In a recent class that I delivered online about self-editing, I touched only briefly on the subject of character development. It is, of course, a vast subject, and there is so much to say. In later posts, I'll analyse some characters, but first, I want to share my checklist of what makes a compelling protagonist.
'Compelling' is the best descriptor, I think, since it does not mean the character must always be likable. But however hard the protagonist may be to like, it’s imperative that the reader is rooting for them by the end of the book.
For me, a character is compelling if they are sympathetic, expressing a unique worldview, and doing things that are admirable.
First, what does it mean to be sympathetic? I believe that this simply means that we understand why they are who they are, and the reason they want certain things. We might not agree with the protagonist’s actions or ambitions, but we can see where they’re coming from. This understanding means that we feel sympathy for the protagonist throughout their journey, even when they are getting their just deserts. This is a core quality of the classic antihero, from Shakespeare’s Macbeth to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but I think it should also be a factor for every kind of protagonist.
Sympathy (or, often, empathy) stems from vulnerability. Think about the folk on social media who only present their lives as a Shangri-la of splendiferousness … annoying, right? Vulnerability is what makes people likeable, and most of us root for the underdog because we can identify with his/her/their fears, weaknesses, or disadvantages.
For some, this might be about the character's 'flaw', but I’m not too keen on the word because that is too value-laden. Most vulnerabilities are not the protagonist’s fault, per se; they are simply the outcome of their personality (e.g., fear or rejection), physical affliction (e.g., serious illness), cognitive or educational disadvantage (e.g., illiteracy), or social factor (e.g., homelessness). Whatever their vulnerability, the protagonist’s journey should be focused on overcoming it, turning it to their advantage, or coming to terms with it.
Having an unusual perspective lifts a protagonist from forgettable to compelling, and sometimes into the category of controversial. I’m thinking here of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Whatever you think of his actions, the way he ‘justifies’ them is incredibly articulate and highly challenging to the normal worldview. You don’t have to create anyone as morally bankrupt as Nabokov’s antihero to present an unusual perspective, but the greatest writers (and ergo their protagonists) are often pseudo philosophers or anthropologists who have something groundbreaking or surprising to say about the human-centred universe (think George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Octavia E. Butler).
Of the four components, this is probably the hardest for writers to incorporate because it requires of them the ability to see the world differently also … or identify people who do. I based a key character in my novel on the late Bill Hicks, my favourite comedian, because I love his acerbic, cynical take on politics and consumerism.
Finally, I believe great protagonists are admirable in how they behave. This might involve a grand act of selfless heroism, a quiet determination in the face of overwhelming odds, or anything in between. In essence, the character must do something that we can see is very difficult for them and which makes us wonder how we would act in similar circumstances. Again, with reference to antiheroes, they often redeem themselves with an act of great self-sacrifice or humility, or they deal with defeat in a way that endears us to them in the end.
There are many other qualities you can throw into the mix, but I feel that these three comprise the base ingredients. I’m curious to know what your core qualities for great protagonists are, too, so share them here, and let's improve the recipe!
What makes a book, film, poem, painting, or song a 'classic'? I'm talking about that intangible something that makes a work of art something that generation after generation goes back to. In my view, the answer lies in the endless interpretability of its theme, which is an aspect of writing craft often overlooked.
'So, what's it about then?'
We lovers of books with spine can't wait to tell someone else about what we're reading. In a nutshell, we have two ways of describing a book: by plot or theme. Let's take a book I read recently, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler:
The thematic description of The Parable is, of course, MY reading of the book; it may not have been what Butler intended. Each reader (and each generation) brings their own perspective and life experience to a book (or any work of art) because interpretation is not about taking meaning out; it's about putting meaning in.
But if every reader brings their own interpretation to the table, should a writer even bother being intentional about a theme? IMO, yes. A theme adds depth and cohesion to a narrative. Theme is like a spice that infuses the book; you may not be able to identify the spice, but it adds a memorable flavour to the writing that will linger with the reader.
What Makes a Good Theme?
Too often I see a theme described in concepts so huge that they lose all meaning: love, loss, identity, courage, and so on. I believe that a great theme is simultaneously universal and personal.
Take the film of the Wizard of Oz as an example. A classic, I think we can all agree. As a classic film, it can be viewed through many critical lenses (Feminist, Marxist, Queer, etc.), each bringing its own interpretation of theme. But there is also a clear, intentional theme: There's no place like home. This theme is both general (everyone would agree) but also specific (we agree based on our own experience of 'home').
'There's no place like home' is what I call a 'thesis' theme because it wants you, the viewer, to agree that 'home' is the best place for you. The plot of the film is formulated to prove the thesis, adopting a definite stance. One sees this kind of theme often in kids' films that attempt to impart a moral lesson, as well as the many early Hollywood movies that border on propaganda.
The more interesting theme is what I call a 'conundrum' theme. At the centre of the narrative is a moral dilemma that the protagonist is dealing with, a dilemma that the reader is also invited to explore. If Wizard had been less didactic, the theme might have been: 'What if you had to choose between leading a small, black-and-white life in the bosom of your family, OR live a large, adventurous, technicolourful life with your dearest friends?'
If you are a writer struggling to identify your theme, start with your protagonist. Identify what their 'journey' is and think about all the conundrums that arise from that. Pick just one that interests you most and develop it through the narrative as you revise your manuscript. You don't have to be heavy handed! But with a little intentionality, you can create a story that both entertains your readers AND challenges them to think about themselves and/or the world ... now that's a book with spine!
As an editor, I get deep joy from weeding out errors and helping writers elevate their prose. What I enjoy less is the techy bit, which isn't about what's on the page but how it's presented. I know most of you understand that, judging by the state of some manuscripts I get! But, if you present a chaotic manuscript, your editor will not only curse you, they will likely charge you for time spent reformatting, especially if they charge by the hour.
So, if you intend to share your work with an editor, agent, or publisher, use this bare-minimum checklist.
1. Use black, size 12 Times New Roman font throughout. I know it's dull, but if you're worried that the font will make your book boring, you might have bigger problems than you realize! Select the entire text and then click on the TNR font; this will ensure any rogue fonts are banished. Don't forget the footnotes!
2. Do NOT indent the first paragraph of each chapter, after a subhead, or after a list.
3. Indent all other paragraphs to 1cm. NEVER use tabs or the spacebar for indentation!!!! (The overuse of exclamation points is justified here). To properly indent, highlight all of your text and then find the paragraph spacing menu on the HOME menu of Word (indicated with red arrow). In the drop-down menu, click "line spacing options", which will bring up this box below. Choose the "first line" option and set the size to 1cm (or go with the default of 1.27cm).
5. Use double or 1.5 line spacing (see above box) so it's easier to read.
6. NEVER use more than one paragraph break to separate paragraphs. If you want a slight gap between paragraphs, set the paragraph spacing to 6 or 8 pt (see box above). N.B. Gaps between paragraphs are not common in fiction or creative nonfiction.
7. Use single spaces after each sentence. Many people were taught to double space, but that's no longer necessary (in fact, it's actively frowned upon). To easily fix every double space, go to "Replace" on the HOME menu of Word (see pic). Click to bring up the box below.
In the top long box, press the spacebar twice, and in the bottom box, press it once. Then click "Replace All".
8. Run the basic Word Editor programme for spelling and grammar errors. Of course!
9. Use heading styles if your chapters have several subheads (common in nonfiction). If you know how to use heading styles in Word, hurrah! If not, at the very least, use your font to indicate a style for each level. For example, font 20 for chapter titles and font 16 for main headings. Your editor will then apply the heading styles and use them to create a table of contents.
10. One document only! Don't expect your reader/editor to piece it together themselves!
These first few weeks of the year are a time when everyone gets down to goal-setting. Being a long way from perfection, my list of New Year Resolutions is usually lengthy, and I always set myself up for failure. So, this year I’m keeping it simple when it comes to creative resolutions, and between January and June, my creative goals are simply twofold:
Any additional creative output will be a bonus. Come June, I’ll set more goals for the second half of the year.
If you are reading this as a writer, I expect you’ve completed a similar goal-setting exercise. But do you have any resolutions that will help you become better at self-editing? If you’re not sure where to start, here are a few practical resolutions you could adopt.
1. Keep on writing. Never review anything you’ve written until you have finished an entire first draft, be it a short story or a novel/memoir. Do not succumb to the temptation to redraft anything before you’ve arrived at what you believe to be the end point. Draft one is for your eyes only, so never be embarrassed about what you’ve written. It’ll be rough ‘n unready, but it will be complete. You cannot begin to sculpt your masterpiece until all the clay is on the wheel.
2. Practise abstinence. Put your first draft away for a minimum of ONE MONTH and try not to even think about it. In the meantime, try focusing your creative energy on something else (start writing another story, learn the ukulele, paint by numbers) until it’s time to review the project again. Without some distance from the work, self-editing will be severely hampered.
3. Think big. Don’t sweat the small stuff as you work on improving your first draft. It’s not worth tinkering with the finer points of punctuation/grammar and word choice if you need to rewrite or reorganise an entire chunk of your story. Focus instead on the big picture of narrative structure, character arc, theme, tone, setting and so on. Only when you’ve got to your final draft can the finessing begin.
While you’re practising resolutions 1 to 3, you could also expand your editing knowledge and skills by:
4. Reading Sin & Syntax: How to Craft Wicked Good Prose by Constance Hale. The book not only covers grammatical ground rules, it will also help you (among many other things) to:
5. Listening to The Editing Podcast, from fiction editor/proofreader Louise Harnby and nonfiction editor Denise Crowle. Though aimed primarily at editors, writers stand to gain key insights into how the editing process works and how writers can avoid certain editorial pitfalls. Well worth a listen. Find the podcast at www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com.
Good luck, writer! You got this.
Recently, I invited some new writers to submit 2000 words of their writing for a sample copy edit so that they could see what’s involved.
For each piece, I focused on the 5 C’s of Copyediting, but I also offered some general feedback on the opening of the writers’ stories, as I would for any sample. In return, I asked them to tell me how they found the experience.
(For info: While some editors request an excerpt from the middle of the manuscript, I prefer the opening 2000 words because it reveals a lot about a writer’s skills and the project. A weak opening will strongly imply that more self-editing is needed before the manuscript is ready for a copy edit.)
"Lorna gave me a huge amount to think about. Over the years I’ve asked various writer friends to critique the book and they’ve all provided me with excellent feedback. However, Lorna gave me a completely new insight into the work and what I need to do to strengthen it. One of the most surprising and useful observations she made was that my protagonist comes across as the most ordinary character in the excerpt. This was difficult feedback to hear but Lorna was absolutely right, and I’m hugely grateful to her for highlighting it.
Lorna’s attention to detail was impressive. She gave my writing some very tough love and now I have my work cut out, tightening my dialogue, strengthening my opening chapters, giving my protagonist greater heft and generally tinkering with the tone of the book. I’m very glad to have had her help, she gave me what my friends probably never dared: a truly detailed, honest appraisal."
"Your edit made a huge improvement to a text I thought I’d polished. All your suggestions were kindly and thoughtfully made. After going through your changes, the sentences sparkled. But most important of all, you opened my eyes to a problem with my main character.
I'd been feeling that something in the manuscript wasn’t working for a long time. Re-drafting it felt like a chore. And the more changes I made, the less I felt happy with it. I’d put it to one side when your offer to copy edit came through, so I jumped at the chance. I thought you'd be looking more at sentence structure than wider problems, but you pointed out that my main character didn't jump off the page. And although I'd worked and worked on her, your comments made me have a complete re-think, but I've regained the love I had for the story and can't wait to start revising."
"I can definitely say that it was helpful for me, very helpful indeed. It was the first time getting professional editor feedback (the experiences I had made before with a semi-professional looking at a text of mine were not the best). Your feedback helped me to trust an editor with my texts and trusting that the feedback will be helpful and in honour of what I want to write. Also, you stating that I write well is something I take as a great compliment, as you would have seen lots of texts and stories.
One point you noted is that I am jumping POVs. In general, I admit that I had some issues with the POV, and I am constantly working on focusing on only one character when writing a scene. Hence, this is still an ongoing learning process, where I oftentimes think, Yes, now I got it right, only to later see that there still is some visible or subtle mixture of POVs. The three points in your comments were helpful for me as I started to put more focus on exactly those questions.
Your feedback was mostly helpful for me. For most of your comments, you wrote why you made that comment, and where that wasn't explicitly included, I could find good reasons on my own. For some suggestions you made, I did not find the reason, but I took them as what you said them to be: suggestions. For me, your feedback was a kind and detailed one at the same time, especially with your final comment underneath my text."
There are many ways to find a copy editor, such as online searching, professional associations, recommendations from other writers, and crowd-sourcing websites. But how do you know if a particular editor is going to be a worthy recipient of your editing budget?
I recommend that writers find two or three potential editors and carry out a three-stage vetting process for each:
1. Online Research
If you’ve found an editor online, or someone has recommended one, the editor’s website is the first port of call. (I think it’s a bad sign if the editor does not have an online shopfront.) The website should tell you if the editor has experience/interest in your kind of writing and appears to have the kind of personality you might gel with.
Don’t just look at the editor’s testimonials, though, which are obviously going to be glowing. Rather, assess for yourself how well the site is presented and how clearly the content is written. A single typo, however, is no reason to blacklist them, because even the most professional publications are rarely error-free!
2. Initial Consultation
Once you’ve decided an editor looks promising, arrange a phone or video call. On this first call, you’re simply sharing information and giving the editor a chance to ask pertinent questions about the project and the kind of editing you need. If they show little curiosity or interest in your project, they're unlikely to be a good fit.
Go into the consultation with a list of questions of your own to find out (at minimum) about the editor’s availability, what their process is, what they charge/how they’re paid … and if they’re willing to do a sample edit (see next step).
3. Editing Sample
I believe the best way for a writer to evaluate an editor is via an editing sample. Some editors will do this for free. If the editor is a highly sought-after professional, they may charge a fee for an amount that is later subtracted from the overall cost of the edit if you decide to hire them. In addition to seeing how many errors they spot, you’re looking for how astute and tactful their queries are, and how well their editing respects your material and authorial voice. Essentially, you’re assessing whether the editing enhances your writing.
However, this sample assessment is not a one-way street. The principle reason I provide free samples is that doing so is as much for my benefit as the writers’. In providing a sample edit, I’m asking the following questions:
When you have samples from two or three potential editors (samples of the same excerpt!) to compare, you might find that the editor whom you favoured after steps one and two did not hit all the right notes in the sample stage. In this case, you can either talk to them about how they can adjust their approach, or you can go with the editor who did the best sample, but may not have had the best website or the best phone manner. Or, of course, you can continue your search!
Once you’re satisfied with the editor, you can move ahead with project. In a future post, I’ll outline how a writer and editor can proceed professionally and productively through the project so that it goes without a glitch. And in the next post, I’ll share what three writers said about being on the receiving end of a professional edit for the first time.
Whether you self-publish or are fortunate to get a traditional publishing deal, the chances are you will have to do a lot of your own book promo. This can be highly time-consuming and frustrating ... especially if you go at it half cocked, so to speak. But where do you begin?
I asked marketing/PR expert (and agented writer) Anna Caig for a few choice words of advice for promoting your book based on her experience as a trainer/coach of writers who want to build their brand and reach more readers. (To find out more, or to work with Anna Caig, go to https://www.annacaigcomms.co.uk). Here is what she shared.
1. Be clear on your author brand
Does thinking of yourself as a brand have you cringing or running for the hills? If so, you’re certainly not alone. But this is about pinning down what makes you stand out, and it’s often one of the most enjoyable parts of the work I do with authors. Looking at where the inspiration and motivation behind your writing comes from is a good place to start thinking about how to differentiate yourself from all the other authors out there.
2. Use your storytelling skills in your marketing
It’s amazing how many awesome storytellers revert to flat, linear descriptions when they’re talking about themselves and their work in bios, on their website, or anywhere they’ve got limited space to tell potential readers what they’re all about. But by using the same skills you use in your writing to describe your books and yourself as an author, you’ll be off to a flying start.
3. Also think about what you *don’t* want to share
Your author brand is a version of you that you’re comfortable sharing with the public … it is not all of you, warts and all. For example, many people get inspiration for their writing from painful personal events. Sometimes you’ll be happy to talk about these explicitly, but sometimes you won’t, and that’s fine. It is important to establish this ahead of embarking on marketing a book.
4. Before any marketing activity, set yourself some objectives
Is it all about sales? Do you want to build your mailing list? Are you setting up a community of readers in a Facebook group? Spending a little time thinking about what exactly you want to achieve with your marketing activity is an important first step in putting together a strategy and will ensure everything you do contributes to a specific outcome.
5. Write a strategy
Snore, right? A strategy’s a dry old document that sits on a shelf and never gets used? Well, nope. A marketing strategy means you know what you want to achieve, who exactly you’re targeting and how you’re going to reach them, and what you’re going to say. Not only does spending a little time on a strategy save *a lot* of time in the long run, it also ensures your marketing is coherent.
6. Be creative when it comes to reaching potential readers
Most spaces, digital or in-person, dedicated to book promotion are crowded and competitive. I always encourage writers to think outside the box when it comes to reaching readers. Put in the simplest terms, if you’ve written a book about trains, don’t just target people who love books, target people who love trains. Think about where you can find this audience and use the channels that will reach them there.
7. Digital and social media are just channels
I hear a lot of ‘you should be doing x, y or z’ when it comes to book promotion, and never more so than with digital and social media. But the truth is, these are just channels to reach audiences. There’s no should about it, unless they will help you talk to people who are likely to love your books. And you’re much better off using two or three channels well than spreading yourself thinly across loads because you think you should be there.
8. The rule of thirds
No more than a third of the content you share with your audiences should be explicitly promoting and selling your books. Another third is all about engaging content which doesn’t overtly sell: this is where you can give audiences a glimpse behind the curtain, share interesting information relating to your research, writing process, or just elements of your life that form part of, or complement, your author brand. The final third is where you respond to others, have conversations and comment on what other people are doing, building your relationships and communities.
9. Give video a chance
There’s no point forcing yourself to create content you really don’t enjoy, but I’ve lost count of the number of writers I’ve worked with who are reluctant to give video a go and then end up loving it. There is a lot of evidence that video is more effective than text or images in engaging audiences, and there are many different ways to try it, from a more polished, edited video to a quick Facebook or Instagram live. Try some different things out and try not to worry about ‘getting it wrong’ (whatever that means!) You don’t need to be too polished or perfect. The most engaging content often includes flaws, or even mistakes. It can be scary to put yourself ‘out there’ and be vulnerable, but you may be pleasantly surprised by how your audience responds to content which contains faults. Look at the engagement on a serious Facebook post, versus the outtakes and bloopers post from ‘behind the scenes’ (from those who are brave enough to share these) and the latter will almost invariably reach more people and elicit a more positive response.
10. Have fun
Yes, book promotion is a serious business that will find readers for your work and persuade them to part with their hard-earned cash, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun doing it. It’s important to bear in mind that content you enjoy creating is likely to be more effective because the energy and enthusiasm will come across to your audience. So, enjoy yourself!
Soon after I returned to Sheffield after a 20-year absence, I was lucky to meet Beverley Ward. Beverley is at the very heart of the city's writing community and has supported its growth for about as long as I was away! Not only is she a great resource for other writers developing their craft, she is also an enormously talented writer of prose and poetry, and in a future blog post, I will be featuring her very own Book with Spine, Dear Blacksmith, a beautiful and powerful memoir about confronting grief under extraordinary circumstances.
In this post, Beverley shares her top ten habits for becoming a writer or improving your productivity.
For more of Beverley's tips and advice, request a copy of her Free E-Book here.
Beverley Ward is a writer, facilitator and coach, with twenty years experience of supporting fellow writers on their journeys to becoming the writers that they want to be. She offers a range of writing workshops and one-to-one coaching/mentoring and owns The Writers Workshop in Sheffield. You can find out more about Beverley at www.beverleywrites.com. Or email her on email@example.com.
One of the toughest challenges in my line of work is turning down projects. Mostly, I decline only the manuscripts I don’t have time for or that don’t pay well enough. But there have been several occasions when I’ve had to turn down a project because, quite frankly, I don’t want any hand in birthing that particular book.
If that sounds judgemental to you, well, it is! I make no apology for being a woman of principle and exercising professional judgement when considering what projects to accept—after all, I’m a human being, not a robot! Don’t misunderstand me, though. I’m all for freedom of speech and the author’s right to write; all I am saying is, “Leave me out of it!” So, if a manuscript comes along that spreads nastiness in the world—such as racism, misogyny, gay hate, and religious intolerance—I simply tell the client, "I can't take the project because I would not bring the necessary objectivity to the editing task."
Given my personal opinions on ethical writing, I was therefore pleased to stumble upon the Ethical Author Campaign from UK-based ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors). It’s a writers' code of conduct comprising a list of ethical practices united by one guiding principle: “When I market my books, I put my readers first.” For this initiative, I applaud ALLi wholeheartedly because I have also written code of conduct to share with all my book coaching clients. Of course, they are not obliged to adopt the principles, but I feel it’s my duty to at least give them the option of doing the honorable thing.
Lorna's Five Commandments of Nonfiction Writing
An important rule of writing is “Honor Thy Reader.” If readers feel disrespected, at best they’ll close your book; at worst, they'll trash both you and your book online.
During the outlining process, you should have identified your target reader, their fears/anxieties, and their hopes/desires. Always keep these target readers and their needs in mind when you are creating your content: those readers are the foundation of your book, and they are counting on you to give them the information they need. But other than placing your readers’ needs at the heart of your book, how else can you honor them?
1. Thou shalt not patronize. Sometimes it can be hard to find the right way to communicate a complex idea clearly. However, be careful to avoid dumbing down your material to the point of condescension or coming off as superior.
2. Thou shalt not baffle. As experts in your field, be aware of the language you’re using to communicate, especially jargon, abbreviations, and acronyms. If you cannot write without these terms, include a glossary in your book to ensure you’re being understood. Also, try not to assume knowledge. Ask yourself before you begin writing what things your reader will already know and what they need to know, and write according to their level of knowledge (beginner, intermediate, or advanced).
3. Thou shalt not bore. You know readers are interested in your subject because they’ve picked up your book, but just because they’re keen, don’t treat them mean! Don’t be long-winded, don’t repeat yourself, don’t go off on tangents, don’t be too abstract, and don’t use bland language.
4. Thou shalt not exclude. Beware of language bias (unconscious sexism, racism, etc.) and ensure your language is respectful and inclusive. If you are someone who prides yourself on being politically incorrect, so be it, but be prepared for a backlash from readers/reviewers. However, using strong language can be fine, if it’s appropriate to the audience, but you should establish this use of vocabulary in your introduction so that there are no surprises if you drop the occasional “shit” … so to speak!
5. Thou shalt not deceive. This is not suggesting you would do this deliberately, but sometimes we can mislead without intending to. Your readers trust you, so make doubly sure that you never pass off someone else’s ideas (or writing) as your own; never misrepresent the facts to illustrate a point; never overstate your skills, experience, or influence; never make a statement of fact without backing it up with evidence.
In our current social and political climate, in which civility and respect seem to have gone the way of the rotary telephone and the horse-drawn buggy, it’s more important than ever to act with integrity. Therefore, I encourage any book-with-spine authors among you to adopt ALLi’s advice, or mine, or devise your own code so that you can be open with your potential readers … and sleep well at night.
Most memoirs explore the impact of major life experiences on the author and his/her reaction to them. However, confessional memoir is a form of the genre in which authors admit to bringing about the events that have shaped, and perhaps even destroyed, their lives. Arguably, then, it is a literary form that takes a different level of courage to write.
Getting Off is a confessional memoir by Erica Garza about her 20-year journey through sex and porn addiction: how it began, how it worsened over time, and eventually how she found a way out. What makes this a great "book with spine" is that it tackles a taboo subject fearlessly and honestly, which will give other sufferers the confidence to speak more openly about and deal with their addiction.
Books with Spine: Why was it important to you to tell this very personal story? What were your aims?
Erica Garza: I've always turned to writing for comfort and clarity, so choosing to write on this topic was my way of trying to figure out how and why I'd gotten to this place in my life. Beyond that, I hoped this book might help others who were facing similar struggles. The first piece I ever wrote on this subject was an essay for Salon.com, and the response was overwhelming. So many people reached out to me (men and women, young and old) and they couldn't believe that someone else was articulating their own private struggle the way I had. They truly thought they were the only ones going through this. That's when I knew I had to keep writing. I had to speak up for those who were too ashamed to tell their own stories.
BwS: You're known as an essayist, so why choose to write a book?
EG: Memoir felt like the most straightforward approach to cover the whole story of my addiction from beginning to end. I really just put the story down the way I remembered it and the narrative arc came naturally.
BwS: What personal and/or creative difficulties did you encounter during the writing of the book?
EG: I had some trouble deciding how to end the book. I wrote it when I was still in the early stages of my recovery, and I wasn't sure if my story measured up to what I saw in other addiction memoirs; I didn't have a neat and tidy resolution at the end. My book ends with a threesome in Thailand, not "Then I went to a 12-step meeting or found God and lived happily ever after." But I wanted to be honest and to be honest is to be imperfect. I'm much happier living in the gray area anyway.
BwS: You have an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia. In what ways did that help (or hinder) the writing of the book?
EG: Getting an MFA from Columbia was expensive, and while there were many days before I got published that I resented having to pay my giant loan payments, I'm now grateful for my experience. The MFA program taught me how to trust my voice as a writer, how to be disciplined and devoted to my craft, how to be a better reader, and it showed me that it was possible to be published. When I was younger, I'd always wanted to be a writer, but it felt like some faraway dream or something that happened to other people, kind of like winning the lottery. If I was lucky it would happen. Columbia taught me that it wasn't about luck. It was about doing the work.
BwS: Were you apprehensive about the reaction to the book? How do you handle reviews and readers' feedback?
EG: At the beginning, I feared that people I knew would pity me or shame me, or that my parents would feel embarrassed. But the response has been mostly positive. I mean, I have no idea what anyone says behind my back, but they're certainly nice to my face! In any case, in the process I realized that nobody will ever be able to shame me the way I've shamed myself in my past. I've grown out of the exhausting charade of trying to be something I'm not. It's so much easier and enjoyable to just say, "This is who I am. Take it or leave it." Surprisingly, what I've found is that when I allow myself to be open and vulnerable, other people feel inspired to do the same. I love having that kind of raw, genuine connection with other people.
BwS: How did you find the publishing process? Was anything about it particularly surprising/frustrating/pleasing?
EG: I was fortunate to have a wonderful team of people at both ICM and Simon & Schuster helping to bring my book to life. The most frustrating aspect has been trying to continue promoting myself and the book after my publisher and agent have had to move to other clients and shift focus away from my book, which happened maybe three months post-publication. I didn't realize how much media attention I was getting from their hard work and how clueless I was about promotion until it was all up to me.
BwS: What advice do you have for people who want to write a revealing memoir?
EG: Try not to think about what other people will think while you're writing. It will only keep you from doing the work. I like what Joyce Maynard said: "Write as if you were an orphan."
BwS: Do you plan to write another book? If so, what can you tell us about it?
EG: I'm working on a collection of essays. I'm still writing about shame, but not so much in how it relates to my sexuality, but to my culture.
BwS: What is your favorite "book with spine"?
EG: No book means as much to me as Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. I've read it many times and always with new eyes. That book made me want to be a writer. It taught me to pay attention to what people around me said and how they presented themselves, how a story can be found in the most ordinary places and conversations. It was the reason I made traveling such a priority in my twenties and early thirties, and most importantly, it taught me to pay attention to my desire, to let it guide me to a better understanding of myself.
Click here to buy Erica's book, Getting Off.
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith