How to Take a Great Author Photo–With or Without Cats

Since I’m married to a playwright, I know a bunch of actors and have gotten to see lots of lovely headshots in my time. But most actors are used to being in front of a camera. Authors aren’t quite as prepared for their author photos. Why can’t we

Fortunately, Scribner has some suggestions for making your author photo work:

Get your laser beam eyes ready, everyone. And don’t forget that crucial index finger!

(image: Scribner Books)

The Work of Writing, the Joy of Writing

As everyone in the reading world probably knows at this point, Philip Roth is retiring from writing. When he made this announcement, I wondered if it was like the Rolling Stones saying, “No, guys, seriously, last tour.” It’s hard for artists to pull away from their craft, even if they’re getting tired. But it sounds like Roth is done with the work of writing. He recently told a young writer: “But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

My reaction:

Fortunately, Elizabeth Gilbert also takes major issue with this advice and can craft a way better argument than my gif. (Scratch that, gifs are the best argument.) She argues that while writing is difficult and it requires real work, it’s also one of the best freaking jobs you can have:

“Compared to almost every other occupation on earth, it’s f*cking great. I say this as somebody who spent years earning exactly zero dollars for my writing (while waiting tables, like Mr. Tepper) and who now makes many dollars at it. But zero dollars or many dollars, I can honestly say it’s the best life there is, because you get to live within the realm of your own mind, and that is a profoundly rare human privilege.”

As someone who does not make many dollars at writing, I can still say that even when it’s hard, it’s great work. It’s fulfilling even when it just amounts to a Word document on my computer that will never be seen by human eyes. Maybe some people don’t realize what kind of effort and time are involved in writing and probably shouldn’t get into the business. But if you love the act of creation and letting your mind make connections and maybe seeing readers make those connections, then write.

Make sure to read the whole article, because I think we need more writers who give validation to all that a writing career can be.

(H/T Jennifer Malone)

Quote of the Day

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.”—Roald Dahl

I’m glad to hear Dahl, whose works feel so perfect, talk about how essential revision is. It can be frustrating when your critique group or editor says “This is great, but I’m confused about this and I need to see more of this and what about this?” It can feel like revision is a neverending process. You just want to be done already! But that’s what most of writing is. You start with the rough information, and slowly your characters and plots and themes start to come together.

I started work on Queen of the Air back in 2008 or so, and finished the first draft in 2009. The revision process has ebbed and flowed since then, but I was never “done.” And I’m still revising and editing. From talking to author friends, it seems like revising and editing happens almost until the final copy of a book is available in libraries and bookstores. But that doesn’t mean it’s all banging your head against the wall–it’s crafting and refining and making your story as awesome and compelling as it can be.

Click through for more quotes about revision.

(via Flavorwire)

Write Posthumously, Edit Currently

Adapted from a speech given to the 2012 Whiting Award winners, Jeffrey Eugenides implores writers to “write posthumously”–to take a step back from the writing world and deadlines and money and fame and critics, and to write according to a deeper and more lasting truth. Forget about what your readers expect, what your critics want–just write.

I like a lot of that advice. No matter what stage of the writing game you’re at, there’s a lot of pressure. How can you get an agent? What do editors want to read? How can I make this book more marketable? How can I win an award, and write a second novel that will win an award? That kind of thinking doesn’t necessarily get you award-winning novels. At the end of the day, I want to write books that touch people or make them laugh or explore what it’s like to be alive. It’s hard to do that when you’re trying to think “But I hear that vampires/dystopias/mermaids are really popular!”

Eugenides says: “When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive.”

For me, writing felt like the most natural thing you can do with some paper. The world has so many stories! Why wouldn’t you want to tell them all? So when I’m feeling stuck or under pressure, I try to remember what it was like when writing was about fun. It was about having a blank sheet of paper one minute and a full one the next. It was about getting to that place inside your head where the world retreats somehow and the characters start to move and talk. That’s a good place to be.

Of course, that’s the ideal writing life. In real life, you have editors and agents and readers and critics and, heck, a rent to pay and you can’t always write exactly what you want to write exactly when you want to write it. At the Millions, Todd Hasak-Lowy suggests writers take Eugenides’s advice with a grain of salt. Sure, we should write without the demands of the publishing industry in mind. But writers also have to deal with these issues. Your agent may say that your latest project isn’t going to sell. Your editor may not be into the minor character you love. Maybe no one shows up to your reading. Maybe you get a bad review. From talking to working writers, this stuff happens way more often than we’d like to think. Writers need to be prepared for the realities of the business side of writing, not just the creative side. I like Hasak-Lowy’s suggestion for what authors should do:

“[The] so-called writer has to wear all sorts of hats: writer, reader, editor, negotiator, businessman, self-promoter, etc. And only the first of these hats should never be worn outside one’s private necropolis. The next two have the odd responsibility of communing — patiently, cautiously, and courageously — with the dead self. The rest must find of way of coming to terms with life among the living.”

When you have your writing hat on, forget the rest of the world. You’ve got a story in front of you–focus on that. But you need to understand how to deal with the rest of the world, too, and part of that means putting on new hats. Over the last few months, I’ve talked to several writer friends about the “follow up book” and developing a solid reader base. And that doesn’t always include writing your secret favorite idea first. No matter what stage of your career, you need to recognize the realities of being a professional writer.
Still, that doesn’t mean Eugenides is wrong. The writing is what matters. We’re here for the writing, not for the money (ha) or fame (ha) or cool book swag (bookmarks!). Even if your writing career doesn’t bring you all the success you hope for, you’re still craft characters and finding the right words to express those deep longings we all feel. And that’s pretty awesome.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

At the end of the year, it’s easy to look back on former resolutions and feel sad about those goals you didn’t quite accomplish. But author T. Michael Martin is here to tell you that it’s okay if you didn’t have the most amazing year of accomplishments ever. Sometimes those disappointments and setbacks are leading you on the road to your ultimate writerly goals:

Let’s be honest: setbacks suck, and it’s okay to feel disappointed. But writing is also a really hard career without a set path. There’s no reason you should feel like your novel has to be published by the time you’re 30 or that you have to have an agent before the end of the year or that this is the year you need to support yourself by writing books full-time. Being a writer means always having to deal with bumps in the road and insecurities and setbacks. Everyone is dealing with this–you’re not alone. Even if you see fellow writers who seem to have it all, I’m guessing they’re dealing with their own stresses and disappointments behind the scenes.

Case in point: author Jo Knowles and her post about her goals and dreams for 2012. In case you don’t know Knowles, she has several awesome and (what I consider) successful YA/MG books out. In her post, she talks frankly about financial disappointments and missed promotional opportunities. I was really relieved to see that she continues to face challenges in her writing career as well. She also mentions a lot of great things that happened this year–a necessary reminder to not forget the good things that happen, too.

So tonight, I hope you can accept any disappointments you may have experienced over the last year and remember all the good things that happened. And don’t worry–whatever path you’re on, whatever challenges you may face, there are a lot of other writers who are right there beside you.

Advice from Debut Authors

At YA Muses, debut authors share the best writing advice they ever got. Lots of great suggestions to take into the new year. A couple of my favorites:

“Don’t be easy on your characters. If there’s no conflict, there’s no action, and without action, your characters go nowhere.” – Laura Ellen, author of BLIND SPOT

“What is the worst thing possible that could happen to your character?  Make it happen.” – Robin Bridges, author of THE GATHERING STORM and THE UNFAILING LIGHT

I think all writers can benefit by pushing their characters more. If your characters aren’t facing significant challenges (note–significant can be really small and personal, too), the reader won’t care about their journeys. And if the conflicts are easily resolved, the readers will be able to guess the outcome before they read it. You want to keep your characters and your reader surprised.

I also like:

“”It’s okay that it’s taking you so long to write your book. Books take time.” -Mike Jung, author of GEEKS, GIRLS and SECRET IDENTITIES”

Writing a book takes time. You write the first draft, you revise, you critique it, you revise again, you try something else, you revise again, etc. It’s a long process, and that’s okay. That’s not to say you should let your draft lag. You should be working on it–but don’t be frustrated if your first draft isn’t your final draft. This is art, guys; it takes a lot of work.

My own debut advice? Writing is always work. You think “If I could only get an agent!” or “If I could only get published!” but those things don’t change the fact that writing is about you sitting down and getting the work done. But it should also be fun. When I’m frustrated with a draft, I try to remember how I’d write (really bad) novels when I was in middle/high school and how much fun it was. You get to create worlds and investigate interesting people. It may be work, but it’s also the crazy coolest work out there.

Make sure to check out the full advice post, and feel free to share your own best ever writing advice in the comments.

Inventing Characters

From this interview with Barbara Kingslover:

“Like all authors, I’m asked if characters are biographical, if I put people I know into my fiction. You can see from my process that that would be impossible for me. I begin by seeing a narrative, so I can’t put people I know in it—they simply wouldn’t behave properly, they wouldn’t be cooperative and do what I asked of them. So I invent the people I need, and that’s a lot more fun anyway. I can continually refine the characters, their histories, and their damage, until they are exactly the right people I need.”

I think this is one of the best responses to the “Who’s this character based on?” question ever. I hate when people assume that fiction comes entirely out of your life experiences. I tend to find the particular characters who are experiencing this particular story. Sometimes that matches up with things I’ve experienced or heard about in real life, but a lot of the time it comes from learning more about that character and that story.

Do you tend to invent your characters, use people you’ve met in real life, or a combination?

Ghosts and Evil-Doers Need Love, Too

I don’t tend to write scary stories, but after these tips from Cornelia Funke about creating a good ghost story, I’m tempted to give it a try. My favorite tip:

4. Give your ghost a life story
“Decide where your ghosts come from. How many are there? Do you tell the story of one or many? Were they once human? If yes, were they He or She? Grown up or child? How did they die? When did they live? You can make them historical characters like I did in Ghost Knight, which is so much fun and vastly inspiring. Or do you deal with a spirit of demonic origins? In short: Give your ghostly hero a biography. Imagine them so clearly that you feel them behind you. What does their voice sound like? Do they have one? Is their breath cold or hot?”

I like the reminder that ghosts aren’t just ghosts–they used to be living people, or maybe they’re demonic. But they have a backstory just like any other character.

If ghosts aren’t your thing, try this article about what makes a villain. Villains aren’t just mustache-twirling, cackling evildoers. They’re people, too, and have their own pain. I love this point about using stability/instability to ground your villain:

“So again: what upsets stability? How about something as simple as losing a loved one? How about being the target of hate because you accidentally brought about the death of your mother? No robots, no armies: just a broken heart that refuses to mend. And its breakage is what makes the motivation so sharp, so defined. Any prophet can march with an army, but it takes a harsher, personal edge to define yourself according to such local revenge. And there’s no reason this personal grievance can’t have a powerful, earth-shattering impact as big as a dragon army.”

It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Mary Shelley: “No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness, the good he seeks.” Your villain should be on his/her own journey, and he/she probably thinks he’s doing what’s right–either for himself or for society in general.

So take a little time today to think about the evil and creepy figures in your stories. They deserve to be as complex as your heroes.

(image: JudeanPeoplesFront)