Category: On Writing

Wrestling with the personal: why it’s so difficult to be honest with readers, and why I’m trying now

Wrestling with the personal: why it’s so difficult to be honest with readers, and why I’m trying now

As my 47th birthday approaches, it occurs to me that I haven’t been very forthcoming with my readers. In the decade plus since I started my blog, I have offered writing advice, book reviews, and the occasional bit of news, but for the most part I have kept my distance. I’ve never felt entirely comfortable–okay, comfortable at all–sharing my personal life publicly. As social media leads us into ever-more public exposure of the most private parts of our lives, I have resisted.

Case in point: yesterday, when a friend tagged me in a facebook photo challenge, with the instructions to “post one black and white photo of your life each day, with no people and no explanation,” I took a few photos in my very lived-in office, one of my living room in slight but livable disarray, one at a taco truck where I bought lunch to bring home, a few on my walk with my husband. Ultimately, what I posted was a photograph of a ceiling light, entirely out of context. It is so glaringly impersonal that almost nothing can be gleaned–beyond my taste in light fixtures (although, it could just as easily have been taken outside of my house, so really, it doesn’t even necessarily reveal my taste in light fixtures).

the completely impersonal ceiling light photo
The photo that felt too personal for the B&W challenge

Why this  discomfort with sharing? First, there is the knowledge that once it’s out there, it can’t be clawed back. Information is easy to find these days, but we don’t need to make it easier. For example, my bio vaguely says I live in Northern California. Some versions of my bio still say that I live in San Francisco, even though we left San Francisco eight years ago. Photos of the taco truck and of our walking trail would reveal my location with more specificity. One might call me paranoid. Such are the hazards of cohabitation with a man whose life has been threatened more than once by people with the means and quite possibly the inclination to make good on their threats.

Beyond that, I can’t shake the feeling that writing about one’s personal life is blatantly self-centered. As a teacher, I believe that I have something of value to share in a single sphere: writing. I’ve learned a lot about writing and publishing through two decades of practice, trial and error, big wins and fizzling losses. I assume that people come to my blog for that kind of information: things they can learn about books, writing, and the writing life. I have never been comfortable with the idea of a blog as a personal journal. I should qualify that: a named blog. I have on occasion blogged anonymouslywith some degree of freedom.

On religion and reticence

Perhaps my reticence, at heart, has something to do with my Southern Baptist upbringing, and the compulsion I felt from a young age to hide things from my parents. It took quite a bit of orchestration to hide things from my mother, whose world view was constrained by a deep-seated, moralistic way of thinking that grew out of her own strict religious upbringing. (Moralistic, not moral. There is in fact a glaring lack of morality in the Southern Baptist doctrine as it was practiced by the churches of my youth. In that sphere, morality was almost entirely about denying oneself and others pleasure in any form, never about generosity toward the less fortunate, tolerance of others, or love for those with differing opinions. In my adulthood, I have come to see the religion I grew up with as deeply immoral, but that is a subject for another post.)

On the occasions when I did publish essays or posts that revealed anything personal, I felt conflicted. Any such exposure has almost always been followed instantaneously with regret. I’m not talking about the times when I wrote quite openly and lightheartedly about sex?—?which I did for Salon, Playboy, and other publications. The fact that those essays are out there doesn’t bother me. In those instances, I was writing about the past, and I was also writing through a filter: holding my feelings close, never entirely showing my hand.

No, the personal writing that scared me was that which dug deeper and revealed more?—?about who I was, where I came from, what I truly believed or needed or feared. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night to delete a blog post or facebook update in which I felt I’d said too much. If it was an essay published in a magazine, of course, there was nothing I could do once the cat was out of the bag— but I’ve always been very careful about what I put forward in an essay to be published in print or by any publication that is out of my control.

The exception

In 2012, I published an essay online titled “I hope this letter finds you.” The essay is about being raped by my boss when I was working as a server and hostess in Knoxville in my twenties. I wrote it first for a print anthology about work, and I later posted an updated version of the essay on Medium as a response to those who attacked Bill Cosby’s accusers for not speaking up sooner. As I explain in the essay, I had my own reasons for not speaking up. While my rapist was not a high-profile career-ruiner like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby or Trump, he did sign my paycheck, a paycheck I desperately needed. As soon as I published it, I began hearing from friends who had read it. This made me uncomfortable, so I made it private, then public again, then private again, too many times to count. Each time I post it or link to it, I do so because it feels important?—?not in its uniqueness but, by contrast, in its utter lack of uniqueness. It is so common, so unsurprising, so banal.

I post it or link to it each time a group of women come out publicly against a high profile predator and are reviled for not speaking up or going to the police sooner. And as soon as I unearth it, I think, “Who will see this? Who do I want to not see this?” The first time I posted it, my mother read it on facebook, and I was filled with regret. I didn’t like the fact that it opened up channels for her to pry, to turn my matter-of-fact past into a vehicle for her emotional intrusion. This is too complicated a dynamic to go into here. With the caveat that I had a mostly happy childhood and was raised by loving if complicated parents, I will say that my fear of my mother reading my work sometimes makes it difficult to write anything personal. Knowing she will see it , analyze it, and want to talk about it has caused many a thing to go unwritten.

On journaling & playing hooky from the “work” of writing

In A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life, Pat Conroy writes, “It has caused me much grief that I’ve never been completely seduced by the craft of journal keeping. A laziness takes over, and I abandon most of them over the course of a summer…”

I journaled obsessively as an adolescent?—?although I wrote in tiny cursive, and often in code, once I discovered that even my journals were not private in our home. (The habit of writing so illegibly that only I can decode my writing has stuck with me, much to my husband’s dismay, as he is my first editor on every novel, story, and essay, and he can’t make heads or tails of my handwriting). I dropped the journaling habit in college and picked it up again in my early twenties. Those journals were a repository for my truest thoughts and feelings. It was the 80s and 90s, and blogs had not been invented. If livejournal had existed then, I’m certain I would have used it, although I doubt I would have used my real name. After I had my son at 35, time became a more precious commodity, and I stopped what little journaling I’d previously done. I’ve started many journals in the past twelve years; the shelves of my office are littered with notebooks that contain a few pages of fevered writing, followed by empty pages.

My journaling has followed much the same pattern as Conroy’s —well-intentioned beginnings followed by laziness?—?although mine generally start when I am away from home. A recent perusal of my shelves yielded Norway journal, Paris & London journal, Iceland journal, China journal, and a whole slew of Hawaii date-here journals. With the exception of the China journal, which actually takes up three complete notebooks and is exhaustive in its recording of my time living and working in Beijing in my late twenties, the journals persist over a course of a day or two before being entirely abandoned. What this tells me is that I have to be in a state of utter relaxation to even contemplate beginning a journal?—?hence, all of those journals started while sitting alone on the beach early in the morning in Hawaii.

I can trace the end of my journaling for good back to two events that happened at roughly the same time. In 2004, our son was born. After his birth, I journaled for the first few months, recording with intense interest his milestones alongside the bliss and exhaustion of being a new mother. I didn’t want to forget a thing, and because every moment receded into the fog as soon as it occurred, I knew a journal would be my only reliable memory of those first months of his life. Six months after our son was born, my agent sold my novel, The Year of Fog, to Bantam. Although it was my second novel and my third book, it was the first book that had been picked up by a major New York publisher. A year of extensive revisions followed prior to the book’s release.

In addition to revising The Year of Fog, I had signed a two-book contract, so I had another book to write and deliver. I was on contract with the same publisher for various books from 2005 to 2017. Basically, as soon as I started getting paid to write, with deadlines to boot, I stopped journaling. My writing time went into my novels instead of into journals that I knew would not be published. When writing became my job, I felt guilty for any writing that wasn’t job-related. The deadline always loomed. Writing was my contribution to our family finances, and spending my limited writing time on anything other than the writing I was getting paid for felt like playing hooky.

Getting personal

I don’t expect I’ll ever take up journaling again in the traditional sense. For one thing, I’m trying to downsize my books in preparation for a big move, and journals just seem like more books to sift through and store. But I do want to take a more personal approach to my blog?—?which may, in some way, serve as a kind of edited journal. I am an introvert who listens, gathers stories and feelings, and selfishly guards my own. At parties, people talk to me?—?not just chit chat but real “This is who I am, this is what I want,” kind of stuff. Most of my life, acquaintances and strangers have revealed deeply personal things to me, only to look up with surprise at the end of a monologue and say, “I can’t believe I just told you that. I’ve never told anyone.”

I have gone through life collecting other people’s stories. In my novels, I reveal myself?—?as all authors do to some extent. My novels are never autobiographical, but for someone who guards my life with such vigilance, it is perhaps inevitable that the novels act as a safe confessional. I don’t tell my own stories, but some version of them seeps through.

I come back again to the question: is there any value in sharing my life in a more personal way? I grapple with answering this question in the affirmative. The only way, in fact, I can come to a “yes” is by thinking about what inspired me to write this post and take this new approach in the first place. As a reader, I find myself increasingly drawn to stories that reveal rather than conceal. There is A Lowcountry Heart, mentioned above. I found it at my local Books Inc. yesterday, began reading it yesterday afternoon, and was awake for much of the night, thinking about the border between the public and the private, trying to unravel in my mind the nature of my own strict boundaries. Other books of a highly personal nature have stayed with me over the last few years as well: Making Toast: A Family Story, by Roger Rosenblatt; Still Writing, by Dani Shapiro; Blue Nights, by Joan Didion. Something in these writers’ willingness to share has spoken to me, and more: it has drawn me in. These books have kept me in their grip.

I cringe when writers claim that writing is a particularly difficult profession. I’ve worked retail and restaurants, I’ve pulled auto parts from high shelves in a sweltering warehouse, I’ve pounded the pavement of New York City selling credit processing machines, I’ve gotten in cars with strange men in the middle of the night in China en route to a work meeting in a country where I didn’t speak the language, have a working phone, or have a single yuan in my possession. I can say with sincerity and utter truthfulness that writing is the easiest job I’ve ever had. I’d never want to go back to any career that involved a cash register, customer service, account management, or Mandarin. Writing isn’t a hard job, in my opinion. It’s challenging to write as well as one wants to write, of course. One can easily become mired in the narrative and lose the thread of the plot. One can get it wrong in a million different ways. But there are much more difficult ways to make a living than sitting down to write in the morning with my cup of coffee, after I’ve taken my son to school. Pretty much any way I can think of to make a living, aside from reaping investment dividends or a trust fund ATM (nice work if you can get it), is more difficult than writing.

But there are choices one must make in terms of whom we reach and how we reach them. The writing life is a constant negotiation with ourselves and with the ones we love or have loved, the ones we have left or been left by, the ones who passed through our lives and made any sort of mark. How much will we tell? When will we tell it? How much will still be visible to the discerning reader after all names have been changed? Will we reside safely for the entirety of our careers in the realm of fiction, or will we allow ourselves to say more? Will we?—?selfishly and recklessly?—?allow ourselves to be known?

It’s the question I’m grappling with now. I have no clear answer, and I may change my mind tomorrow or next week. I may delete this post tonight, in the middle of the night, after coming to my senses. But, for the moment, inspired by a few writers I admire who’ve elegantly traversed this terrain, I think I’m going to give it a shot.

5 Things You Need to Know About Publishing

5 Things You Need to Know About Publishing

Here are a few things you need to know if you want to publish a book with a traditional publisher. While the process for publishing nonfiction and fiction is a bit different, some principles remain the same across genres.

1. Yes, you need an agent

If you want to publish with The Big 5, or many of the larger independent publishing houses like Algonquin, you have to have a literary agent. Most agents are based in New York City. No reputatable agent will charge you up front. The typical agent commission for domestic sales is 15%, and it’s worth every penny. Commission for foreign sales is higher, because your agent works with foreign agents, who also charge a commission. Also worth every penny. There are a whole slew of rights you need to keep, and a good agent knows how to negotiate those rights. Once you have an agent, don’t bother her every day. Let her do her job. Keep in touch, but don’t be a pill, and don’t be a squeaky wheel.

2. No, you don’t need an MFA.

If you have one, fine, but an MFA won’t get you published. Unless you have a great manuscript to go along with that degree, an MFA probably won’t even get you noticed. If you can mention an MFA in your query letter to an agent, it does show that you’ve been engaged in writing seriously (or at least steadily) for a couple of years, which is a good thing. If you studied somewhere particularly prestigious, it could get you a foot in the door. But a degree is no substitute for a good book. Whatever you do, don’t go into debt for an MFA. If you do choose to get one, try to go somewhere that is fully funded?—?meaning you don’t pay a dime, and you graduate with valuable teaching experience. Or, if you’re already a professional, choose a reputable low-residency program whose faculty you admire, which allows you to keep your day job while engaging in independent study with the faculty. You can also get your feet wet by studying privately with reputable writers. Many teach on the side through continuing studies programs, which don’t require you to change your life too much or enroll in a full-fledged writing program.

3. The publishing calendar is lengthy

It usually takes well over a year after you sign a book deal for your book to come out. Maybe two years or more. It’s frustrating, but, for the time being at least, it’s a part of the beast. In your contract, be sure there is language indicating that the publisher has a limited amount of time after acceptance of manuscript to publish the book?—?18 months seems to be standard. While you’re waiting for your book to come out, you should be writing your next book. Ideally, you’ll have a complete, solid draft by the time your first book comes out. Once you’ve signed a contract, you should always be thinking of your next book. Don’t forget that you’re in this for the long haul; keep writing.

4. Be Your Own Publicist.

Use the time between acceptance and publication to do your own groundwork. Build your email list. Connect with potential readers. Stay in touch with your in-house publicist (and your independent publicist if you hire one) to start setting up readings and events at least six months before pub date. Don’t drown your twitter followers with tweets about your book. Around book launch time, it’s okay and even necessary to devote a lot of your tweets to your events and to interviews and blog posts about your book. But you’re able to do so only if you’ve already earned your followers’  trust by posting interesting and engaging content that’s not all about you. You can market your book on social networks only if you also use your social networks to truly engage with people.

5. Love your independent bookstores.

Small bookstores are wonderful places to read. When you have an event at an independent store, it’s not all about how many people show up for the reading. The store will put your event in their newsletter, and the booksellers will handsell your book when customers walk in. The reach of your event extends before and after the actual reading date. Set up joint readings with other authors, which decreases the chance of staring out at a sea of empty seats. If only three or four people show up at your reading, treat them well. Don’t be a diva. Ever. Instead of standing behind the podium, sit down with your readers?—?they’ve come to see you, after all!?—?and have a conversation. They’ll go away feeling invested not just in the book you’re reading from, but in you as an author.

Do you want to write stories or novels? Check out my 8-week email course, Writing Fiction.

Want to learn more about how to publish your novel? Enroll in Publishing Boot Camp.

Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels, including the New York Times bestseller The Year of Fog, and two award-winning story collections.

How Not to Be Boring – Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

How Not to Be Boring – Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel

You know that feeling when you walk into a great house? Or even just an interesting house? The feeling you get that things are in order, or aren’t. The feeling of the home being well-composed or chaotic. The sense you get of the kind of person who lives there. Maybe the entryway opens onto a living room filled with natural light, or maybe the front door brings you face to face with stacks of old magazines and discarded shoes.

The opening paragraphs of a novel are like the entryway to a home. They should be inviting. They should inspire people to come in, look around. They should include enough clues to let the visitor know what kind of world she is entering, but they shouldn’t be so packed with stuff that the visitor gets sensory or information overload.

In Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice, Colum McCann writes:

The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.

This got me thinking about how change is at the heart of story. Without change, there is no story. You should begin your novel or story with the idea that something is going to change at any moment, and your reader should be able to feel that urgency too.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron writes:

When we pick up a book, we’re jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we’ve come in at a crucial juncture in someone’s life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it’s longstanding and about to reach critical mass.

Your job as a novelist isn’t to write a sentence so beautiful that you think it ought to be set to music. Beautiful sentences are great, unless the sentences convey no story. No, your job as a novelist is to tell a story, and in the process of telling that story, to not be boring.

If your first paragraph is a languid and lovely description of landscape, you might lose your readers before they get to the end of the first page. Landscape, in general, does not feel active. It does not feel urgent. It feels, instead, like a writer attempting to be writerly. Of course, there are times when the landscape is exactly the right way to begin your novel; there is no hard and fast rule about how to begin. But if there’s no compelling reason to put description first, then start with character, with trouble, with whatever is urgent, crucial, and out of the ordinary.

Learn all about novel beginnings, suspense, character development, and more in Novel Writing Master Class 1, the first course in my Novel Writing Master Class Series.

The Inspiration for The Marriage Pact

The Inspiration for The Marriage Pact

The Marriage Pact on Entertainment Weekly Must ListOne of the questions I’ve been hearing the most at readings over the last couple of weeks is, “Where did you get the idea for this crazy book?” (The second comment I get a lot is, “But you seem so much nicer than I expected.” If you can’t figure out why anyone would say that, you probably haven’t gotten to the part about Fernley yet.) So here, it is, in black and white: the inspiration for THE MARRIAGE PACT, which is really three inspirations:

Inspiration #1: LOVE

I’ve been married for 16 years (thanks, Kevin!), and I’ve written about marriage (and divorce) before in novels like Golden State. This time, I wanted to write about two people who are deeply in love and trying to make it work. I didn’t want to write a story of husband against wife, but rather a husband and wife together, struggling against a powerful outside force.

Inspiration #2: CULTS

The second inspiration was my longstanding fascination with cults–in particular, organizations that lure people in with the promise of helping them to live fuller, happier lives and be better versions of themselves. Some fashion themselves as religions, while others purport to be self-help movements. I wanted to explore why educated, reasonable individuals get drawn into these organizations and become so enmeshed that they leave behind family members, spend massive amounts of money to take seminars or courses, and even sign extreme contracts committing themselves to the organization for life and beyond.

Inspiration #3: THE FEDERAL CRIMINAL CODE

The third piece of the puzzle was The Federal Criminal Code, a massive tome, comprised of over a thousand pages of tiny print. The book, issued annually, outlines every crime you can think of, along with many you can’t, and the corresponding penalties. I wondered: What would happen if there were strict rules for marriage, and penalties for those who broke the rules? What if there was an organization that took marital “crimes” as seriously as other types of crimes? I wanted to put that concept under the microscope, take it as far as I could, and see what happened.

I talked about inspiration and more with Joe Hartlaub for Bookreporter. Read the author interview.

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P.S. The Marriage Pact is on the Entertainment Weekly Must List this week!

Get The Marriage Pact.

Writing psychological thrillers- plus the pleasures of genre-bending

Writing psychological thrillers- plus the pleasures of genre-bending

I recently sat down with Bookreporter to discuss writing and my new psychological thriller, The Marriage Pact. We talked about the inspiration for The Marriage Pact, why I love writing psychological thrillers and suspense, four primary rules of The Pact, collectivism gone awry, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, genre-bending, writing really scary scenes, and writing process.

I liked Bookreporter’s question about blurring genres. Read the entire Bookreporter author interview.

BRC: Each of your books has tended to blur genres, and THE MARRIAGE PACT doubles down on that. The controlling and threatening aspect of The Pact clearly landed it in the thriller genre for me, and there are elements of romance and even some science fiction to it. Are you drawn toward or away from any particular genre? Did you find that you had to rein yourself in while writing the book to keep it from swerving into one genre or another? If so, how did you do it?

MR: It’s true, my books have always crossed genres. When I write a book, I don’t really think about genre. I think instead about a specific person in a particular place and time, facing a specific and significant problem. Before I turn it in, I begin to think about how it will be received in terms of genre and where it will fit. There is a tendency in the publishing industry to want to put every book in a single category, and to strip away everything in the manuscript that doesn’t fit the prescribed category. Every book can only sit on one shelf, but that doesn’t mean it neatly fits into a single genre. That said, genre can actually be very helpful in leading readers to books they will enjoy.

While THE MARRIAGE PACT is the first novel I’ve written that has landed on the suspense shelf, I always try to write suspenseful novels, because I want to entertain the reader. There are many different ways to do suspense, though, and not all require the kind of pacing that is expected in a thriller. THE YEAR OF FOG begins with a child who goes missing on a foggy San Francisco beach, and GOLDEN STATE involves a tense hostage crisis at a Veterans Administration Hospital. NO ONE YOU KNOW, which reviewers described as a literary thriller, derives its suspense from an unsolved murder that happened 20 years before.

Every one of my novels has a romantic relationship front and center, because I am a (practical) romantic, and I like to think about and write about the way two people stay together or break apart. What causes the ruptures? What helps them to repair those ruptures? I also believe that humans need intimacy. We look for it in our literature and films just as we look for it in our lives. Emotional intimacy between two characters helps us feel connected to a story and its characters, and it also inspires us to think about our own relationships. Also, in romantic relationships, we are often the truest version of ourselves, because our private moments with people we love tend to be when our defenses and masks fall away. Put your character in a room alone with his or her spouse, and you begin to see who that character really is.

The scene or scenes to which I think you’re referring that verge on horror are a true departure from my other novels, but it just felt right and organic to those moments in the story. I often have a tendency to hold back in my writing, to have protagonists proceed with caution the way I do in my everyday life. I wanted to let go of caution in THE MARRIAGE PACT, and get the characters into situations I’m pretty certain I will never encounter. I wanted to let the narrative spin out to a scarier place than I’ve been willing to go before. I had so much fun, I just might do it again!

Read the complete interview on Bookreporter.

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