Parenting undid me, or at least, I undid me when I started to parent.
I have written ever since I can remember. Pen on paper, typewriter, Selectric (!), computer. My great-aunt wrote, as did a neighbor. Grade school friends wrote, and everyone in the journalism program at college did, of course. Even at the PR agency, while I was known around the office as "the writer," everyone could put together sentences, paragraphs, press releases. Every tributary of my life fed my writing.
Then I had my first child and moved out of the city. I kept working steadily, and my new friends knew I wrote. Yet parenting time expanded, not only directly with my children, but with their friends and those families. There's something about a baby on your lap and a four-year-old halfway up a ladder that bonds people who have nothing else in common. These other mothers and I explored our differences and found similarities. Opportunities to volunteer popped up more frequently, first in the community and then as the children headed off to school. "You write! We need a brochure, a release, a newsletter!" How can you turn down an opportunity to put your talents to use to help your community, your friends, your children?
I was writing all the time: paid work, volunteer work, and still, when I found the increasingly rare moment, fiction. Months passed; there were more meetings, more networking, less time to focus on the essence of writing. I started to drift, not away from writing, but I was not pushing it forward. I felt lonely, physically and emotionally unplugged, and didn't know why.
My turning point was dinner with two friends from grade school. One is a writer and the other a teacher; we talked and laughed all evening about what came of our dreams and goals, when we had turned from certain paths with purpose and where in our lives we found strength to forge ahead. In particular, we talked about how challenging it is to keep priorities in order and not let external influences shift them on you. We set new goals, and swore to check progress in a year's time. Mine was to write more, which meant I would have to back away from the community swirl. It sounded alienating; it proved completely liberating.
I did something I might not have otherwise. Thinking like a Writer, I noticed an author was to speak at my library, sponsored by a local writers' group. I called the contact listed at the bottom of the flyer. "I think I want to join a writers group. Do you have room?" They did. The group was different from the one you have come to know, but it was without doubt the seed of what would be.
The past ten years have taught me that writing may choose you, but if you choose the writing, you cannot be lonely. When writing is a life priority, karma starts to flow. You find a friend or two who believe in you. You write. Maybe you find a writers group, or you give reader friends a date by which you will send material. You write more, you find the craft of it. You join an organization like Grub Street. You take classes. You write better. The writing fills you up, and you're not lonely anymore.
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
Last fall while on a business to trip, I was in a vast conference hall filled with hundreds of people. My job was to sell certain college textbooks. I couldn't count the number of participants eager to learn more about the subject matter, their eyes alight, ears perked. I watched how they greeted each other too, rapt in conversation, fascinated by the most innocuous details of their field -- one in which I had zero interest. I was terrible at my job. At one point, I had to excuse myself to the restroom and lock the stall door before the tears fell. These are not my people, played an endless loop in my head. I'd never felt so alone.
I always imagined the writers life as one of angst and loneliness. And while I've certainly experienced the angst, I've yet to know the aloneness. When I'm writing, I never feel separate. Rather, I have a sense of true belonging -- to my characters and their world. I'm never so happy as when I'm sitting in this chair, typing at these keys. If I had no other responsibilites, that's what I'd do all day, everyday. Happily.
Perhaps I don't have that sense of of alienation because I have the women of my Writers' Group for support. It is no small comfort to know I can discuss any aspect of this business -- no matter how sensitive -- and be confident that they will not only understand my perspective, but protect my privacy. I believe they know I will be equally discreet with their thoughts. There're a handful of other writers with whom I'm building a similar rapport. They are all my people. As a result, I've never experienced the loneliness writers so often express.
Perhaps writing has been tagged as a lonely profession because we writers are so guarded, not only with our material, but with our feelings. When we submit our work to publications, agents, editors -- worse yet, other writers -- it's as if we ourselves are splayed out to be inspected. Safer to hide it away, protect it from the critical glare. Hide ourselves away too.
Talking to my Writers' Group and to other writers makes me recall that day in the conference hall. When we debate the merits of a semicolon versus a comma, when we share articles in Poets & Writer or gossip about the latest deal on Publishers Marketplace, I understand the people at the conference discussing their passion. Only a another writer would care about ours.
It's not the writing that's the lonely part. No, it's the journey. So find someone in your community, online, or via this blog to share your journey with, each and every painful, glorious step. Be among your people.
Monday, October 29, 2007
Posted by Lisa
It chose me - this writing thing. It came about because I have that same mix of talent and longing and perseverance that you do. I thank God I’ve had this challenge placed before me. Its cost can’t be measured in sweat or tears, hours at the library or time sitting in front of a keyboard. Its payback truly doesn’t depend on the dollar amount of my first advance. I am so willing to make my way along this route, no matter the weather, the terrain. I am thankful for this privilege.
At times, though, I know I carry a secret hidden in a front pocket of my jeans; I tuck a hand in to hold it tightly and make sure it doesn’t escape. I never deny that I’m a writer. I write. I have an agent in NYC. But I don’t advertise that I am a writer.
At events with other families, I rarely know many people. I’ve never, ever been good at parties; I wrestle knots in my stomach when others swirl ice in their glasses. My outgoing husband is usually at my side. Often, with women my age, I feel out of place. How many people want to discuss the perfect sentence and what makes it work just right.
Do writers succeed or do they survive this calling in life? It's not easy: at times I book to the bookstore cafe for a one hour writing session instead of getting to know other parents at my daughter's school. I choose time at the computer over a phone call with an old friend. Sometimes, I am hoping to get through the parts of life that aren’t writing and work and family.
I need to write. Could I suddenly decide to not breathe air?
Friday, October 26, 2007
The writing's never been better! I know, that sounds either vain or stupid (I'm hoping it's the former). I fell in love with David Almond's writing three or four years ago (Skellig, Kit's Wilderness, Heaven's Eyes). He is a British writer who kicks butt clear across the Atlantic. He writes what is called magical realism. Well, so do I, now. Hey, if Stephen Colbert (of the Colbert Report) can decide to run for president as both a democrat and a republican, then I can take a chance, too.
So far, I've thrown away three versions of my WIP. Very frustrating. I began to panic that my protagonist's story wouldn't come through the way I knew it should: desperation set in. When I feel desperate in life, I practice a lot of Yoga. It centers me in ways I won't go into here, but suffice it to say that it quiets all of the voices that swirl to and fro, and back and forth in my head. I don't think during the postures or salutations, there's no racing at all. But the other day during shavasana (corpse pose done at the end of practice; it's considered restorative) it came to me how to tell his story. I could have wept, I was -- and am -- so grateful. What do you do when the story won't come?
I am refining, smoothing the two chapters before the last chapter, which is written in the sense that it is on paper but needs review. Once I have a couple of threads more tightly pulled (tension, anyone?) I will wrap and send before the next Literary Life Friday to the Group. I know what I want to poke and prod at already quickly before sending to agents; will they agree? Now I can polish my query letter, butterflies hatching one after the other in my stomach.
I am in love with a whole new set of characters in my WIP. I'm researching and sketching characters and writing. Though it is hard to find the time while promoting my parenting book, I'm taking a lesson from Lisa and scheduling time in to do so. No matter how many ups and downs there are in this business, when I sit down to write I am home.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
While there is debate over the worthiness of a book tour due to its expense, low turn outs and minimal impact on book sales, I'm of the opinion that there is an enormous benefit to connecting with readers, creating word of mouth book sales and doing whatever I can to let readers know about my book. And the teacher in me can't resist sharing my tips for making book tour successful--and fun.
Before you hit the road
- Confirm the details of the event with your contact at the agency or book store. Offer to send along anything else they need to promote the event.
- Plan to stay with friends or family to reduce any expenses you'll incur. (Reality check: Your publisher isn't likely to pay for the full tour.) This will also increase the likelihood that they will come to your events and bring friends.
- Pack clothes in the same color family and those that don't wrinkle--this allows you to pack light and sleep as late as possible because you don't have to get up to iron.
- Bring along healthy snacks so you won't be hungry or forced to eat junk or fast food.
- Ask a friend or family member to check your email and phone messages while you are away. You won't always have the time or the WiFi connection to do it yourself.
- Leave a copy of your itinerary for your family so they know when they can call you or expect you to call them.
- Always arrive early for any book signings or events; being late is unfair to the people who organized your events and it makes you begin your talk stressed.
- Have water and mints available for the "dry throat while speaking" phenomenon.
- Be prepared for anything. No promotion, no books, no turnout? While I haven't run into these things yet, thank goodness, I'm prepared for anything. Don't take it personally; even though this means the world to you, to others it may be just another day in the life.
- People want to meet and talk with you--make the time to answer questions, personalize your signing and thank them for coming or buying a book.
- Be positive and smile, even if you're exhausted. Word of mouth happens when you write a good book and make a nice impression.
- Every single person you meet is important. Whether you talk with one person or one hundred people, each one made the time to come and hear your message--be grateful.
- Stop in at bookstores in the area you're visiting. Bring bookmarks to leave at the stores where you sign stock and an over-sized postcard of your book information at places where your book isn't on shelves. (This drop in method of book tour has resulted in several events for me--Read how to, by J. A. Konrath)
- Always read a snippet of your book, even if your audience is small. People want to know what they will be buying. (In my case, I ask participants the ages of their children and their biggest struggles and then read a section that would appeal to them.)
- Politely ask staff if you can place your books in various--appropriate--places within the bookstore. If you are nice and did a good job at the event, they are more than pleased to give you prime real estate. And don't forget to offer to sign remaining copies.
- Sleep, eat well, walk where and when you can, and limit alcohol. Book tour is nothing short of exhausting--staying healthy is critical to finishing strong.
- Write thank you notes to organizers. Relationship building is key and it's just good manners to thank anyone who's assisted you on your journey.
- Catch up on email and phone messages. Leaving them longer than a few days isn't good for business or friendships.
- Squeeze in time off or more sleep before you head out again. (Can you tell I love my bed?)
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
The children use hushed tones when telling friends. "Mom's finishing her book again." Parents look at me, most with surprise, only a few with knowledge that Draft One existed, nevermind needed a major rewrite. One in the latter category quite reasonably asked, "Now what?"
You have probably made a similar list: Writers Group again, edits, query letter to a few Fabulous Agents, wait, pray, rejection, queries, waiting, rejection, pray, maybe get agent, edits, wait, pray, edits, wait, pray, out to editors, wait, pray, maybe more edits, wait, pray, and Muse willing, a book. Then: proofs, calls, on the road, on line, on radio, on and on, and voila, book on shelves.
"That's one book?" she asked. She stared as though a second mouth or third eyeball popped onto my head. "Why?"
While at the moment I claimed literary insanity, two days later I have a better answer:
"Stories... came alive in the telling. Without a human voice to read them aloud, or a pair of wide eyes following them by flashlight beneath a blanket, they had no real existence in our world. They were like seeds in the beak of a bird, waiting to fall to earth, or the notes of a song laid out on a sheet, yearning for an instrument to bring their music into being. They lay dormant, hoping for the chance to emerge. Once someone started to read them, they could begin to change. They could take root in the imagination and transform the reader. Stories wanted to be read, David's mother would whisper. They needed it. It was the reason they forced themselves from their world into ours. They wanted us to give them life."
from John Connelly's "The Book of Lost Things"
Stories do force themselves from their world into ours, demand that writers capture them on a page, that agents read just one more in the search for something real, that editors take a chance one more time, so that readers can curl up with books and complete the process of bringing the stories to life. Writers are not insane at all. We are part of a magic larger than ourselves.
Monday, October 22, 2007
A reader emailed to ask when I would tell the story of how my novel sold. To tell the truth, I'm a little surprised I haven't already, it's just that I'm still adjusting to the newness of it all.
I'd imagined the sale of my book a thousand times before it happened, every possible scenario from the most humble story to the most extravagant dream. No matter the version, it always started the same way: with a call from my agent.
The Saturday before my world changed, Lynne and I headed to Cornerstone Books -- home of Grub Street North -- where Lynne was doing an afternoon signing for her parenting book Negotiation Generation and then later that same night, the inaugural workshop of Grub North. Lynne was discussing writing in both non-fiction and fiction, just days after selling her novel Life Without Summer (I know, she's a whirlwind).
We had some down time that Saturday between her engagements, a lot of time to talk. My book was out on submission, a week and a half by then, and I was beginning to wonder what would happen if it didn't sell. We talked it through, Lynne is a therapist. She was convinced it would sell, but I knew the world to be more capricious than that. As we talked, I came to the realization that if my novel never sold, it was okay, I still loved my story. It was something I would always be proud of even if it never received the approval of the publishing world. It was the best writing I could do at that point in my life. As the day wore on, my anxiety lessened and I told her what a relief the weekend was. I didn't have to jump each time the phone rang or my email pinged. No one ever received word over the weekend, I said. If you know Lynne, then you know the smile she gave when she repeated my own words back to me, We shall see.
The next morning, 8:00 am, I went online to read the Sunday papers. There was an email from my dream agent Emma Sweeney, I have wonderful news! Words I'd been praying to hear for years, never expecting to read on a Sunday morning. I called my husband over to my side; we hugged, I cried. Then the children. They engulfed me with hugs and cheers; this was our victory. They'd been so patient with me for so long, and never once did their support falter. Still in my pajamas, I ran across the street to my brother's house where my nieces and nephew were watching cartoons, their parents asleep upstairs. We whispered cheers, jumping up and down all the while.
I told my Writers' Group next. We were all stunned. Lynne cried for me, as I had with her news. Lisa called from California, her joy closing the miles. When I spoke with Hannah, I was in such a stupor, I can't honestly recall what was said, just that her voice was warm and wonderful. Truly, the success belongs to all of us.
You know the rest. It went to auction, until it found its home with Sally Kim of Shaye Areheart Books editing. Yes, there is such a thing as a dream editor and she's it. The amazing foreign rights team at Random House went to Frankfurt and have so far sold rights to Italy, Holland, and the UK. And together we'll see what comes next.
I'm still adjusting, expecting a call (or email) telling me that everyone has made a terrible mistake, it won't be published after all. I'm told that's a normal reaction. John Elder Robison whose book Look Me In the Eye is also with Random House walked me through what to expect the next year. He's so kind. After hearing everything that needs to happen between now and next fall, I'm not anxious for the book to be published now.
It's still surreal, I'm still numb, but that's okay. It's the most extravagant dream I ever imagined come true.
Posted by Lisa
For hours we smelled smoke from fires burning in Malibu. Its heavy scent took up residence in our hair, our clothes. That had been the first evidence that the fires on the television were really happening.
It doesn't snow in California. That's what I believed - until today.
This afternoon my husband called me into the backyard of our California home. "It's snowing," he announced. "It isn't," I retorted.
But light pale flakes were falling around us: the dusting of ash from mountain fire. Twenty minutes later, the sun was a dull orange circle in the sky. The sky was gray. It was evening, suddenly, at three in the afternoon.
"We will need to evacuate," I offered to Richard. "We'll see," he replied. " The fires are still miles away."
"Let's hike up the trails," I suggest. My children agree in an instant.
We slip into crocs. I gather our sunglasses at the front door; the ash stings as it blows in our
eyes. We meet neighbors at the trailhead. This is an event. The winds outdoors are 60 to 80 miles per hour (Santa Anna winds off the Pacific, I am told). My three-year-old insists on a piggy back.
The fires are not contained.
My agent once told me a writer must live, only then can she have new experiences to write
I hope we are not evacuated, but what if we are.
Today's life is tomorrow's stories.
As I write this, it's dark. It's too dark for 7:00 PM.
My dog doesn't like going outside.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Buttonwood Books in Cohasset is known as a great supporter of writers and their books. A few times each year, they host a Coffee with the Authors series where writers discuss their novels, readers ask questions, and everyone enjoys both the books and the magnificent view of Cohasset Harbor. There's Amy with Writers' Group friend John Elder Robison, and novelists Leah Hager Cohen and Michael White. Which writers and their books have you discovered this week?
John Elder Robinson's Look me in the Eye, of course. I mentioned it to a teacher where I work (a private academy for children with autism and related dirorders north of Los Angeles) then I bought it on my way home that day.
I finally met John Elder Robison! And what a treat. He is as charming in person as he is on the page. I urge you to go to one of his readings for Look Me In the Eye if at all possible (currently #11 on the NYT's bestseller list). He had the room in stitches. Thanks for all of the advice, John, I'll see you again soon. And while you're out and about, pick-up a copy of Leah Hager Cohen's House Lights. The brief excerpt she read (in the most engaging voice; I can't imagine she's not a singer) has invaded my thoughts in every quiet moment since. All of her reviews have been stellar. And Betsey Detwiler, owner of Buttonwood Books, highly recommends Michael White's Soul Catcher. I always trust Betsey's advice.
In other book news, the day after I signed with Shaye Areheart Books, my lovely editor Sally Kim sent me a box of books! Who knew free books was one of the perks? I'm working my way through them now. If you've not yet read Sharp Objects (unbelievable, completely original, definitely one to get in hardcover) by Gillian Flynn, Debra Ginsberg's Blind Submission (fun, especially if you're querying agents now), or Lee Martin's The Bright Forever, well, you must. The moment I finished Bright Forever -- did I mention it was a Pulitzer finalist? -- I wrote Lee Martin a note and, gentleman that he is, he immediately wrote back. His writing humbles me, makes me feel a bit ridiculous calling myself a writer. If you're wondering about the rules of POV, voice, transitions read this book the way Francine Prose would have you do.
This year's The Best American Short Stories has pieces by Louis Auchincloss, Anne Beattie, T.C. Boyle, Alice Munro, and the list goes on. One gorgeous, powerful piece of inspiration after the other!
We imagine you are taking D.C. by storm, Lynne. When you get back, we are eager to hear more about your book tour for Negotiation Generation.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Lynne is on tour for her book Negotiation Generation, but will be back nex week. In lieu of a new post, here's one of Lynne's most popular:
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, October 17, 2007
I've been ruminating, not unlike a cow. I read a great interview with Robert B. Parker in the Sunday magazine, and three points he made keep returning to me, all on topics that have come up within these posts as well as within the Writers Group on the side. I thought I'd share to see how you feel about them. If nothing else, he offers great examples of how to answer interviewer questions when doing the promotional dance.
First, asked whether he ever gets bored with his character, Spenser (remember Robert Urich as Spenser for Hire twenty years ago?), Parker says yes and no. He says he doesn't get bored with Spenser, but with writing five days a week, 50 weeks a year. (Only two weeks' vacation?) My favorite part: "Writers love distraction. All that crap about going off into the woods and writing all day? I don't buy it. I can't wait for the mailman to come. Your phone call has made my morning." That he feels that way makes me smile; at the same time, his answer highlights how success does come when you push beyond that awful urge to be distracted, day in and day out, year after year.
His second interesting point was his answer to a question on the art of writing suspense. "The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction... you create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books." Interesting characters, interesting situations, get them out. Bingo. And to look at Parker's last point from the opposite angle, what does it mean to be totally surprised at the end of a book? Do we really want the end to be a surprise, or do we want to be pleasantly surprised at how we got to the end?
Finally, the interviewer asks Parker why he doesn't read anything written about him or his books. "I don't think it's good for me. I'm doing the best I can... The material that's written about me is useful for biographers, and reviews are useful for readers. They're not useful for me. I like the Hemingway line: If you believe the good stuff they write about you, you have to believe the bad. Also, the bad stuff hurts my feelings."
Words of wisdom. It is important to have readers you trust, and to trust the readers you choose, which are not necessarily the same things. Once it's out in the wide world, if you truly have done the best you can, all you can do is to continue to trust your readers. Then get back to that desk, push away those distractions, and write about interesting characters in interesting situations. So let's get writing!
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
A friend asked me to call a man she knew tangentially, a man doing some work around her mother's house, a writer. A memoir, she said, though she couldn't say how far along he was in either craft or pages. I promised to call. I knew what it was to wander the maze, blind to the ways of the publishing world. It took me years to figure out what little I know today. After he described what he was writing, what drove him, I offered the basics about the role of a literary agent and how to find one. Then the business of finding an editor.
"Look, I know this is all about politics, it's all who you know," he said in so many words. "I don't have time for that. What do I have to do?"
Remember when you still thought that, when you believed it was simply a matter of a "publishing insider" you happened to know picking up the phone and -- viola! --you'd have a book contract? Maybe some of you still believe that. Fact is, for some it is true. The celebrity tell-alls or picture books are, we all assume, fast-tracked by insiders. How else to explain them? But for most of us, it's what we know, not who.
For the past 5 1/2 years, I've been writing with the intention of getting a book published. I've taken many classes, attended workshops and readings, wrote authors seeking advice, volunteered countless hours at various literary venues, and signed up for more conferences than I care to remember (all while working part-time and raising three children). Each of those experiences informed my craft, helped me understand the business of publishing, taught me about the writing life. I've met, and sometimes befriended, writers, literary agents, editors whose work makes me shiver with awe, who've been kind beyond measure. In all those years, though, only two writers have offered to refer me to their agents (once before and once after I was had representation) and two editors asked to see my novel when it was completed, one of whom had read the first three chapters at a conference. None of the people I've met in those 5 1/2 years led me to my agent or editor.
In some ways this must be reassuring to those of you about to embark on your agent search. A simple query letter, the first few pages of your manuscript will hopefully start the process. My advice is to research agents using every resource available to you. Start when you've nearly completed the first draft of your manuscript. Have your list of top twenty ready, read the books they represent, read every interview and profile you can find. When you're just about finished with the final draft, write that query letter. It will take only 20 minutes or so, I promise. You know your work well enough. As foolish as it sounds, have a dream agent.
The day before my agent submitted my novel to editors she said, "Tell me again how you came to me. It wasn't over the transom."
"It was," I said. "You pulled me from the slush pile."
I'm not sure if the writer I called believed me when I told him that. I do know he was a little put out that this wasn't a business that could be easily fast-tracked. That the journey to getting a book published requires trekking through that haphazard maze with its many dead ends and wrong turns. As Lisa noted in a recent post, it's not altogether linear.
That's okay. Knowing that it wasn't an insider's game gave me hope. Realizing it was up to me to figure out which way to turn, having the tenacity to forge on when I had no idea if I were headed in the right direction, believing it was within my power to figure it out was all I needed to know.
It's all within your reach, too, you know.
Monday, October 15, 2007
Posted by Lisa
In her post last Thursday, Lynne discussed revising our work. In the world of writing, there are times we kill our darlings. This is surgery a writer MUST perform at times. It may involve deleting that one extra word, taking out a sentence, or rearranging a paragraph. Yet it may entail more, much much more. The success of your manuscript may demand more – mine did.
This past week, I completely re-engineered my entire work in progress. My first draft was already completed, my second draft, too. I was planning on sending it to my agent by December. Well, that’s changed… It wasn’t working, not one bit. My teen protagonist wasn’t telling HER story; she was telling her mother’s story. As I re-read chapters one and two, I understood in a light bulb moment: the tragedy that befell her mother had to happen to my character instead.
I want to write a brilliant story, like “Al Capone Does My Shirts,” “Star Girl,” “Speak,” “The Giver.” My writers' group holds the bar high for me. They actually expect a lot (note to writers' group: thank you).
Will I write a brilliant novel? Wouldn’t that be nice. I can and will try, certainly. I can dream, hope, pray, schedule my time, and organize my life to enable myself to succeed. Already, my novel’s better, so much better.
But, oh, I have such work before me. How I wish I could send off a finished manuscript today, maybe tomorrow. I can’t because I won’t let it go until it’s as excellent as it can be. I have hours of revision before me.
“The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.” - Robert Frost
Sunday, October 14, 2007
If you're in the Boston area, come to Buttonwood Books' Coffee with the Authors on Tuesday, October 16 at the Atlantica Restaurant in Cohasset. Join our friend John Elder Robison, author of Look Me in the Eye, as well as novelists Leah Hager Cohen and Michael White as they discuss both their writing and their latest books. Coffee is served at 9:45 am -- don't be late!
If you can't get out in the morning, then how about joining us at Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books that night as John Elder Robison discusses the making of a memoir. This free workshop is held at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset and starts at 7:00 pm.
Posted by Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon at 5:36 PM
Friday, October 12, 2007
We here at the Writers' Group are in different places with our work. Some have completed novels, others are revising revisions. Still, each of us has to make the time to write, the passion. There are the routines before we get to work, the distractions we have to push away -- hard. How about you? What's your routine, what pulls you away from your WIP and how do you push yourself back?
Making a literary life can only happen if the rest of one's life is under control, I believe. This week, I made a commitment to schedule writing time very strictly. Suddenly, I am far more sane than I was a week ago: I focus well on writing when the time comes. I relax and enjoy my amazing job and my time with my kids when I'm not writing. No more catching five minutes here or there for me. In fact, I fight the urge to sit at the keyboard when I find myself with a free time; I'm building up a thirst until it's time for scotch. The end result is I write as though I have been trapped in a straight jacket for hours and my arms have been set free.
Works for me, anyway.
I haven't been writing this week. I've fulfilled a million other demands, but not my writing. As a result, I'm in a sort of stupor. I don't feel well, I'm not pleasant company. A little over a week ago, my novel sold. Everyone tells me I should be thrilled, and I am, but it's not the same thrill I experience when the words come, when a paragraph is solid and a page flows. Then, I fly, intoxicated and truly happy. Good advice, Lisa.
I've been in a phase where I am writing every day without problem. I am close to the finish of a rewrite. I roll downstairs to the exercise bike, then get my son out the door by seven; I wake my daughter as my husband leaves, walk her and her friends to school. I've had a few moments alone with everyone, some exercise. I flip through the Wall Street Journal, get a bowl of cereal and coffee and sit at the computer ("No food in the office" does not apply to the rule-maker.) and do my job-work until -- by nine-thirty? ten? -- nothing more is required immediately. Then. I downsize the email and spend as long as I can putting my characters through their final paces before the computer sounds the email alarm. The only thing that slows me is wondering whether I've nailed it this time; I did go back last week and fix something already. Is there more? I could spend all my time doing this right now... not always the case, so I treasure the feeling. I have The Next Story already pushing at me, too, so this is a good moment in time.
I'm on the road promoting Negotiation Generation, this week in Richmond, VA. My friends and family assume that I'll have no time to write. My secret is that each morning and evening I spend time with my characters struggling to tell their story in my WIP. Secluded away in my hotel room, I find the time to write.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Posted by Lynne
Take a look at the following tidbits from my novel.
His office looked and smelled yellow, a combination of a bad paint job and cigarettes. Before I sat down, I noticed two empty packages in his wastebasket. Nicotine gum and Good-and-Plenty.
Writing details that capture our characters' personalities, their motivations, is essential. Yet only some of these details will make it into the finished novel; that's up to you. Both of the passages above captured important information I needed to know to draw authentic characters. But only one of these passages remains in my novel today, the other passage was cut in the revision process.
Even though the snipped out passage remains in a document file I call snippets and keeps, I will never use it again. Sitting in that file are several treasured phrases and paragraphs of mine no one will ever read; I killed them in revision.
While there are those of us who underwrite and those who overwrite early drafts, each of us in the end must make difficult choices to remove certain details that tell the reader the specific traits, quirks and desires that round out our characters. Amy and I call this word-by-word examination, the painful revision.
Your readers may never learn that your antagonist was bullied by a much smaller boy when he was growing up, or know that your protagonist once stole a candy bar from a convenience store when she was hypoglycemic and broke, but you know these things and each detail informs your writing; whether or not your readers will ever find these details on the page is irrelevant.
And though it hurts at first to let go, these fine distinctions of character are never truly lost. They stay in your mind, and because of this your characters embody them. Whether in the story or in your imagination, each facet helps your characters to shimmer. In this way, less is more.
So do you wonder which of the above passages lives on the page in Life Without Summer? Take a guess. And while you're at it, do you care to share with us how you feel about killing your own little darlings?
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Long-distance relationships have their challenges. The key is to want to make it work. A lot.
The news that Lisa was moving to California was an abrupt "huh?" We ignored it best we could, crossed fingers that it wouldn't happen, convinced ourselves the day was far off in the future. Way off. Really, really, far out there.
At first, when the day finally did pass, it seemed like nothing happened. We communicate mostly by email, and there was Lisa, every day, chatting with us. Then came time, we agreed, for a meeting.
Lynne did a dry run of the videoconferencing camera and software at Amy's house, and we were good to go. The good news is that the first such meeting was about Lisa's work-in-progress. Because the writer being reviewed says nothing, we other three could go on about our business as usual, taking turns with comments. Amy sat in her usual spot at the head of the table; Lynne and I moved in from the sides to fit into the frame. Lisa "sat" opposite Amy as usual, although halfway down the table. When we were done with the critique, Lisa asked her questions, and we wrapped up, happy to have been all together, even if virtually.
The second meeting, we realized, would be more of a challenge in terms of Lisa's being able to participate in an active give-and-take. Videoconferencing can be a bit slow, a bit choppy, so leaping into a discussion from the Great Beyond would be difficult. The solution was a flag: a bright orange triangle on a black stick Lisa waved when she wanted a turn. Not as ideal as being face-to-face, but effective.
None of the four of us will ever win jobs in an IT department. What we have made happen is possible for anyone, and kudos to Lisa and Lynne for figuring out details. (What is the IP? Where's the sound? Now where's the video? Are we connected?) Also, we should note, our children take this completely for granted. Lisa's daughter said hi before we started the last time, and her son came in fresh from the last Red Sox game in Anaheim to tell us the good news "in person." Amy's kids say hello and good night to Lisa, peeking into the camera to wave as they do. In all the best ways, nothing has changed.
Two caveats: We wouldn't recommend having more than one person long-distance; it wouldn't work well at all with more than two locations. Nor can we yet recommend a good videoconferencing software, as we are not in love with the one we have (yet?) nor do we know how it stacks up against its competition. Still, for any of you others thinking about a possible long-distance writers relationship, if we can do it, you can, too. Trust us. If the relationship is worth it, if you're in it for the long haul, then that occasional visual connection and real-time interaction make distance fade away.
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
My agent asked what I was working on next. When I told her it's another dark, wrenching novel, she kind of laughed and wondered why I was interested in telling such stories.
Readers expect a writer's characters to be autobiographical, that the protagonist's experiences are the writer's own. I suppose for many people that's true, but not for me. My life has been blessed. I've never had a lot of money, never belonged to the popular clique or was considered a beauty, but I was born into a large family with loving parents. I've had good health more or less, and all of the rights and opportunites afforded an American. For that, I've always felt I was a forunate one. But that's not true for everyone.
I am a news hound. Each day I read 3-5 newspapers with NPR streaming in the background. Neither vampires nor anti-christs, dinosaurs nor aliens terrify me. People do. We humans inflict great horror upon one another. I am haunted by visions of what befell Nick Berg, Erica Green, Charles Falkenberg, an unidentified Hutu mother -- too many more to name. People are capable of incalcuable evil, maybe we all are, I hope not. I write what I do because I need to find a way to -- if not make sense of it, how can anyone do that? -- rewrite another's fate.
A friend of mine is struggling with the direction of her WIP. She knows the dark corners she needs to explore, but it can be a challenge to one's psyche to forge on. As writers, we must expose our rawest nerves to find the honesty. Still, we do it to be true to the story. And while life doesn't always have a satisfying resolution, at least we can give that to our beloved protagonists if we want. We can find comfort knowing we get to control the ending.
If only we could in life, too.
Monday, October 08, 2007
I’ll never forget that January evening at Writers' Group when I told them my news. I had a secret, a sad kind of secret. I didn’t want to share it. When I look back, I remember their expressions so well. I expected shock. What I saw was sadness. Amy and Hannah and Lynne didn’t want me to leave, and I didn’t want to go, plain and simple.
“Your husband took a job in California?”
“This won’t happen. It can’t happen.”
“Is this some kind of mid-life crisis?”
No, sadly, it was an opportunity for him that I couldn’t let him pass by.
Yes, I’ve moved to California, and I really do like it. But I still root for the Red Sox (and yes, they kicked some serious Los Angeles butt yesterday).
Yes, I’ve moved to California, but I still have my writers' group: thanks to technology, occasional cross country flights, and steadfast determination. We’re making this work.
Friday, October 05, 2007
Dream big. Do it. Imagine the most wondrous vision for your literary life.
Allow yourself to fantasize an outrageous scenario where you land the agent of your dreams and she works with you to make your manuscript the best it can be. It feels pretty good, doesn't it? Then picture the day she tells you she's sending your manuscript out to multiple houses, to editors who've refined some of your favorite books. Now dream a little bigger. You can see it, right? Imagine some of these editors -- whose careers you've tracked for years -- want to buy your treasured book. Are you tingling yet? Go with it, it's your ultimate fantasy. Now imagine that your book sells and the fantasy editor who's just bought it tells you she's excited to be working with you. I know, I know it's a stretch after all of these years of rejections, but try it. Dream big.
3 October, 2007
Amy MacKinnon's TETHERED, about a young mortician -- with her own damaged past -- who finds herself at the center of a investigation and a sordid underworld when she unwittingly identifies a body which leads to consequences almost impossible to imagine, to Sally Kim at Shaye Areheart Books, in a significant deal, at auction, by Emma Sweeney (world).mailto:.firstname.lastname@example.org
Show don't tell: words to live by. How's this for showing? In this success, Amy has shown me what counts, her feedback to me: hook, stakes, and beautiful writing. Can it be that simple? And that complicated? Blog readers, please realize, this dream is possible. It's all about keeping the bar high.
To me, Amy is an inspiration. I am blessed to have her in my life.Amy
There have been three points in my life when a long-held dream came true. The first was marrying my husband, the second, becoming a mother to children who exceeded all of my hopes, and now this. Thank you to the women of my Writers' Group for your respective roles in this fairy tale. Your support means everything.
Amy's journey is one of hope and dedication. She wrote, learned the craft, wrote more, found a writers' group/readers, wrote, edited, wrote, learned more, found a different writers' group, learned more, wrote, wrote, wrote. Then she pitched, waited, waited, rewrote, waited, waited... and has a tangible achievement that is beyond well-deserved. She carried her hope, fostered it, nurtured it, breathed life into a dream. Watching her do so has been a joy and an honor.
Just like she cried on the day I told her about my deal, I wept when she told me about hers. Amy MacKinnon--generous writer and friend--you deserve this dream come true. Enjoy every minute of your success! We are so proud of you.
Thursday, October 04, 2007
Posted by Lynne
She's petite and soft spoken for a woman with such power behind her words. Her name is Ann Packer and I was privileged to attend a reading she gave to introduce her latest novel, Songs Without Words.
At the historic Harvard Bookstore, I browsed, I shopped and then I took my seat. The staff whisked Ms. Packer in to a room out back like she was a movie star. I could imagine her back there shedding her jacket, opening her book to her marked pages, reviewing her chosen paragraphs.
Out she came, taking her place at a podium far too big for her slight frame. And she read. She shared bits that introduced Liz, a woman who identifies herself first and foremost as a mother. Then Sarabeth, Liz's childhood friend, who struggles to find her way, and has since the trauma she experienced as a teen; her mother committed suicide. And finally Lauren, the character who makes a terrible choice, one that will be the catalyst for the chasm that forms in the women's friendship.
While I listened, I observed. I will get to do readings of my novel soon, and I wanted to see what worked for the crowd and what didn't. When she finished reading, it was time for questions. My favorite part is listening to readers questions--I have to contain myself, only asking one or two. I love knowing what readers think and what authors share about the writing process.
As you probably know, Ann Packer is also the author of the wildly successful The Dive from Clausen's Pier, a favorite book of mine. She told the crowd that Dive took her ten years to write, Songs, five. The audience, as if well practiced, let out a soft sigh. A studious man, with his leather bound journal and fountain pen asked what sustained her over the ten years. How did she hold on to her identity as a writer, when it took that long and she had no contract or agent for Dive?
She paused. Her pause was longer than was comfortable for me. Did she even know what sustained her? Does any writer really know?
"I chose to write," she began. "I created the mountain, so I needed to climb it. And as for my identity as a writer." She looked right at the man. "If I stopped writing, then my identity as a writer would really be in jeopardy."
With that the program was over. Ending on an inspirational note, I took my books--Dive and Songs--and I made my way toward her. She signed the books and we exchanged pleasantries. Like a student who takes the first test of the semester and celebrates her A, I told her my debut novel would be published by St Martin's soon. Her face lit up and she said, "What's your name, I'll watch for your success."
I told her my name, she'd watch for me. I practically skipped back to my car. And all I can say to other writers struggling to hold on to their identity is this. Every writer--no matter how successful-- has a mountain to climb. Keep climbing your mountain. The view is prettier with every step.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
Stephen King's forward to The Best American Short Stories, as reprinted in this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review is indeed worth reading all on its own. It is a mini State-of-the-Craft, and not just short stories. Talk about getting the juices flowing: the man flings a large gauntlet in the best possible way.
How did short stories end up on the bottom shelf of the magazine rack, way in the back of the store? And for whom, exactly, are short stories written? (Aha, say those of you who have been to this blog of late -- our very question, turned on its head!)
A small percentage, it turns out, are still written for the reader -- not editors or teachers -- which is, of course, the whole point of this series. This year's edition, again, takes the best of the best from their dimly lit, far-too-neat racks and sets them on the big shelf , front and center.
Series editor Heidi Pitlor does an unbelievable job culling down the thousands -- up to four thousand a year! -- to find 120 or so for the guest editor. Unable to neatly categorize what she finds worthy, she can only say in her own wonderful introduction that she is "drawn to stories that transcended something." You know it when you see it.
This year, guest editor Stephen King read along with her from start to finish, and twenty stories made him "want to crow 'Oh man, you gotta read this!'" When Stephen King says that, watch out. I started with one by Jim Shepard described as "all-out emotionally assaultive," and let me tell you, you do know it when you see it.
I will not presume to say it better than King, so I won't: "Talent can't help itself; it roars along in fair weather or foul, not sparing the fireworks. It gets emotional. It struts its stuff. In fact, that's its job." Run, now, to your local bookstore, then get back to that typewriter and roll!
Tuesday, October 02, 2007
My favorite part of writing fiction -- well, one of my favorites, there are many -- is discovering minor characters. When they introduce themselves, I need to know them wholly: feel the texture of their hair, smell the layers of cigarette smoke dulling their nylon windbreakers, understand what it means when they dance in place or are stilled by the grace of death. A minor character's life needs to be bigger than the short turn each has on the page.
The great Michael Lowenthal (really, he's that good, read his books) did a workshop at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference this past May and spoke to this very issue. If I had Michael's eloquence, I could explain it better, how to make what could easily and certainly should be a two-dimensional character three-full-D. Lynne was there, she'll probably remember the short story he gave as an example (was it a Flannery O'Connor?) that included a large woman, a woman whose bulk and personality filled a doctor's waiting room. She was lush with ego, the characters around her wilted under her disdain -- in a few carefully chosen words. Michael's examples truly did astonish.
The fleshing out of minor characters is crucial because they're able to reveal much about a protagonist. William H. Macy believes a good actor reacts to other actors. I believe a good character reacts to other characters. After all, in life don't we find much of our behavior to be a reaction to those around us? Minor characters reveal to readers both how our protagonists are perceived by the world and how our protagonists perceive their worlds to be. Only a fully-formed minor character can execute both duties well.
I didn't know this when I set out to write my book. It wasn't until it was my turn to have a passage critiqued by Lisa, Hannah, and Lynne that they said they fell in love with a character who appeared for two brief pages. To me, he was only a means to an end. They assumed he would have a recurring role. That night, they set the bar much higher for me. Every one of the people who appeared in my book needed to have a backstory that was hinted at, a presence that was tangible. Though it meant revising, it hardly seemed a challenge it was so much fun.
Writing this now, processing what the other three women of my group have taught me, I suppose it's somehow misleading to use the term "minor character." For the truth of the story, each needs to fill the proverbial waiting room.
Monday, October 01, 2007
Posted by Lisa
I haven’t read the book. Which makes zero sense since I love the story and I rode horses for years. At one time in my life, I owned an ex-racehorse. Burns Cottage was her official name, but we called her Molly.
At home last week, I happened upon the DVD, and I popped it into the machine. I watched Sea Biscuit, and I can barely describe what happened. Suddenly, writing and story telling made sense to me. For the first time ever, I understood how character and plot work together.
This is what I learned from Sea Biscuit:
The owner, Jeff Bridges, and the trainer, Chris Cooper (incidentally a native of Kingston, MA) needed each other, each with their own sadness and history.
The dad who lost his son needed to love again, and be willing to let go of someone he loved.
The jockey was angry because of the decision his parents had made: to send him off to ride at a local track as a way to make money in the great depression.
The horse was angry for how he was treated.
Every one of them was broken in some way. Coming together and through the story, they were made whole again.
Plus, it was lovely, and effective, the way that history was dropped in background.
When the video was done, I picked up my laptop. I finally, truly, and wholly figured out the characters in my novel and the direction their stories needed to go.
I called my brother and spoke to him about my epiphany. His response... “You call yourself a writer and a horse person and you haven’t read Sea Biscuit? Geez! I’ve got two copies floating around here. I’ll mail one to you and soon.”