Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Author Interview: Kim Stagliano on her memoir, combining humor and autism. Yep, you read right.

Memoirs by mothers of special needs children are a well-stocked sub-category of the genre, with those focusing on children on the autism spectrum making up a sizable portion. Many follow the family from diagnosis and adjusting to a "new normal," to navigating a maze of therapies and special services, offering a window into a unique kind of family life. So does Kim Stagliano's book – but with two big differences: Autism disproportionately afflicts males, but Kim has three autistic daughters. And, she's done something rarely attempted in this subcategory: she puts humor on the page, with gusto. Her book is All I Can Handle: I'm No Mother Teresa – A Life Raising Three Daughters With Autism.

Kim agreed to answer a few of my nosy questions.

Lisa Romeo: You write with such graceful humor, not going for big laughs, but showing the humor even in very difficult situations. Has humor always come naturally to you?

Kim Stagliano: I am a classic middle child and was always a bit of the class clown. I have a wry, biting humor that isn’t always that nice. I didn’t have to work to create the humor in the book; it’s part of my style in general.

LR: When did you realize you could employ humor in accounts of your family's life with three daughters on the autism spectrum?

KS: When I wrote my first Huffington Post piece in 2006 and people laughed and learned, and complimented the (writing) style.

LR: Did you always know you'd want to write a memoir, or did that build slowly as you began to blog and report on autism and your personal experiences? When did you first see yourself as a nonfiction writer, as opposed to a woman who was chronicling her family's journey?

KS: I was dead set against it! How’s that? I wanted to write fiction – still do! I never thought anyone would be interested in our story and I just didn’t want to relive every moment. But as editors asked my agent for a non-fic proposal, the idea grew on me and I decided I could find a way to write our story while staying semi-sane and get a hopeful but realistic (and humorous) message into a book.

LR: You include images and experiences some other writers of autism memoirs often retreat from – parents injured by a child's meltdown, kids' "decorating" with feces, financial wipe-outs that treatment and other issues can cause. When you are writing, do you ever hesitate and think, maybe I shouldn't go there?

KS: Sure. I try to respect my children’s identities and their humanity – and it’s a fine line. Some folks think I cross the line, others appreciate the candor in that they don’t feel so alone. I hit the delete key about a million times while writing!

LR: Your book mixes family stories with your strong views on autism advocacy, the role of vaccines, social services, education, and public perception, as well as flashbacks from your childhood. How did you go about deciding on an organization and structure for the book?

KS: I knew that the autism community has limited time (to read). So I wanted the book to be broken into bite sized chapters that you could read quickly, digest and then either put the book down or continue reading. I made the book a quick read on purpose to accommodate the needs of the autism community first and to make the book super approachable for those outside our world, like teachers, therapists, outside family members. It’s purposefully a fast, funny read so no one will really know “what hit them” when they are finished.

LR: Although you already had a strong following (dare I use that word: platform), did it strike those in publishing – agents, publishing house editor, marketing folks – as an odd sell, a book about raising three autistic daughters which is also humorous, and at times, hilarious?

KS: Yes it did. We had a lot of editors who just did NOT get me, my humor or how to make the story funny. My agent persevered though and he sold the proposal. There were also a lot of comments that the market was already saturated – but no other book offers the raw honesty and humor like mine does. I like to say, “You won’t need a Prozac to read it,” and I mean it!

LR: You are managing editor of Age of Autism, a major news site and online community. Did that work prepare you (or not) for the challenge of pulling together this memoir?

KS: Writing a book is very different from blogging and running Age of Autism. What AofA did for me was to give me a constant reminder of who I was writing for – my audience of parents struggling to get through the day or the night and desperate for laughter and encouragement.

LR: Is there another book in the works?

KS: Yes there is! Fiction (I get to kill people, yay). I’m working on a young adult novel that brings in the sibling issue with autism. That’s all I’ll tell you for now.

Note from Lisa: We're giving away a signed book to one reader. To be entered in the random drawing, leave your comment on this post by midnight Tuesday, April 5. (U.S. postal addresses only.)

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, March 25, 2011

► Are you a book hoarder? Then you will understand this guy's problem.

► End your week – start your weekend – on a grace note, by reading Emily Rapp's elegant essay about how her terminally ill son's diagnosis led her "home" – in every sense of the word.

► In a Poynter interview, Frank Bruni describes how he prepared (in part) for the different challenge of writing his memoir, Born Round, after decades as a New York Times reporter, foreign bureau chief and restaurant critic: "In part I approached my own story the way I would someone else’s. To supplement my own memories I debriefed family members and friends. But mostly I took some time to read, in rapid succession, the kinds of memoirs I’d read before but never with a particular focus. I looked closely at how they were done, how they were paced, their tones. And I tried to draw from that some internal sense of how I should proceed with mine and what I wanted it to read and sound like." The rest of the interview is here.

►Penned a short line you love? Gotham Writing Workshops is running a Twitter-length contest (140 characters).

► More than two dozen AOL sites have either been shut down, or folded into similar "stronger" Huffington Post verticals. It's my understanding that these AOL sites were paying freelance contributors, so what will happen to that policy now? Will the freelance writers now be labeled bloggers, which HuffPo claims it's okay not to pay because they are "not really writers"? And what about that statement anyway?

► I recently concluded the Winter Prompts Project, emailing daily writing prompts to dozens of writers. The final prompt was, "The end of the line." In response, Stephanie Walulik, a former writing student of mine and Prompt Project participant, wrote this post on her blog – about writing, waiting, and endings.

► Have journaling fever? Or wish you did? Maybe Journalfest is for you.

►Local folks interested in online journalism might want to attend this 2-hour panel, Truth and Authenticity in News in a Digital age, at Caldwell College on April 7.

►Finally, if only every writing job ad were this honest.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 9 : Words. They matter!

"One thing I've learned is that I need to analyze every single word carefully to see whether it's contributing and if not, replace it or cut it."

There's a tendency to read the above, and sort of snidely snicker, Duh.

But think again. This writer has articulated something some writers never seem to truly grasp. Or, have forgotten.

While every writer knows that words are the building blocks of their craft, and most writers are world class word geeks, the role of each individual word in a piece is sometimes overlooked. Once we get the "big idea," we skip to thinking in terms of themes, plots, topics, characters, scenes, images, flashbacks, feelings, etc. Oh we may vacillate over choosing the perfect word for that one powerful line of dialogue, or for the opening and/or the final sentence. We may silently high-five ourselves when we settle on the greatest word in a particularly good transition or description.

But sometimes we stop treating individual words as if they are gems to be handled with care, and instead begin deploying them with abandon, splattering them across the page as if it doesn't matter where they land, who their neighbors are, what impact they, as individuals, will have on the reader.

So occasionally, as the writing student quoted above notes, we need a reminder: Everything we do is about one word, then another. One word at a time. You know what? This is easy to forget when we are writing in increments of thousands of words. We begin thinking about sections, pages and chapters, instead of what our work really is: words. One word after another. Then another word. And another.

I do know writers who, in the first draft of a piece, will not move on from a sentence if one word strikes them as even slightly off, even it that sentence takes an hour or more to perfect. I like to power through first drafts, and then scrutinize every word later, during revisions -- and in final edits, in proofreading (and, heaven help me yes, even after publication).

I'm not going to advocate either system, but urge writers, at some point in the draft/ revision/rewrite/editing process, to take a long look at each word. And, frankly I'm a little miffed when students think of this as a bother.

Looking carefully at each word doesn't strike me in the least as onerous, but as the best fun a writer can have – playing with words. This one or that one? Big or small? Strong or soft? Common or unusual? Does this word contribute to my overall piece? To this sentence? This paragraph? Is it the best word? Is there a more precise word? A more interesting one? Can the word be cut entirely (I'm thinking of adverbs mostly, but also words like "that")? Would a more vivid, a more active, a more nuanced word be better?

Look, we're writers. We all love words. Let's treat them as if they actually matters. Every single one.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writing Tips from Teen Spy Author Anthony Horowitz: Another Night in the NJ Suburbs

Last night my sons and I saw the novelist Anthony Horowitz at a pre-launch event for his book, Scorpia Rising, the last in the British teen spy Alex Rider series, released in the U.S. today. Instead of reading, Horowitz talked about being a writer, peppered with plenty of puns and obvious half-truths, and took questions from the mostly teen and tween audience, answering in a lively prattle. At one point, he noted how much he'd disliked school and that he'd put every one of his teachers in his novels, where they each promptly met with a painful death. (Note: the event took place in a middle school with many teachers in attendance.)

But then Horowitz got serious for a moment, giving advice to the fledging writers in the room. To me though, his tips are just as relevant to writers of any age or experience. Horowitz, who also writes for several British television shows, and is currently working on an adult novel about Sherlock Holmes, told his fans there are five basic things one must do to be a writer (I'm paraphrasing):

First, read. Second, write. Third, go out and have fun, have adventures. (Do something illegal! Don't get caught.) Or else you will have nothing to write about except someone alone in a room typing. Fourth, believe in yourself and what you are doing. There will always be someone telling you that what you are writing won't work. Ignore them. Fifth, never stop. The difference between a successful and unsuccessful writer is the unsuccessful one stopped writing.

Horowitz also talked about the connection between the mental state of the writer and the experience of the reader: "Writing is telepathy. If you are bored and miserable while writing, the reader will be bored and miserable reading."

The kids asked such great questions, and Horowitz gamely answered every one:

- He writes "anywhere and everywhere," but his favorite places are at a secluded vacation house and in his London home office, where he has a view of St. Paul's Cathedral.

- "The best thing about being a writer is thinking of new ideas. The writing itself is not so much fun. Writing is hard."

- Best places/times to work out new ideas are while walking his dogs and while in a hot bathtub. 'Or in a hot bath with the dogs," he joked (I think).

- In teen adventure books, "First chapter: kill all the parents. It's impossible for kids to have adventures with parents around."

- He liked the movie Stormbreaker, based on the first Alex Rider book. But – "No movie is ever as good as the book."

- Don't ever let anyone tell you that reading is passive. It's one of the most creative things you can ever do. Your mind is at work all the time when you are reading.

- Though he'd published many books before the Alex Rider series shot to global success, when he wrote the opening line of the first (of 9) books in that series, he had a strong feeling his life might change.

- He writes first drafts by hand.

- How to get back at movie producers who decide not to greenlight a second film from your series: put them in the next book, with thinly veiled names, and have them roll around in a mud puddle--while on fire.

Horowitz stayed on for more than an hour, signing 100+ books, greeting every kid by name, posing for photos, shaking hands, answering questions at the signing table. Kudos to Watchung Booksellers (my local independent bookstore), for brining Horowitz to Montclair, where he completed a circle of sorts. Ten years ago, the bookstore hosted him when he was only a moderately successful YA author, and immediately after, the Alex Rider series exploded across the globe. Coincidence? Cause? That didn't seem to matter to the large and enthusiastic audience of young readers, parents, teachers and librarians last night. All in all, a pretty terrific way to spend a Monday night in the New Jersey suburbs.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, March 18, 2011 Edition

► Members of the Authors Guild have about a month left to take advantage of their extremely generous discount offer on registration to Book Expo America, May 24 - 26 in New York City.

► If you are an essay writer (or simply love reading well-crafted essays), then you probably know about The Pedestrian. Now, you can gain online access to the full text of most of the journal's pieces with a 24-hour, $2.99 subscription.

► Two interesting pieces over at the Nieman Journalism Lab: A former editor-in-chief of the Sunday New York Times Magazine, and a former New Yorker writer, have a conversation about the future of long-form journalism, and a look at what the new paywalls at major newspaper websites may cost writers.

► Spend any time on Twitter? Then you might want this list of women in publishing who regularly tweet.

► Local writers, next Saturday, March 26, the West Caldwell Public Library, is hosting Women Poets Reading Poems that Reflect the Lives of Women. Included on the roster of two dozen-plus area poets are several who have been featured here on this blog.

► Over at Christian Writers Submission Information blog, I was pleased to find a wide range of calls for anthologies, journals and other projects (including many paying markets) that weren't strictly (or only) in the Christian writing lane.

► Congrats to my friend Kathy Briccetti, author of Blood Strangers: A Memoir, for her Lambda Literary Award nomination.

► Lisa Dale, author of several novels, including Slow Dancing on Price's Pier (release date April 5), is offering a free ebook download, 10 Simple Questions That Can Make or Break Your Author's Blog.

► Finally, the start date of my next online *I Should Be Writing* Boot Camp for Procrastinators and Busy People has been moved back to Monday, 3/28 so you still have time to register (that is if you don't procrastinate…) My Rutgers continuing education class, Memoir & Creative Nonfiction Writing, begins Saturday, 3/26, on the New Brunswick campus; registration accepted until Tuesday evening, 3/22.

Have a great weekend.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Guest Blogger Lisa Catherine Harper on revisions and her new book, A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood

A few weeks ago, while prepping an online lecture on the tangled topic of writing about people we know and love (or have known and loved), Lisa Harper pointed me to a post she'd written for the Poetry Foundation blog. In that post, she describes discovering she was the subject of several poems in a book by a former lover. Lisa teaches in the University of San Francisco's MFA program, and in more of the writer community coincidences I love, Lisa grew up only a few miles from where I live and has written a new book about motherhood (a favorite writing subject of mine).

Please welcome Lisa Catherine Harper.

A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood, tells my personal story against the backdrop of science, focusing on how the physical changes of motherhood give rise to its profound emotional and psychological transformations. The book was informed equally by personal experience and the kind of research available only in medical textbooks and journals.

From the get-go, I aimed to write a nonfiction narrative about motherhood which looked beyond a personal story to something universal. But this posed problems for some agents and editors who told me it was “too quiet”; neither “self-help” nor “straightforward personal narrative.”

My book didn’t focus simply on pregnancy or on baby’s first year, but spanned the period of tumultuous change between conception and my daughter’s first nine months—a time that defined for me my transition to motherhood. Editors didn’t know what to do with the book, how to sell it, or where it would find its home in bookstores. I responded by working hard on two aspects of my manuscript: 1) Dramatizing the personal story; and 2) Ensuring the research emerged organically from the narrative.

To bring out the narrative I added more scene, increased the use of direct dialogue, and made setting more vivid. I also included significant character development of my husband. Early readers had asked for that, and I responded, and the result has been constant feedback about how much my readers now appreciate his presence. I cut whole chapters that didn’t relate to the larger story of change, and I completely rewrote a few that were cast in more lyric modes—which were lovely on their own but defied the structure of the book.

To integrate the research I worked very hard to translate medical language for a lay reader. Right up through the copyediting stage my editor and I continued to make sure the tone, diction, voice, and syntax of the medical language was consistent with the story. Also—I cut details and facts that, while interesting, did not have direct bearing on the story. So there was significant development, refining, and cutting, as well as some structural revision.

The passage that follows is a good example of a strategy that I urge my students to employ: the speedy anecdote, which is a summary that has the force of scene. The lists of food came later, and both were a way for me to show just how greedily and omnivorously hungry nursing made me. In the passage I try to move swiftly through a period of time that lasted a few weeks, but to give the episode immediate and urgent presence through the details (sweat soaked bedclothes, the showers, the lists of food.)

The medical passage is a good example of one which made use of more graceful transitions (During this period…after birth) and more straightforward syntax than you might find in a medical text. In the passage, I cast the list of facts so that it tells the physical story about what happens in during this difficult postpartum time. In fact, this material was gathered from several different chapters of the texts I worked with, then synthesized into one cohesive “story.”

My persistence paid off: my book won the 2010 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, found a home at Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, and has been praised by Publishers Weekly as “universal, moving, and relevant.”

Below is a passage from “The Fourth Trimester,” which moves from story to research then back to story as it explores those impossibly hard first postpartum weeks.

After the pain [of labor], after the bone soaking fatigue, came the hunger. No one had prepared me for this. No one had warned me just how hungry I would become in the days after I gave birth. Even as the fluid left my body through urine and sweat—a horrible, cold sweat that soaked the bedclothes and necessitated two or three showers and two or three changes of pajamas each night—the milking left me ravenous, as if my stomach had been emptied along with my breast of every scrap of food and nutrient it might have possessed in reserve. I could never eat enough. Every few hours my blood sugar dropped precipitously, and it was all I could do to load myself with calories. I ate handfuls of nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, crackers, cheese, olives, meats, antipasto vegetables, cold pasta, cold pizza, salads gifted by friends. I was grateful to the point of speechlessness for the food my friends had dropped off, because even the ready-to-eat meals I had stored in our freezer took too much energy to prepare. Truly, it took Herculean effort to defrost and reheat and serve. Then, on day three of Ella’s life, an enormous, cement-heavy box arrived via FedEx from New York. I sliced it open and revealed a half dozen cheeses, olives, artichokes, flatbread, a loaf of dark rye, dolmas, roasted peppers, black olive tapenade, marinated mushrooms all slick with green olive oil and pungent with vinegar, and a large box of buttery, orange shortbread. Ravenous, I gazed at the bounty and wept. It was exactly what I needed. I could hardly believe my friend’s goodness. We ate our fill, and then, like the loaves and the fishes, the food sustained us for many days.

The first six weeks postpartum, often referred to as the fourth trimester, is a deceptively arduous time. During this period, the mother’s body must reverse all of the processes of pregnancy. Every system of her body, not simply her reproductive organs—from respiratory to gastrointestinal to hematologic to neuromuscular—has undergone dramatic physiological change in order to assume the additional functions and capacities of pregnancy. After birth, the mother’s blood volume, which has grown 30 to 50 percent, by up to a liter and a half, must decrease to pre-pregnancy levels. Her heart rate, which has increased progressively over the pregnancy until it beats fifteen to twenty times more per minute, will slow. The concentration of thyroid hormones, which have been elevated in order to support the altered metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and lipids, must return to normal. Placental hormones, like estrogen and progesterone, diminish rapidly. The mother’s uterus must shrink and resume its proper relation to the rest of her abdominal organs. The cervix, bruised and distended from delivery, must heal, or “form up” and shorten. The site of placental attachment also must heal (which it does, amazingly, without scarring). And, of course, breasts, under the influence of two powerful hormones, prolactin and oxytocin, must undergo the final transitions that will enable lactation. This is only the best case scenario: there are many complications—from surgery to depression to placental retention–that can make recovery even more arduous.

And then, there is the practical matter of the baby.

Notes from Lisa (Romeo): To learn more, visit Lisa Harper's website and watch the cool (and short) video book trailer. Her book is now available for pre-order. You can also follow Lisa Harper on Twitter.
If you'd like to win a free, signed copy of A Double Life, Discovering Motherhood, please leave a comment on this post by midnight, March 21 (must have a U.S. postal address). One commenter will be chosen at random.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers, March 4, 2011

►Over at Writers for the Red Cross, all this month you can bid on "publishing-related items and services donated by authors, publicists, agents, and editors."

►Are there really fewer women's bylines on OpEd and other opinion pages simply because women writers don't submit as frequently as men?

►For years, I've heard only good things – raves, actually – about Robert McKee's Story Seminar (late March/early April in New York City). Originally geared to screenwriters, I know many novelists and nonfiction writers who claim their approach to narrative was transformed by attending.

►The New York Times Sunday Magazine has killed the On Language column after 32 years. But there is a Facebook page urging its return.

►If the Borders in your backyard recently closed, there's a list of alternative independent bookstores by location over at Reluctant Habits.

►Plot got you puzzled? Check out The Plot Whisperer.

►I'm wondering what the slush pile is looking like over at Akashic Books since publisher Johnny Temple said in this interview that his company still accepts (welcomes!) non-agented submissions.

►Finally, sometimes I'm actually glad I live in New Jersey. When library cuts loomed, Jersey library supporters took to Twitter with cleverly inspired tweets.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Panning for Writing Rules, Finding Some

I recently received a copy of MFA in a Box by John Rember, and have been dipping in and out.
Rember ends some chapters with a list of Rules for Writers. Here are some I like so far:
•Writing is co-written. The common name for co-author is reader.
• Every draft takes a layer off the surface of your consciousness. Rewriting is a form of personal archaeology, and the good stuff is never on the surface.
• Don't wade in over your boots unless you don't mind getting wet.
• Treat you reader with respect. They don’t' have the time to know what you know. Your own arrogance can kill the best parts of your stories.
• If you're lucky, the writer and the editor in you will accept the principle of mutually assured destruction and learn to put up with each other. The best I can say for this arrangement is that sometimes the editor saves the writer from going down the wrong path, and the writer saves the editor from reducing the story to a rehash of proven and predictable technique.
• Learn to turn your face toward the things that nobody else wants to look at. You'll find things there that nobody else has seen.