Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Former ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with books of my own. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award). Humorous memoir: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Series for writers: Nail Your Novel.

Homepage: http://rozmorris.wordpress.com

What I wish I’d known at school: two instructions for making a creative life

A few weeks ago I posted about exercise and my ineptitude at school sports. In the far warrens of the internet, somebody at my old school pricked up her ears and wrote me an email.

We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with words of advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’

What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?

Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.

So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.

First, follow your interest.

In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.

The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.

After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Three and Not Quite Lost).

My second tip is this: make your own rules.

In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.

All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.

So, to pursue an artistic life:

  • Follow your interest.
  • Discover your own rules.
  • Definitely stare out of the window.
  • Don’t worry about the sport.

But perhaps pay a bit more attention in maths.

What am I working on at the moment? Here’s my newsletter. Click here to receive updates

Tell me your thoughts. What would your school-age self like to have known about making a creative life? What advice would you give?

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Five tips for writing good prose

How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?

We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.

Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.

The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.

We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

And

He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.

Tip 3: Suit the occasion

Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.

For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman

It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.

More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.

All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Find books you want to savour

I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.

Tip 5: Try many styles

A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.

Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.

Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.

Here it is in a nutshell:

1 Strive to be understood

2 Develop an ear

3 Suit the occasion

4 Find books you want to savour

5 Try many styles

Or: to avoid this

Do this

Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me

Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.

 

What am I working on at the moment? Here’s my newsletter. Click here to receive updates

Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?

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Thinking on your feet: writing and my love-hate relationship with exercise

At school I loathed exercise. I had all the left feet possible. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t see balls anyway without specs. All creatures know when they are disliked, and I sensed how the games teachers loathed me. By the same token, they surely knew I did not hold their subject in high esteem. This is my school magazine. None of these people are me.

Looking back, that might have been one of the first signs that I should be a writer. Writers are creatures of brain and imagination. The sports offered by my school were the opposite – charmless, inane and pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum, or at least my nature does. Especially a vacuum of interest. Nothing on earth could make me interested in netball, hockey, rounders, and the summer torments that involved throwing, jumping and running. Again, none of these people are me.

These days, though, I run or take a class most days a week. What’s changed? Certainly I’ve learned to love movement a little more in its own right. But chiefly I value it as headspace.

Well it’s not news that exercise helps you think. If you want a bit of science, here’s a piece about it in the New Yorker by Ferris Jabr @ferrisjabr. If you like hiking, hop along to the blog of my friend Jane Davis @janedavisauthor , who recently published a collection of interviews with number of writers who walk including Yours Truly.

For me, exercise is a chance to unplug an idea from the clutter of desk life. It’s not just escape. The movement adds its own seasoning. I notice that endorphins make thoughts travel lighter, along straighter lines. I’m more confident to consider radical changes. Fatigue is also my friend. Impatient for a tiring session to end, I discover – and solve – problems I didn’t know were there. Some of the grit drops into my thoughts, adding an interesting edge. Amy X Wang @amyxwang talks about this in Glimmer Train, where the pain of intense exercise brings vigour to the page. Sometimes I find the results, back at the desk, are sublime. Sometimes they are ridiculous, but hey.

The Prime Writers @theprimewriters , on their blog, posted about exercise for contemplation,  inspired by literary running addict Haruki Murakami. Some, though, were looking for exercise to provide a drastic escape from their thoughts. Jon Teckman @jontwothreefour said he started taking military Boot Camp training, because it was so agonising that thought was impossible.

I’ve yet to find that state of oblivion myself. No matter how gruelling the exercise, nothing turns off the tyrant book. Not quivering through my 160th rep in Body Pump. Not pummelling a pair of sparring pads while being yelled at by a boxing instructor. If I’ve got a book in my bonnet, nothing can dislodge it. I can keep the brain in one dimension while the body battles in another. (With just one exception. Riding a horse, you’d better pay full attention or you’re sure of a big surprise.)

If you’re ever in a class with me and I appear to look meditative, don’t be fooled. I had a yoga phase about twelve years ago, which coincided with one of my ghostwritten thrillers. I remember standing and bending through the Sun Salutation, while I figured out what it felt like to drown in an ornamental pond.

Yes, I’ve certainly considered that I might be just as irksome to fitness instructors of 2018 as I was in the Class of 1970-whatnot, because they know I’m only half-there.

And here’s the thing. At school, what I hated was the mindlessness of exercise, the lack of mental entertainment. I need an occupation for the head while the hands and feet are doing their thing. I’m afraid this means I’ll never be the kind of person who seeks a state of mindfulness; it’s not the way I’m wired. But I definitely seek mind fullness. And now, exercise provides a very agreeable space to take an idea for a spin.

Actually, not Spin. I don’t think I’ll ever like Spin.

Tell me your thoughts! Love exercise? Hate it? How does it fit with your creative life?

PS if you want to know more about the books I’m wrangling while I run or test the patience of a fitness instructor, sign up for my newsletter.

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Umming and ermine – how to avoid getting in a right royal mess

As royals get hitched in London again, I thought this might be useful…

Nail Your Novel

Thank you, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for the pic

If the little wedding in London is sending your head awhirl with thoughts of court and nobility, you might like to know how to get your royals right

First of all, there’s a general hierarchy. Emperor beats king; king beats viceroy; viceroy beats archduke; archduke beats grand duke, who beats duke, then prince, marquess, count, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, hereditary knight, knight and dame. Of course, we don’t have all of those in England. And plenty of other countries have their very own courtlies such as csars. More about royal hierarchy here, plus how long those titles have been in use for all you historical fans.

Then there’s how you address them. If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’, as though you were addressing John Wayne. Marquesses and their wives are Lord and Lady with their place name…

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Movements, movers and shakers: publishers and authors as literary citizens .. an interview

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Pressin Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This is the final instalment. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?

Laura Our submission readers do consider marketing potential, whether the author has relationships with well-known authors who might blurb, and—most importantly—whether the author has built genuine community and relationships with indie bookstores.

We don’t measure social media account followers or anything of that sort, though.

Roz Speaking of which … You’ve built a great relationship with authors and bookshops and a supportive community within the writing world.

Laura I moved to Portland in 2001, founded a writing group at a local bookstore, and then proceeded to watch the literary scene and write fiction for 10 years. I didn’t know how to engage—or that I should engage. I didn’t realize I could speak up, or be part of the community, besides as a witness. When I founded the press, I built on those years of being present on the scene, and that credibility helped me earn respect, blurbs, and consignment deals with local bookstores.

Roz I follow you on Facebook and often see lovely pictures of you at your authors’ readings.

Laura Showing up and listening and supporting others is important, of course, and that’s really how I built my community. I founded my press nearly six years ago now, but I also had that decade of being present, of walking into indie bookstores and listening. Going to other authors’ and presses’ events is still very important to me. I encourage writers not only to show up at events, but to say hi to the people sitting next to them, to introduce themselves to the presenting author(s) when they ask for an autograph, and always bring business cards.

Roz What about the Main St Writers Movement? (Reader, if that’s familiar to you, you might have seen it here.)

Laura I founded Main Street in February 2017 to urge writers to support each other at the local level—and their indie bookstores—as a way to strengthen the literary ecosystem. The movement crystallized out of the core values I have as a publisher. One component of Main Street is amplifying underrepresented voices. If your voice is well represented, or if you have social capital, use your voice to direct attention to stories that need to be heard. Don’t hog the mic; pass it. Don’t take up all the space with your words; leave space for others. We’re in this together; we need to have parades for each other and celebrate each other’s achievements. This is an anti-competition movement, a togetherness movement, and quite frankly, a quest to get writers who want to establish professional careers to actually support publishers, literary magazines, and booksellers, which strengthens the industry and then in theory creates more space for more voices. It’s really, at its most basic level, what I’m doing to fight the erosion of reading culture.

We have a Main Street pledge and newsletter, which is on hiatus right now, because I’m focused on a publishers’ speaking tour. I talk about community at every gig, no matter what the topic. Then I challenge my audience to do something: attend a reading at an indie bookstore, or volunteer at a school, for instance. I’ve been to Pasadena, Tucson, and several Portland events already this spring promoting these values and trying to inspire others to do this work too. Because a movement isn’t about a founder; it takes all of us.

Michael Ferro, author of Title 13 (Harvard Square Editions) has been quoted publicly about reaching out to me for advice, only to have me connect him with publishing community members in his own city, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a great example of what Main Street can be, because he took the example I set and is now passing on what he knows to others. If we all reach out and share what we can, we’re going to uplift each other.

Roz Michael Ferro? Small world. I saw that post, tweeted it, we then got chatting on Twitter and he’s writing a post for The Undercover Soundtrack. I love what we can do simply by saying hello.

Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?

Laura Figure out your business model, your distribution method, your initial number of titles, and the cost of running the business for the first two years. Don’t forget to factor in printing costs, mailing costs, design software, freelancers, Internet access, and everything else you’ll need to make your business run. You’ll find helpful and accessible information in Joe Biel’s forthcoming People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, forthcoming in late 2018 through Microcosm Publishing. If you want to do some reading right now, Thomas Woll’s classic Publishing for Profit is a great resource.

Laura – thanks so much. This has been fascinating, inspiring and empowering. Guys, you can find Laura at the Forest Avenue website, on Twitter @forestavepress, on Facebook and on Instagram

Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter

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A week in the life of a small press .. an interview

Laura Stanfill (left) and designer Gigi Little

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. This is Part 3. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Do you have staff?

Laura I don’t have a staff, but I have some wonderful editors, advisers, submissions readers, and a top-notch graphic designer, Gigi Little @gigiblittle , who has been with me since the earliest days. She created our gorgeous logo, and I love the aesthetic she brings to our covers. They’re unlike anyone else’s covers, and recognizable as ours. My editor-at-large Liz Prato is an invaluable team member who helps with building camaraderie among our authors as well as with submissions, social media, big-picture decision making, and organizing us to celebrate milestones. Everyone interested in learning more about submissions—and what not to do—should follow her on Twitter @liz_prato .

Roz What’s a typical day (or week or month)?

Laura Forest Ave is run from my office in the basement and my kitchen table as necessary. Sometimes from the couch. I spend a lot of my time emailing with other publishers and authors, helping them with questions or questions of access. In any given week I:

  • Help other publishers, or other publishers’ authors, because a few minutes of my time can help others succeed
  • Send out ARCs of upcoming titles
  • Communicate with multiple authors about where their titles are in the publishing process
  • Set up interviews, excerpt placements, etc.
  • Reach out to booksellers
  • Design, whether it’s promo materials or upcoming titles
  • Work on backlist titles
  • Work on my own writing

Gigi Little, Forest Avenue’s designer, also performs in opera

Roz How much editorial work do you outsource?

Laura I outsource covers, copy editing, and ebook production; I do the rest in house because of my newspaper background. I used to teach QuarkXpress to newsrooms with a focus on time-saving shortcuts, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to teach myself InDesign.

I have long lead times for each title because my sales reps want advance copies, marketing data, blurbs, and other metadata nine months before pub date. I also have a higher risk on each title, because distribution is expensive, we need to print a lot more advance copies than pre-distribution, and we have higher print runs than when I was selling books out of the back of my car.

Roz How many submissions do you get a month? How much time do you devote to looking for new material?

Laura I am officially closed year-round except for a period of weeks each year. Our most recent open submission period was four weeks, and it closed in mid-March.

Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?

Laura We gather a committee of eight (or more) women readers to help us make decisions. We give as much personal feedback as we can, since we gear up for this intense period. Moreover, we only publish two or three titles per year, so it doesn’t make sense to be open when we don’t have any slots in our catalog to fill.

This schedule also allows me to do the volunteer outreach I am so passionate about, helping mentor other presses and answering questions from authors who aren’t mine. That’s time I would otherwise spend combing through manuscripts. Occasionally I take a look at manuscripts when we’re closed—often from agents who have a strong sense of our brand or who have connected with me personally. And I keep a shortlist of possible acquisitions at all times—those books that almost made it, or would have made it if I had more openings.

Roz What’s been been successful for Forest Avenue? I’m thinking many readers here might be prospective Forest Avenue types…

Laura We’ve had success lately with shorter titles with some magical elements—playful, joyfully written manuscripts that don’t fit into a neat literary fiction box. Our bestseller is actually a regional short story anthology, City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, which received a lot of love from local booksellers and continues to sell to locals and visitors.

My sweet spot for length is 60,000- to 80,000-words. But in 2018, we have two novels that are longer than 100,000 words. Parts per Million is an activist novel, set in Portland, Oregon, and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether for Socially Engaged Fiction. The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred—out in November—is a comic epic set on the Isle of the Dead, which is ruled by six-foot talking birds. It’s the most fantastical of all our fiction to-date, while Parts per Million fits more into the category of recent historical fiction, which we established with Ellen Urbani’s Landfall in 2015. Landfall is set in the South during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it was our bestseller for quite a while.

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Laura I avoid misogynistic protagonists in fiction, even if the character grows into himself and changes throughout the course of the novel. There’s too much of that material in the world already.

Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?

Laura We work very closely with our authors over multiple revision passes. That being said, authors have one chance to capture a publisher’s interest, so we highly recommend submitting polished manuscripts. Others’ input, whether it’s from a critique partner, a writing group, a teacher, or a professional editor can help writers put their best work forward.

Recently at a conference, I met a woman whose manuscript came quite far in our recent open submission period; I was astonished that she hadn’t workshopped the book, hired an editor, or worked with beta readers. What she accomplished without that outside perspective was phenomenal, and I immediately started introducing her around to writers so she can start building community. I have no doubt that with some revision, she’s going to find a place for this book in the world. It was so well-written and original.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Laura I am a do-it-yourself publisher, and I founded my press without studying publishing or getting my MFA in creative writing. There’s no wrong way to become a writer, but I don’t think there’s one right way, either.

Roz I’m not sure if this will be a welcome subject or not, but many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?

Laura When authors ask me this, I tell them to dig deep into why they want their book out, whether they have a specific timeline, what they want the publishing experience to be like, and if they are comfortable with creating and implementing a comprehensive marketing plan. It’s also important for self-publishing authors to set a timeline that allows for ample pre-publication publicity. All of that is doable.

Author Joyce Cherry Cresswell self-published after we had coffee and talked about her goals. She used Indigo: Editing, Design, and More, which is a Portland-based, woman-owned, full-service editing business, to polish and publish her debut novel. A Great Length of Time became the first self-published book to win the Oregon Book Award in fiction.

Laura and friends – a lot of friends – at the launch of Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Yourdon

When I publish a book, an author gets years of my dedicated time and attention, developmental editing, a cover by an award-winning designer, hundreds of galleys sent to hundreds of booksellers and reviewers, high-quality photographs of any events I’m near enough to attend, and sometimes snacks from my purse. I also organize launch events, print postcards, advertise, and act as a publicist and author coach, especially for debut titles.

Plus Forest Avenue has a national and international presence, not to mention full-service distribution, which means we get books on shelves, and we can reach far beyond the author’s personal contacts.

Roz As I said in my comment on the previous post…

But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that you also write. Tell me about that. Are you working on a book at the moment?

Laura I write literary fiction and am represented by Laurie Fox of the Linda Chester Agency. And yes, I’m always working on a book! Or two. I am polishing the latest draft of my novel, and I earned a residency in September at the Mineral School in Mineral, Washington, to dig into a new project.

Roz You have an agent … is it too obvious to ask whether you’d ever publish your own work?

Laura I get this question all the time! And I’ve thought about it. After all, Forest Ave gets books on the shelves of indie bookstores, and when I break down the writer dream I’ve had my whole life, that’s the key component. Discoverability. Shelf space. Doing events at bookstores.

And I’m ready to step up and promote my work. But I’d rather have someone else choose my manuscript, and let me focus on the author role. I’ve wanted a debut novel out my whole life—since I was writing books in first grade and “publishing” them with staples.

Roz Obviously a press is a vocation as well as an occupation. Most of us in the literary community adore what we do – I simply love making books, so I relish the whole editing and production process. But we’re writers too and we need to protect our creative time. How do you protect yours? 

Creating community – Laura Stanfill

Laura Perhaps I should respond with what I hope to do to create more space for my work!

It’s been a struggle to justify working with my stories, and my voice, when I have advance copies of upcoming releases to come out, another speaking gig to prepare for, or emails from my authors to answer. I do take time off, usually during writing retreats, and I often find 30 minutes or an hour per day to work on a draft of new work. It’s harder for me to revise big novel chunks in compressed time periods.

Before starting Forest Avenue, I woke up early and wrote for an hour or two every day before work; that time these days is often used managing emails and handling kids who wake up too early.

Coming next time: publishers and authors as literary citizens

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Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.

Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.

Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.

Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”

“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.

Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?

Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.

Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.

Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.

Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.

Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.

You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?

Renee Macalino Rutledge launches The Hour of Daydreams

Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.

Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?

Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.

Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.

Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press

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Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Here’s Part 1. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Laura, tell me how Forest Avenue Press started.

Laura It began as a grassroots display of community. And as a way to keep my brain busy while nursing an infant through colic. I knew so many talented, hard-working Oregon authors knocking on doors in New York and being turned away. It made sense to create one more home for literature right here in Oregon, instead of trying to bend our aesthetics to appeal to East Coast tastemakers. Besides, there are so many long-running literary presses in Portland. I was surrounded by willing mentors, who held out their hands to me as a newcomer.

I’ve always had a strong do-it-yourself ethos, probably inspired by my dad, who founded a collector magazine and put issues out for years. That’s how I saw my press—and still do: as a way to bring people together around a common subject matter. His passion was air horns; mine is literary fiction. When we had the opportunity to go national by signing with a distributor, I took it. We do publish authors from all over the US now, but a high percentage of our catalog remains Northwest focused.

Roz Your website sums up the Forest Avenue personality – ‘a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.’ How did you develop this? How long did it take?

Laura That speaks to my personal taste as a reader, and how I want our readers to be surprised by our books; a lot of readers come up to me and say how refreshing it is to read titles that aren’t predictable. We’ve always wanted to create space for essential voices that weren’t finding homes elsewhere —authors of color, LGBTQ authors, neuroatypical authors, and other underrepresented voices—as well as amplifying other authors and presses who are doing this kind of work in the world.

Roz Was it your intention from the start?

Laura The personality of the press has definitely shifted over the years. One of the things I love to tell new publishers is that it can take some time to get clear—and then clearer—about your mission and goals and taste. And that’s okay.

Roz Did you make any wrong turnings?

Laura When I first started, I wanted quiet novels, because those were the ones New York kept saying won’t sell. Asking for quiet novels seemed like a statement of purpose to take that phrase back, to turn ‘quiet’ from an oft-repeated rejection to a celebration of character-driven fiction.

But after growing into my publisher self more, and really honing in on my reading taste, I realized I love more whimsical, quirky—and dare I say it—loud novels. Boisterous novels—whether through their unusual language, or their humor, or their ambition to say something in a way that nobody has said it before. Novels that carry us someplace else while lodging deep into our hearts.

Many of our releases in the past two years have some genre aspects, like Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, a lush and poetic evocation of a marriage from the point of view of a village. It’s based on a Filipino fairy tale about star maidens and its mix of gorgeous language and real-world grit is buoyed by the theme of how we as human beings tell stories about each other because we can never really understand each other.

One constant, which I didn’t realize until our readers began telling me that they appreciated it, has been publishing books that aren’t predictable, that don’t fit into a commercial mold. Their stories might go anywhere—and often whirl into surprising territory. Unpredictable territory. I want to believe our readers come to our books and experience wonder and delight, the way we felt as children, when the world of reading opened up.

Roz Wow. It takes a confident, masterful storyteller to pull that off.

Let’s talk more about story. There’s a perception that literary fiction is often disdainful of plot. Clearly some of this is personal taste – a book that is plotless to one reader is an up-all-night page-turner to another. But many of my favourite literary writers are also cracking story writers by anyone’s judgement. Any thoughts on the plot-plotless debate?

Laura After planting my flag on “quiet novels” and receiving submissions where the characters sat around and looked at each other, I realized I needed to retool my thinking. I love deep, introspective, character-driven fiction. I love language that takes chances.

Roz I do too…

Laura But I do love a good plot. And writers who do all of that well end up with not-so-predictable, evocative, and completely fascinating novels. And that’s what makes me happy as a reader and as a publisher. I want it all!

Roz Me too!

Laura There are plenty of small presses pushing experimental work out, and it’s great, but I land in this plot-with-deep-characters-and-cool-language side of the industry, and I’ve cultivated a readership of fans who love these kinds of books.

Julia Stoops

Parts per Million by Julia Stoops, just out from Forest Avenue, is one novel that blends detailed characterizations with a heady, forward-moving plot. Julia worked on the book—about a trio of eco-activists—for 10 years, and it was a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Three point-of-view characters propel the engine of the plot, which moves inexorably toward a stunning conclusion. Parts per Million is full of protests and environmental activism but it’s also built on the stranger-comes-to-town trope, where a young, sick woman who has nowhere else to go disrupts the household these three characters have built for themselves. We’re super-excited that we have a deal with Blackstone Audio for the audiobook.

Back to personal taste, in our first year as a press, my wise publisher friend Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books told me to publish books I love, because that’s how I would build a brand and a community of readers. We can’t please everyone and shouldn’t try, or we’ll fail. We just have to keep going, one book at a time.

Roz It’s so interesting to hear you describe this process. You’ve built a style for Forest Avenue in the same way as writers build their distinctive identities. We try a few things, find some don’t excite us as much as we thought, then we discover our true calling. Wonderful.

Coming up next time: marketing literary fiction

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Setting up and running a literary imprint – 4 interviews with Laura Stanfill of Forest Avenue Press

If you dig way back in the archives here, you’ll find comments from Laura Stanfill. She was an energetic correspondent in the early years of my blog and we’re both fans of the slow-maturing, carefully built novel.

In 2012 she went quiet and it turned out she’d been brewing an audacious project – her own publishing house, Forest Avenue Press (hence her Twitter name @ForestAvePress). It’s a testament to her energy that I heard plenty about Forest Avenue before I knew Laura was behind it, and once I did, I badgered her for a proper interview.

I’m thrilled that she’s agreed to talk about this pioneering journey, and especially the tricky business of building an imprint in one of the most challenging – and dare I say it, cautious – corners of the literary world. Actually, it doesn’t have to be cautious, as you’ll see.

Once we got talking, we had way too much for one blog post, so the Laura interview will be my theme for this week. Here’s how it will go:

Birth of a press – ‘I knew so many talented authors being turned away…’

Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’

A week in the life of a small press

Movements, movers and shakers – publishers and authors as literary citizens

See you tomorrow!

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What I learned about writing novels by failing at short stories – and how to make a short story into a long one

Lee Martin wrote recently on his blog about how he hadn’t intended to write longform fiction. He started with short stories, and graduated to novels only when an editor suggested it.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but that was also my path. Though I was considerably less masterful at it than Lee, who had a respectable bank of published shorts by the time he began the big one.

I started small, and writerly friends urged me to think bigger, mainly because short stories were a much more difficult sell. At the time, I didn’t think I had a novel in me, though I dearly wanted to find one. And, being a beginner, I had my hands entirely full with the craft basics. I couldn’t control more characters, threads, etc etc.

I also wasn’t good at brevity. This was the first reason I was unsuccessful. Whenever I looked for competitions or magazines, I’d bust the word count by several thousand. Even with strict pruning, I couldn’t bring one in under 5,000 words.

And then there was another problem. I was Miss Misfit. I was complimented for style and originality, but literary folk said I was too fond of plot. It didn’t help that I used concepts from science fiction and suspense. Try genre magazines, they said. ‘Try literary magazines,’ said the genre mags.

Much as I yearned for someone, anywhere, to publish me, I’m glad nobody did because I now see a more fundamental problem, beyond the style and subject matter. Even if I didn’t think I could write a novel, my concepts needed a novel’s scope.

In my work as an editor, I’ve often seen how rushing a powerful idea can make it trivial. Usually it’s most apparent with individual scenes, especially emotional ones – a turning point might look unconvincing if it’s too brief, but becomes a spellbinding showstopper if the writer slows and takes their time over every moment. I think this may be why I never had success with short stories – I was rushing a bigger idea. Blurting it out in a state of panic instead of giving it the space and pace it deserved. So the result was underbaked for literary people, and ungraspably off-beam for genre people. In short, I was shortchanging an idea that needed to be bigger. That’s not to say a big idea can never be a brief story, but I wasn’t suited to that approach.

I’m thinking about this because of Lee Martin’s post and because I’m now putting one of those old stories on a bigger canvas. As you might already know if you saw this recent post about the wondrous paradoxes of a slow writing process, Ever Rest began as 7,000 words and has now grown to around 110,000. You’ll also see from that post that I began with trepidation. In my mind, Ever Rest was frozen in that small space. Was expanding it even possible?

I’m happy to report it was, so in case you’re also in an expanding frame of mind, here’s what I’ve been doing.

Is it still the same story?

Good question. It is because some parts of the core situation are technically the same, like the two Westworlds, Fargos, 2001s, Flowers For Algernons. And here I shall be magnificently vague as I’m not ready to explain more yet.

The how-to bit: making the story bigger

Find the other characters who have a story arc

My original story was a single viewpoint, first person. I looked for other souls who had a significant experience triggered by the core event. Gradually the cast list grew. The original character became two and they are now such distinct people that I can’t believe it wasn’t always thus. The story is now third person, six narrators.

Go beyond the original timescale

Ever Rest original had a timescale of a few days, with flashbacks to childhood and teen years. Gosh, didn’t I stuff a lot into 7,000 words? What if I spent longer in those years? I free-wrote in the characters’ viewpoints, not planning anything, shooting footage until they did something surprising or moving.

Look for missing moments

As I pieced my footage together, I found a pattern of situations that were always worth writing. When character A first met character B, what made them interested in each other? When character X started to change their mind about situation Y, what was that moment? Sometimes it was apparent that key conversations were missing. I didn’t know how those conversations would go; it was more that I knew the opposite – the characters would not be able to keep quiet.

Brief moments become major turning points

This is one of the joys of the bigger canvas. Moments that the original story glided through – or never even looked at – can become turning points, or even twists.

The end of exploration

Some of my explorations went to dead ends. I had plenty of footage that was ultimately dull, though nothing’s ever wasted. Even if a piece of text doesn’t stay in the manuscript, it helps with your own knowledge of the book. There were also plot directions that felt forced, so I took them out again. (Hint: keep all your versions so you can undo.)

The big question is this. With so many possibilities, how do you know when you’ve got an idea to keep? I always found the answer was this.

When it felt like it had been there all along.  

If you want to know more about Ever Rest, and anything else I’m working on, sign up for my newsletter!

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