Monday, May 31, 2010

One Writer's Facebook Primer

By Pamela

About a year and a half ago I opened my Facebook (FB) account. My initial motivation for having a presence was to keep tabs on my two teenage boys. They both had accounts and I felt the best way to monitor their activities was to be their FB friend. To date, I’ve only had to suggest one son de-friend a kid—a potty-mouthed teammate. My son’s reaction? “Oh, he’s a jerk anyway.”

Through my personal FB account, like many people, I’ve reconnected with old friends and connected with others who share my interests.

A couple months ago, we added a fan page on FB for What Women Write. In that short time, well over 300 people have been able to keep up with our posts and some, who might never have discovered our blog, are linking to it and leaving comments.

Here are a few ways I’ve found FB to be helpful to me as a writer.

Author Contacts

I’ve found favorite authors on FB and have asked a few to contribute here on What Women Write. Although most authors have websites, I find the intimacy on FB to be particularly conducive to reaching out and asking for interviews.

If you’re not a writer but love to read, I’d encourage you to look up your favorite authors on FB. You can learn about their day-to-day happenings, find out about their current books, obtain book tour info and more. (Some have Fan Pages maintained by others, so you might not be getting posts by the author, but you’ll still get updates on releases and such.)


I’ve joined writers' groups via FB and now receive writing prompts, news about workshops and conferences in addition to meeting people in my area who write. I’ve become a fan of local bookstores that regularly announce book signings plus offer occasional discounts.

I’ve also found it helpful when needing an expert to interview for my writing—whether I need to verify a fact in my manuscript or get a quote for an article I’m writing. A simple: Hey, anyone know a family attorney in the Dallas area? can elicit enough responses to point me in the right direction.

Idea Generator

In addition to finding experts, I’ve also been able to pick the brains of my FB friends when trying to come up with a line in my work-in-process. For instance, after attending a writing conference, I decided I wasn’t in love with my first chapter. I saw my main character wrestling with the disparity between the girl her mother raised and who she ultimately became. So, I opened up FB and asked my friends: What was the best advice your mother ever gave you? I generated enough unique responses to help me rewrite my opening.

Opinion Source

Also on FB, I’ve witnessed other writers utilize the opinions of their followers to weigh in on choosing book jackets, handling negative reviews, naming characters, selecting book titles and more. For example, one author was writing the final book in her trilogy and asked something along the lines of: My first book is Love’s First Kiss, second is Love’s Second Chance, and for the third I’m thinking either Love’s Last Hope or Love’s Final Promise. Within minutes she had a dozen comments from her followers, with some offering suggestions for completely different title ideas.

Lesson Learned

For me FB has also been a source of entertainment. I’ve found it fun to witness the interactions between authors and their readers, and some have provided valuable lessons in ‘what not to do.’ One author uses her FB presence to write insipient comments that must be hurting her reputation and causing her to lose readers. Maybe some find it attests to her authenticity, but I think political and religious opinions and even relationship interactions are best revealed in a more intimate environment—not where your 5,000 fans can read about them.

I’m well aware that Facebook has received its share of negative press recently, but security issues aside (and mine, in case you’re wondering, are as tight as I can set them), do you Facebook and why?

Friday, May 28, 2010

A Review of Catherine Hall's DAYS OF GRACE

By Kim

(from the book jacket):
Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself – and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.

On the cusp of World War II, this warning resonates with Britain’s fearful population. But to Nora Lynch, these words carry another layer of meaning, one more intimate and shameful. And for more than fifty years, she will keep her lips tightly sealed.

When the war breaks out, twelve-year-old Nora is one of thousands of London children evacuated to the safety of the English countryside. Her surrogate family, Reverend Rivers, his wife, and their daughter, Grace, offer Nora affection and a wealth of comforts previously unknown to her. But what Nora is too young and too naïve to understand is that the place she’s been sent to isn’t the Eden she originally believes it to be.

As the dogfights rage ever more fiercely overhead, Nora’s friendship with Grace intensifies, but Nora aches to become even closer. What happens next is a secret that she will harbor for decades, a secret that Nora begins to reveal only when, elderly and ill, she can no longer bear its haunting, corrosive power.

Exploring the perils of both revealing and concealing the truth, Days of Grace is a beautiful meditation on love, friendship and family, and a stunning debut that brings a tumultuous era to life.

About Catherine Hall (from the book jacket):
Catherine Hall was born in the north of England in 1973. Now based in London, she worked in documentary film production before becoming a freelance writer and an editor for a range of organizations specializing in human rights and development. Days of Grace is her first novel.

My Review:
You may be inclined to believe that a novel about secrets, jealousy and forbidden desire could not possibly be a beautiful meditation on love, friendship and family, but the cover does not lie. Catherine Hall’s prose is quiet, nostalgic, confessional without being the least bit melodramatic, yet Days of Grace unflinchingly tackles such controversial issues as homosexuality, infidelity, the potential destructive power of religion, and a few other biggies I won’t mention because they tie in too closely with the plot. There is, quite simply, a lot going on in the novel’s 288 pages.

I am in awe at the economy of Catherine Hall’s prose. She is a visual writer, perhaps due to her background in documentary film production. Her scenes are short, yet rich, and each word is both precise and necessary. This may be her debut novel, but she is already a master storyteller, with a keen understanding that sometimes it is the words she does not use that impact the reader most.

For example, in the very first scene Nora, as an elderly woman, reveals enough about the terrifying things going on within her body for the reader to understand what will kill her, and soon, though she keeps the words ‘cancer’ and ‘tumor’ to herself – the first of many secrets. Perhaps it was this quiet omission that made me ache to climb between the pages and comfort her. Perhaps it was that I knew even then that the disease physically eating her from within was nothing compared to her mental anguish. All this was accomplished in three pages.

Nora’s story takes place both during the war and in present day. In books with multiple time periods, I’m generally drawn more to one story than the other and find myself skimming to get back to the part I’m really interested in. That was not the case with Days of Grace. Nora, as narrator, was equally compelling as a teenager struggling with shameful desire as she was as an elderly woman quietly succumbing to her illness. Secondary characters are distinct and memorable throughout.

Don’t let the dark themes or controversial issues scare you away. Days of Grace is not about preaching agendas. It is an understated novel that will take hold of your heart and gently squeeze.

Days of Grace is available at bookstores everywhere on Monday, May 31st.

Author photo by Beth Crosland, as shown on the website for Portobello Books.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher in the hope that I would review it on What Women Write. I was under no obligation to review it, let alone give a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 225: "Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


By Elizabeth

Whoever put Mother's Day in May must have been a man. Certainly not a mother. A quick zip to Google confirms both counts. Anna Jarvis, single and childless, campaigned fervently for a day to honor her mother and all others. Her passion eventually spurred President Woodrow Wilson to make it official in 1914. Not mothers, either one. Because if they had been, they wouldn't have stuck the holiday in the busiest month I know for moms, making it just one more thing to check off a seemingly endless list.

This May has even been pretty light for me, since soccer ended last month and my kids' other sports aren't team endeavors. Don't talk to me about Boy Scouts, though, and the approximately 247 emails cluttering my inbox. I guess our Brownie Leader did us a favor by getting her panties in a wad and cancelling the rest of the meetings for the year, although I'm still not sure I won't spend an equivalent number of hours consoling a little girl who won't "bridge." In addition to sports and Scouts, there are teacher gifts to buy and cards to make (gift cards alone just won't do; a handwritten note is the least we can do for those saints who take my young for seven hours a day, thus sparing my children the fate of some other young), final projects to supervise (did you know puffballs make lovely bees to decorate your Utah state float?), plus parties and field days begging for volunteers. Not to mention the scramble to figure out camps and vacations and plans for the long, long days of neither.

I think it was my son's second year of preschool when May became a sprint. Marathon runners have nothing on moms this month; we all deserve two-pound plates of spaghetti every night to prepare us for the onslaught of each coming day. Last week I baked six dozen scones and hauled them, along with clotted cream and jam and tea bags and cups and plates and napkins (and fruit salad for the teacher who doesn't eat sugar) to the teacher's staff meeting, all the while juggling a not-really-sick kid who chose Bake-O-Rama Day 2010 to gag up the salt water the nurse gave her to temper a sore throat. And that was before I toted three kids to Tae Kwan Do and wrangled homework, but after the mini-bake-o-rama of brownies and banana bread for the paramedics who'd rescued us a few days earlier. Oh, I didn't mention the stretcher in the nature preserve? Must be May, because it almost seemed normal.

This year, as I said, hasn't even been quite as bad as usual. Last year, on top of everything else (soccer and softball and Brownies, oh my), I was tearing apart a manuscript every spare moment I could find and managed to finish it up before the last day of school. I almost envy myself that task; this year, I'm still writing the first draft of my WIP, and there are days the directive "write" is the only item left unchecked at the end of a frantic day.

And reading? Woe unto she who publicly commits to reading a particular genre! Since I blogged about classic literature and my intention to read just that this month, I've sort of kept my promise: I haven't read anything but classics. I just haven't read much of anything. Still working through the second book of Utopia, and have managed about a third of Dracula -- but that's all, folks. This will likely turn out to be my lightest reading month of not only this year, but the two previous I've tracked as well. (Well, 2008 was spotty, but I've got a file, so I'll count it.) Checking May 2009, I see I managed nine novels, but most of them were YA and two were really kids' books. That still beats the three I might finish up with this May.

But then there are the other days. Great feeling days, when the order to write gets checked off early, and those days are some of the best. After sitting in front of the monitor or a notebook, tapping or scribbling out a scene and getting to the stopping point (for me, an "ahhhh" moment), the rest of my day feels like a success no matter what happens.

Life happens. May happens. And while I can't say I've done as much writing this month as I'd like, I've done a fair bit, certainly more than I managed last month, indeed any month so far this year. It reminds me of college, when I'd get a ridiculous amount accomplished when my work and extra-curricular schedules were at their heaviest. There are tons of writers who work full time jobs in addition to raising families and putting out a couple of books a year. There's something to be said, surely, for a packed schedule and productivity. I'm just guessing, but I'd venture to say more great novels were penned on a cluttered desk after hours than by someone sitting on a beach, the wide ocean offering fathoms of inspiration.

So I guess I'll take May. I'll take the frenzy and work. I'll listen to oral reports and supervise the preparation of (unleaded) Jell-O shots (Utahns eat more Jell-O per capita than any other state's citizenry; bet you didn't know that). I'll furl hot dogs into crescent dough for potluck; race out for Scout socks and butter and just one more hot glue stick. I'll even take Mother's Day crammed in there, a lovely slow brunch robbing me of precious hours I could've spent painting personalized field day T-shirts. I'll take it, sure, though I wish I were reading. Am glad I am writing.

But if I run into either Anna Jarvis or Woodrow Wilson in the afterlife, they'll be in for an earful. I'd share my scathing speech with you, but it's May, and I'm out of time. I have to go. I need to get to the store for some more Jell-O.

Photo credit: pengrin's Flickr photostream by Creative Commons License

Monday, May 24, 2010

What does your book cover say about you?

by Joan

Recently I had hip surgery. After an initial Vicodin tea party, during which I watched movies from sunup to sundown, I decided I might open a book again. In my pre-crutch days, I read at least an hour a day, sometimes much longer as I delved into a unique plot or captivating characters. But for the first weeks after surgery I couldn’t get up the gumption. I’d been feeling down, in a very uninteresting melodramatic way that I despise, about getting old, about being out of shape, about not being able to put weight on my leg. Seeing pictures of myself in my thirties, in '80s leggings and a '90s bikini, didn’t help.

I crutched to my office for the first time and looked over my book collection, mostly literary and historical fiction, with a mystery or two added in. Choose something cheery, I told myself.

I was reminded of an RWA conference I attended several years ago. I’d signed up because I’d always heard the workshops were remarkable, even for those who don’t write (or read) romance. Not to mention, the conference attracts plenty of agents. The hearsay was accurate: The conference was worth every penny of the fee. At one of the sessions, I heard a speaker joke about literary fiction covers, how most show an empty swing or a dress without a body.

Looking over my shelves I realized, sure enough, except for my Maeve Binchy and Adriana Trigiani collections, the titles had similar covers: empty swings, a back shot of half a girl, grey misty cities, a lone swan. You get the picture. I found two promising choices that I’d forgotten buying, but when I started reading, both caused my eyes to roll by the second page. The cheeriness itself kept me from enjoying them.

It got me thinking about predictable and happy endings. I generally dislike knowing the fate of two characters from the beginning, especially if the ending is neatly tied-up. I want a character to feel redeemed or to have mastered the underlying conflict of the book without being able to predict the resolution. Many times, those resolutions leave the main character with a sense of loss about one major issue but hope for the future. Seems I'm happier with what those literary covers offer.

I’m almost healed and ready to get back into shape, and well on the way to my old reading habits. I finished Elizabeth Kostova’s Swan Thieves and Amy Bloom’s Away, and am joining Elizabeth’s classic challenge and reading David Copperfield and Jude the Obscure.

I’ve left the Vicodin behind, but I will sneak in a movie now and again.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Feedback is Something You Must Eat

By Susan Poulos

All writers fear criticism. And here I thought it was just me.

When I started taking my writing seriously, the first step I knew I had to take was to seek feedback on my work. Of course, I think bourbon distilleries and monks and Kentucky history are fascinating, but would anyone else? I think my writing has potential. But is that enough to mass market?

My first writing group was the beginning. By my third reading, I was feeling confident. I read a scene between my French monk, Thomas Merton, and my fictional bootlegger, Tom Clayfield. And they ripped me to shreds.

"They sound the same. This piece has no voice," one well-meaning critic stated.

"You keep talking about the 'distillery'. Don't you mean the 'still'? It doesn't sound like you know what you're talking about," another piped in.

In critique group, you are not allowed to respond. I gritted my teeth instead.

"Not enough dialog; you are telling instead of showing," one said.

"Your bootlegger doesn't sound 'hick' enough." The criticism went on and on.

I left in a huff.

I drove home gripping the steering wheel, running through all my explanations and excuses in my head. They didn't know anything, I surmised. They don't even know what a Distillery IS. Stupid critics.

A month later, I read the piece again. And they were absolutely right.

I hadn't come close to adequately explaining what a distillery is. My bootlegger DID sound as eloquent as my Columbia-educated, world-travelling monk. And showing versus telling? There was basically no dialog in this critical scene that should have been all conversation.

I humbly rewrote the scene.

Feedback is something we must eat, as unsavory as it may taste. I have also learned that just because someone says something in critique group doesn't mean he is correct. Yet the morsel of reality is always there.

I have since critiqued other writers' works. First, I ask the writer what they want from my feedback. Grammatical and editorial assistance? Or to follow the story as a reader would? Should I look for holes in the plot, or focus on his or her style and voice?

From there, I do my very best to follow their wishes and give them assistance where they feel like they need it the most. I'll also make suggestions that perhaps they weren't looking for. Maybe I can help make it stronger.

I know my critique group made me stronger. I was able to find the balance of country-bumpkin and deep thinker in my bootlegger. I was able to make Thomas Merton, a very real person, come across that way in my fiction.

And I realized that I am not alone out here, in my solitary quest for the perfect manuscript. Don't fear the feedback. How well do you take criticism? Can you make appropriate changes, even when your feelings are hurt?

I hope so. It's the best way to improve your work.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Multiple Mania!

By Julie

I'm taking a crash course in my latest manuscript. I'm writing not only from different points of view, but in different settings and times in history. I've written from at least two points of view in each long manuscript I've written or dabbled in, but the multiple setting and time periods thing is new and certainly a challenge.

For research, I've been checking out relevant online articles and studying the books I'm reading carefully to see how the authors handled similar challenges. I thought I'd share a few of my favorite resources so far with our What Women Write readers.

As Joan mentioned in her personal blog the other day, Donald Maass posted a series recently on Writer Unboxed. Like Joan, the series couldn't have come at a better time for me, especially Part III, posted just last week.* In this installment, Maass discusses how using multiple points of view can enhance your story. He says, ". . . readers respond powerfully to a sense of vastness, a depth and sweep, being transported, journeying far and yet feeling at home. It may be easier to evoke all that with multiple points of view."

That was enough to reassure me my current process is worth the effort. But Maass went on to say that just having multiple points of view is not enough, that "To create a true sense of scale, every characters' storyline must be equally absorbing."

And he could have just left it at that, but he doesn't. He provides a series of questions I've copied and pasted at the bottom of my current manuscript. Each time I contemplate them, I make notes and dig a little deeper into the multiple points of view I'm attempting to write. In Maass's words, I'm building scale into the story. I hope.

Then, last week, I happened upon a link posted by my friend Lisa on her Facebook page. On the surface, this article, Strategies for Writing About Loss (by Robin Black, author of IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, guest posting on Beyond the Margins), sounded like a good resource almost any way you look at it. Most of us choose to write about loss in some form or fashion. Black's focus in the article is on how to write about loss in such a way that makes it unique and different. But the deeper I dug into the article, the more I realized how much it spoke to me about my multiple POV/setting/time period challenge. She suggests:

"There are also strategies for defamiliarizing stories that might sound, in summary, like a million others stories that have come before. . . . One possibility to consider is an intertwining, secondary plot line that both contrasts and resonates with the central one."

Aha! and Oh, yeaaaaah! I thought as I read those sentences. That's why I began writing my modern day point-of-view character to begin with in ALL THE THINGS YOU ARE, my current manuscript! I just needed a little reminding when things started to feel a little confused and overwhelming. And that whole article is packed full of some good stuff.

Finally, I recently polled my Facebook friends, asking what books they'd read that used multiple points of view in different time periods and preferably different settings. Joan was spot on again with her recommendation of THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN, by Kate Morton. I gobbled up this hefty novel last week and came away from it thinking, well, if she can do it and make it work, so can I. She juggled even more POVs and time periods than I'm attempting, all to good effect. She talks about the process here on her fascinating website.

With a little help from my friends, some excellent articles, and the best research for writing fiction ever – READING – I feel like I'm well on my way to wrapping my head around this challenge.

What about you? Any additional words of wisdom or resources or just feel like commiserating because you're attempting something similar? We'd love to hear from you.

* Any writer at any stage could benefit from reading all three installments of Maass's excellent series, The Elements of Awe -- Part I here; Part II here; Part III here.
Photo credit: Daniela Vladimirova's Flickr photostream by Creative Commons License

Monday, May 17, 2010

Spoiler Alert!

by Pamela Hammonds

Flash back to 1999. I’m about to leave to see a newly-released movie and make the mistake of telling my niece where I’m going. “Oh, I saw it,” she said. “It’s so good. Bruce Willis is actually dead through most of the movie and no one knows it but the boy.”

Now, I’ve never slapped a child but, to this day, the temptation remains. She completely spoiled the movie for me. Consider me a fast learner when, eleven years later, I didn’t tell her I was about to see Shutter Island or The Book of Eli. Possibly she’s outgrown her urge to spoil the endings of movies, but I took no chances. I’ll get her back one day.

Children possess an innate quality that overrides their need to be surprised. When my boys were little, I read an article that advised parents to reveal the ending of a book or movie if a child seemed anxious about the outcome. They’d rather know that My Dog Skip will live through his shovel-beating than wait for five torturous minutes while the vet decides his fate. This explains their ability to watch the same movie repeatedly and still be entertained. If you don’t believe me, I have TWO well-viewed copies of The Lion King as proof.

But adults are not kids (well, I know a few…) and we’d rather be surprised at the outcome of a story. If we choose to see a movie twice (or ten times—Notting Hill anyone?) or re-read a book, then we’re obviously enjoying elements other than the twist at the end.

Anita Shreve’s The Last Time They Met remains a favorite of mine for shocking me when I got to the ending. I recently re-read it to study how she pulled it off. Harlan Coben is a master in the art of surprise endings. I almost never figure out the endings of his great novels. Correction, I’ve never figured one out.

In my current manuscript, WAITING TO KNOCK, my ending reveals something I’m betting readers won’t see coming. I’m even selectively telling only one critique partner, so I can judge if the idea really works.

When I’m ready to query agents, I’ll need to pay close attention to each one’s submission guidelines. Some want only a query (which should entice them to ask for more); others want sample pages or a synopsis. For example, after the initial query, Nathan Bransford wants everything!

In his blog posts on synopses, he writes: …you definitely want to capture how the novel begins and the hook and include all of the major climaxes and the big climax at the end.

Nathan suggests reading book jackets for inspiration. They stop short of revealing the ending and set up the story in hopes of hooking you in as a reader. But in a full synopsis, you’ll want to show that you’ve been able to take a great idea and wrap it up in one compelling conclusion and prove the story doesn’t fall apart along the way.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner writes in her submission guidelines to NOT tell her the ending. WordServe Literary’s website states: For fiction, don't give a synopsis of the whole book—just tell us enough to make us jump out of our seats and yell "I must read this book!"

Perhaps a child at heart as well as an eternal pessimist, Harry, in When Harry Met Sally, always read a book’s last sentence first. That way, if he died before he finished reading the book, at least he’d know the ending. I'm taking a cue from him when I flash forward to 2013. I’m about to give my niece a first edition, signed copy of WAITING TO KNOCK. “You’ll love it, Ashleigh. Here, I’ll read you the last page.”

Photo credit: flickr creative commons machbel's photostream

Friday, May 14, 2010

Excuses, excuses...

By Kim

Growing up I was not a procrastinator. I was that kid who did her homework on Friday night, if I had not already completed it in study hall. In junior high I had a teacher who realized the English curriculum was a waste of my time and allowed me to pick my own books, make up my own writing assignments, and skip diagramming sentences. I would have an A so long as I challenged myself. I consistently earned an A+.

No, I was not every parents’ dream child (just ask Mom and Dad). I was simply self-motivated.

Fast forward twenty years. I had one thing I have to get done today – to write this blog – and yet here it is, two hours before I have to pick up my kids, and it is only now that I have parked my butt in my chair to start. I wish I could say this was an unusual occurrence. It’s not. I wish I could say that I had an excuse. I don’t.

As a stay-at-home mom and writer, I have my dream job. Yet each day motivation takes effort. Here are my top excuses not to write:

1) Answering e-mail related to my book. Yes, there is a lot of it. Last week I arranged to share information about Carl Ahrens with the National Gallery of Canada. This week I am helping an appraiser price some etchings and putting him in touch with potential buyers.

2) Updating my website or my catalog of known work by Ahrens.

3) Two small children who need me.

4) Laundry, errands, chauffeuring kids around for lessons, play dates, etc.

5) I ignore this last one as long as possible, but the reality is that on any given day it looks like a hurricane hit my house. When the muses aren’t speaking to me, I clean.

After talking to my fellow What Women Write contributors, I discovered there’s a lot of procrastinating going on. Here is what is most likely to keep them from writing.


1) reading industry blogs

2) reading a novel I just can’t put down

3) watching a movie (for research)

4) updating my Netflix queue

5) responding to e-mail


1) Work: a worthwhile venture that eats up a lot of time. It is writing, though, so I consider it a warm-up exercise--a warm up that lasts all day some times.

2) The Internet

3) E-mail

4) That niggling internal voice that says I’m not that good and am, therefore, wasting my time


1) The grocery store – the family has to eat!

2) The dog needs walking. Poor puppy. It’s not his fault I haven’t written anything.

3) I’m hungry--10:30 is not too early for lunch

4) Yoga

5) Miss Manners message boards (for character research). Don’t believe me? Check out

6) The laundry

7) E-mail

8) Did I mention I’m hungry?


1) Time management – work/family/kids/pets/writing

2) The old “I got nothin’” syndrome

3) Fear of failure (I’m not good enough to even try some days)

4) Lazy distractions – e-mail, Internet, blogging

5) Not making writing enough of a priority


1) Computer problems. Prime example, this week – I’ve spent more time fixing things than writing because my computer is dying a slow death.

2) Spending time worrying about how I am not Supermom and how I don’t do all the millions of things other moms I know do when I could go ahead and use that time to write, which is why I choose not to be Supermom to begin with. It’s a vicious cycle.

3) Trying to read all the blog posts I’ve faithfully RSS'd to my inbox because I’m sure the world will end if I don’t.

4) Travel planning. I love to travel and could, and sometimes do, spend every spare moment exploring destinations and planning future journeys, whether I’m actually going or not.

5) My own writing. Worrying about it – whether it’s good enough, smart enough, or pretty enough – when I could simply be doing it and ignoring all the other girls. Wait, am I talking about writing or high school? J

So, how about you? What are your top reasons (excuses) for not getting any writing done today?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

That's Classic

By Elizabeth

Last year, I began tracking my reading. Finished 2009 with a lot of books under my belt, and maybe a clearer idea of how I read. It was interesting to see the months take on trends; I think it was July and August, those hottest of months, that had some of my heaviest reads, novels that left me thinking and remain with me still.

This April came to a close the same day I finished the last page of a novel, and so I began May fresh with Daphne DuMaurier’s classic Rebecca, a book I can’t believe I’ve never read. It got me thinking, too, that maybe a theme month would be interesting, as well as serve to fill in some gaps in my reading. Sure, I’ve read my share of classics; everyone I know is tired of hearing me blab about Jane Austen. I’ve spent many hours with the Brontes, with Steinbeck, Hemingway, Victor Hugo. Done time with Thackeray, Eliot, Fitzgerald, Salinger, Wharton. Don’t even get me started on classic children’s literature because you likely don’t have all day to read my list, and I don’t have all day to type.

Most embarrassing of the haven’t-reads are probably some of the most beloved-by-women classic tales of tragedy. Anna Karenina? Ahem. Madame Bovary? Umm... Next you’ll think I’ve never even cracked the copy of Women in Love a friend sent me years ago. Oops; I haven’t. I’ll even admit to having a big fat hole in my life-log named James Joyce.

And I'm thinking, why not make a month of it? Visiting some of these cultural touchstones would make a lot of sense. For one thing, Rebecca is just a good story, and had me in its grip. Moreover, though, the novel walloped me with some of those ever-in-need-of-refreshing lessons about story and plot and writing, about pacing and keeping things going, keeping the reader guessing, engaged, and always entertained. There’s a reason this book, first published in 1938, has never been out of print. Its lessons parlayed right into my daily writing, and my WIP is showing its influence. New information, keep the reader guessing, engaged, and always entertained. Scenes will be slashed, new ones written, and this book, like so many novels I’ve read, will make an impact on my own writing.

Those other books that have somehow escaped my hungry eyes? So yes, May is officially Classics Month 2010 for me, and the aforementioned Anna and Emma and yes, if I get to them Ursula and Gudrun as well, will join the second Mrs. De Winter on my 2010 log. Something by the famed Irishman, too.

First up and on my nightstand now, Sir Thomas More's Utopia. It's already reminding me that good writing is pretty timeless. Of course, it was written in Latin, but the translation feels fresh and modern, reminding me that all of us live at the height of modern times; no one, not even the Tudors, considered themselves bundled into history. For someone who loves and writes historical fiction, that's important to remember.

May is a long month, and I’m a fairly fast reader, so those might not see me through to the end. Plus, I'm not averse to putting down a book after twenty pages or so if it's sending me to snoozeville. I might need fresh horses before the 31st. I’m open to suggestions.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Welcome Guest Blogger Mollie Glick!

by Joan Mora

Today I’m thrilled to introduce guest blogger, fabulous agent Mollie Glick from Foundry Literary & Media. Almost a year ago, I met Mollie at Book Expo America’s Agent Pitch Slam. I’d sent her a query a few months earlier and we corresponded about a manuscript she’d suggested I revise. I’d had plenty of requests to read manuscripts before (all blind queries, I might add!), but until then, no one had offered to get on the phone with me or suggested specific changes. She had no obligation to do so—in fact, it’s rare an agent would take the time. She ultimately passed on that manuscript, and another, but if those manuscripts (further revised!) under submission with other agents don’t turn into requests for representation, she’s still one of my top choices when I start querying my current WIP. She has exquisite taste and a knack for knowing the market. Any author would be truly blessed to be represented by her.

When I asked Mollie to write a guest post for our What Women Write blog, she graciously agreed. Here’s what she hopes to feel when she reads your submission:

There’s a moment all agents live for. It’s the thrill that keeps us going. It’s the high we’re addicted to. It’s the feeling when you pick up a manuscript, intending to read just a few pages, and find that you can’t put it down. When you neglect all the emails about contracts and covers and electronic rights that are flooding your inbox, set aside the editing job you were supposed to do that day, and immerse yourself in something great. It’s the feeling of being the first to discover a great new writer. I first felt it years ago when I was scouting and I’ve been seeking it out ever since.

I know I’m going to take a new novel on when no matter what published book or magazine I’m reading, I happily set it aside for the manuscript on my Kindle. Or when I find myself playing hooky from work because I’ve just got to find out where the plot leads. This all encompassing event doesn’t strike all that often, but when it does, it makes my day. And lately I’ve been lucky enough to feel it several times.

The first time was last August, when after putting it off for an entire week spent reading up in Cape Cod because it looked so daunting, I finally picked up the 800-page manuscript I’d dragged all the way up there with me on the final day of vacation and discovered a brilliant fiction debut. I’d asked to see it because I liked The Negotiator, a screenplay the author had written several years back, but it was so long and had such a bold premise that I thought the odds of his pulling it off were slim. I was wrong, and shortly thereafter I found myself sweeping everything else off my desk to edit that 800-page puppy, with its tale of magic and love and Irish sass down to 600, and sell RIGHT OF PASSAGE to one of my favorite editors, Chuck Adams at Algonquin.

The next time it happened was when I picked up the first book in the STARCROSSED series by Josephine Angelini. With that one, I got a text message from a manager friend in LA at 10 p.m. one Thursday night that said “are you into supernatural YA?”

“Twist my arm,” I wrote back, and she emailed me the manuscript right away. I was crazed with work that week, so I told her I’d read it over the weekend, then proceeded to read a few pages—and stayed home the whole next day to finish it. Laura Arnold at Harper preempted it a few weeks later.

The last time was when I read Jen Miller’s EXTREMOPHILE a few weeks back. That time was even cooler because I’d read an earlier draft last summer and it was good, but hadn’t quite gelled yet, and I’d given her a bunch of notes. When I picked up the revision, I was skeptical because it usually takes writers a bunch of tries to really crack something open and make it work, and I expected to slog through another super rough draft. But lo and behold, something had clicked this time ’round, and everything else fell by the wayside as I read. We revised one more time, then sold it a few weeks back to Jenna Johnson at Houghton Mifflin/Harcourt, who loved it just as much.

It doesn’t happen very often, but as an agent there’s no better feeling than falling in love with a book. It’s the reason we stick it out in an industry constricting by the second, and the reason we won’t ever stop taking on fiction, even though it’s sometimes harder to sell than nonfiction. And it’s the feeling I hope for every time I open a new submission.

Mollie Glick is an agent at Foundry Literary + Media. She represents literary fiction, young adult fiction, narrative nonfiction and memoir. She can be reached via email at

If you send Mollie a query, let us know if she asks to read your work. And be sure to mention you read about her here!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Malaak Compton-Rock and Her New Book

By Susan Poulos

If It Takes a Village, Build One! by Malaak Compton-Rock

In the course of my work with Touch A Life Foundation, I got to know Malaak Compton-Rock, noted philanthropist and wife of comedian Chris Rock. She just released her first book, If It Takes a Village, Build One: How I Found Meaning Through a Life of Service and 100+ Ways That You Can Too (Broadway Books, New York, 2010).

In January, Malaak traveled with me and the Touch A Life staff to Ghana, West Africa, to see modern-day slavery on the waters of Lake Volta, where children are trafficked into the fishing industry to work 16-hour days for a master. We returned in March with representatives from her organization, Journey For Change, where we were able to introduce teenagers from New York to former child slaves in Touch A Life's programs. We also were part of negotiating the release of two children who are now in the care of Touch A Life in Kete Krachi, Ghana.

Malaak has devoted her career to helping others, and in her new book, she gives a blueprint to those who ask "I want to help others, but how?" We had a chance to talk this week about her new book, and she gave great practical advice on publishing in the non-fiction world. Here is our conversation!

SP: Tell us a little about what brought you to the point of writing If It Takes a Village, Build One, and your background in service work.

MCR: I have been in the non-profit field now for about 15 years. Because people have seen me speak publicly about certain issues, NGOs, and my belief that we can all serve, I receive lots and lots of emails, phone calls, and letters from people asking me how they can make a difference. It has been a powerful blessing to my life to hear from people nationwide and to be a part of such an important discussion.

SP: What prompted you to write If It Takes a Village?

MCR: While I was a co-judge on “Oprah’s Big Give” a few years ago, people started to stop me in the street to tell me they wanted to give back but did not know how. It was during this time that I knew the book was relevant and that it would have an audience if I took a leap of faith and wrote it.

SP: What are your thoughts on social responsibility that you want to pass on to your generation, and to the next one?

MCR: The title of my book is based on the prolific African proverb “It Takes a Village.” I would love the next generation to live by this simple but necessary ideal – to reclaim it and do a better job than we are doing now. We are all a part of the same collective village, and we have to take care of each other. I truly believe that I have a responsibility to my own children, to your children, and to the world’s children. We cannot be bound by geographic lines when it comes to caring for our fellow human beings and feeling a responsibility toward each other.

SP: For our writers out there, tell us a little about your process for securing an agent and publisher.

MCR: Well, I was very lucky and I profoundly realize it. Unlike most first-time authors, I was able to approach my existing agent who handles TV opportunities for me and ask for an introduction to the literary division. This happens to be a large agency with a phenomenal clientele of talented and successful authors. After meeting with an agent about my idea, I was asked to write a book proposal, which I did. Once they agreed to represent me, my new agent advised me to revise it until it really spoke to what I wanted to eventually write about. Next, my agent called a multitude of publishing houses with the idea. I ended up meeting face to face with three of them. It is actually quite intimidating -- at least to me! With each house, there were three to four people present in the meeting. I had to verbally express my idea, tell them who I was writing it for, how I would write it, how I would organize it, and eventually how I thought I could promote it. We ended up going with Broadway, a division of Random House because they were the ones who truly understood my voice and what I wanted to convey. I must add that because I have lots of friends and colleagues who are talented aspiring authors, I do know that my process is not the norm in terms of securing the agent. I am thankful and blessed.

SP: Your service work has brought you the opportunity to travel the world creating service projects. What has been the most fulfilling aspect of this?

MCR: Without a doubt, the most fulfilling aspect has been the opportunity to meet and learn from the mothers of the world, the caretakers of this earth. I have been filled up beyond belief by the female nurturers whom I have met from New Orleans, LA; to Brooklyn, NY; to Johannesburg, South Africa; to Kete Krachi, Ghana; to Nairobi, Kenya; to Newark, NJ; and even in my hometown of Alpine, NJ. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Women lift up half the sky” and I have been able to meet and learn from many of them.

SP: How did your celebrity status effect your decisions to write a book about service work?

MCR: Being married to a major celebrity is a mixed blessing in terms of my service work. It is a blessing because it has helped in terms of garnering much-needed attention to my programs and the programs of others. This, of course, helps with fundraising and awareness about critical issues. On the other hand, sometimes people cannot imagine that I am a “grass-roots, in-the-field” kind of girl. They cannot imagine that I do so much more than writing a check and that being in the field and connecting with those I serve is what fills me up. Hence, I actually hesitated at first when I thought about writing the book because I did not want people to think that this was a book from some privileged person who does not actually do the work.

SP: Did you struggle with the editing and partnerships that came with writing a non-fiction book? How did you deal with those obstacles?

MCR: I really struggled with editing. It was so important for me to include information about all of the issues that negatively affect women and children worldwide. I wanted people to understand that my work is driven by the U.N.’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. So I wanted to bring attention to all of the ideals that children are denied each day, like the right to an education, the right to proper nutrition, the right to play, the right to not work, the right to not be enslaved, the right to love and protection, the right to proper housing, and so forth. I then wanted the readers to know how they could help if they connected to a particular issue. Unfortunately, my editor felt that I could not include everything that I wanted and this was really difficult for me. Additionally, I wanted to include information on even more NGOs that I did, but it was not possible. I dealt with this by fighting for the things that were most important to me and relenting on those that were not. I also came to realize that several of my editor’s decisions did make sense and were for the best. However, it is so important that you stand your ground for those things that are truly authentic to who you are and how your want the book to be perceived by the readers.

SP: Was writing the book a bigger challenge than you at first envisioned? What advice do you have to other would-be authors about taking on a non-fiction project?

MCR: Yes, it was. For me the most difficult thing was budgeting my time to ensure that I completed the book on schedule. I did not. Once I missed my first deadline, I had to really structure my day around writing and not deviate from the schedule that I set for myself. I also had a deadline that was right after Christmas. As a mom of small kids, I wish I would have known that I did not want to be locked in a room around Thanksgiving and Christmas, instead of being fully engaged with my kids. I still regret the time I spent away from them each day leading up to these major holidays, which we cherish as a family and go all out to celebrate. I also struggled with the balance of writing about my life in service and the nitty gritty “how-to” part of the book, which teaches the reader how they too can give back.

SP: Tell us about the role you have taken in promoting the book yourself (social media, etc). How important do you think social media is in promoting a new release?

MCR: Well…let me just say that the authors who told me that you would have to be fully engaged in promoting your own book did not lie! Unless you are super, super famous or an established best-selling author, you have to get out there and be your own advocate. I think, across the board, publishers do not allocate a lot of time or resources to press and promotions. If you did not know better, you would take it personally, but this was told to me so many times, thankfully I did not. You also have to be fully engaged with the PR person assigned to you at the publisher and hope that this person has a passion for your product. So to answer your question, I had a lot to do with the press that I received. I really reached back to the past publicist in me and went for it! I called on all of my old contacts and also took advantage of every opportunity, no matter how big or small. As an avid reader, I know that long-term success is based on word-of-mouth. And so if one person is talking about the book and spreading the word, I am grateful and happy. For me social media was and continues to be a key element. I am still taking advantage of opportunities presented to me, like this one, and seeking others. One thing we did early on, and it was my publisher’s idea, was to film videos on key points and ideals in the book. I think that they came out great and they were able to share them with their online retailers and I was able to post them to You Tube, twitter and Facebook. My twitter followers and Facebook friends have been great as well. They helped me to get the word out by retweeting and posting information on the book to their profiles. Truth be told though, I still have more to do and more to learn! Social media grows at such a rate that I sometimes feel that I can’t keep up! Next for me is to target all of the “mommy blogs”!

SP: What's next for you? Are you planning a follow-up book?

Well, I am looking forward to just focusing on my family. The process of writing, editing and promoting a book is really time consuming. And though I have enjoyed many aspects of it, I want to be home and fully engaged. In terms of service work, we are in the planning stages of Journey for Change 2, where we will take another 30 at-risk youth from Brooklyn and 30 college-aged mentors to Johannesburg, South Africa, for two weeks of volunteer work on August 18. This is followed by a year of service, advocacy and education activities in the U.S. Now, if I were to write another book, it would be something to do with mothers and how we really “lift up the sky,” as the Chinese proverb says. I do not know what it is yet as I do not have it shaped in my mind. However, I do know that we can never talk enough about a mother’s worth.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

But she would never do that . . .

By Julie

Many writers and writing instructors say, "Have your character do something out of character. Something that totally surprises."

I have to agree and disagree.

Have you ever read a novel where a character did something so diametrically opposed to your perception of her based on the author's development that you simply couldn't wrap your mind around it? Were you able to suspend disbelief up to that point, but after that, you read the rest of the story with one eyebrow cocked and a great big "Whatever!" at the end?

It hasn't happened to me often, but a few times, I just couldn't get on board. It also prevented me from digging into another novel by that author quite so eagerly.

Yes, allowing your character to venture out of her comfort zone can be an excellent way to really get your story moving, to create an additional layer of conflict and suspense. If your character digs herself into a wacky hole, then proceeds to find a way out again that seems reasonable, or your reader is – at the very least! – left with the sense there's hope she can prevail, your reader can live with it.

If your character, however, does something so foolish or contrary to her personality there's just no way to set her right again, your reader might just throw her and your book across the room and leave them both in the corner to grow icky cobwebs.

I propose a real-life approach to dealing with unusual character behavior: Give your characters a waiting period, a so-to-speak "cooling off period" when they want to do something out of character.

As each of my fairly calm, well-behaved, and relatively conservative children has approached young adulthood, he or she has challenged me in ways I wasn't completely prepared for. I've found that children, like the characters in my stories, sometimes need waiting periods when they want to do something outside the box.

My son wanted a tattoo as soon as the mainstream craze for them began six or seven years ago. I told him he could wait until he was 18 and had the money to do it himself. I refused to give permission for something that was more or less permanent and might not represent who he was as a person by the time he really figured that out.

See, if I'd given him permission to go for it at age 16, he'd have guns tattooed on his biceps.

Yes, readers. Guns.

He was convinced he'd think they were as amazing 30 years from now as he did at age 16. I could see the humor in it – his biceps were pretty scrawny, and he thought the guns would lend them an air of authority.

Three years later, he had a tasteful quote tattooed in an unending circle on his forearm – ". . . and I can no longer tell where you end and I begin . . ."

And I suspect 30 years from now, that will still be true for him, whereas he might be hiding guns on his biceps with duct tape. Though, I don't know, they might make interesting nursing home conversation as all the old folks compare the idiotic tattoos they got in their youth.

(By the way, I'm seriously praying I don't see any puckered, sagging, and stretched-out tramp stamps when I'm in my wheelchair. "NO! I do NOT want to see what you did to your rear end when you were 18! GET IT AWAY!)

So, child one was safely raised and tastefully tattooed.

Then my daughter decided a few months before her 16th birthday she couldn't live without a tiny stud in her nostril. In Texas, a parent of a child under 18 must be present for such a piercing. I wasn't quite as opposed to this scenario as the tattoo. I figured a tiny hole in the nose would heal over rather quickly if she changed her mind down the road.

However, I still gave her a waiting period. I said, "In 90 days, if you still want to do this, we'll talk about it again." Well, 90 days came and went, she asked my permission, and I gave it. Then she decided the forty dollars she'd saved for the piercing was better spent on something else she wanted more. I wasn't disappointed, but suspected it wasn't the last time I'd hear about it.

Sure enough, a few months later she came to me again. She had the money and wanted to do it. I fulfilled my end of the bargain, dutifully accompanying her to a surprisingly decent piercing and tattoo parlor near our house. (It used to be the florist where my son purchased all his prom and homecoming corsages – talk about a weird feeling walking in there.)

By the way, I have one bit of free advice if your daughter wants to get her nose pierced: DO NOT WATCH. I promise.

But, she's got the little sparkly stud and it doesn't look half bad. Her friends all think she has a super cool mother. And I'm still lightheaded.

I can't wait to see what child number three has in store for me!

And there's a moral to this story:

DO surprise your reader. DO allow your characters to get themselves into frequent and glorious messes.

But if they come begging to do something you know they'd never do, give them a cooling off period. If, after you've distracted yourself for a while with some other aspect of your writing, they're still clamoring to do that ridiculously foolish thing, and you have a reasonable idea how you can rescue them to your reader's satisfaction, go for it!

If you can't think of anything but your character down that well, beaming her pretty little messed-up face back up at you, still begging you to rescue her, just say no.

Your readers will thank you.

Photo credit: pfaft's Flickr photostream by Creative Commons license

Monday, May 3, 2010

That's so, like last week, you know?

by Pamela

When you look at my senior picture, it’s pretty evident I went to high school in the ’80s. From the feathered hair and Fair Isle sweater to my Bonnie Bell super-glossed lips and unhealthy summer tan, I was a product of my times. Ask me to name the six Brady siblings and you can tell by how quickly I rattle them off which era I grew up in. Better yet, ask me who I wanted to be: Marcia, Jan or Cindy? and you get an insight into my personality as well. Sure the younger set may have watched them on Nickelodeon, but unless you watched them in real-time, you didn’t really get them.

Many things date us—our speech, mannerisms, hair styles, clothing, texting abilities. And nothing screams ‘poser’ louder than people who buck their generational-isms by trying to be something they’re not. You’ve seen That Mom who attempts to dress like her teenage daughter? Really…who’s buying that? Or The Dad who laces his speech with slang he’s not mastered?

When you write a great story that takes place in current day, it’s imperative to remain true to characters and setting. But unless you have a commitment from your editor or publisher to ‘crash’ your title (think Sarah Palin’s memoir—fast, right?), it’s likely that the story you complete today will hit the shelves no earlier than 18 months from now. And that’s if you already have a publisher ready to buy it.

So you have to avoid references to products and trends that will date your story in a way that feels stale once it’s in the readers' hands. And it’s not just dress and speech that are unique to specific time periods. Think about the last time you watched a movie that was more than ten years old and saw a guy pull out a mobile phone as big as his forearm. Technology becomes outdated practically overnight.

Joan and I co-wrote a story about two sisters who enter into an improbable bet. We spent close to 18 months on it—writing, editing, rewriting—before declaring it ready to query. On our last read-thru, we found several references that we took out, fearing they dated the story, such as having a Chris Brown song playing at a bar. Pop culture is another dicey territory. Think if you’d written that your character was a female version of Tiger Woods. Six months ago that would have meant something totally different than today!

In my current manuscript, one character is a 17-year-old boy named Seth. I live with two teenage boys so I know how they talk. My sons’ conversations are littered with slang and phrases such as ‘janky’ and ‘get some’ and ‘freakin’ but next week they’ll be on to something else. So while writing Seth’s dialog, I have to avoid trendy speech that will date the story. Instead I pay attention to how he talks—the delivery of his words, his posture, his attitude—and keep the current jargon at bay.

There are times when using dated references is helpful. The other day I was watching Medium and a scene from Allison’s dream showed a man in his office. As he listened to the radio, a comment was made about President Reagan. The director could have flashed a date across the bottom of the screen, but that one small reference gave the viewer a window of time (1981-’89) in which the scene had to have taken place.

Twenty years ago I might have been embarrassed to reveal how I looked at the age of 18. Now I just don’t care; everyone looked like me in the ‘80s. But twenty years from now, I’d like people to pick up a copy of something I’ve written and still find it relevant. Otherwise I'm just so freakin' janky, right?
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