Wednesday, February 28, 2007

It's Always The Work

by Hannah

Blame it on the Academy. I am consumed by films, actors and directors these days. The actual ceremony is not of interest; what I love are interviews. In-depth, what’s-your-process, James Lipton’s Inside the Actor’s Studio type interviews. Film people are different from writers, creative but further down the continuum, living in that moment when a story leaps off the page into someone else’s imagination. I see them as translators of sorts, and love to hear what they respond to in a story, what they preserve or add, what makes it possible for a story to take perfect shape.

This time of year, there are interviews everywhere, 99% fluff. Still, there are always a few tidbits on the joys and agonies of a creative life that resonate as entertainment and inspiration. Here are six bits from recent interviews, packaged for the season:

The Joy of Writing Award goes to Hugh Grant, who has been working on a novel for twenty years. He loves to write, rewrite, tackle the text, wrestle with it, has no idea whether he will ever finish, and adores the unique process and challenges of writing. See? Writers are different and wonderful. And Hugh: get thee to a good writers’ group!

The Run with Your Creative Moment Award goes to Dustin Hoffman. Turns out many of his most memorable moments were not scripted. In Midnight Cowboy he really was almost hit by that taxi, yet stayed in character when he banged on the hood to yell, “We’re walking here!” Writers need to trust those moments when it's flowing the right way, too, and not let internal editors yell “cut” too quickly.

The Perspective on Awards Award goes to Sally Field. Asked if she was proud of her awards, she said no. She is proud of her work; her awards are treasured for the acknowledgment they represent.

The Yes, It’s the Work Award goes to Helen Mirren, who after winning also said it’s the work you have to create, to live with and to build a career upon. She assumed she would never win an Oscar, and gave a beautiful, hearty cackle as she held up her statuette.

The Grace Award to Martin Scorsese. He, too, gave up years ago on getting a statuette, and thinks he would have made less risky choices if he had focused more on post-release possibilities rather than the fullness of individual pieces. Standing ovation, well deserved.

Turning away from the screen, back to print, I think of the authors who fit these categories, writers who persevere and write what they are compelled to write, from John Irving to Alice Munro, from Kiran Desai to Geraldine Brooks. For all those still working on supporting roles or perhaps even enjoying the taste of nomination, here's wishing a moment in the spotlight for everyone who pursues the dream.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


By Amy

I am not yet an author. It’s true I have writing credits; my essays have appeared in national newspapers, on NPR, I even had a story on This American Life last fall. That was a good day. But it’s not enough.

This week Tess Gerritsen blogged about posts she read on a message board. Some of the comments about genre writing so enraged her, she felt like she wanted to “get out a gun and start shooting people.” Tess Gerritsen is a New York Times bestselling author several times over. Her books, multiple titles even, can be found in nearly every bookstore, airport, and convenience store around the world. She’s arrived! Tess shouldn’t be angst-ridden about a few offhand comments, or even if her next book does well, but, my goodness, reading her blog, it’s clear she is. Her mega-success isn’t enough.

This past week, I was talking to a friend whose novel was recently published. If you’ve walked into your neighborhood bookstore, you’ve seen it. Her book is doing really well, both her agent and publisher are thrilled, and are eager for more. Still, she’s not quite satisfied. She checks her Amazon ranking many times a day (which author doesn't), wearing herself thin on book tour while trying to finish a second manuscript. Though she's pleased, her success is something she’s dreamed of for years – something we all dream of – isn’t quite enough.

Yesterday I was talking to another author. He’s nearing completion of his third novel, the first two will make you weep they’re so beautifully written. His reviews have been the kind a writer would frame and hang above his desk. He’s regarded as a darling in literary circles, well-liked by his peers, smart and intellectually thoughtful in ways that leave you wondering for months about something he said. So yesterday when I told him I was still revising my manuscript and feeling frustrated that I hadn’t hit the mark on the first round, he had another one of those profound moments. I can’t remember exactly what was said, just the import behind it. Perhaps we can all learn something from him, so to paraphrase:

Enjoy this time. Right now, there are no expectations of you. You are free to be as creative as you want, to take as much time as you need. There are no deadlines pressuring you to create. Your debut novel is your one best chance to make people sit up and take notice. It’s probably the most attention you’ll receive in your writing career, so make sure you get it right. After this, everyone, your agent, your editor, your reviewers will have expectations of you. So take your time and do what’s right for your book. Write the very best you can.

Wise words to be sure. I would take it one step further, however. Relax. Write the very best you can with each book. Take your time and avoid anyone else’s expectations. Have goals, but make sure they’re your own. Stay true to your story and to your self. Write for the pure joy it gives you.

Let that be enough – at least for today.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Mum's the Word

Posted by Lisa

I'm so proud of myself, I bit my tongue.

A dear friend has decided to try her hand at this crazy writing thing. She shared with me her intricate plot line, her well thought out characters, the frustration she faces in trying to carve out writing time in her busy day. She asked me for advice; she knows I await news from my agent - I feel I have learned maybe a thing or two by now. I surprised myself with the number of suggestions I put forth. We talked about writing for well over an hour, but when the questions became personal, regarding my current project, my baby, my daily inspiration, I stopped talking. I had nothing to say. I protected my writing, my story, and myself.

Last Tuesday I loved reading Amy's entry, The Power of No. Amy shared her commitment to cherish her writing time, protecting it as she would a child. When I read this I renewed my own determination to manage my writing time. This week, I protected more than my writing time. I protected that fragile part of me that is trying to put a story together. Sharing my plot, summarizing my characters' motivations, that would have jeopordized ideas that are still forming. That would be a very bad thing.

In a seminar at Buttonwood Books a few weeks back, Jamie Cat Callan suggested we withhold from checking our e-mail or talking to a friend in the first few hours after we wake up. She advises to let our desire to communicate boil over, so we are itching to write, can't wait to write. This is a proactive way to nuture the writer within. Simple steps to manage my own literary life will make my writing time productive.

As far as my work-in-progress goes, Mum's the word.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Changes

Each of us is in the midst of revising our work. For some, editing is the most exhilarating part of the process. For others, the most terrifying. We'd like to hear how you approach revisions, how you decide when to take advice from your critique group/agent/editor and when you go with your gut. Also, take a gander at upcoming literary events in the Boston area, and let us know about events from your part of the world.

She's on vacation, but has no doubt brought her laptop with her. We look forward to hearing from Lisa on Monday.

Thanks to all of you wonderful writers who took my frantic calls begging details about your revision process. Sometimes tilting one's perspective just a degree clarifies everything. I've decided to take Hannah's approach and regard revising as fun. We'll see. And thanks to Matt Stone for our new photo; Nigel Barker watch out.

Tip for other writers needing author photos. Have your shoot done (a) by someone very good, of course, and (b) in concert with at least three friends. You will laugh, relax and even have fun, no matter how you feel about being captured on film. In addition to dabbling in bronzer, I read more of Gail Godwin's account of her sail to Europe, and yes, did edit.

I received a testimonial for my book, Negotiation Generation, from Robert Brooks. Bob is the author of Raising Resilient Children. Along with his generous and kind words, he added in a surprise. He liked my book so much, he's included it in his next, Raising a Self-Disciplined Child, in the suggested reading list. Thank you, Bob. As for editing my novel, I'm taking the Hannah-thinks-it's-fun-to-edit approach, too. And indeed I had three fun-filled days this week.

Mark Your Calendars
Patry Francis will be hosting a workshop at Buttonwood Books' Grub Street South this Tuesday, February 27 at 7pm. And don't forget, Hallie Ephron will speak about character development on February 24, at 3 pm at the Milton Public Library. And PEN-New England presents an Evening with Dave Eggers, author of The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on February 26, at 6:30pm in Cambridge. He'll be discussing his latest novel, What is the What.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Bananas and Aftershave

Posted by Lynne

I would bury my nose in a loaf of warm banana bread, but you couldn't get me to eat a banana if I was adrift on a desert island. The savory smell of garlic and onion sauteing in a pan is delightful. But the odor that seeps out of the pores of a man who's indulged in too much via his pasta, gives me a migraine.

I'm one of those people who is easily overstimulated by my faulty functioning senses. Others claim I exaggerate what I smell, hear, and feel. I prefer to describe this condition as simply feeling things "big".

Last night, I polled my family for examples for this post. I asked, "Can you remember some of the funny things I've said to you over the years about feeling overstimulated?"

Here are just of few of the phrases they came up with.

I'm being attacked by my coat.
Dinner smells too loud.
I've got to go change out of this suit, my legs are screaming for a nightgown.
Why don't we all be alone, together?
Turn off that music, I need to ease into the morning.

You get the idea.

Lisa's post about listening to music while she writes, and the subsequent number of writers who responded that they listen to music too, got me thinking about sensory input. You can probably guess which side of the fence I sit on when it comes to writing with or without noise. When I think about which of my senses provides the best raw material for writing, I'd have to say smell.

Since I find a significant number of smells overpowering, this actually helps me to capture odors, stenches, aromas, and fragrances when I write. I've written about a doctor who is doused in so much musk, the protagonist couldn't hear his diagnosis, and an old woman who closed her eyes so she could listen to the daffodils swaying to the crescendo of her favorite concerto.

Most writers use sights and sounds with ease. According to Rebecca McClanahan, who wrote the marvelous book, Word Painting, the tougher sensory details to articulate are smell, taste, and touch. Of course the best writing is multisensory in nature. I learned about the specific link between smell and taste at an early age. When my father had a cold, he annoyed the rest of the family at every meal with his mantra. "I can't taste anything. I shouldn't even bother to eat. I just can't taste a thing."

On a daily basis, I struggle with feeling things "big". When I am bombarded with sensory input--my clothing is too tight, or my head is spinning from the din of the television-- I try to store potential descriptions in my mind to be mined for writing later.

Which senses are the bane of your existence in life, while at the same time color your writing in wonderful ways?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


By Hannah

A quick email from Gail Konop Baker mentioned she returned from Tillie Olsen’s memorial, and with that I wiped away today’s first draft. Wow, I wish I had gone. I read Tillie Olsen as an undergraduate in Western Massachusetts’ Happy Valley twenty-five years ago. The stories in Tell Me A Riddle were challenging, demanding, and gave so much in return. Stories about people different from anyone I knew, yet familiar in little ways; the use of language breaking the rules I was taught for powerful effect. How did she know these things?

Years later I read five non-fiction books, one after the other: Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Mary Catherine Bateson’s Composing A Life; Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own; Carolyn Heilbrun’s Writing A Woman’s Life; and Olsen’s Silences. After reading them, I re-read them, in bits and pieces, about the complexity of life and of being a woman and unspoken guidelines nobody ever tells women, women writers, or anyone who needs to create space and prioritize, as Amy touched on here so beautifully yesterday.

In that meeting between life and the written word, Tillie Olsen’s Riddle and Silences were special, and I cannot do the justice to her that John Leonard did in The Nation after her passing:

“…see how it's done: First what Cynthia Ozick calls "a certain corona of moral purpose." And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or Pascal. Memory, history, poetry and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.”

Tillie Olsen’s books will continue to love us all back.

(Speaking of the meeting of real life, women's lives and writing, Gail’s very personal column, Bare-breasted Mama, is at

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Power of No

By Amy

These past weeks it seems my flesh has been cut away from my bones and there’s very little left of me. The worst part is I’m the one holding the knife.

Instead of feeding my writing, refilling my store of creative energy, I’ve given it all away. You know how it is, there are many demands on our time. The more I try to do, the more I want to do. Truly. But I can no longer allow it to be at the expense of my writing.

I met Ann Patchett a few months ago and she talked about this very subject. When she was asked to be the guest editor for Best American Short Stories, she said she hesitated. Ann said she turned down most requests associated with the writer’s life; she had learned to guard against such intrusions. At the time, and until this week, I couldn’t imagine such a thing.

Oh, to be asked! To be invited to sit on a panel at a writers’ conference and talk about craft with a room filled with others who share the same passion; to be asked to read another’s work and line the dust jacket with compliments; to have bestowed a title of any literary sort, honorary editor, guest judge, keynote speaker. An author could fill a calendar year with such obligations.

But really, those are simply the trappings of the writer’s life. A little bit and we grow dizzy with the fevered pitch, the glory. It’s good to feel appreciated, to give back even. Too much of this life though, and we succumb to the insatiable flesh eating vanity that could devour our work.

I’m not such a writer as Ann Patchett. I am, however, a mother, wife, daughter, friend, employee, volunteer with just as many demands on my time. Now it’s time to learn the power of no. In a way, I’m grateful to have learned this lesson now. It’s my lifelong goal to become an author, to write something honest and true. More than awards, more than bestseller lists and lunches in New York, I want to write something that makes a reader say, yes. In order to do that, I need to be as protective of my writing as I am of my children. After all, my babies are never made to go hungry.

How do you do it?

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Music of Words

Posted by Lisa

Parts of New York City are similar to Montreal. Last weekend, the area near my hotel (the Hilton on 53rd Street) reminded me so much of the city where I grew up. Nothing in New York is the same as Montreal’s Old Port or the McGill Student Ghetto with their signature walk-up apartments with balconies. But some busy streets remind me of Crescent Street or Ste. Catherines. The chi-chi shops, the cave-like restaurant hideaways. And the idea, indeed much of the plot to some future novel came to me. With it came memories: the smell of a Montreal metro – not unpleasant, but distinct, the icy blue of the Montreal sky in winter.

One of my characters in this imagined novel lives in rural Quebec. Having spent my teen years growing up in such a place, I know there’s a ‘feel’ to it, and French Canadian Folk Music brings it all back to me. I HATE to try to describe its sound as I won’t do it justice. It is fiddles and foot stomping and joie de vivre. It is midnight feasts on Christmas Eve. Spring parties with sap running and maple syrup bubbling and burning. It has the quickest beat.

In Sherry Ellis’s book, Now Write, novelist and Grub Street Creative Director, Christopher Castellani, describes an approach to writing wherein he listens to the music of the era: “It’s a quick and powerful path to the empathy you are always striving for as a writer. You imagine yourself as a character responding to the lyrics or the emotion of the music.”

Hear the music in Christopher’s prose (from A Kiss from Maddelena):

“Vito scanned the crowd: the girls in their sundresses rubbing their arms, the men counting and pooling their bills, Maddelena in a pack with Carolina and Ada and Fiorella. Her hair, unpinned and freed from the hat, lifted and fell onto her bare shoulders as she talked.”

As I work on my contemporary novel, set in New Hampshire, you can imagine the radio stations Rose, my protagonist, must endure as a passenger in her dad’s car. (Poor thing, she can’t afford an IPod). It’s unreal, to me, the power of music when I write. It takes me there, where I need to be.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Making a Literary Life: Seizing the Day

For anyone in the Boston area, the Writers Group has signed up en masse to attend Grub Street's Grub Gone Silly event on March 16. We will hear from Jonathan Ames, Kris Frieswick, and the ever-wise Leslie Talbot. Exactly what we need to look forward to after the drop in temperature, winds, snow, ice, slush... a bright spot on our calendars.

Sigh. And sigh again. I'm back from the SCBWI conference, but a part of me is still there, basking in its inspirational moments.
Although unrelated, enjoy reading Grace Talusan's piece, My Father's Noose, in Brevity today. It's images are haunting and real. Starting a writing session by reading work of this quality is one way to improve your own writing.

I've started writing my next book. You understand, don't you? That sense of release when the characters come, when they confide their greatest fears, and then you confront your own: the blank page. Finally, the words are with me. Also, I'm working with several authors to arrange readings in the Boston area. I'll let all of you know when the dates are firm. As Therese Fowler blogged this week, it's important to support your fellow writers, and vital for you to get out there and network with them.

I am very much looking forward to the lunchtime revision session with Hallie Ephron through Grub Street coming up on March 6. It will be nice to get into the big city and do some critical thinking.

I outlined the additions and changes I will make as I tackle the second draft of my novel. With next week being a light work week, I am eager to get started. One character, in particular, is ready to tell her story in more detail. I read a gem of a book called, Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, by Patricia Highsmith. Patricia's novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and her short story, The Terapin, are not to be missed either. In keeping with our blog posts about reaching out to authors we admire, I wrote letters to two writers I've read recently. I simply wanted to offer my thanks to them for sharing their writing with the world. Can you imagine how nice it must feel to get a thank you note from a reader? If you live in Boston, you'll want to take advantage of all the great opportunities to connect and learn from other writers. Amy and Hannah mentioned Grub Gone Silly, and Hallie Ephron's revision workshop. Here are two more Boston opportunities:

Hallie Ephron, will speak about character development on February 24, at 3 pm at the Milton Public Library. And PEN-New England presents an Evening with Dave Eggars, author of The Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on February 26, at 6:30pm in Cambridge.

Involve me

Posted by Lynne

I'm a teacher who teaches teachers. On a daily basis, I remind myself and other educators that there isn't any one right way to learn anything. It's so easy to forget this simple truth. It's easier said than done to remember that there isn't one way to create a character, or interpret a poem, or outline a plot.

Some of us prefer to learn by watching, others by doing. No matter which way you prefer, each of us use our five senses to learn. I believe when it comes to learning anything-- especially learning to write well--the more those senses are engaged, the better. In this way, I don't think there is a right way to learn, simply richer ways. Ways in which all five senses are in hyperalert.

Imagine a scene with only one sense engaged. A woman is in the kitchen cooking dinner. This is tell me writing.

Let's see and hear and feel the scene through Tracy Chevalier's senses.

I was chopping vegetables in the kitchen when I heard voices outside our front door--a woman's, bright as polished brass, and a man's, low and dark like the wood of the table I was working on. They were the kind of voices we heard rarely in our house. I could hear rich carpets in their voices, books and pearls, and fur.

With sights, sounds, smells engaged, a woman making dinner becomes the poor girl Griet in The Girl with a Pearl Earring. Chevalier's pearl is a beautiful book, rich in sensory detail, compelling characters and plot. This book is a beautiful example of how to put all the pieces of craft together--not in the right way--in a rich way.

For me, learning about writing involves using all of my senses. I'm always eager to go to readings where I can listen to other writers tell me what works for them, and what doesn't. I love to read, so that other writers can show me how to execute the rules of writing, and then show me that rules are meant to be broken. And of course, I learn by doing. Writing, rewriting, receiving feedback from my writers' group, and then revising again. When I encourage myself to use all of my senses to learn, it makes it easier to use all of my senses to write.

I have a favorite saying that captures this nicely for me.

Tell me and I may forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Bits and Pieces

By Hannah

The education of a writer comes in all the traditions of the stories themselves. Listening to bedtime stories by my uncle, who appeared from far away and challenged us to name any topic, any topic at all. Learning grammar and to enjoy the Wild Bard of Avon from teachers like Mr. McKee, so solemn except for his eyes twinkling over his glasses. Learning to ask questions from my mother, who loves to find out how people live, what they think. From my father, who loves humor. My brother is in a writers' group, too, no surprise!

It comes from conversations with others, like my great-aunt who translated fairy tales in thick volumes, and who wrote her own tales on onion-skin paper with a Royal typewriter. Neighbors like Monica Dickens, who let me feed her horses even as I read her World End series in the height of my horse-loving ‘tween years. There are friends, such as Lane Von Herzen MacWilliams and this group, all gracious and encouraging and generous

There is the book-learning, the reading of literature and of course the books about how to write. My aunt-no-longer-married-to-my-uncle did not like Stephen King, and told him so. Her tastes ran in different directions; still, something about his writing really set her off and she sent him a letter outlining her deepest feelings on the matter. She told me this during a long conversation about the craft in which I finally mustered the courage to tell her I found his book On Writing useful. Interesting. I didn’t go so far as to utter the word enjoyable, also true. She informed me he stopped writing soon after receiving her letter, and she changed the subject.

Gail Godwin, writing in her mid-twenties in a journal that would become part of The Making of a Writer says: “I know that I am never alone because in my highest moments I am thinking thoughts that others of my kind have thought in the past or will think in the future. And I see myself as part of a link in a chain.” Three sentences later, she describes how “American pragmatism takes over” and suddenly “I think no longer of time eternal but of the unforgiving minute.” She chronicles every lift of the heart, every drop in self-esteem, every painstaking step toward a dream.

The education of a writer is in the bits and pieces: the people we meet, the words we read, our experiences, and the moments when they come together. My aunt didn’t have to read Stephen King. Why could she not simply put him down; why was she compelled to send him, of all people, instructional correspondence on how to redirect his talents? It was coincidence, of course, that he stopped writing after her letter arrived in his mailbox. Probably also coincidence that news of his return to writing was announced the week after she died. I’d say there’s a story in there, somewhere, wouldn’t you?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Be Bold

By Amy

It was late October and I was nearing the end of my novel. Before I typed the first word of the story, I knew the ending, but as it evolved, I wanted the final pages to be somehow more. The problem was the scene I envisioned writing wasn’t something I thought the publishing world would find acceptable, certainly not for literary fiction. I should play it safe, I thought, go with understated, yet, touching.

About that time, Lynne and I attended a benefit for PEN New England, A Reading of Best American Short Stories (in the interest of full disclosure, I work for Houghton Mifflin). Though I wasn’t the Cinderella in this story, I still felt as though we were at the same ball. First there was the reception with publishing royalty. Giddy, Lynne and I chatted with some of our favorite authors: Tom Perrotta asked if we’d yet seen his film, Little Children; Ann Patchett regaled us with stories about her mother, Jeanne Ray; Michael Lowenthal told us a charming anecdote about Grace Paley; Scott Heim shared his angst about his third book; Mameve Medwed asked our opinion about the title of her latest book; Atul Gawande thanked me for gushing; and Paul Yoon accepted our compliments with grace and humbleness. I would have been content with that; I could have floated home. But there was more.

Soon we were ushered into the theater where Ann Patchett greeted the audience from the stage. Three stories were to be featured and as the editor of Best American Short Stories 2006, she chose to read Self-Reliance by Edith Pearlman. To be honest, I hadn’t yet gone through the collection and didn’t know what to expect.

What followed was perhaps the most important lesson I’ve yet learned in my writing journey: Be bold. Her story is the most breathtakingly beautiful short story I’ve ever read. Yes, better than Alice Munro’s best. Edith Pearlman is bold. She is bold and elegant and brilliant and stunning, quiet and touching, but most of all bold.

A week later, I wrote the ending I wanted. After my writers’ group critiqued it, I then wrote Edith Pearlman to tell her how much her writing means to me. Let me share with you a portion of her reply:

“I'm delighted you enjoyed the story; and further delighted that it inspired you to be unafraid with your own work. In fact, boldness is something we can all use. That and endurance. You can't imagine how many times I revised that story. You make me feel that it was all worth doing.”

So writer friends, heed Edith Pearlman’s advice. Be bold. Endure. Will you?

Monday, February 12, 2007

SCBWI Conference: Education and Inspiration

Posted by Lisa

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Oh yes, and edgy YA; sadly a passage one reader shared brought images of Britney Spears to mind. The SCBWI winter conference this weekend was about learning and inspiration. There was a most innovative graphic novel by Brian Selznick, who was one of many unreal keynote speakers. Wartime stories were told by brilliant Susan Cooper, and a story of Japanese enemies turned friends by Katherine Patterson.

Now I bring my experience home to share with my soul mates (read: Amy, Lynne, and Hannah). “Write everything down!” One of them instructed me. She spoke slowly, wanting to make sure I understood. She knows me well – was I paying attention? I will share my high points with them, a couple low points, the times I felt lost.

“It’s about the love. The Beatles had it right.” Linda Sue Parks said in her keynote. “When you love what you are writing, the story will be your best,” she said. Light bulb moment, important to remember! The same advice was repeated by my agent when I asked him on Thursday, our first ever meeting, “What advice would you have for a new writer?”

He leaned back in his chair and took in his window view of New York City. “I’ll answer that in a roundabout way,” he said. He took his time explaining that when reading a manuscript, a story may engage him almost magically - when it all works: the characters, the plot. He told me to write what draws me in, in a similar way. When a writer is bored, it shows in his work.

“And don’t quit your job,” he added. He shared that the timeline for a writer’s success is a mystery. It reminds me of Susan Cooper’s quote the next day, as she looked out over the motionless sea of faces. “For a writer, time is not altogether linear,” she whispered into the microphone.

Education. As a writers group, we push ourselves, we push each other. Hopefully it’s the same in your writers group, too. Seventy four-year-old Katherine Patterson just published Bread and Roses. She read a hilarious passage – she makes a great Italian mama! Writing is a lifetime of learning, I suppose.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Making a Literary Life: Possibilities

This week felt as though the literary life is ignoring the frigid weather, and readying for a burst of spring growth. There are so many small signs that good things are coming in the next few weeks and months. Possibilities is a gorgeous word!

As you may know, Lisa is at the SCBWI conference in NYC, and she's also meeting with her agent. Have fun, Lisa. Can't wait to hear the details when you return.

For the past couple of weeks, I've been having fun helping various authors arrange readings, get press coverage, and encouraging them to go after awards. I know many writers are uncomfortable marketing their work, but, really, it's more exciting than you realize. It's a rush dealing with booksellers (they love books!) and press (they're writers too!), coming up with fun hooks to get a book noticed. My advice is get a couple of writer friends together, a bottle of wine and good chocolates, and brainstorm your publicity campaign. C'mon, you're creative people, it's easier than you think.

Editing is more of a rewriting; rather than being depressing, it's quite energizing. I am trying to do a chapter a day. I don't know if that sounds ambitious or pathetic? The nerdy me is polishing word choice as well as fixing threads, adding "tension," trying not to lose the humor. I have told my children that they are not to be on the computer after dinner, so rather than breaking my own rules, I have been re-reading Gail Godwin's The Making of a Writer.

This week I received a testimonial for my book that brought me to tears. Jane Healy, author of Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect is a beautiful writer and an amazing advocate for children. I was deeply honored she agreed to read my book, and even more grateful for her enthusiastic response. Thank you, Jane! I also had the privilege of talking with freelance writer and soon to be book author Sharon Cindrich about book marketing. Watch for the June release of her book about raising tech savvy kids.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

All in Good Time

Posted by Lynne

Synonyms include: faith, hope, conviction, confidence, expectation, reliance and dependence.

In previous blog entries, prior to and including this week's themed entries on trust, we've written a lot about this five-letter word. As a writer you hope you can trust your instincts as a storyteller. You struggle with your conviction to trust your characters as they reveal the way their story should be told. You must be confident in the face of conflicting feedback from trusted readers. There is a quiet expectation that trusted readers will love your writing. There is beauty in the reliance and dependence that can be found among fellow writers, and in writers' group.

But what about the connection between trust and faith?

I've always been a person to do things quickly. As a child, in order to get outside on a beautiful summer day, I'd make my bed by simply pulling up the spread. In school, papers came back with red letters careening across the top of the page with an oft repeated phrase, "slow down."

Even in Kindergarten I was looking ahead, focused on the future. I remember once saying to my mother, "I wish I was in first grade." She said, "Don't wish your life away."

When I told her I couldn't wait to be married and have children, she said, "All in God's time."

My religious faith is important to me, a central part of my life, as it was my mother's. My faith challenge has always been to take my time and relax in the moment. Trust the journey. Sometimes I struggle with enjoying the ride, because I'm working so hard to focus on arriving at my chosen destination. Don't get me wrong, keeping your eyes on the prize and being determined to get where you want to go is important. Certainly the theme of another set of posts. But trust and faith and time are strongly linked for me.

When I started writing fiction, it was the first thing I'd come across in my life where I intrinsically and completely allowed myself to enjoy the writing, letting it come at its own pace and in its own time. When I started my novel, I believed it was for me alone, and I had no expectations related to publishing it. When I joined writers' group, my goal was to immerse myself in learning; I enjoyed relying on my new writer friends to teach me. In the absence of the hope to be published, confidence that I was a strong writer, or expectations to be the best--I found what I'd been looking for; what my mother had been talking about.

I'm still learning--and liking it--that a work-in-progress is exactly that. It's not ever really finished, you simply decide when you will no longer edit it. With writing, I'm learning to trust the process, take my time, have faith that when a work is done, I'll know it. I've come to believe that trust is faith. And I'm starting to trust my mother's words --with writing at least--not Lynne's time, in God's time.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Got "It"?

By Hannah

We didn’t start with it, the four of us, despite our smiles. After a few weeks, we suspected it might exist; after a few months, there was a base. Each person had something to offer, in her background, her skills; we could see it in the edits that slid back across the long wooden table. It took about a year before we confided quirky phobias to each other. It took longer to talk to the worries and fears of our inner creative beings.

I used to think a writers’ group would rise or fall based on multiple factors; chemistry, differing talents, different needs and goals. A writers’ group lives or dies on trust.

Our group continues to discover new things about what makes us work. We look for certain things when we read. We have differences and similarities in what we want to see in a story, in our approaches to the world, in our dreams, in what keeps us going with our fiction and what keeps us going outside of it. The areas where we overlap, or don't, are equally fascinating. Underneath it all, we have earned each other’s trust.

It is critical, at many levels. First, let’s all confess to and quickly dismiss that fear of bringing 20 pages to strangers, only to have someone steal the idea. Anyone who could come up with the missing 230 pages of compelling plot and prose overnight does not have an imagination problem and would find Bulfinch's Mythology sufficient. You do need, of course, to trust that a mostly or fully completed manuscript will be treated as sacred.

Still, it goes far beyond copyright. Trust is required in the feedback. This has nothing to do with talent and intention, but if what they offer is right for you. You need to think about whether the edits help strengthen your work, whether they offer false praise or insufficient criticism, whether they are pushing you when you need a push, and in time, whether they will be there for you through inevitable ups and downs.

Writing is a solitary activity. The success plays out in a highly competitive arena. Your writers' group must be based on the trust that together, you are becoming the writers you are capable of being.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Crux of the Matter

By Amy

The others came to me quickly, easily. Clara was guileless, sharing all of her self through intense conversations that would last long into the night; unexpected considering how life had hollowed her out. When I woke, she’d resume talking in that melancholy way of hers, just a hint of a Rhode Island accent rolling off of her R’s. She needed me to tell her story.

Linus was a more patient conversationalist. He would wait until I settled myself on my ancient desk chair, a cup of coffee warming my hands, and then he’d start, Where was I now? Oh, yes… It never took long to write his chapters, I copied them verbatim as he spoke.

But Mike wasn’t used to sharing the particulars of his life. Not with anyone, not anymore. He was guarded, a ghost of the man he used to be. We, Mike and I, weren’t close friends; our talks weren’t conversations, but interviews. I would ask him questions and he would offer up one word answers. I’d have to ask him the same question cloaked as something altogether different to draw out a few more words or expression of sentiment.

Each of my characters needed to tell their stories from their points-of-view and while Clara and Linus were eager, Mike didn’t trust me. As a result, I didn’t trust his chapters.

When I announced at writers’ group that I was considering deleting Mike’s sections, I was more than halfway through the manuscript then, I remember Lynne waving her hand.

“But I don’t think they’re working,” I said.

“Oh, they’re working,” Lynne replied. Both Lisa and Hannah nodded their agreement.

They trusted Mike and, because I trusted my writers’ group, Mike’s chapters stayed. Months later as I neared the final pages of my manuscript, I was grateful to have had that trust in my writers’ group. Contained within those last pages was a passage only Mike could tell. If I hadn’t listened to my writers group, trusted their judgment in a character who made me earn his trust, I don’t know if my story would have had as satisfying an end.

Don't misunderstand, it wasn't a matter of trusting the instincts of my writers' group over my own, it's more complicated than that. I believe my writer friends trusted me to tell the story, trusted that I would find my way through the thicket that is the middle of a novel. Or maybe they trusted that I could fix a narrative if it didn't work after all.

And that's crux of a good writers' group, isn't it, trust.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Lynne Goes to (the) Salon

Check out our very own Lynne Griffin over at Salon. As a nationally recognized parenting expert and author of the forthcoming Negotiation Generation (Berkley/Penguin, September 2007), she was interviewed for the big splash on spanking. Way to go, Lynne!

Gallop on at the Middle

A very wise and get-to-the-point British woman I know gave me a pearl of wisdom when I was seventeen. She said "Gallop on at the Middle." I used to compete in three-day events, the equestrian sport where you gallop your horse over solid obstacles on a cross country course. So she meant, quite literally, for me to gallop on at the middle of the fence. A rider doesn't think. She acts. But Mrs. O's words, they echo in my mind when I'm nervous, I'm intimidated. It's all about throwing your heart over a fence and hoping your body follows. Same with writing. Same with writing when you share work in a writer's group. It's trusting you're going to make it to the other side.

Writing, alas, is, at times more thinking, reflecting, re-reading, re-wording. For me anyways, not enough galloping on at the middle. But every now and then, I read a book, put it down halfway through and think: "Wow, this author had courage." It happens when I am blown away by a cool concept, a plot turn. You know the moments.

When sharing work with writer's group - especially the first six months or so - I used to turn to jelly when it was my turn to share work; I'd melt into one of Amy's lovely dining room chairs. Now I know it's because I had little control. Or none, actually, over what my writing friends might say. I have learned that I needed to trust that they would help me on this road to becoming a writer. What I needed was courage. To give them my pages. To take their feedback. To trust that they would help me.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Packing for Conference City

Lucky Lisa. She's packing for her trip to NYC for what promises to be a wonderful learning experience and loads of fun. The rest of us secretly wish we could stow away in her luggage. Take a look at this week's round-up of literary happenings.


This week I had wonderful encouragement from Kirby Larson, author of recent Newbery Honor book, Hattie Big Sky - as my middle grade novel visits editors' desks. I also welcomed her tip on not-to-miss outings while in the Big Apple. Still counting... 6 days until SCBWI. Busy packing. Very excited. I'll tell you all about it when I get back!

I attended a workshop at Grub Street South with author Jamie Cat Callan. Her latest book, Hooking Up or Holding Out was released this month and she let our group be the first to use her soon-to-be released novelty kit The Writer's Toolbox (Chronicle, April 2007). As a longtime writing instructor, Jamie knows all the tricks to connect the right brain to the page. I also spoke with the brilliant writer and Grub Street director, Chris Castellani; the list of authors who will be attending the May conference is astonishing. You won't want to miss the Muse and the Marketplace this year.

Edits were the task of the week, with rewarding, large chunks of time between paid work and daily two to three-hour school play dress rehearsals. I sing Be Our Guest as I revise. I'm so close and excited about the changes. I hope this is The Huge Leap Forward, not merely A Huge Leap, but for some reason, it will be fine either way. I also am close to finishing Brazzaville Beach, and William Boyd's earlier books are supposed to be even more stunning. Love that feeling of knowing what to pluck off the library shelves at my next visit.

On the non-fiction front, I saw my final cover for Negotiation Generation. I really like it, and I hope to share a preview of it once it's been finalized by the art department. As far as fiction goes, I made some difficult choices regarding revisions to my novel this week. I plan on exploring in richer detail the forces motivating my protagonist. I'm also going to expand a major plot line as it relates to two other main characters--soon to be even more central to the story. I was apprehensive about doing this earlier in the week, but reading and writing about the fear theme this week has bolstered me up. I'm ready to tackle those edits, now, largely due to my trusted readers. Thank you, Tom and the members of The Writers' Group; your reassurance was a huge gift.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Posted by Lynne

When I heard our topic this week was managing fear, as it relates to writing and publishing, I immediately thought of Charlie Brown. It was only a month or so ago that I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with my teenagers. (Yes, they still cling to childhood traditions, but that’s a post for my parenting blog) Perhaps you haven’t watched the show in a while, so I’ll refresh your memory. It opens with Charlie down about not having the right attitude about the holiday. He steps up to Lucy’s psychiatry booth, and asks her opinion. After she lists all the possible phobias he might be struggling with, she gets to pantophobia. Charlie shouts, “That’s it! That’s it; I’m afraid of everything!”

When it comes to writing, receiving critique, submitting work, editing a manuscript, and on it goes, to some degree or other, I’ve been afraid of everything. Truth be told, I still operate with trepidation. Sometimes I’m apprehensive, because it may be only the first or second time I’ve done something; I’m afraid of the unknown. At other times, I may not fully trust the process, or perhaps, I don’t trust myself.

What I’ve learned in writers’ group is that it’s okay to be afraid. Fear is a powerful motivator. The one caveat is that fear must be contained, so it doesn’t have the power to immobilize you, keeping you stuck in the fear, so much so, that it becomes impossible to move forward. FDR said it best; “There’s nothing to fear, but fear itself.”

You might think that now that I’ve been through some of the most intense parts of the writing/publishing process, that the fear goes away. It doesn’t. I’m not saying this to contribute to any fears you may have. It’s simply a matter of truth to say there will always be new things to fear. Not only am I okay with this, I embrace it, too. Whenever you choose to learn the rules of a new game, take risks to put yourself out there, or adopt different thoughts, attitudes, and skills—there will be fear.

I believe what matters most isn’t the extent to which you struggle with fear, but how you choose to contain it. I lean on my writers’ group. In my own Charlie Brown moments, I tell Lisa, Hannah, and Amy, that I realize I might be acting needy, or crave a tidbit of reassurance. They don’t care why I need them for support; they deliver. They do so, I think, because they know the next day I will be strong again, reenergized by a day where the words created a tingling sensation as they traveled from my brain, down my arms, and out my fingertips. They know I won’t wallow in self-doubt for long, because that would pull me further away from what I want more than anything, to live a literary life. They do this for me, in large part, because they know there is nothing I would rather do than push my fear aside and bolster myself up, so that I can do the same for them.