Ask the editor: Breaking the “write what you know” rule

Q: I have a terrific story to tell, but it didn’t actually happen to me. Is it possible to write with authenticity about something you haven’t experienced firsthand?

A: Many great books are written by authors who seem to have nothing in common with their character’s experiences. Different gender, culture, time in history, geographic location.

Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage, an amazing description of a bloody hand-to-hand combat and death during the infamous Civil War battle of Chancellorsville without ever having any experience in the military or violent conflict of any sort. The entire Civil War, in fact, occurred before he was born.

Henry James wrote Portrait of a Lady, though he was certainly nothing at all like Isabelle Archer, the spirited young American girl who inherits a lot of money and has a hard time dealing with the consequences.

Tom Robbins, despite bogus rumors to the contrary, doesn’t have hooves, or smell like a goat and dance about playing pipes in the hills of Greece, as happens in his excellent book Jitterbug Perfume, which features the goat god Pan.

Writing vicariously

Most of all, you need authentic passion for the story. Then, you need to plunge into the homework. Your research must be impeccable, every detail dead-on accurate. If you’re recreating an historical epoch, you should read profusely about it, and interview experts or participants if possible. If your story is from the perspective of someone completely different from you, find models and study them as closely as possible — in person, face-to-face.

You may find that your early drafts take you in unexpected directions. Stay flexible and true to the new world you’re creating.

Four writers on how they did it

I’ve worked with many authors who’ve written about something they haven’t experienced directly. Here are four writers and their responses to questions I sent each of them about how they did it.

Jillian Thomadsen is the author of the novel Infiltrate about an idealistic young Fixed Income Analyst at a major investment bank who tries to shift internal policies towards more altruistic long-term goals but finds herself increasingly drawn into a culture of greed and corruption.

Neville Frankel is the author of Bloodlines, a novel about how the struggle against apartheid nearly destroys a Jewish family in South Africa which engages in violent terrorism during the early years of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress.

Kimberley Pettinger is the author of The Quantum Affair, a novel about a strong woman’s struggle for freedom and power in a high tech company with a revolutionary new computer.

David Tomlinson is the author of American Prayer, a novel about the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing in the context of race relations, religious faith, and local politics.

What sparked the passion that motivated you to write this book?

Jillian Thomadsen:

I was reading an article about the Occupy movement, and it seemed like an effort in futility.  How was sleeping in a park going to cause change? I started to think that one angry person working inside an investment bank could do more than hundreds of protesters chanting outside.  And from that moment, the idea of a person who infiltrates and takes down a company she despises started to take shape.

I wanted to write about income disparity, the quintessential American Dream, and the current economic climate in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008.  A Wall Street investment bank seemed like a fitting backdrop for telling this story and I knew it was an environment where people pushed ethical boundaries in pursuit of their personal ambitions for money and power.

Neville Frankel:

I had returned for the first time 38 years after my family had fled South Africa before the end of apartheid when a man I’d never met before threw his arms about me and whispered in my ear, “Welcome home, brother.” I was overwhelmed by the unexpected sense of having come home. That was the  moment when I realized I’d never really left my homeland behind, and had unresolved issues that needed to be addressed.

I was so struck by the fact that the young South African people I met in their early twenties really had no historical perspective on what had happened in their country before Nelson Mandela was elected President. This despite the fact that every one of them had been deeply affected by apartheid, whether they were the children of victims or perpetrators. I thought that a novel about their country’s revolution told through the eyes of fictional characters – blacks, whites, Jews – could be a great way to provide that perspective.

Kimberly Pettinger:

I had a hard-earned eight-week sabbatical at the company where I worked. But I’d just had my second child and was sleep deprived most of the time, so there was no way I was going for a vacation to Paris or anywhere else for that matter.  I was frustrated that my life was rather dull and my career had plateaued.

I’ve always been intrigued with females in positions of power. Who were they? How did they get to the top? What struggles did they have?  In the corporate environment, females – especially technical leaders – are rare and exceptional.  I was also interested in playing out the idea of the next generation of computing which would likely accelerate a major shift in society. And I liked the idea of balancing the corporate intrigue with a love story.

David Tomlinson:

Running on the treadmill in my home office, I was looking out the window, listening to music, watching the sunlight hit the street, and had this image of a guy running along the railroad tracks, lit up by this same light. That guy turned out to be one of main characters in a new story, a Choctaw Indian named Dean Goodnight, who works for the Oklahoma County Public Defender.

I wanted to write a literary novel about the Oklahoma City bombing: an ambitious, political, heartfelt book set in the place where I grew up. And I hoped that people could see and understand and wind up caring about complex, difficult, prickly, larger-than-life characters who at first glance can be tough to love.

What kind of homework did you do to write about what you didn’t know firsthand or hadn’t experienced yourself?

Jill Thomadsen:

I kept abreast of news articles and stories about the 2008 financial crisis, the bursting of the US housing bubble caused by collapsing mortgage lending standards. I asked myself if could it happen all over again, but this time with unregulated and fraudulent student loans.  Since this never happened, and it isn’t a disguised memoir or anything I’ve observed or experienced directly, I allowed myself some creative license as well.

Neville Frankel:

I had to read books on history and  politics, South African fiction, the reports on the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. I also made three trips to various parts of South Africa, some remote, to speak with many, many people about their experiences under apartheid and to write accurately about the geography and natural beauty of the country.

Kimberly Pettinger:

My experience working within a large multi-national corporation and the inner workings of that machine allowed me to write about it authentically.  The one component I didn’t have access to was the underworld of computing.  I did some research online and just imagined what it would be like for one of my characters.

David Tomlinson:

I read a dozen or so books on basketball, race relations, faith, local politics, and the justice system, taking copious notes, reworking my outline the entire time. I interviewed an old college roommate, a Choctaw Indian, who used to investigate capital cases for the public defender’s office, who gave me insight in Dean Goodnight’s life and day job. You, Alan, suggested that I read Phil Jackson’s “Sacred Hoops”, which is fantastic. And my daughter started playing basketball around this time so I spent some extra time watching the coach interact with his players and soaking up the sounds and textures of the gym.

One of the characters in this story is a physical therapist named Aura, a black woman, who winds up having to care for a paralyzed, bigoted patient named Cecil. My wife is a physician, and so if I had questions about medication, terminology, or complications due to Cecil’s condition, she pointed me in the right direction.

It took four years to complete the novel. I felt myself having so much empathy and understanding for my characters, while living the arc of this story from each particular character’s point of view. So in a way, by the time I was finished, I actually had experienced it all.

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What about you?

Have you written a story about a character with whom you had little in common? We’d love to hear more about it.

What was the original source of your passion to write the story? What kind of homework did you do? What was the most difficult part of writing your book?

We welcome any problems, successes, experience or advice on breaking the rule to write only “what you know”.

Have you ever written something you later regretted?

I sure have. It was 1964 and I was on assignment for The Nation magazine to write a review of the Beatles at Carnegie Hall, their first live appearance in the United States.

No Soul in Beatlesville

There I was, standing on a shaky balcony seat trying to see the stage over a mob of hysterical, screaming and sobbing 13-year-old girls. I was 25 years old and a rhythm and blues purist, a wannabee soul brother. I didn’t get the Beatles.

My review?  It was vicious. I called it No Soul in Beatlesville and eviscerated the band as “derivative, a deliberate imitation…manna for dull minds”.

I’ve been apologizing ever since.

“Ok,” I later told my musical family and friends, “I was an idiot. I admit it!”

I should have counted to ten, reconsidered what I’d written more carefully, sought an outside opinion. (My mantra as a developmental editor.) But I didn’t, and The Nation published it as written. It’s been coming back to haunt me ever since. Fifty years of mortifying shame. Oy vey!

It’s back to bite me yet again

Will it ever stop? Now, to throw some salt on it, The Nation is marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles arrival on these shores in their upcoming issue by reprinting my embarrassing review as a “Blast from the Past” with commentary by Editor and Publisher Katherine vanden Heuvel.

Here’s what she writes about my original essay:

“If we are told to remember the Beatles’ arrival in the United States fifty years ago last month as an “invasion,” it is as one that was unopposed. The 73 million people who watched [on the Ed Sullivan show] Paul McCartney count the band into “All My Loving” on February 9, 1964 shattered all records, representing nearly two-fifths of the US population at the time, despite the fact that only 17 percent of American homes even had televisions in them. We surrendered without resistance, it often seems—a view evident in one Amazon review of a collection of the late Bill Eppridge’s photographs from the Beatles’ first week in the US. “Those six days did change the world,” the commenter writes, “by simply unifying us all with faces of sheer happiness.”

At least one person wasn’t smiling. In an essay published in our March 3, 1964 issue, a young Simon & Schuster editor named Alan Rinzler objected to the furor over the Liverpool lads’ music and—correctly, if somewhat myopically—attributed Beatlemania to a massive, premeditated PR campaign. The quivering throngs of teen-aged girls, he believed, said much more about the susceptibility of Americans to fashionable trends than it did about the talent or novelty of the group itself.”

An excerpt from the review:

“By the time the Beatles actually appeared on the stage at Carnegie Hall, there wasn’t a person in the house who didn’t know exactly what to do: flip, wig-out, flake, swan, fall, get zonked—or at least try.

The Beatles themselves were impressive in their detachment. They came to America “for the money.” They attribute their success “to our press agent.” They looked down at their screaming, undulating audience with what appeared to be considerable amusement, and no small understanding of what their slightest twitch or toss of head could produce.

John Lennon, the leader of the group, seemed particularly contemptuous, mocking the audience several times during the evening, and openly ridiculing a young girl in the first row who tried to claw her way convulsively to the stage. Paul McCartney bobbed his head sweetly, his composure broken only when—horror of horrors—his guitar came unplugged. (There was a terrible moment of silence. One expected him to run down altogether, and dissolve into a pool of quivering static.) George Harrison tuned his guitar continually, and seemed preoccupied with someone or something at stage right. Ringo Starr, the drummer, seemed the only authentic wild man of the group, totally engrossed in his own private cacophony. For the rest, it was just another one-night stand.

This is probably why the reaction at Carnegie Hall wasn’t a real response to a real stimulus. There weren’t too many soul people there that night either on the stage or in the audience. The full house was made up largely of upper-middle-class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see; and with the full blessings of indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. This was their chance to attempt a very safe and private kind of rapture.

Most did what was expected of them and went home disappointed. Disappointed because nothing really passed from the stage to the audience that night, nor from one member of the audience to another. There was mayhem and clapping of hands, but none of the exultation, no sense of a shared experience.”

Ouch!

There’s practically nothing in this snooty piece that I agree with now. The songs they performed that night at Carnegie Hall – “Please please me”, “I saw her standing there”, “Love me do”, “I want to hold your hand” — were all quite excellent, but I couldn’t actually hear them over the of the audience bedlam. I didn’t become a big fan until the following year with the 1965 release of the superb album Rubber Soul, followed shortly by the equally terrific Revolver in 1966.

Meanwhile, my day job was at Simon & Schuster, where I was involved with the publication of Yoko Ono’s avant-garde book Grapefruit and John Lennon’s A Spaniard in the Works, though neither of them actually knew the other at that time.

Then, in 1968, my musical and publishing interests led me to become one of the pioneering staff members of Rolling Stone Magazine. I opened the first New York office then moved to the original home office in San Francisco, where I was the Associate Publisher and Vice-President, as well as editor-in-chief of the books division Straight Arrow.

In that capacity I published several books on the Beatles and was a huge fan, a major promulgator of editorial work on their personal and professional lives. Later, when Lennon was assassinated, I was at Bantam Books, responsible for publishing the memorial book Strawberry Fields Forever.

Nevertheless that old Nation review comes back to skewer me every once in a while. Even my own adult children can’t believe I wrote it, but I think they’ve forgiven me. Hope you will, too.

Meanwhile, don’t be afraid to reconsider or change your mind about something you wrote before sending it out into the cold, cruel world. You may have to live with its unintended consequences for the rest of your life.

How to avoid embarrassment

These days, I always urge authors to follow these guidelines:

• Never settle for your first draft no matter how good you think it is

• Get a second opinion from a professional, objective editor

• Be willing to rewrite, check again, rewrite, for as many times as it takes.

What about you?

Have you ever written or published something you wish you could take back?  Come on, you can tell us.

Staying connected: You’re not alone

When you’re writing in the zone, you feel confident and creative, ready for prime time, readers, agents, and publishers, right?

But it doesn’t always come that easily.  When writers get stuck, those good feelings can drop away quickly.

A lonely occupation

Writing is a solitary business for the most part, with hours spent alone, day after day. You zip forward, then maybe you stall, so you start over, you revise, revise again… It’s not easy. It can take years to write a book you’re proud of.

Feelings of isolation and self-doubt are occasionally part of the bargain for any author. They can be intrusive and debilitating, sapping your creative energy. That’s why it’s so important to have people in your orbit who provide unconditional personal support when you need it. It’s essential – like food and water.

The solution: stay connected

Maintain contact with other people, loved ones, family, friends, and colleagues. You don’t have to ask for help, just engage as much as possible in satisfying human relationships. Look for people who can make you laugh out loud. Get out of your head, get out of the house, go and talk to another person. You don’t have to be alone. Repeat: you are not alone.

Where to find support

• Look close to home

Are you lucky enough to have a loving partner, a parent or adult child who’s sensitive to your creative ups and downs? This may seem obvious, but some authors shut out these family members. They’re reluctant to burden their loved ones or they get so deeply mired in their own funk that it’s hard for them to make that stretch.

Be sure you let these very important folks inside!

In an excellent book about the creative process titled Art & Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland observe that:

“Until your ship comes in, the only people who will really care about your work are those who care about you personally. Those close to you know that making the work is essential to your wellbeing. They will always care about your work, if not because it is great, then because it is yours – and this something to be genuinely thankful for.”

• Check in with a good friend or colleague

Choose someone you’ve known and trusted for a long time with shared experiences and mutual regard. Such a friend will be there when you need one and may also provide an opportunity to reciprocate, which can put your own problems in perspective.

• Seek out other writers

You may meet an experienced author at a reading or conference who’s happy to form a mentoring relationship. Such author friends can help you get through periods of worry or writer’s fatigue. They have visceral experience with whatever you’re going through and can tell you how they’ve handled it.

Writer’s groups can also provide wonderful humor and collegial fun with shared war stories, pet peeves, heroes and villains in the world of writing and book publishing.

Connect online with other writers seeking support and know how. There are more venues than ever — please pass along your favorites in comments below.

Appreciate yourself

One of the most profound sources for an author’s emotional comfort can be what emerges from within. I’ve seen authors with major accomplishments who rally their energy and renew their work by appreciating how far their talent has taken them so far.

Think of it. You’ve made an enormous commitment of time and energy. You’ve stayed with it this far. But the world of literary art and commerce can be tough going. There will probably come a time when you feel discouraged and dissatisfied with what you’ve written.

So dig yourself. You’re human, not perfect.

How a developmental editor can help

Family, friends and other writers can be wonderful sources for emotional support. But they might not be the best authorities for creative ideas or editorial solutions. Focus on close comfort and warm distraction, not help with words on the page.

As Bayles and Orland say, “However much they love you, it still remains as true for them as for the rest of the world: learning to make your work is not their problem.”

When it comes to finding specific solutions to problems with your characters, story, or style — that’s a job for your editor.

Some of the biggest names in literature have depended on their editors for creative literary support. Frank Kafka struggled for years with depression and hypochondria that eroded his confidence and productivity. His literary executor and friend Max Brod encouraged and advised his writing. After Kafka’s death, he refused to follow his instructions to burn his life’s work, arranging instead for their publication and subsequent fame.

Thomas Wolfe relied on his editor Maxwell Perkins to cut out hundreds of pages of his draft novels, reorganize, shape, and focus the best-selling books Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River.

Perkins did the same kind of close editorial work for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, as did Albert Erskine for Cormac McCarthy.

I’ve tried to emulate this model of author-editor relationship in my own work with Toni Morrison, Hunter Thompson, Tom Robbins and many others, including the writers I work with now.

Having a good developmental editor in your corner, therefore, can provide a renewed sense of confidence about solving the literary problems you’re having, whatever they might be. For more information check out this earlier post on what to expect from a developmental editor.

What about you?

Have you ever experienced a break in self-confidence or writer’s fatigue of a different stripe? How have you dealt with it? What’s worked for you, or hasn’t? Please share your valuable suggestions here with fellow writers. I’ll watch for any questions.

Prequels build buzz!

Have you heard what some savvy authors are doing to build excitement and attract readers to their upcoming books?

They’re writing prequels: tantalizing teasers in short story form that preview the key characters and settings of an upcoming novel.

Some prequels predate or provide backstories for the longer books to come. Others are like outtakes from the novel, standalone narratives that add to our knowledge of the characters but don’t appear in the books themselves.

Prequels provide readers with the flavor and quality of the forthcoming book in a way that makes them yearn to read more. This technique has had notable successes lately, like propelling a book from obscurity to six-figure advances, and building pre-publication buzz and momentum.

Scroll down for prequel power tips

From self-published to a six-figure book deal

Self-published author Brittany Geragotelis began distributing Life’s a Witch, the first volume of her young adult paranormal trilogy in 2011 for free on Wattpad, a social reading website. A startling 18 million readers tapped the tale of Hadley Bishop, a teenager with “magic in her blood”. That caught the attention of the folks at Simon and Schuster, who evidently loved the story about the teenage descendant of the first woman hung during the Salem witch trials. By 2012, S&S had made Geragotelis a six-figure publishing deal that she didn’t refuse.

As a marketing strategy to launch the digital and print editions, Simon and Schuster released three e-book mini prequels. Excerpts are also available free on FaceBook, and the New York Times published one on July 19th of this year.

Another example of a prequel marketing strategy is Rogue, a thriller by Mark Sullivan. Three months before the publication of the digital and print editions of the book, Sullivan’s publisher Minotaur (an imprint of St. Martin’s Press/Macmillan) released three digital short stories with the backstory of how the Rogue’s hero grew up as a teenager in Argentina and later trained as a US Special Forces expert in unconventional warfare.

Repurposing material for a prequel

Many authors begin a first draft manuscript with a terrific backstory, filled with character, personality, excitement and plot potential. Later in the process of revising the book, however, some scenes may wind up on the cutting room floor.

That’s exactly the kind of deletion that can be picked up, polished and expanded as necessary, then emerge as a prequel to lure readers with a delicious sample of the larger work to come.

One author client of mine wrestled with a complex plot structure. In trimming down the intricate story to make it move faster and be more understandable, we found a few scenes that developed the main character, but weren’t absolutely essential.

The author decided to polish up one deleted but particularly riveting scene and post it as an EBook prequel on Kindle Direct and FaceBook.

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Prequel power tips

• Punch up the content

When writing that separate backstory, focus your creative laser on a moment in time when your main character is facing a life-changing choice or is overcoming a dramatic crisis. When buffing up a deleted but revealing scene from the draft manuscript of the novel, heighten and expand the moment so it stands alone as an irresistible preview of the book itself.

Not all prequels are traditional cliffhangers, but the judicious use of that technique is always a good idea, since the goal is to make the reader want more…now!

• Keep it short and snappy

Think short. Remember — a prequel needs to be not only a literary tour de force but an effective marketing tool. So quick and brilliant is the ticket.

• Preview the style

Don’t be shy about making a splash with distinct vernacular dialogue and unusual settings portrayed in vivid visuals. Try to include at least one original use of a sensory detail, like an odor or touch to demonstrate your craft and versatility.

• End with author bio and book release information

I advise two or three lines about the author’s most notable professional and literary achievements. Be sure to provide the title of the new novel, when it’s coming out, and how to order.

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Plan your distribution

Wide distribution is critical to a prequel’s success as a marketing tool. Post it in as many venues as possible.

There are many places an author can post a prequel. The first is your own website, where you can offer the entire story. You can also fold it into your blog, post it on your FaceBook page, and tweet a link to your story.

Where to place a prequel

An excellent spot for free posting is Wattpad, the community social reading community website that worked so well for Brittany Geragotelis.

Check out FictionPress which bills itself the “world’s largest short story, fiction, and poetry archive and community.”  To upload your prequel, click on Sign Up at the top right of the page and register an account using a valid email address. Directions will follow.

Another is Goodreads, a big site for readers and book recommendations. Here, you can post your prequel or any piece of writing for free and get quick feedback from readers who can put the piece on their recommended list (or not).

If you want to sell your prequel, there are other vendors and services where you can charge $.99 or more. Smashwords, for example, provides inexpensive digital posting in all current formats and will post your prequel on a broad variety of sites for a percentage of the receipts at whatever price you set. Prequels can also be posted by authors directly to Amazon, as eBooks in Kindle Direct or print books in CreateSpace. Amazon also offers design, editorial and marketing services you can pay for or avoid by doing it yourself.

Other portals and digital publishing aggregators like Draft2Digital offer conversion tools for posting your prequel in any format, for a percentage of the sales. Many of these vendors also offer jacket design, consolidated sales reporting, self-marketing tools and other services at low cost. Choose carefully, since some are focused on one particular genre or niche, like Steam Punk, romance, paranormal and others.

What about you?

Have you written or considered creating a prequel to your book as a part of your own marketing strategy?

We’d love to hear about your experience, and if it made a difference in your book sales.

If this is a new idea to you, what’s your take? Think you might give it a try?

Too much vertical space in your manuscript?

In filmmaking, vertical space is shorthand for script pages with lots of white and not a lot of words.

For scriptwriters it’s the rule. A script has dialogue, brief notes for action on the screen and not much else. It makes for quick reading and ensures a kind of textual scarcity that directors consider a virtue, since in the movie business, directors, not screenwriters, are the storytellers. They’re the ones who bring the action, dialogue, sound, light, color, and music together into a coherent narrative.

For a book author, however, a lot of vertical space is usually a sign of trouble. Too much of it shows us there’s something’s missing.

Dialogue alone can’t build a whole and complete world on the page. The author can’t rely on the camera, microphone, or green screen to create a scene in the reader’s mind. The book author creates not just what people are saying, but what they’re doing, what they’re seeing, how they appear in the flesh, their interior thoughts, and the sense of meaning that carries the narrative arc to some kind of emotional climax.

Scan your pages. Do you need sunglasses?

How can you reduce the glaring white space and increase your readers’ satisfaction, fulfillment, and yearning for more?

As a book author, you’re the boss, the creative director of the work. You’ve got the power to use as many literary elements and techniques as you deem necessary to get under the surface of spoken words, and to craft the dimensions of your narrative to engage the reader’s attention.

What’s missing?

Balance

I worked with a well-known writer whose first draft had an overabundance of white space. There was nothing but dialogue between two characters. Nothing else. We spent months creating a multi-dimensional context, adding action, description, and meaningful details. We ultimately achieved a more readable balance between a pruned down version of the original dialogue plus these other literary elements, and the book sold literally millions of copies throughout the world.

Action

Tell us what your characters are doing — their movements, their reactions to the physical rhythm of people and objects around them.

Sensory description

Evoke in your reader’s imagination the shape and color of the story’s environment. Where are your characters? What elements of their physical context add to the emotional glue of the story? Not only the way things look, but how they smell, feel to the touch, taste on the tongue or in a character’s viscera, his guts.

Inner thoughts

Describe what your characters are feeling beyond just what they say. Whether using a first or third person narrator, you can spell out ongoing ruminations, internal responses, the secret, personal stuff.

Focus of attention

As the sole director of this work, you control the eye of the camera. You can create an emotional landscape by guiding your reader’s eye to specific objects and words — what Orhan Pumuk, the Turkish winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature, describes as the “vast forest of moments and details”.

Exceptions

Vertical space may be a perfectly admirable quality when writing poetry of a certain kind, no problem. And there’s no rule or prohibition that should inhibit you from trying to write either all dialogue or very short paragraphs that create a special effect, a neomodern, literary experiment. Sometimes it works, though in my experience it’s pretty hard to accomplish.

I read a manuscript recently that had double columns all the way down, so you could read the same scene from two separate points of view at the same time. Challenging but interesting. And many years ago, I published a book of unbound pages with only a few words on each sheet that could be shuffled and read in any order. It was a big hit in France, but our translation sold only a few hundred copies.

But these are outlier ideas so proceed with caution.

What about you?

When you flip through your manuscript, do you see a lot of white space? Could be a clue that your story needs more depth and dimension to hold it together. Think of this as a quick diagnostic tool and try taking a closer look to see if those parts need development.

Let me know what you think. I’ll keep an eye out for any questions here in comments.

How to grab, delight or shock your readers right from the start

“Every time mama came down on that shabby floor, the bullet lodged in my stomach felt like a hot poker.”

Claude Brown and I hunted through his manuscript for two days to find that moment and move it to the opening of his classic Harlem memoir Manchild in the Promised Land.

We wanted to detail the true grit of getting shot at age 13 while dealing drugs at a fish and chips joint, and to include the emotional drama of his mother jumping up and down in despair. We added the hot poker detail to scorch the reader’s sense of sight, sound, and visceral pain. We hoped this start-up moment would persuade them to buy the book. And if 4 million copies sold in 14 languages is hard evidence, something must have worked.

The importance of first pages

The first pages of your story create an instant impression of its quality and value. Agents, acquisition editors, reviewers and potential buyers standing in a store or scanning the First Pages feature on Amazon – are all going to keep reading or skip to the next candidate, depending on how they respond to your opening.

As a developmental editor, I often work with authors to reconstruct, revise, and create completely new openings. It’s a challenge editors face often, and it’s one of the most essential. Here are some of the main issues and how to solve them.

How to begin your book

The first sentence of your book must have compelling emotional energy, whether it’s the magnetism of the narrative voice, the wit of the smart dialogue, or the evocative description of the dramatic environment.

But an opening to a story is more than just one sentence, no matter how brilliant. That’s only the first step in getting the reader’s attention. Next you need to develop the whole scene.

Four techniques for creating a great opening

1.  Start with a moment that changes everything

As the author, you know how the story will evolve, but your reader doesn’t. Therefore, you can write an opening that throws everything up in the air, creating a whole new universe of anticipation in the reader’s imagination.

For example, in Albert Camus’s first sentence of The Stranger, Mearsault receives the telegram “Maman died today.” Then Camus continues “Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know”, moving on with an accelerating sense of dread, depression, and confusion. His mother’s death changes everything in his life and leads ultimately to the devastating end of the book, when on the way to being hung for murder, he accepts his life as both meaningless and filled with joy.

The importance of an enticing opening is the same whether you’re writing short stories or longer fiction. In her story collection Married Love, Tessa Hadley begins the piece In the Cave with the sentence “After the sex, he fell asleep”, a declaration that sure gets our attention. Then she follows up immediately with “That wasn’t what Linda had expected. Cheated – returned too soon into her own possession – she lay pinned for a while under his flung arm…”

Notice how she’s building on an uncomfortable predicament to show how everything is different than it was before? By now her readers want to know what Linda will do next: remained crushed beneath her comatose lover, or shove him off in anger and leave. And who is the guy anyway? What is their past and future together, if any?

It’s a skillful opening which builds momentum and sustains our desire to continue.

2. Establish a critical choice

Readers can resonate and identify with a character torn between two very different alternatives. It’s a common human dilemma, a fatal choice that can be exacerbated if the main character is under pressure, or has a destructive unmet desire. Your job as the author is to create personalities the reader can care about, then give them desperate alternatives that have no obvious solution.

Jeffrey Eugenides opens his recent novel The Marriage Plot which takes place in the early 1980s with his heroine Madeline waking up on her graduation day from Brown University. She’s hung over, her parents are banging on the door, and she thinks to herself that she’s “screwed up in matters of the heart.” We quickly learn that she feels duty-bound to make an impossible decision. Either she’s going to run away with the seductive but mentally unbalanced Leonard, or settle down with the boring Mitchell whom she knows is a “smart, sane, parent-pleasing” suitor who truly believes she’s destined to marry him.

In barely ten opening pages, Eugenides has plunged us into Madeline’s world of dire necessity without a clue as to what she’ll do next. We readers, on the other hand, have no choice. We’ve got to keep reading.

3. Introduce an irresistible character

An author can capture a reader’s attention by creating a charismatic personality whom the reader immediately cares about. As the author, you can tell us whatever weird, funny, desperate, destructive thoughts your character is having. You can put impulsive, savage, or incredibly romantic words in her mouth. You can add crucial details to her actions, environments, or responses from other characters.

For example, in Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s non-fiction memoir and #1 NYTimes bestseller, the first sentence reads “The trees were tall, but I was taller,” as she stands on a steep mountain slope in northern California after her hiking boot has skittered accidentally over the edge, lost forever. In a moment of abandon she tosses the mate over too.

She’s 26 years old, alone, “a stray…at loose in the world…I’d been pitching myself over the edge too.” She tells us how, as a former high school cheerleader and homecoming queen, she went off to college and became a left-wing feminist campus radical. Now she’s barefoot and forced to struggle on up the 2,663 miles long Pacific Crest Trail, from the Mexican to Canadian border.

Strayed tells us she’s doing this to save herself and inexorably draws us into the daily mystery of will she survive and if so, will she be any better off for it. She sets this stage in the first three pages.

Here’s another example, with a very different kind of character.

Pharmacy, the first story in Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection Olive Kitteredge, opens as Olive’s husband Henry puts on his white lab coat in his modest drug store and begins a morning ritual that animates the mundane objects on his shelves – from vitamins to enema pumps — with anthropomorphic comfort that helps him deny “any kind of unpleasantness” between him and his wife who “often left their bed to wander through their home in the night’s dark hours.”

In her first two paragraphs, Strout’s description of Henry establishes his vulnerable but appealing insecurity, yearning, loss, loneliness, and grief that carries us through not only Pharmacy but every one of the book’s subsequent linked stories.

4. Set off an explosive action

Big bang openings have been traditionally associated with classic thrillers and mysteries. But who can resist a page-turning dynamite action opening in any kind of book? Explosive action has inspired memorable first pages from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina with the Oblonsky household in confusion and upheaval to Nicholas Spark’s NY Times #1 bestselling love story The Longest Ride, with its 91-year-old hero driving off the road in a blinding snowstorm, then crashing into a tree half way down the steep embankment.

I worked with Clive Cussler on his bestselling thriller Night Probe, crafting a breathtaking opening that takes place 70 years before the book’s contemporary story actually begins. A 118 ton locomotive and its long string of Pullman cars with 100 passengers aboard is derailed and plunges deep into the icy waters of the Hudson River. The horrific carnage and coiled snakes of plot lines springing open from this moment in time propels the reader onward to the present and an increasingly complex maze of characters with apparently separate but ultimately interwoven stories.

Remember to do this!

Get feedback

Savvy authors know they can always benefit from a second set of experienced and objective eyes. I’m biased of course, but the investment in a developmental editor to work with you on the opening can make or break the success of the entire story.

Sometimes the process of developmental editing requires going through the entire draft to find that instant in time which changes everything, or the critical choice, or a character’s first appearance or that explosive action — or a different compelling opening. As with Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, above, finding such a buried moment can be like a treasure hunt, and moving it to the opening pages can provide a stronger way to start. On other occasions, I’ve seen an opening become more forceful by adding a new detail, a carefully chosen action or word that brings the opening alive and escalates its meaning.

Plan ahead

I frequently consult with writers before their first draft is completed, which can save time and avoid false starts. I recommend a step-by-step outline of the opening moment before you start writing, plus three or four scenes for the rest of the first chapter, then the second chapter, and so on until the end of the book. This outline may change down the road, but resist jumping into that first draft until you’ve nailed down at least the first few chapters, and the ending too. It’s good to have a destination.

What about you?

How did you start your story? Are you satisfied that your opening grabs your readers and doesn’t let go? What kind of feedback are you getting? Send us a note with your experience and advice for fellow writers.

I’ll watch here in comments for any questions.

An interview with yours truly about self-publishing

A while ago I sat for an interview with Brian Felsen, CEO of BookBaby, a service provider for self-publishing authors. He asked a lot of good questions for authors about working with an editor, getting published, and effective book promotion.

Here’s the video, in which we talk about how the role of the author has changed in both traditional and self-publishing, and how authors can market their books creatively online with Tweeting, YouTube videos, and other social networking.

We also get into the importance of good design and editing, the different types of editors (developmental editors, copy editors and proofreaders), what a developmental editor does, and how to choose one.

If you’d prefer, you can watch the video in shorter chunks by topic.

Any questions, please post them here in comments.

Up next

Meanwhile, stay tuned for my next post on how to snare readers with the first pages of your story. It will provide proven tips and techniques for choosing a dynamite opening.

Photo credit: Cheryl Rinzler

How to find a hungry agent

Here’s a literary agent who’s very specific about the kind of book she’d like to see in her inbox:

“I love books with some kind of psychological element, like if the MC has a mental illness or if they can’t trust their mind.”

Working on anything like that? Or something close? Want to know more about this agent? Well you can find her on Twitter. She’s Annie, of the Annie Bomke Literary Agency, tweeting as @Abliterary

Twitter: Start here

Commercial publishers, agents, editors and publicists have for years relied on Twitter as an important element in book marketing. It’s also an essential tool for agents looking for new writers to build their client lists.

Annie Bomke, for example, is included in the Writer’s Digest Oct. 2013 cover story 28 Agents Seeking New Writers. Twenty of those agents are active on Twitter.

Bomke tweets regularly not only about what she’s looking for, but also about how to submit a book to her: “If you’re going to attach your synopsis/sample chapters, make sure you still put your query in the body of the email.” Here she is on the art and craft of writing: “Avoid descriptions that are obvious, like ‘the yellow sun’. The only time you should mention the color of the sun is if it’s not yellow.”

Not bad. Wish I’d said that. She packed a lot into the official Twitter 140 character limit.

More tweeting agents:

Lori Perkins at L. Perkins Agency (@loriperkinsRAB) writes that she’s looking for “time travel novels with female protagonists who change the world (without looking for love).”

Brandi Bowles of Foundry Literary & Media (@brandibowles) reminds authors, “Don’t neglect your platform while searching for an agent. We browse magazines, newspapers, and journals for great writing all the time!”

The biggest little agent-author conversation in the world

In a previous post called Strategic Tweeting for Authors, I described Twitter as a huge, noisy cocktail party, packed with publishing insiders, agents, editors, journalists, book bloggers, reviewers, your readers, potential new readers, other writers – just about everyone you’d ever want to connect with — there and waiting for you to drop in and mingle your heart out.

Now that more agents are using Twitter to build their client lists, it’s gone way beyond marketing to become a treasure trove of useful information for authors about what agents want and how to find them.

Remember that it’s OK to lurk on Twitter. You can search this resource as much as you want without ever posting a tweet yourself if you’re not ready or willing to jump into the fray. That’s some of the advice in a highly recommended primer for the uninitiated: 10 Must-Learn Lessons For Twitter Newbies .

Quick and easy ways to start your search

• Go to Twitter Search and insert #literaryagents in the box See what’s happening right now. You’ll be rewarded with a long list of tweets to and from literary agents. The scroll is in reverse chronological order, often beginning with a tweet only minutes old. The participants offer a bounty of useful chatter and links.

• Or try searching #MSWL, which stands for manuscript wish list, another Twitter address used by agents and publishers to let people know what they’re looking for. For a very useful archive of MSWL tweets organized by agent (and editor) names, go to this Tumbler page.

• Check out Galley Cat’s list Best Literary Agents on Twitter . You’ll find a terrific collection of agents with links to their Twitter feeds, from not only the generation of hungry new faces but also veteran agents like Jason Allen Ashlock, Stephanie Evans, Jennifer Laughran, Meredith Smith, Scott Waxman and Rachelle Gardner.

Twitter etiquette

As in all forms of social networking, certain rules apply.

• Don’t try to submit to an agent via Twitter. It won’t work. Go to the agent’s website or blog and pay close attention to the instructions on query letters, proposals, and sample pages.

• Be service oriented. Your tweets should offer a helpful comment or link to something relevant and useful. Try to be positive, altruistic, and empathic. Keep it upbeat.

• No hard sell. Never come right out with “Read my book” or “Please be my agent.” As per above, follow their rules about sending anything. Refer back to your own website and blog, which of course you’ll have by this time, right?

Be cool

Finding good agent matches on Twitter for your project might take a little time and patience. When you’ve located the agents you’d like to focus on, register on Twitter so you can restrict your own tweets to your targeted audience.

Then follow these agents and everyone relevant they link to. Check out how they want to be approached and be ready with the best possible query letter, proposal, sample pages or, in the case of most debut fiction, the entire manuscript.

And remember, agents are deluged with submissions, so once they reject a project (or ignore the submission) you won’t get a second chance. So be sure your manuscript is in the best possible shape before sending it in.

Some great advice

Listen to agent Rachelle Gardner, who advises writers to work with a professional developmental editor to “Get an experienced set of eyes on it to help you identify problems and figure out how to fix them… It’s a terrific learning experience and can help you grow as a writer… almost like having a writing tutor.”

Hear hear.

What about you?

Is Twitter already one of your sources to track down good potential agents for your book? If so, how is that working for you?

If this is a new idea for you, give it a try, and let us know how it goes. We welcome stories of your experience and your tips for fellow authors.

Happy Birthday Tom Robbins! Time to revisit your advice to writers

I’ve never known a great author to give more generous and useful advice about the craft of writing than Tom Robbins has over the years in these pages.

If you’ve yet to discover this fabulous author, Robbins has written many bestselling novels including Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All and others.

His funny, surprising and masterful prose is lyrical and rhythmic, with a kind of musical style that disguises his underlying irony and serious intentions.

So on the occasion of his birthday July 22nd*, we’re honoring Tom with a collection of his inspiring words for writers, culled from earlier interviews and conversations in my role as his one-time editor and ongoing pal.

* Scroll down for an exclusive revelation just in from Tom, aka Dr. Rotten

On the power of language

“Remember that language is not the frosting, it’s the cake. Rhythmical language and vivid imagery possess a power of effect that is independent from content.

Metaphors have the capacity to heat up a scene and eternalize an image, to lift a line of prose out of the mundane mire of mere fictional reportage and lodge it in the luminous honeycomb of the collective psyche.”

On sticking with it until it’s right

“Challenge every single sentence for lucidity, accuracy, originality, and cadence. If it doesn’t meet the challenge, work on it until it does.”

While I was editing Jitterbug Perfume, Tom would read me a passage aloud to see how it sounded. Sometimes I’d comment, sometimes I wouldn’t. But each time I heard it again, it had changed.  I saw how many times he would rewrite a passage and how much he relished doing it.

“Sometimes 40 times,” he told me.

He took the process of conception, research, trial and error very seriously, moving things around, changing voices and pitch. He wrote slowly and carefully, revised constantly, refining and evolving the novel over the course of about two years.

On getting better

“Never be afraid to make a fool of yourself. The furthest out you can go is the best place to be, but pushing the envelope has to come naturally, you can’t force it.

Always compare yourself to the best. Even if you never measure up, it can’t help but make you better. I look for a pitch next to madness.

A talented writer can, with practice, patience and intense focus, always improve.”

On choosing a life of writing

“Focus on the work itself and not on what may or may not eventually happen to it. If the work is good enough, it’ll take care of itself.

Write every day without fail, even if it’s only for half an hour, even if you’re savagely hung over and your grandmother has just fallen out of a third-story window.

Don’t talk about it – you’ll talk it away. Let the ideas flow from your mind to the page without exposing them to air. Especially hot air.

Above all, have a good time. If you aren’t enjoying writing it, you can hardly expect someone else to enjoy reading it.

If you don’t actually like to write, love to write, feel driven and compelled to write — then you’re probably better off abandoning your ambition in favor of a more legitimate career.”

On writing dialogue

“There was a time in my early so-called career when I would snare in my mental net witty lines that I overheard at parties or gallery openings, inserting them at appropriate places in my manuscripts — only to discover later, much to my embarrassment, that the line had not been original with the speaker but rather lifted verbatim from some television comedy show.

I aborted that practice decades ago. But years later, I rode city buses in New Orleans to get a feel for the conversations of the black riders. It was their manner of speech rather than exact expressions that I was after, and this experiment proved quite helpful in assuring that the dialogue in Jitterbug Perfume was authentic.”

I can vouch for the dialogue he created for his unforgettable characters in that book, in particular the sly and conniving Pan, the Goat God, who appears memorably.

On the requirements of social networking for authors today

“When I hear how difficult it’s become for a young novelist who isn’t a Twitter diva or Facebook star to get published these days, I thank the gods that I came of age before barbaric electrons ate the printing press.

Look at that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank.”

On grand finales

“At the conclusion of my novels, the careful reader will note that every loose thread has been picked up and tied together in a culminative bow. At the same time, however, I want to leave the reader with the impression that the narrative is continuing off-stage, that the story and its characters are moving forward into the future.

It’s akin to the end of a rafting trip. You take your raft out of the water and pack up your gear to go home, but in the distance you can hear another rapid downstream or around the bend and you know that while you are done with it for now, the river itself flows on and on. It’s a conclusion with a forward projection.”

Here, as a fitting finale for this birthday celebration, are the last lines of Jitterbug Perfume:

The lesson of the beet, then, is this: hold on to your divine blush, your innate rosy magic, or end up brown. Once you’re brown, you’ll find that you’re blue. As blue as indigo. And you know what that means: Indigo. Indigoing. Indigone.

*Breaking revelation just in from Tom

“Thanks for honoring me in such an effulgent manner, and for remembering my birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, do you have any friends at the Library of Congress, someone to whom I could mail a copy of my birth certificate? You see I was actually born in 1932, not ’36, and turned 81, not 77, on Monday. Neither Wikipedia nor my foreign publishers will correct the date at my request, because the Library of Congress has the date differently and — obviously — the Library of Congress is God.  If you have any ideas how I might persuade the LOC to correct my birthdate, please advise. I didn’t know the water in the Fountain of Youth had become so polluted.

Thanks again to you and your electrons for honoring the anniversary of that day when I stepped from womb much as a ham actor steps from the wings.”

Dr. Rotten
_________________

What about you?

Does Tom speak to you? We’d love to hear what you think, so spill it here in comments.

Ask the Editor: Memoir or novel for my true story?

Q. I have an amazing true story to tell, but publishing it may step on some toes. Should I write it as a memoir, and tell it exactly like it was? Or should I write it discreetly as a novel, so I can disguise the lurid details and stay out of trouble?

If I don’t write this story, the truth will never come out. But I could get sued. Or worse!”

A. If you want to stick to the literal truth, write it as a selective memoir and be aware of the legal ramifications.

If you want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or taking on potential legal problems, disguise the reality as imaginative fiction.

Whether a book should be memoir or fiction comes up frequently at my seminars, blind-date pitches, and in consultations with authors at the early stages of their creative processes. The choice has a profound impact on the book and how it’s written, needless to say, so the two alternatives should be carefully considered.

A memoir must be true

One advantage of the memoir is the ability to tell a great story without the danger of disbelief or incredulity. The truth is often stranger than fiction. The word memoir itself is derived from “to remember”.

Publishers often put a note in the front of a memoir explaining that dialogue and scenes have been reconstructed since the author didn’t film or tape everything.

Most successful writers incorporate the underlying reality of their lives in their work. From Tolstoy to Hilary Mantel, readers recognize autobiographical details not only in novels but nonfiction essays, journals and letters. The information may be benign and without controversy, but when an author is molding reality to suit some personal agenda like anger, revenge, having the last word, or just plain self-aggrandizement, big trouble can erupt.

In the memoir A Million Little Pieces, for example, author James Frey was exposed for fabricating important parts of the book to enhance his dramatic injuries, incarceration, and recovery from addiction. What he had presented as fact but turned out to be fiction brought him public shame and embarrassment.

Be careful with fiction too

The word novel means “new”, and one is expected to include invention and imagination, though a disclaimer still may appear in the front of a novel that “any similarity to people living or dead is coincidental.”

But novelists still need to practice discretion. I worked on a mystery with a writer whom I knew to be exploiting the reality of his painful divorce in a brief but memorable scene in the book. What he was presenting as fiction was based on real events, but distorted by his biased perspective. He portrayed his hero as an innocent victim while his easily recognizable ex-wife became a villainous femme fatale. In the end, fortunately, he left it out.

My advice

Do the right thing.

If you’re determined to tell the truth in a memoir, be sure everything you write is factual without misrepresentation and, ideally, can be documented. Get written releases if possible. Leave out anything that remains unproven or without permission. The result may be incomplete, but it’s safer.

If you’re worried about invasion of privacy, libel or just plain hurting someone’s feelings, then disguise your characters in a novel so they’re impossible to identify.

Change the age, ethnicity, cultural context, even the gender if possible. This strategy isn’t foolproof, since the person you’re writing about may know very well what you’re up to, but it’s a feasible defense. And there’s always the possibility that someone may bring a lawsuit, whether it’s winnable or not.

If you choose the memoir, remember these guidelines: truth only, releases where needed, strategic omissions.

If you decide to write a novel, you’ll have a greater opportunity for digging down to the core truth of a story, but keep in mind that fiction requires an independent credibility that isn’t acting out any personal agenda.

Ultimately, it’s each author’s personal call.

What about you?

Have you gone back and forth over whether to write your story as memoir or fiction? What were some of the biggest issues? And where did you end up? Hope you’ll share some of your experience here in comments.