Monday, October 31, 2011

NaNoWriMo Tip #1

National Novel Writing Month is upon us again! The time of year when writers take the pledge to write a complete novel--or a very big chunk of it--for 30 consecutive days. It's like running a marathon, so to give you a little encouragement, or inspiration, or just because misery loves company, some of my writer friends and I thought we'd share with you some things we learned over the course of writing our novels. Check back every day for a new tip or two from some of your favorite authors. And please feel free to leave comments, let us know how you're doing, something about the project you're undertaking. Believe me, by day 30, you're going to be a little giddy crazy. Let it out.

Our first tip is from Sarah Pekkanen. Sarah has two wonderful novels out now--The Opposite of Me and Skipping A Beat--and a third, These Girls ("Bittersweet, laugh-out-loud funny and painfully real"--Jodi Picoult) coming April 2012. You can find out more about Sarah and her books here. Or follow Sarah on Facebook here, or on Twitter here.

"If you have a good writing stretch, try to replicate the exact environment the next time you sit down to write. Steven King recommends this as a way to "trick" your brain into writing and avoid procrastinating, and it really works! I wandered into a coffee shop one morning while my son was in preschool and got a chunk of writing done. Now I hit that same coffee shop three mornings a week - I even go in through the same door and try to sit in the same table. And I've rarely been so productive, which is a good thing, since I'm under a tight deadline for my new novel. Another benefit of this coffee shop is they don't have Internet access - which saves me loads of time, since I'm not tempted to go on-line."

And here’s my tip of the day:

"Best time of day? Whatever time of day you’re currently getting your writing done. Now is not the time to switch if you’re already in a groove. But generally, pro writers seem to write first thing in the morning, and there’s something to it. The head is clearer, fresh thoughts bubble to the surface. And like exercise, it’s easier to get it done before life intrudes. I wrote The Taker at night, however, while my husband, a musician, was at gigs and the house was quiet. The lesson here: do whatever works for you NOW, think about changing your schedule when a. it stops working for you, and b. you have the disposable time on your calendar to ease into a change."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Finding the Story in Everything

A number of years ago, my musician husband was playing an album by psychobilly artist Reverend Horton Heat and a song, “Four Hundred Bucks,” grabbed my attention. In the song, the singer lent—you guessed it—four hundred dollars to a woman he was seeing, and after that she dropped him and wouldn’t pay him back. Listening to the song, I had no doubt that the songwriter wrote the song based on something that had happened to him. Wow, I thought at the time; this guy can make a compelling song about anything.

That realization had a profound effect on me. As any reader of this magazine knows, finding an idea good enough to carry an entire story is hard. “Where do you get your ideas?” is a question authors often are asked because readers find the process so mystical. Of course, writers develop lots of ways to cultivate story ideas: we use writing prompts, or a photograph, a news story. We take a memorable experience from our own life or the lives of others, whether a family member or someone famous.

From the “Four Hundred Bucks” experience, I decided that to become a better storyteller, I would try to find the story in the day-to-day things that happened to me. What I’ve found, though, is that it’s not the incident itself that makes for a good story—though there’s no reason to pass up an unusual location, once-in-a-lifetime encounter, or great mystery that life tosses your way (waste not, want not seems to be a motto writers can live by.)

The key to turning everyday experiences into stories is the ability to find the universal appeal in the situation. What is it about this incident that everyone can relate to? For instance, what makes the Reverend Horton Heat song universal and compelling is not the “what”—the act of lending money to a friend—but the “so what”—the feeling of being taken advantage of. Even though the song is titled “Four Hundred Bucks,” it’s really about his frustration at being used and his inability to get this woman to do right by him, and that’s something we can all relate to.

In The Taker, characters are given the quality of immortality, but through uncommon means. They’re not made into vampires or Greek gods, or any of the other immortal types we’ve come to expect. In this story, immortality is a curse imposed on the wicked that binds them to spend eternity serving an implacable master, and so I was faced with the challenge of making readers think about immortality in a completely different way.

I found the answer from a time when I had a prolonged period of headaches and vertigo. For six months, I was constantly dizzy and had headaches so severe that my skull sometimes felt as though it would break apart. 

From the brutal headaches came the ‘presence’ that connects the damned to the man who made them immortal. From the uncontrollable vertigo I had every day, I created sense of despair that comes with being given a sentence that must be endured for eternity, I knew I’d done a good job when my editor at Gallery Books told me you could really feel the protagonist’s pain and hopelessness at being trapped in this hellish version of immortality. It was my “Four Hundred Bucks” moment.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Taker named one of best debut novels of 2011

We've had some very good news recently: the American Library Association-Booklist named The TAKER one of the best debut novels of 2011. This is an honor I was not expecting, and am absolutely thrilled for the book to be recognized like this.

It's actually been an eventful week for The TAKER: Down East magazine, the magazine of Maine and one I remember from childhood, mentioned The Taker in its November issue. It's the one with Martha Stewart on the cover. (Trust me, this is the closest Martha Stewart & I will ever be seen together. It won't be for my housekeeping skills, that's for sure.)

Then Tesco, the huge grocery chain in the UK featured The Taker in its biweekly book highlight. Yay! Perfect timing, as the mass market paperback has just come out in the UK.

NYT bestselling novelist & awesome person Caroline Leavitt lets me talk about the gritty and sometimes unromantic but all-true nature of love over at her blog.

I'm in New England next week. I'm on the New Literary Voices panel at the Concord Festival of Authors, and will be reading and signing at Longfellow Books in Portland, ME on October 27th, and Jabberwocky Books in Newburyport, MA on October 28th. If you're in the area, I'd love to see you.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

So Bad He's Good

I saw over at Heroes and Heartbreakers that Anna Bowling had written a post about addition in male characters in historical romance. I thought it was an interesting point to raise, since it seems in general—speaking as someone who has researched vices throughout history pretty thoroughly for her own books—that addictions were tolerated to a greater extent in the old days.

Certainly legislation has something to do with it: it’s only in the modern era that governments have had this degree of oversight into our personal lives. Sure, in medieval times, you might’ve been a vassal on some lord’s property and he could take your life under certain circumstances, but he probably didn’t give a hoot whether you were drinking yourself to death as long as you paid up the bushels of wheat that you owed him. Even in the modern era, the only thing that concerned governments about opium was whether other countries would remain open to trade (see Britain, the Opium Wars With China.)

Okay, so this is an extension of my rant again predictable, anodyne characters, but who doesn’t love to read about a self-destructive character, male or female, saddled with a fiend of an opium addiction or whoring himself to death in the brothel? Oh sure, in real life you’d run from these people faster than the swine flu, but isn’t it fun to read about them while safely tucked in bed with a book, pillows and a good light?

Okay, now it’s your turn: who are your favorite rakes and libertines, books or movies? What about Captain James Macleane in Plunkett & Macleane?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

His Story: Alexi Zenter

Alexi Zentner's debut novel, Touch, made waves long before it's pub date. To say it was highly anticipated is an understatement. When I heard about it--set in the north woods! magical and mythical!--I had to read it. It reads like a fairy tale or folk tale, with characters that are larger than life, events that are unexplainable, equal parts enchanting and eerie, haunting and comforting. It's a story that will stay with you, like a myth you heard growing up. Alexi the writer is incredibly gracious, and funny. When he's not writing, he's teaching or speaking at writer's conferences.

BONUS: I have two copies of Touch to give away! To enter, leave a comment below. You must leave your comment on the blog to be entered, not on my FB page or through other means.  Entries close on October 31st.  

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I came to writing as a reader. I grew up with readers as parents and read a lot as a kid. Reading saved my life, and I think my desire to write is simply the desire to tell stories like the stories that captivated me. It took me a while, however, to understand the difference between wanting to be a writer and wanting to write. Most people want to be writers – which is to say, to have already written – but aren’t as keen about the part of it that is hard and requires sacrifice.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

As a kid I read widely, and that included science fiction and fantasy, as well as the classics and literary fiction. I think the emphasis on story in fantasy and science fiction had a real impact on me, but the authors who probably had the biggest impact were people like Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, because they wrote literary fiction that was also enjoyable.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

I like books that take emotional risks. I want a book to move me. I’m not a big fan of detached irony.

Tell us about your book.

A pastor returning home to his dying mother has to confront the ghosts of his childhood, the memories of his mythic grandfather, and the magic and mysteries of the north woods. Also, it’s a love story. And though it’s a novel full of wonder, TOUCH  is also scary and terrifying in places, full of monsters and witches. And the book will break your heart.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

I started with an image of a girl trapped under the ice, and I was haunted by the idea of having somebody you love so close and yet to be unable to help them.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

Never. There were times when the writing felt easy, and times when I wanted to smash things, but I never considered quitting. I don’t know why I didn’t want to quit. If I did, I’d bottle it and sell it. All I can tell you is that I’ve had a number of pretty well known authors tell me that they were never the best writer that they knew but they were the most persistent.

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers?

The tip that I’d give for newly published or aspiring writers is to calm down a little about getting an agent and getting published. Once you are done the book and it is as good as it can possibly be, just take a few days and research the process so that your query letter matches the quality of your book.

Alexi Zentner’s first novel, Touch, is published in the USA by W.W. Norton, in Canada by Knopf Canada, and in the UK by Chatto & Windus. Touch is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection and a Knopf New Face of Fiction pick. Touch is available from Dreamscape as an audio book. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Touch an "eerie, elegiac debut."  Alexi Zentner has been named by the CBC as one of 12 Canadian Writers to Watch, and Touch was shortlisted for The Governor General’s Literary Award, The Center for Fiction’s Flahery-Dunnan First Novel Prize, and longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.  He was born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, and currently lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two daughters. He holds both Canadian and American citizenship.

Monday, October 10, 2011

His Story: Joseph Monninger

I had the good fortune to meet Joseph Monninger at a book event this fall. In a room full of writers and book people, he kept everyone enthralled with a story from his youth, of an incident that really allowed him to get to know his father. That's when I knew this man was a consummate storyteller. With sixteen books to his credit and a career as a professor of writing, yeah, you'd think so! Clever, gracious, self-effacing, and thoughtful, every writer could learn a thing or two from Joseph Monninger. His latest novel, The World As We Know It, goes on sale October 11th.

How did you come to writing? Did you start writing shortly after emerging from the womb or did you come to it later in life?

I stared writing in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer.  I was an indifferent student in high school and college.  I was an athlete. I never took a writing course.  I always say now that if I knew how hard it was all going to be, I might not have started.  But the Peace Corps sent you to your posting with a box of books.  Without electricity or running water, with no radio or tv, you can imagine how important books became.  I read many 19th Century novels….big, fat juicy novels.  The longer the better.  I remember reading Middlemarch and loving it.  It’s hard to say if I could read it today with all the distractions around me.  Africa allowed me to concentrate.

So I wrote letters.  And a few people seemed to like the letters and eventually I tried a short story or two.  When I returned home to the U.S., I sent in a short story to the Redbook Short Story contest.  This was in 1978. I won third prize for a story called A Slice of It.  That got me an agent and really hooked me.  I’ve been writing ever since.  I try to write 1,000 words a day and I’ve been doing that for more than 30 years.

Were you influenced to begin writing by any writers/books in particular?

Not by one book, or one writer, but the glamour of the whole Hemingway myth was certainly in circulation.  I was living in Africa.  I travelled to Paris.  I expected to be an ex-pat.  I went back to Africa, to Mali, when I finished my tour in the Peace Corps.  I also ended up living in Vienna.  I liked the idea of being outside the U.S.  So while I wasn’t trying to write like anyone, I sort of had the notion of being footloose and seeing the world.
I will say that there are writers I try to avoid, because I find their style bleeds into mine.  Faulkner was one.  I found myself writing ridiculous sentences after reading him.  Hemingway, too.  I also loved, and love, Marjorie Rawlings.  There was a writer, too, that people don’t seem to read much anymore: J.P. Donleavy.  He is great, tremendously funny, and he was in vogue when I started out.  I love the story telling of Roberston Davies, the Deptford trilogy.  If you haven’t read it, I really recommend it.

Whose works do you most enjoy reading?

I just mentioned some of them.  I love John Marquand, a writer from the 40’s and 50’s.  His novels read like old black and white movies.  And in high school the Lord of the Rings was a profound experience for me.  Maybe the most remarkable experience I’ve ever had with a book.  We all say we don’t want a good book to end, but I didn’t want that entire world to end. 

What I really enjoy reading, though, are books of consummate skill.  I don’t mean that to sound snobby, but I appreciate the work that goes into a fine novel.  If I made wine all my life, I assume I wouldn’t necessarily want to drink swill.  Writers know good writing.  You can see it small scenes, in dialogue, in characterization.  A good writer often has several threads weaving through a scene, where a less skilled writer may only have one.  You know pretty quickly when you pick up a book if the author has drunk sufficient ink. 

Tell us about your latest book.

The World As We Know It as a loss of Eden story.  They say every child must be expelled from Eden, from childhood, and face entry into the harsher world.  In my story, three young people meet in childhood and they grow up together.  One boy and one girl fall in love.  Beyond that, I start to give away the story if I say much more.  They try to stay in Eden, but fate won’t permit that.  Can they return to Eden? 

It’s a love story in its DNA.  I’ve always been fascinated by these couples who say they met in high school and have been together two thousand years.  This is probably my attempt to understand those couples.

How the heck did you come up with the central idea/plot?

Well, every writer is always looking for a plot, an idea that can carry them forward.  One of the benefits of age as a writer is the ability to see the wood scattered on the ground and know, merely from looking, what size house you might propose.  You get better at taking the measure of the story.  For me, the plot is secondary.  I am always after good characters.  If the characters speak to me – and they do – then the story follows as night the day, as a pretty good writer once said.

At what point in the writing process did you think you might give up on it? Were you most inspired? What kept you going through the long dark nights?

I wrestle like crazy to get started on a novel, but once I do I am dedicated to it.  Trollope famously said, It’s dogged as does it.  Stay at it.  Keep coming back to it.  It’s a little like exercising.  If you don’t feel like exercising on a certain day, at least make yourself put on your sneakers.  Once you have your sneakers on, you might say, well, hell, I have them on, I might as well go for a run.  I make myself wake early and go out to a little writing shed in our back meadow and I try to write.  I put on my writing sneakers, so to speak.

What have you read lately that you love and think everyone on the planet should read?

Oh, that’s a tall order.  I will say I re-read Watership Down this summer and was completely drawn into it.  I read it as a kid, so I wasn’t sure how it would hold up, but I’m happy to report that it did.  If you haven’t read it, you might like it.  Great story of animals surviving a hardship….kind of the Odyssey with rabbits.  But I believe people should be quick to put a book down if they don’t like it.  There are a million books waiting. 

As far as contemporary novels….I read The Paris Wife this summer and thoroughly enjoyed it.   

What have you read that, surprisingly, didn’t grab you?

I don’t knock other books because I know how hard it is to write one.  That said, we all have had that experience of picking up a highly touted novel or nonfiction work and finding, at least for us, that it doesn’t speak to us.  That’s okay.  Sometimes you can see why a book was marketed in a big way….it had certain commercial chords that the publisher could count on.  But books are so much a part of my life, I can’t worry about a book that didn’t speak to me.  I’m all about the books that did speak to me. 

Do you have a “path to publication” story that you’d like to share? Funny agent/editor encounter? Publishing etiquette you didn’t know until you entered the business? Tip for newly published or aspiring writers? 

Not really.  I guess if I had one tip to give, it would be that politeness counts.  Write thanks yous.  Appreciate the time people are investing in you.  In other words, your mother was right when she told you how to behave.  Publishers and agents and editors all love books.  That’s why they’re in the business.  You may not always agree with how your book is handled, but it’s probably not the end of the world one way or the other.  Keep things in perspective.  Also, write your shelf.  Write the books you can and do each book as well as you can.  A novelist friend said the number one obstacle writers face is the cheat of believing their next book will be better.  We all do that.  We all say, inwardly or outwardly, well, you might not like this one so much, but wait until you see what’s next.  Don’t let yourself do that.  Stand up and admit this is the best you can do for the moment. 

What is the most surprisingly thing you’ve learned about yourself since getting published? The most unexpected?

As important as publishing was to me in my early career, now the writing is much more important.  Journey vs. destination.  I don’t mean to sound all surfer dude, but its true.  I like writing; I like stories; I like inventing.  The rest, the ambition, the wanting-to-be-famous, all slips away.  Words count.  Sentences count.  Good scenes count.  

Joseph Monninger has published nine novels, three young adult works ,and three non-fiction books.  His work has appeared in American Heritage, Scientific American, Readers Digest, Glamour, Playboy, Story, Fiction, Sports Illustrated, the Boston Globe and Ellery Queen, among other publications.  He has twice received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and has also received a fellowship from the New Hampshire Council for the Arts.  His young adult novel, Baby, was named one of the top ten novels of 2008 by Yalsa.  He has appeared on the Today Show and has written columns for several New Hampshire newspapers. He has been a licensed New Hampshire Fishing Guide and his family ran a sled dog team for several years in the New England Sled Dog Club.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

One Day in Portlandia

It's not a joke if they it themselves, right? Do you know what I'm referring to? There's a television show called "Portlandia" that pokes gentle fun at this city of liberals, hippies, grungeheads, peaceniks, potsmokers, and artists. When I got off the elevator of a downtown skyscraper to meet author Kristina Yoshida McMorris for lunch, a woman greeted me with, "Are you here for the Portlandia meeting?" I thought she was kidding. She wasn't.

Oh, but I loved Portland as soon as I got off the airplane. Everyone is so nice. It's clean. Not too crowded. Not many suits, lots of sweaters and polarfleece. The public transportation system is awesome. Many people on the light rail were reading BOOKS. Then I checked into my hotel: quite lush. I lucked into happy hour and got a glass of a great Malbec. 

I was in town to read at the venerable and awesome independent bookstore, POWELLS, but had a day off after Los Angeles. Kristina and I had made plans to get together for lunch, meeting for the first time in person after being friends on Facebook for months. Novelist Jamie Ford had mentioned me to Kristina. I'd like to say there's a union of half-Asian novelists--there isn't, but there should be. Aside from me, all the ones I've met have been super nice. 

It's always a treat to talk to other authors, especially debut novelists, to compare notes and be reassured that I'm not crazy, we're all like this. Lunching with Kristina was an extra-special treat. Two hours sped by! We talked about everything under the sun, but especially books. Kristina's first book, LETTERS FROM HOME, put her solidly in the field of historical writers, specifically those who write about WWII. She described her next book, BRIDGE OF SCARLET LEAVES, and gave me an ARC (!!!!). BRIDGE is the story of a young woman who marries a Japanese-American man on the eve of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, who then volunteers to go with him to the internment camps. Kristina told me that about 200 non-Japanese women went to camp to stay with their families, and BRIDGE might be the only novel to tell this story. It comes out in February 2012.   

She then blew me away with the description of her next book, the third book, which she's working on right now. Reader, it is an amazing story. I cannot wait until she finishes writing it.

That evening I had an event at the Powells story at the Cedar Hills location in Beaverton. Thanks to Renee at the store for hosting a wonderful evening and giving me the chance to meet some wonderful folks who had the read the book, including a librarian who'd ordered it for their system. If you're in the Portland area and looking for a signed copy, Powells can help you out. 

 Now for something completely different. I try to learn something new every 4-5 years to keep my brain from fossilizing. A few years ago it was quilting. I'd been thinking next I'd learn to knit. I have a bit of a mental block about knitting, though. You see, my mother refused to teach me when I was a kid because I'm left-handed and she thought it would be too hard. So I never took up knitting. Now, I'm ready. I got a suggestion from a blogger in Portland to try Knit Purl, a downtown yarn shop. Oh, so glad I did! The store is staffed by very enthusiastic knitters who love to share their expertise. They got me hooked up with some gorgeous yarn (see above), my first knitting needles and great advice. This photo doesn't do justice to the intense colors of these yarns. I'm going to try to get started watching YouTube videos, and then hopefully will work on my first scarf while watching the Caps game tonight.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dream Night in Los Angeles

How many times in your lifetime will you get to present at a brand new bookstore? Mysterious Galaxy's new Redondo Beach store is just out of the box, new store smell and all. They were installing the big, lighted sign to the top of the building when I arrived that afternoon. I wish I'd taken some pictures, but if you 'like' them on FB, you can look through the photo album and see it being built from the ground up. It's beautiful, modern and sleek. I told them I'd happily live there & I wasn't kidding. The reading room in the back is like a cathedral. No detail is overlooked.
Needless to say, I had a GREAT time. The staff there--Emilio in the picture at the top, Nicole, Lauren, Conor--know how to make you feel welcome, relaxed and special. We had a good group of friends, customers and a woman who had read the book and drove out from Orange County, bringing a friend with her! I love people like that. Doing these gigs makes you grateful for your supportive friends, willing to draft their friends, put up with traffic and bad weather, hang out at a restaurant later and help you unwind.
Conor mugging with The Taker. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Great Night in Denver

Denver was a great experience all around, and I will try to capture some of it here, but I'm afraid my brain is not up to the task of adequately describing the surrealness of one's first book tour.

First, I got to spend time with an old friend, Sarbina, someone who also grew up in the small town that was the inspiration for so much of The Taker. Sarbina was my older sister’s best friend and a big influence on what I read and what television shows I watched as a child. She was kind enough to hang out with me before and after the event, and we got the opportunity to catch up. 
I got to meet with my first book club in Denver, too, as Jen, Tesa and Rene were game to come to the event and get together afterwards.  It is completely surreal to sit down and talk to people who have read your book. It’s like you all share the same imaginary friends. And they were so smart and sweet—and voracious readers. They meet every three weeks because they just devour books. They were a great resource for future reads! (This is Tesa in the photo. We've decided that 'Tesa' will be the name of a villainess in a future book.)

I was surprised and honored that Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters, came to the reading. Yes, HONORED. Not only is Eleanor a very talented writer with an excellent debut to her credit, oh my god she is wonderful to be around.
My heartfelt thanks to the Tattered Cover for hosting the event. They are known for their generosity to authors, and I am grateful to be a recipient of that generosity. Denver is lucky to have such a dedicated supporter of book culture. (This is Tamara, who ran the event. It was a great pleasure meeting her.)
Running through Denver International Airport, I got to have a quintessential author moment: the first time I saw my book in an airport bookstore! I’m happy to report there are now signed copies at the Hudson Booksellers in the West Terminal at DIA.

I'm catching my breath before the event tonight in LA/Redondo Beach at Mysterious Galaxy. Full report tomorrow.