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Writing Around, A Blog about Writers and Readers

Fear of Fiction with Gail Anderson-Dargatz                                       by Katherine Koller

 

“Getting your Work Noticed” was the subject of a Friday night talk by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. The key to book promotion for Gail, author of six books of literary fiction, comes from being a farmer’s daughter: “community is everything” and “never go anywhere without a gift.” Even though Gail recently completed a three-month Random House book tour, she believes that the responsibility to promote the book begins with the author. For her part, she posted about every event, every success and tick up the bestseller lists in social media. But, she stresses, the time comes when you can’t only talk about yourself and your own book online; when your turn is over, celebrate the work of the other writers in your community, and your community will, in turn, celebrate yours.

Besides sending out a single email to friends to let them know about her new book, Gail uses social media to give recommendations of other writers’ work and asks other authors to be guest bloggers on her website. Hand sales, where a reader hands someone a book saying “You need to read this,” now manifest in online reader reviews and blogs. “If your book is great, the readers themselves will promote it,” she says in “Promoting Your Book” on her website (www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca).

 

Gail also gets readers to notice her books with personally-crafted gifts including homemade paper bookmarks and oatcakes for The Cure for Death by Lightning, individual honey pots for A Recipe for Bees, and postcards for The Spawning Grounds. Some other advice is to participate in writers’ festivals, give workshops at libraries and speak at clubs and gatherings as a way to network, build a reading community and get paid at the same time.

 

On her Saturday workshop, Gail asked the very full room of writers for their fears about writing fiction. The responses filled an entire whiteboard. Next, she went through each and every fear, giving strategies from her own experience with the very same anxiety, and asked for other solutions from the floor. This made the workshop, which she titled “Writing Home,” more of a dialogue than a presentation. Some of the fears dissected include finishing a long project (“structure will save you”), the tyranny of research (“don’t stick to the facts”), beginning hell (“trust your craft”), what will mom think? (transform fact to fiction) and the fear of cultural appropriation (Margaret Atwood said, “It’s only a short step from saying we can’t write from the point of view of an ‘other’ to saying we can’t read that way either, and from there to the position that no one can really understand anyone else. . . . Surely the delight and wonder come not from who tells the story but from what the story tells, and how”).

 

Gail also had many tips about writing that will eventually become a writing guide, Fifty Things about Writing I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Wrote This Fucking Novel, which she calls “against the grain advice”:2016authorphoto

Write the story first, then do research.

“Cook” anecdotes into story. (Anecdotes are single happenings without consequences; story answers “what if” with “why” while anecdotes simply describe.)

Interview subjects for fiction.

Fictional characters are not real people, but larger than life.

Don’t write about your own kids.

Structure will help find meaning.

Doodle your structure before writing.

Pay yourself first in writing time: make it early in the day and make it a habit.

Make writing play, not work.

Write crap (to combat perfectionism, investigate, experiment).

Focus on scene: action, dialogue and beats (emotional turns).

Let characters tell you who they are (rather than listing their cv before you begin).

Create a “well file” for discarded material.

“Follow the heat” of what interests you.

Use genre templates to help structure your novel (screenplay, gothic, romance, thriller).

Avoid over-isolation.

When you hit a wall, be hyperaware and ready for synchronicity and solutions.

Learn about what is working from editors’ comments.

If you face burnout, make changes to how you work, and continue on.

 

Besides being a best-selling novelist, Gail is also a writing mentor and writing camp leader. On her website, she listed thirteen articles especially for our workshop about story, the writing program Scrivener, turning real life into fiction, act structure, character desire and getting a book deal. A common problem she sees in the work of writers she coaches (and even in her own work at early stages) is protecting the protagonist. If a protagonist is passive, they cannot act or speak. They are paralyzed, and relegated to listening and reporting about action given to secondary characters or in flashback. Characters must act on conflict rather than talk about it; “chase your characters up a tree and throw rocks at them,” Gail says. Another common problem is that some authors record a description of an object in a museum or a landmark they’ve visited directly onto the page rather than integrating this research into an active scene.

 

In our day with Gail we did one exercise, the interview. This revealed how quickly we could find out what matters to each other, by sharing commonalities and life histories in an informal way. One writer said, “we both came out of the interview with something – a gift to each other.” For interviews, Gail suggests that writers ask to talk about their project in progress, practice a waiting silence, leave room for “what if” and watch for patterns that will lead to truths. Meet people in their home if possible, for their own ease and comfort and for the details of their physical environment. “Most people want to tell their story,” says Gail. In so doing, they reveal about themselves sometimes what even they didn’t know before. The interview can be an act of self-discovery or realization.

 

The second exercise, “Blind Cat” was a take-home challenge from The Writer’s Gym by Eliza Clark. Pretend you’re a blind cat in a new experience; engage your other senses and memory to let go and even embarrass yourself a little to see how it feels.

 

Other resources recommended by Gail are A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins and a blog, Terribleminds by Chuck Wendig.

(This piece first appeared in  The Branch Line, January 2017.)

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