Move over paper

Today is an exciting day. History was made. Again! And it’s great to live at a time that history is being made in huge ways. Is it because of technology?  The news about Bin Laden was widely shared first on Twitter. And when I read it on the New York Times, I could click on the link to the press conference the President gave about it, and email it to my mother.

President releases birth certificate

In the last week there has been so much interesting news, that it could almost make your head spin. So being able to parse all the information, to really understand it, to go in-depth the way you might want to, or skip over the stuff that you’re not that interested in, is a function of modern media, and new ways of disseminating information. And it’s why paper, as a technology for sharing information, is no longer the best platform.

I’m not going to insert an apology here about how much I love “real” books because it’s an insult to technology. eBooks, phones, and tablets are springboards with social networking providing the people power for how information is distributed. To believe differently, is to ignore the facts. Support for the Iran elections gained popularity on Twitter, with people showing solidarity by turning their avatars green. The White House Correspondence dinner was linked on Facebook (mostly the part where Seth Meyers insults The Donald’s “fox” hairdo).

Gore recording for OUR CHOICE the app.

It’s only a matter of time before paper goes the way of 8-track and cassette tapes not just for news, but for entertainment purposes as well. And if you don’t believe me, you only need to see what software developer Mike Matas of Push Pop Press did with Al Gore’s book, OUR CHOICE.

Don’t worry. It’s a good thing.

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Al Gore: Earth’s friend or foe?

What I love about doing biographies is that the subjects cease being cardboard cutouts. Their complexities become apparent, sometimes endearing, and sometimes eyebrow-raising. And still, it’s impossible to really know them.

That was never more true than when I researched Al Gore last year for my latest biography.

Gore has the unfortunate lot of being polarizing. Nobody’s neutral about Gore. For many, he represents liberalism at its finger-waggingest, along with wealth, an ivy league education and political advantage. His father was a U.S. Senator and by all accounts, his mother groomed him almost from infancy for political office. He wasn’t dubbed the Prince of Tennessee for nothing. For others, Gore is a modern-day Cassandra, with both the foresight and the lengthy trail of disbelievers. He also represents crushed hopes in the form of the 2000 election.

The polarization surrounding him appear par for the course. I discovered a man whose life was a study in contrasts. He attended rural Tennessee schools and worked the land with farmhands, but also lived in a Washington hotel and attended exclusive private schools. The toughest contrast to reconcile was his unflinching fight for an environment free of toxins, while still advocating for tobacco farmers, even after losing his beloved sister to lung cancer.

Despite understanding what’s behind people’s feelings about Gore, I’m still not sure why his advocacy for the planet is received with such ire. Gore’s interest was piqued when he was a child, observing farmers’ conservation efforts, and then pushed further when his mother read him Rachel Carson‘s SILENT SPRING. By the time he arrived at Harvard and met Professor Roger Revelle, becoming a “conservation hero” was just a matter of time.

Gore has devoted a huge amount of time, resources and energy to educating people about environmental dangers, pushing legislation, and investing his own money in forward-thinking technology. Even if you don’t care for him personally, what’s the objection to a cleaner environment, and economically beneficial tech?

Gore’s not a perfect guy, but he’s no foe either.

One of my favorite things

After all the hard work of researching the book and planning the book, then writing the book, and rewriting the book and waiting nervously for the editor’s notes, and the copy editor’s red marks over erroneous syntax and punctuation, and the painstaking task of doing the dreaded back matter, and then the many, many months of waiting, it’s awfully nice to have a box of freshly printed books arrive at the doorstep with my name on it.

You can find out more about my Al Gore biography on the MY BOOKS page.

How to work naughty words into your author bio

One of the best things about writing books, is writing author bios for back covers, blogs, your twitter account, on Red Room, etc. It’s totally narcissistic, and also, crazy fun. Of course, not all author bios are fun, and that’s really unfortunate because even if you need to show college cred to promote your well-researched book on 8th century kings, it doesn’t mean your bio needs to read like tax law.

I think of my many bios like breadcrumbs. All of them have slightly different information so that your poor eyeballs won’t dry out from boredom if you came across my bio in different places. Plus, since they all tell something new, hopefully you’ll find them interesting. Entertaining, even.

So if you write non-fiction, you probably want to talk about your degrees and how much debt you have for them which is why you’re writing a book, so you can guilt people into buying it. If you write sci-fi, your bio should maybe have a picture of you in that full Klingon outfit you wore to the last Star Trek convention (can it please have that picture, pleeeeease?). If you write for kids, it should probably be funny. Duh!

Your bio will always reflect your writing style because you’re writing it (unless you want ME to write it, in which case, I only charge a small fee!) But it should also reflect the tone of the book, blog, or place where it appears. One of my favorite bios is on the back of my Al Gore biography. Since it’s part of a Conservation Heroes series, I went all conservation-y by adding: “… she loves everything in nature except for mosquitoes and birds that poop on her Prius.” My editor said it was the first time anyone had successfully worked the word “poop” into the back cover of one of their books.

Which cracked us both up. And hopefully some readers.

So you see what I mean about the naughty words.

Now go nuts.

Finessing the biography

In my professional life, I’ve written more biographies than anything else. And I’ve come to really admire the genre, not just because I write them, or because I find non-fiction more interesting now that I’m a grownup, but because I often find how the biographer phrases history really fascinating.

When you first pick up the biography of a person, you’re not looking to find out anything about the writer. But how the biographer feels about their subject is almost immediately apparent. Read any politician’s biography, one written by a person in his/her camp, and another written by a supporter of the opposing party, and you’ll see an obvious difference in tone.

Intent is written into every fact a biographer chooses to highlight. You can read the praise, or the disdain between the lines, though often those feelings aren’t hidden. Recently, I’ve read biographies of Al Gore, Roald Dahl and Barack Obama. I read several Al Gore bios because I was writing my  own biography on him. I read Roald Dahl because I came across an interesting one while doing research for another project, and I picked it up out of curiosity. And I read the Barack Obama bio because… well… because.

The most enjoyable biographies are those where the biographer is free with their analysis of the subject’s history, and ones where the biographer leads with quotes. I mainly do the latter in the bios that I write, and I try really hard not to inject my own feelings, though I’m sure they’re clear anyway.

But the best part of a biography is the personal finesse used to tell the facts. I finished David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama this weekend, and here’s my favorite line: “Obama, after less than nine months in office, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The President’s reaction was a more elongated and colorful version of “Shut up.”” Now that’s both fact, and entertainment.

It makes me want to get started on a new biography just so I can use a line like that.

A Farewell to Al

These are going back to the library today!

Today I am returning my stack of Al Gore biographies to the library. Do you know what that means? It means I have finished writing and editing the book! Hooray for me! I started working on it in February and I’m already done. It’s the speediest book I’ve ever written. And after yesterday’s re-reading, I can also tell you that it’s quite good despite the short time-frame (if I do say so myself).

Gore is my fifth biography and the first one I’ve done about someone other than a children’s book writer. I have to tell you guys, I like this biography-writing thing. It can be really frustraing at times, but it’s great learning so many things about a person and being able to tell your own story about them. I’m always curious what people think about the biographies if they ever see them. (But I’m not that curious, so if you don’t like it, don’t email me.)

I wonder if I can make a career writing these for trade…

Taking a yarn break from Al

Since I finished the outline yesterday, I decided I’d take a break from Al today. My daughter is still home from school,  which makes it tough to concentrate. I’ll try to get her occupied for a bit so I can work more on the novel. At 4am some new titles came drifting to me in my dreams. And I’ll do a little knitting!

I joined a charity knitting group last year and one of the projects was making warm things for a shelter that caters to LGBT teens. I never finished all the items, so  I started working on them again last night. I realize the winter is nearly over, but there’s a steady influx of teens coming in and out of the shelter, so I’m sure the items will be useful whenever I manage to get them there. I’d show you my progress, but my camera has disappeared. I’m 80% certain it will turn up in my son’s toys.

Outlining Al Gore

This morning, I finished the somewhat daunting task of outlining the Al Gore biography. At least I think it’s finished. I’ll probably tweak the section titles some, but all the information is where I want it.

That was the easy part.

Now I have to write it.

’09 Writing Lesson: Just Keep Moving

I’m looking forward to 2010 if only because I have a lot to do and I’m anxious to get to it. The biographies of Sharon Creech and Al Gore, finishing my 3rd novel, editing my 4th, and hopefully a lot more freelance work. 2009 was a packed year and I like it that way. But before 2010, I’m taking a moment to look back.

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, but reflecting on the past year is the only way to see patterns and make improvements.

In ’09 I had a bit of heartache with my 2nd novel but I also edited a 3rd and drafted a 4th. The theme of ’09 seemed to be “just keep moving” based on my continued output. It was good because it kept me from wallowing in the bad spots, which I tend to do a lot. I will keep this new theme in my writing repertoire.

It also became clear in ’09 that I have problems with Voice. It’s right up there with Plot and Conflict, but Voice is where I fall short. After an interesting Christmas vacation during which I kept my trap shut over some family issues, I began to wonder if someone who keeps her thoughts to herself can write a character with a strong voice. So I will be making personal changes and see if it translates into my professional life. Should be interesting! I’ll let you know if my family disowns me. And if my characters become more compelling.

I know this is brief, but who says that reflecting on the year has to be long and drawn out? I encourage you to look at your writing each year and see what your writing needs were. That way you’re sure to keep moving forward.

Happy New Year everyone!

Point of view in non-fiction writing

Since reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, my approach to writing non-fiction has changed. I think my Meyer biography benefitted greatly from it, but I am really struggling wth the Creech bio. Zinsser’s book advises that for non-fiction writers, it’s not just about finding the facts, verifying them, and plopping them down in order, it really is about the author’s response to the subject. Readers respond when the author injects a little of themselves into the writing, in whatever small way. My interpretation of his advice is that when writing non-fiction, it’s important for the writer to have a definite point of view.

Now, I like Sharon Creech’s books a lot. Love That Dog is my hands-down favorite, followed very closely by A Fine, Fine School. But awe and respect isn’t really a point of view about a person. It’s the same as when your 2nd grade teacher forced you to stop using the word “like” for every description. I like Sharon Creech, I like her books, I like her writing. This does not make for interesting reading. I didn’t have this problem when I wrote the Spinelli and L’Engle biographies because back then, awe was enough for me. I thought my sole job was to write about all the things they did that I thought were so great. Now that I’ve read Zinsser, it’s not enough. Thanks for nothing, William.

It might be that I’m a little overwhelmed because I’m doing multiple projects at the same time, or that I’m incredibly tired. It may also be that I haven’t read through enough of the articles I’ve pulled. Part of me wants to blame Creech herself for being so darn likable. I’m sure I won’t have this problem when I start Al Gore’s biography in the Spring. I have definite feelings about ol’ Al and I’m really excited to get to his story. He’s polarizing, maybe by nature of being a politician, but he makes a great story.

So back to figuring out my point of view about a person whose books I admire, but whose personality I have no bead on. It’s going to be rough. And that deadline isn’t getting further away.