I’m not sure if this is funny or just horrifying…
The Magic of the First Line
In a recent workshop a student asked, “What is the best way to start writing a story?” Though I was tempted to prescribe composing in purple ink on a yellow legal pad while sitting in a green leather chair in a room with exactly seven windows, I settled on sharing a bit about my own fiction writing process.
I do a lot of thinking before I ever start to write. Storylines and characters form, shift, and morph until I finally begin to make notes. I keep paper and a pen in every room of the house, and scribble down scenes, descriptions, and dialog fragments that arrive.
Once I feel that I know the characters fairly well, I begin transferring character and scene notes into StoryBlue (software for writers). This always feels like the first official step in establishing structure, but it’s not yet the beginning of writing.
Sometimes my writing process seems to stall at this point and I’ll turn to other projects. The story simmers at the back of my mind until a perfectly formed first line* presents itself. As soon as it arrives and I write it down, the story starts to unfold, scene after scene.
I’ve tried writing without the magical first line, but find that until it arrives I struggle to capture the voice of the story. It’s almost as if the story elements have to go through a process of ripening before they’re ready to be written. For me, that luscious first line is the beginning of a writing harvest.
So… how do you start writing fiction? NaNoWriMo is coming up, so now’s a good time to start thinking about it!
*The first line may change by the end of the book, but at the moment of beginning, it’s perfect for its purpose.
I enjoyed the James River Writers Conference in Richmond last weekend, and am combing through my notes for all the good ideas I wanted to apply. There are a lot of them, but they’re all lining up after the non-fiction proposal I have to finish and send. The best part of the conference was just being around so many other people who loved to write. We could talk writing morning, noon, and night, and no one started yawning after the first sentence!
Whether you’re an established writer or just getting started, a writers conference is a great place to be. Here are five good reasons to go:
- Meet agents, editors, and publishers, and maybe even pitch your ideas to them. Conferences are one of the few times you can catch them away from Mt. Olympus.
- Rub shoulders with the pros– people who are earning a living through writing. Ask questions and really listen to the answers. They have a lot of wisdom to share.
- Hone your craft. Attend workshop that will make you a better writer, then go home and apply what you’ve learned.
- Learn about the business end of being a writer. It is a business, you know!
- Hang out with writers, and easily open any conversation with “What do you write?” How many other opportunities do you have to talk writing with people who actually have a clue? Even if you’re an introvert, you can join in the fun.
I just talked to Jerry Simmons, NAIWE’s publishing expert, and came away with some interesting insights into the expectations of publishers. I suspect that there are more than four things that publishers want authors to bring to the table, but the ones that Jerry chose were based on his own vast experience in the business side of the publishing world. A couple of them surprised me– how about you?
Here are Jerry’s picks for four indispensable ingredients for publishing success:
Publishers are in the business of producing content that they can sell. If you write decently and can turn in at least a manuscript every year, a publisher is more likely to value you.
Stick to your area of expertise, and turn in good quality work each time. If you’ve gained an audience for a particular type of work or in a particular genre, write for your audience. It not only keeps your backlist alive longer, but it’s also easier to sell to an established audience, rather than having to build an entirely different audience. If you feel you must write in other genres, you may want to get a different agent and use a pseudonym. According to Jerry, publishers regard commitment and consistency as a huge plus, and that can have a positive impact on your writing career.
No, this isn’t quite the same as being consistent. Predictability actually has to do with percent of predictable sales. If a publisher ships out 1000 copies of your book, they want at least 65% of them to sell (the ones that don’t sell are returned from the bookstore to the publisher to meet a dismal fate). Publishers also like to see your backlist continue to sell (the backlist is books that are over about six months old). If your work consistently sells at a high percentage rate, you’ll be considered a publisher’s gold mine, and you’ll benefit from the multiple streams of royalty income.
The best way to sell books is through publicity. Are you presentable and articulate for book signings or radio and television interviews? Remember, you’re representing not only yourself, but also the publisher, so they need to be convinced that you won’t embarrass them, and that you’ll effectively participate in the marketing of your book. Marketability can weigh quite heavily in a manuscript-purchasing decision, so take a close look and see how you can make yourself more marketable.
You may decide you need to get a media coach or join Toastmasters International to learn about speaking, or get your teeth whitened, a fresh hairstyle, or perhaps just a nice outfit or two (get good advice from a professional who understands business wear). Whatever you do, it will be an investment in marketability which can further your writing career.
There… what do you think? Were you surprised by any of these items? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
You can listen to the interview on NAIWE NewsWire.
I’ve recently gotten a couple of small payments from Demand Studios (in the $5-10 range), and because I’ve been rushed, didn’t figure out until today who they are and why they’re sending me money. Of course, I’d have been on it much faster if they were billing me for something I didn’t recognize!
I submitted an article to the eHow network last year, just to see if it might be another viable stream of passive income. They’re apparently part of Demand Media, so that’s the who and the why. I just didn’t recognize the name.
I realize there is a lot of debate as to the wisdom of these work-for-hire arrangements, but because I teach the Multiple Streams of Income for Writers classes, I felt it would be a good idea to check it out. Anything in the name of research!
Based on this small sample, I can’t say whether or not it’s worth trying, so I’m going to add a total of about ten articles and see what happens. The biggest caveat is that it’s a work for hire system, so you retain no rights to your work. This was irrelevant to me, as the topic I wrote on was not one of my primary teaching topics, so I don’t anticipate ever wanting to reuse it. If the articles sit there and continue to generate passive income, it just might be worth it. I’ll let you know!
I had a few rough ideas of what I’d like to accomplish for the NAIWE 2010 Get it Done Summer Challenge. If you haven’t checked it out, the three parts of the Challenge are:
- Read three books that will stretch your mind and inspire your creative spirit.
- Finish one project that’s been nagging at you for longer than you care to admit.
- Brainstorm a new project that will bring you an additional stream of income, then take the first step to make it happen.
I read Sheri McConnell’s Smart Women Know Their Why (see review in the preceding post) for the first of my three books, and have a teetering stack from which I can choose the remaining two official Challenge books. This is the easiest part, because I know that before summer is over, I’ll have read quite a few more than three books. I schedule morning and evening reading times so that I can bracket each day in knowledge, inspiration, and sometimes, just plain fun.
The second element of the Challenge was to finish a nagging project. I finished a huge one just a few weeks ago, so considered counting it and coasting on this option. However, another nagging project has been to learn more about financial management, retirement planning, and all that goes into being a good steward of resources. So that got added to the list for Part 2 of the Challenge.
The final challenge piece is where serendipity kicked in. I brainstormed a great list of projects that could bring in an additional stream of income (some of them would also qualify as nagging projects), and was trying to decide which to pursue when a brand-new project dropped into my lap. Serendipitously, it happens to fulfill not only the final element of the Challenge, but the second as well.
For Part 3 of the NAIWE challenge, I’ll be producing a book on personal finance and estate planning. I just love serendipity! The author has provided a large collection of written work that needs to be transformed into a book and prepared for publication (compilation, editing, layout, cover, etc.). I’ve begun to work with it, and I can already tell I’m going to learn a lot about finance. It’s also going to be a very large project with a very short deadline, so I’m scheduling the rest of the summer pretty tightly. I’m grateful to have such an interesting project come my way, and doubly delighted at the serendipity of it all.
So…what are you doing for the NAIWE Summer Challenge?
I occasionally want to refer someone to these amusing “rules,” so I decided to post them here for future reference. Enjoy!
- Do not put statements in the negative form.
- And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
- If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
- Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
- Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
- De-accession euphemisms.
- If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
- Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
- Last, but not least, avoid cliches like the plague.
I believe they were written by William Safire, but am not positive. If you know for sure, please feel free to comment!
There’s a fine line between creative and commercial writing, and I find myself trying to walk it every day. I work on fiction at least four days a week, and I write non-fiction every day. My goal for each polished piece is to write the best prose I can with the information, knowledge, and resources I have at that moment. Even when I do so, I’m aware that when I look back at any piece from a few month’s distance, I’ll see things I could have done differently. It’s all in the growth of a writer. Blog posts are ephemeral thought collectors that don’t receive the same attention as polished pieces, but they too remind me to be aware of words and how they’re used.
I recently spoke with a budding author who was lamenting the need to find a job, though her novel wasn’t quite finished. Because I know she writes well, I suggested that instead of getting a job, she earn could earn what she needed through copywriting. I wasn’t surprised when she demurred, commenting that she didn’t want to ruin her writing voice.
It’s a fear I’ve encountered many times, but I believe it’s a bogey without much substance. There are creative elements in almost any writing, including all types of commercial writing. Budding ad writers everywhere are probably still advised to be creative and “sell the sizzle, not the steak” (that onomatopoeia is a bit of poetry in itself). Compelling prose is an art form, no matter where it’s found.
If you focus on each assignment, whether commercial or literary, as an opportunity to sharpen word choice, increase sentence fluency, and generally improve your craft, I believe your writing voice will be strengthened by the additional practice. And quite frankly, I feel wickedly gleeful at the thought of being paid to practice an art I love. Yet why not? Master craftsman often serve paid apprenticeships while learning their craft, and it’s a time-tested training method.
As I go back and forth between projects, I’ve found that the greatest challenge is to retain a touch of freshness in everything. Whether I’m reading a how-to or a whodunit, I want to be captivated a deft turn of phrase and charmed or chilled by a precise word choice. That’s an experience I’d like my readers to enjoy as well. Dull prose with a written-by-committee flavor is a good cure for insomnia, or for puppy training, but not for much else.
It may take a moment’s extra thought to choose a vivid word or bypass a worn-out cliche in favor of an unexpected zing, but it’s a moment well spent. I’m not always successful at meeting the freshness challenge (those pesky deadlines and the occasional bouts of verbal laziness catch up with me sometimes), but it’s something I strive for, no matter which side of the proverbial line I’m writing on.
I’m reading Robert Hartwell Fiske’s little gem, Silence, Language, and Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion. It’s a vividly personal compendium of brief observations, prescriptions, and imprecations, all related to the art of words. So far, the overall theme of the book might be summed up in a single phrase: “You are what you say.” I like that thought, as it acknowledges the power of words to shape reality.
Fiske is the editor and publisher of the wonderful Vocabula Review. If you have a subscription, don’t miss Richard Lederer’s wonderful article on “The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll” in the current issue. (One of NAIWE‘s benefits is that members may subscribe free, and it’s one benefit that I’m thoroughly enjoying!)
I’m inspired to write better by reading great writing and reading about the art of words. What inspires you?
I’ve been working on a book proposal, and as it takes shape I find myself in an unexpected quandary. It’s a good book (in my completely unbiased opinion;-)) on a popular topic, and it’s built on many years of practical experience. Although I have a publisher who specifically requested this proposal, I’m hesitating over the question of whether or not I want to go through traditional publishing channels or self-publish.*
You see, I’ve done both, and I know how to self-publish properly– doing everything that a regular publisher would do, including using my company’s own ISBN and hiring experienced specialists for editing, copyediting, indexing, cover design, proofreading and all the other details. I have access to a high-quality pool of experts in NAIWE, the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, and I’m not worried about the mechanics of the process. Because I have a reasonably well-established online presence and a solid platform as a writer, speaker, coach, and director of NAIWE, I’m not worried about the marketing.
The reason I’m wavering is twofold: First, I know the vast difference in profit margin between the two methods, and second, I highly value the speed, flexibility, and control of the self-publishing process. For a non-fiction book that is carefully targeted to a specific audience, a competent self-publisher with a high-quality book can easily reap a profit of at least 50% of the sale price per book, and often quite a bit more. If the same book were traditionally published, the author would be extremely lucky to receive royalties of 10% of the wholesale price.
With traditional publishing, authors also lose flexibility. There’s no way to easily update information or release a new edition; the publisher usually keeps the rights to publish the book in alternative formats; and authors must purchase books at the wholesale price rather than cost if they want copies for marketing. Worst of all, if the publisher lets the book go out of print, all ongoing potential income is lost unless the author regains the rights (which is something I’d be sure to specify in any contract I signed). The traditional publishing process can take well over a year, while the length of time between manuscript and book-in-hand for a self-publisher–even one who outsources many steps– is usually a matter of a few months at most.
So if self-publishing is more profitable, faster, and more flexible, why is there even a question of going the traditional route? First, there’s the lure of handing it over and having an editor take charge and direct the editing and publication process. Like most writers, I’m busy. I always have other writing projects going, plus work with the association, so sharing responsibility with someone else is alluring. I know that authors still end up doing a lot of work, but it’s reassuring to have an expert at the helm.
Second, traditional publishing has more street cred. People still regard it as the holy grail for writers, and I respect that. Self-publishers, even those whose books match traditionally-published books in quality, are treated like pre-transformation Cinderellas. There’s a certain cachet in being one of the chosen, but from a practical standpoint it’s the equivalent of marrying for social position. Very few people argue for marriages of status anymore, and publishing for status may be destined to become equally archaic. Right now, though, traditional publishing still holds many of the credibility cards, and depending on what the author wants to accomplish with the book, that added credibility can be important.
What to do? I’ll decide in the next few days. I still believe in traditional publishing for fiction, but for non-fiction, it’s a quandary: money and control vs. time and credibility in the traditional publishing world. Hmmmm…
*The term “self-publishing” is being co-opted by some vanity presses, which are using incorrectly using it to describe what they offer. An author who pays a fee to have his or her book “published” under the ISBN of a “publishing company,” is simply paying to have the book printed by a vanity press. This is not self-publishing, and to call it self-publishing is misleading and inaccurate.
The Luxury of Silence
Storyteller Louis L’Amour said he could write in the middle of a busy intersection with his typewriter on his lap. Not necessarily a good idea, I would think, but I envy his concentration. Once started, I can focus like nobody’s business. My family knows that if I’m writing, they have to work hard (aka “be obnoxious”) in order to derail me. However, it’s the getting started that’s occasionally a challenge.
Ambient noise– the ticking of the clock, the wren’s repeated “Sophia” outside my window, the UPS truck in the driveway– doesn’t bother me. If I can start the day quietly, read a bit, check the priority list, and settle into my office around 9:30, all tends to go well. It’s when something interrupts the quiet start that silence seems elusive.
Silence ranks as one of the primary luxuries I crave. When I have a delectably silent day (rare), it’s hard to emerge from the blissful solitude and have to start making noise. I’d rather put thoughts on a page than try to respond to small talk. It’s rewarding to find a voice on paper, but much harder to mine worth from the spoken word.
I dream of taking a solitary vacation to someplace quiet. For once I might reach a surfeit of silence, and find myself looking forward to noise. I can scarcely imagine it, but I’d be willing to experiment– all in the name of scholarly investigation, of course.
Yesterday, I got a lot done on my book proposal. Today, not so much, due to a disrupted morning. I wonder if it’s possible to request a year of silence as a birthday gift? I’d have to wait until June, but perhaps it takes that long to gather a good supply and get it gift wrapped. Let’s see if I can add it to my Amazon wishlist….