Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Libby: What does it take to succeed as a novelist?

Over at Blue Rose Girls there was a post about the role talent plays in getting published. That got me thinking about what it takes to have a successful career as a writer -- specifically, a writer of novels. Meghan was talking about it from an artist's point of view -- but I think that's different. For one thing, it's easier to get editors to look at picture books!

What do you think it takes to succeed as a novelist -- not just to get that first contract, but to build a career? In order of importance, here's what I think:

1. Talent -- without this spark, without inspiration, you won't get anywhere. Hard work will make you better, but without SOME talent, I don't think you can write novels anyone will want to read.

2. Hard work/discipline -- that talent does have to be supported, consistently supported, by what Jane Yolen calls BIC (butt-in-chair).

3. Good judgement -- about yourself, your talent, the business: knowing where to put your energy. Some people don't need this -- what they're best at and most interested in writing and the marketplace all align nicely; but (I think) many of us face hard decisions....and even those fortunate few need to decide whether, say, promoting their books is a good or bad use of their energy and time.

4. An editor who really loves and GETS your work.

5. The fortitude to conquer your demons or the good luck to not have any.

6. SOME luck -- at the beginning, to get a good agent (thank you stars and Sara!) and maybe even to get your novel read and published? Later, if you aspire to making it big, luck will definitely be needed for that. The linked essay by isn't about making it big, but the story of how his first book became a bestseller is a good (and unusually frank) example. I'm not saying that all it takes it make it big is luck -- the book needs to appeal to lots of people, too! -- but which of the good books published each year become blockbusters does depend as much upon luck and timing as merit and promotion, particularly if the author is unknown.

7. The support (if financial, so much the better!) of family or friends or both.

8. If you want your work to last: something to say. By "something to say" I don't mean a simple lesson, but the sum of what your novel says/means -- something only you could have said in that way. I put this last not because I think it is the least important but because I think it's quite possible to be published, and even build a successful career, without it. But the books that people are still reading a hundred years later all have it -- and maybe many we AREN'T reading a hundred years later have it too. Luck again?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More Good News for THE MORGUE AND ME!

THE MORGUE AND ME by John Ford has been nominated for a 2009 Agatha Award for Best Children's/Young Adult Novel Congratulations, John!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Erik: The Age of Enlightenment

Like many writers living abroad, I often peruse the internet to educate myself on what people in the U.S. are thinking about my novel, The Book of Samuel. One fourteen-year old reviewer said my novel was “…a nice short story…” another said that the writing was “eloquent,” but at the same time, “the words were complicated.” So I decided to search through LibraryThing and and Goodreads to see what people were saying about the books that not only inspired, but provided reference points for me while I was writing The Book of Samuel. While I found many wonderful reviews of classic books, I also wondered what kind of person would give say, Goodnight Moon, one out of five stars (for "...unjustified repetition..."). This is what I found:

Lord of the Flies: “The plot wasn't really to my liking, and more than one part made me want to toss my cookies… 1.5 out of 5 for severely awkward sausage-fests.”

The Sun Also Rises: “An absolute steaming pile, if you ask me.”

The Canterbury Tales: “I was bothered by how far out from modern society the attitudes were in this book.”

Paddy Clarke HA HA HA: “…I've come to accept that I loathe books written from the perspectives of children. It's a cheap method of making tragedy more tragic…”

The Divine Comedy: “I basically just get it, and it's not that great to me. It's just some guy who's putting people in a fictional Hell/Purgatory/Paradise where he thinks they'd belong. That's not that great of an idea to me, and actually comes off as a little adolescent.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God: “…reading this was like watching the idiot babysitter go in to the basement when you KNOW the scary monster is down there.”

To the Lighthouse: “As the first section to The Sound and The Fury is, this book was a tough read. They're both stream of conscious classics that have accomplished much, but, for a contemporary reader like myself, the freshness of that immediacy to thought is stripped of its power in an age where I can send my professor my essay with my phone.”

Interpreter of Maladies: “… the stories are not well described and the plots are too simple…”

Anna Karenina: I hated it so much, I didn't even finish it. This is the first time in my life where I actually did that. I think it's because I don't understand what it means to live on a farm.”

Disgrace: “A lifetime subscription to Playboy could not better calcify in my mind the idea of men, even fancily educated ones, as shallow, selfish, nymphette-obsessed douchebags. This book actually hurt my self-esteem.”

Jane Eyre: “The only thing worse than a period movie is a period book.”

Catcher In The Rye: “Holden Caulfield, collete (sic) student, has little tolerance for anything pretensious (sic), including the scramble for social status, drops out and leaves college on blind journey to anywhere searching his dreams and fantasies for meaning, understanding, and simple honest relational experience, finds none of this, suffers breakdown, ends up back home, finds that happiness can't be found by seeking for it, that it's inherently prior and must be chosen.”

The Bell Jar: “I prefer childbirth.”

Pride and Prejudice: “I'm totally enamored of the movie, which proves that the story is a good one, even if Austen's narrative style seems to be an exercise in tedium.”

The Great Gatsby: “…while the story manages to become somewhat interesting, the writing is pretty dreadful and original comment non existent.”

Wide Sargasso Sea: “Almost as bad as Virginia Woolf's junk. And that's bad.”

Huckleberry Finn: “One of the reasons why I hate this book because its confusing just everything, coming all at once. I have to stop and be like "Wait, whaat's (sic) happening here"? Also because of the hillbilly like language too. Another reason why I hate it, is because its sad, I don't like that a lot of people die, to me its just slighty (sic) annoying about people keep dying, cause you can get also bored with it.”

Gulliver’s Travels: “…lots of unreal mithical (sic) creatures.”

Don Quixote: “This is, undoubtedly, the worst book I have ever attempted to read. Surprisingly, I did enjoy the dinner theatre version of the musical, however.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Robison: Knowing Your Audience: A Business Perspective

One of the most interesting lessons I learned about writing came from business school. I have my MBA in marketing, and while business doesn't often interact much with art, there is a pair of artists who often get discussed by marketers.

In 1994 two artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, hired a market research firm to survey Americans and determine exactly what kind of art they love. Following all the best research methods to ensure statistical accuracy, they presented the respondents with dozens of questions: modern or traditional? religious or non-religious? abstract or realistic? The survey asked respondents to rank their favorite artists, to describe the art currently hanging in their home, and so on.

Blue and green were the most popular colors. Landscapes were preferred, especially those that showed water. Americans like paintings of children and animals (specifically wildlife). And the like paintings of historical figures.

So, Komar and Melamid created a painting that was designed to give Americans exactly what they want:

Now, obviously, there's a problem with the painting. Even though there's nothing inherently wrong with it--the technique is fine, the composition is decent, the subject matter is exactly what public opinion wanted--but the problem lies in what isn't there. There's no meaning, or heart, or purpose, or whatever you want to call those intagibles of art. When we look at this painting, there's nothing in it that stirs the soul. While I believe this painting is a masterpiece in the way it makes you think, it definitely would not be the type of thing most Americans would want to hang on their wall.

So, why is this discussed in marketing classes?

In business, when you're going to launch a new product you look at the market and see what customers want. You do this through surveys or focus groups or any number of ways; you ask them. But you don't stop there; now you have to figure out what makes your product better than everything else.

A classic positioning statement is laid out like this:

"My product is targeted at the ____________ market. It is similar to what is already available in these ways: __________________. However, it is superior to what is available in these ways: ___________."

That was the problem with Komar and Melamid. They gave the people exactly what the polls said they wanted, to the letter, but they didn't give them anything else. As one marketing professional put it: "Good businesses give their customers what they want; great businesses know their customers so well that they give the customers what they will want, before the customers even realize the want it."

So what does this mean for writers?

First, we have to know our audience. That means we need to read. In the words of Stephen King: "If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write." We also need to talk to reader, to get involved in book discussions, or even just be involved with them. A friend of mine, Aprilynne Pike, says that she's involved with a church youth group and those teens are the first place she turns when she's working on her YA novels.

Second, we need to know our market, but not imitate what's already there. When I was first published in 2004, my editor told me that 60-70% of all the submissions she received began with "If you liked Harry Potter..." Then, a few years later it became "If you liked The Da Vinci Code..."

When Harry Potter became a sensation, many imitators jumped on the bandwagon and started churning out their stories about wizard schools. Some of these books were published and a few made some decent money. But none of them will ever be loved or remembered like the original.

However, better writers didn't imitate, but instead looked at why Harry Potter was successful: what emotions did it evoke? what need did it fill? In other words, they learned more about their audience by examining what their audience liked.

The folly of chasing the market is that you'll always be behind, always imitating others. But the folly of ignoring the market completely is that, while you might be constantly creating new things, your audience could be completed uninterested. Fortunately, it's not hard to know your audience. The solution isn't even as mercenary as keeping one foot in art and the other in business; the solution is simply: read, discuss, and create new things.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Holly: A Blessing and a Curse

I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, especially when it comes to mental or personality disorders. After I took an abnormal psychology course in college, I diagnosed myself with half of the disorders in the DSM-IV and then immediately signed up for counseling. But there's one disorder I definitely had, without a doubt, even though no one actually diagnosed it when I was a child: Selective mutism.

To sum it up, children with selective mutism are unable to speak in certain social situations. At first glance, it doesn't sound serious enough to be a REAL disorder. Aren't these kids just choosing not to speak?

But it's not simple shyness that goes away once you become comfortable with new people. It's paralyzing anxiety. It’s persistent and confusing and painful. For me, it began as soon as I started kindergarten. Until then I'd been a rambunctious loud mouth kid (and I have the home videos to prove it). But something happened when I was suddenly plunked into a room full of people and expected to spend hours at a time with them five days a week. I became a completely different person at school. I couldn't speak to them, and I had no idea why. I would respond to questions with a nod, shake of the head, or a shrug, but I couldn't open my mouth. People assumed I acted this way willfully, that I just didn't WANT to talk. But more than anything, I wanted to talk at school and make friends with my classmates and be normal. At home, around my family, I was still a fairly normal kid. It's like I lived in two separate worlds. No one understood me. I didn't even understand myself.

My silence persisted throughout elementary school, and honestly, sometimes it was a pretty miserable way to spend my childhood. Group projects and oral reports were torture. I would skip them if possible and let my grades suffer. I was smart, but my fifth grade teacher kicked me out of the gifted and talented program because I wouldn't contribute to discussions. I tried my best to remain invisible and go with the flow. I avoided expressing my own opinions or standing out in any way. If a teacher praised me in front of the class for doing something well, I wanted to sink into the floor. I had tragically low self esteem, though I didn't even realize it until years later. Things did gradually get easier, although I never passed for normal. By high school, I could hold simple conversations with my classmates if they initiated them, but I still didn’t know how to make friends, and I never completely let go of the anxiety. I still haven't.

Because I didn't talk for the seven or eight hours I spent at school every day, I lived inside my head. I had an extremely vivid fantasy life where I created alter egos for myself who had friends and did crazy things that I would never actually do. At home, I mostly played alone. I loved my Barbies, the paper dolls my mother would draw for me, and my doll house. I spent years writing stories in my head before I even realized that's what I was doing. As soon as I understood that people could get paid to make up stories and write them down, I knew I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I never had any other ambition.

Because of my childhood mutism, I've always been more of an observer than a participant. Even now, I'd rather watch someone else's conversation than have one of my own. I found other people endlessly fascinating, mostly because I lacked the ability to form relationships and get to know them. Sometimes they would let me overhear their juicy gossip because they knew I wouldn't repeat it to anyone. But most of the time, I just had to wonder and make up my own stories. My imagination worked overtime. The observing, the wondering, the hours spent in silence--it was all great training for the short stories and novels I would eventually write.

The eponymous detective from the TV series Monk suffers from extreme OCD after his wife is murdered. He describes his disorder as both a blessing and a curse. The myriad of quirks that prevent him from living a normal life are the same traits that make him a brilliant detective. And that's the same way I feel about my silent childhood. It wasn't fun a lot of the time, and I'm still dealing with the lingering negative effects, but it made me a writer and I can't think of anything I'd rather be.