Best tips for a bestseller

Best tips for a bestseller

The following TEDx Talk is by Jonny Geller, literary agent and CEO at Curtis Brown. He makes some great points about the importance of knowing what a book is about — sounds simple, but it’s not always so easy for an author. Start at the 11:00 mark for the section I’m quoting here — but there’s tons of fantastic advice throughout.

Sometimes writers themselves don’t know they’ve stumbled on a story that might hit on that chart, which may seem a bit odd because they’ve spent a long time writing 300 pages. But I’ve often sat in my office with young writers and said to them, “What’s your story about?” And they’ve said, “It’s about love and death and marriage and redemption and betrayal.” And you go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what’s the story about? Can you complete the sentence, ‘This is the story about a man or a woman who …’” and they’ll be stumped, because it’s very difficult. To reduce a complex story to one sentence is hard. But I believe it’s absolutely crucial. If a book is to become a big, bestselling book, you have to be able to communicate the core idea easily. Not all narratives lend themselves to that, but I do believe that every great classical narrative can be reduced to a sentence. — Jonny Geller

Appropriation and fiction

This is what I’ve been thinking about lately: appropriation. It’s become a bad word (along with privilege). Racial appropriation, cultural appropriation. The taking of ideas and identities. And I think we can all agree that in an overarching way, it’s a bad thing. White bands not only appropriating the blues, but getting rich on music made by black artists who were never recognized for their work. White kids wearing headdresses to indie-rock shows. (White folks do a lot of appropriating.)

1appropriation_0Recognizing it is good and necessary. Having the conversation is important. But there’s also the issue of art being, to an extent, a byproduct of appropriation. Usually we call it inspiration or influence. It’s cool to be influenced — in fact, it’s pretty lame to huddle down in one’s safe space and only create art from that small corner of knowledge. There’s a criticism directed toward those artists who don’t take enough risks, don’t venture outside of their comfort zones, don’t explore other cultures or bring a diversity of viewpoints in their work.

And, though we writers have all heard the “write what you know” maxim, we all only know so much. Eventually experience has to give way to the unknown — especially in fiction — and that’s when the rich, deep, imaginative work begins.

But how do we explore new worlds without stealing from them? Kathryn Stockett was accused of appropriation in regard to her novel, The Help. There was anger that a white writer chose to portray black housekeepers. Stockett was sued by Ablene Cooper, the longtime nanny of her brother, who claimed the writer based the book’s character, Aibileen Clark, on her. (The suit was thrown out.)

The Guardian reported in March, “JK Rowling has been accused of appropriating the ‘living tradition of a marginalized people’ by writing about the Navajo legend of the skinwalker in a new story.”

I’m currently working on a novel with a transgender character and, in my efforts to best represent him, I’ve had to ask myself a lot of hard questions. Transwashing is a cisgender perspective on what’s intended as a transgender point of view — such as the hotly contested casting of Eddie Redmayne in the role of transgender artist Lili Elbe in the film version of The Danish Girl (“the cisnormative gaze of the transgender community,” according to IndieWire). The again, that book, a fictionalized account of Elbe’s life (I loved it, by the way), was written by David Ebershoff, a cisman.

So was Ebershoff wrong to write about Lili Elbe in the first place? Was Stockett wrong to write about Abilene Clark? I suppose there’s the question of intention: Did the writer see the creation of those characters and stories as a vehicle toward recognition and reward? Because cultural appropriate for personal gain is a pretty easily identifiable no. But storytelling is what writers do, and delving into characters from under-represented groups is part of that process. We can’t plump our personal and family histories forever. We have to visit other closets and bone yards. And very few writers, I suspect, are able to write a book simply because it’s topical or is likely to sell well. We all wish we could. We might even do — devil sitting on our shoulder — it if we knew how. But that’s the whole lightning in a bottle thing.

Ultimately, if we shy away from everything that could be pointed to as appropriation by someone who is closer to it, more knowledgeable of it, perhaps more qualified to write about it, we’ll never get any work done. At the same time, if we wait for those who are most qualified to do the work, it’ll likely never get done. Lots of people know stuff. Few people write books about said stuff. So the stories have to belong, at least in part, to those who go in search of them.

And those who go in search have to be the stewards of those stories. Part of caretaking is asking the questions and remaining in the discussion. Appropriation should be a topic of conversation, but it shouldn’t be the final statement.

Namesake: On christening your fictional characters

What’s in a name? If it’s your own — the moniker your parents bestowed before they ever got to know you – it’s either a blessing or a curse. Or you’ve changed it, legally or at least by reputation, to something more suitable. If it’s the title of a project, then a name becomes a brand, a calling card, and an introduction. In the case of band names, they often deserve more thought than they ultimately get — I’m looking at you, Hoobastank and Diarrhea Planet.

1953yearbook_1_largeBut what I’m thinking about, in this case, are the names of characters in works of fiction. In tenth grade, inspired by my parents’ hippy friends, I named a character in a short story Omega. My English teacher wrote, in red pen, “Do you even know what this word means?” When my first novel was published, one reviewer — who was overall kind and enthusiastic — wrote, “I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.” So names matter. They set the tone for the character and they also serve as a litmus test for the believability and authenticity of a story.

As writers (unlike parents) we know the people we’re tasked with naming, so we need to try our best to do right by them. I say this as someone who sometimes gets it wrong. But I’m not alone. I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and while I like it, I find the name of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, rather pretentious. Plus, it makes me think of Andrew McCarthy’s Blane from Pretty In Pink, of whom Jon Cryer’s Duckie said, “That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” And what about Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, also by Fitzgerald? Not to pick on F. Scott — even lovely Nick Hornby is prone to soap-opera names for fictional musicians, e.g. Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked.

So how can we find names that sound as if they belong to actual, believable people and not rockers, cartoons or porn stars? I’ve been collecting resources and here are a few that I find to be useful:

1. Cemeteries. Every cemetery is full of names of those who lived full lives under those identities. The names are tested. They also give some historical ballast, especially in historical fiction, since names rise and fall in popularity. A Gertrude is of-an-era — or else was named for an important aunt or grandmother and so carried with her a sense of history. Characters who are old-fashioned or tied to family lore might have old-fashioned names.

2. Vintage yearbooks. I’ll start with a word of caution here. My mother’s college yearbook from the late 1960s had an Andy Angel and a Jack Frost, and she claims to have dated both of them. If you name a character Andy Angel, your book better be set at a sock-hop or a doo-wop concert. But, like cemeteries, there’s a kind of historic accuracy. I went to high school (in the 1980s) with Debbies, Deanas and approximately five zillion Jennifers. The names from the class of 1954 image I’ve posted here include Melvin Jensen, Rex Johnson and Concha Gomez. Their very ’50s-ness is exotic, but also plausible. What novel isn’t begging for a Rex Johnson?

3. University faculty directories. This is a new find for me. But seriously, if you need names with some gravity and solemnity, here are some offerings from the University of Cambridge department of history: Liesbeth Corens, Alison Bashford, Joseph Canning, Lukas Engelmann, Lawrence Eliot Klein, Helen Pfeifer, James Poskett (whose photo is absurdly handsome, by the way) and the oh-so-deserving of a fictional alter-ego, Poppy Cullen.

4. The locker room. The gym I belong to rents lockers by the month, and each rental locker has a a sticker identifying its tenant and renewal date. As in all the other cases, these are actual names of actual people. Lived-in names. The caution here is not to use an exact name for a story that will be widely published within the community of those locker-renters. It could be awkward or make people feel uncomfortable — especially if the character bearing their name is not altogether admirable. But, just as truth is often weirder than fiction, real names are often more stories than mad-up ones. And I call dibs on today’s locker-room find: Julia Horn.

Four ideas to jump-start your fiction

ideaguy_127499723-800x718This week I’ve been teaching flash fiction to middle-grade students as part of a creative writing summer camp. Preparing lessons and listening to the work they did in class (they were really good writers) gave me some ideas to jump-start my own writing practice and exercise new creative muscles.

1. Try a writing prompt.
Choose one of these, set a timer, and free-write for 10 minutes. Like what you came up with? Continue it, revise it, add to it, or consider working it into an already in-progress piece.

• One morning you discover your grew a set of horns while you were sleeping.
• People live under water.
• You’re invited to go on tour with a band.
• You switch bodies with an animal.
• You go to a special school to learn a super power.

2. Work with genre.
Think: Fantasy, Sci-fi, Horror and Realism. Take a few minutes to choose a character and familiarize yourself with that character’s basic details (name, age, looks, likes, skills). Then write that character’s 300-word bio in each genre.

3. Take your cues from the art you love.
Choose a painting or a song title and write a 300-500 word story about it. It’s not important to stay true to the intent of the artist or songwriter — in fact, the farther away you get from the actual story, the better. Make “Blue Boy” into an emissary from an alien race, make “All Along the Watch Tower” about the midnight raid of a band of fairies.

4. Rewrite a classic.
Choose a well-known story — Cinderella, Romeo and Juliet, Great Expectations — and retell it in another genre. Give a fairy tale a sci-fi twist, turn a love story into horror fiction, set Charles Dickens’ characters in present day. Stick to the flash fiction limit of 1,000 or fewer words to start — you can always expand the idea if it’s working. And remember: Retellings are very popular, especially in YA.ideaguy_127499723-800x718

Christine Hale publishes a masterful memoir

Originally published by Mountain Xpress


Throughout her book A Piece of Sky, A Grain of Rice: A memoir in four meditations, Christine Hale recounts penning and reworking a novel. It’s a detail she returns to over and over. “I was a fiction writer [and] weirdly, given this book, I’m quite a private person,” she says. But following the deaths of her parents, Hale’s focus on fiction shifted and she was compelled to write not just about the passing of her mother and father, but their relationship and her own life growing up in Appalachia. “The memoir hijacked me,” she says.

“Working with a lot of memoir projects [over] the past 10 years, it’s not unusual for it to just come out and insist,” says Hale. She teaches writing in the Antioch University Los Angeles low-residency MFA program and the Great Smokies Writing Program at UNC Asheville.

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Free audiobook resources

I love audiobooks. While I don’t wish for listening to books to replace reading books, I’m a fan of books in all forms. Just like the ebook revolutionized travel with reading material, audiobooks mean we can tune into literature more often. I listen to books while walking, commuting to work, making dinner, and using the elliptical machine at the gym.

Here’s what I don’t like: How expensive audiobooks can be. That’s not to say I don’t support authors and their products (I am an author; I know how many sales it takes for the royalty check to amount to anything), but Amazon has turned Audible into quite the moneymaker. A membership is $14.95 for one book a month; an audiobook from Amazon without an Audible membership ranges from $18-$30 or so. Pricey.


Image via

I’ve been tracking down ways to get free (and legal) audiobooks. They’re not the latest titles. Many are classics and so are in the public domain. But those books are still wonderful, still inspiring, and can take on a new life if narrated by a talented reader.

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