNoWriMo. Earlier in the fall, I actually created an plot outline for the novel, which has made it easier and more fun to write. I blogged about the plotting process in two posts:
I’m really excited for the new novel, but after NaNoWriMo and finishing a first draft, I plan to return to my previous manuscripts, The Knowledge Game and Rose Fair, both of which are mid-revision.
As part of being more “out there” as a fiction writer, I added a “Thoughts” category to my blog. The idea was to write about topics that might interest readers of my fiction. I’ve been nervous about getting started (does anyone really want to read my thoughts?) but I’ve had these posts so far:
The past six months, I participated in a health coaching program. I’m excited by the effects I’ve seen and wanted to do a post to share the process.
Panic Attacks Are Real!
Our bikes on the open road in South Dakota
Understanding my moods and working to make them more positive is something I’ve worked at a long time. In particular, at the end of my cross-country bicycle trip, when I returned to “normal life” after living outside, on the road, for several months, I started having anxiety attacks: my heart would skip, I’d think I was dying, and a tight feeling would settle in my chest. One time, my limbs went numb. It would take about two hours for the feelings to pass.
When the first doctor (in an ER in Colorado) told me I’d probably had a panic attack, I didn’t realize he was serious. As far as I knew, “panic attack” was a made-up term kids used on the playground when someone got over-excited, as in “don’t have a panic attack.” Finally, after I’d returned home and had a second trip to an ER, I thought to look up “panic attack” on the fledgling Internet. Turned out it was a real thing.
After I learned about panic (or anxiety) attacks, I was able to stop them from happening. I started telling people I’d had them. I often got a response like, “Oh, that happens to me.” I realized that attacks were common, but no one talked about them. But talking about them could only help other people, so I included them in the epilogue of my memoir of the bicycle trip, Somewhere and Nowhere.
Last weekend, at the NC Writer’s Conference, I discovered a new symptom: I was scheduled to meet with an agent to learn about pitching and get feedback on my novel. About an hour before the meeting, I started getting dizzy; I left my conference session early and found a place to stand in the hallway, taking deep breaths. I didn’t recognize the symptom, but it seemed likely to be anxiety. My conference friend Fran said I should write about it, which inspired this post.
Strategies Developed via Health Coaching
Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of strategies to manage anxiety, which can get worse during stressful times. A main strategy is getting enough sleep. Everything looks worse when I am tired. I’ve become an early morning person, shifting my schedule to have more good hours before work, and less hours in the evening, when everything seems bad. I’ve never succeeded at officially meditating, but have had a regular practice of forced sitting still and doing nothing for several months at a time.
But I’ve never managed to practice all my strategies at once, or to do them in the long term.
This year, my health insurance included health coaching, so I signed up, with the goal of managing stress and enjoying every day more. I shared the ideas I’d tried through the years with the health coach. She helped me implement a few new ideas each month, and to get back on track when I got off. By the end of six months, I was regularly practicing all my strategies. Here they are:
Step outside or walk at lunchtime (4x per week); as winter darkness comes, do 15 minutes to get some sunshine
Sit still after work for 15 minutes (5x per week); try to do a longer period of 30 minutes 2x per week
Do something nice for myself (2x per week)
Spend some time outside (2x per week)
When something upsets me, try to recognize it as soon as possible and turn the situation around, letting go of whatever happened and not continuing to think about it
Stop checking email at 3 PM (every day); since everything seems worse later in the day, looking at email can easily result in becoming upset or worried
Stop working at 5 PM (Friday)
When I’m tempted to skip an activity—like I get home from work and it seems like there is no time to spend sitting for 15 minutes—I remind myself of how much better I feel in the long term when I maintain my practice. Also, sitting still seems to slow time, and the whole evening will be more productive if I do it.
The health coach helped me understand that it’s not the end of the world if I “mess up” and miss a few days of taking care of myself. There’s no reason why I cannot immediately start up again.
I use a calendar to keep track of how I do each day. I created one I can easily print that has icons for each of my activities across the top. At one point, my calendar ran out and I had not printed a new one. Not having the calendar made me realize how much it helps me stay on track. (A PDF of my calendar is here.)
I had a full schedule at the fall writer’s conference November 2 to 4. The keynote address by Randall Kenan and panel discussions over breakfast were filled with inspirational quotes and points I connected with, like “Writing is a path to discovery,” “A book is never finished; it’s abandoned,” and “I carry the landscape [of home] in my subconscious.” It only got better from there!
I had signed up for the Manuscript Mart, where I’d sit with an agent to receive feedback on how she reacted to the first 15 pages of my novel. I had been practicing a pitch, just in case I was expected to give it. And, my first session was “The Perfect Pitch” with Kim Boykin, Erika Marks, and Kim Wright.
The teachers explained that I should have a two-sentence pitch to use when I meet an agent on the fly and only have ten seconds to catch their attention. Then there is an expanded pitch for when the agent asks to hear more. The expanded pitch is similar to the back cover copy—trying to intrigue the agent to want more. You might include basic information at the end (word count, genre, a very brief bio).
They described the reactions I might get: “I’m interested,” “It’s not for me,” or a referral to another agent. At a pitching event, where you’ve paid to have time with agents, you can fill extra time after a pitch with questions: “What are editors looking for?” “Is my idea marketable?” “What turned you off?” “What did you find most compelling?”
Then everyone in the room practiced our pitches and received feedback: don’t begin with “My book is about…,” be clear and use short sentences, put the hook first, indicate the book’s genre with the language you use, and more.
A panel of agents provided more tips on pitching:
Follow all guidelines and be sure the agent is looking for the book you are pitching
Be a person, but also be professional
Make it clear that you read in the genre you are pitching by providing good comp titles (not outliers, movie books, or classics)
Include what makes your story unique
Don’t talk more about yourself than about your project
An author should have a website; otherwise, as far as author platform, an author should go where they are comfortable; some agents will help an author develop their platform
Talking to an Agent
It turned out, I didn’t have to pitch the agent. She’d marked up my manuscript (The Knowledge Game) and went through it with me, giving her reactions. It was enlightening, and I have six pages of notes to sort through. So on the plus side, I know what I need to work on. On the down side, I really thought I was almost done! Each time there is a new stage of revisions, I see more of how much work goes into a novel, how it doesn’t just flow out ready-to-go, at least not for a beginner. I decided I would finish NaNoWriMo and revising Rose Fair with the end of 2018, and then turn back to The Knowledge Game in 2019.
I also learned that the new-adult genre is no longer a thing—no longer used in the industry. It was absorbed into romance. I had been struggling to figure out what qualified as new-adult (see blog post here) and where my books fit in, so the agent’s disclosure made sense to me. The Knowledge Game is simply an [adult] science fiction thriller.
The whole experience got me thinking about the dilemma of how much to change to fit in with what sells, versus writing the novel you want to write. I wrote a whole post about this (here), but then kept thinking on it. James, a sci-fi writer who leads my book club, used to have a publisher but moved to self-publishing when the publisher refused his new ideas. He’s successful, but had already built a fan base when he made the switch. It seems to me that whichever route I take, I should work on finding my readers.
The Writing Craft
I participated in three sessions about the craft of writing. Here are some takeaways.
Scene Sequencing in Novel Structure, with Kim Wright: I’ve read a few books on the structure of novels and have conflicted feelings about the concept. On one hand, I don’t believe that a novel must follow of specific structure to be good. On the other hand, if a structure works for readers, it will help them like the book (and make it commercially successful). And, as a beginner, following a proven structure might help my novel. Here were some other ideas:
If you’re a pantser, you can spew out a first draft and THEN apply a structure to it
The opening is about 15% of the novel and creates the world, introduces the characters, and hints at the theme
A catalyst propels the protagonist into the main body of the novel
Pivot points (like the catalyst) should be well-spaced, like ornaments on a Christmas tree
The opening and finale are the easy parts to write; the middle is where it is easy to mess up
The middle has three aspects: (1) the plot, a sequence of scenes that builds to a climax, (2) the character arc, the growth of the protagonist, and (3) the story arcs of other characters, woven in.
There is a mix of quiet scenes and climatic ones, and of summary versus detailed scenes; new writers often have too many scenes
Fewer characters is usually better; all named characters should be developed
World-Building, with Gail Z. Martin: I expected a list of the parts of world-building (religion, politics, economy, etc.), but Gail went beyond the list. Here are some examples:
Geology affects where people settle—along a river, for example; think about how this happens in the real world
Be realistic: for example, horses are expensive to own, so in a town of poor farmers, not everyone would own a horse
History matters—even in a time of peace, a history of war affects your characters’ views
If you make up a world, make up the religion of the world; don’t use “Presbyterians in space”
Cultural references will date your book if they are obscure; some (like Batman or Star Wars) are established enough to last over time
Gail pointed out that in the research to find correct information, you often find interesting nuggets you can use in your story. With museum collections now digitized, it’s possible to find anything online.
This session made me realize how much I’m aided by the experiences I’ve had: I have friends who are farmers. I eat what’s in season, and my mom preserved food. I’ve learned bits about traditional crafts like weaving and blacksmithing in my time at the Folk School. I read nonfiction. World-building involves understanding the bottom layers, the things we often overlook in our real lives.
Creating Diverse Characters, with Paula Martinac: I’ve been reading Writing the Other, but Paula’s session brought a new perspective on writing characters with different traits than my own. (She also recommended Writing the Other, however.) She pointed out that writing diverse characters is part of the basic process of characterization (i.e., writing good characters). She also talked about the “own voices” concept and writers’ intent when including diverse characters: Is it because you think you should? Does the character have a role in the plot? Is the character a prop for your main character? Or do you simply want to portray the world accurately?
True diversity is inclusive and authentic. Research does not mean following one person (with a certain trait) on Instagram and using them as your character. Paula described the efforts made by writers who have successfully written books with a main character with traits different from their own: interviews, reading memoirs, finding news articles written by members of the relevant community. Paula also talked about the line between being an ally and appropriating.
Paula listed eight methods of characterization in general, which helped me as someone who’s never thought much about characterization at all: appearance, accessories, dialogue, thoughts, actions, personal history, what others say about the character, and what the narrator says about the character. Writers often focus on appearance and accessories; we can get to know characters by pretending to interview them, for example by using the “Proust questionnaire.” Remember that diverse characters should be real and complex, with flaws.
A Performance of Native
At the banquet Saturday night, we had the good fortune to watch an abridged version of a play called Native, by Ian Finley. The Paul Green Foundation commissioned the play, which explores the relationship between Paul Green and Richard Wright as they work together on a stage adaptation of Wright’s book Native Son. Most of the dialogue was taken from historical documents and was the men’s own words. (Documents from Green were plentiful, but for Wright, Finley’s main lead was that Wright had written an unpublished New York Times piece on the partnership. Finley mentioned the piece to his mother, and two weeks later she had tracked it down.)
Green and Wright disagreed on the ending of the play. Wright wanted it to match the book: he wanted to show Bigger Thomas as a violent monster, the result of a racist American society. Green didn’t think the (white) American public would take away this message; he wanted to humanize Bigger Thomas. Green gave in, but the disagreement ultimately ended the men’s friendship, which Green came to regret.
In the panel discussion after the play, poet Jaki Shelton Green made an insightful comment: Green is depicted as a hero for risking his life to stop a lynch mob from attacking Wright when Wright visited Chapel Hill, NC, but in truth, Green never should have brought Wright to Chapel Hill, where his life would be in danger. Green’s pride (at being a white man associating with a black man) drove him to invite Wright, without considering what was best for Wright. I was glad to gain this perspective, which had not occurred to me.
One comment at the conference meant a great deal to me. When I self-published Somewhere and Nowhere, my memoir of my bicycle trip across America, I knew it probably wouldn’t sell well. But I already felt like it had succeeded, because I learned so much writing it. Since it came out, however, I’ve struggled not to feel like it is failing because of slow sales, and wished I’d done some things differently. It’s been hard to feel confident.
At the agent panel, Lynn York, publisher at Blair, commented on memoir. Memoirs are the toughest books to sell, because there is so much competition from celebrity authors. Lynn said that the process of writing the memoir and sharing it with your community is valuable, whether the memoir is a commercial success or not. A memoir is a record of a time, a place, and people. Hearing this made me feel better.
On the train ride home, I sat with two new friends and wrote another chapter of my NaNoWriMo novel. (Hotels and trains, it turns out, are both great places to get writing done.) I’m inspired for more writing through December and into 2019!
At the NC Writer’s Network fall conference, my new friend Fran asked me how I felt about the need to tailor my writing to match what sells, in order to interest an agent and sell to a publisher. I know I’m supposed to hate the idea: selling out, diminishing a literary work to make it marketable. But I didn’t really hate it.
I’m Not Aiming To Win a Pulitzer
I’m relatively new as a fiction writer, so I see my writing as somewhat simple. I hope that as I learn more about the craft, my writing will evolve: deeper characters, better world-building, more intricate plots. But that’s not where I’m at, and I’m okay with that. I’m happy to write a simple love story.
Fran’s question made me think about my goals for my writing. I’d like to make part of my living as a writer, so that I can spend time writing more books. I’d like to write books that are fun to read—the kind where the reader can’t put it down and breezes right through it. At lunch during the conference, the organizers announced the winner of an annual essay contest. The winner got up to read part of her essay. I could see that it was probably very good, with lots of description, a wide vocabulary, and deep themes. But I couldn’t follow it; it didn’t resonate with me. I found myself thinking, that’s not me. I’m never going to be the one who wins the award. But I might be okay with that.
Kim Wright, the teacher of my Scene Sequencing session at the conference, stated that you never hear people say “It took me a while to get into it” with new books, because those books no longer get published. This comment really brought home to me how much a new writer has to fit in to get anywhere in traditional publishing.
The Value of Marketable Work
When I was a kid, my grandpa had the TV channels you paid extra for: HBO and Showtime. Each week I’d scan TV Guide, looking at the movies listed beside HBO and SHO. (This was before the days when everything was available online.) When I’d see a movie that I wanted to watch, I’d call Grandpa and he’d record it for me on his VCR.
One time I had him record Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn. After, he left the tape recording and I got a movie called Sullivan’s Travels. It was about a commercially successful comedy film-maker who wants to learn about the plight of poor people so that he can make a deeper film. He disguises himself and sets out, only to be (eventually) attacked, robbed, and arrested. Without his identification or money, and dressed like a vagrant, he cannot convince anyone that he’s a famous film-maker, and he gets the experience he set out to have: he’s treated like a poor person. While in prison, he sees how much joy the inmates get from a comedy movie, and realizes the importance of those movies and his place in creating them.
Even though I like “deep” movies, the theme of Sullivan’s Travels always stuck with me. Maybe my role as a writer is simply to write entertaining books.
There’s More than One Way To Do Good
But I also think that so-called commercial, entertaining books CAN do good, particularly if they reach large audiences. I’ve read young adult books for a long time because reading about the characters’ experiences helps me navigate my own. Books can show people experiences other than their own, to help them see a different perspective. Political issues can be woven into an entertaining book, to get readers thinking. This is a way to help the world, one reader at a time. Maybe this is what I’m being called to do.
I’ve always thought I hate learning new things. I know it’s important to do it, and it feels really good when I DO learn something new. But I avoid it until it’s necessary. Why does it feel so hard?
Learning Can Be Hard
When I learned calculus in school, I also learned a lesson about learning. I would listen to the teacher’s lecture and feel completely lost. The words made no sense. Then I’d go home and read the matching text, and it wouldn’t be so hopeless. By the time I did the homework, the material would make sense. Learning calculus made me feel like my brain was a very tough balloon that I was forcing to stretch with my weak little lungs.
So I learned that discomfort is part of the process, as it is in so many other situations. Later, I often remembered learning calculus when I was struggling to understand something. You don’t always get it on the first try. When I have to read an academic paper, for example, it’s often incomprehensible on the first read, and then it starts to make sense on subsequent readings.
Another secret I’ve found is that I can use my love of sharing material I’ve learned. That’s why I started blogging for writers, editors, and self-publishers: once I learned something new, I wanted to share it, possibly in an easier to understand format. I use the “carrot” of getting to write a blog post as motivation to learn the material. Sometimes I even draft a post as I learn.
Don’t Make It Worse
Recently, I’ve been trying to learn more about e-books. I want to improve my own e-books, for example by adding alt text to the images, and formatting the bold words so they carry over into the e-book. Also I suspect that cleaning up my files (so there are less fonts and styles) will make my e-book files smaller.
Learning tech stuff is one of the hardest things for me. After one e-book webinar, I felt completely discouraged. I went outside to mow the lawn, and continued thinking about how frustrated I felt. I’ve been trying to actively “turn over” unhappy situations, so I dragged myself up from the frustration and tried to think something positive. I told myself, “I will learn how e-books work eventually. This is just the frustration of having made a first attempt.”
The attempt to be positive worked far better than I had expected—I felt not just less frustrated but actually hopeful. And I think I figured out why: I didn’t just add positive thoughts; maybe I displaced negative ones.
I had not recognized that I was perpetuating my own frustration. But knowing my propensity to become bogged down in a negative thought, I wondered: Had I been telling myself something negative? Like maybe, “I’m too stupid to learn about e-books” or “I’ll never get the hang of this”? Maybe the negative feeling I get when trying to learn something new isn’t just about the inherent frustration of learning, but about the story I tell myself, making it worse.
Update: At the NC Writer’s Network’s fall conference, I learned that new-adult is no longer a thing! Learn more here.
I used to read a lot of young adult fiction (YA) books. I liked how the characters were learning about themselves, forming relationships, and discovering the truth about the world. But I got tired of reading about teenagers; I hadn’t learned and discovered all this stuff until I was 30 or even 40!
When I first tried writing fiction, I decided to write the book I wanted to read: a YA-like book with older characters. Then I discovered that new-adult fiction (NA) was actually a thing. Since then, I’ve been trying to read NA books, but they’ve been hard to find. What exactly counts as NA?
What Makes a Book “New Adult”?
This image is what results when I search “new adult” on Pixabay
Wikipedia (as of October 2018) describes NA as having “protagonists in the 18–30 age bracket” with a “focus on issues such as leaving home, developing sexuality, and negotiating education and career choices.”* This sounds hopeful.
I’ve ordered some of the new-adult books I’ve read about online, and so far they all have characters aged around 20. This disappoints me a little, because I wanted books written for my age group. But 20ish is the age of the former YA audience who are now new adults, whom publishers may see as the biggest market. When I wrote The Knowledge Game, the characters were 30, but the editor I worked with suggested I make them 25 to help the book sell to a publisher. I guess I can look forward to ten years on, when the original YA readers age into their thirties, along with our characters.
NA is about more than the protagonist’s age. Like YA, it seems to include the characters’ emotions and thoughts, with the reader following along as the character changes. When I started a NA shelf in my library, I considered the books in my adult fiction section. Some of the books written before NA became a thing seem to embody the NA ethos. I decided that Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin both count as NA, because their 20-something characters are struggling with relationships, careers, and making it in the world, and changing internally as their stories progress. I decided NOT to shelve Jasper Fforde’s Tuesday Next books in NA, however. Even though Tuesday is the right age, those books focus on Tuesday’s world and the action she’s involved in, not on her inner changes.
New Adult Sub-genres
So far, the NA books I’ve read focus on contemporary romance. While I love contemporary romance, I was kind of hoping NA would include the range that YA does: dystopian futures, science fiction technologies, fantasy worlds, mythical creatures. Maybe I just haven’t found these books yet, or maybe they are coming. For some reason, I have this fear that NA will be stifled before it takes off—if publishers decide that all the money is in contemporary romance.
I also hope that NA will be allowed to include larger, deeper books. I want it to include two recent books I loved: (1) Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic(see my review) features a graduate student who stumbles through a portal into a world filled with magic. She has to escape evil fairies and train with a grouchy wizard before she’s able to find her way home… and by then she isn’t sure she wants to go home. (2) Holly Goddard Jones’s The Salt Line(see my review) is set in a future where disease-ridden ticks have forced humans to live in isolated cities, and a trip into the woods is considered an extreme adventure.
Here’s what my NA shelf looks like so far:
What About Historical NA?
Family struggles? Check. Difficult job situation? Check. Resident hottie? Check.
During this process, I wondered about some of the older books on my shelf. There’s a series I loved in the 1990s by Cindy Bonner that starts with Lily, featuring a teenager growing up and falling in love in 1800s Texas. This book should be YA, but I can’t bring myself to move it off the adult fiction shelf. Is it because it was written before YA became a thing? Or because its target audience was not teenagers?
And what about classics like books by Jane Austen or the Brontes? They feature teenagers and new adults, with many of the right themes: difficult family dynamics, evil bosses, the love interest who stops by for tea. The themes are universal, but somehow these books in historical settings don’t seem to gain access to the shelves of YA or NA. Maybe this again has to do with marketing—publishers don’t include them in the genre because there’s no money to be made.
I’m excited to see where the NA genre goes, and hopeful that it will thrive in various forms in the current publishing world, perhaps via the new models of publishing like hybrid and self-publishing. If you have a favorite NA book please share it in the comments!
* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_adult_fiction, accessed October 7, 2018