Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Research for introverts: in praise of the email interview

There comes a time in the life of every novelist when she has to conduct research. There also comes a time when Google and Wikipedia and even the local public library don't provide exactly what you need. And then the novelist realizes that there is no workaround: she has to talk to an actual person. Specifically, she must ask a person questions about, say, aeronautical engineering--not only to fill in gaps in the subject matter, which are too vast to fill in the end, but to find out what it's like to be an aeronautical engineer. And yet she does not really want to ask a person, because she feels guilty about taking up someone's time, and also perhaps embarrassed about her total ignorance of what, for that person, is ordinary life. Where does one begin? Where does one end?

This is where I've found email to be remarkably helpful. Of course you may not get the kind of spontaneous expression you get by phone or in person. You may need visual or auditory information that email can't provide. But with email, you do often get considered, detailed answers to your questions, which you can refer back to later without having to take notes yourself. You also--and this is key--have the opportunity to ask further questions in a relatively unobtrusive way, and the interviewee has the same chance to send more info when he thinks of it later, which he often will. You have specific examples in the interviewee's own words of professional or personal language--with no chance you misheard or mis-transcribed it. And you--or I--feel less guilty because you've allowed the interviewee more control over when and where he answers your questions.

In short, for my fellow introverts, asking questions by email is way better than not asking them at all ... and can bring you truly surprising and useful results.

This has been another edition of Stuff Other People Have Known for a Long Time But Is Exciting News to Me.

For when the phone is just too much.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ten lessons learned after (nearly) one year of having a book out with a small press

1. There is both more love and more rejection out there for published authors than I ever imagined. I try to concentrate on the love--which can come from the most unexpected and delightful places.

2. Self-promotion and extroverting do not get easier. Ever. On the other hand ...

3. Once one has accepted the need to extrovert, author events are quite fun.

4. I just have to build in plenty of resting-up/restoration time before and after.

5. A book from a small press is not likely to become a big seller. Distribution is the main issue. However ...

6. The book is a "calling card" that proves you can finish a book and get a publisher to love it and invest in it, which is no small thing. It's also a chance to prove that you're willing to put yourself out there to promote your work.

7. The production quality of small-press books--and large-press books, astonishingly--varies widely. My publisher did an awesome job with the cover, paper quality, fonts, etc. This stuff is important, so look at other books the press has produced before signing on.

8. Taking two private acting lessons so I could give better readings was possibly the smartest thing I did, out of all the things I did for this book. Including writing it.

9. Networking with fellow authors is absolutely critical. It isn't as hard as it may seem. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of writers are kind, supportive, interesting people who genuinely want to help each other out (even if we also have to stifle a little envy sometimes). Try to be one of these kinds of writers, and you will meet them in abundance.

10. Publishing with a traditional press of any size is hard--and there are different kinds of difficulties at different levels. As various tennis coaches used to tell me, just before I was pulverized by much larger and more accomplished players than I, "just play your game." In other words, do what you can, the best you know how, and keep doing it.

Bigfoot and the Baby: Yes, it can be yours.

(See? You can always slip in a little self-promotion.)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What is "successful"? What is "willing"?

I've been seeing this quote bouncing around on Twitter over the past few days:

Successful people do what unsuccessful people are not willing to do. Don't wish it were easier, wish you were better. - Jim Rohn

All well and fine, I suppose. It seems true to me, to the extent that I've attained certain goals I've actually set for myself--as opposed to sort of stumbling into situations that feel comfortable for the time being, which has always been my default setting. This is especially true with writing and publishing novels. I've been surprised at what I've been willing to do in order to make this happen--lots of large and small actions that I wouldn't have been willing to take earlier in my life.

But. Does that mean I'm now more "successful"? That I'm "better"? I don't think so. Perhaps what I see as worthwhile struggles look to other people like untenable compromises. As the level of visible (superficial?) "success" rises, does one become more and more "willing" to abandon previously rock-solid principles? Plus, "success" for me might not mean "success" for you. Maybe you've succeeded by not doing some of the things I have done.

I get that the quote is loosely stated enough to encompass all these ambiguities. Whether you want a healthier family life or a best-selling novel or a corner office, these words can apply to you. Yet they irritate me. People who are "successful" are not necessarily "better," at least by the conventional definition of these terms. We can admire the fortitude of people who take on difficult tasks, but it's also worth noting what they give up--even what harm they may be doing on their way to "success."

I do not mean to dissuade anyone from pushing toward their goals. I still think that trying is better than not trying and that regrets are worse than mistakes. But it's cheesy and harmful to imply that people who aren't "willing" to do certain things are "worse." It would be interesting, instead, to find out why they aren't willing.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tuesday, February 17, 7 p.m.: Time to Get Shattered!

Shake off those post-President's-Day blues at InsideStoryTime!

I'll be reading with Chun Yu, Hollie Hardy, Sean Taylor, and Cliff Winnig at La Movida Wine Bar in San Francisco this coming Tuesday at 7 p.m.

Our theme is The Shattering. Which you don't want to miss.

Please join us!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Steal this plot: the case for the ready-made story line

I think of myself as a literary fiction writer. What does that mean? I'm becoming less and less sure over time, but it suggests my work is not so much interested in plot as in other elements--character, ideas, emotional dilemmas, history. On the other hand, I tend to gravitate toward stories in which a certain amount of external stuff happens. While I deeply admire, and in some cases love, novels like Marilynne Robinson's that create a kind of majestic stillness, a deeply rich experience of contemplation, I find I can't write them myself, and have little patience for less successful efforts in this vein.

As a reader, this simply represents a personal preference. My own life is pretty static and contemplative; when I read, I want to be taken out of myself, ergo I want a bit more action. And as a writer, even a literary one, I've found plot can be a great friend rather than a nemesis.

Fellow writers of literary fiction tell me plot grows out of character--meaning, I gather, that you start with a (ready-made?) person or group of people, and, like molecules in a chemistry experiment, they will begin to interact and create something new. I've always found this to be a rather dubious proposition. Without a more rigid context (a beaker? a test tube?) for the people to interact in, I often seem to come out with a bunch of random collisions that don't really add up to much. Or I end up forcing something to happen--so the molecules aren't just milling around pointlessly--and that makes things even worse.

Which is why I've found that starting with a plot borrowed from elsewhere--a real unsolved murder case, say, or the plot of a two-hundred-year-old novel--surprisingly freeing. Placing characters I've created within this framework allows both the people and the framework to grow and evolve together. The borrowed plot soon becomes quite different from the original--because I'm using my own characters, not borrowing them, so they naturally change the way things shake out. At the same time, I don't have to wrack my brain endlessly, wondering what the hell can and should happen next--I have at least a basic map to consider following.

Friday, January 23, 2015

News for the new year

Exciting news! I have signed with agent Cynthia Zigmund and am revising my second novel, a literary mystery set in 1970s Cleveland. It's a bit of a departure stylistically from Bigfoot and the Baby, but the subject, as Led Zeppelin sort of said, remains the same: mystery and how we deal with it. It's just that this time, the theme and the plot are both mystery. We'll be looking for a home for the newbie later this year.

Monday, January 05, 2015

On taking risks

I have always been a relatively timid soul. I am conflict-averse, skeptical, and even rather lazy. But as I get older, I'm taking more and more risks--not free-climbing El Capitan, mind you, but undertaking tasks that expose me to criticism, sometimes of the very harsh and/or completely baffling variety. I would like to say that it gets a little easier to deal with this feeling of vulnerability over time, but I don't think I can say that. More like: I realize it's coming and that I will have to deal with it and go on. And: there's no reason to think the negative reactions are more correct than the positive ones--although I do tend to think that.

I say all this on the brink of a new year that brings with it a milestone birthday--because at a certain point (perhaps around the time when the years ahead of you are likely fewer than those behind), *not* taking risks becomes the real risk. I think Dolly Parton said something like this once. And I've started to feel that way myself. I'm not really any braver than I used to be, just more afraid of having regrets than of making mistakes.

Have a happy (and sensibly risky) new year!