What’s Next for Read to Write Stories

12 Sep

For the past six years, I’ve used this blog to explore the nuts and bolts of writing craft. The posts were an extension of what I was doing with students in the classroom, but it was also a form of close study to improve my own writing. I had written a novel, as good a book as I was able to produce at the time. An agent agreed to represent it, and the book received a lot of really flattering passes from editors. I sometimes tell people that the book didn’t sell because it went out at the height of the economic meltdown, when editors were fearful, especially of a genre-bending Kansas novel by an unproven author like myself. That may be true. But it was also true that I needed to become a better writer.

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” (Thanks Amanda Eyre Ward for the awesome blurb!)

The blog led to a book: The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. It’s a collection of all-new exercises (and short memoir pieces about honing my craft as a reader and writer) based on 40 one-page excerpts from recent amazing books. I’m quite proud of the result, and since its publication in late February, I’ve posted less often at this blog. I wasn’t sure what to write about. After around 200 exercises posted here (and 40 more in the book), I began to sense that I had exhausted what I wanted to say about craft. It’s true that, in some ways, craft discussions are inexhaustible. Every writer approaches the eternal problems of story (introducing and developing characters and setting, raising the stakes, advancing the plot, and structuring it all so that it makes sense) in slightly different ways. Yet as I’ve often told my students, once you identify strategies used by a writer, you’ll see them over and over in other books. We are all part of a grand tradition of storytelling that goes back as far as humans have walked the planet.

I’m also much more confident in my own writing. I’ve published stories in journals that, as a MFA student, I read with awe. I had a story included in a big national anthology. I’ve got enough stories for a collection, have written a draft of a middle grade novel, and am halfway through an adult novel that I’m really excited about. I’m still learning my craft, and (no kidding) I use the exercises I’ve posted here. Yet I’m also restless, ready to do something a little different at this blog.

Which brings me to my day job. I’m the Program Director at the Writers’ League of Texas, and one of my responsibilities is talking to writers about the entire writing and publishing process. I help organize an annual Agents & Editors Conference, and in the past three years, I’ve met and talked with more than sixty agents and editors. I work closely with Becka Oliver, the Writers’ League’s Executive Director and a former literary agent. From Becka and the pros who’ve come to Austin from New York and LA and elsewhere, I’ve learned a great deal about how the publishing industry talks about books. I’ve listened to pitches from hundreds of aspiring authors and seen many of them acquire agents and, eventually, book deals.

I never pitched a book as a MFA student, and I can’t remember ever having a single conversation with anyone who had. Learn to write first, we were told—which isn’t bad advice. But one side effect is that pitches and query letters remain a mystery or simply a hoop to jump through. But what I’ve begun to recognize at the conference is how exciting it is to tell someone about your book—and to hear about someone else’s. As readers, we occasionally stumble upon books, but more often, we pick up a book because someone told us about it, and something about their description captured our imagination.

When we tell people about our books, that is the reaction we are hoping for: awe, excitement, and a curiosity that absolutely must be sated.

Just as with books and stories, there is a craft to a good pitch. That is what I want to explore next as this blog. I will be taking jacket copy from recent and new books and teasing out what makes them effective: not just what catches our attention but also how they distill often complex stories into a short paragraph or two.

Studying pitches is not only important to selling a book (and for answering that inevitable question, “So what do you write?”). I’ve also found that problems with pitches often point to problems with the manuscript as a whole.

I’m excited about this, and I hope you will find it helpful and interesting as well.

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5 Responses to “What’s Next for Read to Write Stories”

  1. wee1one September 12, 2018 at 8:02 p09 #

    I’m excited to read about blurbs and pitches – these definitely remain a mystery to me!

  2. darwod1 September 13, 2018 at 8:02 p09 #

    Yes. Pitches are a good thing to do. I enjoyed your blog and bought the book. I liked the lessons and loved reading the examples which led me to writers I would never have heard of otherwise.

  3. lmecham September 20, 2018 at 8:02 p09 #

    I’m so glad you’re doing this, Michael. I’m a huge fan of your blog and it will be so helpful to pull back the curtain on pitches! Thank you for all your hard work.

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