Saturday, August 24, 2013

Portland Writers and Beyond

Having kicked around Portland for two years now and skirted around this thriving writing community, my circle of writer friends has expanded. Let me begin by stating that Portland is a beehive of busy hands on keyboards. At least three large writers' groups maintain significant memberships here. Many agents and small publishers operate in the region. And the number of coffee shops to writers is probably 1:1. I can walk to five coffeehouses within a quarter of a mile of my home and end up meeting another writer just like myself. The only difference between us would be that I'm still lugging around a PC rather than a Mac. (Unrelated aside: Wish they'd open a new place for writers that sells pizza with lattes.)

The big names in town, whom I've seen from afar and am once removed, are Chuck Palahniuk (his site) and Cheryl Strayed (her site). Chuck is the king of Portland fiction and has written for years with great acclaim. His best known work is Fight Club, though he has many more titles worth reading. Cheryl has recently come into her own with the huge success of her memoir Wild. They are by no means the only writers in town who have done well or who write for a living. Many, many others work here, too. (See Patrick deWitt, who was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Daniel H. Wilson, whose book Robopocalypse is being made into a movie of the same name; and Delilah Marvelle, a successful romance author.)

My more intimate circle includes the lesser famous, but no less dedicated. 

I recently met H. Joseph Hopkins at a writing conference and struck up an acquaintance. He fell happily into a book deal. Ten years ago. His book will be released next month! He has written a children's book about Kate Sessions, the woman who almost single-handedly changed San Diego into a lush paradise 
because of her love of horticulture. He visited the city many years prior to writing his book and became fascinated by Sessions. Already interested in writing, he took his idea for the book to a writers' conference, and one night, feeling inspired, he wrote the book and read it to the group the next day. An illustrator in the crowd mentioned it to her editor at Simon and Schuster. The editor passed it to another editor, who loved the idea and concept. After years of give and take, a few office departures and life's ups and downs, Simon and Schuster will release Joe's picture book Sept. 17, The Tree Lady: The True Story of How One Tree-Loving Woman Changed a City Forever.


Marjorie Thelen and her dear John
Marjorie Thelen and I also met at a writing conference and became good friends navigating the brave new world of indie authorship. Marjorie has been writing seriously for ten years. Tired of the slog toward traditional publication, she decided to self-publish in December 2011 and has never regretted it. She just released her fourth book, High Desert Detective, which I'm reading now and loving. Marjorie is a super person, a sharp storyteller and an all-around interesting character. She lives on a ranch in southeast Oregon with a garden, chickens, roaming cattle, an unwelcome skunk and a volunteer-fireman for a husband. When she comes to Portland, she gets giddy walking through our fancy grocery stores. She also likes a good beer.


Sally Lehman
Sally Lehman has been my shoulder to cry since I landed in town the summer of 2011. One of the kindest persons I've met in the area, Sally pours herself into the study of good literary techniques and good authors. She follows the Portland literati scene pretty intensely and has studied with some heavy-hitters. She has written four novels, three of which she has self-released off and on. I've greedily read one and am reading another in critique group. She has a strong grasp of style and narrative. For being such a gentle person, she also has a twisted mind, but in a good way. To get a sense of her work, read the latest customer review of her shortest novel, Small Minutes, on Amazon.


Ava Collopy
Ava Collopy is the bravest writer I've met in Portland. That's also how she lives her life. She writes without imposing limitations on herself. Perhaps because she was home-schooled or always had to be her own best friend, she goes about her writing projects without any negativity or self-doubt. This is highly unusual in the writing world. There are times that I've had conversations with Ava and thought: "You're only 27?" She's a sage in pixie form. I miss her since she left her Portland home last year to follow her heart to Dublin. She fell in love with a traveling Irishman and married him on Valentine's Day. Her writer's eye focuses on minutia and the inner worlds of complicated people. Her latest release is, appropriately, The Self-Made Woman.


Saturday, August 17, 2013

Like Jane Friedman Said, There are No Rules

Jane Friedman, the most web-savvy of publishing and writing experts (her website), used to write a blog called "There Are No Rules," a title I have come to take to heart in my pursuit of a writing life. It took me a while to understand her point. The success of a writer can materialize in many ways and no two ways match. Why does one writer succeed and another does not? There's no pat answer to any route to a good career. The more friends I make who are writers and the more anecdotes I hear about other writers, the more this truth bears out. However, usually the life of a professional writer (and I mean fiction) is hard-won. For the most part. The most successful writers write well and write often. These two are tied together: if you write often, chances are your writing will improve. But you can't stop learning and you can't stop considering feedback. Unless you don't need it anymore to sell books (rare). Then, you may have an audience who'll follow you into strange territory (case in point, anyone reading Joyce Carol Oates lately?).

I'm in the pack of the unpublished. This will not always be true. I will publish and soon I will be in another pack: of those trying to build audience. This is an elusive blob: audience. It's tied to platform (where do you reach your audience?) and genre and good, writerly manners, the relationships you develop with readers and with other writers. How do you, as a writer, build goodwill? Does goodwill help you sell any books? It might help you in the beginning, but your work has to bear out.
Photo by me.

Your writing has to please readers. Main goal.
It will not please every reader. Impossible goal.

I also believe there is a huge difference in the kind of writer you want to be: commercially successful or critically acclaimed. These can overlap, but commercially successful writers (ie James Patterson) and critically acclaimed (ie Jonathan Franzen) write for different reasons, in my opinion. Sure, both want readers, both want to make money, but one writes in bulk, the other as social commentator. I believe much of the trendy advice to new writers today, with the exception of those in academic writing programs, has to do with making it commercially. Writing as an entrepreneur. Believe me, the business side of this career choice could drive anyone to drink (my go-to beverage, anything within arm's reach), but when does the entrepreneurship overshadow the underlying reason why I'm writing in the first place: because I enjoy it and because I'm good at it (your opinion may differ).

Does all success bear out in the bottom line of a sales report? If it does for you, then you are in good company these days. How many times have I heard in the last year, 'This is the best time to be a writer!' Yes, the publishing options are mind-numbing. Consequently, the opportunity to be financially successful could be likened to the Gold Rush. Start panning for readers, gents, and we'll strike it rich.

I didn't start writing a book because I wanted to be rich. Many people have said to me when I tell them that I've written a book, 'You're gonna be rich!' Not likely. Maybe in my wildest fantasies. But I wrote a book because I had an idea, I gave into a creative urge and I kept at it. And I'm still writing because of those reasons. Will I make money? Oh, I sure hope so, but it's not the reason I'm here writing this or anything else.

Your opinions welcomed.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Novel Writing Techniques from 2013 Willamette Writers Conference

Snappy blogpost title, huh? The titles of my posts are beginning to sound more like newspaper headlines than hip blogger riffs. Which gets me closer than ever to trying to push out my self-help book (**) about publishing--how we're all doomed to failure in this venture called novel writing. So, maybe a few of these tricks might help you. Won't hurt.
Not enough coffee in Portland for a 10-day rewrite.

Plagiarized Writing Technique #1

(BTW I misspelled plagiarized on first pass)
It's not plagiarism when a writer gives a workshop about revising a novel and uses another writer's advice about how to revise. (I exaggerate. You know my MO by now.) Confused? Don't be.

The workshop I attended at #WWcon13 called The Ten-Day Revision presented by Laura Whitcomb (her website) included her own techniques and those of other writers. Here's one that sounded fun to me. She credited Donald Maass, (his website) who wrote The Breakout Novelist. Ask yourself before each scene: What is the motivation for each character? Then, write those ideas down. Five for each. Then flip motive #1 with another motive, make it interesting. Meaning, pick an edgier motive, or the motive at the bottom of your list, to guide your character's actions.

For instance, I've been struggling with a scene in my third novel. In it, the main character has just shared an intimate moment (read: stolen kiss) from his best friend's girlfriend. Oops. They realize their misdirected affections, but ... The next scene is him pursuing the woman he thinks he wants to marry. What are his motives for making a beeline to her? Because he's:
1. hot and bothered from having kissed the wrong girl
2. not in love with his best friend's girlfriend
3. wanting to take control of a situation that is out of control
4. directionless
5. really in love with his best friend's girlfriend

Okay, #1 was my original thought going into the scene, when the better answer is #5.

Plagiarized Writing Technique #2


Laura Whitcomb credited Noah Lukeman (his website) for this technique: change the major words in a paragraph without changing the meaning. Here's another way of saying it: rewrite a passage but make it mean the same as before. (There, I just did it.) Or more precisely: change a word from green to chartreuse. A few of those changes will stick and make the story stronger. Also while you're at it, get rid of all the adjectives and adverbs in a paragraph and see how it sounds.

Plagiarized Writing Technique #3


This is Laura's own technique, which she calls Shortcut to a Scene. She says it helps her write scenes faster. First, quickly outline what must happen in the scene. Second, make some quick notes, your best guess, on dialogue but don't bother writing the attribution/dialogue tags/dialogue beats, just the give-n-take. Finally, write a "heartstorm" (really love that word). Meaning, as fast as you can, write about what the scene feels like, sounds like, looks like, in 10 minutes or less. Now, write the scene from your notes.

Plagiarized Writing Technique #4


This technique is from a session with Danny Manus (his website), who consults on screenplays. Akin to interviewing each of your characters, he suggests:
1.Write five adjectives/traits that define your protagonist and antagonist.
2. Describe how each of these traits are shown in your characters.
3. Outline five ways your character(s) came to be on Page One.
4. Write five ways your characters will change by The End.
5. Describe your main character's instinctual response to conflict.
6. Write five "deal-breakers" for your character and break at least one of them (ie: Character B won't go on the mission with A, therefore A can't go for some reason).

Plagiarized Writing Technique #5 and final


If you have two or more instances of serendipity, rewrite those plot points.

Got all that? Okay, go write. Easy does it.


Monday, August 5, 2013

Willamette Writers Conference Roundup

Are you a writer? A serious one? Go to a conference. Suck up the fact that you'll need to spend some unearned money from your soon-to-be-published bestseller to pay the ^*+~! registration fee. Or volunteer. It'll cut the cost of the conference to an edible bite, and I pledge the Living On Ink guarantee that you'll learn something.

I can now state, after three years, that I am a regular at the Willamette Writers Conference, which just ended. My legs ache. My brain is cramped. My networking hormone has flatlined. I always promise myself at the end of these get-togethers to kick it into overdrive. Act like a real writer. Write every day. Submit every day. Platform build every day. No wonder my brain is revolting.

I'll breakdown my experience at the 44th annual writers conference in Portland, Ore., to memorable moments. Inspiration. Laughs. And Technique.

Inspiration at Willamette Writers Conference

I heard Jennifer Lauck give two presentations last year, and I'd forgotten how inspirational she can be to any writer. She's a memoirist who teaches in Portland at The Attic, and she's trying to break into novel writing. During a lunch presentation, she basically called everyone out. Get over your self-loathing and write the damn book. To write hers, she says she writes every morning before doing anything else. She doesn't open her email. Or look at Facebook. She doesn't edit or review her work from the day before. She opens her laptop, checks the page count on a yellow sticky note (her high-tech accountability tool) and writes another 10 pages. Then she crosses off the page count and scribbles down the new page count. Even though she has four published works of non-fiction, she hasn't found a publishing home for her novel yet. She's written it and rewritten it. She brought proof in several stacks of paper. She says her novel has taken 10 years. Sound familiar?

Laughs at #WWCON13

Luke Ryan (R) poses with a screenwriter for a groupie shot.
The funniest sessions I attended happened to be with two Hollywood types. Producer Luke Ryan, who Hot Tub Time Machine, and Danny Manus, a script consultant, both can tell a good one-liner. Ryan outlined how Hot Tub Time Machine went from pitch to final cut. Screenwriting is not a pretty process. Pretty insane, but not pretty cute. About 27 versions of the script were written before the picture ended. Some of those scripts arrived while shooting was already a month underway. I lost count of how many writers he said took a stab at the screenplay. Nineteen? I'm probably way off. His mantra is: You will be fired. Ryan ended up playing a part in the movie -- the guy in the bear suit. MGM is making a sequel (the whole room at the conference moaned at this point, too), but Ryan won't be producer. He doesn't work for MGM anymore, but he will return as the bear.


Danny Manus wanted to work in films forever and one of his first screenplays in college received a B- minus from a professor. He berated the teacher for giving his precious script such an awful mark. Years later, after learning the business of filmmaking, he went back and read his own script. Then he called his teacher and apologized. She didn't remember the script, though she did remember him. Or so he says. Manus reads lots of scripts. Lots, as in hundreds in short periods of time. Plus, he has a stable of readers reading for him. He says he assesses scripts using a 150-point checklist, all in his head, of course. If you are worthy of consideration, they'll boil down your hard work to a one-page critique. Is it a project worth doing or a project worth trashing? Check here, here and here. BTW, don't do a biopic about yourself. He reads hundreds of those, too.

After hearing these guys, I'm not so sure a screenplay is in my future. But the money sounds good. A script can earn the original writer a standard fee of $107,000 and as much as $225,000. Wow. Double wow. And, a script is about 90-120 pages versus a novel's 350.

I'll write my pointers on Technique in a blogpost later this week.