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 be more generous with useful advice about the craft of writing than Tom Robbins.

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.

How winning a literary prize can change your life

“First, it got my book published,” says Kirstin Scott, whose novel Motherlunge won the 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award. “And with that, the prize gave me readers.”

There’s no doubt that winning a well-respected competition can help validate your work with agents and publishers. It proves someone thinks you’re good and helps build a more credible platform. The best of these prizes include cash awards and book publication.

I recently interviewed four writers each of whom has won a well-known contest. Here’s who they are and how their prizes changed their lives.

Four Winners

Lori Ostlund’s first collection of stories, The Bigness of the World received the 2008 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, which came with a $1,000 cash prize and publication by the University of Georgia Press.

The book also won the California Book Award for First Fiction, the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award, and was a Lambda finalist.  In 2009, she was one of six emerging women writers to win a $25,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award.

Will Boast won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his story collection Power Ballads, which provided an author’s contract and publication by the University of Iowa Press.

His fiction and essays have also appeared in Best New American Voices, Narrative, New York Times and others. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia in the UK. His memoir, The Pantomime Horse, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton Co/Liveright and Granta.

Kirstin Scott won the 2011 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for her novel Motherlunge, which provided a $2,000 cash award and publication by the New Issues Press at Western Michigan University.

Her short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Sonora Review, Western Humanities Review, PANK, and elsewhere.

Holly Payne won the $3,000 Grand Prize for the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Award in 2011 for her novel Kingdom of Simplicity,which also provided an all-expenses paid trip to New York City.

The book also won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Best First Book (fiction) from a new press, the $5,000 Marin Arts Council Grant, and was nominated for a national book award in Belgium where it was named to the mandatory reading list in Ghent.

Payne’s earlier debut novel, The Virgin’s Knot (2003) and second book The Sound of Blue (2004) were published by Dutton/Plume.

At what stage in your writing career were you when you entered this contest? Did you have a day job?

Lori Ostlund: I was in my early 40s and had been writing off and on for half of my life, though my stories lived in the slush pile. Not long before I won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, I said to my partner that I was going to stop being a writer and get a job that paid properly.

I had been teaching part-time and had started classes to become a paralegal when I got the call from University of Georgia Press that I had won the FOC. At that point, things moved quickly. Nancy Zafris, the series editor, helped in getting most of the stories placed in journals before the book came out.

Will Boast: I’d been writing fairly seriously for nine or ten years, and reading heavily, of course, for much longer than that. I’d published stories in several journals that I liked and an anthology, and I was living in San Francisco, having just finished a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Kirstin Scott: As an MFA student, I wrote short stories. I had some luck publishing them in literary journals; I won a couple of prizes; I had a well-known agent contact me, asking to see a novel.

But I felt this urgency to make money—as if, after three years of self-indulgence, it was time to get real. Part of that has to do with the fact that I have always been my family’s main breadwinner. Any time I might spend trying to be “an artist” felt like robbing my kids of my attention, my family of money. It was a painful to give up the writerly dream—for a while, I didn’t even like to go into bookstores—but I also felt like it was the right decision.

Then, after more than a decade of not writing fiction, I made a first attempt to write a novel. I’m not sure where this sudden ambition came from—a new spasm of frustration, I guess—but I started getting up extra early, aiming for a modest 300 words a day putting aside any hope that it would be good or published. It took me a year to write Motherlunge this way, another year to revise it. I loved doing it.

Holly Payne: I had been writing professionally for almost half of my life at the time, starting as a journalist when I was 17. I had previously published two novels through Penguin (Dutton/Plume) while also working as an adjunct professor in various MFA programs and running a private writing coaching practice. When I got news of the prize I had been recently married, getting through the first year of motherhood—and surviving a family financial tsunami after 2008.

Why did you enter this particular contest?

Lori Ostlund: The truth is that I knew nothing about publishing when I entered this contest. So, in 2006, I decided to go to Bread Loaf as a contributor in order to learn a bit more, and I think that it was there that I learned about submitting to prizes. So when I finally finished the collection after 10 years, I sent it to the Bakeless Prize (nothing) and then the Prairie Schooner Prize (also nothing), and then to the Flannery O’Connor Award. I was just following the annual chronology of contests, but I was particularly happy that it was the FOC that took it because the contest is so well regarded.

Will Boast: I’d known about the Iowa Short Fiction Award for a while and knew that, along with the Flannery O’Conner Prize, it was the one of the best-regarded story collection contests. I understood that story collections were, to put it mildly, a tough sell with the bigger NY-based houses, and so I thought I’d try the contest route. Funny enough, the Iowa Award was the very first place I sent the manuscript.

Kirstin Scott: I entered the AWP contest not so much because of the cash award, though I did appreciate it, but because I thought the judges would be open to literary fiction. I also liked that it was a publication prize with blind submissions, so new and established writers have the same chance.

Holly Payne: It was the only contest I found that was open to books that had already been self-published. I had been reading Writers Digest Magazine since I was a kid. It felt like a natural choice.

How did winning the prize change your life? Did it open any doors? Did it help you find an agent?

Lori Ostlund: Everything shifted when the book came out. Work still gets rejected, of course, but now editors write to me requesting to see work, so the slush piles no longer factor in the same way. I met my agent Terra Chalberg through University of Georgia Press. They contacted her about selling the paperback rights, something she had done for an earlier recipient, and though the press decided to bring out the paperback itself, Terra remained my agent, and we are now working toward a deadline of July 31st for my first novel.

Will Boast: I actually had an agent already, and we’d been working on another manuscript together, a memoir that we eventually sold to Norton. In fact, that happened because the Norton editor read and enjoyed Power Ballads and got interested in what I was working on next.

So, yes, it opened some doors. I got to do a bunch of readings and was invited to the excellent Cork International Short Story Festival in Ireland. I studied with Ann Beattie at the University of the Virginia, and she’s been incredibly supportive. Otherwise, I’m still spending a lot of time at the desk, and it’s nice to have a bit of a platform to stand on, with some previous work finished and a clear sense of what’s to come.

Kirstin Scott: Winning the prize has been so important for me. First, it got my book published, which was terrifically validating. And with that, the prize gave me readers. That experience—of feeling you’ve made a connection with someone through a book—has been unexpected, humbling, and wonderful.

It did help me get an agent, Kate Garrick, and I’ll be working with her to sell my second novel, prospects for which are considerably brightened, I hope, by having won the AWP prize. I think the prize also helped Motherlunge get some prepublication attention — starred reviews from Booklist and was even a Pick of the Week in Publishers Weekly. I’m sure that helped drive early sales.

Holly Payne: I had already self-published Kingdom of Simplicity under my own company Skywriter Books, so I would not say it helped to sell more books or changed my life my dramatically. But, I loved going to New York for the prize trip. Spending a full day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art without changing any diapers or feeding any mouths other than my own with a red devil cupcake felt life changing.

Are you satisfied with the publication of your book?

Lori Ostlund: It was actually published by the University of Georgia Press in hardcover in 2009 and in paperback in 2010. UGA has been great.

Will Boast: Yes, the University of Iowa Press has been fantastic to work with. The press itself put together a great-looking book–they let me have a lot of input into the design and made some pretty inspired choices themselves. As far as promotion goes, they don’t have quite the reach of the NY houses, but they still do a great job.

Kirstin Scott: Yes, really pleased. I’m happy the reviews have been good. I appreciate the readers who’ve responded. Sales have been good—we had to reprint the first week the book came out—and we’ve sold foreign rights to Rizzoli, an Italian publisher.

Holly Payne: Winning the Grand Prize for the Writers Digest Self-Published Book Award didn’t include publication, only the cash prize and trip to NYC.

But my experience self-publishing Kingdom of Simplicity was the most collaborative experience I’ve had so far with any of my books, including the two published by Dutton/Plume. Using my team at Skywriter Books, the manuscript went through six sets of editorial notes, 37 test readers and then into the hands of cover designers. The book also found a foreign rights agent and was sold and published in The Netherlands, Taiwan and soon China (we just got the check today!) and Turkish rights are pending.

What else has happened in your life since you won the prize?

Lori Ostlund: A lot of very good things have happened. I’ve met some truly wonderful people (who are also writers) as a result of winning this prize. So many people helped me, especially in those early days when the book was first coming out, and while this doesn’t surprise me, it still makes me very happy to know that writers tend to be a generous bunch (or at least the ones I came across).

The prize also secured me a two-year position as the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, which gave me some nice chunks of writing time to complete my first novel, tentatively entitled After the Parade, and a second story collection.

One of the biggest thrills was having one of the stories, “All Boy” chosen for the 2010 Best American Short Stories by Richard Russo and another, “Bed Death” chosen for the 2011 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories.

Will Boast: On the writing front, I sold the memoir I’ve been working on for some time and also did a great fellowship at the University of East Anglia, which allowed me to spend several months living and writing back home in England. I’ve also become interested in doing more journalism. Last August I traveled to Burma and wrote a feature piece about the trip. At the moment, I’m working on a move to New York.

Kirstin Scott: The book hasn’t been a financial game-changer for me, but it has allowed me to shift priorities. Since winning the prize, I feel less conflicted about spending time writing fiction.

In the past year, I moved with my family to Mexico — the fulfillment of several years of planning. I work remotely in my job as a medical writer, my husband does volunteer work, the kids attend a Mexican school. Also, I work on my second novel, about a gynecologist named Ajax. I hope to have a rough draft done by the time we come back to the U.S. in July.

Holly Payne:  I am very grateful for the recognition and the cash prize that came with this award, but I was also a bit shocked by how poorly publicized it was through Writers Digest. I couldn’t find anything on the internet, anywhere, that actually announced my book as the prize winner – although it had been indicated it would be.

What about you?

Have you thought about entering your book in a literary contest? Have you already? If so, what happened? I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

Having trouble writing? Try this famous author’s technique

“Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall,” says Pulitzer Prize winner John McPhee.

“Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft,” he says  in an article called Draft No. 4 now in The New Yorker magazine where he’s been appearing regularly for 48 years. McPhee, the author of 32 books, says he first wrote these words of advice in a letter to his daughter Jenny years ago when she was starting out as a writer herself.

“The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once,” he told her. “You work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit again, top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll see something that you are sort of eager for others to see.”

The heart blood of the creative process

As a developmental editor for both established and new writers, I know that revision, pruning, reorganizing and polishing is the heart blood of the creative process. I adjust my approach to fit each author’s unique issues.

Working with Hunter Thompson on Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, for example, the only way to break through his crippling writer’s block was to lock ourselves, editor and writer, into the Seal Rock Inn in San Francisco for four days, where I turned on an old reel-to-reel Nagra and interviewed him about the very rough drafts he’d written during the campaign. We yelled at each other while he consumed large quantities of grapefruit, Kentucky bourbon and yes, other nameless, illegal substances. Rolling Stone staffers transcribed everything we said, and after taking me out of the story and polishing, cutting, and adding, the job was done. I don’t recommend anyone try this method at home, but it worked for Hunter and the book is still in print 40 years later.

On the other hand, I saw how many times Tom Robbins would rewrite a passage, while editing and publishing his wonderful book Jitterbug Perfume.

“Sometimes forty times” before it’s ready, he told me. And he said he loved doing just that.

First you suffer…then you enjoy!

McPhee believes writers must suffer through the first draft, however awful it may be, and then settle into enjoying the art and craft of revision. He knows what he’s talking about. He’s taught several generations of writers at Princeton University, including luminaries like David Remnick, Eric Schlosser, and Timothy Ferriss.

“The essence of the process is revision,” McPhee says. “The adulating portrait of the perfect writer who never blots a line comes express mail from fairyland.”

He describes his own norm as a multi-step sequence of first draft and then several revisions. It becomes an obsessive task, deliberating relentlessly to solve the problems still there in the writing.

“You finish that first awful blurting, and then you…get into your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on twenty-four hours a day – yes, while you sleep.”

If you’ve got a case of writer’s block

“Help!” It’s not at all unusual to get an SOS from a writer in distress. “I’m stuck! I’m blocked! I don’t know how to keep going or even how to get started.”

Here are a few suggestions. Brief strenuous exercise can put you in your body for a moment and when you sit down again your brain is recharged, so how about getting up out of that chair for a set of jumping jacks? Does caffeine give you a jolt? A cup of strong tea might kick start your creative juices. And sometimes free associating without worrying too much about what you’re saying can throw out some words that might work, so try talking into your smart phone’s recorder.

It’s OK: Some doubt is inescapable for any serious writer

When his daughter Jenny worried about her continuing doubt and discouragement, asking herself day after day ‘Who am I kidding?’ McPhee responded with these words, sage comfort for any writer who has experienced such distress:

“To feel such doubt is a part of the picture – important and inescapable,” he says. “When I hear some young writers express that sort of doubt, it serves as a check point. If they don’t say something like it they are quite possibly, well, kidding themselves.”

Building your confidence

Most authors experience the occasional crisis in confidence as a writer. One approach I’ve recommended is to jump into one of the toughest things you do that isn’t writing. Like sky diving, breaking in a wild rescue horse so it’s fit to stable and ride, preparing a tactful but humorous toast for an office roast, or being a good parent when your kid comes home with a bad grade.

This pokes up the bravery barometer in your head and can make sitting in your room at the keyboard feel a lot easier. It may even stimulate some wild new idea to escape your unconscious.

Reaching the final draft: Small adjustments

“The final adjustments may be small scale, but they are large to me and I love addressing them,” McPhee says.

It’s all in the details at this point, fine-tuning the words, looking for replacements. For this, McPhee dives into his dictionary. No kidding. How comfortable, easy, and familiar, bless his heart, just like grade school, but he goes there for meaning, not just spelling.

“With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of – at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus.

What else to enjoy from McPhee

I recommend reading anything John McPhee has written, from his first book A Sense of Where You Are about Bill Bradley’s rise as a basketball player and politician, to subsequent books like The Control of Nature, about attempts to stop volcanic lava flow, Mississippi flooding, or debris slides that destroy homes. There’s nothing he won’t tackle: even a book called Oranges, entirely on the subject of the fruit.

McPhee is a pioneer in creative non-fiction, incorporating techniques ordinarily used only in novels. He has a keen penchant for the revealing details, slow-cooked character development with spot-on voices in his dialogue.

“McPhee’s great virtue as a journalist covering the sciences–and any other of the countless subjects he has taken on, for that matter–is his ability to distill and explain complex matters” author Gregory McNamee wrote about McPhee’s Pulitzer winner Annals of the Former World, which is no less than a geological history of North America, focused on the 40th parallel. McPhee researched this subject for twenty years, producing four books, of which Annals is the last.

What about you?

How do you tackle problems in your writing? Have any breakthrough techniques to share with fellow writers?  I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

You may also want to check out an earlier post called How Successful Writers Keep up Their Confidence

Market sizzles for debut authors

“Editors still love a chance at debut fiction,” says Manhattan literary agent Michelle Brower.

“If the book is unique and meaningful, the debut author doesn’t yet have a bad sales track record so we can look at their book with all of the rosiness of potential rather than reality”

Good news

That’s some of the good news for first-time authors from agents out there on the front lines.

The news is backed up by recent deals with major publishers for first novels, like Mango Bride by Marivi Soliven, an immigrant tale of two women, two cultures, family secrets and the fight to find a new life in America, sold to NAL this year by veteran agent Jill Marsal.

Two top dealmakers in debut fiction

I recently interviewed Brower and Marsal, both on the list of top dealmakers for debut fiction at Publisher’s Marketplace. They’re two hardworking agents, eager to go to bat for exciting new authors in an evolving market, and they agreed to share some of their insights and advice for writers here at The Book Deal. First, their details:

Michelle Brower is with Folio Literary Management in NYC, a major player among agencies. Her track record with emerging authors is impressive: She sold Believers, a first novel by Andrew Roe, in a preemptive deal to Algonquin Books, Cementville, a debut novel by Paulette Livers, to Counterpoint Press, and the upcoming Soy Sauce for Beginners by new novelist Kirsten Chen to Amazon Publishing. Brower says she loves working with authors “who aren’t afraid to get out there and promote their book once it is published. You’re always your own best publicity tool!”

Jill Marsal, an attorney and founding partner of the Marsal Lyon Agency in Solana Beach, CA, was for eight years an agent with the industry heavyweight Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She represents a range of nonfiction as well as women’s fiction, mysteries, cozies, suspense, and thrillers “that keep the pages turning and have an original hook.” Marsal sold the forthcoming The Wedding Favor, a new contemporary romance series by debut author Lisa Connelly to Avon, and The Vanishing Thief, a new mystery series by first-timer Kate Parker, to Berkley Books.

What stood out about the books you’ve sold lately that helped seal the deal with publishers?

Michelle Brower: My most recent sales have had a story that immediately makes you want to find out more. But that’s not enough. Authors have to actually deliver on the premise with good writing that keeps a reader turning pages. In the books that sell, the core principles are heightened: You have to have a good story, and it has to be well told.

Jill Marsal: The books that sold had something that made them stand out from the pack: a unique voice, a compelling story hook that grabbed the reader and felt different from what’s already out there, or just really incredible writing. On the non-fiction side, I’ve had some great projects that sold from authors who have interesting topics, strong platforms, and engaging writing.

What do you think has changed in publishing — and what really hasn’t?

Michelle Brower: Authors have to be seen as “bigger” now. Gone are the days when the plan was to grow someone over the course of many books. The books that sell move toward either end of the spectrum — they are either small books that sell for a modest amount, or hotly buzzed books that sell for a lot. The middle is increasingly hard to find.

It’s also harder to sell as many print copies or make as much money off of e-book copies, so advances don’t tend be as high as they once were.

One of the things that hasn’t changed is that editors still love a chance at debut fiction.

Jill Marsal: What’s changed? There are a lot more opportunities for writers then there were five or ten years ago. E-publishing has opened up a lot of doors. Many traditional publishers are starting their own e-publishing lines. Some terrific traditional publishing opportunities have also been created for authors who have successfully self-published.

In marketing and promotion, the growth of social media means there are a lot more opportunities for writers to become more active partners in promoting their books and reaching their readership. And this has also helped to extend the life of many books. Since you are no longer dependent on just the two-to-four-week period that your books are “on shelves” in the bookstores, books continue to sell for longer periods.

What hasn’t changed is the need for a great book. The same basics should still be there: strong voice, great story, compelling characters, interesting plot that grabs readers, strong setting. These are the elements that will help a book succeed in any market.

What’s your opinion about self-publishing? Is there a role for agents?

Michelle Brower: Agents can give self-published authors advice on growing their careers across all the available platforms, from print rights to foreign translation to film rights. Any time you are faced with a contract, you should get either an agent or a lawyer on board to negotiate it on your behalf.

Jill Marsal: Our most recent big success in this area was J. Lynn, who self-published through our agency and hit #1 on the New York Times e-books bestseller list for her book Wait for You. Self-publishing can be a great way for writers to get their books out there, especially if the writer is well-connected and able to help promote the book. Agents can offer editorial input on manuscripts, help format the manuscript for the different e-platforms, help with uploading, strategize about pricing, and so on.

Is your agency expanding its services to authors, beyond trying to place books with publishers?

Michelle Brower: I’m a very editorial agent, but I don’t really look at it as a separate service: it’s just what I do in order to make a book better so that it will sell for more money. I generally advise my clients on a variety of issues — editing, publicity, help designing a website, getting started with blogs and social networking. But I see my one true purpose as being an advocate for an author: financially, emotionally, and editorially.

Jill Marsal: We really look at the author-agent relationship as a long-term partnership where we would like to help grow and develop an author’s career rather than just sell a book.

So, yes, we do offer services beyond selling a book. We offer editorial feedback to help writers make their manuscripts or proposals as strong as possible. It is a very interactive process to get a manuscript “ready for market.” Then, once a book has sold, we help authors think about marketing, branding, future books and strategize about what next to help grow their careers.

What advice would you give writers who are having trouble getting an agent?

Michelle Brower: Keep writing. If you are getting consistent critical feedback, go back to your manuscript and revise. If the feedback you’re getting isn’t very helpful or you’re just not getting any, start another project. It’ll take your mind off of the waiting, and it will force you to keep honing your craft and learning about yourself as an author. Published authors often have a manuscript (or two, or four) in the drawer.

Jill Marsal: If you’re not getting agents asking for your manuscript, then something in your query letter probably needs to be reworked. If you are getting manuscript requests but then not getting an agent, take a look at the opening 50 pages of your manuscript and really rework them. Set aside a week or two so you can reedit with fresh eyes, and ask a critique partner to give you feedback. Ask for specifics of what the reader thinks is NOT working so you have some guidance on areas to focus on for revisions.

Revisions are an important part of the writing process and can be key to taking a manuscript to the next level. Recently, an author and I went back and forth on probably four or five different ideas before landing on the one we took to market. And we sold that novel in just a few weeks.

Remember, even some of the bestsellers received many, many rejections before they found the right home. Don’t get discouraged.

_________________

More debut deals

Other recent examples of debut works literary agents have sold to traditional publishers:

We Are Not Ourselves, a novel by New York high school teacher Matthew Thomas, was sold at auction to editor Marysue Rucci at Simon & Schuster in a “major deal” by agent Bill Clegg at William Morris Endeavor.

The Wives of Los Alamos, a non-fiction history by Tarashea Nesbit was sold to editor Nancy Miller at Bloomsbury by agent Julie Barer of Barer Literary.

White Ginger, a mystery thriller by Thatcher Robinson, former CEO of an internet security firm, was sold in a two-book deal to editor Dan Mayer of Seventh Street Books by agent Kimberley Cameron at Kimberley Cameron & Associates.

Snapper, a first novel and winner of the first Janklow & Nesbit Bath Spa prize by Brian Kimberling, was sold to Pantheon by agent Will Francis at Janklow & Nesbit Associates. The book is a series of dark and funny tales about the disastrous love affair between a man, a place, and its people, narrated by a freelance birdwatcher in the backwaters of Indiana.

What about you?

Are you a first-time author in search of an agent? What kind of feedback have you gotten so far?

If you’re a debut author with a published novel, we’d love to hear about the role your agent played in the process. And if you’ve decided to self-publish, tell us what went into your decision.

I’ll watch for any questions here in comments.

Writing a memoir: Intersecting memory and story

Writing a memoir is one of the most stimulating but difficult literary challenges an author can undertake. Nevertheless, it’s a hugely popular genre. Five of the top ten hardcover nonfiction books on the NY Times bestseller list this week are memoirs.

Aspiring memoir writers can find help in books and by searching online, but there’s nothing like a live workshop with a master teacher.

One highly recommended instructor is Tamim Ansary, the Afghan-American author of the critically acclaimed literary memoir West of Kabul, East of New York (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This spring, Ansary will be conducting a six-week memoir workshop in the San Francisco Bay Area, so I jumped at the opportunity to ask him about his views on writing and teaching this subject.

What is a memoir and how is it different from a personal journal or novel based on your life?

A memoir is the intersection between memory and story. Both sides of that equation—memory and story–are equally vital.  When you decide to write a memoir, you’re asserting that the story is already there. It’s in the facts. Your mission is to discover the story, not create it. The story is not something you add but something you reveal through the facts. Making your story visible becomes a process of discovering what your story really is.

A novel, in contrast, may be based on real-life events, but story trumps all.   As a writer, you are not only free to alter or invent whatever is necessary to make the story better, but you must: that’s your job. If something in a novel doesn’t work, the novelist can never fall back on the plea that “But that really happened.”

A journal is a direct transliteration of experience into words. It’s essentially a conversation with yourself whereas a memoir is—inherently—a conversation with others. When you undertake to write one of these, you’ve already decided to make your private story visible to people who don’t even know you.

Writing a memoir, therefore, invites you to get outside yourself, to achieve a certain objectivity about your subjectivity.

How can one prepare for writing a memoir? What kind of planning and research do you recommend?

The process of creating a memoir begins with paying attention to your own urge to “tell the story of…” The subject won’t be ‘My Life: A chronological account of everything that’s happened.” It’ll be something more confined, more thematic: “My terrible divorce” or “The strange year we spent in Arkansas” or “Fighting for the liberation of Bangladesh” or “Oh those raucous sixties” or … whatever. You want to open the tap and let your memories run.

Your quest is to squelch interference from the narrative you have in mind: to not write what you think happened, but to sink into the primeval cauldron at a desk with your fingers on a keyboard, turning what you relive into words, with as much attention as possible to the memories and as little as possible to the words. Later, there may be good reason, and much benefit to be gained from looking into more standard “research and source material”—letters, old diaries, newspaper reports, whatever.

How can you create drama, suspense and humor in a memoir?

As you produce the data dump of memories, you’ll want at some point to start on the “actual” memoir. Now your quest is to organize the shape buried in the detritus of events and details you’ve recorded. What is the heart of it? Where does it begin? What is the dramatic rise?  How does it resolve? What is it all about? There are countless ways to go about all this. You can make an outline and start writing from it. You can start writing without an outline, just let your instincts guide you. You can take that shapeless draft you’ve produced, all those pages of babble, and find the nuggets in there (there’ll be some; never fear), extract them, set them in order, and see what you’ve got.

Whatever your method, your quest now is to make the buried pattern visible, get the story-like elements to emerge. At which you’re in a zone much like the one inhabited by novelists:  you’re using all those tools to build drama, suspense, humor—it’s all about what you juxtapose, how you build, and what you build toward.

How do you recommend handling personal revelations, considering the potential for hurt feelings or even legal action?

There are some things you just can’t write about. If you’re writing a memoir about how you stole secrets from the CIA, you might be prosecuted. If you’re worried about being sued, you can alter stuff about people—what they look like, what they do for a living, where they come from, their cultural and ethnic background to the point that they won’t be able to claim in court that you wrote about them.

As for hurt feelings, my first recommendation is: Don’t think about it while you’re writing. Achieve authenticity first—for your own sake; for the sake of literature and art; for the sake of truth. Once you’ve drafted the whole, you still have a long path ahead of you, revising, reshaping, and editing it. This is to time to decide what to change, if you want to avoid hurting people you know.

The simplest and most superficial things of course are names, but if your memoir is fully realized and authentic, the people in it will recognize themselves. If they don’t, you might have fallen short in your writing. Therefore, you have to be sure what you say is crucial to your story, and also that you say exactly what you mean. The worst thing is to hurt someone’s feelings when you didn’t even say what you meant to say or didn’t express it the way you would have wanted to.

My other recommendation is to steel yourself: No matter what you say, some people will feel hurt, even when you’re saying nice things about them, because everyone is the hero of their own life story, and what they’ll see in yours is themselves as a side character or a member of the supporting cast.

You’ve written several memoirs. What was that like for you?

The first one, West of Kabul, East of New York, was like being at a party where all the guests are me. The third one is Road Trip, just completed, a long, arduous, and addictive process of understanding and reassessing what it all meant—not just my own life but the times I lived in and the historical experience of which I was a part. In between those two, I wrote someone else’s memoir: The Other Side of the Sky, about/for Farah Ahmadi, an Afghan girl who fell victim to a landmine. In that case, I spent five days with her, recorded our conversations continuously, then transcribed the interviews and in the course of transcription (and translation since we had conversed in Farsi) the dramatic shape of her story emerged for me; and then I started writing. It was very like the process I described above except with conversation taking the place of remembering.

I also acted as midwife for a number of other memoirs when I did a project with young Afghan American writers resulting in an anthology of short pieces called This Afghan American Life. What struck me working with the young writers was how often the writers began with some “official” sense of their story and then, in the course of being pushed for more, they would break through some wall and suddenly discover the real story (and man, those were powerful sometimes.)

Can you recommend some memoirs for our readers?

To Have Not by Frances Lefkowitz. It’s billed as a memoir about coping with a lifetime of feeling poor, and it is that; but it could also be seen as a memoir about a life like any other: a demonstration of the fact that every life, once you get down to the particulars, is laden with tension, drama, heartbreak, elation, suspense—all the stuff of story, great story. Another is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Living to Tell the Tale. And of course Diary of Anne Frank. Oh, and let me not forget to applaud This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

__________________

Tamim Ansary, the son of a Pashtun Afghan father and Finnish-American mother, grew up near Kabul until the early 1960s, when he left to attend an American high school, eventually going on to Reed College in Oregon. In addition to the memoirs mentioned in this post, his books include Destiny Disrupted, A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes and The Widow’s Husband, an historical novel.

What about you?

Have you written a memoir, or have one in progress?  If so, what are some of the special challenges you’ve faced at the intersection of memory and story?  Do Ansary’s words resonate with you?  Feel free to comment here, and I’ll watch for any questions.

From spark to story: How books get started

Where do stories come from?

Are writers inspired from deep within the unconscious psyche by forces beyond their control? Or are they compelled by external cues that resonate without invitation – unexpected and accidental?

As an editor, I’ve seen the muse arrive in surprising and mysterious ways. The creative spark, a blessed event to be sure, can arrive at any moment in time.

Whether the source is mundane or magical, the author fans the spark into a fully realized story.

From spark to finished story

I asked two authors about their original impulses and how they developed into the books that were ultimately published.

Kristen Tracy published Lost It (Simon and Schuster) in 2008. It was her first novel for young adults and is about a young girl who loses her virginity under a canoe. Kristen has a PhD in English, a MFA in Writing, a MA in Literature and has taught writing and literature at Brigham Young University and Stanford University. She also taught at Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles, publishing many more books for teens at S&S and tweens at Delacorte and Hyperion (Disney).

Neville Frankel recently published Bloodlines, a novel about the consequences of a love affair between a white married woman and a black member of the African National Congress during Nelson Mandela’s epic struggle against apartheid in the 1960s. Neville is a financial planner and wealth manager who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and immigrated to Boston when he was 14.

What was the original spark, the inspiration for writing your book?

Kristen: When I started writing Lost It, the concept of the novel came first. I knew that I wanted to write a funny novel about a girl who loses her virginity. Did I know this event would happen underneath a canoe? No. I didn’t. This revelation came to me while working on the first chapter.

When I began writing the novel, the quirky voice came first. She essentially delivered a monologue that recapped the big event and the canoe was front and center. Once I had the voice, I was able to draft a first chapter, which became the framework for the rest of the novel.

Neville: In 2005, I read a book by Glenn Frankel, no relation to me, called Rivonia’s Children, a true-story of three white, middle-class South African families who struggled and suffered greatly in the fight against apartheid in the mid 1960s. This was my first discovery that there were white middle class families who had put themselves at risk by helping in the anti-apartheid movement.

Having left the country with my family in 1962 when I was fourteen, I had unresolved issues about my own history so writing the book became a way of taking back my past. I began to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d come from a family that had been involved in that kind of activity. And the book came out of that question.

How did you develop the spark into the story?

Kristen: At the time I was writing Lost It, my fiction mentor mentioned to me that first novels are often the most autobiographical. This surprised me, because I believed that all of the events and characters from my novel came from my imagination, not my own high school experience.

Now that a few years have passed since Lost It’s publication, I can see where my own autobiography played its part. The setting is entirely stolen from my upbringing, as well as the main character’s interest in wildlife (particularly bear) safety. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up near Yellowstone Park.

Neville: Well, having read Rivonia’s Children, I went back to South Africa for my first visit in almost 40 years and felt such a sense of optimism in the country – black and white people in stores, behind the counters and shopping together, all smiles and delighted to be a part of the new South Africa. That experience added to the compulsion to write the book by filling me with a sense of unbearable loss at the life I might have participated in.

So I started out by weaving my own family history into the book, including a protagonist who was a painter like me, and also felt he didn’t really belong anywhere, as did I. I used autobiographical elements of my identity, sense of loss, and the way individuals get caught up in big events that can determine the outcome of their lives.

But at the end of the day, I found that I had two completely different stories, that were way too complex to interweave and had to drop about 150 pages of that material, which I’m now writing as a second book.

______________

More examples from famous authors

Ron Rash’s spark: A mysterious visual image

Ron Rash, the best-selling poet, short story writer and novelist, had a vision of “a young woman pulling back some rhododendron leaves and seeing a bedraggled young man playing a beautiful silver flute.”

This vision eventually grew into his literary wartime mystery and romance, The Cove. Rash, a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University wrote that ultimately he’s interested in how landscape affects a character’s psychology. “I would say, for me – in The Cove particularly – landscape is destiny.”

Margaret Mitchell’s spark: An idea for a great ending

Margaret Mitchell was recuperating from an auto accident in 1926 when she thought of the final moments of a story in which the heroine’s lover has just left forever saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” about where she goes or what she does, and the young woman thinks to herself, “I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

Then Mitchell went back to create a step-by-step story about the civil war and how it brought Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler to that climactic scene in her epic story Gone With the Wind.

Herman Melville’s spark: An obsession with an irresistible true story

During 1841-1842, 24-year-old Herman Melville was serving as a seaman on a whaler when he met the son of Owen Chase, the first mate and one of eight survivors in the 1820 sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex after it was rammed by a large sperm whale. Chase’s son lent Melville a copy of his father’s out-of-print memoir called The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

Melville spent the next ten years writing and researching his story, incorporating much of what he himself knew as a member of a whaler’s crew until it was published as Moby Dick in 1851.

Christopher Isherwood’s spark: An unforgettable woman

In 1931, a 27-year-old writer named Christopher Isherwood heard a singer perform at an underground club in Berlin. He didn’t think much of her voice but was very much taken with “her startling appearance, and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her. Her fingernails were painted emerald green, a color unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark, her face was long and thin, powdered dead white.” Her name was Jean Ross.

Two years later, Isherwood wrote a short story based on the singer called Sally Bowles, the first of an incredible succession of stories, novels, plays, Broadway musicals and Hollywood films about a fictionalized Jean Ross that led ultimately to the blockbuster Cabaret.

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What about you?

What kick-started your idea for a book? Tell us about your spark and what happened next.