Thursday, September 29, 2011

Should you go to a Writing Conference?

by Maria Geraci

I began writing my first novel in 2002. I had a BA in sociology and a BS in nursing and worked as a labor and delivery nurse. I'd been a life long reader and one day I literally had an epiphany and decided to try my hand at writing (because of course, how hard could it be to write a book?) I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Needless to say, those first attempts were awful.

After writing solo for a few months, I joined Romance Writers of America. There was no local chapter where I lived, so I became a member of an online chapter. I joined a critique group, learned some writing basics (through trial and error, blood, sweat and tears) and improved.

Then in the summer of 2003 I went to my first writing conference--the RWA National Convention in NYC. As I listened to Jennifer Crusie give the keynote speech at lunch, I can remember thinking this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my forever. Besides the sentinel events in my life (marriage, childbirth) it was the most exciting 4 days I'd ever experienced. It was official. I was hooked. Both on writing and on writing conferences.

Over the past 8 years I've attended 7 national RWA conventions, numerous smaller conferences, the NINC one day conference, and too many other workshops, readings, and author Q&As to mention specifically by name. Since that first attempt at a novel, I've written 5 more books. Four of those have gone on to be published by Berkley, a division of Penguin USA (the fourth book comes out August, 2012). I learned to write the old fashioned way. By writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more. But it's those writing conferences that gave me the tools I needed to get published.

Writing conferences, however, might not be for everyone.

So how do you know if a conference is right for you? As an avowed conference junkie, I offer the following tips:

Start small. I admit, I started out big (2000+ writers conference in NYC) but I was so clueless at the time I had no idea there were other, smaller conferences that probably would have been a better first choice for me. Join your local writers groups. RWA is a national group, but most towns have local groups that meet at the library or a bookstore. This is a perfect way to start out and begin networking with other writers.

Go Local. Just like starting small, going locally has the added advantage in that you can usually keep costs down. Check your newspaper or local websites for author talks, Q&As, and other free programs in your area.

Find a Buddy. We writers can sometimes be a shy lot. Having another writing friend to tag along with you when you go to events can keep anxiety at bay. Plus, you can split travel costs.

Don't wait until you have a completed manuscript. Although having a completed a manuscript is a milestone that all writers should aspire to early in their career, it isn't necessary to have one before you attend a conference. Conferences are full of writers in all stages of their careers- from beginning to multi-pubbed NY Times best sellers. No matter what stage your writing career is in, we can all learn from one another.

Do your Research. If money is tight (and for most of us it is) find the conference that will give you the most bang for your buck. Most conferences have a website that list the presenters and workshops offered. Search for the one that seems the best fit for what you write. Also, many editors and agents attend conferences and give workshops on industry news or take pitch sessions. Learn everything you can about the business. Knowledge is power and the more you have the better your chances for success.

And lastly, have fun! Conferences are an opportunity to learn craft, gain business knowledge and to network with colleagues. But it's also a time to kick back and make friends, visit new places and talk about what we all love best- reading and writing.

Maria Geraci writes contemporary romance and women's fiction. Portland Book Reviews calls her latest release, The Boyfriend of the Month Club, "immensely sexy, immensely satisfying and humorous. " Her next novel, A Girl Like You, will be released August, 2012, by Berkley, Penguin USA. You can connect with her on her website, Facebook or Twitter.

5 Things New Writers Ask

by Malena Lott

I get asked out for coffee often, yet it’s not for my sparkling wit, but rather because I’m a paid writer and the acquaintance wants to be. I LOVE to support other writers, and would definitely put myself in the corner of cheerleader, but just in case our schedules don't match up, here's our Online Coffee Chat with an Author. Bottoms up!

1. How did you find an agent? (We know this translates to “how do I find one” so we’ll go there.)

A. Research agents who rep writers like yourself, be sure and carefully read their web site for what they rep and what they are and aren't seeking and follow their submission guidelines to a T. Typically, they will tell you their follow-up timeline. Expect weeks to months, not days. Be patient. See what they've sold. Normally agents put covers on their website and it's easy to look those titles up on Amazon and B&N. It's fine to solicit an agent of a writer friend, but don't expect that to get you signed. Your friend may love your work, but the agent may not. All very subjective.

2. Do I need an agent now that e-books are growing and I can self-publish?

A. Most big publishers will not look at your work if you don’t have an agent, so if you want to “trad” publish, query agents. If you want to skip ahead and self-pub (see question 4), you can still do both and if your sales and reviews are stellar, that would help in your pitch letter to mention that.

3. I’ve written a book. Will you read it?

A. (in my sweetest voice) No. You may be nice as pie and write like a bad ass, but just because a paid writer writes does not mean they are a free reader (or even a paid one.) There are writers who offer consulting, which can also be found by shaking the Tree of Knowledge. You know I mean Google it, right? Other ways to get critiques: critique groups, a crit partner (you swap your stories and give each other feedback) or even online groups that allow members to upload your stories and receive feedback. You’ll get a mix of people who are too nice and won’t tell you what they really think to those who have spoken their opinion and it hurts your feelings, so just have a thick skin and keep searching until you find the right fit. If more than one person is saying any part of your story isn’t working, listen to that.

4. I’ve written a book. Should I self-publish it?

A. Only you can answer that. Here’s what you need to launch a great self-pubbed work: story editor, line editor/proof reader, marketing know-how, e-book formatting know-how, budget to pay aforementioned pros if you can’t do those things yourself, great cover art that doesn’t scream “self-pubbed” and, lastly, a following/platform/network to tap in to for decent sales. You can get the last by building up a social media presence, but I’d take the advice of hybrid and indie authors who are making good money from ebooks and say wait until you’ve written three books and put them up rather close in time frame so they can help sell each other. I found that people who read my summer e-book novella Life’s a Beach, ended up going back and buying Fixer Upper. I don’t have a trilogy, but I can see how that would bring customers back to the register if that works for your story. No matter which path you take, writing and publishing is a lot of work.

5. Should I quit my day job?

A. The one thing you hear over and over from the industry is DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB. In fact, even if you have a contract, that doesn’t meant you’ll be spinning gold yarn ‘til retirement. Writing and finishing a full-length novel is hard enough without the pressure of trying to find enough change to buy some ramen noodles for dinner. Keep your job, eat steak and prove to yourself that you are a committed writer – start a daily routine, hit your word count, finish the book and start shopping it.

6. BONUS QUESTION: Do you make good money as a writer?

A. Can you make a living writing? Yes. For me, that’s because I write everything: blogs, advertising copy, freelance articles and fiction. I also get paid for ideas and strategy, so I’ve wrung out every bit of creativity juice to make a good career. My fiction writing pays for some nice extras, but I don’t pay the mortgage with it. (Yet!) So if writing is your passion, branch out, build up your portfolio, and keep at it.

Good luck to you, writers! We’ll have real coffee soon. Scout’s honor! Any other burning questions? Ask them in comments and the other Girlfriends and I will be happy to answer. Girlfriends, what questions do you get asked? J

Next up: Malena Lott has a short story, “Snowflakes and Stones” in the winter anthology, Sleigh Ride, in November. See her available titles here and visit for fun extras.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

If I Ruled the World

By Ellen Meister

Aside from the big and obvious issues, like ending world hunger, curing cancer and grinding genocidal dictators into dog food, there's a long list of more personal annoyances that would get my attention. Here are a few examples ...

• Companies that sell products encased in bullet-proof plastic you can't get past without a hacksaw would have to donate 100% of the profits to the charity of my choice.

• Everyone would get a free pass on the "no white shoes after Labor Day" rule clear through the end of October.

• All women (men, too, for that matter) would understand that it's more attractive to have wrinkles than to look like a creature from the planet Facelift.

• All street signs would be big enough to actually see.

• Cookies would never have a citrus flavor, a la Johnson's Baby Aspirin. (Are you listening, Italian bakeries?)

• The person who designed the pagination feature on Microsoft Word would be serving a life sentence somewhere.

• "No turn on red" signs would hang next to the traffic light, where you can actually see them.

• Cilantro would be universally recognized as a vile, inedible substance that ruins everything it touches.

My Dorothy Parker Facebook page would have a million followers.

• People wouldn't get on my case about self-promotion. (See what I did there?)

• Someone would figure out a way to make calcium pills smaller than a human thumb.

• I know they use less energy and all, but florescent lights? I'm sorry, no. Just no.

• HBO would start filming The Other Life tomorrow. (Hey, it's my list.)

• People on Twitter would recognize that TrueTwit is the Muammar Qaddafi of social media.

• People would agree on one spelling for Qaddafi/Gaddafi/Ghadafi/Qadhafi.

The Comeback would still be on the air.

• Teachers would make as much money as doctors.

• People who claim they don't read because they're too busy would lose access to Celebrity ApprenticeDancing With the Stars, Jersey Shore and any show with the word Housewives in it.

• Everyone reading this post would send a link to their friends.

What would you do if YOU ruled the world?

Ellen Meister is the author of three novels. Her latest, THE OTHER LIFE (Putnam 2011), has appeared on several best fiction lists, including ABA's prestigious Indie Next List. It is currently under option with HBO for a TV series. She lives on Long Island and is at work on her fourth novel FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER (Putnam 2013). For more information visit You can find her online at Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

If there's an elephant in the room...

Note from Christa: My apologies for being tardy with this post. I'm still recovering from being technologically-disabled.

If there’s an elephant in the room…I’ll find it.

When you’re the once divorced, twice married recovering alcoholic wife of a Jewish husband, mother of twins (one of the two has Down’s Syndrome) plus three other children, a daughter whose husband is black (and she’s not), and sister of a gay brother…well, just where are you going to go with that?

I never intended to write about issues. They found me first. And when I first discovered Christian fiction, I wanted, needed, characters with whom I could identify.

Sure, I found some novels with characters that were alcoholics, or gay, or parents of special-needs children. But, generally, they weren’t the protagonists or their situations didn’t mirror life as I saw it. As someone who came to Christianity in my late 30s, I wondered if I was an anomaly or if the people in the pews around me had equally messy lives.

When I started writing for publication, my first idea was a romance novel. Girl meets boy, they hate each other, then they like each other. Five pages in, and I was done. My husband suggested I write a mystery. I couldn’t even figure out who the killer was, so surely that wasn’t going to work either.

The notion to write about a woman alcoholic emerged after sharing with a co-worker that I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for over twenty years. Her surprise that an average teacher-mommy-wife who led an otherwise average life was ever an alcoholic was my epiphany.

So, now I write women's fiction for Abingdon Press, a Christian publishing house willing to allow me to write about women alcoholics and gay men (two separate books, though, I wish I had thought of that premise). I have an 1840s historical fiction set in New Orleans releasing in 2012 about racial identity and placage.

At times, when I tell people what I write, I see their eyes glaze over with visions of bonnets, which led to my adopting “not your usual” Christian fiction as a tagline. I want readers to know being a Christian doesn’t mean immunity from the world’s problems. For now, I’m delivering that message via a Christian publishing house.

The bottom line is that we never know just by looking at people what’s going on in their lives. So many people look so bright-faced happy and pretty on the outside that we’re duped into believing they lead charmed lives. Like those families in the picture frames sold in stores (who ARE those people, by the way?!).

But turn those pictures over, and what’s there? Nothing. I don’t believe that’s the life we’re called to. We’re called to compassion and to consider that all those “pretty people” might just be waiting for someone to take them out of their frames.

And that’s my passion for expose the elephants.

Christa Allan is the author of Walking on Broken Glass, The Edge of Grace, and the soon-to-be released Love Finds You in New Orleans. You can find her at, Facebook, and Twitter. When she's not frantically meeting deadlines for her novels, she teaches high school English. Christa and her husband live in Abita Springs, Louisiana with their three neurotic cats.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Trip to Italy aka Writing, Cooking and other Wisdom

by Judy Merrill Larsen

There are many different paths to becoming a writer (and all involve rejection. Sorry to be so harsh. Hope you've had your coffee.).

My road has been both pretty normal (Loved reading as a kid. Always wanted to write. Got paying job. Put off writing to raise kids. Finally decided to write a book, because, hey, who can't (ha!). Got rejected. Got rejected again. Found my dream agent. Poof! Got published.) and unique (because each of our winding roads are uniquely true for each of us.).

Here are some things I've finally figured out.

First, go to Italy.

Drink in the sights and the wine. Savor the art and the food. Because Italians get it. Get that if you start with the freshest, best ingredients and work with joy and love, you'll create something wonderful. A big slab of perfect marble and years of work that's a labor of love. Fresh sage and butter and ricotta. Tomatoes ripened in the Italian sun. You don't need scads of ingredients; you need to use only the best and let the truth of the flavors do the rest.

A few years ago, when I learned how to make risotto, I wrote this, and traveling to Italy earlier this month continued my education (although I don't really think the IRS will agree that the trip was a work-related expense!).

Some of the writers on this blog have MFAs. Some of us teach writing workshops. We've all shared our "go-to" writing books. When asked for advice I always say, among other things, to read read read.

But my time in italy clarified and simplified things even more. As we stood in front of The David, I let the words of Michelangelo wash over me:

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

“I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

And that's it exactly. My task is to discover the story through my characters. And in doing so I'm setting them free.

How easy is that?

And now, one more gratuitous picture . . .

And yes, we did throw coins over our shoulder. I have so much more to learn . . . oh, and more gelato to eat!

I live in St. Louis, MO with my husband, am the mom/stepmom to five kids (ages 18-26), and taught high school English for 15 years. I'm over on Facebook and Twitter . My first novel, ALL THE NUMBERS was published in 2006.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Q&A with one of my writer crushes: Valerie Frankel

by Melissa Senate

In 1994, right before Valentine’s Day (naturally), I got my heart smashed to pieces by the guy I thought was The One. I did the usual: took to bed with boxes of Puffs and pints of Ben & Jerry’s, and a few days later went to the one place I could always count on for comfort: a bookstore. And guess what treasure I found on the New Non Fiction table? The Heartbreak Handboook. Not your ordinary “self-help” book. Not just a book (that managed to be pee-in-your-pants funny and dead-on serious) about how to get over a broken heart. But a book by one of my writer crushes, Valerie Frankel.

If you were a twentysomething and early thirtysomething in the 90s and read Mademoiselle magazine every month cover to cover (as I did), EVERY ARTICLE was written by Valerie Frankel. What to do if you made an ass of yourself at the company Christmas party by drinking five margaritas and throwing yourself at the cute guy from the Contracts dept. What to wear (and say) to meet your new boyfriend’s southern parents. What to do if you hate your job (and she also wrote a book called The I Hate My Job Handbook). Valerie wrote and spoke my language, always hitting it right on the ole head, always touching and funny and true.

Since that heartbroken February all those years ago, I’ve read many articles and books by Valerie Frankel, including a fabulous memoir, Thin Is The New Happy. And when I learned she had a new memoir published last week called IT’S HARD NOT TO HATE YOU, I bought it and gobbled it up.

I will tell you: it’s impossible to hate Valerie Frankel, and I loved every freeing word of this book, which is basically about NOT PRETENDING. It’s also hard to hate Valerie because she kindly agreed to be interviewed for The Girlfriends Book Club. And here she is:

IT’S HARD NOT TO HATE YOU by Valerie Frankel

From the author of THIN IS THE NEW HAPPY comes a hilarious new memoir about embracing your Inner Hater. In the midst of a health and career crisis, Valerie uncorks years of pent up rage, and discovers you don't have to be happy to be happy. You don't have to love everyone else to like yourself. And that your Bitchy Twin might just be your funniest, most valuable and honest ally.

"It's refreshing to read as Frankel realizes that anger can be cathartic, even entertaining, when expressed, and makes for a fuller, fun life. Fans of her recent memoir, her novels, or her collaborations with Joan Rivers and Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi will especially enjoy learning what makes the funny, warm Frankel tick." –Publishers Weekly

"A worrisome diagnosis leads Frankel, a self-described grouch, to consider the surprisingly positive implications of a negative personality. Frank, funny, and full of zingy insights."--Good Housekeeping "Book Pick" (October 2011)

Q: Tell us about your book, Valerie:

A: It’s Hard Not to Hate You is a memoir about toxic emotions. The action starts when I learned I had an early stage cancer, and a genetic mutation that would make future cancers in multiple organs all but guaranteed. My doctor advised me to reduce stress, a necessary fix since I’d become a bubbling cauldron of anger and bitterness about everything lately. My career, marriage, friendships, neighbors, outlook. It all seemed to set me off into fits of annoyance and rage. The harder I tried to be happy and maintain a placid state of mind, the harder it became.

What I came to realize, thanks to discussions with people I trusted, was that suppressing the toxic emotions was what was causing most of my stress. I resolved to let it all out. Each chapter takes on a different form of “hate,” be it professional jealousy, marital annoyance, impatience, envy of women who have a million friends, loathing for other people’s bratty kids, grudge holding. The plot unfolds in chronological order, as I progress through my year of hate, building on important emotional shifts and ending with the necessary prophylactic hysterectomy I’d spend months dreading and building up the courage to have.

Q: What will women relate to the most?

A: Women will relate to the pressure of trying to feel happy all the time. If we’re not bursting with joy, it’s like a personal failure, something to feel guilty about. In It’s Hard Not to Hate You, I replaced Authenticity and Honesty as my emotional ideals, and gained valuable insight into myself and my relationships. Since it’s impossible to control your emotions, the Happiness Movement is selling women a bogus bill of goods. You can’t decide to be happy. You can pretend to be happy. But, what I found, was that glossing over my darker emotions limited me in a profound way. When I pulled back the curtain, and let the anger and resentment and jealousy out, I was happier. I admitted to having negative emotions, which “good” women aren’t supposed to have, and became a better, deeper person.

Q: What will people be surprised to know about you?

A: Interesting conversation with my Mom. After she read the chapter in It’s Hard Not to Hate You called “Why I Have No Friends, Part One,” about my struggles with friends as an adolescent, she said, “You seemed like such a happy kid.”

I was so not happy in junior high! I was the opposite of happy. But I put on a good show, and kept it up until, at 44, I decided to tear off the Poker Face, stop being afraid of anger, and just let it out. My own mother was surprised I wasn’t as cheerful as I seemed. I wonder how many other people I’ve met thought they understood me. I bet millions of other women feel equally misunderstood.

Otherwise, people would be surprised to know that, despite writing about sex in magazines for twenty years, I’m really quite prudish about many acts and practices. I’d never have a threesome, for instance. Just can’t imagine any circumstance that would make this fun. I’ve written articles coaching readers on threesome etiquette, and it’s fine for them or anyone. But I couldn’t possibly.


Big thanks to Valerie Frankel for stopping by the GBC blog. You can find out more about Valerie at her website, friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

Bio: Melissa Senate is the author of ten novels, including her latest, The Love Goddess' Cooking School, and is also a freelance editor and copywriter. She lives on the coast of Maine with her son and her stacks and shelves of books. For more info, visit Melissa’s website, friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It Ain't Me, Babe

by Jess Riley

Last night I found myself sucked down the Netflix rabbit hole (what to stream, what to stream) when I stumbled across a documentary about zombie movies.

Hey, I like zombie movies. I liked Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Why not?

It was a fun little diversion, and one of the interviewees said something we’ve heard before: that any artist—director, writer, illustrator, etc—pulls from their real life when creating their art. It’s practically unavoidable.

Well, of course, I thought. We filter everything through our own very personal Viewmasters. But it made me a little nervous about my work in progress, which explores the meaning of family. For the sake of authenticity (and because my family includes some of the most quirky, brilliant, hilarious people I know), I drew somewhat from my own family experiences. My husband is one of my early readers because I respect his opinion and he often has great suggestions. Two weeks ago, while reading a chapter about my protagonist’s marriage, he said to me, “This is kind of hard to read!”


I should point out that this novel is NOT about my marriage or my husband, but in my effort to humanize my characters and capture some of the complexities of being married, maybe I’d cut a little too deeply, drawn a little too heavily from real life.

In one of my favorite books on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says that if you’re going to write about someone you know—say, an ex-boyfriend—just give him a small penis, because then “he’ll never come forward.”

I love that line, and she goes on to make some great points about writing about people you know. You don’t want to libel anyone, and you know in your heart what will cause your loved ones to carve you from the tribe should you publicly share it—but sometimes a snippet of dialogue or an anecdote is just so perfect you are dying to use it. And this is where common sense and good judgment come in.

We all have demons to purge, and if we’re writing about something that hits close to home, it’s hard not to try and exorcise them in chapter fifteen. Sometimes it happens without your even realizing it.

So how do you handle it when you discover halfway through your manuscript that your villain looks and sounds an awful lot like your Aunt Vera, an Oxycontin-addicted kleptomaniac? How much do you base your characters on real people?

(Mom, if you're reading this, I did NOT kill you off. The mother of my main character is NOT you. Love you!)


Jess Riley is the author of Driving Sideways, the characters of which are not at all based on anyone she knows in real life. Honest.

Creative Power Outages? No Such Thing

by Saralee Rosenberg

Last night I had the awesome pleasure of helping kick off the new Hofstra Writers Community by discussing the arch enemy of writers-- creative outages. The topic had hit me during Hurricane Irene after the power shut off and major anxiety set in.

First concern? Would there be enough time to eat all the ice cream before it melted (yes!)? And secondly, would I still able to think creatively if my trusty computer was unavailable?

Sounds crazy, but during those long hours of darkness, I felt lost and "brain drained" without my electronic assistant- the one that never complained or called in disillusioned. I could still write with paper, pen and a flashlight, of course, but at my age, the thought of reconnecting with my inner- camper didn't sound fun.

Meanwhile, the lights out experiment did get me to ponder the creative process and figure out where great ideas lurked anyway. How and when did they come to us?

Turns out that for me, and maybe for you as well, we really do our best brainstorming when we step away from the computer.

Plus, it doesn't make sense to fear a lack of inspiration. Our creative powers don't have expiration dates and aren't in limited supplies like NFL tickets. In truth, we have an unlimited capacity to think, ponder and observe. Plus, the ideas that feel divined are more likely to hit us when doing anything but writing.

In that "light", here are 20 great ways to help unleash your creativity:

1. Take a walk

2. Take a bath

3. Watch a movie

4. Read a book, magazine or newspaper that you would normally never look at

5. Talk to a child

6. Talk to an elderly person

7. Meditate

8. Write a letter or email a friend or family member

9. Look through your high school yearbook and think about whatever happened to

10. Run errands

11. Do chores- amazing where the mind goes when you bend over a dishwasher

12. Listen to great music

13. Visit some place new

14. Revisit a favorite place

15. Attempt something new/out of your comfort zone

16. Volunteer

17. Interview an interesting person about their hobby and/or career

18. Go to the library and scan the non-fiction stacks for topics to put on your radar

19. Bring a notebook to an airport, waiting room, beauty/nail salon, etc.

20. Observe a situation or behavior and ask “what if?”

And here is what you should not do:

1. Be negative- there is a no-refund policy on time wasted at a pity party

2. Go online for hours under the guise of doing research. You know the truth- Facebook, blogs, web surfing, etc. are huge time sucks. See #1 about the no-refund policy on wasted time

3. Judge too soon. Don’t assume that your ideas are trite, unoriginal or stupid. If they are on your radar, pursue them and see where they lead. Ask “what if?”

Lights out? Not I. Not ever.

Saralee Rosenberg is the author of four novels from Avon/HarperCollins. DEAR NEIGHBOR, DROP DEAD, FATE AND MS. FORTUNE, CLAIRE VOYANT, and A LITTLE HELP FROM ABOVE. She is finishing her first novel for middle grade called, HOTLINE TO HEAVEN.

Visit her

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Guest Post: Keith Cronin Author of Me Again

1. What's the backstory behind ME AGAIN?

The characters in ME AGAIN are both stroke victims: a young man named Jonathan who awakens from a six-year coma having lost his memory, and a young woman named Rebecca whose personality has been changed, making her a stranger to her husband.

Jonathan and the challenges he faces were simply created from a "what if?" scenario I started developing several years ago, for a short story that I never ended up finishing. Years later, I rediscovered the story fragment and fell in love with the voice. Rebecca's situation was inspired by something that happened many years ago to a friend of mine's sister. Her predicament just haunted me, so I developed that concept in Rebecca's storyline, and it ultimately leads to the book's climactic conflict.

Although the premise may sound gloomy, there's a lot of humor in the book. I've tried to adopt the Nick Hornby model of "serious things happening to witty people," so the book focuses a lot on the irony and humor that can accompany personal tragedy - as well as the opportunity for growth.

2. Will you tell us a little about your road to publication?

Like my close personal friend Paul McCartney says, it's been a long and winding road. (Okay, so Paul and I aren't really that close, but I do know how to play some of his songs on my ukulele.) I started writing seriously in the late 90s, but it took ten years and two novels before I finally made a sale. ME AGAIN took me about two and a half years to complete, since I was splitting my time between day job, touring with Clarence Clemons, and finishing up my MBA (yeah, I drink a LOT of coffee). I give the Backspace online writers community a huge amount of credit for my development as a writer over the years. In fact, a referral from a fellow Backspacer is what ultimately got me my book deal.

3. You're also a talented musician. What made you take a foray into writing?

Both my parents were journalists, so writing was pretty much hard-coded into my genes. But for years I never did much more with it than compose some really funny (and highly obscene) holiday cards. In the late 90s a friend of mine got laid off, and decided to use his severance package to support himself while he drafted the novel he'd always wanted to write. (Incidentally, that's also how Sara Gruen got her start - food for thought...) So I decided to try my own hand at this writing stuff. I guess it just wasn't enough to pursue one career path where my chances of success were next to nil; I had to pursue two!

4. Who are some of your favorite authors?

Jeez, the list keeps growing! Nick Hornby, Jennifer Crusie, James Ellroy, Jane Austen, Carl Hiaasen, Sara Gruen, Ed McBain, Annie Proulx, Jon Clinch, A.S. King, Elmore Leonard, Lani Diane Rich, Donald Westlake, Helen Fielding, Robert B. Parker, Kelly Simmons, John McPhee, Elizabeth Letts, Tracy Kidder, Anne Tyler, Jay McInerny, Barbara Kingsolver, P.G. Wodehouse, Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Andrew Vachss, Barbara O'Neal, Robertson Davies, Peter Devries, Tom Wolfe, John Irving, and countless others I'm forgetting, along with some of the 20th-century "classic" writers like Hemingway, Harper Lee, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck (when he lightens up, at least). Some debut authors I'm really excited about include Susan Henderson, Jael McHenry, Therese Walsh, and Ernessa T. Carter.

5. What book are you an evangelist for?

I'll give you two. First, FALLING UNDER by Danielle Younge-Ullman. Danielle is a truly fearless author, and I'm blown away by how much emotion she exposes in this debut novel, which is just so raw and urgent and honest. And she writes the most vivid, revealing and pertinent sex scenes I've seen in years. I know she's about to release an ebook version of FALLING UNDER, so if you don't already own a copy of the original paperback, keep your eye out for this one.

Second, THE HELP by Kathryn Stockett. I know, you wouldn't think such a colossal bestseller would need any further evangelizing, but it's a common trait among writers to take cynical potshots at such successful books. From The Da Vinci Code to The Nanny Diaries to Harry Potter, far too many writers fall into attacking runaway bestsellers, rather than trying to learn from them. I just recently read THE HELP, and I put on my analytic hat and started paying attention to how Stockett was managing to keep me up so late reading her book. She continuously raises the stakes, while also increasing the pace, and the result just keeps pulling you along. I did an analysis in one of my posts at Writer Unboxed that explores how even within the first three paragraphs of the book, she takes the reader on an emotional journey. To me, this is a book that deserves the acclaim it's been getting, and I urge other writers to read it before they knock it.


Author of the novel ME AGAIN, published in September 2011 by Five Star/Gale, Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course, and he is a regular contributor at the literary blog Writer Unboxed. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele. Visit him online at or

Monday, September 19, 2011

Do you need an education to be a writer?

by April Henry

I don’t have an MFA. 

I have a business degree, with a minor in labor law.  (At least I think it was labor law.  I have never used it. I have no idea what I was thinking when I chose it.)
But I have always loved to read.  And reading, reading a LOT, might be the only education you really need to be a writer.  
And don’t just read fiction.  Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.  Read Billy Collins' poetry. Read, read, read.  
And if you don’t like a book (or story or poem), try to figure out why. Where did the author go wrong, in your opinion?  Was the dialog really an information dump? Were the characters identical twins to ones you’ve already seen a million times before?  Did the author cheat the reader in some way?
And here’s the next, and much harder, step.  If the author does something especially well, why does it work?  I’m still try to figure out why Robbie in Scott Turow's Personal Injuries was a character I loved and cared about, when he is a jerk.  
Another cheap way to gain an education is to check out books about writing from the library.  There are hundreds. Choose one or two and dip in.  If one speaks to you, keep reading. If it doesn’t, return it.  Recently, I’ve liked The Art of War for Writers, and Techniques of the Selling Writer.

I used to think that to be a writer, you had to grow up in New York City, go to boarding school and then someplace like Harvard.  And even when you were a kid, you probably also spoke French and owned your own horse. You weren't some girl from Medford, Oregon (at the time, population 18,000).  You weren't from a family that qualified for free school lunches (but never took them), and where if you opened the cupboard, there were only a few cans. You weren't some nerdy girl with glasses who liked nothing more than to read.  

But you know what?  Girls like that grow up to be writers, too!  

Thursday, September 15, 2011

A Never-Ending Education

By Sarah Pekkanen

Before turning to fiction, I was a newspaper and magazine writer for nearly a decade. And while I didn't always love the beats I was assigned to cover or the people I had to interview (a few dozen Capitol Hill politicians spring to mind), now I can look back and appreciate those hours spent tracking down sources and absorbing the background on complicated issues. My workplace provided a constant, vibrant education on topics that were both eclectic and obscure - and now that I'm penning novels, I'm still doing the kind of reporting I did back in the days when I obsessively carried around a little spiral notebook and pen.

For my first book, The Opposite of Me, I was struggling to settle on an occupation for my main character. Then one evening, as I sat by the edge of our neighborhood swimming pool, watching my kids splash around and idly flipping the pages of a semi-waterlogged O Magazine that someone had left behind, I stumbled across a feature about a woman named Chandra who'd quit her stressful advertising job to open her own paper store. I tore out the page and tucked it in my pocket, and the next morning, I tracked down Chandra at her new store in Chicago. We spent a few hours on the phone over the next two weeks, as she patiently answered my questions about the culture of the advertising world. I also read books written by ad execs, and called a few copywriters and account executives to get a glimpse into their workday worlds. I loved being educated about a brand new field, and happily wove realistic details into my book - such as a mention of the Recall Score (which tells you how many people who've watched a certain commercial actually remembered it).

For my second book, Skipping a Beat, I wanted to write about a main character who went from having no money to becoming fabulously wealthy. I toyed with the idea of making my character an Internet guru, but I lack the kind of brain that easily absorbs technical details (even spell check can be a challenge) and I knew writing about that would be a stretch for me. But there was a guy in my hometown who'd started a little beverage company in his kitchen and sold it a few years later, to the Coca-Cola Company, for something like sixty million dollars. So I emailed the guy - and he ended up inviting me to his headquarters for the Honest Tea company, letting me taste test a new drink, and answering all my questions about his professional journey.

I'm hooked on the experience of being educated through my novels, because getting glimpses into the lives of others has always fascinated me, and now I have an excuse for my nosiness. For my upcoming book, These Girls, I decided to have two of my main characters work together for a magazine based in New York City. I found a writer for a big glossy magazine who was willing to sneak me into the offices early one morning for a behind-the-scenes tour (and a lot of juicy gossip) - and you can bet those details will be appearing in my pages.

When people ask what it's like to be a writer, I tell them one of the best parts is that every page, every story, every book is a new experience - and a new learning experience.

Please visit Sarah Pekkanen's website at for more information about her books, or find her on Facebook and Twitter!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

School’s Never Out by Lucy Burdette

LUCY BURDETTE: When I read my girlfriends’ posts about getting their masters in creative writing, I feel a sharp yearning in my gut. What a pleasure and a luxury it sounds like to spend two years focusing on the craft of writing!

By the time I figured out I wanted to try writing fiction, I’d already spent a lifetime in school and earned two masters degrees and a PhD. The chances of going back were not high. Even so, I took every class I could get my hands on, online and off, attended conferences, and hired independent editors. Writing was hard and I wanted to be good at it, so I took—and still take—all the help I could get!

Over the past ten years, I’ve also started to teach a little. One of my favorite events happened last weekend at the Seascape Escape to Write weekend workshop for writers of commercial fiction (mostly mystery and paranormal.) A small group of students submits their work ahead of time and we critique each one in depth from three perspectives—character, opening scenes, and scene structure. And then we run other classes, and one-on-one sessions with the 3 instructors (Hallie Ephron, Susan Hubbard, and Roberta Isleib--that's the other me), and tons of discussions to process what we’ve learned. We spent the last hour this past Sunday talking about what kinds of “aha!” moments the students had over the weekend. I’d thought I’d share a sample of the list with you—this helps me realize that as much as I might have wanted to pursue an MFA, there are many great ways to learn about writing. We were so proud of these guys!

Wisdom from the students and teachers at Seascape 2011:

- The key to a good opening: make me want to read more
- Sometimes really good writing can mask plot issues
- Bring conflict into the very first chapter
- As a writer, I need to know what happened earlier to my characters--stuff I'm
not going to put into the book
- The criticism you least want to hear is the one you knew yourself
- Lavish as much attention on making the sleuth interesting as the victim
- Put the characters in the driver's seat
- Try not be constrained by stuff that really happened and that inspired your
- Conflict can be emotional, not just action. Conflict keeps the pages turning.
- Synopsis isn't dramatic
- It's all about character
- It's possible to fall in love with the wrong characters, ones that aren't
relevant to your plot
- Ask yourself: What would I do in this situation; make it believable
- Polishing isn't revising, and structural changes aren't as daunting as they

- Sometimes you just have to hold your nose and write

Lucy Burdette is the author of the Key West food critic mysteries, debuting in January with AN APPETITE FOR MURDER. You find her on her website, or facebook, or follow her on twitter. As Roberta Isleib, she wrote 8 mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime.