Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reviews, Interviews and Falling In Love (Again)

If only writing were this easy
Although you can generally depend on a bit of downtime between Christmas and New Year’s, there have been a few developments here: 

  • The Taker was reviewed by The Washington Post today, with the headline, “The Taker takes a fresh bite out of old vampire tales” (never mind that there are no vampires in The Taker, I think it makes the point . . .)
  • I recorded an interview for the blog radio program Literary New England, scheduled to air on January 2 at 8:00 PM ET. There are some stellar authors on the same program, including Nathaniel Philbrick and Brock Clarke (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England). They'll be giving away a few copies of The Taker during the program. You should be able to access it here.

In other news, the first pass pages for The Reckoning arrived today. This is the author’s last chance to make significant changes to the manuscript; after this, changes will impact the publisher’s production schedule and are generally frowned upon. It’s a nerve-wracking time for an author anyway, but having the pages arrive on the same day that a major review comes out is particularly . . . challenging.

The thing about this profession that makes it worthwhile (to me) is being seized with an idea for a new story. It’s like those giddy first days of a new romance, when you can’t wait to see each other again and want to spend all your time together. Right before Christmas, I got the idea for a standalone historical novel that I am really excited about. I managed to get four chapters written even as I was cleaning house and cooking for twenty Christmas day, but now must put the story aside to polish up those first pass pages.

That’s all the news for now. What are your plans for New Year’s? Anyone planning to curl up with a new book and a glass of eggnog?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas traditions: simplifying while keeping the important things

Is anyone else asking how can Christmas be here already? In my case, it must be because I’m working from home now and I don’t watch television, so I’m not exposed to the reminders, the elves and lights and Christmas music in elevators.

We’re hosting my husband’s East Coast relatives for an early dinner tomorrow, as we do every year. My husband’s family is very close, and they get together for every major holiday, hosted by one of the families. Most of them live in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and since we moved to Virginia eight years ago, we don’t get to as many of these get-togethers as we’d like to, but they are all kind enough to schlep out our way on Christmas, so we can see each other.

It’s quieter now that the cousins’ children are all grown. A few have children of their own. But the days of tearing wrapping paper and screeches of delight are, for the most part, over. My husband’s parents were the hosts for Christmas for a long time but we took over at least 12 years ago (though we might’ve missed a year here or there). The menu is always the same, and the highlight for me is my father’s stuffing, which is made with smoked Portuguese chorizo. It used to be an ordeal trying to find Portuguese chorizo but thank goodness for Wegman’s: they now carry it in our area.

For desserts, I usually make my specialties, a four-layer carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and cheesecake. The carrot cake is a knockout, almost a fruitcake as it’s dense with raisins, coconut, pineapple, walnuts and carrots. I’ve made it four times this month alone, it’s so popular. This year we’re supplementing with a gorgeous seven-layer cake sent as a gift. One year when we lived in Maryland, we ordered eclairs made by a local man. He made then for the summer festivals, where I’d had one and was blown away. A Frenchman would probably faint: they’re not proper or fancy, and were huge, as big as an adult’s slipper. We cut each into three pieces and even those were a challenge to finish.

This month has been so busy I didn’t have time to decorate or shop, and I hope no one will be disappointed. For presents, there’ll be a big box of books and everyone can choose one (or more) that looks interesting. Lazy, yes, but well-intentioned. And, arguably, better for you than a box of chocolates.

The reason I’ve been so busy is because I’m writing. I’ve decided to try to write a spy novel, and have been working with my agent to put together a proposal. Then just as I turned in the synopsis, I got an idea for another book. A straight historical this time, no supernatural things going on. It’s so much fun to write, I can barely tear myself away from the computer to attend to holiday duties.

What about you? Have you been able to keep up with holiday requirements this season, or are you—like me—simplifying in order to get it all done? What food are you looking forward to making, or eating? What will you do on boxing day, after all the excitement is over? 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Make Your Own World: Small Beer Press + UNDER THE POPPY giveaway

High on every book person’s list of Things We’d Do Given Unlimited Time & Money—right after own our own bookstore—is run our own independent press. Who wouldn’t want to have the ability to take writing that appeals to us, writing that is most likely underserved by the traditional publishing establishment, and share it with the world? But then we come to our senses, or realize how overstretched we are and . . . we let go of that dream.

Which is why I admire Gavin Grant and Kelly Link, co-founders of Small Beer Press and lit zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW). I’d heard of LCRW years ago, but Small Beer came back on my radar screen when I heard they were publishing John Crowley’s Endless Things. Being a fan of Crowley, it seemed the height of cool to publish one of hiss works. But it didn’t stop with Crowley. There was a small parade of incredible authors being published by Small Beer (you’ll see more names below). And then in 2010 I picked up Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy. That’s when I realized Grant and Link were publishers of exceptional vision and bravery.

Grant and Link have a specific literary aethestic. It just so happens that this aethestic is difficult to describe. Some use the term slipstream, meaning prose that is fantastic, surreal or speculative. Some use the term ‘strange’, while Grant himself calls it ‘weird’. While Small Beers’ books defy categorization, you know one when you see one, and that’s due in no small part to Grant’s and Link’s clear vision.
 Steampunk!An Anthology of Fantastically Strange and Rich Stories (Candlewick Press) is Grant's and Link's latest project

It seems that Small Beer and your lit magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, have a lot in common with the independent music scene, which flourished in the 1980s and beyond. That sense of wanting to do promote art that appeals to you but isn’t getting mainstream attention. What made your decide to start your own independent publishing house centered around this particular type of fiction?

When we started our zine Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet (LCRW) in 1996 it was very much inspired by music zines. I’m not a huge fan of punk music, but I love the ethos and the world view. I like to remind myself and everyone else that you can go out and do something that could make a difference in the world. LCRW exists because none of the magazines I was reading was quite what I wanted. If I had an actual budget, we’d have more nonfiction, but c’est la vie. We started out publishing fiction that fell between the cracks: too this for one magazine, too that for another. We were lucky and very much of our time: many other publishers sprang up at the same time and now I look around and there are tons of places publishing what I really love: fiction, slightly weird.

Small Beer was a natural progression from LCRW and it’s still working really well as a home for books that might have difficulty finding a home elsewhere.

How do you decide what to publish in a given year? I imagine that, since your press is well-known within certain circles and highly regarded, you have both authors who come to you looking for a home for a particular work, and have your eyes on certain authors you’d like to work with. Do you want to talk about how you came to publish any particular works by more widely known writers, such as Holly Black, John Crowley, Karen Joy Fowler or Poppy Z. Brite? Or highlight one of your lesser-known but fabulous authors, a current favorite or new release.

Part of it has been luck. When we started out we knew that Carol Emshwiller had this novel, The Mount, that no one would publish. We read it, had our minds blown, published it, it won the Philip K. Dick Award and is now taught all over the country. There have been books we’d loved to have published that we missed for various reasons. Quite a few of our books have been us pestering authors and agents to see whether a favorite author has something new—or something that hasn’t quite fit elsewhere.

Kelly and I both loved Poppy Z. Brite’s New Orleans cooking novels and, in a fit of optimism, we hoped that we could inspire her to write more of them if we proposed a paperback of Second Line. She may not write more, but at least we got to spread the word on books we love.

One of our new books, The Liminal People by Ayize Jama-Everett, was originally self-published. A mutual friend, the writer Nalo Hopkinson recommended he send it to us and the rest is history. We get quite a few self-pub’d books, but his grabbed me from page one. It’s a quick, tight, thriller with a superhero-ish main character—not our usual book, but I loved it, so we were happy to put it out.
One of Kelly Link's short story collections

Let’s say someone wants to follow your example and start up her own independent publishing house. How would you recommend she start?

Everything in publishing has a longer and longer lead time do as much prep as you can long before you even announce the press. Come out of the gates with an initial list of titles (1,2,5, it doesn’t matter) and a distributor lined up. (Print distribution contracts are usually exclusive; ebook distribution contracts are usually nonexclusive.)

People love a new press, a new voice. Don’t miss your chance: exploit your freshfacededness!

One of the non-intuitive surprises is that if you have some successful books they can make life hard as they will take up all your time but you still need time to concentrate on the other books. This isn’t a complaint, just an observation from experience so you need to be able to plan on ways to find more time or get more help if the work expands. As it will!

A key factor in your success is that, as editors, you guys have a fabulous eye for good writing. Any tips for aspiring acquiring editors regarding cultivating a distinctive list that reflects a precise taste?

You are too kind! I would just say trust your own taste. We’re lucky in that when we’re not sure we can check with the other person and see what they think.

You live in Easthampton, Massachusetts, which I consider the western part of the state (maybe it’s more central Mass, but coming from the Boston area, it seems western to me!) a gorgeous area that’s away from the congestion of Boston. Maybe I’ve completely over-romanticized your situation, but it seems like he best way to live, away from the madding crowd, doing something artistically and personally satisfying in a beautiful place. Please do not dissuade me. (Okay, that’s not really a question.)

It’s definitely Western Mass! And I won’t dissuade you. I love cities but doing what I do I can’t afford to buy a house in a city. I wanted a place for our kid to be able to go and play in the garden and be able to cycle into town. We’re working as hard as we can so that this somewhat idyllic dream will come true!

Is there a five-year plan for Small Beer? What would you most like to see happen/want to do next? 

I am hoping that in five years time we will still be publishing paper and ebooks. Our plan is to keep publishing books and see if we survive the seismic shift in the bookworld. We love books and indie bookstores (new and used), and have some sympathy for the book chain stores as they are fighting to survive against the WalMartization of everything. WalMart are good at some things, but selling the kinds of books we love isn’t one of them so we have to try and ensure that bookstores that will stock our books survive. Every dollar spent is a political act which remakes the possible futures — in other words, if you don’t shop at your local bookshop / hardware store / bike shop / clothes shop / grocery store then all that will be left are chains which are exactly the same from one side of the world to the other. 

This pretty much sums up Under the Poppy: "A gothic, glam-rock take on love and sex and death that reads a little like what would happen if Sarah Waters and Angela Carter played a drunken game of Exquisite Corpse in a brothel . . . will make you want to get out your very finest crushed velvet, drink a couple bottles of wine, and do something a little bit illegal with someone very good-looking. In other words, it’s a winner."—  Would you like to win a copy? (Of course you would!) Leave a comment below.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Paper Lantern Lit + LIESL & PO Giveaway

I’m excited to be doing something different this month, and that’s talking to people who are doing interesting new things in the book publishing business.

We all know that book publishing is going through a time of tremendous change, as are all media industries: newspapers and magazines, movies, television. As digitalization and mobility change how content is produced and delivered, long-standing business models are being blown up, re-imagined, and torn apart again as the reinvention cycle becomes more and more compressed.

On top of that, a lot of people are re-evaluating what it means to have a fulfilling and meaningful life, particularly when it comes to work. Technology is making it possible for more people to rethink their jobs or to reshape their careers entirely, whether it’s working from home or an entirely different part of the country, or finding an audience or a market that would’ve been unthinkable ten years ago without the kind of resources that were out of the average person’s reach.

It might be a good time to contemplate a radical change in your own life.

In December, I’m going to talk to people who are doing just that, pursuing their interests on their terms, and I hope you’ll be inspired by their stories to think about making your life more creative, more satisfying or more fun.

I’m starting this series with a look at Paper Lantern Lit, a literary development company founded by Lexa Hillyer and Lauren Oliver. Now granted, I’m new to the publishing business, but what they’re doing seemed sort of novel to me: coming up with ideas for stories, then finding the right author to bring the story to life, with their guidance. They’re able to use the storytelling skills and instincts they developed while working as editors at major New York City publishing houses—and Lauren’s own experience as a bestselling author—to nurture young writers and bring these story ideas to life.

Elizabeth Miles (whose name has appeared in this blog once or twice—heck, three times, if you’re counting) is one of PLL’s  authors. I am a big fan of her YA novel FURY and was intrigued when I learned of the PLL connection. Elizabeth kindly approached Lexa about talking to me about PLL, and answers some questions herself about being a PLL author.

With the publishing industry undergoing revolutionary change, people are looking for new ways to do business, ways that make sense and bridge the best of what’s new with what’s working now. Paper Lantern Lit certainly has a lot of people in the industry talking. As a matter of fact, they were just interviewed by Business Week, which you can read here.

What gave you the idea to start PLL? For a lot of people, it comes with a change in life circumstances—starting a family, needing to move to a new location, finding a work/life balance—which in and of itself is a characteristic of the way the business world is changing. Was this the case for you? Or was it the lure of entrepreneurship?

LEXA: The idea for PLL came about organically between myself and my business partner, author Lauren Oliver. We’d been friends for awhile and used to work together at Penguin as editors.  The company really emerged from our mutual desire to do something even more creative and challenging with our lives. We both felt we had a special talent for formulating and plotting good stories, and recognized a need for those skills in the publishing landscape. We wanted to build a company that would allow us to do just that, all day long, on our own terms, in the hope of providing a valuable service both to writers and to publishers. To be honest, I’m not sure either of us truly thought of ourselves as entrepreneurs, until we got started. As our vision for the company grew, so did our sense of what we could truly accomplish on our own. It was exhilarating. It still is!

How did you come up with the model for PLL? Is it because you guys are story machines? To be clear, PLL comes up with the ideas for the story and finds the writer who will be the best match, correct? Can you talk a little about that process—how do you come up with the ideas for your books? How do you decide which ones to pursue?

Such great questions! Yes, you are correct in that our focus is generating ideas (or “sparks”) and expanding them into detailed plot outlines, while searching the world for the most impressive, poignant, engaging, fresh writers who are in need of direction, in need of a home—in a need of the right project! We really do like to think of ourselves as matchmakers. We aren’t just looking to “hire” an author. We’re looking to pair a voice with a spark, and ignite a perfect union between the two! And yes, our model really evolved out of what made most sense according to what we can offer the world, and we try our best to keep our model clear and simple. We know that when it comes to ideas, there can be a lot of anxiety and warring over ownership. But our belief is that there truly are infinite good ideas, and the magic comes in how you execute them. So our attitude is inherently not one of possessiveness. Our approach demands passion and hard work, instead, to make sure each project gets the attention it needs at all stages of the process. Ultimately, there are some sparks that fizzle out before they see the light of day, and that’s perfectly fine. We have to treat each project on its own terms and we rarely have to decide which ones to pursue and which to drop—if you listen, the story will tell you what it needs. Sometimes it needs to go into hiding for awhile. Sometimes it has its own momentum and you just have to keep up!

Oh and to answer your question about how we come up with the ideas, that’s fairly organic, too. We do have one or two brainstorming sessions per year, where we bring in ideas, images, and concepts that excite or intrigue us—we throw the ideas into a mixing pot and see what happens. Usually some great things emerge. But we also try to let our lives be open to constant inspiration. Sometimes it’s an article in the paper or a conversation with a friend or a piece of art that sparks our imaginations. As a creative company, we put a high premium on structuring our own work weeks so that there’s always room to have those spontaneous moments of inspiration.

Can you tell us a little how PLL differs from a book packager?

Yes, you’ll notice we call ourselves literary developers, rather than packagers. While the distinction may seem subtle, it’s incredibly important to us. We consider it one of our greatest values to nurture new talent, and so we are not simply using writers to churn out a final product, as with some other packagers—we’re more process-oriented than that. We’re really aiming to help cultivate and develop our writers’ voices.  Both Lauren and I have MFAs in creative writing, and we generally give notes and feedback to our writers on a weekly basis. We truly provide an editorial “home” for these authors while they hone their craft and get their professional careers off the ground.

PLL seems to offer a wonderful start for authors: the ability to work on their storytelling skills with professionals in the business. You’ve described it as “a paid MFA” but it seems like more than that to me, sort of MFA + real-world experience. Could this be one model for the future, a step in-between trying to do it all on your own and traditional publishing? (For writers with the right mix of talent and willingness to work hard?) Or, if this question makes more sense: where do you see PLL on the publishing spectrum?

Yes, I absolutely see PLL as just that—a bridge between academia and industry. In school, the premium is on creating the best sentence, the most fully-rounded character, the best prose you can have. Rarely is there a major focus on finishing a book. Rarely is there a bare-bones approach to the craft of plotting. And even more rare are the discussions about what’s relevant to readers now. That’s all stuff one must learn slowly in the real world, the hard way. So that’s where PLL comes in. We bring that market awareness and industry savvy, in addition to the attention to prose, character and individualized voices.

I find there’s sometimes a lot of fear in academia when it comes to the publishing industry. Writers are terrified of signing contracts and are told horror stories about losing all control over their work. But mostly when you look around at the publishing world, it’s a lot less scary than that. Yes, there are risks, and rights that must be negotiated, and so on. But ultimately it’s a business transaction among people who all just want to make some kind of living doing what they love. So, it’s important to me to get that message across.

Can you talk about what’s next for PLL?

Well, that’s up in the air! We have a relationship with Fox 2000, a film studio we greatly admire for their love of books. So of course we’re very hopeful that there will be developments on the west coast for us sometime soon. And we’re constantly meeting with other young companies we admire, and exploring how we can adopt to the constantly shifting publishing landscape.  We want to be diverse and dynamic—we never want to become bored or complacent. We love collaborating with others, and we may launch a charitable portion of the company next year—stay tuned for details on that! Ultimately, though, our emphasis will always be on quality over quantity, and our focus will always be on creating wonderful content and great relationships. 

Elizabeth, would it be possible to talk about what it’s like to work with PLL? Can you step us through the process for FURY? As the writer, are you given a general idea for the story [the plot] and it’s up to you to develop the characters, setting, sub-plots and the rest of the story magic?

Once I was “matched” with my story (it was clear from the beginning that I was “auditioning” for PLL’s horror/paranormal project), I received an outline for Book One from Lauren and Lexa. We spoke about my wanting to set the book in Maine — having gone to college in Boston, and now living in Portland, Maine, I’m very familiar with the “New England aesthetic” and I wanted to explore that in Fury. Working off the outline, I sent a few chapters a week to Lexa, my PLL editor. She responded with helpful notes, and I revised in larger chunks. The character development, sense of place, and general tone/voice of the book are all very much mine...I like your term “story magic.” I had some raw talent and working with PLL helped me — a first-time fiction writer — learn quickly about both the craft and the industry. For Book Two (Envy, which comes out next year), the process was similar but there was a bit more collaboration in terms of establishing background, plot points, and the general direction of the story.

What interested you in working with PLL?

I’m a journalist by day, and I studied non-fiction writing in college. But I’ve always loved reading fiction and I’ve always wondered about what it would take to have me strike out in that direction. Certainly the fact that Lauren and I are old friends helped nudge me along...but more than that, I think I was looking for a new challenge, a new outlet for my creativity, and a chance to connect with an entirely different type of reader. However, as a workaholic with precisely zero idea of how the publishing world worked, I would never have taken the plunge were it not for the support and safety net of the PLL model. I found Lauren and Lexa to be both professional and approachable, and while navigating the financial aspect of things can be tricky (especially when working with friends!), I feel like they’ve been both up-front and fair from the beginning.

What happens next for you as a writer? Do you have a five-year plan? Do you see yourself continuing with PLL or striking out on your own, or a mix?

What happens next for me as a writer...Well, I’m writing about campaign finance for next week’s paper, and groundfishing permits for the week after that; I’ll start working on Book Three of the Fury series soon — oh, wait, you’re talking more long-term? Ha. I have a lot on my plate and it’s hard for me to think that far ahead. That said, the easy answer to “Will I write more fiction?” is: Yes, I believe I will. I’m not sure how or when, under what auspices, whether it will be for young adults, adults, kids, aliens...But I’ve caught the bug now. And, what Lauren and Lexa say about PLL being akin to an MFA bootcamp isn’t far off. I feel like I have a solid foundation on which to build. Overall, I feel very fortunate to have had this experience. 

Visit PLL’s website and see their lovely logo
Visit Elizabeth’s website
Visit PLL’s website for The Fury series

GIVEAWAY: Leave a comment below by December 19th and be entered to win a signed ARC of Lauren Oliver’s LIESL & PO which I snagged totally by happenstance at BEA in May.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Faster Than A Cannonball

Since some of you are writers as well as readers, I thought I’d write occasionally on the business end of being published. Here’s what’s been going on lately:

It’s been three months since The Taker, my first novel, was published in the US. For the most part, the hubbub has died down: requests for interviews have died down, and reviews have tapered off. The final revision of the next book in the trilogy, The Reckoning, has been turned in to the publisher and I won’t see it again until the first pass pages—all typeset and looking like they will in the final product—are sent to me in late January. Which means I should have my days free to work on the third book, The Descent.

And I am. In fact, I started writing it during the lull between when I turned in the first version of The Reckoning to my editor and when I got her comments back. So I’m returning to a work-in-progress, not an entirely blank sheet (thankfully). I’m learning that a writer’s job is far more than just writing the book.

There’s still business to attend to, for the publication of the trade paperback version of The Taker and the hardcover of The Reckoning. The publishing business works months and months in advance, and it seems there’s a never-ending succession of pieces to review and approve. For a trade paperback, there’s what’s known as front and back matter to approve.

Front matter consists of praise generated from the hardcover release, blurbs and quotes from reviews meant to entice a reader into buying the book. Back matter are the bonus materials: the Reading Group Guide and a teaser chapter from the next book. In the case of ebook version of The Taker, a chapter from The Reckoning was included, but as it turns out a different chapter has been chosen as the teaser for the trade paperback, so there’s a chance for readers to see quite a bit of the next book.

You get to review and approve front and back matter twice: first in softcopy, and then later in typeset pages.

Before this stage, there was jacket copy to approve, which gets used in one form or another in advance materials, too, such as the publisher’s catalog, and advertisements. As the author, you get a chance to review this, too and I’d argue that next to the book itself, this is the single most important piece for the author to pay attention to, as it’s what most people will use—whether the book buyer for a store or a reader—to decide whether to take a chance on your book.

And while all this wordsmithing is going on, there’s the cover art to consider. But this is so important that I’ll discuss it in a separate post.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NaNoWriMo #30: Five Top Tips, and Moving Mountains With Story

Last day of NaNoWriMo! I’m going to put up the last couple of pieces of advice contributed by our published authors, and in the next couple of days I’ll do a little wrap-up.

First up today is Elizabeth Miles, author of FURY. She wrote a great post recently with her top five writing tips, and is allowing me to reprint it here.

“After not using a Power Point or any type of formal presentation for the first set of tour stops with Becca and Moira, I finally decided to create one before I met BF in Toronto at the end of October. I found that it helped me stay on target while talking to school groups. In addition to the requisite "childhood embarrassing photo" and info about FURY, I included five writing tips at the end. My little gimmick (you gotta have one...)? All of them contain the word "out." Here's what I mean:

1) Spill it OUT. 
     Staring at a blank page (slash screen) is the absolute worst. Get something on there, even if it's crap (and some of it won't be). As some of you know, I know an editor who calls this "word-vomming." Whatever you want to call it, don't fall prey to the belief/personal expectation that your first attempt is going to be great, or even that good. Words beget more words, beget more (and better) ideas. Skip around, if that'll help - if you love writing dialogue, get some of that down and then come back to the exposition. If setting the scene is your thing, do that before you start hammering out plot details…” (read the rest of this post here)

Next is Karen Dionne, author of eco-thrillers BOILING POINT and FREEZING POINT. She’s also the co-founder of Backspace, the online writers hangout. And I do mean hangout: everyone from NYT bestsellers to the newest aspiring writer congregates in the forums, swapping advice, news, and support. She’s also very active in International Thriller Writers. But most importantly, she should know that Karen is one of the sweetest and most supportive people in the writing community, and a great person to have in your corner.

“Don't be afraid to move mountains. Accuracy and research are important, but the story has to come first - always.” Karen’s advice is spot-on. Without a great story—something that intrigues readers and makes them keep turning the pages—you have nothing.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

NaNoWriMo: Write a Great Book, Watch a Good Movie

We’re in the homestretch of National Novel Writing Month. We’re down to our last few tips, too. Today’s tip is a really good one and it’s from Alia Yunis, author of the amazing novel The Night Counter, a clever retelling of the Scheherazade story. As you’ll see when you get to the tip below, Alia has also spent a lot of time working in the film industry, and she’s currently a freelance journalist and a professor of film and television. I had the great fortune to meet Alia at Squaw Valley Writers Conference last summer. Alia is a great person to spend a weekend with! (Let me give a little shout out for Squaw, if you’re looking for a writer’s conference to hone your skills. Check it out.)

“What came first—the novel or the screenplay?  In world history and in most agent deals, the book came first.  Not a trick question.  The trick is for the writer of the novel to appreciate the screenplay while he or she is writing her book.  I spent years toiling in LA in the screenwriting trade, as a writer and as a script analyst.  There are days when I wish for the sake of my soul and sanity I had run away in half the time it took me to make the decision to leave.  But when I sit at my computer writing, I am grateful to the screenplays I wrote and the hundreds and hundreds of scripts I read and movies I watched.

“Freedom of speech does not apply to screenwriting, at least when it comes to structure.  Your three act structure, plot points, turning points, back stories, narrative description, and dialogue falls within a limited set of pages—or on screen running minutes.  So when I find my novel just wandering along without a plot, without stakes and turning points, I take a break and watch a good movie.  It gives my eyes a rest, but it also gives me a chance to map out my story.  I outline the script of the film I’m watching, and that gets me thinking about plot in my own novel, and then I’m ready to go again.  Indeed, screenwriting doesn’t allow for the freedom and creativity that novel writing does, but for the novelist struggling with too much freedom, taking a break to watch a movie can help give your freedom purpose.”

Thursday, November 24, 2011

NaNoWriMo #24: The Importance of Connecting

Not only can you stumble on your way to logging your daily word count during NaNoWriMo: you can stumble trying to do a daily post. Sorry for missing a day or two. I’m afraid it’s going to continue over the holiday weekend as I try to juggle turkey dinner, reviewing the copyedited pages from the publisher, and experimenting with a Facebook ad campaign.

Last week I went to hear Rebecca York address the Maryland chapter of Romance Writers of America. Rebecca has had a long career as a writer. Not only has she written many romance novels, she’s also written cookbooks, non-fiction, and mysteries.

I have known Rebecca—or I should say, I have known of her—for a long time for, you see, I worked in the same federal agency as her husband. He has always been proud of her work and I’d heard about her writing thirty years ago, when I just started on the job. She was one of the few people I’d ever met who earned their living writing novels, and has been an inspiration of mine all this time. We met in person a few years ago at a writer’s conference when I told her I knew her husband—and lo and behold, he was sitting in a chair a couple tables behind me! (I can’t tell you how heartwarming it is to see the two of them together nowadays, as Norm goes with Rebecca—or Ruth, to use her real name—to all her conferences.)

I had just reached out to Ruth to ask her advice about something and she invited me to her talk to the Maryland group. I’ve been struggling with writing my second book and wondering if I’d been doing everything all wrong, and so it was the perfect time to go see Ruth: she was to talk about the lessons she’d learned from her long writing career. I think all writers today are struggling to figure out what’s best for them given the sea of options that now face us, and it was generous of Ruth to share her thoughts.

I’ll write about her advice in future posts, but the point I wanted to make today is that you can get advice about writing and publishing everywhere on the Internet lately, it seems. The authenticity of some of that advice is suspect, however. It’s easy to present yourself as an expert in the virtual world. There is no substitute for listening to someone who has weathered change and can put it all in perspective, smartly.

I’m sure somewhere in your area there are writers groups. People who get together once a month to critique each other’s work, bring in outside speakers, and keep each other inspired and informed. I urge you to join one of these groups, no matter how shy and introverted you are. As much as the world of books live in our heads, in order to get beyond writing for yourself, you have to connect to the outside world, and the best connections are the flesh and blood ones.

I think that must be why the NaNoWriMo write-ins are so popular: it gives you a chance to work in the company of other people like you, and to make connections in what is otherwise a lonely pursuit. Just don’t let it stop with NaNoWriMo. Join a critique group or writer’s organization, continue your education as a writer, and make friends who will help sustain you over the long haul.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

NaNoWriMo #22: Pouring It Out

Today’s bit of inspiration comes from Alan Orloff. In addition to being the author of standalone and series mystery novels—Diamonds for the Dead, Killer Routine and, coming in January, Deadly Campaign—he’s also a writing instructor at The Writer’s Center in MD/VA/DC. You can read Alan’s blog here, or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

“BICFOK – Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard. The only way to get a finished manuscript is to finish it! Set up a schedule: daily, five-days-a-week, whatever, and stick to it. Do your time! Finish your quota! Eventually, you’ll have a first draft. It may stink, but then it’s time to really get to work—revisions!”

Alan’s advice gives me the opportunity to bring up Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, a great (and well-known) resource for writers. Her chapter “Shitty First Drafts” is a must-read. It explains why you need to give yourself permission to pour it out on the page for the first draft and is a perfect complement to what Alan said.

Monday, November 21, 2011

NaNoWriMo #21: Ruminating on Your Writing

If you’ve been faithfully participating in NaNoWriMo, you’re probably thinking about your novel all the time: while you’re driving the car or loading laundry into the washing machine. Good! You’ve now incorporated an important writing technique into your subconscious. Today, Elizabeth Miles, author of the hot hot hot YA novel Fury is going to tell you how to tap into your subconscious and extract the gems. In addition to writing fiction, Elizabeth is a reporter for the Portland Phoenix. You can find out more about her Fury series here, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

“When I'm required to write a lot in a short period of time, or when I'm on a tight deadline, or when I'm faced with a plot dilemma that I need to sort out before I can move forward with my story, I try to ruminate on my writing even when I'm not at my desk. Before I fall asleep, when I'm walking to work, in the shower, or in my car, I'll set the scene in my head and turn it over in a kind of meditative way. It's almost like the scene is a rock and I try to make my thoughts the stream, running over and around it, finding new crevices, new ways to maneuver around it. I don't force it. If certain words or ideas come to me, I find a way to write them down (this leads to lots of scribbled notes on the backs of envelopes and receipts :). When I do this, I come back to my computer with a new, slightly fresher perspective, sometimes some new words or solutions, and at the very least, more time thinking about my story, which can never hurt.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

NaNoWriMo #20: Show Up

Okay, so today’s tip isn’t technically going to help you with your NaNoWriMo project. But at least a few of you are new to writing, and after NaNoWriMo is over, will want to continue. Part of the reason I decided to go these tips for NaNoWriMo is to give glimpses into the writer’s life. Chances are, most of you are trying in the hope of being published one day. And there is more to being published than writing the book. The writing is the most important part, of course: don’t put the cart before the horse. There’s the writing—and then there’s everything else: reading and continuing to work at craft, becoming part of the writer’s community, building a network to help sustain you, pursuing publication.

Have you been to an author event lately? Whether at a book festival, or a reading in a bookstore, make it a point to go to at least two live events a year. Why?
  •  If you aspire to being a professional writer one day, you’re going to have to talk about your work eventually. You’re going to have to read out loud from your book. You need to see how others do it. And it helps to be there, in the flesh, and soak up all the atmospherics and to get a feel for how it’s done and what to expect.
  • If you consider yourself part of the community of writers, you need to help support that community. Bookstore appearances are important for authors for more than the opportunity to meet their readers. It gives authors a chance to get their name on posters and newspaper ads that are read by people who won’t be attending the event itself. It gives authors a chance to get to know booksellers, which is incredibly important, because if a bookseller doesn’t know about your book, he won’t recommend it to customers. I heard while on tour this September that the average number of people who attend a bookstore event is nine, and that’s the average from the newest of debut authors to the big names. The number of people who attend live events is dwindling to the point where such events may be in jeopardy for all but the most well-known authors. Let bookstore owners know you appreciate these events by attending them. And bring a friend with you.

Some people think that author events in bookstores will go away because they are so poorly attended. I think that would be a shame, and not because I’m one of those people who think we should continue tradition for it’s own sake. It’s because the experience you get from a live event is fundamentally different from what you get from reading. It enriches the experience of reading. It enriches your relationship to your chosen pastime. So please get out there and attend a live book event as part of your development as a writer.

Friday, November 18, 2011

NaNoWriMo #19: Improving Your Writing Through Reading

Today’s writing tip is: read. To be a better writer, you have to read, and read with a purpose. (Okay, Alex Berenson raised this point a few days ago, but I’m going to expound on it today.)

You learn to write better by reading good writing. You can take courses, listen to writers speak, read how-to books, but in the end, in order to become fluent in storytelling, you must read.

I was at a talk given by Rebecca York last night (more on that in the coming days) and she summed it up best: to become a better writer, you need to figure out what you’re good at, and what you’re not so good at. Then, find the writers who are good at the things you’re not good at, and read them.

If you’ve been meeting your NaNoWriMo quota, by now you probably have a good idea of which elements are your weakest. Do you have a problem with dialogue? Read someone renown for her dialogue, like Elmore Leonard. Do you plots tend to be anemic? The answer here will depend on your genre, but if you’re looking for a place to start, try reading award-winners (the winner of the Edgar for best novel, for instance, or a book that made “best mysteries of the year” for more than one publication).   

For problems with openings and weak endings, one of my favorite tricks is to sit down in front of my bookcase of favorite reads and to go through books at random, reading their first and last pages, studying the author’s technique. Put aside the ones that work best in your opinion, then go back and read the first and last chapters.

Some folks worry that they’ll inadvertently “lift” from the book they’re reading, and transplant a character or a subplot into the story they’re writing. I say if you find you’re doing this, you’re not analyzing the story you’re reading deeply enough. You want to uncover the writer’s technique, not that you found (for example) a particular character enjoyable, but you want to figure out how the author was able to make the character well-rounded. How the author was able to given that character dimension. What about the character made her come alive to you.

So, to recap: if you writing is feeling a bit beleaguered, try reading.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo #18: How Does She Do It?

How do you do it? Isn’t that the question we’re most often asked, as writers? The one we most often ask each other when we get together? What’s your process? How do you capture lightning in a bottle? Did what worked for you for the first novel work the second time around? How do you keep track of all your subplots—software, index cards, post-it notes, scribbles on paper napkins? Personally, I’m especially intrigued by organized writers, the ones who come up with methodical approaches to the messiness that is writing.

Today’s tip is from Miranda Parker.  I met Miranda—or Dee as she’s known—at the Decatur Book Festival, where she was volunteering as a stage manager. She writes the Angel Crawford Bounty Hunter series for Kensington Books, and is a member of International Thriller Writers (ITW) Debut Class of 2012. Just as she rolled up her sleeves to help out at Decatur, she volunteered to run The Thrill Begins blog for ITW—she’s that kind of person, always ready to pitch in when it’s something she believes in, and hence, someone who knows how to manage her time. You can follow her on Facebook here.

“As you get deeper into the month you may find your story is floundering or you have no clue what to write today. I use a weekly plot schedule. The plot schedule is broken down into 4 acts for the 4 weeks. Week 1 my objective is to get the intro done and to get my main character to the inciting incident. Week Two I'm focused on getting my character to the quest and then to a surprise she discovers about herself once she gets what she think she wants. The other weeks fall into my major plot points with the last week, of course focusing on the climax and the conclusion. Having this objective to meet by every Sunday gives me a point of reference. If I have a day that's too busy to get a great deal of words in, I still know where I need to be at the end of that week.” 

NaNoWriMo #17: Permission to Take a Breather

Today’s tip is from Jennifer Haupt, writing for magazines and author of books of non-fiction and fiction. She writes a blog, One True Thing, for Psychology Today, and is one of the bloggers at the reading website, Reader Unboxed, and is the author of the upcoming book, I'll Stand By You: Changing the World, One Child at a Time (Dutton, 2012). What I find amazing about Jennifer is her attitude. She defines herself: “I’m fascinated by how people define, discover, and pursue something more. I write about all aspects of passion—from travel and food, to putting more heart in your home, to relationships and parenting, to the many different ways we each approach the quest to become part of something larger than our own lives. It's all about making meaningful connections.” She has a profound interest in other people in a no-judging way that, to me, is intensely spiritual. So when Jennifer speaks, I listen.

“STOP Writing! Don't be afraid to stop the madness for a day or two and evaluate what you've actually put down on paper. I know the idea is to just write your brains out, but sometimes taking a breather and letting the manuscript simmer takes greater discipline and is actually a great development tool for your story.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

NaNoWriMo #16: Practice Kindness

Today’s tip is from Rebecca Coleman, author of the recently released, highly regarded The Kingdom of Childhood. Rebeeca, a daring and talented writer, is one of the friendliest people I know. What she has to say today is very important, and if you don’t have this particular knack, you might want to start working on it now. It extends to everyone you meet on your publishing journey, from your professional partners (editor, agent, everyone at your publisher’s house) to each and every reader, because each of these people has taken time from their lives to do something for you. And in this day, that's an increasingly rare thing. You can follow Rebecca’s blog here, or follow her on Facebook here and Twitter here.

"Be friendly. Be kind. How is that a writing tip? Because when you're *this close* to getting a publishing contract, the agent and then the editor want to talk to you on the phone. Your people skills are part of what helps them decide if they want to represent you or work with you-- because believe me, they have a very large pool from which to choose. If an author shows she is easy to work with, she's a safer bet for the publisher, who will often put more money behind her book because they know she won't let her ego compromise her relationship with her editor. And once you have that contract in your hands, you're going to need cover blurbs from published authors, and people to promote your book on their blogs and mention it in their guest posts or interviews. If you've been kind to people along the way, this will happen easily and naturally. So when you come across idiotic posts in writing forums, learn to roll your eyes rather than fire off a snarky reply. You're going to need that skill, anyway, once your book is published and you enter the wonderful world of getting reviewed."

Pardon this commercial interruption, but I want to let you know that the price on the ebook of my novel, The Taker (Simon & Schuster), is $4.99 for a limited time. A great gift for the holidays.
An American Library Association-Booklist Top Ten Debut of 2011
A Cosmo UK Pick of the Week
Kindle            Nook             iTunes

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

NaNoWriMo #15: Ignoring the Siren Call of the Internet

Today we have two authors with the same message. I’m putting them together to also contrast writing styles. Alex Berenson is the NYT bestselling author of spy novels, the most recent being The Secret Soldier. Alex, a former reporter for the New York Times, started his career as a novelist after being deployed in Afghanistan for the newspaper. Thrillers need to be punchy and direct, compelling readers to keep turning those pages, as witnessed by Alex’s crisp advice, below. You can follow Alex on Facebook here and Twitter here.

 "Turn off your wireless connection.  And read."

Our second tipster is Kristina Yoshida McMorris. Kristina is the author of Letters From Home, historical women’s fiction. Her novel has been widely embraced by readers across genres and is beloved by book clubs, which are hotly anticipating the release of her second novel, Bridge of Scarlet Leaves. Here you get a sense of Kristina's more conversational writing style, and she gives practical advice on how to disentangle yourself from the Internet. You can follow Kristina on Facebook here and Twitter here.

“Pull the plug! To the Internet, that is. Turn off the modem, the router, whatever it takes to disconnect you from Cyber World so you can focus on the writing. And if your cell phone does anything more than make phone calls (unless it makes margaritas, of course), turn that off too. There's so much distracting 'noise' out there (FB! Twitter! Squirrel! Shiny!), like an army of techno-gremlins determined to keep you from reaching your final word count. Don't give them the chance. And if going cold-turkey is as terrifying as skydiving without a parachute (or a Blackberry), wean in doses and with mini-goals: type for 30 minutes = read new e-mails; finish the scene = check updates on Tweetdeck. Whatever it takes to disconnect, freeing your mind to focus, dare to take the plunge.”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

NaNoWriMo #14: Essential Online Resources

Today is November 14th, about halfway through the month. It’s official: whether you’re at the 25,000 word point in your book or not, you’ve hit “the sagging middle.”  For most writers, the sagging middle is not a fun place to be. It will require a lot of attention—unsentimental evaluation, tightening, finding ways to up the tension. But not today. Today you are plowing ahead, continuing to put words on paper, playing out the story as it exists in your head.

 Today’s tip falls into the category of inspiration. Whenever we take on a new endeavor, we live in hope. Hope that this time, things will work out. Hope that this is the story idea that catches fire. To fuel that hope, I’m listing some online resources for your onward journey as a writer. Resources that will not only help you revise your NaNoWriMo novel when November is over, but will provide insights into the community of writers.

This is a short list, the online resources that are required reading in my opinion. And it doesn’t begin to explore the book blogger community, or sites for book reviews. Have a favorite you don’t see here? Add it in the comments section and share your knowledge.

Backspace: an online water cooler for working writers. Need a place to ask a question of other writers or a publishing professional? Want to compare experiences with someone who has been there? Look no further. 

Beyond the Margins: a lit blog written by authors who came out of the Grub Street writer’s center in Boston. Great advice, insights on every step of the writer’s journey.

Boxing the Octopus: a collection of writers and professionals in the publishing industry share their insights and advice.

Galley Cat: All the news in the publishing community here. A good place to catch the daily zeitgeist of New York publishing circles.

Guide to Literary Agents: Chuck Sambuchino’s blog for Writer’s Digest will help you find the literary agent that’s right for you.

How A Novel Gets Published: Want to know what it’s like to go from selling your first book to publication day? Meg Waite Clayton captured her experiences every step of the way, and provides thoughtful insights throughout.

Publisher’s Lunch: the daily free newsletter from this publishing industry trade resource. It’s subscription counterpart, Publisher’s Marketplace, is a great research tool when you’re putting together your strategy for querying.

Publisher’s Weekly: provides a daily email to the publishing industry.

Shelf Awareness: provides a daily newsletter to the trade, with a focus on booksellers. Also produces a twice weekly version geared toward readers.

Writer Unboxed: a roster of publishing professionals give advice on all aspect of the writing life, including super agent Don Maass and author of The Lace Reader, Brunonia Barry.

NaNoWriMo #13: Perseverance and Patience

Today, I’m featuring two great writers of women’s fiction, Jael McHenry and Ann Hite. I met both these women through my publisher—we’re all published by the same imprint, Gallery Books at Simon and Schuster—and both have been wonderful friends ever since. (And there’s a mini-tip for you for down the road: it’s important to make friends in this business, just as in any business.)

Jael McHenry’s debut novel, The Kitchen Daughter, is about a woman who discovers she can call up ghosts by cooking from dead people’s recipes. Described as Julia & Julia meets Jodi Picoult, The Kitchen Daughter garnered rave reviews and was a book pick of O, the Oprah’s magazine. Jael has a blog which you can follow here, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

“Don't expect a final product from your first draft. I often get discouraged in the early stages of writing because the book is completely perfect in my head, and then it doesn't turn out nearly as well when I start writing it down! But you can't get to a second draft if you never finish the first. Keep at it.”

Ann Hite’s Ghost on Black Mountaintwists folklore with the genres of Southern Gothic, paranormal and literary fiction like a fine, fat pretzel, a guilty pleasure after midnight,” says the Alabama Mobile Register. Ann also is the author of numerous short stories and book reviews, a self-professed “book junkie” and generous as all get-out. You can follow her blog here.

"Listen to your characters! I know it sounds crazy, but characters know so much more than the writers that created them. When you’re in the shower, walking, or just dropping off to sleep, a character will reach out to tell you something important or not so important about the book where he or she appears. Listen. And you just might learn something."