Bigger Than Death, Larger Than Life: Embracing Our Greater Value

My father died recently. He was eighty-five years old and died in his sleep. When we arrived at his house, the police officer told us we could look at the body if we wished. The emergency care workers had laid it on the floor in his bedroom. After some time, I walked up the steps and peered in from the doorway. There it was – covered with a sheet – and the first thing I thought was how very small his body was – much too small to have housed him.   

All that intelligence; he was an idea-, word-, movie-, book-loving, writing, teaching, leading director of all sorts with an unrelenting persistence and stubbornness. Everything I knew about my father, which was certainly not his totality, must have streamed through his physical self but couldn’t have been contained in it. 

It made me think of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor’s 2008 TED Talk in which she describes suffering a hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of her brain. Her language-centers, memory, and logic gradually went “offline.” She describes being unable to define the boundaries of her body – seemingly blending molecularly with her environment and losing her personal identity. She says she knew a great peacefulness. “I felt enormous and expansive, like a genie liberated from her bottle . . .. I remember thinking there’s no way I would ever be able to squeeze the enormousness of myself back inside this tiny, little body.” 

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Jennifer ParosComment
Four Ways to Make Your Pitches and Posts More Profitable

Freelancing is often described as a constant hustle. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be a struggle. By finding ways to make your work go further, you’ll save time and make more money. You may even recharge your freelancing career. 

Here are four ways to turn your pitches and posts into money-makers.

1. Pull New Ideas from Each Original Pitch 

From every post idea, create at least five others. This is idea generation at its easiest. Instead of scrambling to find completely new topics to write about, simply take your pitch and make a list. 

For example, a post about inexpensive places to eat while vacationing in Barbados could inspire these topics: 

  1. Great places to eat with your kids in Barbados (a parenting blog)

  2. How to throw an island wedding bachelorette party on the cheap (a bridal blog)

  3. How to find appropriate meals and snacks on vacation if you have diabetes (a health magazine’s front-of-book section)

  4. Caribbean getaway deals for long weekends (an in-flight magazine)

  5. How to find authentic, but inexpensive, souvenirs made by local artisans (a travel guide for college students)

Another benefit of this tip is that your research is done. You’ll want to find another expert to talk to, but finding one should be much easier now that you’ve done preliminary research. 

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William KenowerComment
The Art of the Pitch

As this year’s PNWA conference rolls around, and as other wonderful writers’ conferences continue throughout the year, I think it is the perfect time to offer a refresher course on pitching to agents and editors. Over the years, as an editor, I’ve heard hundreds of pitches. Excellent ones, good ones, bad ones, and “please, please stop speaking” ones. Now, you don’t want to find yourself in that last category, so listen up, pitchers, and learn to be an ace so you can nail down a victory and avoid the standard bush league plays (yes, I’m on a baseball bender, so sue me).

So, what is a pitch? Well, it’s a short, face-to-face (ack!) meeting with an agent or editor, lasting around ten minutes. The pitch itself is your whittled-down book description, usually about three or four (sometimes five) lines. And you thought writing a synopsis was tough, eh? But how is this possible, you say? My book is so complex, so layered; I couldn’t possibly describe it in less than twenty sentences. Too bad, so sad, I say back to you. Remember that agents and editors have to pitch every single book they buy to their publishers, marketing team, publicists, fellow editors, book buyers, etc., so if you, the author, can’t hone it down, what chance do they have? And if agents and editors can write their own pitches for dozens of books each year, you can do it for one.

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Erin Brown Comment
How Do I Stop Scaring Myself?: Choosing a New Premise for Our Stories and Our Lives

My mother was five years old, almost six, when she became so ill she was taken to the hospital in an ambulance; she had contracted polio. It would be another ten years, around 1953, before the vaccine would be made available. In the 1940’s and 50’s, polio was peaking and understandably there was a lot of fear of the risk of paralysis and possibly death. But my mom doesn’t remember being frightened or missing her parents while in the hospital during her quarantine. She felt cared for, she felt safe, and the effects of the polio eventually faded and her body recuperated. Her mother, on the other hand, suffered exhaustion for many months afterwards. The emotional toll had been great.  My mother actually lived the experience; while her mother lived through a projection of what might happen – a projection that frightened her so much, it left her depleted. 

When I was eight I was so frightened of school the only thing I wanted was not to feel so afraid any more. I locked myself in the bathroom, I hid, I even jumped out of a (slowly) moving car to try to escape going to school. One night I slept under my bed, on the wooden floor, without a blanket or pillow so the bed would appear unused and give the illusion I had left. At age five, my mother had a logical reason to be frightened – separated from her parents, in a hospital by herself.  Objectively, at age eight, I did not. Yet I was terrified and she wasn’t. But my mother’s premise was that she was safe, her life was good, and people were taking care of her. I was operating from another premise. 

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Jennifer ParosComment
What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Traditional Publishing Deal)

The day has finally come (and if it hasn’t yet, just use your imagination for that special time in the future): you’ve found an agent you love – and more importantly, one who loves your book. Your knight or knightess in shining armor has successfully pitched your manuscript to an editor at a publishing house and you’ve been signed to a two-book deal. The world is your oyster! Now you can tell your cantankerous, idiotic boss to stuff it, put down a large deposit on a McMansion, and sail off into the published-author sunset, sipping champagne at your lavish book party and city-hopping around the globe during your book tour.

Hold up, wait a minute, let us put some reality in it.

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Erin BrownComment
How to Make Your Characters Realistically Diverse

There’s a reason that “own voices” fiction is such a prevalent trend in literature right now: people want to see stories and characters from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. Of course, authors should always tread carefully when writing about characters from backgrounds other than their own – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done!

 

On the contrary, authors can and should include diverse characters in their works. Making them well-rounded and realistic is just a matter of following the right process. With that in mind, here are four crucial tips on how to make your characters realistically diverse.

1. Conduct thorough research before you start

This one should be pretty obvious, but it’s worth stating for the record: unless you are writing about a minority character based on your own experience within that group, it’s critical that you do some research before you start.

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Pain Is an Opinion: On Danger, Safety, and Being Seen

I was watching The Tonight Show, and Jimmy Fallon was playing a game in which he and his guest took turns reaching inside a box through slots. The box had one open side that faced the audience so everyone knew its contents except the one playing. As the game began, instinctively the participants’ minds went on the lookout for evidence of danger, attempting to keep themselves safe. Whenever they came in contact with the unknown objects (Peeps marshmallow bunnies, cinnamon rolls, earthworms, a frog), they overreacted and jumped back, certain it was something undesirable. The game was fun to watch, but in day-to-day life, the process of negatively projecting, avoiding the unknown, and fearing what might happen is tiring at best, crippling at worst. When our internal stories are about possible threats, then taking another step, going forward with a project, relationship, or a move of any kind can be frightening, even painful – because expectation and projection affect us so greatly. 

In an article I read on pain science, the author included documentation of a builder who had jumped down onto a 15 centimeters-long nail. Any movement of his foot was so painful, that in order to be treated he had to be completely sedated. Once tended, they found the nail had not entered his foot at all; it had gone between his toes. His foot was completely unharmed. But he had been in excruciating pain. The pain was real, but it was also incorrectly informed

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Jennifer ParosComment
Feeling Out-of-Date? You’re Not Alone: The Changing Landscape of Modern Publishing

It can get confusing out there in Publishing Land – so many options, so little time – unless, of course, your compelling novel is about some Girl/Wife/Woman that is Gone/Alone/Lost; a book that is easily marketed within an established, profitable niche by a large, successful, traditional publishing house. But if this does not describe your project – or heck, if it does, but you want to keep all of your spoils and you’re incredibly good at establishing your own marketing, publicity, and a large audience – then you might want to know your options when it comes to publishing. What’s the difference anyway between the Big Five publishers, mid-size and large publishers, and small presses? And stop those same presses: what’s the difference between those and self-publishing? Most importantly, what’s the best option for you?

A bit of background: the Big Five publishing houses are HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Macmillan, and Penguin/Random House – all based in New York City. Many authors have the goal of being published by one of these five houses, and it’s a fine aspiration; after all, they have money, distribution, power, and prestige. That means you’ll earn a higher advance, get into the big bookstores, have a better chance of reviews, acquire a large print run, and have experienced marketing, art, sales, and publicity teams working for you. Pretty sweet deal, huh? And all you have to do is write an engaging enough book (usually with mainstream appeal) to catch a top-notch agent’s eye, and then get those houses into a bidding war over your groundbreaking tome. Easy peasy! However, on the downside, you might get lost on the huge list of a giant publisher and your publishing pairing might seem less of a supportive, two-way partnership than a mega, hands-off business transaction.

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Erin BrownComment
The Rules of Writing

I recently received a book called The Opposite Is Also True: A Journal of Creative Wisdom for Artists.  I am a sucker for books with quotes and pithy bits of information that can help expand my creative life. I spend an unholy amount of time on BrainyQuotes, finding inspiration for my students. But The Opposite Is Also True was different. The book consisted of a series of facing pages, each pair suggesting opposing theories or activities to help guide your artistic practice – plan a studio/write anywhere, do one thing well/have a range of talents, find a tribe/ignore everyone. The goal is to help you see both sides of each issue and recognize what sparks your creativity.

This could have been a frustrating book. It was tempting to sit back and say “Is there NO one way?  You’re the expert; tell me what to do.” And yet, that is exactly the point.  I’ve taught writing classes for decades, and been a writer for even longer, and I can tell you that what works for one writer generally will not work for the next (this also applies to readers, which is a marvelous balm for the ego when someone doesn’t like your work). Some authors write in the morning, others while drunk. Some need solitude; others need noise. I have a friend who writes 90-page outlines. My first three novels were written as they came, sets of stories that connected as they grew.

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Freedom From and Freedom To: On Quitting, Showing Up, and Getting Ready

I was lying in bed the other night unable to sleep. My right leg was aching so intently I couldn’t seem to pull my attention from it. I had injured a muscle, hadn’t realized it was much of anything, but gradually discovered it was something. My leg seemed to want to move, yet any attempt at movement increased the pain. After two hours of trying to fall back to sleep, I decided to get up. Supporting my troubled leg, I hoisted it out of bed, placed it gently on the floor and hobbled from the bedroom, giving into to both the insomnia and the discomfort. The next day, I whined and limped, angry I’d somehow done this to myself, and angry at the condition for getting in my way. 

After a couple days spent shaking my fists at the gods as both my mobility and frame of mind became increasingly compromised, I realized I had to give up. Not give up on getting better – give up on fighting. I was mentally flailing, unwilling to give myself a moment’s peace. I needed to stop. In order to allow my body to restore itself, I had to stop interfering; and I came to understand that my mental resistance was the interference.

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Debut Authors: They Want You!

Do agents really want new authors? Fresh talent? Or are they focused on those who are established money makers? The short answer? Hell, yes, they want you! After doing some basic research and taking a gander at what agents (and editors) are seeking for their lists, you will notice that there are myriad agents who are looking for innovative voices to represent. Agents and editors want to sign a career author – one they can work with for years, decades even, helping those writers grow and flourish under their guidance. Discovering a new writer is the goal of most people in the publishing industry because it’s a chance to launch a groundbreaking talent, to make a splash with an exciting author never seen before; an exhilarating opportunity to stoke great interest within not only the agent, but others in publishing: agents, publicists, marketing and sales teams. When an original voice creates a splash and a buzz, it fuels a fire within everyone involved, reminding them why they got into publishing in the first place. Why? Basic human nature: the thrill – of sparking a new, creative career, of bringing a unique voice to the marketplace, and honestly, of the promise of success for those involved in finding this needle in the haystack.

 And how can you discover which agents and editors are open to and actively seeking new voices and talent? Handy-dandy Google. There are numerous articles and sites that provide updated information on which agents and editors are interested in debut authors and which specific genres intrigue them. These articles and sites then lead you to agency websites and even to up-to-the-minute Twitter accounts that give further details on what these agents and editors are on the hunt for currently and how to submit to them. There’s really no excuse in this day and age to send out your query to agents that you haven’t specifically targeted or to those that are not explicitly looking for your exact genre and a debut author. Just do your research!

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Erin BrownComment
You Want to Write, Why Don’t You Just Write? 

What – in you – causes you to screech to a halt, and what if anything can you do to fix it?  

Do you ever think it is just you? Everyone else seems fine – they write, they publish. They gush over their writing residency, and then ask if you could be their beta reader. Meanwhile, you seem to struggle.

They call it Writer’s Block, and it has lots of ways of presenting itself.

1.     There’s the jillions-of-ideas-and-never-picking-one problem.

2.     There’s the classic blank page – no ideas. Period.

3.     There’s the “soggy middle,” where innumerable writers get lost.

4.     And then there’s the novel-in-the-drawer syndrome – people who finish their work except ONE THING – and then never do anything with it.

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Hope: Why Letting Go is Our True Super Power

When I was twenty-one, after graduating college I found a studio apartment and intended to find a job, but soon became increasingly frightened of looking for work. I doubted myself and was afraid to make a move. One day while bleakly constructing troubled poetry from letters I had cut out of magazines (ransom note style), I realized I was pretty far gone. The me that was not busy decoupaging an homage to my depression could see I was in trouble. My apartment was on the first floor and, at that moment, I looked out the window at the nearby shrubbery and saw a flower in full bloom. It struck me what a short distance I was from such a beautiful, thriving thing.

This observation interrupted my sinking thoughts and I started to bargain with myself. All I had to do was go and get a newspaper from the machine in front of the apartment building. That’s it – then I could come right back. This seemed manageable. Upon returning I couldn’t resist opening to the jobs section and saw that a daycare was looking for help. I called, went for an interview, walked into a large room filled with children all interested in stories and play – interested in everything really, and I was engaged, soon employed, and ultimately freed.  

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Jennifer ParosComment
Surviving and Thriving: Maneuvering through the Submission Process

Last month, I tackled the many reasons why you, as a smart and prolific author, would want to seek out representation from a literary agent before approaching publishing houses. I hope that I’ve convinced you that an agent can be your best friend (in the literary world, at least – let’s not get weird about it), your essential representation (negotiating a contract not your forte?), and your official bridge to the publishing world.

But how to find that agent, you ask? For many, the submission process can be very intimidating. I have one client who finished revising his book a year ago and has yet to send out a query. Why? Because the entire undertaking scares the hell out of him! It can be very intimidating to dive into the world of submissions, because that also means you’re entering the world of rejections (more on that later). So how do you overcome the fear and jump in with excitement and positivity? I have no idea. However, I do have some tips for finding those agents and submitting; if you follow some basic steps, the entire “ordeal” won’t be hard work so much as it will be an exciting new journey into the unknown. Who knows what will happen once you start sending out queries to agents? Your next email response could be an offer for representation!

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Erin BrownComment
Using Dreams for Inspiration to Write

Many writers have been inspired by their dreams and nightmares, including Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Mary Shelley, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In fact, Stevenson said he had little people in his dreams that told him stories he wrote down every morning. If he did not like the ending, he could ask for another and would get it!

If you are not as lucky as Stevenson – and most of us are not – there are things you can do to make your dreams a more reliable inspirational resource. First, write your dreams down. A scientific study showed that creativity increased when people kept track of their dreams. The participants were divided into three groups. Only one group was instructed about how to keep a dream journal. After twenty-seven days, all the participants were given the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking. The group that was taught how to keep a dream journal scored the highest (Sierra-Siegert, Jay, Florez, & Garcia, 2016).

You can learn to remember more dreams, too. First, make sure you are sleeping well because if you are not sleeping well, you will not dream well either. Do not drink alcohol or anything that has caffeine in it before you go to sleep. That includes coffee, green tea, and chocolate. Finally, and most importantly, repeat in your mind, as you are falling asleep, that you want to remember your dreams.

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William KenowerComment
It’s Got to Please You: Ideas that Go “Bing” and Finding Your Way

In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, Jerry Seinfeld asks filmmaker, writer, and comedian Mel Brooks about the scene in Blazing Saddles in which a posse of cowboys on horses bursts through a wall and into an all gay, top hats and tails musical number. Seinfeld admires Brooks’ bold and seemingly risky choice and asks if he’d been sure it was going to work. Brooks says he hadn’t been – he only knew the idea “tickled” him. He said, “It’s got to please you; if you don’t laugh, they’re not going to laugh.”

The business of creating is easier when we stay focused on what pleases us. In the beginning, we can’t know exactly how something will come together, but that’s part of the process of discovery. We can see what’s in front of us, and the tail of what’s ahead. The unfolding is our job, and only requires our attention and allowance in the moment. We can discover only what we allow ourselves to explore, so permission must be granted to not know and go forward. And the navigational device best suited for these travels is what pleases us, whatever that may be.

Joseph Campbell’s advice was: Follow your bliss. But bliss seems like such a big ideal. It’s easy to forget it grows from small pleasures, appreciation, fun, and things that move us. Follow your bliss suggests using joy as a compass. In order to do that, we have to avoid too much scrutinization of what lights up for us and where it might lead. Leave the seed of joy alone and let it grow. If we do that often enough, confidence comes because confidence is a by-product of being willing to allow our own way to be the path forward.

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Jennifer ParosComment
To Agent or Not to Agent? That Is the Question.

Man, is it tough out there. I know, I’ve been on both sides of it – as an editor at major publishing houses, buying books (“I’ll take it!”), and as an author, trying to sell novels (“Please take it!”). In this age of self-publishing, it’s also tempting to give it a go yourself, and hey, it’s a viable option, as long as you’ve got some money to invest and some serious drive (and crank out those books, one after the other, pronto). But what if you go the traditional route? Surely, there are publishing houses out there that still accept unagented submissions, right? Why should you give your hard-earned money to some agent? What exactly do you they do all day anyway? Why not go directly to the publishing house, keep that 15 percent, and roll on a bed with some cash all day.

Well, I’ll tell you how these agents earn their 15 percent. First, a good one will make sure that your manuscript is in perfect shape before you send it out to editors. Of course, you should have already honed your manuscript in order to get representation (agents don’t have time to spot your diamond in the rough and spend months working with you to make it into something saleable). But an agent worth his or her salt will give it a final read-through and look for any remaining errors or areas that need improvements.

Secondly, something you can’t do: an agent can draw on their relationships with editors. This is why it’s a good idea to choose your agent wisely. Those three-martini lunches with editors will pay off when your submission gets placed on top of an editor’s submission pile – and a teetering pile it is! Agents’ relationships with editors are key; they can get you in the door. You don’t need a high-powered agent either . . . just one who is apt at building connections. That’s why it’s important to interview your potential agent. If they’re congenial with you, they probably also have amiable affiliations with editors that they can draw upon when it comes time to send out your manuscript.

Agents stay abreast of what individual editors are currently looking for, which allows an agent to know who will want to take a gander at your work. Targeting queries is key and good agents have insight into an editor’s tastes. Your agent will draw upon years of (hopefully) impactful meetings and interactions with various editors in the industry. Or if they’re a new, young agent, they might have a strong agency name to back them, or their excitement and enthusiasm will be appealing and memorable.

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Erin BrownComment
Revisions as Stalling

Once we get over the panic of the blank page or screen and actually squeeze out a few sentences, in our elation we may yield to the temptation to go back and revise. We baby those hard-won sentences into perfection and then sit back and bask in our satisfaction.

But what do we have? Admittedly, a start, but actually just a few sentences. What happened to the excitement that engendered the piece? It’s gone, like steam out the open window. We sit there, staring, or even sigh and get up and walk away to do something that betrays our writing time.  We know we should have gone forward with the fearsome task of traversing the blankness, but we stall. And if we stay at the desk, instead we revise.

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Noelle SternComment
The Old “What’s the point?” Thing: Caring, Pain, Baking Shows, and Cats

The other morning, I was surprised to find myself overtaken by a strong flash of “What’s the point?” It seemed like a sudden existential plummet, but if I’d been paying attention, I would have seen it coming.  I’d gotten on a jag of thinking about unwanted things over which I had no influence – a sort of accidental meditation on powerlessness.  I was in the middle of exercising and decided to put on an episode of The Great British Bake Off (a baking competition show with great heart) while I finished my workout. My despondency gradually began to subside – seemingly a byproduct of simply observing people striving to create stuff.  Some cakes, pastries, and breads worked, some didn’t, but everyone was engaged, wanting to participate, and caring, both about what they were doing and each other.   

The old “What’s the point?” thing is misleading; it implies both that an answer can satisfy us while simultaneously demanding that there isn’t one. “What’s the point?” is an abdication of responsibility. It is only our engagement with life that can provide a sense of purpose. There are always satisfying experiences available when we’re not judging, scrutinizing, or taking stock. Our job is to be open to those experiences. 

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Jennifer Paros Comments
Brainstorming: The Ultimate Weapon

I’m in the middle of packing up my car to head out on an eight-hour, solo road trip into the West Texas desert. Am I escaping the impending apocalypse? Losing my mind? Well, the last one is probably true. I’m actually putting my brainstorming plans into action. I’m starting a new novel and one of my favorite brainstorming activities is visiting my novel’s setting to get inspired (and get details, of course).  

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of writing because it can be so liberating. As long as you give yourself the freedom to write anything that comes to your crazy ole mind (even if—especially if—the writing isn’t top notch), that’s when the good stuff happens. Brainstorming is a technique to get the noggin working, to challenge yourself, to discover the path less taken. It’s an incredibly exciting process, and your imagination will surprise you once you take the brainstorming leap.  

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Erin BrownComment