What We Can Learn About Starting Strong From Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore


Starting a novel in a way that captures your readers’ attention and engages their curiosity and persuades them to give your story a fighting chance is about far more than writing a catchy first line or a dramatic first page. You have to convince the reader that your made-up world is real, that the people in it are experiencing real struggle, and that you, the author, have complete and total authority over what is happening in it. We all know what that feels like on the reader’s side – to be swept away by a story so strongly that someone in the next room could be yelling, “Fire!” and we might not even lift our head from the pages. But how does it happen from the writer’s side? How do they spin their magic web?
I recently picked up Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan and immediately felt that rush of being taken in by a story. I found six things in the first six pages that contributed to this feeling:

1. A sense of wonder

The opening lines of the story are about a man on a ladder in a bookstore searching for a book. We sense the strangeness of the bookstore – It’s dark up there… the air might be thinner… I think I see a bat. And before we even get finished with Page 1, we want to know what this place is, and what book he is searching for, and who he is, and what exactly is going on. That’s not about drama. It’s about curiosity, about caring, about wanting to know something.

2. A sense of time passing, of things changing.

The character introduces himself like this: My name is Clay Jannon and those were the days when I rarely touched paper
This one line makes you want to know so many things. Why didn’t he touch paper? And what happened to turn him into someone who often touched paper. We get a feeling that in this story, something important will change in this guy’s life. And that’s what we want in a novel – an experience of transformation. That’s what we come for.

3. +  4. + 5. A character with a clear and present problem + a compelling voice + a sense of the writer’s authority

Clay reads all day on a computer. He says he is reading the third book in a series about vampire police. I have a lot of free time, he says, by way of explaining this somewhat odd reading choice. And then he tells us why he is spending his days in this way – and here is where the authority of the writer over the story kicks in hard. Not only does the following passage show us where we are in the grand scheme of time – the early twenty-first century – but we are shown this character’s place in it, and we see that it’s not a good place. Clay is a talented guy reduced to working for a dubious bagel company and then left with no job at all.

This guy is talking about a big problem and yet he speaks in a very wry and knowing and almost contented voice about it, which makes us believe that he no longer has that big problem, which makes us want to read forward to see how he got out from under it. This is, in other words, a story about a character with a challenge, who is speaking in a unique and compelling voice, and which is written by an author who knows exactly where is story is going – the trifecta every great story needs to hit:
I was unemployed, a result of the great food-chain contraction that swept through America in the early twenty-first century, leaving bankrupt burger chains and shuttered sushi empires in its wake.

The job I lost was at the corporate headquarters of NewBagel, which was based not in New York or anywhere else with a tradition of bagel-making but instead here in San Francisco. The company was very small and very new. It was founded by a pair of ex-Googlers who wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle. It was my first job out of art school, and I started as a designer, making marketing materials to explain and promote this tasty toroid: menus, coupons, diagrams, posters for store windows, and, once, an entire booth experience for a baked-goods trade show.

None of this represented the glorious next stage of human evolution, but I was learning things. I was moving up. But then the economy took a dip, and it turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they're sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.

The ex-Googlers were accustomed to success and they would not go quietly. They quickly rebranded to become the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company and abandoned the algorithm entirely so the bagels started coming out blackened and irregular. They instructed me to make the website look old-timey, a task that burdened my soul and earned me zero AIGA awards. The marketing budget dwindled, then disappeared. There was less and less to do. I wasn't learning anything and I wasn't moving anywhere.

So then, after less than a year of employment, I was jobless.
6. We see that the singular guy’s problem isn’t just his problem. He represents a problem in this whole world, and by making that shift, the story becomes universal.

You can feel that shift happen in the following passage. It's subtle -- just a short mention about the whole economy, the risk of not landing a job, followed by a zooming out to hear about the competition and what the winners in the economy are experiencing. We get the clear sense that Clay's story will teach us something about this world and who wins and who loses and why. We get a glimpse of the stakes:
It turned out it was more than just the food chains that had contracted. People were living in motels and tent cities. The whole economy suddenly felt like a game of musical chairs, and I was convinced I needed to grab a seat, any seat, as fast as I could.

That was a depressing scenario when I considered the competition. I had friends who were designers like me, but they had already designed world-famous websites or advanced touch-screen interfaces, not just the logo for an upstart bagel shop. I had friends who worked at Apple. My best friend, Neel, ran his own company. Another year at NewBagel and I would have been in good shape, but I hadn't lasted long enough to build my portfolio, or even get particularly good at anything. I had an art-school thesis on Swiss typography (1957–1983) and I had a three-page website.

I’m not going to give anything away, but suffice it to say that just six pages into the story, we actually know everything this story is about. All the clues are there. This jobless guy whose friends all seem to have caught lucky breaks is barely making it in the new economy. His super esoteric and analog art school thesis seems to be totally worthless in a world where people are looking for big digital wins. We ask ourselves, “What on earth will happen to him and what is up with the weird and magical-seeming bookstore?” – which is exactly the kinds of questions that keeps readers reading.

Do your opening six pages do all that?? These are well worth studying to see how Sloan pulls it off -- and I dare you to NOT keep reading the novel. It's so much fun and a great read for book lovers because it's so much about the place of books in the world. I loved it. 


Interested in learning how you can determine if your work has the narrative drive it needs? Check out the Revision Sprint, which is upcoming on December 9th and 10th. To learn more, click HERE



Are You Just Moving Deck Chairs Around on the Titanic?


Revision is a tricky thing because it’s a different thing than writing. It’s a different action, a different skill. It demands a wholly different mindset.
When you are writing a book, you are creating. It’s imaginative, generative, full of heat and impulse. For many writers, it’s enormous fun. You can lose yourself in the process of putting words on the page and watching the pages fill up. The heady thrill of making something out of nothing is always there during the writing process.
But when we turn to editing suddenly that thrill is gone. Now we have something with weight and shape. As Susan Bell, author of The Artful Edit said, “While we write into a void, we edit into a universe.” The difference is that a universe has rules and limitations that the void does not.
Editing is, in many ways, the exact opposite action from writing. It is logical, systematic, analytic. You must step back and assess the work with a ruthless eye. It often doesn’t seem quite as fun, quite as free. The writer Jorge Luis Borges said, “Art is fire plus algebra.” When it comes to creating a book, writing is the fire; editing is the algebra. And the goal, of course, is to make art -- which is to say, something that moves other people.
The mistake that many writers make is they fail to give themselves over to the new and different action. They try to edit in the same way they write – word by word, line by line. In so doing, they focus on things like grammar and word choice, or the logic of a single sentence. Perhaps they zoom outward a tiny bit to look at a chunk of dialogue or a character’s motivation, but that’s as far as they go.
If you are still looking that closely at the work, focusing on the level of the comma and verb-tense agreement and lyrical descriptions of people, places or things, all you are doing is moving deck chairs around on the Titanic.
What you want to do in revision is look for the hole in the side of the hull. You want to see if the ship itself is watertight and seaworthy. You want to step way back so you have a completely different view.
This is what editors and book coaches bring to the table – this ability to see the work in a new way. We bring perspective. You can’t get out of your own head – no human can. But you can learn to think like an editor, to step back from your pages and bring a steely-eyed measure to the pages.

  • The very first step in this process is to approach the work as a whole entity, away from the computer. I insist on paper for this step, because you can’t move words around on paper with the flick of a mouse; you can’t shift paragraphs, swap chapters, ax scenes, pound out the bridges you need to get us from one chapter to the next. All you can do is read and take notes. So this constraint is there for a purpose.
  • I also insist on working somewhere different from where you write. It can be a study instead of the kitchen table, a coffee shop instead of a library, facing the street out front instead of the street out back. This is to trick your mind into thinking you are doing something different from writing – because you are.
  • Next, get quiet and open. This is a critical part of the work of revision. You have to be quiet and open to seeing what is really there rather than what you just hope is there.
  • Spend no more than one hour going over the work – skimming it like a bird flying over a field. You know what’s there; you wrote it. This exercise task gives you the opportunity to try to take it in as a whole. As you whip through the chapters, simply ask yourself, “What do I know is not working about this book?” And jot down your thoughts. Odds are good that if you are in a new place, in the presence of your story on paper, in a quiet mind that is open to seeing what is really there, you will know. And knowing is the first step in being able to improve.


I teach this exercise in detail on Day 1 of the Revision Sprint, which is upcoming on December 9th and 10th. I call it The 60-Minute Manuscript Audit. To learn more, click HERE



The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Rejection


I gave a presentation last weekend at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena called The Rejection Audit. It was about how to interpret rejection letters – how to know what they are really saying, how to know whether you should keep pitching, how to know if you are just having bad luck or doing something wrong.
After the talk, an agent who has been in the business for 25 years came up to me and said, “Thank you for saying all this out loud. Agents can’t say it because people will say we’re being mean, but writers need to hear it.”
The “it” she was referring to?
The fact that you might be getting agent rejections not because the system is unfair or rigged or mysterious or out to get you in some specific way; you might be getting rejections because your work isn’t yet ready for prime time.
When rejected, I hear writers say things like this:

  • You have to know someone to get a book deal
  • You have to already have 10,000 Twitter followers to get an agent
  • The system is rigged
  • The system is unfair
  • I heard no one buys first-person YA anymore
  • All anyone wants are mainstream voices
  • All anyone wants are #ownvoices
  • All anyone wants are vampire dystopian cat mashups

These are not statements of truth or fact. These are stories you are telling yourself about rejection.
I get it – writers tell stories. Of course we do. It’s in our blood. But when you are ready to bring your book into the world, it becomes a product just as surely as Crest toothpaste and Chevy trucks. You have to know who your audience is, who your competition is, what is happening in the marketplace, what you bring to the table, which agents are accepting new writers, how they want to be approached.

Pitching is not just throwing darts at a board. It’s a strategic undertaking.
 For example:

  • If your query letter is not getting any response other than form letter rejections, there is likely something wrong with your query letter.
  • If your query letter is eliciting invitations to send a chunk of pages, but you are then getting either dead silence or form letter rejections, there is likely something wrong with your pages.

What does a form letter look like? It has nothing specific about your book. It could be written to anyone about anything. It has that telltale flat form-i-ness to it:
Dear ________

Thank you so much for writing me about your project.  I read and consider each query carefully and while yours is not exactly what I am looking for, I would certainly encourage you to keep trying.  I know your work is important to you and I am grateful that you wrote to me.

All best, 

A letter that is longer and gushier but still has nothing specific about your book is still a form letter:
Dear ________
Thanks so much for sending your query — I appreciate the chance to take a look at your project. I'm sorry to say, though, that I'm going to step aside instead of asking to read more.

Please bear in mind that everybody has different tastes and interests — my decision is based on my present workload, and also based on the kind of material that I'm presently representing.  That said, this is a crazily subjective business: I absolutely think you should keep looking for representation because what works for one agent (or publisher) may not work as well for another. I'm afraid, though, that I cannot recommend someone for it.

Very best of luck!

When agents send letters like this, what they are really saying is, “Your work is not ready for prime time.” I advise writers that if they get more than about 6 of those, it’s time to stop pitching and figure out what’s going on.
If, however, you are getting specific feedback on your actual story that indicates the agent actually read it, and that sounds like an actual human, I advise writers to keep pitching. What does such a letter look like?
Dear __________,
Thanks so much for sharing ___________________ with me, and for your patience (I apologize for my delay, I've been backlogged). What an interesting story, and you have a terrific narrative voice. There are many jewels in these pages. And yet, I'm truly sorry to say that despite the riches here, I'm just not quite "in love" and I don't have the clear vision for this book's publishing path — both things you want from an agent. I fear that we're not quite the right match, but the book absolutely has merit and so I'm confident that you'll find the right agent for you. I wish I had better news, but please know that I'm cheering you on! Very best wishes and good luck (would love to hear where you land).
And this:
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to consider your manuscript. You are clearly a talented writer and this is impressive. The novel is well constructed and has a great narrative flow.

Unfortunately, however, I am being extremely careful about taking on new projects, particularly first novels which are very difficult to place in the current marketplace. My taste runs a little more toward the literary, and while this was a close call, I finally wasn't as invested in the various storylines as I would need to be to take this on. I also didn't find the differences in the voice quite distinct enough.

Clearly, this is a business of taste and sensibilities and I trust another agent will feel differently and champion this work on your behalf.
Thanks again for the opportunity to consider your work and I wish you the best of luck with it. 

I would welcome seeing more from you in the future.

Publishing is indeed wildly subjective and agents are looking to fall in love – just like readers. We want to be swept away!  Sometimes you get rejected because of bad timing or bad luck or things outside of your control, but before you tell yourself that story, make sure you are looking at your rejections for clues and for patterns.
And if the conclusion is that there might be something wrong with your manuscript? Figure out how to fix it. Because agents are not being mean. They are just doing business. And so should you.

 Need to figure out what's wrong with your manuscript? Join me December 8-10 for a course on how to revise a complete manuscript. Click HERE for details.



Permission to Ignore Reader Feedback

Photo via  Pixabay .

Photo via Pixabay.

There comes a time in the life of every work-in-progress when you want to share your writing with readers to see how it is working outside of your own head. Maybe you’re sharing a scene with a writing group, or a chapter with a workshop, or a whole manuscript with a group of beta readers. This is always a moment to be very intentional – and very careful. So much damage can be done because you are often feeling very vulnerable and as a result, it's easy to make mistakes.
Here are three of the most common errors I see writers make when sharing their work-in-progress.
1.  Giving the work to the wrong people at the wrong time
As I said above, I always advise people to be very intentional about this step in the creative process – to know why you’re sharing the work and what you hope to get out of it, and then to carefully select the right readers to give you what you need. Imagining that people can read your mind about what you need is a recipe for disaster The same is true for secretly hoping that your readers will simply love your work and validate your vision and lift you up and erase all your doubts about your ability and your worthiness and your story. It’s just never going to happen.
So define exactly what you need at this stage of the process, and choose the right people to give it to you. Literally write down your criteria as if you were hiring someone for the job then select people you know are willing and able to help in those specific ways.

  • If the work is very new and fragile and you just want someone to say, “Keep going,” it would be a mistake to give that work to a friend or relative who’s going to rip it apart. You want to find readers who understand the creative process, who are perhaps in it themselves, and who know that at certain times, you just need a little kind encouragement.
  • If you are looking to get a sense of the sweep of the whole story, and how the pacing and flow are working, don’t give it to a nit-picking grammar-loving guy who worked as a copywriter in the newspaper biz his whole life.
  • If you ARE wanting a nit-picking grammar guy to find every last little error before you send the work to an agent, then DO pick the newspaper friend.

A corollary to this warning is that if you can’t find the right people, don’t settle. Hold off on sharing your work until you can attend a workshop or conference and meet the right people, or until you can afford a professional evaluation.
The second corollary to this warning is to beware of choosing your life partners as beta readers. Even if they love you and your work, and are involved in creative work themselves, they may be a poor choice. Make absolutely sure that they meet your criteria
2.  Failing to tell your readers exactly what you need
Once you define what you need from your readers, make sure you actually communicate it to them, with as much specificity as possible.

  • Is there a one- or a three-week deadline by which you would like feedback returned?
  • Can they write on the pages you give them or make notes on an electronic version? Or would you prefer a simple summary or phone call to follow up?
  • Are there questions you would like them to have in their head before they start reading?
  • Are there questions you would like them to review once they are finished reading?
  • Should they tell you if they get bored or confused or think you are wasting your time and should take up tomato farming instead?

My 21-year-old daughter recently asked me to read something of hers. She said," I wrote this. Hold it in your hands gently..."

I spend my days giving tough love to writers who are serious about getting published, and she knows that. This was the ideal way for her to communicate to me what she wanted from me. 

3.  Not claiming your right to ignore feedback that doesn't serve you.
The hardest thing to do when it comes to reader feedback is to ignore it, but in certain situations, it is imperative to do so. What you are looking for is feedback that resonates with something you believe to be true about the work – a place you knew was weak, a place where you tried to get away with something. The goal is to bring the work on the page as close as you can to the vision in your head. You are not trying to match someone ELSE’S vision, and you are absolutely, definitely, 100% not trying to meet the “vision” of a committee of readers.
So if a critique comes out of left field, or no one else has said anything at all similar, or it just feels wrong (as in you think the feedback is bizarre or that the person giving it is being vindictive or clueless, or you can’t figure out where on earth they came up with the thing they are saying) you must ignore it. And I mean totally dismiss it.
This advice assumes that you are open to actual, honest and possibly negative feedback about the work; that you are prepared to have to do a lot of hard work once you get the feedback; and that you are seeking feedback because you want to be a better writer. This is not permission to just say, “All my readers don’t get me so I shall write whatever the heck I want to write and ignore all of them.” It’s permission to assess one particularly bizarre bit of feedback and, if warranted, to ignore it.
How do you confidently make such as assessment?
It just happened to a client of mine, whom I shall call John. Some of the details of this story have been changed to protect people’s identities, but the story is real.
John prepared a finished novel manuscript to go out to a small group of 5 readers, whom he selected for specific reasons, among those being an affinity for the topic of the story, membership in his target audience, and first-hand knowledge of the world of financial institutions and Wall Street.
Feedback from the readers trickled in with some great, actionable advice to shore up a subplot and clarify a character’s intentions. One reader asked if a friend could also read the book and give feedback, because she liked it so much and she thought this friend would have great feedback to add to the mix. All readers were enthusiastic and full of praise even as they gave their honest assessment for ways to make the work better.
One of his readers was a colleague in the Wall Street world, and when John got back this guy’s feedback, he wrote me this email:
"Okay, so that’s the last time I ask this “friend” to read anything, ever. He ignored everything I asked him to do and wrote 22 pages of everything he found wrong with my book—which was pretty much everything from the premise to the style to the characters to that Nasdaq scene, which he didn’t buy at all. Said it wouldn’t be possible. As you know, I had a trader friend of mine also read it—he suggested a few minor changes, but felt, for the sake of my story it was accurate (simplified, yes, but plausible). I guess I will go through this reader’s notes to see if there are things he picked up on that I agree could be changed/fixed (the whole Nasdaq scene? The whole story rests on that scene!), but it was all pretty harsh and I have to say that I’m not looking forward to it."

I immediately wrote back and said, “DON’T DO IT.” I urged John to ignore this friend’s feedback – to literally not open those 22 pages again. Because while it was kind for this friend to agree to be a beta reader, he didn’t play by the rules.

  • He didn’t fill out the simple one-page Q&A John asked for
  • He took the opportunity to rip the work apart in every way
  • He did not offer any helpful or encouraging feedback in his 22-page missive
  • He clearly did not understand the creative process or what John needed at this time
  • He was mean-spirited in a way that suggested that he did not have John’s best interests in mind – In fact, I suggested that perhaps he was jealous, and John later concurred that several things led him to believe this was true.

When I gave John permission to ignore the feedback, he was SO relieved. He asked, “Really? Can I?”
And I said, “YES!!!!!”
A huge part of becoming the writer you were meant to become is learning to listen to your own creative instincts and to trust them. Sending work out to readers is supposed to help you hone your voice and instincts, not tear them down.
In the brand new masterclass on writing for young people that Judy Blume (!!!) just launched -- her first-ever online course offering -- she tells a story in the course intro about receiving a terrible review and falling into despair and wanting to smash her typewriter. At the last moment, she said to herself, "WAIT! You're going to let this one review stop you from being a writer? That's crazy!"

That's the mantra we should all adopt -- even from a critique from a "friend" who you invited into your creative process at the very start of the process.


P.S. In January 2018, Author Accelerator will be introducing beta-reader matching events as part of our forthcoming membership program. We won't do the matching for you, but we will hold events so you can align with like-minded writers who are equally serious about getting their work into the world. We will also offer training to help you share your work in a way that will be supportive and additive rather than mean and destructive.



What Maria Sharapova Can Teach Us About Generosity


I often advise writers to imagine their book on the shelf – to picture where in the bookstore it will be sitting, which other books it will be keeping company with, and what readers will be saying to their friends about it once they get to “the end.”
I suggest this because it’s incredible important to remember that when you are writing a book, you are creating a product – a thing that will be bought and sold in a marketplace. This can be a terrifying thought for a first-time author who may be nervous simply sharing their first chapter with a writing group, or sending in a scene for a coaching critique.  But we need to lean into this fear. The fear of being bought and sold goes hand in hand with the fear of being exposed, and it’s all part of being read, which is what every writer wants.
I often use an exercise for envisioning your book on the shelf that I call The Oprah Exercise. It goes like this:

Surprise! It's three years from now. Your book has taken the world by storm (thanks to how well you identified your reader and how well all your marketing efforts worked!) You’ve been invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk all about it.

Oprah isn’t going to spend the time on air talking about the plot of your book, or what’s in it, or the way you crafted it or what it can do for people, because everyone’s already read it and they know all of this stuff already. She’s going to ask you why you believe your book has resonated as deeply as it has—and you have to answer in a snappy sound bite. So why has your book resonated with so many readers? What, in other words, did it show people about their lives that they needed to see? How did it make things better? Remember to speak in a snappy sound bite so you sound awesome on TV! And tell us what you will wear.
Forget that Oprah no longer has a show – the exercise is great because it forces you to hone in on your book’s point and why it matters. Even the bit about what to wear is important because it helps you to see yourself as an author with an identity or a “brand” as the new buzzword goes.
The opposite exercise can also really help, as well – which is to imagine the worst possible book review someone could write for your book. This is not exactly fun, but it’s useful to try to capture what you should avoid.
You can also play this part of the game by reading critical book reviews and considering what it would be like to receive that notice for your own work. What you are looking for is the review that makes you think, “Now THAT is the LAST thing I would want anyone to say about my book. THAT would be the WORST.”
This is what I thought when I read a recent Wall Street Journal review of Maria Sharapova’s new memoir. The critique, to me, was withering because it was about the very thing we come to memoir for: depth and insight into someone else’s heart and mind. We come because someone is generous of spirit, because they allow themselves to be vulnerable, because they dig deeper than we can go in regular everyday life. The same is absilutely true for fiction and non-fiction, but it's more glaringly obvious for memoir.
Sharapova is one of the world’s top tennis players and by some accounts, the world’s richest female athletes (due in large part to her luxury endorsement deals.) She has won five Grand Slam titles. She was suspended from the tour for fifteen months, and condemned by sponsor Nike, for taking a banned substance. She is no stranger, in other words, to attention, both positive and negative. Her life story sounds fascinating to be sure, but the Journal review said this:
“The book has a few worthy bits on her childhood and career, but mostly it lacks depth and drama – everything sounds so simple and smooth. If this version were a draft, it would be a solid one, fit to be reworked into a fine book after her retirement. At the moment, though, it is too little too soon. It aims to announce her comeback after spending 15 months away from the sport. But one suspects that, in her career as well as in her life, there is more to discover then she’s willing to yet disclose…
Andre Agassi has written the best tennis memoir by far, “Open” (2009). His secret? He was honest about his emotions and his actions – whether it was the way he cheated in tennis (he lied about a drug) or the way he handled his own personal struggles. (He also hired a fantastic co-writer, J.R. Moehringer.) Ms. Sharapova, assisted here by the journalist Rich Cohen, can’t be accused of dishonesty, but she stays too far away from emotions, especially those involving her and her family.”
I loved Agassi’s memoir and have often used it to teach memoir writers how to write about really difficult situations involving other people in their lives. He writes with raw honesty and also compassionate kindness about his failed relationship with Brooke Shields. He is not afraid to make himself look really bad as he seeks to tell the truth as best as he can. He writes, in other words, in service of the story. It’s a very moving book.
I have not read Sharapova's book and doubt that I will, so can’t comment on what she does or doesn’t do in her pages. My point here for writers is to consider what people might say about your book when it is out there in the world.
Will they say that you stayed too far away from emotion? That your readers suspect there was more to the story than you were willing to disclose? That events came across as too simple and smooth?
If the answer is yes – if you have shied away from being generous of spirit, and generous of heart – perhaps it’s not time for you to call it done yet.