Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Keeping One's Voice

It's hard enough to capture your own voice on paper. It's harder yet to defend it when well-meaning readers tell you to change so much of what you wrote. Add in the books on the market and it's enough to make the most well-intentioned writer run screaming for the nearest exit.

I've read tons of books about writing. Everything from Stephen King's On Writing to Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird to Natalie Goldburg's Writing Down the Bones. All these work in your initial drafts -- which all of us should and do keep private.

There comes a day, however, when you want someone else's opinion. With my current
work, I thought I was done, after five revisions, over a year ago. Then I asked half a dozen friends, both in my Lake Writers group and outside, to read the opus. I would have been better off if I had put on a diaper and ranted like Opus. Instead, I got back copies marked up for grammar (thanks to the three of you who took the time to find every typo and grammo) and five with major revision suggestions. Everything from changing the narrator to writing in a different voice to using a different point of view. I read each set of comments, set them all aside for a while, and let my friends' words ferment in the old brain stem.

What eventually emerged was the realization that some of my readers were right -- the book had to be rewritten. A rewrite is harder than the initial draft. And then come the inevitable edits of the rewritten manuscript. Finally, when you think you've "got it," you put it out to half a dozen readers, three from the original set who were kind enough to offer go suffer through another draft, three "virgins" sacrificing our friendship in the pursuit of honesty.

Two very loud -- and not incorrect -- sets of comments were: 1) if I were writing this, I would do it this way and 2) you need more drama.

If I took the first comment literally, I would be writing like a Southern red neck. If I took the second comment literally, I would change the novel to a screenplay. Both had elements of how to improve the manuscript.

And now I am in what must be the final tuning and tweaking before getting feedback from agents. (That does not include form rejections, one of which arrived this morning.) I will continue querying with the last -- or latest -- rewrite and see what happens. Until then, I'll make very few changes. Certainly not wholesale changes.

On a different topic, did anyone see the Bookshelf article on POD topping traditional publishing in 2008 for the first time. Could be a sign of things to come. Could be that there are so few traditional editors, agents and publishers that people who believe in their work turn to self-promotion. Not yet time to revisit my marketing plan, but I do have one -- and it's a doozy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Alternative Publishing

I went to a discussion on Monday on the pros and cons of self publishing, sponsored by the Valley Writers Chapter of Virginia Writers Club. Four members all had self-published, with varying degrees of success. The general consensus was that self-publishing works if you have something of local interest (Sally Roseavere's novel is set at Smith Mountain Lake), is non-fiction (memoir by Rodney Franklin and history by Jim Morrison) or humor (Becky Mushko). No one is getting rich slowly this way, but their words are being read.

One prevailing theme was how involved a writer has to be in marketing his/her book. (To avoid this awkward construction, I will use "her" as the collective noun.) Hand selling at readings, out of the trunk of a car, or through local book stores and gift shops moves a few books. Not enough to garner interest from an agent, however.

I didn't hear anyone talk about alternative publishing and alternative marketing. I would love comments about these topics:

  • Publishing to electronic books, i.e., Kindle
  • Podcasting to attract listenership
  • Using social networks, i.e., LinkedIn, Plaxo
  • Using FaceBook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.

  • I have nearly 4000 personal contacts on one of the social networks. When I posted a note that I was reading a particular book on marketing, my friend noticed a definite blip in sales.

    How else can we market our books? What are your experiences?

    Friday, May 8, 2009

    Genre Confusion

    This has been a week of extraordinary writing-related events. From beginning with that discussion on last Saturday by Rex Bowman to the completion and reading of two new short pieces, I'd say the week was productive. And very, very emotional. (I know, never use "very." Never, never use "very, very." So what.)

    I wrote a thank you essay for my cousin for a treasured gift. I used the essay to explain why the gift meant so much and why I would take care of it always. I don't know what to do with it. Perhaps enter it in an essay contest some time along the way.

    And then I wrote a piece that defies genres. Called Three Weeks, it's either an essay or a poem. I realize it's odd not to know which genre Three Weeks belongs to. Visually, it looks like a free-form poem. Orally, it reads like a short essay, but for the heartbeat of the refrain. I still don't know which it is.

    I asked my dear friend Donna Knox to do a cold read of the piece at Valley Writers Thursday night. Once we finished snuffling back tears, no one in the group could fit it into a genre. I took it with me to Lake Writers Friday morning but had no intention of reading until Jim Morrison asked if I had it with me. Another friend, Rodney Franklin, did me the honor of reading ot. Again, none of the writers in Lake Writers could definitively say to which genre it belonged.

    Maybe the heartbeat of the refrain and the subject were enough. Maybe it doesn't need to belong to a genre. I know the emotions it evokes are real. That's enough for me.

    I think it would be enough for my dear mother. It is about the last three weeks of her life. I hope I did her proud. Happy 87th birthday to the original Mini Mommy.

    Wednesday, May 6, 2009

    Writing Tips from Rex Bowman

    On Saturday, May 2, Virginia Writers Club hosted a discussion on writing with Rex Bowman at the Westlake Library at Smith Mountain Lake. Rex is a recently dismissed reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Forget the fact that Rex has been nominated twice (!) for the Pulitzer Prize. He still got the axe with T-D downsized its staff. Little do they know what they lost.)

    Rex is the author of Blue Ridge Chronicles. He follows the lead of such great storytellers as Ernie Pyle, John Steinbeck with Travels with Charlie, and William Least Heat Moon with Blue Highways. Rex talked about writing. What he dubs his "great truths" reinforce what most of us who write try to achieve. In no particular order, here are some of the truths he discussed.

  • Landscapes don't become interesting until you put people in them. How many of us have read lengthy descriptions of landscapes, places, interiors, and have fallen asleep because nothing is happening??
  • Write about ordinary people. I'd add, write about ordinary people in original settings. I don't want stream of consciousness or gritty reality (Herman got up, peed, brushed his teeth, made toast and coffee -- well, you get the idea. Do write about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • Spend time listening to people. Everyone has a story. Listen carefully. Stories are material. Use what you hear shamelessly, but fictionalize the names, situations, etc. After all, you don't want your friends to say, "Hey, you're writing about me!" They will anyway, if the portrait is flattering. If it isn't, you don't want to be sued.
  • Use your own voice. It's what makes you unique. At the same time, let reflections of other voices come through. You can channel these other voices without losing the purity of your own.
  • Be a storyteller, not a writer. Enough said. If the story isn't compelling, no one will read it.
  • Use sensory details. This is a little more difficult. It's nearly impossible to describe a smell, but it's possible to use that smell to evoke emotion. Think the madeleine and Proust, but don't go on for pages about the smell of a cookie and the memories it brings to Proust's character.
  • The quality of language has to match the subject matter. This is esoteric. Imagine a thriller written by Jane Austen. It wouldn't work. Imagine a steamy romance written by Tom Clancy. It too wouldn't work.

    Overall, the meeting was excellent and well attended. I captured pictures for the local papers. Not all will make it into the paper, however. Keith, I did not send this along!