Sunday, November 24, 2013

Nutmeg Book Festival a success

The historic New Milford train station
I spent most of yesterday at what I hope will be the first annual Nutmeg Book Festival in New Milford, CT. The venue was the renovated train station, and 20 writers sat at tables around the room displaying our books. There was something for almost everyone, from young adult romance to mainstream fiction and from non-fictional inspirational anthologies to short story collections.

I cannot guess how many people came through during the day. There seemed to be a regular flow of women, men, and families, the majority I think looking for gift ideas. I had a wonderful time because I did not know anyone, neither my fellow writers nor any of the shoppers who stopped by my display, so it was an opportunity to talk about writing, books, my writing, and my books.

You can tell the author by his cap.
I don't believe you sell a book (I'm not sure you can "sell" anything these days, speaking as someone who's written an entire book on selling). And thinking back, I did not do my books any favors in that I talked more about their contents than asking about the interests potential readers might have. Nevertheless, I did manage to sell some books as did my fellow writers did around the room.

I was at least as interested in meeting the other writers and discovering both areas of common interest and points of difference. I learned about the Boroughs Publishing Group, which puts out e-book romances, charging $0.99 to $4.99 each, (and offering no advances to their authors). I talked to two writers who've had terrible experiences with Xlibris and with a writer who was pleased with the editing, book design, and cover design services she bought from CreateSpace.

The festival's organizers are already talking about the possibility of a second Nutmeg Book Festival next year. I think we all learned a lot from this first event, so if there is a second it will be even better.

PS: The New Milford newspaper, the Spectrum, ran a note about the event. The print edition has pictures. A lot of fun.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A found poem

A found poem is, according to Wikipedia, "a type of poetry created by taking words, phrases, and sometimes whole passages from other sources and reframing them as poetry by making changes in spacing and lines, or by adding or deleting text, thus imparting new meaning" Once you become sensitive to the possibilities, little poems start turning up everywhere, like this one:

Welcome to
the big time
    wing lovers.
Get ready to
sit back and
be dazzled by
the bold taste of
Mighty Wings.

incredible spice and
massive flavor they’re
signaling in
a new era.

Be amazed at their
Delight in their
Gasp at their

And see for
yourself how
they can lead 
your meal to 
any day of
the week.

Powerful stuff, and right off a McDonald's tray liner. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Art Yes, but Not in a Vacuum

I made the distinction in my last blog post between writing for "art" and writing for a market. I argued then, and continue to argue, that trying to write for a market is a fools errand because no one knows what will sell. No one knows what the market will buy. (The exceptions, of course, are those writers who have established a market for their works: Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King., etc., etc. The rule seems to be: If you want to write a best-selling novel, it helps to be a best-selling writer already.)

But if you are not writing for a market—and I don't think you should—if you have a story you want to tell, a vision you want to share, can you just put it down and send it into the world? I get the impression reading some threads that there are people who believe believe this. They feel their thoughts, feelings, perceptions are so fascinating that all they have to do make up sentences. It is an issue with which I have tussled all of my working life as a fiction writer: Just because I think a character is fascinating (often because the character has been based too heavily on myself) does not mean that anyone else thinks the character is interesting.

Everyone needs an editor, especially everyone who plans to self-publish his or her own fiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran a column by Betty Kelly Sargent making this point. She points out there are four kinds of editors: developmental, substantive, copy, and proofreaders. Four functions, all important.

She writes that substantive editors start their work once you have a decent first draft. "They help you find your voice and nurture it. They may ask you to rewrite a section or delete a character who isn’t bringing much to the party. They will ask all kinds of questions…your prose for readability, and your plot for plausibility. They suggest where to cut, to expand, to go deeper. They make sure you keep up the momentum, and point out where a character’s behavior doesn’t make much sense, or her dialogue doesn’t ring true." These are all matters that arise because we, the writers, have not been able to obtain enough distance from the work to see them. We need a skilled outsider to point them out.

Whenever I have taught fiction-writing, I have tried to maintain the attitude that the task of the students is to write whatever they want. Mine is to help them express whatever they want to convey in the clearest, most effective, most engaging way possible. Art yes, but unless it connects to another person it is a form of self-pleasuring.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Art versus Commerce

I belong to two writer's groups on LinkedIn, am a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, and I regularly look at writer's blogs. Many of the people who review self-published books are self-published themselves and so  comment on the writing life. A question that seems to come up often is a version of, "How do I write a best-selling novel?"

In an earlier post, I suggested that no one knows what will sell. But if you are interested primarily in selling, then you write the kind of novel the market seems to be buying: a romance, a mystery, a thriller—something in a popular genre that a publisher understands and that a bookstore manager knows where to shelve.

The problem with that approach, it seems to me, is that your book won't be very good unless you love the genre and know its conventions so well you can play with them, thereby setting your novel apart from the flood of romances, mysteries, thrillers, vampires, zombies, and werewolves now being published. Unless your novel is extraordinary, you will have difficulty finding a publisher and engaging an audience. Even if it is extraordinary, it may not sell.

The other approach, of course, is to ignore the market and simply write the best book you know how, trusting that your work will find a publisher and readers. These thoughts were provoked by Alice Munro's award in October of the Nobel Prize in Literature. A recent search of the University of Texas archives turned up Munro's rejection letters. As The Daily Texan reported, "One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, Dance of the Happy Shades, said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, Lives of Girls and Women, in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. 'There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,' Jones wrote."

Senior lecturer Brian Doherty, who taught a entire course on Munro, said, “[It’s] depressing when you consider so many writers change their approach to writing and their approach to literature in order to increase salability. You have to really respect the writers who labor in obscurity because they believe in what they’re doing even though they might not get notoriety or Nobel Prizes.”

So I guess the question I ask is: Is it better to labor in obscurity because you think you can sell to a market, or because you want—need—to tell a story whether the market thinks it's salable or not?