Sunday, February 26, 2012

An Ode To Bookstores

I am departing, oh-so-briefly, from my regularly scheduled program of weekly posts to direct your attention to a delightful piece in praise of bookstores that ran in this morning's Sunday Oregonian.  It was written by Portland author Bart King.  It's called "More Than a Store, a Place to Bask In Books."  As someone who loves to browse in bookstores and see where they take me, and the daughter of someone who can easily spend an entire day in a bookstore and typically must be dragged out, I LOVED this little gem.  Check it out by clicking on the title of King's article above.  See you next Friday, if not sooner!


Friday, February 24, 2012

Slush Pile Empathy

Why does it take so long to hear back from an agent/editor?

Most of us know the short answer.  They get bombarded with tens of thousands of manuscripts every year, sometimes more.  Sure, my intellect gets it.  But this past month, I had a wave of empathy and a new level of understanding for why it's so damned hard to get out of the slush pile.

Every month or so in my third and fourth grade class we have a Publication Celebration, where all my students share the final copy of that unit's writing project.  These pieces involve a lot of work and revision and editing on their parts, weeks of planning and exploring and rewrites.  The celebration is lovely, with parents, friends and family members plus fancy refreshments.  Then I collect all those wonderful results of their hard work in my cart full of papers to grade.  And there they sit, sometimes for weeks on end.  Why?

It's not because I don't want to read them.  I do.  It's not because I don't care about them.  It's because I care too much.  I know that when I sit down to grade those papers, I want to give my students' writing the attention it deserves.  I can't just grade it while I'm watching TV or when my brain is fried at the end of a long day or while I'm squeezing in some extra work in a 15 minute chunk of time at recess or between after-school meetings.  I need a long stretch of time, in a quiet place, where I can focus fully on the words they (hopefully) chose with such care.  I need to think carefully about all the elements - ideas, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, voice, conventions.  I reread each piece several times, with a different lens each time.  Some give me great pleasure to read, but others are brutal, painful even.  I have to blink, breathe, sit back, take a break.

Unfortunately, the thought of that level of concentrated attention and care multiplied by 33 is a little daunting, which makes it, I confess, easy to put off the process, which I do, again and again until now, I have a backlog, 2 separate pieces to read from every student, instead of just one.  I sit down for a couple hours with a cup of coffee and work my way through 5 or 6, feeling proud of my progress, until I look at the pile and realize I'm not even halfway through.  Then some other element of my schedule calls and the window of opportunity for extended attention slams shut again.

This past weekend, as I sat facing that pile of beautiful, wonderful, all-over-the-map earnest efforts by my students, I realized I was, in fact, facing my own personal slush pile of sorts.  Of course, I have a different goal in mind than all those editors and agents.  But I also have a much smaller slush pile, with much shorter pieces, and I know all the authors personally and have a vested interest in their creations.

But maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons it takes those agents and editors so very long to get back to us is because they, like me, care so much about the writing.  They, too, want to give our words the time and attention they deserve.

It's a nice thought, anyway.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Introvert Torture, AKA Self-promotion for Writers

So here I was preparing to write a post about the Catch-22 of the introverted writer profile and the current demand that writers excel at self-promotion, when lo and behold I came upon two highly relevant blog posts.

The first is from my friend Jan Bear, a writer who is fearless in the face of the digital realm and who embraces the challenge of marketing with a vigor and determination I can only envy.  She's also acutely aware of how all of us introvert-types fear marketing.  In fact, I'd say Jan understands the introvert quite well.  Anyway, she's got a new ebook coming out soon about marketing for writers in today's age.  I love that her description of its contents includes an acknowledgment of the introvert's dilemma in this sphere.  Check it out at her blog, Market Your Book.

The second post is from Suzy Vitello at Let's Talk About Writing.  She examines the challenge of writing feisty, active characters when so many of us writers may be introverts by nature.  While this post isn't about marketing, I think it gets at another challenge posed to us writers by virtue of our introverted tendencies.

We live in an era where writers are expected to promote themselves and their work like never before, constantly sticking their necks out, tooting their own horns, beating their own drums, you name it.  If you go the traditional publishing route, you better have a great, confident pitch, a tough skin for all the rejection, a kick-ass digital platform, and the capacity to market the hell out of your own stuff, since the amount the publisher will put into marketing is likely to be miniscule.  On the other hand, if you go the increasingly viable self-publishing route, you've got to have marketing savvy to rise above the mass quantities of stuff other folks are publishing and reach your audience.

But the act of writing itself, and the writer's mind, seem so at odds with any of this.  Sure, there are those rare types who are great writers and skilled self-promoters (I know a couple), but I'd be willing to bet that the Meyer's Briggs profile of a writer isn't the same as the profile of a marketer.  Why has this system developed?  Why are we placed in this nearly untenable position?  Perhaps it's a test of our passion and commitment, the new millenium version of suffering for your art.

I'd like to close by begging forgiveness of the blogger who first inspired this post last week.  I've been perusing a lot of blogs lately and I can't for the life of me remember or find the blog post that first tickled this notion in the back of my head.  So, wherever you are out there, if I find you again, I will be sure to make mention and include a link.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Zoom In, Zoom Out - The Big Picture and the Details

I think being a writer must be a lot like being a camera person.  You have to know where to focus, when a close-up is needed and when to pan out.  We have to keep this in mind not only from the audience's perspective, but also from our own perspective.  

Sometimes we have to step back to look at the shape of the whole thing.  Does our plot structure serve our story?  Are the scenes in the right place?  Is there a build both to the plot and to the character arcs?  Is there a strong, clear climax and turning point?  What about the pacing?  Are some scenes too long or too short?  Is there a mix of rapid action with occasional moments to breathe?  To spot these things, you have to zoom out.

How do you zoom out?  An outline or synopsis can help.  For me, I always reach a point where I have to print out the whole manuscript, let it rest, then read through it all and have others read through it.  I've also found that the Scrivener program is a great tool for looking at the big picture shape of a longer manuscript.

Still, you can't keep your distance all the time.  Attention to the details is what brings the story to life, what makes the world you've created and the characters in it feel real.  For that, you have to zoom in.  Look at the shape of each individual scene.  Think intently about word choice.  Clear out some of those verbs of awareness.  Find strong language to use instead of placeholders (those words or phrases that come most quickly to us, do the job and hold the spot but are ultimately weak or overused).  Pay attention to the rhythm and pacing of individual words, sentences and paragraphs.  Does the language slow things down when the action should be galloping forward?

This dance between big picture and details is all about balance.  Zoom in.  Polish.  Zoom out.  Assess.  Zoom in again.

What tricks or tools do you find useful in shifting perspective on your story?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Accepting Criticism

Confession time again.  I struggle with accepting criticism graciously.  Mind you, I've gotten SO much better at this over time.  I know it's an absolute must for anyone, especially writers.  There's no way to make progress and get better unless you stick your neck out and hear what folks have to say, the good, the bad and the ugly.  But, man, is it hard not to go on the defensive.  My rational brain is so skilled at sifting through and recognizing what's valid and what can be learned from any feedback.  But there's this other part, let's call her four-year-old Cindy, who throws tantrums in my head and screams "I hate you" and other nasty things unfit for public consumption, no matter how valid the criticism is.

I am reminded of this as the first round of feedback from the Critique-my-blog blogfest rolls in.  All of it has been wonderfully helpful, especially since this whole blogging world is so alien to me.  Unfortunately, four-year-old Cindy has been causing me a lot of trouble, pouting in the other room and saying nasty things about blogging, cyberspace and the digital age in general, not to mention my own efforts to get anywhere with my writing.  I'm trying to ignore her until she tires herself out.  I suggest you do the same if she starts any commotion during this post.

Over time, I've managed to tame the little wild thing version of myself.  I ask her to wait in the other room while my calmer, saner self nods at the poor soul critiquing me, dutifully takes notes, and says things like, "Good point" or "Let me fiddle with that."  But four-year-old Cindy doesn't like to stay still for long.  She's always trying to assert herself, no matter how much she promised to behave when she first sat down.

The thing is, I really like the wild thing.  She's got spunk, and, unlike Lou Grant, I love  spunk.  So, I don't want to squash her spirit.  Sometimes, I need that power to keep from crumpling up in a sad little ball of whimpiness.  She only throws fits because she cares passionately about stuff, and that's something I never want to lose.

Maybe I need to approach her the way I do so many of my more challenging students.  Help her get used to this whole criticism thing.  Give her a replacement behavior, a safe place to take a break and manage her big feelings without disrupting the group.  Maybe it's enough just to personify this side of me.  Am I the only one who does this?  Somehow, I doubt it.  Anyone else out there have a name, personality, perhaps even an image for this side of yourself?

Popular Posts