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structure

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Talking About Books With Agents

A few weeks ago, I wrote about turning in pages of my new novel to my agent. I heard back from her and the news is neither victorious (“these are the best pages I have ever read and I already talked to five publishers and we’re holding an auction next week”) nor fatal (“you can’t write and I don't want to represent you and you should give up and find another occupation.”)

The news was, in fact, somewhere in the middle of those extremes – imagine that! Here is what she said:

  • There are some things working well with my story – a good premise, some good moments, a strong sense of timeliness, a strong sense of the “stage” ofthe story – why it happens where it happens, how it unfolds.
  • There are some things that are not working well with my story – the structure (the way the character actually tells the story – why she tells us what she tells when she tells it) may not be serving the story in the way it needs to; the character is not yet wholly on the page yet and therefore someone the reader wholly cares about; there are some holes in the story logic that need to be repaired.

 
In other words, if I want to write a book that a big publisher believes is worth investing in, I have a lot of work to do. There is no "good enough" in this game.

For about four hours after hearing this news, I was depressed and deflated. It was not what I wanted to hear. 

I thought about just not doing it. After all, who cares if I ever write another book? I’ve written eight. That is a lot. That is good run. And the world will not stop spinning if I stop writing. I have another job I love – two of them, actually. It’s not like I need to fill the hours of the day.

But I only entertained that thought for about an hour.

I don’t want to stop.
I love a challenge.
I love my story.
I love the work of writing.

For about three seconds I thought about ditching my agent and finding someone else who thinks that everything I write comes out of my computer ready for prime time. I’d show her!

A writer friend of mine who shall not be named got similar news last week from her agent. But she did not believe her agent was right. She was ready to fight, to argue, to defend her fledgling project.

But I had none of that fire, none of that urge. 

Because my agent was right. What she was saying resonated with me – which is the key thing every writer has to ask about every piece of feedback she gets.  

I’m ashamed to admit that the thought about leaving her lasted even three seconds long. I love my agent. I trust her opinion. She is smart and savvy and she has my best interests in mind. She has stood by me for almost nine years. I would be an idiot to leave her.

I shook off my nasty alter-ego and then recalled that in the midst of telling me what was wrong with my book, my agent said some very flattering things about me and my writing and our relationship and this story that will become my next novel.

I realize what a gift it is to have such a person on my side – and it is one of the reasons I still believe so strongly in traditional publishing. There are lots of very compelling reasons to self publish, and I will no doubt do it again, and I will no doubt support many of my clients who decide that it is the right path for their books, but being chosen by smart people who are in the business of curating the books that get promoted to the most readers is a powerful thing indeed.

The time I spent with my agent in New York this week was, in the end, totally galvanizing. We had oatmeal and coffee in a wonderful little coffee shop, and talked about books and writers and writing and the state of publishing and the state of my writing career.

I don’t want to let my agent down.  She is part of the reason I want to succeed. I would love nothing more than to make her a ton of money. She has supported me for so long with so little return. 

So onward I go.

What I will be doing next:
 

  • Doing an assessment of my schedule/calendar in order to make room to do the work I need to do. I need a schedule that supports my effort. I have been trying too hard to cram in the writing. Something is going to have to give.
  • Doing an assessment on when and how and from whom to solicit feedback. There are times in the writing process when having consistent feedback is critical and times when it’s best to just listen to yourself. I need to figure out where in the process I am.
  • Doing an assessment on the pages themselves – what is worth keeping? Any of it? And if so, WHY is it worth keeping? I’m sharpening the knives for sure. I am very tempted to start with a blank page just to see what happens if I let the 93 pages go and start over again.
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to work on the logic. Answering some hard questions about secondary characters and the protagonists’ origin story. Who is she, really?
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to assess the structure I designed. Measuring what is there to see that how it is serving the story and where it is not.

I share all this with you just to make sure you know without a doubt that even I – the book coach who just came back from a gala awards ceremony with a client, the editor whose clients have big books coming out over the next few months, the well-published writer with the wonderfully supportive agent and the editor at the big house waiting to see what I write next – doesn’t get a free pass.

And neither do you.

So if there's something you have not faced about your work, something that is holding you back, something you need to dig down deep to figure out, just do it. And know that I will be doing it, too.

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The Story Behind the Story

The Story Behind the Story

 

One of the first questions I ask any writer is, Why do you want to write this story?

There are permutations to that question that follow hard on its heels: When did it first come into your head? Why does it matter to you? Why this story and not some other one? Why now?

The reason these questions matter so much is that the answers often hold the key, not only to the point of the book, but to the structure, and even to the way that you will ultimately connect with readers. I say on my website that I have book-seeing super-powers, which is somewhat cheeky and ridiculous, I know, but also strangely true. The super-power, comes, in part, from my understanding the reality of where books come from. They do not randomly arrive out of the clear blue sky. They come from somewhere. The come for some reason. The book that is haunting you is not haunting someone else, and it is not haunting you at a different time of your life.

If you can find out why you, why now, why this book, you can unlock the secrets of your story – where it should start, what it should do, how it should proceed on the page. It really is a kind of magic.

So how does it work?

I was recently driving up to teach at UCLA (an arduous trek on the 405 through West LA) and listening to NPR (which I don’t always do; sometimes I listen to Ryan Seacrest. Sometimes you need a little fluff in your life…) A story came on the air that perfectly captured the power of the origin of a story.

It was Emily Spivak talking about her book, Worn Stories – a collection of memoirs of people talking about their favorite items of clothing. I had heard about this book, had seen the cover, had even read an excerpt somewhere. I was intending to buy it, so when I heard that the author was there in my local NPRR studio – live! Just down the freeway in Pasadena! – I was eager to hear what she had to say.

The host asked Emily where she came up with the idea for the book, and Emily proceeded to tell this riveting story about taking her fashion students to a thrift store’s regional sorting center, to basically watch where clothes go to die. Her point in taking the field trip was to show students that clothes are just rags unless they are worn and loved. Her point was to inspire them to design clothes that would be worn and loved. The trip also inspired her to start thinking about how clothes were worn and loved – and voila! A book was born. A book with a point, which is the same thing as a beating heart.

I said above that the origin of a book can give you its structure, too, and this one did. If you want to share stories of clothes that were worn and loved, you probably want a wide variety of clothes and stories, which means you need a wide variety of people. Emily set about developing a list of people she might ask to contribute stories to her book. She thought of some famous people who it would be interesting to ask, but she wanted a diversity of people talking about a diversity of clothing. In the NPR piece, she talks about how once she chose one story it would lead her to chose the next, in a kind of yin and yang, back and forth process. She talked about taking out ads on Craigslist in towns in the Midwest in order to fill out her table of contents – a detail I love, because it suggests such commitment and passion. So the point of the book that had been sparked at that thrift store suggested a structure, which Emily began to build.

As I sat there listening to Emily tell this tale, I realized that her origin story also gave this author a way to connect with readers. She was on NPR in one of the largest media markets in America, and what she was talking about was the story behind the story.  She was talking about her love of clothes. Her passion for teaching people how to design them. Her beliefs about where they got their power. That one specific day at the thrift store sorting center. All of that occupied just a few pages of the introduction of her book, and yet THAT was the story that brought her to me, and to all the NPR listeners that day. That was no doubt the story that got the NPR producers excited about spending five minutes of airtime on Worn Stories. It was, after all, the very first question the host asked.

The story behind the story is often what gives a book its power to connect.  This morning, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a book called The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. It has become a massive hit on at least two continents, but I had never heard of it before this morning. If you read the Journal’s piece about author Marie Kondo, the part that really hooks you is the part where she talks about her childhood and how she loved to fold things and clean things and tidy up, and how she was the classroom organizer in grade school. The moment when she stumbles upon her signature phrase – “Does this spark joy?” can’t help but make you smile, and, at least for me, want to buy the book.

What’s the story behind your story? What’s the spark of joy that is motivating you to write this book? Tap into that, and you may just have the key you need to writing a great book.

To listen to the Emily Spivak interview, click HERE. She starts telling her origin story at .41 and the story about developing her list of people to interview at 2.30.

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SO MANY EVENTS COMING UP:

Join me and Dan Blank for a webinar series about how to connect with readers at every stage of the writing process. We’re doing a 4-part series for SheWritesPress, starting next week. The first webinar is free.  It’s not a super nitty gritty-hands on program, but we will be giving a lot of information, telling a lot of success stories (and a few failure stories), and taking individual Q&As from participants every week.

Join me at UCLA for a one-day workshop on Navigating the Path to Publishing. It’s perfect for anyone trying to decide between traditional and self publishing.

I’ll also be at the Women’s National Book Association Los Angeles Conference on March 14






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