Monday, November 15, 2021

Finding Your Jam

 

To repeat a favorite idiom: find your jam.  Connect with something you prefer, desire, love. 

Recently a friend and I were discussing the state of the business of writing. Publishing is a business, and a very dispiriting one. Yet, it's important to remember: the business is external from the craft, and it is open to very subjective opinions and the whims of trends.

 The dreadful truth is the odds are against us.

But, as once said by old friend long gone (and my own dear Dumbledore, Emma Dryden later reaffirmed, so we know it's true), writers write. Everything else -- everything external -- is beyond our control. However, writing is an internal process. As such, we focus on what we can control: ourselves. Take classes. Teach classes. Read books about the craft. Study mentor books. Adapt, rethink, refocus. Take chances. Leave your comfort zone. Write something new. Write something different. Submit, and submit again. Persevere. 

To cite another idiom: We do our best and leave the rest to the universe.  

 Or, as Neil deGrasse Tyson offers much more eloquently --  and really, who else knows more about how the universe works than the mighty Tyson:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.” -- Neil deGrasse Tyson

Recently I discussed one source of motivation.  Considered “a master class in novel writing,” Story Engineering,  by Larry Brooks (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011), takes a deep dive into story architecture. As Brooks offers, “…in their execution, stories are every bit as engineering driven as they are artistic in nature.” In other words, the technicality (or criticality) of the story is as fundamental as the creative.  

“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorate. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human brings.” -- Larry Brooks

Brooks is quick to admit that a writer can have all the right ingredients, perfectly stirred, and it turns out bland. Or, to put it another way, it’s possible to assemble in perfect order that perfect body. But without that creative spark, there is no life. Think Frankenstein’s monster. 

So enthralled with his Story Engineering, I picked up another of his books, Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant (Writers Digest Books, 2015). He begins his discussion with this powerful statement that encapsulates my recent discussion with my friend: This is a book about the writer within.The book is like a bootcamp for writers, no matter what stage in their career, focusing on the revision process. He states: “When we approach revision with the idea of creating something more enlightened and empowered, rather than just making the writing itself technically better, truly wonderful things can happen.” 

According to Brooks, there are two essential realms of revision: the story idea, or concept; and the execution.  The story idea should offer a dramatic premise, a thematic stage upon which characters reveal themselves.  Revisions from this realm can be challenging because the writer must take a deep dive into the original premise. Too often, writers tweak the execution of the story, but ignore the raw material, the inherent nature of the story.  He offers the example, “It’s like polishing a Volkswagen to prepare for a NASCAR race. Shiny isn’t the point.”

Likewise, the story’s concept may be compelling, but the narrative may be too slow, bogged down by too much backstory, or the characters are too one-dimensional. Maybe there’s not enough tension, or the pacing is off.  Brooks identifies and examines twelve crucial elements that address these two revision realms. As one reviewer noted, the book isn’t just about revision, “it’s about resurrection.”

Turning my attention to the business of writing (because understanding how the business works helps to inform our strategies in surviving the challenges of the business), I read Law and Authors: A Legal Handbook for Writers, written by literary agent and lawyer, Jacqueline Lipton (University of California Press, 2020). This is an extremely reader-friendly book that decodes complex concepts such as copyright laws, the difference between copyright and trademark, the difference between public domain and Creative Commons, how much is Fair Use, and the difference between self-publishing, independent and hybrid authors. She takes a deep dive into contracts, both agent and publisher. Targeting the agent agreement, she highlights several questions the author needs to ask potential agents, such as if the agency contract is a book-by-book contract, or will it cover multiple projects (i.e. career building). Will the agent continue to represent you if they don’t sell your first book? How can you tell a good agent from a bad agent, and what happens if something goes wrong? 

She addresses the many, many minefields often found in a publisher’s contract, discussing the specific rights a writer is selling or licensing. And, of course, she explains royalties on a level that even an lumpish loggerhead  like myself can understand. Sorta. My takeaway: negotiating a contract is not for the faint-hearted.

Indeed, the odds of getting published are low. Some say 1000 to 1. Others say it’s less than 1%. Or, as Harold Underdown offers in his still-relevant 2010 article, the odds stink

But in the end, does it matter? Yes, somewhat. Be aware, but don’t let it define you. Because, as Harold explains, “Any editor can tell stories about times when they opened a submission and read a manuscript that they just couldn't put down and knew right away that they had to acquire. This may have been a manuscript that had been seen by dozens of editors, or they may have been the first one. That didn't matter.”

Writers write.

Find your jam and go with it, and leave the rest to the universe. 


-- Bobbi Miller

Free Jam Image Clipart Library

The Powers asked for a bio. I'm never good at these things. Writer of middle grade fiction  featuring real kids with real emotions dealing with real world issues. Armed with an MA in Children's Literature (Simmons) and an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults (VCFA), I was a contributing writer to Anita Silvey’s The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators; a contributing writer to American Dissidents: An Encyclopedia of Activists, Subversives ..., Volume 1.( Kathlyn Gay, editor. Books include Big River’s Daughter (Historical Fantasy. Holiday House, April 2013) Recommended by the International Reading Association, the Historical Novel Society, and was nominated for the Amelia Bloomer Project (American Library Association, 2013). The Girls of Gettysburg (Historical Fiction. Holiday House, Fall 2014), a Hot Pick on Children’s Book Council for September 2014, an honor for the 2015 Thomas Jefferson Cup Overfloweth and an honor for the 2015 Paterson Prize for Books for Young People. 'Nuf said.

3 comments:

  1. Thanks for the excellent article highlighting the intricate balance of the essential building blocks of a compelling story.

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  2. This is such a great article. I need to bookmark it and refer to it again and again. AND I need to look up those books. (And I love that Emma Dryden is your own personal Dumbledore. Emma is fabulous.)

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  3. I love that distinction between story and execution. Once you realize they're two different things, it changes EVERYTHING.

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