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Hooray and congratulations!  It’s pub day for Debra Galant, whose new novel, Cars from a Marriage, “delivers wit, charm and characters who feel like next-door neighbors,” according to Booklist. So why does Debra feel like she’s tap dancing on the beach?

Politicians kiss babies. I take pictures of them chewing on postcards advertising my new novel, Cars from a Marriage.

I know this is neither dignified nor author-like.

Nor are a lot of things I’ve been doing in the six weeks leading up to my April 27 pub date.

I’ve become a regular in the Staples’ label aisle, because advertising postcards are nothing without labels reminding people that the book is “Perfect for Mother’s Day!” and that they might win a free iPod nano if they enter a contest by telling me their best story about love and cars.

I ambushed the New York International Auto Show in early April, handing out several hundred cards while my husband followed me around, camcorder in hand, to record my rejections Michael Moore style.

I’ve spend ungodly amounts of time on Facebook, and have searched every nook and cranny of the internet looking for every book blogger I can find and charm.

I’m doing this to keep my own spirits up because it appears that neither my publisher nor the book industry at large is particularly excited about the publication of my third novel.

My first two novels were proudly displayed at the front of Barnes & Noble stores all over the country. This one won’t be. B&N has only ordered 1,000.

It breaks my heart that a book that comes out barely two weeks before Mother’s Day – a novel that should really appeal to reading women – won’t be seen by the shoppers who might be looking for a present for their reading mothers and wives.

It breaks my heart that my parents, who were so excited by my first novel, have become so jaded by the bruising process of trying to hand-sell my books to their friends that they practically don’t want to ask anymore. And the few friends they do ask will most likely march into a Barnes & Noble, not find it, and feel that they’ve done their bit.

Sure, sure, poor me. Poor published author. I’ve actually got a novel coming out from a major New York publishing house and I’m whining. And I have the poor grace to be whining at exactly the moment when friends and relatives are coming up to me with cheerful congratulations.

But the truth is, even though my friends want me to be, I’m not excited. I’m not remotely optimistic about my book’s chances. Like Hollywood and junior high school, the book industry is increasingly dominated by a few stars, and it’s pretty obvious that I’m not one of them. What I’m feeling, at this moment on the cusp of publication, is small and inconsequential.

The irony is, when a new book comes out is when I feel least like a writer. It’s when I feel like Willy Loman.

Eventually, sometime late at night, when I least expect it, I’ll feel like a writer again. I’ll be lying in bed reading a great book, and I’ll notice a fabulous sentence or a great plot device or a marvelously unreliable narrator, and I will appreciate the sentence or the device or the narration the way a tailor would note the stitching on another tailor’s suit.

I might even write a fabulous sentence, or get an idea for a story or a novel that will thrill me. And then I’ll remember that I really am a member of a great guild and that having my words published and read by complete strangers is an honor and a privilege – maybe even a piece of immortality.

In the meantime, though, to stave off depression, I’m using every wile I have to eke out new fans. One by one by one. Handing out cards to babies, barnstorming auto shows, leaving stacks of cards at the YMCA. It feels a little like tap dancing on the beach — kicking up a lot of sand, but making no noise whatsoever.

Absurd, perhaps. Yet it does take place on a comfortingly human scale. The other day, shopping at Coldwater Creek, I made friends with two ladies in the dressing room, both teachers. We were advising each other about how we looked in various outfits and whether our fat rolls showed. One of them wondered whether I would wear a certain blouse, which was the tiniest bit sheer, to work. That’s when I dug into my purse and handed them each a postcard for Cars from a Marriage.

“I’m an author,” I said. “I have a new book coming out.”

They were delighted – just completely bowled over – to be in the presence of a real writer. And that delighted me.

Debra Galant’s new novel, Cars from a Marriage, comes out today — April 27 — from St. Martin’s Press. You can read more on her website, her blog or her Facebook page.

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“The older we get, the more … you realize there’s a whole range of things you will never do, of things and people you will never be.  As life becomes more and more limiting, there is something wonderful about being able to get inside the skin of people unlike yourself.”

— Lee Smith

Lee Smith is the author, most recently, of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

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This was never the way she planned — not her intention.  But journalist Cindy Schweich Handler wrote some fiction.  And she liked it.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer. And since I was an avid reader of fiction as a kid, that meant being a novelist. I was in fourth grade when I wrote the vaguely titled “Castle of Things,” a blatant rip-off of “Alice in Wonderland.” A year later, I followed this up with “Queen Elizabeth Alive,” a “Bewitch”-inspired imagining of the Tudor ruler coming forward in time to hang with a grade-schooler who happened to be a lot like me. Writing for fun was … well, a lot of fun.

As I neared college-age, though, and considered how I would eventually make a living, I decided to become a journalist. That way, I reasoned, I could consistently get paid to write, I’d experience the relatively instant gratification of seeing my work and byline in print, and I would learn about a variety of subjects while covering them. I ended up working in magazines for years and freelancing for them after starting a family, and I never regretted the decision.

That is, until years later, when I wearied of reading the final, heavily edited versions of my service pieces—those articles in women’s and parenting magazines that tell you, in strictly formatted, nearly style-free prose, how to raise a child, budget your time, or achieve any number of perennially visited objectives. Writing them paid well, and (before the market crash and digital revolution smacked the publishing industry) there was a demand for them. But I started to feel as if my writing was merely meat fed into a hamburger grinder. And it wasn’t satisfying.

It was at this point that I started hungering for a more enriching writing experience. Coincidentally, a friend who’s a successful fiction writer suggested that I attend a class for beginning novelists she was teaching in her home. With some trepidation, I took her up on her offer.

That was four years ago. Since then, I’m gratified to report, I’ve written one novel and nearly completed a second, scored a world-class agent whom I adore, and I continue to meet with my extremely supportive fellow students of fiction. (I wish I could say I’ve sold my first novel, but despite three near-misses, I haven’t. Yet.) What I’ve learned during this time, with the guidance of my excellent teacher, is that the leap from nonfiction to fiction is less about blind faith, and more about understanding what all good writing has in common. Among the observations I’ve internalized are:

  • What Stephen King observed in his wonderful guide, On Writing, is true:  the magic of writing lies in successfully transferring a thought as it exists in your head into someone else’s. That is, when you visualize an image or scene, no matter what genre you’re writing in, you need to convey it exactly the way you see it, as economically as possible for maximum clarity.
  • Always keep your theme in mind. This is true whether you’re writing an essay on, say, why cell phones are evil, or a novel about a woman who discovers that her dead son was a sperm donor (my current project). Your writing is an argument, basically, and you’re trying to persuade your audience of something. With non-fiction, of course, you do your research upfront, whereas with fiction, it’s an ongoing process of discovery that takes place in the course of the writing itself. But in both instances, there’s a lot of trial and error before it’s clear what’s extraneous and what gets you closer to your goal. The longer the work, the more arduous this process will be. Which brings me to:
  • Trust the process. A short story might be comparable in length to a long non-fiction piece, but a commercial novel probably averages around 90,000 words. It can take so long to write that first draft that it’s easy to look at the thing, after a year or two of effort, and think, “Wow, this sucks.” Maybe it’s helpful to remember an analogy I read by an online writer. The first draft, he said, is akin to your kitchen sink after you’ve washed off the Thanksgiving dishes: After a thorough going-over, there are bits and pieces that survive, and you go on from there. Sounds harsh — but it’s not, because that realization makes it easier to continue, and the next draft will work itself out a lot faster.

Commercially, fiction is harder to sell, since fewer people read it. And in my experience, it requires more focus and attention to write, because it’s more personal. But in that respect, I find it more rewarding. And not a mysterioso, you’re-born-with-it-or-you’re-not phenomenon, but rather a process that can be learned, and savored.

Cindy Schweich Handler is a former magazine editor whose nonfiction has been published in The New York Times, Newsweek, O: The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, and many other print and online publications.  She writes about politics for The Huffington Post and is currently at work on her second novel, Disaster Recovery.

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My friend Pamela Redmond Satran is a novelist, New York Times bestselling author, ninja web developer, and one-time magazine editor. Now she’s embarking on something entirely new:

Two things inspired me to write my new novel, Ho Springs, online, day by day, instead of writing it for a conventional publisher the way I did my first five novels.  Well, two things that are easy to explain.

The first was my husband, after watching the DVD of American Gangster, telling me he found the movie good enough but ultimately unsatisfying.   “It was a movie,” he explained, “so you knew from the beginning that everything really interesting was going to happen to Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, and that it was going to build to this big climax at the end.”

That was the problem with conventional novels too, I thought.  They were predictable, limited and finite in form and scope.  Wouldn’t it be more interesting to write – and read – a novel that unfolded in a way that was both more leisurely and more compelling, the way TV shows like Mad Men and The Wire did?

The second influence was creating my blog How Not To Act Old after no one wanted to buy it as a magazine article, turning it into a book and making that book a New York Times bestseller.  That experience taught me that not only was it more fun and exciting to write without an editor between me and my readers, but my own creative instincts were often better than those of the traditional publishing world.

My experience writing five “real” novels and developing two big websites – I’m also a partner in the site nameberry.com, based on the ten baby name books I coauthored with Linda Rosenkrantz – put me in a unique position to create a piece of digital fiction that would combine the best of both worlds.  Rather than writing episodic pieces, I wanted to create a novel that included such conventional elements as a character-driven story, causally-related scenes, and an extended plot that would unspool in unexpected ways, but in a form that could exist only online.

My blueprint was a television series I’d created (but hadn’t sold) a few years ago, set in a fictionalized version of Hot Springs, Arkansas.   A place-based story was perfect for an online novel, I thought, offering a wide range of characters and settings and the potential for stories to expand in an unlimited number of directions.

The big problem was the name, Hot Springs.  The url hotsprings.com was obviously taken.  And then, driving one day, I had a eureka moment: hosprings.com, or Ho Springs.  I was so excited I did a u-turn and drove right back home to track down and reserve the name.

From that moment on, I knew the idea was right.  I wanted to create the site in wordpress, so it would be free and I’d have total creative control, but I couldn’t find a theme that included all the elements – videos, graphic windows that opened to places in the town and story, room for a big block of text.

I needed a designer – or, as it turned out, three designers.  I had a vision for a logo that would look like all the letters were in realistic flames, with the T up in smoke, which called for a photoshop expert.  My budget was zero, or as close to that as I could get.  I was lucky to find Katie Mancinewho built me an amazing logo.

The only problem was, Katie said, she couldn’t design a good-looking site to go with that logo.  Rather, she sold me on the concept “Vintage Tourist Guide,” which was great, but in the end that didn’t work out either.  Katie finally ended up with the design you see now on the site, and my friend Dennis Tobenski, who’s really a composer, made the whole thing dance.  Combined cost: under $1500, and several hundred gray hairs.

Weeks and then months were passing, during which I found a musician, Matt Michael, to write and record two original songs for the site, and also drafted several writer friends to create independent blogs from the characters’ viewpoints.  But the only writing I was doing during this time was putting together the static content describing the characters and the settings.

A novelist creating a work for the web is not, then, just a writer, but a designer, a logician, a manager, a tech guy, a producer.

And then, once you do start writing – or at least, once I did – the process is different too.  I suppose you could write one long story and parcel it out day by day, but the whole point for me was to create it as I went along, publish it immediately, to swing by the crook of my knees with no net below.

That’s the only way to feel the wind on your face, which is something you rarely feel when you’re writing a conventional novel, one that won’t be published for two years or maybe five, that no other person may even see for all that time, or maybe ever.  Writing all my other novels, I’m a big planner, outlining the big story and even each individual scene, revising and reimagining, working on the same piece until I lose sight of where I started and when it will ever end.

With Ho Springs, I get up in the morning, having a vague sense of what I’m going to write about, from which character’s viewpoint, but letting myself be swayed by whatever I encounter between brushing my teeth and opening my computer.  A David Sedaris story in an old New Yorker got one of my characters beaten one morning; an email from a writer friend inspired me to make a video of myself talking about what had influenced me that day.

It wasn’t until after I launched the site that I looked at what anyone else was doing in this arena.  The only site I’ve found that’s similar is All’s Fair in Love and War, Texas, by the brilliant Amber Simmons, which makes me believe God saved me from that Vintage Tourist Guide idea.  Penguin’s We Tell Stories is brilliant, but much more expensively and expertly produced than I could hope for, and more limited in writerly ambition.  Visually-based web fictions that blow me away include Unknown Territories and The Flat on Dreaming Methods.  But they’re movies, really, not novels.

Where is this project going?  My ideal vision is that someone like HBO or a publisher with a production arm will buy it and produce it as a multimedia property, with a television and a web and a book element working together.  I believe that this is how fiction will be written and published in the future, that this will become the new standard long after anyone remembers that Ho Springs ever existed.

Or I may take it down tomorrow and build something else.  The excitement is in creating something.  Holding it in your hands, or staring at it on a screen, holds so much less satisfaction.

Pamela’s personal site may be found here; with Ho Springs just around the corner.  This post originally appeared on the site Noveir.

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Write what you know?  On second thought …

“Creative writing teachers should be purged until every last instructor who has uttered the words ‘Write what you know’ is confined to a labor camp. Please, talented scribblers, write what you don’t. The blind guy with the funny little harp who composed The Iliad, how much combat do you think he saw?”  — P. J. O’Rourke

“It still comes as a shock to realize that I don’t write about what I know; I write in order to find out what I know.”  — Patricia Hampl

“Writing what you know ignores the whole purpose of creative writing. Writing is an act of the imagination. Good writing is generally bigger than the writer — if we only write about ‘what you know,’ our work will never be more compelling than we are.”  — Willie Davis

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The novelist and creative-writing teacher Susan Breen offers consolation, hope, and advice for anyone trying to get published:

I’ve come to think that publishing stories are like birth stories. There’s usually a lot of pain, but once you hold that bundle in your hands you forget all about it. Then you say, Let’s do it again! My own story, if I can hang on to this image a little longer, was like a very delayed labor. In fact, I’d come to think it would never happen.

It was 2006 and I was in that terrible limbo in which unpublished novelists reside. Every conversation went like this:

What do you do?
I write novels.
Where can I buy one?
You can’t.
Oh. Nice to meet you.

By that point I’d written two (unpublished) novels and had started work on a third, which I thought was good, though I didn’t think it encouraging that my agent stopped returning my calls after I told her about it.  I was gearing up to start looking for a new agent, but I was feeling gloomy. One night, clicking around the computer, I came across a sign that said, “Meet Four Editors.” I felt a little like that kid in Willy Wonka who’s looking for the last chocolate bar. But I clicked on the icon and an ad came up for the NY Pitch and Shop Conference.

To make a very long story short, I went. And I did meet with four editors, each of them from a big New York publishing house. I had to give each one a pitch for my novel, which required me to think about what my novel was about. The whole experience was surreal, made more so by the fact that the conference took place in a dance studio. One whole wall was mirrored, which was the wall I was facing. So to my great joy I got to watch my own face contorted with embarrassment as I pitched my novel.

The first editor hated it. The second and third ones seemed interested. But the fourth editor, Emily Haynes, who was a treasure beyond all value, smiled at me and said, “I love it.” She was from Plume, a division of Penguin, and she wound up buying my book, The Fiction Class. It was published in 2008.

What did I learn from this experience?

1. You have to keep writing. If two books don’t sell, write a third. If five books don’t sell, write a sixth. The more you write, the better you’ll get.

2. You have to take a really long view. From the moment I first started to work on a novel to the day it was signed, took me ten years. And I got lucky. (Of course, there are exceptions. So don’t panic.)

3. You need to get out there. I know you’re shy; I am too. But you learn so much from meeting other writers and agents and editors.

4. You don’t need to be related to someone famous to sell a book, though it probably helps.

5. You don’t need to be tall and gorgeous to sell a book, though that probably helps too.

6. This is the final one. Write about things you really care about. Then it won’t matter so much whether you’re published or not because you’ll know you’re doing something meaningful.

Susan Breen is the author of The Fiction Class. She also writes short stories, one of which was anthologized in 2009 Best American Nonrequired Reading. She teaches classes in fiction writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and lives in Westchester with her family.

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Last week I posted James Cameron’s answer to the question “What’s the most important thing you know about storytelling?” Discussing Cameron’s ideas with the writer Bonnie Friedman – with whom I have an ongoing, percolating conversation about craft and creativity (as regular readers of this blog well know) –, I mentioned that I particularly liked his idea that “you have to take [your characters] on a journey – and then you have to make it excruciating somehow.”  Excruciating – such an intriguing word!  Bonnie agreed, as usual responding with nuance and subtlety to my own visceral reaction:

“It seems to me sheer genius to come at storytelling from this vantage point,” she said.  “So many of us begin from a thing in us that demands to be told and whose unleashed energy we hope will fuel us all the way along, rather than from this distant and perhaps more masterly height.  And that term ‘excruciating’ is somehow so validating.  Because one does find those sequences late in a film just torturously suspenseful.  So many romantic movies end with a chase scene, the main character running: The Graduate, Manhattan, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Up in the Air, Sleepless in Seattle, Casablanca, etc.

“It’s interesting to think about this in terms of novels.  Even in Great Expectations, a book that precedes the movies by half a century, there’s a grand, excruciating chase scene at the end.  When Pip finally discovers who his benefactor is, late in the story, he also discovers that it’s urgent he help his benefactor run for his life, with the grand escape via the river, the race to intercept a foreign ship — and that sinister mystery craft which shoots out of the gloom and pursues them.  The whole race and apprehension of the benefactor Magwitch has this very quality of the excruciating about it.

“It occurs to me that one effect of this is that the audience is left with fast-beating hearts and an upswing of energy, even as they are haunted by the final, grand, masterpiece-sized vision – and so instead of feeling exhausted by their long journey, they end up energized, and want to relive the thing or recommend it to their friends.”

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