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Piggybacking off my previous post

Heidi M. Thomas, the author of “Cowgirl Dreams,” will be at Parmly Billings Library at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9, for an event.

Get all the details here. I hope to see you there.

My new friend Heidi Thomas is on her blog book tour for her debut novel, Cowgirl Dreams, and she checks in today at Pop Syndicate with a post on the perils of using real people too faithfully in fiction.

It’s territory Heidi knows well. The main character in her book, Nettie, is based on her grandmother, who rode steers in rodeos in the 1920s.

She writes:

Many of us spend countless hours writing and rewriting a scene “because it’s true.” Or including long paragraphs of statistics, because it’s historical fact and “it’s interesting.”

But is the truth always interesting? Does it serve the action, the forward movement of the story? Does it develop your character into a living, breathing, feeling person that your readers can identify with?

Not always.

I found I had to give myself permission to “let go of the truth” to write a better story, a stronger character.

I had to laugh at Heidi’s recounting of being told, early on, that she wrote too much like a journalist. (She is one, as am I.) The discipline of short-form journalism can pose some problems when it comes to building characters and emotion, but the benefits are just as formidable: It teaches you to be economical with your words — something that’s useful at 800 words or 80,000 — and to get to the meat of a story quickly.

The best part of Heidi’s post, in my opinion, lies in her counsel to always examine why you’re providing detail or relating an anecdote. Anything that doesn’t propel the story forward should be tossed, no matter how well-written or how much you love it. This is known as killing your darlings, and while it might break your heart, it will fortify your story. Which would you prefer?


When I woke up this morning, I couldn’t find my in-progress manuscript on my hard drive. The pathway was gone. The backup disc? Blank.

Forty-seven thousand words, vanished.

My response was predictable: “Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck.”

My wife woke up and stepped in, as I was basically useless. She found an April 11 version — 35K words ago. Nothing else. We called the computer doctor and rushed the hard drive in, and he was able to rescue the file, minus yesterday’s progress (about a thousand words).

I’ve never been so happy to have lost a day’s work. Honestly, I don’t think I could have started again; it would have just been lost forever, and I’d have moved on to one of the other story ideas stashed in my head. I’ll tell you this, though: Up until today, I never had the proper appreciation for how devastating it must have been to Hemingway when his manuscripts, tucked into a suitcase, were lost in 1922. From the standpoint of literary quality, his loss was certainly much bigger than mine would have been. I wonder if he cried; I was on the verge of it.

So, now I’ve learned a new trick: I’m no longer backing up my work just on a disc. I now have a webmail account that gets my updated scribbling, nightly.

I saw this story on NPR this morning and stashed it away to read later, after I’d attended to my own literary chores.

When I circled back on it, the parallels made me smile.

In the piece, author Jeffrey Eugenides writes that his sure-fire cure for writer’s block is to open up Saul Bellow’s Herzog and read a random page or paragraph:

It always works. Right away I’m restored to full alertness and clarity. Style, in literature, has gone out of style. People think it’s just ornament. But it’s not: The work that goes into a writer’s style, the choices that are taken, the cliches that are chucked, represent a refining of thought and feeling into their purest, most intelligent, most moral form.

The reason that Herzog can deliver, no matter where Eugenides turns, is that it is chock full of the main character’s letters to others — friends and ex-wives and newspapers and dead people, each a gem unto itself. Eugenides observes that Bellow, “the supreme realist, discovered in Herzog a new form — the self-reflexive epistolary novel — without any of the obscurantism or self-preening of so-called ‘experimental’ novels.”

The parallel is this: I just slogged through a section of my own work that includes a string of letters, and I found it difficult to find the voice of the character writing them. I pushed on and finished them, but there are parts of every undone work that the writer knows must be recast, and that letter chain is one such part. Perhaps I’ll read Herzog in the interim and learn from a master how to better do it.

I took three days to go to Fairview, Montana, and see my sister-in-law graduate from high school. (Congratulations, Andi.) It amounted to three days of needed recharging of the creative batteries, some time for enjoying family and a slow pace.

On the 280-some-mile drive home yesterday, as my wife disappeared into her book and I sang along with the iPod — and God bless her for being OK with that — I had a bit of an epiphany about my current project and how to repair something that was lacking in it. Any road is usually good for such thinking, and the road through Eastern Montana is better than most. Long stretches of treeless plains and odd little buttes give the mind an excuse to focus when the eyes cannot.

So, today, armed with an the aforementioned epiphany, I set to work again, and plodded through 2,900-plus words and two new chapters. If I can liken my novel project to a house, my idea was more on the order of “say, a different approach with the eaves would look really nice” than it was “we’re going to have to bring the whole sumbitch down and start again.” And thank goodness for that.

At this point, the word count doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot, as there are still many writing and editing sessions to go. Still, if you’re into numbers, here’s one: 41,471. In story terms, I’ve crossed the midway point. The best parts are yet to come (I hope).

Today’s post piggybacks on yesterday’s about the often-frustrating process of querying agents.

First, though, I’d like to amplify something I tossed off far too casually. I wrote: “Rule No. 1 of this process should be to not take things personally.”

Had the words not been mine, that line would have pissed me right off. Because here’s the deal: It is personal. Creating a novel — finding the discipline to write every day, carefully choosing your words, battling through dead ends and plot turns and then revising, revising, revising — is just about the most personal thing you can do. For me, or for anyone, to blithely suggest that rejection shouldn’t sting is just wrong. Of course it stings. You’re human (aren’t you?).

Acknowledging that, let me propose another way of looking at it:

In business matters — querying agents, talking to publishers, negotiating with printers, interacting with customers — it’s best to think like a business person and not an author. An agent who passes on your query (or even your partial or full manuscript) is saying that he or she doesn’t feel a kinship with your story. That’s it. It’s not about you as a person or an artist or a mother or a son. It’s about selling your story. And you don’t want to do business with someone who doesn’t believe in your work the way you do.

(Also, most any agent will happily acknowledge that a pass generally means “not for me,” not “nobody in their right mind would ever represent this.” All of them can tell stories about the novel they rejected that went on to be a huge success. It is, on some level, a gut-reaction business, and guts aren’t always reliable barometers.)

Ron Franscell, the author of “Angel Fire,” summed up the twin roles of a writer in an e-mail exchange with me some weeks back:

“While you are tap-tap-tapping in your lonely little garret, you are an artist … but when you rise and walk through the door into the outer world, you are a shoe clerk. You must think like a shoe clerk, with an eagerness to serve a shilly-shallying customer who doesn’t care as much about your art as you do, and who only wants a shoe. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with agents, editors, booksellers, publicists, publishers, distributors, printers — put yourself in their minds as you try to bring your book to the mass audience you seek.”

Literary agent Nathan Bransford, whose blog is a wonderful resource for anyone trying to break into traditional publishing, does a nice thing by acknowledging how fickle some agents can be about queries:

Some of the more jaded writers among us have taken this as evidence that we agents delight in making the unpublished jump through hoops. Every new “don’t do this” blog post, in this view, becomes one more thing a poor author has to remember, and given the number of opinions out there, it’s impossible to keep every single rule straight.

And you know what? They have a point.

He goes on to say that, hey, there’s nothing that says you have to play by these rules, and he’s right about that. There are several routes to being a published author, and having an agent is just one of them. If you like your chances better by going it alone or self-publishing, then go it alone or self-publish. It’s a free country.

But if your aim is to get your novel in the door at a big, traditional publisher — especially if you’ve never breached that wall before — it’s undeniable among the sane that attracting an agent for your work is your best bet. That means querying, and it further means querying with a pretty good idea of what the agent you’re approaching likes and wants to see.

Bransford writes:

The type of person who researches the proper way of writing a query, who personalizes, who follows the “rules,” who goes the extra mile and takes the time and who somehow avoid getting all freaked out about the way their pride is being vanquished by jumping through a few hoops: these are the people who tend to go the extra mile when they’re writing their manuscript. They’re the ones who tend to listen to critiques, who don’t suffer from excessive pride, and who understand that this is a business where it pays to be professional.

Now, a disclaimer before I go much further: I don’t have an agent. A very good one has asked for exclusivity while she considers my novel, and I’ve granted that. I found her by researching the hell out of agents, the kind of work they like and, most important, the kind of work they’ve sold. She was one of six agents I approached, and four of them expressed an interest in my work. (Bransford, for what it’s worth, declined — and that’s just fine. Rule No. 1 of this process should be to not take things personally.)

At any rate, four out of six is a pretty decent percentage, and I’d like to think the reason for it goes beyond my dazzling good looks and winning smile. I wrote a good, tight query. I tailored it to each agent’s preferences. I did a hard-target search of agents who were most likely to respond to the type of fiction I write. In short, I increased my odds with research and diligence.

When you’re looking for an agent, you’re seeking so much more than that: a partner, a sounding board, an honest broker, a fair-minded and constructive critic. With so much at stake, it only makes sense to do your homework.

My journalism training prepared me for many things when it comes to writing — adhering to deadlines, having the discipline to sit down and do it (the part where most people come up short) and the ability to be economical with words. But because I was never a long-form journalist — most newspaper stories I’ve written have been no longer than 1,000 words — it didn’t prepare me for a singular challenge of novel-length writing: covering 80,000-plus words and tying up all the loose ends as one goes. As a journalist, I’d always been able to see the road clearly in my head: the lead paragraph, the structure of the heart of the story, the wrap-up. With a novel, I needed more concrete guideposts.

(Let’s assume, for purposes of this discussion, that you have an idea worth writing, which is indeed the toughest part of all.)

As I prepared to write 600 Hours of Edward, I knew I needed to do something different. My writing life was full of half-baked attempts at novels, none of which moved beyond 6,000 words or so as I watched the efforts devolve into overly expository, rambling, poorly focused messes. I’m almost ashamed to admit this now, but for the first time in my writing life, I sketched out a story outline, a crude road map of where I wished to go.

I’m not talking about outlines as they were taught in high school. That wasn’t going to work for me, for a number of reasons:

I. Rigidity

A. The merits of freedom: Part of the joy of writing fiction is exploring the corners of the story you don’t anticipate.

B. Time: I wrote my outline 24 hours before I started principal writing on the novel. I needed something fast.

You see what I mean? That wasn’t going to cut it.

What I came up with, instead, was a basic chapter plot with just enough detail to keep me focused on where I needed to be at any given juncture but enough freedom to fill in the fine details with my imagination. It worked, too: Guided by that outline, I moved through 80,000 words in 24 days (the breakneck pace had nothing to do with the outline; that was just my own lunacy). Between start and finish, I deviated greatly from my notes, and I made those adjustments as I went. Without that all-encompassing guide, though, I’d have been dead in the water.

The outline for 600 Hours is gone — stupidly, I didn’t save my work — but I’ll give you an example from the outline of my current project. Here are my notes for the next chapter I’m going to tackle:

Chapter 11

Late arrival at the ranch. Marie’s nowhere to be found. I’m left alone in this house. Dad and Marie come home, positively venomous at each other. She’s been seeing another man. Phone call with Mom.

Thirty-five words to keep me churning toward the next bend in the road. The texture and the life will come from the 3,000 or so words I use to graduate from jotted notes to fully formed chapter.

There’s an interesting story over on the Publishers Weekly site about technology’s impact on the book industry.

To anyone in the newspaper industry — like me — the conclusions ought to sound awfully familiar:

The panel, moderated by the Times book editor, David Ullin, included former PW editor-in-chief, publishing consultant and author of So Many Books, So Little Time Sara Nelson; Richard Nash, former head of Soft Skull Press; Otis Chandler, founder of the Goodreads Web site; and Patrick Brown, Vroman’s Books’ webmaster and blogger engaging in a sometimes adversarial conversation about the profound changes that challenge the core of book publishing, how writers and readers connect, and how books are bought and sold.

 “Writing and reading are doing just fine. It’s the intermediaries that are failing,” commented Nash, referring to  ineffective supply chain management among publishers. That supply chain needs to deal with 300,000 books published annually, which led Nelson to two points. “This is a gatekeeper issue,” she said. “We simply publish too many books. We need more midlist novels and less of the celebrity books that challenge the bottomline of publishing conglomerates. The supply chain is broken. In the 20th century you got books to distributors and they got books into stores, and reps from publishers into stores telling buyers what to order… that doesn’t work anymore. The more you publish, the more overwhelming it is, and you need somebody to help you through the morass of choices. Goodreads is one of those gatekeepers.”

The upshot of this is pretty encouraging for industrious writers who are savvy about marketing and cognizant of emerging trends (e-books, for example). It’s hard to know for sure where things will end up, but I’d say it’s a better-than-decent bet that talented self-publishers (or independent writers, or whatever other label you prefer) will continue to gain legitimacy in the eyes of readers.

There’s an interesting response in the comments section from an acquisitions editor, who draws a corollary to indie musicians and suggests that the pendulum will eventually swing back to the traditional model:

Most serious musicians have come to the conclusion that it’s far too much work to write the songs, play the songs, and twiddle the control board knobs while recording the songs. You get what you pay for, and when you don’t pay anything, you shouldn’t expect to get much.

Here’s the thing, though: Serious self-publishers hire professional cover designers, professional typesetters and professional copy editors, then contract with a professional printing firm to produce the books, just as the traditional houses do. We’re not talking about people in the basement with a secondhand copying machine and a stapler.

The headline is just a teaser. There is no simple answer to this question.

This much is clear: The dynamics in book publishing — as in all forms of media — are rapidly changing. The New York Times has chronicled the decline of traditional publishers and the rise of the do-it-yourself jobs. So has Time magazine. Everybody who thinks he or she has a book rattling around inside his or her head now has a way to get it out there (a great thing for egalitarianism but not necessarily the advancement of good literature). And scores of companies stand ready to help them achieve their dream — for a fee, and sometimes not a small one.

(Full disclosure: I published my two books myself. They were intended to be lesson-learners, and boy, did I learn some lessons. But this post isn’t really about my books; rather, it’s a take on an emerging trend in publishing.)

Non-fiction vs. fiction

I’ll start with a broad assessment of self-publishing, then drill down to some fine details.

Let’s say you have a targeted non-fiction book (fake title for the purposes of this discussion: “30 Easy Steps For Not Losing Your Shirt — Or Your House — in Small Business”).

If …

* You’ve built a detailed marketing plan.

* And you have access to a top-notch cover designer and a top-notch editor.

* And you’re willing and able to do all the work related to establishing and distributing the book (procuring an ISBN, filing for copyright protection, forming a relationship with a printer, fulfillment entity and distributor).

* And you have the hustle to get that book in front of the eyes of the people who will want it and — more important — will buy it, then self-publishing may well be the best choice for you. If you can move the book in big enough quantities, there is a lot of pure profit out there that can yours and yours alone. But, obviously, there are a lot of ifs in this scenario.

If you’re writing fiction, the self-publishing game is a far trickier proposition. Savvy marketing and tenacious promotion of the book can work, but you have to know that fiction audiences who would be interested in your book are quite a bit more diffuse and harder to root out. And fiction, even among the big publishing houses, tends to fare worse than non-fiction unless your name is King or Cornwall or Picoult or Meyer. Sorry. Just the way it is. If you’re going to self-publish fiction, you need the same things as listed above (top-notch covers and editing, a mastery of the business side of books) plus a more formidable marketing machine and a good deal of luck. Know that going in.

Follow the steps

Let’s assume, for the purposes of this discussion, that you’re going to self-publish. My advice, having been through it:

1. Before you do anything else, buy Peter Bowerman’s “The Well-Fed Self-Publisher” and absorb it, especially the wise words about marketing and the timeline for pushing your book into print. I read this book after I published, and I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement on damned near every page. A lot of the lessons that I learned in a hard way are in this book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

2. Identify the potential audiences for your book and cultivate them aggressively, before and after your book appears. A scattershot marketing campaign requires a home run to be successful. A strong, targeted campaign can yield singles, doubles, triples and grand slams. Which would you rather have?

3. Compare the costs and benefits of the various self-publishing companies. By definition, self-publishing is going to require some upfront cash. You need to get the per-unit cost of the books as low as possible, so the difference between what it costs you to get the book to market and what you make when it’s sold is as high as possible (that, after all, is your profit). You can’t achieve this just by boosting the retail price; your book has to be competitively priced. And you also have to account for the discounts to retailers (which run as high as 55 percent off your list price) if you’re going to distribute your books in that way.

Bowerman is stridently anti-POD (print on demand), and I disagree with him slightly here. It’s great if you have the upfront cash to finance a print run of 5,000 books, but POD has come a long way since his book was published, and many of the outfits can handle fulfillment, distribution and returns, same as an offset printer and with comparable quality. Want proof? Check out reputable POD outfits, and you’ll find that many big-name publishers are using such services to create their own books.

4. Do not rush to market (unless you have a super-timely nonfiction book that may be overtaken by events). This is the single biggest mistake I made. There is four- to six-month window in which you need to do things like send out review copies, build anticipation for your book, line up other writers and experts who will “blurb” your book, etc. You get only one bite at some of these apples, so don’t blow it. Bowerman covers this information in exhaustive and illustrative detail.

My rush to market — because, hey, I had written a novel! — cut me out of some of these opportunities, and I’ve had three covers and a couple of revisions of the insides of the book because I didn’t take enough care on the front end. Take the time to get it right. It will save you money and aggravation.

5. Establish a robust Web presence, one that includes direct sales of your books through a store on your Web site. I love selling books through bookstores. But I make about three times as much when I sell one myself. A good Web site also has media resources (because you want media attention, right?), a blog or an e-zine and ways for folks to get in touch with you. You’ll want all of this even if you publish through a traditional house, but if you don’t have it when you self-publish, you’re dead in the water.

Bowerman’s site practices what he preaches. Mine is a bit more sedate but has the necessary components (and I’m adding more all the time).

6. Never stop marketing. One of the points in your favor as a self-publisher is that you call the shots on how aggressively a book is pushed. With traditional houses, the hype ends on their terms (just about any published author can tell stories about having to sheepishly answer “Well, it’s out now” when asked about an upcoming book). As a self-publisher, your title can go on for as long as you have the energy to promote it.

Will I self-publish again?

The answer is a qualified “maybe.” I write fiction, and so the optimum outcome for me is to establish a partnership with an agent who will help me hone the books, find the best publisher for them and help me manage my career. All things being equal, I would prefer to concentrate on the business of writing and promotion and leave the business of books to people who have much more experience at it than I do.

That said, the odds of breaking through with big publishers are long, and are getting longer all the time. Ultimately, I want to get my ideas and stories in the marketplace. If the traditional doors are closed, I’ll have to blaze my own trail.