Monday, August 31, 2009

Writing starts from the beginning -- again, and again, and again.

Here's a short excerpt from an interesting interview with Karen Karbo, who writes essays, magazine features, novels, and memoir.

Q: What was the hardest lesson you needed to learn as a writer and how did you learn it?

A: The hardest lesson? It’s never over and done, the learning of this lesson. It’s that the beginning is always the beginning. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a kick ass idea that came to you fully formed in a dream, or you’ve just won a big literary prize that proclaims you to be the biggest literary genius around, or you just inherited ten million bucks, or you were struck by lightning. Every time you begin a new book it’s as if you’re writing the first one. You know nothing. The writing sucks. It’s awkward. It’s both too much and too little. But that’s just how it is at the beginning. It’s the nature of beginning, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the work.

You can read the whole interview here. And while you're at it, explore the rest of the summer issue of Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 8. Nonfiction Blues: I, Me, My, Mine

Paging through a notebook from my final semester of my MFA program in creative nonfiction, I am reminded of a conversation with a faculty member. I was slogging through the fourth revision to a manuscript of a memoir in linked essays.

Me: I'm getting really sick of myself. If I write one more sentence with the pronoun 'I' in it, I may vomit.

Her: Good. Excellent.

Me: Huh?

Her: Now start thinking about the reader. Think about how your story can mean something to others. Think about what you have to say, rather than writing about what happened to you.

Not new advice, of course. But sometimes, we hear something again, and the timing is just right.

That advice spurred me to change the openings and revise the endings to several of the essay-chapters. Scenes were edited and got more interesting. Several secondary characters emerged and made big contributions. Hinted-at themes came into clear focus. I began to think of the manuscript as a cohesive piece of work, intended for readers, instead of a bunch of my stories. No vomiting ensued.

The rest of the Gold in Them Notebooks posts, in which I pass on some tips mined from my MFA program notebooks, can be found here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Summer Book Give-aways - two down, one to go

Congratulations to the winners of two recent book give-aways.

Delia has won the new paperback version of Allison Winn Scotch's novel, Time of My Life.
To read my interview with Allison, click here.

Laura has won the new hardcover novel, Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline. To read the insightful guest post Christina wrote for this blog, about life lessons she learned while writing the novel, click here.

Thanks to everyone who read and commented.

One more book give-away is still on-going, for a copy of Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, by Sue William Silverman. Read her excellent advice in the interview she did here yesterday, and leave a comment to be entered.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Author Interview: Sue William Silverman on Memoir Writing

Sue William Silverman's newest book, Fearless Confessions: A Writer's Guide to Memoir, reads like a memoir about writing memoir – and that's exactly what the accomplished and respected nonfiction writer had in mind when she decided to do a book about writing craft. Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the AWP award in creative nonfiction, and her second, Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into a Lifetime Television original movie. She teaches in the low-residency MFA in Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, speaks frequently at writer's conferences – where I've had the pleasure of being in the audience, furiously scribbling notes and nodding my head -- and has appeared as a guest expert on The View, CNN and many other venues.

I'm pleased that Sue agreed to answer my questions. [Note – we are also giving away a copy of the book and Sue is also stopping by this blog several times today to answer any questions readers ask in the comments – see below.]

LR: Your book is filled with writing exercises. What role do these kind of stretching opportunities and experimentation play in your own work?

SWS: Exercises are beneficial because they focus on one specific craft issue at a time. They’re less daunting than thinking about a whole book, or even an entire essay. I can think, “okay, right now, this is all I have to tackle: this one exercise.” It’s a kind of a playful (not intimidating) way to proceed with a piece of writing. Then, what I learn in this short exercise, I can bring to bear on the larger work. In many ways, exercises are prompts to get us going.

LR: There are so many forms of nonfiction, but I've seen writers force themselves and struggle to emulate the more literary memoirs. Advice?

SWS: There are different ways to explore a life narrative. Sure, you can write about your life in journal form, or as a diary—a document meant for your eyes only. Or, say, you can write a family history, something for your children or grandkids. In these instances, of course, simply tell the story straight: this is what happened to me...let me tell you my story. Period. With these kinds of documents, metaphor and other literary devices aren’t necessary. There’s no pressure to force the manuscript into a literary form.

If, however, you want to write literary nonfiction, then it is incumbent upon the author to structure the material, deepen it with metaphor and reflection. You are shaping life into art.

But rather than feel pressured to do so, most writers, I hope, see this as a wonderful opportunity to study the craft of writing, to be able to engage in this journey of self discovery, to understand what the events in your life mean.

And I don’t mean to go off-message, but this leads me to think: why, really, do I write memoir? I write to solve “mysteries” about my life. It’s strange to think, but I don’t fully understand my life until I write it.

Which is a good thing! If we knew all the answers ahead of time, there’d be no reason to write our narratives. We write to find out what our stories mean—rather than merely state what we already know.

In short, if you are writing literary memoir, then my advice would be to stay with the material, keep peeling away those layers, like an onion, until you do discover the deeper layers of self and experience. This is a gift a writer gives herself! So, yes, my advice is to see this writing process as a gift—rather than pressure.

LR: Your book includes many published examples of exemplary nonfiction. How much of a writer's developing craft depends on reading and examination of masterful work?

SWS: Reading well-crafted literature is essential. Absolutely. I can't imagine writing without reading. One of the appendices in Fearless Confessions, by the way, has a long creative nonfiction reading list, divided into categories, by subject matter. There is a fairly extensive list of my nonfiction reading recommendations here.

LR: You've described the book as a "memoir about writing memoir". How does this work technically in the book? Why this tone and structure?

SWS: Yes, rather than write what I would consider an academic textbook (which would have put me to sleep during the writing of it—and you to sleep during the reading of it!), I invite the reader along on my own writing journey.

I teach by example: this is what I struggled with as a writer; this is what I ultimately learned; let me share it with you.

So while I address important craft issues such as theme, plot, character development, voice, metaphor, etc., the voice itself of Fearless Confessions is intimate and friendly, not dry or academic. I wanted the book to be informal and inviting. In this way, then, it could be called a memoir about what I learned through the writing and publishing of two memoirs.

LR: Regarding nonfiction I often tell writers, "readers don't care about you, they care what your story says about them," and so I was excited to see that this seems to be at the center of your discussion about how nonfiction makes a contribution to the reader, and to the world. Can you talk a bit about that and what the writer must understand about this seemingly paradoxical truth?

SWS: Yes, that's exactly right! If, say, in my first book, I just whined and complained and wanted the reader, basically, to feel sorry for me because my father sexually molested me, well, really, the reader wouldn't feel sorry for me! Sure, my therapist and best friend would care, but a general reader would not care.

If, however, through metaphor, reflection, use of sensory imagery, plot, and the development of a literary voice, you artfully bring the reader inside the experience, then they care about you; you have discovered a way for them to feel your experience in a tangible and visceral way.

When I write about recovering from incest or sexual addiction, I’m also writing about loss, alienation, identity. Aren’t these universal themes to which most anyone can relate? So by casting light on my story, I’m hopefully helping others better understand their own.

In short, the more you craft your real-life story into art, the more the reader engages in it, identifies with it. It is paradoxical, as you say, but that’s how art works!

LR: Many would-be memoirists (or personal essayists) are nearly crippled by the idea of not having "permission" or "the right" to tell stories which include others – loved ones, former friends, relatives, acquaintances. I've been puzzled at times too. Your advice?

SWS: The memoirist James McBride says, “Fear is a killer of good literature.” So, yes, I agree with you that many memoirists, or would-be writers, are afraid of committing their stories to paper. And while I understand this fear—especially since it took me many years to overcome it myself—I would still urge beginning memoirists to write anyway—regardless of the fear.

One way to overcome it, at least initially, is to pretend to write just for yourself, ignoring (as much as possible) the fact that others might one day read your story. For me, while writing, I always pretend no one else will ever see my work. And, in any event, it’s my choice whether I’ll ultimately share it with anyone or not.

I tell myself I’m writing this book, first and foremost, because I must. Which is true. The act of writing, itself, is of primary importance. This is where the spirituality of artistic endeavor resides. Focus on the words, themselves, during the creation process. Worry about the outside world later.

In order to be creative and fully engage in the process, writers must give themselves permission to set aside the fear about what the outside world might think. Remember, we own our own stories! Our stories belong to us. As writers, they are ours to write.

LR: You talk about the writer having two voices, the Innocent Voice (from the past, at the time of the remembered events) and the Voice of Experience (present day, through lens of reflection). Can you talk about being aware of which is which, how to make transitions between the two, and when each may be appropriate?

SWS: Yes, in Fearless Confessions I developed the idea of how every memoir needs two voices in order to fully explore your experience, fully capture your persona on the page.

One aspect of yourself is conveyed in what I call the Voice of Innocence. Here, using this voice, you relate the facts of the story— the surface events in the past that actually happened. It’s the voice that portrays the raw, not-yet-understood emotions associated with the story’s past action: How you felt, what you did at the time the events actually occurred.

For the Voice of Experience, on the other hand, imagine the writer “you,” now, sitting at your desk writing, trying to make sense of these events that happened to you years earlier. It’s a more mature voice that deepens the Voice of Innocence with reflection and metaphor. It’s a more complex viewpoint that interprets the surface subject.

Using these two voices you are showing, in effect: This is what happened to me in the past; this is how I now, with more wisdom, feel about it looking back.

In terms of when to use any given voice, a lot of that is trial and error, in that there are no hard-and-fast rules as to when to use one, when the other. Each memoir or essay we write will present its own challenges.

Generally speaking, however, these voices are very fluid. One page, one paragraph, even one sentence might incorporate both.

Within one brief section of Love Sick, for example, I use these two voices when describing a maroon scarf that once belonged to my married lover, but which he gave to me: “I press the scarf against my nose and mouth. I take a deep breath. The scent is of him—leaves smoldering in autumn dusk—and I believe it is a scent I have always craved, one I will always want. I don’t understand why the scent of the scarf seems more knowable, more tangible, than the rest of him.”

Here, I begin with the Voice of Innocence, providing factual and sensory details about the maroon scarf, romanticizing its scent of smoldering dusk. The raw (albeit unexplored) emotion I feel toward this man—who wraps such a magical scarf around my neck—must prove this is love. Doesn’t it?

“No,” the Voice of Experience implies, in that last sentence. Instead, the scarf embodies alienation and loneliness, as well as a need for comfort. I love the scarf because, as an addict, I don’t know how to love the man—and, more importantly, myself. This sober, authorial voice of experience guides the reader through the confusion of the addiction, depicting, over the course of the memoir, why I have self-destructive affairs with dangerous men.

In short, the Voice of Innocence conveys what happened: I press the scarf to my face, inhaling autumn dusk. The Voice of Experience examines what the author, sitting at her desk writing, understands about events now: The scarf is more knowable than the man. Ultimately, a writer’s exploration is more interesting than just the facts by themselves.

LR: Your new book includes many examples of how you solved many craft and technical challenges while shaping your memoirs. As you were writing this book and thinking back to those examples, did you learn anything new about your own writing process and craft?

SWS: Yes! That’s the thing about writing. It’s much easier for me to know what I think about something if I write about it. Certainly, too, I think it’s made me a better teacher. I teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, a low-residency MFA program, which is a great community of writers, by the way.

LR: Can you suggest a short writing exercise for any readers of this blog who may be stuck or struggling at the moment?

SWS: Well, you asked about that paralyzing fear would-be memoirists sometimes experience, which can actually prevent them from writing altogether. So here is a writing exercise from Fearless Confessions that might help.

“Who is the person whose potential reaction most scares you? Write him/her a letter, whether you send it or not. Tell this person all the reasons why you must write your story, why your story is important, why your voice must be heard and not forgotten…why you must write anyway.”

LR: That's a great one. Thanks for all your insights.

To be entered in the random drawing for a copy of Fearless Confessions, please leave a comment (and be sure there is a way for us to contact you) by midnight, September 1. In addition, Sue has agreed to drop by this blog several times today to answer questions – so post yours in the comment section too and check back at the end of the day for Sue's answers.

[Update: The "answers from Sue" part is now concluded, but anyone else can still leave a comment for a chance to win the book. If you don't win it - go buy it. I can't think of a better way to spend the money if you are serious about writing any kind of personal nonfiction.]

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Self-Promotion Dept: Rutgers Writing Class

From the department of shameless self-promotion:

I'm proud to let you know that beginning this September, I'll be teaching creative nonfiction through the Rutgers University Writing Program Extension, which offers a rich and varied roster of in-person, online and "hybrid" writing courses covering journalism, technical and business writing, writing foundations, and creative writing (fiction, poetry, and CNF)

You can find my class here; it's one of the "hybrids" – three in-person class sessions, and five weeks of online instruction, critique, support, and interaction. My class focuses on the craft of writing and revising memoir, personal essay, and other creative nonfiction. I'm so very excited to have been invited to join the accomplished faculty of this dynamic program which reaches adult writers who span the range from beginners to ready-to-publish.

I'm slightly embarrassed that as a (nearly) lifelong New Jersey resident, I was unaware until quite recently, of the valuable resource the Rutgers WPx classes offer to writers not only in the Garden State, but elsewhere, through their online offerings. The entire list of classes starting in late September can be found here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: The Almost-Forgot-it-was-Friday Edition

Links to love (or at least like).

• Great advice on the Editor’s Blog at the Guide to Literary Agents site.

• What did former NY Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni learn about his own new memoir, Born Round, while recording the audiobook narration?

• Are you a woman? Do you write humor, especially the irreverent kind? The Rumpus may want you (or at least your writing).

• Doing a lot of the publicity and marketing for your own children’s book? Good tips here.

• Buying books, CDs, DVDs, and other items via Public Radio Market seems like an excellent way to support public radio.

• A literary experience at an airport? An established British author is the official writer-in-residence at London’s Heathrow for one week, interviewing, observing, musing. The result will be short book, and the text will NOT be subjected to the approval of airport management or its PR folks (who dreamed up the idea).

• Like book sites crammed with lots more than reviews? Do explore The Millions.

IndieReader has quietly launched, a place for readers to buy, and authors to sell, self-published books (after they pass a vetting process, apparently).

• Ruth Graham lost her job at a print magazine. So what's the next logical thing? A two-month solo road trip. Of course, she’s blogging about it.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What am I doing? Now that I ask....

When it seems as if I'm busy, busy but getting nowhere, I write a DOING List. Not a TO DO list, but a look-what-I'm-doing/accomplishing/what-I-have-in-the-works list. Sort of like a motivation-approbation-affirmation rolled into one. I began doing this when my first child was a needy, high-maintenance, colic-y infant and entire days went by with my feeling that I had done nothing -- until I started a DOING list, and realized all I was doing.

This week, I had that old familiar feeling – wheels constantly spinning, but really, what am I doing? So I went to my old DOING list. And came up with…

…(reading and trying out recipes and) writing a review of a cookbook…preparing first draft of syllabus for a fall writing class…starting a requested essay for a website about a bittersweet aspect of motherhood…finishing copyediting a dissertation chapter for a client…coaching a first time author through a new publicity project…coordinating three guest posts for my own blog and…writing one for someone else's blog…working through editor revisions to a complicated, unusual essay for a new venue I am really psyched about being published by (fingers crossed, OK?)…learning how to edit my own website (HA!)...working out details for judging a writing contest in the fall…

And you? What mixed bag of projects are you working on - go ahead, put your own DOING list in the comments...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 7

Lately, I've been finding inspiration in the dog-eared pages of my old MFA notebooks, and sharing with my readers some of the good advice I'm finding there.

From a seminar on story in creative nonfiction:

• The apparent subject lies on the surface, neat and calm. The real story lies underneath. It's very messy and has emotional urgency. Always keep asking yourself, "What's the real story?"
• Some reasons writers often don't get to the real story – shame, fear, laziness, the inner critic, time; not yet understanding the real story; not ready to deal with the real story.
• To uncover the real story, alter the way you look at things. Read other material – read what you love, and see what opens the doors. Be like a bloodhound; keep sniffing around, keep moving; do free writing to find what moves you.
• How to know when it's not there yet: You're bored. You are relying on writing and not on story. It feels dutiful. You are unable to title it. You can't imagine an ideal reading audience for the piece.
--Barbara Hurd, literary nonfiction essayist and mentor extraordinaire

The first six MFA Notebooks posts can be found here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Writers, I Hereby Submit. And submit. And submit.

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I am a big fan of the submission process and the role it plays in a writer's development, craft, and business. (Even if one's writing is not meant to generate income, I still think of every writer as having a business).

Whether you are submitting completed pieces to literary journals, query letters and manuscript chapters to agents, or queries to obtain article assignments, I believe that having a submission plan, routine, and a healthy attitude toward the process can only be a good thing. Regardless of what stage, phase, or malaise you find yourself in, I think it's a good idea to keep the submission muscle in play.


I must fess up. It's been a while since I took my own advice. A few months, to be exact. (I know this because I checked my very efficient Excel submission tracking spreadsheet – did I mention you must have one of these?)

The lull had to do with a combination of being in a major push to get to a new stage in my teaching efforts while at the same time being in a stubborn phase of not feeling too confident about the "completed" pieces and ideas in my to-be-submitted pile. Then there were paying clients whose work had to come first. And (non-paying) houseguests. Rudderless kids galumphing about. And rain, rain, rain. Oh, and did I mention the three friends who scored major literary coups recently? Yes, I'm happy for them -- truly, madly, deeply happy. But.

So, late yesterday afternoon, after the house cleared of menfolk headed to a Giants preseason game, I got back on the submission stick. First, I had to face some of my "reasons" for the hiatus.
Confidence in completed work. The truth is, even after a piece is accepted for publication and after it's published, I'm still not really confident about it. Not really. Not completely. Is any writer?

Energy targeted in another direction. Spending the time and focused energy on branching out in my teaching efforts is important. (And worthwhile - I'll be teaching one class at a local university this fall, but more about that in a future post.) Still, I want to stay tuned in to students' publishing goals, and to set an example by continuing to chase my own.

Paychecks vs. possibilities. Yes, paying clients are freelance gold, but continued attention to publication builds my list of "calling cards", keeps me personally aware of the challenges my editing clients face, and of course -- published work (whether well-paid or not) usually leads to other paying work.

Home office vs. B-&B. Working at home while relatives are staying with me for weeks, all I can really manage is to get to the stuff marked editor's-waiting-for-it / client-wants-it / program-director-needs-it. Shoot me.

Summer & the living is...different. When they are kicking about the house, my kids are, thankfully, very considerate of my work time/space; they don't ask me to have lunch with them, play against them in a few games of Wii Sports, or discuss the plot of their summer reading books. Those things are all my ideas, and you know what? It's a good trade-off.

When good things happen to good people. The three writer friends whose recent success I applauded but secretly envy? One won a major contest, another was published in a coveted spot, and the third signed with an agent who sold her book within two weeks. So I asked myself: Is there any real reason to feel that their accomplishments say something negative about my own work? And the answer was, frankly to my own surprise – NO! I had not entered the same contest as my first friend (though I will, next year). I had not submitted anything in three years to the column my second friend was published in (though I could have, and maybe should). And, I am not agent-shopping at the moment (though I may be soon). So my friends' coups should do nothing more than give me hope, right?

Even if my friends' good fortune were in exactly same arenas in which I had also tossed my hat – well, so what? Letting that keep me from pushing on helps no one. What helps is to get back into action.

And so I did, sending my words off on wireless wings.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 6

No kidding, I've been paging through notebooks from my MFA days, and randomly posting what I find. The first five in the series are here.

From a workshop on humor writing:

Ramp up details that are strange.
Bring irony into sharp focus.
Let the humor come from the material.
Edit for timing.

Tanya Barrientos, novelist, former Philadelphia Inquirer humor columnist, and NPR essayist

Friday, August 14, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Hot August Writes

Today’s list of links I liked lately. Enjoy.

• My friend and former MFA classmate Kerry Herlihy wrote the Modern Love essay in last Sunday’s New York Times, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. (Okay, I’d be more thrilled if it were me, but I screamed out loud while alone in my office when I got the news a few weeks ago). On the blog of another mutual MFA classmate, Kerry describes how she nailed the acceptance, and its aftermath.

• Short stories seem suited to today’s shorter attention spans, right? Not according to the traditional publishing industry, and this piece (and all the comments) asks why not, and ventures a few guesses.

• Not busy over the upcoming Labor Day weekend? Maybe the International 3-day Novel Writing event is for you.

• Mothers (and fathers) who wish to participate in an online workshop focused on writing about parenthood would do well to check out this class, taught by Susan Ito, creative nonfiction editor at Literary Mama (and a generous, smart and funny gal).

• The Poets & Writers Maureen Egan Writers’ Exchange Contest, which moves from state to state, will reach my state in 2010 – New Jersey fiction writers and poets are eligible (deadline Dec. 1, 2009).

• Would you accept, and even be happy about, a payment of $30 for one of your creative works to appear in Time magazine? Apparently that’s what happened when the media giant paid for a cover photograph a little while back.

• France’s version of the blog-to-memoir-to-movie-to-second book deal. Ka-ching. And, good for her.• I’ve said this often: I’m not a huge fan of “balance.” Maybe because I’m not all that skilled at it. Yet I admire anyone – especially a writer-mother with a full time day job – who is trying anew to make it happen.

• Excellent writing prompts, tips, exercises over here.

• Harriet Brown’s next book is going to be a family memoir about dealing with her daughter’s anorexia and recovery. She’s posted a draft of her prologue here, and welcomes comments, particularly from those who have experience with the subject matter.

• It’s all about the story, says this writer. No matter what.

•And finally, I can’t nominate my own blog (well I could, but I feel a bit smarmy doing so), but if you think this blog is helpful for writers, you could do the deed.

Have a great weekend.

Coming soon on the blog -- an interview with Sue William Silverman on writing memoir.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Guest Blogger Christina Baker Kline on Lessons Learned while Writing Her Newest Novel

Christina Baker Kline is that rarest of writer-friends who, whether connecting over coffee or at a writer-centric event, or via email or telephone, always asks about my work, my challenges, how she can help. (And she'll even write something for a friend's blog while in England with her family – how's that for supportive?) Her guest post coincides with the publication this week of Christina's new novel, Bird in Hand, which I devoured this past week. [Note- we are giving away a copy of the book, see below.]

Christina is the author of three other
novels, the editor of several essay collections, the Writer-in-Residence at Fordham University, and a sought-after freelance editor. She's also a backbone of the flourishing writing community in the northern New Jersey area where we both live, and someone whose craft, professionalism, and joyful demeanor I admire.

Please welcome Christina Baker Kline.

Five Life Lessons I Learned Writing my New Novel, Bird in Hand

1. I am not a model. Or a professional soccer player.
At times, over the eight long years it took to finish Bird in Hand, I was seized with panic. Look at all those fresh-faced young writers madly producing books, while I grow wrinkled and gray! But then I realized: it doesn’t matter how damn old I am. Unlike some professions, writing does not require that you have dewy skin or the speed of an antelope. All that matters are the words on the page. So when I got into a panic about my work, I reminded myself that life is long; some of my favorite writers have done their best work in their seventies and eighties. And not only that, but …

2. Older really is wiser, at least in some ways.
Climbing up and over the hill of middle age, I’ve learned that some of the positive clich├ęs about aging really are true. I trust my first impulses more. I’m more confident about what I know for sure. I believe that I can write a decent sentence. I care much less than I used to about what people think. I understand my own process. Which leads me to …

3. What works for me is what matters.
Writers are always asked about their work habits because it’s endlessly fascinating (even to other writers). Do you write in the morning or the afternoon? Do you work on a laptop or with a ballpoint pen? Do you sit in a basement, like John Cheever, or an austere sliver of a room, like Roxana Robinson? Do you work for two hours or ten?

But here’s the thing: it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s process is. What matters is what works for me. For example – unlike most other novelists I know, I’m not a morning person. My best writing time may be mid-to-late afternoon. Writing Bird in Hand, I often worked in a generic Panera Bread Shop in a different town, on subways, and in dentists’ offices. I also wrote the first drafts longhand, which few seem to do anymore. Maybe I could train myself to write first drafts on the keyboard, but why should I? This is what works for me.

And that’s my point. I’m still intrigued by how other people work, but I also know that writing is a strange alchemical business, and I need to follow my own impulses. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page is what I need to do. And I also need to remember that …

4. My life feeds my work.
For a long time my “real” life and my writing life seemed like two separate states, and when I was in one I felt guilty about neglecting the other. I’ve come to understand that time away from writing nourishes my creativity; time immersed in the creative process allows me to inhabit my personal life with less conflict and more serenity. All the bits and pieces of my life experience feed my writing in ways I don’t even realize until they’re on the page. I drew on this in Bird in Hand by writing about the minutiae of childrearing, "…endless bland kid dinners, fish sticks and chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese and Classico sauce with spaghetti, on a revolving loop." At the same time, though …

5. Contrary to popular opinion, quality time is as important as quantity time.
In the final few months writing Bird in Hand, I went around in a perpetually foggy state, and I often felt guilty about my lack of focus. What I came to realize is that my kids – who are 9, 13, and 14 – like having me around, but they don’t always require my undivided attention. Being there when they got home from school in the afternoon, having conversations in the car, family dinners, weekend excursions, cooking together, and the occasional board game made up for a lot of times when I might have been physically present but mentally in a different time zone.

Knowing that there were plenty of times when I'd drop everything and focus on the moment – quality time, that is -- my kids were happy to let me work when I had to. And they began taking themselves off to do their own work, too. The oldest one writes and records music. My second child plays piano for hours. And the younger one is currently obsessed with Harry Potter. Some of the best moments are when I feel the household humming with activity – mine and theirs.

[We are giving away a copy of Bird in Hand in a random drawing. To enter, leave a comment between now and August 24. Be sure to include a way for us to get in touch if you win – an email address or a website/blog URL which has a contact method]

Also, over at Christina's blog, dedicated to craft, inspiration, process, and other aspects of writing and publishing a novel, she'll be discussing Bird in Hand over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Book Stores, Bozos, and the Best Gifts

I don't claim to know how to run a book store. But I do know, while in a book store, when I am not feeling inclined to stick around. There are lots of reasons – poor lighting, too crowded, insanely loud music, disorganized, no visible human help. And then there's feeling manipulated.

Yesterday I stopped in a large chain bookstore to buy four copies of a friend's humorous book about aging, which I intend to give to relatives at upcoming birthdays. It's a new book and the local author has been featured on national major media. The book was nowhere near the front, so I asked a meandering clerk where I might find it.

He turned wordlessly and sprinted off, losing me after two quick turns in the stacks. He returned with one copy of the book in his hand.

This was wrong on so many counts.
I did not ask him to get it for me; I asked where I could find it.
I had a need (for multiple copies) that this clerk never bothered to learn.
He did not respond to my question verbally, just took off.

I'm sure the marketing gurus have determined that putting a book in a customer's hand makes it more likely to be purchased. And yes, clerks who point in some vague direction and mumble, "over there" do irritate me.

I would not have minded being personally escorted, but someone has to tell employees to walk at a pace designed for adult humans who are not track stars. By bringing me the book, the sales geniuses think they are serving my needs. But what if I wanted to browse the entire section, and maybe buy something in addition to the book I came for originally?

When I said I needed three more copies, he looked surprised and a little annoyed, as if I should have said so in the beginning. Ahem.

Of course, I could have phoned a local independent bookstore, where chances are they would have gladly put copies aside for me. The truth is, I wasn't going to be in that neighborhood for a few days, and the double discount I get at the chain does matter (more in some months than others and this is one of those months).

I do understand the value -- both to a reader and the store -- when a genuinely interested book store worker "hand sells" me a book (by picking one up or pointing it out and telling me good things about the book or author). But that's an entirely different matter. That's communication, interaction, and product knowledge.

Maybe it was just this particular clerk. Even so, I felt manhandled and at the same time, ignored. Or maybe I'm just acting old, in which case, I need to pay more attention to my friends blog (which spawned the book).

I'm still glad to have helped support a fellow writer's efforts by choosing books as gifts. And, I recommend it, no matter where they are purchased.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Author Interview: Allison Winn Scotch

Writer Allison Winn Scotch is in the middle of writing her third novel. She also juggles occasional celebrity profile magazine articles, motherhood, and this week, the paperback release of Time of My Life. The book features, according to Allison, a protagonist who is a contented but not truly fulfilled, stay-at-home mom with lingering “what ifs." She wakes up one day seven years in her past with the opportunity to rewrite her future. Allison talked to me recently about the book, her writing life, and author marketing activities. [We're also giving away a copy of the book – see below.]

LR: Do you see the book as having an overall message or central idea?

AWS: It's about our capability to make our own happiness and our sometimes inability to accept that like it or not, this is the life we have chosen. And if you DON’T like it, what can you do to get back on the path you once envisioned? It’s about how small choices in life can accumulate such that sometimes you wake up and say, “How did I get here? Where did my life go off the rails?” And once you ask yourself that, how do you find the strength, courage and insight to regain control of the life you once hoped for?

LR: What’s the difference between a paperback release and a hardcover release, in terms of publicity, readings, promotion?
AWS: There’s quite a big difference between, and I’m not sure yet which I like better! For hardcover, you know your publicist is going to be out there trying her very best (if you have a good one, which I fortunately do) to garner reviews in big magazines, papers and websites; but with the paperback, you’re fairly limited in terms of what press you can expect. Most of the magazines or press outlets just don’t cover the second release. So, in one sense, you’re relieved because you’re not biting your fingernails off, wondering who is going to review it, but on the other hand, you’re thinking, “Just how the heck is anyone going to hear about this?”

The same applies for readings. A few friends who have done readings/tours for their paperback, but it’s fairly unusual. The book really gets the push when it’s released in hardcover, and the paperback rides its coattails. That said, my marketing team has created quite a few online campaigns for the paperback release – the book has proven itself and earned its keep, so the publisher is more willing to spend some money to generate some buzz. I dunno. It’s stressful whichever way you look at it. I always forget how stressful a book launch is, and then every time, I’m like, “Oooooh, yeah. Now I remember!”

LR: I know you are in the middle of writing your next novel now. Has it been challenging writing a new book while promoting another?

AWS: In a word: yes. I’ve never been quite in the thick of writing a book (as I am now with my third) when also in the thick of promoting. So I feel a little bit like a maniac these days and am trying to focus myself on one task at a time. Today, I ran around this morning signing stock (store copies) and returning emails from friends/family with their congratulations and doing interviews and tweeting about the book -- and then I had to stop and focus on my line edits for book three. By the end of the day, I’m just exhausted. My agent wanted to meet me for lunch to celebrate, and normally, yes, I’d meet her for lunch and clink a wine glass in celebration, but I said, “I can’t!! I have line edits due in three weeks! What are you crazy?”

LR: You mentioned tweeting in your list of promotional activities. I know you are active on Twitter (that's how we first connected), so can you explain how Twitter fits in to your overall life as an author promoting a book, and as a working writer?
AWS: It’s funny, I’m the first to admit that I was a HUGE Twitter skeptic – I really didn’t see the point. But now I’m addicted! A total convert! It fits into my life in several ways: for one, I really just enjoy the hell out of it – the funny tweets, the informative tweets, learning and reading new things. It seems like an odd thing – to be connecting with strangers – but it’s strangely not. And two, I do think that Twitter is invaluable from a promotional standpoint. I’ve gotten so many notes or tweets from people who have picked up my books because they enjoy my tweets…and it’s not just about putting out good tweets, it’s about, as I said before, connecting with people.

Sort of how we like reading “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!,” readers enjoy “knowing” authors, knowing about their mutually shared interests, what’s going on in their lives, and I really believe that this makes them more inclined to pick up a book when in the store. (BTW, I’m not equating myself to a star - just making a point.) It gives readers a chance to know you – virtually or not – and yeah, then it’s pretty cool to see a “friend’s” book on sale. But I don’t want this to sound manipulative or that I just tweet so people will buy the books – I really, really love the connections I’ve made and make, and have a great time doing it. [Note – Allison also has a Facebook fan page.]

LR: You've published a considerable number of articles in major magazines, including celebrity profiles. How much of your magazine writing influences your current fiction writing?
AWS: Well, I’m not sure that it “influenced” my fiction writing, so to speak, but it certainly helped me fine-tune my writing in general. Could I have become a novelist without being a journalist? Maybe, I’m not sure, but it undoubtedly was one of those situations where one road led to the next.

Being a freelancer really taught me self-discipline. I think people assume that writers sit around all day watching Oprah, but when you have four deadlines in one week, you really learn all about time-management, which as I alluded to above, is something I definitely need these days.

I think being a journalist also obviously made me a much better writer. I know how to turn a phrase, how to put together a snappy sentence, how to trust myself when my writing is strong, and perhaps most importantly, to be entirely, 100% okay with the editing process. I try to never get too married/tied to any passage or words I put on the page, and if my editor nixes them, I trust (almost always) that it’s for the better good of the book. Anyone who has ever written for some of the major women’s magazines knows that sometimes your words get edited, and that’s why editors have their jobs.

LR: You've achieved one of the holy grails of many novelists –Time of My Life is being turned into a movie – any hesitations about the adaptation?
AWS: No, none at all, for a few reasons: 1) it is in very, very capable hands with wonderful producers who have taken the time to solicit my opinions on a lot of aspects and who have also befriended me, and 2) I really don’t feel a huge amount of ownership over the movie. I mean, even if it turned out to be absolutely horrid – which I’m certain it WON’T – but even if it did, my book still stands on its own. The words that I wrote are still there for everyone to read, and that’s all I can care about. That said, I’m truly excited that things are moving forward, and I cannot WAIT to see who is cast.

LR: How is your writing life currently divided? Is this an ideal arrangement, or are you (like most other writers I know) constantly torn between wanting to spend more time on one aspect than another?
AWS: These days, I mostly focus on fiction, with the exception being celebrity profiles because I’m a pop culture junkie, and I LOVE doing them. So I usually interview/write a few of those a month, but they don’t take up so much time, other than the scheduling and the actual interviewing. I did the magazine thing for about seven years, and during that time, yes, I felt hugely torn – sort of all over the map – in juggling everything I wanted to do. I wrote my first novel while I was still heavily freelancing, so I had to be really careful about the minutes I wasted in my day! But now, I’m fortunate enough to mostly do fiction – I try to write in the morning so I don’t procrastinate, and then often spend the afternoons on the promo/marketing stuff if I’m at that point in the book cycle.

LR: Categories, labels, and genre descriptions are often useful for booksellers, but usually not so much for the writers. Do you think of yourself as a writer of contemporary women's fiction, chick lit, literary fiction or – none of the above? Do these labels help or hurt novelists?
AWS: If someone asks, I usually classify my books as commercial fiction, and if they look at me blankly, I say, “The type of book that gets reviewed in People.” But my books have definitely been called women’s fiction as well as chick lit, and really, I don’t care so much about labels. I think that they’re primarily used internally – for marketing purposes – because it’s not like readers go to the store and think, “Oh, this book isn’t chick lit-y enough, I won’t buy it.” They’re just looking for a good voice and a good story, and the rest of it doesn’t matter so much.

LR: Not every book issued in hardcover goes on to have a paperback life. Did you know from the start that yours would, or was it dependent on sales and/or other industry criteria, on the film option sale?
AWS: I always assumed that it would be released in paperback – about a year or so after the hardcover, just as my first book had been. Not every book is rereleased but most are, so to be honest, this didn’t really enter my mind. But sure, it does depend on industry sales…though the assumption is that a hardcover (at least in fiction, I can’t speak to nonfiction) will also be released in paperback. I’ve been quite fortunate, actually, in that my publisher pushed up the paperback release to capitalize on summer reading and a great placement in Target, so hopefully, people will still remember the cover and the title from last fall’s release.

LR: As mom to two young children, any advice for other working writer moms?
AWS: One thing that I’ve always made clear, when asked how I balance everything, is that I have a great babysitter. I treat my job as any other working mom would, even though I work from an office in my house. I close my door, roll up my sleeves and get to work, and just as I wouldn’t have my kids with me at my office if I were a lawyer or a banker, I don’t have my kids around while I write.

Readers, please leave a comment below between now and August 24, to be entered in a random drawing to win a copy of Time of My Life. (Be sure to leave a way for me to get in touch – an email address, or link to a blog or website which has a contact method.)

Friday, August 7, 2009

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: This, that, and the other things.

Busy morning, so without introduction, here are my horded, enjoyed, interesting, puzzling, annoying, helpful, laughable and leftover links from the past week.
•Though I never get to read them all, I always like to read The Library Journal’s seasonal list of memoirs of note, like this one listing 58 titles being published this fall.
• Speaking of memoir, read Dani Shapiro’s Los Angeles Times piece on creating memoir art.
•Funny, I don’t have an agent myself, and yet I am constantly being asked by others how to get one. As I’ve seen firsthand that Mediabistro usually does a good job with their one-night seminars, I might steer those in the NY metro area to the one on August 12, about this very topic.
•Sometimes you just want to churn up a really lustful dislike for a too-talented, too-young new literary light, like this guy with the right pedigree, degrees and seemingly lucky breaks. Only, it seems he deserves his success.
•Two good ones from the week of winning guest posts over at Nathan Bransford’s blog (picked from hundreds of entries): Required reading for the (life, not work) partners of working writers, and the art and science of book blurbs.
•And here are a few more ideas to pass along to those whose role it is to be supportive of the writers in their life.
•Used to be the only place to find Shark Week was on a cable TV channel devoted to such animal fear programming, but now many more mainstream entertainment programs are getting in on the act. So why not poems for Shark Week?
How Not to Write a Story? Who better to advise than a writer who is currently judging a short story contest?
•Once you’ve got that advice memorized, see if you can do it all in 25 words, which is the limit for fiction in this planned anthology.
•Everyone gets advice when applying to MFA programs, right? Writing friends, instructors, workshop participants, former editors and professors, mentors are typically all asked for their suggestions, input, letters of recommendation, etc. But what about paying for “professional” help with one’s application, mission statement, and creative portfolio? There’s a controversy brewing over this, fueled by a new entrant into the newish field. What say you?
•The always wise Tayari Jones has this to say about how to react with grace to feedback on one’s work-in-progress.
•This longish piece on long-form magazine article editing was full of insight and helpful links.
•And finally, I laughed out loud at Rachel Toor’s opening paragraphs to her rant/advice/essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I Just Wrote This Last Night.”
Have a great weekend. Next week on the blog: an interview with Allison Winn Scotch, a guest post from Christina Baker Kline, and more.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 5

The stack of notebooks I'm keeping near my desk this summer are from my MFA days, and I'm enjoying opening them at random and posting what I find.

From a question-and-answer session following a faculty presentation:
•Remember that form and genre is often determined not so much by the writer but
by how the writing is presented to us, how it's
marketed to the reader.
•Characters are the symbols which move a story along.
•Commit to a length but leave space for doubt and for accidents (which aren't).
•Think of language as a character too.
•In some cases, theme, style, and structure can carry as much or even more than plot.
- Kazim Ali, poet, novelist and nonfiction writer

You can read the first four installments of the MFA notebooks posts here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gold in Them Notebooks, Part 4

Welcome to the fourth in a series of posts on what I find while taking a random cruise through a pile of notebooks from my MFA program.

From a discussion during a nonfiction workshop about writing while feeling stuck:

•Try this: Keep writing this sentence, filling in the blanks anew each time: "Part of me wants _____, but part of me wants _____."
•When you feel you can't write about something, write at it. Write in pieces – individual sentences, paragraphs.
•When you have something (or even if you think you don't) make your margins very wide and print it out, with text running down the center of the page only, so you can write in longhand on the sides of the paper (especially transitions), then…get some scissors and literally cut and paste. See what happens.
•Ask yourself if there is a part of you that is hiding behind the stuff you are not writing.
•Forget about explaining a concept like "forgiveness" – do it with scene, image, moment, emotional clarity.
- Richard Hoffman, memoirist and poet; Writer in Residence, Emerson College.

You can read the first three MFA notebooks posts here.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Guest Blogger Debra Borden on Thinking, Writing, the Long Haul, and Being a Little Bit Happy

I met Debra Borden at the BooksNJ 2009 Festival, when she asked a question during a seminar on writing with a co-author. It was one of those questions I suspect many in the tent that afternoon may have wanted to ask, but which might make them appear to be less than perfect at managing the business end of their writing careers. Debra asked anyway, and I immediately admired her for that. When the session broke up, we had an interesting conversation, and later that day I sat in on the panel Debra co-presented, on contemporary women's fiction. In the talk she gave and in the way she answered audience questions, I sensed this was someone who not only knew how hard it is to be a published author, but who would still be enjoying her writing experiences even if she were not yet published. And I knew I wanted to ask her to write something for the blog.

Debra is the author of two novels, Lucky Me and A Little Bit Married (both published by Random House) and her humorous essays have appeared in The New York Times and Women’s Health Magazine. She is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, providing therapy to clients in their home or office.

Please welcome Debra Borden.

Hello my name is Debra Borden and I am…….an author. Sounds a little like a twelve step program, right?

Well writing, for me, is more like a compulsion than a vocation, so that’s not so far off. In fact, it occurs to me that the steps for a journey such as this, a journey to the writing life, are less about a skill set than a mindset. Of course, you’ll have to have some talent eventually, but as we all know, so many talented writers remain unpublished and so much, shall we say, questionable literature, is in the store. Perhaps because I am also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, just as my clinical background informs my fiction, it also influences my perception of the steps that contributed to my success.

For those interested in only the brass tacks, the "who’d you call, what’d they say, how’d you do it and I’m taking names" reduction, there’s a catch and here it is: The concrete steps are the easy part. Five years ago I was an aspiring writer with a manuscript, no formal training and a dream. Today I am a published author of two novels and a new nonfiction book proposal making the rounds. Certainly a good part of the process involved educating myself about the industry, networking like crazy for contacts, craft and critique, and engaging in all sorts of dues-paying.

But it was the more holistic elements of the journey, the softer, subtle moves that more or less prepared me to be prepared, that mattered just as much; so that when those brass tacks and concrete efforts paid off, I knew how to take advantage of them.

Don’t underestimate the soft steps, I wouldn’t have become published without them. I think of it like insulation, that big fluffy pink stuff in the walls of your house. Your house would stand just fine without it, but that extra layer makes all the difference when it comes to maintenance and longevity. Just like houses, writers need emotional insulation to begin, support, temper and prolong their careers. Here’s what I mean.

Start to think of yourself as a writer.

By this I mean, you just decide. If you have a day job, then writing is what you do in your spare time, but you do it, with purpose. You may have many roles: parent, adult child, sibling, customer service rep, soccer coach, but now you have one more -- you are a writer. Tell yourself and tell other people that you are writing a book. Go to book stores. Read about the writing life. Start with How-To’s or industry manuals or you can start with famous authors. Everyone from Stephen King to Annie Dillard has written a book about writing. Look at writers' magazines. Maybe subscribe to one. Or subscribe to an online writers' site.

Do not discount this process. Self talk is very powerful. You are probably already using it to your disadvantage with plenty of “I can’t, I don’t, I never” and it’s the single easiest turnaround tool in your arsenal. When you start to think of yourself as a writer you’ll be surprised at how much easier everything gets.

Be happy.

Okay, I know that sounds silly. What I mean is, don’t be bitter and defeatist. We all know it’s insanely difficult to get published, but hey, you have a dream, enjoy it. Some people don’t. I call this the ‘Sense’ trilogy. Have a Sense of humor, a Sense of self, and the Sense not to take it all too seriously. If you don’t make up your mind that there will be huge setbacks, you will not persevere. The key to getting published is resiliency. And happy people are just generally more resilient, less likely to embrace the negatives and throw in the towel.

I will tell you something else about being happy, a specific bonus of being happy. One day you will get that two minutes with an agent or a chance meeting at a party with an editor and you will be the kind of person who is delightful and engaging. (You will also be dying inside, nervous and desperate, there’s just no way around that because you want this so much.) But your positive attitude will serve you. And when you do sell your book and more, you will be the kind of author and client that people want to include, promote and hold onto—agents, editors, and publicists dread the temperamental and unreasonable writers they are sometimes forced to deal with, so don’t be one.

Be prepared for a long haul.

Now I know what you’re thinking because I thought it too. Maybe, just maybe, it won’t be like that for me. Maybe I am the next John Grisham or Joan Didion or Nabokov, and you know what, maybe you are, I hope so, I really do, because it’s good for all of us if you are. Do you know that every time JK Rowling brought out another Harry Potter book, all book sales skyrocketed in all genres? It brought out the customers. So maybe, just maybe, you’re the next big thing.

But in case you fall into the other category, here’s what you need to do. Pretend you’re going on a car trip. If you think the trip will only be two hours long and it goes for ten, how cranky and irritated are you? But if you plan for ten, you settle in a little differently, right? You are more patient, tolerant, and cheerful. You can take almost anything if you’re prepared. Well, consider yourself prepared. It’s a long haul, and like a car trip, there will be unexpected delays, traffic jams, all sorts of frustrations, but also beautiful scenery and unexpected company and you just need to ride it out.