What Does it Really Mean to Work “Collaboratively” on Writing Projects?

Back in London when I was a teenager, I knew a boy who was very tall, very handsome, and very shy. He always had a camera slung around his neck. I haven’t seen him in over 30 years.

Not surprisingly, Dean became a film director and fashion photographer, and travels the world shooting the likes of Bradley Cooper, David Beckham, Katie Perry… and so on. We reconnected through Facebook a few years ago. In looking through his portfolio, I caught sight of a series he shot called 1980’s youth, and yes, some of the pictures are of my little London crew. What a thrill.

Fast forward a few years and I get an urgent email from Dean asking me to help him write a pitch letter for an independent film he wants to shoot. He’s looking for funding on an art film about a young autistic man. Before contacting me, Dean had already spent good money on a TV writer in LA who’d delivered a flat, inaccurate, ineffective letter. (And that’s being polite.)

Could I help him?

My immediate instinct was to say no. I’m in the middle of time-sensitive edits on a book, and I know from experience that this kind of work takes time and a ton of mental energy. I always care a lot about my writing clients (to an obsessive extent), but I knew I’d care even more about working with an old friend.

But… I was intrigued. I wanted to help him out. I’m a collaborator at heart, a helper. I loved the sound of the project. I knew I would learn something. It was different from other work I’ve done, yet also similar in interesting ways. I understood what he was trying to achieve.

So I said yes.

It proved to be exactly what I thought it would be: time consuming, frustrating and fascinating. The ups and downs, and the extra pressure of trying to please a friend, reminded me of the core elements of working successfully with another person–whether a client (like Dean) or an editor (like an agent or publisher)—on a piece of writing. Here they are:

  • Be very clear about the goal/ purpose of the work. Whether you’re working with an editor on your manuscript (fiction or nonfiction), or you’re the hired writer working with a client, make sure you both understand exactly what the goal is. What are the problems you’re trying to get a handle on? What is the next step with this document—ie. who will be the next reader? What is it supposed to achieve?
  • Establish ground rules and set expectations. What is the approximate time parameter? (Always let your client/editor know if the time frame changes.) Is there money involved? Does the budget have a cap? Be sure to estimate costs before you start the work, and discuss what happens if the process is easier or harder than expected.
  • Figure out who’s the “boss.” This is tricky, but critical. Last year, I wrote a book for an organization and while the CEO’s vision was paramount, I was actually the boss. He needed me to make decisions, establish the calendar, determine and shape content. I led. But in another case, it worked the other way around: My client was in charge. She had a clear vision for the book both in terms of content and tone. I followed. These collaborations are successful when I figure out early on what the client really needs from me, and when I’m willing to be flexible. When your work is being edited by a professional, this power dynamic can be hard to figure out. Ultimately you’re the author, your name will be on the work, and so you’re the boss. But when working with an agent or publisher I don’t see it this way. I may technically be the boss, but I’ve partnered with these people because of their expertise. So I weigh their opinions and advice heavily. Bottom line: Be open, constantly re-evaluate the power dynamic, and make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the foot by getting it wrong.
  • Don’t let emotions get in the way. Sometimes, collaborations can be really annoying. It’s not all that hard to get offended somewhere along the line. Someone insists on changing something, or repeating something, or having a structure that you think just doesn’t work. Instead of showing your emotions, take a moment to collect your thoughts. Then clearly explain your opinion. Then, depending on who’s “boss,” either make the changes or don’t.
  • Keep the market in mind, not your ego. This takes us back to my first point: the goal of the manuscript or document. The goal may be to get financing for a movie, to snag an agent, to get a book deal, to improve your draft. What is not important—and what usually only gets in the way—is your ego. Try not to be defensive, just productive. When you get too wrapped up in whether you’re right or wrong, the work ends up suffering.

After one day and night of intense work, I delivered the pitch to Dean. At first, he was ecstatic (“So much better than the first writer! You’re a superhero!”)… and then things got complicated. Tweaks became re-writes. It was hard understanding his vision and getting it down in a way that he felt did it justice. But I learned a lot. And after a lot of back and forth (during my vacation), I got it right. And now we’re both happy.

That’s working collaboratively.

If You’re Seeking Success as a Writer, Hurry Up & Slow Down

Can you hurry the creative process? When you launch a book, is it possible to blow through everything on your marketing to-do list? If you’re suffering from creative block, should you fill a journal with daily ramblings, just to have gotten some words on the page? Do word count goals help or hinder you, psychologically? Is setting yourself deadlines the best way to finally get that challenging piece of work completed? Do the same rules apply to fiction and nonfiction?

Do writers drive themselves crazy asking these questions?!

Oftentimes, I sit down at my desk at 7:25 a.m. after I’ve dropped my youngest child at the bus stop, and I don’t get up again until five, six hours later. I could step out of my office and get myself a coffee, or take a short walk, or go for a run, or get lunch, or even just stretch my legs but it’s in my nature to keep working. Once I start, it’s hard for me to stop. After dropping my daughter back at home at 3pm, I hurry back to my office. By the time I get home in the evening I am as exhausted as if I’d done a triathalon.

In some ways, this is a good thing. It allows me to be highly productive and gives me a sense of achievement. But in many ways this is bad. Very, very bad.

Like all writers, periodically I just dry up. I’ve used up all my energy and enthusiasm and I just can’t scrape anything off the bottom of my bone-dry well anymore. I’ve gone from ecstatic flow to a complete stop. It’s not a good feeling. It not only cuts into my momentum, but I also feel psychologically spent.

We see this a lot at Launch Lab, where we help debut authors figure out how to market their books over the long term in a way that feels authentic to them. They’ve learned all about the many steps they should be taking to promote their work, and their intentions are noble (I’m going to do everything in my power to sell this book!!!) and yet before they can even blink they find themselves wrung dry. Nothing seems to be working and they feel like they’ve already failed when they’ve hardly even started.

It’s at those moments when the best action to take is no action at all. Hurry up and slow down, if you want to succeed. In fact, better yet—slow down before you burn out.

We’re constantly being given contradictory advice. Modern day lifestyle gurus say our brains are overloaded with stimuli and human beings can’t function optimally under that kind of constant pressure. They tell us to slow down.

But writing coaches often advocate the exact opposite: Set yourself a daily word count goal and stick to it, no matter what. Busywork is still work, and eventually you’ll tap into something good. Get your butt in the chair. Write a book in a month (NaNoMo). Stay relevant. Don’t just write one book, write a series. Don’t just write a series, write multiple books a year!

And once you’ve got a book out there, it’s your responsibility to sell it. Write to-do lists, set priorities, aim high, don’t give up. If you’ve got an opportunity, grab it. Don’t just blog, get a column. Don’t just give talks, run a conference. Don’t just be in the paper, get yourself some national media! Go, go, go. Do, do, do!

Of course, a lot of this advice works, and that’s why we hear it all the time. But what we tend to forget is that each of us is different—not only are we are motivated by different things, but we also have different goals. We beat ourselves up unnecessarily by applying someone else’s rules to our processes. That can lead to stress, bad work, unhappiness, and creative drought.

As writers, we must invest the time to get to know ourselves better—it’s the only way we can nurture our creativity. So I say, figure out who you are as a writer and what makes you tick. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that productivity is the answer to all your problems. Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Be kind to yourself. Think deeply. Corny as it sounds, nurture your spirit by respecting who you are as an individual.

Pick up a book that’s nothing like the one you’re working on. Have lunch with a friend. Sleep in for once. Instead of writing, go to an art gallery. Instead of another hour in the chair, take a walk around the block. Get out and about. Remind yourself of those things that make your heart speed up. Pursue your interest in indie movies, or Jui Jitsu. It’s not a waste of precious time.

Slow down, and let yourself dream. You’ll be amazed at what it can do for you as a writer.

 

Introverts: Can You Sell Books Without Selling Your Soul?

Every time you talk about your book—whether it’s still a work-in-progress or is launching “everywhere books are sold”—you have an opportunity to attract a reader.

If that sounds crass, let me explain by asking a question: What’s the point of bringing a book into the world and not having anyone read it?

It’s not enough just to publish: Authors dream of moving people, changing lives, making some kind of difference in the world. We want and need readers. So it’s pretty counterproductive if we don’t commit to selling our own product, even if it may initially feel inauthentic or vulgar.

It’s okay if we’re a bit awkward or tend toward humility when we speak about our books, but our goal should always be to intrigue the person or audience we’re talking to. It’s that simple, really.

I can’t remember how many times I dismissed my own books in that self-mocking way the English have (I grew up in the U.K). God forbid someone asked me what I was working on, I’d find something humorously disparaging to say about the book or my efforts. It just felt so damn cheesy to promote myself. Even simply explaining what my book was about felt like self-aggrandizement.

By definition, introverts are uncomfortable in sales mode. But when it comes to doing publicity—radio, TV, book talks—we have to find a way to make peace with our discomfort and share our work in a way that is confident without being crass, persuasive without being pushy.

The vast majority of writers enter the world of publishing with trepidation about striking the right balance when promoting their work. But stay open minded: you may surprise yourself.  If you’re anything like me, you may discover that selling your work is not such dirty business after all, provided you approach it in a sensible and methodical manner.

  • Start early. That means even when you’re just writing the book, begin to lay the foundation for later marketing efforts. This may be as basic as avoiding being too self-deprecating, or it might mean gathering emails of anyone who seems interested in what you’re doing.
  • Before starting any marketing at all, step back and ask yourself, “Why do I write?” The goal of ‘selling lots of books’ is usually only one small piece of a large puzzle. Articulating the purpose of your writing career will help you create a campaign that suits your personality.
  • Consider which public activities give you energy and which sap your energy. Focus on where your strengths lie (but always try everything at least once—you might like it more or be better at it than you expect).
  • Ask yourself: What will it take to make me feel successful? Set yourself small, achievable goals while allowing yourself to dream big.
  • If you feel like you don’t naturally have good sales instincts, get help. Even if you don’t have the money to invest in paying a professional, ask a friend to give you a mock interview. Embarrassing, maybe; helpful, definitely. That uncle who used to write for the paper? See if he’ll read your pitches, give you feedback, brainstorm ideas with you. There’s no reason you should do have to figure it all out on your own.
  • Think more in terms of cultivating readers and engaging in conversations  (ie. give and take) than selling. This is especially true for social media.
  • Don’t try to do everything. Be game, have fun, but say no when you need to. Work smarter not harder.

How Do You Know When Bad Writing is Really, Truly Hopeless?

Editors like me often see projects at radially different stages of development. Truthfully, we sometimes see writing that is really, well, bad.

But does this mean it’s hopeless?

Less experienced writers often seek validation from editors. Their secret hope is that we will recognize the genius in their work and maybe even help them find an agent or publisher. Many ask for feedback and yet fight tooth and nail about every suggestion. Others understand the process better and trust that their work is more likely to appeal to readers (and therefore to the various gatekeepers standing between them and publication) after multiple drafts.

A couple of years ago, a manuscript in very rough shape crossed my desk.Should I keep going? the writer asked me. Is it worth the effort? He was looking to me to give him the thumbs up or the thumbs down, like Commodus at the Colosseum.

The truth is the manuscript was a mess. It was unfocused and confusing. The tone was off. While the core idea was interesting, the execution was flawed. It needed a lot of work. And yet I could not answer his question. Why? Because an editor working with a new writer cannot really predict what can be created by the alchemy of an open mind + a willingness to learn and to work. It can create a kind of magic: A final product that works.

Just because a piece of writing is “bad,” doesn’t mean it can’t become good or even great. It can be flawed without being hopeless. In fact, it’s my belief that it’s a good editor’s responsibility to tease out the areas where work needs to be done and guide the writer toward finding solutions, rather than be an arbiter of viability, taste or validity.

So how do you know when bad writing is really, truly hopeless? Here are some questions to ask yourself before quitting:

  • Have I been willing to learn from feedback? Have I really been hearingwhat my readers are saying?
  • Do I trust myself? Is my vision for the work intact? Have I been overly influenced by someone whose opinion matters to me?
  • Conversely: Have I hacked away at it with an open mind or am I sticking stubbornly to an early idea that just isn’t working?
  • What can positive feedback teach me about where my strengths lie? How can I build on those strengths?
  • What can negative feedback teach me about what I need to learn in terms of executing on my idea?
  • Will I benefit from a break? Working on something different for a while?
  • Am I paying enough attention to other creative needs/ interests that are only tangentially involved with this project but may be necessary for me to bring the right kind of energy to the table?

Sometimes you do have to admit defeat and move on, but it’s not an editor’s job to tell you that. Since we can’t really know whether you’re the kind of writer who will learn and grow, who are we to pass final judgment on early drafts? So instead of giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down, I prefer to wave. Hey you, come sit next to me and roll up your sleeves! Let’s get to work!

The Perfect Writing Space… Does it Exist?

Po Bronson wrote his first book, Bombadiers, in a closet—and not one of those walk-in, McMansion closets. His closet had no window. There was room for one folding chair and one stool to put his Mac on. Nothing else. No joke.

Everyone has their own ideas on what works for them and what doesn’t. What about you?

It’s all about focus

Some people require zero distractions. Celeste Ng (Everything I Never Told You) likes her space small and unadorned. She works in a closet with windows but nothing else to take her mind off writing. Marjan Kamali (Together Tea) refers to her home office as ‘the cave,’ “because I like to work with all the blinds down and curtains drawn to shut the world out.”

In contrast, the astonishingly prolific British author Margaret Forster writes with a window in front of her desk and another one to her right so she can sit there and gaze out at the orchard trees in the gardens below.  She says, “I feel cut off, as though I’m in the sky, suspended and enclosed.”

Nothing but a word processor... and a shovel?

The infamous luddite Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a sparse rented office with no Internet connection. Forget temporary tricks like Freedom or RescueTime, according to Franzen: “What you have to do is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it.” (Wonder what he uses that shovel behind his desk for…)

Would a tiny corner nook, a cushion on the floor and a laptop work for you? That’s how Collum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin writes. “It concentrates my vision. No windows, two very tight walls,” he says.

But can anyone rival Sylvia Bodmer (The Wednesday Group–out 2015), who finds that she writes best in airports? “I have missed flights, yes plural, while at the gate writing, even as my name was called on the loudspeaker,” she says. “That is honestly how focused I am at airports.”

 

Finding inspiration

Others have the exact opposite needs. “Empty walls really distract me. I like my working space to be really rich, visually,” says Tasneem Husain (The Longest Thread). “I tend to put up a lot of posters and photographs, and also surround myself with lots of little knick-knacks.”

For former magazine writer Susan Carlton (Love and Haight), noise and chaos equal productivity, “I have a cozy home office in our attic, but I hate it—too isolating.”

Sometimes necessity dictates our habits. Peggy Shinner (You Feel So Mortal) used to prefer absolute quiet and solitude, but in her new home there isn’t space. She now actually shares a single desk with her partner, who likes to listen to music and dance in her chair while working. Somehow, it’s okay: “She works, I work,” says Peggy. “Often for hours without any direct communication, but there is a certain hum of joint productivity.”

Mother of eight, Dixie Coskie (Unthinkable) wrote her memoir in the middle of her insanely busy kitchen with her toddler at her side. Peace and quiet would have been preferable, but when you’re driven to tell a story you find a way. Laura Hillenbrand wrote the bestseller Seabiscuit confined to her bed for years on end.

It’s personal

Recently, I moved out of my home office and for the first time in my career, I rented office space. Yes, I now pay a good chunk of my hard-earned money to rent a room about five minutes from my house.

I’d just had it. I was going to lose my mind if I had to spend one more day working in that cramped space with bills pouring out of every drawer, teenagers using up all my toner, and a work-at-home husband stopping by every five minutes to share his latest thoughts.

Not to mention, people kept moving my stuff. And I have a lot of stuff. I have corkboards with lists and timelines and images. My walls are taped up with sticky notes and quotes (which makes working in cafes not very practical). I am one of those writers who likes piles, and since I work on five things at once my piles get big. Files from my projects were stacked in a teetering pile next to my old desk. That is, until the cat knocked them over.

But the real problem was that the last book I wrote in that office had been no fun at all—and it nothing to do with the subject matter or the people I was working with. The problem was that I wasusing up all my energy simply trying to focus. For the first time ever, the writing process felt like an exhausting chore.

Taking the plunge

It’s ridiculous to pay for space when you have room in your own house. Right? Yes, but… I wanted to keep working, and I wanted to stay sane.

I started with this:

I spent a weekend painting hospital green walls bright turquoise. I begged, borrowed and stole furniture. One snowy day, I made a cool pendant lamp. One trip to Ikea and I had a massive, inexpensive bookshelf. I ended up with this, from where I am now writing:

What about you?

Does it matter where you write? Are you one of these people who can write anywhere, anytime or do you need silence, beauty, and a view to find inspiration?

 

Do You Strive to be a Brilliant Writer, or Good Enough?

All writers are bipolar—at least all the ones I know. We are a crazy mixture of egotistical, manic, single-minded, optimistic on the one hand and sensitive, catastrophizing, scattered and pessimistic on the other. How do we live and produce work in a world filled with such extremes?

Every step of the process toward publication for writers is fraught with potholes that can potentially blow our tires. Equally, every step promises to build to a run and then we’re off, we’re speeding along, we’ve done it—we are indeed the writer god we always knew we were destined to be.

What about the beginning of the writing journey? In our up moments, we know our novel will be worthy, it will stun readers and reviewers, it will make our parents proud. We may only have the concept, and in our minds it’s brilliant.

But in our down moments, we know with equal certitude that we will fail. Miserably. We will be pedantic. No one will understand what we’re getting at. Our characters will be considered dull and stupid. Our finely wrought scenes will be thought clunky or even worse, laughable.

In those moments, aren’t you just a little tempted by the idea of being “good enough” rather than brilliant? There are millions of good enough books out there that people love. Do we always have to strive for brilliance?

When you read a great book, do you feel buoyed and hopeful? Or do you feel dispirited and intimidated? This is where the magic of denial and delusion and diligence all work together to keep us tethered to our computers. We find the tiny spark of hope deep inside us and we keep going.

I’ve moved offices six times since I started writing seriously, and each time I lug my favorite books with me. I keep them close for moments when I need inspiration, and to remind myself that brilliance comes in many different forms.

I still flip fondly through my yellowed high school copy of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This one sentence is scribbled on the back cover: “…l’ennui, araignee silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l’ombre a tous les coins de son coeur.” I can’t do the language justice by translating, but the choice of words suggests the image of a spider—the insidious, invasive spider of boredom (those words are not actually used, merely suggested)—stuck with me. How much you can convey with the right word choice!

When I read Sue Miller’s The Good Mother, I’m reminded to keep it real and close. To give the mundane and miniscule the opportunity to become monumental. Rose Tremain’s stunning, muscular novel about gold mining in New Zealand, The Colour, had me stalking her online like a besotted fan (I found virtually nothing, by the way). For weeks afterwards I was dreaming about the characters and the story. Need guidance on writing historical fiction? Read The Colour.

Nick Hornby’s Speaking With the Angel is all about voice. Oh the delectable beauty of an author’s inflections, his or her characters, the unique and differentiated cadences that all work to different effect to create such a symphony. (I could get all flowery about it…) Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, is a masterful primer on point-of-view. The Pleasing Hour, by Lily King, reminds me of the goal of effortless yet impactful characterization.

I could go on and on about the books I turn to—especially some of the newer ones from the past five years—but my point is this: We must not allow ourselves to be cowed by the idea of brilliance. Though we may seek to write brilliant books, like those precious favorites that changed our lives, sometimes it’s better to strive to be good enough instead.

Sometimes we need to trick our frantic, hypersensitive brains into just getting on with it. Just trying. Doing it and seeing what happens. We might discover our own brilliance along the way.

Projectile Vomit, The X-Factor and Writing

Last week a 9th grader climbed up on the elevated stage at my daughter’s school to sing an Adele song in front of hundreds of fellow students.  His shoulders and hands trembled with nerves. As he began to sing, his voice cracked. Kids in the audience felt his anxiety and cast glances at each other.

And then he projectile vomited.

The boy wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and kept going. While he sang his heart out, the kids in the front seats wiped off their shirts.

At the end, he got a standing ovation.

JUST HOW BADLY DO WE WANT IT?

As human beings we can relate to the fear of putting ourselves out there to be judged, and we are awed and humbled when we see someone who carries on in spite of failures. No one can remain neutral when faced with a person who is so committed to doing the best they possibly can that they keep going even under the most humiliating circumstances.

As writers, I think we can identify with this. When we create, the magic of writing and the challenge of living up to our own crazy-high standards fuels the fire of our self-expression.

But then comes the big reveal. We take our work out into the world, exposing ourselves to others’ opinions—and we have to learn to thrive or survive.

Why is it that when I watch the X-factor, I get a lump in my throat every time? It’s not the manufactured drama, it’s the raw desire. I watch these people sing their hearts out and I am awed by the effort. They want it so badly.

A WRITER”S COURAGE

Being a writer is a fascinating and complicated mix of private and public. We do it because there’s something about the act of creation that is immensely satisfying. Yet that’s not quite enough for most of us: We want to share this with an audience. We yearn for appreciation and acknowledgment, not only for our efforts but for our skill.

Sometimes we get that appreciation, and it feels great. We sign a book deal, or we make our own path to finding an audience. When it works, it’s the best: Connecting with readers is our gift. Maybe we win a prize, or are awarded a residency, or perhaps we kill it during a workshop and we go home floating on clouds.

Other times, we are faced with indifference or nervous side glances. That hurts even more than outright rejection. And sometimes we have to deal with cruelty—nasty reviews or vengeful editors.

Often we have to accept that our very best effort was simply not good enough. It hurts. Badly.

Can we find it in ourselves to wipe ourselves clean and carry on?

I know that for me, when I see a writer or a singer or anybody who takes the risk of putting themselves out there, I want to give them a standing ovation for the intensity of their effort. They try, they fail, they forge ahead and they try again.

They might vomit, or crash and burn on live TV, or write a story that fails to soar… and still they have my respect for the heart they have put into it.

May the Force be with you,

Katrin

Lessons from a Ten-Day Writers Retreat

1. Just tell the story: Let the characters and their actions be your guide. Avoid explaining.

2. Keep going: When the going gets tough, just tough it out. Don’t stop.

3. Keep it simple: Worry about creating “art” later.

4. Don’t second guess yourself: Keep your inner editor at bay until you have a decent first draft. Don’t expose your work too early.

5. Write for your perfect reader: Imagine the appreciative reader who will relish your work (rather than the critic who will eviscerate it).

6. It’s not a competition: Stop comparing yourself to anyone else. Just be you.

"It's wonderful!"“It’s wonderful!”

7. Learn from others: Listen to other people’s stories. Observe. Be quiet. Learn.

8. Loosen up: Let yourself dream. Try new things. Take an idea and run with it. Trust your instinct. Focus on voice. You can edit later.

9. Be patient—let the ideas come: Don’t be so intent on producing material that you don’t give ideas a chance to grow and ferment. You can’t manufacture literature on an assembly line.

10. Have fun: Relax. Regardless of how much you get done, at least you’re not cooking dinner, driving carpool, or going to work. Enjoy your freedom.

Truth Telling in Blogging: Do you feel like a fraud?

Are you an avid blog reader? Do you read for industry insights, confessional tidbits or something in between? Top blogs are serious business—even personal blogs can earn upwards of $100,000 per month.

If you have a point of view and a unique voice, you can reach millions of people just by writing about your life. People will come to you, as they came to blogger Heather Armstrong, to live vicariously.

But if you write about your personal life, you may have to pay a price. And that price is feeling like a fraud. (Not to mention dealing with the haters.)

What do bloggers owe their readers?

A recent internet ruckus about mommy blogging got me thinking: what do personal bloggers owe their readers? Let me fill you in.

Back in 2002, Heather Armstrong single-handedly—and totally by accident—launched a new journalistic genre: the confessional blog. (Here’s a great summary from the NYT on how she became such a powerhouse.) As journalist Lisa Belkin writes, “Readers of personal blogs return again and again for the connection, the feeling they really know the writer.” Readers love the no-holds-barred nature of this kind of writing. It’s what they come to the site for.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.27.28 PM

It’s the reason personal bloggers get paid millions in advertising revenue.

Heather was fired after her boss discovered her blog and read about himself. She wrote about the experience and her readership skyrocketed. When she had her first child, she wrote about it: page views went up. When she moved back to Utah, up. Had her second child, up, up, up. Got shingles, up.

Got divorced? People screamed bloody murder. There hadn’t been so much as a hint on her site that anything was wrong. Readers felt cheated.

Since then, Heather has been seriously on the defensive. Does she have to write about her divorce, given that she wrote about her happy marriage? Recently she posted this explanation of where she draws the line, and it got me thinking…

The rules of nonfiction

I am working with a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is on deadline for his first nonfiction book. He was having trouble shifting from only the facts, ma’am to a more leisurely—and compelling—storytelling mode.

Most of our discussion centered on finding the comfort zone around truth telling. In nonfiction, when is embellishment a lie? Is creative nonfiction really fiction in sheep’s clothing? For example: Can you recreate a conversation if you weren’t even present when it took place? Is that considered embellishment or lying–or neither?

Frey's not-quite-totally-truthful memoir

I found the James Frey debacle endlessly fascinating. He was discovered to have fudged some facts in his memoir and readers were horrified. His publisher recalled his books. Oprah raked him over the coals on national TV. When I was studying journalism, my law professor told us that we risked getting thrown in jail if we made up as much as one word of dialogue. That high standard stuck with me. The lesson I learned was that real writers never “lie.”

But what does that mean? Not everything David Sedaris writes can be 100 percent true, can it? What does truth telling actually mean in this new confessional genre? And are blogs held to the same standard as books? Should they be?

What do you think?

I don’t have an answer to these important questions. Personally, I don’t think Heather Armstrong owes me, an anonymous blog reader, an explanation of why she got divorced. But was I taken aback when I read that what I thought was a cool, fun, happy relationship (because of stories she chose to tell over the years) was actually such a mess that it ended in divorce? Yes, I was.

Do I still read her? Yes, I do. But do I enjoy it as much—absolutely not. Am I skeptical about everything she writes? Yes, and that takes away much of my pleasure.

Screen Shot 2013-10-09 at 2.31.16 PM

As I read her posts about how she deserves her privacy, what I see is a personal struggle with reconciling herself to her career. I see a woman who feels like a fraud. Ultimately, I think it’s not about what she owes us, it’s about whether she can keep making money from this kind of work and live with herself at the end of the day.

 

 

 

Alone Together at Launch

paparazziYour book is coming out! It’s the best time of your life!

Or is it?

One of the strangest realities of publishing is how lonely your book launch experience can be. It’s something you’ve worked toward for years, it’s such a thrill, and then… what? You sit by the phone on pub day, on your own. You wait for the call from TODAY or the New York Times Book Review. Or Holly wood. And? Silence.

Who do you commiserate with? Your launch community.

One of the best outcomes of helping to run Launch Lab at Grub Street was the tight knit, supportive community that was created by bringing these first time authors together. You can do it too: If you have a book coming out, find some local authors you can team up with and create your own community. There’s real power in being alone together.

We have a Facebook page going where our Launch Labbers keep in touch with questions, helpful links, high-fives, and conversation about the state of the industry. Here’s what they have to say about finding their peeps:

1. A launch community has your back

“Even within an already great organization like Grub Street, Launch Labbers are unique because they have weathered a pivotal professional time with you and that creates a lasting bond.” Marjan Kamali, Together Tea

“There’s an incredible well of kindness in this group and it’s so nice to feel that support and also to give it.” Susan Kaplan Carlton, Love and Haight

2. A launch community gives you permission to gloat

“There for you when you want to brag a little and even more so when you’re feeling insecure as hell and need some support.” ML Nichols, The Parent Backpack

3. A launch community gives you permission to bitch

“Sometimes it’s hard to complain to non-authors. They think, “You should be grateful, your book has come out, your dream has come true,” etc. And while they’re correct… it’s not quite the same as hanging out with people who really, really, understand how frustrating it can be when a blogger or reviewer tells niggling fibs about your book because they’ve (clearly) only skimmed it; and all of the little snubs and slights we put up with all the time, which somehow sting, even though they’re largely beyond our control.” Ilan Mochari, Zinsky the Obscure

“So true– if you dare utter a word of frustration about the publishing world to non authors, you can practically see their eyeballs rolling backwards.” ML Nichols, The Parent Backpack

4. A launch community answers questions you’re too embarrassed to ask anyone else

“I CANNOT imagine having to go through a launch without Launch Lab or my compatriots and their wisdom (also their questions and insecurities that tell me it’s really normal to go through nine emotions in five seconds or to be unsure of what markings to use when correcting a proof). The publishing industry, when faced alone, seems hard and prickly and capricious–and much less so when you have a community and “well of kindness” from which to draw.” Maria Mutch, Know the Night

“There’s great comfort in being able to hive-mind questions both mundane and profound (where to print bookmarks, what can I expect of a publicist; how to build a ‘brand’ and how to decide whether you’re even the brand-type). For mock-interview/one-liner purposes, it was great to have a beta group to try (and try) out different ideas.” Susan Kaplan Carlton, Love and Haight

As we enter another exciting Launch Lab this year with a fascinating and talented–and somewhat overwhelmed–group of debut authors, we wish you all the best with your own launches, too. Just know that it is possible to feel more in control of the process, to be more proactive and less uncertain, and to have some great fun along the way.