Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Mountain

Posted by Lynne

Amy's reference to The Myth of Sisyphus is the inspiration for my post this morning. I've loved and leaned on Albert Camus's famous essay all my life. For those unfamiliar with it, or in need of a refresher, the essay is about a man's search for meaning, his struggle to understand absurdity. It's a primer on existentialism.

It's rich on many levels, so I do suggest reading it in it's entirety. The most known portion of it involves a man pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again. His fate is to continue to do this forever without ever seeing different results.

After spending several days deep in revision three of my novel, I can relate to Sisyphus. Without changing a single character or plotline, I have expanded and fine-tuned my story. I changed some scene locations, added deeper motives for certain characters' actions, and included more backstory. Unlike Sisyphus, in this attempt to move my efforts up the mountain, I'm getting somewhere.

From the outside looking in, the process of writing a novel is absurd. Read about writers and their process and you'll find these universal truths. A writer spends incalculable hours thinking about the story, writing the story, revising the story, editing the story. To say nothing of what's required to gain representation for the story, or find a home and readers for the story.

I have spent more time with my characters than with some real people I truly enjoy spending time with. I've forfeited beach time, shopping trips and lunches, in favor of hanging out on an imaginary dock and in a child's bedroom. I've written, rewritten and rewritten again a scene on a boat, in a police station, and in a garage. If my little darling ever sells to a publisher and I take my advance and divide it by the hours I've spent writing, I'm certain to be in the red.

Examining writing a novel from the inside out, is a different matter. What some see as absurdity is full of meaning to the writer. For me, each revision strengthens my faith. I'm more certain than ever that I have an important story to tell. I'm the person to tell it, and someday a reader or two will enjoy the concrete reality of my sisyphusian efforts.

At the end of Camus's essay, he sums up the search for meaning beautifully. He concludes that the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

When I'm writing, I'm happy. Though I admit, getting to the top of the mountain would be nice.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

A Sign From Above

by Hannah

Our group is nothing if not practical. We set rules, meet regularly, maintain constant contact. We are serious students of this craft and business. Yet we all openly admit to a belief in the otherwordly when it comes to writing. There are days when the Muse is scarce, and those when she zaps us with what Therese Fowler calls writing magic.

Our practical little group believes in signs with all our hearts. Lisa, Amy and Lynne all have received tangible encouragement from the powers that be, the most amazing of which was a letter found in an antique shop inscribed with a character's name. For the longest time, I was disappointed. No signs for me. Oh, sure, the Muse would appear with a blast of (much appreciated!) writing magic, but there was nothing I could hold onto as a talisman of hope. Then, overwhelmed for several days by paying work and family schedules and not writing, I received this at the end of a Chinese restaurant meal:

"Take the chance while you still have the choice."

I started to make time, here and there, dribs and drabs. A week or so later, I received this:

"Chance favors those in motion."

More writing, every day, and I earned this:

"You're transforming yourself into someone who is certain to succeed."

I taped the three fortunes on the plastic bookmark in my schedule book, the one I look at every day when figuring out where the kids have to be and what my boss needs. I started to touch the story again -- think, write, edit -- every day, and that excitement began to bubble, when you know, just know, you're doing something well. The Muse took notice.

I had finagled my daughter out the door for a second time after much drama. I had cleared my morning to write. I knew what I wanted to do, how the words would flow. As I stood at the end of the driveway, watching the approach of the yellow bus with eager anticipation, ready to Be A Writer, a bird pooped on my head.

So here's one last thought on signs. They exist, and you can make of them what you wish. Amy, Lisa and Lynne say that it's good luck to be pooped upon, especially if you haven't yet taken your morning shower. I choose to believe them. Next time, though, I'd rather get a message in a cookie.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

We Shall See

By Amy

We shall see.

It’s a phrase I repeat ad nauseum to my writer friends. Any time one of us is convinced a situation is hopeless – the words won’t come, the agent doesn’t respond, an editor hasn’t yet read the material – I encourage her with the one true hope: we shall see.

When a friend is convinced, absolutely certain, that the tide has turned and Fate is clutching her to Her bosom, whenever an agent is excited by the prospect of reading her work or an editor expresses interest in an exclusive, I warn my friend: we shall see.

It’s not that I’ve undertaken a Quixotic journey (more Sisyphean, I think) when I encourage my writer friends -- or that I doubt their talents when I heed caution, we shall see. It’s simply that this business is capricious by nature, with stunted attention spans and an insatiable hunger for the latest darling. It’s true of any business, I suppose.

As writers, we have control over just so much: the stories we choose to write, whom we choose to share it with, how -- if at all -- we promote it. Beyond that, it doesn’t matter. Timing, luck, politics, kismet all come into play. There are thousands of talented writers who may never see their words published, midlist authors whose names you’ll never know, all of whose writing is far superior to many of the bestsellers. I don’t know why.

We shall see tempers everything. It brings into focus my responsibility to write the best I can because that’s the purpose here, to write well, to prove myself to myself by telling an honest story. There are no deadlines for that, no bar by which to measure it. It’s incredibly reassuring to know I can’t manage everything, only the words.

Anytime the doubt creeps or the euphoria threatens to overtake reason, reassure yourself that nothing in life is ever certain. A book deal isn’t a guarantee. I know a man whose book landed in the draw, the term used for when the advance is paid, but the book is never published based on the publisher’s discretion. I know of several people who continued to work on their books for near a decade even when all of their beta readers gave up on them after critiquing the umpteenth draft. Each created award-winning novels, backlist successes. I know a woman who advised many, many writer friends with their novels, watched as they got published, hit the New York Times’ bestseller list while she wrote book after unpublished book. How it must have pained her. But she did what she could, she faced the page each day and created her own truth. I read her deal on Publishers Marketplace recently.

For all of you out there wondering about your place, do what you can to create it and in time we shall all see.

Grub Street South at Buttonwood Books: Join us tonight at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset at 7:00 pm for Hank Phillippi Ryan's workshop, "Nip, Tuck, Tweak and Polish-the Joys of Editing." Hank’s debut book, Prime Time will publish in early June.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Summer Resolutions

Posted by Lisa

On this lovely Memorial Day Monday, it's an ideal time to make Summer Resolutions. I know I need to impose some structure on these three upcoming hot and hazy months.

Maybe looking at my resolutions will help you draft yours. Here they are:

My Resolutions:

1- Schedule writing time for writing each day.

2- Sit down with hubby and schedule longer writing sessions on one weekend day each and every weekend.

3- Finish revising YA novel and send it to my writer's group for review by June 26 (when, incidentally, we will be presenting at 7:00 PM at Buttonwoods Books in Cohasset, MA).

4- Start researching the historical elements of my next novel on June 27 (we must simply embrace the obsessive aspects of our personalities that drive us).

5- Exercise each day (unwrap that Yoga video and get on that spin bike).

6- Accept that vacation IS vacation and don't bring laptop (but bringing a good book is encouraged).

7- Write sitting under a tree.

8- Read sitting under a tree.

9- Take a Grub Street course or seminar.

10- Continue to weekly network with writers.

Happy Summer! AND Happy Writing!

Friday, May 25, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Plethora

Plethora is one of those words that spills pleasantly from the tongue. Plethora. This week, we have a plethora of happenings in and around literary circles, something for everyone -- no matter your interests. And if you know of any we missed, share it with us in the comments.

How wonderful to discover a new writer! Shannon Hale's novel Princess Academy is a delight. I noticed this Newbury Honor book at a local bookstore, read the first page, read the second page, bought it, and love it.

Did you happen to notice the new link to Grub Street's blog? All of their posts have been great, as expected, but I think best title goes to Sonya. Congratulations to Mameve Medwed on the Massachusetts Book Award Honor and Claire Messud for receiving the award. Both are accomplished writers who are generous with their time. I like it when good people and their work are recognized. Also, my daughter and I wrote a note to Lauren Barnholdt, author of The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney. Guess how excited my little girl was when she received a note back? I can't stress it enough, charming notes work both ways and now my daughter is looking forward to reading all of Lauren's books.

Could there be any silver lining for devoted column readers in the news from Gail Konop Baker that she will no longer be writing for - ed Mama, given her forthcoming memoir from Da Capo Press, Cancer is a Bitch? Well, not only can we hold Gail's work in our hands and read it whenever and wherever we wish, but Ona Gritz, Jennifer Margulis, Libby Gruner and all the others are still there with their own words of wisdom and insights!

This week my publicist and I sent out a galley mailing. Now, once again I wait; this time to hear if there are any media bites for coverage of Negotiation Generation. I spent the rest of the week querying for magazine assignments and reading Michael Lowenthal's amazing book, Avoidance.

Literary Happenings:
This Tuesday, May 29, our own Emmy award-winning investigative reporter and now author Hank Phillippi Ryan will be at Grub Street South hosting a workshop ""Nip, Tuck, Tweak and Polish-the Joys of Editing." Hank’s debut book, Prime Time will publish in early June. This labor of love took her two years to “write, nip, tuck, tweak and polish.”

If you're anywhere near San Jose, Carolyn See wants you to know that Book Group Expo is June 8 - 10 at San Jose Convention Center. Is it too late to get a cheap airfare?

And who's going to Book Expo America? If you'll be there, let us know so we can let our readers know to stop by and say hello. Email us and tell all!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Managing Expectations

Posted by Lynne

If you think planting a rose bush will take thirty minutes, plan on at least an hour. If you think writing a research paper about the heart will take four hours, plan on eight. Managing expectations is a theme in the Griffin household this week, and I most certainly could have added in a sentence or two about my hopes and dreams for my forthcoming book.

Whether you're optimistic, full of hope or you simply wish to dream big, being positive is a critical ingredient to living a literary life. Believing good things are around the corner, or that you can write the great American novel or a bestselling parenting book is at times all you've got to sustain you amidst all the waiting, to say nothing of all the rejection. You wait for your revised novel to sing; to know you are done. You wait for an agent to read your manuscript, an editor to make an offer. Rejection slips come in the form of impersonal sentences, complimentary no-thank-yous and blatant encouragement--though just as a kiss is still a kiss, a no is still a no. The job description for writer should include a line in bold letters: Pessimists need not apply.

For some writers, the emotional work involved in maintaining a healthy outlook involves the daily exercise of pulling negative self-talk from the brain and dumping it in the recycle bin. I can't do it must be replaced with, yes I can. This is impossible, must become all things are possible.

While I've had my share of gloomy moments and faithless days, I'm a positive person by nature. I do feel blessed in this way, since I've had to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep persevering in the face of my share of obstacles. The trick for me, when it comes to managing my expectations though, is to sprinkle my dreams with a dash of reality and a pinch of practicality.

Maybe you're a writer who's too hard on your abilities and accomplishments, struggling with being positive enough to stay the course. Or perhaps like me, you dream big and hope large leaving yourself in the path of disappointment. For example, I know my book will gain the attention of some media, but if I envision myself situated on a comfy couch at Harpo Studios, I'm likely to think Good Morning Chicago is a let down. When in fact I would love to shout out, good morning Chicago.

The impressionist painter Henry Matisse said, "What I dream of is an art of balance."

If this is true--and I believe it is--then managing expectations is holding on to enough positivity so that you can persevere, and love the process, and be energized by all the possibilities. And yet, with enough realism to protect your heart, so you can get up another day to face the page.

What do you do to fear less and hope more, to doubt less and believe more? How do you manage expectations?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Perfect Gift

by Hannah

I stared at my book shelves, inspired by Martha Southgate’s Muse and the Marketplace talk on Guardian Angel novels we turn to for guidance as we improve craft. Noticing a non-fiction title hiding in my fiction section, and ever the librarian’s daughter, I removed it: Frederick Busch’s Letters to a Fiction Writer. Hadn’t read it for years. I paged through and before long was cross-legged on the floor, laughing and nodding.

Busch’s introduction wraps around a single line letter he received from an agent: “Ah, if only you wrote fiction as well as you write letters of inquiry.” This book was his eventual response: letters of encouragement from writers to writers. Beattie, Bradbury, Carver, Oates, Updike, O’Connor, Delbanco. Malcolm Cowley’s letter to John Cheever.

Given his connection to the Muse as its keynote speaker, I started with a letter by Charles Baxter. It is bittersweet and funny, titled Full of It, addressing the self-indulgence, misery and obsession that is writing and the search for acknowledgement. A self-described slow starter, Baxter remembers the reaction to his first novel by his first agent. He notes this agent was obtained by “a bizarre set of circumstances,” and Baxter secretly expected her to identify him as a genius.

“'I hate it,' she said with what seemed to be an odd satisfaction… 'Tell me why I hate your novel… Give a try. Help me out here… I just don’t get it. I don’t get any of it.'”

Baxter went into shock. Having churned out a second novel already, he started and finished a third. All never published. Still he wrote. Finally, in a fit of desperation, he produced “one last piece,” which was picked up by the Michigan Quarterly Review. In his letter, Baxter then talks of ongoing apprenticeship to the craft. He ends with this:

“I have been watching the words, each letter and phrase, as they appeared on the screen, and I’ve been changing them and correcting them minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, because that is who I am, and that is what I do.”

That’s what it comes down to, isn’t it? To read it on the page is self-affirming, and every letter in Busch's book is a similar gift to a writer seeking encouragement, sympathy and inspiration. Whether you're on a roll or stuck in the mire, I encourage you to find Letters to a Fiction Writer on a shelf somewhere, dust it off if you need to, and enjoy!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


By Amy

Karen Fisher is an astonishing writer. It wasn’t always that way -- at least it didn’t appear so.

Shortly after marrying, Karen quit her teaching job to write a book, a novel based on a journal one of her forebears kept while crossing the Oregon Trail. Karen wrote a first draft, a second, a third, fourth, fifth. Along the way, she and her husband had three children, settled in Puget Sound and she continued to write. Life wasn’t easy, though Karen said she loved her family and her modest one-room home, agents weren’t interested in her manuscript. Money was tight, of course, with three children and a single income. One Christmas, Karen went to the mall with her kids and saw Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain” in the bookstore window, a book so much like her own, only his was published and hers not. She said she cried then.

It wasn’t long after that Karen's husband sat her down at their kitchen table and told her it might be time to give up. It was years after she’d started writing the book, and she needed to move on. Just then the phone rang. It was an agent, Kit Ward of the Christina Ward Literary Agency, wanting to represent Karen’s manuscript. Together they worked on revisions and some months later, Kit submitted Karen’s novel. Every editor turned it done, every editor but Laura Ford at Random House. More revisions and then – 10 years after its inception -- “A Sudden Country” was released in August 2005. It received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, glowing reviews from the New York Times, Washington Post, on all the pages a writer dreams of while laboring over each and every sentence.

It is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous books I’ve read.

Since then, Karen’s won several awards and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner 2006. Not long ago, I read on Publishers Marketplace Kit negotiated a two-book for Karen, again with Random House.

Why am I telling you all this? Perhaps because the past few weeks and months, I’ve spoken with countless authors, yes authors, who were on the brink of despair, but refused to give up on the stories they loved. Now their books are recently published, days away, or they've just sold their manuscripts.

So if you’re laboring over your sentences, somedays wondering if your manuscript is dybbuks, don’t give up. If your manuscript is out on submission now to agents or editors and it’s been what seems forever, don’t despair. If your book is about to be or is recently published and your Amazon ranking/book reviews/Bookscan numbers are not what you dreamed, chin up.

Think of Karen Fisher and take charge of your dreams.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Posted by Lisa

If you don't happen to read Therese Fowler's blog, you should. Not only is it entertaining (American Idol prophesizing, indeed!), it's also like an online writing seminar - a nearly daily dose of what works/what doesn't.

In Thursday's blog, Therese talked about some of her own quirks, and frankly, they're pretty darn quirky. I won't repeat them - you'll have to check out her blog for yourself. But she got me thinking. About writing. About characters. About what we love about our characters. About how we fall in love with them.

Writing 101: A reader must care about a character.

Otherwise, why bother?

You, a writer, are the first reader who will ever see your story. Do you care? Why? Let's see...Think of this as a writing exercise:

Take one character from something you are working on, and say one quirk you love about that character. (If you can't think of a quirk, think of a characteristic or gesture). The character from my writing that jumps to mind is Laura, a girl from a short story I wrote last year. I love that she hates pop-tarts. Hates their smell, their taste, their cardboard consistency.

Next, ask yourself why you love that quirk. I love that Laura hates pop-tarts because her best friend's mom makes them every morning. And, Laura hates this lazy woman for many reasons.

You see, I love that Laura will hate pop-tarts the rest of her life. I love Laura. I love my quirky character.

And I wonder, Therese, if any of your characters love chasing lobsters on the beach, or mix grape jelly with various meat products, because a lobster-chasing character who's got a thing for grape jelly, now that's a character I could fall in love with. She's quirky. She's human.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Cover Girl

No, not Caridee, our very own Lynne Griffin. Isn't her book cover gorgeous? We're so proud of Lynne and all of her many varied achievements. It's an exciting day when all that you've labored over for months and years is realized in the form of pulp and cover art. Congratulations, Lynne, it's well-deserved!

I love when I read fiction and I reach those AHA moments. When the plot comes together in a way you didn't expect, when a character acts in a way that is a surprise, but makes such sense based on what you know of her and her past actions. I like AHA moments in non-fiction too. That's why I'm so lucky to have Lynne Griffin, a parenting expert in our writers group. Parenting tips AND constructive help on my writing when we meet? What more could I ask for? Do I have to wait until September to read "Negotiation Generation?"

I've been busy finalizing readings and press for various writers who plan a Boston stop while on book tour. It's something I enjoy doing; getting a yes from a literary venue to host a writer is almost on par with writing a good page. You may have noticed Sue Williams is a new name to our blog roll. She's someone I heard at a Grub Street reading and I requested she submit the story to Post Road. I fully expect a savvy agent to pick her up very soon and then I'll get to read her WIP. Check her out. In other news, I walked into my local Borders and there, on the staff picks shelf, was Jennifer McMahon's "Promise Not to Tell." In another store, Allison Winn Scotch's "The Department of Lost & Found" on the front table (publishers have to love your book to pay for that real estate), and over to right, Tish Cohen's "Town House." When I picked it up, one of the booksellers said, "Huh, that looks good," and wandered off with her own copy. I love that. I can't wait to visit every bookstore in Massachusetts when Lynne's book is out in September. I'll be handselling them!

The three R's: reading, 'riting and revision. Or is that research? The week was full of reading what thus far is a wonderful revision of a novel, writing to revise, and making sure small details that will fill one sentence somewhere among 75,000 words are accurate. Lynne also let us each hold Negotiation Generation in its current format this week. Yeah! This is a book to pre-order for yourself, your friends, as gifts. Like Lisa, I cannot wait!

Well, here it is! My cover. When the final cover art was sent to me, before I opened the file, my sweet son took my hand and said, "I hope you like it, Mom." And I do. As for my wonderful friends at The Writers' Group, I can't thank you enough for all the support and encouragement. I am a very lucky woman.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Page Proof Perfect

Posted by Lynne

Deciding what is and what isn,t negotiable along with making expectations clear is the very heart of parenting. The child who doesn't learn to respect that which is not negotiable will have great difficulty behaving; first, perhaps just at home, later in the neighborhood and in the community. I can give you this guarantee: The more you shy away from creatiing clear boundaries, the more discipline issues you will face.

Typos. Errors. Mistakes. Above is an excerpt from the page proofs of my book, Negotiation Generation. I've spent the last several days reading my book word for word, comma to comma. And guess what? There are still inconsistencies in the appearance of words like non-negotiable (we settled on nonnegotiable) and skill building (we settled on skill-building). There are still sentences that stop me cold to ask, "Huh?" And this is after countless people have read it, including me. I won't even wager a guess as to how many times I've read this baby of mine.

Over coffee yesterday, I told my husband my fear. No matter how many times I go through it, I might miss a typo. The first email I get from a reader will say, "Nice book, did you know there's a mistake on page 78?"

My wise and supportive husband told me to think of my book as if it were a Persian rug. Made by hand, each rug is perfectly imperfect, precisely imprecise. Even if a rug is made and it appears perfect, the weaver takes his or her time to create a slight inconsistency or irregularity within it. These artists, in deference to God, believe only He can create something perfect. They have no desire to compete with Him, as they share the gifts He's given them.

Whether I'm writing non-fiction parenting books or working on my novel, I strive to write well. I believe in the mantra, submit only your best work to agents and editors. In writing, as is the case with all art, there is no place for perfection. It doesn't exist. It is in the imperfections of a painting or the dissonance of a song where humanity is found. And I believe strongly that when it comes to child rearing, there is no perfect child, no perfect parent.

So when you pick up a copy of my book, should you choose to scour the text, I'm certain you will find a mistake or two. You'll be left to wonder, did I place them there intentionally or is that where you found my humanity.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


by Hannah

Amy called it "chair glue." My dad called it sitzfleisch. As in, "you need to develop some sitzfleisch."

My mother is an artist and in addition to paid work and parenting and gardening, she closeted herself away weaving, then working on jewelry, learning new techniques, producing beautiful pieces. She had -- has -- sitzfleisch, which translates literally as sit-flesh, and figuratively as the ability sit for hours doing one thing when you really could be up and about doing a million others. I don't know what I was not doing at the time, but the poor man -- who himself finds spare time to make furniture and take gorgeous photographs -- got quite frustrated and told me what I needed most was, yes, sitzfleisch.

Fast forward twenty or thirty years. I did manage to accumulate sit-flesh, of both the literal and figurative varieties. The latter I discovered somewhat in college, and honed in my early professional years. I have spent decades of hours in front of my computer writing speeches, press releases, making phone calls, organizing.

What took me so long to apply the sitzfleisch to creative writing? I have written fiction and poetry since I was seven or so. I never really thought it was a career choice. Like millions of others who put away guitars, leotards, pottery wheels, baseball bats and yes, pens, when faced with the Big World, maybe I didn't give myself credit. Sure, I told myself I was good enough to pay the bills with writing, but I couldn't quite let go of the corporate safety net. I told myself the ideas that bubbled up weekends and evenings (and during long meetings) were "just for fun."

Three or so years ago, after being hounded yet again by a set of characters and plot ideas, I decided to get them all out. Really out, on paper, and most important, all of them and all of it. I found a writers' group, which helped me begin to set deadlines. I learned a great deal, the group shifted, and it got serious. So did I. I put away the drawer novel, for many good reasons, and started another story. Finished that story, am revising that story. Like my parents, I (finally!) make time, between it all, for my art, closeting myself away. I make better, conscious choices on how to spend my time, take writing seriously, work to make it part of my Big World. I proudly expand my back-end, month by month, year by year, adding layers of lovely sitzfleisch.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mind Over Babe

By Amy

Look at this guy. His name is Babe. Wouldn't you love to wrap your fingers around his fat little belly and squish the stuffing out of him? Go for a walk and show him off to the neighbors? Sit quietly while he snores in your arms? Me, too.

We adopted him over the weekend. Completely impulsive. My family went out for a bike ride, saw him in a neighbor's yard rolling around with his litter mates, and my husband, inspired, bought a lottery ticket. When they arrived home, my husband told me we had to adopt one. Too much money, I said, but if you scratch that ticket and we win, sure. We won. If you've been reading this blog long enough, you know how I feel about signs. Just look at the little guy.

So what does Babe have to do with writing? Chair glue. I wanted nothing more than to wallow in puppy heaven yesterday, but I forced myself to work on my manuscript. There are always reasons to not write. Life -- and let's be honest here, especially a woman's life -- is filled with demands on our time: family, work, volunteering, squishy puppies. If you're a writer, if you want to create something meaningful with the intent of getting it published, you had better find time each day and glue yourself in that chair. No excuses, because no one cares if you have one anyway.

Why? Few in your life expect you to finish writing that first draft and, trust me, no one cares to hear about your months-long revision process (that's nice, but did you hear about...) Your phone won't ring with friends calling to see how that query letter is coming along (write tomorrow, let's go out for a drink now). Friends outside of writing have no idea literary agents even exist (why don't you just self-publish like my friend?). When you get an agent, s/he won't badger you to finish revising that manuscript s/he was gushing about when s/he signed you (your name is? and you're calling regarding?), s/he'll just move on to the newer, more promising client. Really, no one cares if your manuscript ever becomes a book -- no one cares but you. So why do it?

I asked myself that same question over the weekend. While sitting in the bleachers at my son's baseball game, a foul ball headed for the stands. I made a joke to the other parents about the parallels between it and John Irving's "A Prayer for Owen Meany." They all stared back with blank expressions. Not one person had ever heard of the book or even John Irving. *Sigh*

That chair glue is for me, it has to be. I want to write a book, a good book. I want it bound by a publishing house in New York and held in the hands of the few readers who care about words. I want to evoke a connection with my reader. If it doesn't happen, those around me won't care particularly. They'll offer an ear, listen for a day or two, and then forget. But I'll care. I'll care for a lifetime.

I glue myself to my chair each day because I have expections of myself -- and I plan to exceed them. Not even Babe can compete with that. Well, maybe just a little.

Monday, May 14, 2007

From Point A to Point B

Posted by Lisa

I used to drive to get somewhere. To the doctor's office. To the store. To the hockey rink. I drove to get from Point A to Point B. When did driving become my vehicle for plotting?

I've got an idea. You know what that's like. I know you know. You're a writer like me.

It feels like a craving, doesn't it? Like a word you can almost taste on the tip of your tongue. But I'm taking my time. I'm letting it simmer. I'm thinking about the ingredients to add. It needs a good base of setting. Montreal. Definitely. Spoonfuls of magic realism must be stirred in. Along with longing, there has to be longing.

So I sit behind the steering wheel, and I pay attention to traffic lights, to cars changing lanes around me. But I talk, out loud. I ask questions. Generally I find the answers. I can plot in my Ford Explorer. In my husband's Toyota Tacoma. The make, the model, the year doesn't matter. Maybe it's the alone time. It could be the sense of journey.

I find that same place of discovery in a hotel room, any hotel room. I've paced and plotted in the Holiday Inn in Concord, New Hampshire, in the Hilton in New York City. Sometimes I take a field trip, down the hall, to the ice machine. When I arrive back in my room, a character suddenly has a new dimension, a sub-plot is now afforded an "AHA" moment.

It's YA, my new idea. It's promise and shame and wonder and hope. It's me when I was twenty years old, living in Montreal. It's that teenager - was she homeless? - who stared at me one day near the Berri Bus Depot in the East end of Montreal.

I drive, I plot, I plan, I think. We are writers, dreamers, hard, hard workers. Obsessive compulsive too, of course.

How was my trip to the store, my husband asks.

"Fine," I answer.

It was excellent, really. From Point A to Point B. It might be a story. It might not.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Perspective

Perspective isn't simply a matter of point-of-view, first or third, a way to tell a story within our writing, we must also carefully consider whose perspective matters when it's time to share pages. Whose opinion matters most: your writers' group, agent's, editor's, or do you listen to that voice that's been whispering to you all along? We'd like to hear.

To me, what's most important is that voice inside me. Funny how outsiders are sometimes the ones to remind us to listen to that voice. This past weekend, I had the honor of interviewing Gregory Maguire, a truly brilliant but gentle and genuinely kind person. His body of work speaks for itself: Wicked, Son of a Witch, Lost, Mirror Mirror, True Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Fantastic children's books. The list goes on.
That writer's voice inside me was singing after I spoke with Gregory. It chimed out and for once I was listening. "Let go and write! Write Sad. Write Happy. Write Magic. Write Odd.
The article will be published in the summer quarterly issue of The Grub Street Rag.

The most important lesson I've learned over these past months is to trust that inner voice. The part of the writing process I expected to be the most difficult has indeed turned out to be the most frustrating: revising. This week, however, a break through, thanks in large part to Scott Heim. His advice was - and I'm paraphrasing -- to revise around the original idea, not away from it. It may sound convulted, he probably said it better, but it makes perfect sense to me. Also, HH LeCraw had invaluable advice about POV: make sure your reader isn't skimming through one character's chapters to get to another's. Obvious, perhaps, but how many writers have fallen victim to choosing favorites? Thanks to both of them, and most of all my amazing Writers' Group who always have the answers, I'm no longer lost.

The inner voice is most important. Other voices can be helpful; I find considered assessment useful because my inner voice also tends to have sudden, wonderful ideas that lead me astray. Jennifer Haigh prefers to work in solitude, she says, without a writers group's offerings. There are as many approaches as there are writers. Still, even when you produce a draft worth handing off to trusted readers or an agent, the question is whether you did stay true to that original vision. Is whatever prompted you to spend hours at the keyboard or with pen woven into the final pages? Only the inner voice can make that decision.

I traveled to NY this week to meet with my publicity team at Penguin. Like a job interview, I had the task of shining a light on why my book would stand out among others on the bookstore shelves and why I’m the person to represent my ideas. Enthusiasm filled the room, and since Tuesday my head and heart. Looking back on this whole process, I’m so grateful that I believed in my book through the search for my brilliant agent and through the angst filled days I waited for word of the sale. It all came together on a sunny day in the city, where I sat around a conference table in a room that has heard the fate of many books, and I heard bright eager professionals discuss endless possibilities for mine. My perspective: that moment was worth waiting for.

Debuts: If you didn't pre-order, run to your nearest independent bookstore and get your copy of Tish Cohen's just released novel, "Town House." Don't wait for the movie. Did we mention rights were bought by Fox 2000 and Pulitzer-Tony-Golden Globe Award winner Doug Wright (Quills, Memoirs of a Geisha) wrote the screen play? Congratulations, Tish!

Upcoming Literary Events: Tickets are on sale now for Post Road Magazine's fundraiser. Join us on Thursday, May 17 at the Radcliffe Gymnasium in Cambridge as bestselling author Dennis Lehane reads from his latest book of short stories "Coronado." Hit the link for more information.

On Wednesday, May 23 Buttonwood Books in Cohasett is hosting New York Times bestselling author William Martin as he reads from his latest thriller, "The Lost Constitution" at the Hingham Public Library. Look for this, and the rest of the Buttonwood series, at their web site.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

One Step Up

Posted by Lynne

The conference was wonderful for so many reasons. Like Hannah, I reveled in each sophisticated word uttered by Margot Livesey. I will treasure her response to a question I mustered the courage to ask.

I feel so lucky I had the chance to attend Michael Lowenthal's class called Astonish Me. In less than two hours, he showed the audience how writers in charge of their work can do daring things with characterization, point-of-view, setting, dialogue and even punctuation to astonish readers.

Like Amy, I unknowingly plunked myself down at the same brunch table as our illustrious keynote speaker, Charles Baxter. It wasn't until he leaned over to pour me a cup of coffee that I realized. As if he were a movie star, I said, "Thank you, but since you are the guest of honor, perhaps I should be pouring you a cup." To which he replied, "See if you feel the same way after my talk."

Days later, words absorbed over the weekend still come into sharp focus as I drive, or prepare a workshop, or make a lunch for my children. If pressed to answer the question, "What did you learn that will have the greatest impact on your writing career," it is simply this. I want and need to be surrounded by lovers of language.

If you follow this blog, you can understand why spending two consecutive days with Amy, Lisa and Hannah would be a delight under any circumstances. And I had the pleasure of spending time with my niece, Stephanie, a journalist and emerging fiction writer, too. Everywhere I turned, I saw writers whose work I treasure. Sue Miller. Suzanne Berne. Or agents or editors who represent writers I admire and read faithfully.

At the Saturday afternoon cocktail party, I realized that this room of people--novice to expert--knows what it's like to love writing above almost all other things. On a morning set aside for writing, they too, feel the cautious optimism that goes with hoping this will be a day to produce wonderful sentences, paragraphs, pages.

In his keynote, Charles Baxter told his spellbound audience that each of us is on a step. Even if we are standing on the first step, we have done something glorious. I'm a writer. I love being surrounded by writers. And after this year's Muse and the Marketplace conference, I am content to stand on my step, until it's time to lift a foot to take my place on the next one. It feels glorious.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007


By Hannah

The magic has always eluded me.

I can write; people tell me it is true. But I never wanted to write a book just to have something I could hold in my hands, point to on a bookstore or library shelf. I wanted to write a book that had magic. I think, after this year's Grub Street Muse and the Marketplace, I can do it.

I've been to the classes. I've read the books. I've written. All the while, I felt like my final product, even if considered for publication, would be okay. Just okay, in my estimation, at least. I was missing something, some synergy of everything I knew. For some reason, this past weekend, it all came together.

Margot Livesey, talking about character, was everything I'd anticipated and more. She was funny and wise in addressing descriptive details that bring characters to life. She spoke, for example, of making one of her antagonists a beekeeper, an occupation the reader perceives as interesting, having depth, thus creating a level of sympathy. My own antagonist was swinging from two-dimensional to too nice, and now I know what to do about it.

As she continued, she extended her insights into how to use detail to not just describe one person or place or event, but to structure an entire story more effectively. Another light started to dawn for me, as I realized I could redirect reader focus to my character's hands section by section across the manuscript, and the depth I could achieve in doing so. The change is more than a repetitive action, more than a familiar behavior for the character. The shift works -- aha! -- on multiple levels.

The importance of synergy between the smallest details and structure came up again in Martha Southgate’s enthusiastic “Guardian Angels” presentation on masterful books from which we learn bits about craft, device, character, and courage in writing. Examples from Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay to Charles Baxter’s Feast of Love reinforced the point as to why we consider books like those masterworks.

Which brings me to Philip Weinstein. He was humble before us, making clear that he had not written fiction, that he studies it, analyzes it, teaches it. As he made his opening remarks, I wondered whether I should have taken another craft class instead of his. I made the right choice; Weinstein brought everything I learned that day, and everything I have been learning as write, full circle.

In his talk on why fiction is important, Philip Weinstein said that fiction is magical in its manipulation of time. When a writer achieves a mastery of craft –in the details of how the pages come together -- a piece of fiction creates an alternate experience of time for the reader. We are transported, we lose track of reality, we venture outside ourselves. In short, the story’s message, if any, and even characters and situations are secondary to the architecture of a story in creating fiction’s magic.

I am perhaps minimizing what I understood before this weekend about the synergy required to create the magic. Still, I think I do understand fiction writing at a deeper, stronger level: to be honest, at a level that will satisfy my expectations. Draft two of my novel will prove or disprove this, but it will be long strides farther down the road than the baby steps I would have taken before. I feel like the real magic, at least a spark of it, is finally in me.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


I admit to feeling a bit lost this past weekend.

On Saturday at the Muse, several friends told me of their experiences with the Manuscript Mart. Weeks in advance they’d sent in 20 pages of their manuscripts to either an agent or editor from some of the most exclusive agencies and publishing houses – 20 pages to be vetted by the best in the business. The reports back from my friends were glowing: each had a request (though not everyone does), one of whom I overheard being talked about later by editors paired off in a corner. Oh, the buzz.

Later that morning, I ran into a woman, Liz Kahrs, who’s regularly attended our Grub Street South workshops. She’s the kind of woman who makes an impression – the good kind – laid-back with an easy-going charm. She had news. An excerpt of her novel was picked up by Huffington Post. Naturally I read it once I arrived home. It’s good, something to be proud of, with clever phrasing that immediately calls to mind crisp imagery. Quite a coup.

Oh, and you should have seen Lynne shine on the marketing panel! Sitting alongside author Hank Phillippi Ryan, as well as the director of publicity at Da Capo Press and PR goddess Lissa Warren, assistant director of publicity at Houghton Mifflin Taryn Roeder, and president of Newman Communications David Ratner, Lynne offered the perspective of an author’s responsibility to both her in-house publicist and to her book. It was a side of her, the masterful public persona, I’d not yet seen. Gracious and utterly impressive.

Sunday was much of the same. Scott Heim told me he’d made it over the hump with his revisions – I’d been worried since we last spoke in October. He appeared despondent then, as if he couldn’t live up to the expectations that follow an astonishing debut. But this past weekend, his face was clear, nearly serene, he was pleased with the work he’d done. “We Disappear” is due out in February. Another success, no doubt.

Along the way, everyone asked the same dreaded question of me, “How’s the book coming?” To be sure, they were simply being polite, but I had no answers for them. Worse, none for myself.

When we sat down to brunch on Sunday, despondency swelled within me. How could it not? Over there was Michael Lowenthal, right there Pauline Chen, Michael Mezzo straight ahead, and oh dear God, I’d sat at the wrong table, because across from me was the conference keynote speaker, Charles Baxter. I was indeed lost.

After a second cup of coffee, Charles Baxter took to the podium and gripping either side, announced the title of his speech, "Losers." When he began to speak, sharing his own sense of inadequacy and alienation, I realized it’s impossible to be lost when so many others are on the same journey, stumbling over the same obstacles of doubt and desire. Here was the master, and now he was reducing himself to comparisons of the likes of me.

When he finished, I waited until the others had their say and then approached. The only words that could find their way past the catch in my throat were thank you, as if I were a child who’d been separated from the hand that guided me through the crowd of unknowns and he the kind man who steered me back.

So today, and hopefully for a while yet, I’m found again.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Being Alone

Posted by Lisa

Being Alone. That’s one of the things that draws me to writing. Some of the time, anyways.

This past weekend, we in our writers' group enjoyed spending time at Grub Street's Muse & the Marketplace Conference. The comraderie, the sense of togetherness. The tangible evidence that this pursuit is not truly an alone journey. That was nice. Meeting, seeing, chatting with the talented writers who spoke at the Muse. It’s inspiring. It’s humbling. It makes it seem possible. That could be me. That could be you.

But when we leave, as we drive home alone or with a friend. We go back to our quiet, or not so quiet worlds. To the spaces where we work, where we plot, where we gather our thoughts and expend our energies.

Being alone is easier when you carry with you an understanding of Gregory Maguire’s approach to plotting which is so like your own. Or when you hear Michael Lowenthal’s deep voice resonate in your memory, sharing his insights, his inspirations.

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

Friday, May 04, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: The Muse

It's here! This weekend is Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace writers' conference. In addition to the plethora of workshops hosted by brilliant writers (Michael Lowentahl, Pauline Chen, Charles Baxter), our Writers' Group will have two entire days to spend together immersing ourselves in the writer's life. No doubt, Lynne's panel on marketing (3E) will be the best part of all. Next week, look forward to the photos and epiphanies we'll share.

I'm finalizing questions for an interview with a favorite author this weekend while I'm at the Muse. There's so much really to ask someone you respect, admire. The Muse is certain to be a wonderful event this weekend.

Where to start? First I get the news from Gail Konop Baker that her memoir "CANCER IS A BITCH, Reflections on Midlife, Mortality, Motherhood and Marriage" sold to Da Capo and will be published in October 2008, then I hear that the multi-talented Hank Phillippi Ryan received 4 1/2 stars from Romantic Times -- the highest possible rating -- for her novel "PRIME TIME" (Harlequin, June 2007) and she's been awarded an Edward R. Murrow for best investigative reporting, AND she and her producer Mary Schwager have been nominated for 4 Emmys. Tears and cheers all around!

The Muse is the certainly the focus this week. Am looking forward to seeing familiar faces and meeting new people, and of course, absorbing all I can from the speakers. The conference comes at a wonderful point in my process to influence revisions!

It's been publicity city for me this week. I spent time planning a publicity meeting with my publicist at Penguin. Wish me luck, I head off to New York next week to meet her in person. I planned my portion of the panel presentation on book publicity for Saturday's session at The Muse and the Marketplace. Details to follow in next week's posts.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

What if?

Posted by Lynne

On Monday, I picked
up my fourteen-year-old son after jazz band practice. He off-handedly asked if I would drive a friend home. "No big deal, hop in," I said. I'd planned on returning books to the library, but I could certainly do that after the drop off.

Taking the long way around to the library, my son and I missed a head on collision, by one car. Both drivers were okay-- shook up for sure-- but fine. My son, on the other hand, was bothered by the accident for an hour after witnessing it.

"What if we didn't drop Mike off and we just went straight to the library? We wouldn't have even seen it. What if you hadn't waited for him to get inside his house, then we might have been the car that was hit?"

The human mind has an amazing capacity for coping. My son tried to make sense of his near brush with an accident by playing the scenario out in different ways. Ways where things go well, and ways where things do not.

What if I'd chosen a different agent? What if my novel never sells to a publisher? What if critics don't care for my writing?

I've spent countless hours wondering what if. When I'm fully engaged in the sport of what ifing, I convince myself that I'm merely setting appropriate expectations. I'm preparing myself for the inevitable rejection that is part and parcel of this publishing world, cushioning potential blows.

Or am I afraid? Dare I say wallowing in self-doubt?

Playing the what if game serves a purpose, it's true. Some decisions are made with painstaking thoughtfulness. Others made in a blink. I never really know which of the decisions I've made will play out in a good way or in a disappointing way. I what if before I make decisions; afterward, I may second guess. I confess, I usually what if in the negative.

Rarely if ever do I allow myself to what if about positive things, such as what if my parenting book brings peace to otherwise conflict ridden homes? What if reviewers like my writing?

But what if instead of coping with the uncertainty of writing for readers by sinking into fear of the unknown, I embraced the notion that I am exactly where I am meant to be. The good days and the not-so-good days are filled with infinite possibilities born of faith.

Today, I choose to trust.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Going to Soak My Head

by Hannah

To refresh and revitalize, some love a long soak in a tub. Personally, I am easily distracted and soon find myself calculating the height of a wave that will just miss lapping onto the floor. I prefer a good writers' conference. Luckily for me, The Writers’ Group heads to Boston this weekend for Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace, to soak in the presence, perspectives and wisdom of writers and authors, agents and editors.

(Has anyone mentioned a certain Lynne Reeves Griffin will be on the publicity panel hosted by Ms. Hank Phillippi Ryan, reporter and author of Prime Time?)

As my literary soak will be limited to one day, I will miss Sunday’s sessions with the likes of Sue Miller, Scott Heim, Michael Lowenthal, Ellen Litman, and the keynote speaker, Charles Baxter. So it is Saturday that is making me edgy with anticipation as I long for its arrival, readying for the day on which I will head into the depths.

Each session has so many wonderful choices, it's almost painful to choose. As with a day at a spa, I want to walk out feeling relaxed, yet invigorated. Thus, I am looking forward to Swarthmore College’s Philip Weinstein talking about how to “use” fiction. Christopher Castellani, artistic director of Grub Street, heard this lecture a few months ago and promoted it as inspiring. I am ready for every drop. I chose Martha Southgate, too, looking forward to what I am sure will be an entertaining discussion on serendipity and openness.

(Did I mention that Lynne's panel is one of the alternatives to Southgate, Sheri Joseph, Suzanne Berne and Carlo Rotella? How cool is that?)

Still, the single session that makes all of this year’s Muse worth it for me is the first. Margot Livesey will give a presentation entitled, “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars.” One of my very favorite authors is going to tell me (okay, plus fifty or so others) “what brings characters to life, the degree to which they are made by art, and how we can get better at practicing that art.” I was happy reading an interview with her in The Kenyon Review; now the author of Banishing Verona is going to dive into the topic in person, with me (okay, plus the others), three short days from now. This makes me happier than a week at Canyon Ranch. Really.

So if you will be at the Muse, look for us. If not, I suspect we will layer future entries with splashes of insight gleaned from this amazing get-together, and looking forward to your own thoughts and responses after long soaks in the literary!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On the Path

By Amy

As an unpublished writer, there’s the tendency to look around and mourn for other peoples’ successes.

There was a time many years ago when a woman I knew was awash in international sales, over-the-top reviews, big dollar movie deals. Everywhere I turned her face was plastered on some media. A lonely Friday at Blockbuster was made worse when an ad for her movie simultaneously screamed from each of the six televisions – such a bouncy soundtrack! -- and the video-case display took up an entire wall. There were even posters with the words, “based on the novel by…” Sigh.

I’m a better writer, I fumed. Her book is predictable, how hard could it have been to write? Mine were the thoughts of a green-eyed fool.

I remember later this woman telling me how she’d been afraid she would change with success and how utterly unprepared she was to find the people around her had changed more.
As I choked down my slice of humble pie, I began to understand that her success wasn’t my failure. It’s said that we learn more from our mistakes than our accomplishments, and it’s true. I’m glad to have had the experience of being the bad guy in my own silly drama.

Know this: We writers are not competing against one another. Even within the same genre, even while jockeying for position on the same bestseller list, it doesn’t matter how our writing compares to another’s, what his advance was and yours wasn’t. What matters is how our writing compares with our own best effort. I’m satisfied that today I wrote as well as I could. Tomorrow, I expect to do better. It doesn’t matter how poorly written or inexplicably brilliant another’s book is, how much attention it receives from the New York Times Review of Books and Oprah herself. The awards don’t much matter. Frankly, it doesn’t matter anymore how well-regarded my own work is by any critic, any where. I must first satisfy my own standards: write well, write often, write with intention and joy. Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

It’s a relief to be rid of the horrifying creep of envy. I’m ecstatic when I get a call or email from a friend telling me of her significant deal or glowing review or third printing. Their successes wholly belong to them, I understand that, but as a writer, I find myself basking along with them, knowing they’ve just scored one for the team. For me, though, I don’t expect to find an abiding sense of accomplishment once I’ve published a book, done the tour, glowed under some imagined set of klieg lights.

It’s the getting there I find dazzling.