Friday, March 30, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Networking

Amy and Lynne had a great time at the Grub Street South program hosted by Buttonwood Books on Acquiring a Literary Agent. For more details on the talk, given by literary agent and Grub Street Writers founder, Eve Bridburg, see yesterdays post.

We can't say it too many times: network, and put positive energy into your writer, agent, editor relationships. Remember, you're nurturing a writing career.

I'm putting the writing bar higher these days. I've been working on my novel. Working at work. Living the rest of my life. I can't wait for the Muse & the Marketplace Conference in early May in Boston!

I bought Jon Clinch's highly acclaimed debut novel Finn. His book, his entire concept, is a perfect example of what it is to be bold. In terms of networking, I urge each of you in and around New England to attend PEN New England's PEN Hemingway/Winship Awards this Sunday, April 1 at the JFK Museum in Boston. You'll come away both inspired by the speakers and agog over the writers you'll meet. If you haven't joined PEN yet, there are five across the country, please do so. You won't regret it.

In anticipation of edits on Draft One (ten) from the group, I am preparing to sit at the computer for another few weeks, and as a "break," to finalize a query letter. How do I write thee, let me count the ways... Many thanks to everyone (a la Miss Snark, Jenny Bent, Kristin Nelson) who shares strong queries with the public!

I met a freelance writer who is looking for an agent for her book; and I could learn more from her about querying major magazine markets. She and I have set up a meeting to share information. I continued to work on revisions to my novel. My business partner, aka my husband, and I worked on a detailed publicity plan for Negotiation Generation. I was in touch with Penguin's publicity department and found out all the ways they will work with me in my efforts. Chris Castellani, Artistic Director of Grub Street asked me to sit on a panel on promotion and publicity at this year's Muse Conference.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What One Agent Wants You To Know

Posted by Lynne

Buttonwood Bookstore hosted a Grub Street South evening talk for writers on acquiring a literary agent. This informative program was facilitated by Eve Bridburg, founder of Grub Street Writers and literary agent at Zachary, Schuster, Harmsworth in Boston.

Eve structured her remarks around the reality of work at a literary agency and in the world of publishing. There was something for everyone in her suggestions for approaching an agent and then developing a good working relationship with one.

She was generous with her advice on what writers need to do to secure the attention of a reputable agent, given the reality of the current volume of submissions. Whether you already have an agent or dream of landing one, Eve recommends that you always submit your best work. She strongly urges writers to network with other writers, agents and editors at writers' events like the upcoming Muse and the Marketplace Conference in Boston. There, Eve says, you can meet and connect with other writers with whom you may form a writers' group or lean on as trusted readers.

When it comes to querying agents, Eve reinforced what anyone who's done their homework already knows--do your research, follow submission guidelines, and write well. Again, only submit your best writing. Query letter and sample pages must sing; they have to stand out among the hundreds of submissions an agent receives each week.

The insights Eve shared into a day in the life of an agent was compelling. Acquiring work, offering editorial feedback, proposal development, negotiating contracts--in short shepherding a project from inception to completion--is hard work. But wonderful and rewarding work, too.

I enjoyed the part of the program where Eve defined some of the new industry buzz words. She feels strongly that while it's a tough time for "quiet books" and literary fiction, she believes this will turn around. It's a good time to be a debut novelist, according to Eve. Publishers are all looking for the next brilliant voice in fiction. When asked to define the terms upmarket books and high concept projects, Eve said, agents know it when they see it. Upmarket manuscripts bridge commercial and literary fiction, while high concept novels have a more than compelling hook.

In the end, Eve says the writer's goal is to charm and seduce the agent into reading the work. Falling in love with the writing is required, since an agent will read and reread a manuscript to provide direction numerous times.

Feel free to post a question in the comments section of the blog. Perhaps Eve answered it during last night's program and I can pass along her insights. Already have an agent? What advice would you give someone looking to charm and seduce an agent into reading their work?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Hey, You!

By Hannah

The blank page. Every writer seems to tackle it in a slightly different way, starting with a different story element. I love hearing about each approach. Many start with the hook or plot, an idea coming in a sudden “what if” moment. What if Donald Trump was a writing teacher, pounding down the halls at Grub Street?

For me it's not a situation. It's a character who appears out of nowhere, like a new neighbor across the fence. My last main character popped into my head, all swagger and underneath, frustration. What the heck was his problem, I wondered. He seemed to have it all. “No, no,” he’d insist. “There’s more to me.” We took a meandering path to find his story, worth it in the end because of his quirky style.

As I started to revise Mr. Swagger's tale, another character arrived, presumptuous. Brute force was required to push her back out the door. I wasn’t ready; I was busy. Part of me wanted to see if she was strong enough to come back. Oh, she was.

"Hey, you!" she said. She returned with a clear "what if," dangled it in front of me. I didn’t know if I wanted to take her on, in fact, because readers will assume Hannah-the-Writer is making a statement that Hannah-the-Person wouldn’t. “Yeah? Well, what of it?” said this character. “Hey, life hands you what it hands you, doesn’t it? Are you going get dirty, or not?”

So I’m getting dirty, trying to find the details, to recognize pieces of my character. I don’t make it up, take something and hang it on her like a new sweater. I see something and know it belongs. A VW Bug pulled up next to me a few weeks ago, driven by an angular older woman with a sharp haircut. Whomever she is in real life, I recognized her as my character’s mother. A whole backstory tumbled into place. It's coming together, and it's about time. "Hey, you," says my character, "c'mon and get to it."

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Black Days

By Amy

If you can do anything else, do it. Don’t write.

It was advice given to me once at a reading, offered by a debut novelist. We were surrounded by tables with thick linen tablecloths and lovely crystal glasses, a view of the harbor and robust coffee. All in her honor. She should have been beaming, celebrating this first reading of hers before a restaurant filled with eager readers. Instead, her shoulders were hunched and her young face had about it the weight of someone who’s suffered a great loss and knows not to trust that everything will be all right.

Though it was her debut novel, it wasn’t the first book she’d written. She had two more under her bed. Talking with writers, it’s a familiar scenario. Some manage to pick themselves up and move on to the next project, while others cut themselves free of the writer's life, make their way doing something far more reasonable, less damaging: Accounting or office work, perhaps bartending because one night’s tips are better than all the money your writing has earned in a year.

If you’re a writer, you understand the melancholy. That sense of numbness that descends after too many rejections or a particularly difficult one. Or worse, silence. You give into the voices, playing on an endless loop inside your head, voices you’re afraid others will hear, too: You’re not good enough, you have no right to hope to be something you’re not. Your dreams will never come true.

I’ve heard from writers, ones whose names you undoubtedly know, that they’ve shared this affliction. Some call it “angst,” others the “in-between days.” It all amounts to the same. Sometimes all that can see a person through the Black Days is fear. Fear of never being the person you want to be, I want to be. It leaves no choice.

So have a good cry, the kind that wells from the core, painful, wrenching sobs that leave your eyes horribly swollen and your insides twisted, and then catch your breath and press on. Keep moving. Forward. One step, then another because there’s nothing else you can do. Not really. And know there’s hope.

You’ll find it on the next blank page.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Donald Trump: The Writing Teacher

Posted by Lisa

Sure, he has bad hair days. But what millionnaire needs to worry about his hair? He's got money and cars, mansions, not to mention his own TV show. Let's face it, Donald's got it figured out. His mantra, if you don't watch the Apprentice, is this: "It's not personal it's business." Every writer should learn this lesson from the get-go. Why? Because every writer has reacted, at least once, probably more times, to a rejection letter as a personal affront.

So, sign me up. Get Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace conference to put him on a panel. I imagine how he could help we needy writers. In fact, let me propose just what lessons he would want to get across to us:

Lesson #1: Never, Ever Quit
Donald HATES quitters. How, he asks, will you succeed at business if you give up before you reach your goal. If every person who hopes to write followed this single rule, you just know, most of them would succeed.

Lesson #2: Work Well Together
My writers' group is the one factor that made the difference for me between writing a lot of words and writing a novel. Constant support and solid constructive feedback raised the bar for me. I honed my craft and improved my final work.

Lesson #3: Don't be Late
Though there's no clock to punch, that laptop and chair are waiting for us. Structure. Dedication. It all adds up to pages and revision. That's the business side of it. That's the math.

Lesson #4: Be Confident
Taking chances. Testing new waters. Writer's ideas, their images and imaginations, suggest plots and characters that may seem too extraordinary. If Michael Lowenthal was never bothered by the plight of women detained with venereal disease in the Second World War, the beautiful novel, Charity Girl, would not have been written.

Donald Trump would help us. Surely, he's a mentor, a Muse even? Maybe not (the hair may be too distracting). But maybe lessons from business are fruitful to writers. In any event, it would be neat to meet him. I'll mention it to Chris Castellani, Grub Street's artistic director. Who knows? Next year's conference, maybe?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Why Do We Blog?

This week we got tagged by Shanna Thompson to answer the question, why do we blog? We thought our weekly recap of our personal literary journeys was a good place to respond. Especially since we're really a grog, and each of us may have different reasons for doing this crazy thing we call blogging.

Blogging, for me, is taking a trip to writer's cyberspace each week. Sharing my thoughts and hopes and dreams and frustrations with other lovely and talented writers.
This week, also, I am enjoying reading a very unique, engaging, and terribly fun first (or tenth) draft of a novel.

"Spring, spring, spring!" said the frog. "Spring!" said the groundhog. Remember that bedtime story, Moms? It about sums it up for me this week. On the matter of why do I blog: I do it because I want a voice in this parallel universe called the Internet. As for my literary endeavors the week, I did some PR for various writers and organizations I admire, and I met with a dear friend, a literary agent. If you or someone you know is writing literary fiction, let me know; she's looking.

I never would have blogged unless Amy suggested it to the Group; when she did, we all jumped at the idea. The blog has been an education, as we seek to find and refine its structure, how we manage it. There is the challenge of putting aside chunks of literary effort and focusing on one essay a week, hoping to strike a chord. The growth of a community and new friends around the blog is a quiet reward, as well! On the literary side, it's been Muse sign-ups, and a new Page One, Page Two...

I enjoy writing my weekly entry at The Writers' Group blog, and my two or three posts at my parenting blog for different reasons. My parenting blog is aimed at getting my thoughts, and opinions out into the world, and to publicize the release of my book. Here at TWG, I blog for the sense of community, and it's a great exercise in writing essays. As for my literary life, I signed up for the Muse and the Marketplace conference, which will include a twenty page critique of my novel by an editor I admire. Several charming notes, and revisions to my novel rounded out the week.

Literary Happenings: If you're local, please come to Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books this Wednesday, March 28 at 7:00 pm. This month we're featuring Eve Bridburg, a literary agent with Zachary Schuster Harmsworth Agency. Check out the Grub South link for more information. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Nature's Design and Loneliness

By Lynne

The water droplets scattered all over the sky, known to scientists as altocumulos clouds, can provide hours of fun. I remember lying in the grass trying to make out shapes, arguing with my sister. I pointed to a mass of fluff and called out, bunny. She said it looked more like a cat. The presence of these cotton balls of moisture, there in the morning hours, quite often meant late afternoon thundershowers.

Shapes. Patterns. Nature's designs. I like them. This week's blog posts have subtle themes, but they are connected nonetheless. Lisa, and Hannah wrote about the characteristics of the muse. Call it motivation, call it divine intervention. The muse is inspiration, and she can be a fair weather friend. Amy wrote about the intensely personal, "tilted perspective" each writer brings to the art form. Emily Dickinson was quoted as saying, "Tell the truth, but tell it slant."

When someone asks me about my writing, they want to know about my writing routine. Do I write at a predetermined time, schedule a visit with the muse? Is the truth I'll uncover, decided upon in advance?

Anyone who writes knows intimately the sentiment coined by Robert Burns, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, oft go awry." As Amy wrote earlier in the week, this is a common theme for mothers.

In my opinion, there is only one way to be rewarded with the inspiration to tell my story slant. Heather Sellers, in Page by Page, calls it butt in chair. Elizabeth George, in Write Away, calls it the value of bum glue. I prefer the shape of inspiration described in Natalie Goldberg's, Writing Down the Bones.

The pattern for me is to beg, borrow, or steal any time I can. As often as I can. Sometimes just once a day, less often than I'd like for a whole day, I sneak away to my chair, coffee in hand, of course. Then I allow loneliness to find me.

"Use loneliness. Its ache creates urgency to reconnect with the world. Take that aching and use it to propel you deeper into your need for expression--to speak, to say who you are and how you care about light and rooms and lullabies."

Do you welcome loneliness or fear it?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

All-Powerful Muse

By Hannah

A writers’ group expecting pages is a wonderful rationale for doing what your heart tells you to do. In the past, I worked on worthy causes that pushed time for writing down the list. Later, I would say. Tomorrow. With readers expecting something solid once a month, writing moved to a more prominent place. I communicated with the Muse more often, more efficiently, simply by making her a greater priority. Yes, other items fell downward on my to-do list; I never missed them. Hey, life is busy.

Too busy, still. Last week, a friend suffered the inconceivable loss of a son who was to head off to college. He took ill and was gone. Those who knew him describe him as bright, funny, and so alive he put a smile on people’s faces just by walking into a room.

Loss slows everyone. I pushed things aside, put them off, managed only the have-to's. Hours passed, crowded with thoughts, emotion following emotion. No answers, certainly, for my friend, his wife, their other son. Selfishly, I began to think about what I love, what I do. My responsibilities: self, husband, children, family, writing, work, house, friends, community. I don’t know when I last spent so much time allowing ideas to tumble after each other, without purpose. I found myself starting to think about my life in ways the Muse taught me when I finally let her: to sit, quiet, to give it space and time; to determine themes to strengthen, diminish, or drop; to consider balance, and outcomes.

In stepping away from daily demands and allowing myself stillness on issues other than plot and character, I found possible solutions to issues that gnawed at me. I saw opportunities to streamline further the details and responsibilities. I found value in being unsparing, to find more quality time for what is most important.

The Muse is fickle, but remarkably persistent despite the degree to which we ignore her, use her. We go through days, weeks or months when we rush to her between meetings, before we pick up the children, after the day’s pressures are off, if temporarily. We take what we need for our work and dash away. Yet this past week when I started to leave her, I looked back to see her waiting with something more. We stood and stared at each other, until I sat to think, simply because I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know for certain; I believe she was waiting for me to realize, finally, that she is not merely about the Craft of the Story. She is about the story of Life.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


By Amy

I was picking up my children from school last week, waiting in the cafeteria in a clutch of other mothers, when one of the women said through nearly clenched teeth, “I had fun at your party, it was really good.”

She had attended the Liar’s Party I’d hosted for Patry Francis. All who were there agreed it was something different from the usual Silpada or Tupperware. Intriguing, thought-provoking, they said. More, though. Many of the women there were astonished by Patry’s ordinariness – they spoke easily with her, dressed like her, she was someone who could have been their neighbor or another mother from the school. Not someone who’d written a book, one they saw on bookstore tables. A real, live author.

“Aren’t you writing?” I said to the woman. We'd talked before about how she someday wanted to write.

“What do I have to say?” Her face twisted in frustration, her jaw still taut.

She assumed since she was living a quiet life, a mother’s life, within the smothering confines of suburbia, her thoughts, opinions, her musings on life were irrelevant.

Shirley Jackson didn’t think so. You know Shirley Jackson, the author of the most chilling short story of all time, The Lottery. Yes, Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find is stupendous, but it hasn’t haunted me since sixth grade the way The Lottery has. Well, Miss Jackson was first and foremost a mother. To four children who no doubt would be diagnosed with ADHD by today’s standards. That quiet life she led as a housewife in North Bennington, Vermont -- tending to cooking and cleaning, mending and PTA -- was fodder for her best writing. Her memoirs on raising children were much beloved and The Lottery is said to be based on her observations of the cruelties of small town life.

Hilma Wolitzer didn’t think so, either. She’s so predictably brilliant, yet so completely unaware. For years, she regarded herself as a housewife, content with cleaning out closets and baking over-the-top birthday cakes. She swallowed the yearning to write until she stepped outside of her mental box and tried a class. The first time she read aloud an essay, a classmate shredded it. Boring, he sneered, essentially saying her topic of hearth and home was meaningless. The instructor disagreed, passionately. He wanted her to write more.

Oh my goodness, and Carol Shields! This literary darling, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, regarded herself as a mother first, careful to check her children's homework and comb their hair before they left for school. Only then, after the breakfast dishes were washed, would she sit at her typewriter and create. At noon, when the little cherubs returned home for lunch, she’d push aside her writing again until their break was over.

So what did they have to say? They all wrote about small lives...the smallness of life. Yet each brought something fresh, an entirely tilted perspective. Their words had – no - have meaning because these women have taken the universal and made it intensely personal. It’s what a writer does.

So what does that mother, my friend, have to say? Nothing, I suppose. Or anything.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Your Muse

Posted by Lisa

Last week’s post (an A to Z essay) was a challenge. I wrote it as part of my homework for Grace Talusan’s weekend Grub Street course. I decided to give another one of Grace's writing exercises a try. It’s a “How-To” essay, using the second point of view.

The Right (and Wrong) Way to Treat Your Muse:

First, remember, be grateful for your Muse. Say thanks when she arrives. No, say thank you, actually. Be formal. Make her feel like the welcome guest she is. In fact, you should whisper something like this: “Ooh, what a lovely sentence before me. Muse, how thoughtful of you to come. Thank you, kind lady. Make yourself comfortable. Please stay for a while. As long as you like.”

No one knows just what form a Muse takes. Is she ghost-like, a vaporous presence that hovers beside you? Does she inhabit your body, take up residence, however brief, in your soul, or in your typing fingertips? Or is she tiny, like a leprechaun, those cheeky well-dressed tykes; is she two inches tall, hiding under your chair, darting about the legs of your desk? Who knows? Because of that, you must cover all bases to treat her well…

Keep the room about 72 degrees; a shivering Muse is an unhappy Muse. Wrap a blanket around your shoulders. What Muse wouldn’t like to cozy up to a cozy writer? Speaking of cozying, brush your teeth, please. It takes less than a minute and makes you much more appealing. And wear clean socks. Absolutely. You don't want to frighten her away!

A Muse, you know, is skittish. Please don’t tell me, that’s news to you. How long have you been writing? They are frightened of, and will scurry away from, each and all of the following (in no particular order).

* Telephone rings
* E-mail bings from your computer (this is a big one – the whole technology thing freaks them out is my guess)
* Children in general
* Husbands, definitely husbands
* Parents too
* Favorite TV shows (my Muse, for instance, will disappear at 9:00 on Friday, when What Not to Wear comes on the Learning Channel it so happens)
* Beautiful weather (coinciding with times when a writer longs to be outside, either tramping on a snowy trail or basking in sunshine)
* A writer’s hunger or need for caffeination (Muses don’t like these cranky pants)

Your Muse doesn’t say good-bye when she disappears. It’s not that she’s rude - she’s anything but. She floats off in a breath. When the phone rings. When the laptop snaps closed. When you take a quick look at your e-mail (I told you not to do that).

To close, do realize, there are plenty of writers. Published, unpublished, stuck in that nowhere land with a pub date in sight but no book in hand as yet. But a Muse, a good Muse, they are few and far between. Treasure your Muse. Don't force your Muse into another writer's hands. Turn off the phone. Forget about the TV. Write alone, in peace.

Love your Muse! Your writing will thank you.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Creating Fiction

Grub Street Writers posted details about the Muse & the Marketplace, its annual writing conference. In the section describing Philip Weinstein's seminar, Christopher Castellani, Artistic Director of Grub Street, added a comment:

"I heard Phil Weinstein deliver this lecture a few months ago, and I am still haunted and inspired by his refreshing and illuminating take on why fiction matters. I hope this lecture will elevate the discourse of the conference beyond the “how” and “what” of writing fiction and into the “why.”

Whether writing or reading, our worlds of fiction are magical and meaningful.

My son is in love, head over heels, with reading. He just turned seven and he carries a book wherever he goes; I just found a Junie B, that cheeky, lovely girl, in his hockey bag. In the mornings, Evan and I are up by six. Side by side, we sit on the couch, our dalma-chien, happily cozied between us. I tap on my laptop, Evan reads. Reality - school for him, work for me - can wait an hour while we live, for a while, in different worlds. What happy places to be. How joyful to watch him discover the magic between the covers of a book.
We are readers. We are writers. We are so very lucky.

This week I closed my office door, ignored the phone, and continued revising my manuscript. Sorry, I know it sounds boring, but I'm having much more fun than I expected. Hopefully the weather will lift and The Group will be able to make it to Grub Gone Silly tonight; I love Steve Almond. If you're there, please say "hello."

This week I wrote corporate materials. Nothing literary to report, so I thought. Yet as I prepared my son's lunch this morning, daydreaming -- do I twist a character this way, or that? -- I realized I have been gelling. In the shower, waiting for email, in the car, while I cook. I held this woman at bay for months, and now she seeps in, becomes more solid. Also, if you're going to miss Grub Gone Silly, visit Leslie Talbot's Singular Existence to put a Friday smile on your face!

I admit it; I occasionally google my book title to see if anyone is writing about it. This week there were two articles about me and my book; one in the Nashua Telegraph, and one in the Christian Science Monitor. Early buzz is a very good thing. The best surprise of all is that I found out you can pre-order my book from Amazon. My page there is bare bones, but it's there. Each step along the way helps to affirm, it's really going to happen.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Very Happy Anniversary

By Lynne

Today is my anniversary. Not of my marriage. Not of the birth of my children. Today is the anniversary of the sale of my first book. One year ago today, at 10:35 am EST, my agent called to say she'd accepted an offer from Berkley/Penguin on my behalf. I remember everything about that day with the clarity reserved for all struggles that end in triumph. I remember what I was wearing, what I ate, and who I was with. I remember saying over and over, I'm a soon-to-be published author.

One year later, I'm still a soon-to-be published author. I'm just a little bit closer. In six months, my book, Negotiation Generation: Take back your parental authority without punishment, will be on book store shelves. Here is the gist of my journey.

As a column writer for a number of parenting magazines and newspapers, I'd always dreamed of writing a book. One with my thoughts and opinions laid down on the page. I imagined it filled with stories related to me by the hard-working parents and professionals I'd worked with over the years. I even had the cover imprinted in my mind. I thought a great deal about my book, yet I never found the time, or made the commitment to write it.

When my mother died in 2000, I had one of those moments. You know, the kind where you realize time is swiftly moving, and nothing you want to do in your life should be postponed. I decided it was time to write my book.

In 2001, I finished my proposal, three chapters, and my agent research. I sent queries out to five agents. After four form rejection letters, I received a request for my proposal. Five days later, an offer of representation. Three years and thirty plus rejection letters later (for two different projects), I made the tough decision to terminate my agreement for representation with my agent. She'd gotten me into four editorial meetings with small houses, but was never able to seal the deal. I knew her passion for my work had waned, leaving me to wonder if it had ever really been there in the first place.

I thought about giving up; though my husband says I just threatened to give up. He never believed for a minute I would. He let me wallow in my rejection for a short time, and then encouraged me to start fresh, try again. So I created yet another spin on my thoughts and ideas about parenting, and started querying agents again.

The members of my writers' group-- three of the most supportive writers you could ever hope to know-- will tell you my experience was a whirlwind of positive responses. Emails, phone calls, a trip to New York, and a book deal in short order. To some it seemed like it all came easily. I knew better. It was exactly six years and three projects from start to book deal.

In the last year, I've written another proposal for a parenting book, and I'm revising my novel. Still, none of it comes easy. And I know there are zero guarantees about future publication. But this much I do know. It can happen. It does happen. My experience taught me a valuable lesson, one I'd like to share with you. I've learned that the difference between a writer and an author is persistence.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Help Wanted?

By Hannah

If asked to quickly define a writers' group, in the past I might have said it is a group of writers who serve as critical readers for each other. Sound the buzzer, wrong answer.

Lynne and I went to Grub Street’s lunchtime revision seminar with Hallie Ephron last week. (Highly recommended, as is Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel for all writers.) Halfway through, Hallie dropped an offhand comment: readers are only good for one or two readings, even a writers' group. Once a story is stuck in a reader's head, it is extremely hard to look at it with the fresh eyes needed for good critique.

Logical, yes; however, my planned revision process shattered. I am the revision queen, and it was like discovering the high wire on which I slid would vanish halfway across the chasm. In fact, I was hours away from delivering my Real First Draft (as opposed to progressive chunks that fashioned a beginning, middle and end). Given that my group was one read down, did I only have one read to go? More important, was Real Draft One the version that would most require their feedback?

Panicked internal debate produced a new truth: it's not about a writers group. With or without one, a writer must choose and use readers sparingly and strategically, based on the stage of the project and what level of feedback is most useful to push it to the next level.

The Formative Draft, aka, who-knows-how-many chunks that close with The End. Some people don't want anyone reading then; me, I tend to wander, explore, even with an outline. Amy, Lisa and Lynne nudge me on track, and toward better tracks.

The Real First Draft. This I want read by them again. I want writers' critique of plot, stakes, characterization, spots with a lack or deluge of details. Broad strokes as well as an eye for detail, start to finish. I already have ideas on how to refine, adjust; will they confirm those impulses?

Close to Done Draft(s). These, I hope, will be a smoothing, small shifts, line edits, those kinds of changes. At this stage, I am comfortable recruiting other friends, one a writer, one or two who don't write but worship books.

Final Draft. I don't want to overdo the reading and not get the thing off to an agent. While I hope the above rounds take a couple of weeks each, who knows? (Maybe I could slip this to the Group in between selections from my new Formative Draft?)

My new definition of a writers group: a synergistic group of writers who help each other develop discipline and become better students of the craft, who encourage each other to stretch to new heights at all stages of the process.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Blood on My Hands

By Amy

This past weekend I killed my darlings.

We’ve all heard the advice and some of us have even heeded it, now it was my turn. I gathered my knives and set upon my manuscript -- it was a blood bath. I cut and I cut and I cut until my novel told from three points-of-view was whittled down to one lone narrator.

My agent suggested it a few weeks ago and I listened, I truly did. She said the story would be better for it. I waited several days before responding to her email, contemplating the pros and cons of each. I called every published author I knew and asked their opinions. When I spoke with my agent later that week, I explained that I really wanted to keep all three points-of-view. She was kind and supportive, trusting I knew what I was doing.

I loved my other narrators! They hummed and belched, sobbed and chattered freely on the page. We had met for so many months as they shared their stories. I would sit in my chair, taking dictation as they settled in next to me. They were too real to let go. I made myself comfortable being inside their heads, while in my own, a niggling doubt pricked away. These past weeks, I’ve tried to make the multiple narrators work: I placed my characters in different settings; introduced new challenges; even tried to tweak a characters personality. All of my attempts felt forced. Still, I couldn’t let go.

Until this weekend when I deleted all of the chapters told from two of the others’ perspectives. Reading through my pages, writing new chapters to replace the hollowed out parts, I began to understand what my agent already knew: The manuscript had a better flow. The problem was some of my best writing was contained within the pages that were gutted. While the passages I adored may have bolstered my vanity, they weighed down the actual story. In a matter of minutes, what took months to create was cut away.

This is revising. It is painful and humbling, terrifying and necessary. Those pages, my favorites, are gone and I mourn them. In the end, though, I have to do what’s best for my story.

So alongside my darlings, I’ve learned to bury my ego. May we all rest in peace.

Monday, March 12, 2007

How to Become a Writer

Posted by Lisa

This is homework. From Grace Talusan's wonderful weekend course at Grub Street. It's called A to Z writing. You'll see what I mean.

Albert Einstein made a mistake. Big one it turns out. Cosmic in size, actually.

Don't believe me?

Expansion of the universe is accepted as fact now, pretty much. Funny thing is that Einstein, the brightest bulb in the history of science, didn't buy into the big bang. Georges Lamaitre, a French Catholic Priest who studied the skies, came to visit Einstein in the early 1900's, bringing his big bang theory along.

"Hogwash." (It's rumored Einstein muttered this, and more, when Lamaitre tried to convince him the universe is expanding).

"Just listen," Lamaitre pleaded with Einstein in his broken English. "Keep believe the universe is static and the world not learn the truth."

Let me explain to you what this has to do with writing, and yes, it has much to do with writing. Mostly, you need to accept your flaws, as Einstein did, later, much later. Not one of us is perfect. Occasionally, a writer comes along with no formal training, no history of failures (no manuscripts, novel length or flash fiction, in that bottom drawer), but this writer is one in a million. People in my writers’ group, close friends each of them, helped me change my idea of who I think a writer is.

Quite a few people try to write, sending a short story to a literary journal, penning the first few chapters of a thriller or a quiet literary novel. Really though, a writer must write, and not only write, but write well (as Miss Snark would say), recognizing his strengths and weaknesses and working to overcome weaknesses and draw upon strengths. Simple, isn't it?

Too many of us embrace the joy of writing, those enchanting moments when a subconcious haunting is pondered, relived, and brought to life on the page. Understand, please understand, there is more to writing than euphoric visits from your Muse when the words you drop on the page, dance together seamlessly, a delight to discover. Very rarely that happens.

Whoever says writing is easy is lying. X-Files, that TV show from the nineties, always fascinated me. You knew, in each episode, that nothing would come easy to Mulder and Scully. Zest for your writing, longing each day to capture the Muse, must never overlook the days the Muse won't let herself be caught.

Choosing each letter of the alphabet consecutively for the first word in a 26 line piece of writing is a challenge. It forces you to carefully select your words. It encourages you to know the ending; you have to plan ahead to hit those tricky ending letters. The end result is more varied writing. Short sentences, long ones. This is an eye opener in prose structure. (Thanks, Grace)
Let my writing from this day forward never be dull or predictible!
By the way, the Muse for this piece of writing came from my first grade son's science project: The Big Bang and the Scientists that Discovered It.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Honing Our Craft

Lynne and Hannah enjoyed a wonderful seminar with Hallie Ephron this week. Lisa looks forward to Grace Talusan's course at Grub Street this weekend. Amy is going to lock herself in her office and finish her latest round of revisions.

I'm getting antsy. You see, I'm so looking forward to Grace's course, I'm like a big fat sponge that's staring at a spill - ready to soak it all up. I'll fill you in on the details and certainly share "light bulb moments" that are sure to come my way.

Last night, I hosted a Liar's Party for Patry Francis and it was a huge success. Hank Phillippi Ryan, author of the forthcoming Prime Time (Harlequin, June 2007) sent the most gorgeous arrangement of tulips (thank you, Hank!) and my guests snapped up copies of Patry's The Liar's Diary. Do you have yours yet? Good luck on book tour, Patry! Also, I sent out three charming notes and received three responses. What continues to surprise me is how touched authors are to receive a compliment in the mail, to have their writing acknowledged. So, please, send a little kindness out into the world, and tell a writer how their work has affected you.

Hallie Ephron's class in revision is a must-take for anyone at any level in this craft. Wow! Also attended Amy's Liar's Diary party for Patry Francis, who is off on a tour of the West Coast starting today -- Seattle, Portland, Davis and San Francisco. Keep an eye out for her, or check her link for details!

Speaking of light bulb moments, I had one this week. As I dug deeper, revising a portion of my novel, I came face to face with a painful experience of one of my characters. Reading through other portions of my work-in-progress, I realized this had been informing the story all along. Wow, that Muse is really something! I really enjoyed Hallie's class; if you ever get a chance to take a workshop with her, do it. Her clarity around the revision process helps enormously. I wrote three charming notes, for which I received three charming responses. But the best thing about this week is The Writers' Group meets tonight.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Read at Your Own Risk

By Lynne

Yesterday, I read the first few paragraphs of my novel at a writers’ workshop. Fifteen writers. One published, fabulous workshop leader. The adrenaline spilled from my kidneys and circulated at warped speed throughout my body. It felt good. This was what I call the gutsy reading. I was brave because I knew the piece was ready. I needed to take the risk to hear the feedback. I welcomed it. The good, the bad, or the overly critical.

This wasn’t the first time snippets of my novel have been shared outside writers’ group. My first reading of a portion of it I call the naïve reading. Two years ago, I went to a program all starry eyed. Infatuated with the idea of being a fiction writer. I couldn’t wait to share what I thought was my unique story. I got slammed. In retrospect, justifiably so. What I shared was purple, you could even go so far as to say amethyst, prose. All internal dialogue. Adjectives and adverbs and passive voice, oh my!!

The next several workshops I went to were my no way I’m reading affairs. With my first experience fresh, then indelible, I was never ever going to read in a workshop again. I vowed that the only kind of reading I would ever do would be the published author reading. The one where you stand up at a podium and read your work to supportive onlookers. And because you’re published, critique would remain polite, or at the very least out of ear shot.

Reading your work to anyone, never mind people you don’t know, is a major decision for a writer. In previous blog entries, we’ve all written about sharing our work in writers’ group for the first few times, and what a risky thing this was to do. Reading in a workshop, when you don’t have any idea of the group members’ personal biases, is even more perilous. Group members might like your work yet, want to help you bring it to the next level. (I’m an optimist) Or perhaps they really think you are ready to hear what’s not working in the piece. Some writers like to workshop for workshop sake. On some level, they enjoy the critical thinking process of pulling a work apart. And if there are agents or editors in the workshop, get ready to hear feedback that has a marketplace agenda.

For any writer, reading work in public, getting critiqued, and then processing the feedback is very heavy stuff. Fiction writing is so personal and the tastes of readers subjective, making you a bit more fragile when it comes to criticism. If you do choose to read, just go into it knowing that feedback is likely to be frank, and you may be a bit bruised by it. If you think you have a thick enough skin or you feel your work is ready—go for it. Watch out though, more often than not, feedback is more constructive or negative than positive. Many who critique leave no feelings spared.

I’ve highlighted types of readings I’m aware of: the gutsy reading, the naïve reading, the no way I’m reading, and the published reading. Are there any other types of reading? What have your reading experiences been like?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Feet First

By Hannah

A friend from childhood is an author. Two beautiful books in print. She listens to me as we sit on the back porch of a restaurant that sits out over a pond. We drink water, eat salads. She is patient as I talk about writing. Not yet. Soon. A little. She has her M.F.A., graduated from a prestigious program, has won grants. Asks me questions, encourages. She tells me about a current project that she hesitates to finish. When she types The End, she has to send her child out into the world, with no power to protect it, with only the belief she has done what she can to make sure it stands on its own two feet.

Months later, I finish edits. I don’t tell anyone. It may need another revision; the third time, fourth, or sixth, may be the charm. It needs to be packed into gray cardboard boxes and delivered to Group and two friends who have read bits and pieces through the years. Even if they are at their most constructive, no holding back, it will be only the kindergarten of my story’s venture into the wide world. I wait to make copies.

A neighbor stops me in the library, invites me to a women’s night out. I can’t, I tell her, I’m going to Writers’ Group. “Oh,” she says, “a writer’s group?” The door is wide open. I nod and smile. I can’t tell her about the group, beyond stating how wonderful they are, without getting into the fact that yes, I write. I have a draft novel. I change the subject. I want to hide it behind my skirts, protect it.

I watch my son play jazz drums at a concert. The 1,000-seat auditorium is packed with students and s. My daughter is impatient; no chorus tonight? That's her favorite. My husband and I tap our toes, smile. This is the first thing our son has done on his own. As long as he keeps time, we can’t even tell if he’s making mistakes. This is between him and the drums and the teachers; it’s all his. It takes time to reach that point; when it happens, it’s exciting.

I decide to make the copies, to ask the Writers Group to read my query letter. I am going to send it out into the world. The writing is all mine. I'm excited.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Sun Salutations

By Amy

This week I sent off an essay to the New York Times Magazine’s Lives page. It’s arguably the most prestigious forum for an essayist, a goal I set for myself many years ago after reading Jay Allison’s story one bleary-eyed morning. This piece crystallized the purpose of writing for me. It’s a perfect essay, if such a thing exists. All these years later, I continue to be haunted by it. It’s made me want to write one equally flawless.

Technically, his wasn’t for the Lives page, About Men I think. Semantics. He reached for and grabbed the brass ring. That’s what I’m doing, reaching. My submission will almost certainly be rejected, a month’s silence will be the only notice I receive. But it feels good to stretch, doesn’t it?

Years ago, I told my husband, a newspaperman, I wanted to be a writer. I submitted my first essay to the Boston Globe; this was before I understood the benefits of simultaneous submissions. Having been in the business a while, he knew better than to expect me to do well. Think of it as a hobby, he said. Though he meant those words to somehow shield me from rejection, instead they galvanized me. So days later when an editor from the Globe called to say they were running my essay, my husband was the first person I told. Since then I’ve had many other essays published, freelanced news stories and features, a regular column in the Globe, I even had a couple of radio essays produced by Jay Allison himself.

There are still people in my life who don’t believe in me, who perhaps think I’m too much like them to be a writer, not quite the type who could get a novel published. But what’s relevant is I don’t feel that way. I’m pushing myself up against everyone’s expectations, stretching, reaching for goals beyond my skills of today to be a better writer tomorrow.

A few months back I was at a reading, chatting up an author whose reviews you’ve undoubtedly read in recent months, he and his adored book are everywhere, and we were talking about Lives. He has several books published, the most recent I expect will win major awards, but he said his goal is to get a Lives column. It’s that constant striving, the desire to be better, that improves and informs each successive book of his.

So my advice is to reach far and wide, higher than you’ve ever imagined possible for someone such as yourself. Not as a matter of being a malcontent, but to stretch beyond whatever box you or someone else has confined you to.

Then someday perhaps you’ll snatch that brass ring and say, What next?

Monday, March 05, 2007

All Business

Posted by Lisa

Well, this won't be the most creative post I write. Or the most heartfelt. Or reflective, or probing, or curious. But, it is important, because I'm thinking about taxes. Arrgh! Yawn! Yowza!

I spent the better part of yesterday morning tallying receipts, checking credit card statements, flipping through my checkbook, and getting organized in general. I came up with seven categories of the dough I spent on writing in 2006, but I'm wondering if I'm missing anything. Here's what I came up with:

1- Postal Fees - all those query letters from my agent search, the SASE's, the partials, the fulls.

2- Books I bought on writing craft.

3- Fiction books that help me hone my craft - this is deductible, right? (Michael Lowenthal's Charity Girl was like a weekend seminar on character.)

4- Seminars, conferences.

5- Travel to conferences.

6- Parking for Grub Street courses I attended.

7- Office expenses (paper and ink).

The total of what I spent on my habit was ... astounding. Though I'm thrilled I can deduct this, I've been bitten by the write-it-off bug. Please, you more experienced writers out there, is there anything I'm missing? I thank you and my family thanks you!

Oh, and while we're on the subject of Michael Lowenthal, he's speaking at Porter Square Books in Somerville Thursday night at 7:00 PM.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Community

Tuesday night, Amy (l) and Lynne (r) attended Patry Francis' workshop at Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books. As expected, the crowd loved her and lined up to buy her amazing book, The Liar's Diary. Thank you, Patry!

Yay for trying to hone our craft. Although family obligations prevented me from attending Patry Francis's presentation at Buttonwood Books, I know Amy and Lynne found it valuable! I read a piece on Patry's literary journey and found it (and her) to be inspirational.

Good news for readers: Kristy Kiernan's debut, Catching Genius, will be released next week, March 6. Buy this book, you won't be disappointed. Also, I wrote charming notes to several writers and received charming notes in return. This is something Carolyn See recommends we writers do -- not with expectations of any sort -- simply to send good thoughts out into the world. So, in honor of Carolyn See, the patron goddess of writers, how about you head on over to her website and write her a charming note.

I am brushing up my query and rereading Best American Short Stories 2006 edited by Ann Patchett; thanks to Amy for reminding us how fabulous it is! She cited Edith Pearlman's story; you can't miss Paul Yoon's lead-off piece, either. Or any of the others. Maybe next go-round I'll try the short story form, not because I will be faster at that, but because it is so gorgeous and challenging. I also have promised myself Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006, edited by Dave Eggers with the introduction by Matt Groening. How fun does that sound?

I want to begin by saying thanks to Carolyn See. Our Making a Literary Life Friday posts inspire me to take little steps each week that are impacting my writing in wonderful ways. I'm so glad she's pleased we modeled our posts after her not-to-be-missed book. I sent out two charming notes this week and received a charming response. I keep each correspondance I write and receive in a separate email folder. On days when doubt runs high, I read the kind and encouraging words of writers who know how it feels to navigate this writing life. And I went to two programs. Patry's was a lot of fun. Hallie Ephron's workshop on character development was excellent. I've been tweaking character traits all week.

Literary Events:
Carolyn See, whose fabulous book is the inspiration for Friday's MLLF posts, is doing a reading at the Auditorium Library of Bucks County Community College on Friday, March 9, at 8 p.m. in Newton, PA. If anyone is down that way, make a point to see her and introduce yourselves!

Thursday, March 01, 2007


When you repeatedly come across a certain phrase, or two people tell you a strikingly similar story, you know you're supposed to be listening for meaning. Really listening.

This week, I read David Elkind's wonderful new book, The Power of Play. A must read for every parent and teacher. Simultaneously, I picked up a copy of Susan K. Perry's, Writing in Flow. In the first chapters of each of these well-written books, the authors summarize the years of work done by philosopher-psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly researched the special union of work, play, and love. When these things collide, and feelings of enjoyment-- not bound by time, or self-consciousness, or fear of failure--run high, a person is said to be in flow. It's an abstract concept to be sure. Unless you've experienced it.

In a loose sense, we've all written about being in flow this week. Lisa chooses not to reveal the intricacies of her work-in-progress, because she feels the essence of her work, and play, and love might lose something in translation. Amy's post explored the notion that ultimately the process of writing should be enough. If we free ourselves from the distractions of finding an agent, a publisher, and interpreting the whims of the marketplace--perhaps then we can be in flow. And once in flow, I would argue, you will probably create your best work, and those trappings of the literary life will fall right into place. Hannah shared her thoughts about actors as artists. The role models she described embody the notion of working in flow. Have you seen, The Queen?

Last night my husband, and biggest supporter, and I talked about balancing my promotional activities for my non-fiction book, with my compelling desire to keep working on the revisions to my novel. He's concerned that I might be working too much. I am. Yet when I'm drawn into the world of my fictional characters, there is where work, and play, and love collide. Deep in revisions, I'm working hard on what Chekov calls the "little particulars." This week, in a trance-like state, I added in the details of my protagonist's daughter's bedroom. I'm "word painting," playing with descriptions of a bedspread, a window seat, and a doll's house. The time flew by, and when I finished, I was more refreshed than if I took a bath, a long walk, or a nap.

My favorite quote by psychologist Jean Piaget was aimed at children. He said, for children, work is play and play is work. In flow, I am a child. One who never wants to grow up.

How do you balance the longing for being in flow, with the practical details of daily living?