Thursday, December 30, 2010

Fresh Pages and Resolutions

"We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year's Day." Edith Lovejoy Pierce

I love New Year's Day! I love the idea of reflection and fresh starts. I'm an optimist, a spring baby and partly Scottish (bad Robbie Burns reference). I can't help it. Every year I spend a good week prior to the big day meditating on my successes and failures...taking stock of all the things I said I was going to accomplish and did while learning from what I didn't do so well and letting go. And of course, there are the resolutions.

My resolutions have been a work in progress these last several months. Through coaching my clients and writing this blog I am more resolute than ever with the notion that we are the editors of our lives. It IS a major element of my coaching, after all. A poet will tell you every word counts in their craft. Fiction writers know that every action, every nuance in scene, every characteristic of their protags and antags must serve a purpose. I feel more and more that every action I take in my life must serve a purpose. I'm not talking about micro-management here, writers - what a creativity killer! Rather, I'm talking about placing a more intense focus on where time is spent, how it's spent and choosing positive activity that brings value to my life or the lives of those around me (which is also totally cool). Every action must serve a purpose; they must bring forward motion through enlightenment, peace, clarity or happiness. Where do I need to apply the red pen and cut the fat, so to speak? What do I need to expand, flesh out?

Many bestselling and award-winning authors have contributed their personal success stories, insights and tips here on this blog (for free, I might add), to help you all gain perspective on the creative and publishing processes as a whole. They found success through an unparalleled confidence in their ability and clarity of mind. All of them know writing is a discipline and have consistently bettered their craft and approach to the publishing industry by doing what it takes to be a good writer and persevering through the rough spots. It took time. And it all started with a singular passion and a good deal of focus.

Some people make resolutions and stick to them. Others plan grand, virtuous courses then revert back to their old ways a few weeks or months into the New Year. I like to look at resolutions as a work in progress...something you've decided to commit to for the long haul, perfecting as you go, not a quick fix to an old problem.

This New Year pace your selves. Understand success is something you build day by day. Doing everything necessary to become a better writer and building your author platform takes years. There is no race but there is action. Everyday there is action that should move you forward with your craft, with your goals, adding value and richness to your writer's life as a whole.

This New Year, I wish for you all to truly enjoy and fully engage in your creative life!

Here's to 2011!


Friday, December 24, 2010

Happy Holidays

Whatever you celebrate, I wish you a peaceful, joyous holiday filled with light, love and many blessings in the New Year!

Next week, I'll wrap up the month recapping the Lit Coach journey so far and reflect a bit on what lies ahead in 2011.

Happy Holidays!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Q&A with The Lit Coach

Q: I have experienced the most unbelievable couple of years. Honestly! It includes an appearance on a Dutch reality show and has been capped off by my having been detained in, and subsequently denied entry into, a foreign country just yesterday for having made a sarcastic comment to the border agent. To go along with this I have, what I've been told, a talent to write. If there is a god, he or she wants me to write a book. Either that, or he really, really doesn't want me spending time in Europe.

I need an agent. Someone to help me craft the most saleable book possible. Is it possible to attain an agent without a completed manuscript? How?


A: You share a similar predicament with many new writers, well, not the border mishap (on second thought…) but possessing the talent to write and not knowing where to start or how to direct it. And like you, many writers would love to start with an agent in the hopes the agent can somehow direct them into writing a super saleable book, one of which that agent will turn around and sell to a publisher. While some agents can’t help but step in and offer direct creative development advice to new writers upon meeting them, (as this former agent is VERY prone to do…and which I DO do in depth with my clients who are just starting out), agents simply don’t have time to help shape your yet to be forged creative path.

An agent’s job is to acquire your completely finished and polished novel or nonfiction proposal, most likely guide you through some edits to get it to their standard and then submit it to the most appropriate editors for your work. After they sell your work (fingers crossed!), they’ll stick with you through the entire publishing process making sure your book is presented to the public in the best possible way. That’s how they earn their 10-15% commission.

Now. I’m reading and hearing quite a bit about agents who do counsel new writers on how to shape their writing careers, as well as offer evaluative and editorial services on the side for fees. This worries me. Those who are in favor of this seemingly shifting paradigm call it “evolution” but something stinks about it. When I was an agent, I followed AAR’s Canon of Ethics, a list of standards put in place by those in the publishing industry to help writers protect themselves and their work and to help agents keep good business practices. Most of the best agents in the country do follow these ethics and are either members or openly state they follow the Canon. The Canon states, members may not charge fees for reading, evaluative or editorial work unless in a writers’ conference setting. Anything else seems muddy to me and the risk of a writer to be taken advantage of by an agent who needs to make money to keep being an agent seems probable. And what about their actual clients who need their books sold? I’ll probably write more about this topic in the future, but for now I can tell you that the best agents who earn their living from selling their clients’ work are still doing just that. Call me a traditionalist.

Kelly, what you can do over time is decide where your writer’s heart truly lies through reading, writing and reflection. I’ve read your blog - you’re quite funny and a pretty good writer. With blog development, it’s all about content and consistency. You identified yourself to me as a funny writer who seems to have unusual experiences, sometimes in unusual places…great hook! So, your blog needs to be about that! The best blogs are story driven – so tell us a great, funny story and keep ‘em coming on a regular basis. I’d subscribe to that!
Hope that helps! Good luck.

Q: How do I query memoir?

A: Just as you would a regular nonfiction project. What’s important here, though, is your hook because memoir these days are very story driven…not just “hey folks, this is my life.” The old tell all memoir has given birth to some very exciting subgenres of memoir: travel memoir – Almost French; cooking memoir – The Hunger: A Story of Food, Desire and Ambition and memoir’s first cousin, humorous essay – Me Talk Pretty One Day. Even though it’s nonfiction, you’re still telling a story, so make it a good one. You also want to consider the organization of your memoir; will it be linear or will it read as a collection of short stories tied together with a common thread? Some of my favorite memoirs read like a novel because the author’s retelling of their lives is that moving, compelling, engaging or funny.

Check out the covers of some of your favorite memoirs and notice how the brief overview teasers draw you in. You’ll capture an agent’s attention with an equally compelling overview of your memoir.

To read more about how to query nonfiction, check out these books:

Author 101 Bestselling Nonfiction: The Insider’s Guide to Making Reality Sell by Rick Frishman and Robyn Freedman Spizman

A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction by Elizabeth Lyons

Writing The Perfect Book Proposals: 10 That Sold and Why by Jeff Herman and Deborah Levine Herman

Good luck, KA!

Have a fruitful, exciting holiday week, writers!


Monday, December 13, 2010

Persistence: Hurdling the Obstacles

Persistence is the thing that truly defines your success. It's also one of the most challenging virtues to follow. Most successful writers I know have come toe to toe with a few hurdles and chose to jump them rather than turn back. Can you imagine some of your favorite authors just deciding to quit because figuring out a way to move ahead was too....hard? So then, why would you consider it?

Recognizing your challenges is your first step toward success.

Here are three of the most common hurdles you'll face in your writer's life and how to get over them.

Hurdle 1: Lack of Confidence

Maybe I'm just not that good is what you'll most likely say right before you give up writing for good, this time. You've written and re-written your work, sent it out, had it rejected, meanwhile months, maybe a year (or more) go by and you're still unagented and unpublished. Welcome to the writer's life, my dears! Sometimes it takes months and years for any real success to flow toward you despite your best efforts. If you've read last week's post with Monica Drake (bestselling author of Clown Girl), you know it takes more than talent to get a book published; it takes the wisdom to pull back your novel/proposal from circulation if it needs more work and the willingness to just keep sending it out no matter the rejections that may come your way - rejection is just part of the writer's landscape.

So if it's really an issue of not being that good, THEN GET GOOD! You've got time! You don't need an MFA to write compelling fiction and you don't need a mega following to write a great nonfiction book proposal (although it will help you attract the attention of a publisher), but you DO need a solid understanding of how to write saleable fiction or nonfiction by doing the following: READ the competition; WRITE as much as you can; RESEARCH what you don't know; CONNECT with other writers; REPEAT. Even after you've found success, repeat.

Hurdle No. 2: Life Unravels
Well, you write what you know and sometimes that page is full of drama. Sometimes it gets the better of you. What I've learned so far is that drama doesn't stop happening, you just have to deal with it and make the best choices you can to move ever forward. When the drama happens, and I mean big drama...heartbreak, illness, death, family upheaval...resist the urge to forever hang up your pen. Give yourself the space you need to process whatever is going on, whatever you're feeling, then come back to your writing. It would be such a shame to give up something you love so much because of a drama overdose. Just give yourself time. More importantly, get the help you need. Time and the right support will get you through the rough spots.

For the minor dramas, remember, sometimes it's your own action or reaction that puts you in that yuk place. If you find yourself always saying Life isn't fair! take a step back and really see what's going on with your life picture. What could you do differently for a more favorable outcome? The world isn't out to get you, so it's not the world's fault. And sure, stuff does happen to you that's not of your making, but you can either react negatively and really wallow in self loathing or toss yuk to the side, look to your horizon and keep pushing forward. It's your choice.

Hurdle No. 3: Fear

Fear puts the brakes on progress quicker than anything clever I can think to write here. Fear of rejection, ridicule, fame, success, loss of creative control (when it comes to mainstream publishing), will stop many writers from moving their work forward when it's finished...and some will never finish, rather they'll keep revising, editing their work to death because they're afraid of the next step. That next step is an event with an unknown result and that's scary territory for many writers. Some of you don't even know it's fear that's keeping you back. You just think it's good old procrastination.

The first thing you can do is recognize your fear and realize this feeling is your response to the possibility of you moving out of your comfort zone, where it's nice and cozy. Then realize progress is growth. You've done a heck of a lot of growing to get to this point, right? Why stop now? Even when you're selling loads of books, you're still going to be pushing yourself to the next level, the next zone because you're progressing, getting better. It's ok to enjoy where you are right now, but be ready to move out when you've outgrown your digs...and look forward to your success!

If you're afraid of failing, of just not getting it right, head to the biography section of your local bookseller or library and start reading the life stories of some of our greatest achievers. You'll see their lives were fraught with failure. Then you'll read about their sweet successes after what seems to be a lifetime of hard knocks. The difference between them and the "failed" writer? They didn't give up! Nothing new here, writers, but it seems to need repeating.

Most successes are a result of trial and error. Do you love writing enough that you will persevere through the rejection, life's greatest dramas, the fear of the unknown? Will you do what it takes to become a better writer? Will you keep your eye on the horizon? Don't quit. Don't give up. Keep moving forward, whatever it takes. Persist!

* I should note, not every writer's life is fraught with rejection and drama. This blog post is intended to help those who have yet to remove the obstacles that have thus far remained in their path.

Your Action: Pinpoint the issue that's keeping you from moving forward. Study it from every angle, put a name on it, get nose to nose with it. Commit to yourself that you're going to address this issue and move forward with your work. The New Year is coming, in the Western world. Time for fresh starts. What will yours look like?

Have a powerful, fruitful, creative week, writers!


Friday, December 10, 2010

Next on The Lit Coach's Guide

Next Monday on The Lit Coach's Guide we'll take a look at the issues that sideline even the most productive writers as we continue our focus on Persistence in a writer's life...and what they do to get back on track (and you can too!).

Haven't read author Monica Drake's excellent blog contribution yet? Take some time to read today. Monica's journey in persistence is truly inspiring. Had she stopped at the first couple of hurdles, she wouldn't be a bestselling author and her novel, Clown Girl, would never have been optioned by SNL's Kristin Wiig!

Also, I'm collecting your questions for another round of Q&A with The Lit Coach. If you have any questions about the writer's life, process, agents, publishers, book selling and promotion, ask me! One question only, please. Questions due December 18th.

Have a wonderful, stress-free weekend, writers!

Happy Holidays!


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Persistence: A Blogshop with Bestselling Author of Clown Girl, Monica Drake

Why do you want to publish? Be honest. Publishing is hard work! Months and years of real time could be spent on just one book from inception to glossy bound cover with attention grabbing blurbs. You'll spend hundreds to thousands of dollars on extra copies of your book, website, book promotion and events. You've heard it before, getting your book published and being "the author" is a full time job with no guarantees and it's true.

Most new authors don't truly realize how much of themselves they'll give to their publishing career. Somewhere in the middle of their first book's journey, maybe it's when they're wrapping up edits or when they're synching publicity efforts between their publicist and publisher's PR team, they realize two things: I can't believe how much work this is!; and, I can't believe this is all finally happening!! As a former lit agent, I fielded plenty of calls from my authors for both these occasions. I was thrilled right along with them, after all, I loved their book, too, and worked hard at selling it. As a consultant and coach, I prepare writers for this reality before they find themselves in it.

Writers ask me all the time what the secret is to getting a book deal. Who do you gotta know? "What's that writer doing that I'm not?" they'll ask. The difference between those writers who finally published their book and sell actual copies to unknown book buyers is they did not quit. They didn't quit sending out query letters to agents, they didn't quit reshaping their novel or nonfiction proposal until it was just right, they didn't lose hope when their agent forwarded them scads of rejection letters from publishers. And when their agent lost hope and let them off the rope, they didn't quit putting their work in front of other agents or in bestselling author Monica Drake's case, on publishers' desks.

I asked Monica to share her path to publication story for her debut novel, Clown Girl, with us because I'm always intrigued by unique storytelling and how that brand of storytelling, if you will, finds its way to the shelf among countless more "commercial" titles. Her story is one of Persistence, our virtue focus this month.

Monica: I finished writing my first novel, Clown Girl, after working on it every day for three years. I had just turned thirty-three. Thirty-three, the “Jesus year,” seemed the perfect time to sell a novel: I could still be considered a young author. For some reason, age matters in the publishing industry. I’m not sure why, but we all feel it. There’s a rush to get out a first novel, then a second. Prizes are geared toward age ranges, as in “Thirty Under Thirty,” and “Ten Authors Under Ten Years Old.”

A kind of quiet panic can set in. If you let it, the rush to publish can overshadow the process of writing.

My manuscript was a beautiful stack of 250 pages, and I slid it into an envelope, dropped copies in the mail. I sent it to agents the same month that I signed up for “call waiting” on my home phone. Both the writing and call waiting paid off: a day came when three agents called, at very the same time.

It was unbelievable. My heart pounded in my chest; I juggled agents on my new call waiting system. I felt lucky and smart and ready for success. My writing career had started to take root. I chose an agent, and soon she circulated my manuscript with publishers.
In my mind I sang just sell, just sell. I was ready to go.

But the time frame of my ambitions and the pace of the creative process were not one and the same.

“There’s no reason to publish such a sad story,” the first publisher’s rejection note read. My agent passed the note along to me. I tossed that one off. “This book is tragedy upon tragedy,” the second rejection said. Tragedy? I was baffled. I write comedy. So I had a clear audience problem; I had to rethink the manuscript. After a few more rejections, I asked the agent to pull the manuscript, bring it back for revision. It was a hard decision to make. I told myself I’d find the problem, fix it quickly, tap it all into place, and get back in the game.

It was three years later when I finished a revised version of Clown Girl. This one was better than the first. The book had a new shape, a clearer story arc, an increased sense of focus. It rocked. I was thirty-six. I’d moved from call waiting to a cell phone. I found a new agent. Again, the manuscript went out.

“Beautiful prose,” the editors wrote, “but why doesn’t the narrator have more of a job?” A job? She had a job. She was a clown, but I’d erred on the side of subtlety. Again, I realized I hadn’t made my point clear. After a few more rejections, I pulled the manuscript out of circulation. It felt like giving up, but it wasn’t. The book wasn’t ready. My plan? I’d take the book back, quickly tap it into place…

Three years later, as I turned thirty-nine, I had what turned out to be the final, and eventually saleable, version of Clown Girl. Dreams of publishing in my thirties morphed into dreams of publishing by forty. This time, instead of working with an agent I placed the novel on my own.
Clown Girl found a home with Hawthorne Books; the first print run sold out immediately. Now it was the book I’d set out to write all along. I’d taken the time necessary.

For me, writing a first novel was a decade-long learning experience. What I learned is that while ambition and eagerness can be motivating, it can also get in the way. These days I hear other writers with that same combination of drive, ambition and anxiety. “I’ll write a quick Y.A. novel,” they say. Or, “I have a manuscript I could fix it up. It’s almost done.” I know the feeling.

Maybe their work is almost done. Or, it could be another decade. Writing projects find their own time frame. Good writing, from what I’ve seen, takes dedication, mental muscle and most of all, time.

Your Action: Think about Monica's story then think about your own motivations for writing and wanting to publish. Do you love your work so much that you will absolutely see that it gets published one way or another? More importantly, do you respect the craft of writing enough to know when your work needs more than a few quick taps to get it truly ready? Persistence is more than never giving up, it's also a bottomless desire to improve as an artist.

Keep moving forward, my dears.

Have a fruitful week!


About the Contributor:

Monica Drake has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches at the Pacific NW College of Art. She is a contributor of reviews and articles to The Oregonian, The Stranger, and The Portland Mercury. Her fiction has appeared in the Beloit Review, Threepenny Review, The Insomniac Reader, and others. She has been the recipient of an Arizona Commission on The Arts Award, The Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, and a Millay Colony Fellowship, and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop.

Her bestselling debut novel, Clown Girl, is published by Hawthorne Books and has been optioned by SNL's Kristin Wiig. Click here to see an interview with Monica from Portland's Wordstock, from Boise Weekly. Click here, to also see a trailer for a short film by Andy Mingo , based off Monica's short story, Georgie's Big Break, filmed at Portland's literary festival, Wordstock.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Next on The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life

Join us Monday on The Lit Coach's Guide when bestselling author Monica Drake (Clown Girl) discusses the role Persistence has played in her writer's life as we kick off December's virtue of the month...Persistence!

Not only am I impressed with Monica's stick-to-it-ness, her novel was difficult to place as it doesn't fit into neat genre holes (quirky fiction); I'm equally impressed by her choice to keep her eyes and attention on the craft not the clock.

See you Monday! Share with your friends!

photo of Monica Drake by Greg Wahl-Stephens