In this 5 On post, bestselling author Elisa Lorello (@elisalorello) discusses authenticity, using social media to connect with readers, rejection, and the differences between self- and traditional publishing.
Elisa Lorello earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth and taught rhetoric and writing for over ten years. In 2012 she became a full-time novelist and is the author of the Kindle bestselling novels Faking It, Ordinary World, She Has Your Eyes, Why I Love Singlehood (co-authored with Sarah Girrell), and Adulation. In 2013, she published a memoir titled Friends of Mine: Thirty Years in the Life of a Duran Duran Fan.
Elisa has been featured in the Charlotte Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer and was a guest speaker at the Triangle Association of Freelancers 2012 and 2014 Write Now! conferences. She continues to write, speak, and teach about her hybrid publishing experiences and topics in the craft of writing and revision. She currently lives in Montana with her husband-to-be.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Books on writing as a craft come from a wide variety of successful authors—Dean Koontz (How to Write Best Selling Fiction), Josip Novakovich (Fiction Writer’s Workshop), David Corbett (The Art of Character), Stephen King (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), etc. What is your personal favorite, and is it the same book you would recommend to a new writer looking for instruction?
ELISA LORELLO: On Writing, which my twin brother gave to me one Christmas, was the first book I read that took my writing to a new level. I had already seen exponential changes due to grad school classes I was taking in writing persuasively and learning rhetorical appeals, devices, etc. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style also left an impression on me in terms of honing language, as did Donald Murray’s The Craft of Revision. But King’s book gave me the confidence I’d never had as a fiction writer.
I’d taken creative writing classes before, but those consisted of workshopping and critiquing stories without actually breaking down and explaining the elements of fiction, such as dialogue, narrative, sensory description, etc. On Writing gave me a simple understanding of writing as a craft for the first time, and, better yet, made novel writing do-able and fun. Every semester I assigned chapters from it to my English 101 classes, and hands down it was always their favorite. I’d put it on the recommended reading list rather than the required, but after the excerpts, many of them—even those who didn’t particularly care for reading or writing—would buy it and read it cover to cover. They found it to be no-nonsense, non-intimidating, and useful in their academic as well as creative writing, as did I.
On Writing is also one of those books I keep going back to just to give myself a refresher or to fall in love with writing all over again. Even something as simple as “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut” continues to challenge me—do I read enough? How much is enough? How does what I read affect what and how I write? What does “well read” mean? And my Why I Love Singlehood co-writer, Sarah Girrell, and I always like to remind each other, when giving feedback on each other’s drafts, “Stephen says the adverb is not your friend.”
I continue to recommend On Writing, as well as Nathan Bransford’s How to Write a Novel: 47 Rules for Writing a Stupendously Awesome Novel That You Will Love Forever, although I think that one is more targeted for beginners.
Beyond word-count or page-count goals and time limits, which you’ve said can stump your writing, what is the biggest saboteur to your creativity, and how do you combat it? And, conversely, what makes you feel the most confidently creative and productive, excited to write?
So what is “good”? In terms of my own content, it’s about what engages me as the reader as well as the writer. If I’m telling a story that moves me or connects to me in some way, then I’m on the right track in terms of having the same effect on readers. So what makes me eager to get to the next page, and the next, and the next? For starters, I love when I write something that makes me chuckle every time I read it. It comes down to style, the manner in which I write it—the words I use, the patterns and rhythms those words form, the precision (cutting out what’s not needed), the rhetorical shape, and so on. The story/narrative is very much playing out like a movie or TV show in my head when I’m writing. Thus, I love dialogue and “filming” the scene in terms of the visual, be it through action or sensory description. But I equally love getting inside my characters’ heads and figuring out what makes them tick, why they behave the way they do. That’s my psychology degree at work. I have therapy sessions with them throughout the course of drafting.
When I drafted Faking It, my first novel, I wrote on the cover page: “I wrote the book I wanted to read.” That’s been my mantra ever since. Ultimately I have to write a novel I would pick up if I found it on a table or an endcap display in a bookstore or on a library shelf. I don’t ever think in terms of genre or commercial appeal. However, there are a few specific, personal readers I want to please. My fiancé, also a bestselling author, is one of them. My Why I Love Singlehood co-writer, Sarah Girrell, is another. If Sarah likes it, then I’m on the right track.
What makes or keeps me excited, productive, and/or creative is when a story or scene idea just won’t let go of me. It’ll be the first thing I think about when I wake up, it will stay with me all during my shower or a long drive, and I’ll be itching to stop whatever I’m doing just to get it on the page. When I’m in that zone, the writing may not be at its best, but I’ll be in the right space in my head to make it its best. Reading a book or watching a movie/television show that has captivated me may also inspire and motivate me to write.
Anyone who’s followed your Facebook feed knows how big a fan you are of Aaron Sorkin, his writing of dialogue in particular. What is it about his dialogue style that stands out to you, and what are the keys to creating believable, realistic dialogue?
Actually, on the subject, should “believable” and “realistic” even be considered ultimate goals beyond the obvious goal of moving the story forward? Consider that almost all of Sorkin’s characters, much like the characters in The Gilmore Girls, seem—at least in The Newsroom, The West Wing, and Sports Night—to have many words to say about many things in a way most regular people don’t (one Salon article calls Sorkin’s style “double-time banter”). Or is there more to it than realism?
I love Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue because he and I share a similar approach: it’s like music to us. If description is the visual experience of writing/reading, then dialogue is the audio experience. When I’m writing dialogue I’m very attentive to the way it sounds rather than the way it reads. I’m thinking about rhythm and intonation and syntax. I’m not trying to achieve “real” dialogue because actual conversations are full of pauses in thought, tense shifts, interruptions, grammatical errors, etc. If you read transcripts of conversations or something like a Google Chat, they’re typically hard to follow and not particularly as interesting as when the conversation took place in real time.
Rather, what I want to achieve is authenticity. Authentic dialogue isn’t about the way real people speak, but rather what is real to the characters’ voices and experiences, and what serves the story. Good dialogue advances the story. It also reveals characters’ traits and speaks to their truths, even if they’re lying through their teeth. Gilmore Girls is a great example of that, as are all the Sorkin titles you mentioned.
Here’s an example of ho-hum dialogue:
“I’m afraid I love you, George,” said Laura.
“I’m afraid I don’t feel the same, Laura,” said George.
Here’s the same dialogue exchange, completely kicked up in terms of voice and character and conflict:
“Under different circumstances, when I’d be less vulnerable and you’d be less likely to be a complete ass about it, I might be willing to say I love you, George. Especially if I’d first had a couple of glasses of wine.”
“I really enjoy talking to you during commercial breaks in the football game,” said George, “but I’m not sure there’s a future in that.”
Dialogue doesn’t have to be fast to be good, but it is one approach. Scandal, for example, is downright frenetic in the speed of its dialogue. It’s The West Wing on twenty cups of coffee. It’s a bit too much for me, personally, but it certainly serves the show.
Nathan Bransford says dialogue “should be a conversation that you want to eavesdrop on.” I love that.
When I wrote my memoir, Friends of Mine: Thirty Years in the Life of a Duran Duran Fan, I unearthed the fan fiction I’d written when I was about fifteen or sixteen years old. I hadn’t read any of it since the late eighties, so I was ready to cringe. And while some of it was indeed cringe-worthy, I was really impressed by the dialogue. It was exceptionally mature for its age, and possessed many of the stylistic traits I use to this day without my consciously knowing it then. Thus, what I thought had been a recently developed ability thanks to watching so much Sorkin-penned stuff was actually an innate talent, and that pleased me. It’s the part of the novel-writing process that comes easiest to me.
Here’s the irony, though: you’d think that would make me good at screenwriting, given how many storytelling cues I take from film and television. I struggle with controlling too much in a screenplay, as if I’m trying to do the director’s and camera operator’s jobs. The bottom line is that I like narrative as much as I like dialogue.
Oh, and by the way, I’m an even bigger Nora Ephron fan than I am an Aaron Sorkin fan. She wrote articles, essays, plays, films—all smart and sometimes humorous and clear and concise and every word belonging. I miss her and wish I’d had an opportunity to meet her before she passed.
When writing Faking It, you were just out of grad school and, you’ve said, throwing all of your favorite rhetorical devices into the story. What is your least favorite rhetorical device, and what is your favorite?
I’m not sure there is any specific device I don’t like—at least none comes to mind—but I absolutely have a few that I use repeatedly. One is amplification (“She wanted ice cream. Soft ice cream. Ice cream so soft and smooth it formed snow-topped peaks.”). Another is antithesis, in which “two opposite ideas are put together in a sentence to achieve a contrasting effect.” (“He was more blue-blooded than blue collar, preferred Bach to Beatles, condos to country living.”) That example also showcases how much I adore alliteration. Occasionally I’ll use those modes of discourse still taught in some English 101 classes. For example, process analysis, in which I describe how something is done. In my new novel, Pasta Wars (launching in May 2016), Katie learns how to make pasta from scratch, and we see her going through each step of mixing the dough, kneading it, rolling and cutting it, and then cooking. I also lean toward compare and contrast.
Reading Faking It now, I can see how idealistic I still was, being fresh out of grad school. It’s partly embarrassing, partly endearing. However, scholar Peter Elbow, whom I call the Paul McCartney of rhetoric and composition, read Faking It and loved it, so that was a highlight for my previous career and my present one.
Why do you write what you write?
In Faking It, I quoted Picasso’s “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” That’s very much what fiction writing is for me. I write to tell a truth that needs to be told, or a story that wants to be born. It takes hold of me and won’t let go until it gets on the page. That “truth” isn’t necessarily a conscious thing, and it’s not the starting point for me. I don’t think, “I want to write about conformity,” but I might find myself wanting to tell a story about a woman who discovers she got married because she thought she was supposed to, and thus finds herself too afraid to leave her marriage because of what other people might think.
Just about all my novels gravitate toward themes of authenticity and home. Home could be an actual place or a state of mind. I tend to play with authenticity through names. Some of my characters have changed either their first or last names, prefer a nickname to a full name, hate their name, are closely associated with their name, etc.
Additionally, I take “write what you know” to heart. That doesn’t have to be literal advice (although sometimes I use it as such), but some aspect of the story and/or character(s) is relatable or familiar to me, either through an interest, an experience, or a memory. I don’t write autobiographically in terms of basing an entire novel on my life, but I may repurpose a memory or an event to suit a scene in a story. For example, I often talk about how the scene of Andi grocery shopping in Ordinary World was based on my real-life experience on Sept. 11, 2001, in an attempt to do something “normal,” and coming home with those same items. That experience translated well to Andi’s unsuccessful attempts at coping with loss and getting on with life.
5 on Publishing
Your debut novel, Faking It (2009), saw so much success while self-published that you were encouraged to write another novel, and you attribute much of Faking It’s success (on top of the writing/story) to coming in at the right time to “ride the wave of social media.”
“You’ll sell more books by not selling them,” you’ve said. “Use social media to connect with readers and fellow authors, and those groups that share similar interests as yours.… As people get to know you, they’ll want to get to know your books.” I think this can sound easier than it is. It can also sound harder than it is. What’s involved, specifically, in connecting with readers in that way, and what are some common misconceptions about the process?
One point of clarity: the success of Faking It didn’t encourage me to write another novel; I was finishing Ordinary World when I self-published Faking It, and had started Why I Love Singlehood. However, Faking It’s success prompted me to work on a plan to slowly tip the scales so that novel writing would eventually be the primary source of income, and by Fall 2012 I was able to quit teaching indefinitely, not including occasional workshops or one-on-one coaching.
Social media is indeed a balancing act, and I still haven’t found the perfect mix or formula to keep readers/followers connected and engaged on a regular basis. It can be a full-time job on its own, so I do what I can. I don’t post nearly as much or as consistently as I’d like to, and I partly attribute that to my notoriously poor time-management skills. One thing I find helpful with my Facebook author page (and if I could do it over, I would have either created a group page or a personal page under my author name rather than a fan page) is to be consistent with the nature of posts, and I use hashtags:
- #MugshotMonday involves a book, author, or writing-related photo—perhaps one of a reader posing with one of my books, me working on the manuscript in a coffee shop, something connected to an aspect of one of my novels (usually food-related, like pasta or a Junior’s cheesecake), a personal, fun interest (the beach, Pop-Tarts, something from my recent travels, etc.), an appearance at a special event, and so on.
- #TellMeTuesday: I try to engage people in fun topics usually (but not always) either related to a book I’m working on or promoting. For example, while working on Pasta Wars, I invited people to tell me their favorite pasta dishes, comfort foods, drinks, etc. If I don’t start a book-related thread, I’ll offer something seasonal (Tell me your favorite Halloween candy, Thanksgiving dish, Christmas tradition, etc.). Food always seems to be a great connector.
- On #WritingWednesday I focus on something craft-related. A tip on revision, the stage of the process I’m in with the latest work-in-progress (and typically I’m very superstitious about discussing my WIPs, so I never get too specific or reveal titles or character names). I also try to plug my fellow authors on those days, although I’ve been slipping in that department lately. I especially try to kick it up at Christmastime and pair it with #booksmakegreatgifts.
- #ThrowbackThursday is another photo-centric day, and again I try to keep it somehow related to the Elisa Lorello, Author brand. I know that might sound pretentious, calling my name a brand, but being a published author is as much a business as it is a job or a career or even a calling.
- On Fridays I usually just wish people a good weekend, unless something newsworthy happens. I rarely post on the weekends.
I used to be way more involved on Twitter, but I’ve done so much traveling this year that I really haven’t devoted much time to it. Twitter needs to be a give-and-take endeavor. I can’t just tweet and not engage with others, and it’s that part I haven’t had time for—scrolling through the feed, seeing what others have to say, and responding to/conversing with them. Moreover, lately I feel as if I really haven’t had much to say. It kind of bums me out a little because I’ve connected with some great people on Twitter, made a couple of lasting professional contacts, and it’s been an effective promotional outlet in terms of that aforementioned making connections that result in others talking about my books rather than my directly selling them. I do hope to reclaim my Twitter mojo in 2016.
What is your most painful rejection story, and what did it teach you?
I take rejection in publishing much better than I did in relationships or jobs. Go figure. I attribute the way I learned to handle rejection in publishing from having grown up with professional musicians. One incident in particular stands out. Back in the mid-eighties, my eldest brother sent a demo of songs (co-written and recorded with another brother) to one of his musical idols, a renowned musician/songwriter/producer, in the hope that this artist would produce an album, leading to a recording contract for/with both brothers. The artist sent a handwritten letter in response praising the demo and asking for more songs. My brother followed up and delivered another demo, and thus received a second letter, this one telling my brothers that they were more than capable of producing themselves.
That final response was equal parts validating and heartbreaking—the praise validated my brothers’ talent, but the rejection left them back at square one.
My eldest brother continued to work as a session musician, songwriter, producer, and audio engineer, and he is credited on records that have gone gold and platinum. And although he never attained the stardom or the level of wealth or success as other artists, he has been able to make a living and is a master of his craft. Today success looks and means something very different to him than it did thirty years ago.
Rejection is a part of the writing and publishing process. Dare I say, it’s business. I’ve received rejection in the form of literary agents and editors turning down manuscripts, one-star reviews, and disappointing sales, some more stinging than others. It’s not that the rejections I’ve had completely rolled off my shoulders and didn’t affect me at all; it’s just that I never let any rejection limit or define me. I assessed each one, learned what I could from it, and planned my next course of action. Witnessing my brother’s experience taught me that. It also taught me to keep my focus on the work and the craft. The talent was there. The work was good. Keep making it better. Make good contacts. Keep doing what you do, and do it well. Persevere. Make a plan. Define success on your own terms. It’s okay to shape that definition as you go along.
You didn’t bother with queries for your second book, Ordinary World, but went straight to self-publishing. How did Lake Union happen?
At the time I finished Ordinary World (the sequel to Faking It), I had decided not to query literary agents for it because I didn’t know how to query about a sequel to a book that hadn’t yet seen any success. By then (2009), I had self-published the print edition for Faking It and sold approximately fifty copies in six months.
During the summer of 2009, I followed the lead of a friend who had uploaded his books to Kindle, charged 99 cents, and watched them go like hotcakes. I published Faking It to Kindle in June, and Ordinary World in October. Ordinary World sold fifty copies in the first month, a major accomplishment at the time. The numbers kept going up. That Christmas, a Kindle was the hot gift of the season. People had these elaborate devices but no money to spend on ebooks, so they sought out good-but-cheap books. After doing a Google search months after the fact, I discovered that Faking It had topped many lists of recommendations for the good-but-cheap category. A snowball effect happened, and by the end of January, Faking It had catapulted to number six on the Kindle Bestseller List (although at the time, Amazon didn’t distinguish free books from paid books, so the first five books ahead of mine were free). Ordinary World was in the top twenty-five. Both books collectively sold something like 16,000 copies in mere days. It was mind-boggling and massively exciting.
I have a knack for identifying something I desire or want to achieve, visualizing my attaining it, and then setting out to acquire or achieve it. Sometimes it doesn’t come in the form I originally expected or intended or imagined it, or in the time frame, but I’ve never been disappointed.
By June 2010, I’d raised the price of both ebooks to $2.99, and even though my sales totals had dropped, I was remaining steady in terms of royalties. AmazonEncore, Amazon Publishing’s first imprint, contacted me. My now-retired editor, Terry Goodman, praised Faking It and said they wanted to acquire it. Around that same time, an imprint of Simon & Schuster had also contacted me. Again, my mind was just completely blown. The novel I had once doubted would appeal to anyone other than rhetorical geeks who liked When Harry Met Sally was in demand by publishers! And they came to me! No queries or pitches or proverbial knocks on the door. It was a dream come true. But it was also the result of all the work and investment I’d put into getting my book published and into the hands of readers. That was validating.
However, it didn’t take long to see that AmazonEncore not only expressed genuine interest, but also was moving in a direction that was more innovative and aggressive than traditional publishers. I used to call AmazonEncore “the reverse Wizard of Oz”—rather than the powerhouse being up front and the little guy behind the curtain, AE had functioned like a small press with the mighty Amazon powerhouse behind them. They wanted to keep the focus on ebooks, but also give the author as much attention as possible. They also wanted to keep the prices of my ebooks low, whereas the traditional publishers were still insistent on pricing ebooks between ten and fifteen dollars. I found those things rather appealing. I thought the AE model was the perfect blend of self- and traditional publishing. Meanwhile, the people at the Simon & Schuster imprint were slow to return calls, vague in their plans for my book, and overall unenthusiastic. Whereas AE wanted to work with me, S&S seemed only to want to acquire me.
Since then, Amazon Publishing has grown and expanded its imprints, and I was transferred to Lake Union Publishing, where I continued to work with Terry until his retirement, and other terrific editors. My experience with the entire Lake Union team has been positive, and I hope to continue working with them. Signing with a publisher definitely made my ego feel good in terms of status, and it does come with some perks that self-publishing doesn’t give you. On the other hand, I am very proud of my self-publishing roots, and it remains a viable option. Self-publishing teaches you the ins and outs of the business from every angle, and that was invaluable to me. Plus it gives you a level of control that you won’t have with traditional publishing.
Up until recently, I didn’t believe I needed a literary agent when I’d had such a good working relationship with Lake Union and felt confident my lawyer was taking good care of me. Occasionally I looked into someone to represent me for film/television acquisition, but those interests fizzled. However, this past summer I was introduced to a literary agent rather kismetly (is that a word?), and after a several face-to-face and phone meetings with her, I decided that I’ve reached a point in my career where a literary agent would be quite helpful. It’s already been a great relationship, and I’m so excited about the stuff that is coming down the pike as the result of our collaboration.
Some of the most emphatic advice any writer receives prior to self-publishing, and now even prior to querying agents, is to hire (or otherwise secure) an editor. When you were self-publishing, you edited your own novels. When can a writer reasonably trust her- or himself to be both writer and editor?
When it comes to editing one’s own work, my advice is: “Do as I say, not as I did.” In other words, don’t edit your own novel! I think if a writer also makes a living as a professional editor, then perhaps s/he can trust her/himself to self-edit. But I think even professional editors would hand over their manuscripts to a trusted fellow editor.
When I first self-published, there was so much I didn’t know, and I learned as I went. A lot of things I did then I could and would never get away with now, nor would I want to. I had little to no budget and believed I was good enough to self-edit. How wrong I was. I have an above-average grasp of grammar and mechanics, but I’m not a grammarian. I learned that when I saw the copyedited corrections on Faking It prior to its re-release. I had also insisted on breaking some grammar rules that I had thought were clever in style, but a good editor knows which rules to break and how to do them successfully. I think a good writer knows, too. I got better at it as I learned from my editors. For example, before Why I Love Singlehood was published, I rushed the proofreading and stubbornly overrode the editors’ suggestions on a few things. I regret it constantly and wish we could give it one more sweep from an editor.
What lessons have you learned in your experiences with self- and traditional publishing that have had the greatest impact?
One is to act with professionalism and integrity. I’ve seen authors implode on social media by responding defensively to negative reviews, making unrealistic demands on agents or editors, blaming bookstore owners for poor event turnouts, and just behaving badly in general. Early on, when I was querying literary agents, one expressed interest and invited me to follow up. Thus, I followed up. And followed up. And followed up. My go-getter spirit worked against me, and, as a result, shredded any hope of working with this particular agent. It was a valuable lesson: Following up with a professional reminder that the agent invited you to do so is okay, but making a pest of yourself is not. If the agent has moved on, then you must too.
When self-publishing, you must hold yourself to the highest standards. A reader or bookseller shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a self-published book and a traditionally published book. The editing and interior/exterior design must be top of the line, and the story must be well told. Also, telling a good story and honing your craft must always come first. When aspiring authors ask me to assist them with publishing options before they’ve finished their manuscript, I politely tell them to finish it, make it publish-ready, and then contact me.
Finally, one needs to be able to release all attachments to a book’s performance. There’s always an X-factor as to why some books sell and others don’t. Of course, it’s always disappointing when a book that showed promise doesn’t perform the way you’d hoped. But I take a cue from President Bartlet (The West Wing) and say, “What’s next?” I have to move on. No matter what, I want to walk away from any publishing experience knowing I wrote a novel I was proud of and that I did the best I could to bring it to readers.
Thank you, Elisa.