My BookEnds column review of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale can be found on page 6, my article on rattlesnakes is on page 15.
My BookEnds column review of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale can be found on page 6, my article on rattlesnakes is on page 15.
- In one paragraph, can you give us some highlights from Finish Your Book in Three Drafts
It’s not just marketing, I swear! You can Finish Your Book in Three Drafts whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, whether you’re an outliner who meticulously scripts every writing session or a pantser who pilots solely by feel. Because you don’t want to be writing the same book for the rest of your life.
Three drafts. That’s all you need.
- The messy draft: which is all about getting it down.
- The method draft: which is all about making sense.
- The polished draft: which is all about making it good.
You can Finish Your Book in Three Drafts provided you approach each draft in the right spirit, and know what action steps to take between drafts. And that’s what I can’t wait to talk about at Mt. Diablo!
- Describe your most memorable moment as an author.
I’ve now completed over 80 tour dates throughout North America in the past four-plus years. But no matter how exciting life post-publication has been, it has never gotten better than those champion writing sessions where I was achieving the height of my flight. When someone says, “Your books are so original; I have learned more from you than anyone else” — I am happy, of course — but it is like I am hearing about a trip they’ve taken when I got left home.
Nothing will ever beat those rare nights when I knew I nailed it. When I had prepared for a writing session, and executed, while welcoming the unexpected. And then went to go smoke a cigar in the heart of Providence. I might have been thinking about the people who inspired me, but sitting there it was just me, myself, and I.
So my point is that we need to take writing and separate it from publishing. What writing has done for me exists outside of what has been published, and far exceeds it in value.
- What authors have most influenced your writing?
This is a hard question to answer. I mean, it probably numbers in the hundreds, right? I will just say when I saw a bibliography and my name appeared between Hesse, Hermann and Kafka, Franz, I thought. I am ready to die now in peace. Except for the kids I still have to raise and not wanting to leave a widow, that kind of thing.
- What are the biggest mistakes you see in author’s manuscripts?
This is a big question! I’d say the following five are the biggest structural mistakes I see — as I spend a lot of my time thinking about structure:
- What you’re writing isn’t what you think you’re writing.
Not that it’s that far off, necessarily. Let’s say you’ve set sail—to use an extended marine metaphor—heading for an island. Everyone needs some “sea room,” and now you’ve landed on some neighboring coast. Writing is a largely unconscious activity. At some point, we need to become conscious enough to see how we might get the reader and ourselves safely home. Some writers don’t want to be made conscious at any point during their process. In my experience, more often than not, they drift.
- You have not generated enough material to begin revising.
One of my clients was delighted with her first assignment, which was to generate fifty pages of crap. Her next assignment was to generate another fifty, making a hundred pages of crap. There is no substitute for not having generated enough material before you begin revising.
- You want to put too much stuff in.
A chef whose cookbook I worked on called it the “kitchen-sink” syndrome: a beginner makes a marinara sauce by using every vegetable in the refrigerator, and every spice on the rack. They use seventeen ingredients when there really should just be tomatoes, garlic, and like four other things. You want to be able to taste the parmesan shavings.
Writers think, How am I supposed to fill up a whole book’s worth of pages unless I include everything I can think of? Unity, the sense that your book is only about one thing—that the reader can trust you know how to drive this thing—cannot be achieved by trying to make things comprehensive.
- You let too many people read it before it was ready.
Why is this a structural problem? Because when you involve beta readers (people who read your draft when you know it isn’t done), you are far more open to feedback than you will be at a later stage. You may lose time and focus by pursuing a direction that someone else recommended rather than discovering the path which you really want to travel.
- Your narrator is too much like you.
In fact, basically, it is you. This is not as much a problem in certain non-fiction genres (like a blog), when it is considered great to sound as much like yourself as possible. Sounding like yourself while opening out to universal experience, is called “finding your voice.”
In fiction, however, you need maximum flexibility to explore emotions and imagine events that will embody those emotions. If your narrator is bound by only who you think you are, as opposed to who you might become, your writing can go stale.
- Who is your idol?
My idol is my cat. He recently got in a fight with a fishercat — vicious animals that live in the Northeast that are like wolverines, and he had to have an eye removed.
While the procedure was going on, he was licking the doctor’s hand, giving him love because he knew the man was trying to help him.
Me? I come from a family where when we have a fever of 99 degrees we’re “in bed with a little something.” So I want to be more like my cat.
P.S. He has been getting along tremendously well without an eye and his hunting skills have not diminished in the least. Except every now and then he bangs into a chair and then makes off across the room like nothing happened.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Stuart Horwitz. To learn more visit his website: http://bookarchitecture.com where you can sign up for his newsletter.
I am happy to announce that my book review of Circling the Sun by Paula McClain is on page 7 and my article on rhino poaching appears on pages 19 and 20.
Bloggers Note: Eric Elfman will be speaking on the topic of How to Hook Them From The First Page at the April 11th meeting of the Mt. Diablo branch of the California Writers Club. The meeting will be at Zio Fraedo’s Restaurant at 611 Gregory Lane, Pleasant Hill. Cost is $20 members and $25 for guests. Sign-in is at 11:15 am–12 pm, luncheon at 12–12:45, and program at 1:00 –2:00 pm. Reservations required: Reservations are required, and must be received no later than noon on Wednesday, April 8. Contact Barbara Bentley at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (925) 212-4727.
1. Can you give us some highlights from your new book: Edison Alley?
Neal Shusterman and I are having a lot of fun writing this series of novels about Nick and his friends trying to retrieve the last inventions of Nikola Tesla, which our protagonist inadvertently sold at a garage sale in Tesla’s Attic (the first book of our series). Each of Tesla’s objects has a power that, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world. And, as it happens, the wrong hands are trying to get ahold of the inventions: the Accelerati, a secret society of sinister scientists founded a hundred years ago by Thomas Edison.
Our goal was to fill the books with laughter along with the fantasy and fast-paced action. One of my favorite moments in the second novel, Edison’s Alley, is the scene illustrated on the cover. A small team of Accelerati agents, led by Dr. Jorgenson, raids Nick’s house to steal the objects he has recovered so far. To stop them, Nick grabs something that looks like an ordinary household fan—but actually has the power to generate an ice storm. Nick points the fan at Dr. Jorgenson and shouts “Freeze!” But the scientist doesn’t listen to him because he doesn’t know that Nick means it literally!
2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having a writing partner?
As every writer knows, writing can be a solitary pursuit—many hours spent alone in a room with nothing but the blank page (or screen) and your thoughts. So the first advantage: it’s simply more fun to write with a partner! (Of course, it has to be the right partner!) Neal and I have a similar sense of story, and a similar sense of humor, too. We will toss ideas and lines back and forth, trying to make each other laugh, and sometimes at the end of the day it feels like we’ve just spent six hours goofing off, then we look down and twelve pages have been written.
Another advantage is being able to find out right away if something is funny or not. When I’m working on a project alone and I write something that I think is funny, well, it might only be me who thinks it’s funny! But if I say something that makes Neal laugh, I can extrapolate outward that if one other person laughed then it’s likely many other people will find it funny too!
Unlike some writing partners who exchange and edit each other’s chapters, Neal and I usually try to get in the same room together to write. And that’s another advantage: it keeps us working! If one of us doesn’t feel like writing that day, but the other has made the effort to get there, we feel a powerful obligation to write.
As far as potential disadvantages, one thing I’m often asked is what happens when we disagree. This can be a major downside in a writing partnership, and is the reason many dissolve. Neal and I sidestep this problem because each of us has total veto power over any idea or element the other comes up with, and so we never argue. If I come up with an idea that I love and Neal hates it, or vice versa, we don’t argue. We simply let that idea go, and say, “Let’s come up with something better.” And we always do!
3. What are the biggest mistakes you see in an author’s first pages?
Many new authors don’t appreciate the importance of the first page. As a writing coach, I have read manuscripts by good writers that begin with lengthy scenic description, or obscure backstory, or a random conversation that leads nowhere. Sometimes I get the feeling that these writers are, in effect, treading water before their story begins.
By the bottom of the first page the reader should have a sense of where the story is going, and the tension that comes from knowing that something is about to happen or be revealed. Many first pages simply provide information when the opening page needs to be compelling. There has to be a reason for the reader to turn the page. Put another way, the author has one page to grab the reader by creating a living, breathing, three-dimensional character we care about, with a hint of the story to come, and a narrative voice the reader connects to. That’s all!
4. Do you think a social media presence is necessary for authors?
While a social media presence seems, increasingly, to be a requirement for an established writer (and I have to admit that my own is woefully inadequate!), I don’t feel it’s as important for writers at or near the beginning of their careers.
While a “platform” of some kind can’t hurt a writer hoping to sell their first book to a publisher (and having tens of thousands of followers will certainly help!), the one thing a new writer needs more than anything is an incredibly good, page-turner of a manuscript. The advice I heard an agent at a conference give to a room full of first time writers still rings true: instead of spending time on Twitter or Facebook or your website, devote that time to polishing your manuscript.
5. Describe your most memorable moment as an author.
The thing I get the most joy from, on an on-going basis, is speaking at schools. When I appear in front of a group of youngsters—whether a small gathering or several classes in an auditorium—and I get to see their enthusiasm about reading and writing, and they get to see that writers are real people, it helps remind me why I am doing this. And kids are honest, too—they will ask you anything and really tell you what they think! I occasionally lead writing workshops for small groups of students at the schools I visit, and I feel privileged to see the passion and energy and talent they bring to their work.
But the single moment from my career that meant the most to me came shortly after my first book was published — The Very Scary Almanac, an offbeat almanac from Random House. I can still vividly remember the first time I walked into a bookstore and there it was, my book, on the shelf, where anyone could buy it. That’s a a feeling I will never forget.
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Eric Elfman. To learn more visit his website: http://ericelfmancoaching.com/index.html.
1. Can you give us some highlights from your book: Making a Scene?
I consider the scene the “essential DNA” of any good story—if you learn how to balance and wield the ingredients of a scene, you have the most fundamental pieces of story. My forthcoming book with Martha Alderson, Writing Deep Scenes” will go further and show you how to stack your scenes, and what kinds, to build a strong plot.
2. What do you think is the best technique to create tension?
The greatest technique may be uncertainty; creating a“push-pull” energy in every scene. That means nothing comes easy—dialogue is never flat or simple, the reader is always wondering what is coming next. You never “give” the reader exactly what s/he wants, but keep something up in the air, keep yearning alive. This also means paying attention to your language.
3. What authors have most influenced your writing?
I just wrote a piece about the “awkward female heroines” of my youth for DAME [http://bit.ly/1KSsPoD] and I’d have to say that I was strongly influenced as a child by writers like Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatly Snyder, Louisa May Alcott, and when I grew up I gravitated to Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Donna Tartt. I like strong female writers with a propensity toward darkness.
4. Describe your path to publication.
I often call it my “stumble and bumble” path to success. I have a BA in Liberal Arts and an MFA in Creative Writing—not exactly highly employable degrees. I’ve always just thrown myself in the path of what I loved. Did a lot of volunteer gigs that put me close to writers: led a literary salon, hosted and recorded a literary radio show (in which I got to interview some of my literary heroes like Louise Erdrich and TC Boyle). I tend to ignore advice that says “you should” or “you can’t” and go my own way. When I sold Make a Scene to Writer’s Digest Books, I had no platform, not much name for myself and no agent. If I listened to the advice I should not have been able to do that. My motto is “practice, polish, persist.” And also: “Say yes to new opportunities even if they scare you.”
5. What are the biggest mistakes you see in the manuscripts that you edit?
Lack of craft. People rush their stories out and don’t take the time to care about their sentences, their character development, grounding a reader in a scene, working on dialogue. To me, this is the one downside of the speed by which self-publishing moves—people have begun to sacrifice the work needed to revise and get feedback.
6. Do you think a social media presence is necessary to get a book deal?
In this day and age, it certainly helps. I don’t know if it’s necessary as much for fiction, but for non-fiction, yes.
7. If you were to describe yourself as a breed of cat what would it be?
Siamese. Because they are alternately graceful and annoying. They are the “snobs” of the cat world, but when you actually get to know them, they’re quite cuddly.
8. What is your greatest writing weakness?
Over-writing. I have to work on my own wordiness, over-use of adjectives, and imagery.
9. In this changing industry, do you think self-publication is a good career path for an author?
If by “career” you mean is self-publishing a good way to make money, the answer is: sometimes. But I can’t, in good faith say: quit your day job. Amazon, which is in many ways the overlord of self-publishing, no matter what service you use, since they do everything better, faster and cheaper, and ultimately control the price points, and the search algorithms, is making it harder for self-publishers to make as much money as they did when it all blew up several years ago. But like any aspect of publishing, if you find a niche and you’re good at it, sure, you can make some income off of it.
10. How do you handle rejection and what advice do you have for authors facing their 10th, 20th, 50th rejection?
The very basis of my forthcoming book A Writer’s Guide to Persistence is that you must find the joy and the meaning in your work so that you can weather the rejection and discouragement. It has to matter to you beyond approval, publication and praise or you will fall prey to discouragement. I also say that if you’re facing more rejection than anything else, it’s probably a good idea to revisit the work and go deeper into it. Otherwise, maybe look at the places you’re choosing to submit, and rethink them, as well. I’ve been pursuing a writing career for twenty years and most of my biggest success has come in the last year. There has been plenty of small success along the way, but this year, something shifted. So, above all: persist!
I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Jordan Rosenfeld. To learn more visit her website): http://jordanrosenfeld.net/publications/
1. In one paragraph, summarize the services of Smashwords.
Smashwords provides free ebook publishing and distribution services for self-published authors. When you click “Publish” at the Smashwords site, you’ll be asked to upload your original document as either an epub file or a Microsoft Word .doc file (we recommend a Word .doc file). Once your book is uploaded, it’s converted into every important ebook file type (e.g. mobi, epub, pdf, etc.) and then checked for any formatting errors. This process takes about 5 minutes, after which your book is available for immediate sale and sampling at Smashwords.com. If no formatting errors are detected, the book is ready for distribution through our global retail network–including Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, Oyster and more–as well as to libraries through our partnerships with OverDrive and Baker & Taylor. I should point out that Smashwords is free to join, free to publish, free to distribute, and the ebook conversion is also free. Authors can also make unlimited changes to their books at no charge. Smashwords only makes money if our authors’ books sell. We take a 10% commission, and the author earns 60-80% of their ebook’s list price as their royalty.
2. Besides writing a super awesome book, what is the most important thing a self-published author can do to promote their books?
Besides writing a super-awesome book, the most important thing an author can do to promote their books is to make their books as findable as possible. To make your books as findable as possible, distribute all of your books to all the places where readers go to find books. This means a reader should be able to find your books at any of the major online ebook retailers, subscription services and at libraries. On your website, blog or favorite social media platform, if you’re only providing a link to one retail store, you’re missing out on all the readers who prefer to shop elsewhere. So, don’t just link to one store where your book is for sale–link to all of them. Make your books as accessible and affordable as possible. Remember, within every ebook you have the opportunity to promote your other titles, link to your website, etc. Think of every book that you write and every hyperlink that you provide as paths that lead the reader back to you, the author, and to your other books.
3. What is the most important “lessons learned” that Smashwords has discovered since it started in 2008?
I’ll answer this from a Smashwords business perspective first, which I believe also applies to the business of being an author. The most important lesson learned is that everything is changing all the time. You can ill afford to rest on your laurels or stop innovating or stop learning. In the same vein, you also can’t afford to be paralyzed by fear, so don’t be afraid to experiment with your style or your marketing, and don’t be afraid to fail. From an author perspective, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that finding time to write must be your number one priority. This isn’t just my advice, but advice culled from dozens of bestselling authors I’ve either met or who I’ve had the pleasure to hear speak at conferences.
4. You trained to public speak through Toastmasters, what other advice would you give to writers faced with giving talks to promote their books?
Boy, this could be the topic of a completely separate interview. I’ll boil it down to three key pieces of advice. First, jump into the fire. Say yes to every opportunity that comes your way and proactively seek out more. I know it’s scary, but nothing alleviates fear more than experience. When I started public speaking, I transitioned from 5-7 minute Toastmaster speeches to presentations that were at least 45 minutes long. But two years later, I’ve spoken at 40 different events and presented about 60 hours worth of material. To gain experience, seek out opportunities to speak at CWC meetings, at work, at school, at Toastmasters, and even at writers’ conferences. Consider submitting a speaking proposal for a panel session at a writers’ conference with some of your fellow author friends sitting on the panel with you. That way, you’re exposed to a live audience but you have backup if needed.
Second, rehearse as early and as often as you can. Most of our nervousness derives from some internal lack of confidence. However, the more prepared you are the more confident you’ll be. While different speakers have developed different techniques to help prepare, what works for me is reading through my slides several times out loud, so I can get used to the sound of my voice. I’ll also project the slides onto a wall and pretend like I’m speaking to an audience. Audiences appreciate a prepared and knowledgeable speaker. Remember that your presentation isn’t about perfection. It’s about providing information to an audience that’s on your side and eager to hear what you have to say.
Third, show up early and chat with the attendees and the other presenters. When I first started publicly speaking, I convinced myself that everyone in the audience was smarter than me and that I would be exposed as a fraud. Talk about pressure! However, whenever I found the time to meet the other presenters or members of the audience, I learned that they were normal, very friendly people who weren’t out to get me. Another advantage you’ll have by chatting with others before you start, is that you’ll find you have friends in the audience when you begin. They will be the people who are smiling brightly at you as you cover your key points.
5. What is the most common formatting error that you see?
The most common formatting error continues to be a hodgepodge of different paragraph styles within the same document, prior to ebook conversion. If writing in Microsoft Word, the author might have Normal Style for one paragraph, Body Text in another paragraph, and possibly even multiple Heading styles. Often, in Microsoft Word, the author may not even realize they have multiple conflicting paragraph styles. Once converted into an ebook, this formatting error can cause the ebook to have inconsistent font sizes from one paragraph to the next. As you can imagine, this can make for an annoying read. Fortunately, the fix is easy. Simply by unifying the entire document under a single paragraph style (e.g. Normal) can take care of the issue. The author can still create custom sections to enhance the appearance of their book. For more detailed advice, be sure to download our free formatting guide, the Smashwords Style Guide, here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52
6. When not working at Smashwords, you are a drummer in a band called Rivals, if you were to describe yourself as a famous musician who would that be?
I don’t know that I can describe myself as Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, but I’ve admired his career for years. Dave reached celebrity status as the drummer for Nirvana, the gritty punk rock band widely credited for launching the so-called “grunge” movement of the 1990s while simultaneously destroying the “hair metal” scene of the 1980s. Nirvana’s raw, authentic sound was refreshing to music fans that had grown tired of a manufactured look and sound. After the demise of Nirvana, Dave founded the Foo Fighters, now recognized as one of the most successful bands in history. More recently, his passion for music led to his producing and directing of two critically acclaimed films, Sound City in 2013 and the HBO series Sonic Highways in 2014. My drumming style is similar to Dave’s, but what I admire about the man is how he’s stayed true to his passion throughout his life. I think there’s a lesson there, whether you’re a musician, an author or a bricklayer. If you love what you do, keep doing it no matter what.