“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!

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?

 

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.

ON WRITING AND GARDENING

 

WinterIt’s been a cold, snowy winter in New York, good writing weather, but I’m ready for spring. Right now the view from my office window is nearly black and white: snow, bare branches against white sky, and the crenellated tips of fences. Soon the snow will melt, though, and in a month or so I’ll see the first pop of color in my rock garden, the irises and crocuses.

There’s a backstory to this garden. About 12 years ago, I got sick and had to undergo an unpleasant course of treatment. My husband and sons sought a way to show their support in a material way. What they came up with was a large rock garden, which they installed just outside my home office window, so I could enjoy it not only when I went outside but every time I sat down to work.

I’d never been a gardener. Gardening entails dirt, sweat, bugs and blisters, none of which I’m fond of. Often there are worms. Faith is required, gratification always delayed. And did I mention worms?

Nevertheless, I loved my rock garden, and after I recovered, I began to work on it. (I named it, too: the Barbara Rogan Memorial Garden, which no one but me thought was funny.) Little by little, I discovered that gardening metaphors were creeping into the way I thought and talked about fiction writing, and with good reason: they are similar endeavors in so many ways.

THE BIG PICTURE: In the beginning, I would go to my local nursery, buy whatever perennials caught my eye, and plant them anywhere I had room. The result was a disappointing hodgepodge. The flowers themselves were pretty, but the composition had no rhyme or reason. In a good garden, as in a good novel, all the parts exist to serve the whole. If they don’t, then no matter how pretty they are, they have to go.10486199_10152369477687865_5901926996832331028_n

WEEDING: However natural they may look, gardens are man-made compositions in which every element exists for a reason. The most beautiful specimen plant will go unseen if it’s surrounded by weeds.

Occasionally, in my students’ work, I come across a particularly well-crafted phrase or image or encapsulated thought, one that conveys with beautiful economy everything the scene is trying to achieve. These are the lines that “say it all,” if they’re allowed to do so without being smothered by surrounding verbiage. Editing showcases what is beautiful in our work by removing those elements that don’t contribute.

LABOR: Gardens repay sweat equity. So does writing; and writing novels in particular is more labor-intensive than most people would imagine. Before a book makes it to market, the writer may have produced a dozen drafts, each one better than the last.

Writing “effortless prose” takes huge effort. In fact, most things that seem effortless aren’t.

PATIENCE: Gardens aren’t built in a single season. Perennials often need a year or two of settling in before they bloom profusely. Much of the work goes on underground, out of sight.

Ideas also take time to germinate, and writers’ skills grow over time. Barbara Kingsolver said it took her 30 years to feel ready to tackle her masterpiece, The Poisonwood Bible. Novels take a long time to research, develop, write and edit. Like gardens, they can’t be rushed.

10274166_10152154759247865_6382013076439694242_nTIME: A garden is not a static installation; it changes as the growing season progresses. Things that were hidden spring to life: a patch of grassy stems transforms overnight into a carpet of red lilies. My rock garden looks entirely different in April than it does in August. In novels, too, time is a necessary dimension. A poem may immortalize a moment; but fiction is a vehicle for change, and change takes place over time.

THE SENSES: It took me a ridiculously long time to understand that gardens are not all visual. We’ve always had Russian Sage in the rock garden, and early on I took to crushing a leaf or two between my fingers to release its scent. Then one year we planted some Asiatic lilies. The following summer I walked outside one evening and was struck by the most alluring, intoxicating scent I’d ever encountered. For weeks those lilies perfumed the whole yard.

Fiction, too, infiltrates through the senses. Words are not things in themselves but symbols of things. Much of fiction’s work lies in making the abstract seem real, through the use of vivid, specific, selective description. Until a setting feels absolutely real, nothing that happens there will matter.

FAITH: at some point in every novel, the writer hits a snag. It might be a character who refuses to come into focus or a plot complication that’s gumming up the works; whatever it is, it feels dire. One of the advantages of having written a bunch of novels is that when I inevitably hit those snags, I know a solution will emerge in the course of writing. I have faith in the process.

Gardening, too, requires faith. We dig a hole, plant a bulb or seed, give it some water and trust it will grow. When snow blankets the garden and eradicates all signs of life, we trust that life and color will return.

spring

And so they will. Spring is just around the corner.

 

But just in case you need a good mystery to while away the time until it arrives, I hope you’ll consider A DANGEROUS FICTION, now available in Penguin paperback.

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.

 

New Mind-Altering Substance Identified. It’s Called Writing.

 

outsiderFiction writers share several traits. Just about all of us were avid readers as children; and most are, or feel like, outsiders. We might have families and active social lives, but there is something in us that stands apart from even the most moving or fraught events: an observing, sorting, shaping eye. I imagine it is similar to the way professional photographers see the world, through movable frames invisible to the rest of us.

I’ll give you one example; every writer I know could cite his own. One of the most distressing days in my life came when my toddler son was acutely ill with respiratory distress. We spent 24 hours in a Brooklyn ER while he struggled to breathe, a tracheotomy kit tacked above his crib, and doctors worked to establish the cause. I was at his side the whole time, exhausted and deeply anxious; and yet, even then, part of me saw the scene through a writer’s eye. Certain things struck me during that long day, and they would provide both the inspiration and the setting for my third novel, A Heartbeat Away.

New research in neuroscience has discovered some interesting objective correlates to writers’ subjective experience. If writers feel different, it may be because they are different. Experiments by researchers at the University of Greifswald in Germany, as reported recently by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times, used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology to observe activity in the brains of two groups of subjects: experienced fiction writers and a control group of novice writers. All subjects were read several lines of a story. They were asked to brainstorm for a few minutes about continuing the story and then to write for two minutes.

The results for the two groups were markedly different.

During the brainstorming sessions, the brains of the novice writers lit up in the visual area. It seems as if envisioning an imaginary scene uses the same mental muscles as actually experiencing it.

mad scientistThis, by the way, seems to me to correlate with earlier research, also through fMRI technology, into the brain activity of people reading fiction. Readers’ brains reacted just as they would if the experiences in the story were real. When descriptions evoked the senses, the appropriate sensory areas of the brain lit up. Interactions between characters activated the same part of the brain as interactions with real people, which may explain why readers can form deep and lasting relationships with fictional characters. When non-writers write fiction, they use the same parts of the brain as they would in reading fiction.

The brains of experienced writers reacted differently. During the brainstorming sessions, their brains showed increased activity in the areas involved in language, not vision. To me, this finding relates to my own experience and that of many other writers: that sense of standing outside events, observing, even describing them to oneself. Like photographers, writers frame life, processing it into narration even as they live it.

After the brainstorming sessions, when the two groups began to write their own lines, their brains continued to draw on different regions. In the expert writers’ brains, a region called the caudate nucleus was activated; not so in the brains of novice writers. This area of the brain plays a role in skills acquired with practice, including sports, music, and games. Actions that in the beginning require conscious effort become less conscious with practice, migrating to a deeper level of the brain.

As a teacher of fiction writing, I see this clearly in the development of beginning writers as they learn their craft. Initially, most struggle with maintaining a consistent point of view. POV in general is terrifically hard and confusing… until suddenly it’s not. After enough practice and feedback, it becomes second nature, not something one needs to think about while writing.

Kind of ironic, if you think about it. Remember the old warnings against taking drugs, because mind-altering substances can, well, alter minds? Turns out writing does, too.

brain

For more on this subject, see this post.

For additional, sporadic outpourings from this brain, subscribe to this blog through the links to the right. 

Finally, 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.

 

 

New Author Study Shows Preference for Traditional Publishing

An interesting study about publishing and writers recently came out, and one thing is clear: writers are not a happy lot.

The study, called the 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Study, is based on responses from 9,210 aspiring, published and self-published writers to a survey conducted in the fall of 2013. The lead researcher was Dana Beth Weinberg, professor of sociology at Queens College in NYC. You can download the report in full from Digital World for a mere $295; if that seems a bit steep, you can get the gist of the results from Digital Book World’s post and this one by Dr. Weinberger herself.

A survey based on responses from over 9000 writers sounds quite impressive; however, the numbers are deceptive. The majority of responders are aspiring writers who have not published in any form; most have not yet completed a draft of a book. Their opinions on the advantages of publishing versus self-publishing are not informed by experience and I couldn’t see the relevance of including them in the study, unless (a cynical thought – put it down to my having the world’s worst cold) it is to increase the likelihood of their buying the complete $295 report. Among the others, 1636 were self-published, 774 were published commercially, and 598 were hybrid authors– that is, writers whose work is both published and self-published. Respondents were recruited through notifications from Writer’s Digest about the survey, which accounts for the preponderance of unpublished writers: the magazine is geared to aspiring rather than published writers.

The author of the report herself calls it unscientific, since it is based on voluntary responses rather than a random sample. Nevertheless, the results were interesting. A few things popped out at me.

discontented writer1. Writers are discontented lot. I said that before. It bears repeating. My advice to aspiring fiction writers is and has always been that if they can imagine themselves happy doing anything else, they should do it. Almost nobody makes a living from writing; and those who write well enough to be published commercially could generally make more money doing almost anything else. Of course, if you are independently wealthy, money need not be a factor. But writing is frustrating and difficult in many ways, not just monetarily. The world is not clamoring for new writers.

For those who cannot imagine themselves doing anything else but writing, despite the difficulties and lack of clamor: welcome to the fold, and the best of Irish luck to us all!

2. Unless you’re one of a small group of perennial best-selling writers or you write salable stuff incredibly fast, the money is absurd. This is true for both trade-published and self-published writers, although trade-published writers make more on average. According to the survey’s data, the median income for unpublished writers is under $5000, with a significant number earning nothing at all. Commercially published writers had a median income between $5000 and $10,000. On the higher end of the scale, the differences  are even more stark. Only 1.8% of self-published writers report an annual income of over $100,000, compared to 8.8% of trade-published writers and 13.2% of hybrid writers.

One advantage of this report is that it refutes the exaggerated claims of many self-publishing advocates. The trope I hear most often among aspiring writers is that publishing with a commercial house is confers prestige, but the real money is in self-publishing. According to the figures in this study, the percentage of writers who earned over $100,000 last year is five times greater among published than self-published writers.

3. If you must write, it pays to be a hybrid writer. Hybrid authors did best on the median income scale, between $15,000 and $20,000. They also scored highest in satisfactionhybrid with many aspects of their career. They were the most likely to be happy with their book’s pricing (44.4% compared to 24% among traditionally published writers) and most likely to be satisfied with sales figures: 9.7% compared to 8.2% among commercially published writers and 4.6% among self-published writers. This tallies with an earlier study conducted by Taleist magazine that showed hybrid writers outselling exclusively self-published writers by a large margin.

Still, it’s clear that even among hybrid writers, 90% are disappointed with their sales. Of course any number can be disappointing if your expectations were higher. In the case of self-published writers, I fear that many of them drank the Kool-Aid dispensed so liberally by self-publishing zealots with get-rich-quick promises. The truth is, it’s very hard for unknown writers to get noticed and to sell books in any quantities, even with the might of a Random House or Simon & Schuster behind them; and it’s far harder for do-it-yourselfers. But published writers, too, are disappointed with their sales; only 8.2 reported themselves “very satisfied” with sales, and 10.4% said they were happy with their publishers overall marketing and promotion of the book.

In fairness to publishers, I will interject that based on my years as a literary agent, there is never enough marketing from the writer’s point of view. However much the publisher does, writers tend to focus on what they haven’t done.

4. Across the board, writers still prefer commercial to self-publishing. That preference emerges clearly in this study. Only 35% of self-published writers would prefer to self-publish their next book; among hybrid authors, who’ve tried both methods, 30% would self-publish by choice. Among published writers, the figure is 7.5%, indicating that despite their dissatisfaction with the industry, the vast majority would still choose it over self-publishing.

 

For more on the hybrid route, see this eye-opening interview with bestselling author Lorraine Bartlett. Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Or read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

 

 

The Biology of Fiction: Putting Stimulus Before Reaction

 

Before we were writers, we were readers; and to understand how fiction works, we must first understand what happens to us when we read fiction.  When we immerse ourselves in an absorbing story, the real world fades out and the fictive world fades in. We are not conscious of reading; rather, we feel as if we’re inside the story, experiencing its events through a character, or watching like a fly on the wall as they unfold. To say we are transported is to express a literal truth.flying carpet

How does this transportation happen? Not by accident, flying carpet, or magic, but rather by art, the writer’s art. I couldn’t hope to summarize in a blog post even the little I know about the craft of fiction. But I can address (and do, when the pedantic spirit overcomes me) very  specific issues, those small things that, taken together, make the difference between the talented amateur and the professional. Previous posts have addressed settings and the use of body language. Today’s topic is chronology, aka putting the stimulus before the reaction.

Below are two versions of the same scene. The first one is an example of the sort of writing I often see in classes.

Version 1:

As Lola descended the basement stairs, bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled at the stench of something rotten down below. It made her sick, but she kept going. At the bottom of the stairs, she moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter. What she saw filled her with revulsion.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, had been arrayed in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each. Lola’s flashlight clattered to the floor and the light flickered and died. She screamed in horror as an icy hand clasped her own, and a cold little voice said, “How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

 

What do you think? Nothing wrong with it grammatically, nothing glaringly wrong at all…but are those chills running down your spine, or prickles of irritation?

Now consider this alternative.

Version 2:

basementLola descended the basement stairs, one cautious foot after another.  The stench of rot intensified with each step, but she forced herself to keep going. She reached the bottom, moved into the open center of the room and shined her flashlight around the perimeter.  The beam snagged on something unexpected, moved on, came back.

Three dead squirrels, dressed in doll’s clothes, sat in miniature chairs around a dollhouse table, tiny cups and saucers in front of each.

Lola screamed. Her flashlight clattered to the floor; the light flickered and died. An icy hand clasped her own, and out of the darkness, a cold voice spoke.

“How lovely.  Lola’s come to play.”

Are you feeling the difference?

The reason Version 2 works better is clear when you consider it from the reader’s perspective. For the writer, words are the medium; but the experience for the reader transcends words and involves all the senses. The reader is in the story;  it’s happening all around him. Writers, working behind the scenes, create that world. We paint the scenery, write the dialogue, give the characters conflicting agendas and set them into motion. And we do all this to draw the reader in and keep him immersed in our invented world. The last thing we want to do, then, is to get in the way of the reader’s direct experience of that world. Nor do we want our POV character to interpose himself as a filter.

In the first version of the cellar scene, the writer tells the character’s reaction to something before showing the thing he’s reacting to. The reader’s experience is thus second-hand, channeled through the intermediary of the POV character, whose reactions, spelled out by the writer, are meant to dictate the reader’s own.

In the second version, readers experience everything first-hand. This allows for the elements of surprise and suspense that the first version lacked. Equally importantly, it allows the reader to react directly to the sights and events of the scene, rather than cuing him with the character’s reaction. The POV character is still there—readers see through her eyes, feel through her skin—but she doesn’t stand between the reader and the action. Things happen in the proper biological order: stimulus first, then reaction.

But notice what else happens when we put the stimulus before the reaction. Some lines from the first version were cut from the second: “bile rose in her throat, and her nose wrinkled,” “It made her sick,” and “What she saw filled her with revulsion.” Lola still screams, but the words “in horror” are gone. None of these explanations are needed in the second version. By allowing readers to experience the events directly and viscerally, we no longer need to tell them how Lola reacted. They feel it for themselves.

Screaming_In_My_Head_by_Etherhel

 

For writers interested in improving their craft, I teach several online workshops.  These classes are small, rigorous and intense.  The next course I will teach will be One Good Scene, starting April 2, 2015. At the moment I have one spot left, so if you’re interested, drop  me a line at ASAP:  Barbararogan (at) gmail (dot) com .

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.

Game of Words: Writing Lessons From TV

My name is Barbara, and I’m an addict.

I’m addicted to Game of Thrones. That’s not all; I’m also hooked on Bates Motel, and recently I kicked Downton Abbey, not through any effort or willpower of my own, but because the supply dried up.

The Game of Thrones trouble began with the George R. R. Martin books. I was writing A Dangerous Fiction at the time, and was in search of a bit of light reading as a palette cleanser.  I started reading the first book in the series, and several million pages later, I looked up blearily from the last and realized that three weeks had passed and I hadn’t done a lick of work. The TV series only made the situation worse. I started out watching each new episode on Sunday nights. Before long I was mainlining repeat showings two or three times a week.

I’m not proud of this. When I was younger, I took an elitist view of television. I owned a set, of course, because not to would seem like snobbery, and besides, TVs make great babysitters. But I rarely watched it. I am a writer; I read.child reading

I still don’t watch many shows, but those I do follow, I watch with a writer’s eye. I ask the same questions I ask when a book floors me: What makes this story so compelling, and where can I get me some?

MartinIn the case of Game of Thrones, I recognized all the basic ingredients of good fiction. Great characters? Check. High stakes? The highest: life or death, honor or disgrace, the fate of kingdoms. Interesting settings? Fascinating and vividly imagined. All sterling qualities, and enough to make any story compelling, yet I felt that something more was needed to explain the three-week hole Martin’s books had blasted in my life.

And then, as I watched a recent episode, the answer finally dawned on me. The scene was one in which Cersei visits Tyrion in his much diminished quarters to suss out what he plans to tell their father. Tyrion, in turn, wants to know precisely what she’s afraid he’ll say. It’s not an action scene; there are no dragons or swordplay. Yet the scene is terrifically tense. The dialogue shows each one trying to elicit information from the other while concealing his/her own intentions and concerns. Each character had a vital agenda, and those agendas were perfectly at odds.

What I realized at that moment was that the same could be said of nearly all Martin’s scenes. The man seems incapable of framing any scene that is not full of conflict and hidden agendas. In scene after scene, his characters use manipulation, intimidation, flattery, violence, seduction and every other means of persuasion to impose their will.

I was drawn to Bates Motel by its two stars, Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore, who are both outstanding, but I stayed because the story wouldn’t let me leave. It sent out tentacles, first implanting questions in my mind (“What happened to Norman’s father?” is a big one), then taking its own sweet time answering them: an old writer’s trick.

And even when answers are provided, they are only as reliable as the character providing them, which in the case of Bates Motel means not at all. The unreliable narrator is a useful literary device that works because readers initially trust the narrator’s version of events. Their gradual realization that a particular narrator may be lying or deluded casts a whole different light on the story. The Remains Of the Day, Gone Girl, and Shutter Island are excellent examples. Usually the device does not work as well on film, because it’s harder to keep up the illusion when readers can see events with their own eyes instead of through the narrator’s. But Bates Motel manages it beautifully in the death of Norman’s father.

We see two versions of that death, which takes place before the start of the story. The first is Norman’s memory of discovering his father’s body. In that version, he is shocked and heartbroken, while his mother, Norma, is clearly not surprised at all; the only emotion she shows is pity for her son’s distress. Viewers are led to the supposition that she staged the accident.

Many episodes later, we see the death from Norma’s point of view. In that version, Norma casts herself as victim and protector. But since viewers know by now that this is how she justifies all the crazy things she does, they still can’t be sure about what happened and who did what. Both Norman and his mother are quite mad. He suffers from blackouts and hallucinations, while she has a major personality disorder or three. That makes them classic unreliable narrators, which allows the real narrators—the series’ writers—to play all sorts of tricks on viewers. We can’t trust anyone, and that uncertainty keeps us watching. In stories, as in music, it’s the unresolved chord that draws us onward.

Now, I’ll concede that writers are adept at justifying bad behavior in the name of art, including addictions to worse substances than popular TV. Nevertheless, I will maintain that my affliction has its beneficial side; indeed I’ll go so far as to recommend it to any writer interested in improving his or her craft.

From Game of Thrones, writers can learn to seek out our characters’ hidden agendas; to frame scenes to take maximum advantage of those conflict; and to do this not once in a while, but in every scene. Bates Motel, is a masterclass in the use of unreliable narrators and delayed gratification to enhance suspense. Lessons worth learning, I’d say, whatever the price. Besides, when I said I’m addicted to these series, I was taking poetic license. I can stop watching anytime I want to. Really I can.

Reprinted from a post on www.Bookcountry.com.