Friday, August 31, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

That's right. Kids go back to school. Agents and editors return to New York. And then there's the release of the fall smorgasbord of great books! What great books you ask? Look over at our Hot Links to click on just some of them. Without first looking, guess which one is at the top of our list?

Lisa is spending the last few days of the summer with family. Enjoy, Lisa and family!

I visited several bookstores yesterday (some people see therapists, I go to bookstores; it works) and saw so many titles by people I know! It's the most strange experience to pick up book after book, and know the story behind it, the struggle and passion. It was the third store that choked me up, though. There on the front display and on a nearby ladder was Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment by our very own Lynne Reeves Griffin. Brava, Lynne, brava!

In other humongoidal news, back when we started this blog, one of the first links we added was to Michelle Zink. She was finishing up a book, querying agents, found one who was interested if she made changes. Well, I guess those revisions were pretty fantastic because Publishers Marketplace had this to say about Michelle: "Nancy Conescu at Little, Brown for Young Readers has preempted world rights to The Prophecy of the Sisters, a YA gothic thriller trilogy by debut author Michelle Zink; Steven Malk at Writers House made the six-figure deal. The first book in the trilogy, which blends supernatural elements with romance, is scheduled for spring 2009, with books two and three to follow in spring 2010 and 2011." And to you, we send our best, Michelle!

Hooray for Lynne! With apologies to the two local bookstores I frequent, I did order early from Amazon hoping all interest in a forthcoming title would attract attention, mean something. Have not gotten my package yet, and knowing it is out there is making me crazy. I want my Negotiation Generation! Meanwhile, I've managed time again this week on my revisions (and lie in bed thinking of revisions to the revisions or the next revisions, etc.!), and am so, so, so ready for Tuesday.

Ready for Tuesday means the first day of college for my daughter, the beginning of sophomore year for my son, and it's my publication date! It's a big day all around, for my family. This week, I sent copies of my book to treasured friends and supportive colleagues. And of course I popped over to the bookstore that has already created a book display. The reality of my book sitting on those shelves is indescribable. I'm ready!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Narrow Gate

Posted by Lynne

A few days ago, my teenage son asked if he could go somewhere--do something with friends--that he knew I would say no to. To his credit, he accepted the disappointment respectfully, adding how hard it is for him when he can't have what he wants or do what everyone else gets to do.

My son and I have a light and easy relationship so I agreed, and with my arm around his shoulder said, "I know it's seems hard now, but someday you'll thank me for shaping your character."

He laughed, rolled his eyes and sighed, orchestrating his body language as only a teenager can do. He said, "Mom next time stop before you get to the shaping character part. It doesn't really help to know that."

Discipline--a word that means to learn--whether it feels forced on you by others or it's self-imposed, it isn't always easy to learn your lessons. Rejection, rewrites, rejection, revision. "It's not for me." "It's not there yet." Talk to any successful writer, and he or she will tell you getting your character shaped is a trial. And I'm not talking about the characters you write about.

In the readings of my faith, there is a metaphor for taking the path to a deeper spirituality; everyone has the opportunity to take the road, but you must pass through "the narrow gate." There's a narrow gate on the road to a literary life too.

Early in my own experience of acquiring an agent, and working with an editor, I took each rejection or critique personally. I stood firm on things I now realize are the inevitable compromises a writer is required to at least consider, and sometimes required to make. "Change your title." "Move this chapter." "Add a character." "Lose a scene."

In the beginning, I struggled to acquiesce. Sometimes I reluctantly made the changes, sometimes I stood my ground. Yet as each character-shaping lesson was learned--true compromise experienced-- I felt stronger, more capable of accepting the next demand or challenge.

Recently, it's become crystal clear to me that living a literary life means becoming comfortable with life in and around the narrow gate. Regardless of the fantasies of big advances, universal praise, and reader adulation, no writer escapes repeated passes through the restricted access door. Read Tess Gerritsen's blog if you don't believe me.

Does becoming a successful writer mean embracing the lessons agents, editors, reviewers and readers try to teach us? Even if we're bruised and battered, do we force our way through the tight space, willing ourselves to withstand the pressure until things ease up again?

I wish the path was wide open and all of us could pass. In reality, it is difficult to get through it and one pass won't be enough. I've chosen to shove, squeeze, even ram myself through it nonetheless. How about you?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

What It All Means, As Suggested by Virgina Woolf

by Hannah

Lisa at Eudaemonia mentioned a few weeks ago she was reading Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, a book picked off my mother's floor years ago to save from donation. I read it, found it murky but interesting and stuck on my own bookshelf. Back then I was not yet living a domestic life in any way, not yet focused on fiction at a deeper level. Passages spoke to me, and I liked how the perspectives shifted, sometimes paragraph to paragraph, because it reminded me of a movie in which the viewer can hear everyone's thoughts aloud.

Thanks to Lisa, I picked up To the Lighthouse again, and was wowed. Within seven paragraphs in one early spot, Woolf starts with Mrs. Ramsay's point of view on her husband and a specific domestic scene, shifts to the son's viewpoint, includes five bits of dialogue, only one using quotes, then wraps up with Mr. Ramsay's point of view. It works, I swear!

Heaven help the woman, of course, if she'd passed that around for someone to critique. What would people say? The rules are such, the scene is confusing; it certainly won't sell. Still, I have tucked this scene and book away as a Guardian Angel, to use Martha Southgate's term for books that show us outstanding use of techniques and approaches we are ready to dare to attempt.

Even when it was published, this book raised eyebrows. It was experimental, pushed the envelope in terms of technique and theme, blending the two together. How do people think, how do they react in life's small situations in a way that reflects on life's greatest questions?

Woolf does offer an answer. As Lily works on her painting, she thinks about what it all means, considers asking the content poet what he thinks. She looks at her picture.

"That would have been his answer, presumably -- how "you" and "I" and "she" pass and vanish; nothing stays; all changes; but not words, not paint. Yet it would be hung in attics, she thought; it would be rolled up and flung under a sofa; yet even so, even of a picture like that, it was true. One might say, even of this scrawl, not of that actual picture, perhaps, but of what it attempted, that it "remained for ever," she was going to say, or, for the words spoken sounded even to herself, too boastful, to hint, wordlessly..."

Maybe one answer writers look for lies in the rethinking, the pushing of the envelope, no matter what anyone tells us the rules might be, so that even if the work is rolled up and thrown under a sofa, it still exists; no matter what, our visions remain.

Thank you, Lisa!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I Want the Money, Honey

By Amy

After my first child was born, my husband and I decided (well, I decided) that we would take a vow of poverty so I could stay home with her. Life was ethereal, all kittens and sunshine. *Sigh* Fast forward a few years, two more babies, and I found myself in the umpteenth dawn-of-the-dead feeding wondering how we were going to pay the credit card bill.

Over coffee the next morning, I told my husband, a reporter, my brilliant idea to make $millions$: I would write a book. My plan was to start as a freelance writer, get myself a column, and then use that as a springboard to write a book. I'd always liked writing. In college, I would churn out my weekly 30 page history paper the night before. It would be a cinch. Oh, and I didn't want to use any of his contacts, I'd do it on my own. To his credit, he took it well.

"Okay," he said, "but don't write for the money. Write because you love it."

Obviously he had not seen the credit card bill.

Of course he was right. I realized this after I started freelancing, about the time I somehow convinced my editor at the Boston Globe to give me a Sunday column. I loved it. No, it was more than that, it filled all of the empty places within me -- voids I hadn't known existed. I was nearly there.

Soon thereafter I started that book, a fictionalized version of my column about the drama of suburbia. I craved my writing time; a few hours among my characters left me euphoric. Nothing had ever made me feel as complete as when I typed the words The End. It wasn't a particularly good book -- it lacked high stakes, a truly sympathetic protagonist, adherence to craft -- but it proved to me that I had found my passion. I'd forgotten all about the money.

Now that I've completed a second, I live, eat and breathe what my husband told me all those years ago. When I was querying and one of the hottest agents offered representation, conditional on my changing a major plot point, I thanked him for his time and interest -- I was truly honored --but declined. He might have sold my manuscript within days, movie rights, too, but I didn't want that. I needed to maintain the integrity of my story. Whatever happens, I'll never regret my decision.

These days my dreams are more sanguine. I'll never earn an extravagant lifestyle from my writing; it would be enough if it were self-supporting. It would be enough to receive letters from readers telling me I'd touched them, that they had taken time from their lives to inhabit my worlds. That would be inestimable.

Still, I'd like to pay off that credit card bill.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Posted by Lisa

You recognize him, don't you?

He hasn't got quite the Pizzazz! he does today; he's wearing a button-down shirt with a neat sweater layered on top for goodness sake. But there's a steady look to his gaze. He's not nervous - that's clear.

My British roomate at McGill loved to tell the story of her dad's experience as a student in London. "The fellows in an upstairs flat drove him crazy," she told us. "There were a few of them that would meet each night, playing music all the time." They weren't rude, so the tale goes. Every time they were asked to turn the music down, or to stop playing as it was so late, they always obliged. Apparently her dad regrets that he didn't pay better attention back then. Had they been practicing early songs like The Last Time or Satisfaction?

Recently, I walked into Best Buy to check out printers. On the big screen TV, a Rolling Stones concert is playing. Who is mesmerized by the performance, but two young children and their grandmother. A couple teenagers paused to watch for at least a couple minutes. Mick Jagger is on the screen, strutting in a sparkling robe. Confidence, talent, brilliance exude from the screen. His presence has taken hold of that busy store.

I wonder if Mick was always destined for fame? Were there crossroads in his life when he doubted his path? He may not have. Perhaps it's that practicing, that perseverence that enabled him to succeed. That combination of talent and hard work. Maybe he made a decision to become a success. Perhaps he had the confidence to choose his path. Or perhaps the path chose him.
As writers we know we must write. Though we may not have the choice whether or not to be writers, every day we make choices that affect our writing. Choose with confidence. Talk about your work with pride. Schedule time for your writing. Keep the bar high for every word, phrase, bit of dialogue, and character flaw. Have that level of confidence.
Perhaps you'll succeed.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Making A Literary Life Friday: A Full Life

Grace Paley spoke at last year's Muse and the Marketplace, hosted by Grub Street in Boston, and everyone in the audience was moved to laughter and tears and rueful chuckles and wondering shakes of the head as she read her work. She died yesterday, a full life behind her, a treasure trove of stories for us all to re-read as we want. May we all be so lucky, to have and appreciate those things that are most important to us in life.

Never have I been so moved when hearing someone speak. I was impressed by Grace's courage; she was a lifelong activist for causes she believed in. I was shocked and enamoured with the beauty of her prose. Her writing is not shiny or forced, but is rich with meaning and humor; she hit the mark with each word. She was brilliant.

As I look back to her keynote speech at Grub Street's 2005 Muse & the Marketplace, I think of how Christopher Castellani stood at Grace's side, repeating audience questions to her, adjusting the microphone for her. He graciously served her, demonstrating an embodiment of the respect that all conference attendees felt for her that day. A life well lived and an inspiration for all.

Oh, Grace, yours was a life well-lived. I'm so grateful to Grub Street for providing the opportunity to hear you speak. Thankfully, we have your words to guide us whenever we need inspiration. Rest now.

My stack of to-be-read grows smaller, though twice this week friends made recommendations and those books are now waiting their turn. Which ones? The Other Mother by Gwendolen Gross and The Starter Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer, which my friend promises will make me laugh. I've yet to read Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons and Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. They must come first. Fair warning, however, if I should get my hands on an ARC of Alice Sebold's Almost Moon or Tom Perrotta's The Abstinence Teacher, I will have to take the unprecented step of putting down whatever book is in my hands, a hiatus if you will, to take up either of those. And if anyone has read Amy Bloom's Away, let me know what you think. Is it a buy or borrow book? My gut tells me buy -- hardcover.

Health and time top my list of what is most precious. With a nod to the old back-to-school Staples ad using the song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," I am very ready for my body and my writing to benefit from more predictable schedules. Catch-as-catch-can is fun, as are the activities that come with the summer sun, but in my advancing age I am loving those routines more and more!

Given Grace Paley's passing and a reread of Amy's post, Write Now, I'm feeling the itch to dive back into writing my second novel. The characters have been bending my ear all summer. At the lake, or on my walks, one woman in particular keeps trying to tell me her side of things. I think I'll start taking notes.

As for my book launch, in twelve days my book will be in bookstores. News of a good review from Library Journal, and Penguin's desire to make Negotiation Generation an ebook, fill me with hope for its success. And of course, the support I've received from The Writers' Group can't be beat. It's been a very good week.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Honesty is in the Details

Posted by Lynne

Honesty is in the details. The women of the writers' group, without question, have the purest of intentions when providing critique to a novelist. As I've mentioned in previous posts, there is no negative feedback to be found during our discussions. Surely there is constructive feedback, but never criticism; of our writing or of any other writers, for that matter. We discuss, examine, comment on, and dissect-- to learn. Our collective aim is to become better writers and to help every member of the group on the path to a literary life.

I was asked recently by a woman working on her first novel if I ever foresee a time when I won't need The Writers' Group anymore. My answer was plain and simple. No.

What writer wouldn't treasure three people taking her manuscript, reading it line by line and then spending two hours talking about it with compassion and precision. Without the writers' group it would take months longer to see any or all of the following:

  • The need to up the stakes and tension. This has become first and foremost our strongest test of each other's writing. We know the marketplace is relentless when it comes to this assessment; we save each other time and the hardship of hearing this from editors and agents.
  • An inconsistent timeline. Hannah's got an amazing eye for this.
  • Weak verb choices in key scenes, and overuse of a word or words. Who hasn't fought the but, just, that problem? And the more unusual the word choice, the less you can use it, says Amy.
  • Lack of authenticity of character motives and uniqueness of voice. As a temperament and behavior expert, this is my thing.
  • Setting or absence of setting to ground the reader. Lisa is our setting guru.
  • Believability of plot. Amy holds us to a high standard here.
It's been two years since fate brought four women living in suburbia, with children ranging in age from 2-16, together. Our work lives have similarities and differences, but that's always added dimension to our discussions. No doubt life will try to get in the way of what we have. One of us may move, or struggle with changes in her family, or travel for work, but nothing can change the fact that gifts have already been given. And I don't foresee a time when they won't be given freely still.

Some writers see having a writers' group as a crutch. They believe if you are a true and master writer, you wouldn't need a writers group. This is utter nonsense. In my opinion, it's as naive as saying you don't need an agent or an editor. I don't know a writer who wouldn't cherish support, encouragement and of course, honest feedback.

If you don't have the kind of support we're blessed to have, don't despair. You have options. You can stop by here any day you like and share in what we're learning. You can find yourself a writers' group, and if at first you don't succeed--try, try again. Finally, you can find an online support network. Though I'm new to the Backspace community, I've garnered a lot from it already.

Making a literary life is a journey, not a race. It's better to walk it with friends.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Mirror

by Hannah

Unlikely there is anyone out there who ever wrote a perfect first draft. And how many writers revise and revise and revise until the piece is a shell of what it should be, as the path through the threads and plotlines and the point of the whole thing is lost?

Indeed, someone noted the other evening that there is no such thing as the perfect novel. At the least, an extremely rare thing. Even if I were to achieve my idea of perfection as revisions to my current project hit the home stretch, I suspect there would always be elements tempting me to tinker. In turn, my writers' group will have its opinions, as will potential agents, then publishers, the public.

So where is this headed? Somewhere in between, and I offer up the suggestion that this is not a bad thing.

Somewhere in the middle -- between first draft and overwrite -- does not mean compromise, or a lack of principle or daring or beauty. Somewhere in the middle is a spot where the story holds up a mirror to reflect a truth the author wishes to explore and paint in such a way that the rest of the world might see it anew. At that one particular angle, the author and a large number of readers do, indeed, see into that story. It may not be perfect; there might be a very slightly different angle at which even more readers could be drawn in, but to aim for that could, perhaps be overkill.

After all, as we develop our work, if we hold the mirror one way, only the author is reflected. Yet to over-revise means the author cannot see herself at all. The mirror is a tricky tool, awkward in our fingers as we try to hold it, shift it, get just the right perspective.

Maybe the goal is not perfection. Maybe the goal is to get the angle of the mirror just so, so that we can still see ourselves fully, and so a respectable number of readers see not just author effort, but a piece of themselves as well. That's not so bad, is it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

To What End?

By Amy

I met a woman once at a writers' conference, well, I sort of met her. She was a member of another writers' group and while both of our groups huddled near the back of the conference room waiting for Mako Yoshikawa (the hair!) to begin her workshop, we got to talking. The members of this woman's writing group were effusive and warm, funny; the kind of people who establish an immediate comraderie. The woman, however, was quiet, not reserved so much as withdrawn. She appeared to be observing our exchange as if she were not a partipant at all.

As the conversation progressed, each of us took turns explaining our WIP. When it was the woman's turn, she said a few words, we had to strain to hear her in that room humming with anticipation of Mako's arrival, and then her group spoke for her, something I've never forgotten. They said she had two completed manuscripts -- beautiful stories, gorgeous writing, compelling reads both -- that she declined to submit. Meaning, she wasn't seeking an agent, she didn't excerpt them for publication as short stories, she didn't intend to have them published at all. She didn't give a reason even when we asked.

I've often wondered about that woman. She spent several years on each book, expected to write another, she attended conferences, joined an active writers' group, revised, and revised again. To what end? I suspect it was less about the fear of rejection and more that this woman treasured the worlds she created and didn't want the fotoprints of the masses upon them.

Lately, I've been thinking about other people reading my manuscript and it doesn't feel as though I expected. As much as I want the opportunity to introduce my characters to vast audiences, once it's out there, even in a form I've created, it will be changed. If it is published (these caveats are important, aren't they?), others' opinions, insults, interpretations will mold it. Reality is simply a matter of perspective. If it's published, reviewers will call it a mystery or suspense or literary fiction. They will say it's evocative or drivel, inspired or overwrought and it will become what they say it is. I've read a hundred interviews with writers who've said readers find themes and interpret motivations the author never intended. Maybe it's there in the writer's subconscious, maybe the reader's, but it's become a part of the work once it's stated. When a reader takes up a book, it's as if they've staked out territory there, with full squatter's rights to make it their own. I'm afraid that so much of what I intended will be lost in translation.

I think about that woman a lot now. I wonder how often she goes back to those projects, reads them and loses herself in those worlds of hers. Maybe she's right to guard them. Still, I hope someday to be privvy to them, to be a reader and inhabit those characters. I'll try not claim too much if I do.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Posted by Lisa

At times, when I've driven through mountains (picture Vermont, California), I feel complete terror. My hands on the steering wheel sweat within seconds taking hold. My eyes are frozen before me, seeing nothing but the image of my car crashing down the cliff beside me. It is the feeling of a roller coaster drop - a feeling I used to enjoy.

Yesterday, I had the chance to go on an amusement park ride. It's been a couple years, but I've never been one to say no to the excitement of that gravity induced free fall. It was a water type ride, a splash waiting for me at the end when it climbs a mountain, then plunges.

What went through my mind at the time of the fall? Writing. That's what. Can you believe it? I suppose I can. The problem, I determined upon reflection on the drive home, is that writing is not a sure thing. Though I am using a cliche in saying this, writing is a roller coaster ride. The lows. The highs. You know what I'm talking about.

I'm curious, almost, to see where I end up. To glimpse into the future and see what books will bear this author's name. It's a plummet. It's a leap of faith. When you decided to be a writer - if you've truly made that commitment in your life - then you know that you are driving close to the edge of that mountain road. Each day may bring moments of terror, when you wonder if you will slip and plummet, or if you will make it to the end of your drive. One piece, whole, intact, a dream realized.

Like a roller coaster ride, once you've committed, it's pretty hard to turn back. So don't. Really. Don't turn back.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Our Favorite Things...

What draws a reader to a certain writer? We have all read books that were New York Times' Bestsellers that we found, well, less than stunning. On the other hand, hasn't each of us picked up a quiet novel that blows us away? The skills and strengths of certain authors makes their work sing - to one person. Is it well developed characters, a rollicking plot, the power of the setting that is a favorite calling card of a favorite author?

Jack Gantos. Joey Pigza books. This author, simply, and beautifully, combines prose, poetry, and humor. For me, it's the humor. It's brilliant and to be admired.

Read this first line of Joey Pigza Loses Control:

"We were on our way to Dad's house and Mom was driving with both hands clamped tightly around the wheel as if she had me by the neck."

Love it. Love this author.


A reader of this blog, Five, handed me Roland Merullo's In Revere, In Those Days after a Grub Street South workshop. She probably thought I'd forgotten about it, but it's been on my bookcase, waiting its turn. What a book! Usually I read through the night, finishing a book within days or even hours, but not this one. The story itself is quiet, the characters deeply introspective -- I like that -- but it's the writing that forces me to slow down, savor the craft behind the words. Thanks, Five, you were right. I hope what I send you is equally satisfying.

Humor drives most of my favorite books, too; intelligence lurking behind the humor or the mystery, a message that shines out from another, deeper layer. I was on vacation this week, so books on CD in the car were my primary resources: YA faves Hoot by Carl Hiaasen and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a surprisingly timeless classic, especially when read by Eric Idle of Python fame.

Sorry to wander off topic, but I couldn't help but share my happiness. The first box of author copies of Negotiation Generation have arrived. If you'd like a taste of what's inside, you can watch a video clip of my appearance on last Monday's Boston's Fox 25 Morning News show. I spoke about why some children push boundaries more than other children, and what parents can do to reduce power struggles.

Negotiation Generation will be in bookstores September 4th, 2007; you can pre-order your copy today at your favorite online book seller.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Posted by Lynne

I edge my way into the train and maneuver the crowd with my shoulders until I'm the one who takes possession of the last seat. Scrunched between a man with a briefcase and a woman with backpack, I settle in for my twenty minute ride to Boston. With an elbow in my ribs and a loud snap, I see the commuters on either side of me digging around for their books. They each pull out one all too familiar. It's mine.

The woman opens the back of the book, looks closely at my picture and pokes me again in the ribs. "Hey, you're the author of this book. I love the writing. And you know what? This book has changed my family."

It's a fantasy. A dream. When I was young, I imagined countless ways I would accept my Oscar or Tony. Now I envision grateful readers; parents who embrace my thinking about children. And of course I'd love them to love the writing.

I'm willing to admit it. Like Sally Field, I want praise, positive feedback--a spot of adulation. I don't see anything wrong with wanting validation, after all the hard work that went into writing and marketing my book.

We've all heard writers say it's the work that matters, not the critics opinions, accolades or awards. While I know being satisfied with the quality of my writing is paramount, I can honestly say I need a measure of approval to carry on.

In this three steps forward, two steps back business, I collect each endorsement like
treasure, saving it for a down day or discouraged moment. I'm the type to review each rejection or criticism, scouring it for the glimmer of encouragement. After a day filled with oodles of self-sacrifice, I accept a friend's comforting word or loving touch. And when I achieve a goal or reach a milestone, I share my news and encourage my loved ones to celebrate with me.

I don't see this as self-aggrandizing, though I suppose some do. In our writers' group meetings we're committed to complimenting each others work first. We are honest to a fault about what isn't working with a piece, only after we have highlighted what does.

I'm not suggesting sugar-coating anything. I can handle critical feedback. Yet if becoming a better writer means I must swallow the bitter pills, then I do want a little candy. I believe on balance, praise dotted with criticism will push a writer further than feedback the other way around. Certainly every writer needs both; I don't have any trouble acknowledging I need the positive.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Write Now

By Amy

Time is not on our side. Each passing day takes with it an opportunity. The chance to be or become or strive for a life that currently exists only within our imaginations; that chance to become our true selves slips away by degrees with each sunset.

Though not a religious or spiritual person, I find enormous comfort in the Five Remembrances of Buddha, especially "I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death." Why? Does it seem morose? Well, I am a morose person I suppose, but it inspires an urgency to accomplish.

I know of several people who've been working on their novels for years, some as long as a decade. While a few of these people have had enormous success, others modest, still others will never see their labors of love published. We all know this is a fickle business, wonderful manuscripts are declined by agents and editors everyday. Some go on to make it, most do not. The fact is, you don't have the luxury of time.

I was speaking with a friend recently and she told me of her pressing deadlines imposed by her publishing house. I began hyperventilating on her behalf while she appeared completely serene. She'd worked hard at her craft for years and wasn't about to let time prevent the culmination of her dream from being realized. Therese Fowler understands this. She wrote Souvenir in 7 months, and now it's slated to be Ballantine's lead title for February 2008. Focus, choose, act.

So what will it be? Will you spend today catering to the needs of everyone else around you? Surfing various blogs and online gossip columns, instead of your manuscript? Will you allow the drudgery of work and home, the pressure of debt enslave your precious hours? Or will you decide that today everything else must step aside in favor of your writing. I know what it is to be caught in that fugue, truly I do. But don't allow it to overcome you, to lull you into believing you have time.

You don't.

Monday, August 13, 2007


Posted by Lisa

This... Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom, war, and the arts. Look at her. Now, she is a take-charge person, a pro-active woman who gets things done. If she were a writer, how would she approach her craft?

Let's think about Athena. Oh, how those endorphines must flow after she's been fighting battles, breaking a sweat in hand-to-hand combat with three headed serpents, for instance. That can take a lot out of a person. When she ready for quiet time and she sits down at her writing table, I imagine she is in the just-right frame of mind to re-read that first chapter to discover just what isn't working. Refining her characters and tying threads in her plot must be a welcome change of pace for her. And after that adreline rush, well, that must give her the focus she needs.

Lately, I've had the opportunity to exercise: hiking, tennis, swimming. And I've remembered something that I had forgotten: Exercise is good for your brain. I know you know this, too. But I must say, my focus is better after getting my blood to really pump.

It's time for, let me call it an end of summer resolution. My writing (not to mention my health and weight) will benefit from exercise. Join me in my committment to moving, AKA getting off my butt before writing. Even if it's jumping jacks or a walk around the block.

It's worth a try?! Isn't it?

Share your stories with us, too!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Finding Your Voice

Posted by Lynne

When I was a little girl, my brother and sisters used to beg me to leave the station wagon, go up to the window and order our ice cream. They didn't really need to plead a case, because I liked taking charge and making my request known, though it was a bit tricky juggling six cones all the way back to the car.

For all the years I spent in school, my teachers never once wrote in my report card, should participate more in class. In fact no one has ever told me to find my voice. I've always had something to say.

If you're like me, writing provides the perfect vehicle to say a lot about many things. After all it isn't always socially appropriate to comment on everything you think and feel. Or perhaps you live quietly, choosing carefully when to speak, but in your writing you can express your deepest thoughts and opinions. Whichever type of person/writer you are--we all need voice.

The best writing has a strong voice. Characters who express themselves in unique and interesting ways. When they speak, whether you like them personally or not, you listen. What would Catcher in the Rye be without Holden's remarks about behavior he finds, "crumby?" Or how about Seth in Toni Morrison's gem, Beloved? I never once needed attributions for Seth's dialogue, I always knew when she was speaking.

Voice. The unique words, body language and tonal qualities our characters possess, set our writing apart from everything else. If you fear what some say about there being no new stories to tell, there's hope in finding voice. No matter what story you're compelled to tell, the character's voice--their view of the world and what's happening to them--changes everything.

Think about any story you've ever been told. Let's take the phone call from the agent story. You know there's a call. You know the news is good. What keeps you listening, sitting on the edge of your seat is the voice of the storyteller. Did she scream or swear? Or jump up and down like a game show contestant or make a grateful sign of the cross. Or did she retain a nonchalant demeanor, hang up the phone and decide to call the agent back to be certain she hadn't misunderstood the offer?

Author, Holly Lisle says, Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.

You can't have voice if you don't know what you or your characters want to say. Each character in your novel allows you a venue for social commentary. Inhabit them. Ask each one what he or she wants or needs to say, next listen to the ways they choose to speak to you.

Then write it down.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

To Read or Not to Read

by Hannah

Lynne and I went to a revision class taught by Hallie Ephron this spring. When Hallie asked for volunteers to read first paragraphs, Lynne was one of the brave ones, rewarded by Hallie’s deserved interest. My hand stayed down because in skimming my own potential offering, I came to an undeniable conclusion.


How many things were wrong with it? Let me count the ways.

No surprise, then, if I tell you that feedback from the group at about the same time was unanimous. With regard to the first chapter or so, as that is the focus here, the critique was a useful and literary "nope," for all the right reasons. In fact, the question was posed, shouldn’t the story start much later, well after that first chapter?

We don’t always take suggestions, it is true, even if all three others are in agreement. On this particular subject, all four of us agreed. I sat down to cut off the offending text.

I couldn’t do it.

I knew how I wanted to change the story, and a secondary character introduced in the first chapter would show up again once revisions were made. In addition, the protagonist’s experience with this secondary character showed certain motivations, or lack thereof, and to some degree propelled him forward. All well and good at a rational level, but not enough to catch and push the reader forward.

I started to play with them, deepened their quirks. I read it aloud to myself and decided it still needed something before it was read aloud anywhere by anyone.

The trick came in setting. I maintained the storyline, but shifted the action out of a restaurant (Sit! Eat!). The chapter opens now in a beautiful place both characters love, then shifts to a location only the protagonist adores. In doing so, the protagonist and secondary character fell further into place, their personalities became more pronounced.

Bingo! A first chapter I couldn’t wait to read aloud again and to email to the others. The lesson learned has carried me through every step since. Every bit – not just most bits – revised thus far, I would be willing to read aloud in a class, any time. Aha...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

That First Chapter

By Amy

It was never intended as a first chapter.

I was intrigued by C. Michael Curtis, Agni and Ploughshares, the Bellevue Literary Review -- especially Bellevue because that literary journal was founded by Danielle Ofri. I'd read both of her memoirs of what it was to become a doctor and wanted desperately to write something that would impress her half as much as her writing touched me.

Short stories are difficult animals to tame, invested with a nature I find elusive. When recommending fiction to Post Road, I consider an accomplished short story to be dynamic, have a compelling voice and characters unlike the 10 other male ennui submitted that quarter, I want to be moved by something transformative. Like pornography, I know it when I see it. But my goodness, it's awfully hard to write, don't you think?

Mr. Curtis, past fiction editor for The Atlantic, believes first-person present tense is an affectation; Sven Birkets, the editor of Agni, expects language to arrest his attention; and frankly, I've never understood the tastes of those at Ploughshares. But Bellevue, I love the pages of that literary journal. It contains writing that is bound to this earth, sensible and enthralling, nothing that strains credulity. Its editors seek out stories that demonstrate an understanding of craft, a facility with language, and honest insight into the human condition that other journals can only reach toward. So when I finished my short story, I sent it to Bellevue, knowing Dr. Ofri wouldn't read it. It was enough someone there would.

Weeks passed, I was distracted by an illness in the family, a move to a new home. And then an email appeared from the Bellevue Literary Review. It had to be a rejection, I expected nothing more and surely it was from the fiction editor. Well, yes and no. It was a note from Dr. Ofri:

"We considered this story strongly. Good writing, nice tone. But the ending isn't as strong as it could be; it seems to stop rather than end. It also feels like we need some more mortar in the story: We need to know early on that woman is embalming and that narrator is female, how old. We need a bit about her life, how long has she worked there, what is private life like. It was a touching moment when little girl wanders in, but reader needs to understand how narrator's life is like the girl's. If you decided to fill the story out, we'd be happy to read a revised version if you submit it late summer or early fall (during our next reading cycle). -Danielle Ofri"

I must have read her words a hundred times. Everything she wrote made sense, but nothing more than, " seems to stop rather than end." The problem was I hadn't written a short story at all, I was inept as ever. What I'd done was write the first chapter of a novel. I knew this was true, knew it at my core, because my characters wouldn't leave me be, they had so much more to say.

A few moments of Dr. Ofri's time spent reading my submission and a hurried email with editorial feedback encouraged me to take a path I'd never intended. Perhaps she'll be happy to know I worked on that first chapter for five more months before continuing on with the rest of the story. Like the reader, I, too, needed to discover how old my protagonist was, more of her private life, and the ties that bound her to the little girl. As Dr. Ofri said, I had to build the "mortar" of her life. I've done that, I think. We shall see if it's good enough.

So thank you, Dr. Ofri, you were right. It wasn't an ending at all, just the beginning.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Too Much Going On

Posted by Lisa

My first chapter wasn't working. When I shared it with my writers' group so many months back, they complimented my setting and said kind words about my main character. But, I can't remember if it was Hannah, Lynne or Amy, who suggested, directly, that my first chapter was busy. Too busy. So I pared it down, or so I thought.

I 've finished a complete draft of this YA novel, and I'm sending it to my writers' group today. But even yesterday, that first chapter still wasn't strong. So I did something desperate: I asked my husband to read it.

I know, I know, that's a risky endeavor. I hear your voices loud and clear. But my marriage is strong. Surely it's strong enough to withstand a critique of ONE chapter. He read it while I puttered in another room.

"It's good," he said, "your writing is solid." But... there was a but in that sentence, and I wanted to hear it. "But," he continued, "there's too much going on. There's three things going on. I think there should be two."

"Thanks," I said. "No problem," he answered. Then he picked up his Blackberry and wandered out of the room.

Bingo. Hello. Well, duh. Light bulb moment.

He was right. I knew it the very second he told me. I edited. I re-read. I repositioned bits and pieces of the story. It's much improved, far from perfect, but it seems to read better; hopefully it intrigues without overwhelming.

The same as you, I keep on learning. I suppose one of my latest lessons is about what makes a good scene. A scene must be long enough, without being lengthy. Enough must happen, without confusing the reader. Sometimes the hardest thing is to cut a scene in two. When you take something out of a scene, you must find somewhere else to put it - never easy. Like a house of cards, you take one away, and the rest of the house starts to tremble. I suppose that is editing. And frankly, that is a lot of work, but painstaking work we must do.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Making a Literary Life Friday: Moments

In the midst of all the summer heat and hurry (when did summer get hurried?), there have been so many aha! moments, on character, on purpose, on fate, on the whys of it all. We'd love to believe we notice these things because we are writers, that part of a literary life is how you look at life everyday!

Simplicity, Framing, Contrast, Viewpoint, Balance. I've been doing research. I know very little about photography, but my main character becomes quite proficient during the course of my novel. I need to become educated and fast. I'm sharing a final (for now) draft of my YA novel with Amy, Hannah, and Lynne on Monday. It's a light at the end of the tunnel; feedback on the full work, feedback I need and value.

I'll be busy this weekend crossing t's, dotting i's, and checking that Tuesday doesn't suddenly turn into Monday halfway down the page, or that the protagonist's father doesn't close the front door three times within the same scene (I admit that happened in an earlier draft - ooops!) But the feedback I seek isn't grammatical, so much. It's character and story and setting and ....

Amy is away, but looks forward to sharing what she's discovered next week.

I finished Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club this week. Wow and wow again. I know I mentioned it last week; it really is fabulous in terms of characters, history, as well as a gripping mystery. This should be required of anyone seeking to study Longfellow or Boston during his time, even if it is fiction. I need to lighten things up now; a few days away are coming on the calendar. I am off to the book store with a short list of books bandied about these posts and friends' blogs. Any that really stand out for any of you of late, that are (a) light and fun as well as (b) layered with interesting things to learn about some odd subject or the craft itself?

It was publicity city here this week! Four and one half weeks to pub date and the interviews have begun. You can already listen to my first radio interview related to Negotiation Generation. Listen and let me know what you think!

As far as my novel goes, Lisa's post on character likability struck a chord with me and I was able to begin going through my latest draft softening a major character. Revision is a wonderful thing!

Thursday, August 02, 2007

A Purpose Driven Writing Life

Posted by Lynne

Have you ever felt like a greater power reverts to banging you over the head to get you to pay attention to an important life lesson? Well this week, it hit me. My writing life must be purpose driven.

Early in the week, I was telling a friend of mine how much work it is to write a book, seek representation, a publisher and then to promote said book. To which she mused, "You must really believe in what you have to say to put yourself through all that?"

"I do," I said, giving her remark little thought.

Then Amy's post this week about JK Rowling's need to write for the story was my next hint that I needed to pay attention to the purpose of my writing. Ms. Rowling knows her purpose, and because she does, she will continue to write regardless of the pressure she will surely face in the marketplace.

And last night I got an outright shout when my husband and I heard a speaker say the key to success in any endeavor is to have a clear purpose--a strong belief in what you are doing, clarity around what you simply must achieve.

With my non-fiction writing my purpose has always been clear to me. I want to do what I can to nurture healthy families, ones where harmony and understanding run high and hurtful communication and conflict are low. I've never wavered in my belief that my ideas and opinions would some day make it to print in the form of a book. I never had any intention of giving up, despite the long and winding road.

But what about my fiction writing? I admit, in the beginning, I didn't really know what my purpose was for writing my novel. One day there was this woman, fierce and edgy, who refused to leave my mind. Each day she told me more of her story. Soon I felt compelled to write it down. It was then and still is, a heartbreaking yet important story.

As I maneuvered through the up and down process of filling first draft holes, smoothing out the second draft seams, and as friend of our blog Hank says, "nipping, tucking, tweaking and polishing" during the revision stage, my purpose for writing became clearer. What keeps me persevering in shepherding this story toward publication is my belief in it.

My compelling need to tell this particular story, at this particular time, pushes me to steal away time from other work, create a schedule that includes writing time, and helps me nurture an environment conducive to writing. In short, my need to write and my goal to get the story into the hands of readers give me the self-discipline to get the job done.

Maybe like me you write with the goal of publication. Or maybe this is the furthest thing from your mind, which by the way, is fine as long as you know your purpose for writing. I recently met a writer who's spent ten years on her novel and because she isn't willing to make any marketplace compromises would rather not be published. She writes for herself. Whatever your purpose for writing is, name it and claim it. Knowing your purpose will shed light on all the things you'll need to do to be successful. And remember success isn't just getting what you want, it's wanting what you have.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Who Are You?

by Hannah

Every parent searches for signs, even as we joke about it. Argumentative? She’ll be a lawyer. Strong arm? Decorate with NFL wallpaper! My daughter glows when singing, dancing and reciting lines. My son, meanwhile, finds himself in a quandary.

His lifelong ambition has been pro baseball. Lately he suspects he might not take Jason Varitek’s place behind home plate one day. It is possible he could end up there, but there have long been signs his life could well take a different path.

He doesn't play against the backstop every day. His friends are not the ones whose worlds center on sports; they play instruments, do magic tricks, make up games, read books, play Risk and play on computers. This summer he chose to sail instead of extending the baseball season. He loves baseball, deeply, but it does not gnaw at him until he cannot ignore it.

What does gnaw at him, whether he knows it or not? He art-directs casual photographs: “Take the picture of me in my catcher’s gear from the other side of the fence at the field. I’ll push up the mask, hold the chain link, look into the distance.” Best photo I ever took of him. He happily dished out long-hoarded cash to co-purchase a digital movie camera and editing software with me. He plays drums. He may not dedicate daily practice to syncopation, but he quickly figured out how to play “Who Are You” like Keith Moon, and he got up on stage with a real band once to jam. There is more, but you get the idea.

When I was his age, I wanted to play Carnegie Hall. My piano teacher smiled, in private telling my father my love of music would be lifelong and my talents lay elsewhere, an insight shared with me only after I quit lessons. In high school, I wanted to be a veterinarian. I studied biology, chemistry and trig, and did a fascinating, bittersweet internship at an animal hospital.

Decades later, as I write this post, a red binder sits near my feet in a milk crate shelf against the wall. The oldest piece in it is a two-act Easter play I wrote at seven. There is an elementary school fiction competition entry, and a fairy tale I wrote at thirteen. Pages and pages, handwritten and typewritten, long before computers. Sometimes, perhaps, it is clearer from the start than we know.