Friday, October 31, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Farewell

(L-R: Lynne, Hannah, Amy, & Lisa on the phone.)

That's right, we're done. The world does not need another essay about the writer's life. Blah, blah, blah. Been there, done that, and now it's time to do something else.

So let's get creative. We're going away for a week and when we come back (November 10), we'll feature your questions about writing, editing, agents, editors, conferences, marketing, grammar (especially that irascible semicolon) -- anything and everything having to do with the truth about the writer's life.

Yeah, the truth. You see, we'll take your questions, answer them ourselves and/or consult someone in the business who can, sometimes throw it out to the readers to help; grant you anonymity, naturally; and be very honest (did you notice the semicolons? not so tricky). Like 1-2-3, off-with-the-Band-Aid honest.

Let's start with a little bit of honesty right now: We will not read your manuscript and critique for you. Don't even ask. We might consider your query letter. Maybe.

We'll publish your question, each of us will give our own answer (heck, you'll have to decide what to take and what to chew over), and you have to be prepared for the truth. Imagine you're sitting down with the four of us in Amy's red dining room and getting a dose, just like we give each other. It can be tough. Expect tears, gnashing of teeth, maybe even a few epiphanies.

If you think you can take it, send us your questions. If you think you know better, leave a comment.

Whatever happens, we hope you'll leave a little inspired and better prepared for a literary life. Farewell.

Got a question? Contact us here:

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

Put the words literature and professor together, and do you get a case of the hives? Maybe visions of long papers and red pen come to mind? Don't let that turn you off to the book called, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster.

This book is filled with insight into great works of fiction that draw on Greek myths, Shakespeare, and the bible. You may have known that West Side Story was a contemporary Romeo and Juliet, but did you know that the scene in Toni Morrison's Beloved when Sethe is protecting her children as four white men come after her is based on the book of Revelation's four horsemen of the apocalypse?

The book's subtitle is--A lively and entertaining guide to reading between the lines, and let me tell you, it's as much a book for writers as readers. If you're going to put your characters at a table to enjoy a meal, you better know why writers do that. And if you're interested in planting symbols or burying meaning read the chapters called, Is that a symbol? and What does that mean?

This is a terrific book to add to your library, and though I haven't read Foster's next, How to Read Novels Like a Professor, I imagine that's a keeper too. So if you're interested in learning more about craft in a new way, pick up a copy and be prepared to be entertained. And think of the trivia you'll have for your next get together with writers or avid readers.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Calm in the Storm

by Hannah Roveto

In the beginning, it was helpful that Lisa, Amy, Lynne and I were in the same place. We all wanted -- had started -- to write fiction. The road to where that would take us stretched out before us all, as it did before Dorothy and her sidekicks (once they'd found the Cowardly Lion, of course).

Years later, we are in different places. I know some writers would love to form a group, and yet they hesitate because they are all in different places. There are challenges, yes, but given the right frameworks, a writers' group is more flexible than you might think.

For us, the fact that we all write fiction is still key. We are dealing with similar essentials, if you make allowances for the genres within the fiction world. We do not do memoir, non-fiction (although we do love to read Lynne's works in progress there!), essays, picture books or corporate freelance types of work as a group.

That we have all come some distance along the path is also key. To paraphrase Lynne at our meeting yesterday, writing is like climbing stairs. You stand at the bottom and see five steps: research, write, edit, agent query, publish. You leap up that first step, push up onto that second step, and all of a sudden, you realize there are not three more steps. There are a thousand and three steps in the writing process alone, you may even have missed a number in the research, and there will likely be a thousand and three steps each in the editing, and the querying, and the publishing. To know that, to be a few thousand steps along and for someone else to still be waiting to take the first step are places that cannot be combined within a writers' group.

That said, what a group does offer, beyond gentle and (loving) not-so-gentle nudges along the steps for writers in different places goes beyond process.

There are points along the way -- starting a new story, doing thoughtful revision, considering edits -- where the mind goes blank. Or worse, where life swirls like a twister and ideas won't settle. To sit with likeminded people, to talk about the joys of words, of possibility, is grounding. This is not to say there is a flash of epiphany, a bolt of inspiration that follows immediately, but in a solitary endeavor, a small and dedicated community centers the spirit and provides a calm spot in the storm that can be the start of something productive. Which is precisely what yesterday's meeting provided to me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My Mentor

By Amy MacKinnon

I met Stewart O'Nan last month when we both participated in a fundraiser for the Mark Twain House, Writers Read for Twain. He wasn't what I expected, not at all. I thought he would greet each of us with a polite hello and then retreat into himself. If you've read his books, then you might understand why I assumed such a thing. His work delves into the internal lives of his characters, deeply, in exquisite, discomfiting detail. Even his settings, such as the lake in Wish You Were Here, are fully realized characters. His books are often called quiet and it's somewhat true. Like that lake, they are to a certain degree, but we're all well aware of that old adage of what goes on beneath the surface.

That day at the Twain House, Stewart O'Nan was unlike his books: he was chatty, cheerful and kind. We talked quite a bit and when I confided how nervous I was to speak in front of such a large group, before so many of my favorite writers, he and Arthur Phillips took it upon themselves to sit on either side of me in the theater and whisper support until it was my turn. I was quite at ease because of it.

Afterward, I approached him with my copy of his novella Last Night at the Lobster. It is a little gem, 160 pages, and with more heart than most "big books" I've read lately. As he signed, I asked if it was a difficult thing to get it published considering it's length, the fact that it wasn't a big story and came with no discernable hook to promote it. He said it was. But, he added, I didn't listen because I believed in this book.

Though I left inspired, enough to attempt something similar myself, a project I'm working on now that has me hugely excited because of the challenges it presents creatively, but terrified because of the obstacles it may encounter in the marketplace, I thought it was an easy thing for him to say. He is Stewart O'Nan after all. Who wouldn't want to publish him?

And then I read this. His editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, turned down the manuscript for Lobster. It was Stewart's tenth book and it was rejected. Imagine? Thankfully for all of us, Viking bought it and another, Songs for the Missing, due out next week. Yes, I'm excited to read it too.

Stewart O'Nan has taken great risks in his writing life, he, with the support of his wife (after reading the article, don't you adore her?), made real sacrifices for his writing. His path hasn't been linear, it's more a series of forks: heading north and then bearing west, pivoting east then moseying southwest. He's written thrillers, historical fiction, and a baseball memoir. Though he could have taken the easier route, he chose a journey filled with uncertainty and many, many obstacles. I suspect he did it to honor the integrity of his writing.

I suspect we all should.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

There are different reasons we write. For some it's therapeutic (true for me). Writing fiction can help us process the injustice or cruelty we see in life (Amy?) For others, perhaps it's the joy of creating a quirky character who sets forth on a mission (a road trip, perhaps, Hannah?)Writers create worlds where family dynamics and life in general is protrayed honestly in a way that helps us make sense of our own relationships (Lynne?) This may be some of the reasons we write.

So, why do we read?

The other evening, as I approached the final chapter of the final episode of Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy, the reason I read was so clear to me. It's hardly an epiphany to most of the world, I'm sure.

But I realized there are two reasons I read: one is to fall in love with strangers, to care about people that have become my friends over the course of two hundred, three hundred pages. The other reason is to be entertained; to feel my heart pound, to have to read ONE MORE PAGE before turning out the light.

Oops! I lied. There's another reason: Escape. Scott, dear author, my life has been so busy lately. I won't bore you with details... but your stories, delightful, entertaining, gripping stories were better than finding a hundred dollar bill every day for three months. Your novels were such a discovery and joy.

Oh, to write to satisfy readers!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Party!

Everyone likes a good party and we at the Writers' Group are no different. Well, actually we are. We're writers, we're not into swinging bashes and binge drinking -- with apologies to Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner. Our idea of a good time is a little more sedate: parrying over the relevance of the semicolon; flexible intelligence when it comes to the pros and cons of first and third points-of-view; and, oh heady times, the best first lines in literature.

And what better venue to discuss these matters than at literary events. Tell us about your favorite experience at a conference and, by all means, tell us the worst. Which authors give the best readings and who is a total snore. Tell us what events you'll be attending in the coming weeks and which ones you wish you could attend. And if you feel like it, let everyone know how you feel about that irascible semicolon.

Lisa Marnell
I will NEVER forget the day I interviewed Gregory Maguire at the 2007 Muse and the Marketplace. The Gregory Maguire of Wicked fame. He is easily the most intelligent and articulate person I have crossed paths with. At the end of our interview - he's so kind and generous - Gregory asked me about my projects and encouraged me. Ironically, we share the same literary agent (if I can finally get my final manuscripts completed), and he said this kind and experienced agent has been nothing but wonderful.

At times, memories of that hour I spent with Gregory Maguire comforts me. Sigh!

Amy MacKinnon
Hands down the best conference I ever attended was Grub Street's 2006 Muse and the Marketplace when after critiquing twenty pages of my WIP Asya Muchnick, Little, Brown editor of The Lovely Bones and The Dogs of Babel, asked that I submit to her when I finished writing it. I will always adore her for that. The worst? There was this event where the room was stifling, the drinks ran out far too soon, and a best selling author I'd met on numerous occassions claimed never to have met me at all -- in front of a rather large group of authors I admired. Worse, when we each mentioned a favorite book or author, and I mentioned Stephen King, she said, "I only read him in the New Yorker." Hmmm...

More recently, I was welcomed with open arms by the Duxbury Free Library and Westwinds Bookshop last Sunday. The library director Carol Jankowski said they had reservations for 60 and strange but true, my high school English teacher Roberta Erickson, whom I thanked in the acknowledgments of Tethered, was there as a bookseller for Westwinds! It was a lovely reunion. Thanks to all who attended; I was impressed and honored with your questions.

Lastly the event I'm most looking forward to attending with Hannah by my side is Grub Street's annual fundraiser Taste of Grub. It's sure to be huge and I really, really want to see you there! Will you come?

Hannah Roveto
One of the best was listening to Lisa Scottoline present at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace this year. Holy cow. The talk was something like "Everything Lisa Scottoline Knows About Getting Published" and indeed, she covered getting started to elements of a novel to getting published in an hour and a half, including offering up her agent to us. A different, um, memorable one was a conference where a tall male writer decided to stand out from the crowd wearing bike shorts. No matter his talent, the crowd was divided into two groups: those who dared look down and those who memorized his face.

I wish I could be at the upcoming PEN New England's Horrors of the Publishing World event, but will dedicate what I call my Literary Life funds for this season to Grub's Taste. Cannot wait!

Lynne Griffin
My favorite conference was also the 2007 Muse and the Marketplace conference. My manuscript pages were reviewed by Elinor Lipman's and Michael Lowenthal's editor at Houghton Mifflin, and she requested my full. I sailed off to the luncheon, plunked myself down in an empty seat, only after situated did I realize that I was sitting at keynote speaker Charles Baxter's table! His talk about taking this business one step at a time is one I will never forget.

My horrific workshop experience came just last year when I went to a noted author's talk. When someone in the audience mentioned that my novel was going to be published, she asked me to describe it. I gave my best two sentence pitch, and her response? "Oh, dear. I only write happy books." To which I was left to use a line from Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. "No kidding."

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

If you're a regular reader of our blog, then you know Amy and I are thrilled with the cover art for our novels. We are deeply grateful to Whitney Cookson (Random House) and Michael Storrings (St Martin's Press) for persevering until "the right" images graced our covers.

How do you know the image is right? Well to be perfectly honest, you don't. What you do know is that the cover should represent the genre of the novel, connect to the title of the book, captivate and encourage readers to pick the book up off the crowded bookshelf, and most important, evoke a reaction--all kinds of reactions will do.

That said, many people are involved in signing off on your cover design--your editor, sales staff, publisher, booksellers-- but the true test is the over time reaction from readers. Keep in mind, covers that work don't have to be pretty, though pretty sometimes works very well. So far so good for Tethered and Life Without Summer!

In keeping with Hannah's Fun and Games post yesterday, would you like to test your skills at judging a book by its cover? Click on over to the new website that tests your ability to rate covers and then find out how many stars they've received on Amazon. I admit it's not scientific, but it is a lot of fun to play.

Other great blog posts about book jackets include:
Jackets Required
Best Book Jackets of 2007
Hardback Paperback Covers

Feel free to post your questions in the comment section. I'll do my best to answer or direct you to the resources that might inform.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Fun and Games

by Hannah Roveto

As a journalism student and reporter, as a corporate writer and editor, how many times have I seen and written w/c on copy? A word or phrase is too weak to give life to a particular stretch of text; we all know it when we see it, don't we?

To worry about word choice when you have eight inches of copy for a newspaper, or four pages for a brochure is one thing. To worry about 80,000 of the darn things when strung together into a cohesive whole is another. We have to get 80,000 of them right? Oh, my.

As writers we become human thesauruses. My children are frustrated by this, because homework would be so much simpler if they could yell out a word from one end of the house, and I would yell back its equivalent. This holds true especially for those games they play when learning vocabulary. The class is divided into two sides, every child having found two alternate words for every spelling word of the week. Anyone else remember Password? The old one with Allen Ludden, although I hear there's a new one. In either case, a celebrity and regular person are a team, and one has to make the other say a chosen word by using one-word clues. Same idea, but with screaming elementary school students all able to guess as they jump up and down behind half-sized desks.

In September, ten to fifteen words a week come down the hall at 1000 decibels. Mean mom makes them pick up a thesaurus and look them up. By October we're down to two or three.

"What does in-deck-iss-iv mean?"

"How do you spell that?"


"Indecisive." I'm feeling generous. "I'll give you one. Confused."

Heavy sigh. "Confused is my word. I looked in the thesaurus. What's another one?"

Heavy sigh from me. Mixed-up, unsure... I try to find sentences to lead the way to another choice. Truth be told, I like this game, especially when I have my WIP up on the screen. The game reminds me to think about every word, every phrase of the 80,000.

For example, I wrote a scene the other day where a woman is with her ex-husband in a bar. The new wife knows and is not the least bit jealous. How dismissive is the new wife about a possible rekindling of the old flame? My character could "trade her club soda for three shots of tequila, challenge him to a contest and sit on his lap while they tossed them down and (new wife) wouldn't have minded a bit." Even better, I thought: straddle. She wouldn't sit on his lap, she would straddle it, and still the new wife would shrug, smile. Not a single worry. Silly as it sounds, one word switch made me happy all day, and I don't mind telling you because you know what I mean.

This all led to a subversive thought. What better than to play Password with friends and family, in the car, in the dentist's office, when conversation ebbs at a dinner party? Carry around three phrases or words you know could be better in what you wrote, and toss them out at others. Turn the tables; turn them into human thesauruses. It's only fair.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


By Amy MacKinnon

A lot of people have emailed lately asking that I read their query letters, first three chapters, or entire 400 page, single-spaced YA manuscripts. In one instance, a person asked I read the first three chapters of three different novels and their accompanying query letters--and then choose which she should submit. I know some, most are strangers, but so far I've agreed to read one and only because he's a good friend. I won't do it again.

It's not that I've deigned to read his work, it's not that at all, but how am I qualified to yay or nay another's writing? Here are some of my favorite books and a sample of their Amazon reader reviews. What do I know?

"The ending is stupid, unsatisfying and has all the melodrama of a soap opera...My heart WAS filled with gratitude however that my copy was from the library so I could simply dump it in the return slot." The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

Interesting tidbit. This book is currently #2 for literature, is an Oprah pick, and of its 473 reviews, 141 are either one or two stars with an overall rating of 3 1/2 stars.

Here's another:

"...insipid mainstream pap, which is clearly enriching its author. Do yourself a favor: try Jose Saramago, Oscar Hijuelos or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, instead of this uninspired, banal, vapid, intellectual dead-end. Sorry, but this is one of the worst novels I've ever read." Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

One of my favorite books ever has an overall rating of 3 1/2 stars and of the 582 reviews, 137 are either one or two stars. Really?


"Talk about a labor of bore! This book was horrific...If you're in jail, by all means, indulge yourself." Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

This is my favorite book ever. It too has earned an overall rating of 3 1/2 stars, and of the 1,507 reviews, 355 are one or two stars. Sniff.

"Okay, I didn't really care for this book. It seemed dull and pointless, not to mention the plot was very vague. From what I could understand, it just seemed totally random. Not to mention it's hard to understand!" The Adventures of Hucklebery Finn by Mark Twain

Don't tell Jon Clinch. Definitely don't tell him it has 54 one or two stars, with an overall rating of just FOUR stars.

One more:

"...if I didn't know better I would say that it was written by a 10th grader who has done too much glue." The Road by Cormac McCarthy


You see? I am not in touch with mainstream American tastes. I can't predict what will appeal to the masses. In fact, it's pretty much a given that if I do fall madly in love with your book, it will be slaughtered by reviewers.

If you're curious to know what's #1 on both the New York Times' and Amazon fiction best seller list, here's an Amazon review:

"I find that to be the best part of this author, that when he has you crying, laughing, or ready to spit nails, he has the power to make you believe that anything is possible- that fate and destiny are not myths, after all. (Insert sigh here), Another great read from a true gem." The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks

Only 21 reviews so far for this new release; five stars overall rating, with no one or two stars.

Insert sigh here indeed.

Monday, October 20, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. Perhaps the other old adage is true as well: Out of Sight, Out of Mind. After being away visiting family in Montreal, I must admit that I've come to the conclusion that both of these sayings are wise.

You see, I decided to leave my WIP behind when I went away. For a full eight days I didn't read or write a word of my manuscript. This may not seem like a long time to some writers, but I check in with my main character nearly every day, writing as little as a paragraph or reading a scene.

Of course, common advice is to let your manuscript rest. To take a break from it so you can try to come back and see it with new eyes, a fresh perspective. I can't say I've ever done this. I decided to give it a try.

On the flight back to California, I took out a journal and opened it to a blank page. And I thought.

At first I thought about my ending. Next, I thought about my theme. The notes I scribbled over the course of half and hour, were barely legible, full of criticism. I must, I decided, raise the stakes, write a novel that's more "edgy". Then, as I reached the end of that journal page, scattered with inspired chicken scratches, I came to a realization.

I like my story.

It's that simple. I felt relieved and happy. Is that how writing is supposed to make us feel?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Making a Literary Life: Boo!

It's getting close to Halloween, that time of year when small children and frightening teenagers knock on your door and bid you Trick or Treat! It's time for us to get into costume. We wanted to share with you, our readers, what literary character we would love to dress up as.

Lisa Marnell
I actually did dress up as Jane Eyre. Yes, for Halloween. I had watched a British version of this classic on television and the next day my brother suggested we go out for one final Halloween; we were far too old, but who can say no to free candy? I wrapped my long brown hair in Princess Leah-like cinnamon buns at the sides of my head. I found a dowdy brown skirt and a white blouse. I didn't frighten anyone that night - or did I?

Amy MacKinnon
Do myths count? If so, I would like to inhabit the world of Medusa. At least then I would have an excuse for all of the voices swirling about me. And I do like snakes. And I like the idea of turning those who bother me while I'm writing to stone with just a look -- just for a little while. Yesssssss, Medusssa.

Hannah Roveto
When I was about ten, I made a paper mache over-the-head Snoopy mask; does that count? Not terribly literary, but then most of the fun characters that come to mind for me are from young adult novels. How about Narnia's White Witch?

Lynne Griffin
When I think of dressing up, I think more about the theatre than Halloween. If I had the acting talent and operatic voice needed to anchor the show, I'd love to dress in the gowns Christine wears in Phantom of the Opera. Sadly, my job each year is to answer the door to ghouls and goblins.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Posted by Lynne Griffin

This is funny to me no matter how many times I view it. Partly because I feel his pain and partly because it's a bit ridiculous.

Watch, laugh, and learn.

On a more optimistic note, Editor-in-Chief George Witte of St. Martin's Press spoke about Life Without Summer on Online and Unscripted, a webcast sponsored by Publishers Weekly and the Association of American Publishers. You can listen to it by going to the seventh link down, where George's name is listed. Once you download the program, SUMMER is the fourth book of five he discusses.

Note: You can go here if the embedded video is glitchy. This clip is worth watching.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Pause on the Journey

by Hannah Roveto

The journey becomes so encompassing, we sometimes forget to pause and look around. Today, stop. Look around and breathe it in.

Five years ago I was known as "the writer" at work, the first to be assigned press releases and speeches and reports and executive correspondence. I walked the aisles of bookstores and libraries and ran my finger along the spines of novels I loved and ones yet to be discovered. Once I was old enough to spell, I wrote short stories, snippets of long stories. I even had friends who'd been published. Still, theirs was another world.

Then comes the moment. Enough. I cannot live another day without releasing that part of my insides that insists on taking this writing thing seriously. The notice is up on the library bulletin board: a writers' group, hosting an author. A writers' group; are you a writer, or not, Hannah? A phone call, and I am part of the group -- a dysfunctional one, but it is a declaration of intent, a physical and mental step forward. Every year, more steps, tentative and yet increasingly certain.

Five years later, I am picking up my child at that same library. A large poster promoting an author's appearance is behind us, and my daughter points with a big smile on her face as she turns to her friend's mother. "She's in the mall, too, and there's another picture downstairs with the book." This is true. The long glass-fronted bulletin board in the lower entrance features a fall author series. Amy is there, leading the way, and nearby is Hallie Ephron, whom I had the honor of interviewing for this blog.

"You know her?" asks the woman.

"She's my friend." This is not enough. Amy's gorgeous black-and-white photo nudges me. "She's in my writers' group."

A neighbor passes by at that precise moment, overhears. "Really? How's your book going?"

"I've started to query agents," I tell her. "And I'm starting a second one."

"Anita Shreve and Hannah Roveto. Quite the neighborhood." She smiles and gives me a thumbs-up. The low-slung, brown shingled house was the home of the senior Shreves, but I won't quibble.

I get home and open my child's backpack. This is the same day, I kid you not. A notice falls out; a writer and parenting expert is coming to the school complex's massive Performing Arts Center to speak. The story was in the weekly newspaper, as well, Lynne's name in bold type, her Web site -- her beautiful sea-glass site -- listed for more details on her parenting work and her fiction, coming out in April.

On my computer is a recent email, promising that a full revision of a lyrical, stunning story coming soon for my reading pleasure -- before the agent sees it. How cool is that? (That's not how Lisa described it, but her voice is so distinctive, this character and situation so compelling, it will be that!) Before I switch to my PR email, I check blogs I love, your blogs about writing and life, all names I know and voices I hear in my head from the words on a screen. I glance at the list on my desk, too. Agents names. Real agents with real offices, with notes on whom they represent, their contact information not only jotted down, but in a few cases now, used.

This is my real world, five years later. This is a journey for all of us, a unique individual journey; mine certainly has been made clearer because of Amy and Lynne and Lisa, but there is still the do-ing of it all that has unfolded within me. While it feels unreal some days, yesterday it felt crystalline solid. Where this journey will lead, I don't know, but I am moving every day deeper into that territory. When my boss says, "You're the writer, you take this," I smile. Today that has a whole different meaning. Today I really am the writer, evolving as the writer I wished I could be years ago, step by step.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

True Dark

By Amy MacKinnon

Some have said my novel Tethered is too dark. The truth is a hell of a lot harder. Precious Doe's killer was found guilty last week.

If the spirit moves you, perhaps make a donation to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in her name, her real name: Erica Michelle Marie Green.

Funny thing is I deluded myself into believing I could rewrite her ending. Delusions of grandeur, I guess.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Making a Literary Life Friday: Discoveries

In the spirit of Columbus Day, celebrating Cristoforo Columbo's discovery of a place other people already lived, what have you discovered of late of your own writing, process, or approach to writing that deserves a nod this holiday?

Lisa Marnell
There are two ways to put this. Either, "Trust Yourself", or "Don't let your ADD interfere with your writing." In reading books on writing craft, I rarely hear about the phenomenon of writers completely changing their work, or thinking about changing plot (in a major way) in the final hours. I am so close to the finish line that it must be nerves, or self-doubt, or disbelief.

Amy MacKinnon
I've discovered that before I can became truly immersed in the writing, I must first do most of my research. I need to have that foundation of facts to build a fictious world. Research is one of my absolute favorite parts of the writing process.

Hannah Roveto
I have been reading novels with shifting narrators and viewpoints. Whether I decide to tackle this with the emerging WIP is yet to be determined, but this is definitely a new shore I feel prepared to land upon and explore.

Lynne Griffin
Like a good map, editorial feedback points me in the direction of the story. What I've learned is that only I can take the story the distance. And I still believe revision is a wonderful thing!


A few people of note this week:

Congratulations to friend of the blog, Therese Fowler, on the sale of her next two books. Very impressive!

A huge round of applause to Kim Reid for winning the Colorado Book Award for her debut No Safe Place. What an accomplishment!

And finally, three cheers to faithful blog readers Ello, Holly LeCraw, and Ray Anderson for recently signing with their dream agents. Onward and upward!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Do Your Homework

Posted by Lynne Griffin

If you have kids, then you know that homework can be a headache for everyone. Few have children who skip up the driveway after school, eager to pull up a chair to begin research for a term paper. And I don't know any parent who likes policing the activity. What does this have to do with living a writer's life? You too must do your homework. And other writers don't want to supervise you doing it.

In the last few months, I've been approached by a number of writers who, like most, wish to be published. Some have clearly done their homework, studying agents' lists and learning everything they can about the industry. I'm all too happy to share my lessons learned so far, having published a nonfiction parenting book and with my soon-to-be-released novel in production. It's the writer who hasn't done a lick of research, one who expects me to do the homework for him or her, that believe it or not, brings out the teacher in me.

I've taught elementary age children and now I teach graduate level students, and regardless of age, both groups have something in common. Some students are self-directed learners; they're well aware of what they know, what they don't know, and they have a strong sense of how to get the information they need. And some students need study guides.

"Can you give me the name of an agent who represents memoirs?" "I'm sending you some of my short stories, and I'd like you to tell me how I can organize them into a themed collection."

Stop your printer! These examples of real requests I've received just in the last two weeks are not examples of networking, nor are they reasonable expectations to have of a fellow writer. Would you ask a friend who works for a bank to balance your checkbook?

You've got to do your own homework. And with the Internet, lots of published books about writing, and blogs like ours and others available, your study guide is right in front of you. Take a look at our list of links. We've collated the best and brightest industry sites, author pages, and books on craft. Make friends with Google, folks. Search key words, mixing them up like a salad until you find what appeals to your palate. Take classes. Go to conferences. Join a writers' group. You'll find what your looking for if you're persistent enough. And speaking of persistence. Doing your homework is perfect practice for learning to cope with the ins and outs, the ups and downs of traveling the road to publication. Not to mention staying on the road after you're published.

So here's this week's homework assignment: Whether you've read it or not, read Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life. Take notes if that's your style. Trust me, there's a test and you're the only one who can take it.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


by Hannah Roveto

We have all heard it, the curse wrapped into bland pleasantry: "May you live in interesting times." Each morning when we wake up and turn on the news or open the papers, we indeed find ourselves in interesting times and few if any of us are feeling settled about them.

Truth is, we all have interesting times that go beyond today's headlines. We all have worries and fears, not just about the stock market, but about job security in any year, about our health, about the wellbeing of our friends, family and children. As writers we borrow those jumping heart rates, the crawl of apprehension, and transform them into interesting times for our characters. We create tension, strife, nemeses and tragedy, and we find ways for characters to make their way around, through and beyond, showing the why of how people act under stress and how they might succeed, whether or not they do in the end.

It's a fascinating pursuit we have chosen. We take bits and pieces of reality -- a wince of frustration, the honeyed sweetness of a rose, the angst of being sixteen, jaw-grinding tension -- and filter them through our own unique perspectives. We create a single, fresh reality that becomes a genuine experience for those who read it. What is real and what is made up, we are asked, over and over again. It's all real, we answer, and it's all made up. It is what we make it.

Take the "interesting times" phrase above. Turns out it is a fiction, created perhaps by an English writer around 1900. The real Chinese saying from which it seems to be derived does not involve a curse at all. Instead, it goes as follows:

Heroes are made over turbulent times.

This I like better, for my real life and for my writing. Life is what we make it. We can either feel falsely cursed to live in interesting times, or we can seek heroes made from turbulent times. Better yet, as writers, we get to take it yet a step farther. We have the opportunity to create heroes who rise from fictional turbulence to speak to readers riding the waves of the real world. The challenge to do so can be daunting, but how wonderful it feels to take that chance, and how beautiful the stories are from those who do it well. Lucky, lucky, us to be a part of it, yes?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

A David Mehegan Interview

By Amy MacKinnon

I have long admired the work of Boston Globe reporter David Mehegan. Part of my "dream big" scenario was to be profiled by him, he really is the best. He coaxes everything out of a writer. I'll never forget his interview with author Janet Fitch and how she revealed her struggle to write a follow-up to White Oleander. If such a writer as Fitch found it a challenge, then my anonymous struggle to write a first was okay. There have been so many over the years. And now it's my turn. He even called my agent and publisher, and really, their words will stay with me forever. Read it here.

He also recorded a podcast of me reading an excerpt from Tethered.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Posted by Lisa Marnell
You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You're on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who'll decide where to go.
You'll look up and down streets. Look them over with care.
About some you will say, "I do't choose to go there."

With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
you're too smart to go down any not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you'll want to go down.
In that case, of course, you'll head straight out of town.

It's opener there in the wide open air.

Excerpt from "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

There are times I wonder why an author ended up writing the book he or she did. Were plots decisions, choices about character intentional? Were they made by accident? Honestly, this baffles me. In the excerpt from the beautifully written book I share with you today, it talks about choices and direction we have in life. We have these choices in writing.

One common piece of writing advice is to write the type of book we love to read. As I come to final decisions with my WIP, I long to take pride in this work. Will I look back and wish I went in another direction? Do other writers? A good friend of mine struggled with her ending. In the end, is it chance or luck or fate or a well-thought out decision?

Friday, October 03, 2008

Making a Literary Life: So?

Well, what you done this week to further your literary life? Did you write a charming note? Read a like a writer? Did you have an a-ha moment that you followed through to a nirvanic conclusion? Check, check, and check. C'mon, let's celebrate the good, commiserate with the challenging, and kvetch over the annoying together.

Lisa Marnell
Truthfully, I meant to do a lot to polish my WIP. Sadly, everything else took over my life (boo hoo). Frankly, I'm in a place with writing where I'm focused on the writing.

Amy MacKinnon
I went to my first book club last night and, I have to say, it's the absolute best part of the writing life -- apart from the actual writing that is! Thanks to Mal Noonan and Suzie O'Gara for hosting, I'll post pictures next week and tell you what three books I recommended (hint: one of the author's intials is GKB).

I also received my French cover of Tethered (here). Wow, is it gorgeous!!! Thanks to my editor at Fleuve Noir, Deborah Druba, a huge advocate for this book. Tomorrow, I get to do a reading of Tethered at one of the new Borders concept stores. Maybe I'll see you in Wareham, Massachusetts.

Hannah Roveto
I bought a new notebook, standard school variety. Doesn't sound like much, but it is everything. With MS Number One on its way to agents, I pulled up the rough starts and thoughts of Novel Number Two accumulating over the past months and had a minor "aha." I could start writing; I know how it starts. Still, I want to play with the characters a little more first, get to know them, explore some more subjects and research. Thus my new trusty notebook, with pages assigned to each character that has appeared, room for scenes to be captured as they appear. This is differen than how MS Number One started, and I think the notebook will be my partner to making Number Two stronger, richer and (oh, pray), a little more efficient!

Lynne Griffin
As I fine-tuned my work-in-progress, two important details came to me. These ordinary moments when characters finally choose to reveal bits of vital information make writing fiction the best job in the world.

And I wrote a charming note to Ronlyn Domingue, author of The Mercy of Thin Air, thanking her for this.

Griffin's sensitive debut reveals how loss can tear people apart yet be the same force that binds them again with strength and love. I was touched by its honesty and intrigued by its emotional complexity. Many readers will find comfort and healing through this heartfelt, genuine story.

If you haven't read MERCY, please do. It is a beautiful novel that will stay with you long after you finish the last line. And check out Ronlyn's For Writers page on her website. She is generous with information about living a literary life. Thank you Ronlyn.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Taking Feedback

Posted by Lynne Griffin

I've been doing some manuscript consultation through Grub Street and through my own company and I'm learning a lot about how writers respond to editorial feedback. Now I'm not an agent looking to buff and polish a manuscript to get it ready for submission. And I'm not an editor at a publishing house. I'm reading like a writer and giving honest development feedback on stories and nonfiction book proposals. There are a number of myths out there about editorial feedback, some I admit to grappling with in my writing career. I'm going to attempt to bust a few.

Myth 1
If your work needs editing, it isn't very good.

Every writer needs a good editor, or two! From developmental edits about structure and voice to copy edits for consistent grammar, open your mind to this: you will be edited. Before any kind of submission, be sure to find smart, savvy readers. Your work will absolutely be better as a result of constructive feedback.

Myth 2
If you accept the editorial feedback, then the story isn't yours.

You are in the driver's seat making the final choices about what stays and goes, and what is deepened and strengthened. If you write with the hopes of being published, then get set to embrace a team mentality when it comes to fine-tuning your work.

Myth 3
If there is too much editorial feedback, then the story probably isn't worth revising.

Feedback on a first draft may well be overwhelming, but keep in mind most writers believe it is in revision that the real writing begins. I doubt Arthur Golden or Wally Lamb would show you first drafts of Memoirs of a Geisha or She's Come Undone.

Myth 4
If an editor suggests that an aspect of your work is confusing, he or she just doesn't get what you were trying to do.

When one trusted reader says he doesn't get, and then another says the same, it's time to listen. If sophisticated readers don't understand something, likely readers won't either. There's an art and a science to listening to feedback, and of course then to taking it.

Myth 5
If your editor gives you feedback, that means he or she doesn't like the work.

Often editors can be more objective about your work than you can. Simply because he or she points out flaws in argument or weak plot lines doesn't mean he or she doesn't like your overall effort. It's all too easy to take feedback personally. This business requires you to know when to put on your armor or when to close the office door.

Like anything in this journey toward living a literary life, it's important to learn where you are in accepting honest, constructive feedback. Perspective taking is hard work, but I will say it's important to do it. If you're able to let go of mythical thinking and really sort through the feedback you've received, only then will you be able to see what rings true and what doesn't. You'll be in a better position to execute changes that deepen the piece, and in the process become a better writer.

Working through my own feelings about accepting feedback is it's own work-in-progress. I'm willing but not always able to challenge my thinking about accepting feedback, but when I can, my writing is stronger for it. I'm truly grateful for the cadre of trusted readers who've challenged me to reach for a new personal best when it comes to story telling.

The first step in debunking myths related to accepting editorial feedback is to be open to what gets in the way of seeing it's validity. What gets in your way? And how do you attempt to overcome it?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

My Tiff with Bill (W. Somerset)

by Hannah Roveto

Bill and I are having a bit of a disagreement; Bill, of course, is W. Somerset Maugham, and this tiff has gone on for three days. The whole thing started with The Grub Street Rag, which offers news of the local literary scene and tempting class offerings, and my favorite, a quote of the week. This week they reported our dear friend Bill once said: "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

When I first read that, I started to agree; on further thought, I had to argue the point. You see, I have started in on Novel Two, unleashing what has been percolating in my head for some months. At the same time, a neighbor called. She has thought of writing and wants to know how to make the dream real. As a result, I had been giving this Rules of Writing A Novel thing some attention, and I have proposed to Bill three rules I think are undeniable.

Rule Number One: Have a plan. Writing a novel is a journey you need to think through a bit before you head out upon it. Say you live in Boston and something inside you has always wanted to travel the U.S., east to west. You decide you want to end up in L.A. You get maps and you plan for supplies and provisions and clothing and lodging; you mark out routes and alternate routes. A novel requires this, too. Some people get very organized and do outlines. Those people actually end up in L.A. with their manuscripts. Other people plan and yet allow for a bit of a surprise; they end up in Portland, Oregon, which meets the goal equally well.

Rule Number Two: Employ sitzfleisch; strong gluteus maximus muscles put to use to achieve what you want. The rough English translation is stick-to-itiveness. Bill can't deny this one. He wrote his first book at 16. He worked on his second book every night while he was studying for his medical degree. He proof-read Of Human Bondage outside of Dunkirk while working as an ambulance driver during World War II. No matter what else goes on in life, you write. And edit. Every day you touch the work in some way. As on any journey, the more you do it, the easier it gets, because those glutei get stronger with every use.

Rule Number Three: Learn and build on your craft. You have a story in you. Break it down. What do you imagine this story to be like when you are done, and what do you need to do to have the craft to produce that book? Plot, characters, setting and other elements of writing are the supplies you need for your journey. Know what they are, and get them onboard. What is the voice? What the heck is voice? Find out. Read. Take classes. Read again. Write it and rewrite it. Edit, fine-tune as you take more classes and refine again. An artist constantly works on craft. What you wrote yesterday was good, if you put your heart into it. What you write today will be better if you want to make it so. What you write tomorrow will be your best.

What you put in the novel is up to you. How you structure it, the story you wish to tell, the guidelines you wish to follow or learn well enough to break are yours to choose. There, it's wide open territory. Bottom line, though, you can start that journey if you follow three rules, and I've given you my suggestions on those. Meanwhile, Bill hasn't gotten back to me with his thoughts, which makes me a bit nervous. Or should I be more nervous if he does respond?