We're delighted to welcome the wisdom of three new new authors–Holly LeCraw, Nichole Bernier and Peter Hoffmeister–to Ask A New Author this month!
How do you deal with writer's block? - Diane Pollock
Holly LeCraw is the author of The Swimming Pool, out this past spring from Doubleday. It was named a best book of the summer by both The Daily Beast and Good Morning America, and received glowing reviews from Publishers' Weekly, People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly (which called it "difficult to put down"), among others. A native of Atlanta, she now lives outside Bostonwith her husband, journalist Peter Howe, and three children.
Holly says: I think the trouble begins, actually, with the term "writer's block." I'm not sure who first came up with it, but "writer's block" has a somewhat mystical air, as though it's a condition that arrives from on high as a result of some writerly sin. It also sounds random, like cancer or an aneurysm. Who knows when it could strike? But that kind of fear in and of itself can be crippling.
It is definitely true that sometimes you have no ideas, or you think your writing is worthless (often on a day directly following one when it seemed brilliant), or you feel you are deluded or talentless or any other description of artistic/psychological/metaphysical misery you want to use. And for some writers this stage can last for years; it's not a myth. But I don't think it is arbitrary or unavoidable. Writer's block really is a crisis of faith in oneself, and it can come from an infinite number of places.
This is one of the many times in a writer's life when it helps to be very stubborn. You can either succumb to your self-doubt, or not. Your choice. If you decide not to, then the first and best technique, practically speaking, is to lower your standards. Just write crap. Write anything at all. But you have to trust that you will eventually steer yourself back on course. It helps if you have been in the same spot before, and gotten yourself out before. It helps too if you're desperate enough to "write with abandon," as Stephen Elliott says here.
Sometimes your writerly self is simply being smart. Maybe you're forcing yourself down the wrong path, making your characters do the wrong thing (making them do anything at all being problematic), using the wrong point of view, or, worst of all but easiest to fix, maybe you're bored with what you're writing. If you're bored, everyone else will be too, so figure out why now. Ditch that scene, quit passing the potatoes, quit trying to write the first chapter and write something in the middle. Go crazy. Write something that excites you, even if it seems not to fit, and you are likely to be surprised. Always write things that excite you. Don't write any other way.
And about those long bouts with writer's block: terminology, again, is everything. Some writers write every day, no matter what. Others have long seemingly fallow periods in between books--but that is the time when they are letting their unconscious work. I've read interviews with Richard Ford, Edward P. Jones, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, where they talk about the long periods of time, the years, they spend not writing. Maybe some writers need that kind of time, and because they're too nervous to trust it, it turns into writer's block, and their natural processes backfire.
I'd also like to note that I am probably tempting fate myself by pretending to be so wise and ever-confident. It's all an act. It's a pretty sure thing that if you are on a high, it will be followed, eventually, by a low. And vice versa. Have faith, and never give up.
How do people just write, then pause, make dinner and whatnot, and then go back to writing? -Blackroze
Nichole Bernier is a contributing editor at Conde Nast Traveler magazine and a member of the literary blog Beyond the Margins. Her first novel, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D, about a woman who inherits the journals of a friend, and realizes she didn’t know her friend nearly as well as she thought, including the truth about where she was going when she died, will be published in early 2012. She lives with her husband and five children west of Boston.
Nichole says: That might just be the million-dollar question of the writing life. How, when one is clearly channeling brilliance, is it possible to stop for mundane tasks like a dentist appointment or preschool pickup?
There are probably some driven, eccentric writers who ignore basic responsibilities (and hygiene) and sit glued to their chairs as the sun rises and sets, hair growing stringy and fingernails too long to type. But most of us have obligations that pull us from our work. So I think what you're really asking is, How do writers deal with interruptions, and pick up later where they left off?
It's true that for most of us, writing isn't a faucet that can be turned on and off. But there are ways to pace yourself and limit your frustration. If you know you'll have about three hours to write, and the end time is non-negotiable, start winding it down at the 2:45 mark. Finish critical thoughts; a snip of dialogue or a topic sentence will elicit the stream of thought for your next writing session, reminders of where you would have gone if you'd had the time. Recognize that this might not be the best time to jump into a gripping scene, new chapter, or tough chunk of dialogue.
Interruptions are hard. They feel like a cheap shot—the UPS guy ringing the doorbell and waking up the baby just after he's gone down for a nap, when you’d banked on two good hours. Robbed. If you're lucky, there's time to jot a few key lines before you close the computer. There; it’s down, you're safe. You've laid the bread crumbs to bring you back.
But don't let that kind of thinking rule your writing. It’s dangerous to write as if you’re about to be interrupted. The only way to write truly good stuff is to wade right in and get messy, be interrupted, and sometimes feel pissy about it.
Just as challenging are the times you’re hit with an idea in an inconvenient place. You could jot something on a notepad, or use the cell phone to email yourself a few words to connect to your idea later. If you’re in a place where it would be inappropriate to start writing or typing away, pick a key phrase and sear it to memory. Just last weekend I was at a party when I got a nugget about my main character: Giving up her job felt like her wings had been clipped. I wasn’t going to use it verbatim, but it was a germ of an idea. I stood in a chat circle, smiling and nodding until a break in conversation when I could go to the restroom and put it on paper.
The calls of life will always be there. And yes, they add up to a very long time getting the draft finished, the queries out, the revisions back to your editor. But at the end of the day, I remind myself how lucky I am to pursue what I love—and, just as importantly, that I know what it is that I love (in addition to the big family kicking up those responsibilities). Because many folks never do.
I have a non fiction book that is close to being finished - I just have to finish my last edit. I was wondering how one goes about deciding who to approach to get it published - there are so many options available these days. Any advice?- Donna Bettenson
Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s first book, The End of Boys, will be released by Soft Skull Press, May of 2011. He currently writes for Ampheta'Zine, Gripped, Climbing, and Rock and Ice. He lives, writes, climbs, and teaches in Eugene, Oregon.
Peter says: This is a BIG question. First, think about platform. Platform is your reputation and the respect you're given in your nonfiction field. Platform matters.
For example, a local Eugene newspaper columnist named Bob Welch writes nonfiction. He has a huge regional fan base because of his columns, and therefore he told me that he makes more money through self-publishing and selling his My Oregon books than he did by selling his one, traditionally published book, American Nightingale (Simon and Schuster). The profit margin is higher for him with self-publishing. His self-published books go into every Oregon bookstore, even Borders and Barnes and Noble.
I have no regional fan base. If I had self-published my memoir, The End of Boys (Soft Skull), I would still have 4997 of 5000 copies sitting in my garage, molding (that's after giving away copies to the three people who are required to love me because they're family).
So this is the first question: Should I self-publish or publish traditionally? And the question is really asking, can I sell 5000 copies on my own? If you do not have a regional platform, you might want to consider getting an agent and publishing traditionally. Also, if you think your book might have a wider appeal and might sell, say, in New York or Chicago along with your home town, then you should also think about publishing traditionally. This is the route that I took, and I'm happy with my decision.
So the second piece of the puzzle is how to actually publish the book. If your manuscript is informative nonfiction (self-help, guidebook, textbook, etc.), agents and publishers will want to see a proposal first. Even if you've already written a quality manuscript, they'll want to see the proposal. So, in that case, you'd have to go backward.
A book proposal has many components and a few specific rules. It's best to read multiple guides to writing a proposal, and get your own sense of what to include. Here are some sites that offer proposal guidelines: Marly Rusoff and Associates, Inc., BookEnds LLC, Adler & Robin Books, Inc. and SPAWN.
If your nonfiction is narrative (memoir or narrative biography), then you'll need a revised manuscript - preferably many times revised - before you start out. The next step would be to find an agent. This website gave me enough information to begin my agent queries.
I queried fifteen agents and was fortunate enough to get four partial requests (50 manuscript pages) and four full manuscript requests. Three were interested. Two made offers of representation. Then I had to choose based on what little information Google could offer. Once you get an agent, she'll help you from there (re-editing, building platform, submitting to publishers, negotiating, etc.). Finally, enjoy the rejections. If you're anything like me, you'll get rejected at every single level. So good luck and have fun.
- Miriam, Randy and Susanna will be back in January, so send them your writing or publishing questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.