Here I blog about writing, editing, reading, books, submissions, freelancing, getting published (and rejected), journalism, revisions, life after the MFA, teaching writing, and living the writer's life. Welcome. BUT -- if you are a writer: Write first, read blogs second.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Beware of what you wish for. (And what you don't.) -- My Teaching Writing Update.

For the past seven years, I've tried to keep this blog filled with tips, advice, and resources that will help writers. For the past few months I've relied heavily on some generous guest post contributors and interview subjects (as well as link round-ups) to do the job. My own contributions dwindled because I was extra-busy. Thanks, readers, for supporting the guest bloggers, and sticking around! At first my busy-ness was all about writing, teaching, and editing in fairly equal portions. But lately, that shifted. I hope you'll indulge me a bit while I explain. Then, the plan is to get back to a more regular posting schedule in September. - Lisa

During my MFA program, I frequently thought (and sometimes said), oh, I'll never teach.

Toward the end of those two years, a mentor who knew me well predicted, I think you are going to teach. It's clear you want to help other writers.

"Nah," I said. 

Three months later, a local library hired me to teach an adult memoir class and another in freelancing. Within six months, I was teaching creative nonfiction online via small private classes I'd developed. Within 15 months, I was teaching in the continuing education writing program at Rutgers University, and two years after that, I was asked to teach memoir and personal essay writing for a lovely, multiple-location regional organization, The Writers Circle.

In between, I created the *I Should Be Writing!* Boot Camp for writers in any genre (it's now on-demand solo course). Along the way, I developed a monthly coaching option, which brings so many wonderful writers my way.

Now, I'm setting out on new teaching adventures. And, I've been thinking of Barbara Hurd, who like all terrific mentors, sometimes say what their students don't necessarily want to hear. I've also come to understand the power of the MFA community one develops, too.

When Suzanne Strempek Shea, a faculty member from the Stonecoast MFA program I completed, called me about 20 months ago to gauge my interest in joining the faculty of a new all-online, all-nonfiction MFA program in the planning stages for Bay Path College (now Bay Path University), I didn't hesitate. It sounded perfect. 

I said yes, then tried to put it in the back of my mind, tried to temper my excitement. After all, it was nearly two years away, and needed all kinds of approvals and certifications before it could (would?) launch.  

A few days ago—after a summer of syllabus revision, training in the online course management system, and wonderful conference calls with the director and other faculty—I welcomed some 20 students into the two classes I'm teaching in that vibrant new MFA program.

Once the students began checking in, I realized that I was right where I wanted to be.

But there's more to the teaching story.

In April of this year, the Rutgers program was shut down; sad, but I'd had a good run there.

I live about one mile from Montclair State University. I've used the library there, attended literary events there. I've signed my kids up for programs there, our family has seen plays and concerts and sporting events on campus. And two years ago, I applied for a teaching job there. I didn't get it.

What I did get – about a month ago – was a call from the writing program director: Was I interested in teaching one section of an undergraduate elective creative nonfiction writing class? 

My plate seemed full already. But then, isn't it always? 

I was a kid who always loved school, longed for the smell of fresh pencils and the feel of new notebook pages. As an undergraduate college student, I jammed my schedule with as many different kinds of writing and literature classes as I could. I remember the feeling of being in those classrooms. I love September and the idea of a new semester. (And I'll be they one day unwittingly contribute to my Stuff My Writing Students Say series!)

So next week, I'll be in that classroom at MSU. I'll be online with my Bay Path students every day. I'll be writing. I'll be sending out the memoir. I'll be editing, and prepping for the fall session at The Writers Circle, and helping to get out the fall issue of Compose Journal.

It's a lot.

It's a little bit of everything I ever and never wished for, and clearly need.

Wish me luck.

Images: Flickr/Creative Commons - Old time teachers desk, Todd Petrie; Scrabble tiles, Denise Krebs; Notebooks, Kristen Nador

Friday, August 1, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-out: Links for Writers, August 1, 2014 Edition

Image by Eric Crowley vie Flickr/Creative Commons
> At Writer Unboxed, Karen Gillespie, on what did and didn't happen when her essay got into the opinion pages at the New York Times.

> How could I not be impressed with a 14-year-old one-day novelist who writes a clever and helpful blog about writing titled Every Stinkin' Page?

> These 11 tips for writing a scene, from John August, originally intended for screenwriters, are helpful for all writers.

> LitReactor's primer on punctuation when writing dialogue, is a handy and comprehensive reference.

> Chuck Wendig with 25 pointers on word choice (warning: his own word choices are often--what's the right word? how about, naughty?)

> Sometimes, you get a rejection and feel sure no one even read your submission. Recently, one literary journal admitted as much (sorry, no time to read, but here's your rejection anyway!). Naturally, there was unhappy chatter there was a dust-up, a (sort of) defense, an analysis of the fallout

> Student brag box: Patrice Gopo has a lovely piece of segmented nonfiction prose in Rock and Sling. I hope you enjoy reading Marking the Color Trail (weddings, race, red dresses, crossing cultures, young love, Africa, India, and more!)

> Finally, wouldn't these make great (ahem) book titles?

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Author Interview: Sue William Silverman, on her new memoir, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew

First, I read and admired Sue William Silverman's work. Then I listened to, and learned from her at an AWP panel. Read some more of her nonfiction. Met her briefly at another conference. Read more. Next, I interviewed Sue here on the blog about her craft book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, which I've recommended to many students. That interview remains one of the most heavily trafficked posts here. I'm delighted in so many ways to have Sue back, this time talking about her new book from the University of Nebraska Press.

Please welcome Sue William Silverman.

LR. So – The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. I'm guessing you've gotten a number of raised eyebrow questions about that subtitle. To me, the first two essays perfectly explain it. Subtitles do seem especially important in memoir. How did you come to this subtitle?  Was it long before publication? During editing? A collaboration with the publisher? 

SWS. Oh, that subtitle! The main reaction I get is a laugh, which I love. The book, in part, is supposed to be funny – or, well, ironic. I wanted a subtitle that would convey the tone of the book, not just the subject matter.

I came up with the subtitle long before I sent the book to the publisher. Initially, there was another one (I can’t remember what), but it didn’t quite fit. So my partner Marc and I brainstormed subtitles one day, and this one immediately rose to the top of the list.

LR. Since this is a memoir-in-essays (my favorite kind of nonfiction), I will ask the question I ask every writer who has assembled such a book. Since some of the essays were published in journals over a multi-year span, at what point did you realize you had a book percolating?  That the threads between different essays were strong enough to collect them?

SWS. Initially, I had no idea I was writing a book. I had already published two memoirs, a book on craft, and a poetry collection, so I wanted to write something I’d never tried before: stand-alone essays. I was about two years into this essay-writing business when it hit me that, in one form or another, all the essays were about how, growing up, I wanted to belong to the dominant culture/religion and that, in conjunction with this, my feelings toward Judaism were confused and ambiguous.

Once I realized this, I took the already published essays and reframed them (some more than others) to more closely align them with this theme of self-definition and identity.

I also wrote new sections to fill out and deepen this exploration. Most of these new essay/chapters wouldn’t have worked as stand-alone pieces as they more fully “speak” only to the other essays.

LR. I'm interested in the process of transforming the individual essays into a coherent, logical progression. Can you describe your process of selecting, revising, ordering, and writing additional transition pieces to make it work as a book? 

SWS. Let me give some examples.

The first essay I wrote is also title essay, “The Pat Boone Fan Club,” and sets the tone/theme of the book in that, growing up, I wanted the clean-cut, wholesome, overtly Christian 1960s pop star, Pat Boone, to adopt me, as if he could save me from my abusive Jewish father.

The next essay I wrote, originally titled “The Land of Look Behind,” focuses on my obsession with a homeless tramp who wandered around St. Thomas (where I spent most of my childhood). In the original, stand-alone version, the essay explored the idea of hypocrisy: the wealthy white parents on the island warned us kids, their children, that the tramp might be dangerous. However, ironically, and generally speaking, these white parents were the dangerous adults. In fact, the tramp wasn’t dangerous at all. Among the white parents, many were alcoholics. Others physically and emotionally abused their children. To say nothing of my own dangerous and hypocritical father.

This idea of hypocrisy remains, yet I re-slanted many details – for the book – to highlight the tramp’s role as a potential “savior.” I followed him around as if he, like Pat Boone, could save me – could lead me away from my father – as if he were a spiritual being and I was one of his followers. I also changed the title to “The Wandering Jew” to emphasize that aspect of culture.

As I continued on with the book, I shifted the lens a bit, with each essay, to approach this theme of identity from different angles. For example, there’s a section, “That Summer of War and Apricots,” about a trip to Israel to pick apricots on a kibbutz – but I still don’t discover my Jewish roots. There’s a section called “Galveston Island Breakdown: Some Directions” about an existential crisis I have when my marriage, myself, and my Volkswagen all break down. In “My Sorted Past,” I explore the idea of identity when I visit the movie set of the filming of my second memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction, and so on.

The final pieces I wrote for the book are what I call “bridge sections” in which I address the reader directly. These, sprinkled throughout the book, act as a kind of “meta” element to help guide the reader on this journey.

LR. Do you enjoy that part of the process, or is it a special kind of torture? One memoirist told me going from individual essays to a memoir-in-essays meant she had to "break the back of each piece," and that it felt like breaking her own back at the same time.
SWSActually, I loved this part of the process! I love to revise in any event, but, in terms of this book, it deepened my own understanding of how various encounters with people, or moments in time, were, in fact, a search for self. As I revised each essay – and/or wrote new ones – it was kind of like solving mysteries. For example: How did this tramp in the West Indies represent a savior? What were my true feelings toward him? Metaphorically, how was he just like Pat Boone in terms of my search? I write memoir/essays to make sense of my life, to discover the metaphors of it.

Ironically, therefore, my experience was probably the exact opposite from your friend’s in that, for me, this revision process helped form my backbone, rather than breaking my back.

LR. A few of the bridge pieces are in the form of letters to "Gentle Reader" signed SWS, and referring to the narrator as a "little Gefilte (fish)."  What was the genesis for those?

SWS. After I’d finished the “regular” essays, I felt I needed an additional unifying element to better hold the book together. In these sections the narrator takes on the “persona” of a gefilte fish – yes, very surreal, I know! But the gefilte fish acts as a metaphor for this narrator in her quest for identity: Who am I? Can I be a Christian? Can I accept Judaism? How can I find a “me” who feels comfortable in her skin?

Why a gefilte fish? Because it isn’t a “real” fish! There is no fish swimming in the ocean called “gefilte.” It’s kind of a mish-mash without a true identity. Which is how I myself felt growing up – a kind of mish-mash of identities – so it seemed like the perfect metaphoric image.

LR. In some places, you use subheads and/or segmented form. Elsewhere, the reader encounters multiple choice questions; excerpts from emails, signs, and website text; script formatting; and some varied type fonts. I've read that some writers and publishers -- cognizant (consciously or not) of how readers' visual expectations have changed because of the internet and shorter attention spans -- are building more visual elements, shorter "easy eyefuls" into book-length work (especially in YA fiction). To me, these things in your book seem to be purely creative, narrative-driven decisions, but I wondered if any of that crossed your mind?

SWS. Oh, interesting. It never occurred to me to write with that in mind: changes in readers’ expectations, shorter attention spans, etc. You’re right: all my decisions were narrative-driven. What did I need to best convey the material in this particular essay/chapter? How best to serve the needs of the piece? All decisions were based on that.

But that’s an interesting observation: that readers’ tastes have changed. And, for all I know, I might have been subconsciously influenced by that without realizing it!

LR. I often use something I'm reading in my teaching, and one of the micro ways in which I took this book into the classroom was to point out your excellent use of verbs – precise, interesting, unexpected, so carefully selected. Does that come naturally to you, or does attention to word choice mostly happen during revision? A little of both?

SWS. Thank you! I’m delighted you see this in my writing. Some of the word selection, as it does for all writers, comes naturally. However, most of this attention to word selection, metaphor, detail comes only with revision. Everything I write goes through a gazillion drafts – well, okay, maybe fifteen or twenty…I lose track. But a lot.

The first draft is usually getting the basic narrative in place. Then, with each subsequent draft, I move from this broad focus to smaller details. I’ll revise to ensure every image speaks to the theme. I try to find the most accurate words. I examine each sentence to ensure it builds on the previous one.

I can only accomplish so much in any given draft, so it’s a long process. But the longer I stay with a piece, the more I’ll discover the exact word or verb to convey the meaning at hand.

LR.  I understand Pat Boone has been supportive of the book; that you even attended his 80th birthday party. Can you tell me what it has been like – after admiring him from afar for so long, and spending so much time dissecting your unusual pull to him, and writing about it – to be in real contact with him, off the page?

SWS. Yes, Pat Boone likes the book! It’s both flattering and surreal to have developed a bit of a relationship with him. I first had a crush on him when I was a teeny-bopper! And now, all these years later, he knows my name…and admires my writing! I mean, that’s kind of wild.

Here’s what’s most gratifying: he’s really a nice person. My early childhood instincts were correct. The memoir revolves around three separate times I met Pat Boone. In one instance, when he invited me backstage after a Christmas concert, he pointed to an embroidered flower on the jacket I was wearing and said, “You remind me of a flower growing up through concrete.” By this time, he’d read my first two memoirs (one about my incestuous family, the other about a subsequent struggle with sex addiction), so he was referring to how I survived. In this sense, therefore, he did see me more clearly than my own father.

Then, when I told him I planned to attend his 80th Birthday Party Celebrity Roast at the Beverly Hilton (back on June 1st), he was genuinely delighted. He asked me to bring additional copies of my book for him to give to his family and friends. And, he invited me to attend the VIP reception before the dinner. When he saw me he gave me a big hug!

There were hundreds of people at the party, yet he took time to talk about the book with me. The very last line of the book is metaphoric and we discussed the meaning of it! I mean, could I ever have imagined discussing metaphors with Pat Boone!? (That said, he graduated magna cum laude in English from Columbia University.)

So while it’s true that, politically, we don’t have a thing in common, and I am distressed by the fact that he’s a member of the conservative Tea Party (I’m a liberal Democrat), still, I’ve been able to look past these differences and find this gentle, caring side of Pat Boone.

LR. Given that you are busy teaching writing at the graduate level, is it difficult to make progress on your own writing? What are you working on now (if you don't mind sharing)?

SWSProbably no writer feels as if she/he has enough time to write! But since I teach at a low-residency MFA in Writing program (Vermont College of Fine Arts), as opposed to teaching at a traditional college with daily classes, I probably have more time than others. So I can’t (or shouldn’t) complain.

Besides, I love to teach and am quite satisfied with this balance between teaching and writing.

I’m currently working on another memoir/essay collection. I’ve got a very rough draft. It’s still finding its form and focus, but I’m getting closer to figuring it out.

Also, I’m quite excited that I wrote a poem last week! It’s the first one I’ve written since my poetry collection was published back in 2006. I was worried I’d never write another one. The title is “If the Girl Never Learns to Cook or Sew” (yes, autobiographical). So maybe another poetry collection is percolating. I hope so!

Note from Lisa: Sue will *stop by* the blog for several days after this post runs, to answer any questions left in comments. She will also send a complimentary signed copy of The Pat Boone Fan Club to a randomly selected commenter (must have a US postal address). To be in the drawing, post your comment by end of day Wednesday, August 5.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers - June 27, 2014 Edition

Image: Windell Oskay/Flickr, Creative Commons
> A reminder that The Review Review publishes...yes, reviews of  literary journals and magazines at their site. Here's the link to dozens of them

> I've often mentioned Marion Roach Smith's site for excellent guidance on memoir writing. She's gathered the Twenty Top Tips she's featured from memoir authors over the last year.

> Not in your future (or budget) to travel far for an organized writing retreat? Then plan and take off on a short, not-so-far-away, affordable one of your own, maybe with someone you love (or at least like), like Anna Leahy did recently.

> Sherrey Meyer has many good tips on revising and rewriting a memoir manuscript.

> Over at Sweatpants and Coffee, Jordan Rosenfeld has the inside scoop on Shebooks.

> Anyone can trim a piece of writing with small deletions. But Pamela Erens has learned to like the big cuts -- as in thousands of words. 

> I love the idea of longform nonfiction in digital form which readers pay a small price to read. But then there's this particular reality--a cautionary tale about one writer's experience as a digital bestseller.

> I'm not sure if any of his editors are still giving him work, but here's what one freelance writer earned last year from each venue for each article, online and print.

> Finally, what fun!  The Wall Street Journal's coverage of the  O.Henry Pun-off World Championship.

Have a great weekend!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Guest Blogger Alison Strack on Attending The Sirenland Writers Conference, in Positano, Italy

Though she's taken an (online) class or two of mine, and we live only a few miles apart, I haven't met Alison Strack "in real life". That's okay, even common lately. I still think of her as part of my local writing tribe. One reason we haven't met yet is she's an incredibly busy super-achiever in her field – Alison works as a neuroscientist and researcher in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Extensively published in scientific journals, Alison has now turned her attention to writing fiction, working on a novel and short stories. She also loves to travel, which is partly what brought her to the Sirenland Writers Conference in Italy this spring. When I heard she was going, I asked her to let us know about her experience.

Please welcome Alison Strack. 

It begins: my first workshop/writers conference. I had submitted a writing sample and a short essay about how I envisioned the experience would benefit me, and now I was sitting on the terrace of Le Sirenuse, a five star hotel on the Amalfi Coast of Italy, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. I was wondering how the week would go.

A friend had participated the year before and raved about the instructors, the other writers in the workshop, and the setting. I assumed I'd be a long shot to be accepted, but decided there was nothing to lose, so I applied. A few weeks later, I stared dumbfounded at the email saying I'd be welcome at Sirenland. I was going to Italy.

There were three components to the conference -- workshop, networking, and craft lectures. For the workshops, like everyone else, I had sent in 25 pages of work I hoped to improve. Among the participants would be those writing novels, memoir, and short story; and the three groups of ten participants were each assigned an instructor.

View from the hotel. (photo Alison Strack)
This year’s conference instructors were Andre Dubus III, Dani Shapiro, and Meg Wolitzer. Each has an international reputation as an author, and to me, the list was quite intimidating. However, all are also known in the writing community as excellent teachers, so I trusted that there was no way I could go wrong with any of them

Every morning, each workshop group met for more than two hours and went through the work of two of the participants. As we’d all received everyone else's work ahead of time, we were already immersed in the story and the writing by the time each piece came up for discussion.

Our group was diverse—both in the individuals and their backgrounds and in the kinds of material they'd written. Our workshop leader, Meg Wolitzer, would let everybody—except the author—talk freely, as long as the discussion kept bringing new points. I had submitted a short story that I thought was good, but which I knew needed to be better, and I had studied it for so long I no longer had any insights on how to improve it. The group feedback was on-point—less telling, more showing, add more scenes, use more dialogue (my bete noire).

We spent a great deal of time discussing adolescent language and how to craft it to help show the world my characters inhabited. If we got stalled, and when we started winding down, Meg jumped in with her insights. Moreover, if there was a “teaching point” that she could provide, generalizing to some point of craft, she would do so, often citing examples from other literature.  

From the week, I came back with a long reading list. Since my short story is told from a first person point of view, and one in which the protagonist didn’t have a complete understanding of what was going on around her, Meg suggested Carson McCullers’ short story "The Member of the Wedding," and Mary Robison’s novel I Am Twenty One as examples of stories where the narrator understood—and could relay—more than the protagonist's point of view.

We talked about how often, unreliable narrators (especially adolescent characters) don't understand the meaning of everything that's going on in their world, and that the job of the narrator (as opposed to the character herself) is to make sure the events of the story (told through the eyes of the character) are described in a way that the reader gets it, even though the narrator doesn't understand.  She also suggested Sam Lipsyte’s New Yorker story, “The Dungeon Master” which illustrates a framework of how dialogue could help showcase the uniqueness in worlds of adolescents.

Our workshop leaders met with each writer separately to talk about their impressions of our pieces and how we could improve them, and to help us sift through the myriad of sometimes contradictory comments that we had received during the workshop discussion. Meg helped me weigh the merits of different strategies suggested and how they fit with my vision of what I wanted to accomplish on the page.

A second important element of the conference was the opportunity for networking. We had the chance to meet and mingle with not only the individuals in our own workshops, but also those in the other workshops, sharing coffee breaks during the morning workshops and drinks in the bar in the evenings. A terrace overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea is not a bad place to meet and make new friends!

The teachers, as well as the invited guest artists, Andre Aciman and Scott Cheshire, were also often out and about too, and enjoying the same verve, so it was easy to have "after-hours" conversations. Each of the instructors also provided a formal reading of their recently published or in-progress works. Not only did the teachers and artists present for the students, but one evening—at the home of the Sersales, the hotel owners, who hosted dinner for all the participants and their significant others—each of the students gave a three minute reading of their work as well. 

The third element of the conference was craft classes, most often given by writer Hannah Tinti, one of the conference organizers. She regaled us with writing exercises, methodologies for rewriting, description, story arc, and more. Good reminders for those who came with significant academic experience in writing and solid fundamentals, and an excellent base for those who had made their way to fiction writing in more indirect ways. Much of the conference worked on this principle, whether intended or not: every element afforded something for the novice conference-goer and also something for the veteran of many conferences and published books.
Beauty at the market in Positano (photo Alison Strack)
Lastly, I have to mention that traveling to the Amalfi Coast of Italy after a long, dreary winter in New Jersey was anything but a hardship. The conference organizers were wise enough to give us blocks of time during the day to explore the hilly, wind-y streets, shops and restaurants of Positano. Le Sirenuse, the magnificent five star hotel, is opened up only to this conference every year in early spring, thanks to the owners and gracious hosts, Carla and Antonio Sersale, because of their strong interests in the arts.

Saturday breakfast, the morning we all prepared to check out and leave, was sad and invigorating. We were sorry to be leaving, yet inspired to go home to rewrite and to write, and to continue the relationships we’d developed there. We hugged and wished our new writing buddies well, hoping and maybe even knowing that these names will be ones to watch for, as their books and stories make their way into the world.

With hard work and luck, maybe mine will one day be among them.

Note from Lisa: The 2015 Sirenland workshop is scheduled for March 22-28. Learn more here.

More first-person accounts of experiences at writing conferences elsewhere on the blog:  Stonybrook/Southhampton Arts, AWP 2013 (#1), AWP 2013 (#2), Writers Police Academy, AWP 2009 (#1), AWP 2009 (#2), Nonfiction Now 2007 .

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- June 20, 2014 Edition

Image: Windell Oskay/Flickr, Creative Commons
> At Writer Unboxed, Juliet Marillier explains what goes on in her (judge's) mind when she's reading through entries in a short fiction contest.

> If you've read my blog for a while, you've come across the name Richard Hoffman -- poet, fiction writer, memoir and essay writer. His second memoir, Love & Fury, is just out, and on the Mass(achusetts) Poetry blog, he talks about how he compartmentalizes his work across three genres.

> Is it ever a good idea to respond to an editor who sent you a clear and final rejection? No. No. And, no no no.

> Love reading about (and looking at) the spaces writers work in? Check out the series at Allyson Latta's blog, beginning with the most recent account and pics from Catherine Gildiner.

>  I knew only a few of these 13 Google search tricks that can make research easier for writers.

>  Recently a student, who had already established that he was a visual learner, needed more guidance on structuring personal essays, and I remembered this terrific article -- and its illustrations: Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide, by Tim Bascom, in Creative Nonfiction magazine last summer.

> When a writing coaching client says she is too busy to write on a given day, I encourage setting a timer for 15 minutes, then doing whatever can be done in that time -- write three new sentences, revise a short paragraph, make notes for tomorrow's scene, re-read yesterdays page(s), play with chapter titles -- similar to this tip on procrastination, from Psychology Today.

> If you find that one of your articles, blog posts, or other work has been posted online without your permission, you may need some of the tools and resources listed in this ASJA post.

> Finally, two not-so-new, but definitely worth reading posts. First, wouldn't it be fabulous if David Sedaris touted your book during his massively popular reading/appearance tour?  Yes -- and in a way, no.  And then there's Roxane Gay with 25 things to do and not do, to be a (kickass) contemporary writer. I added the "kickass" because she is.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Three Good Books. Out of Three Hundred. No, Three Thousand. No...

Last year, when my husband helped me re-do my home office (after 23 years), we lined two-and-a-half walls with floor-to-ceiling, walk-to-wall, black wood bookshelves. I think they look great against the new red walls, and it's a huge change from my previous system for books, comprised of hand-me-down half-height bookcases, used beige office shelves, and repurposed odd pieces of furniture topped with baskets, milk crates, plastic stacking shelves, and clumsy piles (plus boxes stacked in a corner).

Would it surprise anyone to learn that it wasn't nearly enough room for my books, even after a careful reduction? That a second culling yielded four boxes of books, now in the garage awaiting pick-up by a terrific local service that matches no-longer-needed books with organizations that want and need them? That two more boxes are in the basement; I'm undecided about their fate. That at the end of every class I teach I haul a suitcase of books into the classroom -- duplicates of books I love, books left over from contests I've judged, books I didn't enjoy but are well written enough that others might -- and still, the shelves groan?

Honestly I don't expect the situation to get much better, and though I am slowly coming around to making use of my Nook, I don't mind a bit. When you are a writer, when you have a constant need to locate good material to teach from and learn from, when reading is like breathing, and when you work at home, being surrounded by shelves that spill over is a good problem. 

Which brings me to a month or so ago when Drew Myron, a lovely writer (who contributed a guest post here with tips on giving a reading), asked me to participate in the "3 Good Books" series at her website, Push Pull Books. She assigns each invited writer a specific topic based on what she knows about the writer's work. I was happy she asked me to talk about books that feature personal essays, and even more pleased that I could pick not-so-new books (the idea is to suggest what may be missing from other writers' shelves). I decided to narrow it a bit further to essay collections by women writers which have influenced me and my writing (I hope).

To do the "research" for this assignment, I didn't have far to go. I simply stood up from my seat at my still-new writing table (in the office re-do, I tossed the desk and the entire idea of a desk), and traveled a few feet to spend some quality time with my bookshelves. The section that houses essay collections is a single unit unto itself, about two feet wide and seven shelves high. It was a good trip.

My "3 Good Books" guest post is now up, and I hope you will jump over to Drew's blog to read it.  And I also hope you have shelves that spill their riches all over your home and/or office too!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Guest Blogger Kim Ablon Whitney on Writing Niche Novels, Writing What You Know

The first thing I wrote that evoked a positive reader reaction was about a trip to the Sunday morning pony rides that turned terrifying, when my favorite plodding mount spooked and ran off. That was in first grade, and I was immediately hooked on writing about horses. Since then, I've been a columnist, reporter, and editor for equestrian magazines, and dozens of essays about what horses have meant to me have run in journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Along the way, I've made many friends who also write about horses. Kim Ablon Whitney is one of them. Her novels have earned praise from the American Library Association, Bank Street College of Education, and Booklist Magazine. Kim, a Massachusetts resident, holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. She has been a top competitive rider, and is now a horse show judge. Her latest book, Blue Ribbons, is available for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Kobo.

Please welcome Kim Ablon Whitney. 

I remember a specific conversation with my editor after my second book, The Perfect Distance (a novel set in the world of horse shows), was published. We were discussing what I might write for my third book.  My first book had been about a girl growing up in a family of con artists and I wanted to return to writing about a world I didn’t know.  “I don’t want to write another horse book right away,” I told her.  “I want to stretch. I mean I don’t want to just be the horse book writer.”

My third book, The Other Half of Life, was historical fiction set on a refugee ship during World War II—as far from horses and blue ribbons as you can imagine.  When I started to think about my fourth book project, I decided on my own to look at the sales figures for my first three books. 

The best selling book of the three, by far?  The horse book.  The horse book was also the book for which I received the most online customer reviews, and the one that generated the most emails from readers.  They often asked me whether I was writing another horse book.

I began to ask myself the same question. Why not write another horse book?

I know horses and the horse world inside out.  I love horses and riding.  I have ridden since I was six, shown on the A Circuit, and have been judging horse shows for over twenty years.  Why not use my insider knowledge to create books that my past readers, and likely many more readers lurking out there in the horse world, were eager to read?

While I didn’t love the idea of being pigeonholed, I did begin to realize if I wanted to establish a growing and dedicated readership, it might not be bad to be “the horse book writer.”  Along the way, while writing and publishing my newest book, Blue Ribbons, I learned some valuable lessons about the business of being an author.

 A Niche Can Be Nice

Unless you’re lucky enough to write standout literary fiction (think Ann Patchett), writing for a niche readership can be instrumental to your success.  A niche will help you interest agents and editors, and in a finicky publishing market, it’s easier to sell a book that's clearly quantifiable and describable—what industry lingo calls a “market distinction.”  Agents and editors like projects with a unique appeal and a ready-made audience.

If your niche audience is big enough (vampires, corporate thrillers, etc.), a big publisher may even be interested in it, while a smaller niche may be better suited to an independent press or self-publishing as an e-book (as I did via Amazon Kindle, Barnes & Noble Nook, Apple’s iBooks and Kobo).  People are passionate about their interests, and often spend considerable money on the activities they love.  The more narrow the interest, often the more passionate and the more excited they are to find a book that targets their interests.  Publishers have passed on books they claim are “too niche,” only to have that book sell tens of thousands of copies as an e-book.

Nail Your Own Niche

Writing books about the world of horses, young riders, training and equestrian competition, was an obvious niche for me, given my background and work as a United States Equestrian Federation judge at major events.  Perhaps you have an obvious niche yourself.  Did you grow up playing, or have you shepherded a child through, a sport?  Do you know piano playing or spelling bees or gardening?  What kind of work do you do?  Do you know computers inside out, a segment of the medical world, or the retail world?  These are all possible settings for fiction, memoir, or general nonfiction.

Or, perhaps there’s something you’ve always wanted to learn more about.  Decide to make it your niche, and finally take those cooking classes, train for that marathon, travel to India.  Use what you learn and write about it.

Either way, you don’t need to be the foremost expert on a topic.  Yes, you need to know enough to describe the world and get the logistics and lingo right. But you can fill in details and double check facts with experts true experts, who are also  usually willing to be beta readers and help you get it right.

A Niche is a Nice Place to Land

I've learned how very gratifying it feels to write a book that people are interested in.  I love seeing the reviews, emails, and Facebook posts about my horse books in which people relate to the story, tell me how great it was to read a book that brought their world to life, and want me to know they are eagerly anticipating my next horse book.  I am so flattered and nearly giddy with the positive feedback!

Marketing your niche book is also more straightforward than marketing a general fiction book.  You probably already know all the blogs, websites, Facebook groups, and magazines devoted to your niche.  If not, they’ll be easy enough to find.  You won’t be competing for visibility with hundreds of other books, either.  Instead you’ll find there are probably only a handful of books in your chosen niche.

Some niches offer endless opportunities and you’ll never run out of ideas and books waiting to be written.  Others might run dry sooner.  But once you’ve built an audience, your readers might be willing to follow you if your next book falls outside that category.  Think of it like a spin-off from a successful sitcom.

For now, I’m sticking to horse books.  And I’m having a lot of fun writing about something I love and something that readers are passionate about.  I’m hoping to publish my next horse book, Summer Circuit, in the fall and a sequel to Blue Ribbons after that.  Maybe I’ll go back to writing other books someday and hopefully the readers I’ve connected with through my horse books might follow me.  Or maybe I’ll just be “the horse book writer.”  That’s fine with me!

Note from Lisa:  Kim will stop by the blog over the next week to answer any questions left for her in comments.  All those who comment by midnight, Saturday, June 14   21 , will also be entered to win a free download of Blue Ribbons, plus a physical copy of one of her three previous books (must have a U.S. postal address).