Category — MFA Sunday School
Being a novel writer but publishing a short story yesterday raises the obvious question: how do you know if you should write a short story or a novel? Are they structured the same way (no), are they similar to write (no), and can you take a short story and make it long (usually not well) or a novel and make it short (sometimes a little easier)? They really are two separate beasts, with the commonality being that they are written with words that are formed into paragraphs.
Before I explain the differences between short story writing and novel writing (and how you know which one to write), I want to thank everyone who downloaded my story, “Nidah,” yesterday. It meant a lot to me that you would jump from blog posts to women’s fiction all the way over to a vampire infertility story with me. To be honest, for me, it spoke volumes about trust: about trusting a writer to deliver a certain type of story, and I don’t take that trust lightly. So thank you. Enormously.
[And for anyone who still wants to read it, you can download "Nidah" right here, as well as read the first few pages of it over here. Please give it a chance. With sugar or whatever incentive you need on top.]
Okay, so short story vs. novel. How did I determine that Rachel Goldman would get the novel treatment and Nechama Tannenbaum would be contained in a short story? It all comes down to presence. You know how there are some people that you meet who immediately make a strong impression on you, and you know when you walk away from the first conversation that you have a connection or you were taken in or your interest is piqued? Those people are short stories. You know how there are other people that you meet who remain on fairly neutral ground until you get to know them? Those people tend to dig their roots deeply into your heart, and then one day you see them and you realize that you’re hooked: they are part of your life. Those people are novels. Neither one is better than the others; they’re just different.
I was in Spain for three weeks, and we only had two books to read: Portnoy’s Complaint and Lolita. (I know, seriously, who planned the novels for that trip?) I ended up reading Lolita about 8 times in a row while I was there. Even though it has one of the best novel openings of all times, (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”) the story itself is a slow burn. You aren’t smitten with Humbert Humbert from the first page. He needs time to build some comfort with the reader (if it comes to you at all — I’ve heard tale of people who don’t like Lolita). I was pretty far into the book before I realized that I cared about the characters, I cared what happened next. A novel gave Nabokov the space and time to build that relationship between character and reader because, let’s face it, if he had tried to shove that character on us in short story form, we probably would have made a face and walked away. No one in that book is an easily likeable character. But the pace of a novel allowed the reader to warm up to them.
So first ask yourself: do my characters need time to allow the reader to warm up to them? Is my plot line immediately interesting, or do I need more time to build the action? Can people jump into the world easily, or will they need to be led in slowly?
The contrast is a Raymond Carver short story. Grab any of them. I’ve talked about “A Small Good Thing” before, so let’s go with that one. You immediately wonder why the baker is so curt with the woman. Carver hooks you on the first page, and you keep reading because his personality is like Chekhov’s gun. You know that it’s going to be explained by the last page because it’s the element Carver is waving around on the first page. And you have to assume that the reason is going to pack a punch. And it does.
Novels are a series of jabs. None of them do more than knock your head around for a bit. It’s a long drawn out fight. Short stories are a thirty second knockout with a single blow to the head. They pack a punch; they make you feel something deeply in a few pages. People usually read short stories in one sitting; it makes them feel something intensely in a short period of time. People usually read novels in many sittings; and while certain scenes may stick with you (remember, series of jabs), they don’t have the same impact. The exception being major events that occur after the reader is deeply invested. Think about all the jabs from the Harry Potter series that happen in books 5, 6, and 7. Now move those same deaths to books 1, 2, and 3. Would it have affected you in the same way? I’m guessing not. So remove those sorts of jabs because they are sucker punches, and go with your average free-standing novel (vs. series). Most of those jabs may stick with you as you go about your day, but they rarely have the impact that a story story has to affect your mood/occupy your brain.
So now ask yourself, do I have a slow burn type story on my hands or do I have a raging inferno of a plot line? Can you get under the reader’s skin in a short amount of time, or do you need space to build all those individual jabs until you take them to the emotional knockout at the end?
I started out my MFA program as a short story writer. My mentor asked me during my first semester if I wanted to try my hand at writing a novel. I said sure, and he gave me a few guidelines for building a novel and then told me that the only way to learn novel writing was to do novel writing. My first novel felt like a long short story. It’s in a box somewhere. My second novel felt like a weird novel/short story hybrid. I was getting closer. I graduated from my MFA program and wrote a third practice novel. This one read closer to a novel. I decided it was time to stop practicing and start attempting to do so I wrote my fourth novel (yes, we are talking about thousands of practice pages at this point). That novel is still unfinished, though I will complete it one day. And then I wrote my fifth novel: Life from Scratch. It took five long tries to move from short stories to novels.
“Nidah” is the first short story I’ve written in a long time. In some ways, it was hard to go backwards; to write a short story after getting comfortable with the pace of a novel. I will say that it’s a bit easier to go from novels to short stories (vs. going in the opposite direction) simply due to length. It is easier to keep a short story in your head as you edit and mentally see the whole trip from start to finish. It’s much messier to edit a novel. “Nidah” plodded along on the first try at a novel’s pace but edits fixed it. So why write practice novels and not practice short stories? It all comes down to length and commitment. Short stories are a short commitment and worth editing. A 400 page practice novel… not so much.
This is getting long. If people are interested, let me know and I’ll write a second post about structure; how one goes about constructing a short story or novel that keeps moving forward without getting away from the author. Especially the idea of tiny jabs vs. a 30-second knockout.
January 31, 2013 8 Comments
I am definitely returning to MFA Sunday School again and already have a list of subjects lined up, but I am going to take a short vacation from writing about writing. School will be back in session quite soon.
August 12, 2012 No Comments
So you’re still practicing that budgeting of writing time that we started in lesson three, right? I know you’re not, so don’t bother telling me that you totally still write for 15 minutes a day. I know you’re a liar because I’m one too.
You will need to get back into writing at regular intervals once your summer travel or altered routine is over. Slowly and steady work is better than writing spurts because it is difficult to jump in and out of a project. If you complete a page daily, you could have 7 decent pages by the end of the week. If you wait to write for three hours on a random Tuesday because you’ve finally made time, there is little chance that you’re going to walk away with 7 decent pages because you’re going to spending a chunk of that writing time just trying to remember where you wanted to take the story. Believe me, I speak from experience.
But then there are times when you literally can’t write. Maybe your computer is broken, and it’s the only medium where you can organize your thoughts so writing long-hand would be a waste of time. Maybe you’re out of town, and you’re not going to spend your trip crouching in the hotel closet so you can write by yourself for fifteen minutes. Maybe life is too damn busy to even give 15 minutes. I’ve had a summer like that where I’m going to bed at 1 am, and the thought of staying up until 1:15 am just to check writing off the to do list feels like too much. So I let it go.
And now all I do is think about how I’m not writing.
I think about it when I’m in the grocery store, and I think about it while I’m in the car, and I think about it when I finally have two hours to get something done but I choose to get ahead with other work before writing because I’m not currently facing a deadline. And I feel enormously guilty about it in the same way that I feel guilty when I go days without exercising or days without practicing the guitar. I feel like I’m getting out of shape, unlearning things, and now I’m going to have to play catch-up when I finally get back to writing again.
And while that’s true — I will have to play catch-up and get back in a writing routine when life returns to normal — it isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Taking a much needed break or concentrating on other things that need my attention is just as important as any writing project. That sometimes you can’t help it, but life gets in the way and makes it a terrible time to write but a wonderful time for something else.
Writing isn’t a race where if I don’t keep up, someone will pass me. Writing a solitary activity that requires a certain amount of mental recharging along the way; sometimes just a stretch or a few hours, and other times, a few weeks between two projects. That non-writing time is not non-productive time: you are always writing inside your head, dreaming up characters, noticing small details that you’ll work into future writing, reading things that will influence the way you write. It’s all part of the larger package of writing, so even when you’re not writing… you’re sort of writing.
Sometimes I just need to write a lesson like this for me as much as it may also be for you.
Homework: If you’re in the middle of a good writing routine, keep writing. But if you’re not and you’re kicking yourself for not writing at the moment, take an idea collection day. Go to a museum, read a book, watch a movie, people watch, go on a walk — in other words, do some non-writing writing.
Next week will be the 18th MFA Sunday School, and it seems like a good time to pause the class and ask if there are any questions, not just on things we’ve already covered, but thinking ahead to aspects of writing or publishing that we haven’t reached yet where you have questions. Please use the comment section below to post any writing or publishing related questions you have.
And a heads up — we’re going to be starting an interactive query letter lesson soon.
This was the 17th lesson for the MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.
August 5, 2012 4 Comments
Penelope Trunk made big buzz a week or two ago when she wrote that even though she had gotten a book deal with a traditional publisher, she had opted to self-publish. While I have a feeling the blog post she published is only part of the story since some of the facts just don’t add up and others are embellished, the question the post raises is a valid one: should more people self-publish?
I want to start out this talk by stating that while I opted for the traditional publishing route, I think self-publishing can be a very good option and there are certain people I would encourage (including my future self if the situation arose!) to go down this route if the second choice was to have the book languish in a desk drawer. I think as long as you go into self-publishing with your eyes wide-open and an understanding of how it differs from traditional publishing, you can do very well for yourself. And I also want to state here since I don’t want it misunderstood that while traditional publishing and self-publishing differs, I am not saying that one is better than the other. They are two very very different processes that have very little in common, so I think it’s technically literary apples and oranges. But I like apples and I like oranges; neither fruit trumps the other one.
So let’s dive into this.
Traditional Publishing and Self-Publishing is Apples and Oranges
Wait… let’s back up for a second. What do I mean that they’re apple and oranges? Unless you hire a team to edit, design, and market your book (and even if you hire a team to do so — I’m sorry to be blunt but quality and expertise matter), self-publishing your book is the equivalent of going down to Kinkos and xeroxing your manuscript, putting a glossy cover on it, and then waiting for people to buy it. It looks like a book so we call it a book, but there is a reason why it takes a year or longer to get a book from manuscript to bookcase with a traditional publisher, and it’s not because they’re inefficient.
There are a lot of pieces that go into creating a book that will move copies, and that is what you are getting with traditional publishing: a team of people who know how to structure a story or frame an idea into a way that people will want to consume it. They know how to design a cover that will entice people to pick it up as they walk by it on the table or see it online. They know how to build buzz and get the book into influential people’s hands at the right time. They know how to price things, and when to move the price, and how to deal with bookstores. Do all publishers do their job as well as others? Well… no. There is a reason why some publishers are very successful and others are not.
Now, is that finished product better than the self-published book? Maybe yes or maybe no. It may have lost a lot of its rough charm in being polished up, stretched and molded by the traditional publisher. So again, we are not talking about better or worse, but we are talking different. And that is why bookstores will rarely carry self-published books. They want work that has been vetted, that has gone through a process where they know the product will sell. They may miss out on great books by going that route, but they have to go that route in order to ensure the quality of what they have on their shelves. And there are too many decently-written-but-needs-a-good-edit self-published books out there mixed in with the gems that I am so glad have been self-published because if they hadn’t, they may have never seen the light of day because no one would take a chance on it in the traditional publishing world.
Publishers Make an Investment on Your Creativity or Intellect
The reality is that when a publisher takes on your book, they are making an investment in your creativity or intellect. That is all a publisher is — an investor in the creative. They coddle their investment and make sure it will pay off, but it is less about the writing and more about what sells. There are fantastic books out there that no one will take on because they don’t believe they can make enough money off of it to make it worth their time. And that’s why I’m glad self-publishing exists — because it fills the gap so seemingly unmarketable books don’t fall into the oblivion of a desk drawer. But a lot of times, when an agent or a publisher isn’t taking on your work, it isn’t even a statement about the quality, but it is a statement on the saleability of your idea. Yes, there are books that pop out of the mold such as 50 Shades of Grey, but those stories are few and far between.
There is a canary that you can send into the coal mine to see if self-publishing is worth it to you; if you have a chance of moving a lot of copies, and this canary is free (at least in terms of money; it will cost you a lot of time): it’s your blog. Your blog is a good indicator of how well you’ll do with self-publishing because even with traditional publishing, it’s part of your platform. It’s part of what you will use to sell books.
If you have substantial, on-going traffic, that blog may have enough kindling to start a purchasing fire. How many page views or unique visitors is enough to deem your traffic substantial? Who the hell knows — but let’s work with the idea that under 1% of your readership will pay to read something you wrote. If you have 100 daily readers, you have sold one book. If you have 1000 daily readers, you have sold ten copies. 10,000 daily readers and you’re up to 100 copies. Okay, let’s go with a more generous 5%. That’s 5 books/50 books/500 books based on those readership levels. Are you starting to see how hard it is to make things add up? There is no way to know what percentage will pay since your readership isn’t constructed out of paying readers. It’s constructed out of non-paying readers, and that is another way that this becomes apples and oranges. What people love when they are receiving something for free is very different from what people love when they’re paying for it. If you price your book well, you may move copies to 50% of your readership. That’s 50 books/500 books/5,000 books based on those readership levels, and hells yeah, it would be nice to sell 5,000 copies to serve as your kindling (hopefully once those 5,000 begin to spread word with reviews and such, the book will catch fire). But if it were truly that easy to sell 5,000 copies of a self-published book, the traditional book industry would have folded a long time ago. And it’s still standing; which makes me wonder how many copies the average self-published book sells.
And if you read that article, you’ll see that the author fronted $7,500 to get a book of quality self-published. You certainly don’t have to spend that much to get your book self-published, but you do get what you pay for. And you will need to invest in yourself with self-publishing as opposed to traditional publishing where the publisher invests in you. Work out in your head how many copies you will need to sell in order to break even on your investment.
But If I Have to Help with the Marketing, Why Don’t I Just Self-Publish?
Traditional publishing houses are expecting their authors to do a lot of legwork in the marketing of a book, and some people say that if they have to do that, they might as well self-publish. But what they miss out on is the network, marketing skills, and boost you get from the traditional publishers’ name. People were willing to take a chance on my first fiction book not because they knew me but because they liked other books my publisher put out. I would have never tapped into that audience without them. They moved an extraordinary number of e-book copies — many many many more than any percentage of my daily readers. My readership for my book turned out to be a percentage of people who read my blog, but a much larger percentage of new people who found me via my publisher or Amazon or a review site. I am so grateful that the world of traditional publishing brought us all together. Marketing with traditional publishing is a team effort. Marketing with self-publishing is entirely on the author’s shoulders and whomever they hire.
Back to that Canary-in-the-Coal-Mine Blog
So why did I call your blog the canary in the coal mine? Because here you have your product — words that are plucked and shaped according to your writing style — and you are handing it away for free. You can judge how many people like your product, how well you’re doing at getting eyes on your product, and frankly, get a little feedback about your product before you invest any money into self-publishing. If you have steady, substantial traffic and a strong understanding of how to tap into more traffic from time to time, you probably are in a good place to self-publish. If you have a small but loyal following and you only want to move a small number of books, go for it. But if you don’t have people reading your blog when it’s free, it may make sense to invest in growing that readership first before you try to create what amounts to the same product — words — and charge for it. There are plenty of things you can do to organically build traffic, and if you have decent content and are willing to invest the time it takes to connect with people, you can increase your readership. It’s worth the effort if you want to self-publish a book (or use a traditional publisher) since that blog will become part of your platform. It’s time well-spent, and building those relationships is actually what your traditional publisher has done to create their own network that they use to sell your book. Can you do networking as well as a traditional publisher? Then you don’t need them. But if you can’t, you may now see why traditional publishers are still very much needed.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
There are a lot of places where I disagree with Penelope Trunk on her post. Publishing houses ARE a brand, and yes, their sites do move books. If you need a book about sharks and there are two — one by Random House and one self-published — which are you more likely to buy? If it were my money, I’d invest it in a book from Random House knowing the facts have been vetted vs. going with the unknown, even if the unknown got better reviews. I don’t know the reviewers, but I do know the quality of a Random House book. Maybe that’s just me, but I think the fact that we can all name publishing houses points to the fact that houses themselves are brands.
And then there are places where I agree with Penelope Trunk; publishers need to get good at working the online world (though they also need to remain strong with marketing to the offline world). I went with a publisher who is exceptional at creatively marketing to the online world, and I love them to pieces because they do such a good job being flexible and trying new things. Smaller publishers tend to be able to go with new ideas just as smaller boats can change course easier than a large boat. There are plenty of traditional publishers who excel at online sales, and there are plenty of authors who don’t really know the first thing about marketing. So it isn’t an either/or situation. It’s knowing where you excel, and also admitting that something may be outside your expertise.
Where does that leave you? With probably a lot to mull over. I hope this lesson wasn’t discouraging but was instead illuminating so you don’t have a disappointing experience. I think self-publishing is a great thing when people go into it with realistic goals in mind, and a very frustrating thing when you are told by people that it’s the next! great! thing! when in reality it’s an uphill trudge to school both ways. Self-publishing is a lot of work and requires money invested in yourself upfront. But it can also have a really great payoff in the end; and I don’t just mean a financial payoff. The emotional payoff has to be taken into account as well.
Homework: Okay, let it rip — what are your questions about self-publishing, what are your thoughts on what I wrote above, and I’d love to hear from self-published authors to chime in on what worked for them.
This was the 16th lesson for the MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.
July 29, 2012 4 Comments
Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work, or peruse all of the past lessons as well as a glossary of terms by reading the MFA Sunday School Glossary and Course Archives.
You are a writer, and like all people who create things, you are going to run into rejection. You will be rejected when you write a blog post and no one reads it/comments on it/or comments negatively. You will be rejected when you query agents. You will be rejected when you submit your work to magazines or publishers. You will be rejected when you find an agent to take on your project and they are shopping it around. You will be rejected when you ask for book blurbs or reviews of your book. And finally, you will be rejected by the very people who take the time to read your work and don’t like it.
The question at the heart of this is why put yourself through it knowing that this is the case? That all writers are doomed to experience heaps and heaps of rejection with only a few tasty morsels of accolades to sustain them from project to project. Why would anyone choose to live that way?
I think it was best explained by Ethel Merman and company in Gypsy:
The costumes, the scenery, the makeup, the props
The audience that lifts you when you’re down
The headaches, the heartaches, the backaches, the flops
The sheriff who escorts you out of town
The opening when your heart beats like a drum
The closing when the customers won’t come
There’s no business like show business
Like no business I know
Everything about it is appealing
Okay, so not everything about the writing life is appealing, but yeah,
The paper, the cursor, the comments, the books
The readers who get what you are saying
The rejections, the queries, the exasperated looks
It’s work when others think that you’re just playing
The blog post when you know you’ve said it best
The last manuscript passed on like all the rest
There’s no life like the writing life
Like no life that I know
Er, sorry, Mr. Berlin.
But truly, you write because you can’t not write. And you work towards publication because you crave that connection with the reader, even if that connection comes in a package which by default includes rejection.
And no, there is nothing enjoyable about rejection. Though I can’t find the story online, there is a famous one circulating out there about my old advisor at college who wallpapered his room with rejection letters from literary magazines, spit-in-the-eye to all those people who didn’t take his stories. He ended up taking them down because they made him feel like crap, but the real spit-in-the-eye wasn’t laughing at rejection but not letting it stop him. If he had stopped writing, if he had take all those rejections to mean that he wasn’t an amazing writer, he wouldn’t have had this long career as a novelist.
The reality is that rejection happens for many reasons beyond the quality of the project itself. All editors and agents are looking at your work against all the other work they have in hand (or can predict having in the future) and they weigh it out, trying to make strong financial choices for themselves since publishing is about money and writing is about art. Writing and publishing actually have very little in common. What makes a good publication doesn’t necessary make for good writing, and good writing is often passed over because it can’t be marketed well.
When I was a literary magazine editor, I wanted to say no to every story that crossed my path because no’s were easier than yes’s. A “yes” meant work on my end: I had to contact the writer and send a contract and pay them and edit their work and… “no” was just a form letter in an SASE. Of course I also had stories I accepted for each issue, but I had to balance out subject matter and length and all sorts of things beyond a great story. There were so many wonderful stories that I passed on, and when I had the time, I wrote each of those authors directly to let them know exactly what I loved and how sad I was that I couldn’t use it. I knew it was still rejection, but hopefully it helped the sting.
So, first and foremost, reframe how you look at rejection of your work. You have rejected dozens of things today. You turned down all other outfits in your wardrobe to wear the one you have on. You turned down all other breakfast options to consume the one in your stomach. Think back in life to all the friendships you didn’t take and all the people you didn’t continue dating. How many of those rejections were about the worth of the road not taken, and how many of them were choices you made without any meaning attached to the rejections? I ate yogurt for breakfast, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t like eggs or vegetarian bacon or cereal. And I hope those breakfast foods aren’t silently crying because I didn’t pick them. It has nothing to do with them or their worth and everything to do with what I was in the mood for in the moment.
And the same is true for your rejections. They may have nothing to do with the worth of your work and everything to do with the mood or the needs of the beholder.
Knowing that, the exercise I presented this week to get past a bad comment is the very same one I use after I lick my wounds whenever I’m rejected. Feel free to engage in this little greyish schadenfreude to get over any hurt feelings you’re experiencing, and then get back to writing. Write a post, send another query letter, or take a deep breath and continue writing your book.
Because there is no life like the writing life.
Homework: None this week! Keep writing.
July 22, 2012 3 Comments