“ONE GOOD SCENE” WORKSHOP SCHEDULED

Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course,  One Good Scene, will soon open for registration for a fall 2018 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I’m a writer who has worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace.

Like most writers, I had a day job, but that “day job” was a 20-year career in publishing. I was an editor for Fawcett Books and a literary agent for many years. After I sold the agency to focus on my own writing, I began teaching fiction writing, first at SUNY and Hofstra University, then through my online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

“Revising Fiction” Workshop Scheduled!

Attention fiction writers: My annual “Revising Fiction” has been scheduled to begin on March 16, 2017, and is now open for registration.

Plato

For those who are not familiar with it, this intensive online workshop is for writers with a completed draft of a novel or a body of short stories to work on bringing their fiction to the next level. Whether it’s a first draft or a 10th, participants’ books will undergo a process that will result in much stronger manuscripts, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer; it’s geared not only to talented aspiring writers but also to published writers who know how important it is to keep growing their craft. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 10 to 16 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work.

Getting published is hard; staying published may be even harder. Writing for one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes: in addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. Very few do. Most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into print. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pinning it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to reject with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable. Often these were books by talented writers whose execution doesn’t quite measure up to their talent. They weren’t salable as written, and like most agents, I didn’t have time to teach aspiring writers how to finish their work.

Now more than ever, writers are expected to learn the craft on their own dime.

That craft includes the essential ability to self-edit, the final step in the actual writing of the book, before it is taken up by an agent or publisher. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But of course that’s easier said than done. Most writers want to revise their work, to bring it closer to the ideal novel they envisioned when they set out on this journey. They know that, no matter how impeccable we are, our first drafts are just a rough approximation of what our stories are meant to be. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying and enhancing theme.

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Good writers are good editors.

Everyone knows that, and everyone aspires; but there are obstacles to effective self-editing. One is the difficulty of getting feedback of a quality high enough to raise our level of play. Another is the fact that by the time we finish a complete draft of the work, we’ve read it too often to address it with the objectivity required for editing. The “Revising Fiction” workshop was created to address both those problems, and to provide fiction writers with a methodical way of going about revision.

I’m proud that quite a few writers who’ve taken this workshop have gone on to find agents and publishers, but there’s no guarantee of that outcome. All I promise is that participants will come out of the course with better drafts and more tools in their writers’ toolbox. I back that up with a money-back guarantee: anyone who takes this course and decides within a few weeks that it’s not appropriate can withdraw and get their tuition back. I teach the course myself, read and critique every word by every participant, oversee peer critiques, guide discussions, provide lectures and supplementary material.

WHO I AM: I’ve worked in publishing and as a writer for over 40 years. I started out working for Fawcett Books, then a top paperback house. After that I became a literary agent, founding and running my own agency for 14 years. I also know the publishing world from the perspective of a writer, having had eight novels and several works of nonfiction published by major houses, including Viking/Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday and Morrow. I edit fiction and teach fiction writing, formerly at Hofstra University and SUNY, currently in my own online Next Level workshops.

That’s the short version. Here’s a longer one.

HOW TO REACH ME: If you’d like to apply for the Revising Fiction workshop or have any questions about it, email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

WHAT YOU NEED:

  1. A completed draft.
  2. Time. Most writers have day jobs, and I don’t expect you to quit yours or neglect your family, at least not totally. But you will need to carve out a minimum of 10-12 hours a week to devote to the workshop and your own editing.
  3. Dough. Tuition is $795, much less than you’d pay for an equivalent semester-long university course, but still a chunk of money. Don’t send any now, though! I’ll ask accepted students for a deposit after putting together my roster. There is a 10% discount for returning students.
  4. A writing sample, specifically the first five or six pages of your novel.
  5. An open mind.

For more specifics on the course, see my website; for comments from former participants, see the testimonials page…and check out the  publishing credits beside their names.

Don’t wait too long if you’re interested. I keep these workshops very small because I spend so much time working with each writer; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot, but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me. I generally offer only one of these workshops each year. If the timing isn’t right for you, but you know a writer for whom it might be perfect, please pass the word along.

And now, may the wild rumpus begin!

Two New Courses Scheduled!

Attention Fiction Writers: Major announcement! I will be teaching not one but two online Next Level Workshops this fall and winter.

champers

The first will be One Good Scene, which will begin on Thursday, November 3, 2016.

There’s a story behind this course. Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor at Fawcett Books and after that, a literary agent. In those capacities, I read about a billion unpublished first novels.  In many cases, the plot idea was intriguing and original, but the writer’s skills were not yet where they needed to be. These writers had undertaken to write a whole novel before learning to write a single good scene, and the results were not pretty.  On the flip side, writers who could put together shapely, tense, fully realized scenes were generally able to produce creditable short stories and novels.

So when I started to teach writing, the first course I created was “One Good Scene,” for aspiring fiction writers who want to master and build on the essential skills of fiction-writing. It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures,  writing assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course.  Fun fact: I’m so convinced of this workshop’s usefulness that I offer a money-back warranty…but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

One Good Scene is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and several spots have been filled with writers who were on a waiting list, but I have a few places open.

After that, I will offer an online Revising Fiction workshop, to begin in January 2017. Revising Fiction is a master class for writers who have completed a draft of a novel or a body of short stories and want some help in bringing it to the next level. The goal is for writers to emerge from the process, not only with a much improved manuscript, but also with tools they can apply to everything else they go on to write. I’m proud to say that quite a few novels that have gone through this process have ended up published and sitting on my bookshelf.  (Many of these are listed as credits beside the authors’ names on the website’s testimonial page.) The workshop is comprised of a series of separate edits, one per two-week session, each focusing on a different aspect of the work. Big ticket items come first: structure, pacing, conflict and characterization. We also look at theme, language and style. Every session includes a lecture and multiple discussions, the opportunity to share scenes from participants’ novels and to give and receive critiques, including my notes on every submission.

This workshop is intense and, as one participant wrote, “life-changing, or at least writing-life-changing.” Participants can log on at any time that suits them and join in ongoing discussions. The class is limited to six writers, primarily those who have already taken One Good Scene or worked with me as an editor. Applicants whose work I don’t know will be asked to submit a writing sample. You can read more about Revising Fiction here, including tuition cost and warranty.

If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or drop me a line at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

JUST SAY NO: A WRITERS’ MANIFESTO

 

Long ago in a galaxy far away, I was a literary agent. One day, a writer who was not yet a client came to me for advice. “I wrote a novel,” she said. “Mr. Blank, of Blankety Press read it and liked it, and he wants to publish.”

The actual publisher she mentioned was a well-known, respected house with a track record that included bestsellers. “Congratulations,” I said. “What’s the offer?”

“They’ll publish the book entirely at their own expense.”

“Of course,” I said. “But what advance and royalties are they offering?”

“None for the first edition,” the writer said. “But if they reprint, they’d pay a royalty on those sales.”

“Say no,” I said.

discontented writer“But they’re such good publishers! And Mr. Blank explained to me that their expenses are so high on the first edition that they would lose money if they had to pay a royalty.”

“Does he get paid? How about the typesetters and the printers and the paper suppliers? Do they donate their services?”

“Of course not.”

“The distributor and the bookstores will take their cut?”

“I assume so.”

“And yet your story is what’s going to sell the book, not the paper or the typesetting. So why on earth should you be the only one to go uncompensated?”

“I know, but it is my first novel. Mr. Blank says it’s a way to get my name out there and start building a readership.”

I refrained from rolling my eyes. “Mr. Blank knows you can do that without giving your work away for free. He controls the price of his books, and he can take your royalties into account, just as he does for every other writer on his list.”

“But what if he won’t pay? I could lose my chance to publish.”

“It’s possible. But if the book is good enough that he wants to publish, there’s a reasonable chance others will as well. You can’t negotiate if you’re not willing to walk away.”

“I know you’re right,” she said worriedly. “But…”

I understood that “but.” I was a writer myself, as well as an agent. I knew what it felt like. Writers need to publish; why else would they write? Writing is an act of communication, a transaction that is incomplete until the work is read. For first-time writer especially, the need to publish can feel as pressing as the need of a woman nine and a half months pregnant to give birth. You’ve carried that story as long and as far as you possibly can; now it’s time for it to go out into the world.

And guess what? Publishers know this, and they use it. They are, after all, in business to make money; so if they can persuade writers to donate their work for free, that’s one less major expense.

That, by the way, is one of many reasons that writers need agents. Having professional representation means that negotiations will be conducted on a more businesslike, less lopsided basis.

arm-wrestling

And that is what happened with that writer from long ago. Rather than tackle Mr. Blank herself, she hired me to do it. He wasn’t thrilled to have me inserted into the mix, but we did a lot of business together, so he didn’t kick too hard. We negotiated a reasonable advance and royalty for my client. The agency’s fee cost her 10% (Yes, Virginia, agents used to work for 10%), but since the novel never earned out, the 90% that the writer got to keep was money she would never have seen otherwise.

I was reminded of this incident recently when a friend — let’s call him Chester, because why not? — called to say he’d received an offer from a magazine that wanted to reprint one of his short stories. It was a fine little magazine, and my friend was delighted; but their effusive note had strangely failed to mention remuneration.

“Ask,” I suggested.

“And if they say there is none?”

hard labor“The laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Chester agreed. He wrote to ask what the magazine proposed to pay for the story, expressing the hope that their response would not include the word “exposure.”

Silence ensued. Weeks of it, then months. Chester put the matter out of his mind, inured, like most writers, to disappointment. It’s not unusual that magazines, both print and e-zines, failed to pay contributors. So many aspiring writers are willing to work for “exposure” alone that they can fill their pages many times over while paying nothing at all for content.

Then, out of the blue, the magazine editor called Chester. They’d hadn’t ignored his question; rather, they’d been thinking hard about whether it was time to start paying contributors. In principle the unanimous answer was yes; in practice, given the magazine’s finances, the payment would need to be modest.

“How modest?” Chester asked.

The editor named a sum.

woman in burqa“You call that modest? I call it full burqa!”

“It’s the best I can do,” the editor said.

“Better than a kick in the teeth,” Chester said philosophically, and the deal was sealed, leaving my friend, as one wit said, well on his way to becoming hundredaire.

And now a third and final anecdote on the same theme. A former student of mine, let’s call her Violet, had struggled long and hard to find a publisher for her first novel. She had no interest in self-publishing; she wanted a traditional publisher, preferably one of the big five. After trying more than 80 literary agents, she’d given up on that route and started submitting to small royalty-paying publishers who were willing to consider work from unagented writers. Finally she struck gold. A small publisher offered to publish her novel in both print and electronic form. They offered no advance, but paid standard royalties on all copies sold.

man reading contractViolet asked if I would eyeball the contract just to see if anything jumped out. After the usual disclaimers (I’m not a lawyer and I’m no longer an agent) I agreed. And something did jump out: an option clause that gave the publisher right of first refusal not only on the next book, but on every book the author wrote thereafter.

“It’s the publishing version of indentured servitude,” I told Violet. “There’s no possible reason to agree to this clause. It would mean handing over control of your entire career to this company. Ask them to limit the option to your next book or cut it altogether.”

“But what if they won’t?” she fretted. “If it’s part of their standard contract… After all this time, I don’t want to lose a bird in hand for a pair in the bushes.”

“This stuff matters, unless you plan to be a one-book author. Options are inherently unbalanced to begin with, because they oblige one party but not the other. But writers and agents generally agree to a limited option on the next book, to incentivize the publisher to do its best for the first book. But this clause, this is just greedy, and it’s got ‘future headache’ written all over it.”

Violet took the advice she’d asked for and went back to her publisher, who promptly agreed to change the clause. Back in the Paleolithic era when I was an agent, publishers had different contracts for agented and unagented writers. They knew what the prospect of publication meant to aspiring writers, knew they’d sign away their firstborn child for the chance, let alone options on future unborn books.

Hence the overreaching. If by chance the writer objects, they amend the clause. Most don’t.

Now, as you’ve no doubt realized, the moral of these three stories is the same. There are times when writers must say no. (For a truly profane and heartfelt rant on the subject, I refer you to this video by Harlan Ellison.)

And so I call upon my fellow writers to take the pledge. Respect yourself and your work, for if you don’t, who will?

Say no to working for free.

Say no to rights grabs.

Say no to onerous option clauses.

Unity

Writers of the world, unite!

 

BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS

 

There’s a scene in one of the Harry Potter books in which Ginny Weasley looks up from her seat in the Great Hall and remarks, “There’s Harry. He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Harry PotterShe’s exaggerating a bit, but just a bit. When he’s not actually bleeding, Harry is suffering a searing pain in his scar, a broken arm or a smashed nose, not to mention assorted psychological tortures. There’s a reason for his torment. There’s also a reason that magic potions taste like pus and earwax instead of lemonade, and that Rowling’s other series’ hero, Cormoran Strike, has an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. It’s the same reason, and it’s one all writers need to understand.

I’ll tell you what that is in just a moment. First I want to cite His Holiness, Mark Twain. “The writer’s job,” he famously said, “is to chase characters up a tree and throw rocks at them.”  By dropping them into situations of conflict, we strip away the social masks and force their true selves, the way a gardener forces a bulb. Characters cannot rise to a challenge that never comes. Until they are tested, they can neither succeed nor fail; they cannot change, and change is essential in fiction.

Life is a struggle; all grownups know that. Fiction must be as well, or readers will not care or engage. We need protagonists who are passionately invested in some enterprise, something they need to achieve or avert despite all obstacles. The novel is a chronicle of that battle.

Dorothy2As readers we know this. We expect conflict and trouble in fiction; we demand it. And it needs to come, not all at once, but throughout the story. Imagine this alternative version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lands safely in Oz. Instead of taking the ruby shoes from the witch she killed, she receives them as a gift. The Munchkins tell her that in order to get home, she needs to see the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road and meets many helpful people on her journey. They point out the way and give her whatever she needs. After a pleasant walk, Dorothy arrives in Oz and is taken at once to see the wizard. He listens to her story and agrees to send her back to Kansas. Following his instructions, Dorothy clicks her shoes together and is instantly transported home.

The end.

Do you love it? Of course not. You may even be asleep by now. Without its dangers and challenges, Dorothy’s journey would have been long forgotten. She might as well have stayed home.

So here is the reason Harry’s always covered in blood, and I’ll thank you to remember where you heard it: In fiction, every gain needs to come at a cost.

Dickens knew that. Tolkien knew it, too; and Rowling’s got it down in spades. By the time Harry Potter has to battle his nemesis, he’s acquired great abilities and knowledge, every bit of which cost him dearly, with the costs escalating throughout the series. Harry can read the enemy’s mind—but to do so he must bare his own mind to assault. When he needs essential information, it’s obtainable—but it costs the life of a key ally. He’s given the means to defeat his enemy—but  only if he’s willing to die in the process.

Nothing comes for free (except this blog).

mountainSo here’s the takeaway for writers. I teach writing, and before that I was a literary agent for 14 years, so I’ve read a ton of beginner fiction. One of the most common weaknesses lies in the writers’ tendency to smooth the way for their protagonists. If a detective needs information, someone’s sure to volunteer it. If our hero is stranded on a mountaintop, help will arrive in a four-wheel drive. If his house were on fire, the heavens would open in a dowsing rain. These authors are benevolent gods.

But that is not what fiction needs. To be kind to their readers, writers must often be hard on their characters. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in fiction for good luck or gratuitous kindness: a gift of information, aid, comfort. But how much more powerful are those moments if everything else is hard-won? Don’t present your characters with gifts on a platter. Make them work for everything they get, make them pay a price; and readers will love them for it.

 

 

 This is one in a series of posts on the craft of fiction writing. Here are some others: The Biology of Fiction; Game of Words; Settings; and What Writers Can Learn From Game of Thrones.  You can subscribe to this blog via links to right and above. For more information about my online writing workshops, visit my website. And finally: if you or anyone on your Christmas list has a taste for literary mayhem, may I recommend A DANGEROUS FICTION?

 

MANNERS!

Huddle up, writers. This post’s for you.

As social media has eroded the once formidable barrier between writers and readers, it is now commonplace, even expected, for readers to contact writers directly via the writer’s website, Facebook, Twitter or other online venue. For the most part this is a good thing for writers. Hearing from readers is encouraging and a balm to the essential loneliness of the job.

lurkerBut with greater contact comes greater friction. Writers are now exposed to unvarnished reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other book venues, and therein lies the problem. Stories abound (and rebound) about writers retaliating for bad reviews by outing anonymous bloggers and harassing, stalking, threatening, doxxing, even physically attacking reviewers.

Writers, of course, have a long and storied history of bad behavior, but this particular form of misbehavior is seen primarily (though by no means exclusively) among self-published writers. This makes sense, because at its core, the behavior arises from a boundary problem. Overly reactive writers are like helicopter parents, fiercely protective and unable to distinguish themselves from their offspring. Writers who publish traditionally give their work over to specialists who expertly edit, package, produce and market the book. It takes close to a year. By the time the book is released, the writer has already let go and most likely is working on her next. Self-published writers go through a much shorter process, in which they control every phase. The cord is never severed, so when the book comes out, it is still flesh of their flesh, undifferentiated.

This is not a good thing. There’s a reason we speak of “releasing” books. They are finished works that we send out into the world. However they’re published, once released, they must be allowed to stand on their own. Readers have every right to their own opinions and interpretations, which at that point are just as valid as the author’s.

Much is changing in the publishing world, but some values remain constant. I have therefore taken upon myself the role of Miss Publishing Manners and jotted down a few simple guidelines:

Rogan’s Rules of Writerly Decorum

1. What do we writers owe readers? In return for their investment of time and sometimes money, we owe readers an entertaining and/or edifying experience, preferably both.

What we don’t owe are explanations or justifications. These are not good uses of our time and attention. The book stands on its own and speaks for itself.

2. What do readers owe writers? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Their side of the contract is fulfilled by reading. Specifically, they don’t owe us reviews, recommendations, accolades, attendance at events, or financial support in the form of book purchases. We are, to be sure, grateful for any of these, but we are not entitled to them.

But writers are not saints, you may protest. We can’t be expected to turn the other cheek when our work is maligned. I agree, being neither constitutionally nor culturally equipped to turn the other cheek.  There are times when strong language is indicated, and writers have great stores of the stuff on hand. We should feel free to vent in private to friends and family about the astonishing blindness and stupidity of certain critics.

But in public? Shtum.

dianagabaldonI have a friend and colleague, Diana Gabaldon, author of the wildly popular Outlander series. Her reply to a post from a critical reader struck me as the epitome of class, economy, and good sense.

“Not all books are for all people.  I hope you enjoy whatever you read next.”

 

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, subscribe to In Cold Ink  via links above and to the right.

ONE GOOD SCENE

Attention Writers!

I promised you a major announcement, and here it is.

Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor and a literary agent for many years, and I still mentor many writers. Consequently I’ve read a ton of first novels. Most have issues—hence the difficulty, of which you’re surely aware, in selling these novels. In many cases the story itself is intriguing and original; the problem is that the writer’s skills are not yet where they need to be for the book to attract a publishing offer. I always feel it’s an awful shame that these writers had undertaken to write a novel before learning to write a scene.

writing classSo I created a course for aspiring fiction writers who want to master the skills of the craft. It’s called “One Good Scene,” because scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. The skills that go into the crafting of a single good scene are precisely those needed for the crafting of a novel, and any writer who can master the former can succeed in the latter.

It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures, assignments, writing and reading assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course. Personally, I think the workshop is so useful that I’d make it mandatory for every fiction writer…but then, I may be somewhat prejudiced. I will say that I offer a money-back warranty for people who start the course and find it’s not what they expected, but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

“One Good Scene” will begin on April 2, and is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and more than half the class is filled already with people who were on a waiting list, but I have several spots left. If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or email me at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com. If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to  share this post. I’m always interested in students who are serious about learning the craft.

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

WHAT I LEARNED FROM J. K. ROWLING

Good writers never stop learning their craft, and the best teachers are other writers. My most recent lesson came from J. K. Rowling, a.k.a. Robert Galbraith.

silkwormVery few books in a lifetime of reading have delighted me as much as the Harry Potter series, so naturally I was eager to read the adult novels that followed them. The Casual Vacancy was a disappointment, lacking even the ordinary magic of storytelling. But the two books that followed, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, showed Rowling back on track. They are wonderfully absorbing novels, hard to put down once begun.

Of course, writers can’t simply enjoy stories without poking and prodding the mechanism, trying to see how the thing works. I recognized some of the standard ingredients of good fiction: tangible settings, the skillful use of suspense, colorful secondary characters, and two exceptionally likable main characters in private detective Cormoran Strike and his assistant, Robin. As I read The Silkworm, it struck me that Strike and Harry Potter actually have a lot in common. They are both orphans, in Strike’s case functionally rather than formally, since he has a living but estranged father. And  both have painful physical problems. For Harry it starts with the scar on his forehead that burns periodically but goes far beyond that.  Everything he does to achieve his goals comes at a cost that is very often dangerous and painful. There’s a line in one of the books in which Ginny, seeing Harry enter the Great Hall, says, “He’s covered in blood. Why is he always covered in blood?”

Cormoran, who lost part of a leg to a war injury, has an ill-fitting prosthesis that causes him great pain throughout much of both novels. At one point in The Silkworm, he is unable to fit the prosthetic onto his swollen stump. Does he seek out medical help, like any normal person would? Of course not. Lives are at stake, a fiendish murderer is on the loose, and an innocent woman stands charged. He continues the chase on one leg.

RowlingCormoran, like Harry Potter, sacrifices himself to save others. I would hardly be the first to observe that the Harry Potter books are imbued with Christian theology and symbolism, or that Harry himself plays the role of Jesus, sacrificing himself so that others may live (although the Harry Potter books have a happier ending.) But Cormoran’s disability is less germane to the novels’ plots, and thus in a way more interesting. Its main purposes, as far as I can tell, are to make the character nobler and more sympathetic, and to create additional obstacles in his path to success. Rowling succeeds in both respects.

When solving a crime is just a job and the process unfolds intellectually, readers can enjoy the puzzle-solving aspect without getting deeply involved with the characters. But when the detective has flesh in the game, it’s a whole different level of story. Because I felt Cormoran’s pain subliminally throughout the story, there was an under-layer of discomfort to the experience of reading that lent a sense of urgency and fed my impatience for a resolution. I wanted him off that leg!

Mark Twain once said that his way of telling a story is to chase his protagonist up a tree and throw rocks at him. The harder we make life for our protagonists, the greater the obstacles they have to overcome, the more readers will care. One of the problems I see in a lot of student fiction (and occasionally in my own) is that writers feel too much for their protagonists and thus take pity on them. But writing requires a certain level of ruthlessness. Sometimes, to be kind to our readers, we must be cruel to our characters.

 

The Orneriness of the Long-Distance Writer

 

Writers with children often complain about the difficulty of combining these two particular endeavors. It’s not easy, but I am here to tell you, my fellow writers, that it can be done. I raised two sons while writing eight novels. True, I could have written 15 without the kids, but I consider that a fair trade-off.

It won’t happen by itself, though. Children are sneaky buggers and will consume all of your time if you let them. If you’re serious about writing, you need to create conditions in which writing is possible. Fortunately, a few simple rules and equipment are all you need. I’ve compiled a little list. I hope it will help.

Things You Need

A Room of One’s Own. If you have not yet read the Virginia Wolfe essay of that title, do so at once. Then designate a room in your home as your writing space. Doesn’t matter what sort of room, as long as it has a door. I knew a writer with 10 children and a tiny house; she worked in her garden shed.

lockChildproof Your Space. By childproof, I don’t mean make it safe for kids. I mean make it impossible for them to get in. Not just a door, but a lockable door.

A Dog. I recommend a German Shepherd – not the American-bred shepherds with the sweet disposition of cocker spaniels, but a European-bred dog with plenty of protective drive. My late, lamented Maya understood and enforced the sanctity of my writing space. She was a sweetheart of a dog, but anyone who entered my office while I was working was greeted with a ferocious volley of barks. She never bit; she only persuaded.

German Shepherd Military Working Dog

A Helpful Partner. Not essential, but highly desirable. Someone has to pick up the slack.

Early Education. When my children were toddlers, I taught them to recite two things: their address and the following mantra.

Me: “When can you interrupt Mommy at work?”

Boys in unison: “In case of fire, flood, or injury with spurting blood.”

The one time my younger son burst in on me, he actually was covered in blood. It was his brother’s, not his own. Basketball accident. Sweat suits aside, the great advantage to working at home is that you’re actually there when you’re needed.

Besides, it doesn’t hurt kids to be independent. It might even help.

angelic childrenGood Kids. You can’t supervise children and write at the same time. Therefore, it’s helpful to have good kids. Of course, good or bad, you might as well resign yourself to the fact that kids will cut into your writing time. For one thing, they like to eat. For another, they tend to take up activities. I drove half the circumference of the earth conveying mine to practices, games, meetings, friends’ homes and various activities. But when I wasn’t being Taxidriver Mom, Dr. Mom, Chef Mom, or World’s Most Embarrassing Cheerleader Mom, when I was working, the mantra applied.

Duct Tape. In case all else fails.

Orneriness. There is no “nice” in writer. There is obsession. There has to be, especially for novelists, because novels take a long time to write. To succeed, you must batten down your inner sweetheart and practice saying no, and not just to your kids.

It’s easy once you get the hang of it. “Could you run the bake sale for the PTA?” “No, I’m working.” “Would you mind watching Cindy for the afternoon?” “Sorry, I’m working.” “Come take a dip in the pool.” Okay, that one I give into.

 

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.