Check out my letter at the “Dear Teen Me” site, run by the wonderful E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally!
Check out my letter at the “Dear Teen Me” site, run by the wonderful E. Kristin Anderson and Miranda Kenneally!
So this past week I have discovered a major skill I am lacking, and thought perhaps that my struggle in acquiring this skill may help you as well.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the shy, introverted author who finds it impossible to talk about his or her own work in any kind of tantalizing or even intelligent way. I seem to embody this trait to an embarrassing degree.
When discussing my work with people I don’t know well, I become painfully aware of how complex the concept of my story sounds. Of how deeply I myself struggled with its labyrinthine plot. Of how convoluted it may come across.
It feels impossible to pitch my work in a quick, savvy, slick way.
And so I freeze.
What NOT to do when pitching your work:
But despite this, in my heart, am I not as excited as anyone else about my novel-baby? Have I not slaved and labored over it and been exulted and challenged by it and am I not as eager to see its realization in the world? Do I not think just as much as the next author that I am (figuratively) pregnant with a gem—and that as I polish and slave and agonize and wrestle with this gem, it will come shining into the light of day?
The answer is yes. Yes, of course. So what makes me turn into a gibbering moron when asked what it’s about? What’s more, have I not spoken about it with glowing eyes and abandon to people I know and trust? So why not to perfect strangers?
First of all, we must establish why it’s even important to learn how to do this. Is it critical? Aren’t there multitudes of authors who have enjoyed illustrious careers while being hermited social rejects who hated other humans? Or aren’t there even just plenty of normal people who prefer not to share their story ideas?
Yes, of course.
I’m addressing those of us who WISH we had that skill, who frequent social circles in which possessing this skill would be invaluable, yet who still cannot seem to cultivate it.
*Note*: If you are not published, it is OK TO TALK ABOUT YOUR STORY even with people who ARE published. They are not seventeen tiers above you in human value. They are people who struggled to break into the publishing industry, as you are trying to do.
It is important to learn how to do this, people. But first, to address some inevitable fears:
Am I saying all shy and retiring authors must turn into you-know-whats of shameless self-promoting integrity-less goo? No. In my experience, such types are few and far between. It is PERFECTLY POSSIBLE to be openly excited about your story and a humble, realistic human being.
Am I saying we must forego our private, sacred intimacies with our stories in favor of exposing them prematurely to the garish eyes of the world? No. There is a time in the life of every story in which it must be organically protected, kept away from outside interference. This gestation period varies for every story and author. But AFTER THAT, when the story is ready for the world, it would behoove us to know how to discuss it.
Apparently authors—myself included—sometimes worry that sharing story ideas reveals everything about us as people. That the moment we open our mouths we are not only naked, but transparent. Please try not to worry about this. Talking about your story idea will not expose the darkest skeletons in your closet, thereby revealing you as Undesirable # 1. When people are listening to you, they are usually genuinely interested in your STORY. Chances are they are not judging you, and if they are, they’re not worth your time anyway.
If your story, like mine, feels impossible to condense into a two-sentence pitch, that is OK. I just heard an author explain the brilliant plot of his story for ten minutes and I was utterly engrossed the whole time. *Note:* If you are at a conference in which you are required to give a two-sentence pitch, that’s a different story, of course. Otherwise, if you speak about it excitedly, confidently, it will hardly matter if you go on for a few minutes.
Just think what you could be missing otherwise. Among other things, connections. It is lovely to connect with other authors, to ignite mutual interest and creative partnerships. If you are able to discuss your story unapologetically, bravely, standing by the genius of your idea, in love with the novel-child, you could easily find yourself with an invaluable new critique partner, advocate, and best case scenario—editor or agent.
Whether you are published or not, established or not, you have a right to glow when talking about your story. Whether your story is still in its gelatinous phases or coming to sweet fruition, you may exude joy. You just might connect with someone who’s been pining for the story that was brewing in you, in obscurity, the story that is working its way out of the birth canal (sorry for these analogies, they’re just so apt). Some of these people may understand your vision and hold it just as closely to their hearts as you do.
And if nothing else, practicing talking excitedly about your precious story is excellent psychological honing. It may be a powerful tool in keeping the faith that your story ought to exist out there, in the world, in many minds at once.
Just saying. This would have helped me to hear, and so I thought I’d share it.
So the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Corpus Christi is how very flat it is.
The only other place I’ve been that’s as flat is Kansas.
Both are so flat you forget the planet is round. You imagine setting a Greyhound loose and that the poor dog will eventually keel over not from scaling treacherous terrain, but from the sheer exhaustion of not having anything obstructing its path for, say, twelve thousand miles.
Anyway. Such a landscape is conducive to lovely and voracious winds. Winds that buffeted our festival tent to dangerous heights and literally PULLED THE TENT STAKES out of the earth. Strong men had to grab them while shouting manly things to each other like, “This ain’t good….the whole thing might blow.” The entire time I was terribly excited, as though we were part of the Flying Dutchman’s crew.
The kids involved were troopers and ran with it. Four-year-olds are remarkably adaptable. (Note the suspicious child in the front. I love that guy.)
The festival committee was amazing. Librarians converged from everywhere to make the whole thing possible. So down-to-earth and go-with-the-flow and deeply concerned with kids and literacy, of course, and with the fate of such programs under the budget cuts.
But not to despair! With such hearts devoted to kids reading, we shall overcome. We shall.
On Thursday, I got to meet amazing author/illustrators Don Tate and Keith Graves. Both are super sweet, amicable, fascinating folksies. I tried to convince them to visit the beach with me after dinner but turns out they had the mature idea of getting to bed at a decent hour. I can’t blame myself for the impulsiveness though; lovely as Austin is, we are landlocked.
Keith Graves, me, Don Tate
Norma Puente, wonderful elementary literary coach, and me
Don Tate and me at Neyland Branch Library
Awesome children’s reading room at the library
View from my hotel room. Corpus is home to the first Whataburger, I believe.
On Friday I got to meet author Carmen Tafolla. Don, Keith and Carmen are great inspirations. I really love other author/illustrators. We are always slightly bewildered by the whirlwind of publishing, no matter how savvy we might be. Commiserating together is nourishing. Especially while ingesting vast quantities of bacon-wrapped shrimp.
On Friday the lovely Paige Dinn of the festval committee took me over to present to the kindergarten-through-second grade of Crockett Elementary School. Among the questions I was asked—and bear in mind these were questions posed by people under the age of seven—were:
“How do you FEEL while you’re writing a book?”
“What makes you pick those colors?”
“Do you like writing or illustrating more? Is it frustrating to do both?”
Can we say brilliant? Can we say I’m not worried about Crockett Elementary’s contribution to the future of our species? Can we assume this school is churning out people who will help us evade the zombie apocalypse?
Then the lovely librarian presented me with a bouquet of tissue flowers and a copy of Tomie DePaola’s “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush,” a book I have long loved.
Anyway. It was a great festival put together by amazing people. I feel very lucky to have been a part of it.
This topic has fascinated me for years, most especially since I had serious doubts about what I had to offer in the long-term relationship arena before I met my wonderful boyfriend. I was a person who ate and breathed writing and for whom domestic chores were the devil. So, I asked the partners of several writer friends to answer some questions. Here’s what they came up with:
(Note: Greg and Cyn are both writers and they are married. So that makes their answers extra-interesting.)
1. We’re going to break this meaty topic down into digestible chunks. First off, did you know your partner would end up a committed writer when you first got together, if they weren’t already?
Anon: No, not at the time (11 years ago). I knew she liked writing, but didn’t know she wanted to do it for a living.
Woody: I did not know my partner had writing aspirations when we met. I did not even realize she was serious about it when we got married. I’m fairly certain that she had not figured it out by that point either.
Eric: Nope. Not a clue.
Sam: I did! She was already committed to writing, and that was one of the very many appealing things about her!
Cyn: Greg and I met as first-year law students, so I expected that he would become a patent attorney–which he still is. He’s continued to practice law while writing for young readers. My plan at the time was to eventually become a media law professor at a journalism school.
Greg: Not per se. I think every lawyer kind of dreams about being a writer, though.
2. Now, as a living breathing human with a need for attention every now and then, how do you cope when your writer-love is scrambling to meet a deadline? Have you two worked out a System? (I know that in my house, my domestic duties fall dramatically by the wayside when I’m meeting a deadline, if not disappear altogether.)
Anon: I do more of the household chores.
Woody: Actually, I’m always pushing her to make deadlines. Under those circumstances I can’t really feel put upon when she buckles down and does the work. It is hard on her as she has a full time job that is not writing, or even fulfilling. The system we currently use is to let household chores get the better of us until they can no longer escape our notice. I try to pick up the slack, but you know how it is.
Eric: Stay out of the way. 911-Pizza, I get to BBQ more than I otherwise could, Do the grocery shopping.
Sam: I love and admire her drive and passion for writing. I encourage her to follow her artistic desires, and write as much as she wants and needs to. I also do various art (as well as cooking), so her going into her writerly world is a completely understandable thing to me. I know that you have to follow the muse, and I like to help her do that.
Cyn: It’s safe to say that the system only really crashes when we’re both on deadline, which happened recently. But the house is still standing, and now that we’re on the other side, it’s time for spring cleaning anyway.
Greg: We usually try to pick up the slack when the other has a deadline. Getting a manuscript out, though, also usually involves multiple close, copy-edit readings of each others’ manuscripts so sometimes things do fall. Meals become somewhat more basic (or delivered), for example. .
3. Along the same vein, we all know writing is not necessarily a 9-5 endeavor. How much of your lives have you had to re-structure around creative inspiration?
Anon: Not much.
Woody: Holly is actually pretty good about getting her writing done when I’m engaged elsewhere. I don’t work a 9-5, so she has a few evenings to herself.
Eric: Her “nesting place” moves all over the house, the location becomes off-limits in a way. She even nests in my man-room, not fair I say.
Sam: Restructuring lives implies that creative endeavors aren’t the primary focus. I think this question should be phrased “when do you finally decide to put down the art supplies so you can find food”.
Cyn: One advantage of both being writers is that our outside commitments are typically joint ones. Sure, one of us maybe leave for an out-of-town event or two (I’m just back from touring in the northeast with Blessed (Candlewick, 2011). But we often speak together or jointly attend other youth literature/writing community events. Beyond that, we both understand that the manuscripts must get done, and often this requires sacrificing evenings, weekends, even holidays.
Greg: We do a lot of traveling together and, as Cyn said, spend a lot of the non-work days and parts of days working. But if we’re both working on a manuscript, that can be fun, too.
4. What do you find has been the most helpful for your writer-love in terms of emotional support? (i.e., reminding him or her that he or she is, in fact, a great writer when they are full of despair, that kind of thing.)
Anon: Being honest about what doesn’t work, that way when something does work she knows I’m being sincere.
Woody: Reminding her she is brilliant is usually is a good move depending on the nuances of her particular mood that day. One thing I’ve learned is always stay on the positive side. There’s too much negative going through her head for any of my doubts to be at all welcome.
Eric: Listen. Remind her that it is her book and she has the last word on content and flow.
Sam: Helpful critique, bouncing ideas off one another, being loving and supportive when she is feeling down, helping with reminding her what a talented writer she is, and how downright amazing her stories are.
Cyn: I try to remind Greg of the big picture, the importance of focusing on the journey as a whole rather than each step or stumble. That said, I’m probably the one who needs more propping up. As I mentioned, he’s also a full-time lawyer, but my writing–with some teaching on the side–is my entire career.
Greg: We commiserate over the glacial pace and weird idiosyncrasies of the publishing business.
5. And, conversely, what have you found is the most helpful thing for you in terms of living with a writer?
Woody: I think my writing has improved vicariously. I think it’s important to always be available and interested when asked to read something.
Eric: Be a reader would be the funny answer but I don’t like reading. Cable TV.
Sam: Knowing that I’m getting to be around someone who is creating, and at any time, I may get to peer into an awesome world and imagination.
Cyn: Cats. They’re terrific for stress and exude inspiration. We have four–Mercury, Bashi, Leo and Blizzard.
Greg: And, really, the fact that we’re both writers and both of us almost always have a project we can be working on, even if there isn’t a defined deadline. So if one of us *has* to work, the other can also open up the computer…or wash the dishes.
6. Have you learned to occupy your time in ways you otherwise would not have?
Anon: I do the same things as I did before she became a more committed writer.
Woody: Not really. I’m a creative person myself with a pottery studio and a house that is always begging for some new project.
Eric: Be alone. Have a social life without her.
Sam: I wouldn’t have thought I’d find myself in a room full of kids during a presentation on how to write children’s books, but it was awesome regardless!
7. If you are an artist, does this help you understand your writer-love’s artistic process? If you’re not an artist, what have you learned about the artistic process?
Anon: I am not an artist. I learned how much time and hard work the artistic process takes.
Woody: Being an artist has definitely helped. I know the depths and the heights of the emotion involved all too well. Holly and I met in a ceramics studio class in college and much of our early relationship revolved around pottery. One time I was at the studio late and she was waiting on me. A piece on the wheel that I was trying to coax into life decided that vertical walls were not, thank you very much, going to be in its future. I got so angry I slapped the wet clay across the room. Witnessing that, Holly handed me a couple of quarters and said to call when I was ready to come home. Space can be very important.
Eric: It seems to consume furniture.. desks, shelves, easy-chairs. Also supplies (toner, computers etc. It also doesn’t like suggestion nor does it have any patience for topics related to anything but the book.
Sam: I’m a photographer and I try to live creatively myself. I understand the need to follow the bouncing muse. Plus, it’s great to be able to collaborate with her. Being with someone creative and artistic is an awesome fun ride. I love seeing things come together, I love knowing there is so much creativity in our lives.
8. What’s the craziest thing you’ve found yourself doing in the name of helping your writer-love “research”? Any sneaking into meat-packing plants? Playing private detective? Volunteering with kangaroos? Scaling fjords? (I have heard of all of these in some form or another.)
Anon: I’ve been dragged across the floor by my arms. I moved to England so she could attend graduate school.
Eric: Contemplating the personality traits of her characters (how would this type of dragon react to this situation ????!!???) A comment: Too often it feels her work is her partner am I am just part of the periphery.
Sam: I wouldn’t say any of it is crazy. I like adventures, and I am extremely glad I have someone to share them with!
Cyn: We spent some quality time trying to come up with vegetarian ”sausage,” which involved some taste-testing.
Greg: We did the vegan sausage thing a few years back, and recently, we drove around one of the Austin neighborhoods taking pictures of houses to get a feel for where one of Cyn’s characters lived. I think the folks thought we were casing the joint. We also went to Chicago one February because Cyn had forgotten a couple details she wanted included in ETERNAL. So we went out to Navy Pier in 6 degree and negative 6 wind chill. The ink in her pen froze…Beyond that, my new novel involves time travel and dinosaurs, so Cyn’s been very patient about going to natural history museums whenever we’re in a town that has one.