It’s live! At midnight last night, we released my second book on writing:
The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual
It’s available in print through CreateSpace, in ePub through Smashwords, and should be on the Kindle as soon as they’re done dinking around with it. And for all of you kind souls who wrote pre-release reviews, the Amazon page is live and now accepting reviews. (Please ignore the “out of print” notice on Amazon—they have it in their system.)
Again—I am so deeply grateful to all my editing clients and blog and magazine/laboratory readers, particularly Kathryn and Sita and students Miles and Peter, who surreptitiously contributed to the book. When I need someone to write to and for, you are there. I’m very grateful to Lucia Orth for her kind and meticulous help and to Jon Green for wonderful conversation. And I am of course eternally grateful to my husband, who does everything around here except write my books for me, and my son, who is the light of my life and the joy of my heart, the real motivation behind everything I do.
Thank you, everyone, for your great support and camaraderie!
I love you guys.
Last winter when I was trading guest posts with the other Top 10 Blogs for Writers, K.M. Weiland and I swapped posts on 5 Writing Rules Your Should Break and The 4 Most Common Mistakes Fiction Editors See. She’s been extremely busy since then, as I’ve discovered, and now she’s back with us for today’s release of her own book on writing, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. In fact, she’s holding a drawing on her site, Wordplay, of a whole variety of stuff, including an e-version on my new book, The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.
And she’s going to talk to us about the difference between being woebegone and being groovy.
V: Katie, you have two novels published by PenForASword: A Man Called Outlaw and Behold the Dawn. Is PenForASword you? Are you self-publishing?
K: Yes, indeedy. After looking over the options way back in 2006 (when self-publishing was still more of the woebegone stepchild than the groovy trend it’s become of late), I decided to be a wild-eyed pioneer and take the path less travelled.
V: [Laughing] “Woebegone stepchild.” It’s changed so much, so fast.
K: Yes, and, as you can imagine, it’s a pleasant surprise for those of us who jumped on the self-publishing bandwagon back when indie authors were looked upon as “not good enough” or “less than real authors.” As both a reader and a writer, I look forward to a future that gives us the best of both the traditionally and independently published worlds.
I can’t tell you the self-published road has been without its potholes, but, all in all, it’s a decision I’ve never regretted. With every book I finish, I take a long hard look at traditional publishing, but (so far) I always come back to the indie side of the playground. Self-publishing fits my needs and desires for my writing perfectly, and I love being involved in every part of the process.
The fact of my self-publication isn’t something I’ve ever drawn much attention to (especially back in the woebegone-stepchild days!). But even now, as self-publishing gains more and more credence, I’d rather focus attention the books and the writing, rather than the mode of distribution. As more and more quality authors join the ranks of the self-published, we’re going to be seeing less and less emphasis on the authors’ choice between traditional publication and independent routes.
V: I agree. I see that now. There’s still talk in the traditional publishing arena about whether or not you’re hampering your chances of getting a traditional publisher with self-publishing, but writers don’t realize those same publishers are going to the IBPA to make offers to the contest winners. There’s also this huge groundswell of good writers shifting their sights on what they want out of writing. As you say—traditional publishing is pushing authors to self-market more and more these days, so where are we to turn if we really want to focus on the craft? A fascinating time to be a writer!
K: Yes, definitely a fascinating time. We’re all living on the edge! No matter what publication route we take, we have no choice but to put in a lot of work. But the literary industry is changing so fast in so many ways that it’s hard not to find something (or even a lot of things) to be excited about.
V: So, Katie, can you tell us the story of how you first became a writer?
K: I like the word “become,” because that’s really all that happened. Stories have always been my language, for as long as I can remember, so writing them down was a natural progression. I never wanted to be a writer. As a horse-crazy youngster, I was torn three ways between being a large animal vet, a horse trainer, and a world champion barrel racer. I only started writing because I didn’t want to forget all these great stories I was coming up with. Then one day, it dawned on me that I’d rather sit at the computer and write than go down to the barn and ride. Soon after, I sold the horses and became a confirmed desk jockey instead. The ride has been much wilder—and much more fulfilling—than any rodeo bronc.
V: I assume you’re familiar with western writers? My grandfather was a Texas cowpoke in the 1910s, and he told us once, “I’ve read both Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour, and one of them knew what he was talking about, and the other was just an idiot.”
K: Hah! I won’t ask who is who. Actually and ironically, I’ve never been a big reader of westerns. My reading and watching choices are based on different criteria, and one of the criteria for reading material is that the prose must be delicious. Delicious prose isn’t as common as I’d like to see in the classic western genre.
V: Oh, read Grey. Beautiful prose. You’ll love him. And I just this summer found an author-illustrated hardback of the hilarious little stories of Charles M. Russell, with a foreward by Will Rogers. Talk about authentic voice!
Now, while both your published novels are historical fiction, the historical settings differ enormously. A Man Called Outlaw is set in Wyoming Territory in the late 1800s, while Behold the Dawn is set in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, with a brief scene in Italy, during the Third Crusade of the twelfth century. Are these settings you just happened to know a lot about and be interested in researching, or is it history itself that intrigues you?
K: History has always fascinated me. And why not, right? It is history after all!
V: [Laughing] Exactly!
K: The exotic mores of past generations, grounded in the human similarities that span the ages, are alien and enlightening all at once. Honestly, there are very few eras I wouldn’t be interested in writing about.
But the Wyoming setting in A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval setting in Behold the Dawn are both special for me.
I grew up on a steady diet of western movies and got to spend part of my summers, from the time I was eight up through high school, on a working cattle ranch in the Wyoming mountains. Outlaw was a product of my childhood. I think I had to get that story and that setting out before I could write anything else. With that one, since I had grown up fascinated with the Old West history, the research was almost intuitive. It was very much a case of writing what I knew.
Behold the Dawn was a little different, since it had me entering an era I was familiar with only from the likes of old Robin Hood movies. Its inspiration was the result of a children’s picture book about William Marshall, the “greatest knight who ever lived.” I did extensive research on the Crusades, the twelfth-century Catholic Church, the mores of the day, warfare techniques, etc. It was a blast.
V: I love history, too. I’ve had a couple of clients bring me fascinating historical novels on which they’d done an extraordinary amount of research. It’s wonderful material for fiction!
You have two more novels in the pipeline, of which The Deepest Breath is another historical novel—this one set in the battlefields of WWI, Kenya, and London—while Dreamlander breaks out of not only previous historical settings but genre, from historical to fantasy. What inspired you to explore these new horizons?
K: I don’t chose stories, so much as I’m chosen by them. I didn’t consciously make a decision to stray into unknown territory (yet again!). The stories just presented themselves to me, and I knew I had to write them. I’m admittedly a Mexican jumping bean when it comes to subject matter—and now, with Dreamlander, genre. It can make marketing a bit of a challenge, since I’m always redefining my readership. But I couldn’t do it any other way. Life is way too short to write the same story twice. I want to push myself to new territory in every story I write. I never know where my stories are going to take me. It makes every day an adventure!
V: You’ve just released your own book on writing, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success. Can you tell us about that—what made you write it, what you’d like readers to know about it?
K: I’m tremendously excited about Outlining Your Novel, since it’s new ground for me in a different way as my first non-fiction book. I started my blog Wordplay: Helping Writers Become Authors solely for selfish reasons: writers were supposed to blog to get their names out there, so people would buy their books. But over the last few years, the blog has grown in ways I never imagined it would, and I’ve been confounded, honored, and blessed to share the writing journeys of so many other people and to help them along the way. Folks started asking for more than just blog posts; they wanted a book. So I ran a poll, asking what subjects they’d most like to see, and—you guessed it!—outlining came out on top.
Since outlining is a subject I’m passionate about, it was a joy to put the book together. So many misconceptions surround the idea of outlining, and so many writers are afraid it will take the fun right out of writing. In the book, I wanted to show that outlining is a valuable and exciting part of the writing process. By planning the story ahead of time, we’re actually paving the way for an easier first draft, which helps us save time, which helps us write with less fear and stress, which helps us produce a better story. Outlining is actually much more about how to tell a story than it is how to format an outline, and as a result much of the book explores subjects helpful to outliners and confirmed pantsers alike—everything from character backstory to theme to conflict to plot structure.
V: Yes! Roz Morris and I have talked about this a lot. Readers have certain expectations when they go into a story, certain ways in which they can understand a story best as it unfolds. At the same time, there are fabulous developed techniques for handling those expectations, building on them, and manipulating them to deliver a really exciting rollercoaster ride. So much knowledge about this craft available to the aspiring writer if they’re willing to learn!
K: It’s a great time to be a writer. Information is literally right at our fingertips thanks to the Internet. We’re inundated with opportunities to learn from the best of sources—including sites such as yours and Roz’s. It’s hard not to take advantage of them!
V: It’s a completely different world from being a struggling writer twenty years ago, isn’t it? So now that you have Outlining published, where do you see it leading from here?
K: I hope it leads to a lot more outliners! For me, personally, I see it as the beginning of a series of writing craft books. Should be a lot of fun!
K.M. Weiland is the author of the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her writing tips, editing services, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration.
Hey, do you guys want to help me out? We’re learning about Amazon’s recommendations engine, and one of the things they use is the ‘tag’ function, which just says, “Yeah, this is what this book is about.” If you have a couple of seconds and would like to, you could zoom over the my Amazon pages and ‘agree’ with the tags we’ve set up—just agreeing, “Yes, this book is a book on writing.” The Art & Craft of Fiction. The Art & Craft of Fiction (Kindle). The Art & Craft of Story.
I guess it’s a screening process to keep people from submitting books to unrelated categories in the hopes of gaming the system to become ‘best sellers’ in obscure categories. (Although you have to wonder how The Count of Monte Cristo got to #2 under Writing Skills.)
But I’m going to turn it into a game with Roz, because she has over 100 agreements on some of her categories! And I have, like, two.
The Art & Craft of Fiction. The Art & Craft of Fiction (Kindle). The Art & Craft of Story.
By the way, Roz’s book Nail Your NovelI is in the top 10 on the Kindle under Writing Skills. (It was #7, then half-an-hour later #6—I guess those things change fast.) She’s almost caught up with Anne Lamott!
K.M. Wieland is another of the Top 10 Bloggers for Writers with whom I traded guest posts last winter. She’s the author of two published novels, with two more on the way, she knows the difference between woebegone and groovy, and she talks like a pirate. Sometimes. Also, she’s back now, being interviewed by me for the Monday release of her book on writing, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.
Please join us Monday for Feelin’ groovy—the Katie Wieland interview.
Roz & I are having quite a week! While we’ve been here chatting in our co-joined studio, she’s simultaneously been over on her own blog, Nail Your Novel, talking about my new book, The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual.
Now that’s what I call a gracious interview guest!
Not to mention double-jointed.
She’s taken an excerpt from Story—in which I describe how we designed our logo for La Favorita (which process I apply afterward to storytelling)—and discussed it along the lines of her own unique brand of logic, for which she is so rightfully known.
Be sure to check it out.
Roz Morris is back!—smarter, wittier, more profound than ever. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any better. . .please pull up a chair and join us for the seventh (yes, one, two, three, four, five, six—the seventh!) Roz Morris interview:
V: Welcome back, Roz! It’s as though you never left!
R: Great to be sitting in our spliced study again. Like two worlds joined. Or has someone hypnotised us into thinking we are? Excuse me, I’m just going to prod you to see if you’re real. Hold still and don’t squirm.
V: If you want the wine bottle, my dear, all you need do is ask.
R: Spirits, please, for this book.
V: Such a quick wit! [Laughing] So, you’ve written a very beautiful, disturbing novel on reincarnation and past-life regression—My Memories of a Future Life—with a couple of major plot twists. It’s not necessarily for those who believe in past-life regression, and it’s not necessarily for those who don’t. What inspired you to write this story?
R: Gosh, thank you very much. I’ve always been rather fascinated by the phenomenon of past-life regression. I first heard about it when I was a darkly brooding teenager, with black hair instead of red, and the romantic half of me wanted it to be true. But the scientific half could see that there were many reasons why it probably wasn’t. It’s a situation where somebody is put in a highly suggestible state and is being asked questions like ‘tell me where you are and what year it is’. Nevertheless, what grabbed me was the profound experiences people seemed to have. However you explained it, these experiences seemed to be real.
V: Did you try it? Have yourself regressed?
R: No. Possibly because I did so much research—including talking to several people who had done it to others, as well as those who had experienced it. After that I was so used to questioning what was going on that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief to trust a hypnotist. And I’m a bit of a control freak anyway—I’d probably try to hypnotise them instead.
Also, my main hypnotist character, Gene Winter, had developed into rather a disturbing presence. He’s quite introverted but also ferally, frighteningly gifted at coaxing people into trances. His hold over the main character, Carol, is one of the main fascinations of the novel. If someone like him really existed I did not want to be locked in a room with him! People ask me if he’s based on anyone, but he isn’t. I don’t know where he came from, except from the story.
V: So you were really captured by the inexplicable aspects of it. . .
R: Totally. Fiction thrives on questions and the need for answers even if we don’t find them. I knew there was a powerful story lurking in the idea. One day I thought, what if instead of going to the past, someone would go to a future life? Who would do that? Why would they do it? What would they find? Who might be guiding them? And what would their role be?
There is a tradition of reincarnation stories—that what’s happened in your past life carries over to this one. If you die a violent death or otherwise come to a bad end, that can leave scars. I read reports that when people who have back or neck pain are regressed to a former life, they tell a story about having been beheaded.
V: I remember when Stevie Nicks was saying she couldn’t bend her head back because she’d been strangled or something in a past life. Then a few years ago I saw a snippet of a reunion concert Fleetwood Mac held in which she was flinging her head clear over backward every other line she sang, and I thought, She looks like she’s making a point.
R: Or is very proud of her nostrils.
R: I didn’t know that about her, but I’ve already got books about her lined up for another novel. She’s a character who definitely needs a fictional workout. . .one day.
V: You’re writing a novel about Stevie Nicks? Wow, how serendipitous is that?
R: Not about Stevie Nicks. But there is a rock stars novel bubbling in my study somewhere. I guess I can’t leave music alone.
V: But My Memories of a Future Life isn’t a simple story of ‘who I was in a past life’. It’s quite a bit more complex than that.
R: I rolled the idea around for a while until I found what really haunted me about it. Who would go to the future? It might be someone who was finding it hard to find her way in her life now. She’s fast-forwarding because she cannot see a future.
V: Oh, fascinating angle on despair! How did you come to choose music as your protagonist’s career?
R: Because music is such an all-consuming life. Carol, the narrator, is a concert pianist who can’t play because of a mysterious injury— and she’s bereft. That’s how she ends up involved with these fringe healers.
And also playing a piece of classical music is like channelling the spirit of the composer. The language of a musical score is dictatorial and precise, to the extent that it tells you how to feel as you’re playing it. Amoroso, play it lovingly. Appassionata, passionately. When I realised that I knew the two elements of regression and music would strike sparks off each other.
V: Yes—dictatorial and at the same time so dependent upon intuition. I love that scene in which the self-taught pianist channels the music of Carol’s ‘future self’. I love that this is a character Carol realizes is intensely talented, although the people around them can’t see past their own agendas to understand the value of what’s really happening. Tell me about how you envisioned these ‘fringe healers’ with whom Carol becomes entangled.
R: I was interested in who goes to fringe healers, who finds them helpful, who the charlatans are and how they maintain their cliques—a complex alchemy of collusion and politics. So I created this character you’ve mentioned, Willa Barry, a self-taught musician of breathtaking talent who channels spirits and improvises exquisite music. She plays strangely altered instruments such as a left-handed violin.
I had a friend who goes to mediums, and he took me to a meeting in a big house in London where a woman claimed to be talking to dead spirits. It was the classic cold-reading technique—the medium would say something vague like, ‘I can see a lady with a black dog,’ and watch carefully for someone in the audience who gave a genuinely shocked response. Then she’d talk to them, worm information out of them until she’d found there was someone they were worried about or who had recently died, and she’d serve it back to them, claiming she’d had a message from beyond the grave. It was always something banal like, ‘your sister has forgiven you for taking the gold watch that belonged to Aunt Edna’. It was so transparent, so dreary but also heartbreaking because the punters didn’t look like they’d been helped.
V: You know, I just last night finished the first really interesting modern mainstream novel I’ve read in years, John Harwood’s The Seance. Are you familiar with it? It’s a ghost story all about this, only set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
R: No, I haven’t heard of that. Gosh. Wonder what he does with it? (Quickly scribbles on the TBR list. . .)
V: You have to read the epigraph, in which an actual nineteenth-century ‘medium’ explains how to create a ghost in a dark room. He’s written another too, The Ghost Writer, which it seems, frankly, impossible for you not to read.
I’ve never attended a seance, but I’ve certainly dabbled in the metaphysical, including past-life regression.In fact, I also play a left-handed violin—not well—although I’m right-handed.
R: Victoria, whenever we talk I end up wanting to read your autobiography. Ditto when I read your excellent writing books. Promise you’ll write it someday? and who were you in your past lives? (Since I’m clearly never going to find mine. . .)
V: [Laughing] Thank you! Yes, it will be my magnum opus. I almost never meet anyone whose childhood was as strange as mine, although I’m afraid in my past lives I was nobody you would have heard of, just ordinary shmucks caught—as we all are—in this mortal coil. Metaphysical was huge when I was in my twenties in the 1980s. And yet, as you say, it’s sometimes not all it’s cracked up to be.
R: There was something else that bothered me about that meeting—I was intensely disappointed with the people. They had little sense of wonder about what they were apparently contacting or dealing with, or what it might suggest. And they certainly had no sense of wonder about what we humans can do while we’re all still alive. Again, music fitted beautifully into this world in my story because it’s entirely man-made but incredibly transforming—if there was ever any evidence for man being touched by the infinite, music must be it.
In the scene you’re talking about, the spiritual community listen to her play and then go back to arguing about whether a channeller should use a wooden bowl in a purification ritual or a metal one. They were in the presence of the truly remarkable and couldn’t see it.
V: Wonderful, your take on the awe-inspiring aspects of such things, the effort to reach the other side. The sense that, if it is possible, it certainly deserves more sincere humility among its practitioners than it often gets. More honest fear, too. It’s like playing chicken with a tidal wave.
R: Excellent simile—and absolutely right! I realise this approach will probably get me nailed to a few walls, in voodoo dummy form. But I wanted to do something more profound than take pot-shots at soulless cheats or people who have wild beliefs. Carol is looking for meaning and truth, and I was interested in what we believe in and what we invent, whether that matters, what answers we find and what we do to each other with it.
As well as this, I’m interested in the medical aspects of incurable pain. I’ve worked on a medical magazine for many years, and I’ve learned a lot about chronic conditions. For certain kinds of pain, like a broken bone, the cure is easy—patch it up, dose it with drugs and you’re done. For others—like these eternally agonising necks—nothing works, and nothing explains it. It’s as if there’s a mysterious rebellion in the body and mind, and of course it drives people to desperate places. Carol is one of those—there is no explanation for her condition, at least not when she’s looked at by all the scanners and x-rays and doctors. So she has to find her own answers.
V: And this is where we arrive at the profound purpose of all great storytelling: to explore the deeper meaning of life, to learn the answers that have no names. Writing is the eternal search to give such things their true names.
R: Absolutely. They’re the questions that can’t be answered in facts or essays. Analysis and theories diminish them. The only way to explore them is by leading the reader through an experience—or in other words, a story.
Roz Morris is the ghostwriter of eleven books, eight of them bestsellers, and author of Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. She has recently released for the Kindle her first novel under her own name, My Memories of a Future Life, in episode 1, “The Red Season”, episode 2, “Rachmaninov and Ruin”, episode 3, “Like Ruby”, and culminating in today’s release, episode 4, “The Storm.” My Memories of a Future Life will be released in print on 26 September.
Roz can be reached through her blog, Nail Your Novel, and on Twitter, By Roz Morris on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
She’s baaack!. . . Roz Morris, best selling ghostwriter, owner of the popular Nail Your Novel blog, and author of Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence—back in my study, back in the interview chair, back in the news. This month Roz has been playing in the ebook arena with her first novel under her own name, My Memories of a Future Life. It’s an eerie and insightful exploration of reincarnation and past-life regression, which she’s been releasing on Kindle in four parts, one part each week throughout September, the final part to be released this upcoming Monday.
So Monday please join us, just in time to learn the secrets behind her debut spine-tingler, in what I like to consider The Making of My Memories of a Future Life. . .
You all remember Larry Brooks of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. He wrote a guest post for me, Self-Editing at the Story Level, last March. That same week, he hosted me on his site, Storyfix, with the guest post, The Bootstrapping Writer—The Secret at the Core of Competency. Larry is the critically-acclaimed author of five psychological thrillers, one of them a USA Today bestseller, and a writing instructor through the Oregon Writers Colony. Writers Digest Books recently published his nonfiction Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing.
Now he’s re-releasing three of his thrillers under his own imprint, throwing a high, hard one for the ebook revolution.
Welcome back, Larry! Let’s ask the obvious question first. You’re re-releasing three of your previously published novels, is that right? Can you tell us about that? What made you decide to do it now?
I actually have four previously released novels, in addition to my latest, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, (total of five), which is still active with the publisher. (The rights to the first four were given back to me when Penguin-Putnam and I parted ways. . .which is another long story.)
I wanted to re-release (is that even a word?) all four of those, but I can’t find the digitial files for #3, so until I do it remains the Omitted One. Unless I scan it in from the published paperback or retype it, it won’t happen. Bummer.
I’m republishing The Seminar (Kindle, Smashwords, Nook), Darkness Bound (Kindle, Smashwords, Nook) and Bait and Switch (Kindle, Smashwords, Nook).
Why republish anything? Because my website is a pretty good platform for my author brand, and with the uncharted potential of this new venue, digital ebooks, I want to be in the game, in addition to watching it and writing “about” it. I’m thinking a “republish” of a successful novel is a little different than a new “self-published” book that was never published (sorry if that smacks even a little of elitism), which is a side-niche that hasn’t really taken hold yet, but I think it will. Want to be there when it happens.
The backbone of what you teach about writing is your theory of the six core competencies. Can you summarize each in one word? Characterize each as a character in canonical literature?
I actually don’t think I can summarize each core concept in one word. One reasonable sentence, perhaps, but each CC (concept, character, theme, structure, scene execution and writing voice) is too layered, complex and critical to attempt to simplify down to one word.
As far as an exemplary character for each CC goes. . .well, character is just one of the core competencies, the other five being either story-specific or execution-specific. So I can’t think of a single iconic character from literature that represents them all. For example, Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) is one of the best characters ever written, but he’s not a concept or a theme, he’s not structural, he’s not a scene and he’s even not the voice (though that’s the one CC I’d assign to him), which belongs to the author. Characters are the window into which we get to see concept, theme, structure and execution at work. Nothing more, nothing less.
How about this—give us an image of a lifeboat with those six characters in it when the most important one falls out.
If they were in a boat, they—as passengers—would be of equal importance. When any one goes overboard, the whole boat sinks. You ask a great question here, even though it appears I’m dodging the answer, because it makes my point: they are all equally vital and therefore necessary. Screw one up and the story will be seriously compromised. We need to get all six right. Successful stories always—no exceptions—do.
How did you develop your theory of the six core competencies? Was it a long and painful process throughout all your career moves, or did you go out flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm one day and get struck by lightning?
Some of the backstory of this model has to do with me seeking a simplified way of putting the necessary attributes and skills required of a great story into separate buckets (so I could more easily wrap my head around it all), yet realizing that at some point those buckets must be poured out and mixed in a way in which the whole exceeds the sum of the parts. That’s how and why a story with each of six core competencies being simply “good” (versus “great”) can combine to deliver a “great” story. In fact, that’s usually what happens when “great” is the result.
So it was just my left brain trying to make sense out of a cloud of vaporous right-brained stuff that we writers have to handle. And which are challenging enough without bringing a left-brained sensibility to them. There are, of course, dozens of attributes and skills involved in writing a great story, but I’ve discovered that they almost without exception align under one of these six major categories. Have yet to hear of one that doesn’t.
You’ve had quite a multifaceted career leading you to this place and time, so let me throw some questions at you about that. What do you know about writing that you’ve learned from marketing?
From marketing I learned that to publish you need to write “for” the audience (give them what they want and expect), instead of simply sharing what you want to write for yourself. Nothing wrong with the latter, but it greatly diminishes your chances of publication. There’s only a very narrow market for books that don’t fall cleanly into a genre.
I’ve learned that he who throws hardest is not necessarily the best pitcher. It’s about control and command of several pitches, thrown on any count, with consistency, winning the mental game, being fit and ready, and being courageous as well as fine-tuned. It’s about craft over and above talent, and that’s true in writing, as well.
You know that Hemingway quote, don’t you? “When you can’t throw a high, hard one, throw your heart instead”? I love that quote.
What about stock brokering?
I learned very little about anything in life from that, other than it is an over-rated way to make a living. Then again, stockbrokers make great characters because there are so many of them out there that are kinda messed up. Working all day at a job that doesn’t mean anything to the Big Picture of life will do that to you.
I can’t get that Clint Eastwood line out of my head, when he was about to be demoted to Personnel: “Personnel? Personnel’s for assholes.”
I learned almost everything from this corner of the writing world. The “how to” oeuvre in script-writing vastly exceeds that of novel-writing, both in terms of quantity and quality. Mostly, this is where I discovered what story structure looks like. . .it’s second nature for screenwriters and too often a foreign concept for novelists. And yet it totally defines the effectiveness of a story in either format.
Being creative director of a marketing & training company?
There wasn’t a day on that job that I didn’t think about writing fiction and about the craft of fiction, rather than the next wonderful printer for which I had to write a video and a brochure or website. You can only squeeze out so much blood for clients that routinely kill creativity before it feels like a total sellout. What I do now isn’t making me rich, but it’s making me happy, and it’s connecting me to real people in a very rewarding way. Hopefully for both sides. And it has an exciting upside that is still to be determined.
Agency-model pricing, ebook technology, rock-star publishing mentality, self-publishing—what do you see as the biggest challenge to the publishing industry today? How can the average aspiring writer realize their dreams in this context?
Writers need to realize the one thing that hasn’t changed: the need for a compelling, well-executed story. Access to the marketplace through ebook venues like Kindle and Nook doesn’t change the fact that great stories will surface over mediocrity, even when mediocrity is being pimped by authors who are killer online strategists via social media (which is currently the only way to really promote your own work).
Thus we are faced with the real problem. Traditional publishing did two things well: they screwed up frequently by passing on some very good books and quality writers, and they vetted what was published in a way that ensured at least a certain level of quality out there.
That’s all gone. We’re on our own, and somehow there will be a way for great writing to surface among all the great marketing. It remains to be seen how this will look, but in the meantime it’s still about craft, not how good you are at Twitter and Facebook. I suck at the latter (I’m trying, though), and that may hurt me in the short run. But I’m confident in my work and press onward in the hope that this vetting will come soon. And I’ll be back on the shelves under a Big Six imprint soon.
I know you’re teaching a two-day workshop on Story Engineering at the Oregon Writers Colony in Portland on October 29 and 30. How did you get involved with the Oregon Writers Colony, and what’s special about it?
I was born and raised there, and they were my first writing community. I began teaching for them by virtue of having optioned some screenplays, and it went from there. It was through those teaching opportunities that I began to formulate the storytelling models that I espouse today and that I applied toward my own published novels.
The OWC is a great organization, and I hope many will take this opportunity to attend. It’s going to be intense.
Can you give us some insight into your own struggles with the craft of writing? What sucks worst for you? Why do you keep writing in spite of that?
Wow. A truly loaded question.
Because of my take on story architecture, my struggle isn’t as much with the writing as it is with finding the time for it. My website and my freelance work (I ghostwrite books for folks, as well as the occasional soul-selling corporate job) keeps me away from my current WIPs. (I have several in the hopper.)
Also, I struggle with people who accuse me of arrogance instead of the intended passion with which I preach the gospel of story architecture (the melding of all six core competencies, with story design and structure at the core). They confuse what I’m saying about story infrastructure as a commentary on process, which (while I don’t deny advocacy for story planning) is both necessary and available for pantsers (organic writers) and story planners alike. I want everybody to get this stuff. . .because every writer needs to get it. Why? Because every successful story—no matter how it got there—demonstrates it. This really isn’t a theory as much as it is a way to describe the writer’s requisite writers toolbox, which in this case comes with an instruction manual for each tool and requires them all to be involved.
Your “long story” about parting ways with Penguin-Putnam sounds like an insider story about the contemporary publishing industry that aspiring writers really need to hear. Can you tell us that story?
With all this self-publishing talk, what gets lost in the conversation is the experience of actually being published traditionally. Like, with a Big Six publisher or a major niche label (such as Writers Digest Books publishing my new writing book). Fact is. . .it’s a gas. Totally living the dream. Even if there’s not big money involved, which there rarely is, there’s no substitute for going into whatever bookstore you are near and seeing your work there. When it appears (for a while) front and center in the window or on the top shelf, that’s nothing short of a lifelong memory. Yeah, I took pictures.
That said, there were frustrations and compromises, too. After you’ve written your manuscript, it’s completely somebody else’s baby, and usually you aren’t given a vote by your publisher on what happens to it.
Then when I came across a bookstore that wasn’t carrying one of my books, I was angry and disappointed. As if the dream was ending (mostly, though, it was distribution mix-ups). And then when the book begins to fade from the top shelf (which happens quickly with paperbacks, unless you are an established A-list author name, which I certainly wasn’t, even after four books in five years), that hurts, too. Then there is the struggle to reposition the book every time you go into the bookstore, replacing it on that top shelf where it belongs before the shift manager asks to see your ID. (That happened to me. . .twice.)
The dream is almost always temporary. And that was the hardest part.
Concurrent with my first book, I recall going to a publisher-thrown party at a major writing conference (Bouchercon), where there were nineteen of their authors in attendance. Two or three were huge names like Jan Burke, two or three were less known but familiar, and the rest of us were fairly new. I kept track of them. Within six years only two of those authors were still publishing with that Big Six imprint. Two or three others had gone to smaller presses, and one had a self-published book out. The rest, including me and including a Barry Award winner. . .we were huddled under the bus where we had been cast.
The question is: why? There are many possible answers. Mine was—and this is the most common—the sales trend. I received a pretty decent advance for my third and fourth books, and they weren’t “selling through” (making the advance back). This is a paradox, of course, because the slower the sales, the less promotion budget they throw at it, which begets fewer sales as time marches on. Interestingly, as my four novels trotted out over those five years, each received a better level of critical praise than the one before.
My last novel in that era, Bait and Switch, was a Publishers Weekly “Best Books of 2004″ selection and sold about one-eighth the number of copies of my first book, which was a USA Today bestseller. . .go figure. Fact is, my publisher dumped me after the third book, before my fourth book, Bait and Switch, came out to those glowing reviews, and therefore didn’t throw ten cents at promoting it and didn’t even notice the critical praise. Not to mention, the people I knew there left for other firms, and the new crew considered me old inventory.
One has to adjust, at that point. I pouted for two years. Then wrote what I think is my best novel, Whisper of the Seventh Thunder, sold it to a small but visionary publisher (this, after my agent jumped ship, too), and launched Storyfix.com as, partially, a strategy to re-brand and get back into the mainstream. From that came Story Engineering, and suddenly I’m back repositioning my book on a different shelf.
What I’ve learned from all this is that it’s really about the storytelling and the community rather than the selling. It really is. There isn’t that much money in it, even when you’re “on the top shelf,” so the journey proves itself to be the thing. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim high, just that we should keep aiming and firing off the best work we can in any case, in the knowledge that the target is illusive, shape-shifting and slippery as a stealth fighter.
We have control over only one thing: the manuscripts we submit.
Larry Brooks is the creator of Storyfix.com and the bestselling author of five critically-praised novels with his newest book, Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing, published this year by Writers Digest Books. He can be found on Twitter.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.