Friday, January 29, 2010

Puzzle Pieces

By Susan

To explain this puzzle, I must start at the beginning.

In December of 2005, in a car moving about 80 miles per hour through the middle of the night and the middle of Arkansas, I had a vision of a bootlegger, a dying black girl, and a monk.

We were on our way back from Kentucky, where I spent time with my extended family for Christmas. My daughters were sleeping in the backseat and my husband was driving. I found some paper and a pen, and I scribbled notes as we crossed the Texas state line. Before we got home to Ft. Worth, I had the basic outline on a memo pad for The Angel's Share, an epic tale covering three generations of Kentuckians, maneuvering through the civil rights movement, the bourbon industry, and this family's struggle with religion.

It was more than a short story or a historical view of Kentucky's bourbon industry. It was The Big One--it was the story I was meant to write. I was struck by some sort of divine purpose--this was The Book and I was The Author. Looking back on it now, it all seems rather silly, this journey I agreed to undertake. Yet at the time, I felt as though I had found my calling.

Now, perhaps, I should tell you that even though I had written for newspapers early in my career and have kept journals for my entire life, I am not really a writer. In 2005, I was actually a sales manager (working 65+ hour weeks), a wife and a mother. My lifelong dream to be a journalist had fallen by the wayside long ago when I chose to pursue money instead of art. Yet somehow I thought that I could do this. I was still a writer, I surmised, as long as I actually sat down and chose to write.

By March of 2006 I had compiled three notebooks full of character studies, plot and themes for the novel. I was writing random scenes, some from 1950, some from 1968, and some the present day. I kept it all in notebooks so that it was always with me: my lunch hours, my early mornings, and any moment I could squeeze in a new idea. By 2007 I was realizing, as my notes and scenes grew to six notebooks, that I needed to get it all on a memory stick and start typing. By 2008, after job changes, lots of travel, and a crazy life, I started thinking seriously about stepping back from my career to focus on writing and my daughters. In December of 2008, I resigned as vice president of an Internet marketing company. NOW--I thought, now I will have the time to complete The Angel's Share.

The year 2009 was full of transition. I joined writers' groups, helped create this blog, started my own blog and attended writers' conferences and retreats. I toured (again) the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and visited the Abbey of Gethsemani to see where my fictional monk would have lived. I took a sales job to maintain some income but nothing like the pace I had before, thinking that I could dedicate my time and energies instead to The Angel's Share. I started putting it together and was surprised that it made sense. I was on my way!

Then I realized that I knew nothing about writing a novel. I knew nothing about agents, publishers, query letters and editors. I had no idea that there were hundreds--no thousands--of people right here in the DFW metroplex who had the same dream that I had--to become a novelist. I looked at The Angel's Share and decided it was too much. I took it apart. I put it back together. I promised myself I would finish it, then I would swear it off for weeks. It began to look like a jumbled mess of ideas, scenes and dialog. It lacked cohesion. It felt chaotic. I loved it and I hated it. It was wonderful and it was terrible. But more than anything, it wasn't finished.

It is 2010 now. I have the notebooks and memo pads, I have a memory stick full of 18 files of revisions and I have 50,000 words on paper, but it still is not complete. I can spread everything out--the notes, the photographs, and the mementos of my field trips, but they don't create a completed puzzle. They are all still pieces. And so now, with January almost behind me and a new career with a non-profit organization in front of me, I have to make some choices about what to do with my jigsaw. Do I keep carving out the pieces, hoping they will all snap together in the end? Do I solicit the help of an editor or another outside eye for more feedback? Or do I put it on the shelf and let it marinate in its own stew as I continue to think wistfully about what could be?

My answer, I think, lies in throwing away the excuses and setting goals to make it to the finish line. I'm almost there! Considering the demands and travel of my career, I'm not ashamed of the time it's taken me to write The Angel's Share--I see it as a testament to my commitment to the project. And now, sitting on the ledge looking down on 2010, I see great possibilities for my manuscript. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel and it's not that far away. I've got no more excuses... so for now, signing off. I've got a novel to write.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Setting as Character

By Julie

Last week, I set my NaNoWriMo novel aside. The beauty of participating in National Novel Writing Month is the short format, allowing you to experiment with a new story idea without a huge investment of time. I used November to write about half of a story that had been rolling around in my subconscious for a few years while I completed my last manuscript. The writing flowed some days and got stuck in the mud others. In January, I was pleased when I re-read what I'd written, but when I attempted a start on completing the story a few weeks ago, I had nothing to give to it.

I suppose I could have forced myself to keep writing, making it up as I went along. I'm pretty much a by-the-seat-of-my-pants writer anyway. (I call myself a plotser. I need a general idea of where I'm going and typically have a brief list of upcoming scenes that I follow, more or less, but enjoy seeing where my characters take me and try to let them lead me.)

Right there is where this post really gets started.

Seeing where my characters take me.

My NaNo characters weren't taking me anywhere unpredictable and quite honestly, I was bored. No exciting twists or unexpected actions seemed to be hiding in the woodwork, and it was really dragging me down. I figured if my characters bored me that much, I couldn't expect a reader to get excited about them. And, it seemed bigger than just the "sagging middle." I've written full manuscripts before and soldiered on through that inevitable phase.

On the other hand, a character I've been eyeing in the back of my mind wasn't leaving me alone. She's lurked there since I took a writer's voice class a few years ago and wrote a short character sketch. Her story is bigger than anything I've attempted before. In fact, I wasn't sure I was worthy of capturing her on paper just yet. But, as we writers often find, sometimes a character grabs hold of you and won't leave you alone until you tell her story. (EDIT: Hey! Barbara was my teacher and just happened to blog on voice today at Writer Unboxed!)

So, I've spent the last week or so doing historical research about a time period I don't know well. I've taken a few stabs at the story's beginning with what feels like decent results.

But one thing really stopping me from really plunging in right now is setting. I could go ahead and write the story, leaving those details out for now. But something tells me setting is going to be a character in her own right in this manuscript. And I need to nail her down and figure out who she is. She's that important.

I've read several novels lately where setting is critical to the story for various reasons.

In Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger, the location (England) is important, but the house, where nearly all the action happens, is truly the main character. The narrator's voice is simply telling the story of the house. It's even obvious from the cover.

In The Crying Tree, Naseem Rakha chose two main settings – a close-knit small town in Illinois and a desolate, isolated town in Oregon. Each represents a time in the main character's life, but also goes beyond that to represent the fertility and happiness of the family versus the lonely barrenness after their son is murdered.

Nick Hornby creates a fictional town in Juliet, Naked. Gooleness is predictable and going nowhere with no identifiable claim to fame or future goal. It mirrors Annie and Duncan, two sides of a couple whose life -- previously neatly mapped out, or so they thought -- goes awry when an outside force unexpectedly changes things.

A book on my to-be-read list, Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been, tells the story of Alice Liddell, the true-life muse for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. You can bet that setting is crucial to this story based on a real-life character. To change the setting would be to change the girl.

I struggled with setting for my last manuscript. But eventually, Waco, Texas, with its not-so-pretty history of vigilante justice and leaders gone a little crazy with power, became the perfect place for my story of a community forced to view a crime through the lenses of a paradigm shift. I'd spent little time in Waco (maybe two hours total), and it seems strangely providential that my son ended up moving there to live on a farm last year. I got to know this little town better than I ever expected.

Now, with my new story, I'm facing the same struggle.

Do I set it here in Texas, maybe down the road in Ft. Worth, a city I can visit and explore at the drop of a hat? But which is also hundreds of miles away from New Mexico, a location that would by necessity play a critical part in the plot?

Or, do I set it, as I am inclined, in Cincinnati, Ohio, a place familiar to me as a small child, but only experienced briefly as an adult when I returned for a funeral more than a decade ago?

I could tell you many details about my grandparents' house in Cincinnati. I could describe the house across the river in Southgate, Kentucky, where my dad was born, and where his father built a retaining wall of smooth river stones to keep the tiny house from falling down the hill. I could find my grandfather's grave in a cemetery flanked by a house where my great-grandfather was the town florist in the early 1900s in Blanchester, Ohio, near Cincinnati. I could even tell you about the fabulous cookies my Aunt Margie had on hand from Buskin's Bakery whenever we came to visit and the rides and hot dogs first at Coney Island, then King's Island, in the early 1970s.

Beyond that, I can't tell you much. In fact, I couldn't tell you how to get from any one of these locations to another of them.

But something about the Queen City, with her history of 1920s and 1930s speakeasies and supper clubs and her metro area's polarized laws and attitudes strongly dependent on whether you were in Cincinnati or across the river in Kentucky, speaks to me and says perhaps she's the character who will unify the others in my new story.

So, I'm busy getting to know her, presently through the marvels of the Internet, holding my breath as I open links, hoping they'll reveal a primary source (perhaps a photograph or recorded oral history from the right era). I have a feeling if Cincinnati ends up a major player in my new story, a visit will be in order sometime in the near future.

What about you? How has setting played a character in your writing? Do you think it's important to have lived or spent extensive time in that place? Or have you written a story where the setting was basically unknown to you, but called out so strongly, you had to follow your instinct and get to know that place as well as you could with the resources at hand?

Photo credits:
Ryan Thomos/Creative Commons License , Joanne Maly - Lincoln Maly Marketing

Monday, January 25, 2010

Amy Einhorn stops in for a chat

By Pamela

I'll confess to being a big fan of the acknowledgements pages of books. Even before I called myself a writer, it was typically the first thing I read when starting a new book.

When I read The Help last year, I noticed the name Amy Einhorn in Kathryn Stockett's acknowledgement and also on the spine of the book. The name sounded familiar to me, so I did a little research and found that, over the past 20 years, Ms. Einhorn's career included editorial posts at formidable publishing houses. Her latest venture is an eponymous imprint at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. The Help was her first title as publisher.

I thought it would be fun to find out what she had coming up, so I contacted one of her helpful assistants, and he put me in touch with Ms. Einhorn.

AMY: My latest venture, my eponymous imprint, is definitely my most exciting publishing position to date. What I wanted to do was establish an imprint that hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial books – because that’s the place I as a reader find myself. And I think it’s a place where a lot of other readers reside as well. I wanted the imprint to be fairly small in the number of titles we publish (between 8-12 a year) because it was important to me that if my name was going to be on the books that they all be books worthy of my name being on there (in our business your reputation is everything) – so they had to be books I loved.

Luckily I’m in a position where I can only publish books I love – I don’t have to fill slots, like so many editors or publishers have to do these days. And lastly I wanted it to be a mix of both fiction and nonfiction. Setting Amy Einhorn Books up at a place like G.P. Putnam’s Sons gave me the best of both worlds – the publishing might of the most successful publisher in the business while allowing me the benefits that come from having a small imprint.

PAMELA: Your imprint is described as ‘intelligent writing with a strong narrative, always with great storytelling at its core.’ What other characteristics distinguish your imprint from others at Penguin? What sets you apart from competing publishers?

AMY: I think what distinguishes my imprint from others is that Amy Einhorn Books aims to hit that sweet spot between literary and commercial. And I think we’ve done this quite successfully. Having the benefit of the most successful publisher’s sales, marketing and publicity departments coupled with the exposure of being on a small list is fairly unique. But what I think sets my imprint apart from others, let’s face it, is me. And what I bring to the picture is a publisher/editor who is incredibly hands on – about everything – covers, flap copy, securing quotes, soliciting booksellers, the list goes on and on. And lastly, a major difference is probably that I edit everything I publish. And I really edit. (which never ceases to amaze some agents, I should add)

PAMELA: Since you publish books that blend literary elements with commercial appeal, how do you know a book is both?

AMY: That’s a great question. I think I know a book literary but with commercial potential is when I personally like it. The only thing I’ve said I won’t publish at the imprint is precious MFA navel-gazing novels – where the writing is gorgeous but there’s no story. In my early 20s I could get through them, but now that I’m older and have more going on and less time I get impatient for a story to happen.

PAMELA: I think that's true of most of us. You certainly chose a winning novel when you published The Help as your debut title. Did you anticipate the reception it has garnered?

AMY: I don’t think anyone could have predicted that the book would sell over a million copies and counting in hardcover. But I knew when I read it that it was something special. It was the first novel I bought at the imprint. I had been here for a few months and hadn’t bought any fiction. For a while I started to think perhaps I was being too critical of my submissions but then I read THE HELP. I always say it was kind of like when I was single and I would go on a string of bad dates and I’d start to doubt myself, thinking perhaps I was being too picky, but then when I met my husband I thought, “oh, that’s what it’s supposed to be like.” That’s what it was like when I read THE HELP – I knew.

PAMELA: For me, the magic of Kathryn Stockett’s novel was in the voice and the way she flawlessly weaved Aibileen’s, Minny’s and Skeeter’s stories, blending in spot-on secondary characters with both humor and tragedy. Did you worry at all about the length for a debut novel?

AMY: One review recently said “it’s too long by 50 pages and readers won’t want it to end” or something like that. And I think they’re right. I did think it was long. But not too long (if that doesn’t sound like I’m parsing my words). I tried to cut it, but try and try as I did to cut, there wasn’t any fat, there weren’t any scenes we could do away with. In the end I think the book’s length and heft ended up helping us – when you look at the book, at over 450+ pages, it looks like a great value – especially when you keep in mind that we published this in February 2009 when the bottom was free falling out of the economy. So this looked like a book you could spend a lot of time with and was worth the cover price.

PAMELA: I remember forcing myself to slow down as I approached the closing chapters. I didn't want it to end either! And next you have Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress due out in February. The premise sounds fascinating. Can you tell us about your role in choosing it?

AMY: This is actually a funny story. Originally I rejected it. It had a different title, the main character didn’t appear until page 150. I knew by page 90 that I was going to reject it because the storyline was a mess, but I loved the writing so I read the entire thing. Editors never read entire manuscripts if we know we’re going to reject them – we simply don’t have the time.

So then I wrote a rather lengthy rejection letter saying she’s a wonderful writer but the story’s a mess and I thought that was it. On to the next thing. But I couldn’t get the story – mess and all – out of my head. So a month later I called the agent, who hadn’t sold it (again, messy story), talked to the author on the phone to make sure she’d be on board with my editorial changes, and bought it – and then sent her a 17 page editorial letter. We ended up doing four major revises on the book – it’s completely different than when I first bought it. And I’m so glad I persevered. It’s a wonderful, wonderful novel.

PAMELA: That sounds like a great overcoming-the-obstacles story for an author. What other upcoming Amy Einhorn titles can we look forward to?

AMY: Lots. Well there’s THE POSTMISTRESS by Sarah Blake (Feb. 2010) a wonderful, sweeping story of three women in 1940, when America is on the verge of entering into WWII.

Then something completely different is THE HOUSE OF TOMORROW by Peter Bognanni (March 2010) that’s in the spirit of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a very quirky, funny novel.

THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS: A SEASON OF UNLIKELY HAPPINESS by Laura Munson (April 2010) is a memoir that hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot about in the upcoming months. There’s a buzz starting to happen surrounding this title and with good reason. A portion of it appeared in the Modern Love column of the New York Times and created a firestorm. The memoir is about how the author committed herself to an end of suffering and stopped basing her happiness on things outside of her control during a period of time after her father had died and her husband questioned their marriage. It’s a powerful, wise book that I think so many people will relate to and find helpful.

And lastly there’s THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT by Kelly O’Connor McNees that’s for anyone who loved LITTLE WOMEN (is there anyone who didn’t love LITTLE WOMEN?).

PAMELA: So you are also considering narrative nonfiction and memoir.

AMY: Absolutely, see above THIS IS NOT THE STORY YOU THINK IT IS. I also just bought a book called NEXT STOP by Glen Finland that’s about the summer the author spent travelling the Washington, DC, train system with her 21 year old autistic son with the hope of his learning to navigate it himself and be the first step toward his independence.

Or WHERE’S MY WAND: ONE BOY’S MAGICAL TRIUMPH OVER ALIENATION AND SHAG CARPETING by Eric Poole (June 2010)– “Set in the Midwest of the 1970s, this memoir evokes that idyllic old-school time before computers and cell phones, when people were horrible to one another face-to-face.” It’s hysterical.

PAMELA: It sounds like we have a lot to look forward to reading. Those of us endeavoring to break through to publication love hearing stories about authors being discovered out of the slush or over the transom. Do you have one you can share?

AMY: Unfortunately I don’t – but I do think Kathryn Stockett’s story of having THE HELP rejected by 60+ agents should give any aspiring writer hope. It only takes one yes.

PAMELA: A lot of agents blog with sage advice to writers. I think they hope we pay attention and query according to what they ask in terms of guidelines. And we can learn a lot about how they spend their days. What do you wish agents knew about your job?

AMY: I think most agents are fairly knowledgeable about what we as publishers do. I do wish people would realize how much time and energy editors spend on editing – the authors see the work that happens, but other than that, the work is really invisible to the rest of the world (as it should be, I realize)– but that doesn’t make it any less important or vital to a book’s success.

PAMELA: Well, readers, you can see that Amy Einhorn Books has a lot planned for our reading pleasure in the upcoming months. Be sure to watch for these titles' releases, and thanks, Amy, for taking time to talk with us.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In Praise of Pack-Rats

By Kim

Now f
or the secret. Well, here it comes, but put on your sober face. Does thee recollect when it happen[ed]? It was on the day of Uncle B’s funeral. I had a letter on that day, just after tea I went in the nursery to read it. I had not set there long before I heard someone come to the door, looked up, and who should I see but J. Spencer. I said walk in, little thinking he would mind me so good. He came in, got a chair, came set down beside me and went to talking. I was almost scared to death, sat there trembling. He sat as composed as you please, so we staid there and jabbered for about an hour when I ask him to excuse me for a moment. I cut myself upstairs and you may well think I did not trust myself within the confines of the nursery very soon again. That day he sent me an orange. But dear Martha, you see I could not help it. I trembled and was so afraid that Miriam or some one else would come in.

Now Martha, if you show this to anyone I shall never forgive you…

Amanda Akin to Martha Angell – April 22, 1842

To 21st century eyes this may not look like much of a secret, but in 1842 Amanda, then fifteen, could have had her reputation ruined if “Miriam” or anyone else happened to find her alone with a gentleman. She would only have made such a risqué confession to a trusted friend. Martha likely kept her confidence, but she also saved the letter, as she saved many other letters from friends and relatives. I imagine she tucked them all away in a special box, perhaps re-reading them when the long winters prevented visitors from coming to call. She became Martha Niles in 1850 and the relics of her girlhood travelled with her, perhaps consigned to the bottom of a truck, unmolested through the births of four children and the death of her husband. Years later her belongings moved to a larger, grander home a few miles away in North Chatham, NY, until her second husband, too, died. By then Martha was elderly, her health failing, and she retired to her daughter Katie’s home in Stratford, Ontario until her death in 1910 at the age of eighty-three.

The letters survived. They may have remained with Katie for some time, or perhaps Katie sent them immediately to her niece, Madonna, then living in Toronto with her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens. (They are my great-grandparents as well as the subjects of my work-in-progress.) Madonna both adored her grandmother and shared her trait of saving everything. Not only did she guard Martha’s treasures, but she clearly told her children about them. When Carl and Madonna moved to England they let the mortgage lapse on their house. They told their grown children to go and collect any sentimental items in the home and leave the rest. Many things were overlooked, but the letters were rescued.

They were in Madonna’s possession when she died in San Clemente, CA in 1976. She willed them to her daughter, Chloris, my grandmother, who was perhaps the most fanatical pack-rat in the history of the human race. Everything Chloris kept, her daughters Nonna and Siegie also saved because “Momma must have had her reasons for keeping it.” Boxes containing everything from old manuscripts to the registration papers for a long-dead poodle remained in Aunt Nonna’s attic for twenty years after her mother’s death. When the time came to remodel the house, Siegie suggested they send everything to me because, as family historian, I would “know what was important.”

Imagine my shock when I opened one of the boxes, pulled out an ordinary file folder and a letter from 1836 dropped onto my lap. There were about fifty letters total, all written before 1850. Despite having been passed around for a century and a half, the ink is clear, the paper barely yellowed, and they are infused with the mildly musty scent of an antique bookstore. I skimmed a couple of them, but the mid-nineteenth-century handwriting made for slow reading. With a new baby to care for, I was short on time. As I did with so many other documents that did not directly relate to my book on Carl and Madonna, I sorted the letters by author, placed them in acid free sleeves, and returned them to my aunts.

After I began writing The Oak Lovers I realized historical fiction is my calling and regretted my haste. It’s true that the letters all date to well before the book I’m working on and only one was written by someone in my own family, but someday I’ll finish this book and need new characters, new stories. I asked for the letters back, explaining that they really should be scanned, transcribed, and footnoted rather than just preserved. The family agreed, relieved to hand that task, along with the letters, back over to me. All are curious about what they contain, but none has taken the time to decipher them. I suspect I’m the first person in generations to read them.

Over the last couple of months I’ve transcribed over half of them in my spare (HA!) time. Most are written by teenaged girls and are full of school-girl crushes and gossip. What makes this remarkable, other than for the idea that a teenager is a teenager no matter the century, is that most girls had little or no schooling in the 1840s. Yet here were a circle of girls, all Quakers, most from rural farm families, who were clearly well educated and widely read. Their handwriting was a work of art and their prose more refined than most college educated people today.

There are two friends of Martha’s I find particularly interesting. The first was a young gentleman named Charles Scholefield. As he was neither a relation nor a suitor, it is odd that a correspondence was allowed between them, yet sixteen of his letters were saved. After a little digging I discovered that the same Charles Scholefield who filled pages with romantic descriptions of sunsets or treatises on why the white men were wrong to treat the Mohawk so poorly, became one of the first legislators from Oneida County, NY. He was a celebrated lawyer, very handsome, married a seventeen-year-old at the age of forty, and was a Major in the Civil War.

Within a paragraph of my first letter by Amanda Akin, I knew I had found a friend. I should die of despair if I was obliged to write a formal, sentimental letter, she writes. What I wish for in a letter is the picture of my friend’s mind. I want to know what she is doing and saying, to have her show me the inside of her heart without disguise. I have this feeling when I write letters. If I seek wisdom and lofty sentiments, I can find them in books.

Here was a girl who was both of her time and somehow beyond it. She doesn’t hide behind formality in her letters. She’s frank, teasing, feisty and, most importantly, relatable. She has a distinct voice – every writer’s dream. Within the last few days I’ve discovered snippets about her remarkable life. I won’t go into great detail, as she may very well end up a character in a future book, but I will say that the Civil War, Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln come into play.

Amanda would little have imagined when she penned her “epistles” that Martha’s 3x great-grandchild would wish that she had followed through on her threat to write the name of Martha’s crush on the top of each page to prevent her from showing the letters to anyone.

Each letter offers a glimpse of the past that, at most, only a handful of people have ever seen. For a historian, there’s no greater pleasure than such a discovery. For a writer there’s nothing more inspiring than hearing a voice so clearly in your mind that you simply must know the speaker. I would never have heard this one if it weren’t for the five generations of pack-rats that came before me, each one of them finding the letters and making a conscious decision to save them. I carry on the family tradition with pride.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What's in a Name?

by Elizabeth

It was probably about twenty years ago that I realized I actively like my name. I'd never had a problem with it (other than fighting off those who try calling me Liz), but I didn't much have an opinion of it, either. Then one day I did and it was positive. I like that it's neither common nor unusual, both elegant and accessible, with gravitas and history and a bit of flirtation on its side. I think it's a good name and I'm glad I got it. It's also one of those that seems to have legs, sprinkled lightly in nearly every generation, never poky and out of favor, but never springing to the top of the list, either.

So it fits in well with the names of my cohorts here at What Women Write. Joan, Pamela, Susan, Kim, Julie. Stick mine in the group, and we pretty much scream "born in the sixties and seventies." We are products of our age, absolutely, or at least our names are. I don't think we could have pinned a more generic-to-our-generation list of names to our blog if we'd tried. The only thing missing is a Kristin. (Maybe Ms. Nelson will guest blog for us sometime and we can lay claim.)

It's no secret that names are both cyclical and subject to fashion. Scrolling through last year's school phone book, the names of the girls born in 2000--Harper, Sophie, Hayden, Sydney--have almost no overlap with the names I remember from school. And yet with all these names I never knew growing up, so many more out there to choose from (hello, Heaven!), there are still lots of repeats. Three Isabellas out of 35 girls, four Erins. As for cyclical, I counted four Abigails, which would have been fodder for a snicker back in my day. Might as well be named Doris. Only one Katie, and not a Kathy in the bunch. And where have all the Lisas gone?

The boys seem more traditional, a couple of Williams, some Nicks, a couple of Ethans. A few years ahead of them and things get spicier: Pierce and Buckley and Baylor and Reilly. But there's still a William or two, couple of Jacobs, even a Brian. Maybe this generation just likes getting jiggy with the girls.

Skip back to kids born in the '80s and you find a plethora of Amandas, Jessicas, Ashleys, Emily creeping up again after years of being an old lady name, and the Debbies slipping away. I remember the story my brother's high school girlfriend told, how when she was born in Germany, an Army brat, her parents gave her a very unusual name. Two years later, now stateside, it's 1968 and she's just another Jennifer like half the girls on the block.

My WIP centers on two sisters who are in their late thirties, so assuming it gets published this decade, they are products of the mid-'70s. Right now they are Lori and Jill, but I'm not sure their names will properly fit their time. Another key character, Amanda, is half a generation ahead of them. I'm not sure I don't have the names reversed, though I've never loved the name Amanda and not sure I can see my main character with that moniker. Funnily enough, it figures in the working title.

As writers, we have the distinct privilege usually limited to new parents of naming human beings. And those names matter. Stick an ungainly appellation on your main character, and it's a turn-off. Make it too common, it's boring. Too outlandish, it's just hard to remember. And heaven forbid it should accidentally recall anyone of negative note. (Remember the show The Greatest American Hero? Shortly after its premiere, John Hinckley shot President Reagan. William Katt's character--a teacher--got called Mr. H for the duration of the series.) You want to choose something real but unique, hopefully a name that suits both the character's age and circumstances. When was the last time you met a young person named Eunice? Sure, you could name your middle-grade girl that, but you'd better have a very good reason.

I just finished reading Innocent Traitor, by Alison Weir (Alison! there's another!), the story of Lady Jane Grey's tragic days as Queen of England in the sixteenth century. It's peppered with Janes and Marys and Catherines, most of the characters named for whichever queen was currently on the throne. Doesn't seem like HRH has that kind of following these days, but then again, she doesn't have Henry's habit of lopping off heads either, and the one name has held the title for a long time. This week I'm reading Beth Hoffman's debut Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, and the characters, all steeped in the magnolia-drenched Savannah of the 1960s, have names like Violene and Oletta, Nadine and Dixie Lee and Tallulah called Tootie. The names sing of the South, and while they'd sound ridiculous in some books, here they contribute to both the setting and the story. Hoffman chose wisely. Weir honored history. Both got it right.

If you are struggling with a character's name, a great place to do some research is just a couple clicks away from you right now. Social Security's website has all kinds of tools, including the most popular baby names for the past hundred years. Or you can just poke around for fun. The year my grandmother was born, 1909, her name, Dorothy, ranked fifth, following Mary, Helen, Margaret, and Ruth. Not too many of those running around the schoolyard today. And then in 1935, the name Shirley popped out of nowhere at number two, staying there through '36, then falling to fourth, then fifth for two years before falling off the last year of the thirties. Any guesses? Surely Shirley sang and danced her way onto the list--and onto my neighbor's birth certificate. The name Madison appears at number three in two thousand. My guess is that a generation who loved the movie Splash started having babies sixteen years later.

A novel I'm querying has George Washington's step-daughter as a key character. In critique, one woman--obviously not an historian--questioned my use of the name "Patsy" as too modern. Except, Miss Custis really was called Patsy, then a common nickname for Martha, her given name. Obviously, I left it. But in another book, I had a Corrie who got changed to Reggie, and a Len became Jay. (Unfortunately that was before I'd mastered find and replace, so it took some tidying as I ended up with some jayses in place of glasses. Took me a while to figure that out in editing.) The characters changed enough that their names did too, and since I didn't have to consult Social Security to make the change, I went for it.

That's actually not the only time I changed someone's name. My daughter was three days old when I quit agonizing over my mistake and called the hospital to halt the paperwork. Luckily, the fax machine was broken and they hadn't sent in her birth certificate yet. It was a good call; according to the Social Security website, Sarah was the 12th most popular the year she was born. Daphne? In 574th place. I think I'll keep it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Comfort Zone

by Joan

My book interests are somewhat eclectic and range from literary and historical fiction to family saga to romantic comedy to ghost stories. Well, maybe not that eclectic, since I generally don’t get science fiction and fantasy. When I go through a spell of not quite hitting on a book I like, I fall back into my comfort zone.

We’ve interviewed one of my favorite comfort authors, Adriana Trigiani. (Can't wait for next month's Brava Valentine, the sequel to Very Valentine.) When I read her books, I always know I’ll laugh and cry, learn insightful tidbits about her characters, work harder when I sit down at my computer.

Like Ms. Trigiani, Maeve Binchy does the same. I finally got around to reading Heart and Soul, published close to a year ago around last Valentine’s Day. Reading this book was like eating my mother’s matzo ball soup—it’s always even better than I remember. The story focuses around a Dublin doctor who is trying to get a heart clinic up and running while dealing with her own fragile heart. Binchy found a way to weave in many characters from previous books, a technique which drew me in and had me wanting to reread them all.

Recently I read the Love Actually screenplay. Before this, I’d never read a screenplay (I tried to read Juno, but got dizzy trying to keep up with the format). I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve watched the ensemble romantic comedy—not just for Christmas viewing!—but reading the familiar lines, I recited the lines in my head before I got to them on the page.

Get a grip. People hate sissies. No one’s ever going to shag you if you cry all the time.

I love that word relationship—covers all manner of sins, doesn’t it?

Yes—but you’ve also made a fool out of me—you’ve made the life I lead foolish too.

You learnt English… Just in cases.

And I scored 27 out of 36 on the quiz—full marks according to author Richard Curtis. The book is scattered with gorgeous pictures and a follow-up love questionnaire by the stars.

Some of my other comfort favorites: Tracy Chevalier, Marian Keyes, Jane Austen. I know I need to stretch my comfort zone, read books I might not have otherwise, but it’s good to know I can always come back home.

What are your comfort books or authors?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Authoring in the New Decade (Or, Editorial Ass Gazes into Her Crystal Ball)

By Moonrat, guest blogger

So, to be totally honest, I’ve never actually had a talent for clairvoyance. Unless you count that time I predicted I would eat too much at the sushi buffet—that uncanny prediction definitely came true.

However, now is the Era of Many Changes in publishing. The people have many questions, and the people deserve answers. This isn’t to say I necessarily have them, or am qualified to give them, but I can do at least as well as Madam Rosmerta. So step forward, my child, and ask!

I heard printed book publishing only has five years to live. Is this true? Will ebooks kill books?

No. Trust me. People who like ebooks will read ebooks. They’re an extra market and have little to nothing to do with actual book publishing. They don’t even affect book revenue—people who say ebooks cut into hard copy sales are disregarding the fact that you make a lot more money straight to the bottom line on an ebook than on a paper book; ebooks pay for themselves.

Books will always be printed. Ebooks will be an extra thing you can have if you want. Nothing else is going to change. No market is compromised. This is the giant red herring of book publishing—freaking out about ebooks instead of working on the things that actually need fixing. Don’t listen to them; they’re all silly.

If you’re so sure books are never going to die, how will publishers survive this difficult time that seems to have them all running bankrupt?

Well, the sad truth is that the industry is based on cash-flow publishing—basically printing books, selling them, and giving the money back when they get returned, but hoping that next month’s books will cover the gap. It’s a kind of stupid system, one that encourages publishing too many books and publishing them too quickly.

So eventually, the system is going to break down, and a lot fewer books are going to be published. The only fiction published will be big-bomb NYT bestseller candidates, and literary projects that have some kind of cult following. All the middle titles—the ones that aren’t quite popular enough or high enough quality—will drop away. A lot less money will be made in general, but the money made will be real money—on books that sell to consumers, not books we sell to retailers who sell them back to us. Bookstores will carry fewer books, and books will print fewer copies. Authors and agents will make less money. Publishers will make less money, and so lots of people will lose their jobs—particularly in editorial.

It will be sad that people lose their jobs, yes, but what won’t be sad is the higher standard of excellence publishers and authors will have to hold themselves to in order to secure a successful publication. In our cash-flow world, quality has been the first thing we’ve sacrificed. We’re currently witnessing the end of an era that will have produced a disproportionately small number of immortal writers, because their books were rushed out for the sake of numbers alone.

Wait, are you saying it’s going to be even harder to get published in the future?

Uh, yeah, I guess I am. But let that be a challenge to you. Think of it this way—if you secure publication in the future, you’re even more worthy and special than the people who have secured it in the recent past. You jumped through flaming hoops they never even had to imagine.

So what the heck is the point of writing, then?

Because you love it. That should have been the only point, ever. If you’re only writing for glory and recognition instead of for personal growth and refinement, consider taking up another hobby. Perhaps table tennis.

Do you have faith everything’s going to work out?

Yes, blind, unconditional faith. There will always be books; there will always be people who love to read; there will always be people who love to write. And there will always be overlap among those groups. I’m here for love; I hope you’re here for love, too. I’m not afraid; things will work out the way they’re meant to. And in the meantime, I’m going to work as hard as I can toward my goals. I hope you are, too!

Moonrat, or “Editorial Ass,” is an anonymous book editor, diehard sushi fanatic, and incurable book addict. She works for a small press in New York and blogs at about her hapless exploits in publishing and life.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

New Books! New Movie!

By Julie

I'm using my scheduled post this week to plug a few fellow women writers whose books have released recently, are about to release, or have other exciting events happening.

I've been a member of Backspace, The Writer's Place, an immeasurably valuable forum for writers, for the last year and a half. Besides simply soaking up information shared about the craft and business of writing by Backspace's more than one thousand members, I've had the pleasure of celebrating along with fellow writers (like Therese Walsh) as they sign with agents, get book deals, and count down the minutes to "release day" -- the day their labors of love finally appear on a bookstore shelf.

With far too many to mention here, a few recent book launches have stood out for me.

Naseem Rahkah's The Crying Tree released last summer, but it didn't make it to the top of my to-be-read pile until the first week of 2010. In an interesting bit of timing, this week the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association honored Naseem with one of their five 2010 Book Awards for this stunning novel. The Crying Tree isn't an easy read, subject-wise, exploring the fallout after a family's young son is murdered and his killer is sentenced to the death penalty, but I couldn't put it down.

A few other debut novels I haven't read yet are hitting the shelves this week and next.

Today, Melanie Benjamin's Alice I Have Been released to a flurry of media activity – an interview with Melanie on her local WGN station and a mention in USA Today. This fictionalized account of Lewis Carroll's muse sounds intriguing, not to mention Melanie is just a Very Nice Person. :) Rumor has it she'll pop up on our blog sometime in the near future for an interview with Kim. I can't wait to get my hands on Alice I Have Been. Melanie's signature on Backspace (and a line from the story, I assume) hooked me long ago: "But oh my dear, I am tired of being Alice in Wonderland. Does it sound ungrateful?"

EDIT: Larramie has a giveaway of Alice I Have Been if you comment today by 7 p.m. on the Divining Wand!

Next week, another Backspace author, Randy Susan Meyers, debuts with The Murderer's Daughters. This domestic drama sounds like another difficult, yet compelling read. (Hmm, I must like that combination! Gee, maybe that's why I write the stuff, too.) Bestselling author Jenna Blum said: "... Meyers explores the bond between two sisters clinging to each other in the aftermath of their mother's murder and their father's imprisonment ... and how their bond is tested by the reappearance of the past."

Backspace isn't the only thing driving my reading, however.

Last night I finished reading The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, chosen because it showed up on so many best of 2009 lists. I loved the mesmerizing story and writing (and absolutely recommend it), but I have to say the doom, gloom, and despair left me needing a little mental lift. So I dove immediately into the December 29 release of one of my favorite teachers and mentors, author Barbara O'Neal (formerly writing as Barbara Samuel and Ruth Wind).

I was confident before I started reading The Secret of Everything, but reassured after the first fifty pages or so, that Barbara's tale of a hiking tour guide who returns to her childhood home in (fictional) Los Ladrones, New Mexico, to face her unremembered past will break my heart a few times, but leave me with a bright, satisfying glimmer of hope in the end. With another gorgeous setting and her usual dose of unique characters and situations, Barbara will weave a spell over me I won't want to let go of soon, though I'm sure I'll read The Secret of Everything far too quickly. (Caution: This one's a little racy!)

Last, but not least, long-time blog and Internet buddy Carleen Brice's Orange Mint and Honey is now a movie! It airs ...


Yes, football haters everywhere, unite and throw your own viewing party! Sins of the Mother, starring Jill Scott (singer and No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency star) and Nicole Behairie, airs on Lifetime February 7 at 8 p.m. CST. (And re-airs on February 25 at midnight, I believe.) Carleen's even throwing a contest with prizes for some lucky group of viewers.

EDIT: Lifetime listened to its viewers and graciously movied the airing of Sins of the Mother to February 21! Good news for Carleen, but bad news for those of us wanting an excuse to skip the Bowl. :)

Congratulations and best wishes to these authors!

Wouldn't you agree that all these exciting opportunities for reading and movie viewing leave no excuse for being bored with the usual ho hum or winter doldrums this month and next? Get thee to a bookstore.

Photo credit / Nouveaustar, Creative Commons license

Monday, January 11, 2010

Required Reading

By Pamela

Some time ago I read Stephen King's essay: What Stephen King Does for Love. King explores the concept of why English teachers continue requiring students to read certain books. Is there any benefit behind forcing literature on students that might ultimately morph them into kids who dislike reading? King lists some of the novels forced on him and admits to not really reading them all--and then later re-visiting them as an adult. Some he still detested; others he discovered a new-found appreciation for.

Like King, I suffered through some books I was forced to read (and others I read Cliff Notes on), while I was also allowed to choose some personal selections. Ironically, some were written by King! And I revisited The Scarlet Letter a few years ago and still couldn't get through it.

After watching my two teenagers struggle through required reading lists, I'll admit to having mixed feelings about their assignments. I think some titles are important for kids to experience and deserve a place on The List of Books All Kids Should Read. But I'm in favor of mixing in some current titles along with a few classics and then letting kids choose titles of their own liking as well.

When I asked one of my sons, of the books he had to read for English, which ones did he enjoy, the only title he liked was To Kill a Mockingbird. (I bought him two books for Christmas and when he opened them he said, "You know I don't like to read." I'm still hoping...) I'm not sure if having to read titles has made him a reluctant reader. Or if he got to choose what he wanted to read if he might be a more ambitious reader.

Here's my list of books I'd have my English students read:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Both books explore the treatment of blacks by whites. Lee's classic remains an entertaining lesson in humanity, and Stockett's would make an excellent companion piece, further exploring the treatment of blacks in the segregated Deep South.

Interesting discussions could focus on the settings: Lee's Alabama in the '30s vs. Stockett's Mississippi in the '60s. Just how different were the times and how have they changed? And is there a new set of prejudices brewing toward other races today?

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

When it comes to teaching kids POV, Stein's story--told from the family dog's point of view--is a perfect choice. Many novels feature one or two viewpoints, others manage to weave in a handful. But Stein chose to show the unraveling of a young family as observed by the insightful, intelligent, race car-loving dog. The story is captivating and funny as well as heartbreaking and a new favorite of mine.

Another unique POV angle is Sebold's novel told by recently murdered Susie Salmon. Susie watches her family and friends deal with the aftermath of her killing--an interesting and seldom seen approach to a story.

Beach Music by Pat Conroy
East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Teaching kids about literary devices--foreshadowing, metaphors, imagery, and more--can be achieved by these two amazing authors. I chose these two titles because they are the ones I re-read and enjoy each time. I even began flagging all the lovely phrasing and word choices in Beach Music the last time I read it--and gave up after about chapter two because I felt bad for wasting all my boys' Post-It flags. Conroy is also one of a handful of authors who can simultaneously inspire and deflate me. As a writer, how do you even hope to write as eloquently as he does?

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks
The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson
The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

My least favorite subject in school was probably history. As an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover historical fiction. Here was a way for me to learn about history without having to memorize dates and boring facts. Year of Wonders captivated me by the story of fictional characters who lived and died during England's 1666 plague.

The Devil in the White City follows a serial killer who caused mayhem during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and also profiles the architect behind the fair. Larson's Isaac's Storm (about the deadly hurricane in Galveston in 1900) would also be a good choice.

Gregory is an historian and writer who deftly weaves a story of greed and lust about the sisters who clamoured for the attention of King Henry VIII. While authors take some liberties with details, since they must add in the dialog and details to help weave their stories, historical fiction should be approached as fiction based on history without spending too much time debating facts and timelines. This is an English class, not history. These titles were chosen for the quality of the story telling--not necessarily because they are the most accurate in retelling history.

I'm going to stop now and not delve into fantasy, memoirs and other categories as this post would run too long. But this would be the starting point for my students. I chose books I've read and loved and, since I am always discovering new treasures, I'd encourage my students to introduce me to books they also have enjoyed. Because that's what literature is about, right? Falling in love with a story that creates a desire to read more and more and more...

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Dreaded Scene

By Kim

In my last post I wrote about the ghosts of Christmas past. Originally I included the tale of another spirit, but her story didn’t match the tone of the rest of what I had to say, and so I left it out. Like most toddlers, my Great Aunt Penelope is rather persistent. In fact, she is Writer’s Block personified. I doubt she will release her grip until I acknowledge her.

Perhaps it’s best to let Penelope’s mother explain why I dread writing chapter 26 of The Oak Lovers.

In December [1910] little Penelope developed a cold, then the croup. The doctor said it was nothing serious. She was obviously not well at all, however, and I slept on a cot by her crib. The last night she was restless. I was heavy and tired, and dozed for a bit and dreamed. I thought I had wakened and saw the window wide open, the window frame free. Penelope was not in her crib. I went to the window and saw her walking in her nightgown in the snow that covered the porch roof outside the window. I quickly went to her and picked her up in my arms and wrapped her up warmly She looked up at me and smiled. Then I wakened. Penelope was sleeping quietly beside me. I felt a glow of happiness and thought, “the doctor is right after all. She will be better in the morning.” But she was not, and that evening she died in my arms…She was beautiful and rare. I loved her very much and always with a touch of fear. She seemed too lovely to be true, like a dream from which one prays not to waken. We had her for only two years and eight months, but for even that I am grateful.

From the memoir of Madonna Ahrens, written in about 1945

The first time I read these words, my oldest daughter, Sasha, was exactly two years and eight months old. I reacted how any mother would; I rushed into my child’s room to make sure she hadn’t stopped breathing in her sleep. I plucked her from her crib, rocked her, and wept into her hair, imagining how horrific such a loss would be. Even if I were nine months pregnant at the time, as Madonna was, I’m not sure I could ever recover.

I suspect Madonna got through the loss by keeping Penelope’s memory alive, something her husband, landscape painter Carl Ahrens, would likely have encouraged. At least a dozen photographs of Penelope survive, some in historical frames. Newspaper articles from as late as 1917 mention her along with the Ahrens’ other, still living, children. My grandmother, Chloris, born in 1912, spoke of Penelope as she did her other siblings, as if she had grown up with her. I remember a photograph of Penelope in my own dining room when I was small, which is more than I could say for Aunt Sigrid and Uncle Laird. While I knew she had died shortly after the photograph was taken, I always found the image comforting. It hangs in my home now.

She is alive again in my book now, a happy, beautiful child, cherished by both parents, and my own maternal instinct screams at me that as a novelist I have the power to give her a different fate. As much as I want to protect her, it would change the whole family dynamic if I spared her, not to mention that it would go against my desire to tell the truth as much as possible. So, I must kill my darling. I’ve killed characters before, even ones I love, but never a child, and never someone who once existed outside of my own imagination. What makes this deed even more heart-wrenching is that I see whispers of Penelope in my four-year-old daughter, Ashlyn.

The connection between the two girls was especially frightening a couple of months ago, when Ashlyn had the Swine Flu. After the fever broke, she had a week or so of a horrendous croupy cough and temporarily had to go on breathing treatments. The doctor assured me she would be fine and that there was no need to bring her to the ER unless she appeared to be in respiratory distress. Thankfully I didn’t have to experience that particular terror. I did, however, end up rushing her to the hospital about a week before Christmas. My parents and I took both girls to a local park, and the children were anxious to explore a path down by a nearby stream. Sasha, now eight, began running down a steep hill, Ashlyn close on her heels. My mother and I were both poised to yell ‘stop’ when Ashlyn fell. We could tell she landed on her knee, and she cried, but there was no outright screaming. My dad lifted her pant leg, expecting to see a scrape or abrasion that he could kiss better. Instead, we found a long gash, the skin nearly peeled away from her kneecap. Had I had my wits about me I’d have realized the wound, while awful to look at, was nothing serious. My wits were nowhere to be found. For a breathless moment I waited for blood to spurt, and feared we would lose her before reaching the hospital. I’ll never forget that feeling of helplessness.

I’ve already discussed how difficult it is for me to emotionally distance myself while I’m working on a chapter. While I realize my own child will barely even have a scar from the thirteen stitches it took to close the wound, writing about Penelope will require me to channel that feeling I had in the park, to psychologically dwell there until I finish the chapter. It is fitting, perhaps, that I’ve felt the weight of this burden throughout the holiday, and that I would prepare to write this scene so close to the anniversary of her death.

So here I sit unable to start my next chapter. From those of you who managed to push through and successfully write a dreaded scene, I’d appreciate any advice and encouragement you can give me...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

My Year in Reading

by Elizabeth

Eighty four books. Mostly novels. That's my total for 2009, the first year I tracked my reading each month, though I'm pretty sure there are three or four books I read but failed to log and then promptly forgot about. Still, when I tallied them a few days ago I was astounded to see how many pages I'd turned in twelve months.

Then I started wondering: was that a lot? A little? As someone who claims to be a writer, should I have read more? (I certainly should have bought more; the bulk were from the library.) Should I have spent less time reading, more time writing? Maybe not; my writing is dependent first on my life as a reader. I'm cool with that.

It was kind of fun, tracking what I read. January was my most literate month, with 13 books gulped down. Not surprisingly, October and November were my lightest with four novels each. (November was my most prolific writing month, however, with NaNo and my just-over 50K words, so hardly surprising reading took the back seat.) Best of all is the list preserves both the titles and my impressions. For instance, here's what I wrote about a book from February:

A Gentleman’s Guide to Gracious Living by Michael Dahlie
Newly divorced socialite NY male makes mistake after mistake, with lots of whiskey and good manners. Good read, engaging, funny and sad. Did its job as a book.

Concise, sure, but looking at my notes, I remember the book, and it also tells me that Dahlie is an author I'd be happy to give another go.

A couple other books that month were less satisfying. I'll leave out the books' titles and authors, but here are some notes:

Overwritten, felt characters were dumb with unbelievable motivations. Florid. Zing! Next up: Okay, not wonderful. Unsatisfying and rushed ending. Much felt repetitive. Book suggested two story lines would converge, but they never did. Then in March, ouch: Almost no sympathetic characters, incredibly overwritten, too many details on insignificant characters, story got started really late in the game, and storylines that make no difference to the plot. Still, read the whole thing. Annoying book, but readable writing style. And in April! Lazy writing and editing, stupid MC (unbelievably dumb actions for a supposedly smart woman; taken advantage of in ways not believable). Readable, clipped along, but mostly continued reading to be done rather than for pleasure.

Still, maybe the most valuable information I took away from the logging of all these books is that every single one had some redeeming qualities (even that florid one). Several books were by extremely successful writers who wrote, in my opinion, fairly bad books with lousy stories--but in every instance, the books were, according to my notes, readable. The words flowed, and I stuck with them even as I groaned at the characters or plot holes or bad dialogue or whatever it was. True, I know not to pick up those authors again. Yet last month I read two books by another writer I'll seek out even though one was just okay. I guess discovering the better book first makes the difference, at least for me.

Last year proved I re-read less than I think, just six all year. Only one Anne Tyler--which I enjoyed more than the first time around. And no Maeve Binchy at all this year! (Dang that Pamela, hogging my copy of my annual Christmas read.) I'm pretty sure I failed to include my sixth or seventh lifetime reading of Sense and Sensibility, but since I'm not sure, I won't bump my total to 85. I also picked up a couple of children's books from the past: Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Magic Elizabeth by Norma Kassirer, a book I adored in third or fourth grade and adored again. And Doris Gates' Blue Willow, a story I read as a child and ached through this time as an adult.

On my list were five writers with two books each; another penned three. Half of those were new to me. Several others I'll seek out when their debut follow-ups hit the shelves, and I've already looked for more from my last writer of the year. There were a few writers whose earlier works I've enjoyed. About ten books were recommended by friends or pop culture, with results both wonderful and meh.

I noticed some trends as well. May was YA month, with six of nine reads in that category, two by the same writer, John Green, a new-to-me author now on my read-everything-he-writes list. Late July through August were my Islam months, starting with Andre Dubus III's very fine House of Sand and Fog followed by Geraldine Brooks' outstanding non-fiction Nine Parts of Desire, and then Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's Three Cups of Tea. All the October books were painful reads about women in impossible situations--perhaps the reason I managed only four, though all of them earned high marks in my notes.

So far this year I've read two books, one in a single day. (What can I say? My whole family was inflicted with a really bad cold, but I sent the rest of them to work and school). I don't know if I'll manage 13 books this month, nor how many I'll end the year with. But I do know that taking the time to keep track was worth it, both as a reader and as a writer. No matter what you call yourself, I recommend it.

What I realize I don't know, going over my notes, is what is the "best book" I read this year. I know that several have stuck with me, and I have two or three new favorites--but just one, the single best book of my reading year? I honestly don't know. What I do know is that I read, found satisfaction and entertainment and heartache and interest, and I'm hoping 2010 is just as good or better.

So how about everyone else? Did you read a lot, a little, anything spectacular, any trends? I believe I speak for all of us here at WWW when I say we'd love to hear from you.

Monday, January 4, 2010


by Joan

Some people might scoff at the idea of reflecting on mistakes right at the beginning of a new year. I’m hoping this embodies a clean break for me and for others who are feeling stuck.

Some of my mistakes occurred prior to 2009, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I realized they were mistakes. Such as giving up a major consulting client in 2007 to de-stress my brain and afford myself more time to write. Yes, it allowed me to finish my then-WIP and two other manuscripts, plus start three others. I ignored all advice to the contrary about giving up my day job because, at the time, I felt financially comfortable in doing so. Now, a stock market crash later, I regret that decision. It’s as unlikely to determine if I’m any closer to being published as it is to know where the stock market will go from here. I can do all the right things, write the best novel I know how, make writing contacts, and continue to learn my craft. But like profiting with the stock market, getting published requires risk, timing, and a lot of luck.

With a child less than two years away from college, I’ve had to re-align my priorities and refocus on my consulting business. I’m still writing, but several hours a day are spent networking and looking for business. I never imagined that I’d be actively looking for work, after years of turning away clients because I was too busy.

On to more mistakes. In 2009, I stopped my regular exercise routine (despite Elizabeth’s enthusiastic invitations to join her for yoga). I didn’t actively decide to stop exercising, it just happened. I got lazy and thought if I was writing instead, I was doing something productive. But actually, my productivity decreased because I was less disciplined in every aspect of my life, not just exercise. Like my body, my writing got out of shape. I allowed my mind to be distracted. Whereas in prior years I would open my WIP first thing at 7 a.m., pound out a few thousand words then break for a granola bar and keep writing, in 2009, I leisurely read blogs and email while sucking down my first coffee of the day, then around 11:30 started wondering what I would eat for lunch. Maybe around 2, when I should have been heading for the gym, I’d start writing. Maybe I wouldn’t.

I didn’t read as much as I should have. I only read 40 books in 2009. In comparison to Stuck in a Book and Bibliophile by the Sea, that’s nothing. In addition, I probably started 20 more and gave up on them. Either I was distracted by the television in the background or not drawn into the story right away. Had I given them a chance, I might have liked them all.

Like Julie, I’m not a fan of resolutions. After years of making and breaking them, I find them discouraging. Instead, I will stop dwelling on my mistakes and find a way to correct them.

I don’t know where to start first. I’ll continue to look for accounting work by increasing my network. I’ve joined the FENG, (Financial Executives Networking Group) and will join REFEA (Real Estate Financial Executives Association), and will attend monthly meetings for both. I’ll prioritize and finish my manuscripts, pick a contest or two to enter, continue to query my two polished manuscripts. I’ll finish my 3-year commitment as Treasurer of the Writers’ Guild of Texas.

I’m sure I’ll continue to make some mistakes in 2010, but at least I’m starting out with an honest assessment of what went wrong last year. Now, I have about 1400 more words to write to reach today’s goal…then, off to the gym.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

How to Write a Great First Novel

By Susan

Two months ago I picked up a book at Barnes & Noble recommended by Pamela. "You must read this," she had emailed me. I had it for a few days before I started it on a Thursday night. Unable to sleep, I picked it up at 10:00 pm and finished it completely 8 hours later at 6:00 am. I passed it on to others with the similar effect: my mother-in-law devoured it. My sisters fought over the one copy I brought home at Christmas. Everyone I recommended it to seemed to love it as much as I did.

What was the novel? It was The Help, by first-time novelist Kathryn Stockett. For me, reading it unraveled every rule of novel-writing that I have ever learned. And it was completely delightful.

I'm not really a rule follower by nature, but up until 2009, I was writing away in an ignorant bliss, not even knowing which rules I was breaking. I knew none of the guidelines to writing a novel; I'd been trained as a journalist. This year, in getting serious about my manuscript (which includes, by the way, actually calling it a manuscript), I joined writing groups, started blogging, and went to workshops. I realized that there are hundreds of books written on the rules of writing a book (I had no idea!). I learned a lot about query letters and agents and publishing. I also learned a lot of rules and formulas. I learned the rules, and they made me squirm.

I started stressing about things like point of view and word count and sentence length. It seemed that the more I wrote, the more I read about writing, which then forced me to go back and rewrite everything I'd written. I started doubting myself (which, the books told me, was normal). I started thinking it was all crap (also, they say: normal). Long story short, I spent more time agonizing than I did actually writing. But I learned the rules.

Then I read The Help. Kathryn Stockett broke every rule that I had spent the past year learning. More than that, somehow she gave me permission to write the way I have wanted to write all along. And so, at the beginning of 2010, I have learned some new rules for writing:

1) It's OK to write a really long first novel...

2) It's OK to mix up points-of-view...

3) It's OK to use vernacular, slang, and stereotypical language...

4) It's OK to go over-the-top without being kitschy...

5) Basically, it's OK to break all the rules of writing...


None of the above are OK unless you are a really, really, really good writer.

Kathryn Stockett is that very talented writer. Yet I can't help but wonder what kinds of doubts and roadblocks greeted her in the journey to complete The Help. I think about well-meaning writing groups or former professors who could have advised her to shorten the length, or pick one voice, or to just choose ONE point of view. How many books are lining her shelves on "How to Write a Novel"? And then I wonder: what would have become of The Help if she had listened to them?

Stockett did what so many writers aspire to do with every submission: She wrote the Great First Novel and while doing so she broke most, if not all, of the rules. Does that mean that I can do it too? Aren't rules just made for breaking? If she did it, does that mean that you can do it too? Of course not. It only mean this: Someone with the talent, the story, and the tenacity to see it through can do it. It can be done.

And that gives me hope that all of my labor is not in vain. I don't know what will become of my manuscript. I'm not just breaking all the rules in a wild stab at becoming the latest and greatest new thing, but I am picking and choosing to whom I listen. The year 2009, for me, was an education in the rules. For 2010, my only resolution is to complete my novel by my rules, not everyone else's. After all, you've got to know the rules in order to break them.
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