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Friday
May222015

Life-Storying

 I’m writing a biography of a woman who has fascinated me since I first heard her name in the 1970s. I can’t give her name – yet. And you might not even recognize it when I do, for she died at age 65 in 1983. Time will tell. But if you are a writer and you are interested in trying your hand at biography, I do have some news you can use.

Writing biography is different from tackling a memoir, even though both are nonfiction, true accounts of true lives. Obvious difference: the memoir is about you, the biography is about someone else. But there is more to it than that. Readers and writers have been known to confuse biographical writing with historical writing. I like the distinction Virginia Woolf’s biographer, Hermione Lee, makes. She calls biographical writing “life-storying,” putting the emphasis on narrative and not just the verifiable facts of more academic histories. In addition, the biographer also wants to convey some sort of idea about the writer’s subject, which is why two biographies about the same person, let’s say John Fitzgerald Kennedy, can be so different, as with Kenneth O’Donnell’s Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye and Nigel Hamilton’s JFK: Reckless Youth.

I can tell you this because I’ve been studying the craft of biography the way I studied memoir when I was writing Staying Alive: A Love Story, my memoir of loss and recovery. I loved that book. Loved that it made my husband’s life present in his children’s and my life again and because it has become respected in the field of writing about loss, receiving a 2012 Reader Views memoir award, a 2013 award from the New York Book Festival, and a recommendation from the American Institute of Health Care Professionals. But I’m on to something else now and in its own way, being essentially about someone else lessens the emotional weight of the project.

Yes, in trying to write something non-autobiographical, I’ve tried fiction. But my heart wasn’t in it. The same way Truman Capote’s heart wasn’t in his fiction either. And yet, just by picking up the New York Times one morning in 1959, Capote knew in his gut he had to write a book-length investigation of the news of that day, the Creeper family’s murder. Thus, In Cold Blood was born, the nonfiction book that broke the mold of true reporting when it was published seven years later.

So, in getting serious about the biographical writing, I found that, unlike memoir, there’s very little advice about craft available. Google how to write a memoir and pages and pages of “how-to” books will pop up. Not so when you google how to write a biography. I’ve found only two, Hermione Lee’s Biography which is part of the Oxford Very Short Introductions series and Nigel Hamilton’s How to do Biography: A Primer. Both have been very helpful, along with reading critically praised biographies and profiles.

The same dearth of information goes for online or on ground workshops on biography. I found a single four-day workshop on writing biographies being offered at this summer’s Yale Writer’s Conference, but the cost was just under $1000, nonresidential, just over $1000, residential. Both more than I could afford.

Finally, I came across a surprising good podcast: How to Write a Biography by Carole Angier, available for free at http://coventryuniversity.podbean.com/e/how-to-write-a-biography-carole-angier/. It is also available on iTunesU. So, if your heart is in nonfiction and you are passionate about someone else’s life, take some advice “life-storying” advice from Lee, Hamilton, and Angier.

Laura Hayden is the author of Staying Alive: A Love Story (website: http://laurabhayden.com) She teaches writing at Asnuntuck Community College and in the WCSU MFA in Creative and Professional Writing program, both in Connecticut.

Friday
May012015

In the Beginning

“If it weren’t for the people, the god-damn people”, said Finnerty, “always getting tangled up in the machinery. If it weren’t for them, the world would be an engineer’s paradise.”― Kurt Vonnegut, ‘Player Piano’

In the beginning was the Word.

Actually, in the beginning we don’t really know what there was. We don’t even know if our beginning was the beginning, or one of many beginnings.

Our best guess is that in the beginning there was some kind of singularity — that at the centre of our universe was a point of infinitely dense, uniform, spinning black sameness, where everything was alike, and contained, and restrained by one almighty unified force. Now, for some reason this singular spinning top got knocked off its axis, and with a Big Bang its infinite density and order exploded forth into the universe. Over time the one thing became everything: energy, protons, neutrons, electrons, hydrogen, helium, super-hot plasma and gas, stars, quasars, galaxies and superclusters. Eventually it became rocks, and planets, and lava and ice and liquid water, and somehow amoeba and plants and trees and insects and fish and warthogs and Kid Rock and Bananagrams and, well, you get the idea.

The fact that we can get the idea is magical. The fact that one massive fiery explosion and billions of years of random collisions and chance galactic encounters later we can sit here and comprehend a universe forming — whilst vast clouds of water vapor sail through a blue sky above us, and small feathered animals sing to each other in the trees — is almost beyond comprehension itself.

The almost infinite complexity of the whole thing, and the apparent randomness that led to a universe so vast, mysterious and beautiful is — for me — the cosmological proof for why Difference, and not uniformity, is the prevailing force for creation and growth in our world and in our lives. If you’re a religious person I’m sure you need little convincing of the endless wonder and variety in creation. If you aren’t, then the empirical, scientific approach to understanding our origins is just as marvelous.

Adaptation, and being different from what came before, allowed protozoan bacteria — through generations of multiplication and mutation — to become complex; to grow cilia so they could move, fins so they could swim and, eventually, limbs and lungs that let them emerge from the water. Recognising difference in shape and colour is what allows all of us to make sense of our world, and the difference of one moment to the next — of one day being different from any other — is what makes us feel alive. In no uncertain terms, difference is what gives everything in our world and our universe meaning.

Strange, then, that although our universe grows ever more vast, complex and different as it expands through space, we as human beings are creatures of such habit and control. In opposition to the systems we observe — the collapsing stars and eroding coastlines which tend towards chaos and destruction — we devote our energy to building structure. We are comforted by routine; rigorously taxonomising our planets and butterflies. We create layer upon layer of order where there was no order before, and expend vast amounts of effort just holding it all together.

Human beings — who are least distressed when they can see things in black and white or right and wrong — seem like a walking contradiction. Like all animals we thrive and grow from the unexpected and diverse experiences that we have in our lives. We know that discovery and adversity fuel us and yet — at the self-proclaimed top of the food chain — we try our darndest to stamp out the possibility that anything unexpected will happen. I’m not talking about war, or drought, or any of the long list of man-made or natural disasters that come out of the blue and devastate lives and communities. I’m also not talking about the immediate, urgent challenges we might have to deal with in our lives, like finding our lost child in a supermarket, or planning our monthly budget so we can pay rent.

What I wonder at are the long, slow, large-scale changes, which build up sometimes over generations: the constricting systems that shape our lives over decades and centuries. How our education systems, for example, are structured so much like our penal systems, to promote uniformity and to marginalise deviant ways of thinking, or to sideline them with labels like “autistic”. And the intransigent, entrenched prejudice to which low politics panders; demonising foreign faces, unknown religions, accents, ethnicities and tastes.

Like lots of people who write about Life, the Universe & Everything, I wonder a lot. I wonder why we outlaw homosexuality. I wonder how it can be right to ban public protest. I wonder if they’ll ever make a true spiritual sequel to the Jean-Claude Van Damme Street Fighter movie. I’ve wondered at the Rat Race of our grown-up lives; the airless, grey, cubicled daily trudge into which billions of us collectively pour trillions of hours of our collective existence.

As we answer emails, fill in spreadsheets and fiddle with our ties we are all pursuing something, but for each of us that something is different. In a world of infinite diversity, where we’re all born different into a world that is never the same one minute to the next — born with different desires and aspirations — can we honestly say that the systems we’ve set up around ourselves really match the desires we nurtured as younger people? Are they worthy of the vast opportunity for joy and discovery which is out there, outside of the cubicle? Quite the opposite.

If I’d titled my book Fear of a Midlife Crisis instead of The Difference Manifesto it would have sounded less pretentious, but the other words in the book wouldn’t have had to change that much. If you’re like me, then pretty much every time you take a week off from work and go on a long hike, take a walk along a deserted beach or stay up late at night after drinking too much coffee, you get that “What the #$%@! am I doing with my life?” feeling; the feeling that if you could just extricate yourself from your desk job, or your mortgage, or your expectant parents, or the feelings of inadequacy that you get when you see your friends’ shiny new husbands and jobs and Facebook statuses, then you might be able to pursue what you’d always wanted to do. Like me, you may also find it harder and harder as the days and pay grades and dentist’s appointments go by, to remember what that thing was in the first place.

For almost all of us (myself included) it’s impossible and irresponsible to shrug off all the responsibilities and expectations that are built up around us. We can’t escape the motions we have to go through, and the processes and systems we have to follow. I’ll be honest, in a year’s time you’ll probably still need to fill in your tax return, and you’ll probably still have to queue for 45 minutes to post a Christmas card, or get a new passport. But that doesn’t stop us from being able to change things. It doesn’t stop us from being able to #occupy public spaces en masse, to anonymously expose corruption, or for individuals within those systems to expose abuses (Snowden, Manning etc.). Although so many of our paths — through airport check-in, at border crossings and at the DMV when we get our drivers’ licences — seem inevitable and set in stone, it really only seems that way. Once upon a time they didn’t exist at all, and it was a fallible human being, probably just winging it, who was responsible for making them.

I don’t subscribe to much New Age Philosophy, but I do know there’s a Cosmic Difference inherent in the universe, and millions of people praying for fewer office jobs and grey days in their lives, and they’re imploring you tobelieve things can be different, and be better for being different. Believing has to be the first step — in many ways it is a giant leap.

In pursuit of understanding what ‘Difference’ means in society, and why it is fundamentally a force for positive change, I’m going to ask you to accept three different principles. One is the necessity of nonconformism; that questioning dogma and institutions is vital, and that the more entrenched something is, the more we should question why it is the way it is. The second is letting your own identity shape your life — recognising what your core, personal values are, and that they are not the barrage of mass media slogans and advertising that you receive every day of your life. The third, and hardest, is to believe that there is no one truth in any situation. Our differing life experiences give us different perspectives, and although we feel passionately a sense of right and wrong, it is empathy — understanding why other people believe what they do — and not preaching, which allows us to come to understanding. Difference, even difference of opinion, can always be celebrated for the new perspective it brings us, even if we passionately disagree.

Entertaining these ideas — even just keeping them at the back of your mind, or on flash cards in your pocket — means we can start to reform some of the unpleasant, entrenched things today that we grudgingly accept about the world we live in, but which we wish we could change. Before we dive in, though, let’s try and understand what’s going on here. In a world of vast oceans, jungles, dolphins, bungee jumping and chocolate hobnobs, how did all the stuff that makes us feel glad to be alive get relegated to such a small portion of our existence. How did the world we built around ourselves begin to get in the way?

Ben Wallace is a writer, technologist and political theorist. For several years he led civic innovation and governance projects at Google, and he now advises businesses in both the UK and Silicon Valley. He enjoys playing saxophone and Liar's Dice, and currently lives in San Francisco. You can read more by Ben here, and The Difference Manifesto is available in both electronic and paperback form on Amazon. Follow@BANGwallace on Twitter for updates and extracts from the book.

 

Wednesday
Aug132014

Why Authors Should Connect with the World 

Guest post by Susan Violante

Many years ago the image of the writers was that of the mysterious loner, always pouring his/her stories from within in an old typewriter. Not anymore!

Reading, for fun or for information is just not what it used to be, and readers have evolved with the times.  With all the technological advances brought in through the development of the internet, people have accustomed themselves to massive loads of information daily. We get bombarded with all kinds of information through the TV, radio, phones, computers, tablets, etc., and the list grows by the minute!  Due to this constant connection to the internet and the overload of facts, stories, and images feeding our brains, readers have changed their ways. They are no longer satisfied with the mysterious loner author; they actually need to connect with the authors to be interested in their books.  On many occasions I have come to realize that most of people that purchased my book had actually looked into my bio, listened to one of my interviews, read my blog, met me at one of my events, or even interacted with me through Reader Views before purchasing the book.  It is a fact, readers want to know about the author, and the author needs to be credible and genuine in the book’s topic or genre to be successful. The only way to do this is by staying connected to the audience and keep updated in their topic. Here are some tips:

  • Stay Updated –Staying updated in the topic you write about is not just for nonfiction authors. In order for fiction novels to be successful they need to be credible. This demands extensive research from the author, which in turn makes the author an expert on the researched topic.  Keeping their knowledge level current on the researched topic can guarantee speaking events, interviews and media attention, which is the some of the best ways to promote books. It is up to the author to update themselves by reading and even writing articles and books in the topic or genre he/she writes. Commenting on other authors and writers from his own genre through their blogs, book clubs, and even by reviewing books will also help in keeping the author updated as well as securing a presence in the author’s target market.

 

  • Stay Connected to Readers – Staying connected with the audience and other authors is crucial for the author as it keeps him/her present, whether online or through the media, and being connected benefits authors in many other ways.

    • By constantly connecting with other authors, information is shared which helps in staying updated. This information creates discussions which generates new ideas, new projects, and new collaborating opportunities as well.
    • By staying connected with the audience, the author is able to determine the needs and likes of his fans. This knowledge will not just help in creating a marketable story, but it will also give the author a head start on the market through his connections.

Authors should not underestimate readers. Our readers, although always in search for entertainment, are also more knowledgeable of current events, other cultures, science, history, and geography thanks to the internet. They expect well written, relevant books that also provide entertainment.  How can we provide this if we stay locked up within ourselves?  For more information on how Reader Views can help authors click here.

 

Susan Violante is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

Tuesday
Aug122014

Categorizing your Book 

Guest post by Susan Violante

Many times when we submit our book reviews to authors we receive replies with concerns that they might not have categorized their book correctly on the original submission form.  Because of the regularity of this concern I realized that maybe we should address this topic in an editorial. 

Categories are used by libraries and book stores to organize their shelves, but they are not the ones who decide what category a book should be, the author is the one that makes that decision. When the author decides which genre to write they are at the same time choosing their market target.  However, this target market can include many categories. Choosing a main category that applies to their book is a very important decision that requires a lot of thought as this not only will determine where the book will be placed on the shelves, but also who will review their book when submitting for reviews and literary contests.  Here are some tips when categorizing your book.

  • Never come up with your own category or label. There is a system in place and bookstores, libraries, contests, and the entire publishing and literary industry goes by that system.
  • Get familiarized with all the categories already in place, so that you can choose the one that applies best to your book. This system used comes straight from the BISAC coding
  • When picking the category for your book, the first step is to consider your audience. For example if you write a children’s book, what is the target age group? Is it a nonfiction or fiction book? Don’t be tempted to think that your children’s book is for everyone, and categorize it for everyone. This will only hurt the marketing of your book.
  • Once you have determined your audience niche, look through the BISAC headings and pick the one most relevant to your book. You will go from general to specific when assigning the category
  • Include the category on the back cover of your book so that librarians and book stores place the book on the right shelf where your target market will look for books. The common practice has been to place it on the top left of the back cover. For example my book shows the BISAC category I chose on the top left of the back cover and looks like this:

                  “JUVENILE  FICTION/Historical/Military & Wars”

When in doubt, it is always better to talk to other authors, publicists, or publishers while writing your book to help determine which category is best. This will make your book more marketable as your writing will be speaking to your target market, and the right category will place your book where your audience will find it. For information on how Reader Views can help market your book click here.

 

Susan Violante is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.