Friday, November 30, 2012

5 ways to find an agent by Jason Boog

 On today's GalleyCat, Jason Boog lists five things writers can find an agent. The tips are excellent! I've copied the post below.

(PS: If you like Jason's GalleyCat blog post, be sure to go to GalleyCat and subscribe to the daily email for more.)

Jason Boog wrote:
"Every week we receive emails from aspiring writers looking for guidance about publishing a book on the traditional publishing route. We always offer the same advice: find the best literary agent for your manuscript.
Every aspiring writer needs to make a list of literary agents they would like to pitch. If you are looking for an agent, there are five simple steps that everybody should follow (whether you are a small town writer or a business leader with a great story or a GalleyCat editor).
We’ve collected five foolproof methods for finding the best agent to pitch with your book–any suggestions to add?

5 Ways to Find the Best Agent for Your Book 

1. Follow agents on Twitter. We’ve created a vast directory of literary agents on the social network, you can find lots of intriguing prospects on the list and learn what kind of books they like to represent.
2. Look in the back of your favorite books. In the acknowledgements section of the book, authors often thank their literary agent. Find out what agent represented your favorite author and find them online.
3. Google your favorite authors. Many times writers will talk about their agents in news articles, essays or GalleyCat interviews. This is great writing intelligence.
4. Ask your friends. If someone you know has taken the traditional publishing route, ask them for suggestions. They can provide you with some promising leads.
5. Subscribe to Publishers Lunch. This free email newsletter will keep you updated on daily deals around the publishing world and help you find agents that have similar literary tastes."
(Image via Bill Ward’s Brickpile)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Writing badly, more

Writing badly every day will only make you better at writing badly. (I have tested this. It is true.)

Writing well takes study, practice, and lots of trial-and-error with intelligent feedback. Simply spending more hours at the typer won't do it.

Instead, it takes education and feedback from skilled writers like David Hayes, or a course like those offered in person at places like the Gotham Writer's Workshop or online at

Point of View -- writing, nonfiction

What point of view you choose is one of the most important decisions you will make when writing a nonfiction piece. The POV you use will affect everything, including how you research, organize and structure a book. (Need more notes here on how it affects each of these.)

The best book I've found on POV in nonfiction is Vivian Gornick's The Situation and the Story: The art of personal narrative.

A few personal notes on POV...

First person:  "I handed the vaccination records to the veterinarian. I wondered if the dog would survive."
(First person is limited by what the "I" in the piece can see, feel, hear and do. Easy to use and powerful.)

Second person: "You hand the vaccination records to the veterinarian. You wonder if the dog will survive."

Third person: "Tony handed the vaccination records to the veterinarian. He wondered if the dog would survive."
(Third person is -- to paraphrase Walter Mosely in This Year You Write Your Novel -- like a little person sitting on the shoulder of each character observing and reporting.  Powerful, but be careful about where the little person goes. If the little person jumps too often, or too quickly, you may confuse the reader.)

Third person omniscient: "Tony handed the dog's records to the veterenarian. The universe unwound. The Andromeda galaxy moved a million miles in the time it took to pass the records from one hand to the other.  The veterenarian thought, "I wonder if these records will help..."
(Third person omniscient is the 'voice of God' jumping anywhere in the Universe at will, looking at anything at any level. Very difficult to do well. Easy to lose the reader.)

Once you choose a POV, stay with that POV throughout the book.
Beware changing POV in mid-stream.

Organize your book on a wall-- with 6 updates

Update 1: organizing your material in a 'narrative arc'
Update 2: use a timeline
Update 3: cover one wall of your office with a whiteboard
Update 4: John McPhee uses all kinds of tricks to organize his books
Update 5: using Velcro to fasten the tile board to a wall 
Update 6: Natalie Goldberg's 'timed writing' as a structure tool 

Paralyzed by too much information? Don't know how to start your book?
In the Internet age, it is easy to collect so much information that you become paralyzed. Where do you start? How do you begin to organize a huge mass of information?

I use the "wall trick."
First I find a blank wall. Ideally 8 feet by 12 feet, but at least 8 feet by 6 feet. Blank walls are fairly hard to find in most homes and offices. Whenever I move into a new office, I leave one wall blank for a whiteboard.
A really, really blank wall
Next I make a PostIt (or index card) for all the major and minor topics, and sort the PostIts into piles.

Then I stick PostIts to the wall and create a sort of outline. I rearrange the PostIts over days and weeks that it takes me to work out the structure of a book (or article).

A documentary filmmaker friend uses the same technique. Her films usually have several characters, so she gives each character a different color card to keep track of when, where, and how often characters appear.

Update 1: The narrative arc

There is a trap in using the Wall Trick, and it is this--the physical act of sticking index cards on a wall tends to favor a heirarchical top-down structure. A is more important than B, which is more important than C and so on. The final layout can easily end up looking something like this...

This structure is fine if you are writing an informational piece. However, if you are writing narrative nonfiction--a story--the tree structure will not work. What you need instead is a narrative arc.  

To figure out your narrative arc begin by creating a timeline on the wall. Don't worry about the structure of the piece, just get the timeline right.

Once you have the timeline you are ready to identify the chunks that go into your narrative arc.  Study the timeline and find your complication (point A), the crisis (point B)  and the climax. Once you have those, you can plot the rest of your narrative arc.

This image of the narrative arc is from Jack Hart's book Storycraft. Hart's superb book tells how to construct the narrative arc for your story--clearly, simply and concisely. This is a book that every writer--fiction or nonfiction--should own. Here's a chunk on Google Books that shows how good this book is.)

 Update 2: Timeline
Another way to get started is to organize your material in a timeline. The timeline is a good way to step back and get a bird's eye view of what happened, when, and who was involved. A timeline will work for fiction and nonfiction both. Many writers use a timeline *before* doing a narrative arc.

Update 3: Install a very large, cheap whiteboard
Whenever I move into a new office I go to the local lumber yard or Home Depot and buy a 4'x8' sheet of "solid white tileboard" ($12.98 in Jan. 2013). I fasten the 4x8 sheet to one wall of my office and use it as a large whiteboard. The tileboard is not as 'slick' as 'real' whiteboard, and i'ghosts' when I wipe the board clean. So I keep a bottle whiteboard cleaning solution nearby for cleaning the surface. A large whiteboard is so useful I think I might cover one whole wall with tileboard the way Kevin Kelly does in his office.

Update 4: John McPhee, arguably one of the best nonfiction writers in the world, talks about how he structured his books and articles. The moral, if there is one, appears to be -- do whatever works for you. There is no one way. (Paywall in New Yorker) Structure. Beyond the picnic-table crisis. by John McPhee January 14, 2013 .    Another, non-paywall, article on McPhee and structure is here

McPhee's structure diagram for Travels in Georgia

Update 5: Just finished covering one wall of my office with white tileboard for under $50. Construction details and photo when I get time. We used Velcro to stick the 4x8 foot sheets of tileboard to the wall instead of construction adhesive. If I ever change offices I won't have to resurface and repaint the wall.

Update 6: Another cool method for structuring a book. I just finished listening to Natalie Goldberg's audio CD version of 'Writing Down The Bones.'  I bought it at Copperfields in Santa Rosa on the first spring day of 2013. It was outside the store, on a bare wooden remainder shelf for $15.99. It is really a book about creativity, and the mind. Whenever she says "writing" and "literature" you can easily substitute "design" and "architecture" or "yoga practice" and "Yoga."   Anyway, in the book Goldberg explains her 'timed writing' exercises as a means of structuring a book (or article, or poem.)  The essence of the exercise is simple. Choose a time... say five minutes or an hour... whatever works for you. Then, using pen and paper, start writing and don't stop until the time is up. the rules are simple, too. Keep your hand moving forward, for the entire time. Do not edit, do not stop, do not go back. write whatever comes up. (there's more to it than this, but this is a short post) Put the result aside for at least four days. Then go back to it and read it carefully. circle anything that is "hot" or "good." (You will recognize it instantly.)  then paste these chunks into a new document. Rearrange them to find the elements of your structure. 

I tried Goldberg's timed writing method with a difficult article. I couldn't find the focus... the structure... of the article I am working on.  I set a kitchen timer for five minutes, and began writing one line topics on a pad of paper.  No editing, no going back, no crossing out or correcting. Keep moving forward. The exercise immediately revealed four key topics that I need to cover in the article.

I recommend the collector's edition audio CD version of Writing Down the Bones to any creative worker.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Massive Online Open Courses--now possible

Updated 11/3: The need for marketing
Image (c) New York Times
Writing and producing Massive Online Open Courses feels like The Next Big Thing.

A combination of three technologies--the Internet, cheap computers and free social media--make it possible to develop and produce MOOC courses cheaply and quickly.
Updated: The need for marketing
It doesn't matter how easy it is to write and produce a (potentially) massive online open course, or whether the tools or free. People have to hear about it, then sign up, then tell their friends before the course becomes massive. It all comes back to marketing. Again.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Monday, October 15, 2012

Iyengar style compared to Bikram style

Fran├žois Raoult doing a revolved triangle
Compared to Bikram yoga, Iyengar is very slow, with particular attention paid to precise alignment. In one Iyengar style class we did four moves in one hour...

I always go home after an Iyengar class thinking, "We didn't do anything." An hour of two later I fall into a deep sleep, utterly exhausted.

After a Bikram class I normally feel invigorated and energetic. The only time I regularly fell asleep after a Bikram class was during a three month period when my body was healing from a major operation. 

Should I study Bikram or Iyengar?

Iyengar style Trikonasana (triangle pose)

People who know I am a yoga teacher ask me if they should study Bikram or Iyengar style yoga. I tell them to try both, and see what is right for them. 

My own experience is that there is absolutely no competition between the two. When someone's body wants Bikram they will have no interest in Iyengar style, and vice versa. 
Bikram style Trikonasana (triangle pose)
(Bikram yoga is my first love, but my body seems to want Iyengar style right now.)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Iyengar blessing Bikram

I am a Bikram teacher who is currently studying Iyengar. During my Bikram teacher training one of Bikram's senior instructors told us, "All yoga is good yoga." Photo from Yogadork blog, and Bikram Yoga Petaluma.

Commenter Yogagyrl added a few details about this photo at the Yogadork blog:
Yogagyrl June 22, 2011 at 9:05 pm
Actually, my friend took that photo in Pune, at Iyengar’s studio, and they were talking about when Iyengar judged Bikram’s third year of competing in the All India Yoga Championships…in which Iyengar gave Bikram 10 out of 10…and Bikram was given the title of Yogiraj.
They also spoke about Bikram organizing an event to honor Iyengar’s karma yoga and service to the yoga world.
They were also talking about Bikram’s guru, Bishnu Ghosh (Paramahansa Yogananda’s brother)….and a few other things. ;) They’re actually friends!

Finally! A yoga pose I can do! (with update)

The blogging pose, demonstrated by BKS Iyengar.

My Iyengar teacher, Roz Griffin, says everything can be a yoga pose. She says, "Call it 'blogasana'. Sit up straight, open your chest while you work." You know what? She's right.

Friday, October 12, 2012

How to find a literary agent

If you want to publish with one of the Big New York Publishers, you will probably need a literary agent.

I sold my first two books by going directly to the acquisition editor of a small publisher. That approach won't work in the big time. The big publishers like to work with agents, not authors.

So, how do you find a literary agent?

Here is what I've learned so far by taking classes, talking to agents, and reading books on the subject. The best book was literary agent David Fugate's book, The Unconventional Guide to Publishing. (I don't get anything if you buy his book.)

Two qualifiers:
  • Qualifier 1. This post applies to nonfiction. Finding an agent for fiction is a different animal. I don't know anything about that process.
  • Qualifier 2. You need a great idea for a book. Not just a good one, a great one. When you test the idea on other people they go "Aha!" and say things like, "Wow!"
The process:
1. Join PublishersMarketplace for $20 a month. PublishersMarketplace is where people in the publishing industry go to find out what deals have happened recently, and the agents involved.
2. Search for deals for books similar to yours. The deals will list the name of the agent. Add that name to your list of potential agents..
3. Use the PublishersMarketplace search function and research the agents on your list. Find out how many deals they have done, the size of the deals, and so on.
4.Write an amazing book proposal, including two sample chapters. The competition is so intense that only amazing proposals will make the cut. Fugate's book comes with several good examples. Put the proposal aside.
5. Write a powerful query letter.
6. Send a query email to the top agent on your list.
7. When an agent responds, send your proposal.
8. Repeat.

Don't be discouraged if  (when) you are rejected. As psychologist and author Sarah Fine said in a MediaBistro class, "Rejection is part of the process. You will be rejected. You are not different." Don't let rejection stop you or slow you down. Continue sending queries and proposals until you find the right agent for your work.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Absolute Write writer's forums

Absolute Write writer's forums. An Internet community for writers in all genres. Tips, advice, contests, and support.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

The simple power of one a day for yoga teachers (marketing)

Marketing guru Seth Godin recently wrote a brilliant post about the power of doing one marketing thing a day. I've copied Godin's post below, and have added a few additional things a yoga teacher could do.
There are at least 200 working days a year. If you commit to doing a simple marketing item just once each day, at the end of the year you've built a mountain. Here are some things you might try (don't do them all, just one of these once a day would change things for you):
  • Send a handwritten and personal thank you note to a customer
  • Write a blog post about how someone is using your product or service
  • Research and post a short article about how something in your industry works
  • Introduce one colleague to another in a significant way that benefits both of them
  • Read the first three chapters of a business or other how-to book
  • Record a video that teaches your customers how to do something
  • Teach at least one of your employees a new skill
  • Go for a ten minute walk and come back with at least five written ideas on how to improve what you offer the world
  • Change something on your website and record how it changes interactions
  • Help a non-profit in a significant way (make a fundraising call, do outreach)
  • Write or substantially edit a Wikipedia article
  • Find out something you didn't know about one of your employees or customers or co-workers
A few more ideas for yoga teachers: 
  • Write a strong 100 word bio
  • Hire a professional photographer to take seven good photographs of you, including yoga poses. One should be a full face head-shot.
  • Write a 30-50 word FAQ for beginners with a title like "How to begin," "What to expect," and "How often should I practice?" "What if I am over 50?" Post it on your blog.
  • Interview a student whose life has been changed by yoga. Post the interview and a picture on your blog.
  • Pitch an idea for a blog post to the Huffington Post about something useful related to yoga.
  • Make a three minute video about yoga and post it on YouTube.
  • Make a list of the top 50 yoga blogs.(Google for existing lists and use them to start your own.)
  • Read and comment on a top yoga blog
  • Offer to guest-post on a yoga blog
  • Write an article for the local newspaper about how to start practicing yoga
  • Refer someone to a colleague's yoga class
  • Introduce yourself to a local doctor or physical therapist
  • Teach a free yoga class in a local school
  • Have your car repainted with a colorful, tasteful graphic of your yoga studio's name, website and phone number

Friday, October 5, 2012

The simple power of one a day for authors

 Seth Godin recently wrote about the power of doing one marketing thing a day. It is a brilliant list of things any author could do. Here is Godin’s post in full.  At the end of the post, I have added a few more ideas for nonfiction authors.

There are at least 200 working days a year. If you commit to doing a simple marketing item just once each day, at the end of the year you've built a mountain. Here are some things you might try (don't do them all, just one of these once a day would change things for you):
  • Send a handwritten and personal thank you note to a customer
  • Write a blog post about how someone is using your product or service
  • Research and post a short article about how something in your industry works
  • Introduce one colleague to another in a significant way that benefits both of them
  • Read the first three chapters of a business or other how-to book
  • Record a video that teaches your customers how to do something
  • Teach at least one of your employees a new skill
  • Go for a ten minute walk and come back with at least five written ideas on how to improve what you offer the world
  • Change something on your website and record how it changes interactions
  • Help a non-profit in a significant way (make a fundraising call, do outreach)
  • Write or substantially edit a Wikipedia article
  • Find out something you didn't know about one of your employees or customers or co-workers
A few more ideas for nonfiction authors: 
  • Write a powerful 300 word bio
  • Hire a professional photographer to take three good photographs of you.
  • Pitch an idea for a blog post to the Huffington Post about the subject of your book
  • Make a three minute video of the subject of your book and post it on YouTube.
  • Make a list of the top 50 blogs in your field.
  • Read and comment on one of the top blogs in your field
  • Offer to guest-post on a top blog in your field
  • Send a copy of your book to one of the top blogs, and ask for a review
  • Review a colleague’s book on Amazon
  • Offer to speak to a college class
  • Offer to speak at a local bookstore 
  • Suggest friends for a colleague on Facebook using the "Suggest Friends" button
What worked for you? Can you add to this list?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Track agents, deals and editors at PublishersMarketplace

Not much blogging for the next few days. Family stuff. When I return, I want to write more about what you can do *before* you start writing to increase your chances of success with a nonfiction book.

Meanwhile, a few useful links.

1. PublishersMarketplace is the best place to track agents, deals, industry news and editors.
When you are checking out an agent, go to PublishersMarketplace to find their recent deals. The full website costs $20 a month on  a month-to-month basis. At the very least, sign up for a few months when you are marketing a book.

2. PublishersLunch is a free daily email from the folks at PublishersMarketplace.

Bonus links...

3. Jason Boog at Media Bistro's Galley Cat has a great article about Google resources for writers and publishers. (H/T to Jason for the following 4 links.)

Free eBook by director Christopher Nolan

Michael Wiese Productions is proud to provide a FREE 30 page sample PDF of a new EBOOK entitled, Instant Filmmaker by Christopher Nolan.

Just click on and follow the links
Get it today!. It's Free! It's Fresh!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Are you the right person to write a nonfiction book?

The right person to write a good nonfiction book will have three things: Authority, passion, and a good idea.

Today's post is about authority.

Gaining authority
Let's say you want to write a book on kayaking. One of the first things to ask yourself is "Do I have recent, first-hand experience"? If you are a world-class kayaking expert, the answer is yes. You do.

But what if you are not already an expert?  Then your job is to gain the experience you need to become an expert. You might do something like doing a year-long kayaking training program, and then going on your own kayaking adventure. Ideally the adventure will be something remarkable. Like kayaking around British Columbia's Victoria Island, or perhaps Ireland.

As you train for your adventure, take detailed notes on the day's experiences. Ideally before you go to bed each night.

Always try to take notes the same day. The more hours that pass between the experience and note taking, the less valuable your notes become.

By the end of your training program and the following adventure you would have the authority you need to write a kayaking book.

Finding authority
Another way to gain authority is to work with someone who already has the authority you need for a successful book. You might interview and quote dozens of kayakers, kayak manufacturers, kayak teachers, and kayak experts, or you might decide co-author a book with a famous kayaker.

Whatever method you choose, you need to find some way to gain first-hand experience.

If gaining first-hand experience is impossible--say you are writing about a historical event--you still need to immerse yourself in the field. You might read everything you can find, talk to all the experts possible, and visit historical sites.

1. Note taking apps
Use your smartphone for notetaking.  Writing in the New York Times, Kit Easton tells how to use a smartphone with an app like Diaro (Android) or Day One! (iOS) to record your thoughts. Take and attach photos and audio interviews to your notes and then store the results in the cloud.

2. Gaining or finding authority
Marc McCutcheon's book Damn! Why Didnt I Write That? contains one of the best explanations of the importance of having or finding authority that I've found.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

When your book project fails

I just spent two years working on a nonfiction book.
It failed.
The manuscript is going in a box, and then into storage. 

The project failed for five reasons.
1. I was not the right guy to write the book.
2. I did not test the idea to see if it was 'big' enough or compelling enough to support a book. Instead, I rushed into the project and wrote the book without a contract. The traditional method of writing query, then a proposal, and signing with a publisher is one a way to test the idea by exposing it to professionals like editors and agents.
3. I did not choose the correct nonfiction genre. There are several distinct genres for nonfiction. A few of them: narrative nonfiction, investigative journalism, collaborative (one or more co-authors), survey, general informational, self help/how-to, biography, inspirational and self-published manifesto. Each genre has distinct requirements for research, structure, and language. The genre you choose at the beginning of the project shapes everything that follows.
4.  I did not build an appropriate platform for the book as I researched and wrote it. As one agent said, "No platform, no project."
5. I did not stay abreast of the publishing industry trends. One way to do this is to regularly read the website ($20 a month).


How to raise money for your film

On October 3, veteran fund raiser Morrie Warshawski will tell you how to raise the money you need to make your film. Warshawski, author of the classic book Shaking the Money Tree will be interviewed by Carole Lee Dean on her Internet radio show, "The Art of Film Funding" on Oct. 3rd at 11 AM.

Dean is the author of her own book on fund raising, The Art of Film Funding.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Writing a how-to chapter


For some reason I am finding it fiendishly difficult to structure the chapters in my current how-to book.
I think I found an answer this morning. While reading the Vancouver Sun, I came across a brilliantly structured article by Rick Steves, Plot Your Way Through Europe via smartphone.
Steves uses this structure:
  • Interesting opening
  • Problem stated personally
  • Solution 1
  • Solution 2 
  • Solution 3 etc.
  • Upbeat ending
It could work!!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.

“writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat” Dorothy Parker

Friday, August 10, 2012

Organic farms in Lake County CA

I forget sometimes just how many organic farms are near us in Lake County CA.

Dr Daniel Amen's program for brain health

Dr Daniel Amen claims that diet, exercise, and intellectual challenge can delay onset of Alzheimer's symptoms.

Four links to articles and books describing Dr Daniel Amen's work...

1. A web page with a good summary of Dr Daniel Amen's program  for brain health. He claims his program will delay onset of Alzheimer's by six years. Since 50% of people show Alzheimer's symptoms by age 85, the idea of delaying onset of symptoms is a good thing.

Arthur's inspirational video - vet with bad knees does yoga

Monday, July 30, 2012

Your intuition knows what to write...

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way. ~ Ray Bradbury (at Write to Done)
I think Ray's connection to his intuition was better than mine. Mine wants to go have a pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream instead of writing.

50 Inspirational Quotes For Writers

At Alltop this morning, Guy Kawasaki links to 50 Inspirational Quotes For Writers. He says:

"Cheryl Craigie of Write to Done has collected a wonderful variety of quotes to keep you inspired even in the darkest moments."
How to be a writer
5. The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to says ~Anais Nin
6. Start before you’re ready. ~Steven Pressfield
7. Do the work. ~Steven Pressfield
8. If you want to be a writer, you must do two things about all others: read a lot and write a lot…reading is the creative center of a writer’s life…you cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you. ~Stephen King
What to write
40. Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth
41. Write what you know. Write what you want to know more about. Write what you’re afraid to write about. ~ Cec Murphy
Full story at Write to Done.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

What is a writer's platform?

A writer friend asks, "What is a platform? I should know what it means but I don't."
How many people want to hear from you?
 Platform is just a fancy word for "how many people want to hear from you?"

If 100,000 people seek out and read your every blog post, story or novel, then you have a large platform. With this kind of platform you will not have any trouble getting published by a traditional publisher, or (if you choose) selling your own self-published books.

There is no single measure of platform. It is a sounds-sort-of-scientific-and-serious-number thrown around by agents and publishers. Often used to browbeat writers or justify publishing-or not publishing-a book.

Platform is measured by a combination of things like:
- number of people on your email list (the ideal list is one that consists only of people who have asked to be on the list, and who would be upset if you removed them)
- number of people who read your blog
- number of people who comment on your blog
- number of YouTube views of a compelling 3-5 minute video you make, telling your story. Ideally it goes viral and gets hundreds of thousands of views.
- number of people who subscribe to the RSS feed of your blog
- number of people who get your newsletter
- number of twitter followers
- number of unique hits on your website
- number of facebook friends
- number of downloads for a free book you wrote and posted on your website
- your Klout score

If you don't have a platform, your options are to create one (takes time, like six months to two years) or you can use what's called a "proxy platform."  One way to have a proxy platform is to start writing articles for a blog or magazine with a large readership. For example, the Huffington Post.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Peru increases protection of the Amazon

When I flew into Pullcapa Peru last month, I got a bird's eye view of deforestation of the Peruvian Amazon. I wrote then that my first thought was, "The Amazon is gone. Get over it."  It turns out that Peru is actually trying to do something to preserve at least part of the Amazon rain forest. Here's an excerpt from an article from the WWF website.

(The) Peruvian government has allocated significant funds to help protect a large swathe of the Amazon, home to several endangered species and indigenous groups.
Pink dolphins
The Peruvian National Protected Areas Service has pledged USD 280,000 to boost surveillance activities in the Alto Purus National Park and the Purus Communal Reserve – a total area larger than El Salvador. It covers some of the most pristine forests in the southwestern Amazon and shelters jaguars, pink dolphins, arapaimas (large freshwater fish) and other endangered species. It’s also home to at least eight ethnic groups, including an unknown number of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.

The director of WWF’s Amazon Headwaters Initiative, Jorge Herrera, says: “This represents a major success for all Peruvians. The government’s commitment to safeguard the Peruvian Amazon will help us build long-term conservation strategies for roughly three million hectares of some of the richest forests in the world.”

Expat Peru -- Expatriate website

Expat Peru is a good place to meet other expatriates, rent an apartment, find a room mate, get the latest news and find reliable local services.

An example from the Expat Peru website: A Miraflores area apartment that rents for $210 US a week or $640 a month (July, 2012).

Join the South American Explorer's Club

South American Explorers is a non-profit organization providing travel information through Clubhouses across the continent.

From the South American Explorer's club (SAE) site: "Our clubhouse is a center of information: you find tons of guide books – including our owns!!, information sheets about various aspects of traveling (transport, night life, adventure sport, SAE´s top ten of things to do in Lima), members written trip reports, knowledgeable staff, reference maps, a library with some real gems, a collection of the South American Explorers Magazine, wifi access and more!"

If you plan to travel to South America, consider joining the SAE before you leave. When I was in Lima, my Miraflores area hotel was a short walk from the Lima club house. Had I known about it, I could have walked over, met other travelers, and learned more about Peru while waiting for my flight to Pucallpa.

The SAE membership page is here.

The Ucayali is just a tributary

Nothing prepares you for the size of the Amazon. As we flew over the jungle on our way to Pucallpa, I looked down and saw a huge river snaking through the forest. Enormous.

I later learned I was looking at the Ucayali--a small tributary that feeds the much larger Amazon which is several days past Pucallpa by river boat.

Map showing Ucayali and Pucallpa
Hammocks on a River Boat (bring a good hammock and mosquito net)
More information on the trip from Pucallpa to Iquitos at Expat Peru and the South American Explorer's Club (SAE). If you are going to Peru, seriously consider joining the South American Explorer's club before you leave. As an SAE member you get access to the SAE clubhouses, detailed travel information and a chance to meet and talk to experienced Peru travelers.

Susan Orlean on writing leads

Meyrl Streep plays Susan Orlean in the movie Adaptation
(Note: The 'lead' is just the opening or beginning of a piece of writing. It can be a single word, a single sentence, a paragraph or several pages long. In journalistic jargon the word is sometimes spelled lede. Both spellings are pronounced with a hard 'e' as in 'leed'.)

Susan Orlean on writing leads, from an interview at UC Davis.

WOE: Are you really conscious of looking for a strong lead?

ORLEAN: I’m very conscious of its importance. I can’t rest until I have a lead that thrills me. The problem is that I can’t write the second, third, fourth, fifth sentences until I have the first. That’s part of the problem with the story I was just working on. I had all the material and a million scenes in my head that I knew I had to write and that would have been relatively easy to write. But I couldn’t start until I started.I think it’s the nature of a really good striptease act, that you’ve got to choose very carefully which item of clothing you’re going to take off first. Because it’s got to be enough but not too much, and it has to be arresting so that you think, “Hmm. Well, what comes next?”
     I’m not sure where my leads come from. Often they’re not specifically on the topic, or they’re almost preambles to the story—although the lead I just wrote ended up being very straightforward. But I feel I know when they work, even if they’re kind of oblique and seem a little off topic.
Sometimes if I feel that I’m echoing something I’ve done before, then I actually don’t do it. Any time you have a longish career you’ve got this fear of repeating yourself.
     I do think a lead has to be intuitive. There has to be something intuitively real about it even if it seems eccentric or off-topic.
     I’ve been asked a million times about the lead to “The American Man, Age 10” [“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”] and I’ve said, “You know, it’s not like I set off thinking this is going to be a story about marrying a ten-year-old.” The lead came from an emotional response. It was a story about being inside his head and seeing the world the way the ten-year-old would see it. But I’m not a ten-year-old boy, so I guess the next closest thing was imagining that I was in his world as his bride.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Susan Orlean's writing tips

My mind is on fire since listening to Susan Orlean's interview with Jason Boog this morning. Great interview! I have not been able to get access to the recording of Orlean's MediaBistro's Literary Festival interview. When I do I will post some verbatim quotes. Meanwhile, here are my notes.
  1. Ideas are the source, the fuel that writers need.
  2. You have to "pull" at an idea until you find the story. (The story and the idea are not the same thing.)
  3. Stories are the writer's job.
  4. "Pretty sentences" are not the most important thing (in a story or a book). The story is the most important thing. Without the story, you have nothing.
  5. Stories are in demand. They will always be in demand, no matter what happens to the publishing business.
  6. You have to constantly ask yourself, "What is my reader looking for? Why would he or she pick this (book) up and read it?
  7. Orleans keeps researching until the subject "goes flat" for her. She knows something is going flat when she finds herself going over the same material twice.
  8. When the research starts to go flat, it's time to start writing.
  9. She works extremely hard on the openings of her books and articles. If people don't like the first three pages (of a book) it doesn't matter how good the rest of the book is, they won't read it. She said she worked for (how many?) months on the opening of Rin Tin Tin.
    (Note: Journalists call the opening the 'lead'. When someone talks about the lead, they are talking about the first paragraph or two of an article, or the first few pages of a book. Sometimes spelled lede. Both words are pronounced with a hard e as in 'leed'. Writing a good lead--one that captivates the reader--is generally considered to be the hardest, most important part of writing anything.)
  10. Orlean said that she uses magazine articles as a way to test an idea to see if it's possible to 'open it up' into a book. Jason Boog replied that he uses blog posts as a way to find out if an idea is 'big enough' to turn into an article or book.
  11. Find a system (for both researching and writing) that works for you and stick with it.
    (Don't waste time learning new software and tools when you have something that works.)
  12. Orlean uses index cards to record her research. 
  13. She spreads the completed index cards out on a table as a way to organize and structure her books. 
  14. She is a Scrivener user.
  15. Find writers that you admire. Create a scrapbook of their solutions to problems. Turn to them when you have a writing problem to see how they solved it.
  16. If you need an agent, consider going to New York for a few days and meeting agents in person. Call young agents. Tell them you are in town, and would like to meet with them for 10 minutes to introduce yourself. Take a couple book ideas with you. Personal contact is important, and not to be under-rated. (This has been my experience, too.)
  17. Orlean doesn't believe in writing nonfiction books on spec.
    (Writing a book 'on spec' means writing the book without having an agent or publisher. This is a complicated issue. Sometimes, you should write a free ebook. It can be a good way to build a following and develop your book-writing chops. Seth Godin wrote 17 (and counting) free ebooks and as a result became an international best selling author.)
Personal observations:
Orlean's comments about ideas and their relationship to stories feels hugely important. Understanding this is a Big Deal for any writer.  I have plenty of ideas. I just spent two years trying to turn one of them into a book. The project failed, because I didn't pull at the original idea until I found the story!

An idea is a starting point for research and exploration, but it is not a story. In Orlean's words, you have to "keep pulling at the idea" until you find the story.

I recently spent two weeks living in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. Since then I have become fascinated with  Peru, the ecology of the Amazon rain forest and the extraordinary travelers and adventurers attracted to that part of the world. That is an idea. It could even become a passion. But it is not a story.

A story is something human and specific. Like the story of Dervla Murphy, who with her nine-year-old daughter Rachel and a mule named Juana walked the length of Peru. (Murphy tells this story in her book Eight Feet In the Andes.)

Orlean has said in the past that her books are really personal education projects about subjects that interest her. (I can't find the link to the Orleans quote! Grrr)

In a New Yorker interview, JUAN PABLO GARNHAM asked Orlean, "What’s the key for making things like orchids or chickens into an interesting story?"

Orlean replied, "I think the key to making things like orchids and chickens interesting is having a real passion in the writer for understanding them. I really write out of an authentic curiosity, and I get excited about telling readers about something I’ve learned about. I think that excitement is what draws people in, especially to subjects they might not naturally have an interest in."

Here's another Orlean quote at GoodReads that expands on her idea of caring about things, and having a passion for what you are writing about. This particular quote rings very, very true for me.

“The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.”