Write what you know, ever heard that advice before? It helps to locate and ignite an author’s passion. Ona Russell, the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, February speaker, found a scrapbook of articles about her great-grandfather, a celebrated judge in Toledo, Ohio. Intrigued, Russell’s research unearthed family secrets and inconsistencies. Her own mother’s birth date was incorrect, the judge struggled with mental disorders, and a mysterious lady, Sarah Kaufman, legal assistant to the judge, appeared in many photos. Russell fell in love with these uncelebrated personalities from the past. Eventually, Sarah Kaufman became a sleuthing protagonist in Russell’s own historical mystery novels, a trilogy set in the 1920’s.
Part of her storytelling is true, based on the articles. Some of the storytelling is fact, based on research, but Russell worked hard to highlight the “slant,” the re-invented tensions and conflicts. Russell explained that excitement is created in the margins of the truth, in the details, in the spots where the story pauses and shifts gears. Generating a narrative from this blend of truth, fiction and fact is a tricky balance for writers, whether the works are memoir, science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction because all the world-building elements have to be credible to the reader. For Russell, this credibility is key. She said the way to engage the reader is by establishing credibility with an authentic setting, with historical details, with nuances and a pace that is true to the era. This means eliminating everything that does not move the story forward, research, back story, even a favorite character. A writer should look for things to emphasize, create complexity, and sacrifice anything that is not relevant to the story.
This except is from the Fresh Ink March 2016 issue. The title “Tell all the truth..” is from a poem by Emily Dickenson.
Amber Victoria was a guest speaker at the California Writers Club in September. She introduced her topic about illustrating and publishing her children’s book, Twins European Adventure, by enumerating all the small towns she called home. This was followed by a lengthy resume of everything she loved about her education, interests, hobbies and life. Just as worried if, and when, she was ever going to talk about books, she veered into the oddest transition. She talked about her childhood fear of sharks, a fear so debilitating that she trained in competitive swimming to gain confidence.
And then it clicked. A swim race was like writing, she explained. How you talk to yourself is what gets you across the finish line. “Don’t negate yourself,” she warned, “or you will never finish.” Writing means you’re an independent entrepreneur and since it’s about learning, every step takes you towards an obstacle. You will find a way around it. Don’t be afraid of launching yourself in too many new directions, it may feel as if you are stalling, but, in reality, you are developing something new.
Victoria took a breath, and shared another obstacle, a very personal one. She is dyslexic. I was intrigued, dyslexia would be a significant obstacle when writing a book! It explained something else too. While coordinating the presentation schedule I noticed that the quality of her texts and email was uneven. At first I assumed she was a typical Millennial, perusing ebusiness on the fly. I even wondered if English were a second language. I did not catch a single error in her PowerPoint because her personal narrative was so compelling, but an English teacher spotted several distracting mistakes.
“Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.”
Victoria shared a motivational quote from the Dalai Lama, “Don’t let the behavior of others destroy your inner peace.” Grammar issues would not be a surprise to her, and if a comment about grammatical imperfections were passed along, it would not have discouraged her. Belief and mindset was key to Victoria’s concept of success. She reminded the audience that bestselling authors received bad reviews. She mentioned a fellow writer who ranted about recommendations he disliked. She cautioned the audience, “You have to make sure you don’t absorb advice in a way that makes you the kind of negative person you hate.” Keep writing, she urged. Write what feels closest to your heart. Ask yourself, what is the outcome? What does my audience need to hear? What are the “what ifs”? Where are the morals and emotional growth issues? What are you teaching? And to whom?
She finished by giving specific examples of how her past influenced her present work, adding technical tips about the market for children’s literature. Her talk picked up speed and held together with verve and impact.
An audience member described Amber Victoria as an angel. “I embrace how she keeps inspired in her life, what an accomplished soul! What a blessing to have her on the planet and hear her speak about her love and putting it on pages.” Proving, once again, that when a storyteller effectively communicates his or her vulnerable moments, they leave their audience with the most memorable impressions.
A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less.
Lorna and Larry Collins have been practicing their pitches for assorted memoirs, short story anthologies, mystery and romance novels for quite some time. In their presentation at the California Writer’s Club they explained that the world of publishing has changed, but the need for a “perfect pitch” has not. Agents, readers and friends want to know what great novel is in the works, and the writer must grab attention in one sentence. While polite friends may enjoy a rambling explanation, today’s socially-media minded readers are too busy for niceties. Agents are even more impatient. They are looking for reasons to triage their monthly work pile from three hundred manuscripts to a single pertinent manuscript.
So, what is a pitch? A pitch is your story compressed into 25 five words. Or less. It is a description of the arc of the story, covering the beginning, middle and end. It should introduce an interesting character and that character should have a goal or a crisis. The setting, place or situation should intrigue your target audience. Examples follow, and note that more detailed information can be found on their website:
- What if four little guys go on a dangerous quest to destroy a stolen ring? (Lord of the Rings)
- What if a matchmaking young woman focuses on her friends but misses her own perfect match, who has been there all along. (Emma)
- A tornado blows Dorothy to Oz, incurring the wrath of a witch. A scarecrow, woodsman, and lion seek a powerful wizard to send her home. (Wizard of Oz)
Consider your pitch successful when it generates follow-up questions. Try it. When people ask for details, you’ll know it’s working. If the response is, “Oh, that’s nice. Wanna get coffee?” you should probably purchase something stronger than a coffee to drown your sorrows (my opinion, not the presenters.) Seriously, go back to the keyboard to make it perfect. The pitch is often an introductory line for the “back book” description which is then expanded. Even if your manuscript is unfinished, having a solid pitch keeps the writer focused on a powerful storyline.
I read a recent post about decision making from marketing guru, Seth Godin. He calls his process to go faster “decision hygiene.” It reminded me of principles I use for sorting mail and housework. My clean-up knowledge is based on hand-me-down wisdom like “touch things once” and “everything in its place” but in reality, anything that takes time is a decision making process.
Godin had five points to move things along faster: make decisions faster, do them in the right order, do it once, don’t look for help once you’ve started and triage the decisions.
So If I am going to write I’m going to:
- Decide what I am going to write about, and do it as quickly as possible.
- Do all organizational activities involving committees or other people’s permission first.
- Follow through with my idea, even if I start to hate it while I’m typing.
- Workshop the results only with people who will improve my writing.
- Decide what to write: a blog, novel scene, or schedule twitter feeds. If any of these items do not matter to the project at hand, I’ll choose not to focus on it.
Amy Friedman was a guest speaker at my local writing club in Ontario Library. I was curious about her knowledge about prisoners because I help out at Claremont’s Prison Library Project, mailing books to prisoners. Amy offered advice for writers, an entertaining series of short stories based on personal experiences. This is how she explained the benefits of joining a critique workshop:
“When I tell people that I married a man who was serving a life sentence for murder, the most common response is negative—comments like ‘What were you thinking? Why?’ Well, I got married because I fell in love, and I fell in love with a prisoner because he was a person, and everyone is complex.
As a writer, you cannot predict people’s reactions but hearing their perspective gives you new eyes and feedback will improve your writing. When I was looking for a new critique group for my memoir ‘Desperado’s Wife,’ someone in a prospective workshop group said, ‘you married a man who was in prison. Yuck, how could you do that?’ and I decided this was the right team of people to critique my book. When my chapter about falling in love with a prisoner elicited positive reactions, it successfully moved people to think differently.”
Friedman teaches memoir and personal essay at the UCLA Extension Writers Studio, and is a journalist by training. Top on her list of advice was to write, and write often. Years of deadlines with a local newspaper kept her on task, writing two thousand words every week. Amy said this column was hard work, and a “gift” because these personal essay assignments made her writing authentic, and encouraged her to “helicopter” into new worlds for inspiration. The more she wrote, “the more clear what I was trying to say came on the page.”
It also fostered a column, “The Bedtime Story,” her idea for a newspaper story for children. Which lead to her second recommendation—pursue all chances to get your writing out into the world. Writing and discovering publishing opportunities will lead to publication, however writing for the sake of becoming published will not. Don’t write for others. Write because it has to be written, even if it were for one person.
The craft of writing is making one mess of a draft and re-writing it into a story. Once the book is written, an author is still not done. “It takes staying power, more than you’d ever imagine to finish a book project.” Agents come and go, bestselling topics come and go, and these cycles are out of your control. No one can predict what book will hit the mark. All a writer can do is write with an authentic voice and be attentive to their projects.
While working on this list, Amy had collaborated with her husband who is also a writer. His comments focused on expectations, specifically the formula of time and money—and return on investment. Few writers, even successful ones, live off the money made from selling books. Most writers have side jobs to pay the bills; her income is from teaching, editing and ghostwriting. It takes time to write a book, years to market, to publish, and a writer might not see a paycheck from a book for as long as four years. If you want to be a writer, choose to write as a career, not for the experience of a one time writing project.
Writing is a combination of negative and positive experiences. When Amy was ghostwriting a book, One Soufflé at a Time, she found herself travelling to Yorkshire, England and even had meals prepared for her by a private chef in a castle in Burgundy! A definite perk.
When you are a writer, you never know what world, fictitious or real, will open up to you.