Posts Tagged David Sedaris

Everyday chaos. Just another day in the genesis of a book

I had been intending to bring you a craft post this week as I’ve written a guide to suspense for Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s Writers Helping Writers blog. But I mistook the date because I’ve been immersed in my current book, but it should come out in the next few days.

Speaking of which, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is maturing nicely, which means we’ve reached the stage of gentle, hair-tearing chaos. I thought I’d share it with you, in case you’re going through book production chaos too, or to prepare you in case, at some point in the future, you strike an iceberg. And to reassure you that if everyone keeps their heads, it comes out right in the end.

At the moment, I have chaos in two departments. The inside of the book and the outside.

Inside

I’ve put the text through a thorough developmental thrashing, had scourging feedback from Dave, and sent it to two trusted readers, who are seeing it for the first time.

You could not receive two more different sets of responses. They both think it’s 90% fine, but their suggestions for tweaks show that they had radically different ideas of what the book would be. Expand the vignettes, said one. I love the vignettes, said the other. Add more of this element to fortify the climax, said one. Add more humour, said the other.

The bottom line: something is slightly off, and I have to figure out which set of comments is most in tune with my vision for the book.

Outside

Cover design is under way. I had an initial concept, got favourable feedback, changed my mind, got another concept, got favourable feedback about that, and also now conflicting feedback. (I’m not going to reveal the options here until I’m further along because it’s easy to contaminate a jury … and I might need you guys for a mass vote later!)

Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve got my foot on both the brake and the accelerator at the same time and have to figure out which one to choose. And I’m not a mite frustrated. It’s always the way that the things you thought would be easy are difficult, and the things you thought would be difficult are easy.

But I have to remind myself of this when a comment gives me headaches: everyone involved cares about this book. They have its best interests at heart. And I am lucky to have them.

More chaos

But wait, I also have chaos in a third department: publicity and marketing. I saw a post this week from Jane Friedman that said: ‘Don’t publish your diaries. You’re not Sedaris.’ Later, it reiterated: ‘Don’t publish essay collections or vignettes. You’re NOT SEDARIS.’

Why this prohibition? Because unless you’re a Person Of Significance, diaries, vignettes etc are impossible to sell. Jane’s advice is commercially sound (and is aimed at writers who are seeking traditional deals).

I already knew diaries etc are hard to sell, which is why I recently embarked on an important task – to find comparison titles.

Which brings me to chaos #3. I can’t find any comparison titles.

Book marketing folk say that there’s no such thing as a book that doesn’t have comparison titles, but so far I haven’t found one that’s a close enough fit, and I have gone cross-eyed browsing the stacks of LibraryThing, Goodreads and Amazon. I don’t think for one nanosecond that that I’ve invented a genre, but I’m feeling, rather like the title of the book, lost.

What did my critiquers say? Um, it’s not really like anything.

Big help.

But I do understand the market a lot better now. And I know what the book is not. It’s not unified by fashionable issues or whacky modes of travel (bicycle, barge, battered camper van). There are no backpacks. The territories aren’t exotic (jungles, tiny forgotten railway stations). It doesn’t contain wisdom for others, or a journalistic hook (conspiracy theorists, scandalous confessions). It’s not a book about moving to a country where lemons grow, or dragging a fridge there.

It’s quieter.

That in itself is surprising. In my fiction, I like the extravagant concept. But those stories are also knitted from quieter yarn, and that’s what Not Quite Lost is  – the kinds of people I’m curious about, what amuses me or appeals to my sense of whimsy, the scent of the mysterious in an ordinary place. While my novels are the bold performances with proscenium and drama, these are the small details. The props. The originals of the characters and places.

Not Quite Lost is like an artist’s sketchpad. An album of songs. In fact, I find those to be easier comparisons because its most distinctive qualities are not so much its content, but its style – things that are hard to translate into algorithms and categories.

I will continue to search for comparison titles. But in the meantime, if you can suggest any I’d be grateful.

Chaos is the rule

Just last week I went to the launch of The Pagoda Tree by Claire Scobie (you saw her on this blog a few months ago when she was raising funds via Unbound ). Before the launch she confessed to some behind-the-scenes hair-tearing, when some of the book’s files got corrupted, erasing several rounds of refinements and corrections, which meant everybody had to start proof-reading again from scratch, and get it finished in no time whatsoever.

It happens, but we come through in the end.

Thanks for the swan pic USFWS Mountain Prairie on flickr

Are you going through book production chaos? Have you been through it in the past? Let’s swap war stories.

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How do I develop something special in my writing?

special in writingI’ve had this great question from Lindsey Maguire:

I’m a 15-year-old high school student whose biggest dream is to be a writer. I’m a good writer, but there’s nothing special about my writing. I was wondering how I could start to practise my skills and to become better over time? How did you start off? Also, I have absolutely no idea how to start a novel, even though I’ve tried for years 🙂

What a lovely question. Let’s tackle it in stages.

It can’t be rushed

First of all, don’t be in a hurry. Styles don’t develop overnight. They soak into you from your reading. Which leads me to…

What are you reading?

You also mentioned in your email that you read a lot, but how varied is your diet? Are you sticking to just a few genres, eras, styles of writing? These will colour the way you express yourself and may limit you if you don’t cast the net as wide as possible.

As well as fiction, read poetry, and notice how words are more than just their literal meaning. Become fussy about nuance, moods, resonances, flavours; the mischief in ‘twinkle’ versus the hard edge of its cousin ‘glitter’. Relish the variety our language gives you.

Learn what you are made of

So how will you be distinctive?

Like analysing a compound in a chemistry lab, we learn what we’re made of from the things we react to.

What are the styles you like and why do you like them? Ditto for themes, characters, settings. Do you like the unconventional? Is there a genre that pushes your buttons (I’ll include literary fiction here for the sake of argument)? These will become part of your writerly signature.

When you’re with friends, notice what’s distinctive about the way they talk and think. How is that different from you?

Here’s another point. What do you want to do to readers? Unsettle them, amuse them, tie their brains in knots, awaken their political awareness, warm their hearts, chill their marrow, stir them with ambiguities, distil the human experience, resolve their troubles? All of these? These intentions – whether in an article, short story or a book – will be a hallmark of your style.

Try lots of ideas

Every now and again you’ll discover someone who blows a hole through your idea of what good writing is. Let it tenderise you to new influences; soak it up and see what it shows you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. It doesn’t mean you were wrong until this moment. Mimic their rhythms, their sentence structure, the types of things they would notice. Enjoy the workout. After a while your new passion will wear off and you’ll regain a sense of proportion. That doesn’t mean you’re lost again. You’ll have added a few genes to your writerly DNA.

How long does it take?

Our style develops through our lives. Some writers become distinctive early. Others blossom later.

Most of us don’t stop wishing we were a bit more special, or perfect. Every year, we might think we’ve finally ‘found it’ and chafe at the work we can’t undo.  Evelyn Waugh often said he thought Brideshead Revisited was gluttonously overwrought.

le moulin 286Yours truly: how did I start off?

I started by apeing other writers I adored. As a teenager, any good book would send me scurrying to my room to try a new voice or story style. My typewriter got a lot of exercise. After college, I began to try novels and I went through a very visible (to me) Graham Greene phase, then Vita Sackville West, then Jack Vance, then Gavin Maxwell. When I read those writers I could think of no more perfect way to express a story.

One day I realised I didn’t feel I had to imitate any more. I could write as me and that was okay. That doesn’t mean I am no longer poleaxed by Graham, Gavin, Jack or Vita, or all the other thousands of writers in whose company I take pleasure. I still learn from them, all the time. But I no longer feel the need to eradicate and start again.

Honesty

This is personal, but for me, special writers have a quality of honesty on the page. It makes me comfortable in their company; willing to travel with them, to accept their voice as the companion to my own thoughts. Read good non-fiction and notice how authors do this, how they burrow for the truth even while they amplify, assert or exaggerate. Three of my favourites for this are Verlyn Klinkenborg, David Sedaris and Gavin Maxwell (I told you I liked him). Aim for that candid quality in your own work, even when you’re trying on other tics and techniques.

nyn soloAnd finally… how do you start a novel?

Some people just plunge in and write, muddle their way along. Clearly that hasn’t worked for you. In which case, are you looking to prepare material before you write? I have a book that will guide you through… (all together now…): Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books & How You Can Draft, Fix & Finish With Confidence… (now recommended by university creative writing departments, which is nice)

 

What would you tell Lindsey? Let’s discuss!

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