A few weeks ago I visited a friend’s “Little Library” and picked up a few romantic-looking books. I wanted to see where they fit in the wide world of romance, as I figure out my own place. The difference between two of the books made me realize how different audiences value different books.
Book 1: Beach Read
The first book I opened was Summer at Oyster Bay by Jenny Hale (Bookouture, 2016). It was a about a young woman returning to her hometown after a breakup, figuring out where she fits in while dating the rich developer who is building/destroying her town. It had lots of description of the setting and interactions with the woman’s family. A typical sample: “Rachel turned back to the bay. Emily followed her line of sight. A speedboat rushed by, agitating the tide, sending it slamming against the shore. The sun was behind the trees now. The sand was cool on Emily’s feet as she took off her shoes and set them beside Rachel’s.” (p. 35)
This book wasn’t really for me. I didn’t relate to the main character’s journey, I didn’t connect with her struggles, and I was not drawn to her personality. I grew tired of all the description. I noticed lots of references to clothing and grooming; I’m not into fashion and such references make me dislike the characters who are noticing such things. The thing is, I don’t think this is a bad book; it’s just not for me.
Book 2: Neurotic Narrator
The second book I opened was The Big Love by Sarah Dunn (Back Bay Books, 2004). It was about a young woman trying to get by after her boyfriend leaves her. She acts out with atypical behaviors and considers how her upbringing led to her current state. A typical sample: “Well, I haven’t figured out what the point is. Another thing I haven’t been able to figure out is whether the religion of my childhood is the source of my neurotic problems or the cure for them. I have figured out a few things, of course, but for the most part, none of them seem to apply.” (p. 23)
I immediately loved this book. The narrator rambles on about her thoughts, emotions, and habits, but I totally got it. I related to her struggle to overcome a pattern in her life, and understood the bad decisions she makes along the way. I liked her snarky attitude, and felt uplifted when she finally got herself together. I could see that some people would find the book unreadable, but it was a perfect fit for me.
The Problem with Goodreads
When I went to Goodreads to review The Big Love, I already knew what I would find, because it happens so often. The book had an overall rating of three-point-something, and the top review was one-star. As I scrolled down through the reviews, they continued to be mostly bad. This used to confuse me, until I realized the order is based on how many people have liked each review. Inevitably, some “clever” one-star review gets a lot of love and ends up on top.
I’ve hesitated to rate books I don’t like because Goodreads doesn’t clarify: am I rating the quality of the book, or how much I liked it?
Many of the site’s reviewers use language that suggests they are rating the former, and also that they are the harbinger of truth about the books they rate and review. And the bad reviews make me sad because authors are people like anyone else. The buffer of the Internet might protect a caustic reviewer from feeling like a jerk, but it doesn’t make reading the biting, nasty criticism any easier on the author. I don’t want to give a low rating and contribute to the negativity.
How to Fix It
The conversation could be framed differently: “Rate this book for your tribe—is it the kind of book you and your fellow readers will enjoy?” This language would clarify that the rating simply means the book isn’t a good fit for a particular audience. That a review isn’t so much about the book as it is about the person who wrote the review. I’d happily give Summer at Oyster Bay three stars, knowing I’m rating how well the book fits me and not the book itself.
My wish is that Goodreads* would order reviews differently for each user. The top reviews I’d see would be those written by readers who have the most “book overlap” with me, based on books we have both read and rated. Seeing those reviews (by my book tribe) would be much more helpful to me than seeing the generic one-star reviews that currently rise to the top.
*Or some other platform. If you know of one, please share!
After the busy-ness of the holidays, January seems like a good time to round up my latest news.
Writing and Editing News
Last November I completed NaNoWriMo, writing a 50,000-word draft in thirty days. The new novel, Kensington, originated as a contemporary romance idea but turned out differently than I’d expected: there was less kissing and more plot. This result has led me to further consider what sub-genre I’m writing—light romance? new adult? chick lit?—and I’ve been stepping up my reading in the genre to try to find comparative titles.
The next steps I’m leaning toward are making some changes and then looking into other agents.
Right now, though, I am excitedly swamped with editing work! I’m providing feedback on an applied science textbook and writing a new booklet for the American Cleft Palate–Craniofacial Association. I’ve had a steady stream of academic papers for copyediting and language editing. And I’m starting a new test passage writing assignment and a report for the National Academies of Sciences in the coming weeks.
Events: A Bit of Sad News
I’m dismayed to report that, because of a scheduling conflict, I won’t be able to teach at the Asheville Bread Festival on April 13, 2019. I’ve never missed this festival since it began, and feel like it kicks off my spring each year with a good dose of bread. If anything changes, I hope to attend, but at this time, it is not looking good. Still, I encourage everyone to go. Info: https://www.ashevillebreadfestival.com.
My May class at the Folk School is already full. I hope to offer classes in 2020, but am waiting to hear from the Folk School’s new cooking resident artist. I also hope to have time for some local events, like a replay of my self-publishing talk at the library, but nothing is currently scheduled.
Recent Blog Posts
In case you missed any, here are the blog posts I’ve written in the past two months.
Someone at my day job recommended This is Marketing by Seth Godin (Portfolio, 2018). The book explores today’s marketing (as opposed to that of a few decades ago), highlighting the changes brought by the Internet. The book’s content seems a far cry from traditional marketing advice. A lot of the ideas resonated with me.
The main theme seems to be that marketing used to mean advertising, but today it means serving others and solving their problems. With this new type of marketing, there are no shortcuts, but it is a viable path to success.
Advice for Authors
As I read, I was thinking of how to use the content at my day job but also for the local farmer’s market (I’m on the board), for my freelance editing business, and especially for me as a self-published author. A few chapters seemed highly relevant to authors:
You cannot reach everyone, so you should try to reach the people who will love your product; Godin describes the “smallest viable market.” If you reach these people, they will endorse you and spread the word. (Chapter 3)
And, instead of thinking in terms of demographics, group people by psychographics of what they believe in, dream of, etc. (Chapter 3)
These days people have endless alternatives. Trade their time and attention for something they really want. Make a product so good they seek it out—you won’t have to pitch it. Light a beacon to help YOUR people find your product. (Chapter 5)
Chapter 15 differentiated between direct marketing (like paying for ads) and brand marketing. Online ads sound great, but they are mostly ignored. Most of us low-budget small businesses need to do brand marketing. You must be patient and engage with people and not try to measure results.
Your goal is not to appear first in every generic Internet search, but to have people type in your name—to have them specifically searching for you because they want your product and not a generic alternative. (Chapter 15)
When my bicycle trip memoir came out, I tried to think of all the audiences I might target (bicyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, women who travel). But I never felt comfortable enough to move forward with the marketing tasks. I knew some people would not like the book, and felt too nervous about their reactions.
Now, though, I know whom I want to reach: people who have trouble being in the present moment and silencing the noise in their heads, as I did when I went on my bike trip. I’m planning to rewrite my metadata and back cover copy to better target this group by more clearly showing the book’s contents, instead of trying to make the book appeal to as many groups as I can.
Advice on Branding
This Is Marketing also considers branding. Describing my brand is a struggle for me because I am currently writing fiction, but I also have a bread persona from the past, plus the bike trip memoir. And my fiction manuscripts seem to be in three mismatched genres (I’m still trying to pinpoint what they are). But my worries aside, here are some of the book’s ideas:
Consider what brand you immediately think of when you want to feel a certain way like “Safe” or “Powerful.” If a word made people think of your brand, what would the word be? (Chapter 5)
People scan instead of reading, and they make assumptions about you based on what they see at a glance; this is why you need a professional looking website. If a person sees your materials and thinks “unprofessional, must be a scam,” that feeling will stick, even if it is irrational (e.g., plenty of good organizations have dated-looking websites).
This is also why book covers work better if they look professional and, sadly, similar to other books in the genre; the sameness signals to readers that the book fits in with what they like to read. The ideal case is to have a cover that fits in enough to be trusted but is also unique enough to attract interest.
Many logos look the same because the company is trying to remind you of a “solid company.” Remember, it is the viewer’s opinion that matters, not the designer’s.
NOT “flying a flag” is not an option; not having a presence online, for example, will lead to assumptions about you.
Think of phone companies. They don’t really have a brand, and people switch between them easily. You want your brand to be something people can’t get anywhere else and something they care about. (Chapter 13)
What Are Your Strong Points?
Chapter 5 included a concept that helped me brainstorm: Different people value different attributes, like price or quality. Figure out where your product falls in the range of each attribute; which ones are your strong points? These will determine your target audience.
Even better, can you find an attribute that has been overlooked? If so, you can be the first to offer it.
I first thought of my editing business. I sometimes feel uneasy because I never worked at a publishing house, and I don’t have decades of experience. But, I’ve passed editing tests to copyedit for several companies and gotten positive feedback from authors, I think I am pretty friendly to work with, and I’m always willing to do a sample to show potential clients what to expect from me. So I might make a plot like one of these:
Then I thought, what attributes can a book possibly have? Hopefully the writing is high quality, but the price is pretty standard. But I thought of two plots for my bike trip memoir: (1) I’m not famous, but my story is authentic and readers can share the journey with me, and (2) I’m not traditionally published, but I’ve been told I am a good storyteller. So I might have plots like these:
Regarding the attribute of price, trust does not work rationally, and cheap prices often lead to distrust. Price is a signal about your product, and people make assumptions based on it. But also, remember the attributes and what your audience values; they may value a low price or they may value something else more. (Chapter 16)
Other Advice I Liked
Here are some final bits that I could not fit in above.
We’re not really selling products, we’re selling feelings or status or connection. How will your product give the buyer emotions? Products change, but the underlying emotions stay the same. (Chapter 7)
Big hits started with small numbers. We only learn about the hit after it is a big hit, so it seems like it magically appeared that way. (Chapter 3)
You can match the existing pattern (but this makes you forgettable) or you can interrupt it (but this might not work). Try to break the pattern just enough that you are unique, without leaving people behind. Hook some people, and they will pass your product on to others. (Chapter 10)
People’s attention is scarce. Get permission to contact them and then send anticipated, personal, and relevant messages. Create a situation where they’d miss you if you were gone. Have your own permission asset (like a mailing list), without a company (like Facebook) as an intermediary. This takes time and there is no shortcut. (Chapter 17)
Make it easy for people to spread the word about you; ideas travel horizontally,customer to customer, not from you down to them. (Chapter 17)
And from the inspiring Chapter 23, some marketing is evil. But marketing can also be good and make the world better. It should be transparent and bring joy. Marketing is a craft you can improve, so if you feel like you are failing, don’t blame your product, just learn to market better. There are people out there who need your product.
Although some material in the book repeated, and at times I had trouble following it, the short length of the sections made it easy to get through, and there were many broad ideas and nuggets of wisdom to take away. I recommend this book to anyone with a product to market.
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!