Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Fool's Gold from Real

by Hannah Roveto

I acquired most of my vast knowledge of fool's gold from fiction, I think from that long-ago series on twins from different eras. Whoever wrote the slim volume on the twins during the California Gold Rush had to do some research, yes? Fool's gold shined like the real thing, but it sparkled almost too bright, and once you'd seen the real thing, you'd be able to tell the two apart forever. What more did I ever need to know?

When putting together or joining a writers' group, it is important to learn the difference between fool's gold and real gold, as well. This group did a panel at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace this past weekend, and as one lovely man asked, can anyone know whether a group will work from the start?

Maybe not 100%, I grant you, but there are qualities to real gold you will recognize early. A group may shine bright, talk the talk, have grand plans; that's not what's important. Many groups screen potential members based on writing samples, which certainly is helpful. The truest test? Look for a glint of real determination.

* Rigid rules will narrow the field, your insistence on real time to be spent on a daily or weekly basis doing the writing, and on a bi-weekly or monthly basis to come together.

* Attitude will make a difference: positive, generous, cooperative, supportive. A confident writer knows that learning craft is something anyone can do, alone or in a group, but if you do have a group, you need to give and take, to be kind and honest. Strong, well-written stories get published, and if you all produce, you can each be a success. This is not one-on-one rivalry.

* Finally, a word on that glint itself. During different phases of my life, I "wrote some," I "liked to write," I "gave writing a shot and wrote when I could," and I "was getting more serious about writing." By the time I contacted the woman responsible for the flyer on the library bulletin board, I wanted a writers group because it was time to take my fiction seriously. It was time to write a full novel, a good novel, start to finish and refine it and get it published and be good enough to do it again. And again. Nothing against the old me, but you wouldn't have wanted her in your group. Perhaps I would have become a determined writer sooner, if I had been with other determined writers who encouraged me, broke down whatever fears and barriers kept me back, but who knows? In time, the motivation came from inside, real and urgent.

Once you have met a group of writers who might be the real thing, give it a go and give it some time. A few weeks, a few months. Make it clear you're operating on a trial basis and you're holding the bar high. There should be at least neutral chemistry to start, and you should sense the good chemistry developing with each passing meeting.

There you have it. How to tell fool's gold from real gold. Good luck.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Other Side of the Table

By Amy MacKinnon

I've been attending Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace writers' conference since they began seven years ago. Seven years ago, I had only just started writing fiction while reporting and writing the occasional op-ed. It was after Jonathan Franzen said on Fresh Air that the days spent writing The Corrections were among the most fun of his life. I remember that first conference clearly, the workshops, the other writers desperate to learn the secret to getting published, and a memory I've kept close all of these years, a class taught by the author of Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden. In that workshop, he told us of his struggles to write that novel, that the most important part of this writing life is to never give up. I believed him and soldiered on.

Through the years, I've sat in the audience while on the other side of the table were the likes of author Margot Livesey, Little, Brown editor Asya Muchnick, and the great literati Julia Glass, Grace Paley, Charles Baxter. It was only a table. A six-foot by three aluminum job, made pretty by a starched tablecloth and dotted with crystal water goblets. To me, sitting on the other side, it might as well have been an ocean.

Last year, I decided I'd attended my last conference. I'd worked with my agent for over four months on my manuscript and revisions were at a standstill. My book would never be published after all. I found myself weeping through Mr. Baxter's speech appropriately titled, Losers. Was it a sign?

But it did get published and I did go this year. How could I not? Jonathan Franzen was giving the keynote, Julia Glass was teaching a workshop, the inestimable Lisa Scottoline too (she is fantastic!). Invited guests this year included the lovely Sally Kim, Asya Muchnick again, and Dorian Karchmar (we all loved her). But there was someone else sitting on the other side of the table alongside the others. Me.

We'll give you all the good stuff that happened at the Muse in Friday's Making a Literary Life post. Promise. For now, let me say that when I arrived home from the Muse, there was a package waiting from my Orion editor, Sara O'Keeffe. It was my UK edition of TETHERED, copies of which she's handing out to every employee at the publishing house! This is what they'll see in England and my husband's home country of Australia. Unbelievable.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Reflections on the Muse

This is what Lisa posted last year after attending Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace. Today, she's recovering from jet lag and will try to post her thoughts from this year's conference. One thing is for certain, everyone was thrilled to see her.

Posted by Lisa Marnell

Being Alone. That’s one of the things that draws me to writing. Some of the time, anyways. This past weekend, we in our writers' group enjoyed spending time at Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace Conference. The comraderie, the sense of togetherness. The tangible evidence that this pursuit is not truly an alone journey. That was nice.

Meeting, seeing, chatting with the talented writers who spoke at the Muse. It’s inspiring. It’s humbling. It makes it seem possible. That could be me. That could be you. But when we leave, as we drive home alone or with a friend. We go back to our quiet, or not so quiet worlds. To the spaces where we work, where we plot, where we gather our thoughts and expend our energies.

Being alone is easier when you carry with you an understanding of Gregory Maguire’s approach to plotting which is so like your own. Or when you hear Michael Lowenthal’s deep voice resonate in your memory, sharing his insights, his inspirations. Being alone is easier when you aren’t alone.

When you have met great writers, who have shared their journeys, you’re no longer alone. They are with you, completely, on some level as you work. So there you are, working at home, where you can write in your jammies, or bicycle shorts even. And you can’t do that at a writer’s conference. Or can you?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Making A Literary Life Friday: Weekends

Even this blog runs Monday through Friday, as though the weekends are somehow not part of a literary life. Certainly, it's harder on weekends, with the burst of "real life" that pushes into every corner of our days: friends, family, yards, houses. Do you write on weekends and if so, how much, or what else do you do on those two days (especially as they do get nicer and nicer)?

Lisa Marnell
Lisa is winging her way east to Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace, attending a conference and getting to see a certain threesome of old friends (well, more than us, but we're so excited!).

What could be better than listening to writers, publisher and editors share their insights and experiences?

Amy MacKinnon
The parallels between writing and motherhood are many. In either case, there is no down time, we are always at the mercy of our children's and our characters' demands and needs, we always stand ready to listen and nurture, we are always with them and they with us.

But my weekends are more for my children than my writing -- except this one. This weekend I'll have the opportunity to meet authors whose work staggers me. I'll see my beloved editor and have a lots of down time with my writers' group friends. I'll phone home often and expect to check in with my characters too. I need the reassurance just as much as they do.

Hannah Roveto
I write now and then on weekends, but I find that weekends are better dedicated to reading. At the moment, I have Scott Heim's We Disappear, as well as Julia Glass' The Whole World Over. Margot Livesey is on tour promoting The House on Fortune Street, which I can't wait to pick up. Not only is she one of my favorite authors, coincidentally she was one of my favorite Muse speakers, as well. Check out her schedule at

Lynne Griffin
I do write on weekends. On Saturdays, I write first thing in the morning--the same as my Monday through Friday routine. On Sundays, I read, take notes or edit the previous weeks pages. Yes, I'm addicted to writing. My feeling is that even if I don't actually get words on the page, I should touch my work-in-progress in some way every day. Sure, I take days off, but not regularly. I need to stay in the story and to do that I must connect with it daily. I've not gone as far as to sleep with my manuscript as Joan Didion does. But who knows? It certainly works for her. This weekend I won't write, because I'll be at the Muse conference, but you can bet I will be feeding my imagination in oh so many ways. I can't wait.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Writing Routines

Post By Lynne Griffin
Painting By Carolyn Jundzillo

Pastel buds bursting or about to burst, days warm enough for long walks ending at the beach for a dip, the local ice cream shop is open for business. In my beautiful seaside town, spring arrived just in time for the schools' April vacation. Though my son still has an entire term to finish, like most teenagers, he's in a summer state of mind.

Parents tell me, one of my most useful tag lines in NEGOTIATION GENERATION is if you can predict it, you can prevent it. If a child, or adult for that matter, behaves the same way time and time again, that's person's behavior is predictable. So when it comes to my writing routines and my children being off from school this summer, I can already predict they're going to have to change. The children and the writing routines.

My present writing routine includes seeing everyone off to jobs and schools, coffee in hand, I tackle responding to email and planning upcoming programs. Once the to-do list is under control, I start reading and editing the pages I wrote the previous day. That puts me in the writing zone, and pulls me into the story, and then it's time to write new pages. Without distraction, I can write for hours. Afterschool activities for my son and commuting for my husband, leave me plenty of time to arrive at my writing saturation point. I stop and then take care of other correspondence or household responsibilities until the house becomes alive again.

As of May 9th, things will change. My daughter will be home from college and in another month my son will finish his sophomore year. I have a lot of summer experience telling me I'll have to alter my routine. Everyone knows teenagers love to sleep in. So on the days neither is up and out to a job, along with my husband, I plan to write first thing. Hours of revision to my work-in-progress complete, I'll be able to handle the inevitable distractions that come once they're up and the phone starts ringing, plans ricocheting around the house until things get settled and their off for a few more hours.

Like a mother knows she should sleep when her newborn is sleeping, I know to write when my teenagers are out of the house. You never know when they'll return, with friends in tow. Since I love having a home where my children's friends feel at ease, I plan to be in a state of mind to welcome them. I know I'll only feel this way if I get my writing in. Nothing agitates me more than having my writing plans thwarted, for any reason. I can let it go one day, maybe two, but repeatedly losing time to write puts me in a foul mood. Fortunately my children respect this.

Here's where my predicting the challenge of writing in summer comes in handy. As a family, we've already begun a conversation about general routines for summer. Who will work and when, and when friends can come over and when the house is a no friend zone. My children--and their friends--support my writing and love the fact that I've written a book, they're proud to say I'm a soon-to-be-published novelist. I fully expect little will get in the way of me achieving my writing goals this summer and I'm certain of this because not only am I willing to make changes to my writing routine, but I've honestly and without hesitation told my family what I need them to do to aid me. Of course, I also predict there will be snags in the plan, but overall I expect it will go well.

So how do you predict your writing routine will change when the beach and your children are calling? What seasonal changes can you make to ensure you'll still achieve your writing goals?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Life Cycle of a Writer

by Hannah Roveto

The woman leaned over the table and said, "Do you think being in a writers' group has made a difference?"

"Yes." I nodded. And for the first time, I thought of the length of the journey this group has traveled.

Certainly, in a relatively short time, this group has accomplished a great deal. Yet the benchmarks you can see (agented! published!) exist because of benchmarks we have reached that you cannot.

When we are young in our writing, we play more. We try things that flop, we throw things out there that cannot stick, darlings that must be cut in time. Yet those ideas show up later, fuller and stronger, and it was worth every minute spent on them to learn and to experiment without fear.

We begin to learn how things Should Be. What Expectations for a proper Character, Plot, Setting, Voice. We dive down more fully into each of these areas, maturing like awkward teens. First the feet grow, then the legs. The body stretches. The voice hits an awkward register, then mellows.

At last, at last, all the elements are stronger, fully developed, into a writerly adulthood. The challenge then is to find and maintain, a continual balance between a seriousness of effort, playfulness in spirit, and a belief in what we have to offer the world.

In the past few years, all of us have been through this writers' life cycle. Without doubt, the group has been patient as my skills developed. Whatever I thought I knew of fiction when this group started -- from classes, past efforts, and reading like a fiend -- I was far more of an adolescent in this process than I suspected at the time!

While our process has been about the goal of publication, without doubt, it has also been about meeting a bar -- one continually raised the more we see of the world of agents and publication. Having this group critique my work -- and allow me to learn from their work and experience as well -- has without a doubt shepherded me through my writer's adolescence in a way that will make the next cycle of writerhood far richer.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Tethered in the Crown Catalog

By Amy MacKinnon

It's on the Internet, out there for everyone to see, and yet, I feel intensely shy about sharing it with all of you. It's four pages of my novel in Random House's fall 2008 Crown Catalog (see page 118). Hmmm.

My dearest friend in the world is now reading Tethered for the second time. She said she reads a sentence, pauses, and then re-reads, trying to find me within it. She can't. This is a person who has known me over twenty years, we've shared everything of our lives --dorm rooms, first loves, true loves, children, angst -- and yet she has never been privy to the person she found contained within those pages. Who are you, she asked.

It isn't a story about me, I explained, you know that. But it is reflective of the way I process the world, a deeply intense, painful realization of the lives of others. Maybe it's my survivors guilt. I have been blessed with a loving family, good health, opportunities where so many others have not. Or maybe it's just a simple story. I don't know, I don't.

What I do know is that it is more of me than I've ever shared with another and now I'm giving it to the world. It's a terrifying prospect.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

If Amy, Hannah, or Lynne reads this title, she will know what I mean; Friday, I hop aboard an airplane at LAX. Five o'clock in Boston, my father-in-law picks me up at Logan. On Saturday, I'll meet Amy, Hannah and Lynne at the Muse & the Marketplace conference.

I haven't seen them since Christmas.

I miss them.


This feeling I have, five days away from my trip, is not anxiety. Yet I do feel a shaking in my legs and arms. My hands especially are trembling, as though I'm poised on the edge of a ten meter platform, ready to dive into bubbling water beneath. I'm excited. Excited in part for the adventure to unfold.

It's been ten months since I moved to California. It was January 2007, at the tail end of a meeting at Amy's, that I shared my news with the group. The move was close to decided at that time. My husband had an opportunity he couldn't pass up: the dream job: work in the travel industry, an opportunity for learning more, greater responsibility, an outside chance of financial gain. Then, the countdown started.

It broke my heart on one hand. I was ready for a change on the other.

Support from Lynne, and Hannah, and Amy, has overwhelmed me; I assumed the group couldn't continue with the four of us, I hoped that it would.

It has.

How many things in a writing life are a countdown? Sending pages ahead of time to our writers' group... What do you mean I have to wait six days until feedback? Three fourths through a novel we long for it to be done. When we send queries to agents, we want their decisions yesterday. The waiting, and wondering, while editors read manuscripts - that is torture. And, oh, waiting for the pub date to arrive on a calendar. I can't imagine that feeling.

Yes, writing is waiting. Writing is a countdown. Writing, in a way, is a form of torture. Yet delicious and desired, as well.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Making a Literary Life: Potpourri

The cacophonous sound of birdsong, the dizzying brilliance of sunshine, the scent of greens bursting forth. A riot of sensory overload.

Speaking of creative chaos, here's a peek at our thoughts from this week as they bounced and collided inside of our heads. Can you keep up? Lisa Marnell
Though my pages weren't critiqued this week, I feel as though they were. Discussions with Amy, Hannah, and Lynne resonated with me. You see, I changed the setting of where a PARTY takes place in my novel, and in changing location, the story became more real, more unique, it seems to me. Also, I embraced the idea our group often ponders: write for the story (not for the market, the intended audience, etc). That too, has made my novel more true and I hope, more intriguing.

Amy MacKinnon

This is hands down the most magnificent memoir I've read. Ever. She's going to be a bestseller, I know it, I just know it. How does one learn to write like that? Patricia Wood shortlisted for the Orange Prize. Brava, Pat, but honestly, I'm not surprised; I still remember reading the deal on Publishers Marketplace and knowing I had to have that book. I wonder what's happening at London Book Fair. TETHERED's cover is out there. Has anyone seen it? I love the American Fiction blog. It provides the best links. I can't wait to go to NYC next week, it's my favorite place in the world. And then next weekend all of my Writers' Group friends and I will finally be together -- with other writers. What could be better?

Hannah Roveto
Elinor Lipman is on the road; watch for her at events next week, as well! Another tidbit from the movie, Then She Found Me: cast includes (director and script co-writer) Helen Hunt, Colin Firth, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick and yes, Salman Rushdie. In other news, this revision of mine is flowing toward The End. A whole chapter cleaned up Monday, half on Tuesday, a whopping paragraph yesterday, then most of another today. How many inconsistencies have I cut from these pages? Too many to count; this round feels good, not worrisome in the least. Someday I will visit Wrigley Field, where one of my last scenes takes place, and it will be a familiar, lovely, sensory overload of hot dogs and summer heat. Ahhh...

Lynne Griffin
I took a risk writing a story within a story, and last Monday presented it to my writers' group. The verdict? It was unanimous--they loved it! I am flying high. I'm tied to my calendar for the next few weeks. My goal is to finish another chapter of my WIP before copy edits for LIFE WITHOUT SUMMER arrive, the first of May. I'm prepping for my panels at the Muse, buying shoes, looking forward to schmooze. And my husband and I are taking a trip, sans children, to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. Back just in time to pick up my daughter at college. Imagine May 9th constituting the beginning of summer.

As you can see our moods here at the writers' group are full of anticipation and celebration. No matter your mood, there's a book out there for you. Just check out Hallie Ephron's latest tome, 1001 Books for Every Mood. It's available online now. I can't wait to see her picks. To learn more about Hallie and her process for selecting titles, visit her website.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

I have a thing for journals. I love quality stationery, mechanical pencils and pens that glide across the page. Right now if you were to go into my office closet or peek in a desk drawer, you'd find more cloth bound books and brightly colored pads of paper than I'll need for some time. These are my tools, and I can't write without them.

The stationery is for charming notes, the pens and pencils to enhance the writing experience. The journals are my most versatile tool used to capture the journey toward completing a novel. I don't use my journal in the traditional sense, a daily entry highlighting the day's activities and feelings associated with my life. I keep one for each book I write and in each I keep tidbits of ideas for my work-in-progress. In it I have vital information that will never find its way directly into the novel, but details that are essential to a tight, well-crafted work.

Here are a few of things I write down.

  • Each character's age and the month of their birthday, along with their relationships with other characters. (For example, I don't want a character to be an older sister at the beginning of the novel, and later claim she's the younger of the two.)
  • The names of all my minor characters and where they fit into the story (Boy can these people get lost in the shuffle.)
  • The book's timeline (If it's Tuesday in Chapter one, what day is it in Chapter twenty? I fear I'll write a story where it's always Friday. Keep in mind, readers love to find these glitches in a novel, but they remove the reader from the story and thus interrupt flow.)
  • Page counts of chapters (While it's fine to have chapters of varying length, I like to know how my story's structure is falling into place. Later I can decide to combine or expand certain chapters to fit the overall structure.)
  • Lists of resources--print, web, and people-- that I can go to for story details (Authenticity of details is a post in and of itself)
  • Interviews completed (For my work-in-progress, I've completed several interviews that have added incredible information I'm using to inform plot, character and setting. I don't know when I need this info until I'm writing and suddenly I need it, and I want to have it handy.)
  • Notes related to revisions that will need to be layered into a subsequent draft (While I revise the writing from the day before each morning before I write again, I don't go back to the beginning, even if something is revealed to me in say the middle of the novel. I capture the notes in my journal and then in revision I'll know to add details or make changes. For example, a minor character in my work-in-progress had children in chapter three, but by chapter twenty-eight it was clear it was better if he didn't. Note to self--remove his children from chapter three)
The most significant use of my journal is during writers' group. During critique of my pages, sitting quiet, unable to speak, I write. I write down the positive things Amy, Lisa and Hannah say, as well as the constructive feedback. I do this for many reasons. For practical reasons, I have to know what's working and what's not. If I don't have the feedback to review later, I won't recall specifically what was discussed. I might think I'll remember, but likely I'll miss something. It also provides me with the ability to review the notes for themes. Is one character inconsistently relating to another character? Do a number of chapter beginnings overdue exposition? Is a particular subplot missing the mark in places? Taking accountability for the things that consistently emerge, absolutely makes for a stronger novel. Thanks to my journal, I won't miss any of these.

The process of capturing feedback is in itself a means of making positive change. Remember I'm a teacher, and teachers know that the act of writing down what you need to change is the first step toward embracing the change. The process of writing it down raises awareness and centers new thinking in a place of conscious thought. And it doesn't hurt to have the details that made your writers' group gasp, cry, or smile written down either. The positive feedback is a source of comfort on days when the writing is hard.

So how do you capture the nuances and tidbits for pulling together a strong work? We've written a number of entries about the art of writing, but I strongly believe in the science of it too. Work habits can either enhance or interfere with the process of writing a novel. Care to share some of the habits that work for you?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

When Bloggers Panic

by Hannah Roveto

You'd think sharing a blog with three other people would be easy. Once a week, plus an answer to a prompt on Friday. We're writers, we can do that, no problem. After all, it's about writing, too, so what could be easier, really?

Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. Think about blog post for next day. Something scintillating, although how to match Lisa and Amy's? "Close to done revising" won't cut it. So what? Distracted by child needing ride.

Tuesday 9:00 p.m. Drag to bed. Shoot. Didn't even think of what to post.

Tuesday 9:15 p.m. Once thought about posting my paid writing as comparison to the literary side of me. "Do you dream of sitting by the seaside, on a villa patio, or in a tropical paradise, yet think you can't justify such a splurge?" This lead sentence continues, one graph later, into five tips for creating a fabulous outdoor area, layering in Furniture as a Focal Point, Tabletop Touches, Details That Create a Difference, Don't Forget Fabrics, and Give It A Glow. All in under 400 words. I'm so convincing I want to decorate my own patio, which is saying something as my whole house, nevermind the bricks outside, suffers from being highly "underdecorated."

Wednesday 6:00 a.m. While riding the exercise bike, think of letting the cat out of the bag. Elinor Lipman agreed to be interviewed for this blog! Am so excited. Start to finalize my question list for her and stop thinking about the blog. Did you know Then She Found Me is coming out as a movie? It is being screened outside of Boston tomorrow night, with Elinor doing an intro, then Q&A afterward. Helen Hunt, who directs and co-stars, was told Salman Rushdie wanted to read for a small part and responded with the following: "Shut up!" Yes, he got the part.

Wednesday 7:00 a.m. One child out the door, the other lumbering down the stairs. Spy the book I've been reading on the coffee table: Waiting for Teddy Williams by Frank Mosher. Fun read, by the way. My library had a whole section of baseball fiction, which will be great when my own book comes out. I've thought of posting about dream blurbs; I scan Mosher's for people I might approach: Ken Burns, Dan Shaughnessy, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Jodi Picoult, Chris Bohjalian, Richard Russo. Gulp.

Wednesday 7:45 a.m. Two children out the door. What to write? What about how I can't decide what to post? Too boring. What about my outdoor entertaining patter? That'll scare everyone. Elinor Lipman? I haven't interviewed her yet, and she's got that screening tomorrow. Blurbs? Not yet. All of them together? Maybe, maybe, although then I've used up multiple ideas in one shot. Then again, I've got time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Being Critiqued

By Amy MacKinnon

It didn't go well.

Weeks ago, I submitted the first two chapters of my WIP to my writers' group. It was my turn to be critiqued, and truth be told, I was a wreck. I was at a crossroads and badly needed these pages to be good. Having my first book, Tethered, well-received by publishing types should have been all the reassurance I needed. But we are writers and we are required to prove our merit anew (to the world, but more important to ourselves) with each subsequent story.

The other issue at hand was I'd just finished reading the sophmore effort of a writer whose first book was brilliant. This second book was a disappointment. It read too much like his debut, even the characters had the same voice, inflections, physicality. I didn't want to write another version of Tethered so I stetched beyond my abilities. This work-in-progess of mine could not be first person, there would be no present tense, there would be multiple points-of-view and even an omniscient narrator. It was a struggle.

My writers' group was kind, of course. First, they spoke of the good contained within my pages and then told me all that wasn't working: too much backstory plunked in here; slow down the action there; be careful to tread lightly with the visuals in this section; and, no, that nickname doesn't work at all. They were kind and they were honest.

Afterward, I thought I had shown them too much too soon. For me. I was feeling fragile and uncertain, I should have waited. Perhaps this story wasn't what I should be writing. It was hard.

From time to time, I'd open up the document and re-read what I had. Should I proceed? I started another. I liked it very much, it would be a joy to write. Almost easy because I'm so close to it. The research will be a cinch. There is no ease to the research with my WIP. My book is based on actual events, a horror the world turned its back to, but one I can't forget. Reading, and oh my God watching, what mothers and fathers, what young children had to endure left me devastated. I should let go of the story, I thought.

But it wouldn't let go of me.

What I didn't realize (and you may find this difficult to believe) was that each time I reviewed my WIP, I revised it. It seemed too little to meet the demands of my writers' group -- they have very high standards expressed in the kindest possible terms. A tweak here, deleting a paragraph there, punching up dialogue all around moved it forward, though I was certain it wasn't enough.

Last night, they critiqued those same pages. Their hard work and mine was rewarded; they deemed the work up to par. After they finished with their feedback, Lisa asked if the last time had been too much, too critical. I told her it was, that I hadn't been ready to hear all they had to say so early on in the project. But Lynne disagreed. She said that while I may have felt that way, the revision proved otherwise. Hannah agreed the proof was on the page.

I don't know how some writers do it, how they work without the support of others who know what it is to labor and second-guess and obsess over every word on the page. To wonder if the work is good enough and not receive an answer.

Last night felt exactly like the very first time I presented the first two chapters of Tethered to Hannah, Lisa, and Lynne. I was elated and reassurred that I was on the right path. More than that I was grateful to know I have these three extraordinary women in my life.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Show up

Posted by Lisa Marnell

Between 7:30 and 8:00 o'clock each night (almost without fail), I show up for my shift. I’m lucky; I don’t leave home to go to work – not for this job. I’m not lucky; I’ve been at this particular employment for four years and I haven’t gotten a single paycheck. I work anywhere from one hour to three hours. I don’t keep a time card. No one asks me if I filled my quota for my week – I always do; I show up to work.

Woody Allen, of course, said the famous line: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

For a writer, for me, I hope this is true. In fact, to be honest, I believe this to be true.

In two recent newspaper articles written about us, about our writer’s group, I was asked the same question: “Lisa, do you think you’ll get published?” That question, more than any other, made me balk. It was hard to answer because it came out of left field. Perhaps my answer sounds vain to you, or to the reporter originally asking it, but it’s a no-brainer for me. The answer is simple.

The answer is (gulp) “Yes.”

I am not foolishly optimistic, my answer comes from looking at facts: editors and agents are desperate for a good story, and I am working hard in order to produce one.

When we first started this blog, in the fall of 2006, we mainly posted entries about the manner in which a good writer’s group functions. We’ve drifted from this. Now we post more about current events or the lives we live as writers. We share stories of inspiration, and we post author interviews. But the reason we started this blog was because we knew we had a good thing going and we wanted to share our excitement and our insight with the world.

A good writer’s group has been invaluable to me. It’s what gives me confidence.

Woody Allen has it right: success is about showing up. I show up. I learn. I write poorly some days and better the next.

Keep on keeping on: show up, and up, and up. Climb your ladder one rung at a time and reach the sky. It may not be as far away as it looks.

Success is showing up. Success is a choice. It helps me to believe this. Perhaps it will help you.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Making a Literary Life: Behind the Scenes

A writers' group provides more than critique. It offers support, friendship, information, and, oh yes, oftentimes a series of entertaining e-mails. In fact, when we first met Lynne, we included her in one of our oddest e-mail loops; we were trying to think of a name for our group, it seems.

During the final weekend of April we will attend the Muse & the Marketplace in Boston, Grub Street’s annual writing conference. We'll be hosting a panel on how to find a powerful writers' group, and Lynne and Amy will be moderating other panels. In anticipation of the event, Lisa sent an e-mail - she started a list - and, well, we all continued to add to it.

We'd like to share this series of e-mails with you, below:

Lisa Marnell:
See all of you in 18 days.

I actually can't wait for three things, in this order:

1- Standing with the three of you, feeling so happy we're together again (oh, how lucky we are that our paths crossed)

2- Walking on the streets of Boston (not street walking, regular walking)

3- Enjoying the company of writers, published, non-published

4- Spotting Michael Lowenthal and thinking, once again, how precious and inspirational he is

Okay, four things. And maybe number four goes after number one.

Amy MacKinnon:
1) We'll have a giant sleepover!

2) We'll laugh like banshees (I prefer to think of lost souls as laughing, not screaming).

3) We'll meet new people and catch up with old friends.

4) We'll get to hear advice from Julia Glass. Can't wait!!!

Hannah Roveto:
1. We'll get to hear Jonathan Franzen.

2. We'll be in a large group of those who understand what it's like to live in our heads!

3. I'll get to meet one of my dream agents... gulp!

4. We won't have to cook or clean. (I know that was on there before, but worth mentioning again.)

Lynne Griffin:
1) We’ll wear new shoes or carry a new bag—and we won’t be on crutches (Lisa was on crutches at last year's Muse)

2) Someone else will do the cooking, and we won’t have to make our beds

3) We'll spend forty-eight hours talking with people who really understand the trials and triumphs of the business

4) We'll have deep conversations about imaginary people and places with people who understand to us they’re real

5) We'll participate on a panel about writers’ groups where maybe a few people will find what we have

Isn't it wonderful to have something fantastic to look forward to! See you all soon.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

Confidence sits in the precarious place between self-doubt and egotism. Having faith in yourself takes work.

Yesterday my daughter called from her college campus. With exams, projects, and juried performances right around the corner, she was understandably stressed. The subtle catch in her voice told me she doubted it was possible for all of it to get done, and for her to do well. I could have offered her a standard mother daughter lecture--don't take things too seriously, make sure you get enough sleep, be sure to eat right--but how many of those helped me when I was in her shoes?

Instead I told her a story.

"Remember when you were in third grade and your big book report involved getting your summary of characters, setting, and plot to fit on an ordinary cereal box? And you had to do it creatively? You didn't struggle to read the book. You didn't mind analyzing the story. In fact, I recall you loved those parts. I watched as you learned, by trial and error, how to make the decisions that would make your project unique. You wanted to follow the guidelines set forth, and impress the teacher. Sure you worried that maybe you couldn't do it, or that it would take so long you might not finish on time, but that didn't stop you from doing what had to be done. The stress motivated you, it didn't immobilize you. Of course you completed it, and it was a job well done. Looking back, I don't remember a single project you didn't finish or one that you handed in late."

"That's true," she said. And then she went on to list some really overwhelming projects she worked on during her formative years. Projects I remember all too well. The invention. Building a Mayan civilization out of clay. The twenty. (You don't want to know about this one.)

Telling her a story helped. Experience builds confidence, if you remember to look back and appreciate it. Like my daughter, if you've done something before, why not be confident you can do it again. Have you written one chapter? You can write another. Sent out one query letter? Send out another. Introduced yourself to a writer you admire? Introduce yourself to another.

I can't give my daughter the confidence to sail through her final month as a freshman in college. And I can't tell you that you'll achieve your goals either. What I offered my daughter was what she and I call, mother's pearls. Those tiny bits of wisdom generously given to support, encourage and motivate. Even with those, she must find the door to the land of confidence--east of doubt and west of egotism. And once there, only she has the key to the door.

You're the only one that can find your confidence, too. It isn't always easy, but here are a few things I've learned in finding my own.

Looking at previous successes inspires you to believe you will find success again.

Whether you think you can or think you can't--you're right.

Experience is something you get, even if you fail.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Living Your Best Life

In keeping with Hannah’s post today on living forever, don’t miss the ABC special, tonight at ten EST-- The Last Lecture: A Love Story for Your Life. Amy wrote about the inspirational professor from Carnegie Mellon a few months ago. Dr Pausch’s book of the same title was published yesterday. It debuted at number 3 on Amazon.

How to Live Forever

by Hannah Roveto

A blog is a conversation, and we here at The Writers' Group are polite if sometimes pointed in our conversations. We don't discuss religion or politics or money, even as they relate to writing. Until now.

I have a question for you and I want you to take this quite seriously:

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Yes, I really want to know. Do you believe you will come back to another life, that the world or God or gods have made this not just a one-way trip, but a cyclical experience?

If you do not believe, the next paragraph is for you. If you do believe, please drop down two. Thank you.

If you do not beieve in reincarnation, this is it. You are living it here and now. And if you read this blog, you are truly living it, or at least ready to take steps to make it happen. If we truly only go around once, nothing matters more than living your purpose. Care for your loved ones, even when they roll their eyes at you. Eat and enjoy. So what if bathing suit season is around the corner? Dairy Twist is open for the season, with its hand-lettered signs and 43 ice creams and cherry dip and the Pepto-Bismol pink antique car out front. One small cone won't hurt. And write. Make a little time every day to write. What are you waiting for?

If you do believe in reincarnation, here's the flip side of the coin. If we are reincarnated, there is something we are supposed to learn from this life, yes? We are supposed to challenge ourselves, learn about ourselves, improve and inch closer toward a true clarity of being. There is a reason for writing. No matter what words come from the pen or printer, they demanded introspection about what you need, what others need in their lives. At leaat, this time around.

If you are here on Earth with a need to write, follow what your soul says it must do. Do you have a choice? Of course. You can let time slip by, let other pressures push the writing aside. Doing nothing is a choice. But think of it this way. Whether you're here once or again, there is a reason you are compelled to write. Listen to that voice.

Stand up, stretch, peer out the window at what I hope is a beautiful day where you are, take a deep breath and sit back down, close out Blogger, and write. Enjoy. It is one way for certain to live most in the moment, and one way you will, no doubt, live forever.

(With thanks, I confess, to Jesse Ventura. Yes, Jesse Ventura, who is on a book tour. After seeing Stephen Colbert and Donnie Deutsch both interview him, I haven't the darndest idea what his book is about. However, when asked what motivated him to be a Navy Seal, then a wrestler, then a Governor, and now a writer, he said: "I can't get my head wrapped around the idea of reincarnation. I don't want to be seventy and say woulda-coulda-shoulda. I want to say, I did this, I did that." And by the way, his publisher overrode him on his book cover.)

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Just Show Up

By Amy MacKinnon

Before writing fiction, I was an essayist. I was also a reporter, but I much preferred writing essays and I still seek them out. The good ones take the personal, make it universal, and somehow imbue it with a profound observation on the human condition.

Yesterday, Jezebel posted one that is all of those things. Allegedly written by an anonymous runway model, Tatiana, it's everything an essay should be. Study it for lessons in clarity and story arc, how to give an unflinching account without a hint of sentimentality.

But as a writer, as someone who's faced with rejection and criticism, conflicting advice and conditional approval, withering reviews and fickle attention, read it for the next to last graf too. Remove all references to modeling and instead insert writing:

"But there is one way in which this industry has taught me to take less of an obsessive interest in how I measure up, appearance-wise. The feedback you receive as a model is breathtaking in its contradictions, vehemence, and beside-the-point meanderings. My shoulders, too broad for one client, will be criticized for their narrowness by another. I have been told I have too many freckles, and also too few. I've been too pale, too tan, too old, too young, too brown, too red, too blonde. I'm too tall or too short. My feet are too big or not big enough. At first, this was unsettling, and kind of withering, but it soon became white noise — when a casting agent shares advice with me ("Tie your hair back for castings!" "Walk more smoothly!" "Work out so you have some arm muscle!") I thank him or her politely and do precisely nothing — because I know the next will want to see unfettered hair, a cocky swagger of a walk, and arms that aren't as "bulky" with muscle as mine. It all cancels out, and I'm left with the conclusion that the client will cast whomever they will cast and they'll know it as soon as the right model walks in the door and nothing in my power will change that. The best I can do is show up."

Familiar? There is a cacophony of opinion about what constitutes good writing, good storytelling, a good book --there is nothing harmonious about public/private/professional opinion. With few exceptions it should all be white noise.

What you must do, all you can do, is write for the story. Write what compels you, what consumes your every thought. Don't worry about producing ten pages every day or even writing every day. Write because you want to, because you have to. Write because you love to write. Do that, and you'll become the person you want to be. Really. Because no matter what, your shoulders will be too narrow, too wide; your sprinkle of freckles will be too dense, too sparse; your arms too muscular, too flabby. I don't mean to imply that a worthy critiquer doesn't exist, I give as the best example my writers' group. What I do mean to say is it's crucial to be selective about whom you choose to listen to and when. No voice should be louder than your own.

And on those days when the voices overtake you, when there's another rejection in your email and you're certain you're no writer at all, remember: the best you can do is show up.

Monday, April 07, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

“I was in the right place at the right time.” That’s how my father explained two things (good things) that happened to him in his life. He always said those words with a sigh and he seemed to forget where he was during his moments of blind staring afterward. If he was sitting in our kitchen in our suburban home outside of Montreal, he’d study the linoleum floor and not notice how the edges close to the door were peeling. If he was driving at the time, he’d relax his hands on the steering wheel and turn into a cool and collected driver for once.

It was fate, in his mind, that he got hired as a pilot for Eastern Airlines. It was destiny he should meet and marry my mom, a flight attendant, Calendar Girl for the airlines, no less.

There are moments, some small, some huge, that change the direction of our lives in some way, enough to make a difference.

In 2004, I bought the book, Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan. I had made the decision to write a novel. I didn't know her book would be the inspiration that would open the door to whatever talents and drive I had to write. It taught me the difference between good writing and bad, and it helped me to strive to improve my own skills.

In 2006, I attended Michael Lowenthal’s session at the Muse & the Marketplace, Boston’s Grub Street conference. Though Michael, alone, was inspiration enough - his enthusiasm and charisma were tangible – his topic, timeline in fiction, helped my writing enormously. Events in the imaginary worlds we write about happen chronologically, but their revelation in a story rarely do. As writers of fiction, we use flashbacks, flashforwards, foreshadowing, reflection. Where do we start a story? At the beginning? Most oftentimes that’s unlikely. As my peers in our writer’s group can attest, timeline and revelation of events is key in my WIP.

As some of you know, I moved in July, to sunny California. Boxes and boxes arrived from Massachusetts. Books were put on shelves, but some ??? were missing. Over the past few months I have turned to my bookshelf for two books I love and rely on for both inspiration and craft. Word Painting and Avoidance. sadly, were missing. Until tonight.

I’ll admit, I was not engaged in anything profound at the time; I was searching for my blow dryer – how mundane – and I reached into a box of winter clothes I had pushed to the back of my closet. I hoped my hand would close around the blow dryer’s cord, instead I felt the spine of a book. As I pulled out the book, I noticed the beige color, the light blue painting: Word Painting. I gasped (really, I did). As I reached into the box again, I wasn’t looking for the wire of my blow dryer. When my fingers touched the smooth cover of a book, I knew it was Michael’s book. It was Avoidance.

It was fate, of course, those books were together, those bound, neatly packaged, symbols of inspiration. Odd, too, I finalized my plot last night: it’s time for the writing, the meat, the revisions.

I never had a sign before though other members of our writing group have. Amy has. Lynne has too, I think. Hannah? Finding these books as I feel good about my story is a sign. Avoidance and Word Painting will sit on my desk, to the right of my laptop. I will read them when I need to remember what good writing sounds like. I will drink in their covers and feel their presence and run my fingers along their well worn pages when I need to know I was meant to finish what I started.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Gossip

Never underestimate the power of gossip. It's important to know what people are saying to whom about what. Now, we're not talking about the malicious kind that some people spread for sport nor are we interested in dishing the private lives of those who run in our circles. What we are interested in, what you should keep an ear open for, is the industry buzz, buzz, buzz. This is what we're hearing, how about you?

Lisa Marnell
Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why, was over the moon recently. Why? Because his novel hit the Children's list as a New York Times Bestseller. Congrats, Jay!

Amy MacKinnon

Pssst! Did you hear that publishers and the chain booksellers want more succint novels? Yes, it's true. Now, we're not talking Michael Cunningham's THE HOURS-short (53,730 words), though if you can and create something as gorgeous, good on you. An attractive word count these days is between 70,000-80,000 words. The reason? Of course there's always that old chestnut about people not having enough time for reading, but there's also the very real issue of shelf space. The thinner the books, the more will fit on a shelf. Not that you asked, but I say let all of the outside world be static and write for the story.

And did you know about the bestselling British author who is supposedly just as nice in person as the public persona she projects? It's true! I had the good fortune to meet Kate Mosse at a Buttonwood Books-sponsored reading this week -- her only stop in New England. Kate is the author of LABYRINTH and the just released SEPULCHRE. We chatted along with her Orange Prize co-founder Sam McGregor (let's hear it for women helping women!) for quite a bit and then Kate began her talk. She is brilliant and beautiful and a superb writer.

One last item of note: TETHERED sold in China!

Hannah Roveto
I know this doesn't count per se as gossip, but if you long for inside info that is entertaining -- and highly practical -- you haven't had your regular dose of Kristin Nelson's blog. I'd fallen out of the habit and recently went back; it is every bit as addicting as a certain magazine with star photos, yet delivers real benefits! Two favorite posts that come to mind that are better than gossip for Writers-With-First-Manuscripts are her post on Where Eight New Clients Came From, and last fall's blog workshop series on writing queries, which started with Pitching and All That Jazz. I re-read the latter recently, and was again grateful for her generosity!

Lynne Griffin
I had breakfast with my agent, Elisabeth Weed, yesterday and after talking about books and publishing for two hours, I practically skipped to the seminar I taught later that day. Though there are writers who have yet to meet their agent face-to-face, I highly recommend taking the time and making the effort to nurture a good relationship. And that goes for your relationship with your editor too.

In this month's Poets and Writers, Jofie Ferrari-Adler has written a wonderfully insightful q & a with senior editor at Little, Brown, Pat Strachan. Not only does Strachan share highlights of her career, working with Tom Wolfe, Marilynne Robinson and Grace Paley, to name a few, but she gives advice to writers on working to build a career. The insider information she offers is well worth the read.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In the Company of Writers

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I almost deleted his email, the subject line--French Publisher Wants Publicity Shots--looked suspicious. Surely this was another come on to entice an eager writer. But wait, I have a French publisher. So I opened the message to find that Belfond was sending famed photographer, Jerry Bauer to the United States to take two author photos. Mine was one of them.

We spoke first by phone. He was calling from Italy, where he lives most of the year. Charming yet directive, he suggested where we would meet--the Inn at Harvard on a Saturday in four weeks--and what I should wear. He said, "I will recognize you because I've been to your website and have seen your photo. Let me tell you how you will know me. On a good day, I am Elton John. On a bad day, I am Woody Allen."

Intrigued and excited, I prepped for the big day. New make-up. I got my hair trimmed. And thanks to my dear daughter, I found the perfect dress when we went shopping. She was on spring break and asked if she could join me. "Sure, he sounds like an interesting man. It will be fun," I said. He'd told me he'd photographed, Kiran Desai, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Sebold, Tom Perrotta, Gail Tsukiyama, Tim O'Brien, and the list goes on and on. I couldn't wait to hear more.

So we arrive on time and in he walks. More Woody than Elton, he came in holding only a well-worn bag. I must have looked puzzled. "Everything I need is in it," he said. With camera in hand, Jerry went looking for light. I followed.

Jerry Bauer is a light master. He would ask me to move and sit and stand, all while he looked for the right light. Each photo was painstakingly orchestrated, yet I felt relaxed, I posed effortlessly. While he worked, he talked, telling me about the thrill of photographing Simone de Beauvoir and Jack Kerouac. Dean Koontz likes to be photographed in his home, as does Gail Godwin. Luciano Pavarotti liked to share a meal before being photographed. And Elizabeth Taylor, well she didn't much care whether you took the photo or not. After all, she's Elizabeth Taylor.

In short order, he said we were done and that the tea would be out momentarily. It was as if he lived right there at the Inn. My daughter and I took our seats at the table covered in white linen, the tea and scones arrived, and Jerry told us all about being an on set movie photographer in the sixties and seventies. My daughter, a music major in college, swooned when she heard about all the opera singers Jerry has met and photographed.

At the end of our tea, I asked Jerry if I would be able to use one of the photos on my website. He said, "of course."

"I like the way you do business," I said.

"I don't do business, I meet people," he said.

And that sums it up. Jerry spends his life meeting people. His life is rich because he's doing what he loves. He's using his talent to capture each writer's personality and he enjoys every minute of it.

When I left the Inn, I didn't much think about whether the photos would be good enough to grace the cover of the French version of Life Without Summer. I had an experience of a lifetime. Photographed by Jerry Bauer, I was in the company of writers.

So here it is.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Slimming Down the Prose

by Hannah Roveto

For those accused of putting too much food in your scenes, this post is for you. For those of you who keep your characters thin, well, feel free to nibble as well. I have been accused, rightfully so, of overfeeding my readers. "Too much food." "They're eating again?" "He drinks too much coffee. Didn't he just have a cup?"

In real life, much happens around food, doesn't it? People who would never be caught together, for any reason, meet over food. Reunions and ruckuses ensue. Major issues are raised -- tentatively, forcefully -- as we are trapped between a salad and the main course. Our best sides and our worst arise as we gather with the ones we love, the ones we are trying to like, and the ones we, well, would rather never see again. And we show our best sides to the latter, the worst to the former. I read once that Sarah Jessica Parker said she and Matthew Broderick talk some evenings about how lovely their first cup of coffee will be in the morning. That one detail changed her from someone I knew existed to a soul sister.

Even my memories of funerals have food details. I remember only two things about my grandmother's funeral: it was open casket, and at the reception afterward, two women were talking about the lemon chiffon pie brought by my grandparents' housecleaner (and friend and possibly an earthly saint). The conversation quickly went from how wonderful the pie was, to the fact that it was made with fresh eggs, which made all the difference, to a comment on how its baker kept chickens, said in a tone of voice that implied a great deal about social status.

Oh, but am I talking too much about food? Apologies. You see, I discovered how to cut down on food, at least in my writing, at a funeral reception my protagonist had to attend. How to get him through socializing with a hundred people, moving through rooms with tables of food, drinking coffee and perhaps sneaking something stronger, without talking about food?

I pulled him aside, or rather, had him pull his sister and a friend aside for a key conversation. I kept the scene focused on what I needed to convey, and left the food literally in the background. He didn't even bring a cookie to munch. When he returned to the group, he shook hands, accepted sympathies, closed out the scene.

Plot above setting, action above food. Chew is not an action verb. I'd finally gotten it.

Scanning back through the manuscript, I was able to mark every sip, every bite, and decide whether it was necessary. At times, yes, I allowed them to indulge. After all, the fact that someone drinks a lot of coffee can be useful, as long as the reader doesn't get the jitters, too. I did allow my protagonist a sausage sub at a baseball game, and indeed, a juicy burger at a bar. But for a reason. This is a man whose peers eat lamb chops and drink Grey Goose vodka. That he would prefer a sausage sub and a burger with a draught beer means something, as long as the reader doesn't have to dab at the grease while listening to conversations and watching the events that are the real action.

So, yes, it is possible to move characters through the day without making sure they have every beverage and snack, every mouthful of their three squares recorded for posterity. I am living proof. Focus on the comment about keeping chickens; keep the pie to a single reference. Focus on the interaction between the man with sub and the woman with the diet soda, their relationship falling apart with each word, not each bite. Don't track every meal; the reader will assume they ate. Pull characters aside and let them act and react with something other than food. Even the heartiest of writers will find it is possible to trim down the prose and let the proof of a story be in the pudding. (Sorry!)

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


By Amy MacKinnon

Some of you may recall a few weeks back that I had news to share.  I couldn't spill it then, not because of any embargo imposed by Random House/Shaye Areheart Books, but because I didn't quite trust my good fortune.  Both my editor and my agent assured me it was so, but it wasn't until my publisher said oh yes, it is at lunch last week (yes, I had lunch with my publisher, how exciting is that?) was I able to believe it.

TETHERED will be the lead title in the fall catalog.

Every bit of my Dream Big scenario is so far coming true: selling to SAB, wonderful editors, foreign sales, and now lead title.  It is magical.

Speaking of foreign sales, I also heard from my UK editor at Orion last week.  They are positioning TETHERED as one of their big books for winter 2009.  I became a bit numb when she told me they're going to print copies of my book for every employee at Orion.  I can't wait to share the cover.

It is all too much to process at times, too fantastic to accept as true, but there it is.  Dream big, people, dream big.


Missing Amy?
She couldn't post.
Blame her ISP;
very bad host.

Meanwhile, for anyone who might not have explored all her Messages To A Younger Self: Read This