Taking a Rest

We’ve been in our new home for three days. I’m very happy to say we’re about seventy percent unpacked. There are still things to hang on walls, a kitchen counter to finish replacing, and a basement to sort out, but we are getting a little closer every day. Except yesterday.

 

Yesterday, we did almost nothing to get further settled in. We were too exhausted, too mentally spent to even think about where something else might go. My husband and I took an ice cream break after the kids were in bed and thought about everything but moving for the rest of the evening.

 

That break was almost like a magic spell. This morning I woke up with ideas about how to organize our kitchen, making use of what we have in a better way. I had the energy to heft around some heavy boxes in two other rooms before I even had breakfast, because I could see more clearly how it would all end up.

 

So it is with writing (you didn’t think I’d make it through a move without making an analogy to writing, did you?). Sometimes—especially after things have been thrown up in the air and dramatically rearranged—you need to take a break to get clearer perspective. A rest is not always a result of laziness or apathy; it can be just the thing to get a tough spot back on track.

 

This move has provided me plenty of time away from my manuscript, and I’m looking forward to diving back in very, very soon. Of course my books are already on the shelves. Now I can’t wait to see where my new space will take me.

A Peek at the Bookshelf

We’re T-two days to an interstate move. Somehow, the first thing packed is always the majority of our books, with a few left out to read in the meantime (because there’s so much free time in the course of a move). Books are some of the first things unpacked, too. Seeing certain books on a shelf–my short story anthologies from college, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson–just make me feel at home.

 

Here’s a look at my writing bookshelf–some have been read, others are in the wings.

  • On Writing by Stephen King
  • Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  • Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
  • Elements of Style by Strunk and White
  • The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published by Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato

 

What are your favorite books on writing? Anything I might add to my shelf, once it’s unpacked?

Encouragement, and This Train

Last week the magic that is Twitter led me to an article titled, “Hey, Kid: Thoughts For The Young Oddballs We Need So Badly.” It inspired me to no end, especially the first bit of advice. Here’s a bit of what I loved:

 

The fact that nobody is doing what you imagine doing is the beginning of your idea, not the end. People want to read things that haven’t been written, see things that haven’t been made, and hear things that don’t yet exist.

 

About an hour after I read this, I watched my two-year-old son paint his first model train. He’s normally able to concentrate pretty well, but we’d been talking up this train for days so his attention was particularly focused. Though there wasn’t a plan I could discern, each brushstroke was made with great care. He used each of the four colors he had available, sometimes covering one still-wet section with another color. He was delighted as they mixed together—look at that! Green!

 

The train is no masterpiece by worldly standards, but my son wasn’t painting for anything other than pure love of creating (and unadulterated love of all things train). As he worked, I told him it was my favorite train in the world—the best one I’d ever seen. He agreed; it was his favorite train, too. Because he made it. Because it was just what he wanted it to be. Because he enjoyed the process. And because the product would be a joy to share.

 

Isn’t that what making art is all about?

Let’s Talk Flashbacks

Structuring a novel is no easy task, especially when a large part of what happens in the present is dependent upon something that took place in the past. We real live humans are built on our experiences, and it is only fitting that a character’s personal history plays a significant role in establishing his or her motivation. Whether or not to communicate that—and how explicitly—is a different story.

 

The flashback is one of those tools that can make or break a manuscript. I admit that in an earlier draft of my manuscript, I threw in a pages-long flashback just to take up space. In writing it, I let the story lead me, even when it started to meander. In her notes, an editor asked if I might pare down that particular scene; the pages it took to tell weren’t justified by what it conveyed. Fortunately, I had enough distance to do one better: I deleted the flashback all together. I learned something about my protagonist in writing the scene, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be better communicated in her present-day dialogue and actions.

 

In another novel, deleting a full scene wouldn’t be so easy. Some novels deal as much with the past as with the present, a prime example being Gold by Chris Cleave—also known as the best book I’ve read this year. Cleave manages to give just enough information at just the right time to satiate the reader’s intense desire to know what the heck’s going on, while building suspense and upping the emotional ante at every turn.

 

Reading this kind of novel is a whole lot easier than writing it. Recent editing and discussions with my writers’ group offer a few starters:

 

–  Timing tip #1: The information must be relevant. If I’m reading and really absorbed in the current story, I don’t want to be yanked from it to get history I don’t really need. I believe it’s Robert McKee’s Story that a member of my writers’ group quoted: the flashback should come at a point when the reader can’t go another line without knowing what happened in the past.

 

Timing tip #2: Give me enough for the moment. As Cleave proves, flashbacks can give information piecemeal, but every jump in time needs to give the reader something to get excited about. Leave me wanting more, sure, but don’t end a scene before it’s made its mark, either.

 

Conflict is your friend. Whatever it is that happened back then must be important enough to have somehow affected the now. What is that conflict? Where’s the tension? Build it up!

 

Balance is your other friend. If your manuscript is one that alternates between the past and the present, at some point in your writing, count how many pages and/or chapters are devoted to each. Are the sections close to equal? If not, do you have a really good reason, or is that just how things turned out?

Happy writing!

What Seth Fishman Learned While Writing a Novel

Today I’m thrilled to post the first of what I hope to be many interviews with publishing professionals (editors, agents, etc.) who have published their own books. My guest today is agent Seth Fishman.

Seth

Thanks for being here, Seth. I really appreciate your taking the time to share your experience as a publishing professional who has written and published a novel.

 

Let’s start with what you do, by day—both your official job title and a little about what that entails on a daily basis.

Hi Lindsay!  First of all, thanks for having me here.  This question, though simple, is also the most complex.  But I’ll break it down to the basic form: I’m a literary agent at The Gernert Company, a wonderful agency located in NYC.  My job is to represent authors and their best interest, so my day consists of filling the blanks for what that means.  Since each client I rep is at a different phase in their career, that means I’m doing a pretty diverse list of activities, from reading submissions to submitting novels, short stories, essays, proposals for publication, to vetting contracts, to brainstorming marketing ideas, to helping place foreign and film rights to arguing over cover designs and on and on.  Lots of people think an agent does all their work when they sell a novel, then they sit back and let it go.  But I’d say that’s only a small percentage of what we do, and not even my fully favorite part.

 

Congratulations on your first novel, The Well’s End, to be published by Putnam next February. How did you pitch your novel when you were looking for an agent?

Thank you!  That’s a good question!  Well, the truth is, my agent (Kirby Kim), signed me for an adult thriller that I wrote.  I see, now, the issues that book had, but we came close to selling it back then.  It was my 3rd book I had written (yep, us agents still have to work hard on writing too) and after it didn’t sell I was pretty exhausted.  Kirby had me into his office and said he thought I could write YA, and maybe sell on a partial.  Partials are usually not something I recommend, as they are harder to sell and you get less money for them, but at the time, I couldn’t stomach writing the full book on spec again.  So I came up with an idea, outlined fervently, wrote the partial and landed at Putnam with a two-book deal.  My agent pitched the novel to ME.  Haha.

WellsEnd_Final

 

Your novel was partially inspired by the story of Baby Jessica McClure, who over twenty-five years ago was rescued after falling into a well. What brought that story back to you as a writer? How did you know you’d have enough fuel in that to complete a novel—and the first in a series at that?

Well, I was from the hometown of Baby Jessica, but The Well’s End only uses that incident as a catalyst for the novel, and I knew if I tried to actually have it link to the real story, it would be bogged down.  So I moved towns, moved states, and had the event happen years before.  I was interested to see how that would influence Mia, the protagonist, as she was set in an entirely different set of circumstances.  So it’s there, always in the back of her mind, but the well fall was really just a spark, not the fuel, you know?

 

You represent a wide range of material as an agent. Have you always been interested in writing young adult fiction, or do you write in other genres as well, and had this particular project take off for you?

I sorta answered this above, but I do write all over the place.  Maybe not as well, though.  I’ll not trouble you with specifics, but I’ve tried my fair share of styles.  It’s allowed me, as an agent, to understand more about how similar each genre and age group is.  Good genre writing is good writing set by the confines of the characteristics of a classification.  I like that I can ignore those classifications and focus on the good writing.

 

You hold an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. How important was that for you as a writer? In what circumstances would you recommend aspiring authors pursue a similar degree?

I loved my time in England, writing away, and would definitely recommend living abroad for a year with a collective of writers – how fun is that?  Thankfully, the program was shorter and cheaper than US programs by far.  As an agent, though, I certainly glance at the MFA credential but have seen good and bad from very famous to very unknown programs, so I rely much more on the writing.  This, I believe passionately: Do Not Go Into Debt For An MFA.  Or at least a big debt.  There are amazing amazing programs that will cover your fee, like Cornell or Austin’s program.  Or if you do want to spend money, take 50k (which is half the tuition cost of two years at some places) and team up with likeminded people and write.  Also, briefly, there are great programs that aren’t MFA’s that do as well or better in terms of education and connections, like the Clarion programs.  Those are 6 weeks long and cost around $4,000 bucks.  And the teachers are amazing.

 

Let’s talk a little about the editorial process. How has agenting informed your creative process?

I write as I always write, to be honest.  But before I wrote the book I came up with a number of ideas and picked the one I both liked and thought had commercial potential.  I tell that to my clients all the time.  Don’t write what you don’t want to write, don’t pander to others, but come up with a few ideas and find one that hits as many marks as possible, with ‘interest’ being #1 on that list.

 

How has undergoing the professional editorial process as a writer influenced the way in which you approach your work as an agent?

Ha, absolutely.  I’m way way more sympathetic when my writers get their editorial notes.  And on my own edits for my clients, I try to be significantly gentler in my comments.

 

Onto publication! Was knowing that you’d sold your book the pinnacle of the process thus far, or has something else surprised you as being even more awesome?

That’s a good question.  Selling the book was really a big deal for me, but what’s funny is that there are SO MANY layers to a book’s pub that you sorta go glassy eyed.  First draft finished.  Last draft finished.  Cover.  Galleys.  Blurbs.  So many wonderful things that I love, but I think my friends and wife are now kinda like, ‘Ok… congrats… again…’

 

What was the toughest point on the journey to publication for you? And what kept you going?

Editing is tough, finding time to write is tough.  Being an agent and trying not to be annoying with that knowledge is tough too.  But why keep going? There was never a chance I’d stop.  Why do we write?  Why do we keep writing?  Because we can’t help ourselves. Because we have to and we love it.

 

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I love my job as an agent and I won’t ever leave.  It’s the best job in the world and I’m lucky to have it, to have the clients I have.  Thanks for having me here!

 

Where can readers find you online?

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16101138-the-well-s-end

Twitter: @sethasfishman

Tumblr, http://www.tumblr.com/blog/sethasfishman

Website: sethasfishman.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sethasfishman?ref=br_tf

 

Thank you again, Seth, for this wonderfully encouraging interview. Can’t wait to see The Well’s End on shelves next year.

 

First Page, Take Three

Wrapping up my series on the first page of my manuscript, today I’m posting the current state of my first page. Per my agent’s brilliant editorial suggestion, this version starts a half-step further back in time than the last did.

 

My commentary will follow, as usual.

 

 

“Jonas? You’re up.” Matthew’s voice was just as curt over the phone as it was in person.

Five years of working evenings in the office, weekend afternoons spent huddled over spreadsheets at the makeshift desk in her one-bedroom apartment, so many missed runs that she’d had to let out her favorite pair of pants . . . twice . . . had all led up to this moment. Her moment.

Anna strode to the conference room with the confidence she’d built on year after year of reviews that had “exceeded expectations.” Just before the door, she checked that her starched lavender blouse was neatly tucked in all the way around her waist, spun her pinstriped pencil skirt to its proper orientation, and attempted to tug her unruly not-quite-straight brown hair into submission. She took a deep breath and pushed her shoulders back to stand tall when she entered the spare, almost sterile room.

“Anna,” Matthew said, using her first name for perhaps the second time in their career together. “Take a seat, please.”

Matthew had been her only boss in her five years at the bank; she could predict most of the moves he made. She knew he’d be wearing his best suit, the one reserved for hiring, firing, and meetings with the much-higher-ups—flawless white shirt, navy tie, dark gray trousers and jacket, the cut of which made him look ten years younger than he was. Some of the junior associates in the office found him attractive, his hair still naturally a rich brown, his skin bronzed but never overly tanned in the summer. Anna couldn’t see it—to her, he was simply Matthew, always her boss, her mentor, her Yoda.

 

 

Better!

 

I get a lot of information here, without it being doled out in exposition (finally!). There’s lots of physical description, both of Anna and Matthew and of the place. Those physical descriptors give information about who the characters are as people; likewise, the second paragraph about how Anna’s spent her time over the last five years gives insight into her physical appearance (she’s not the skinniest girl on the planet). I have a sense of what the story is about, and it’s told in an interesting and intriguing way.

 

There’s also some tension to start. The reader is probably (hopefully) thinking, “No way is this going to go as well as she hopes” or “Big moment . . . but what will it mean for her?” There’s not much dialogue, but some, and a good deal of action that moves the story forward.

 

I’m not sure what else I’d critique—with this version, I’ve fixed everything I can find that needs help. I’d love your perspective, readers!

 

 

Stay tuned for another exciting post next week! (Spoiler: A real, live, published author!)

First Page, Take Two

Continuing with a short series begun last week, here’s the first page of a revision done once the manuscript was complete. My agent suggested I start the novel a few scenes earlier. This advice was consistent with feedback from other readers, who wanted to see more of Anna’s work life before it became a major problem for her.

Looking back on this revision, I can see that I had a better—but not yet complete—sense of where the novel was going, and was making an effort to orchestrate my opening to set things up to get the reader there.

Not that this is anything like James Joyce’s Ulysses, but in studying that novel in college, I learned something very important about literature: the start of a novel, short story, whatever, teaches the reader how to read it. From the first line, we use what we take in to set certain expectations in terms of character and plot, but also of structure (Joyce takes delight in throwing all this out the window in the second half of his epic novel). It is the writer’s responsibility to craft those expectations carefully, so that when they are either met or shattered, they produce the intended effect on the audience.

Again, my commentary on this excerpt is below.

Annalisa Jonas walked out of the conference room, shocked—not at the news her boss, Matthew, had just given her. Not at the fact that she had been promoted to vice president at the big New York City bank she’d been with since college. But at the reality that making her dream come true didn’t feel nearly as exhilarating as she’d been expecting these last five years.

Returning to her desk and her work, Anna tried to focus. Her practicality and determination were major players in her earning a promotion at this point in her career. So why was she crying? Or was it some kind of shock that now blurred her vision?

The click of keyboards and lively phone conversations around her decrescendoed to a din. One hand brought her glass to her mouth while the other instinctively reached for her snack drawer. The cool water kept her conscious long enough to rip open the package around a granola bar, which she polished off in what might have been a record eight seconds. Anna shook her head gently. She patted a tissue to her face to remove the sweat that had gathered at her hairline, then surveyed the surrounding desks to check if anyone had noticed her episode.

Gen caught her eye, a look of panic on her face. Her headset still on, she continued her call, but managed to mouth to Anna, “You okay?”

Silently, Anna mouthed back, “I think so.”

“Didn’t you get it?” Gen replied.

“Yeah,” Anna answered. This time the signs came on too quickly to treat. In the next instant, she was on the floor.

 

So . . .

This reads more like the opening scene of a movie to me; it’s “cinematic,” as they say. I have a stronger sense of Anna emotionally, and I get more of her relationship with Gen through their short conversation. I know Matthew by name, and thus expect him to play a significant role in what’s going to unfold. I see a woman wrapped up in her work, and maybe not in great shape, physically. I expect the novel will have some humor in it. On the other hand, the opening paragraph gives a lot of information up front, which makes me think the storyline might be somewhat predictable.

There’s still a little bit of distance between the reader and Anna. I want to be even more engaged with her character from the get-go. I see the potential for that, and I want to see it fulfilled!

I’d probably read some more, were I reading as an agent or editor, because this page fits into a lighter style that I like to read. There is room for improvement, but I see the seeds of something promising. I’d want to see something that surprises me in the next few pages to convince me to stick with it for the long haul.