Friday, February 29, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Marketing

And we thought writing was hard work. Phew! This marketing and networking part of the business is crazy. You need to continually make avenues like a blog interesting and useful to read, you need a great photo, you need to get out there and participate in literary conferences and classes, and it doesn't hurt to have a fabulous reporter track you down and write a story every now and again! What are some great ideas you've used or noted of late when it comes to spreading the word? We've spotted ideas from the likes of Scott Heim...

Lisa Marnell
This Monday I will post my interview with Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why. In a recent e-mail with Jay, he insisted I come to the SCBWI conference where he will be a speaker on a panel of success stories through SCBWI contests. He won the Work-In-Progress grant when Thirteen Reasons Why was in its infancy. He was sending work out back then, and is out and about now!

Amy MacKinnon
My youngest is a natural born publicist. Recently we stopped by Borders (it's soothes the blood pressure when out at the mall), and I asked a sales associate where I could find Eileen Cook's UNPREDICTABLE. The saleswoman went to the row of computers, typed in the title, and then a little voice said from beside me, "Mommy, look, it's your book!" She'd typed my name into the adjacent computer and brought up TETHERED. "What's that?" asked the saleswoman. When I told her my debut novel would be out in September, she said, "Fantastic! You'll have to come back and do a reading." I plan on bringing my baby-girl to every bookstore on the eastern seaboard.

As for marketing, read the description of TETHERED on Amazon UK. Thank you, Sara!

Hannah Roveto
Not only did Scott Heim create his own trailer for his upcoming release, We Disappear, and post it on YouTube, but the Wall Street Journal flagged it as worth checking out. If you haven't seen it yet, you are going to be amazed.

Lynne Griffin
Ah, publicity. I've been promoting NEGOTIATION GENERATION for one year and it only came out six months ago. It's never ending--telling the world about your book. Two days ago, I did an interview on the best age for children to begin using cell phones. And just last night, I spoke to an eager group of parents at a library book event. Like the little engine that could, you have to believe in your book, and trust your readers will find you.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Group in the News

Extra, extra, read all about it! We're featured in the Boston Globe today. What do you think?

Photo by Rose Lincoln

Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

Posted by Lynne Griffin

Next month--March 24th to be precise--I will be teaching my first writing class at Grub Street. I've been teaching at the graduate level for years, such things as techniques of counseling, group dynamics, effective teaching, curriculum design and writing for publication. But never writing to writers.

I can't wait.

In every writing class I've taken, the instructor uses the equivalent of an icebreaker, in the form of a writing exercise. While I don't mind them in class, I'm not one to use them personally to limber up my synapses or to work out my writer's block. Like sharing work in a writing class, I think their use can be risky. Beginning writers may feel intimidated. Advanced writers annoyed with what could be perceived as a time waster.

So I've decided, and I'd love your opinion on this, to start my workshop off respecting something everybody has and most people like to share. Opinions.

Each time the writers' group meets, before and after we critique pages, we discuss the subtleties of the writing process, and the complexities of the marketplace. Our individual and collective experiences are a tangle of thoughts, feelings, and actions that together shape our personal opinions.

Imagine sitting around a table, in a setting that inspires. With ground rules for respecting everyone's opinion established, and expectations that everyone who'd like to share can share, we'll challenge our thinking.

Here are just a few of the opinions I want to discuss with my students. Feel free to weigh in.

  1. Excellent writers know exactly how they work and why their process is effective.
  2. Writing nonfiction and fiction are two completely different experiences; they can't be compared.
  3. A writer limits the likelihood of success if he or she divides time between writing fiction and nonfiction.
  4. Agents don't represent writers who choose to write in a different genre once signed for another.
  5. For the writer with a multifaceted writing identity, the marketplace won't know how to market the writer.
So what do you think? For these and other questions I'll pose, there are no right or wrong answers. Only opinion--formed through the personal experiences of the students. I hope getting a discussion going on what could be perceived as controversial topics will spice up my workshop. Feel free to toss more questions my way or offer your thoughts on the ones listed above. I'll report back after I run the class. Wish me good luck.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Evolutionary Process

by Hannah Roveto

The Group met last night, Amy at one end of the table and Lynne at the other, Lisa on the opposite side of the length of the table from me (well, the phone sat on her placemat), all in our usual spots. At the close of each meeting we pick the next date, assuming it will be two weeks from that night unless someone has a commitment. As we discussed who would have pages to share, the issue of where we all are in our various projects came up, and in turn, process.

Lynne mentioned she knows now how she seems to work best on first drafts, starting without an outline and, well, she can tell you herself at some point. Despite plugging away daily on revisions, I do have my second protagonist and her cronies tapping on my shoulder, and Lynne's comments made me realize how I seem to work best, which is of course, nothing like how she works. It also made me appreciate what I've learned from Novel Number One from a craft standpoint.

You see, stories come to me in scene fragments: a character with a problem, those immediately around him or her. I see other moments, not necessarily in order. Maybe tension rising again toward the end, or a battle of wits between two people trying hard not to fall in love. A first line of a chapter a third of the way through. In the past, I didn't know what to do with these bits, how to wrangle them into something workable, effectively, relatively efficiently. I drew out one, then another, tried to envision them in some order, write between them. Trust me, not a good idea. Some sections worked. Some, well, to be polite, did not. My process made me crazy.

By learning about fiction writing through Novel One, how it all needs to hang together, about form and structure and purpose, I can see how to work within my process.

In spare moments, I have begun putting the flashes of Novel Two on paper in one place, rather than on stickies and in small notebooks that scatter the house and my bag. Finishing Novel One is the priority, so I put away the notebook quickly, but when Novel One heads to Agent City, I am ready with questions:

*Who exactly are my characters, major and minor? The characters who seem minor at first may turn out to hold the most important clues, so everyone who shows up on the doorstep has to be recognized. I don't fill out those long questionnaires on each character, but I do start a page in a binder for each one and jot down the details that come to me. Appearance, challenge, personality, age, needs, and this gem from a great teacher: what the character thinks of the others who've shown up, as well.

*What are the plot threads that I can see in those moments, again, major and minor? What does the main character need to do, to learn, to experience? How does that affect the others, and in turn, what are their issues and journeys, respectively?out and I will pull out:

*Setting. Where do these little vignettes take place? Are they in the big city, a seaside village, a small town on the Plains? Why do I see them there, how does the setting influence them?

*Finally, what seems to be the overall premise? Why does this story need to be told and then, point of view, who is the character(s) most suited to tell it?

Even with only a few pages of notes gathered in the next couple of months, I can draw out enough from each vignette to create something more comprehensive. From there, even with an outline of a few rough strokes or even none at all at least at first, I can dive into that new world waiting to be created with confidence.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Say Cheese!

By Amy MacKinnon

The day started at 5:00 am when I met my dearest friend at Boston's South Station and we took the Acela to New York. We chatted the entire trip, making the four hours pass in a blur. We arrived to a deluge of rain and thousands of other writers converging on the city to attend AWP. But we weren't there for a conference. No, finally, finally, after several wayward attempts, I had hopefully found the photographer who would take my author portrait.

In defense of the other three photographers who tried to capture a suitable image for my jacket, I haven't the face for pictures. There are no neat lines and lovely angles for the light to hug. No interesting crags or scars. It's a fine face, but it's not what anyone has ever referred to as photogenic. When my husband and children viewed each of the earlier attempts, they either laughed aloud or shook their heads and walked away in silence. Again, it was the face, not the photographers. Still, I had high hopes that the fourth photographer I contacted would solve my problem.

From the first time we spoke, the photog assumed command of the situation and I was happy to cede it. She told me what clothes to bring (nearly an entire wardrobe), the colors and designs. She instructed me to have my split ends trimmed and nails manicured. When I told her I had put on a little weight sitting here at my desk, she suggested I eat only lettuce and water until the day of the shoot. I laughed, she did not. I instantly adored her.

My friend and I arrived at the photographer's loft on time (I despise tardiness in anyone, especially myself, and I suspected the photographer would not suffer such foolishness gladly). She instantly dug into my clothes and jewelry, quickly rifling through my plain tops and chunky necklaces. Clearly, it was mostly wrong; I think I may have disappointed her. My friend, a petite thing, offered some of her blouses and jewelry, but her style is eclectic, i.e. effortlessly hip on her, desperate on me. The photographer decided a basic black turtleneck would be best.

Next, she introduced me to her preferred make-up artist, Pamela Jenrette. Ever meet someone and instantly fall into easy conversation? She sat me in her chair, plugged in her curlers, and chatted while she applied my make-up. *!So much fun!* At the end of it, I actually felt pretty. I highly recommend her services. She's good.

Lights, camera, action, and the next four hours flew by while my friend waited (quietly!) in the wings. The photog is a perfectionist and I was more than willing to do exactly as she said. Hold the pose for five minutes while she judged the Polaroid? No problem. Contort my body into an unnatural pose until my back spasmed? Happily. Withstand a barrage of flashes that eventually ignited a migraine? Yes, yes, yes! I trusted her artistry completely.

I was right to do so. For the second time, there exists an image of me I like (the first is of me two weeks overdue with my third child while my other two play nearby; I was ginormous!). It's the one my friend would have picked too. Personally, I think Sigrid Estrada is a genius.

Monday, February 25, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

Recently here, at the Writer’s Group Blog, we added something new: The Author Spotlight. As a YA writer, the authors I’m most interested in talking to are, you guessed it, those talented adults who magically transcend to the world of the teenager. Remember that time of your life? I know, you’re lucky you survived.

Before I post my first interview, I thought I’d share my dream list of writers I’d like to speak to. I’ve listed some of them below and stated the one question that, to me, is the most fascinating, 0r baffling, or inspiring one that each person could answer.

Sarah Dessen, author of Dreamland, Just Listen, Lockand Key, Keeping the Moon

What responsibility do YA authors have a when writing edgy fiction?

Lois Lowry, author of The Giver, Number the Stars, Messenger, Gathering Blue

How do you keep current with teenagers (and you do so well) when the world is constantly changing?

Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight books

How, Stephanie, did you write Twilight in three months? It’s inspirational, motivating, but how is it done?

David Almond, author of Heaven Eyes, Skellig, Kit’s Wilderness

You write such brilliant magical realism; it’s not fantasy, but it’s a world away from the everyday, how do you straddle that line and make the unbelievable, believable?

Jay Asher, author of Thirteen Reasons Why

What were your moral concerns in writing a novel about teen suicide?

And, I interviewed Jay already. He was so generous with his time, his guidance. The structure of his novel is brilliant; a teenage boy receives tapes in the mail, sent to him by Hannah, who committed suicide weeks earlier. The book plays out in the course of one night, when he listens to the 13 sides of the tapes and learns what caused her to make the choice she did.

Jay was a delight to speak with. I am excited to post that interview next week.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Pubbed!

Photo: Mikey Moto

We here at the Writers' Group couldn't be more pleased for our fellow bloggers on the occasion of their long-awaited books finally being published. We've read along as they got their book deals, covers, pub days, revamped covers, revamped pub days, and first fan mail. Congratulations to Therese Fowler, Eileen Cook, and Carleen Brice. You did it!

Lisa Marnell
Checking out far-reaching bookstores is always exciting! I did a back flip when I found Lynne's title, Negotiation Generation here in California last September. My mom in Montreal called that same week to say it was in her local bookstore, too. Congrats Eileen, Therese, and Carleen. I'll be spreading the word far and wide!

Amy MacKinnon
I've visited every bookstore within a sensible radius of my home to make sure they're carrying the above titles. When they don't -- *gasp* -- I ask if they'll order a couple. They're happy to comply. How exciting is it to see the fruition of another's dream? I'm so happy for each of you and I wish the same for all those working their way toward the same goal. I've said it before and hear me now: to paraphrase Amanda Eyre Ward, "...all those who persevere will get published..." Truer words were never spoken.

Hannah Roveto
Here's to local bookstores, too, when it comes to new titles. I do order from Amazon now and then, and have done so sometimes in the hopes those purchases get noticed by publishers, but it's the local, independent bookstore that (a) gets that book right away if they don't have it already, of course, and (b) takes special notice when someone local asks for a title. Congratulations to Therese, Eileen and Carleen!

Lynne Griffin
When we first met each of these authors via our blog community, we were thrilled to learn of their upcoming debuts. Over the year or so, we've been generously given an inside view on the process. Thank you to each of you! Now at this exciting time, we're sure to hear more about their dreams come true. Congratulations, Carleen, Eileen and Therese. I'm so happy for all of you. And by the way, you all have books that really capture the eye. They really stand out, especially on those bookstore front tables.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Epigraphs and Other Front Matters

Posted by Lynne Griffin

A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day. --Emily Dickinson

Last week Amy wrote eloquently about the joy of writing the dedication and acknowledgment pages of her book. Lisa started this week off with a poem by Emily Dickinson, which got me thinking about epigraphs. Those snippets of famous quotes or poems often found at the beginning of a book and sometimes the beginning of each chapter.

Most know the intent of an epigraph is to in some way summarize or link a theme from one work to another. Sometimes they're used as a counter example, and sometimes simply to set the tone of the work. A personal preference among writers, some use them, some don't.

As a reader, I love finding them in books and trying to make the connection. As a writer, I love searching for just the right one to fit the theme of my writing. In fact, the working title for Life Without Summer came from an epigraph. I so loved this seed for my novel, that though I abandoned my first title for the book, I worked the phrase into my novel at a pivotal scene.

Just as it is critical to get constructive feedback on your writing, I think it's important to get feedback on your choice of epigraph. It won't serve your purpose of drawing the reader in, if no one gets even a hint of a possible connection. Getting feedback can also help you avoid a common pitfall, one I fell into with my first epigraph for Summer. Some quotes are overused, and you need someone brave enough to tell you so. My editor, though she liked my original choice, thought it had been used a lot, and she advised me to branch out to find something that better captured the redemptive tone of my novel.

Another downside to the use of epigraphs is that they can come off as pretentious. Alyssa McDonald of The Blog Books wrote a great post on this. She said, A good epigraph doesn't need to be learned or literary in itself, it just has to add something.

And keep in mind there is a time and a place for epigraphs. Miss Snark wrote in her much beloved blog, that epigraphs are a total pain in her asterisk. Her advice, and mine, is to keep them out of your query letter and sample pages. You can add them to the final manuscript, when the time comes.

So in the spirit of sharing poems this week at The Writers' Group, I'll share my epigraph for Life Without Summer. I hope it draws you in, making you want see inside the world I've created. To me it captures a tangle of emotions, as night casts a shadow on a glorious day.

O summer day beside the joyous sea!
O summer day so wonderful and white,
So full of gladness and so full of pain!
Forever and forever shalt thou be
To some the gravestone of a dead delight,
To some the landmark of a new domain.

From A Summer Day by the Sea

--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Laughing At The Funeral

by Hannah Roveto

Inappropriate in real life, sure, but in writing it can make sense. Yes? Or maybe not.

Humor is frustrating. Being funny is a matter of what? Timing, situation, conflict, character, all of that, sure. Gulp. Still, putting what I thought I knew of humor into practice has been quite the learning experience.

In my revision, no matter how confident I was as it flowed from my fingers, building on a neat stack of pages outlining each chapter, there was some hurdle I needed to leap that I couldn't quite put my finger on. It all came clear when I had to deal with the funeral.

In previous drafts, I avoided a funeral by making the timeline such that my protagonist went off to claim an inheritance post-death. The Group, however, noted this particular young man would not have missed the funeral of this particular beloved, aged relative. Can't do that. No how, no way.

Sigh. I had writerly reasons for avoiding the funeral and the reception afterward. Too many family members, more Scenes Where Everyone Eats, too many threads to weave just so without getting caught up in a knot. Oh, right, and I wanted to make people laugh, without being predictable. The biggest writerly reason? Deep down, I probably thought I couldn't do it.

In retrospect, the funeral scared me the most because it scared my character the most. He was easy to make amusing when he was full of bravado. How could I keep it rolling and still make him genuinely sympathetic and still funny in the depths of grief? I wanted to do it right, keep him real and not a caricature; I wanted suprise. It was a bit overwhelming.

Having narrowed my threads in this revision, focusing and strengthening each across the story, I was feeling fairly confident. Still, even with a clear story outline and details in mind as I sat down to write that particular scene, the results were not as I imagined.

I assumed the character might laugh during the funeral, yet when the moment came, he didn't do that at all. He was angry, sad, indignant at how the funeral was unfolding, and in the gap between the poor guy and what is going on around him, I found where the humor lay. Suddenly, in turn, the reception also became manageable. The rest of the world disappears as my character learns something that makes him fully understand what he is up against in his quest. The hordes vanish, the food disappears, the plot moves forward. Best of all, I "got" it, not just on a philosophical level, but in the mechanics of it.

The lessons I've learned? A trio of useful bits: First, the challenge you avoid is the one you most need to tackle. Two, credit to the Group, throw everything at your character. Easier to pull back in a future revision than to find out you needed to throw more at him or her in the first place. (And refer to lesson one when you do this!) Three, on a side note, you can write scenes with food without stuffing your readers. I promise.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Author Spotlight Series: Pauline Chen

By Amy MacKinnon

I first learned of Dr. Pauline Chen and her book Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality (Knopf, 2007) a couple of months before her book was actually published. I was in my local independent bookstore when the owner told me of a publisher-hosted luncheon she had recently attended. It was held in honor of a brilliant new voice in literature and her debut about the medical profession's attitudes toward death. Of course it was Pauline Chen. The owner, a grand dame in bookselling circles, predicted Dr. Chen's book would be a magnificent success -- if I recall correctly, she herself read it in one night. I took a bit longer, but like the New York Times, Final Exam is one of favorite picks from 2007. In honor of good books and the paperback release, may I present author Pauline Chen...

Amy MacKinnon: A lot of writers complain that they don’t have enough time to actually write. One of my favorite stories is that of National Book Award recipient Julia Glass who completed Three Junes in bursts of fifteen minutes stolen here and there from her job and family. But you’re a surgeon, mother of twins, and active in the greater world, you must be more present than most of us. How do you create the time?

Pauline Chen: I’m flattered by your comments, but I know of many people with bigger daily challenges than mine who manage to get everything done. They are amazing!

In terms of writing, I think Julia Glass is right on target. Soon after my twin daughters were born, I read an article in The Atlantic Monthly about Alice Munro. The article discussed how Munro had written during her children’s naps. After reading that piece, I realized that I had to take advantage of every chance I had, even if that chance was fifteen minutes.

That was generally how I worked – writing in small spurts -- until the last couple of years when my relationship with writing itself changed. I used to think of myself as someone just trying to write, someone for whom writing was a hobby. Thus, writing was an “extra piece” I needed to fit into my day. But the more I began to think of myself as a writer, the more writing became an inherent part of my life. I now cannot imagine not writing; it would be like not brushing my teeth or turning away from my family.

I sometimes think of the advice I used to give new surgical interns. I would tell them to list the most important things in their life. Then, I would have them cross out everything except for the top two or three items because that would be all they would have time for during internship. While my present life is not like an intern’s or even a resident’s, I still do a lot of juggling every day. But writing is not the “extra piece” at the bottom of the list. It’s right up there near the top.

AM: Many writers say they knew they always wanted to write. Given how beautifully crafted Final Exam is, I imagine the same is true of you. Did you always write? At what point in your life did you do it with the intention of getting published?

PC: I’ve always been drawn to writing and to stories. Many of my childhood memories revolve around stories, stories that my father, a gifted storyteller, told my siblings and me.

But publishing always seemed impossible when I was growing up. My parents were immigrants and English was very much a third and fourth language for them. Writing in English, even simple thank you notes, was a terrible struggle, so publishing was as far from their reality (and their reality for their children) as you could possibly imagine.

During high school and college, a few of my writing teachers suggested I try to publish, but I still couldn’t imagine it. And then during medical school and residency training, I rarely wrote. I was too busy trying to catch up on lost sleep and meals.

After I finished my surgical training, I found myself drawn again to writing and took a couple of writing courses. One of my teachers encouraged me to continue writing about my experiences in medicine, perhaps put together a book. I remember the first time I mentioned this to my father. “Are you nuts?” he said to me. “Every English major in the country wants to write a book! To publish you need more than perfect English — you need the best English. How could you possibly think that you could write a book that might be published? That might matter to people?”
It was a devastating conversation. But in a funny way, it was also inspiring. I now had something to prove.

These days, my father is my biggest fan. He eats up every review of my writing; and if there’s a hint of criticism, he’ll first fret -- they are like daggers to his heart – then will rail against the critic. My father calls me up in advance to remind me not to be late to my own events, and my hardcover publicist even gave my father the ultimate Stage Dad compliment – that his work on behalf of Final Exam was so good he could consider himself an official Knopf publicist. My father reminds me of that one often.

AM: Being a surgeon, you must have a dimension to your personality that's fairly analytical. I saw you at a workshop last year given by Michael Lowenthal and, even though your book was already published, you were listening as attentively as the rest. Have you taken many writing classes? What’s your approach to craft?

PC: I tend to believe that people who start their professional lives doing things other than writing – doctoring, parenting, teaching, you name it -- actually have an advantage when it comes to becoming writers. They have the benefit of experience and the confidence that comes with having already successfully become whatever those other jobs required them to be. They can apply those experiences – learning to become a doctor, parent, teacher, etc -- to the process of becoming a writer. In terms of writing, I still feel like I have so much to learn about the craft. But the approach I use is pretty much the same one I used as an undergraduate interested in academic research and as a resident interested in surgery.

As an undergraduate, I was lucky enough to have a mentor who was devoted to the intellectual development of his students. Early on, he told me that before I began any paper or project, I needed to read everything I could get my hands on for that particular topic. “Reading up on the literature” would not only give me a solid grounding but would also help me to push the field forward in some way and create new work. That advice is invaluable for writing. I think that writers have a responsibility to know what has come before them and to push their genre forward.

In my surgical training, I learned that only with frequent practice could one liberate the art. As a medical student and surgical resident, you learn to operate by first learning to tie knots and wash your hands. You keep tying knots and washing your hands until you can throw those sutures and scrub up in your sleep. After that, you begin to cut. And then you start operating. And you practice and practice and practice until one day you find that operating is the most natural of actions. When that operating becomes natural, you discover something. You suddenly go from being wholly focused on every one of your actions -- how to hold the knife, how to hold the needle driver, where to place the stitch -- to thinking about the larger picture -- how the operation as a whole is preceding, how the patient is or will tolerate certain maneuvers, how even to coordinate the relative strengths and weaknesses of your current operating team such that the operation proceeds most smoothly. You see certain shortcuts, refine ways of moving, cutting, suturing, all of which make your operating look more like a well choreographed ballet than a step-by-step technical procedure. What you have done, after practicing technique over and over again, is you have liberated the art. I guess then that my approach boils down to those two lessons: read as much and as widely as possible and practice the craft constantly.

Classes and seminars did have a very important role in my development as a writer. I don’t think I would have ever started pursuing writing seriously if I hadn’t taken writing courses. And I still find places like Grub Street to be terrific sources of inspiration.

AM: Tell us about your road to publication: how you came upon your agent, how long before she submitted your manuscript and it sold to Knopf.

PC: In finding my agent, I did pretty much what all the books and magazines advise you to do: I sent queries to agents who represented work similar to mine. One of them wrote back and said that although she liked my work, she worried about a conflict of interest with her current client. She then suggested I pass my work along to one of her colleagues at the agency. That colleague is now my agent.

For the first month, my agent helped me fine-tune my proposal. We went through at least five drafts; the introduction was the hardest part to get right. When the proposal was finally in its best possible form, my agent sent it to about a dozen editors at different publishing houses. I think we heard back from Knopf a couple of days later.

I feel pretty lucky because I have a wonderful relationship with my agent, my editor at Knopf, and my editor at Vintage (Knopf did the hardcover; Vintage the paperback).

AM: Since this is the Writers’ Group, we’d like to know if you have a writers’ group or trusted readers.

PC: Writing is such a lonely pursuit, so I think writers’ groups are really wonderful. When I first moved to this area, I joined a local writers' group. Being with people who were struggling in similar ways and who wanted nothing more than to do good work provided me with great inspiration. Unfortunately, I had to drop out after about a year because of time constraints. But I still consider several of them to be close friends.

I do have a few trusted readers and feel pretty lucky to be able to get their advice. I think their sensibilities in my particular genre are exquisite, and I really appreciate the fact that they are absolutely honest with me.

But one thing I have learned over the last few years is that there are also bad times to share your work. A promising piece can be crushed if you share it too early on or to too many people. There’s an art to knowing when to solicit comments, even from your most trusted readers.

AM: There’s a passage in Final Exam where you reflect eloquently on Dr. Hacib Aoun’s advice on treating patients. You write, “I want to cry for those in whose bellies I find disseminated tumors, but cannot for fear of being unable to see clearly enough to sew them closed.” I hope I don’t sound insensitive, but it felt a bit like a metaphor for writing. When we see what’s wrong with our manuscript, something we feel passionately about, we must maintain some distance so as to treat it appropriately. Were you able to be as sanguine about your writing when the time came?

PC: I think when my husband watches me revise, he thinks a lot about Faulkner’s line about killing your “darlings.” I’ve heard him tell friends that he cannot understand how his beloved wife could be so detached about her own work. I suppose it’s understandable that he of all people would find this troubling to a certain degree, but I think it has more to do with my medical background than any inherent ruthlessness.

I do feel a sense of disappointment when a favorite phrase or paragraph seems out of place in an essay, but I also feel a kind of wonderful freedom that I can never have in medicine. If you make a mistake in your writing or cut something out of an essay, nobody gets hurt or suffers. For a surgeon, it is absolutely thrilling to be able to cut with such abandon, without any kind of life-or-death repercussions. The only casualty in this type of cutting is my particular attachment to a phrase or sentence or paragraph. And that’s pretty minor in the scheme of things.

Plus with computers there’s that wonderful “Cut and Paste” function where one can save everything that has been deleted. In medicine, we don’t always get those kinds of second chances. Do you know how many files I have squirreled away of “ruthlessly” deleted sentences and paragraphs that I’m actually hoping to use one day?

AM: What has been your most touching experience from sharing Final Exam with the world?

PC: I think what has touched me the most from sharing FINAL EXAM has been the courage of other people. People at readings, lectures, or in letters have shared some of their experiences of loss. Doctors and other health care professionals have told me stories about patients they cared for 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. All of these stories are not the kind that people usually share with one another or even acknowledge in public. I am profoundly honored and touched to be witness to this kind of sharing of stories.

AM: Care to share what you’re working on now?

PC: I’m working on a new book, some new essays, and a talk. I’m also getting back into clinical work again. And of course, I’m trying to be as present as I can for my family.

AM: What three bits of advice would you most like to share with other writers?

PC: Read a lot. Write a lot. And believe that you have a story worth telling. It all seems pretty straightforward, but I think accomplishing these three things well is very difficult. I think that last one in particular is the biggest hurdle for anyone who is starting to write. One of my UCLA writing teachers put it best. “Every one of us has a unique journey,” he said to me a year ago when I visited him in Los Angeles. “These journeys may not be the stuff of mainstream interest or even of commercial interests, but each is interesting, important, and relevant. And all of our journeys, no matter what they are, deserve a voice.”

AM: Final thoughts?

PC: I love your blog!

AM: And we love your book. Thanks so much for stopping by the Writers' Group. Readers, any questions for Dr. Chen?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Success is Counted Sweetest

Posted by Lisa Marnell

A poem by Emily Dickinson

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of the purple host
Who took the flag to-day
Can tell the defintion,
So clear, of victory,

As he, defeated, dying,
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Break, agonized and clear.

This is a poem I loved in grade eight. I've been unpacking boxes. I found my grade eight english text -- I saved it all these years. I loved that class, as I loved all my English classes through high school.

This poem was one of my favorites. It resonated with me. How often do we long for something, wish things were different, in writing, but certainly in life, too? Does winning feel as good as losing feels bad?

Huh? Okay, so I'm not Emily Dickinson - big surprise there.

I suppose my point - thank goodness I do have a point - is I wonder if the heartache of longing for something, in writing, in life, is greater than the joy of attaining that something. Like many of you, my status as an author is still a work in progress. My status in many areas of my life is ongoing - like my role as a human in a world filled with suffering.

There's so much we - I? - take for granted: walking for starters, reading, writing, stepping outside on a beautiful day. When we don't have something, we long for it. When we have it, do we just want more? Sometimes. I suppose that's human nature, but it seems so foolish. It's a waste of time and energy and breath to want and want. Isn't it?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Grub Street South@Buttonwood Books: Pauline Chen

Hope to see you at Buttonwood Books at Shaw's Plaza in Cohasset, MA. And check back on Tuesday for my interview with Dr. Chen. Ever wonder how a surgeon, mother of twins, and clinician manages to create the time to write? Check back on Tuesday...

Monday, February 18, 7 PM
Teacher: Dr. Pauline W. Chen
Topic: Mining Your Past: Windows onto Vanished Worlds.
Class Description
“To describe her workshop, Dr. Chen opens with a quote by the Pulitzer Prize winner, Louis Menand:
“Writing is a window. It opens onto vanished feelings and vanished worlds.”

Chen continues:

“While our own vanished worlds can be attics full of rich inspiration, accessing those memories and spinning them into narratives can be complicated. Through discussion and writing exercises, we will begin to explore ways to mine our past, to develop ideas, and to tackle the inherent difficulties of doing so.”

Dr. Pauline W. Chen is the author of Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality. It is a collection of thoughtful essays reflecting on modern medicine and its relationship to death and dying. Please join us for an inspiring evening.

PAULINE W. CHEN attended Harvard University and the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and completed her surgical training at Yale University, the National Cancer Institute (National Institutes of Health), and UCLA, where she was most recently a member of the faculty. In 1999, she was named the UCLA Outstanding Physician of the Year. Chen grew up in Cambridge, MA and currently lives near Boston with her husband and children.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: A Look Inside

Yesterday, Lynne posted an interview with Chris Bohjalian, a fascinating look inside a talented writer's literary life. Chris writes at the same time each day, and dedicates time every afternoon to publicity of his work. What writing routines and rituals serve your writing, and which don't? Making a literary life involves a bit of trial and error when it comes to learning the parts of your process that serve the story and those that do not. Here's a glimpse inside our writing routines. Feel free to share yours.

Lisa Marnell
An hour or more in the early morning or a couple hours in late evening seem to be the only time the Muse feels welcome in my home -- Come anytime! Mi Casa es su casa. So every morning, my first task is to turn on my laptop and write. I rarely write during the day, if ever; that's time for the rest of my life: work at my school for children with autism, my own kids, errands, exercise, sports -- did I mention my hockey team's in fourth place out of four teams? I need space from writing for it to be remotely good. It's like water building above a dam: I fight the urge then at night I release the gates, for better or for worse.

Amy MacKinnon
Writing process? My background is in politics and like that old chestnut about sausages, you don't want to see how it's done. It can get pretty ugly around here. After months of getting to know my protagonist (they usually talk while I'm cleaning, showering, they chatter a lot during shivasina), then I sit at my computer and begin to tell their story. The problem is they tell me where it all started, how it ended, but are a little reticent about the time inbetween. That's when I pull out my hair and chomp on wasabi peas to fight the stress. Sometimes I'm up before dawn to write, other times I have to vaccuum before settling into writing. There are periods where I write every day and others where I can't get the words out for days on end. Basically, I haven't a routine and that scares the hell out of me.

Hannah Roveto
My bottom-line commitment to myself is at least five days per week, for at least two hours, but I can sometimes get in as many as six. I get the daily personal/family/work check-in routines finished by eight-thirty or nine, and try to do as much as I can in the morning. The number of hours depends on my Paying Job, which is generally writing as well, but a different animal than fiction. When things are busy, I carve out two hours -- first thing, lunchtime, late afternoon if the kids don't need taxi service -- whatever I can make work. My lovely bosses always apologize when things are slow, and I always assure them it's not a problem in the least! I create additional time beyond the weekday routine as I can, at the least to read through what I've done and make notes. The more time, the more ideal of course, but a minimum commitment even on busy stretches means a steady push forward.

Lynne Griffin
I work on my novel four or five days per week for six or seven hours at a time. Early morning is my most productive time and I sit with my laptop near a window. I keep a journal for each novel, it's filled with thoughts that come to me in between writing times, character sketches and occasionally a chapter outline. When I'm writing a first draft, I think about my story constantly. And at the end of each writing day, my husband reads my pages. While he doesn't provide much feedback at this early stage, he enjoys the first glimpse into the story.

I want to take this opportunity to thank Chris Bohjalian for agreeing to the interview posted yesterday and for sharing so generously his literary life. We all wish Chris the best of luck with his latest releases.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Author Spotlight: Chris Bohjalian

Posted by Lynne Griffin

When I contacted Chris Bohjalian to ask if he would be part of our Author Spotlight series, I admit I expected the New York Times bestselling and greatly revered author of the books, Midwives, Buffalo Soldier, The Double Bind and the soon-to-be released Skeletons at the Feast, to be too busy to respond, never mind accept the invitation to be interviewed. His first response to me was “Call me Chris, Mr. Bohjalian is too formal.” Even our courteous email exchange, couldn’t have prepared me for the generous and gracious interview that was to follow. Chris Bohjalian is a marvelous example of a talented, successful writer and he's an extremely charitable man.

Lynne Griffin: Can you give our readers a glimpse inside your literary life?
Chris Bohjalian: I always knew that I wanted to be a novelist. I’ve been a writer since I was six years old. My dad still has my early pages tucked away and at times threatens to bring them out and show the world.

My day job, until age thirty, was in advertising. I’d get up at five and write until seven. And I wrote Tuesday and Thursday evenings and on Saturdays. I think that’s why I still get up and begin writing at five. It’s my most productive time of day.

Now I write between 5 and 10 AM. From 1 to 2, I work on publicity. Writers today must spend a good deal of time marketing their books. There’s always one more email, or book group to connect with, always one more reader. Or interview. (He laughs)

Connecting to readers is deeply satisfying. We all know that today the novel is beleaguered. Years ago, Evelyn Waugh and Eudora Welty didn’t worry about marketing their work. With all the choices people have for ways to spend their time, I’m happy to connect with them when they choose to read my work.

Back to my typical day; after I do some marketing, I ride my bike or workout, and then it’s time to care for my daughter.

LG: How have you managed to maintain your determination to live a writer’s life?
CB: An aspiring author needs a thick skin. I’d amassed two hundred and fifty rejection slips, before I sold a novel. You must write because you love it.

I’ve been writing full time for 16 years. I still begin work at 5 am. And I still must be excited by what I’m working on. If I don’t love it, my readers won’t love it.

My papers are archived at Amherst College. There are over 750 pages or parts of 4 novels cataloged there. These novels weren’t working. And if a novel isn’t working—and it shouldn’t happen—the writer must let it go. This is partly being a good writer and partly being a good entrepreneur.

When an idea simply isn’t working, it’s time to move on. I have two completely finished novels that will never ever be published. They represent a detour worth going after, but not worthy of being published. I don’t want to let my readers down. These novels would diminish what my readers think of me.

LG: What’s harder for you—first draft or revision?
CB: Gabriel Garcia Marquez says the only reason writers publish is to stop writing. I edit right up to the last minute. I finish when I’m asked to please be finished. And still I always find something about the published book that I would change.

I start writing each novel with great hope. There are joys in the first draft, it’s a journey of discovery. I love it when characters take me by the hand and lead me into the dark of the story. Sometimes I know where a scene is going, but not what the character will say and do, you know, the cause and effect of it. Revision is the craft work. Though there is a certain amount of artistry there.

LG: How long does it take you to write a first draft?
CB: First drafts take me about 9-14 months. Once I have a first draft, then I can start making decisions. My shortest drafts were for Midwives, The Double Bind and Skeletons at the Feast. Before You Know Kindness and Buffalo Soldiers took much longer.

I keep a diary of words written each day. I do this for encouragement purposes. But for time management, as well. This way, when I’m going on book tour or doing a lot of book groups, I can gage where I’ll be in the process of writing and submitting a novel.

LG: What’s most important to you in your agent relationship?
CB: What I love about my agent is that she gets my work. She doesn’t counsel me to be something I’m not. A good agent is not simply smart or simply well connected. He or she appreciates what you do, and doesn’t want to mold you into something more marketable.

LG: Does the self-doubt ever go away?
CB: I’m always assailed by doubt. But my wife is usually the one to remind me that I doubt myself at some point with every book. She reminds me to have faith in the fact that I’ve done it before.

LG: What’s the best place to put your publicity efforts?
CB: My instinct is that there isn’t one place. I’m grateful beyond words when bookstores get behind my work. Interviews, connecting to readers, participating in book groups, they’re all important. I keep coming back to booksellers and stores, though. Hand selling a book is critical.

LG: Do you have early readers? Have you ever worked with a writers’ group?
CB: I’ve never been part of a writers’ group. I was fortunate to have a really good editor, early in my career, Mike Lowenthal. For the past thirteen years, my current editor has given me wonderful feedback. And my wife, Victoria Blewer, is a spectacular early reader.

LG: Which of your books is your favorite?
CB: My favorite book by far is Skeletons at the Feast. It’s a book that’s been gestating since high school. And then came back to me years ago, when I was first shown a beautiful diary from the period. For me it was writing about a new setting, and it’s the first book I’ve written, not set in the present. All of that was challenging and wonderful for me. It’s a very dark story, wrenching really, but still it was extremely satisfying to write.

LG: You maintain a terrific website, write a column for the Burlington Free Press and have books hitting the shelves 1-3 years apart. How do you do it?
CB: I’m a bit right brain, a bit left brain. If you’re going to be connected to readers in 21st century, you’ve got to have enormous passion, commitment, and organization. You need a rapier focus on text.

Joyce Carol Oates came to the Burlington Book Festival last year. She said she used to write on a computer then went back to her typewriter because she found the Internet too distracting.
It’s easy to get sidetracked by it, and email. That’s why I dedicate separate writing time and time for publicity.

LG: Some writers carry off one great book, maybe two. What is your secret to hitting the mark time and time again?
CB: Some of my books have done better than others both from an acclaim vantage point and among readers. It seems that those that have done the best are the ones where I was willing to go into the belly of the beast for the story. And I do work hard on editing my drafts. I’m into quality control; I do sweat the commas. And finally, I take risks with my work. Twenty-first century readers love drama. I respect my readers.

Please join me in thanking Chris for sharing his writing life with us. And check out his calender of events, as he tours for the paperback release of The Double Bind. Skeletons at the Feast, due out in May, is available for pre-order.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cosmic Connections

by Hannah Roveto

The two things every writer must do are read and write. We all know this. When people ask me what I am reading, I always answer with fiction titles. Of late my two answers of "best of the recent reads" are Mark Haddon's Spot of Bother and now Roland Merullo's Breakfast With Buddha, a fabulous book that makes you think, introduces you to Eastern concepts in a Western way, with humor.

Yet we all, I know, read multiple books for multiple reasons. Three other books on my coffee table have been non-fiction: a work-related selection, Marketing to the Social Web, by my former boss, Larry Weber; a parental choice dealing with educational issues; and How to Practice, by the Dalai Lama, chosen because he seems so calm and I get to feeling so chaotic. Hey, why not, right?

Bit by bit, I'd pick each up and read a section, and the strangest thing happened. In my book about digital marketing -- which does apply to promoting authors and books, by the way -- Larry shows how to look at marketing from a new perspective in order to maximize connections. The educational book talks about, yes, the need to understand things from a different viewpoint in order to create strategies to streamline and connect. The Dalai Lama? He wants to show me how happiness comes from clearing the mind, from simplifying, in order to become properly connected. Look at things differently, simplify, connect.

A cosmic connection, without doubt. None of these books had anything to do with writing, yet they absolutely affected my revision process. I really needed someone to remind me not only to turn my own world on end, to examine it more carefully, but to turn my WIP on end and see it more deeply from fresh vantages. Another issue I had was allowing myself to get bogged down with multiple threads. I was a bit afraid of them, worrying whether they would unneccesarily complicate my story. As a result, I was dealing with bulky, chunky, nubby yarn threads, like those you'd weave into a loose homemade scarf. Now I've taken control and streamlined my threads into a smoother ribbon form, that -- no surprise -- weave together more tightly and more effectively.

So, yes, read, read, read, about anything and everything. Flowers, the news (of course!), plumbing, Buddhism, digital marketing, parenting, deck repair, whatever. Read for every part of your life, because somehow, I swear, it all comes back to the writing -- not just as a topic, but sometimes as a tactic -- in the end.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


By Amy MacKinnon

(I spoke too soon. The "good news" I intended to share with you today will have to wait just a bit longer. But as soon as I can open the circle, you'll be the first to know.)

Writing is often described as a solitary life and it's true. We sit alone for hours at a time, living in worlds only we know, separating ourselves from our true lives that are inhabited by real people (though it's difficult to believe our characters don't truly exist and you'll never convince me they don't). We must be alone.

But writing a book is not a completely solitary venture. If you're fortunate, you have a writers' group like mine with whom you can share your worlds. Then there are the people who've helped you along the way, either knowingly or not. Count them up and you may be surprised by the number of hands who've pulled you along.

When you needed to know what type of police-issued firearm your local officer carries you made the trip to the department and someone welcomed you, gave you a tour of the station and an ear-full of cop talk. How it informed your dialogue and the details of your setting. Or perhaps it was a hospital, school, rehab center, or in my case, funeral parlor. Someone gave you the gift of expertise and even more valuable, their time.

There are those who may never know how they've influenced your writing either through their own, in an interview, or both. For me, Terry Gross and Jonathan Franzen, Julia Glass and Amanda Eyre Ward, Alice Sebold and Stephen King, Karen Fisher and Michael Lowenthal, Arthur Golden, Scott Heim, Betsy Lerner, Charles Frazier, and Carolyn See. I turned to them again and again to guide me.

Who was the first person to believe in your writing? For me, it was an English teacher my junior year of high school. Roberta Erickson was elegantly beautiful and shared my passion for words. I so looked forward to her classes. Deconstructing Shakespeare and complex sentences were a joy. She encouraged me, took me aside to tell me I could write. She planted a seed that year, though it took years to grow. Later, three more people believed full-on I would one day publish a book: my children. Their support never faltered. Not once. Then along came the women of my writers' group and I had yet more unconditional support.

There were editors, too. I was a stay-at-home mom with absolutely no writing experience when I solicited my first newspaper assignment. I'll never know what made the editor take a chance on me, but if she hadn't I doubt I would ever have pursued a book. Another editor gave me the chance to do a monthly column and another a national platform on the op-ed page. They each gave me the gift of allowing me to try.

And so many, many more.

Enough family and friends, strangers and officials to overflow my office and fill my downstairs. When you consider it, writing a book isn't as solitary a venture as is so often described. Not one bit.

So what brings this all up? Last week, I wrote my acknowledgment. It's something I've long dreamed of -- you have too. Drafts were started as a diversion from the doubt of wondering if that manuscript would ever be read by anyone else. It fueled me to think there had to be some way, some small gesture I could make to repay others' faith in me. Perhaps more than any other part of the publishing process, writing the acknowledgment has been the most satisfying aspect of all.

I did leave out one person, though, and I feel terrible. I intend to check if it's too late to revise, I hope it's not. But if so, let me present it here. That someone who encouraged me soon after I revised my manuscript, who was there when I began querying, celebrated when I hooked my dream agent, who supported me through the dark days, and then shared my tears when the book finally sold is you. You.

Thank you.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Honor of SCBWI Writer's Intensive

Posted by Lisa Marnell

Last year I went to SCBWI (Society for Book Writers and Illustrators) New York City conference. This year I didn't. It was held this past weekend. Though it would have been delightful, real life got in the way as it does.

In 2007, I participated in a writer's intensive on the day before it started. It's frightening, this experience: complete strangers critique two pages of one's writing. In honor of that process, I am tossing my work out onto this blog; I swore I'd never do this. But you, blog readers, are hardly strangers. Here goes ... the start of a novel, not YA. Constructive feedback, in the spirit of our writer's group, is very welcome.

The Harmonica Lady switches street corners, but she doesn’t stop playing. In, out, in, out. White puffs of breath float away in the cold air, the same as her notes do. Her tune is the predictable rhythm of a child dragging the instrument back and forth over her lips; there’s nothing remotely musical about her playing today.

Some days there seems to be.

The woman hobbles across Prince Authur Street, not checking for cars (even she knows the street is cordoned off: pedestrians only). In front of the liquor store, she drops her harmonica a moment and mutters half in French, half in English, mixing in broken and forgotten Italian from her childhood, maybe.

It is a day for change; the Harmonica Lady has ditched the worn army blanket she wrapped tight around her shoulders since snow fell in November. A new shawl, a light blue as soft as the veins at the old woman’s temples, has taken its place. It’s either a gift from some do gooder – not me, I learned my lesson two weeks ago - or a lucky trash find.

The Harmonica Lady was actually a selling point when I considered this apartment. The second floor walkup is a renovated brownstone. Expensive? Sure. But a pied a terre in this part of Montreal? The real estate agent with her chain smoking, hard sell monologue was stuck on the word charming: Cet apartement est charmant, n’est pas? Et regarde la femme, elle est charmante.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Making a Literary Life: Good News!

Winters in New England can be dismal: darkness falls too early, bitter cold penetrates the bones, friends and neighbors huddle indoors, hidden away. And with day four of freezing drizzle predicted, well, one couldn't be blamed for feeling a little blue (unless you happen to live in southern California...)

But instead of giving in to the blues, let's focus on the good news. We'll share ours and we would be heartened to hear yours as well. After all, that pesky groundhog predicted we'd have six more weeks of this.

Lisa Marnell
Lisa is away today, probably collecting good news!

Amy MacKinnon
Lot's of good news here. Did you see the story in the Boston Globe about Patry Francis and all of you who participated in the Patry Parade? The Cape Cod Times will feature her on Monday. Better news? She's feeling well. More good news comes from blogger friend, Eileen Cook. Not only did her hilarious novel Unpredictable debut this week (congratulations, Eileen!), but she had an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor based on one of her blog posts. It was nationally syndicated and even received several letters to the editor in response! Can you stand still more good news? I mean really, really good news? I'll let you know on Tuesday.

Hannah Roveto
I'm ready for Hallie's new book to come out, especially the sections on books that will make me laugh and books that are a kick in the pants. But of course, the news that Patry is feeling better is the best news to take us into the weekend!

Lynne Griffin
A main character in my WIP has a rather unusual job, foreign war correspondent during the Vietnam War. Award winning journalist, George Esper, who covered the war through the fall of Saigon, has agreed to an interview. I can't wait to speak with him about the details of his work, they will add such richness to my novel.

Speaking of interviews, I've completed my interview with Chris Bohjalian for our Author Spotlight Series. Check back next week to read about his fascinating literary life.

People have been emailing and calling to learn the good news, but it's not that good. It's just another obstacle cleared. I'll share the really good news in the coming weeks. -- Amy

Thursday, February 07, 2008

First Draft Exhaustion

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I'm tired today.

What-I-would-give-to-stay-in-bed tired. Don't-put-another-thing-on-my-to-do-list tired.

All because of my work-in-progress.

For the most part, I find writing a first draft to be exhilarating. I like naming characters, considering the most appropriate point of view, and I love choosing story structure. Early on, like a child with a present to open, I can't wait to see inside my characters' motivations. I feel blessed to be brought along on their transformative journeys. As Chris Bohjalian says, "it's the joy of discovery draft." I love learning who my characters really are, following their lead I get to go to places I've never been, meet people I might otherwise never know. It's a literal trip.

Then somewhere in the middle of the story, they start to wear me out. Two weeks ago, I was sipping my morning coffee, not even thinking about my WIP, I had so many other things to do that day. My main character decided that was when she wanted to share her backstory with me. Her story popped into my head, and I needed to rearrange the day to write it all down. She was keeping a scandalous secret for a young girl in the 1950's, and I was afraid I might lose the details if I didn't capture them right there and then.

Last week, I lost an entire night sleep because another lead character wouldn't stop niggling at me. Like a toddler, she'd followed me wherever I went during the day. There she was when I unloaded the dishwasher, she poked me on the shoulder while I tried to answer email. Tugging at my sleeve while I drove my son home from school, even he knew she was bugging me. On the way over to pick up a friend he said, "Are you writing? You have that face on." I laughed because I've been told about that face before. Apparently it's a look I get when I'm writing, but I'm no where near my computer when I make it. My husband and children have seen, the I'm writing face quite often these last few months. My son was right, I'd been trying to figure out what my character would do when faced with her mother's deception.

So there I am, right in the heart of the story. The place where characters have the power to shock me, distract me and otherwise put me through the wringer. They could let me sleep, but they won't. They could choose to minimize what they tell me, but they can't seem to. They could slow down the pace with which they disclose their secrets, but they don't. And to tell you the truth, as exhausted as I am, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Author Spotlight: Hallie Ephron

Posted by Hannah Roveto

Some writers’ classes and conferences deliver more than others, in large part because the leaders have both a generosity and a gift for clearly and honestly communicating how to navigate those tricky next steps. Hallie Ephron is one of those who stand out for anyone who has heard her speak or taken her classes.

The author of the acclaimed Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel: How to Knock ‘Em Dead with Style (Writers Digest Books), Ephron is also a co-author of the five Dr. Peter Zak mysteries, is an award-winning book reviewer for the Boston Globe, and has two new books on the way. The first is a readers’ guide, 1001 Books for Every Mood, coming out May 13 from Adams Media. The other is a suspense story entitled Baby, Baby and is coming out in early 2009 from HarperCollins.

Hannah Roveto: As we are a writers’ group blog, let’s start there. I know you are in a group yourself. Can you tell us how many people are in it and about your process?

Hallie Ephron: We have four: Barbara Shapiro, who writes mysteries; Jan Brogan, who writes mysteries too and who’s also with me at Jungle Red (the blog of five mystery writers); Floyd Kenske, who writes fiction; and myself. We meet once a month, and anyone who has pages submits them. We say we can’t do more than 30 pages (each), but sometimes people exceed that.

HR: Did you start that group with them, or how did it evolve?

HE: They were in existence for a long time already, and I joined two years ago when they were looking to replace someone who’d left. I’d been in another group for about eight years, which I loved, but I needed a group more focused on what I do.

HR: How many times does the group read one work? You’ve mentioned that you think there’s a danger of over-reading by the same people.

HE: We usually read as it’s evolving, then when the person does a major rewrite we might read it again. Beyond that, I have other people, about a half dozen whom I read and whom I use.

HR: So how many revisions of each project might you do?
HE: Many! Upward of eight, fifteen or more.

HR: Your bio lists earlier careers as a teacher, educational consultant and marketing copywriter. In fact, you recently blogged about passing a milestone in that all your work is writing or writing-related. When did you decide to focus on writing?

HE: Twelve years ago. I was always writing, of course. I taught. I worked in high tech writing marketing copy. But it wasn’t fiction-writing, storytelling.

HR: What prompted you to make the leap?

HE: I was old enough not to care if people compared me to my sisters (laughs). I’d stopped worrying about that. It was finally okay to try and fail; it wasn’t okay to fail to try. My kids were grown, too, and I had a room. Having a dedicated place to write changes your state of mind. If you take it seriously, your family does.

HR: Tell us about your first story?

HE: It was non-fiction. A terrible tragedy happened to a friend of mine. I rewrote it as fiction, but I ended up deciding not to proceed. There were survivors. I couldn’t do it, and decided I wanted to write fiction, something totally made up and not from real pain.

Right after that, my friend Donald Davidoff and I were chatting. We had him and his wife over and I was talking about what happened to my efforts with a book. Then we were talking about books we loved, and we started talking about mysteries. He’s a neuropsychologist at McLean Hospital and evaluates people who’ve been accused of crimes and testifies in court, which was fascinating. We decided to try to collaborate.

HR: The first G.H. Ephron book the two of you did – with forensic neuropsychologist Dr. Peter Zak and investigator Annie Squires – was Amnesia, which came out in 2000, then almost one a year appeared through 1995. Do you pull ideas from the news to some degree?

HE: Our inspiration comes from everywhere. The news, a dream, an idea. A what if.

HR: How does it feel when you get reviews like those from Publishers Weekly, saying you wrote a series to watch, with sharp writing, or when someone like Patricia Cornwell says your book is “original and entertaining?”

HE: It feels great. As nice as it is, though, it still comes down to wanting to make it work (long-term). It’s hard to make money, but it feels great to be a writer. It’s boring when people complain about the business. You get to meet people, travel, and I’ve had such fun with it.

HR: I took one of your editing classes last summer. It was very practical and hands-on, probably the best class I ever took. Your book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, is the same way, an amazing resource. How did that come about?

HE: Thank you. I am a big believer in “show me, let me try it, evaluate what I did.” You don’t learn much if all you do is listen.

I taught my first writing course at the Cape Cod Writers Center. I had just published and of course, I taught before. One of the people there was from Writer’s Digest. We hit it off and she sat in on my class; she was the one who said I should write a book. It just landed in my lap, which proves you never know what things you do will lead to interesting opportunities.

I’m a teacher. I enjoy it. I wanted to write a book that showed the thinking, that explained things but didn’t undersell the complexity. It takes it step by step: your ideas, before you write, how to start writing, how to introduce characters, how to revise and of course, how to sell. For me, that’s what other books didn’t always show. They offered generalities, or addressed specific topics. I wanted to take people through the entire process. When they’re done with that book, with all the exercises, they have the basics. I can’t teach people how to write, but I can show them how to produce a competent mystery novel.

HR: The book is useful for any writer, not just mystery. I refer to it all the time.

HE: The concepts do apply to fiction, non-fiction that tells a story, memoir.

HR: Now you are coming out with another non-fiction, with 1001 Books for Every Mood. Tell us about that.

HE: I was talking with my editor, who’s a friend, about books we love. Each of us was furiously writing down titles the other recommended. We weren’t talking about high-falutin’ books, necessarily; sometimes you’re just not in that mood. Sometimes you want something funny, or something about dance or food. Books can alter your mood, and you want that. So I wrote the proposal. There are more than 80 categories, like For A Kick in the Pants, or For A Shot in the Arm, For A Trip in the Fast Lane, For A Trip Down Memory Lane. I haven’t seen the galleys yet, but I’m really excited. Kirkus just interviewed me about it.

I included old books and new books. In the first section (For a Good Laugh), I have books by James Thurber and David Sedaris and Carl Hiaasen – quite a range. I came up with a system for rating the books on factors like literary merit, influence, inspiration, humor, controversy. I flagged books that are good choices for teens for for kids. I wrote a snappy, short description of each book and came up with lots of fun quizzes for the readers. We wanted to make it really a delightful book!

HR: There are always news books we want to try, but often it does come down to wanting something that makes you think or laugh. That should be a fun book to promote, and I imagine book groups are going to love it. You’ve also got another book coming out in early 2009, another mystery. Is this another G.H. Ephron mystery, or a Hallie Ephron book?

HE: Baby, Baby is my first solo effort; it’s psychological suspense. It’s about a woman who goes to a yard sale and talks her way into the house, then never comes out. It’s about what happened to her, but also what that disappearance does to the couple holding the yard sale: the wife, who is nine months pregnant, and her husband.

HR: You read a bit of that at Grub Gone Spooky when you were writing it, didn’t you?

HE: Yes, exactly. It’s really the brass ring for me as a writer.

HR: Can you tell us quickly about Jungle Red Writers? (The blog is a joint effort between mystery writers Rosemary Harris, Hank Phillippi Ryan, Jan Brogan, Roberta Isleib and Hallie Ephron.)

HE: Hank was really the prime moving force behind that. She’s absolutely fantastic to work with. Tireless, funny. And Jan Brogan and Roberta Isleib – wonderful mystery writers and great friends – are sharp and funny. Rosemary Harris is the new kid, and her first novel Pushing Up Daisies just came out. Writing the blog is a fascinating process – sometimes I don’t know what I think about a topic until I write something about it.

HR: One last question: where did the initials G.H. come from for your first books?

HE: G. is from David’s pseudonym; I think it’s a family name. He was A.A. Greeley for our first book because we didn’t know whether the McLean would be comfortable with the fiction. They loved it, and let us use the site for our launch parties even, which was a lot of fun. The H. is for Hallie.

Check out Hallie’s Web site on May 13 to celebrate 1001 Books for Every Mood. If you submit a reader’s guide for one of the books it includes, you might win an autographed copy! You can find a list of upcoming workshops and conferences, and helpful writing tips as well.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Be Bold

Amy is out today, but here's a recap of a post from last February.

By Amy MacKinnon

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

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

Soon we were ushered into the theater where Ann Patchett greeted the audience from the stage. Three stories were to be featured and as the editor of Best American Short Stories 2006, she chose to read Self-Reliance by Edith Pearlman. To be honest, I hadn’t yet gone through the collection and didn’t know what to expect.What followed was perhaps the most important lesson I’ve yet learned in my writing journey: Be bold. Her story is the most breathtakingly beautiful short story I’ve ever read. Yes, better than Alice Munro’s best. Edith Pearlman is bold. She is bold and elegant and brilliant and stunning, quiet and touching, but most of all bold.

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

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

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

Monday, February 04, 2008

Angst Ridden

Posted by Lisa Marnell

Inner conflict rocks – in our characters, that is, not in ourselves.

I’ve been re-reading one of my first “craft” fiction books: How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey. It’s one of the best writing books I own. It has simple common sense rules for good writing!

The latest chapter I reviewed talks about inner conflict:

“When a reader experiences profound empathy with a character, it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict. A character may be in the most pathetic straights in the history of literature, but if he has no inner conflict, the only emotional response the writer can expect from the reader is pity”

Think about these scenarios...

Should religious convictions prevent an MC (main character) from courting the woman he loves?

Does an MC’s own personal experience with alcoholism conflict with his decision to fire an employee caught drinking?

Should loyalty to the New England Patriots stop you from heading to a Superbowl party hosted by Giants fans (of course, not much inner conflict there, actually).

Inner conflict, angst in characters, brings them to life. In a way, it’s because we’ve all been there. We know how all consuming that inner turmoil can be. The decisions a character comes to and why, are stakes themselves, a reason to keep turning pages.

The most beautiful, sensual, and powerful example of inner turmoil in current fiction is found in Edward, the vampire in the NYT bestseller, Twilight; he both longs for Isabella and loves her.

I’ve been asking myself how my characters stack up. Inner conflict is there, but not fully front and center, yet.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Here's to the Community

More than ever this week, with participation in promotion of Patry Francis' Liar's Diary paperback release, in anticipation of Grub Street's 2008 Muse and the Marketplace, and simply in launching and continuing conversations with each other -- including all of you -- we are reminded of the width and wonder of the writers' community. Hallie Ephron, whom we have interviewed and whose conversation we will share soon, noted that nobody writes solely for the money. More is nice, but the writer's life is a choice about how one spends one's time and with whom one spends time, and on both those counts, we are all blessed. How true!

Hollywood Agent? My new writer friend here in California dropped by with a flyer for a Q & A with an esteemed Hollywood script agent who's speaking Wednesday. "You've got to come. I've met her before. She's brilliant." I hope it works out. It will be tight for me to pull it off. Doesn't there often seem to be a writer right around the corner, a friend, an inspiration you haven't met yet? Sometimes I think we're secret agents on a dangerous mission: we're following a dream.

Amy is out of town, but we all know how much she appreciates and gives back to our writing community!

I've been thinking, of late, that this writers community has contributed to a new level of fearlessness in my behavior out in the world at large. You reinforce that it is possible to be caring and honest, serious and frivolous, all at the same time and I have no time for people who offer less than that any longer. Maybe I'm just getting old (gasp), but there are too many things I want to do and too many good people, even if I haven't met them face-to-face, whom I'd rather hang out with any day!

I've always thought true generosity comes, not from the things you are handed or the money you're given, but from the emotional support you offer and are offered. Maintaining a blog, at first blush, seemed like a fun endeavor for us, what we didn't realize was the power of the online writing community we would be joining. We are humbled by the generosity of spirit offered to Patry this week; we're honored to have been a part of it.

As is fitting this post, I think I can speak for all of us at the Writers' Group when I extend a heartfelt thanks to all our readers and commenters. We are grateful for the support you offer us each week.