Monthly Archives: August 2013

Does Nonfiction Count As “Art?”

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There are two three types of readers. First, there are the nonfiction readers, those who read weight-loss books and autobiographies of famous people, who insist they’re too busy to read books simply for entertainment. They want to learn something. Then there are fiction readers, the ones who get a glazed look at the very thought of reading a self-help book. They want to escape life for awhile, and spending their precious time reading nonfiction is akin to jumping off a cliff blindfolded. Then, of course, there are those who read both, depending on their mood.

There are three types of writers, too: nonfiction, fiction, and crossover authors. I didn’t think there was much of a distinction between these groups until I published my first book, a nonfiction book for women called How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces.

A couple months after the release, I attended a local writer’s conference. It was an author’s dream at first. It seemed to address any topic you could think of: plot, characters, marketing, and even query letters. Except for one thing. There was barely anything for nonfiction writers. I think there was a class on writing for journalism, but that was it. And the writing contest? Not a single category for nonfiction.

A little stumped by this, I read the bios behind the founders of the conference. Many of the “top dogs” were crossover authors–they’d written both nonfiction and fiction books. But it almost felt like their nonfiction was swept under the rug, as if they were ashamed of it or it wasn’t applicable. No one even acknowledged the fact that nonfiction actually outsells fiction in the national market.

Then, as I talked to guests at the conference, I got some interesting opinions. Here are some of their comments:

“Nonfiction isn’t a true art, not like writing a novel.”

“You can’t be free in your writing style.”

“There’s no beginning, middle, and end. I wouldn’t even know where to start writing a nonfiction book.”

“It has no voice, and it’s so bland. I can’t pay attention.”

And that, my friends, made me confused. Nonfiction, too restrictive? Not a true art? Very interesting.

Let me ask you something. Ever read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom? It’s a true story, a first-person account of a woman who loses everything by hiding fugitives during WW2. The description was so detailed and vivid that I literally wept, and I felt my life change by the end. Not a true art, indeed.

What about the memoir, Tuesdays With Morrie? It was beautifully written and thought-provoking in a fascinating way. The way the story was woven together made it feel like fiction, but it was all the more powerful knowing that it really happened. 

Good writing makes you stop and think. It makes you see the world differently. In many ways, nonfiction is even LESS restrictive than fiction. How many books have you read that followed the age-old, predictable “reluctant hero takes a journey to discover who s/he is, with a goofy sidekick and a wise sage, and defeats the bad guy” plot? You don’t have to follow anything in nonfiction. Nonfiction is much more than self-help books and textbooks. There’s a reason for the old adage, “truth is stranger than fiction.” Good writing is entertaining, regardless of the genre.

Read the two excerpts below, and tell me which one has more “voice”:

“My kids love the kissing monster game. They sit on my lap and I say in my most intimidating voice, ‘What does the kissing monster eat?’ They tentatively say, ‘Kisses!’ and I attack them with kisses. Even my toddler loves it. I think my children feel more loved when Mommy is silly than when we have a clean house. Good thing, because ours is nothing like a clean house.”

“‘I chose,’ Hespira said again, and Horreon believed her. So Hespira took leave of her mother and returned with him to the caves of the Sacred Mountain, and the vines of Hespira’s mother grew over Meridite’s temple. When Hespira left the mountain to visit her mother, as she did from time to time, the vines were dormant, but otherwise they grew and grew until the mortar was all picked to dust and the temple fell in on itself and nothing was left but a pile of stones covered in green leaves and red flowers.”

The first one is from my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, and the second is from The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner. Which one is “real art?” They both are. (Well, just humor me, okay? And yes, I did like Turner’s book.) They’re both entertaining, with unexpected twists and events and funny dialogue. Except that one is true, and one isn’t. That’s fine. Two different genres, two authors, and one goal–to engage the reader.

Have you ever read an incredible story with dynamic twists and unique characters, only to find out that it really happened? That it’s not just a product of a writer’s mind, manipulated by their hand and tweaked to fit a formula, but something that a flesh-and-blood person lived through? How would it be to not have contrived dialogue, with perfect timing, each character speaking in turn, but to have real, living people doing unpredictable things? Reading a person’s voice and personality woven into their story instead of a narrator’s distant retelling?

In my opinion, the best authors are those who can do both. They see the beauty in nonfiction AND fiction, and the line between the two can get pretty blurred. The best nonfiction reads like fiction, and the best fiction feels real, true, and fresh, as if it could have really happened. THAT is the point of writing, and that is the concept I wished I could have seen at that writing conference. Nonfiction isn’t outside of the art–it’s an extension of it. It’s the bridge between real life and imagination.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below.

ONLY Three Kids–One Author’s Story

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A couple weeks ago, I sat in a hard chair at a book signing event, trying to get people to come talk to me. Finally a man came over and asked what my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, was about. I told him it was about motherhood and overcoming the feelings of guilt, stress, and inadequacy that many moms face every day. 

“How many kids do you have?” he asked.

“Three,” I said proudly.

He gave me a funny look. “Only three?”

I knew exactly what he was thinking. There are books out there by mothers of eight, ten, and even twelve children. Now those are the books you want to read. Those moms must have it all together, right? They know all the tricks and secrets to motherhood, after raising so many kids. So why would you buy a book by a mother of three? 

And that, my friends, is my point. 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to other women who have said, “I know we ONLY have four, but I just can’t handle more than four. Do you think that’s selfish?”  Or, “My mom had eight kids. I’m going out of my mind with five! I don’t know how she did that. I want to be a good mom, but I just don’t think I can handle another one.”

I live in Utah, where sometimes it feels like the number of kids you have is the familial equivalent to the brand of car (or minivan) you drive. In some peoples’ eyes, children are like pets, cute little collections that you play with during the day and then lock up at night–adorable little faces that you dress up on Sundays and parade around the neighborhood on family walks. Then we go home and struggle with back-talk and natural consequences and messiness and chore lists, and wonder where we went wrong.

We live in a very different culture here. In many ways, it’s not “how many kids do you and your husband want?” It’s more like, “What’s the maximum amount of kids you can juggle and keep alive?” And frequently, you add one or two more on top of that.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but seriously. In other states, ONLY three kids would be above the national average. It would mean that each one was wanted, raised, loved, and cared for. Each is a person with a personality and dreams. I may ONLY have three kids, but you’d better believe they’re my world, not just numbers. When did adding to a family become an Olympic event, or a status symbol?

Does a mom of ONLY three kids know any less about her children than a mother of eight? Does a mom of ONLY three kids not experience pain, guilt, stress, and overwhelming love? At what point is a woman eligible to share what she’s learned on her journey–when her kids are in college, or when she’s still on the rocky road of parenthood, taking notes as she goes and trying to lift others?

At what point does the ONLY go away? 

My children are still young, and yes, there are ONLY three of them. I’m sure we’ll have more someday (and no, it’s not really everyone’s business). But I believe that every mom, whether she has one child or ten, whether she works or not, and whether she’s single or married, experiences the same bleary-eyed, sleepless shock of a new baby. Every mom knows how it feels to wake up, force a smile, and begin the arduous mountain climb of motherhood all over again. It would sure be nice if moms felt comfortable expressing their feelings about motherhood with each other, instead of comparing number of kids and ages and deciding who’s a “good” mom and who’s not. It would sure be nice if we could help and pull each other along, able to rely on other people instead of feeling so alone.

I hope it happens someday. I hope that women who read my book feel that way. I really do hope that moms understand how important and rewarding their job is, regardless of the hard stuff–because each child is a person, not a number, and ONLY three is a pretty dang good job.

So the next time someone looks at me and says, “Only three?” I’ll smile and say “Yep!” And then I’ll ask about their own children, because that’s probably what they really want to talk about anyway.

Do you have any thoughts? Please comment below. 

5 Funny Literary Agent Contradictions

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If you’re like me, scrounging for query-writing advice online, you may feel a little frustrated. Okay, a LOT frustrated. Like, throw the computer out the window frustrated. Why? Because so much of the advice contradicts itself. Some agents like this, some like that, and you can’t seem to please everyone. If this describes your experience, you may enjoy the following five contradictions:

Contradiction #1: How to write a query.

This week I put my query on WriteOnCon.com, an online two-day conference where you can post your query for advice from other writers and agents. I kept reworking it and thought it was fairly good until the agent commented, “A query should always have three paragraphs: the log-line, the mini-synopsis, and the bio. And don’t make me scroll down! If I have to scroll, it’s too long.” With a screen that small, “scrolling down” meant the query had to be less than four to five sentences. Total.

Um…well, my query was six paragraphs, but they were short and focused, and I separated them that way because QueryShark says that white space is good, and to NEVER start with a log-line…blah.

Fine. So I reworked my query to fit her advice, and suddenly none of the attendees liked it–and frankly, neither did I. The mini-synopsis was suddenly too long and boring, and my awesome “hook” was now a story-summing log-line, which actually wasn’t as interesting. Nor as hooking…hookingy…oh, whatever. Lesson learned: One size does not fit all.

Contradiction #2: Don’t follow trends, but make the book marketable.

You hear it all the time, right? “Don’t follow trends. Write what you love, and what you feel passionate about.” Then they follow it with, “But don’t submit paranormal, though. Oh, and not dystopian. And please, no science fiction, fantasy, western, religious, or anything too true-to-life–basically don’t submit anything even remotely interesting to you.”

Is there anything left? It’s amazing that books get published at all. 

Contradiction #3: Every book must fit into a genre…but also be fresh and new.

If there’s one thing literary agents and editors all agree on, it’s that they want to see the “next big thing,” or something “fresh.” The problem is, no one knows that that is.

Here’s the thing, though. If your book is too different, it won’t fit into an established genre, which makes it hard to sell. In other words, they want your book to be the same, but different. Clear as mud? Yeah, I think so, too. And make sure it doesn’t fit into the list of genres above, or they won’t even read it, even if it really is “the next big thing.” Yeah, good luck with that.

Contradiction #4: Make your characters likeable, real, and flawed–but different than every other likeable, real, and flawed character out there.

My book is a YA, which means that like most YA works, the main character is a teenage girl. There are plenty of opinions out there about how a teenage female protagonist should be: not snarky, but independent and confident, but not too confident, and sweet and giving, but not boring, and interesting with a dark edge, but not rebellious. O…kay. Gotcha. No wonder all the boys in these books are the same. At least we can all agree on love interests: strong yet sweet. End of story.

Contradiction #5: Treat me like I’m the only agent you’re querying…but I’ll probably not treat you that way in return.”

Ouch. This one hurts. You’ve heard the advice to use the agent’s name (spelled correctly), research their guidelines, read the books they’ve represented, and think of something politely personal as an introduction. You craft that letter carefully, crossing your fingers for luck when you hit “Send.” Then you wait.

Months later, you get a form letter rejection.

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for submitting (title). Unfortunately, even though you did your research, reading books I represented and taking the time to address me personally and treat me with respect in your letter, I’m not going to do the same for you.

I’m giving you a form letter rejection because it’s not worth two minutes of my valuable time to tell you why or how you can improve. Why? Because I’m the gatekeeper–the wizard of stardom standing in your way, screaming, “You Shall Not Pass!” And you’re just a lowly author, one of hundreds I’ll respond to today, most of which are rejections. Tough luck.

Sincerely, (Name)

It happens, and it happens to unpublished and NYT Best-selling authors alike. Brandon Sanderson didn’t achieve success until he was writing book #11, and it was his sixth book, Elantris, that finally got published. Stephenie Meyer was lucky to publish her “too long” novel, Twilight, and even JK Rowling received eight rejections before breaking into the business. Just pick up the pieces and move on, and eventually you’ll find the right person to represent your book. 

Onward and upward, writers, and don’t give up! Like our characters, we have to climb the seemingly impossible mountain peak before we can descend into the valley of success. (Sorry, I’m in a dramatic mood today.)

Good luck and keep writing!

5 Rules for Writers Groups–Break With Care

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Writers are a funny bunch. If you’ve been to a writing conference, you know it’s true. We’re wise beyond our years, with varying degrees of artistic ability, wrapped in emotional pain and plenty of passion. We’re just really, really cool people–people who need each other.

Before my first book was published, I had no idea what the social norms were between writers. Three critique groups, dozens of interviews and signings and conferences and a million mistakes later, I’ve come to realize that yes, there are some rules that authors (and aspiring authors) should follow when it comes to critique groups and writing networks. Here are the big five:

Rule #1: Remember that writing isn’t a competition. 

Unlike in other professions, an author’s career isn’t threatened by other writers. In fact, s/he does better with a supportive writing network than without one.

It’s an interesting phenomenon–the longer you’re with a critique group, the more likely you are to get published. And once someone in your group hits success, the more likely others in your group are to achieve publication, too. My critique groups have been fantastic so far, and I feel myself being stretched further and higher every single month. 

Rule #2: Give as much as you take.

I’ve met writers who finish their manuscripts, scramble to find readers under the pretense of wanting a critique group, milk ’em for all the advice and help they can get, and then disappear again. I know life gets busy, and sometimes writing takes a backseat. But if you don’t contribute as much as you take, you’ll have very grumpy friends . It’s just like any other profession–carry your weight.

If another writer spent valuable hours reading your work and giving advice, they’re probably hoping you’ll do the same for them. If you just don’t have the time, offer to help in some other way, like reviewing their work on your blog, or at least reposting/retweeting their promotional efforts. Remember, what goes around comes around–especially in the writing world. 

Rule #3: Positive always comes first. 

Whether you’re critiquing someone’s work or giving an overall review, always focus on the positive first. Sometimes that can be hard (really, REALLY hard), especially if the writer is just starting out or if it’s not in your preferred genre, but trust me. You can find something of worth in anyone’s work. It could be a character you like or a clever city name or a funny line of dialogue. Collect those little bits of potential and start with those first.

Even the thickest-skinned author appreciates a little positive thrown in with the constructive criticism. It takes guts for them to hand over their “baby” to you, trusting that you’ll help them make it better. The least you can do is show that you respect them enough to start with the things you liked. 

I reviewed a book on Amazon today and gave it three stars, lower than any of my reviews so far. But half the review was about what the author did well. I wanted people to know that she had a lot of potential, and there was a lot I really liked about her book. And then I was honest about what needed to be worked on. When my first negative review comes for my book, How to Have Peace When You’re Falling to Pieces, I’m hoping the reviewer does it that way, rather than making it sound like my book has no redeeming qualities at all!

Rule #4: Don’t be a know-it-all.

You know who I’m talking about–that writer who knows more than his or her friends, whose lofty status as “author” or “writer” has taken over their brain’s common sense. Their advice is law, their opinion is gold, and you’re lucky to even be in the same critique group as them. Ugh. Who wants to help someone who is above your help?

The point of a support/critique group is to help your writing improve, not tear everyone else’s writing down and reject any suggestions that come your way. It should be about the person first, and their work second. Just be sensitive. Common curteousy, folks.

And that leads us into number five.

Rule #5: Be open to feedback.

In my very first writing group, there was a writer who seemed to think constructive feedback was negative and insulting. He never took anyone’s advice, and the fact that it was being offered at all seemed to threaten his pride. I stopped reading his work after awhile, because it was completely pointless. All he wanted was compliments. Not surprisingly, as far as I know, he hasn’t gotten published.

Let me just say this: if you can’t handle feedback, you’re in the wrong profession. Critique group friends are WAY nicer than editors are. Just saying.

We’re lucky to live in a time when we can connect with thousands of other writers on Facebook, writing blogs, Twitter, and in writing conferences, in addition to critique groups. They are absolutely priceless, if you follow these five rules. If not, you may find yourself out of the loop and out of support.

Thanks for reading. Can you think of a rule I missed?