Monday, December 22, 2008

Happy Holidays 2008

With the joys and blessings of the holidays upon us, The Writers Group blog is on hiatus until 2009. Thank you for taking time to stop by and share your thoughts with us in 2008. We wish you the following:

* make time to write, to think, to plot, even if you find yourself amid chaos;

* take a warm cozy moment or two to read;

* enjoy spending your gift certificate to your favorite bookstore, preferably independent, and cherish the books given to you with love from those who care for you.

Happy holidays, and cheers to a productive and personally rewarding 2009!

Amy, Lisa, Lynne and Hannah

Friday, December 19, 2008

Getting the Interview

Writers, as creative as we may be, are not able to imagine the true details of the many professions we envision for our characters. Wikipedia does not suffice. We need to get out there and find individuals who live and breathe, as our characters do, to interview. How to turn away from our solitary world where we have complete control, and get out there to do the job right?

Q) Do you have advice on the best way to get an interview with someone you want to speak with for research purposes? One of the characters in my book had a niche job that I know I don't know enough about, but I've located someone who would be perfect to speak with. How do I go about getting a busy person to speak with me for informational purposes?

Lynne Griffin
I do a lot of research before I ask for an interview. Being prepared is critical to conducting an informative one and in being seen as professional. By doing your homework, you'll have a better sense of who to approach and specifically what you're after. Don't waste your subject's time by asking the obvious things you have access to by reading books or searching online. Make the experience worthwhile for both of you by going deep. The interviews I've conducted for my work-in-progress gave me some of my best insights into my characters' motivations. I strongly urge you to round out your research by going to a primary source. And always send a thank you afterwards, and again via your acknowledgments once the book is published.

Amy MacKinnon
Call and ask. It's amazing how helpful people are -- and flattered that you're interested in their lives. As for questions, allow your natural curiousity free reign and make a point of going to their environment. It's crucial to the detials, to the setting, the character to be present.

Hannah Roveto
People are amazingly kind and always flattered when anyone wants to peek into their lives, nevermind someone who might turn knowledge into a story. I've interviewed complete strangers on things as arcane as bioluminescence (glowing plankton!). Take a deep breath, and be professional. Write the person a brief but thoughtful email or letter. Explain you are a writer and you have a character doing a similar job, and need to understand the whys and wherefores and hows. Estimate how much time the interview will take and tell them. An hour? At their convenience, of course! Go in prepared with questions based on the story, going beyond the job to things like the temperament of people who do that job, what motivates them to go into that field, terms that might have useful secret or double meanings. Explain your basic theme; what comes to mind professionally for them? Why did you make your character this way? You are genuinely interested in who these people are; enjoy the conversation and write a follow-up thank you. And credit them when the book comes out!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

How To Thread a Novel

So much detail to put in just the right places. How does anyone ever write a novel? There are tricks, of course, passed along from writer to writer. Not to over simplify -- or over promise as per our header here, but here are our best suggestions in a nutshell.

Q: I've written my first draft and there are sizeable clumps of information that need to be threaded throughout. What's the best way to do this? I started an outline, but got sick of it. I read Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird about plot treatment--summarize chapter by chapter what happens. I'm thinking this might be the best way to go. I know the chronological thread of my MC's life, but I want to start when she's an adult, then go back and insert background on her past, her relationship with her mother, her job, her relationship with her boss, how she met certain friends, all while keeping the main story moving forward. Without it all becoming a huge mess. How have you done it? Hannah's Thread Obsessed and Millefeuille post were helpful, but maybe a little more nuts and bolts about how to work those threads? And Lynne's post on journals hit home. I had one character as an ex-Marine, then realized it didn't really fit his personality! Exactly what does a thread consist of--subplots or just the chronology of each character?

Lynne Griffin
Like Amy, my storytelling process is more organic than plotted or outlined. I don't choose jobs or homes or life circumstances for my characters, these come to me over time. And the time I spend thinking about my characters--listening to their story, wondering about their predicaments-- far exceeds the time I spend putting words on the page. That said, as you mentioned above, I keep a journal for each novel. Not only do I jot down plot points as they come to me, but I note what threads I'll need to go back and tighten in revision. Writing fiction, for me, is equal parts art and science. I strive to write for the story, then I go back to be sure I've been true to craft. As my dear friend Michael Lowenthal once said, "Let readers dismiss the work on taste, not talent."

Amy MacKinnon
Outlines? Plot treatments? Chapter summaries? It all sounds so technical. I'm afraid I can't help you with this one because my process is more organic and very simple. In terms of threads, I introduce them the way I'm introduced to other people's stories in real life: in bits and pieces. When I'm getting to know someone, they don't tell me everything of their past and present right away, and they almost always hedge the truth. Time teases out the story, trust, circumstances, a shared experience. It's a gradual process. And then, finally, there's the big revelation and you realize the clues were there all along. It's simply a matter of identifying each story in your novel, and ensuring each is told as fully, as richly as possible, and all sharing a common thread.

Hannah Roveto
I always do a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, for my own work and when I read for others. Hallie Ephron teaches a High-Low Revision process; she explains it in her Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which is perfect for any kind of novel. Whether or not you're an outliner, and I'm not, you do need to see your first draft from higher ground and follow each character through. The draft is very organic for me, messy even. Once it's complete, then comes the work to make sure it doesn't stay that way! I do synopses on a couple of sheets of lined paper, with 3-4 lines per chapter. Line one is the synopsis, with the date in the left margin and setting, then a quick description of key points. When I've got them all down I go back and make little notes -- one or two words -- thread by thread, character by character, on what info gets revealed to whom when ("R 2 K, dad issue"). Leaving yourself little space makes you focus. What really does happen here that is important to the reader/story? Best to do this with a cup of hot tea to one side, in the comfiest office chair you own. The few hours it takes are well spent!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The MFA Decision

There are lots of ways to immerse a learner in the craft of writing. And every writer should be prepared to be a lifelong learner. But which way is the right way for you?

I've pretty much ruled out going back for an MFA (I'm in my early 40s with school-age kids, and can't quite justify the cost right now, and I'm not looking to teach any time soon), but I keep wondering if that's the right decision. I wonder how the workshops and teaching in a decent low-residency program compare to the workshops and teaching I've gotten at writers' conferences and online. And of course I wonder if the credential helps open doors. I can't say for sure that my fiction is literary; I think it's halfway between literary and commercial. I'm wondering if any of you went through a similar decision struggle, or if not, why not.


Lynne Griffin
Like you, when I came to writing fiction my life circumstances made getting an MFA a challenging proposition. Full time business to run, full time wife, mother and homemaker. It wasn't going to happen. And I already had a masters degree in education. I never toyed with the low residency programs either, though I think they are a fantastic option and know some amazing writers who teach in them. I have taken numerous courses at Grub Street and have benefited from every single one. The means by which craft is learned and then honed is a personal decision. Having written two novels, I can say the learning is ongoing. Each experience teaches new things and reminds me I will never know it all. My advice is to examine the way you learn best and then to fill your writing life with as many different opportunities to learn as you can. And if you do choose to get an MFA, be forewarned. Even when you complete a program, you're learning won't be through.

Amy MacKinnon
I would love to get my MFA. It would please me to no end to devote many, many hours to reading excellent books, parsing it with like minded people, devote time to critiquing their work, having the same done to mine. Wait, I have that already...

So, do I think an MFA opens doors? Maybe Iowa and a few others. Do I believe it makes for a better writer? Maybe, maybe not. I believe the writing is more organic without it, but some people would absolutely benefit from honing their craft. Do I think there's the tendency while enrolled in a MFA program to write to a particular schematic. Yes. Evalaute your goals for the program. If you're doing it with the intent of getting published, you don't need it. If you desire an MFA for the pure joy of wallowing in literature, with the intent to expand your breadth of knowledge, go for it.

Hannah Roveto
Knowing writers who made it with and without an MFA, the bottom line is this: having the stick-to-it-iveness to make the time to learn from others and also to share critical reading support. If you have options like the fabulous Grub Street in Boston for classes -- and will get yourself to them -- and a great writers' group or reader, an MFA is not necessary. A low-residency MFA is a solid middle ground between this Do-It-Yourself version and a formal MFA, requiring you to make the commitment (not unlike how some use a gym membership to force themselves to exercise!) in a way that fits your life. If that is the push and structure you need, I heartily recommend such a program!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Best Books of 2008

Thank you, Book Browse and Donna Chavez!

Mystery. With her stupendous prose and intricate characterizations MacKinnon has penned a winner - Hardcover

Tethered A Novel by Amy Mackinnon
Read the full review

Tethered is the first book in recent memory that I absolutely could not read fast enough to see how it comes out. The book is deceptive. Is it a mystery? Is it a literary novel? At first it seems to be a rather interesting, if uncomplicated, story about a young woman, Clara Marsh, who works in a funeral home as an undertaker; assistant to the funeral director, Linus Bartholomew. She's had a rather difficult life – orphaned at an early age then raised by an overly strict Bible-thumping grandmother – thus she is pretty much a loner. So when she encounters a little girl called Trecie in one of the mourning rooms I was expecting a story about how Clara begins to relate to the youngster and eventually overcomes her inability to connect with others. Boy was I wrong. .... Read full review.

Reviewed By Donna Chavez

Thursday, December 11, 2008

You've been waiting and waiting, emailing for hints, finally it's Thursday and Lissa Warren is back with the answer to that question every writer asks. And who better to ask than Lissa, Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press and author of that must-have, The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity:

Q) We've heard again and again that writers need to help promote their work once their books are published, but not every one knows how to do this (other than buying THE SAVVY AUTHORS GUIDE). What are your best author do's and don'ts?

A) Lissa Warren: It’s true—these days, authors need to be actively involved in the promotion of their books. They need to be partners in the campaign—not just the recipients of it. Here are my do’s and don’ts:

Create a website for your book—and keep it updated. By adding new content on a regular basis—even if it’s just your latest media coverage and your newest events—you’ll make it a place people want to come back to, rather than a place they visit once.

Be agreeable. If your publicist asks you to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Sunday to do a phoner with a small radio station in a city no one has ever heard of, do it—not just because you never know who could be listening and what it could lead to, but because publicists tend to work extra hard when authors are cooperative.

Follow the news, and let your publicist know what’s happening in the world that you can speak to, and what your take is on it. She can then use that info to get you more coverage. Don’t have a publicist? Then send out a well-crafted pitch via email yourself. When news is breaking, the media needs experts and will sometimes be receptive to authors even when they’re pitching themselves.

Write—and try to find a home for--op-eds and original articles (preferably tied to your book) that mention the book in your bio line.

Blog. Start your own blog, or blog for established ones like the Huffington Post.

Secure some speaking gigs for yourself. Bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, universities, corporations, churches, synagogues and JCCs, professional conferences—there are tons of places to talk. Check with your publicist to see what she’s pursuing—then fill in the gaps. If it seems like too much work, investigate the possibility of enlisting the services of a lecture agent.

Consider hiring a freelance publicist or outsourcing for a radio satellite tour and/or Web campaign for your book. They’re not cheap, but they can really help you get the word out.

Be hard to reach. If you don’t have a cell, get one (and return messages from your publicist and from the media promptly). Same goes for email (and check it frequently so as not to miss opportunities). The three months before and after your book comes out are not a good time to take a vacation—so don’t.

Be your usual unselfish self. Every book has a very small window in which to succeed—usually a couple of months after it pubs. You may need to set limits with family, friends, and even your employer. To the extent that you can, try to view promoting your book as a full-time job.

Don’t have unrealistic expectations. It’s good to aim high, but not everyone can be on Oprah or Fresh Air, or reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Start small, start niche, start local—then build from your base. And remember: publicity begets publicity begets publicity.

Engage in shameless self-promotion. Find ways to put yourself out there that aren’t tacky. For example, in any press material you create don’t say your book is fascinating—make it sound fascinating. Don’t praise the book yourself, but instead quote positive reviews and provide blurbs by other authors.

Fail to do your homework. Spend time researching shows, publications, and Websites that might be appropriate for your book. Before going on a radio or TV show, try to listen to or view it online—or at least check out the show’s website. Before speaking with a reporter, Google them to see what kind of things they’ve covered in the past, and what their approach has been.

Be a forgettable interview. Go into every interview armed with 3-5 talking points—things you’d really like to convey that you think will resonate with the intended audience. Learn how to sound bite well. If necessary, hire a media coach to help you. And the same goes for your reading/talks—select your passages carefully, time yourself (20-30 minutes is usually sufficient for a bookstore talk), and practice your delivery. And be sure to send thank you notes once the segment airs or the article runs/posts.

Forget that this is supposed to be fun. Most people never even write a book, much less get it published. Try to enjoy your time in the spotlight.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Should I Query Agents Now?

'Tis the season! But is it a good time to send out those query letters?

Q) I've finished the umpteenth draft of my novel and I'm ready to start querying agents. Should I start now or wait until after the New Year? Everyone is telling me to wait, but I feel like I've waited a long time already, though I don't want to waste my one shot with an agent. Advice?

Lynne Griffin
I'd continue to query, but with two caveats. Are you absolutely sure your manuscript is in the best possible shape to stand out? And are you querying a very targeted group of agents? Being thorough on both counts is the key to query at any time of year.

Amy MacKinnon
Send away! Conventional wisdom states you should wait until the beginning of February -- what with the holidays in December, New Years, and then the assumption that agents' inboxes are full to crashing in the weeks following. Most people follow that advice, but I didn't. I queried my top pick the end of November, and sent the rest the first two weeks of December. All of the agents I queried were working away and responded immediately. If I were you, I'd query right up until December 17 and then take a breather until mid-January. Good luck and let us know how you make out.

Lisa Marnell
She's away for the holidays. Merry Christmas, Lisa!

Hannah Roveto
Did you move in with the first guy or gal who ever asked you out? Unless you were very lucky, I suspect it took a little more work before you found someone you decided was worth a risk. I'm querying, and don't plan to stop! If an agent turns you down, it wasn't meant to be, independent of the time of year, state of the industry or any other factor. While some agents aren't taking new clients in this environment, if you've written something they can't resist, all bets are off. The trick is to keep going until you find your own personal Mr. or Ms. Right.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Hook or the Book

While every agent or editor delights in finding the high concept novel with page turning pace in the slush pile, what's to become of the more sedate literary novel? In the midst of the changing landscape in publishing, many worry that their novel doesn't have the right stuff. Do you? Does yours?

Q) My novel has been called "quiet" by a few agents who've rejected it. Even those who have complimented my writing say they don't know how they would position it in the crowded market. I love my novel as is and feel that it will eventually find a home. I have no interest in revising it to give it a big hook. What advice do you have for a writer like me?

Lynne Griffin
It's true that selling literary--in fact all--fiction is tough these days. The shelves are certainly crowded and it takes a lot of promotion to stand out. That said, there are wonderful books being published that are literary, quiet and still deeply rich in texture and tone. I suggest you step back and ask yourself some tough questions about your novel. Are the characters richly drawn and as three dimensional as your best friend or next door neighbor? Is your story original and compelling? Great writing is a must no matter what your genre, but in truth, today your work does need to stand out in some way in order to break free from the stack.

Amy MacKinnon
Ah, the quiet novel. When I think quiet, I think Last Night at the Lobster or Out Stealing Horses, Old Man and the Sea or The Stone Diaries. Each is a gem, two were awarded the Pulitzer, all have enormous heart. If no one is telling you there's a structural issue, that the voice is a mere echo, and the characters flat, then I would persevere -- but perhaps not now. I believe in the pendulum swing philosophy, that literary gems will once command the attention they deserve. As Lynne said, the climate is not welcoming to many novels right now, but this too shall pass. Believe.

Lisa Marnell
It sounds to me as though your decision's made; you say you have no interest in revising it to give it a "Big Hook." But, allow me to play devil's advocate... I challenge you to tell yourself WHY you don't want to revise it. Are you intimidated by the work it would entail (we're all too busy these days). Do you fear you won't be able to come up with an idea? Perhaps you owe it to yourself and your novel to rethink your decision.

Hannah Roveto
Perhaps you could have someone else read it for you; and if you've had it read by one or two knowledgeable friends, try a third or even a book doctor. You don't need to do what they say, but the knowledge might be useful. If it's a marketplace issue, would a chapter or a deleted scene be worth crafting into a short story? Many a first novel came from a published short story that drew someone's attention, and a credit in Post Road might be nice to have under your belt.

Monday, December 08, 2008

How to Publicize Your Book

Joining us this week at the Writers' Group to answer your question is industry insider and all around nice person, Lissa Warren.

We first met Lissa at a Grub Muse and the Marketplace conference where she hosted one of the most informative panels that year on author do's and don'ts. Lissa is an author herself of the book every serious writer should own, The Savvy Authors Guide to Book Publicity and is senior director of publicity at Da Capo Press. Can you think of a better person to ask your PR questions of? Check back on Thursday when she answers this:

Q) We've heard again and again that writers need to help promote their work once their books are published, but not every one knows how to do this (other than buying THE SAVVY AUTHORS GUIDE). What are your best author do's and don'ts?

Lissa Warren has worked in the publicity department of several prestigious Boston publishing houses including David R. Godine, Houghton Mifflin, and Perseus Publishing, and is currently Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. She is an experienced promoter of both fiction and nonfiction, with particular expertise in the areas of business and biography, health and history, poetry and parenting, sports and science, and music. She has worked on such national bestsellers as The Cluetrain Manifesto, Greenspan: The Man Behind Money, Flatterland, Smart Mobs, Faster Than the Speed of Light, and Touchpoints Three to Six.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Have a question? Don't be shy! If we can't answer it, we'll find someone who can. Write to us at:

In the coming weeks, look for Q&As with special guests such as Lissa Warren, author of The Savvy Author's Guide to Book Publicity and a Senior Director of Publicity at Da Capo Press (you know, that great publisher of Cancer Is a Bitch by Gail Konop Baker), as well as the dark one himself, Evil Editor.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Stay out of the doghouse--Buy books!

Have you ever given a gift that elicited an unexpected response? Received a cold stare after giving a sweater two sizes too big or found yourself sleeping on the couch because of a vacuum cleaner or blender? If so, don't take your chances this holiday season. We have a sure way to stay out of the doghouse. Buy books. Buy books. Buy books.

Watch this video and then buy books.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Debra Ginsberg is a New York Times Pick!

Congratulations to Debra Ginsberg, author of the New York Time's Top Ten Crime Fiction pick of 2008, The Grift!

Not only is she a good person, she's a great writer. Brava, Debra!

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best of Interviews: Mameve Medwed

We'd gotten a question on inspiration, and began thinking of memorable inspirations for stories we'd come across. One we love was the crazy kernel that Mameve Medwed nurtured into Of Men and Their Mothers. Rather than answer the question ourselves, we thought we'd bring back a "Best Interview" so you can hear the story again from Mameve yourself!

Mameve Medwed’s books are known for their strong sense of setting, fully-drawn characters, and plots that build on comedies of manners in the issues that matter most day-to-day: love, children, parents, career, self. Of her first novel, 1997’s Mail, Publishers Weekly noted that “Medwed’s talent is in the details,” and her books have been praised by the likes of Arthur Golden, Tom Perrotta, Gregory Maguire and Anita Shreve. Her book, Of Men and Their Mothers, was a BookSense “Notable Book” last May. She graciously agreed to be interviewed for The Writers’ Group blog, and offers insights into her path through and take on the literary life.

Hannah Roveto: Thank you for sharing your time with us. I’ve read your first four books, already bought the fifth, and the fact that you are known for humor is of particular interest to me. First off, Mail came out in 1997. What was your background to that point? You were writing already?

Mameve Medwed: Thank you, too! Yes, I was writing short stories and had published a lot. Mail started as a short story published in The Missouri Review. I thought I was a short story writer. Elinor Lipman called and said, you know, you need to write a novel. I told her I didn’t know how, and she said, “Nobody does. Take Mail and turn it into one.” So I did it, kicking and screaming. Then it finds an agent, results in a bidding war, and I thought, this isn’t so bad! I felt I never wanted to write short stories again. I love the luxury of working on something for a matter of years. I always panic at the end of a story, worry where the story will go, and will I ever get another idea. Novel writing delays that panic.

HR: How did you meet Elinor Lipman?

MM: I met Elinor almost thirty years ago in a writing class at Brandeis, adult ed, twelve weeks for forty bucks. We hit it off and became fast friends right away, especially since we were the only ones writing funny stuff and we were considered not “serious!”

HR: What did you learn as you grew into a novel writer?

MM: I don’t know what I learned, in that I did it by the seat of my pants. I’d always keep one paragraph ahead of myself. I was so certain I couldn’t do it, that nobody would want it, I didn’t set any limits on myself. I let my imagination spin, went on tangents, moved back and forth in time. I took classes, of course, at the Cambridge Center and at Radcliffe, which were tremendously helpful. I was quite sure nothing would come of it, though. I still feel that way with every novel, that I’m reinventing the wheel for myself.

HR: Did you have a writers group in those early days?

MM: I’ve certainly been sustained by writers groups and seminars, but all the groups petered out over time. They’d work for a while, then they didn’t. I have one reader over the years, Elinor, who’s been a constant. I read her work and she reads mine. Sometimes my agent reads before I’m done, sometimes someone else.

HR: Do you have a formal process or rules any longer?

MM: No. (Laughs.) Ellie send stories chapter by chapter, very polished. I send her big messy manuscripts I’ve certainly gone over a number of times, but I think she has the harder end of that deal. I don’t want to be stopped too early on.HR: If you are asking someone else to read, are there any guidelines you suggest to them?

MM: I’m very careful whom I ask to read. I have to know the person, know they know me. I want brutal honesty wrapped in encouragement. I don’t want to feel like I’m going to go home and fall on my sword; I want a certain professionalism. You need to know if the story works, the characters are real, whether there are any confusions. Is it too long, and so forth.

HR: You’ve said Mail took about three years to write, and your other books have come out at about two year intervals. Can you talk a bit to your process while you write? Do you outline, or know where your stories are headed, and do you have any thoughts on those “messy middles?”

MM: I’ve been told I’m “so prolific.” Of course, between the time you have a book accepted and when it is published is about eighteen months, so there’s been an additional six months or so of time nobody sees. I have very bad habits, or at least, a horrible time starting a new book. First, I’m often in the whole publication-touring-promotion phase for another book, so it’s hard to switch heads. I haven’t given birth to the old book yet, fully. Nothing flows, and that is torture. It’s an exquisite and delightful torture.

I never know the story when I start to write it out. That’s what makes it interesting to me. If I know, then to me the process feels too mechanical. I like the surprises along the way; they keep me going. If I felt I had to analyze or intellectualize the elements, I’d be paralyzed. I used to feel dumb, but I’ve learned to trust the subconscious when I’m in the zone.
The first draft, I try not to overthink. E.L. Doctorow had a quote about writing a novel: “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I keep that over my computer.Once I have about fifty pages, though, I have a place to go. Then I’m really good, have exemplary habits. I can work for eight or ten hours a day and will do at least two pages each day, which accumulates. I let myself write badly; everything including the kitchen sink goes in, what I read in the newspapers, everything. I don’t worry about the middle, because I know I’m going to revise. In revising, I cut huge swathes through it, connect the dots, address continuity. If you allow yourself to write badly the first time through, you use some of it, not other parts, but it’s all there on paper.

HR: So you never know the endings, even in a book like The End of An Error (re-released in paperback last April)?

MM: No. I didn’t. And I don’t know that afterward she sticks with that choice or regrets it, either.

HR: Humor is tricky. What do you think makes it work, if it is something that can be quantified at all? Any tips for someone working in this category?

MM: I don’t think I’m funny. I’m dead serious when I’m writing. That it was funny was a surprise, that people laughed. I suppose it’s my voice, my style. I’ve been on panels, talked about it a lot, and I’ll say that when you’re going to write anything, even humor, it still has to be serious. I do write serious books, about life, love and loss. Robert Stone said it’s the great thing about literature: it makes the world less lonely.To write it, I know the characters have to be real, layered; they can’t be caricatures. The biggest danger in comedy is to have cardboard characters. You need a real person with an inner life. Trollope says that easy reading takes hard writing. You have to go over it a million times to make it seamless, make sure it flows.

HR: When you are ready to start a novel, what sets it off: a moment, a story you hear, a character idea? What inspired your newest book, Of Men and Their Mothers, for example?

MM: I always like writing about mothers and sons; there were certainly experiences with my own mother-in-law that prompt thoughts, and stories I hear. Although then you need to take it and bring it to another level. And class – that’s something we dare not name in our society. For the new book, I’d had some thoughts. Then a somewhat scruffy man was looking for some neighbors, who were out. I told the woman later about him, and she asked me to come over. She pulled a bag from the freezer: breast milk that had been in there for three years or so. Her husband was a lawyer who’d done a pro bono case for DSS and his client asked him to store the milk. The idea of someone’s breast milk in a stranger’s freezer for years… well, that clicked right away with what I was thinking!
HR: What do you like best about the literary life?

MM: I like that I am the god of my domain. I can do whatever I want. And I do love the torture of writing, which gives me the clay to do revision. I like the big feeling of having a book in me, no matter where I go, carrying it inside of me. I don’t like giving up that control once it’s done, when it depends on so many other people, on budgets, reviews and sales. It’s hard to give up the story to that. Most of us are shy, find it hard, worrying about what another person will think even though you know it’s only one opinion; but will it make or break the book? The lovely part, then in turn, is to have a book in your hands, in bookstores and libraries. You get that connection with readers.When you start writing, all you want is to have a book. Then you say, okay, all I want is another book. You’re never satisfied, and each time the anxiety gets ratcheted up, and then the book comes out and that alone doesn’t fulfill you. In the end, it always goes back to the joy and torture of writing your world. Every single time, you have to go back to the writing.

Information on Mameve Medwed’s books, from those above to How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life and Host Family, as well as essays and public appearance dates are at

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Like Olympic divers, braving the jump and going to the depths, writers also need platforms of their very own to take it to the limit. Are platforms carved in stone based on who you are and what you've written, or can one build one afresh?

Q) I am revising my first novel and am starting to investigate next steps. The word "platform" comes up quite a bit. Can you define this simply? Or suggest how I might define what I have, or how I might achieve it? I am a teacher and have never been published before.

Lynne Griffin
As a writer of nonfiction, I’m going to give it to you straight. You need a huge platform to sell books and get paid speaking engagements. TV & radio appearances—regularly. A column or freelance assignments from major newspapers and national magazines--consistently. And events that attract loads of participants—in the hundreds. Have I frightened you yet? I haven’t meant to, but it is my intention to be brutally honest. Hear this: readers of nonfiction want to hear from experts. They want to know you and trust you before they buy. Publishers know this. So should you.

For fiction, platform takes on a different relevance, but it is relevant nonetheless. Certainly you don’t need to have the same kind of platform—though it certainly won’t hurt if you do. Your platform in this case serves a more indirect role. Do you already have contacts with television producers, radio hosts, and magazine editors? If so, you’ll be more likely to garner media attention for your fiction, though you will have to come up with appropriate pitches. (For example, with Life Without Summer, I’m pitching parenting, marriage and grief angles to get coverage for the novel.) While some may say having platform for fiction is less important, in today’s marketplace you’ll need it--and whatever else you have up your sleeve--to stand out.

Amy MacKinnon
Publishing being what it is, a nonfiction author needs to have a national platform related to her book proposal to get a book deal. That means if you're writing a cook book, you should probably have your very own show on the Food Network. Bam!

Fiction, well, that's a bit different isn't it? Most everyone will tell you to start building your platform now in order to get a book deal, do something related to your genre -- for literary fiction get an MFA and teach at Iowa -- or publish a magazine article related to your novel's plot -- if it's about a brain surgeon, write about your experience being wide awake on the OR table as neurosurgeons removed that non-malignant tumor.

Personally, I think people need to be more concerned with writing a magnificent story about characters readers will know in their bones. If there's a good backstory about the author coming to write that novel, great, but that's not what will keep up long into the night, reading and falling in love.

Lisa Marnell
Interesting question. When I did a manuscript mart (when an agent reviewed the first twenty pages of my YA WIP), I was surprised when she told me to try to get any bylines I could in publications that deal with autism - my MC's brother has autism. It didn't make a lot of sense to me then and, if I'm honest, it still doesn't make sense now. I am writing fiction, not non-fiction.

When it comes to fiction, Amy's got it right: Write a magnificent story!

Hannah Roveto
Given that platform translates literally into the credentials you stand on as you leap into publishing, it's not too late to add to your credentials, either. Examine newspapers and magazines you enjoy to better understand their style, and pitch or submit articles or essays. Get creative and if you are not already involved with a program or non-profit that might relate to one of your themes or threads, make those connections and create relationships that way.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What's My Genre?

How many genres can you name and do you know yours? Here are a few we came up with: literary fiction, commercial fiction, women's commercial fiction, mystery, cozy mystery, thriller, suspense, African-American fiction, manga, chick lit, magical realism, young adult, middle-grade, children's picture books, poetry, memoir...


Your blog is great. I have a question I was hoping you might address. When you were querying, did you pitch your book as fiction or as a specific genre? I'm struggling a little with this question, and Amy's book,
Tethered, seemed to share some of the cross-genre issues, as it sounds a little darker than women's fiction, more literary than a genre mystery, etc. Thanks.

Lynne Griffin
For so many reasons, (see Amy’s response) you will need to know your genre. And you’ll need to know it very early in the process of trying to land an agent and a book deal. If you don’t know yours, start by finding comparison titles. In one of my first meetings with marketing, a member of my team suggested that fans of Deep End of the Ocean and Good Grief would love Life Without Summer. (These were the comparison titles my agent and I came up with for her original pitch.) Without getting into the pros and cons of branding, knowing your genre—and being comfortable with it—is something you should take control of early. The way you take charge is to identify your niche, and then to own it. It will follow you for the life of your book, and beyond.

Oh, and Life Without Summer—upmarket women’s fiction.

Amy MacKinnon
Great question. I wish we could market books as good stories, but people need labels to simplify their worlds. Agents need to know in that query letter because they have to make a snap judgment about requesting pages; editors need to know because they need to decide if it suits their list and how to pitch it to marketing (yes, it's true, the marketing department helps decide if a publishing house will buy a manuscript); bookstore buyers need to know in order to properly shelve it; and readers need to know because they very often have narrow tastes and little time.

My book does cross many genres yet I had to pick one so I melded two: I queried it as literary suspense. But if I had my druthers, I'd put it on the shelf marked good story.

Lisa Marnell
YA or middle grade? That was the choice I faced when I queried agents. YA is edgier, but my first attempt at a novel was pretty tame. (That's changed a bit). But middle grade? That sounds like something my nine-year-old would read. I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, and if memory serves, I queried with both. One agent was offered YA, another agent middle grade for the very same book.

Thankfully now, I'm solidly in the YA category, at least with my 2 WIP's. But the series I'm working on with my nine-year-old son...that's a whole new question. Sigh, I think I'll have to ponder that a bit further...

Hannah Roveto
Tess Gerritsen pitched her first novel as a mystery with no luck. Then she changed one (1) word in her pitch. Cross out mystery, replace with thriller, and bam! Interest. On the other hand, Lisa Scottoline once said to never pigeonhole your story in a query. Describe it in your brief paragraph with key plot points and enough flavor of the work to let the agent decide for him or herself, especially if you're walking the literary-commercial line. I'm with Amy. I'd be happy to sum up reader responses: made me laugh, made me cry, made me think, couldn't put it down. Wouldn't it be great if we could label them as to where they'd fit in Hallie Ephron's book 1001 Books for Every Mood?

Monday, December 01, 2008

Help Me Get Published!

Q) I know most authors got published because they knew someone, but I don't know anyone in publishing and I don't live near New York. Can you help me get published?


Lynne Griffin
I've never won the lottery, or got a job because I knew the boss, and I didn't know a single person in publishing when I landed my first agent back in 2001. And of all the people I've met in my journey so far, not one landed their deal without doing so the old fashioned way. They did their homework. They networked like mad. And above all, they wrote a great story.

No one can help you get published, but you! Plain and simple there is no easy way to do it. Now certainly networking by attending conferences, author signings, and taking classes can help in innumerable ways (This equals doing your homework, learning about the industry) but at the end of the day, this process is not a linear one. In fact the journey requires you to travel through the narrow gate.

Amy MacKinnon
I know lots and lots of people in the publishing business, everyone from authors to agents to editors. When I completed my manuscript, a few authors offered to refer me to their agents and a few agents offered to read a full. Maybe it's the Aries in me, but I wanted to do it on my own without ever having to wonder if the work was good enough. Of course knowing someone is no guarantee your work will get published, still I didn't want to argue with "that doubt" the rest of my life.

I went it alone, through the slush piles and was fortunate enough to receive several offers from agents. I chose the one who best got what I was aiming for; turns out I chose well. She put my manuscript before the perfect editors and there was an auction involving -- if memory serves me well -- eight publishers. Bottom line, you don't need connections, you need to write an excellent book, do your research, persevere, and then work harder than you imagined every step of the way.

Lisa Marnell
Going it alone is exciting. It's like that first time you borrow your mom's car and drive to a friend's house. Will you make it there? Who knows, but it's all up to you. Write well (as Miss Snark says) and you'll find an agent who falls in love with your work. BTW, there will be agents who pass you by; it's not for them. Stick to it and surprise yourself!

Hannah Roveto
One word: persistence. Or many words: Finish your manuscript, make it the best it can be. Find an agent who believes in you. Keep yourself positive and excited about what may happen, what you will make happen. The business is a hard one; go into it with eyes wide open and a readiness to handle what comes your way and still find every drop of joy. No joy, don't bother. Network, and keep networking. The first contacts you make may not be the right ones. Do your research, and know whom you are approaching and why you are approaching them. Don't assume any open door will stay open, or even that you may want it to do so, or that any closed door will stay closed. Keep sending letters. Every journey is unique. Take classes and more classes, and listen to new thoughts on your manuscript, as long as you are faithful to its core and know how it might be made better. The world can be your oyster; you need to know it and explore it for it to open wide.