Writing is like living in a fixer-upper house

“You know those people who buy fixer-upper homes, move into them, and live there while they renovate them? That’s what a story is like. You move into the story, you occupy it like a house, and you live there until it’s completely done.” –Thrity Umrigar

In an earlier post called About Waiting for Inspiration, I noted that serious professional writers work every day rather than sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. That post suggested things writers can do to make inspired story ideas more likely.

Likewise, there are things writers can do once they have a story idea that will make it more likely the plot will unfold. Better to let the plot and characters come to mind naturally rather that sitting down, staring at a blank screen, and waiting for something to happen.

I like author Thrity Umrigar’s fixer-upper house analogy. First, it paints a very accurate picture about what goes on during an author’s waking hours while s/he is actively working on a short story or novel. Second, it suggests one reason why authors often stare off in space or seem not to be listening while they’re around others. They’re physically in the room, but mentally they’re conversing with their characters or chasing bad guys through a bad section of town.

Unrigar adds that when you’re committed to a story, “That means you’re thinking about your story all the time, living with it, never letting it wander too far away from you. A story is like a newborn–you have to tend to it, feed it, be aware of it all the time.”

When you’re living in a house white renovating it, you’re on the scene 24/7. You not only notice what needs to be done, but think of new ideas that didn’t occur to you when you first walked in the front door. A story is like that. Authors don’t see every detail of every character, scene, description, and plot twist when they first think of an idea.

When you’re living in a fixer-upper house, it’s easier to see potential traffic flows, floor plan changes, and value-added features than it was while the house was something you might buy. When you see what your fictional characters see–or might see–it becomes more apparent whether they’re moving in the right direction or not, wearing the clothes that suit them, or adding to the prospective reader’s excitement by doing this or that or something else.

Seriously, when you’re committed to a story, it never goes away until you finish it–and maybe, not even then. Like the fixer-upper house that’s ready to sell, you have to resist the urge to tinker after it’s time to send your story or novel off to an agent, magazine, or publisher. It takes self-confidence to know when the story is truly finished and when the fixer-upper house is ready to list with a realtor.

Either way, living in the story and the fixer-upper house is a necessity.

–Malcolm

How’s your book’s description working for you?

The number one problem we run into during the vetting process here at Indies Unlimited is a book’s description, also sometimes known as the book sales pitch or the book blurb. Too long, too short, too detailed, too vague, too too too, blah blah blah. What it comes down to is: many authors cannot write a book description on their own.

via Book Description Basics – Indies Unlimited

K.S. Brooks thinks it might be okay if a writer doesn’t automatically know how to write a pithy, industrial strength description for his/her book. We’ve lived with the manuscript for months, possibly years. We “know too much” about it to create the best 250 or 500 words of description the book needs to sell.

Her article on Indies Unlimited includes links to related how-to articles along with a list of considerations. If you’re publishing your books yourself or going through a small press that relies on you to write the description for Amazon and the back cover, this article will give you a running start.

–Malcolm

A bestselling author’s book piracy story

“A pirated copy isn’t ‘good advertising’ or ‘great word of mouth’ or ‘not really a lost sale.’”

via Contents of Maggie Stiefvater’s Brain

A lot of authors dismiss book piracy with blasé misconceptions like those Maggie Stiefvater quoted above. They’re wrong. Maggie Stefvater almost lost traction her Raven King series (a series I like, btw) because pirated copies were diluting sales to the extent that her publisher thought the public was losing interest.

As she says, authors generally expect the first book in a series to sell the best and for sales to go down in the follow-up books. But she tried a nifty way of proving that there was more to it than expected reader attrition.

This is a cautionary tale for authors, especially those who think piracy either doesn’t hurt you or that it might actually help you. Click on the link to see how she saved her series.

–Malcolm

 

a few of my favorite Kazuo Ishiguro quotes

According to the Nobel Prizes website, the selection committee commended Ishiguro as an author “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”

Wikipedia photo

In his Nobel interview, Ishiguro said, “No, I don’t think it will sink in for a long time. I mean, it’s a ridiculously prestigious honour, in as far as these kinds of things go. I don’t think you would have a more prestigious prize than the Nobel Prize. And comments I would make, I mean, one is, a lot of that prestige must come from the fact that the Swedish Academy has successfully, I think, kept above the fray of partisan politics and so on. And I think it’s remained one of the few things that’s respected, whose integrity is respected by many people around the world, and so I think a lot of the sense of honour of receiving the Prize comes from the actual status of the Swedish Academy. And I think that’s a great achievement unto itself, over all these years the Swedish Academy has managed to retain that high ground, in all the different walks of life that it honours. And then the other reason it’s a terrific honour for me is because … you know I come in a line of lots of my greatest heroes, absolutely great authors. The greatest authors in history have received this Prize, and I have to say, you know, it’s great to come one year after Bob Dylan who was my hero since the age of 13. He’s probably my biggest hero.”

Some of my favorite quotes from Ishiguro’s work

“I have this feeling that all it will take will be one moment, even a tiny moment, provided it’s the correct one. Like a cord suddenly snapping and a thick curtain dropping to the floor to reveal a whole new world, a world full of sunlight and warmth.” – The Unconsoled

Wikipedia photo

“What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” – The Remains of the Day

“That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that –I didn’t let it– and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.” – Never Let Me Go

“The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.” – The Remains of the Day

“If you are under the impression you have already perfected yourself, you will never rise to the heights you are no doubt capable of.” – The Remains of the Day

Wikipedia photo

“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns. But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents. There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.” – When We Were Orphans

“When you are young, there are many things which appear dull and lifeless. But as you get older, you will find these are the very things that are most important to you.” – An Artist of the Floating World

“But God will know the slow tread of an old couple’s love for each other, and understand how black shadows make part of its whole.” – The Buried Giant

“If I’m alone at home, I get increasingly restless, bothered by the idea that I’m missing some crucial encounter out there somewhere. But if I’m left by myself in someone else’s place, I often find myself a nice sense of peace engulfing me. I love sinking into an unfamiliar sofa with whatever book happens to be lying nearby.” – Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

Malcolm

Briefly noted: ‘Refiner’s Fire’ by Mark Helprin

While Kirkus Reviews called Mark Helprin’s first novel Refiner’s Fire (1978) “grandiose,” it received more positive reviews from other major media outlets. I first read it five years after it came out when, my excited reading of Winter’s Tale (1983), led me on a search for another Helprin book. Winter’s Tale remains my favorite, followed by A Soldier of the Great War (1991). While In Sunlight and Shadow (2012) seemed to be to be less successful than the others, it contains the same dazzling images, imagination, and prose I loved in Winter’s Tale and Refiner’s Fire. In rereading Refiner’ Fire this past week, I believe it still holds up as a compelling novel about a man whose diverse experience refine and purify him as surely as a refiner’s fire purifies silver.

Publisher’s Description: “Born on an illegal immigrant ship off the coast of Palestine, Marshall Pearl is immediately orphaned and soon brought to America, where he grows up amidst fascinating and idiosyncratic privilege that is, however, not nearly as influential in regard to his formation as the pull of his origins though they are unknown to him. A cross between Fielding´s Tom Jones and the story of Moses, Refiner´s Fire is a great and colorful adventure that ends in a crucible of battle, suffering, and death, from which Marshall Pearl rises purely by the grace of God. Addressing the holy and the profane, but never heavy handedly, it is not so much a meditation on the fate of the Jews after the Holocaust, the rise of Israel, and the spirit of America, as it is an elegy and a song in which the powers of life and regeneration are shown to gorgeous effect.”

From the Reviews: 

  • “Mark Helprin, who must be legend to his friends, risks more than most novelists dare in ten years. Helprin writes like a saint, plots like a demon, and has an imagination that would be felonious in all but the larger democracies . . . . The sound that drowns all others in this novel is that of kingdom-come ignition.” (The Village Voice)
  • “Marvelous . . . . A brilliantly sinuous tale that sets an Augie March-like young man into a Gabriel Garcia Marquez universe . . . There are so many things to admire in Mark Helprin’s first novel that one’s problem is where to begin.” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review)

From the Novel: “You know,” said Al in a daze of hunger and cold, “when you see this, you realize that despite all the crap that goes on in the cities, despite all the words and accusations, the country has balance and momentum. The whole thing is symmetrical and beautiful; it works. The cities are like bulbs on a Christmas tree. They may bum, swell, and shatter, but the green stays green. Look at it,” he said, eyes fixed on the horizon, not unmoved by the motion of the train. “Look at it. It’s alive.”

There is a lot of magic in Helprin’s writing, though I believe he doesn’t care for the term “magical realism” and doesn’t see his work in that way. However, the fact that much of this novel is told in flashbacks dreamt by protagonist Matther Pearl, allows Helprin a lot of flexibility in his use of dazzling images and exuberant language. I’m glad I experienced the story again.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of two, magical realism “conjure and crime” novels, “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and “Eulalie and Washerwoman.”

How to become a famous writer

Years ago, ruffians from the English department posted a gag flyer on school bulletin boards showing a hopeless oaf pictured with the quote: “Yesterday I couldn’t even spell ‘writer.’ Now I are one.”

For me, that flyer began a long-time distrust of high school and college English departments. The reasons run deep and belong in another post. Suffice it to say, English departments aren’t high on my list of steps to take in becoming a famous writer. Instead, I suggest the following:

Don’t Write Good.

Readers don’t like good even though many of them claim them have to have read “the good book” and that they adore every novel that features people who helps the homeless or who starve their families while donating time and money to the Salvation Army.

What readers really want is bad. Why do you think they liked The Da Vinci Code? “Christ, you’re telling me Jesus was married? Where can I get my copy?” They like heroes who use unnecessary force (as seen on the show “24”) because those tactics bring the kinds of results that generate closure to readers fighting for simple answers that work in a complex, politically correct rules.

It goes without saying that readers also buy books with back-cover blurbs like “Nymphomaniac Defrocks Beloved Priest in Forgotten Monastery” and  “Shy Housewife Kills Terrorists in Downtown Chicago with Illegal Weapons Stolen from Wimpy Cops.”

Commit a Crime

Writers with platforms sell books. If you threw your mama from a train, you have a much better chance of writing salable books than a hapless MFA-graduate whose “platform” is (a) writing good, (b) An MFA, and (c) A resume filled with angst-ridden poems and short stories set in an unbelievable universe where angst-ridden stuff actually gets onto bestseller lists.

A criminal record shows prospective agents and publishers you know how to catch the public’s attention and produce a novel that will sell 50,000 copies or more and attract options from Warner Brothers and 20th Century-Fox. What you don’t want is a novel that might attract options from the Hallmark Channel because it produces material from authors who write good.

Caution: Judges and lawmakers generally won’t allow a person to profit from a crime. If you write a novel called How I Threw Mama from the Train, your earnings will be confiscated if you really threw your mama from a train. Write about something else, using your fame as a criminal to get the attention of agents, publishers and readers. Your stuff might sell if you write good even though writing bad is better.

Become a Movie Star

If you’re a movie star or a famous Hollywood personality who looks like a slut or a stud on the red carpet, you can become a bestselling author even if you’re illiterate. How? Ghostwriters, darling. A sure way to get a publisher’s attention is by “writing” a memoir or novel based on a true story that dishes out plenty of scandal about your co-stars, lovers, and agents. The public adores stories that tell them their favorite stars aren’t really as pure as the driven snow. A bonus for movie stars is writing a book about an issue even if an expert writes it for you. Do this, and you’ll soon be testifying at Congressional hearings even though you probably know less about the issue than the average man or woman on the street.

The famous movie star approach also works for famous senators, representatives, governors, politicians and other idiots who are smart enough to understand that readers want your name on their coffee tables even if they never read a word of the drivel between the covers.

Plagiarize, Get Caught, Repent

Create a novel with a compelling plot, multidimensional characters, and a jaw-dropping title that, under normal conditions, will probably sell only one hundred copies.  Not to worry. This novel will have a secret weapon, and the big payoff comes when the secret is discovered: you’ve stolen thousands of its words from famous novels. When people find out, you’ll deny it, of course. Your readers will hate you. As your crime becomes harder to deny, you’ll claim “fair use.” That won’t work, but it may keep the wolves from your door for a while.

Finally, you’ll issue a news releasing claiming that Satan told you to do it and that your heartily sorry and never meant to harm anyone. You’ll refund the money you’ve made off the book and check yourself into a rehab center. Several years will go by. People will forget you. That’s when you strike with a book written in your own words. Readers will buy it like hotcakes because folks love repentant sinners who reform and start walking the straight and narrow. Even the New York Times bestseller list and Oprah will love you.

Your English teachers will never share any of these secrets with you. That’s okay, because nobody really needs those people as they much one needs oneself and a plan for success that really brings in the big bucks.

Malcolm

 

Those messy website blues

Like a new car, a new website looks sleek, clean, and is the envy of everyone who sees it. However, like cars that get older and no longer are washed or given scheduled maintenance and oil changes, websites start showing their age as well.

Last night on MasterChef, chef Ramsay told one of the contestants that his dish was confusing because it wasn’t cohesive and was more like a smorgasbord of flavors that didn’t go together. This is another way of saying that–like the old car–a website that’s messy, confusing and probably difficult for new visitors to figure out isn’t helping you.

When I set up my website (Conjure Woman’s Cat), I had great intentions. I was going to keep it squared away (a navy terms that means “shipshape”) rather than than letting it look like our old Buick or the top of the desk in my office.

I chanced upon a writer’s website article that basically said, if you’re website is screwed up, you won’t be kissing your books goodbye because nobody will be buying them. This caught me attention because sales have been lower this year than last year. Partly, that’s Amazon’s fault for establishing a new ranking system that’s biased in favor of bestselling books from mainstream publishers. Even though the rest of us are in the chopped liver category, it was obvious to me that I needed to clean up and streamline the website.

This has taken the better part of two days. It’s by no means perfect. On the other hand, it no longer has a garage sale kind of ambiance surrounding it. One thing I tossed out was a synopsis of each of my older books. This made the site too wordy and added pages. So, I’m featuring my two latest books and putting everything else in a catalogue of covers. Might be a mistake, but the result is certainly a lot easier to figure out.

In the business world some years ago, the word “agile” was often used to refer to companies that could change quickly with the times whether they needed new products or new ways of talking about their current products. I think authors need to be agile in this way in their presentations and promotions. While the books are the same books we published some years ago, we need to find new ways of capturing people’s attention.

So, I cleaned up my website an hour ago. So far, neither Oprah or Warner Brothers has called, but I can always hope.

–Malcolm