Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Portait of The Artist as a Young Woman

Sheila Curran

I took my first writing class at the age of 40. It was called Mothers Write, sponsored by the Public Library in Tempe, Arizona. Why did I wait so long, you might ask? For many of the same reasons it was decades before I hauled my butt into therapy. Convinced the shrink would tell me I was crazy (and snap his fingers for the men in white coats) I was also certain any writing instructor worth her salt would suspend my poetic license. This image was less drastic than the insane asylum, more like a slow folding of the tents I’d pitched around a desire that dare not be named, lest it be immediately quashed by those arbiters of literary talent with taste and judgment.

You see, even though I’d spent my childhood engrossed in books and even wrote plays we performed using the garage door as an impromptu curtain, it never occurred to me that I could be one of those godly creatures whose work I adored.

Add Catholic guilt to fear of failure and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a young woman who avoids college English altogether. She decides instead, after attending a lecture titled “Torture in Brazil” to major in saving the world. I put together my own course of studies, variously described, depending on my audience, as Latin American Studies, Agricultural Economics in the Third World and/or Ending World Hunger and Poverty and That’s Not Funny.

By my senior year, I was insufferable. I knew everything. I knew nothing. I could not buy a record album (def: mid-century spinning disc played on turntable to produce sound waves) because that five dollars would feed a family in Bolivia for a week. In reply to an innocent greeting by an unsuspecting stranger, I might very well say, “Well, it’s not a good morning in Chile.” The more I discovered about Latin America, the harder I found it to describe, the more its miseries weighted me down. There was nothing I could offer in the way of practical solutions, given the failures of so many well-meaning souls who’d ventured there before me, only to discover that the Law of Unintended Consequences is otherwise known by the last name of Murphy.

Besides, there were dictators in Latin America, commanding militias bent on eating do-gooders like me for brunch and spitting us out before siesta. Worse, I’d heard there existed fun-sized cockroaches bigger than your head.

It was by chance that I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, then Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende. These titans of Latin American literature were able to express that imponderable complexity that had so defied my powers of exposition. The byzantine nature of life, described from within a culture rather than above or outside it. Most important and redemptive of all, these writers took neither themselves nor their people’s struggles so much to heart that they forgot humor, valiance, happiness, love.

By George, they had it!

Exit, stage left, the missionary in faux-peasant dress. Enter, stage right, a devotee of this glorious form of communication known as the novel. As in, that lovely relic from my childhood, that form of storytelling I’d been depriving myself of for years in the name of ‘doing good.’

I applied to study comparative literature at the University of Chicago, eager to find the truths that fiction could teach. I soon discovered that –in the Eighties – notions like truth, beauty and even inspiration were wildly out-of-fashion among serious scholars of the book. What they pursued instead was a fugitive meaninglessness which one sought only by plunging along with them down the intellectual rabbit hole and through narrow ant-farm diagrams of sentences parsed to the Nth degree.

I barely escaped with my Master’s, prodded on by my patient boyfriend through the academic equivalent of Navy Seal tryouts. Susan Sontag, one of my program’s more famous alums, had been quoted as saying she never felt smart enough to be at the University of Chicago. This sentiment buoyed me during that difficult time, plowing through Ulysses and Proust over the same weekend I was to digest and regurgitate Foucault, Levi-Strauss and Lacan. The result became a melting pot of confusion, or as Woody Allen famously quipped about having taken Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading course, “I just read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.”

One of my favorite professors there taught Structuralism with a wink and a nod. She described the difference between our university and Berkeley. “Here, you go to a party and everyone talks about their work, sneaking away to see a movie or plant their garden. In California, they talk about their prize tomatoes or film, and sneak away to do their work.
I became a Californian, in spirit if not location. For years thereafter I waited tables, sneaking away to write novels, telling myself it was ‘just practice’ for the law I would someday practice. By the time my husband snagged a tenure track job at the University of Virginia, I was able to apply to both law school and the creative writing program. The MFA was my ‘safety school’. Both rejected me.

Fast forward through two children, several nervous breakdowns, midlife crises I and II. Through it all, including somewhat abrupt relocations to England, Boston and Arizona, I continued to write fiction. Even more important, I read. Voraciously, omnivorously, from soup to nuts, Nora Ephron, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, John Le Carre, John Fowles, Ken Follett, William Styron, Pat Conroy, Kaye Gibbons, Susan Isaacs, David Lodge, Helen Fielding, Elizabeth George, Mary Doria Russell.

Meanwhile, I avoided rejection with the same assiduous caution that repelled me from close encounters with foreign insects. Better to keep myself and my dream alive than expose it to the venom that might fell me with one blow, or slowly sap my strength and jaundice me towards that one thing I loved like no other, the fictional dream.

Every few years I’d gather myself up and send out queries to agents and editors. It took five rejections, even if they were encouraging, to sentence my first two novels to death. Not good enough, I’d tell myself, and begin again. From page one, a new story, a fresh four hundred pages until the next dreaded submission.

When I tell this story to would-be authors, it’s a cautionary tale. Rejection, I have come to understand, very late in the game, is the rule, not the exception. Gird your loins, I tell them. How many years earlier might I have been published if I’d not taken an agent or editor’s ‘passing’ as indicative of the value of my work?

On the other hand, it may very well be that the detours I took taught me more than I realized. My insufferable know-it-all without a sense of humor morphed into Siobhan from Everyone She Loved. The insectaphobe turned rejectaphobe took life in Diana Lively is Falling Down. Academia provided the landscape of comedy much as my prior earnestness had doused its flame.

In the end, I had acres of time to develop my own sense of what was great, enjoying popular writers as much as I had Austen, Tolstoy, and Garcia Marquez, aiming my sights on a middlebrow form where high meets low at the crossroads, slapping their hands in time and refuting the silence of one hand clapping, over and over, afraid to make a sound ‘til she gets it just right.

Monday, August 29, 2011

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

It has come to my attention that some of my sister GBCers have been knocked out of Internet commission by Hurrican Irene. Even though according to my friend in Colorado, the weather map yesterday made it look like Irene was going to blaze her trail right through my living room in Danbury, CT, I've escaped unscathed.

So here I am, pinch-hitting, with one of the most basic of posts.

Remember when teachers used to ask you to keep track of what you read over the summer and report back? Well, if I told you what I'd read all summer, that would be one long post. But I can tell you what I read on my actual vacation, last week, when I was in the Cape and Providence. Seven days, seven books, all by GBCers. What can I say? When I'm part of a group blog or writing forum, I always support the others there with my buying dollars. That way, I can say to them, like my dear mom says to me, "See? At least you know at least one person will read your book."

Here, then, are The Vacation 7:

THE COUGAR CLUB, by Susan McBride. Considering I'm of a certain age myself, this is just fun fun fun.
LOVE IN TRANSLATION, by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga. I loved Wendy's first culture-clash novel of East meets West, Midori by Moonlight, and her latest does not disappoint.
FRIDAY MORNINGS AT NINE, by Marilyn Brant. Three married girlfriends - not married to each other, obviously - decide to maybe engage in some infidelity. What could possibly go wrong???

NAMES MY SISTERS CALL ME, by Megan Crane. I've only ever had a brother and I just went gaga for this book about three sisters who do not have an easy time getting along.
BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, by Laura Spinella. A moving story about a woman torn between two men in quite an original way.
MOTHERS AND OTHER LIARS, by Amy Bourret. A provocative look at the choice's one woman makes to save her child.

THE OTHER LIFE, by Ellen Meister. A novel twist on the "If I'd lived this life instead" story.

Now these are by no means all the books I've ever read by GBCers - far from it! - but I only had seven days, after all, and these were the seven books at the top of the stack.

So how about you all? What did you read on your summer vacation?

Be well. Don't forget to write.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

To MFA or Not to MFA

"Should I get an MFA?" -- that's a recurring question that comes up from the aspiring writers that I meet a lot.

I don't have an MFA in Creative Writing. Like quite a few novelists these days, I have an MFA in Dramatic Writing (writing for stage and screen). I've spoken here before about why I made the switch from screenwriting and playwriting to novel writing, but even if I had known how it would all turn out, I would have still chosen to get my MFA in Dramatic Writing. Why? Well, Dramatic Writing teaches you all the lessons that most Creative Writing MFAers have to learn the hard way: how to structure, how to outline, how not to waste your audience's time or money, and how to write on deadline. Dramatic Writing MFA programs also tend to be more business-focused.

I think a Dramatic Writing MFA was just perfect for me. But that doesn't mean it's for everyone. There are plenty of bestselling novelists, who don't have MFAs, but are so in tune with story and perhaps more importantly, their intended audience, that really, they could teach MFA programs a thing or two. At the same time, most of this millenium's Pulitzer winners have Creative Writing MFAs.

So really, the trick is knowing both your weaknesses and your goals. Do you have a bad habit of rambling on? Do you find beginnings, middle, and ends a bit tricky? Do your overall storytelling skills need work? Then consider an MFA in Dramatic Writing.

When you dream of being a big-time writer, do you see yourself giving acceptance speeches for prestigious prizes? Do you love the study of craft? Do you love it enough to want to teach it to other people? Then consider an MFA in Creative Writing.

Do you want to make lots of money? Do you have actual stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that you're just burning to tell? Are you a natural storyteller? Like when you tell a story at a party, do people let you get the whole thing out without interrupting? Then you might want to just skip the MFA, pick up 10 craft books in your chosen genre and just go for it.

Do you plan to write a certain kind of fiction about a certain kind of subject? Then consider getting an advanced degree in that subject. For example, bestseller, Daniel H. Wilson has an advanced degree from the same university as me -- but in Robotics. Wanna guess what he writes about? I just love a sci-fi writer who has a degree in physics, or a mystery writer who used to be a cop. John Grisham, the former lawyer, has slung a few law-centered books, hasn't he? Don't be afraid to get a career education in whatever you'd like to write about.

Most of all, don't get an MFA, just because you think that's what you ought to do. Consider your goals, and educate yourself accordingly.

But now I'm going to kick it to the other authors in our group. How did you decide to MFA or not to MFA? Let us know in the comments.

image credit: QuintanaRoo

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reading to Write

by Samantha Wilde

My writing education began at birth being born, as I was, about the same time my mother published her first novel, which took its place high on the top of one of our multiple bookshelves to be followed, over the years, by twenty other novels (to date) as well as countless versions of each novel in a variety of languages. (That's my mother, Nancy Thayer's, latest novel, HEAT WAVE.)

I grew up assuming writing was a normal occupation and reading came second only to chocolate eating as the most desirable, pleasurable and satisfying activity any adult can enjoy (yes, far ahead of sex). The best way, as I understood it, to become a writer, was reading. In fact, to this day, I marvel at people who long to be writers and fail to be readers. Reading ensured the learning of rhythm and cadence, structure and melody, in the written word. It inspired plot, illustrated the importance of character, and solidified the worth of the occupation of writing itself. As readers, we always knew why writers and books mattered.

Formally, I took every creative writing class offered from the time I could put pen to paper. In my first year of high school at the performing arts school, Walnut Hill, located just outside of Boston, I did an independent study in creative writing with my English teacher. I can still recall the effort of typing out the stories, editing under her careful scrutiny, producing. This went on throughout high school, though I transferred to a different boarding school. In college, first at Wellesley, where fancying myself a poet, I studied under a number of visiting poets, then at Smith, where I took a short story class with Elinor Lipman, mistress of wit.

I was also--though I doubt it needs mentioning--an English major. (What else could I have been?) My academic writing did no less to form my style than my creative writing. In fact, I loved to fuse the two, to imbue my papers on Milton with a creative edge. By the time I arrived at Yale Divinity School, I felt passionately about writing a creative, persuasive paper, though now it would be called exegesis. In a strange way, it hardly mattered what I was writing, a love letter, a short story, a sermon, a New Testament exam essay. It was the writing that mattered, and every writing was the chance to practice, to play with words, to dive into the world I grew up knowing best--all those sweet smelling books with their buttery pages and intoxicating covers. (And so this is why I will never go the way of the e-book. I love to stare at a book's cover when it is sitting waiting on the table, or on the nightstand, or lying askew on the bed. Or sometimes after reading a few pages I will turn and idly gaze.)

I have wished more than once for a more formal education as a writer, thought it would be more legitimate to hang out with a gaggle of writers, all black-clothed and edgy, but this hasn't been my way--yet, anyway. It is simply true for me that I learn something every time I pick up a book, and I have collected all these teachers over the years just as my mother has. When I sit in our family room/study, the towering shelves beside me are filled with my teachers (and, of course, even the most poorly written novel has something to teach), and in that I feel very lucky.

So what do you love as much as chocolate?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Number Fifteen

Judith Arnold

When I was a senior in college, I came up with four reasons to get an MFA in creative writing:

1. I had thousands of dollars in college loans that would come due unless I remained a full-time student. If I went to graduate school, they would be deferred, interest-free.

2. With my undergraduate degree (music theory major, theater minor), I was more or less unemployable. A master’s degree might help me to secure a job more easily.

3. An MFA program would allow me to indulge in my favorite activity—playing with words—for a couple of years.

4. I might learn something about writing.

So off I went to Brown University to earn a master’s degree in creative writing, with those four objectives in mind. Did I achieve them? Well, three out of four ain’t bad.

Attending grad school did allow me to forget about my loans for a couple of years. My MFA landed me a job as an assistant professor in the California State University system. And best of all, I immersed myself in the writer’s life for those two years at Brown. I hung out with other writers. We talked writing day and night. We attended one another’s poetry readings, acted in one another’s plays, critiqued one another’s novels, and partied whenever the opportunity arose.

But did I learn anything about writing?

Not about craft. Not about the thin line separating gorgeous writing from purple prose. Not about how to create a character arc, how to pace a plot, how to grab a reader’s attention and hold it tight until the final page.

I did learn one thing: that to succeed as a writer, I’d have to work very, very hard.

My cohort at Brown included fifteen students, and before I arrived, I found out by accident that I was ranked number fifteen—the last applicant to squeak into the program. Ego demolished, I phoned my mother to whine that I was apparently the least talented writer Brown had accepted that year. My mother noted that I could have been number sixteen and not gotten into the program at all.

She had a point. I stopped whining.

But I never lost my awareness that the creative writing faculty had considered me the weakest of the students they’d accepted that year. Being young and insecure, I assumed that they were infallible judges. Every class, seminar and workshop I participated in, I gazed around me at all the other students and thought, they’re more talented than I am.

The only way I could compete with those obviously more talented writers was to work harder, so I did. I wrote constantly. I edited my work ruthlessly. I paid attention to every word I typed, every phrasing, the cadence of every sentence. I evaluated every comma and conjunction. They’re more talented than I am, the insecure voice inside me whispered...but damn it, I was going to write circles around them.

After two years, I received my master’s degree and headed off to California to teach. The play I wrote as my thesis wound up receiving several professional productions. I won a writing grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which allowed me to quit teaching and write full-time for a year. During that year, I wrote my first novel (never published, but it got me an agent.) I resumed teaching until I sold my first novel, and I’ve earned a good living as a novelist ever since.

The other fourteen students in my class? The ones more talented than I? As far as I know, none of them became a full-time, self-supporting writer. Some of them went into teaching, some found other work. Some have had their poetry published in small presses.

I’ve sold 87 novels, with my 88th scheduled for publication next March. Was I less talented than the rest? Possibly. But I learned to work. To sit down and get the writing done. To refuse to quit. To slave and sweat over every single word. To care more than any other writer.

It seems I did learn something about writing in graduate school, after all. I learned that while talent is important—and I was number fifteen, after all, not number sixteen, so I guess I had some talent—committing oneself to the ferociously demanding work of being a writer is far more important. I did the work. I made the commitment.

And thanks to the money I’ve earned as a novelist, I paid off all my college loans, too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Query Letter Tips That Work

Beat the competition and write the best query letter ever. Girlfriends give their best advice. on how to win an agent's attention.

Put the hook up front

Get that hook in the first sentence--yes, first sentence! And don't confuse theme with hook. Get that editor's attention right away with not only what makes your novel marketable, but what will make him/her want to read it THIS MINUTE. If your novel isn't particularly hook-y, encapsulate what makes it special in that first sentence. –

Melissa Senate

The Desire Line

I know that boiling down your novel into 4 - 6 snappy sentences seems almost impossible, but if you can quickly get across what your main character WANTS, you're at least halfway there. Also, keep in mind that your novel's inciting incident is probably at the center of your hook.

Ellen Meister

Three quickie tips

1. Chek you're speling. Then check it again and again and again.

2. Do your research BEFORE you hit send. Have you read the agent or editor guidelines for submission? Have you tried to find authors this agent represents, titles from the publishing house just to determine where your pitch might fit in their niche?

3. Your query isn't the closing argument for the defense. If you have to persuade the agent/editor, then perhaps your hook isn't hooky enough.

Christa Allan

Slow and steady wins the race

My best tip regarding query letters? Don't give up. Ever. I received 300+ rejections to my queries over 5 (yes, FIVE) years. I did get a few positive responses, but never sealed the deal. Finally, I'd revised the MS enough and tweaked the query itself enough and got the "Yes" I'd been waiting for. But it took all those rejections first. That was part of the journey. All you need is one yes. And it's worth waiting for. You don't want it to be lukewarm; you want an agent who believes in your book as much as you do.

Judy Larsen

Seven simple steps

*Be sure to spell the agent's or editor's name correctly.

*Be sure to spell everything else correctly, too! (Always good to have a few friends or critique partners read it over before sending.)

*Keep it to one page and include a one- or two-paragraph story summary with the plot conflict highlighted and a short but insightful description of the main character(s), along with the novel's genre and approximate word count. (In most cases, the manuscript you're querying should be completed, unless you've worked with this person before and have instructions otherwise.)

*Another paragraph should be your writing credentials as they pertain to this particular book.

*If you've met the agent/editor before, mention that or explain in a sentence or two how you came to be interested in their agency/publishing house.

*Thank them and be sure to list your contact information so they can respond to you easily.

*Send it out and celebrate taking this big step!!

~Marilyn Brant

Practice makes perfect

Don't query until you have a finished manuscript that's as perfect as you can make it.

And don't query all your dream agents at once. You might find ways to strengthen your query as you go along, and you only get one shot

April Henry.

Links with tips

Here is the link to the liveblog of a panel discussion I did at BlogHer 11 on How to Pitch Your Book. It has query tips and other info. I was also on the BlogHer 11 Pathfinder Day panel with author Melissa Ford. She did a great series on BlogHer on getting published. Here is the link to her post on query letters. Lots of great information there! I highly recommend reading her whole 11- or 12-part series.

Carleen Brice

Make it personal

Personalize each query letter. Research the agent. Find out who s/he represents and what books the agent has sold recently--check Publishers Lunch and Agent Query for details along with literary agent guides. I also kept a list of authors who had thanked their agents in the Acknowledgements section of books that were similar to my manuscript.

These details give you a built-in starting point. "Since you recently sold Brilliant Author's book, Great American Novel, you might be interest in my book, Awesome American Novel, which has a similar style and tone."

Also, if you've recently won an award or contest, mention it! Find more tips in my book, The Nitty Gritty Guide to Finding a Literary Agent, at Amazon, BN.com, and Smashwords.

Sara Rosett

A plethora of advice

Keep your query letter to one page. Definitely sell yourself. Don't use passive verbs. Read book jackets for examples of how to make your plot ZING for the agent who is hopefully reading. Think HARD about your title. My agent said that the title of my novel is what kept her reading. Make sure to "hype" any past publications or honors relative to your writing. If you know someone who's published and who's praised your ms., quote them. Be succinct and direct. And, of course, proofread the letter a zillion times. Forgetting to sign the query letter is enough to get you a rejection slip. Look online for query letters that worked. I think mine was published in Writer's Digest last April. There should be some good ones out there on the web. Lastly, don't give up. I have a notebook of rejections, and I recycled most of them because it got too depressing. Oh, and make sure that you are querying agents who are interested in your genre and who are accepting unsolicited queries and submissions. Agentquery.com is a great resource to find a good fit. Thanks!!!!! Keep writing. The joy is in the act.

Michele Young-Stone

Takes responses with a grain of salt

Before I wrote my query letter, I read the backs of a lot of novels to learn how to effectively distill a book into a couple hundred words. Oh - and here's another tip: Take the response you get from agents with a grain of salt. I got a glowing email from one big-name agent (who shall remain nameless) who told me to rush my manuscript to her, since she was so excited about reading it. But the agent's assistant had mistakenly included all of her correspondence with the agent at the bottom of the email. The agent kept writing things like, "Oh, I don't know... doesn't it sound kind of boring?" until the assistant finally convinced her to take a look. It still cracks me up. Needless to say, I signed with a different agent!

Sarah Pekkanen

Read the guidelines

In the words of a highly respected manuscript submission reader at a top NY literary agency, "read the friggin guidelines on the agent's website." If they ask for the first ten pages, don't send a chapter. If they ask for a short synopsis, include it. If they ask for everything to be included in the email and not sent as attachment... you get the idea. She says that she feels bad when she has to delete what could be a promising submission simply because the writer didn't follow the rules, but first impressions count. If the writer can't bother to find out what the agent wants, how good of a partner will they be when it comes time to pitching editors and building a platform?

As for what to include in a query, think of it as a tease. The whole idea is to entice the agent and give them a reason to respond to query. Sometimes the more we say, the more we blow the deal. Get in, get out, give them what they ask for and hope for the best.

Saralee Rosenberg

The best you can muster

The query and I go way back, an intense love/hate relationship that, I like to think, I eventually conquered. It was the query to one book that got my foot in the door, thus leading to the sale of a completely different book. So, in the end, I wrote a hell of a query for a novel that didn’t sell, and probably a mediocre query for the one that did. Follow that? If you want my honest opinion, I believe the only thing more painstaking than a good query is a great synopsis. I hate them both. I truly do. But you wouldn’t head off into the wilderness without, at the very least, a reliable Swiss Army knife. And I wouldn’t recommend sending a manuscript out without the very best query letter you can muster. Maybe those are more random thoughts than tips, but that’s okay. I bet my fellow girlfriends have some killer step-by-step query tips. (I’ll be sure and copy them) However, for what it’s worth and probably breaking plenty of query writing rules, here’s the intro paragraph that sold mine:

Dear Very Specific Spelled Correctly Literary Agent,

There are secrets spouses keep. Everyday things, like an overdrawn checkbook or a lingering glance at a woman who isn’t your wife. Maybe it’s a designer outfit—tags torn, stuffed in the back of a closet, poised for a, “This old thing…” moment. We all keep secrets. It’s the line that differs for every husband and wife. It differed for Grady Sommers, who crossed the line, never imagining where his secret would lead. Laura Spinella

Using Google Books

In addition to researching agents through Publishers Marketplace (a must for any search), you can find other books an agent reps by doing a search for them in Google books. (Their names usually show up in the acknowledgements.) Also, don’t go for the lowest hanging fruit when you personalize your query letters. For instance, I bet agent Jodi Reamer gets hundreds of letters mentioning her famous client Stephenie Myers. Better to dig a little deeper and try to mention a not-so -famous client or an interesting agent interview to set your letter apart from the herd.

Karin Gillespie

Do you have a tip you'd like to share? Leave it in the comments.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Friends and Fate and a Little Black Dress

By Susan McBride

I can hardly believe Little Black Dress is out today (hooray!!!). I poured my heart and soul into this tale of two sisters, one daughter, and a magical black dress that changes all their lives forever, so I can't wait to hear what y'all think! It’s been a full year and a half since The Cougar Club was released. Long as that sounds, those months went by in a blink. So much happened in the interim, as you’ve heard me babble about before (cat nearly died, Mom diagnosed with breast cancer, pregnancy, miscarriage, skin cancer, you name it), that I can’t imagine having had any less time. I remember panicking last fall when my publisher wanted to push LBD out three months sooner with a pale pink cover that featured a headless woman in a very puffy black cocktail dress (ack!). Since the novel has nothing to do with puffy frocks and cocktail parties—and everything to do with love and fate and magic—I was less than thrilled. I also wasn’t sure I could get everything done (um, like, finish the book and do revisions) so quickly.

Thank goodness the pub date was pushed back and the cover was revamped. Strange how things work out sometimes. My mantra this year has been “I can only do what I can do;” and it seems like, the more I take a deep breath and let the things go that I can’t control, the more things turn out right. As I told my editor the other day, I have never been so happy with a book, inside and out. I even emailed Mumtaz Mustafa, the art director who designed Little Black Dress’s cover, sending him a love note saying how much I adored it. It was so important that a particular black dress not be depicted—part of the magic of Little Black Dress is having readers imagine for themselves what this special frock looks like—and Mumtaz got it just right.

My gratitude only grew along the road to LBD’s publication. One stop was Blurb Land, a destination that always makes me anxious (for which I'm always thankful that my agents and editor help out!). Still, I knew some of the authors on my wish list--fellow Girlfriends, as a matter of fact!—and so I gathered my courage, shot off emails (that I rewrote a dozen times), and hoped for the best. Turns out, I needn’t have worried myself silly. I was bowled over by the generosity of these wonderful women. Even if I said “thank you” a million times, it wouldn’t be enough. But I’ll say it again, “Thank you, ladies!" You are something special.

There were always friends along the way, giving me pep talks when I needed them and offering a hand. One crazy-busy pal made time in her schedule to plow through fifty pages at a time as I forged my way through revisions. She reassured me that I was on the right track and nudged me when I left a question unanswered. I normally don’t let anyone see revisions until I’m done, but I’m awfully glad I did this time around. So thanks to that good buddy as well!

When I had to turn my attention toward another manuscript this spring and summer, the marketing and publicity wizards were already at work, keeping in frequent touch, letting me know what was going on with LBD and what was to come, so that I feel downright calm (I know! It’s a strange sensation!). I'm more organized than in the past and less apt to expend energy on things that don’t need doing. What a nice change!

Perhaps there’s actually something to this whole “I can only do what I can do” idea. I’m going to hold onto that thought as Little Black Dress launches and try not to get stomach aches over what's going on and whether or not readers are enjoying it. I've got another manuscript to pen and some in-town and out-of-town gigs to do, which should keep me good and busy. And I'll remind myself to breathe and smile and be grateful for all the positive stuff. Like Bridget says in Little Black Dress, “Sometimes you just have to accept the magic that comes into your life and leave it be.” Amen to that, sister.

P.S. The pearl necklace giveaway continues through 5 p.m. Eastern Time today on http://www.facebook.com/SusanMcBrideBooks so don’t miss out! One grand prize winner receives a gorgeous strand of freshwater cultured pearls like the one on the cover of Little Black Dress. Five runners-up receive copies of the book. For more info and links to booksellers, please visit http://SusanMcBride.com.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Ten Things About Publishing That Keep Me Up at Night

By Karen Neches

1. Knit Lit is huge, i.e. novels about people who knit, but I’ve never actually seen anyone read a knitting book, which leads me to wonder, who is really reading these books. Homeschool moms? Nursing home residents? State prisoners? And why is knitting so big in novels but not crotcheting? Or needlework?

2. Young Adults novels are extremely popular, which means the market is going to be glutted and suddenly YA will be dead and no editors will be buying them. So what does that mean for young readers when there’s no more YA? Will they go from “Good Night, Moon” straight to Jackie Collins novels? And what happens when all these young adults grow up? Since there’s no more books about people in their early twenties (chick lit) will they have no choice but to settle for knit lit? Will knit lit one day rule the world?

3. Why do people want to read about romances with supernatural creatures? I don’t get it. Especially the werewolf thing. It’s like being secretly attracted to your dog.

4. Speaking of dogs, it seems like every talking dog novel gets a six-figure advance. Same with dystopian novels. How about a talking dog who predicts the coming dystopia? Would that land an author a twelve-figure advance?

5. What’s up with bonnet rippers, i.e. Amish romances? Do the Amish read them? If all books turn into e-books then what will the Amish readers do?

6. When will readers finally put stakes in the vampire novel? It feels like it’s had a longer run than chick lit.

7. Who read Snooki’s novel? Did it have pictures? Did it come with margarita mix?

8. Why isn’t there a genre for country music lovers? Seems like an untapped market to me. Country music always tells a story so there’s already a relationship to novels and it’d be a cinch to market. The titles already crackle with drama: “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off; Mama Get a Hammer (There’s a Fly on Papa’s Head),” “She Got the Ring and I got the Finger.”

9. Is Jane Austen spinning in her grave?

10. Why didn’t “Water for Elephants” start a craze for pachyderm lit?

What puzzles you about publishing? Love to hear.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

How I Got Hooked on Writing by Deborah Blumenthal

When I make school visits, one of the questions that always comes up -- aside from, “How much money do you make?” and “How old are you?” -- is “What made you become a writer?”

The answer I always give is, a tantrum. At that point, I get a variety of confused looks.

But it’s true.

When my older daughter was about three, we were over at the house of a friend of hers from nursery school and she was having such a good time that we overstayed our welcome. She was hungry and tired and when I tried to get her to go home, she had a meltdown. It was a freezing, cold day and I carried her out under one arm while I hailed a cab with the other. Somewhere along the way I never fail to mention that on that day I was wearing a lovely new black suede coat that she wiped her nose on. (Eighteen years later, I still have the coat and I can show you the evidence, since the most aggressive dry cleaning failed to obliterate it.)

When we got home I put her into her crib and she fell fast asleep. The next thing I did was call the pediatrician. Were explosions like that normal? This one was off the charts. I begged him for advice, but he waved away my concern and quickly hung up to go back to treating ear infections. Not knowing what else to do, I sat down at the typewriter (prehistoric, I know). I coupled that experience with the tantrums my older daughter regularly had when it was time to leave the park and go home and I turned them both into a picture book called, THE CHOCOLATE-COVERED-COOKIE TANTRUM. It came out about three years later, and I was hooked on writing children’s books.

Before I started writing children’s books, I freelanced regularly for The New York Times. That began rather serendipitously too. I was a borderline vegetarian at the time, and my new husband, a reporter for the paper, was a die-hard carnivore. I was having oatmeal for dinner one night, while he was dining on steak. Could I convert him to vegetarianism? Our his-hers accounts of our experimental week of eating vegetarian made it into the paper and I was hooked on reporting.

So I throw out the question. Was there one seismic event that propelled you into the field? If not, can you look back and find one memorable experience in your life that you can draw upon for your next book? Look inside yourself, I tell the school kids I talk to. Sometimes I need to remind myself to listen to my own advice too.

Deborah Blumenthal is the author of thirteen books.

Her latest picture book is, THE BLUE HOUSE DOG, (Peachtree Publishers.

THE LIFEGUARD, her latest YA novel, will be published by Albert Whitman & Co., on March 1st.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Beat it

by Carleen Brice

Coming Sept. 6th
On her recently released mp3 talk for writers, author Tananarive Due discusses the screenwriter's beat sheet. I was intrigued by the concept. The beat sheet is a way to keep track of all the major things that should happen in a screenplay, and Due makes the case that novelists should use one too. The late Blake Synder, author of Save the Cat!, which I know some of my girlfriends here swear by, also uses beat sheets.

I'm currently finishing up a rewrite for my next book and it has dawned on me that, while I never called them beat sheets, I already use them, or my version of them. In fact, I make several to help me keep track of the arcs in the plot and subplot(s) and the arcs of the characters' growth. If you've written a novel or are trying to, you know it's hard to keep all that stuff in your head. It's easy to drop a thread. A spreadsheet helps me make like Michael Jackson.

Once I have a draft that isn't necessarily the shitty first draft, but is still sorta open, I make an Excel spreadsheet for each plot/character arc in the story and write down everything pertinent to that plot/character arc and when in the story it happens (what page number or chapter number).

For example, my main character is engaged and there are complications about whether or not the wedding is going to happen. I want to know a few things as I read through this draft to rewrite it: how often do I tell the reader about a complication? Do the complications get progressively harder? Does the reader understand how my character is feeling about things and why? Did I drop something? (i.e. do I bring up something on page 17 and then never mention it again?)

So I have a spreadsheet called "marriage progression" and I write down what my MC says, thinks or does related to getting married and in what scene it happens.

I also have Excel spreadsheets for each major character to track how they change (or not).

Using a spread sheet helps me see the bones of the story, without all the pretty skin (imagery, symbolism, metaphor) to distract me. It helps me know where it's weak, so I can make those parts stronger or get rid of them altogether.

However, I may also use a spread sheet to keep track of images and symbols to make sure I'm consistent and haven't lost one of those threads either. For example, In Chapter 1 I describe one of my characters as looking like a stork. I like that description, and the beat sheet helps me see that after the opening chapters I didn't reinforce it. So later, I'm referring to her nose as a beak.

My spread sheet system is sort of reverse outlining--outlining after you've written the story.

I'm curious, how do you make sure you don't miss a beat in plot, characters and images in your story? What do you think of beat sheets?

Carleen Brice is writing the sequel to IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING, the sequel to ORANGE MINT AND HONEY, beat by beat and releasing it chapter by chapter at www.achapteramonth.com. Check it out!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Introducing New Girlfriend Sandra Novack

Hi, my name is Sandy, and I’m a writer.

(Hi, Sandy!)

It’s been roughly ten years since I’ve been on this writing wagon, rickety old thing that it is. My debut novel came out in February, 2009 from Random House: PRECIOUS. You may have heard of it! It was a Booklist Top Ten Debut of the year, but it was not made into a movie, is not about Precious Jones, and is in no way connected to Oprah Winfrey. (Dammit!)

My novel is set during the 70s and deals with the disappearance of a young girl from a working class neighborhood in Pennsylvania. That incident serves as a backdrop for another family, the Kisches, who are in crisis: Mother Natalia has run off with another man, leaving her two daughters, Eva (17) and Sissy (9) to fend for themselves during a summer when peril seems to lie at every corner. There are a bunch of subplots thrown in there, but that’s the gist. It turned out okay, I guess, which is to say, I’m glad it’s in the world and still circulating about.

What are my thematic interests, you ask? Mostly I’m inspired by families and by how our histories are held together, our ties sometimes tested. The novel itself was inspired by my sister, Carole, who ran away from home when I was seven. It’s been over thirty years now, and I’ve never seen her again. I guess you can say I am one of those writers who tends to draw some inspiration from my own life, though really it’s mostly fiction. Really! Just ask my mom. Everyone else does.

Right now I have another book coming out this September from the same press. It’s a collection of stories titled EVERYONE BUT YOU. I’m biting my nails over this, writer friends, because the stories were written during my MFA program, mostly, so the collection features work from 2001-2003. I keeping thinking, Boy, that’s really old stuff. And the thing with old stuff is that sometimes the more you go back and try and mess with it, the worse it seems to become. Oh, yes. It does. I’m one of those writers who is always most excited about what I’m working on now. Older work makes me cringe a little.

Okay. Cringe a lot. (Be afraid, Sandy. Be very, very afraid.)

Still at the same time, a writer has to STAND BY HER PRODUCT, which translates to: Hey, check out my new book, due out September 13th! (Insert terse smiley face.) It’s a collection about…Hm. Well, there’s a lot of sex in it. And fires. And cows. I must have been on a nympho-pyro-dairy farm kick during the years 2001-2003. (Oh yeah. Sex and fires and cows! You know you want to read it, Baby!)

All this is to say: Thank God for the fact that I’m working on something new, to get my mind off release and the absolute panic that causes in many writers, myself included. In addition to cruising Facebook for what seems like a pitiless amount of hours, and in addition to Goozoogling myself each morning, along with checking sales stats and looking up pics of Himalayan kittens, just for fun, I’m working on, wait, drum roll…Non-fiction! Yep. It was a shock to me, as well. We’ll see how it goes. Writers. Always plunking away at the next adventure. And it is always that, isn’t it? Quite the little adventure.

I think that’s it. Oh, and you can read a sample story from my collection here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57487337/Fireflies-by-Sandra-Novack. STAND BY YOUR PRODUCT, SANDY! (My publicist will be so pleased.)

Sandra Novack’s novel PRECIOUS has been called "lyrical and haunting", "graceful", and "accomplished, showing a new writer already in full command of her gifts". The writing has drawn comparisons to Anne Tyler, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates. Novack’s collection, EVERYONE BUT YOU, is forthcoming from Random House, September 13, 2011.

Nickles and a Ball Cap

by Deborah LeBlanc

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’d be able to buy the Taj Mahal—well, at least on the lay-away plan. Depending on my mood, my automatic response to the question is either, “Walmart,” or “Everywhere.” I usually get a chuckle from the first answer, but the second, although the true answer never seems to quite sink in. You can see it in their eyes, that lost but searching, “Huh?” even after a half hour’s worth of explanation. That’s always bugged me. I’m a storyteller doggone it, which means I should be able to give them a bit more clarity with words. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered I’d been using the wrong words all along . . .

A couple weeks ago I did a keynote address at a writers’ conference and when the address was over, a few people, all aspiring authors, came over to chat. One of them was an elderly woman dressed in purple stretch pants, a black t-shirt with pink letters that read, GIRLY GIRL across the front, and brown sandals. She had short white, every-which-way hair that gave new meaning to the word bed-head and the brightest, most beautiful smile I’d ever seen. After a short introduction, (I’ll call her Mildred) and the exchange of a few pleasantries, Mildred said, “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

“Not at all.”

“Where do you get your ideas?”

For a second, I was taken aback by the question. Not because I figured most writers knew the answer but because I was looking a story idea right in her face. (Can you imagine the adventures that might revolve around a character like Mildred?!) I already knew my standard answer, ‘Everywhere,’ was inadequate, so I tried a little experiment….

“What do you write?” I asked.


“Okay—romance . . .” I glanced around the room.

The conference was being held in an old school building, circa 1920, that had been refurbished and now served as the city’s Arts Council facility. We were gathered in what used to be the school cafeteria, so I considered the location for setting. then scanned the room for a main character. It took only a moment to find him—a bow-backed old gentleman, standing by the snack table. He stood barely five feet tall and wore a faded blue suit, white shirt and tie, and a dark blue ball cap with WWII VETERAN stitched in gold on the front.

I put a hand on Mildred’s shoulder and as inconspicuously as possible, pointed him out. “See that man over there near the table? The one in the ball cap?”


“Look carefully at how he stands, the fit of his clothes, the shape of his hands, the look on his face. See how he’s fidgeting?”

Mildred glanced up at me like I’d grown a second nose. “What about it? He might have Parkinson’s.”

“Maybe . . . but suppose he doesn’t? Suppose he’s nervous?”

“What would he be nervous about?”

“Think about where you are—an old school building, right?”


“Well, what if . . . he was attending a high school reunion, only not his own. He found out about this place and event accidentally and after decades of searching for someone.”

Mildred let out a little gasp of excitement. “You mean like a long lost love?”

“Could be. But what if he’s here expecting to see another woman? One he’s never seen before—like his daughter?”

That was all it took to get Mildred off and running. Within minutes she had twisted the ‘what if’ every which way but loose and couldn’t wait to get home and start a new story, all of it based on the old man in the ball cap.

That little experiment not only gave me a new way to answer an old question, it once again proved something I’ve heard time and time again as a writer . . . it’s always better to show than tell.

Discovering these gems, these story catalysts, is my favorite part of the writing process. I love seeing where the seed of an idea will lead me, what unique twists and turns will present themselves in the story.

Now, once that story's told, and I sigh with satisfaction and relief while typing THE END, I try to freeze frame that moment in my head. I know that the only time I'll feel like this again is when I complete my next novel, which is great, except for what always comes between this book and the next. The dreaded---for me anyway--rewrite, edit, rewrite, edit. Sigh.... That process is my least favorite thing about writing!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Questioning Our Relevance: Fear, Change & the Digital Revolution

by Marilyn Brant

I totally wanted to blog about something light and fun and uncomplicated enough to have fairly clear-cut answers, like the best birthday cake you ever had or your favorite kind of appetizer (do I talk about food too much?!), but this topic kept needling me. I figured if I had it on my mind, a few other people here might be thinking about it, too... So, let me just state the obvious: This is a pretty unsettling time in the publishing industry.

No matter what your opinions are regarding what constitutes a book or who qualifies as an author, changes like the bankruptcy of Borders, the shrinking of print runs and the explosion of digital-only or digital-first releases (both self-published and through major NY houses, such as Bantam's revitalized "Loveswept" line or Avon's new "Impuslse" line) have been wreaking havoc on the professional lives of booksellers, publishers, editors, agents and writers alike.

There is some very real excitement out there, too, by the way. New opportunites are emerging almost hourly, and many entreprenurial souls have been quick to hop aboard the digital train in hopes of striking gold. Some have found it in the literary realm and are shouting their gratitude and their Amazon rankings from the rooftops. Others are still striving and hopeful and secretly trying to crack the logarithm for ebook bestsellerdom. And yet others are capitalizing on the author accessories needed for a successful digital experience -- the creation of book covers, the proofreading skills, the uploading and conversion know-how.

In my opinion, More Opportunties + More Choices = Something Good. I may not utilize every service available to me out there, but I love having options. Getting to self-publish a few of my light romantic comedies alongside my traditionally published women's fiction has been both an interesting venture and a fun one. But then, I'm a big fan of a good Asian buffet, too. You tell me I can have Thai satays and Chinese egg rolls and Japanese teriyaki chicken and Mongolian barbequed beef...all on my plate at once? What's not to love about that?!

Food fantasies aside, though, I'm also an observer by nature, and I've been watching and listening to everyone. Attentively. I've been reading their posts and their tweets and their messages. And for every public comment that unabashedly praises the Digital Revolution, there are at least five more -- ranging from whispered concerns to infuriated accusations -- that express in some way a powerful and pervasive sense of fear.

For me, trying to uncover the source of that fear has been occupying a lot of my mental energy this summer. Best I can figure, I think it comes down to a persistent questioning of our relevance and how well we think we'll fare in the publishing world of the future.

Whether our job is that of an author or an agent, an editor or a bookseller, we're united by worries about what these changes mean and who we are now if the original hierarchy and gatekeeping system we'd grown accustomed to is no longer in effect. Where is our industry going? Will readers abandon paper books in order to make the digital leap? Will the skills we've all worked so laboriously to acquire be relevant in this evolving publishing landscape? And, even if we fully embrace the lightning-like changes that have struck publishing hard in recent years, will we be able to roll with whatever comes next in an industry that has transformed so rapidly in such a short period of time?

Just about everyone I know is asking themselves some version of these questions. Publishers are wondering if they need to add a digital branch to their company or expand the one they already have. Literary agents are fielding a slew of queries from their clients about rights reversion or assistance in the self-publishing of backlists. Writers across the genres are wrestling with the decision of whether or not to dip their toes in the digital waters and, if they do it, then they're struggling to adjust to a different method of manuscript formatting and online marketing and the panic/elation of having daily updates on their sales numbers. Brick-and-mortar booksellers aren't sure where to go next or how to use their valuable skills.

To top it off, there's a social-media windstorm brewing around all of us, amplifying the collective fear and setting off an onslaught of comparisions between authors. (Whose downloads are higher?) Or between publishing professionals. (Whose services or distribution methods are better?)

It's been kind of exhausting.

So, I wanted to brush all the discord and confusion away for just a moment and say, à la Oprah, the one thing I know for sure... It's something I bet you know, too: Yes, change is hard (and frustrating and scary and, sometimes, exciting), but there will always be a need for stories. And what drives us to read those stories -- whether it's to feel that sense of connection with others, to be entertained, to escape, to learn something new -- that part is constant. That part will always be relevant.

I think we need to hang tight to this truth until the dust settles, even as we learn new skills and face the challenges that come with navigating our careers in this ever-shifting publishing environment and this not-exactly-stable global economy. How stories will be packaged, sold and delivered in five years or ten is still a point of some debate, and I suspect many of us are going to have to adjust far more than we may feel comfortable doing (sigh), but the craving for stories will live on. No revolution -- digital or otherwise -- will change that.

What's a story you've read this summer that you really loved? Did you read it in print or in ebook form? If you're a writer, have you self-published anything digitally -- reissued novels, new fiction or short stories? In honor of both print and digital books, I'll give away two novels today: a PDF copy of my first romantic comedy On Any Given Sundae (June 2011, ebook) to one commenter, and a bound advanced reading copy of my upcoming women's fiction book A Summer in Europe (December 2011, Kensington) to another commenter. Drawing Monday the 15th, just before midnight, Central Time! Will post the winners' names in the comment section.

Marilyn Brant lives and writes in Chicago suburbs. She compulsively checks her Amazon and B&N sales numbers (when she's not procrastinating on Twitter or Facebook) and is forever in search of the perfect dessert.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Picking up your Sagging Middle

by Maria Geraci

My friend Lisa has a fat roll around her waist named Carmela DelBarko. Yes, Lisa has given her muffin top a moniker. Carmela’s favorite foods include chocolate and nachos with cheese dip. And while Lisa and I laugh about her fat roll with the name (I only wish I was half so clever to have come up with this myself) there is one sagging middle that is no laughing matter. And that’s the one in my story.

When I begin writing a novel, I start with a story concept or a character in some kind of trouble. I write without an outline and allow the characters that start popping into my head to jump out onto the pages. This is the part I love, the part that seems to flow. Until suddenly, and sometimes without warning, it doesn’t flow anymore. Then I know I’ve reached the middle of my story.

The middle of the story (or Act 2) is the hardest part to get right. It must propel the story along in such a way that it sets up the ending and must keep the reader turning the pages. It must be full of emotion and surprises but never feel like "filler." Easy to do, right? Well, not always.

Recently, while working on deadline for my next novel, I came to a point in the story where I just had to stop and try to figure out what the heck was happening. After writing almost 150 pages, I knew how the story had to end but getting there seemed overwhelming. I needed some craft advice quick. So I decided to do a little research on how to fix my problem. That's when I came across this great post on a blog site called The Literary Lab. I really like how the author talks about the outer and inner conflict and how alternating them keeps the story moving along. I also like how he talks about the use of subplots. In my opinion, it's the subplots that must weave back into your main plot that keep the middle from sagging.

Recently, I just finished reading The Hunger Games (I know, I'm probably the last person on the planet who hadn't read Suzanne Collin's awesome trilogy) and was struck by the compelling mid act. No sagging middle for this book, that's for sure!

What books have you read that really keep the pace moving? What tricks or devices do you have as a writer to keep your middle from weighing down your story?

Maria Geraci writes fun, romantic women's fiction. Please visit her website at www.mariageraci.com