The Top Ten Albums to Write To (2017)

As a new year approaches, resolutions are drafted and Selectrics and word processors are pulled off the shelf and made ready. Here are Girl Friday’s annual picks for the best music to accompany you on your journey toward a completed manuscript.

10. Mondkopf – They Fall But You Don’t
Let’s be clear from the start—this isn’t a cheerful record. Parisian Paul Régimbeau combines elements of industrial, metal, and electronica to create a swirling, ominous journey for the listener. What’s most remarkable about They Fall, though, is how varied its palette is and yet how cohesive an aesthetic statement it makes. Yes, it can be harrowing, but following the breathtaking centerpiece, “Vivere, Parte IV,” the record begins to wax triumphant, and I promise you it’s worth the ride. Anyway, sometimes it’s necessary to drag yourself through hell in order to write your characters out of—or into—their deepest lows.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

9. Kangding Ray – Hyper Opal Mantis
I don’t typically go for beat-driven electronic music; I’d rather be lulled to sleep than exhorted to dance. But there’s something deeply meditative about David Lettelier’s pulsing rhythms. For anyone who struggles to get a sentence out without a good strong cuppa, Hyper provides an instant caffeine-like kick, and keeps it coming for over an hour. It’s a cold record, pervaded by the sounds of machines and no human involvement, but this is Lettelier’s goal. Tracks like “Dune” and “Suadade” lend some welcome melody, and “Laniakea” stretches out and breathes a bit, providing a relatively tender denouement.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

8. Eerie Gaits – Bridge Music
Unlike most everything else on this list, Bridge Music is above all an uplifting record. With as much slide guitar, accordion, and banjo present as ambient wash, there’s a heavy sense of nostalgia, but the nostalgia feels earned rather than emulous—there’s nothing “retro” or dishonest here. “Lore” goes stringless and whooshes lazily along; standout “Eau Gallie” will have you reaching for the phone to call Mom. It’s a record that almost shouldn’t exist in today’s world, in that it’s got nothing to sell you. Instead, its only aim seems to be to warm your heart.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

7. Nadia Sirota – Tessellatum
The fun stops here, though. Performed by a viola and a viola da gamba, Tessellatum evokes wagon trains plodding through frost-seared plains toward an uncertain future. Though split into thirteen tracks, the transitions act more like quick rests than space between new ideas. Leitmotifs are circled around and alluded to throughout; this is a single composition meant to be experienced as a whole. And yes, the experience is haunting. Strings swirl endlessly and at times frantically with no reprieve and, really, no resolution. It’s an immersive and visceral experience, and one that’s sure to silence the outside world for a cool forty minutes.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

6. x.y.r. – Labyrinth
The project of Saint Petersburgian Vladimir Karpov, x.y.r. achieves an effortless balance of chill and upbeat. Washy synths are supplemented with just enough bounce to keep you awake, making for the perfect writer’s companion. Fans of Stranger Things will find much to like here, but Karpov has enough tricks up his sleeve to keep Labyrinth from ever feeling samey. Found sound, field recordings, and subdued human chanting all plot a course for the spectacular closer, “Febribus,” an eleven-minute distillation of the record as a whole.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

5. William Basinski – A Shadow in Time
Through terror and grief, global strife and political unrest, there is always William Basinski. Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, released in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is a defining moment in early twenty-first-century ambient music, and as such it’s difficult not to compare everything else he does against his masterpiece. While Shadow does explore familiar territory, it’s his most intriguing work since Loops. Its title track is striking for its nod to more traditional composition, though it slowly submits to Basinski’s classic themes of loss and decay, finally leaving the listener alone in a cavernous, empty room. Hurrah!
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

4. Bing & Ruth – No Home of the Mind
Named after two characters in a 463-word Amy Hempel story, Bing & Ruth is the project of pianist David Moore and a rotating ensemble of musicians. Moore is inspired by minimalist writers like Hempel, and though he is keenly aware of the power of negative space, his arrangements are warm, lush, and immersive. These songs are clearly in no hurry, but an ever-present piano provides a welcome sense of purpose. No Home is more distilled than Moore’s fantastic 2014 breakthrough, Tomorrow Was the Golden Age, making it an inviting introduction not only to Moore’s work but also to ambient music in general.
Listen on Apple Music

3. Benoît Pioulard – Lignin Poise
Listening to the music of self-proclaimed “proud Cascadian” Thomas Meluch, a.k.a. Benoît Pioulard, is like waking up on a cold Saturday morning, eyes still heavy with sleep, colors becoming forms becoming objects. With Lignin Poise, however, those forms never quite congeal. A marked departure from 2015’s Sonnet, a diverse and overall quite moving record, Poise remains steadfastly in the realm of the dream, offering few dynamics and little concrete material to grasp on to. Which is frustrating only until you stop grasping and allow the sound to wash over you like a reverie.
Listen on Bandcamp

2. Brian Eno – Reflection
Ah, Brian Eno. The godfather of ambient music and the man responsible, if indirectly, for just about everything else on this list. Which is especially remarkable considering his original aim was to create music “as ignorable as it is interesting.” Eno defined a genre in 1978 with Ambient 1: Music for Airports, an album literally designed to be played in airports. Reflection is classic Eno—a single fifty-four-minute track confined to a limited (though interesting!) sonic palette—and its title suggests it aims to be as utilitarian as Ambient 1. Call it Music for Writers if you like. 
Listen on Apple Music

1. GAS – Narkopop
All of Wolfgang Voigt’s work as GAS is instantly identifiable as such, and it feels tailor made for writers in want of musical accompaniment. While seventeen years separate Narkopop from its predecessor, Pop, little has changed in the interim. Beats surface occasionally but are always subverted by washy drone; danger lurks in the shadows but never really materializes. In other words, Voigt has no need for melodrama. Impeccably crafted, patient, confident, meditative, and timeless, Narkopop is ultimately a record that reflects back to the listener whatever they bring to it. Some may see it as unsettling, others as calming. But like anything in the ambient realm, it’s a wonderful way to lose yourself, even if only for a minute.
Listen on: Apple Music | Bandcamp

The Secrets to Great Memoir: A Conversation with Memoir Expert August Tarrier

Because it is rooted in experience, memoir can seem the most accessible of the nonfiction sub-genres. And great memoirs read like fiction, lending the false impression that writing a great life story is easy. Editors know that memoir is surprisingly difficult to do well. Here one of our skilled resource partners and memoir specialist, August Tarrier, dishes on the do’s and don’ts for creating great personal stories.

1. You don’t have to start at the beginning. Shed the constraints of starting with your earliest childhood memory, and instead focus on hooking readers with the big epiphany. Consider starting at a moment of triumph, or a moment of crisis, and then go back in time from there. Many people these days are writing memoirs about a specific experience or a discrete period of their lives. It can be daunting to try to pinpoint the starting point of your life story. Instead, choose a defining moment and work backward. Once you have a clear focal point, it will likely be easier to figure out which are the crucial episodes in your life that led up to that pivotal moment in time. Use those as the building blocks of your story.

2. Don’t include everything. Readers don’t want every last detail; they want a compressed and carefully crafted version of events, without all the mundane in-between moments that dilute a story’s impact. In addition to looking for what is worth including, you’ll need to be a bit ruthless about what you leave out. Only by leaving large chunks on the cutting room floor will you be able to shape it into the most exciting, intensely compelling version of itself. A successful memoirist prunes the messy events of a full, rich, complicated life into a crisp, clear narrative arc.

That said, it can be tricky to get enough distance from your own life to know what will make for riveting reading for others and what won’t. One key is to consider your experiences in terms of how much impact or significance they had on you. Think of the experience itself as a lens through which to highlight a broader theme. The memoirist isn’t just describing what happened; they’re putting the experience under the microscope and providing key details that enable the reader to draw meaningful conclusions.

3. Embrace the hard stuff. Rather than being scared of your lowest moments, consider this is what brings memoir to life. Part of why readers are so drawn to these stories is that they often show people overcoming incredible challenges. If you gloss over the hardships, readers won’t experience the redemption and transcendence that are a hallmark of the genre. If you’re worried that it will be too dark, consider balancing out some of the harder moments with some levity. It can be difficult to write about deeply personal moments, but push yourself to a place of discomfort and linger there awhile. That’s where you’ll find the real story.

4. Don’t worry about not remembering exactly the way it happened. Many writers worry that they don’t remember exactly how the dialogue played out. Or they don’t know what another person was thinking at the time. Memoir is not biography. It is a story, and you are the storyteller, which gives you a certain freedom. In some cases, you can rely on framing tactics, such as, “I can imagine she was thinking . . ." In other cases, if you’re true to the spirit of the moment and the general meaning of a conversation, you shouldn’t dwell on whether you captured it word for word. Again, you’re writing for the greater truth.

5. Make readers care. Memoir is about finding ways to make readers resonate with your experience. Even if they haven’t been in your shoes, you want your story to feel accessible to them. One way to do this is to take a step back from the scene and include a line in your current point of view that ties that moment into a more universal feeling we can all relate to. If you are describing a scene in which you were a child, standing on the high dive and trembling with fear, you might then insert your adult POV with a line like, “For all of us, standing at the precipice can be terrifying.” This doesn’t mean generalizing—the key to compelling memoir is evocative details and vivid, fully realized emotions, after all—but finding the universality in the moment, which will reinforce readers’ sense of connection to you.

6. Finally, read, read, read. Figure out what grabs you in other memoirs. Study their framing devices. Analyze the way they use point of view. Identify the tent poles that anchor the story and tune in to the emotional arc of the story. Then take a deep breath, trust your voice, and get to work.

August Tarrier teaches writing workshops for community groups, at universities, and in prisons. She lives in Philadelphia.

Myth Busting: Five Misconceptions About Writing Young Adult Fiction

Marianna Baer is the author of the YA novels The Inconceivable Life of Quinn (Amulet/Abrams) and Frost (Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins). She lives in Brooklyn, NY, and edits both YA and adult fiction.  

As a writer and editor of YA fiction, I hear opinions about the genre all the time—from authors who write for adults, from nonwriters with YA book ideas, from the guy next to me on the airplane. . . . And there are a few misconceptions that come up over and over again. While I’m not too concerned with what the outside world thinks of my profession, I do think it’s good for aspiring YA writers to know the real deal. 

 

1. You have to make your writing less sophisticated for a teen audience. 

This is probably the biggest misconception, and I’m honestly not sure where it comes from. After all, most people begin reading books written for adults while they’re in their teens—if not for pleasure, then definitely for school. Teen readers don’t need us to coddle them by simplifying our vocabulary or sentence structure or the narrative structure of our books. If you want to write something simple and straightforward, like a contemporary version of the Sweet Valley High series you loved as a kid, go for it! Nothing wrong with that. Or if you want to write about a more serious topic in a way that will be accessible to teens at a lower reading level, that’s fantastic—there’s a real need for “hi-lo” books. But if the story you’re telling demands a more sophisticated narrative voice or structure, don’t hold back. Your readers will be right there with you.  

2. You have to avoid certain subject matter when writing YA. 

My recently released YA novel, The Inconceivable Life of Quinn, is the story of a sixteen-year-old daughter of a politician who is trying to solve the mystery of her seemingly virgin pregnancy while also facing the public scandal it causes. Because of the subject, the book goes to some dark places and touches on some controversial doozies. (Sex! Religion! Politics! Yikes!) Did this stop a major publisher from picking it up, or stop Publishers Weekly from giving it a starred review? Nope! The truth is, if you’re worried about censorship, or teens not being interested, or about introducing them to something too dark, chances are your worry is misplaced. YA novels explore issues and experiences that teens face—and teens face just about everything you could imagine. Aside from that, teens are engaged members of society—they care about what’s going on in the world. If it’s a well-told story, there will be teens who want to read it. (Not to mention that a good number of YA readers are adults, but that’s a subject for another post.) 

A caveat about dark subject matter: writing for teens does carry a certain responsibility. Take care that you’re handling topics with sensitivity. Be aware of what you’re putting out there. 

3. Your YA novel needs to have a romance in it. 

I’m not going to lie—I do hear a lot of editors say that romance in YA is key. But is it necessary for your book to include a little (or a lot) of kissing to sell it—either to a publisher or to a teen audience? No. Definitely not. If a romance isn’t a natural fit in your story, trying to shoehorn it in isn’t the way to go. It’s bound to feel out of place. There are plenty of editors and readers who don’t need romance and plenty who are actually looking for books without it. I often have friends ask me to recommend YA for teens who want stories that are romance-free. 

4. You should avoid having adult characters in your YA novel. 

While it’s true that the main character in YA fiction is almost always between thirteen and nineteen, plenty of books have either parents or other adults as important secondary characters. I think the “kill the parents” myth came from the (correct) belief that your main character should take the lead in actively achieving their central goal. But having them act with a certain amount of independence doesn’t mean that you can’t have older characters play significant roles in the journey your character takes, either as antagonists or as supportive forces. 

5. You’re going to get rich writing YA. 

Um . . . you might? I guess? After all, some people win the lottery! But if making a fortune is your ultimate goal, you might want to reconsider. Buying lottery tickets is a lot easier than writing a bestselling novel. (Not to mention that in most cases, it takes more than one bestselling novel to get rich.) 

If you’re one of the many writers trying (or thinking about trying) to break into this vibrant market, I hope that this quick rundown will be of help! And there’s no substitute for reading widely in the genre, to see what’s happening in YA firsthand. Aside from looking at bestseller lists to find books that are doing well commercially, check out the YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association) yearly booklists. They’re a great resource for finding both popular books and award-winners. I absolutely promise that exploring the depth and variety of what’s happening in YA is the most inspiring way to bust all the myths. 

Is Your Novel Ready to Publish?

With the blank sheet of the new year spread before you and the bustle of the holidays mercifully in the past, now is the time to dig into that novel and run it through the ringer.

You remember that manuscript, right? The one saved in a misleadingly named folder in your Dropbox, or perhaps disguised as a ream’s worth of scrap paper in your bottom drawer? The one you showed to your best friend but received so many line edits that you couldn’t bring yourself to look at it again? The one that you love so much—that you want to share with the world—but whose next steps seem uncertain? That’s the novel I’m talking about. It’s time to take it out of the darkness of the draft ages and into the light of the published world. Maybe you’ve abandoned it only for a day, or perhaps quite a bit longer than that. Or possibly you’re working on it now. In any case, at any stage, the question lingers, Is it ready? Am I ready?

You’re not alone. Many brilliant works go unfinished for the simple reason that it is hard to know when to stop. True, a novel could continue to evolve forever and still be a masterpiece. It could simply continue to grow and age through life with its author. As the author’s writing style changes, so do her revisions to the work. As the political or socioeconomic status of her country changes, so do the plot lines. As relationships change in the author’s life, so too do the relationships within her story. While this sounds like a wonderful piece of performance art, this ever-changing novel will never be published within the author’s lifetime.

If your goal is to see your book published, it’s important to set concrete, achievable milestones for yourself and your novel that can act as a litmus test for deciding when to finally declare victory. I asked our very own Kim Bridges, a three-time NaNoWriMo veteran, for tips on assessing a project and determining when to call it complete. Here’s what she said:

1. Reverse Engineer Your Plot

Writing a true outline of the work you’ve created will help you spot timeline discrepancies, plot holes, character inconsistencies, and loose ends you missed in previous drafts—and it will help you gain some needed distance from the intricacies of line editing. Whether you wrote an outline before you started your book or you embarked on your novel without a structured path forward, once you think you’ve reached the end of your story, review it from the beginning as if you were a student assigned to outline a novel for a book report. Referencing your original ideas is optional.

2. Go Through the Motions

Are there sword fights? Intricate crimes? Games of any kind? Sex scenes? Are there costume changes? Does anyone make a sandwich? All scenes should be reviewed with the physical constraints of your book’s reality in mind. Most human beings have two hands and two legs and can’t move from the kitchen to the bedroom without taking a few steps (or removing a few items of clothing, if necessary).

3. Polish Your Prose

Move through your book paragraph by paragraph and polish your writing. It can seem easy to gloss over or breeze through ho-hum descriptions of simple actions or transitions in time or place, but if you craft everything equally, your whole book will benefit from the attention.

4. Clean Up Your Text

It may sound boring, but if you’re still not sure you’re done, running spell-check and conducting a straightforward line edit to find the simple mistakes can reveal bigger errors or lead you to conclusions and closures you didn’t see from afar. Leave your characters alone and just focus on the grammar on the line. Further, having a clean manuscript free of d’oh-level errors will help avoid distracting your early readers—especially agents and editors.

5. Put Your Novel (and Yourself) to the Test

Share your work with someone other than your writing group, best friend, or mom. Feeling confident enough in the work you’ve done that you want to share it outside of your workshopping zone is a good indication that you’re ready to publish. This usually means that you’ve erased any known errors, created a drum-tight plot, and brought life to characters you feel have a worthy story to tell.

After all this talk of finishing novels, I asked Kim what her New Year’s resolution is. Her response was simple: “Write more. Revise more.” While Kim’s resolution certainly shows her dedication to the craft, it also allows me an opportunity to check in with her at the end of the year to see if she’s followed her own advice. (You can do it, Kim!)

If, after running your novel through steps one through five, you’re still not ready to let go, consider this moment of Zen from a simple little bear:

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

—Winnie-the-Pooh

Happy New Year, and good luck assessing your book! If you’re ready to take the next step and talk to a professional editor, we’d love to hear from you.

100 Percent Guaranteed Writing Tricks for Part-Time Writers

If you’re a part-time writer with little time to spare and you’re looking for the trick to make the writing process easier, let me say this up front: there is no trick.

That said, as one of GFP’s book coaches, I have worked with many a part-time writer to find a method that, if practiced consistently, allowed him or her to actually produce. And (warning: shameless plug ahead) with my own manuscript deadline fast approaching for Swimming Holes of Washington—to be published by Mountaineers Books in the spring of 2018—I have spent plenty of time thinking about and researching how to make writing quick and easy. No, that is most definitely not a form of procrastination. (OK, you’re right, it is.)

It’s up to you to find a method that works, and by works I mean is the least painful and most productive. Here are some tips from me and the Girls:

Make It Part of Your Routine

Do you always want to brush your teeth? No, of course not. But most of the time you brush anyway because a) you know it’s good for you in the long run and b) you’ve been doing it every day year in and year out. Treat writing the same way—it’s not always fun, and sometimes it feels like a chore, but you do it every day because it’s part of your routine.

Reward Yourself

Craving a bowl of ice cream, a new pair of shoes, a tropical vacation? “Sometimes I make a deal with myself that if I complete the tasks on time, I can reward myself with something that I enjoy.” —Karen

Take a Walk

“When I’ve been working on a book part-time, I use walks to break up my work (of course, that really only works if you are working at home full-time!). I found that walking helped me switch gears and think about what I would be working on for the next hour or two. Also: work away from home at a café or library, especially if you have kids.” —Kristin

Wake Up at an Ungodly Hour

“I find that waking up ridiculously early—as in 4:30 a.m. early—is the only way I can commit to my endeavors, be they writing or barre-oriented. Needless to say, I do not wake up before dawn every morning, but when I do, it gets the job done and I start my day feeling like I’ve accomplished the impossible.” —Nicole

Make It Bite-Sized

“I set timers for myself when doing tasks I don’t really want to do. And when I’m finished, I am always struck by how much work I’m able to accomplish in the time interval I assign to it. This serves as a good reminder that the task at hand is almost never as bad as I think it will be. Sometimes when I’ve set a timer, when it goes off—if I’m on a roll—I’ll set it again and keep going. The older I get and the more stress I have, I often feel like I have adult ADD, which I don’t. The timer helps me to stay focused.” —Sara

Take a Break

“I sometimes use pomodoros. It helps me get started because I know I’ll have a break soon!” —Leah

Relax

“I turn on the most soothing song ever created (according to Science). The song does not make me sleepy or make me tune out, like the article suggests it might. Instead it helps me focus by helping me relax.” —Michael

Set Ridiculous Goals

Want to write that novel in thirty days? “There’s always NaNoWriMo to really put the pressure on.” —Kim

Procrastinate

“I’m a horrible procrastinator, so giving myself less time forces me into my most productive state. If I have one hour only, I’m like the Tasmanian Devil. If I have five hours, I’m more like Esperanza.” —Meg

Turn Off

“Turn off the wi-fi. Keep it off. It’s so easy to fall down the Internet rabbit hole, and if you’re anything like me, two minutes on Facebook becomes a half hour looking at cute pictures of friends’ pets and reading snarky reviews of a television series you’ve never even watched. Don’t succumb to the desire to “take a break” with the Internet. If you need a break, walk around the house and look for something to tidy. Or try doing something else creative, like drawing—something to simultaneously reset and exercise your brain.” —Emilie

Find Someone to Hold You Accountable

If some big distant deadline isn’t enough, set yourself some smaller ones and find someone who can check in, cajole, or threaten as needed.

Quit Talking/Thinking/Reading About It and Just Frickin’ Do It

Reading this and other blogs like it could perhaps fall into the “distraction” category. So close this and all other windows, open up the document, and write.

Top Seven Albums to Write To (2016)

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By any measure, writing is a solitary endeavor. Not only must the writer at work quarantine herself from her fellow humans, but she must also excise that running dialogue we fragile humans hold with ourselves throughout the day (or is that just me?). In any case, our heads must be empty if we hope to get anything done. While, say, a painter can work with the companionship of music, I don’t know of any writer (aside from Stephen King, who claims to prefer Metallica) who can concentrate with a head full of sound—at least not the kind with lyrics. Of course, there are centuries of classical music that writers are free to cozy up with, distraction-free. But if the classical canon intimidates you even more than silence, or if you simply prefer something more contemporary, here are my votes for the year’s best word-free  albums to write to.

7. Huerco S., For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

I’ll start with a full disclosure: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get behind this album. Yes, I listen to this sort of music when I write, but that’s mostly because I listen to it always, regardless of what I happen to be doing. And at the end of the day, For Those . . . is just too repetitive for my taste. Still, based solely on the amount of critical acclaim it garnered, I’d be remiss not to include it here. Indeed, the sound is lovely—it’s certainly immersive, and especially for an album built from sequencer loops, it’s incredibly organic. Plus, the gentle repetition is apt to provide a hypnotic, trancelike state for writing. But don’t worry; there are enough surprises here to keep a drowsy wordsmith awake.

6. Mary Lattimore, At the Dam

I’ll admit this is a strange one, but given time, strange often reveals itself to mean interesting. Plus, at its core, the album is simply gorgeous. As a harpist, Lattimore has collaborated with some big names (Kurt Vile, Thurston Moore, Jarvis Cocker), but alone on her debut album she has plenty of space to get weird. The harp serves as a foundation upon which Lattimore layers noises and knob twirls and various dissonant effluvia—it may not be an easy album, but it’s definitely a rewarding one. If you’re looking for inspiration while chipping away at your poststructural Oulipo poetry/flash-fiction hybrid collection, this may well hit the spot. Still not convinced? Its title is pulled from an essay in Didion’s The White Album.

Standout track: “Jaxine Drive”

5. Peter Broderick, Partners

On the surface, Partners is just a guy and a piano—airy compositions unfurling across what sounds like an immense, empty warehouse. If that’s all you need, then break out the Selectric and have at it. But there’s much more at play here. An ode to the legendary John Cage, the album includes mesostic poetry as well as, yes, some actual lyrics. If I’ve lost you there—I know, we had an agreement—just skip the first and last tracks and feel distraction melt away.

4. Tim Hecker, Love Streams

Another full disclosure: Tim Hecker is somewhat of a god to me. If that sounds dramatic, well, so is the music. At turns vicious and beautiful, Hecker’s sound is best described as that of industrial collapse. Imagine room-sized machines breaking down, buildings crumbling, but imagine it all, somehow, sounding gorgeous. Love Streams does have a softer side; woodwinds and pan flutes, plus, most notably, the human voice (choral—not lyrical) all lend some warmth to an oeuvre that can often be brutal. Brutality still exists in spades here, though. Hecker may not be for everyone, but his music does make for a powerful means of shutting out the world at large.

3. Madeleine Cocolas, Cascadia

Anyone interested in the wider field of ambient/experimental/drone is no doubt familiar with Julianna Barwick, the genre’s breakout star, often called “the hipster Enya” for her celestial vocals and popularity with certain online “indie” music publications. Madeleine Cocolas certainly takes a page from Barwick’s book here, using her voice as an emotive—though almost entirely wordless—instrument. But much of Cascadia is just airy piano and strings, often reminiscent of Rachel Grimes’s work. Futuresequence, Cocolas’s label, is a treasure trove of immersive ambient drone, and this ode to the Pacific Northwest provides a lovely and welcoming entrée.

Standout track: “If Wisdom Fails”

2. Shaded Explorer, Empatia

British Columbia–based label Silent Season aims, according to its website, to unite “deep ethereal music and the rain forests of Vancouver Island.” Emanuele Pertoldi, a.k.a. Shaded Explorer, certainly follows the label’s template of marrying soothing, immersive synth-based tracks with the sounds (whether real or synthetic) of babbling brooks and wind-rustled pine boughs. Empatia sometimes calls upon a beat to provide backbone, but just as often the tracks meander aimlessly and free, like a monarch through the horseweed.

1. Biosphere, Departed Glories

It’s unnerving how precisely Geir Jenssen, the Norwegian ambient artist known as Biosphere, has captured the sound of early autumn (October, specifically) here. Jenssen is known for building compositions from of a variety of found sources, be they tweaked field recordings or obscured bits of horror-film soundtracks. Here, his source material is almost exclusively Eastern European and Ukranian folk music, though you certainly wouldn’t know it. The album grounds itself in Poland’s Wolski Forest, where executions were carried out during World War II, and as such it seems impossible to describe the album without using the word “haunting.” If you’re looking for companionship while working on your romance series, be sure to look elsewhere. But stick Departed Glories on repeat and your thriller/horror/mystery/noir is likely to write itself.

Standout track: “Aura in the Kitchen with the Candlesticks”

Breakaway NaNoWriMo Success Stories to Keep You Writing

While for many Americans November was filled with Trump and turkey, for 15,691,376 writers around the globe it meant a brave (and caffeinated) attempt to write an entire novel in thirty days. Yes—we’re talking about National Novel Writing Month, an annual event where aspiring authors challenge themselves to write fifty thousand words from November 1 to November 30. (GFP’svery own Kim Bridges participated last year and lived to tell the story.)

The goal of NaNoWriMo is not to produce a polished, reader-ready manuscript but rather to encourage aspiring authors to kill the inner critic and take the first, and arguably most important, step in the writing process. NaNo-ers will tell you that the biggest challenge is getting the words on paper, never mind creating a readable piece of work. But you may be surprised to learn some bestselling books actually started out as NaNoWriMo projects. Have you heard of Water for Elephants? Fangirl? For all of the determined NaNo-ers approaching the homestretch (you can do it!), we hope these success stories give you that extra boost to power through the final two days. And for the reluctant writers thinking about joining next year, we hope this list will persuade you. Even if you don’t make it on a bestseller list, it just might catalyze your publishing dreams.

Fangirl—Rainbow Rowell

NaNoWriMo inspired Rainbow Rowell to write Fangirl, a New York Times Notable Children’s Book she considers some of her “bravest writing.” Fangirl follows the journey of Cath, a freshman in college and vehement fan of Simon Snow. When her twin sister, Wren, decides she doesn’t want to be roommates, Cath is overwhelmed by the responsibility to make new friends but finds an escape in writing fan fiction.

Water for Elephants—Sara Gruen

This enchanting page-turner chronicles Jacob’s memories as a performer in the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. After spending two NaNoWRiMo’s writing Water for Elephants, Gruen sold her work to Algonquin, and it soon topped the 2007 New York Times bestseller list. In 2011, the story hit the big screen in a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.

Wool—Hugh Howey

Sheriff Holston has obeyed the strict laws of his society for years, but when he asks to leave, a drastic series of events is unleashed upon the community. This suspense-filled, post-apocalyptic thriller is one of the books responsible for putting self-publishing on the map—and it all began as a NaNoWriMo project. After selling thousands of ebooks, Howey signed a deal with a major publisher and eventually made it to the New York Times bestseller list.

The Night Circus—Erin Morgenstern

When she first started her NaNoWriMo journey, Morgenstern began The Night Circus with “no plot but lots of atmosphere.” It wasn’t until she reached thirty thousand words that Morgenstern decided to send her characters to the circus. What began as fifty thousand words of unconnected scenes earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2012 and a seven-week spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

The Sheer Power of Story

June 29, 2016 will mark a new milestone for Girl Friday with the launch of an edgy new podcast, From the Margins. Though I’d love to take the credit, the actual podcast was the brainchild (and then love child) of Girl Friday production editor Devon Fredericksen, who, along with help from the team, interviewed dozens of writers and agents and publishers and editors. She researched long-lost histories and respun them into modern whodunit gold. She took the spirit of Girl Friday—irreverent, lusty, nerdy—and distilled it into sound. Listening to each episode as it was produced, I was challenged, entertained, amused, and provoked. I want all of you to hear what I have heard—and to be moved. More than anything, the podcast episodes, whether on sex or gender or the nature of truth, reinforce for me the sheer power of story, which, after all, is the reason we got into this business in the first place.

The fact that Devon does not work in marketing should tell you something about the essence of this podcast—and something about Girl Friday. The fact that GFP put out a podcast before we put out a book, well, that’s interesting to me. But then again, perhaps that’s exactly as it should be.

When Ingrid and I started Girl Friday ten years ago now, the publishing world was already in flux. Yes, 2006 was a year in which Time magazine was heralding innovative “new” print-on-demand platforms like Blurb with descriptions like this: “Soon those old-fogy relatives of yours who still don’t have Internet access (or even a computer) will be able to experience the brilliance of your blog without compromising their Luddite principals.” It was a time when Bloomberg reported start-up small presses forging their own destinies as what was old became new again (like Biblical hipster beards). Self-publishing was gaining traction, Amazon had already disrupted the distribution model, and Twitter had just been hatched.

And now it’s 2016. By many counts, Twitter will decide our next president. Amazon is both distributor and publisher. Those Luddites who didn’t have a computer? They’ve all got Instagram accounts on their smartphones. The Big Six are now the Big Five, crowdsourcing is used to fund books, and an author’s “platform” matters just as much as their content. And Girl Friday is different too—bigger, smarter, younger. And those kids have crazy awesome ideas (and share a lot of animal memes).

Two factors have allowed Girl Friday to grow and flourish, beginning in a time of uncertainty for publishing, through the Great Recession; the birth of the Kindle, Snapchat, and YouTube cats; the merger of Penguin Random House; and more. The first is that GFP has never been afraid of change. We don’t wave white flags in the face of progress; we wave red ones. Because holding tightly to the past won’t save books, but looking creatively to the future just might. And then there is that overriding love of narrative. Not because it’s trendy, not because it’s the new marketing buzzword, but because the real answer to life, the universe and everything isn’t 42, it’s story.

As you listen to each episode of From the Margins, I think you’ll discover that creative pulse and the genuine passion for story that has gotten us to this place. I can’t wait to see what 2026 will bring.

If Women Ruled The World

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I’m not going to lie—I cried.

As I sat there with my two sons watching a woman, for the first time in our country’s history, become the presumptive nominee of a major party, it moved me. For the first time, we weren’t the side dish, the add-on meant to get more of the XX vote. Whether you like her or loathe her, we cared more about what she was saying than about who she was wearing. Watching the candidate onstage, I saw a woman, a mother. I saw myself.

I know there are many critics of the candidate to whom I’m referring. If you’re one of them, I beg you to stay with me, because this isn’t a post about politics but about something so much bigger than that. I acknowledge too that I’m eliding race and class, and maybe we can’t ever do that, or shouldn't, but through this scope of gender I registered a victory, one victory.

Why did I cry? Because women make up 19% of Congress. Out of our fifty states, six governors are women—a measly 12%. Of Fortune 500 companies, only 4% are run by women, and the needle isn’t budging one bit. Because I had a science teacher who told me in high school (and I was NOT born in the thirties) that women went to college to get their MRS degrees. Because Americans call ourselves postfeminist when the truth is laid out in the numbers and in our stories. And some of those numbers are 19%, 12%, and 4%. And some of the stories mirror mine.

Because even given the privilege of my race and class, I was still a woman with ambition and skill back when I held conference calls while nursing an infant. Back when I left him sleeping on my lap and edited manuscripts, reaching over his body well into the night and every weekend. Back when I acquired books on the false war between working and stay-at-home moms or on the “new” state of feminism. But even though my womanness and my motherhood arguably made me uniquely qualified at some aspects of my job, I got handed the same box to climb into if I wanted to move up and get ahead, hell, if I just wanted to maintain. I climbed out instead.

Because I am a woman and a mother, I had a way of doing things that might not look business standard or corporate. That might not look male. That might look something like Girl Friday—a business owned by women, led by women. Does it matter? Yes, in two ways. For one, the founders’ experiences shaped a culture that challenges the status quo in terms of how and when work gets done and in how we define success. Secondly, being one of the CEOs shapes perception of what is possible. Like when my children told their father (who works for one of those Fortune 500s) that while he seemed to have a good job, their mom ran a company after all, or when a Girl Friday explained to me the joy and pride she felt looking at a leadership pipeline where she could see herself—for the first time in her career.

And that’s what happened to me last week. Looking at a woman, a mother, standing on that stage, I saw some of myself reflected back to me. And while we need societal and structural change to really move the needle, in that moment, I saw a different ending for one particular story, and it changed my perception of what is possible.

Top Tips That Will Immediately Improve Your Writing

It should come as no surprise that we at Girl Friday believe that a developmental edit by a seasoned professional is essential to your success as a writer. That said, there are a few things you can keep in mind as you write and revise that will make an immediate difference. Implement these tips and your writing will instantly sound more confident and polished.  

We all know the old adage “Show, don’t tell.” It’s been drilled into us since our elementary school days. It can be harder, however, to resist the temptation to show and tell. But if you’ve told us that “Isabel wiped her clammy hands on her too-short skirt and felt a flush of heat in her cheeks when the teacher asked her to stand up and read aloud on the first day in her new school,” you don’t then need to tell us that “She was nervous about getting up in front of her classmates, whom she’d never met before.” Focus on nailing the details and then trust your reader. A big part of taking your writing to the next level is having the confidence to let the scenes you’ve created stand on their own.

Character is everything! We don’t have to love them, but we do have to care. If your characters are falling flat, you’re going to lose your readers. Make them flawed, quirky, arrogant, confused. But more than anything, make them real. Do this by introducing revealing details, using dialogue, and giving us a bit of voyeuristic insight into their motivations.

Dialogue can be a tricky business. But if you want your writing to shine, it’s essential that you get this right. At one end of the spectrum, you want to avoid making your characters sound stilted or bland or using dialogue for awkward information dumps. At the other, you want to avoid the unnecessary small talk that might happen in real life but that can drag down a snappy back-and-forth—“Hi.” “Good to see you. How’s it going?” “OK. You?” Skip the small talk and make it all about nailing the voice and fleshing out the character. Finally, read it all out loud. More than once.

Beware of metaphors and similes. These tempting little crutches can be your friends. But they can also snag a reader and yank him right out of the thick of the story. “The clouds meandered across the sky like exhaust from an ailing diesel truck” is just distracting. While there are moments when creative license is appropriate, straightforward language is often the best way to go. In this case, “The clouds billowed across the sky” does the trick without slowing the reader down. And if there’s a moment when you can’t help yourself, make sure your selected imagery feels appropriate to the story. Finally, keep an eye out for the dreaded mixed metaphors that can sneak into a manuscript.

Five Questions for Laura Munson

Today we are so pleased to welcome Laura Munson to the blog! Laura is the author of the New York Times and international bestselling memoir This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season of Unlikely Happiness. She’s been published in the New York Times (her Modern Love essay “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear” is the #2 most read in the column’s history), O, The Oprah Magazine, Redbook, More, and many other publications. In addition to being a writer, Laura is the founder of the acclaimed Haven Writing Retreats in Montana and speaks and teaches on the subjects of empowerment, creative self-expression, and emotional freedom.  

Read on to hear about Laura’s own writing process, what it’s like to have millions of readers up in your business, and how to build a stimulating and nurturing writing community.

1. You wrote a widely read memoir (as well as an essay that went viral) about a very difficult period in your life. What is it like for you to have the public know so much about your personal life? And what advice do you offer to writers who are confronting something deeply personal or even traumatic in their own work?

With memoir, the inherent difficulty is that we’re exposing ourselves, and likely others, and it’s usually driven by a difficult time in our lives; otherwise we wouldn’t have a story to tell. Here’s what we as memoir writers must hold fast to our hearts: why we’re doing it in the first place. We must be intentional about why we write. My statement of intention is: I write to shine a light on a dim or otherwise pitch-black corner, to provide relief for myself and others. And I believe that if we shine a light on ourselves in memoir, claiming responsibility for our experience and trying to parse it rather than pointing the finger, then we can pretty much write about anything. We have to write past fear of exposure, and it helps to understand that by sharing our story, we are writing out of service to ourselves and others. If, at the very least, telling our story helps people to know they’re not alone.

2. You’ve written both memoir and fiction. What are the biggest challenges of each? What is most satisfying about each?

I think the biggest challenge of memoir is crafting it into a story. The harsh reality is that just because we go through something profound for us that we want to chronicle in a memoir . . . it doesn’t mean that other people care about it like we do. Memoirists can lose sight of this. The story needs to unfold like a novel, even though it’s nonfiction. Whether it’s nonfiction or fiction, however, the structure is critical, and not necessarily linear in its delivery.

I find it helps to create an outline, even if the book takes on a different form in the end. You have to know where you’re going and why, what’s at stake, and what the central conflict is and make sure there’s some sort of resolve at the end. Ultimately, though, in all forms of writing, it’s about what’s behind the words, what’s in between them, and what’s in their wake.

3. What makes a good writing environment for you? What are your writing habits, and what makes you keep coming back to the page again and again?

I have been writing for three decades every day, not because I’m highly disciplined, but because I’m obsessed. It’s not much more elegant than that. My writing is a movable feast. I’ve written on the backs of cocktail napkins when I bartended, in the margins of newspapers on commutes, in my journal, on various screens and devices. I make time to write every day no matter what, and the time frame varies. Even if it’s for a short amount of time and even if it’s for my eyes only. It’s a matter of asking myself what shall I write, what do I care about, what confuses me, what do I need to understand? And then I write my way into the answer.

4. You lead writing retreats that focus on giving writers at all stages of their practice an accepting place to do their work and connect with other writers. What do you think makes a good writing community? What can imperil one?

There are all sorts of writing communities. The main thing is that every writer finds one. I did it alone for too many years, either because I was too stubborn or too scared. Then I started Haven, and I realized what was missing in my writing life. Support! Kindreds! Willing and helpful feedback! Writing is hard work in every way. The truth is: no one asked us to be writers. It’s actually rather inconvenient for our loved ones and colleagues. And that makes it even more critical that we find our kindreds. In my work with Haven, I’ve chiseled too many people out of negative writing experiences in workshops, classes, writing groups, and even MFA programs. I believe in academia, but I don’t believe that you need academia to be a strong writer. You need awareness, stamina, and support. So be choosy when you sign up for any sort of group writing adventure. If anyone is promising you five easy steps to getting published or setting themselves up to be a guru . . . run for the hills!

5. For writers who aren’t able to come to something like a Haven retreat, what is your advice for creating a productive and supportive environment in which to pursue their writing dreams?

Let’s face it: we’re not going to do anything consistently, especially something hard, unless there’s a payoff. I treat my writing practice like I’m a little girl getting away with something, like I’ve faked sick from school and am at home in bed. In fact, I often write in bed. In other words, I make it comfortable for myself to go into subjects that are often very uncomfortable. I delight in my writing practice. I value the role it plays in my life. My best advice for writers is to find your most natural voice on the page. Don’t try to force it. Find the flow that already comes out of you, even if it’s like a tiny stream rather than a roaring river. That means you might not write every day. So what? Find a writing practice that works for you based on your true self—your habits, your personality, your responsibilities, your real life. And commit to it. Start small, like with working out. Three times a week from 10:00 a.m. to noon, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday? Saturday morning? Twenty minutes before you get out of bed? Make it work based on who you truly are, not who you think you should be or how other people do it. And no matter what, find delight in it. Writing has the power to transform your life. It’s something that you can control. And all it takes is a pen, a piece of paper, and an open heart.

Only a few spots left on the June 8–12 Haven Writing Retreat! Sign up here.

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Five Tips for Professionals Who Want to Write a Book

While writing a novel might seem sexier, some of the most successful books Girl Friday has helped clients produce are nonfiction. We’ve worked with biologists, psychologists, and sex columnists, business consultants, food bloggers, and religious leaders, and all of them have had one thing in common: they are experts in their respective fields and they have something unique to say. While publishing a book is a common dream across professions, writing and producing a quality book requires very different skills than does coaching business leaders, giving financial advice, or building up a killer nonprofit. After nearly twenty years of working with nonfiction writers, I’ve seen what works and also the common mistakes subject-matter experts make. To help get you started on the right path, first think through these questions:

  1. Why are you writing this book? Being crystal clear on this point helps drive the tone of the narrative, the scope of the book, and even the structure. Do you need to establish thought leadership and this book will help prove you know your stuff? Is the book meant to capitalize on your personal story or illustrate your journey? Is yours a workbook or companion book you will use in your work with clients? Do you want to present your reader with principles or take them step-by-step through a process or lesson? One of the most common problems we see with books written by subject-matter experts is a manuscript that tries to do all of these things at once—and thus fails to do any of them successfully. Instead, focus very narrowly on what specific professional goals this product (your book) is meant to help you achieve. The better the business case for producing the book, the stronger the book will be.

  2. Who is the book for? Now that you’ve determined what this book is going to do for you, it’s time to nail down what it’s going to do for your ideal reader. Notice I mentioned your ideal reader. When I was an acquisitions editor, do you know how often I had a writer (or even an agent) make the pitch that her book would appeal to nearly every member of the print-buying public? That’s not only lazy thinking, it imperils your book project from the start. Many people will not be interested in your book, so focus on the ones who are. Write to that Venn diagram of probable interested buyers and be ruthlessly honest about who lies within those overlapping circles. For example, both my husband and I enjoy lively books on economics. If the narrative isn’t compelling, you’ve still got him but you’ve lost me. So why wouldn’t you simply write a book both of us would buy? Because the book you want to write is heavy, academic, and footnoted and will expand economic theory in fundamental ways (you determined that was your purpose in question one). However, if your motive is to help the general public understand the roots of the financial crisis, that’s not the book that will get it done.* Oftentimes subject-matter experts write books geared toward their peers when they should be writing for someone like me, the very people who hire them to translate their specialized knowledge. I can tell a writer has forgotten his ideal reader when I encounter long narrative detours that overargue or defend a certain point or position or an imperious tone. Other tells for this mistake are an abundance of jargon or industry-specific language that is not explained in simple terms. As an editor, I try to keep your ideal reader in mind when I do my work in the manuscript. The writer must do the same.

  3. Now that you know why you’re writing the book and who you’re writing it for, it’s time to ponder, what structure best conveys your message? There is more creativity in nonfiction writing than most people believe. (For a classic example, see Gödel, Escher, Bach.) As long as your structure is in service to questions one and two, you have a variety of options. Are you telling a linear narrative that will build throughout the book or is every chapter its own topic? Will you engage directly with the reader in second person (as I’m doing with you now) or keep a professional distance with third? Will you interview others and insert their material? Will facts, figures, or graphs be key in making your case? Will the book link to an online quiz or supplementary material? Less common narrative forms can be successful if done well. For example, if you want to convey a simple but profound leadership or spiritual principle, structuring the narrative as a parable could even work. (Leadership and Self-Deception is one bestselling example.)

  4. If you’re planning to self-publish, what format does your book require? Ask questions as basic as, what size should my book be? (In the biz, we call this “trim.”) Does the book need to lie flat for the reader to use it successfully? For workbooks and cookbooks this might be important, precluding a smaller trim size. Think through how the book will be used if the reader will engage actively with the text. A consultant who leads management workshops might want participants to physically write in their books. A yoga instructor might illustrate various yoga poses or step-by-step positions so that practitioners can duplicate them at home. Consider too whether your book needs to appear in hardcover, paperback, or electronic form.

  5. Finally, are you prepared to market your book as aggressively as you do your professional services or expertise or proselytize for your cause? Whether you self-publish or not, your marketing plan will determine whether you accomplish your publishing goals. From one businessperson to another, one book lover to another, I will be plain: Books are incredible instruments of joy and learning. They are also products. There’s no shame in that. In fact, recasting books as necessary and useful products may very well save the publishing industry from an uncertain future. Create the right book for the right reader and you’ll find yourself eager to market your wares. And if the thought of self-promotion turns you off, please return to question one. Remember those professional goals? It will be difficult to realize them if no one ever cracks the cover of that beautiful book you worked so hard to produce.

 

*If you’re interested, After the Music Stopped does a very good job.

How to NOT Write like an Academic

Remember the good old days, the days of classrooms and pencil sharpeners and shiny red apples? A time of innocence, when vowels were mandatory, cursive was cool, and Pluto was definitively a planet.  

For a lucky few of you, your school days didn’t end after you received a diploma or two—instead, you built a career in academia, teaching and writing and publishing-or-perishing. For years you’ve likely practiced a particular writing style, one that your colleagues embrace but which, sadly, doesn’t transfer so well to a more general audience. From my own experience—including eighteen formative years living under the same roof as an academic—I offer you five tips for writing for the layperson.

Be a Scientist and a Storyteller

Prioritize entertaining your audience over proving a point. Readers want to learn about both your conclusions and the funny and strange ways you figured them out. How many times did you burn the quiche before finding the perfect oven temperature? What exciting adventures did you go on to become such an expert in gardening, traveling, African yodeling? Okay, sure, so you observed the pirates boarding your ship, but how did you feel? Channel the spirit of Carl Sagan and find the relatable human element within the scientific.

While you’re at it, cut every sentence in half, drop the fifty-cent words (sorry!), and weave your research into the narrative rather than quoting it.

Try Not to Bum Everyone Out

If ignorance is bliss, one might conclude that the opposite is true: knowing too much of anything is a real buzzkill. As an academic, you relish that your job is to dig deep, answer tough questions, and find root causes. Unfortunately, this practice can sometimes make a person thoroughly depressed, able to see only the pit we’ve dug ourselves into and not the ladder that can get us out. And sometimes the writing reflects this.

When you are writing for an audience outside of academia, steer toward the positive. This doesn’t mean pop a Valium and change your topic to sunbeams and fairy dust. Instead, imagine that you are one of those weird naturally cheerful people, and look for beauty, good intentions, and reasons to be optimistic. Then don’t forget to write about those too.

I Is Not a Four-Letter Word

I learned in high school that the word I has no place in essays. Taking yourself out of the equation is an excellent way to hone objectivity or even to battle narcissism. But unless done really well, it can create a bleak landscape of passive voice, uncredited assertions, and authoritarian shoulds. For example:

Breathing deeply while relaxing the musculature of the lower abdomen is the optimal way to lengthen the breath and should be done anytime stress is experienced.

Compare that to this sentence:

I find that whenever I feel stressed, taking a deep breath and softening my belly really helps me to relax.

Which one of these is understandable and practical, and which one makes you want to never take a deep breath again, just out of spite?

A Little Humor Goes a Long Way

’Nuff said.

Hit the Books

If you’ve long been sheltered within an institution’s hallowed halls, you might not be all that familiar with nonacademic writing. But you’re good at studying, right? So take some time to study the writing laypeople like. If you’re hoping to get a publisher interested in your business book, read popular business books. Read bestsellers by folks with PhDs. Also read novels. And blogs. And the funnies. Read just about anything to stretch your brain a little. Then circle back to the specific kinds of books that are good role models for yours.

Here are a few, to get you started:

Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel

Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind 

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s Freakonomics 

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow 

Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice 

All of these tips support the same goal: to communicate clearly and well. Tailoring your writing to your audience does not mean you have to sacrifice intellectual integrity. Rather, it means that more people will understand—and be excited by—whatever topic it is that fascinates you so much that you just had to write a book about it.

Of course, as always, GFP is here to help.

How to Write a Book Proposal Like a Pro

In some ways, a book proposal is like applying for a job. And just as you wouldn’t show up to an interview unprepared, you wouldn’t send off a book proposal that isn’t well researched, well written, and polished. A book proposal is different from a query letter in that it is a long-form, substantive pitch for a nonfiction book (there are some exceptions for more narrative styles such as memoir), whereas you will use a query letter for fiction and should have the manuscript finished in its entirety to send upon request. Before sending a book proposal, be sure to check the submission guidelines for the publisher—some want to see a query letter first. Then keep the following tips in mind as you draft what you hope will be your ticket to a book deal. Dress for Success

First impressions hold a lot of weight. You want to pick appropriate, professional clothing to wear for an interview. And you want to use an appropriate, professional format for a book proposal. A quick Google search will pull up many templates and examples of this format. Book proposals vary in length and content, but you’ll want to include at least the following components: cover page, table of contents, overview, target market, competitive analysis, author bio, marketing/promotion plan, chapter outline, and sample chapters.

The Handshake

A firm handshake shows confidence. In a book proposal, the way to show confidence is through a thoughtful overview of the book. Show that you’ve done your homework and know that your book is a good fit for this publisher. Make sure the overview is polished and comprehensive; this is the first part of the proposal the publisher will read, so you want to provide a compelling hook and expand from there.

Your Competitive Edge

When you know you’re qualified for a job, you do your best to exhibit your standout qualities when applying. When writing a book proposal, you want to make sure to include a thorough analysis of why you think your book can be competitive in the marketplace. What comparisons can you make between your book and other books that have sold well? How will your book stand out from the rest? Are there other non-book platforms like websites and online resources that would compete for your target audience?

Remember to Smile

An employer wants someone who she knows is qualified for the position and will fit in with her workplace. Similarly, a publisher wants to offer a book deal to a writer who is qualified to write the proposed book and who will be pleasant to work with. When writing the author bio, include any awards or hobbies that are relevant to the book. Mention if you’re an expert in the subject matter. Why are you the perfect person to write this book?

The Résumé

Just as a résumé isn’t a complete, detailed account of your job history, a book proposal is not your actual book. But you’ll want to include a chapter outline or table of contents that identifies each section of the book so the publisher can visualize what the completed book will include.

Walk the Talk

Job interviewers will often ask questions that have you placing yourself in a hypothetical scenario and problem-solving your way through it. A prospective employer wants to know how well, if hired, you’ll handle the actual responsibilities of the job. Similarly, a prospective publisher wants to see how well you can actually write, so you’ll want to include sample chapters that showcase your writing style.

If you want a more in-depth, step-by-step guide, Jane Friedman has an excellent overview of the process on her blog.

Five Questions for Children’s Book Writer and Editor Extraordinaire Laura Marsh

At Girl Friday we get a lot of inquiries from folks who have written or want to write a children’s book. It makes sense. Who doesn’t love a great story for kids? Everyone has a childhood favorite, whether it is The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Horton Hears a Who!, or one of thousands more. These books often light a lifelong fire for reading and, in adulthood, bring back memories of parental connection or intoxicating escape. But writing a great children’s book is no small feat (despite the relatively low word count) and it’s an even more daunting task to capture the interest of a literary agent or publisher among the mountain of submissions in this genre. Self-publishing is an option, but authors need to be aware of the high costs of production. Children’s books have all those lovely (and expensive) illustrations to consider, which necessitates pricey four-color printing. So what do you need to know about the world of children’s books to help your book stand out and maybe one day be the light for someone else’s literary fire? Today we ask children’s book editor and writer Laura Marsh, five burning questions we have about this market.

1. What are the most common misconceptions that writers have about the publishing process or the market for children’s books?

Well, as you mentioned, people assume writing a shorter text for a younger audience is pretty simple—or at least easier than writing for adults. There is a famous quote that goes something like, “I would have written a shorter letter if I had had the time.” The point is that writing less text takes more time and effort. In a traditional thirty-two-page picture-book format, every word must count. Crafting a compelling story with space restrictions is challenging. Other common misconceptions are that most children’s book authors survive on the income from their craft alone (only a handful do), and that a story you tell your own children will surely make a great children’s book (it rarely does).

2. Why is it important for a children’s book to go through the developmental editing process? As an editor, what types of issues are you looking for?

Every manuscript needs an editor. Even though an author may have revised his or her text many times, a fresh pair of eyes will see parts of the story that need trimming or a little more polish. The finished book needs to capture and sustain a child’s attention. (Anyone who has read to a four- or five-year-old knows when a book lags! Your audience may stand up and walk away.) A successful story also needs dynamic characters with voices that feel authentic, and it needs a narrative arc, with a conflict that progresses and builds until it is resolved in a satisfying ending.

3. Should a children’s book writer always have an illustrator connected to their project before they shop it around to agents and publishers?

No. In traditional children’s book publishing, the editor is like a casting director in a play. The editor pairs an illustrator with the text (unless, of course, the author is also illustrating the book). An editor knows what art style is marketable and has access to many talented illustrators. However, the author most likely knows few illustrators, let alone the illustrator who could best tell the story. Rest assured, an author benefits from this structure. If an author submits a manuscript with an illustrator the editor doesn’t view favorably, the project will typically be rejected.

4. What does the market for children’s books look like today, and how has the publishing landscape changed in the last few years?

For a while, people have been concerned that eBooks and other children’s media would severely diminish book sales. However, children’s book sales in the United States have actually increased in recent years. As far as I can tell, there’s no substitute for cuddling up with a good book.

5. What was your favorite project to work on and why?

Recently, I wrote an early reader book called Ugly Animals (National Geographic Kids, 2015) that I got completely wrapped up in. Do you know what a tarsier or a naked mole rat is? If not, they’re worth a look! These creepy-looking critters won’t win any beauty contests, but their bodies have super-cool adaptations that enable their survival. I finally had to cut myself off when I was doing research for this book—the intriguing facts and photos went on and on.

Laura Marsh photo 2
Laura Marsh photo 2

Laura Marsh has worked in children’s book publishing for over twenty years as an editor, packager, and author. She has written more than twenty-five books in the National Geographic Readers series, including the Great Migrations titles, companion books to the National Geographic film miniseries. She currently lives in Westchester County, New York, with her husband, two sons, and their dog, Bode.

Your Year-End Write-Off

Seven months ago I resolved to start waking up an hour earlier every morning to use that extra time to write. I don’t even need a full-fingered hand to count the number of times I’ve actually achieved that goal. The other day I told my boyfriend that my New Year’s resolution is to stop sleeping through my alarm and actually get up and write. Then I told him, “This will be the first New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made!” His response: “You’ve never made a New Year’s resolution?” And I said, “No, because I’ve always been so awesome.” I was kidding when I said that last part. Kind of.  

Certainly there are things about myself that I could (or should) improve. But we all have those things. And we’re reminded of them on a daily basis. Advertisements, photos of our friends on social media, and magazine covers in the checkout aisle are constantly telling us to be skinnier, wealthier, smarter, more productive, happier, and just generally more awesome. And frankly, by the time December 31 rolls around, I’m exhausted and ready to pour myself a tall flute of champagne, eat all the leftover Christmas cookies, and let myself off the hook for once.

It’s not that New Year’s resolutions aren’t useful. But sometimes our society gets so hung up on self-improvement that we lose track of the things we’re already doing well. This can be especially true for creative types like writers, who have chosen a craft where there’s always room for improvement. But chances are you’ve improved as a writer in ways that may have gone under the radar. Before you zero in on your writerly flaws, take a step back and appreciate what you’ve achieved by answering these questions:

  • What writing projects have you finished this year?

  • What are your existing writing habits that work well?

  • What have you written that you’re proud of?

  • What writing have you published?

  • What books did you finish reading?

  • What writing skills did you gain?

And if you’re not satisfied with the answers to any of these, then ask yourself questions that solicit answers you’ll feel good about. Use these successes to write off any guilt you feel about your supposed writing failures.

And if you just can’t cut yourself some slack, then no worries—Girl Friday can do that for you. We hereby let you off the hook for the past year’s shortcomings. And we acknowledge all you’ve accomplished. Raise a glass of champagne this New Year’s Eve and toast yourself! We think you’ve earned it.

Creating Unforgettable Characters

NaNo is getting real, folks. I know you feel it. As someone in grad school, I can honestly say I feel your pain. You’ve got to do whatever it is you do during the day and then get up early or stay up late to fulfill your writing (or studying, in my case) obligations. For example, I’m supposed to be reading Valuation: The Art and Science of Corporate Investment Decisions, a tome as incomprehensible to me as it is perhaps challenging for you to develop characters that leap off the page. I confess, I’ve been cheating on my assigned reading with some luscious flirts that have so much to offer in terms of character. Fates and Furies is one, a new novel that uses perspective to play with the very idea of character formation and the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Tuesday Nights in 1980 is driven by stunning language, but the characters are so well drawn, perhaps none more so than the city of New York itself, which serves as both setting and protagonist. And then there’s Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, where Rick Riordan has effortlessly created complete and compelling humans and supernaturals whose sentences you feel you could finish. Not in a bad way, in the best way—they’re friends, they’re familiars. Just as I’ll eventually learn finance, you can master the art of shaping terrific characters that will haunt your readers’ dreams. Here are some tips:

1. Read the books in the paragraph above, read some Roald Dahl and Flannery O’Connor, read exhaustively, and read closely. Take notes on how much physical detail each author gives you. Pay attention to what the characters express in dialogue, and what they don’t. If you become drawn to a character or repelled by one, notice why. What did the author do to pull you in and make you care? When did the character stop being a character and become real? Characters that elicit strong emotions in either direction are usually well crafted while the badly written ones are easily forgotten or dismissed (read: protagonist of Grisham’s most recent effort).

2. Giving your character a weird name, an esoteric appearance, or manufactured dialect is not enough to make him compelling. Frodo, the hobbit, is a good example. Hobbits have special physical characteristics and a culture that makes them distinct and contributes to some fabulous world-building. But Frodo is not an exceptional character because he has large hairy feet or lives in the Shire. Rather, it’s because of his vulnerabilities and temptations, his unleashed curiosity, his courage in the face of adversity, and his enduring love for his comrades.

3. Paper is flat; characters shouldn’t be. Take Darth Vader, one of the great evil overlords and an icon of the twentieth century. But is he uniformly evil? Nope. In the end, he sacrificed himself for his son! That act makes him infinitely more interesting as a character and gives him complexity and depth. Would President Snow be as creepy if he didn’t also love his roses and dote on his granddaughter? Would anyone keep reading if Olive Kitteridge were always hateful and spiteful and always said the wrong thing?

4. Know everything about your character and then keep 95 percent of it out of your book. I want you to know who they’d vote for in 2016, that salt & vinegar chips are their favorite, the thing that happened when they were eight that still haunts them. I want you to know every detail so that in every conversation and with every plot point you’re ensuring authenticity and congruence. Your readers won’t need to know any of these details. If you must make their whole lives public, write separate stories involving your side characters just to get your head around them and then publish them as “outtakes” on the web. It will make your readers and your social media manager happy.

Remember, this is the last week to enter our contest! Simply follow us on Twitter and tweet us your word count with the hashtag #GFPNano for a chance to win.

Plot Tips for a Compulsively Readable Story

In honor of all of you toiling away for NaNoWriMo, we’ve got a few tips on plot that we hope will help you as you race toward the finish line. Of course, some of you may be pantsers, those wildly confident types who manage to fly by the seat of their pants, letting the plot unfurl as they type. There’s an appealing brazenness to that method, but for writers who prefer to take a less daredevil approach—the many plotters out there—we humbly offer three plot-related tips to help you keep readers enthralled from the opening line. You may be familiar with the basic leaning mountain–shaped plot diagram: a tiny horizontal line of exposition followed by the long climb up the mountain of the rising action to the climax at the summit, followed by the steep descent of the falling action and then a tidy little horizontal line of resolution. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here’s what it looks like:

Exposition

Beware. Here lurks the danger of the information dump. Obviously, you want to give your readers some background as they delve into your story, but you’ll need to work hard not to bog your narrative down with long-winded explanations of each character’s entire life story up until this point during these crucial opening pages. Make every effort to weave backstory into the plot in small chunks and as seamlessly as possible. By cunningly embedding concrete details in-scene (there’s that old adage “Show don’t tell” again) and strategically dispersing them throughout the early chapters, you’ll avoid the deathblow of losing narrative flow and hence the reader’s attention.

Rising Action

As the story enters the long ascent to the climax, the key to holding readers’ attention is to keep raising the stakes. Consider the obstacles you’re putting in your characters’ way and make sure you order them so that they build on one another. This increasing tension is key to propelling the reader forward. If you’re writing a character-driven novel, it may not be about coming out guns blazing with bigger action scenes, of course; instead, think of how every challenge exposes some new dimension of your character and furthers the journey of self-discovery. Are you forcing her into increasingly difficult situations? Does each action feel sufficiently distinct and revealing? It’s all about momentum here.

Falling Action

The danger here is predictability. As Tolstoy so famously wrote, “All happy families are alike.” In other words, no one wants to read about them. Although readers want to bask in the satisfaction of a gratifying, carefully thought-out ending, they don’t really want to linger here too long. Once your characters have slain their demons, we don’t need to see them sitting around patting themselves on the back for another hundred pages. As a general rule, less is more at this stage in the game. Without the narrative tension of the earlier part of the story to propel your reader forward, it’s time to make a graceful exit.

Best of luck to all you NaNoWriMo-ers! The beauty of a first draft is that you don’t have to have every last detail figured out. Experiment, write, delete, pivot, flex your creative muscles. And enjoy the journey.

NaNoWriMo Chapter Two: Building Good Habits

What do you need to make it as a writer? Talent? Ambition? Discipline? An enormous trust fund that allows you to quit your day job? Sure, you need those things (okay, not the last one, but it couldn’t hurt). But whether your version of “making it” is getting through your 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo this year, getting a six-figure book deal, or anything in between, you definitely need good habits, because without them, none of the rest of these things will matter.

What I love about NaNoWriMo is that its very concept dispenses with any precious notions of what it means to write a book. NaNo does not concern itself with airy-fairy visions of the muse alighting on your shoulder and inspiring greatness; the only goal is to reach the word count. Technically this means that you could write the sentence “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” five thousand times in a row and complete the NaNoWriMo challenge, though we all know that doesn’t end well for the author. (On a related note, if you ever find yourself saying, “You know, if only I could get somewhere really isolated and quiet where I didn’t have any other responsibilities, I could definitely get my novel done,” you should probably watch The Shining.)

We can safely assume that most NaNoWriMo participants are not taking a sabbatical from their jobs to write their drafts. They are also, presumably, still eating, sleeping, and attending to their children, pets, and anyone else whose survival depends on them. But for a month, they are making time in their everyday lives to write. And a month is long enough to build some really good habits. No one is suggesting that you keep up the pace of 50K per month, but think of November as boot camp for the rest of your writing life. You’re doing something to break yourself in that will bolster you for years to come.

I write for an hour a day, a not terribly unmanageable or impressive amount really. The hard thing is the “every day” part of the equation. That’s the part that gets the words on the page and that carries me through the crappy days and into the one where the muses do decide to show up. It’s the part that keeps the story fresh in my mind so that dialogue comes to me while I’m walking my dog, characters reveal themselves as I’m in the shower (not literally, thank god), and plot twists occur to me just as I’m falling asleep.

For years I’ve been writing in the mornings before I go to work. I do this so I don’t have to decide to write. I’m just on autopilot: coffee, breakfast, some fiancée and dog snuggling, and then butt in chair for one hour. I’m not some kind of madwoman who just likes getting up early, but over the years I’ve come to enjoy this little habit around which my life revolves. The first thing I do every day is something that is mine. The earlier hours are the easiest to control. Once you are on e-mail and out in the world in those post-8:00 a.m. hours, anyone can make a demand for your time and attention.

Maybe mornings won’t work for you—perhaps it’s your lunch hour or the hours before bed that will serve you best. Whatever you do, find something that will stick. You may be able to get through November on sheer adrenaline (and coffee and bourbon), but when the calendar turns to December, your habits are what will keep you going.

Don’t forget to enter GFP’s NaNo Contest! Details here.

 

Why NaNoWriMo?

We’re so excited for NaNoWriMo! This year one of the newest GFs, Kim Bridges, will be participating and sharing her journey with the NaNo community. We’re also running a spectacular giveaway: awesome GFP swag for five lucky winners, and a free GFP edit of your manuscript for one grand-prize winner! Want to enter? Simply follow us on Twitter and then tweet us with your daily word count and the hashtag #GFPNano. Good luck!

 
 

With the changing of the seasons comes one of my favorite times of the year: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. NaNoWriMo takes place in November, and the goal is to write 50,000 words by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. In addition to the word count, the ultimate goal of NaNo is to complete a draft. Parts of the draft will be bad (there’s no way to avoid it when you’re writing so much so quickly), however you may surprise yourself with how much of it is good. But it doesn’t matter how much of it is good: what matters is that when you finish, you will have a completed draft of a novel.

I have participated in NaNo twice, and I took very different approaches both times. The first time, I used a plotline from a short story that I’d written. Having a solid outline helped me write a stronger draft, but I was unaccustomed to spending so much time writing every day; I fell behind on the word count and had to write 15,000 words over the final two days.

When I NaNo’d the following year, I didn’t really have any notes about the novel I was going to write; I had only a vague notion of characters and plot. I still fell behind on the word count, but instead of having to write 15,000 words in the last forty-eight hours, I only had to come up with 10,000. Part of the difference the second time around was that I didn’t care as much about what I was writing. My expectations were very, very low.

These two different experiences taught me a lot about writing and about myself as a writer. I spent much more time on my draft the first time I completed NaNoWriMo because I already knew the story and the characters. I had higher expectations for what the finished draft would look like, and I think that I largely succeeded. The second time, my story didn’t look anything like what I thought it would. The draft itself doesn’t have very many inspired passages; however, I gained something very important: a new idea. When I work on that draft again, I won’t be keeping very much of what I wrote initially. The second draft will be a very different story, but I don’t think I could have gotten the idea I have now without going through the process.

Sometimes you have to give yourself permission to write something bad. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting everything to be perfect. I have so many stories that have gone unfinished because the beginning was never strong enough for me. There was always a better way to compose those opening pages. If you lower your expectations enough to allow yourself to write badly, something magical happens: you will start to write better. I believe that this is the heart of NaNoWriMo. It’s not about writing well; it’s about practicing and getting everything out. In the words of Jane Smiley, “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” Try not to worry about things not sounding perfect. That’s what second and third drafts are for. Most importantly, write, and write a lot.

If you’re new to NaNoWriMo and would like to participate, here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Set goals for yourself. The daily target word count is 1,667. If you need a day off once a week, try to hit 2,000 words on the days that you write.

  • Time how long it takes you to write so that you can fit it into your schedule. My average speed was about 1,200 words in an hour. If I was really pushing myself, I could hit between 1,500 and 2,000 in an hour.

  • Tell your friends and family that you’re participating in National Novel Writing Month. It’s a big undertaking, and you’re going to want support from those around you.

  • Turn down plans with friends if you need to write. If you are like me and typically put off writing in favor of seeing friends, having a reason to say, “No, I need to focus on myself right now,” can be very liberating.

  • Visit nanowrimo.org, and/or follow along on their Facebook page and Twitter. You can meet other participating writers and attend events in your area.

  • Most importantly, take care of yourself. Eat. Sleep. Exercise. Cry if you need to. There may be times when you want to quit, and that’s okay. If you don’t finish in time, it doesn’t negate your experiences. And remember, there’s always next year.

I missed NaNoWriMo the last couple of years, but I’m very excited to be participating again this year. I will be posting daily updates on Twitter. If you would like to track my progress, you can follow @GirlFridayProd or find me at www.nanowrimo.org/participants/kim-bridges.

Happy writing, everyone!