Friday, December 23, 2011

The Book Release Blues

Is post-liber libero depression (also known as PLLD) afflicting you? Don’t worry, books are released every day and you don’t have to suffer alone!

Symptoms of PLLD vary, but may include:

-Social media overload
-Desire to check your Amazon ranking several times a day
-Lack of desire to continue working on your new manuscript
-Inability to be witty when signing a book (especially for friends)
-Vague embarrassment when people rave about your book
-Vague embarrassment when you explain to a stranger that you’re a writer
-Vague embarrassment when you re-read your new book – and really enjoy it

Writing a book and getting it published requires an extraordinary amount of effort, focus, and care. Research suggests that PLLD could be a functional component of an author’s post-book release decision making process, supporting the notion that PLLD is a normal phenomenon experienced by authors in varying degrees, and most typically alternating with a sense of euphoria and delight. (See “Whiplash Effect.”)

There are many methods of coping, including strategies such as long trips to the Arctic or learning to read hieroglyphics, but it might be helpful to understand that these may not resolve the problem and could negatively impact the author’s long-term work strategy. So it’s best to avoid avoidance. Seek support from writer friends. Re-read every positive book review. Celebrate. You really are an author. Give yourself permission to be proud.

Then get back to work.


Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Power of An Outrageous Voice

I plunged in twenty years ago, started writing from the seat of my pants, and just kept going. (Definitely leaving myself open to scatological humor there!) Well, over the past year or so it’s been time out for continuing education. I feel as though I’ve awakened to writing skills after a long slumber. A great deal of what I’ve learned has come from the wise Sisters of the Quill, but precious nuggets have also been gleaned from teachers at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. A powerful lesson on voice came from that source.

For Gordon Mennenga’s Beginning the Novel course this past summer, we submitted our first fifty pages in advance. By the time the class gathered he’d read and evaluated them all. He’s wonderful; he may have saved my writing career.

But I felt sucker-punched when I read his comments scrawled across the top of my first page. They delivered a hard truth: You haven’t found your character’s voice. My first instinct was to scramble a defense. But but but…I’ve been working on this novel for many years now (many many years, in fact). I know how my character looks, what makes her tick, where she sleeps, what she eats, whom she loves, what she’s proud of. I even know her dreams. How could I not know her voice? This reaction was exacerbated by having once been utterly at one with the voice of an earlier character, the subject of six published mystery novels in the 1990s. I thought I understood voice.

But beneath it all I recognized the still, calm voice of truth. From the start I’d had trouble with how my new character expressed herself. She was too bland, too nice. Her voice didn’t flow easily, with the force of a real person. If I were honest with myself, deep down I’d known it all along.

I’ll never forget walking back to my room after that class in a sort of daze, a form of shock, and immediately hunkering down with the laptop. I was excited; I could feel I was on the edge of something big. Starting over in a new voice was like jumping off a cliff. Did I have the courage to make such a daring departure? My character’s “out there” voice had been lurking in the back of my mind, but I’d been ignoring it. I opened a document called New Voice and started typing. It came. She was there, ready and waiting.

How do you capture your character’s pure, authentic voice? I have a few ideas. But first you have to be honest enough with yourself to admit that you don’t have it, and that sort of honesty can be difficult. Ask yourself right now: are you certain your character grabs your reader and doesn’t let go? No excuses allowed; it won’t matter to the editor how many years you’ve been working on it. Do you have a “Call me Ishmael” power opening? Will something about your character linger in your reader’s mind? If not, you’d better fix it. You know the mantra: don’t give them a reason to reject your book.

Once you’ve decided to head into the fray, here are some tips for capturing your character’s voice:

Don’t be afraid to make your character different from you. Really different from you. In fact, the more different your character is from you, the more easily their voice will come. I hate offending people, so it was helpful to make my character the opposite of myself. My character is now so offensive to others, and so unconcerned about it, that it’s impossible to slip into a bland voice again. And writing with attitude is fun!

Get extreme. Look at Lady Gaga: she wants you to notice her, so she isn’t subtle. And it works! She’s met the Queen, for heaven’s sake! Yes, she’s good at what she does, but you’re probably good at what you do, too. You just need to get noticed to get published. So don’t be subtle. Go over the top. My current protagonist’s voice feels over the top to me, but I don’t think she would be to you. And you might remember her.

Go deep. The things that make a character memorable are often painful. Dig into the ugly truth of what makes him/her behave this way, talk this way, think this way. The kernel will probably be some sort of pain or loss. This may well come from your own experience, so it can be tough to go there. Discipline yourself for the sake of your craft, if you want a breakthrough onto a new level. Visit the hardest places to go within yourself, your toughest memories, most painful lessons. That’s where the power is. That zing you feel? You want your readers to feel that.

To illustrate, here are my before-and-after first lines.
Old voice: “They came for him at midnight.” This sentence isn’t bad, but it’s passive, distant, impersonal. It doesn’t tell you anything about either character. And the 449 pages that followed were rejected about a million times.
New voice: “Pepys calls me his Stormy Petrel.” This reveals a relationship, and something about each character. It’s active, and starts out talking about “me,” not “him;” it’s more immediate and direct. It has attitude, at least for the year 1670. I’ll let you know what happens.

Go for it! Jump off that cliff and open a new file. What have you got to lose? Nothing but a rejection.

Wishing you joyful writing,

Stormy P.

Friday, December 2, 2011

How the Sisters of the Quill Came To Be

Each Sister of the Quill was pursuing her writing dream independently in 1994 when, suddenly, she discovered kindred spirits walking alongside and linked arms. The group’s name only attached itself recently, after Storm Petrel created an imaginary and tightly knit society of seventeenth-century penmen called the Brothers of the Quill for her current novel.

Storm Petrel struck up a conversation with Ink Pot at a Montessori School Christmas play, and discovered they lived in the same neighborhood. The core of an enduring critique group was born.

That spring, Storm Petrel spotted an unusual “Niwot” listing on Folio’s nametag at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference. They too discovered that they lived in the same neighborhood, and the fledgling critique group enfolded another kindred spirit.

We met Nib at a writing conference when she lived in the Nebraska Sandhills. The resulting e-mail correspondence paved the way for our daily (sometimes multiple daily) e-mail progress reports. Over the years Ink Pot, Nib, and Folio in particular became famous for hosting a party at each conference. Agents, editors, and writers shared the joy of their common obsession and became friends.

Because we were each at a different mile marker along the writer’s journey, we were equipped to help one another in unforeseen ways. Storm Petrel had been multi-published and her wisdom and willingness to share lessons learned has proven invaluable to her sisters. Now, Storm Petrel is not only putting the finishing touches on a carefully wrought, 17th century prequel to her Plumtree mystery series (Unsolicited, Unbound, Unprintable, Untitled, Unsigned, and Uncatalogued), an imaginative world of legendary libraries and nobility of spirit, she mentors high school students through the sometimes daunting and always complicated process of successfully applying to the colleges of their dreams. (Just so you know, Folio put all the generous adjectives and compliments in this paragraph!)

Ink Pot was a literary writer who had been published in poetry journals. She apprenticed herself to commercial writing with a vigor that intensified over the years until she was writing a novel and a several screenplays in a single year—this in addition to being Mother of the Year in everybody’s book. She won nearly every prize offered in regional writing contests, and over her long apprenticeship has experienced all the agony and ecstasy an aspiring writer could know. As she acquired more and more expertise in the craft, she began to teach, first her sisters and then at conferences. Now she edits and presents courses regularly. Ink Pot is also known for delivering magical soup and sustenance of all kinds when her sisters hit rough spots along the way.

For more than a decade Folio had been getting up at ungodly hours of the morning to write by the time we met. She would rise daily at three-thirty or four to write for a couple of hours before heading off to run one of Colorado’s hottest architectural firms. Folio already had several works in her drawer, having served a long apprenticeship to fiction writing. She possesses a naturally effortless writing style that everyone just wants to keep reading forever. If you’ve read her first novel, Soliloquy, you understand. Folio is, like Ink Pot, an extremely detail-oriented editor and a topnotch brainstormer, and recently celebrated publication of Fogg in the Cockpit, a collaborative non-fiction effort between Folio and her husband. Folio came up with the titles for all of Storm Petrel’s books after the first, including the unifying title theme.

Nib was cranking out chapters of an ambitious novel with great determination at the counter of her family’s feed store in Hyannis, Nebraska when we met. She is our action-packed, hot-topic thriller writer and has also served a long and fruitful apprenticeship to the craft. Several eventful years only served to make her more dedicated and prolific, and since publication of Ashes of the Red Heifer she has already turned out and sold Sacred Balance, what we hope will be the first novel in a long-lived series. Despite her demanding work as manager of a cool non-profit in Arizona, she manages to turn out ideas and pages constantly, a real powerhouse.

Ink Pot, Folio and Nib have volunteered tirelessly at local writers conferences for many years, and are now famous in their own right for the generosity of their service. Storm Petrel’s modesty and gentle tenacity inspires all. Sisters of the Quill. Sisters of the heart.

Storm Petrel (with generous contributions from Folio, Nib and Ink Pot)