Friday, June 29, 2007

Making A Literary Life Friday: Our Debut

Tuesday night, to an encouraging audience of fellow writers, The Writers' Group made its debut. Amy, Lisa, Lynne and Hannah (pictured at right) shared how the group works and the various ways we support each other as we live our unique literary lives.

Determination. That best defines the theme of our presentation as a writers'group. We have been determined to have ground rules as a writers'group, to meet expectations for quantity and quality of our work, to offer support to each other unconditionally. I left our talk Tuesday feeling more determined than ever myself. To write, to publish, to live a literary life.

Forget designer shoes, good food, vacations in paradise (okay, I would like to go to Rome), what I find most tempting is a debut. This week I bought Book Sense's #1 pick for June, The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani. I've been looking forward to this book for months and now it's mine. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee is next on my list (she'll be at Buttonwood Books in July, call for reservations). The reviews have been stunning for both novels. And lastly, the lovely and oh-so-talented debut author Hank Phillippi Ryan not only made it to the Boston Globe's Bestseller List with her debut Prime Time just 12 days after its release, but Publishers Marketplace just reported another two-book deal for Hank. Congratulations! And thanks to "Five" -- and everyone else -- for coming out to Grub Street South. "Five" trekked all the way from Boston, and brought me a book to boot. How kind!

I continue with Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me with Apples, which is a great read, summer or otherwise, for those who love food, anecdotes about soul and destiny, and glimpses into the upper strata of the restaurant world. For anyone who missed Shauna Roberts' comment this week on the subject of how to know when you are in the right writers' group and what to do if you're not, check out her sister posting at

This week I started reading the wonderful novel, My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman. She is genius when it comes to craft, especially humor and characterization. Reviewers call her novel, Austen-like in style. I had a delightful conversation with friend of our blog, Judy Merrill Larsen. We shared our literary journeys, along with all we've learned so far. Check out her blog, there you'll learn a lot about the art and science of writing. Do read her book, All the Numbers, its a great read; and remember she's available to join your book group.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Literary Lingo

Posted by Lynne

If you ask for feedback on your writing from your mother, sister or friend and you get, "It was wonderful" or "I didn't understand why your character did that," that's not difficult to interpret. If you turn to an English teacher and she says she loves how you used internal parallelism, you might have to go look that up in a dictionary of literary terms. But where do you turn when you need to understand the critique you get from an agent, editor, or reviewer?

In today's post, I'm going to take a shot at defining the latest industry buzz words, words that are nothing if not vague, often leaving a writer left scratching her head. Here's my attempt to clarify.

Literary: Literary fiction is characterized, by most, as more character-driven than plot-driven fiction. Some say it's more about the writing than the story. Others say it has a stronger social-emotional message. From a market standpoint, it's harder to sell, but gets reviewed more often.

Commercial: Commercial fiction is more often plot-driven fiction. Often it has a faster pace, a stronger hook and sells more than literary fiction.

Genre: Genre fiction is commercial fiction that fits into specific categories such as romance, mystery and science fiction, to name a few.

Upmarket: Upmarket fiction, defined by my agent, is work that bridges literary and commercial fiction. Publishers like upmarket work because novels tend to do well when they contain the best of both genres. For more on the difference between upmarket and downmarket, visit our old friend Miss Snark. She has an old post that illustrates the difference between the two, including examples.

Downmarket: Downmarket fiction usually refers to genre fiction. This is fiction with a solid fan base that tends to sell well to specific audiences.

High concept: High concept fiction is generally work with a solid hook. Agents and editors like high concept work because it's easier to sell a novel when the book can be described in a phrase or sentence.

Organic: Organic fiction (or characters) is a literary term used to describe writing that is authentic, not contrived. An organic character might also be referred to as pitch perfect, the character rings true.

Voicey: A voicey piece is writing that is voice-driven. A wonderful example of a voice-driven novel is Catcher in the Rye. Reading it, you can hear Holden talking to you, his tone, his demeanor.

Quiet: When a work is referred to as quiet, it means it's more literary than commercial, and often judged for not having a lot going on from a plot perspective. In today's marketplace, a quiet novel is harder to sell.

Compelling delivery: You are a good writer if anyone says you're novel has been delivered in a compelling way. This is a term that refers to the craft of writing.

Low impact: This term means the agent or editor wasn't left with that loving feeling. The reader must be moved by the characters, the story and of course the overall writing.

Doesn’t distinguish itself: This is a marketplace term that refers to a concern that the work isn't unique enough to stand out among the thousands of books that are published each year. These days, a novel that doesn't distinguish itself--even if the writing is gorgeous--doesn't tend to do well with readers.

No legs: This funny little phrase means much the same as "doesn't distinguish itself." The agent or editor believes it won't stand out among the competition.

Didn’t sing: First a novel must stand up and then it must sing? Yes, you must aim to wow your readers. It's a tall order for a novel, but agents, editors and reviewers know readers are first and foremost consumers. Word of mouth sales come when a novel sings.

Not fresh: Again, this means the novel doesn't bring anything new to the shelf. Readers want fresh.

If you've ever heard any of these terms from your agent or seen them written in a rejection letter, you're likely left to wonder what to do with your feedback. Sometimes an agent or editor will use these terms and it's a compliment, (Compelling delivery). Sometimes they're simply stating a fact, (Your novel is upmarket). Other times the feedback is a criticism and you'll have to mull it over and decide what you'll do with the feedback, though how in the world one sets out to make a novel sing is a mystery.

While you may define these terms differently, (and if you do, please share in the comments section) I hope my definitions help you sort through the myriad of feedback you're receiving. If you have another term you'd like defined, let me know. If I don't know, I'll ask my agent, editor, or the wonderful ladies at The Writers' Group to help me define it for you.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The List

By Hannah

Last night The Writers' Group shared how we met, how we work, Amy’s Fabulous Query Letter Format and other thoughts with a wonderful group of writers at Buttonwood Books. A huge thank you to those who came out, shared experiences and asked questions.

One part of the exchange stood out for me. We were talking about why this group works well: we trust each other; we learn from each other; edits are suggested only to make the work better; each one’s success is joyous news for all. The natural question arose: what would any of the four of us do if in a group without a chemistry quotient?

Quit. Quit. Quit. Quit.

Then bookshop owner Betsey Detwiler asked for suggestions on what a writer should do if in a group that is not working. As we offered thoughts on meeting formats and deadlines, Amy added, "make a list of what you want."

It sounds so simple. Just write it out? Yes. If you name your goals and the qualities you seek in black and white, you envision details more clearly. You know what to look for, the ideal, where you are willing to be flexible; where you are not.

Where to start? You want partners in the evolution of craft. You want support and understanding from others who know that writing is work, and the business end of it is, well, business. You want people who care enough about you to be honest and to pinpoint strengths and weaknesses so the work will be stronger. You want people who are determined to hold their own published work some day. You want to enjoy your time with them.

Those are non-negotiables. Better no group than a group that does not help you evolve and give you a place of trust. It is doable without a group, of course. Write. Read, both fiction and about craft. Take classes from authors you respect. Find out what you don't know and learn it. Do research. Go to conferences and surround yourself with peers. Before you know it, you may find a partner in crime.

Even if you are in a group, make your list. What is critical for you? What are bonus qualities? Treasure the elements you have. Be your own "group" if you don't have one. Name what you need. If you list it, they will come.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Writer's Garden

By Amy

Isn't it magnificent? It's an Asiatic lily. I discovered them two years ago when I started my flower garden in this new home of ours. I didn't think I could grow that single blossom in my humble garden, I wasn't even sure if it was a perennial or annual. It simply captivated me. It was beyond my ability as a gardener, I thought, but over two years it's thrived and spread, my ambitions exceeding my skills with stunning results.

From the first day we looked at the house, I saw a cacophony of flowers where only grass grew. The landscape was bereft of color, of passion and life. So I tilled the earth, shoveled in yard after yard of loam, planted seeds and adolescent plants, scattered fertilizer, and, of course, watered daily. Watering was a grind; I didn't always feel like doing it, but it was necessary to go to the hose each day, even in the beginning when I wasn't certain anything would grow.

There were mistakes along the way. Sometimes I placed a flower that preferred partial shade in full sun. They died, it was hard to let them go. Other times, events beyond my control -- a caterpillar infestation last summer -- nearly destroyed everything I'd worked so hard to create. I had to pluck them one-by-one from each petal and spathe, every leaf of my Weeping cherry. It was laborious to be sure, but such attention to detail saved my garden. Still I weed each day, pulling out both the plants no gardener wants (grass) and some of my own flowers I didn't notice had infiltrated nearly the entire length of the garden. Ah, the hardy B-bomb.

And there were surprises, starting with the mulleins that appeared out of nowhere. I first noticed the downy leaves running along a section of border, scattered in the rugged lawn rather than the relative ease of churned soil. I trusted my instincts and invited them into my garden, not sure how they would blossom. My, they're beautiful. The astor and variety of lavender I'm not familiar with have found their way there, too. A burst of willful surprises. Or serendipity.

By now you probably understand where this is going. My garden, something that was conceived first in my imagination and then committed to reality through uncertain labor, constant tending, with pitfalls and glorious surprises along the way is much like my book. When I first started writing it, my ambition outweighed my skill tenfold. I sat down each day and wrote, never certain the words would come. I made mistakes, characters whose POV died. How I mourned them. The events beyond my control were all the nuisances of reality that infiltrated my writing life, or nuisances I created on the page that simply killed the narrative. Oh and the weeds, the commas and words we use far too frequently; mine is moment. I'm still weeding those. The surprises were plentiful, not the least of which were the flowers. Perhaps someday you'll understand what I mean by the flowers.

I don't know yet if I've succeeded with my literary garden. What I do know is that I've enjoyed every shovel full of dirt, every grub and every bud, even the daily grind of sitting here when I didn't necessarily feel like it.

When I look now at that Asiatic lily, I can't quite believe I had the daring to try to grow something magnificent. But I did, and I do. My hope now is that it has a chance to fully blossom.

Literary Happenings: If you live in or near the South Shore of Massachusetts, please come by Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books tonight at 7:00 pm. The Writers' Group is hosting a workshop on finding members that work for you.

Monday, June 25, 2007


Posted by Lisa

Claire Cook, author of bestselling novel Must Love Dogs, had plenty of inspiring thoughts to share with the packed room at the Public Library in Duxbury, Massachusetts last Wednesday. Not the least of which was a belief she shared three times in the course of the evening. She said, "If writing a novel were easy, then everyone would do it."

I know writing a book is a challenge. I've completed one novel which is on submission with editors as we speak (feel welcome to cross your fingers for me and do an editor dance, too). I've completed a second draft of another. A good friend and wonderfully inspiring woman in my writer's group once said upon reflection: "Writing a novel is hard work, who knew?"

The writing is hard. But now I know the waiting is worse. For agents, for editors. It forces me to dig deeper than I ever did when searching for a better word, or thinking a character through further.

My writers' group helps me improve my writing skill; I wouldn't be the writer I am becoming without them. But now I know their support and encouragement is huge at this point in the process of becoming a published author.

I am not a quitter, but I wonder at times if I would have the courage to push forth without their support. When I have had setbacks, and I've fallen to the ground, Amy, Hannah, and Lynne have picked me up. They seem to have a magical ability to find kind and thoughtful words to help me on my way. They get me to take a few deep breaths. They brush the dirt off my knees and guide me on my path again.

Tomorrow my writers' group and I will be speaking at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, MA. I hope we will help others to find their way into a writers' group that works, that we will help others learn how to make it work. So they, too, will have someone to pick them up when they trip. Because in this business you can't help but fall hard from time to time.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Making A Literary Life Friday: Origins

A lot of thinking this week about where we've been and where we come from, maybe grounding ourselves for the next push forward -- with submissions, revisions, new projects. Maybe it is not merely coincidence that yesterday was the first day of summer; all the seeds have been planted and now it is time for good things to grow!

How is it the woman working in the children's section at Barnes & Noble knew how to help me with my next project. I was asking her about the Magic Treehouse series for my son. After she gave me some advice on that, she led me to a new paperback non-fiction for kids. Coincidence that this subject area has been haunting me? Or a sign? I'll take it as a sign - I bought the book.

Today, to celebrate my children's report cards, I'm taking them to Buttonwood Books so they may each choose a favorite book as a reward. Isn't that exciting, the prospect of walking into a bookstore and taking home any book you want? While I'm there, I'll get one for myself. Any suggestions?

I've been reading Ruth Reichl, and what struck me most about the first chapter of her memoir was her conviction that she found her calling. Her editor said, "You are a natural to be a food critic; I am giving you the job." Ruth announced the news to her artist husband, her commune housemates, and her traditional parents; everyone was dismayed. For the first time, she was faced with universal disapproval, and for the first time, despite her long, proud history as a people-pleaser, she went against the expectations of everyone around her. She found her calling, and she knew it. To perseverance!

I have the same last day of school ritual with my children that Amy does. This year Caitlin chose Suite Francaise and Stephen chose Lord of the Flies. I picked up Elinor Lipman's, My Latest Grievance . Each summer, each member of the family establishes a reading goal. We include books we've been dying to read and a few classics. One night a week we discuss books over dinner. On Labor Day weekend, we have a marathon book discussion about our favorites, the ones that moved us most, and the ones we'd most recommend. The Griffin summer reading challenge is on!

Literary Happenings: The Writers' Group will be hosting a workshop at Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books this Tuesday, June 26 at 7:00 pm. We'd love it if you came out to fill the seats and say hello.

Need a laugh? This is hilarious, so click here and be sure to vote for Tish!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Seconds Anyone?

Posted by Lynne

I know my protagonist's name, her job and her immutable truth. I know what her son looks like; I know his struggle and how he moves the plot forward. Yet there is so much more I need to know. Most importantly, I know it won't help to rush it. It will come in it's own time, in it's own way.

The second novel. Certainly, it will be compared to the first by you, your friends and family, and of course readers and reviewers, but that won't change how you care for it.

I'm beginning to gestate my second novel. I've done some reading about time periods I plan to use, several characters' occupations, and my chosen setting. This upfront reading is fun, and it will inform my writing once I get enmeshed in it. I don't think I'll plot my novel until I get toward the middle, I like the nebulous beginning, where characters evolve and story lines surprise me. Though I'm open to seeing how things develop this time around, since I expect writing my second novel will be a completely unique experience.

Like having a second child.

When I became pregnant with my second child, I was over the moon. I'd always wanted two children and felt since I knew what I was about to experience having gone through it before, I would savor every blessed minute of it. I even bought a book called, Your Second Child by Joan Solomon Weiss.

I wasn't content with our hand-me-down crib, I marched right over to Boston Baby and bought the white cradle and companion rocking chair I was hesitant to purchase on my first go around. The setting my baby was born into needed the perfect details.

At the first ultrasound, we asked the sex of our baby. I loved knowing we were having our boy. I got a jump start on naming this character of mine; each kick and pregnancy symptom helped me to bond with him.

Going through the experience a second time, had its pluses and minuses. On the bright side, I knew the early exhaustion would give way to renewed energy in the middle and complete joy at the end; each twinge, each pain would pass, with time. No need for anxious calls to others who'd already gone through it. I knew what to expect. On the darker side, I knew carrying this child was in some ways the easy part. Like his sister before him, he would have to come into the light and endure the fickle aspects of living in the world. A world where he wouldn't always be protected by me.

If you have more than one child--or more than one book--you know no two are alike. This is as it should be. I don't want to have two identical children, nor do I want to write the same book. I want the process to have a life of its own. I know I have enough love in me for both.

As I begin to develop the life of my second novel, I'm open to how the process might be different. I'd love to hear from the friends of our blog who are writing their second novels, especially those further along than I am, who have published before.

Tell me, which labor pains are the same? Which different?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Books at the Center

By Hannah

This year's annual First Parish Church Fair coincided with the church’s own anniversary of more than 350 years. It’s a wide, whitewashed, steepled wood-frame New England icon, the front lawn flowing down to the main street, graveyard to the left, low-profiled and white town office buildings to the right, all modestly landscaped.

The bustling center of the Fair is an auction of donated items. A 1920’s mahogany bed rail and headboard set went for $20; a framed print of our town sold for $40. A second tent sells antiques – lace tablecloths, glass decanters – and a third has miscellaneous tag sale items. A small area offers children’s activities for fifty cents: face painting, rock painting, magnetic fishing. The food tent makes a fabulous sausage sandwich with peppers and onions, and there is of course strawberry shortcake and a bake sale. Hundreds of people stand, mill, stride and jostle around the front lawn from nine until three. Cars line the streets in every direction.

My family doesn't need more coffee mugs or lamps, we don’t like the crush of people, and we stand around the food tent for far too long, so as a rule, I usually avoid the Fair. This year we promised my in-laws, who manage said food tent (and enjoyed record sales this year!) we would go. There we were, standing with our plates, when a friend passed.

She said she brings her children to the Fair specifically for the books; it's a family tradition. Books? Nobody ever mentioned books; I never saw any before. A small hand-lettered sign pointed us around back to the entrance of the church hall, to tables and tables of books. One quarter, two quarters, maybe a dollar each for the really big ones. The room was full of people, a crowd with which we happily jostled.

I bought John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, and Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples. My children bought a joke book, So You Want to Be an Inventor, and My Side of the Mountain. How did we not own that one already? Even when you are someone who appreciates the importance of list price, a bag full of books ready to be loved is a beautiful thing. It is addictive, not just for oneself, but to those around you. The more we read, the more we want to read, whether or not we are writers.

How to center a life on books? Write, even if you are not a writer, in letters, in a journal. Buy books – and gift certificates for others – at the local, independent book store. Listen to an author, live, at the library, bookstore, or auditorium. Get to the library just once, no matter how crazy your life, because you have to go back to make those returns and it jumpstarts a happy cycle. Bring a book or notebook when you have to wait. Ask, everywhere, where the books are kept; don't assume there aren't any, or not think to ask at all. They are out there, as are the readers. How many more new traditions and memories can I center around books? There must be hundreds of small ways, and I want suggestions!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Write, Listen, Buy, Read

By Amy

I was speaking with a bookseller yesterday about the state of fiction. She's not terribly hopeful.

A well-known author, a great storyteller who made his name selling memoir, recently published his first novel. By all accounts it's good, but the bookseller who had standing-room-only events for the author when he toured to promote his non-fiction, is having trouble generating the same kind of interest for the man's novel.

An author I know has written an extraordinary novel, painstakingly researched, each word consciously chosen to suit the whole body of work. It's a near perfect book in the tradition of Memoirs of a Geisha. Yet I haven't seen this novel on a single bestseller list.

The writing business is littered with a thousand clever ways to rip your heart from your chest -- none more so than the sense of freefall after your book has been published to a deafening silence. Imagine? Finally finishing a decent draft of that novel you've been working on for three years; getting an agent who actually likes your book and returns your phone calls; oh, sunny day, an editor wants to give you money (sure, it's not much, it works out to a pennies an hour, but still) to publish your book; and then...nothing. Your first print run is 10,000 and stores are not clamoring for more. Only a few hardy souls show up for your reading because the weather is snowy/rainy/sunny and the local papers ended up killing the review/profile/announcement because they needed space to run the next Paris Hilton rehab rehash.

Oh dear God.

So the next time an author comes to your local bookstore, clutching her heart in her hands wanting to share it with you, take a moment from your busy schedule to sit and listen. If you're too broke to buy a book (writers, this is a tax write-off; check with your CPA), know that your mere presence is comfort enough. But try to budget at least 5 newly published books into each year.

Writers need to support other writers. Go to readings, buy books, buzz the good ones to friends, join your local literary organization, volunteer there. I promise, it will all come back to you tenfold.

Inspire hope. Booksellers and other writers are counting on you.

Monday, June 18, 2007

My Safety Net?

Posted by Lisa

I'm naive. A safety net is open beneath me - sometimes I truly believe that. I know it was there when I learned to stand. Of course, I don't remember teetering with my mother's hands poised an inch on either side of me. Must I remember details to know exactly how it happened?

I was seven when I learned to ride a bike without training wheels. My hair was loose - half an hour earlier I had pulled out the pompom hair bands my grandmother had painstakingly fixed onto my ponytails. It was my father, this time, who guarded me, running alongside my bicycle as I mastered my balance, until could make it the full way along the sidewalk - all the way to the Kosta's split level on the corner - and back.

Much of the time my world is a setting where characters are predictable - and safe. Husbands pour tea for their wives. Children are safe, tucked in at night in a world without tsunamis or earthquakes; no bombs explode at midnight. Even dogs live to a ripe old age, dying in their sleep, with dignity.

But sometimes, my world isn't, exactly, safe.

In my work as an occupational therapist I see parents face a child's disability and wonder why. That question haunts me long after I meet with them. Days after I work with a little girl with autism, her bright eyes are still fresh in my mind - how can her eyes be so blue?

I have never been drawn to more serious fiction. "Heavy" subjects terrify me. I've been reading Scott Heim's Mysterious Skin. It's brilliant and beautifully written. I am partway through it. As a writer, Scott makes me care about his characters. Care so so much. Only eight years old, Brian, the main character, is too like small boys I have known. You know the boys, the ones who needs baths at the end of every summer day since dirt is a second skin that coats them. The ones who toss a couple of Webkinz in the backseat of their Subarus, as their mothers check the seatbelt is tight over their carseats. Each night at their household, there are rules about eating vegetables and brushing teeth.

This is my reality. But it is not reality. Too many boys live a life, like Brian, where bad things happen to innocent small people.

I'm naive, but I'm not blind; my safety net could unravel. Perhaps a strong wind could send it flying, a tumbleweed across a Kansas plain. That security I feel each day is false. There is no safety net. I know that.

From a writing perspective, I love that Mysterious Skin is told from a first person point of view. In the spirit of the number one writing rule, show don't tell, Scott Heim, has taught me the effect the choice POV has on a work of fiction. The lesson? First person point of view brings you in, pulls you tight into a caring that takes firm hold before you knowingly allowed it to happen.

Writing is facing a subconcious haunting that has taken hold and has forced you to think. Reading is caring about characters, oftentimes in circumstances I can barely imagine. I don't liker darker fiction, but I do like falling in love with a child, a grandparent, a teenager who lives a life I can't imagine. Maybe reading about circumctances I can barely fathom will help me to see the real world, not block out issues that frighten me, but face them, address and deal with them, even.


Friday, June 15, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Out & About

If you're a writer, make sure to frequent your local independently-owned bookstore where you're sure to find all kinds of exciting happenings. Our very own Buttonwood Books in Cohasset hosts many authors who write in a variety of genres. Here's Amy at a recent event where Hank Phillippi Ryan read from her mystery Prime Time, Claire Cook (author of the international bestseller Must Love Dogs) read from her latest commercial fiction Life's a Beach, and memoirist David Gessner read a passage of Soaring with Fidel.

Chocolate and strawberries and almond pear torte, laughter, reflections, and suggestions, dinner with writers Scott Heim and Michael Lowenthal was lovely. Scott spent his childhood in Kansas, in a rural town, or barely a town is how he described it, I think. Michael grew up in DC though he dreamed one day of living in Boston, a magical place he visited as a child. Thank you, both, for sharing your stories, struggles, and approaches to task within this world of writing. We so enjoyed reading your work and loved spending time with you.

Thanks to all of you who sent along your best wishes and included my family in your prayers. I never expected to be so utterly touched by this online community of ours; it's comforting to have each of you there. And thanks to Lynne for hosting Michael Lowenthal and Scott Heim, and for the two of them for dropping in on our Writers' Group. Each are extraordinarily gifted writers, the kind Francise Prose wants you to read like a writer. Michael's Charity Girl (Houghton Mifflin 2007) is so perfectly crafted, so painstakingly plotted, you'll need to read it twice: once for pure pleasure, a second time to wonder at his precision. Though Scott's third book, We Disappear (Harper 2008) is due out in January, I urge you to start with his debut Mysterious Skin. On the first read, be prepared to have your heart ripped from your chest. On the second, pay attention to his craft. The words, pace, and beauty of it all is an important lesson for all writers.


Dinner with Scott and Michael was wonderful. In addition to being hugely talented, they are funny, wise, relaxed and gracious; we talked about the revision process, the mystery of titles, high school reading lists and the ever-shifting landscape of agents and publishers, plus listened to stories from the book tour road, what comes next. Definitely keep your eyes open for We Disappear; it will be hard to put down even on re-reads! An evening like that helps refill that precious jar of energy several times over. A thousand thank you's to them for making the trip, and to Lynne and her entire lovely family for hosting us!

This has been an exciting week for connecting with other writers. My husband and I went to Hank Phillippi Ryan’s book launch party in Boston and then last night Michael Lowenthal and Scott Heim joined us for writers’ group. The discussion was so thoughtful and insightful, I'll be reenergized for weeks, I'm sure. I have a writing weekend planned and I can’t wait to hit the keys.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Truth and Revision

Posted by Lynne

He is cliches of beauty. Tall, dark and handsome. My soulmate; he understands me or least he's always willing to try. But those are not the reasons I adore my husband. It's because I can count on him to always tell the truth. In the beginning his truthfulness was applied to skirts that accentuated post-pregnancy hips. Or first attempts at complicated recipes gone wrong. Now he tells it like it is about my writing.

I would be blessed beyond measure if I only had Tom's honesty when it comes to my work, but I'm fortunate enough to have a cadre of trusted readers. Amy, Lisa and Hannah are the most generous--and forthright--writers I know. No sugar coating, no gratuitous compliments, though no critique for the sake of boosting their own egos, either. For them, it's all about making the work better, encouraging each of us to grow as a writer.

Along with Tom, Amy, Lisa and Hannah, I have another special reader, let's call her E.

Back in January, thrilled I'd been capable of polishing a first draft of my novel, I sent it off to E. I was naively hopeful. Her first words to me after reading it were, "You asked me to be honest, so I am going to be. It isn't there yet."

Yes, I'd asked for honesty. I honestly wanted you to love it, I thought. What in goodness name do I do with, it isn't there yet. Couldn't this person I trusted tell me where it was supposed to go; I would willingly take it there if only I knew. She gave minimal suggestions, some that felt true to the story, some that did not. With the support of my other trusted readers--chiefly Tom and my writers' group--I shouldered the blow, and got to the job of revising.

I submerged myself in classes, books on revision, and the chair I sit in to write. I'd often ask Tom if he was okay with me, going to that place. If you're a writer, you know the one I'm talking about. The place where you're connected to people you adore who don't exist, to places you love but can't touch. Whether I spent an hour there or twelve, Tom kept saying, "I believe you have to tell this story."

I'd love to end this post by telling you my revisions are complete and my manuscript will be published. The news I received this week was good, but not that good. The truth is I finished a third draft and sent it to my trusted reader E. Her first words to me this time were, "Revision is a wonderful thing." She said my story has come alive.

Her earlier honesty was hard to hear, though truly her words were a gift. My story wouldn't be the story it is now if she hadn't had the courage to tell me the truth. I wouldn't have pushed the story, or myself.

Like a ball of yarn, truth and revision are intertwined. Pull at the knot with honesty, free the tangle with revision, only to come upon a new knot. Anyone who's tackled it knows, it's by no means an easy thing to do--you need the truth to do it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fables of Determination and Love

By Hannah

Moments in a day are ours to interpret. Every one of us writes his or her own story.

A baby bird fell from its nest in our backyard while my husband and children played catch. My son watched it flutter-fall to the other side of our split-rail fence. The children wanted to pick it up, put it back in the nest; my husband explained that to touch it would mean the mother likely would no longer care for it. So we watched, worried about hawks from a stand of oaks across the street. The mother bird flew to a low-hanging branch, chattering at her wayward offspring. The baby bird hopped on the lawn, then in a burst, flew a brief arc toward her; he came so close. After encouraging him for several minutes, the mama drew him toward a large bush in our neighbor’s yard under which he would be safe. We waited, but they stayed quiet.

My children walked away talking of how the baby bird would soon fly, maybe within the hour. He came so close, surely with a few more attempts, he would make it to a low branch, then a middle branch, then home. He would try again, the mother would be there, he would make it.

My husband walked away with a meaningful look at me. The baby is too young. Will the mother be able to protect it and still guard any others in her nest? A lesson in Nature, her whims, that what happens is a practical matter.

I believe in my heart the baby was close to being able to fly. I hope that with some measure of determination within himself and with encouragement, he made it back.

For my children, this was an animal fable about determination and love. For my husband, a lesson postponed in the facts of nature. My first thought was of a parenting analogy, then an analogy for anyone with a dream.

Every person sees stories in the everyday world. Most people do share stories, chatting with a friend, keeping a journal. Why do writers go a step -- hundreds of steps -- beyond? Why are we compelled to take the time and energy to distill a moment's essence and recapture it within a perfect framework? Maybe it is our attempt to look beyond what is known and safe and expected. We want to experience what comes next, to see things from a new perspective, and carry it back in such a way that others can see, too.

Maybe we, as storytellers, are more acutely aware that each of us experiences our own fables of determination and love, that the facts of nature are indeed simultaneously cruel and beautiful, that we all have to leave the nest and help others to do it, as well. Maybe we are the among the lucky ones who get to show others that you cannot really live life until you are not afraid to fly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Second Stall to the Right

By Amy

I go to the bathroom to cry, second stall to the right.

My mother had a “significant stroke” six days ago and all of my waking time has been spent with her at the hospital. The first three days, she lay mostly unconscious, her right side seized by a continuous spasm that left her blankets askew and IV lines vulnerable. One of the doctors said it was to compensate for the paralysis on the left. I’m not sure which doctor, though, there’ve been so many. When she did finally open her eyes, it was reassuring by degrees. Since then, she often doesn’t know where she is or even what stage of her life she’s living – childhood, young motherhood, a random tea party where she pours – other moments are bittersweet pockets of lucidity. To have her again, for only a few moments or even hours will have to do. When she’s aware, I want to burrow myself under her mound of blankets, have her tell me this too shall pass, but that’s my job now -- that and believing she will recover. I have to believe for my father, too, he needs that. Her team of doctors can’t say how much she’ll improve, but most are hopeful.

My father and I arrive early and leave late, meet with doctors on their early morning rounds, check her vitals with the night nurse, call the neighbors and family members throughout the day, reassure my brothers she’s making progress, no matter how small, remind them it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s killing them. I wait until my mother’s safely asleep before nudging my Dad to the cafeteria for a hot meal. He hates to leave her side. He’s relying on me now to help him navigate this uncharted course. It’s a terrible thing for a father to depend so much on his little girl, I know this. So I don’t let him see me cry.

A friend called me last night and asked what I was doing to help myself. I know someone you can talk to, she said. She is a lovely friend, one of the first people I called. But she knows I don’t talk, not to therapists anyway. Instead, what has seen me through this period has been writing this essay.

The first line came to me in the middle of the night while I sat in a chair watching the rise and fall of my mother’s chest. The rest has come in bits and pieces since. When I finally found the time – this precious time – to write, I flew to my desk. Thoughts of these moments, putting words to page have been my touchstone. I’ve always loved writing and each of you knows by now how important it is to me. But I suppose I didn’t realize that it's my essence; I am a writer. So many of us have wrestled with the notion of calling ourselves writers before publishing something, as if that title can be bestowed only by public acknowledgement. What I’ve learned this past week is that a writer isn’t a title at all, it’s who we are, what moves and sustains us. Writing is what we turn to in crisis, in joy, when we need to make right a world so fatally flawed with wrong. It’s our catharsis and euphoria and the marrow of our core. We are writers.

I don’t expect I’ll have much time to write in the weeks ahead. I’ll probably go days without it. When I can manage, it will help me through.

When I can’t, you can find me in the bathroom, second stall to the right.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Aching, Writing, and Life

Posted by Lisa

Stoic, or trying to be, I held in my tears until they were an ache that threatened to close my throat. I held a smile, closed-lipped, on my face. I told myself to breathe. I left the pre-school classroom where I worked this past year. I closed the door a final time.

This past Friday I said goodbye.

I work with children with autism. I have for years. I am an occupational therapist. Because I am moving, I had to leave my job.

"Why," I asked my husband that evening. "Why can I say goodbye so easily to teachers I work with, close friends I cherish. Yet saying goodbye to a three-year-old girl, a four-year-old boy, makes me feel like a part of me is dying."

The answer to him is simple. "Because they are children." And he's right. This is a snapshot of their lives that will fade in time. Sometime next winter, I can call my friend Holly. We can meet for lunch. My best friend at school, Kim, a fantastic teacher, made me promise to e-mail, and I will.

I write about loss, about emotional struggle. Late evenings, early mornings, I yearn to find the words to describe the way my current protagonist, Rose, feels when she faces her grandfather's physical failings. But do I truly understand Rose's pain? Have I adequately related the horrible emotional lows I make my characters face?

Today I picked up Scott Heim's novel, Mysterious Skin. I hear it is a bold work, beautifully written, with a challenging subject material. How, I wonder, did Scott manage to write this? Did he go to that awful place where his character finds himself?

Each day, I know, is precious. Here today, gone tomorrow. Cliche, but true. In last Friday's blog entry, I questioned what came first for me, the writing or the need to write. Writing, in part, is my way to process that which confuses me, to frame and make sense of the things that confound me, frustrate me, torment me. If writing helps me to make it through my days and to negotiate this world with some semblance of mastery, then I must write. If writing helps me to be calm and centered and focused on understanding myself and, in turn, achieving my own potential as a human being, then I should write.

Now, I am sad. I am empty. I miss my small pre-school friends, each of whom will face challenges as they try to make sense of this world. I have set them free, trusting that others will guide them.

Those children, my innocent friends, have left me with subconcious hauntings that have taken firm hold. Because I must, I will write about them some day. Their names, their faces, their circumstances will change. I will turn them into characters I love deeply. Maybe that will help me make sense of this sadness.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Raising the Bar

A few months back, we in our writers group agreed to raise the expectations we set for each other. Having established trust, we knew we were in a place where honest and very comprehensive feedback would push us to the next level. This decision has movitated each of us to double check our prose, re-think a character's motivation. In short, raise the bar for our own writing.

Passages from favorite writers...I couldn't live without them. Reading a polished paragraph from Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl, or a few words from Jerry Spinelli's Star Girl, is what I need to jumpstart my writing. I need that prose switch to be turned from idle to on.

This Friday, Amy won't be posting herself, but she reminds us about the Debs party at Grub Street Writers this evening (see below).

That one can not only deplete but misplace one's precious jar of energy made total sense to me this week. (Thank you, Lynne!) I noticed yesterday that not only have I been running on fumes of frantic energy, but everyone around me seems to be as well. Somehow that was what I needed to pull back. First things first. Smile at the children. Prepare a good dinner. Curl up in the wide leather chair with one of the many Roald Dahl books that seem to be magnetically attracted to my coffee table from two school libraries and the town library as well. Remember Matilda? Work on the fiction even if it's only for a half hour before Everything Else begins, and sneak in another half hour here, another hour there. I have not slowed, but that mysterious energy source seems more substantial as I repeat these steps. And you?

I raised the bar on revisions to my novel, and even I'm impressed. My characters had sooooo much more to say. My tip of the week is not to close off conversations with them too early in the process. The richness in my story was found when I waited and listened patiently.

Literary Events:
If traffic isn't an issue, then mark your calendars because the Debs are coming to Boston! Friday, June 8th at Grub Street world headquarters we'll toast Jennifer McMahon, Tish Cohen, and Patry Francis while they read from their debut novels. This event will also feature a fun contest: each author will pick one name from a hat, and the winner will receive a free consultation with the author on their query letter and first manuscript page. RSVP: 617.695.0075 or

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Energy Crisis

Posted by Lynne

Parenting takes time, but it also takes plenty of another valuable resource— your energy. In order to be the authority your child needs, you need determination, patience, stamina, resilience and sometimes courage. Parenting takes energy.

Above is an excerpt from Negotiation Generation in which I set the stage for a discussion of what I call the precious jar of energy. Imagine your body contains a special place where the energy you need to parent is stored--picture a precious jar of energy. All day every day, you decide how to use it and how and when to replenish the energy you store in your precious jar.

Whether you're talking about parenting or writing, this precious jar analogy is apropos. And today, not only is mine empty, but I forgot where I left it. I spent the last week engrossed in an intensive edit of my novel, while trying to schedule events for my fall book tour. I started a freelance magazine writing class and I'm preparing to teach a graduate course that starts in three weeks. That's just my work life. On the home front, my son is studying for finals and (insert the sound of me weeping) my daughter graduates from high school this Friday night.

I'm in the midst of an energy crisis.

What do I usually do to refill my precious jar? I write. I read. I imagine myself writing and reading.

Since each of the twenty-four hours per day I'm allotted is filled to the brim with must-dos, I can't do what I usually do to refill my precious jar. Sure I can imagine writing and reading, but it turns out that just isn't enough to re-energize me right now. Until my schedule settles out a bit--one week ought to do it--I'm going to have to run on empty.

What do you do to refill your precious jar? Any tips you have to help me through the graduation of my best girl would be greatly appreciated.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Muse on Line One

by Hannah

I had my head in the dryer when the answer came to me. The dryer thing was not an act of desperation, although reaching for a white sock with pink flowers that has to be worn immediately is crisis resolution of a type. There we were, the sock and I, inside the white barrel of my dryer when I knew what would make Aunt Bets pop.

As you know from the profile on the side of the blog, I have been revising my novel for some weeks. Months, technically, but we're not going to get too technical.

Some of the changes needed were screamingly loud, and as I sat down and organized the rewrite, those slid right into place. Don't be afraid. Push it. I soon had enough to start to rewrite, so was able to ignore small pieces still missing from the puzzle. For example, Aunt Bets. She was rather blah, extremely minor, and yet I was certain she couldn't be cut. This bothered me a great deal.

Margot Livesey says that even brief, two-dimensional characters should have the potential to become three-dimensional. They need not actually pop into life at any point, but the reader should have the sense they could.

I twisted Aunt Bets every which way, but she refused to tell me what about her sweet nothingness was important. She didn't want to be mean, or snippy, or competitive, all things the plot certainly would have allowed. She didn't want a vice, hard as I tried to put a smoke or a glass in her hand.

As I stretched to reach that silly sock, it occurred to me that Bets' insistence on being perfect is precisely what rounds her out. A touch of the holier than thou makes her the perfect tool, then, through which the antagonist will reveal himself publicly, much to my protagonist's delight. I held that sock high with a huge grin.

The Muse chooses strange means of communication. It's understandable that I should receive part of my answer by sitting at the feet of Margot Livesey. That the Muse should use my dryer as a telephone, well, she's more creative than I'd imagined.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Critique Me

By Amy

A lot of folks check in here each day, read what we have to say, some leave comments (thanks, we really do appreciate them), while others email their thoughts. All who stop by here have been unfailingly gracious, many have linked this blog and/or various posts.

One thing worries me, though: I’ve read the completed manuscripts of each of my writers’ group members, I’m certain of their abilities, but none of you know if I can write well. Yes, you’ve read my posts – none of which have been properly edited. Some of you may have Googled me and found a few of my op-eds available there. But fiction is something else altogether.

So today, I’m going to serve myself up for you to critique. This is a Writers' Group blog, after all. It’s a small excerpt from my manuscript, there are space constraints. The set-up is my protag , an undertaker, has arrived to remove a body. As you know, when giving feedback it’s almost more important to describe what doesn’t work than what does. Have at it, rip it apart. Go on, I’m strong. I can take it:

From the hearse, I remove two pairs of gloves, one small, the other large, along with the gurney, body bag, and my case. Walking back to the triple-decker, I see a middle-aged woman on the deck of her third floor apartment, her hair in curlers, her squat body encased in a bulky robe. Her mouth filled with clothespins. She’s hanging underthings from a makeshift line strung between her doorframe and the single dying oak in her postage-stamp yard. She sees me watching her and freezes, big white underpants billowing in her left hand. She yanks the pins from her mouth, spits twice off of the deck, and then crosses herself. When the breeze picks up, the oak’s forgotten leaves swirl around its trunk, and the woman turns her attention back to the laundry.

Steve-o keeps his back to me as I struggle up the stairs. His teeth nimbly work over his cuticles, reminding me of a man I once saw eating chicken wings; the way he splayed the tip from the drum, snapping them apart and then gnawing each bone until it gleamed white. This time Steve-o doesn’t hold the door for me.

Actually, I'm not feeling terribly strong right now, a little vulnerable if truth be told, so try not to be too harsh. Okay?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Odd Man Out

Posted by Lisa

Wearing a cast makes other people, well, annoying.

As some of you know, I broke my foot April Fool's Day (fool that I am), and I was on crutches for six weeks. During that time, there were four or five instances when I nearly injured myself again. The scenario was the same each time:

Hopping quite capably on crutches, I approach a doorway. Bracing myself solidly on my good leg, I reach forward and pull on the door. It swings open, then WOOSH. Someone, most good-meaningly, has pulled the door open the full way, helping me, of course - helping me lose my balance and nearly plummet face-first to the ground. I catch my breath because I was startled. I smile. I say, "Whoops, you surprised me there. " I hobble through the now-held door and I mutter a disgruntled "Thank you" because I know I should.

On crutches I have been the odd man out when I pick up my kids from school. At our school, moms and dads rush into the cafeteria where kids are waiting, they collect their cherubs, and hurry on their way. Each day in my cast, people stared. I'm truly not much of a person who worries or even notices what others think, but why do I feel I must smile, and explain, telling them the same soccer story, day after day when they ask me what happened.

It's oh-too-much the same when people find out I'm a writer. They ask me about my writing. I give the same old answer, the same forced smile. Truth be told, I want to talk about writing, with writers. Because they understand. I have lived with this broken foot for weeks. I live with my writing day after day, year after year. I don't want to make idle conversation about either. Each is too close to home, too all-consuming in my life. Too important to me to summarize in a smiling sentence.

So, I am the odd man out. I write. If you're reading this so do you, most likely. We live different lives. My daydreams are centered on my characters. Non-writers don't get it. It's hard to be the odd man out.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Making A Literary Life Friday: Waxing Philosophic

This week merged the practical and the philosophical, preparing for summer's distractions and rationalizing them away in favor of writing. There are many wonderful reasons to stay focused as Mother Nature (sister of the Muse?) turns up the heat.

Grub Street is posting photos from the Muse and the Marketplace conference soon, and announcing new seasonal offerings. Parties are scheduled to support debuts (Hank Phillippi Ryan, writers from the Debs, Patry Francis, and the list goes on -- anything from those of you beyond our New England borders?).

Amy and Lynne had the pleasure of hearing Hank Phillippi Ryan speak about her experiences with editing her soon-to-be released novel, Prime Time. She nipped, tucked, tweaked and polished--and she showed other writers how to do the same.

For those who wonder if all these new reads and events are distractions, we say a good book and banter serve to inspire!

The nourishment for my creative side is my job. Spend a day with me and I'm sure you'd agree that employment in an elementary school is the most valuable class in character; teachers and parents are never dull. But it's the day to day emotion of dealing with people's lives, frustrations, longings, worries that builds my pent up craving to write: watching a parent come to terms with a child's diagnosis of autism, hearing that a wonderful third grade teacher lost her battle with cancer two days ago. What came first? The writing or the need to write?

Speaking of Camus, do you writers out there ever wonder if the world you've created on the page is somehow more real than one you inhabit? If your characters live more fully than you? For me, I think it's safe to say even the corpses in my novel don't have quite the stunted social life I've had lately. Cooped in my office, intent on revisions, I'm losing track of the world around me, too focused on the one within. I think it's time for a little fresh air.

Revisions proceed at their own pace, plus I got Margot Livesey's The Missing World out of the library. My daughter has a new homework sheet to mark off two assignments each week for math and literacy. One is simply to "take a book out of the library." Her eyes lit up as she decided she had taken out enough books the last visit to check off her homework for the rest of the year.

I spent hours and days revising my novel. I took a well-deserved day off to shop for my daughter's graduation gift. The bag contained a few good summer reads for her and I to share. On my list--The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and The Keep by Jennifer Egan.

Literary Events:
Tuesday, June 5 Buttonwood Books Coffee with the Authors featuring Claire Cook, David Gessner, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. Contact Buttonwood for tickets and reservations.

If Boston traffic makes you dizzy, come to Buttonwood Books on Thursday, June 7 at 7:00 pm to hear Books and Bloggers at Buttonwood Books featuring Patry Francis, Tish Cohen, and Jennifer McMahon.

If traffic isn't an issue, then mark your calendars because the Debs are coming to Boston! Friday, June 8th at Grub Street world headquarters we'll toast Jennifer McMahon, Tish Cohen, and Patry Francis while they read from their debut novels. This event will also feature a fun contest: each author will pick one name from a hat, and the winner will receive a free consultation with the author on their query letter and first manuscript page. RSVP: 617.695.0075 or