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Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery

 

 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

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Writers. Books. Readers. Three points of a strong triangle.

In thinking about fiction craft, we inevitably think about the triangle of Writers & Books & Readers. This is the basis of publishing, whether books are distributed in paper or digital form. As writers, we want to attract readers and get our books into their hands. As readers, we want access to good books, and we hope to discover wonderful new authors, who seem to have written books just for us.

As the publishing industry grows through its awkward digital adolescence, the Writers Books Readers triangle shifts shape. Along the line segments run the channels: Publishing Distribution Affinity. Affinity is my term for the crucial relationship between writers and readers. These segments (sides) of the triangle may be equal or unequal, but Writers Books Readers are always at the vertices.  

Writers Books Readers Triangular Relationships

In the graphic above, I gave writers the top spot, even though only a handful of published writers may feel like they’re number one. But let’s face it. Without writers, there would be no books or readers. Publishing houses would be shuttered, bookstores vacated, distributors empty-handed. There would be no debate over printed books versus e-books, print versus download royalty contracts, or any contracts at all. However, by putting writers at top, I don’t diminish the importance in the publishing industry of the editing, formatting and delivery of books or the readers who buy or borrow the books.

Shape shifting: Seeing all sides

In an ideal world, the triangle of relationships would be equilateral. Writers benefit from an industry that values all points and all sides of the triangle. Authors need help focusing and editing their books and getting books to readers. In the non-equilateral examples above, the shorter sides of the triangles represent greater power, action, and control in that channel and between those relationships. Celebrity books may move quickly and easily through the channels because name recognition and big advances propel action. Lady Gaga and American Idol were new deal highlights this morning in Publishers Lunch. How can the average, hardworking writer compete?! 

Last week I attended two writer events and did a Meet & Greet in an independent bookstore, where I was promoting my Read to Write Workshops. I envisioned the Writers Books Readers triangle and mused on the changes in the world of publishing.

An agent’s point of view: Amy Rennert

On Thursday evening, agent Amy Rennert spoke at the Petaluma Writers Forum about her agency in particular and the publishing industry in general. She believes in “books that matter.” She painted a considered, but not bleak, picture and spoke about discussions she’s had with some  of her authors about advances. She’s advised authors not to take the biggest advance in order that their books, especially first books, earn through and show a profit. Agents serve authors, as well as the publisher, by helping to negotiate deals that will create value for all concerned and affinity between writer and readers, even though agents receive less income on 15% of a lower advance. The advance amount has to be weighed against the perceived commitment of the publishing house. Does a higher advance mean a bigger commitment by the publisher to market the book? Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

For career longevity, profit-consciousness is becoming key: authors do not fare well if their books lose money. They may be blamed for the publisher’s losses and not given a second chance. It takes time for an author to build an audience—to create affinity with his or her readers. The corporate publishing industry is driven by the bottom-line to please shareholders. A year is not much time for an unknown author to build an audience, but profits are reported quarterly and annually, and stock prices are watched daily.

Inside a bookstore: Copperfield’s Petaluma

On Saturday afternoon, I observed and talked with book browsers and buyers in Copperfield’s, a bookstore in the heart of the Petaluma community. People entered and explored for free, perhaps purchased a book, card or magazine, and departed after a few minutes or more than an hour. While they were in the store, they appeared to be enjoying the intellectual, sensuous feast that this bookstore offers. They were searching, smiling, talking with a companion, questioning store employees, thumbing books, reading.

A poster on display announced a Lisa See reading, which on Monday night attracted 60 people — a respectable showing for a free Monday night, small town event. From this exposure, regardless of sales, the author connects with and builds her audience for sales of  her new release, as well as for past and future books. The store plays a key role in generating good will among readers and writers and for books in general.

A writer’s experiences: Joe Quirk

On Sunday at  Redwood Writers, I heard Joe Quirk speak about his amazing good luck as a first novelist getting a powerful agent and lucrative contract, and then his equally amazing bad luck in how it all played out. He demonstrated his resiliency in advancing his book career despite setbacks beyond his control with his first best-selling novel, The Ultimate Rush. He’s written another novel, Exult (printed on demand or downloaded through Scribd), and two books of nonfiction, including It’s Not You, It’s Biology. Luckily for his audiences, his tribulations seem only to have sharpened his wit.

I’ve heard many publishing woes over the years and could tell a few. The lessons Joe learned reiterate my own: when you’re an author signed with a big publisher for a big advance (though mine wasn’t as big!), you still have to ask lots of questions, not take anything for granted, and do your own legwork to build your audience. He’s applying knowledge gained through painful experience to his now less spectacular traditional deals and new opportunities made possible by technologies, which are shifting publishing and distributions channels through self-publishing, print on demand, e-book downloads, and protocols we haven’t yet imagined. He’s establishing affinity through his engaging humor, as well as his writing.

The writer-book-reader relationship

I want to repeat: Regardless of the shape-shifting in the industry, the three points of the triangle remain: Writers Books Readers. 

A writer is a person who has the ideas and skills and cares enough to take time—sometimes years— to write something that matters to him or her and a handful to millions of other people.

A reader is a person who has the desire and ability to read the book produced and who chooses to spend his or her time in this pursuit rather in any number of other pursuits.

A book can take many forms. It has long been an object. Centuries ago books were handwritten by a select cloistered few. In recent history, they have been carefully printed by letterpress or offset methods and bound in shapes and textures appealing to the touch, decorated in images and colors pleasing to the eye. Or they have been slickly mass produced at low cost for grocery aisle displays. Today they may not always be an “object.” They may only be code that activates a reading device to display what looks like ink on paper but isn’t. Or they may be spoken words heard by playing a compact disc or downloading an audio file to a computer. Tomorrow who knows? Maybe in my lifetime I’ll “read” or “hear” books via a chemical I ingest or a device implanted in my brain to receive transmissions. I hope I don’t live that long! 

A book lover’s lament

I think (hope, believe) that books will be around as long as people are, and books that matter will matter even more. A book is a considered whole, but the digital age allows latitude with this. Books can be delivered chapter by chapter or as selections of chapters in a Mr.-Potato-Head style of MYOB (Make Your Own Book). Nonfiction books more easily fit this model than novels, but novels are being downloaded in chapters or published via blogs, tweeted 140 characters at a time, or text messaged. Serial form isn’t a new idea: Charles Dickens would have used our social media options.

I’m a book lover who likes paper and ink, color and texture. I like holding a book in my hands, taking it to bed or easy chair, park or beach, plane or waiting room. I’ve held books and loved them for as long as I can remember. I don’t doubt that I will some day purchase a digital book reader—a Kindle or Sony or iPad or whatzit—and load it up for a long trip. But I always envision a world with writers, readers, books and places where literary like-minds can meet.

Reading Louisa Alcott

 




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My friend Padi Selwyn (coauthor of Living Your Life Out Loud) plans on taking the Read to Write workshop I’m giving at Copperfield’s Books. She’s picking up the fiction trail after having followed a career path from journalism training to marketing professional. She says, “My biggest challenge is prying open my imagination after years of being in the non fiction groove.”

Are you picturing a can opener to the head? A crowbar? I know how she feels. It’s not a matter of having no ideas. They’re in there somewhere. It’s a matter of getting them out and knowing what to do with them.

Prompts & triggers

Books and articles on writing craft are full of prompts, our lives are full of triggers. In my writing group, we’ve often flipped open a novel, pointed at a passage, and used it as a story starter or free write. I have stacks of free writes. You probably do too.

Circumstances and characters to suggest compelling stories are everywhere—in photographs of familiar or unfamiliar people, events, and places; overheard conversations on a bus; the face of the grocery clerk. We can take the classes, devour the craft books, get published, and still we come up against it: What next?

Starting a story is fairly easy. Taking it somewhere worth our time to write and a reader’s time to read is always a challenge. Here again, we do well to learn from masterful authors who craft a memorable tale inspired by a gesture, pairing of unlikely elements, or simple question: “What if?”

Story seeds

Alice Munro

In her Selected Stories, Alice Munro talks about story seeds, how from “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens” she began Simon’s Luck. Munro gives this gesture to the hostess of a party that the central character, Rose, attends, where she observes the moment. “‘That’s Tasha,’ the hostess said. ‘We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.'” Rose observes the woman “crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected. The shawl around her shoulders was black, rimmed with jet beads. Some beads were crooked. Some were missing.” Details, when noted by a character, have significance. Rose, we discover eventually, has her own fears of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of giving and receiving love. She is the cat and the kitten.

Yann Martel

In Life of Pi, Yann Martel assembles zoo animals, shipwreck, lifeboat, and—bingo!—a talking tiger! Pi tells a fantastic story, unbelievable but for the details of his survival. “In my case, to protect myself from Richard Parker while I trained him, I made a shield with a turtle shell. I cut a notch on each side of the shell and connected them with a length of rope. The shield was heavier than I would have liked, but do soldiers ever get to choose their ordnance?”

Italo Calvino

When Italo Calvino wrote Baron in the Trees, I wonder if he asked, “What if a disobedient boy named Cosimo, dressed up in his tricorne hat and green tunic, climbs a tree and never comes down?” Or did he just start writing, as if reporting: “It was on  15 June 1767 that Cosimo Piovasco di Rondo, my brother, sat among us for the last time. And it might have been today, I remember it so clearly. We were in the diningroom of our house at Ombrosa, the windows framing the thick branches of the great holm oak in the park.” We might doubt the narrator’s memory, except that we get reliable details bit by bit—”a breeze was blowing from the sea” as Cosimo “pushed away his plateful of snails.” 

Lesson for writers

Asking “What if?” can start a story. Asking “What now? What next?” can unleash imagination for vivid writing.

Take your story for a walk 

Let a dog teach you a few tricks. Our beloved black Lab, Sparky, who died last summer, took me on walks for twelve good years. He’d sniff the grass, pee, pull at the leash, stop, sniff, pee, pull. He’d gnaw fallen apples, try to chase cats, yanking me along with him. He’d be excited in the moment, eager for the next. At the dog park, he’d run free, sniffing furry behinds, chasing balls, and eagerly come running when time to leave. He’d pant at the gate—”What now? What next?”

If you feel you’re forcing your idea, just take your story for a walk—literally and metaphorically. Stop and sniff. Look and listen. Touch and taste. What’s there? What might be? Follow the trail. Build detail upon meaningful detail. If you think you know the destination, keep it in mind, but allow for detours and surprises. If you don’t know the destination, look into the distance every now and then. Stop along the way, read a good book. Pay close attention. Accompany the author as he or she asks, “What if? What now? What next.” Learn how his or her story becomes.

In future posts, I’ll discuss techniques for making imaginative leaps. But it always comes back to feet on the ground, step, step, walk the story or let it walk you, detail by detail. And daily, also, let imagination run free.

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Writing is a solitary act with a communal spirit among writers and readers. As writers, we need to be close readers, not only to learn from the masters, but also to be the audience that we would like to have for our own books. In this blog, we’ll examine good books to learn craft and technique, as well as to enrich our appreciation of writing. We’ll ask, “What makes fine fiction? How or why did that author do that?” 

Lessons for writers

We’ll discover the lessons that masterful writing and wonderful books can teach us. Topics include: Gatekeepers (first & last sentences)& Story Seeds (inspirations, triggers, starting points); Voice, Style & Point of View; Character; Place; Tension; Time & Consciousness; Love & Other Emotions; Image & Senses; Theme & Gestalt; and more. Some of the material investigated comes from a course curriculum I designed for a workshop series at Copperfield’s Books.

I hope you’ll read to write and join the discussion when you have a discovery or question to share with this blog.

I’ve just read for the third time “The Days of Abandonment” by Elena Ferrante. From the first sentence to the last, this unassuming, raw domestic drama riveted me to care about Olga and her world as it broke around her and came together again. In the next posts, I’ll examine what this book teaches.

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