Monday, March 31, 2008

Explode the Code

Posted by Lisa Marnell

Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Black Stallion by Walter Farley

Little House on the Prairie Series Laura Ingalls Wilder

Night of the Red Horse by Patricia Leitch

Narnia books by CS Lewis

Backwater by Joan Bauer

Upper Fourth at Mallory Towers by Enid Blighton

The Beach Club by Elin Hilderbrand

Star Girl by Jerry Spinelli

A Kiss from Maddelena by Christopher Castellani

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Avoidance by Michael Lowenthal

Friday, March 28, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Breakthroughs

There comes a moment in your writing when something happens, an event you hadn't planned, a thread you never expected, but it's somehow woven itself onto the page and into your story. It transforms everything. It usually happens more than once, but the first or second time is so utterly unexpected, it may even make us gasp. What's been your most striking revelation on the page-- and off.

Lisa Marnell
I find lately, I discover revelations in a character's backstory. I know, for instance, my MC's mom is gruff, direct, to the point to a fault; she's not a cool parent, but she's got reason to be that way. In my young adult work in progress, she got pregnant young and poof! up in smoke went her dreams for a life larger than the small town existence that lay before her. In making the decision to keep this baby (Rose, my MC), and marry the father, the mom shows a strength of character tinged with sad regret that things should have been different.

Amy MacKinnon
When I first started writing TETHERED, my protagonist Clara buried each body with a candle. She lit the candle before she prepared each body and when she finished, blew it out and tucked it against her client's thigh. While I liked the basic imagery, it somehow lacked enough umph. It was months later while still revising that first chapter that revelation struck: undertakers are surrounded by flowers and wouldn't Clara make each gesture unique? From then on, Clara buried the dead with a flower to represent the life lived, say for the man who beat his wife, marigolds (cruelty in love) or for the outspoken sales clerk, white violets (unabashed candor). It added an entirely new layer to my protagonist and the story. And it was a delight to research.

I have news: TETHERED sold this week in Poland! Karin Schulze, the foreign rights director at Crown, has made an extraordinary effort on behalf of this book. So far, she's sold it to eight countries. Thanks, Karin.

Hannah Roveto
My protagonist loves baseball, as did his great-aunt, and it's a strong theme running throughout the book. In early drafts, the character had some basic tics and habits -- rubbing his chin, that sort of thing. Finally I realized that his restlessness is best symbolized by the constant picking up of items near him, rolling them in his hands, tilting them into position for a curveball, a fast ball, a slider. As Amy said, it was such a natural fit, that it was no surprise once I'd found it, it was fun to research, and fun to write as he plays with different items in different circumstances throughout.

Lynne Griffin
I love this topic, since I do enjoy revelations when I write. And like Amy, I gasp. There is nothing more exhilarating than the joy of discovery, when a character says or does something unexpected, so utterly spot on.

In LIFE WITHOUT SUMMER, my earliest revelation came with the seed for my novel. I read a beautiful essay musing about all the people who would be grieving the loss of a loved one who died during the tragic events of September 11, 2001; how even with similarities in the grief process, each person’s grief experience would echo in a different key. Right then the idea for my novel found its way to me. What if two women, not alike at all, handled tragedy in her life in a completely different way? How would the choices each made while grieving, strengthen relationships that were already strong or deepen the cracks in relationships long broken?

Nature is the revelation of God—Art is the revelation of man.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

Without a doubt, life as a writer is unpredictable. Compared to riding a rollercoaster or pushing a boulder up a large mountain, suffice it to say, it's hard work. Yet there are days when if I could only store the exhilaration up in a bottle and wedge the cork in tight, I could sell it for more than any book deal posted on Publishers Marketplace.

The trick is to manage the ups and downs, to get a handle on my point of view. So here's a little exercise I use when I need a little perspective.

One month from now: I will be a panelist and a moderator for two workshops at this year's Muse and the Marketplace conference.
One month ago: I was struggling to embrace my multifaceted writing identity. (Funny, my solution was to change my outlook.)

Two months from now: I will have completed a first draft of my second novel.
Two months ago: I worried my editor wouldn't procure any blurbs for my first novel. (This just in, Margot Livesey, author of Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona says, "Life Without Summer is a sparkling debut." I promise to share more in a future post.)

Three months from now: I will have Advance Review Copies of my novel out for review.
Three months ago: I was finishing the edits suggested to me by my insightful editor, hoping I would get the tone just right.

Four months from now: I will have met the team at St Martin's working to launch my novel.
Four months ago: I met my editor for the first time.

Five months from now: I will have a preliminary cover. (Pray it's one I love.)
Five months ago: St Martin's Press sold French rights to Life Without Summer to Belfond.

Six months from now: I hope to have a completed manuscript to my writers' group for feedback.
Six months ago: The wonderful Elisabeth Weed sells Life Without Summer to St Martin's Press.

Seven months from now: I will be proudly standing next to debut novelist, Amy MacKinnon on publication day for Tethered.
Seven months ago: I was preparing for publication of Negotiation Generation, yet secretly consumed with worry because Life Without Summer was weeks from going out on submission.

Eight months from now: I will be planning publicity for Life Without Summer.
Eight months ago: I was reluctant to take a vacation because I was convinced I hadn't done enough to round out my publicity plan for Negotiation Generation.

Nine months from now: I will be ringing in the new year--the year I become a published novelist.
Nine months ago: I went to New York to meet with my publicity team for Negotiation Generation.

Ten months from now: I will be reading reviews of my novel. (Yes, Amy, I will read them.)
Ten months ago: An editor expresses interest in Life Without Summer following the Manuscript Mart at the Muse and the Marketplace conference.

Eleven months from now: Life Without Summer will be published by St Martin's Press.
Eleven months ago: I took an amazing workshop with Michael Lowenthal. He challenged us to astonish readers by taking risks and dedicating ourselves to learning craft. I am forever grateful to you, Michael.

Twelve months from now: I will be a published novelist.
Twelve months ago: My agent finished reading my novel and suggested major revisions.

Perspective. Notice how time and distance allow for a more accurate view, one that shows how each step brings you closer to living the literary life. Like everything in life, the closer you are to things the harder it is to truly see. I invite you to take the perspective-taking challenge. See where you've been and imagine where you're going. You can do it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pondering Criticism

by Hannah Roveto

From a letter by Shelby Foote to Walker Percy:

"I think a writer's mistakes are infinitely more interesting than any editor's "corrections" (and mind you, a critic is only an editor-once-removed) -- I think no one can have the view of the book the writer himself has, the CREATIVE view... It sometimes happens that certain scenes have no evident function; the critic says, Take this out. But these very scenes work in some way to bring out the total effect, heighten the contiguous scenes, and give the whole book its peculiar individuality. Yet any smart editor would have cut them -- I'm not talking about a dummy, I mean really smart: the speed of the book would have been picked up, the reading would go better... but don't you see? It wouldn't be the same book. A man must learn from his mistakes (even granting he was wrong) -- from MAKING them, not from being saved from them."

Foote goes on to say each book has its own problems, but still, "A man must write for himself, and then he must accept the penalties -- including the possibility of damnation."

I've reread this letter several times in the past two days, thinking of it in light of our last group meeting. The first chunk of my revisions were read (positive reaction!) and we also discussed reviews. (Three votes to "read once," one vote to ignore altogether.)

Shelby Foote is onto something. The weight criticism is given must come from the writer, and nowhere else. Commentary must be screened in light of how much we trust and respect the reviewer (so pick people you trust on your journey!), and its usefulness in identifying mistakes. If in our heart of hearts what lies on the page is something we have to go forward with, then we've made our choice; no matter the reaction, it was the right choice.

My mother is an artist, a jeweler, and even pieces made as recently as a year ago are sometimes melted down. She has learned a new technique. She has changed, improved, and those pieces reflect a lesser benchmark. Some pieces she believed in, that others said weren't right for their shows, have gone on to be in museums and in gorgeous coffee table books. Some pieces she has "outgrown" but saved get rave reviews. She doesn't agree with them, either, any longer. What I see in her is that she is never her review, and she is not even her work. The work reflects a side of her at one particular point in time. She knows this, deep in her heart, and continues to learn and to evolve. As Shelby Foote notes, "Life is long and the individual facets of Art are fleeting, except of course in the long view: which no writer ever takes, being a peculiar sort of fool, and therefore wise."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Judging Amy

By Amy MacKinnon

My friends who know me well sometimes call me Judging Amy. No, it's not because I resemble Amy Brenneman (everyone says Hot Lips, not that you asked), it's because I do judge a book by its cover. What, don't you? There are some sites devoted to this very topic, this is my favorite. I don't always agree with their assessments, but I do appreciate the thoughtfulness behind them. I especially like it when the designer comments.

My absolute favorite book cover of all time is Water for Elephants. Isn't it gorgeous? Good book too, but I didn't need to tell you that, did I?
I also love, love, love Cormac McCarthy's cover for The Road. That gold sticker is such a nice tough. And it's a devastating story, one of the best I've yet read.

What do you think of these two covers? Jonis Agee's The River Wife and Anita Amirrezvani's The Blood of Flowers are works of art that belong in a museum, I think. In fact, I would hang Orange Prize nominee Anita Amirrezvani's in my home.

Oh, and here's the paperback of Jon Clinch's Finn (if you're around Boston on March 27, stop by Newtonville Books and say hello to Jon; he'd love to meet you). I like it even better than the hardcover and that was a fantastic design.

Now covers that didn't work for me at all belong to some of my all time favorite books. I won't mention the titles, I don't think it's kind to point, but it does make me wonder what makes a cover engaging and what repels. What do you think? I'd love to know your opinion on what works in a book cover and what doesn't, and what a cover conveys to you.

Monday, March 24, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

Call it your drop shot: a slice in tennis that falls just over the net and surprises your opponent, surprises you too: you nailed it.

Risk. In all endeavors, such as singing or sports, taking risks is what separates the champions from the also-rans.

I've been watching the local Grand Slam, Pacific Life tournament, and that's what I noticed. The great players take the risky shots; it's true they don't always come up winners, but when they do...


is a photo of the desert very close to where the tournament is taking place. There is sand covered in shrub and Joshua Trees as far as the eye can see. This handful of palm trees was planted, it seems, they aren't actually endemic to this area. But they fit so well.

I had to take this photo while at the tennis tournament because elements here didn't jive, but they fit together so beautifully. Snow? In the desert. Tons of it in the mountain. Surreal and breathtaking. And the wind! OMG! Do you SEE how those those green tops of the trees are being blown? That, too, fits but doesn't fit.

Shockers. Surprises. They are one of the delights we have as readers. Part of the joy in turning the page and gasping at a novel turn of events is that we didn't see it coming, but of course; they make such sense.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Making a Literary Life: Gaze into My Crystal Ball

So often in life, we move forward with heads bowed, not really paying attention to where it is we're going. Our goals are short term: two pages today, finish the manuscript, get an agent, sell the book. We become caught in the monotony, the drudgery of daily habits. Take a moment, think about what you want from your writing, where you want it to bring you and what you want to bring to it. Let time stretch before you, consider what you may be like ten years from now, twenty. What is your literary life?

Lisa Lowry
I would like to be an author that puts a smile on the face of that girl that sits friendless in the middle school cafeteria. I want to tell that boy with the pimples - such awful skin! - that he won't be a teenager forever. Someday he may be called Doctor. Could he graduate from Harvard Law School? I want to write books children and teens pull out from under their pillows at night, to read just one more chapter before they dream their dreams. I hope to write books with the message that kids aren't alone, even when they are so very lonely.

Amy McEwan
What I would like people to say twenty years from now is that the books I write don't fit neatly into any genre. They're almost literary -- but not. There are suspenseful elements -- and yet. They have wide commercial appeal -- still. I don't want to be labeled. Not now, not ever. Best of all, I would know my life had a purpose if somehow one of my books touched someone, reassured them when they needed it most. That would be a dream come true.

Hannah Lipman
I want people to reach for my books confident they will immerse themselves in a story that entertains them in this too-hectic world, that makes them laugh, that introduces them to people they enjoy (even if they wouldn't want to live next door to some), and that maybe slides in an observation or two about the world. I, too, seek constant improvement, so that each book is fresh, each tale a new ride that someone looks forward to taking with me, no matter where the Muse leads.

Lynne Quindlen
I want readers to reach for my books because they know they'll find fresh details and new insight into family life. When the people you love or want to love, confuse you, distance themselves from you or view the world in ways foreign to you, I want my writing to shed light on the intricacies of the human mind and heart. I want to write honest books about love, marriage, raising children and finding hope in the dark moments. To have readers say my fiction is smart, compelling and difficult to put down--that's my dream.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A Room...

Posted by Lynne Griffin

Of one's own? With a view?

Virginia Woolf believed every woman should have a place to write her fiction, along with the personal liberty to create art. E. M. Forester built a novel juxtaposing characters between rooms and views. Those characters depicted trapped inside were considered uncreative and conservative, while those outside were forward thinking and open minded; his room with a view the perfect metaphor for the intersection where the best traditional ideals meet avant-garde inspiration.

Where writers think and create should be conducive to laying mind, body and soul open to storytelling. The decor and tools available, befitting the creative process, will be as unique as the story that emerges on paper. Who among us would knowingly welcome any additional obstacles to the already wearying creative process?

Up until Monday of this week, I have written my nonfiction in one place and my fiction in another. Writing parenting articles and books was my day job, the work taking shape in a typical office setting. Desk against the wall, nothing proved distracting; no phone call or printer buzzing would interfere with meeting page goals or word limits.

My fiction was written on my laptop. Making a distinction between time for writing work and my creative outlet, I'd park myself in one of three places in my home--a comfortable window seat with double hung glass and cushy pillows, or a chair given to me by my mother stationed overlooking my backyard, or a simple dining room chair parked facing the front yard. Any window would do, I simply needed one to open me up to all the possible directions my characters might choose to travel.

Last week after finishing a chapter in my work-in-progress, then talking to my web designer about how to incorporate my present book and my soon-to-be-published book into my new site, my editor emailed asking me to submit my dedication and acknowledgment pages for Life Without Summer. Suddenly it hit me--I write novels for a living. Yes, I realize it took me a while to fully grasp this.

To fully embrace my multifaceted writing identity, I recognized that I could incorporate my room with a view with my room of one's own.

So with my dear husband's help, my office has been transformed. Over the weekend, we cleaned and tidied, organized and reconfigured. My desk was dragged away from the wall and turned out to face the window. A new bookcase and a pair of matching lamps brighten my space and my outlook.

It's only been a few days since I staked my claim to this space in a new way, but every minute I've spent sitting in that chair has felt marvelous.

It's my very own room with a view. Do you like it?

If you know of any websites with more photos of author workspaces, please share links in the comment section. I love seeing where authors receive their inspiration to create great books.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Thread Obsessed

by Hannah Roveto

The other evening, my husband and I found ourselves home without children and did what any rational couple would do: ran out for Chinese take-out and an R-rated movie. We rented The Good Shepherd, with a cast that merely begins with the likes of Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro and William Hurt. Directed by De Niro. A spy movie that follows the creation of the CIA and turns on the Bay of Pigs. Two thumbs up from its reviewers. We settled in with our soups.

A full 167 minutes later, we stared at each other. "Wow, that was long." "I was confused; did this happen first or later?" "Did he do that or did someone else?"

After rehashing the movie another several minutes, we decided to check any deleted scenes, thinking they might provide missing answers. What was fascinating was that the deleted scenes represented an entire thread cut from throughout the movie. In the official version, a particular character is killed off; yet there he was, again and again. His scenes still didn't answer our questions about the movie, but in watching them, I knew what was wrong with the film. It was, yes, the threads.

There weren't necessarily too many, we decided after further discussion, and De Niro was right to cut that particular one. The problem came in how the remaining threads were woven together. Whether it was the writing or editing (Everyone needs a good editor!), I don't know. Time was jumbled and while dates were provided at the start of scenes, the viewer might not realize how critically important they were until it was too late. Threads became snippets, difficult if not impossible to follow smoothly from start to finish.

Being thread-obsessed myself, I actually plan to rent it again, in part to better understand the story, mostly to track each thread from start to finish. I want to see how De Niro and the editors thought it through, to see whether it could have been done differently. Sometimes we learn more when we can see what's missing than when it is done perfectly.

Thread obsession? It's what delivers the richness of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil. And so on. You know it when you see it, the palpable texture that comes from beautifully crafted threads.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Huge, huge congratulations to blog friend Pat Wood author of Lottery and fellow writer Anita Amirrezvani author of The Blood of Flowers on being nominated for the Orange Prize! A stupendous achievement for these debut novelists. Brava!


By Amy MacKinnon

I love newspapers, always have. So it probably comes as no surprise that Sunday mornings are my favorites, the day when papers are at their thickest. I pour myself a bowl of Starbucks, settle in first with the hardcopies and then I wander over to my computer to read the others online. The headlines, local news, features, advice columns, oh and the essays. My favorite pages are the book reviews.

I've been reading book reviews almost as long as I've been reading books. In an earlier freelance incarnation, I was hired to write reviews. The first book I was assigned was a memoir by a local writer. I didn't love it. In fact, I found myself judging some of the choices the author made in the course of the story (adultery) and not necessarily the story arc, the evolution of her personal growth, the writing--not that I was dazzled by those aspects either. However, as a writer myself, it was inconceivable that I could crush in black and white someone who had spent years laying bare her soul. I apologized to my editor, explained I lacked the appropriate perspective, and vowed never to review a book.

Last night at Writers' Group, they reminded me that soon my own book would be sent off to be reviewed. It caused me some distress to consider that. I won't read them, I said. But you might learn something from them, said one. They might make you feel fantastic, said another. You're going to get some good ones and some bad, said yet another. (Actually, by this point I was feeling too ill to know who was speaking so the same person may have said all of this and more, but you get the gist.)

There are many reasons for my not wanting to read reviews of my novel. Some are practical. Many years ago, I did a story for the Boston Globe about an art exhibition and the curator said something I've never forgotten: not everyone is qualified to judge art. This provoked a series of questions from me, essentially about the subjectivity of art and the entitlement of individual perspective. He said that most people are not entitled to an opinion since they hadn't the breadth of knowledge about art in general or specifically. I've tussled with this over the years and only lately have I come to understand that he didn't intend it as a slight to the masses, but that he may have been absolutely right.

Weeks ago, I read a review of Castle Freeman's Go With Me. In it, Ron Charles references no fewer than three other works for comparison sake; he understands the inspiration behind this twenty-first century fable. Having that breadth of knowledge allowed him to better understand the layering effect Mr. Freeman used in crafting his novel. Another person might have read it and thought the styling was overly simplistic or some such. This is what the NBCC means when it states reviewing is and of itself an art form that should not to be taken lightly. Based on that review, I bought the book and felt I had an overall better sense of the story, which I highly recommend by the way-- for what it's worth.

So perhaps I should listen to my friends, read the reviews as they come in. Learn from the respectable ones and somehow try to let go of the anonymous negative critiques.

I don't know. What will you do when it's your turn?

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Price of Fame

Posted by Lisa Marnell

This... my photo of Andy Roddick seconds before he threw his racket to the ground then tossed it into the crowd Saturday morning during practice. Ranked sixth in the world and coming off a win in Dubai, Andy was considered a favorite for doing well at the Pacific Life tennis tournament this weekend in Indian Wells, California.

Five minutes after we entered the tennis grounds Saturday morning a man pointed my family and I in the direction of the practice courts. "Andy Roddick's warming up." He is? We hurried in the direction the man pointed. The crowds were lined against the waist-high fence. As a couple of people left, we made our way into their spots.

I settled by the fence at the periphery of the court as my husband and son walked to the other end, perhaps to get a different view. The excitement I felt at watching this tennis celebrity quickly settled into knots in my stomach. I'm a big fan of his and I still am, but Andy was having a bad day. His opponent made such strong shots. I felt I was spying. People cheered then gossiped and whispered that Andy shouldn't have fired coach Jimmy Connors.

Sunday Andy lost to Tommy Haas (ranked 36th). So Andy's out. We win some. We lose some. We must.

Here, is someone who's hit the BIG time. Andy Roddick's a multi-millionaire at the age of twenty-four. He's travelled the world. How delightful it must be to have achieved such success! But there's highs and there's lows. For him, this tournament was rock bottom; such an upset to be eliminated so early on. And on American soil, with his fans watching!

Of course, I think of my own dream: to BE a writer.

Does it ever get easy? I used to think it did. My old dream of what life would be like as a writer used to involve starting my day with a five-mile run along New Hampshire mountain roads, followed by tea by the fire, a morning of writing before me. It's not that simple. It's not.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Advice

We, at the Writers' Group, have been at this for some time, now. At meetings, we've shared a multitude of pages and discussed the business of writing over many cups of tea. We've attended conferences, we've all written novels (some of them under contract at publishing houses). Surely, we've learned a thing, or two? Today, each of us will share the one most important piece of advice we could have for someone who is starting out on their quest to write fiction. And for those friends of the blog already successful novelists, we wonder what your advice would be?

Lisa Marnell
My advice is not original; I've read this recommendation in books on the craft of writing.

It's this: Never, ever, talk about your work in progress with anyone but your writing confidantes, whoever they may be. You see, I believe that when you try to summarize your premise and plot, characters and conflict into two sentences shared at the sidelines of a soccer field, you squash the life out of your story. After all, the world of your novel-to-be is so much more. Furthermore, I am convinced that when you put it into words, some of the magic in your private fictional world escapes; the enchanted fairy forgets how to fly for an instant and the evil wizard is not as cutthroat as he had been in a writer's mind.

Amy MacKinnon

I agree with everything the others have said, so I'll share my super secret for success. I used it when I wanted to find the man of my dreams, have amazing children by a certain age, when I wanted to work on Capitol Hill, get that column in the Boston Globe, receive the call from a producer at NPR, and then catch the attention of both the agent and editor of my dreams: I visualized my success. I imagined every step, no detail was too small. It's like casting a spell, conjuring the four winds to spin your dreams into life. Imagine the possibilities.

Hannah Roveto
The usual words of advice are to read and write. I find that only the platform from which you need to take your first step. My advice? Do small things to take yourself seriously, so others will take you seriously as well. Create a space that looks and feels like an Official Work Space; even if it cannot be exclusively yours, claim it in chunks of time as yours alone, not to be disturbed. Set deadlines you will meet, if not with a writers group then by telling one honest and good friend you plan to write 20 pages by month's end. (Or whatever.) Then do it again, and again. Read about writing, and take classes from teachers others recommend. If this is going to be a real career, even if you can't quit your day job(s), treat it like a real career, with intent and action.

Lynne Griffin
The single most important advice I offer is to be positive. Focus on your strengths as a writer, as this will go a long way toward helping you recognize where your writing needs work. Stay optimistic that you too will get through the tough writing days; you will find an agent and get offered a contract for your novel. Be affirmative in your interactions with readers and writers and industry insiders; the world of publishing is a small one. Nice people finish first in my book. Express your feedback to members of your writers' group or about books you've read in ways that are constructive, encouraging and supportive. When you truly believe in yourself and your writing, you will treat yourself with respect. When you respect yourself--others will too.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Author Spotlight Series: Lenore Hart

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I admit, the more I write, the harder it is to read. I find it's all too easy for me to be pulled out of a story by two dimensional characters, implausible plot lines or stilted dialogue. So how refreshing it was to pick up and begin reading Becky--The Life and Loves of Becky Thatcher by Lenore Hart. I was immersed in the life of Becky Thatcher, Tom Sawyer's true love, by the end of the first page. Hart, or perhaps I should say Becky, held me captive until I read the last page; in fact, I'm still fascinated with this novel. And I'm delighted Lenore Hart has agreed to share her thoughts on living a literary life with me for our author spotlight series.

Lynne Griffin: Can you tell our readers a little about how you came to write fiction?
Lenore Hart: I began writing when I was in fifth grade. I wrote mostly short stories and moved on to poems in college. I was a writer-in-residence in Florida. Then my poems kept getting longer and my settings kept getting larger, until I ventured into writing a novel. I was a librarian while I wrote my first novel, a horror suspense story about a woman who comes back from the dead. When I graduated I had no idea how to tackle getting published. No one told you how to do it. Back then you were limited to sharing what you knew with a few people and they would share what they knew with you. It was difficult. I received nice letters, but the novel was rejected.

LG: You have a unique agent story that involves also finding a husband. Can you elaborate?
LH: Well, fast forward to my librarian days. I was in charge of coordinating an author luncheon for all the branches in my area. David Poyer, who'd written his fourth or fifth novel by then was to speak. After the luncheon, he asked me out. I didn't tell him I wrote fiction, I was intimidated. Later I didn’t want him to read my work because I didn’t want him to think I was dating him because I wanted to get published. And of course I didn't want him to think my novel was awful.

Later he took a short story of mine and gave it to his agent. When I met his agent, he asked me if I had a novel. I literally spewed my colorful frozen drink across the table. He calmed me by saying instead of giving it to him, why didn't I just tell him about it. I did and he encouraged me to send him the novel when it was ready.

LG: And I take it you did.
LH:I gave it to him six months later and he sold it as a paperback original to Putnam. I wasn’t afraid to have people read it by then, but it was a genre novel, so I decided to publish it under a different name--Elisabeth Graves.

LG: What made you make that decision?
LH: David gave me great advice about not typing myself. I wasn't sure the direction I wanted to take my career, and I thought this was a smart move at the time.

LG: Did you publish any more horror novels?
LH: No, but I did have a ghost story published in Scandinavia. It was around that time, I decided to get my MFA and pursue a wide range of writing. At the end of the program I wrote my novel Water Woman. It's about a woman in the 1920s who is the tom boy of the family. After her father dies, she takes over the boat trotlines. It's historical, with a strong sense of place. I grew up in Florida in a rural environment with lots of water, fisherman, farmers and woods. In this novel, I wanted to capture life on the eastern shore of Virginia, which at the time was the last undeveloped piece of coastline on the east coast.

It was published by P
utnam, first in hardcover. The paperback is still in print.

LG: You continued to branch out, first with the literary novel, Ordinary Springs and then with a middle grade book and a young adult historical. When did the idea for Becky come to you?
LH: David and I took our daughter on a camping trip. We made our way home from the Grand Canyon by way of Missouri. We saw the cave from Tom Sawyer; it was all cleaned up and wholesome. My husband wondered if anybody had written about all the kids grown up. He asked me who I would write about--I didn’t even have to think about it. Becky.

In Twain's work, men seemed real, but woman insipid. I'd read he loved his wife, always wanting to please her. Did you know Twain let her read and make edits on his work? Yet his female characters were all Victorian, pure, weepy, and delicate. I thought girls even then wouldn’t be that way. I thought it would be really interesting to see how Becky grew up. I knew she needed to tell the story.

LG: What was the process of writing Becky like for you?
LH: This novel took me the longest to write. I read all of Twain's books, everything I could about Hannibal, and silver mining. I did so much research, and I was teaching at the time too. It was important for me to get Becky's voice right. I thought of her as southern, well read, with plenty of money because of her father, the Judge. She was a well-rounded character because of her social status, and she was independent, ready to cope with anything. I knew she'd be an articulate narrator, and though I didn’t want to imitate Twain's colloquial style, I knew I needed aspects of it.

LG: I loved the book. It was like taking a vacation from everyday life. I admired everything about Becky, and her story is completely believable. You must have been offered a contract quickly.
LH: Actually the editor for my two previous novels rejected it. I was devastated, but I believed in the book. My agent and I agreed it should be submitted to other editors. My editor at St Martin's got the novel immediately. I was sold on her because she understood the story. And of course she was very enthused about it. I’m very proud of Becky, it is my best book. I felt she got the short end of the stick and I really wanted to tell her true story.

Thank you, Lenore for sharing the details of your literary life and your writing process for Becky. Take it from me, it is a terrific read, and for writers looking for a stellar example of characterization, capturing voice and period details, wonderful pacing and plot--Becky should be moved to the top of your to be read list.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Is That What It's Like To Be A Writer?

by Hannah Roveto

Those words were uttered by my youngest child as the family watched Finding Neverland, a movie "inspired by fact" about J.M. Barrie's inspiration for Peter Pan. At the start, we saw Barrie watch a disgruntled audience stirring in their seats, frowning, shaking their heads as his newest play unfolded. As he peeked at them from behind the curtains, rain began to fall on them, which of course, they never noticed.

"What's happening?" she'd asked then.

"It's how he feels," I answered.

Soon Barrie is dancing with his dog in Kensington Garden, and as the camera pans around them, Barrie is dancing with a bear in a circus ring, surrounded by clowns, an audience applauding.

"He has a good imagination," came the comment, and then, yes: "Is that what it's like to be a writer?"

As you who read this know, the real answer is yes and no. Do I actually see rain falling on the heads of those who are unhappy, who dismiss me? No. Does the analogy cross my mind, do I imagine how it might be if the heavens did break open upon them? Sure. Do I live in my head instead of the world around me more often than my neighbors might? I suspect so.

The note-taking, too. Barrie writes in his notebook as he sits on the park bench, the twinkle of a bell tied to a kite, the sunlight bouncing off it as it jingles in the air, recorded for him to absorb again later. A moment captured. The bits and pieces of what you see slowly coming together into a new and unique reality.

I once asked my son to give me five adjectives or phrases that describe me, an exercise worth trying. I was not expecting much that was pleasant, based on the cycle we were in of late. He surprised me: none were negative, save that he said I need to relax more, and two of them were these: funny and weird. When asked why those words, he shrugged. "You know. You're not like other people. You do crazy stuff."

Like dancing with a bear, like watching rain fall inside. Okay, well, maybe. Yes, that is what it is like to be writer: magical. And the next time someone asks what it's like to be a writer, well, maybe you can suggest they catch a glimpse for themselves.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Random Thoughts (Or Message to My Younger Self)

By Amy MacKinnon

Some of the best writing is done waiting in line.

Writing isn't brain surgery, no one will die if you don't do it. Well, some of us might.

"I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which are true." -- Mark Twain.

Sometimes the only thing that gets me through the day is chocolate.

There's a difference between being a writer and being an author. Most days I prefer being a writer.

Labels belong on bookstore shelves. Not books.

A story is only as engaging as it characters.

Even Shakespeare had a plot. Yes, I'm talking to you.

We are writers, we avoid cliches like the plague, but, really, this writing life is a rollercoaster complete with highs and lows.

No one cares about your excuses, nor should you.

Be flexible.

When it comes to bringing your work into the world, you need to feel everything for it to come alive.

When it comes to sending your work out into the world, you need to feel nothing so as to survive.

It's not your baby. Really.

Virginia Woolf was right about a room of one's own.

Thomas Edison was right too.


Try again.

And again.

Harder this time.

You'll do it.

Some days, the words won't come, but the doubt cozies up, beds right down, and stays awhile.

This too shall pass.

Each day I try to be a better writer. Some days I succeed.

It's important to remember Lynne's sage advice: We each have our own journey. For better of worse, another's is not mine.

Bitterness is ugly. Jealousy too. Especially when it's staring you down in the mirror.

Be grateful.

Don't settle.

Have goals. Always.


Yeah, it's hard. But it's not life or death.

Sometimes, though, it really does feel that way.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Fiction because...

Posted by Lisa Marnell

I once asked an intelligent co-worker if she had read any good novels lately.

"Novels?" she echoed with a frown that deepened the creases (wrinkles?) that made their home in her forehead.

"Um, yeah, novels," I said. Was my question unclear? "Have you read anything good lately?"

"Oh! Fiction, you mean. Nothing, no fiction." She smiled as though our misunderstanding entertained her. "Lisa, please, do you know how long it takes to read a book?"

Of course, I know how long it takes to read a book. Hours. Hours of one's life. Hours that can disappear in seconds - when you're engaged. Hours that can be wasted, really. There's a novel I tried to read that shall remain nameless; I couldn't get past page seventy-two - I tried, really I did!

At the Muse & the Marketplace last year (Grub's Street delightful annual conference), I attended a session that discussed the meaning of fiction. It was thought-provoking; I write, after all, and presumably people will read my work someday. Teens will read my work, in fact.

Last week I posted an interview with Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why. Saturday, on his blog (Disco Mermaids) he posted letters from teens that were influenced by his story. Suicide, comtemplating suicide, had played a role in their lives; Jay's made a difference.

Take a look at Jay's entry to see the difference fiction can make in someone's life.

Have you read any good novels lately? I have.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Fiction Challenges?

The four of us were writers before we turned our attentions to fiction in a serious way. Journalism, public relations, technical and educational writing are discrete disciplines, nothing like fiction. Thus, our thought this morning is: what kind of Other Writing did you do before turning to fiction, and what did you find most interesting, or more difficult, or most amazing about the transition?

Lisa Marnell
When I write for work: reports, children's evaluations etc, I must force myself to start working. With fiction writing, I must force myself to stop. That being said, there are times, often, in either fiction or non-fiction, when I find myself in the zone, so engrossed in the subject of my writing that I barely hear the phone when it rings.

Amy MacKinnon
Sorry, I'm late to the party today. I started writing essays and must admit I find them the easiest of all literary forms. I adore reading them--Elyssa Ely and David Sedaris are favorites--and so enjoy writing them. I think my favorite ones are tailored to radio, i.e. NPR. Those driveway moments are always inspiring. I feel fortunate to have done a few of those. Reporting, though fascinating, especially the research and actual reporting, was hard. Imagine having to report, research, and then write a story under a tight deadline and then your editor throws another story at you with only a couple hours notice. I wasn't that kind of journalist, never could work so well under the gun, but I know plenty who are and that's why I have so much respect for the field.

Fiction? I am passionate about it, but it's like they say: open a vein and write. Gug...

Hannah Roveto
In public relations and journalism, the challenge is to strip a huge concept down to its bare bones, wrap in a call-to-action. Years (decades) of doing that made the most difficult transition for me the number of threads. It took me quite a while to realize the number of threads not just possible, but necessary, that can be worked in without losing readers to frustration!

Lynne Griffin
I had lunch last week with a dear friend and colleague. When we began discussing my passion for writing fiction, there was no need to deliver my latest shtick about why a parenting expert who wrote a book would find her way toward writing a novel. She said, "I've always seen you, first and foremost, as a writer. You wrote about parenting and now you're writing about families in a different way, that's all." Thanks, Nina! It was a lovely moment for me, to hear someone I respect capture my journey so succinctly. Though what I choose to write about may vary, I am a writer. The seeds for my writing come from family life. I express my truths in fact and fiction.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

It was sky blue satin with the words I love you stitched in black across the center. I kept my little heart-shaped pillow in a drawer in the kitchen, where my mother let me have all manner of child's play. Things to keep me occupied while she cooked our family meals. My precious pillow was my birthday gift to every family member when his or her special day arrived. I'd give it away, only to take it back the next day. My gift giving skills needed work.

Skunkie replaced my pillow as my beloved object; parenting experts like me call him a transitional object. My stuffed animal was all soft black fur and had the signature white stripe down his back. His face was sweet and loving. When I later found out real skunks true reputation, I was amused, thinking about all the years I fearlessly hugged mine tight.

Comfort items. Loveys. Transitional objects. To a child, these things offer security. Literally and figuratively, they provide something to hold on to. Is it any wonder that in an industry where insecurity and self-doubt can run high, that I've had cherished items that I keep to see me through to getting an agent, to signing a contract for a book deal? Or two.

More than two years ago now, together with my friends at the Writers' Group, I attended a talk given by an agent who acquired popular nonfiction and literary fiction. This gracious woman invited all who attended her workshop to submit to her, when each writer felt their work was ready. I kept said agent's business card in a prominent location on my desk for five months. Each day I'd look at it, thinking at least I had one agent who would look at my work. Her business card was a talisman, my lucky charm.

Later I did submit to her and she did offer me representation. Though she isn't the agent I signed with, I will always hold her in high regard. She was kind and told me loads about the industry--and she gave me hope in the form of a business card.

I'm not a superstitious person, so I don't believe my success is tied to any such object. Should I lose the business card, or my little pink deli ticket, or the birthstone necklace I treasure, the one just like the jewelry worn by a character in Life Without Summer (the last two talismans deserve their own posts) I would be fine, I'd sleep at night. These tangible items merely give me comfort, they let me believe that some day my dreams will become, like these trinkets, touchable, substantial, real.

As I write, I can tell you that the business card has been safely tucked in a drawer, its job fulfilled. The little pink ticket has been placed in a baseball card protector, courtesy of my sweet son. And the necklace is in my jewelry box--you'll see me wearing it on book tour. My latest talisman sits in a paper holder on my desk. It's a small poem torn from a newspaper by my father, sixty years ago. Titled, My Wonderful One, I found this yellowed clipping in a letter he wrote to my mother. I'll include it somehow in my work-in-progress. For now it offers me hope that I will finish my next novel. That my story will find its way to readers. It's tiny and seemingly unimportant, but it spurs me on. It helps me believe.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

And Then He Said

by Hannah Roveto

Funny, the reaction you get when your name appears in the paper. It's not like this was the first time; I'm somewhat active around town and I used to be a corporate spokesperson. The story on the Writers' Group was, however, the most personal story with my name attached. Funny, too, the reaction to the reactions.

People know I'm a writer. I don't usually get into the fiction thing because then there are so many questions I don't want to answer, don't know if I should answer. Do I tell them about the plot? Where I am? And the dreaded, "when will I be able to buy it?" Ummm...

Have to admit, however, when the only people who mentioned the story in the paper were my mother (to whom I'd emailed it), my husband and one neighbor, I was a little disappointed. The next day went to a show by comedienne Loretta LaRoche, where all of a sudden, everyone was mentioning it. I wanted to hug them all.

"So cool!" they said.

"No pressure now," I laughed back. "I'm the slow one on this curve. But I have a whole manuscript; I'm just finishing revisions. I'm close."

"You'll do it," they answered.

The third day I was sitting on the sidelines as large numbers of children ran around after a soccer ball. "Nice story," said one man.

"Thank you," I said, and I went into my slow-on-the-curve routine.

He was trying to be nice, I know. He smiled and said, "Well, that's the great thing about writing. As long as you're doing it, you're a writer. The publishing thing, well..."

I smiled back. And I promised myself to never, ever (after here, today) to get into the slow-on-the-curve routine again. From now on I say, simply, "thank you, I'm really excited."

The difference between writing and publishing is exactly why I found a writers' group. I had a lot to learn about writing and about getting something ready to be taken seriously. The manuscript on my screen behind this screen is the result of a lot of hard work and learning, and honest criticism and epiphanies. No matter where you are in the process, or whether you use a group, never damn your own hard work with faint praise. You know if you're serious. You know it's coming along. Just smile and write. And write. And write.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

That Query Letter

By Amy MacKinnon

It's happening more and more now. Friends are calling to see if I'll talk to their mother's contractor because he's written a book and wants to know how to get an agent. Or a friend's real estate agent has a sister who's written a book and needs to know the next step. My father's neighbor has a memoir in him and he wants to know if I can introduce him to my agent. For now, I talk to all of them because I know what it's like to wander alone in the dark.

So many consider the query letter an obstacle rather than an opportunity. Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford blogged yesterday that the quality of the queries he's seen in recent months has nosedived. People, you're over-thinking it. Relax, it's your book. You know what it's about, the themes you chose to explore. You can do it. All it takes is 15-20 minutes. Really.

I did a post some time back, laying out the template for the easy-peasy query letter, but I didn't show you my own. Well, here it is. And refer back to the easy-peasy if you don't yet have publishing credits to include in the third paragraph. It's not a deal breaker for fiction.

So, here it is:

Dear Ms. Sweeney,

Knowing of your interest in gardening, matters of faith, and literary suspense, I hope you’ll consider my novel, Tethered.

Clara Marsh is an undertaker who doesn’t believe in God. She spends her solitary life among the dead, preparing their last baths, bidding them farewell with a bouquet from her own garden: for a beloved mother, something appropriate like morning-glories (affection upon departure) or, for the man known to pummel his wife, marigolds (cruelty in love). Clara’s carefully structured life shifts when she discovers a neglected little girl, Trecie, playing in the funeral parlor, desperate for a friend. And it tilts still more when Brockton Detective Mike Sullivan haunts Clara in her basement workspace. He questions her about a body she prepared three years ago, an unidentified girl found murdered in a nearby strip of woods. Unclaimed by family, the community christened her Precious Doe. When Clara and Mike learn Trecie may be involved with the same people who killed Precious Doe, Clara must choose between the steadfast existence of loneliness and the perils of binding one’s life to another.

My essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee, Patriot Ledger, Boston Herald, and on National Public Radio. Additionally, I’m a member of Boston’s Grub Street
where I helped to found a satellite location for suburban writers interested in learning more about the craft of writing. We’ve hosted such literati as Jennifer Haigh, Amanda Eyre Ward, and Hallie Ephron. I’m also a fiction reader for Post Road Magazine, and a member of PEN/New England.

Per your request, I’ve enclosed the first ten pages of my 73,000-word manuscript. Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.


See? It's not perfect, I want to take a red pen to it now, but it did the job. This was the very first query I sent to the agent I most wanted and thankfully she now represents me.

If you tried my method and it doesn't work for you, head on over to Aprilynne Pike's blog and read her query workshop. One of her blog readers used her advice and snagged himself an agent. Three cheers for Aprilynne who remembers what it's like to wander alone in the dark and chose to light the way for someone else. Brava!

For those of you querying out there, I'd love to hear your progress. As hard as it is, know you're not alone.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Author Spotlight Series: Jay Asher

Posted by Lisa Marnell

The rules are pretty simple. There are only two. Rule number one: You listen. Number two: You pass it on. Hopefully, neither one will be easy for you. (from Cassette 1: Side A)

I first heard of Jay Asher’s YA novel, Thirteen Reasons Why when I read his deal on Publisher’s Marketplace: it sold at auction to Razorbill which is Penguin’s teen imprint. Months later, the cover of Jay’s book caught my eye. The silhouette of a lonely girl on a playground swing was haunting, and the pretend packing tape on its cover intrigued me.

Thirteen Reasons Why takes place over the course of a single evening after Clay Jensen discovers audiotapes on his doorstep. Making his way along a route through town, he listens to Hannah Baker’s voice chronicle the tragic sequence of events that led to her decision to commit suicide weeks earlier.

When Jay Asher was in Las Vegas years ago, he took a self-guided tour with an audio cassette. That idea stuck in his mind though the story to accompany it was yet to come. It was during a winter drive on an ice coated road in Wyoming that the premise for his YA novel came.

In writing this book, Jay was trying something new. For twelve years he had written humor. He was ten pages in when he decided to enter the Society of Children’s Book Writer’s & Illustrators (SCBWI), Work-In-Progress grant. Luckily for Jay, they only requested ten pages!

Lisa Marnell: What were your concerns about writing a YA novel that deals with suicide?

Jay Asher: Having a My Space page makes it so easy to be in touch with readers. I wondered what sort of stories I would hear, what feedback kids or adults would give me. I have heard from many people with all kinds of stories. Some kids have told me they were suicidal or knew people they now suspected might be suicidal. Others have highlighted specific passages that were meaningful to them. One teenager saw the signs and has since been diagnosed as depressed and is getting the help he needs.

LM: After many years of writing humor, what was your experience in writing a book that dealt with a character who had killed herself? How did you keep from getting depressed?
JA: There were times I would get so depressed since I knew what would happen to Hannah as I wrote her story. Before I got the idea for Thirteen Reasons Why, I thought, what’s fun about writing something that’s a downer? One thing that kept me going was the promise of writing one scene in particular which was necessary: the hot tub scene. I knew it would be such a writing challenge that I focused on that.

LM: From a writer’s perspective, what thoughts were foremost in your mind when writing this manuscript?

JA: Books I like have an element of suspense to them. As I worked on this novel, through both the planning and the writing, I really thought about that. I wanted to make the reader want to keep turning the pages.

LM: I read on your My Space page that you initially started writing Clay’s parts as well as Hannah’s parts, going back and forth between the two of them. After reviewing your work, you wrote Hannah’s story the full way through. Tell us more about your approach to writing Thirteen Reasons Why?

JA: For me, the writing experience involves a tremendous amount of brainstorming. The writing itself comes later for me, and can be difficult. Once I’m in the zone though, I find the writing can be exhilarating.

LM: Tell us something that’s unique about writing for teens.

JA: I’m fascinated with the way nothing is purely black and white for teenagers. Events in their lives are open for interpretation, there are different ways to connect the dots, different ways to see some things. As in Thirteen Reasons Why, gossip and rumors can be so prevalent in their day to day.

LM: As I mentioned, I read about the auction for your book on Publisher’s Marketplace. Can you tell us the details about how it happened?

JM: Well, the agent I have currently is my fourth agent as I had previous agents for the picture book manuscripts I wrote. Because I had won the SCBWI grant, editors more willing to read my novel, but it was rejected. Writing is art, and art is subjective. One editor wrote me a two page summary of everything he didn’t like about the book. Then, my agent very quickly got three offers, and three very different perspectives. I decided to go with the editor at Razorbill.
LM: Because we have a writer’s group blog, we are fascinated with your blog, Disco Mermaids. It’s similar to ours, though I understand you all write for children/teens. Can you tell us a little about how your group and how it works?

JM: Robin, Eve and I used to be part of a larger writing group, but we all couldn’t meet at the same time. Since the three of us wrote the same type of fiction, we decided to form our own smaller group. I find the group is most important early on. Lots of brainstorming goes on in our sessions. We’ve been meeting every Tuesday lately.

LM: What’s next for you, Jay?

JM: My contract with Razorbill was a two book deal, so I’m busy working on something else which isn’t easy. Thirteen Reasons Why was life-changing.

Thirteen Reasons Why has won the following awards and acknowledgements:

Best Books for Young Adults (YALSA)
Quick Picks for Reluctant YA Readers (YALSA)
Selected Audiobooks for Young Adults (YALSA)
Borders Original Voices finalist
Barnes & Noble - Top 10 Best for Teens
Book Sense Pick - Winter
Chicago Public Library Best Books
Association of Booksellers for Children - Best Books

Since our interview, Jay told me he’s agreed to be on a panel at the SCBWI summer conference this year in Los Angeles. The panel includes children’s and YA authors who won SCBWI grants and continued on to publish.

Jay, we look forward to meeting you in LA!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Friends in the News

Thought you might like to take a gander at some friends in the news:

Jennifer Graf Groneberg whose memoir, Road Map to Holland, was cited in Beverly Beckham's Boston Globe column today. Three cheers to Beverly, all children are gifts, and to Jennifer. May your book sell well and enlighten many.

Also, Grub Street creative director, Chris Castellani has a Q&A in the Boston Globe with our friend Scott Heim about the evolution of his latest novel, We Disappear. Absolutely fascinating.

Lastly, congratulations to Founding Debutante Jennifer McMahon for the dazzling review of Island of Lost Girls in Publishers Weekly. Sounds like a fantastic follow-up to Promise Not to Tell.