Near my house is a canyon. Last winter, I went for several hikes up this canyon. As soon I as I was out of the car, the voices started up in my head. You've probably heard these same voices before. They whisper things like:
It's too cold.
You're not prepared. You don't have the right clothing.
The snow is too deep.
It's too far to the summit.
These voices have the most power in the first thirty minutes of a hike. The voices will tell you it's not really giving up if you've only just started. And since you've only invested a small portion of your time and energy, turning around is easy to do.
Sometimes the voices may speak truth. Perhaps you are not fully prepared. Perhaps the way is too difficult.
Mostly the voices lie.
And it's important to note that in the first thirty minutes you are the most vulnerable. Once I've left my car far behind--and the valley is spread out in my view--I find I can talk back to the voices.
The summit is still too far.
Then I will go as far as I can.
The snow is getting deeper.
I've walked through worse.
You cannot do this.
Yes, I can.
If I make it past the first thirty minutes of a hike, I can usually make it to my goal. I see through the voices' lies, I've invested significant time and energy, and I plow my way to the top.
I've discovered a similar truth in writing. When you begin a new story, the voices are quick to speak up.
These characters are bland.
The plot is thin.
You'll never get to eighty thousand words.
Again, most of the time the voices lie. But it's easy to stop when you've just begun. It's easy to tell yourself that the story isn't as compelling as you first thought. You haven't invested the time, so it's easy to close the document and move on to something else.
Don't believe the voices.
Lower your shoulders, pick a good pace, and plunge ahead. Write the first thirty pages. Ignore the voices and just move forward. Perhaps on page thirty-one, you can start to respond to those nagging doubts.
The characters are weak.
I'm getting to know them.
You'll never reach eighty thousand words.
Maybe not, but tonight I'll reach three thousand.
The plot is thin.
I can do this.
Ignore the voices until you've written thirty pages. Invest the time and effort that your story both deserves and demands. You'll find the next hundred pages will very likely come.
One last thing. When hiking, I've found that at the base of the trail there are dozens of footsteps. The farther you go, the thinner the tracks. One by one, those who have gone before turn around and head back. Eventually, there is an exhilarating moment when you see the last set of tracks come to an end. You look to the trail ahead and see nothing but unbroken snow.
In writing, it's not good to compare yourself to others. There are far too many variables. But sometimes I like to compare what I'm doing now with what I've done in the past. Maybe first the goal is to just finish a short story. Then the goal is to write something longer. Maybe you want to place in a contest, and then come in first. Then the goal may be as lofty as finishing a novel, submitting it, and getting good feedback. Then that happy day comes when you sign a contract, and see one of your books on the shelf.
If you ignore the voices, sometimes you can go farther than you ever thought possible. All you have to do is tackle the first thirty.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Today, I'm sharing one of the most fun and engaging interviews I've ever had the chance to post. I get to interview my very own editor, Heather Alexander, who cultivates fantastic reads at Dial Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Penguin. Every author should have such a witty, insightful editor, and I can't wait for you to see her answers. Enjoy!
Jenny: I think many people don't fully understand what editors really do. To you, what is editing children's books all about?
Heather: I finally stopped trying to convince people that my job isn’t drinking tea in a chintz lounge reading rhyming stories out loud to the animal friends gathered at my feet. I suppose there is some truth to that scenario (I do drink tea). Most days, I feel more like an orchestra conductor, setting tempo, trying to pull out parts of a manuscript while pushing back on others, getting the whole thing to work together and sound amazing. Combine this with contract negotiations, marketing material approvals, email avalanches, and about 200 meetings a week, and you get a clearer picture.
Jenny: In becoming a (marvelous) editor, was your path straightforward or were there detours? When and how did you realize this was the right profession for you?
Heather: This is my second career, but I always thought publishing was a glamorous profession. As a child, I realized by reading front matter (yes, I was that kind of book nerd) that most publishers were in New York, and since my main goal at age 8 was to live in New York, publishing seemed like a Job I Would Like, even though I had no idea what it entailed. I read middle grade and young adult novels as a grownup, and when I went back to school, I took a kid’s literature class which sealed the deal. I started off in Managing Editorial, and that was a great way to see the big publishing picture, but it was only a few months before I moved into Editorial.
Jenny: What's it like to read submissions? What do you look for?
Heather: A lot of times, there is an instant gut reaction when reading submissions. But once I know I like something or don’t, I focus in on the concrete reasons why. Has this story been told before? Who is the audience? Is the character active or passive? Is the plot unfolding naturally? Can I clearly picture this world? A great voice can trump everything else, and I’m always looking for solid characters that I connect with right away.
Jenny: In acquiring titles for your list, how do you know a book is right for you?
Heather: I wish it were as easy as “I like this!” and stamping it “publish” but there are a lot of factors that make a project right for a particular editor. It has to be something I love first and foremost, but it also has to be different from things currently on my (and Dial’s) list, and something we think the public will embrace. I know a book is right for me when I can happily ignore my email inbox in favor of reading (in my chintz lounge, of course).
Jenny: What's the most exciting aspect of your work?
Heather: One of the most exciting things is being able to call a debut author and say “you’re getting published!” and another is finally seeing that book in stores. Reading good reviews never stops being exciting. It’s a lot of hard work to put a book out into the world, so it’s nice to have that work recognized.
Jenny: What inspires you, in work and in life?
Heather: I’m inspired by a lot of different things, but especially by just being in
. There are so many interesting things happening here all the time, and I feel like my brain works overtime to connect the overly serious gallery opening and the 1 train Mariachi band and the Chinese wedding in the park and the man wearing a tophat and riding a scooter decked out in bells. And of course, getting to meet and talk to so many extraordinary people every day is like living in an inspiration factory. When my brain needs a break, I like to flee to the woods where I remember what it feels like to think about one thing for a long time, and what air smells like. New York
Jenny: What books should our readers be looking out for?
Heather: Definitely pick up a copy of Nerve by Jeanne Ryan for a page-turning reading experience. If you want to make little ones giggle, try I Know a Wee Piggy by Kim Norman and Henry Cole. And if you want to cry a little (or a lot) while learning all kinds of things you didn’t know about World War II, give My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve a read. And of course, keep an eye out for Tracked by Jenny Martin, coming soon.
Heather Alexander has been with Dial Books for nearly five years, where she edits books for all ages (board books through YA). When she was a kid, she knew kids’ books were better than grownup books because her dad never laughed so hard he cried when he read his own books, just hers. She was pretty sure there could never be a book better than Roald Dahl’s The Twits, and she’s been mostly right about that.
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Since it’s my first post here at the Crowe’s Nest, I feel like it’s the right time to share something it took me four finished, unpublished novels to work out. As someone who loves and writes sci-fi, I know the pitfalls (both paradoxical and practical) of wanting a time machine so I can go back and tell this to myself before I set out to write that first novel. So I’ll share it in the hopes that it can save another writer some time, agony, or hair that would otherwise have been pulled out or set on fire.
It’s okay to know what your novel is about before you start writing it.
I don’t mean the premise of the novel. I don’t mean the beginning or the ending or even what the main character wants. I mean what it is ABOUT. Capital ABOUT. I mean the theme, or as some writers put it, the central question. Casting it as a question keeps me reaching outwards in lots of different directions—not expecting an answer but eager to barrel down all avenues that spoke out from that center, knowing that it will result in lots of chewy ideas, resonant subplots, engaged characters, details of setting and word choice that echo or subvert, circle or underline that central question.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with figuring out theme through revision. When I started writing, that’s what I thought novelists did—and many do. But I struggled and rough-drafted and revised myself into the realization that I am not one of those novelists. I get lost in the wonderful work of figuring out character, voice, world-building, exciting plot events. I have written entire novels (and sometimes rewritten and rewritten entire novels) only to have them come apart in the worst dry-cookie crumble. Knowing what the story is about binds it all together for me.
It is also utterly okay to use a theme to figure out the structure of your novel.
If your writer-brain has the same sort of geography as my writer-brain, you might even start to think of structure and theme as inseparable. To me, structure is what happens when I strike the match-head of character against the nubbly stuff of theme. All of a sudden, plot events are racing to happen. I don’t feel the need to force them that used to dampen early drafts. Rather than feeling forced or gimmicky (a big concern when writers approach structure first and writing second,) to me these events feel organic, because they feed off the same central idea, connecting to each other and falling into a chain of causality, often in ways that surprise me.
So, HOW does a writer get from theme to story structure? There are lots of ways, and all I can share are some basic steps and questions that help me.
What is your central question?
Have one? Good. Don’t answer it. Think about it as hard as you can, in every direction that you can, but don’t answer it. What you’re looking for isn’t an answer, it’s a series of events: the events that could only come from the specific combination of character, setting, and theme in your story.
How does the central question connect to the premise of your novel?
If it doesn’t, you might need a different central question—or a different premise.
What happens when you put your characters, in the setting you’ve picked, up against this theme?
I brainstorm a list of events, usually starting with ones that are driven by the main character. Then I pick one that would seem to fall at an obvious point in the book, whether it’s the beginning, the end, or an act climax. (I usually use a three-act structure, sometimes more.) Once I pick one or two of these points that feel “obvious” and natural, I start to see how the other points I’ve brainstormed could fall into the remaining spots, maybe as climaxes for other acts. If they don’t, I brainstorm some more! I try to come up with a balance of charges for these events—not just whether they’re “good” or “bad”, but whether they’re positive or negative in terms of this character’s relationship to the theme.
What happens once you have your main points set up?
Fill in or as much or as little of in between as you like. That’s one of the nice things about this method! There’s a lot of flexibility, and things can change from writer to writer and story to story. It’s up to me how much I want to think about beforehand vs. discover through writing. This also makes it easier for me to deviate from early choices and outlines and take it back to the basics of the story when things need some tweaking.
This is just a start, of course, but it often launches me into a story. All writers are different in how they approach story and structure, and these are just some of my favorite questions. I’d love to know more about how you approach the process!
Thursday, October 11, 2012
I teach literature to college students. Often, we talk about the stories of Ernest Hemingway and Edith Wharton and Tim O’Brien, authors who wrote about and experienced mental health issues. My students play the role of armchair psychologist well, applying terms they’ve learned from antidepressant medication advertisements, movies, or the General Psychology course from the prior semester to fictional characters. I try not to over-correct them because sometimes their knowledge is from direct experience with mental health issues. (Though, I will object when someone claims the famous Hemingway character Nick Adams is a sociopath, since the argument's usually supported by evidence from Showtime's serial-killer show Dexter.)
In many discussions, I highlight depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and stress in the characters or plots because I believe there’s value in analyzing how illness travels from a writer to the page to the reader. But for Mental Illness Awareness Week, I take time to discuss mental health as a real world issue, not as an artistic theme. Initially, I give my students information about the mental health services offered by the university. They have been told this information before -- the hours, the services available, etc. They’ve been assured of things like professionalism and confidentiality. Some of them have considered taking advantage of the services; some of them actually speak up to promote the serves. But I have no idea if telling students the hours of the on-campus therapists will encourage those in crisis to actually seek help.
So, I also talk about how mental illness has affected my life and my work.
I tell my students that I am a writer and a teacher who was diagnosed with clinical depression and social anxiety disorder many years ago. I am medicated. I have been in therapy. I am not cured. I am better now than I was at their age. I describe, in reasonable detail, the ways my anxiety and depression affected my life as a teenager and then as undergraduate and still as an adult.
I tell my students that I spent a long time trying to hide my mental illness and trying to “treat” myself. I tell them that, eventually, I had to accept that trying to tough it out was not possible. Curing myself was also not possible. Getting help, however, was possible.
I confess that I wish I’d gotten help sooner.
I reveal the insecurities and concerns I once had about therapy.
I explain that a close friend and my would-be wife eventually guided me to therapy and that it saved my life.
What has actually had more of a profound effect -- in terms of triggering private conversations with students about their mental health -- is literature itself. Because of protagonists battling violent impulses or short stories about depression, students have approached me to talk about how they suffer in ways that mirror the characters.
For some of you, this might be surprising. For someone who writes and teaches fiction for a living, it is not. Stories offer perspective and, in some cases, validation. When someone champions the abstract "power of reading," one of the things they’re referring to is the power stories have to make a reader feel less alone, less weird, less weak. A story or character can validate a reader's emotions. Students can be told "you are not alone" by parents, friends, teachers, but reading something that illustrates that sentiment feels different. It’s processed differently.
Sometimes stories give a reader the necessary vocabulary of mental illness. Or the courage to admit to pain. It’s not about seeing a character that’s just like me -- instead, it’s seeing a character that suffers like me. The difference is key and profound. If a character had to be just like me to inspire me to talk about my depression, I’d read for a thousand years and never speak. In truth, we only need to see familiar suffering, familiar worry, familiar fears, familiar manias in order to build strength. Or to just find the words.
In my novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets, the protagonist James Whitman tries to treat his own depression by reciting poetry by Walt Whitman, hugging trees, and talking to an imaginary pigeon therapist. (You read that right.) I did none of these things as a teenager, you should know, but I had all sorts of other things I attempted to battle panic attacks and depression. Like James, I didn’t know what was wrong with me except that I felt depressed. (The word felt right, but what did it truly mean?) In addition to depression, I paced around nervously; my heart raced. I was having panic attacks for years and didn’t know it. I avoided social gatherings. I had a few friends whom I didn’t even confide in about my funky brain. I spent lots of time sleeping, reading, listening to music, and convincing myself that I was an emotional, self-sufficient person.
James and I are not the same, but we share similar feelings.
As for James, he believes he has no reason to be depressed, chides himself, and dismisses his own emotions. But when James discovers that his sister might be suffering even more than he is, his anxiety and depression become unmanageable. I reached the point of unmanageable depression later in life than James.
But I didn’t write Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets as an act of self-therapy. Nor do I expect the novel to cure people of depression and anxiety. No book can accomplish such a thing. What I hope is that -- aside from being interesting and emotionally engaging and funny -- it can give certain readers strength and help them to realize that they don’t need permission to get help or speak up. (I also hope it makes people laugh because even those of us that suffer from depression can -- and need to -- laugh.)
The stigma of mental illness is weakening, at least in my sphere of experience. Students talk about it imperfectly but with more understanding, often because they know someone who suffers from depression, panic attacks, bi-polar disorder, PTSD, or other serious conditions. I believe it will continue to get better. Those of us who suffer can continue to be advocates for those who cannot speak out yet. People who suffer shouldn't be left huddled together, hoping not to be dismissed, chastised, mocked, or ignored.
For more infomration on Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct 7-13 2012) visit http://www.nami.org/template.cfm?section=mental_illness_awareness_week
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
I have been thinking about place in fiction, research, and how we as writers create a setting or sense of a place that works to build the world of the story. I set my novel Lovely, Dark and Deep in northern Maine having never been to Maine. I had an imagined Maine within me, one that seemed as developed as my protagonist the moment she appeared. I knew little about the actual state, details from a friend raised there and some from reading. As I got deeper into my writing and realized how important place was to the story, I kept photos from the internet open on my desktop, peeking at me around the edges of my manuscript for subliminal inspiration. Some of the images I sought were snowy woods, others were wild, brilliant, thunderous coast shots from places as far up as Nova Scotia. The Maine I was writing was fiction through and through.
Once I had a solid draft I decided I needed to see the place. On a record-breaking snowy weekend in New York City, this former Minnesota girl packed up her car, grabbed fellow Midwesterner and drove through a blizzard to see if this imagined place, this Arcadian Maine, had anything in common with the real one.
I was pleased to see, at least from an outsider’s eyes, it did. We drove to Portland and further north, shooting photographs of snow-covered firs, skinny islands, craggy black and grey lichen-rich rocks at the edge of the ocean, and some of the small towns dotting Highway 1. I was so happy that the atmosphere of the place seemed to match what I’d imagined that I found myself looking for my characters as if I might actually be able to catch a snapshot or two of them.
After a great long weekend of poking around, talking to people, taking a ridiculous number of photographs, and eating at crazy good restaurants, I came home with my images and changed my desktop background so I had them ghosting around in the background for subliminal inspiration.
Then something strange happened. I had to take them down, replace them with my earlier finds, the ones I’d selected to match what I’d already imagined. My images of the real Maine, as felicitous as it seemed to find and discover them, pulled me out of the story, disoriented me a bit, anchored me to my own life rather than the lives I was dreaming up. Maybe it was something about how literal they were, how connected to my trip—whatever it was, they prevented me from easily accessing the Maine I’d already invented for my characters.
It wasn’t until after working with my marvelous editor that I decided to look at the photographs again. They’d changed. Or more likely, I had. Somehow, over time, they'd shrugged off the literal. Perhaps this was a result of having taken so many pictures I could no longer remember specific details about where I was when I shot this one or that one. Because looking at them, months later, I saw my story. It was as if my eyes, while I was writing the novel, had led me to the shots I wanted and needed, but it wasn’t until I could forget having done the looking that they assume the imagined. This taught me something important about research: I can and need to feed my imagination from the world, but my trip to Maine was really more a confirmation of the power of story than a requirement for tapping into it.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
Eight months out from the launch of my second book, I’m starting to think about promotions. It’s a task that must be done, even though it makes me uncomfortable. I’m always embarrassed promoting myself. (In fact, it’ll take all my guts just to stick my book’s cover image at the end of this post.) Luckily, I learned a lot from the launch of my first book – and from watching other authors launch theirs.
First, DO be part of the conversation on social networks, not a one-track self-promoter. DON’T comment on people’s blogs by mentioning how their post reminds you of your book and providing a buy link. (I’ve seen this done!) Participate in conversations without dropping your book title all the time. Just get yourself out there and be visible.
DO thank every blogger who hosts you with a guest blog or interview. You may have provided content for them, but they took the time to set up the post. When my first book launched, I couldn’t decide whether or not I should comment on blog reviews that I stumbled across through Google Alerts. Did it make me look like a stalker if I did? Did it seem aloof if I didn’t? In the end, I came to the conclusion that no one can take a simple “Thanks!” amiss.
DO respond to people who contact you about your book or mention you in FB and Twitter posts. The months before and after a book launch are super busy – especially if you have a family and a full time job as well. But it’s important to block out time to respond to the readers who reach out to you.
DON’T respond to negative reviews by arguing with the reviewer. Not ever. No matter how hurtful, inaccurate, or unfair the review is, DON’T do it. Even if the reviewer gives you a 1-star rating because the UPS man ran over her dog while delivering the book: Just. Look. Away.
DON’T judge the success of an author appearance by how many people show up or how many books you sell. An experienced author once told me that connections you make talking to people (readers, store owners, other authors) are often more important than the signed books that walk out the door. One time, a 20-minute conversation with a woman who did NOT buy my book that night resulted in her book club choosing to read it four months later.
And finally, DO remember that no matter how important your book launch is to you, it’s not the center of everyone else’s life. DON’T be hurt by family, friends, and co-workers who fail to rush out and buy the book on the release date. Of course, the ones who do will hold a special place in your heart (and sometimes you’ll be surprised by which ones they are), but everyone else wishes you well too, no matter when (or if) they read your book.