Saturday, August 21, 2010

The New Writers' Garden: "The Naked Gardener" and Thoughts on Publishing With L B Gschwandtner

L B Gschwandtner is an artist, writer, magazine editor, businessperson, wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. I first met Laura at the Algonkian Writers Conference in Virginia, and am still impressed with her organic, outside-the-box approach to writing — and publishing. Her website, Thenovelette.com, is still a totally new concept in women’s fiction for the Web.

Here, she talks about her new novel, The Naked Gardner, available on Amazon and on Thenovelette.com, and the new world of publishing.

AMA: So, L B, is this your first published book?

LBG: The Naked Gardner is my first published fiction. I’ve published nonfiction before through the traditional book publishing route. But this is a new adventure for me.

AMA: Where did your inspiration for the book come from?

LBG: At a certain point in my life, I knew three women who gardened naked. They had different takes on why they did it, but all of them felt it was really important to them. So I began to think about a woman — I called her Katelyn Cross — who goes to her garden naked, and what that might mean and in what ways it would be liberating for her and important in her life. I think it’s Katelyn’s first tentative step toward finding out who she really is and how to get what she wants from the world around her. Really, an attempt toward finding her own spirit. The garden symbolizes her world. And the rocks in it keep getting in her way. So she has to deal with that.

In the beginning of the book when Katelyn says, “I never told anyone. Just kept going to my garden naked. Like some spirit hovering over the land,” she’s referring to that spirit within that needs a voice. The book is a metaphor for stripping away the encumbrances that get in the way of the spirit each of us has inside.

AMA: What was the writing process like?

LBG: It started with a short story about two women whose motivations for gardening naked were completely different — on the surface. Yet, underlying their differences, they shared a theme. That story morphed into The Naked Gardener, a composite portrait of those women. The theme — and there were a few — turned out to be a woman's need to self-define, whether outside or inside a marriage, and to deal with her fear of getting lost within marriage. The other themes were women forming bonds that made each of them stronger through their relationships with the others. And the final theme is about building on the past to create a stronger future.

AMA: How did you decide on Amazon, or how did Amazon decide on the book?

LBG: Well, that is a very complex question with a long list of answers. I'll just say here that I did a lot of research into what is happening in the publishing world — both books and magazines. I'm the co-owner of what was started as a magazine publishing company. Our company has changed significantly since 2007. We now consider it an integrated media company. That means a magazine, a group of websites, online newsletters, e-content, blogs, videos, an online TV show and conferences. The magazine part of our business has, like all print media, shrunk while other segments have grown. Then there's book publishing. We used to sell books also. But those sales have withered to a trickle.

And because of my interest in fiction, I've researched what's happening in book publishing with the big houses. Now in fiction publishing a lot of changes are happening that are rocking the print world also. It takes time to a) find an agent who will take you on, b) wait for that agent to sell your book to an editor at one of the five houses still left (I'm not including small presses here and granted all the big houses have multiple imprints), c) wait for the publisher to bring out your book, and d) wait for information on how it is selling. How much time? Anywhere from three years (at minimum and typically much longer) to decades, and sometimes never. Meanwhile, you love to write, love to communicate with readers and want to get your books out into their hands.

So, I decided to publish on Kindle and Amazon. It is almost cost-free. The writer controls the process. And I made a list of advantages versus disadvantages, and guess which list is longer by a factor of about 20?

Now one of the major areas where most writers would think having a publishing house in your corner would work to your advantage is in the promotion of your book. While that might be a nice fantasy, the reality does not bear it out. All the writers I know who have agents and publishing contracts are frustrated with how their books were promoted. And the ones who want their books to sell end up doing the promotion themselves. If a book is a big seller (and precious few are), then the house will promote it. But many of the books that become very big sellers have done so because the authors promoted them heavily and creatively in the beginning. And when I say the beginning, I mean months and years. Take "The Help." It was released in 2007 and didn't get on the best-seller lists until 2009. Two years later.

I think there are a lot of myths around book publishing. Those myths have been around for a long while, and they get perpetuated for a lot of reasons. I think writers want to believe them, and it's hard to break free of the need to feel you're going to be discovered and loved and revered for this wonderful book you've poured your heart into. We all wish that were so. But writing and publishing are a business. I think writers who see it that way will learn how to get their books into the hands of readers. That's what I want to do.

Right now The Naked Gardener is available on Kindle and the iPad, and in paperback on Amazon. Why paperback? I want readers to be able to afford it. I want them to hold it, read it, enjoy it and, hopefully, look forward to the next book(s). Readers are what bring a book to life. A book is like an egg that needs to be cracked open to come to life. The Naked Gardener is my little chick.

For more on L B Gschwandtner's new novel, The Naked Gardner, visit Amazon or Thenovelette.com.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Essential Conversations on Creativity: Style With Peter Selgin

Author, artist, writer and teacher Peter Selgin, Winner of the 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction and author of 179 Ways to Save a Novel, a must-read for all writers, shares his insights on that all-important element of writing — style.

AA: It could be said of writers that we are what we read. But how does a writer select, develop and assimilate style?

PS: I think it's so important for writers to find their own, unique influences. I myself have done this by combing the stacks and shelves of libraries and used book stores. The best-seller lists I avoid, since their influence is everywhere. The same goes for the classics, though it's important to have read the classics, if only to know where you fit into the 4,000 year-old conversation known as literature.

My method goes something like this: I scan the shelves for spines that intrigue me—either with their titles, just because something about their shape or even the color or texture calls out to me. Those books I pull from the shelves and open to their first pages while trying not to read any cover matter or learn the name of the publisher, or anything else that might in some way bias my response to the actual writing. I read the first paragraph. If I like it, I read a few more. Since I can only allow myself so many books to borrow or buy, I exercise very strict standards in choosing.

By this means, I've discovered some of my all-time favorite books and authors, including Emmanuel Bove, whose now thoroughly forgotten first novel My Friends begins:
"When I wake up, my mouth is open. My teeth are furry: it would be better to brush them in the evening, but I am never brave enough. Tears have dried at the corners of my eyes. My shoulders do not hurt any more. Some stiff hair covers my forehead. I spread my fingers and push it back. It is no good: like the pages of a new book it springs up and tumbles over my eyes again."

And Hans Falada's The Drinker, which starts out:
"Of course I have not always been a drunkard. Indeed it is not very long since I first took to drink."

And The Dreams of Reason, by Xavier Domingo:
Seventh year of the war for independence in Algeria. Seventh year of living in Paris. Seven years of sleepwalking from urinal to urinal. Seven years of unconsciousness, of being half asleep and idiotic and happy. They are not seven years in hell, no, nor seven years in purgatory. They are seven years in limbo. Innocent, stupid, and cruel. Like a cat or a small boy.

You see why I've wanted to make these authors mine? Anyway, the great books that we discover entirely on our own are the ones that form us the most, the forgotten ones, the ones no one else is reading, the ones we bond with most meaningfully, whereas anyone can read the bestsellers.

AA: What's the difference between style and voice?

PS: A writer's style covers all of his work, while he may alter his narrative voice from project to project to suit each one. Voice is subordinate to style.

Also editor of Alimentum literary magazine, Peter is the author of Drowning Lessons  and Life Goes to the Movies. To learn more about his books and classes, visit Peter Selgin and the essential blog Your First Page.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: The Editing Side of the Coin

For the past several posts, we've looked at the most important question a writer can ask, "why." We've seen how it can break writer's block, help the Q&A process, aid in sifting critiques and help writers face their fear.

Underlying what we've been looking at is editing—that mystifying, disconcerting process of seeing your work darkly as in a mirror and seeing its defects, not as a writer sees them, which is usually as a parent sees an offspring, but as someone outside the work, a near stranger, the editor side of you, the side that's difficult to deal with but essential to develop to become a good, even great, writer.

Asking "why" is essential to the editing process. It's should be asked throughout the writing process, even when you fear the answers, not only because you don't want to know, but because getting at the answers takes effort—and time. But, in the end, it's better to ask yourself the tough questions and not leave this intimate business to others, because this is where writing gets personal, the heart of the matter, your heart, the most intimate part of a writer, the reason you write, or don't.

So, when you reach that part of the writing process that ties you in knots and makes you more than a little crazy, stop as you would at a washed out section of roadway. Ask yourself why the story or scene, dialogue or description isn't working. You can also ask the lesser questions—who, what, where, when and how—but none of these gets at the heart of the matter better than "why."

As a reminder, the three keys that unlock the power of why are to answer the question honestly, in detail and in writing. See the posts below for more information, and visit my online editing workshop, "Show and Tell: How to Know, How to Fix."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: Part 5, Facing the Fear

At some point in your writing life, you'll ask yourself that all important question—why am I doing this? We've been exploring the power of "why" in recent posts, and noted that it breeds other queries. Here's another example of that: Sometimes the question "why am I doing this" really means "am I cut out to be a writer?"

This question comes up a lot in the context of what we've been looking at—writer's block, internal Q&A and critique groups. It can arise in writers even without an external prompt. And if it hasn't come up for you yet, it will. So, let's take a closer look.

Writers, like everyone else, fear questions because they fear the answers, the most terrifying of which is: Does the fact that I'm having all these problems mean I'm not cut out to be a writer? Before dumping your calling, consider what this writer once said. "A book comes in fits and jerks … It made very good progress for quite a long time, in fact until last Thursday … The next three days I went into a depression that was devastating. Now it is Monday … I am forced to lift myself out of the despondency by the bootstraps." That was Nobel laureate John Steinbeck, as quoted in John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel, The East of Eden Letters. The journal is worth reading for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the comfort of finding that writers aren't alone in their fears.

To face your writing fear, do what we've been doing. Ask yourself why you're afraid, what is it that's causing so much agida? As before, to unlock the power of "why," answer the question honestly, in detail and, in this instance, maybe in your journal instead of a Tweet.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Most Important Question a Writer Can Ask: Part 4

As we've been seeing, the most important question you can ask yourself as a writer is "why." We've addressed writer's block, help for tough sections and Q&A (see the posts below). Today, we look at dealing with the peer review, or critique, process.

As a reminder, three keys unlock the power of "why," as we'll see below.

How can asking "why" help when your critique group, mentor or inner critic recommends changes, maybe extensive changes? The criticism may be accurate. You may need to change a scene or delete it, but until you address the reason you wrote it as you did and not another way, don't let it go—yet.

First, review what you've written. Start by asking yourself why you wrote the scene this way and how the suggested changes, or your own observations, impact the story and characters. The power in the process is answering the questions in detail, in writing and honestly. Once you've done this, consider which changes are essential. Also consider how to make the changes and how extensive they should be.

Clearly, "why" is a breeder question. It yields other queries that must be answered honestly and in detail (and preferably in writing) to make the most of your work. When you start thinking you're going too far afield, you probably are, but one thing you'll find in this process—the power of why is a catalyst for improving your work. You'll recognize problems sooner, be better prepared to address underlying issues and be less afraid of the outcome—more on fear next time.

For more information, visit my online editing workshop, "Show and Tell: How to Know, How to Fix."