Friday, January 31, 2014

Amy Tan

By Susan

"What you write is a container for everything you love and hate and fear and desire." ~ Amy Tan

There are books that come along at a developmental time in your life and change your trajectory.
In 1989 I read Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, and it was one of those books.
At that point in my life, I'd only traveled to a handful of states in the US South, with a few other random trips thrown in: NYC, Montana, a jaunt to the Midwest—but I'd never been to California, and I'd never known women of Chinese immigrant families like June, Rose, Waverly, and Lena.
What I did know was mother-daughter conflict.  I was eighteen when I read Joy Luck for the first time, and my mother and I were at constant odds.  So as much as Amy Tan's debut novel transported me to a different place, introduced me to a different culture, and opened my eyes to a bigger world, it also brought all of those things closer to home, and gave a universal perspective on a problem I thought was mine, and mine alone.

"I know exactly who I am, and I know nothing of who I am. That's why I write. " 

After reading this book, I started writing short stories and playing with fiction. I'd only written news articles up to that point, I saw myself as a serious journalist (or at least I had the hopes to one day—possibly—be a serious journalist.) Writing stories and poetry carried me through my college days as a secret pleasure. I saw news stories as truth—but how could I play with the concept of truth in fiction? I liked that idea. I liked it a lot.

"This career enables me to think deeply and to feel deeply, and you—the reader—enable me that life."

Twenty-five years later, I've grown quite a bit from the wide-eyed teenager mesmerized by The Joy Luck Club, and Tuesday night, Joan and I had the opportunity to meet Amy Tan in Dallas to hear about her new book, The Valley of Amazement. She's smart, gracious, engaging, and authentic about her writing and research processes for this book, and sprinkled her talk with lots of great nuggets of information on creativity, how she researches, and the eight years she spent writing this latest novel.

"The path of distractions leads serendipitously to your novel." 

There is an inspiration that comes with meeting novelists that I admire. Amy Tan was no different. Listening to a gifted writer explain why she writes, what she writes, and how she researches a novel gives me hope as I continue down my own path.

*all quotes taken from Amy Tan's presentation on January 28, 2014 in Dallas, TX.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Show Me a Story

By Pamela

Early and often I've heard the advice: 'Show, don't tell' when it comes to writing a compelling narrative. While it sounds simple enough, you might find it far easier to tell, not show. Let me share some examples I've culled from novels where writers showed us their story. (I've rewritten them as 'telling' statements first to illustrate the difference.)

Tell: My grandmother was a very shrewd business woman.

Show: In the late nineties, an insurance conglomerate made an offer for my grandparents' company. It was, according to everyone, a fair offer, so my grandmother asked them to double it. (City of Thieves by David Benioff)

Tell: She was having a panic attack.

Show: She sat down on the floor and leaned against the cool wall, watching her hands shake in her lap as if they couldn't be hers. She tried to focus on steadying her breath as she did when she ran. (Still Alice by Lisa Genova)

Tell: I was not popular in high school.

Show: I'm the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom, but never going--even though in the late sixties only nerds went to proms. But I would have gone ... I wanted the phone call with the rough voice asking "Would you ...?" (Never Change by Elizabeth Berg)

Tell: She felt unexpectedly awkward in the opulent hotel. 

Show: She hadn't expected the tall columns that rose to a ceiling she couldn't see clearly without squinting, or the rose carpet through those columns that was long enough for a coronation. The doorman wordlessly gave her suitcase--inadequate in this grandeur--to a bellman, as if handing off a secret. (The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve) 

Tell: Like her, I was very sad.

Show: My mind, caught in the rush of her grief, tunneled away. It was as though a veil had been torn back, and I'd left this place of sorrow to enter a deeper one; one that held the other me which had been lost until this day. (The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom)

Tell: Each morning, Henry opened the pharmacy.

Show: Each morning, Henry parked in the back by the large metal bins, and then entered the pharmacy's back door, and went about switching on the lights, turning up the thermostat, or, if it was summer, getting the fans going. (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout)

Tell: She believed in home remedies.

Show: She made them eat raw garlic to protect against colds and heart disease, rub pennyroyal on their skin to keep the mosquitoes away, drink a tea of boiled jack-in-the-pulpit when they had a cough. (Torch by Cheryl Strayed)

Tell: I was embarrassed to buy crossword puzzles.

Show: I carried them low, against my hip, as if I were toting a giant-size box of feminine products to the lone male checker in a grocery store. (Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler)

Showing your story (as opposed to telling it) accomplishes several objectives. Not only does it help the reader connect to your story, but it also gives you an opportunity to establish the tone and show us the setting. Is it cold outside? Or does the milk in the barn freeze before it hits the bucket? Is the house old and rickety? Or does the roof cry in the night against the wind while the windows shimmy in their frames?

Showing also gives your characters a chance to develop as unique individuals. Does Nancy hate going to the dentist? Or does Nancy drink a vodka tonic to calm her nerves beforehand? Is Bill afraid of getting robbed? Or does Bill carry a six-inch blade in his jacket pocket and keep a loaded handgun strapped under the counter of his store? Showing also assists you in creating voice, establishing tension, determining pace and executing a host of literary devices at your disposal.

Take a look at your work-in-progress and pull out a sentence (or two) that seems to tell-not-show and rework it. One clue for finding a sentence is to look for passive verbs. If you discover a lot of was, is, am, are, were, have, has, etc., you can probably make that sentence stronger and more compelling by changing the verb and its surrounding support system.

If you need some practice, try reworking these 'telling sentences' into show-offs:

  • He never brushed his teeth.
  • She loved going to the movies.
  • He couldn't find the diner.
  • She had money problems.
  • They had a nice house.
  • We need a vacation.
  • He was losing his mind.
  • She was very nice.

If ten people were to rewrite the above sentences, the results would likely be vastly different. That's because you and I have different ideas about what money problems are (She can't buy food or she can't qualify for a mortgage?) or why someone might need a vacation (They haven't had one in five years or they recently lost their job and wanted to get away?). Don't let your reader misinterpret what you want them to see OR give them a reason to set your book aside. Engage them in your story. Show them a good story, don't tell it to them.

Monday, January 27, 2014

There Are No Boys

by Elizabeth

My daughter has officially been a teenager for several months now, and one big difference in her life is that there are no boys. Since beginning junior high school, boys do not exist. Sure, there are males, I'm definitely not suggesting they do not people her world, but they are not boys. They are guys.

I remember talking about "cute guys" and "nice guys" and all sorts of guys when I was a teenager, too. It seems the day the calendar adds "teen" to one's age, the word "boy" is simultaneously eradicated from one's vocabulary. Not even grade school males seem to merit the now defunct-term; instead they are simply little guys. I guess my husband is probably an old guy. I don't even know what she might call her grandfathers.

As writers, we know language matters, and thinking about all the guys my daughter might mention reminds me that to be authentic in writing, we must be authentic with our words. One of her friends has yet to utter a sentence in my presence that does not include the word "dude." If I am writing a scene that includes a 13- or 14-year-old, it might not be necessary to include that, but it's good to know there are girls (can we call them girls?) out there who do indeed speak that way.

Earlier I laid out a sweater to dry flat, and as I did, I noted to myself how very lovely this garment is. It struck me that the word "lovely" is as particular to my age and stage in life as "guy" is to my daughter. I use the word "lovely" out loud and without irony, but twenty years ago it would have been as alien to my tongue as it would be now to refer to my father-in-law as either a boy or a guy.

I do remember the word wicked meaning something very positive, in particular my brother's girlfriend declaring U2's latest hit "wicked" back in in 1983. Wicked was good, bad was still bad (though soon after very good indeed). Back then, geek referred to people who took theater, not the smartest person in the room. And I remember the first time I heard someone ask if I was "jamming." I was briefly offended, thinking she was making fun of me. But no, this was still 1983, and she just wanted to know if I was leaving for the day.

What words do you find define an age, a generation, or a group? If you write, how do you incorporate this into your work? And if you are a reader only, do you notice when writers succeed or fail with this aspect of language? Are there words you recall fondly or otherwise that have meanings that have morphed?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Is There Room for Writing in Your Writing Process?

By Kim

Do you remember those television ads that show a frying egg and announce “this is your brain on drugs?” If they ever made another ad for “this is your brain in perimenopause” I bet the egg would be scrambled.

Over the past year or so, I've found it increasingly hard to focus. I’ll sit down to write and within moments I’ll remember I need to switch the laundry over. I do that and then the dog wants out. Then the dishes need to be put away, the mail checked, the grocery list made. Before I know it, it’s time for lunch.

Often I’d write a sentence, get stuck, and decide to use the pause “wisely” to check e-mail. After that I’d move on to Facebook and Twitter so I wouldn't be tempted to do so later. Hours would slip by. Inspiration generally hit around 2:30 PM, shortly before I had to go pick up the kids.

It may be hormones gone haywire. It may be I've become too programmed to multitask. It may be that I've forgotten how to prioritize.  No matter what, my writing process included little writing.

I got a new laptop right before leaving for this year’s What Women Write retreat and had no chance to load anything on it besides Microsoft Word and my work-in-progress. I chose a writing spot in a lounge chair. Once seated, it was a production to get the computer off of me. Getting up would be a conscious choice rather than an impulse. As a result, if words didn't flow, I stayed put and mulled it over until they did.

I accomplished more in three days than I had in the two months prior.

It was time to face facts. My office, long a source of discontent, is the worst place for me to work. From there I hear the TV, the other computers, the dishwasher, the dryer, the neighbors’ revving motorcycle engine, the doorbell, snoring dogs, and the mail truck. In our overcrowded house, I can’t claim an entire room to myself without causing major disruptions for my family. How about a corner, I thought?  

Photo by Deborah Downes
I often read for hours in the antique Morris chair in my bedroom. Now that the room has been decorated in circa 1910 fashion, it’s a welcoming place for a historical fiction writer, especially with the addition of some bookshelves to hold my oldest volumes. I headed there with my laptop one day, just to see what would happen.  

Words happened. Lots of words. Good words. The same has happened every day since.

As a test, I write this post at my desktop in my old office. I've checked my e-mail three times, Facebook once, answered the phone, and let the dogs out. It has taken me well over an hour to write 400 words, and that’s on a post where I know exactly what I want to say. It’s all I can do not to get up and get a snack right now before finishing the final few sentences.

If you are a writer who spends your day seemingly doing everything except writing, it could be your process is broken. Here are some hints that have helped some of us stay focused.

1) Don’t work at your desk. Susan heads to the library or Starbucks. Joan mixes it up between a desk, recliner and kitchen table. Pamela used to write from her office until her new puppy needed supervision; now she works from the kitchen table on her laptop. Julie works through the night on her sofa, surrounded by dogs and crumbs. Elizabeth, after years of convincing herself she can't compose on the computer, learned she is very productive there indeed. I have my Morris chair and also enjoy sitting under a special tree at a local cemetery.

2) Make coffee/snacks ahead of time and keep them within reach.

3) Set a word count goal you must reach before you can get up for any reason.

4) If you can swing it, have a special computer designated just for writing. Don’t set up e-mail or log into social media sites on that machine. Better yet, don’t connect to Wi-Fi. This has done wonders for me!

5) Keep your cell phone in a different room.

6) Pay attention to all your senses. If you’re sensitive to noise, wear noise cancelling headphones. Try aromatherapy candles. Avoid itchy fabrics or take off your bra, for heaven's sake!

7) Schedule a block of writing time, even if it is an hour, and say no to anything that might impede on that time.

Do you have more suggestions for our readers? We’d love to hear from you! Feel free to share your strategies below.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Really Big Story

"Now that's a big book!"
Image captured from Bart King's blog
It's a thousand pages, give or take a few
I'll be writing more in a week or two
I can make it longer if you like the style
I can change it round and I want to be a paperback writer

~ From "Paperback Writer," Lennon-McCartney

I'm fresh off the first two weeks after the paperback of my novel Calling Me Home released. It's been fun and stressful—two bookstore signings that went really well (yay!), awesome sales in the first two weeks of the Target Club Pick feature, meetings with several book clubs, a wonderful weekend hanging out with readers and other authors at the Pulpwood Queens' 2014 Annual Girlfriend Weekend.

And now I have just a couple of days of relative peace to get back into my groove again before the pace picks up again with in-person book club meetings, Skype talks, and … just LIFE. Life goes on whether we are ready or not!

I'm really settling into my brand new shiny manuscript. I actually LOVE it! The idea, the characters, the settings, the conflicts. They feel like ME, which is more than I can say for many of the ideas I've been batting around and playing with for the last few years. I made the commitment to myself and my wonderful agent to not just write the next story for the sake of writing the next story. I was so passionate about Calling Me Home, we both knew I needed to feel that again. I think I might be there with this one. The longer I work on it, the more excited I get. I think that's a good sign. So I'm attempting to put together a book proposal to present to my publisher with what I've already done.

And I'm thinking things through again. Not to beat a dead horse, but each new book, each new story, is a learning process.

One thing I'm remembering, and thus, the reference to the good old Beatles song, is that I want to write a BIG story.

For me, "big story" has nothing to do with the number of pages, or honestly, with the format. For all I know, my next novel could be trade paperback original instead of hardcover—and I'm completely okay with that. I am not a hardcover diehard. (I've also seen what can happen with a trade paperback original book that could easily have been published in hardcover—think Kristina Baker Kline's Orphan Train—it's blazing an amazing trail!).

But what I'm thinking about is writing a book that could be published in hardcover first, mostly because it seems like it just OUGHT to be. Does that make sense?

I want to write a story that is big enough, no matter how it's published.

What makes a story big?

I have my own ideas. But instead of telling you what I think, I went to my handy dandy Facebook page to see what readers and other writers thought. Here are some of the responses. Things to ponder as we write our books or decide what to read.

One that has true enough characters with lives that engross and end up leaving the readers wanting more.
~ Brenda H.

An epic sized story that somehow catches fire with the buzz of what's going on at the moment in popular culture.
~ Book Promoter Pamela Mason

It has to stay with me, down in my gut. The characters and story have to leave me changed in some way.
~ Author Barbara Davis (The Secrets She Carried)

Unexpected ending. Good and bad. We read a book, then if we think it could be big, we make another read it. Locally loved translates to big for me. It grows and grows. But if you can imagine it as a great movie, then it's big to me.
~ Michelle B. C.

I think big tends to be a sweeping story, covering time, history perhaps.
~ Anita LeBeau (book blogger extraordinaire)

A book involving several generations of family/families.
~ Elizabeth B.

One that connects to all my emotions, laugh ,cry page turner, one you talk to, say don't open that door, with words that can visually bring you there.
~ Terry T.

I love feeling drawn in to the story with all senses and emotions.
~ Gayle M. C.

A big sweeping saga with a lot of characters and some kind of quest or "bigger than us" thing to conquer. An epic story. Or, alternatively, a story that changes you on some deep level. For me it was To Kill a Mockingbird.
~ Gail C.

High stakes. A wrong that must be righted. Winning against all odds. David and Goliath.
~ Author Lynne Gentry (Healer of Carthage)

A book is "big" when you read it and want more! Either on a new topic or you want more from the characters in that book. A book is also "big" when it has a positive social aspect, like The Help.
~ Katie W. S.

For me, the word "big" congers up a literal meaning … So literally, a "big" book would be a tome, an atlas or something of that sort. I would describe a considerably important book not as "big", but perhaps as meaningful, epic, momentous or significant.
~ Laura W.

It makes an impact on the readers. And, when they're finished reading they sit back and go, "Wow. What a ride!" and then they recommend it to their best friends.
~ Angie K.

To turn a personal experience into a universal experience.
~ Author Ann Brown (Free Me)

I don't think of "big" meaning "saga" or "sweeping" or even a complicated story. I think of it as a book that can be described in a sentence or two that makes someone go "oh. . . my. . . God."
~ Author Diane Chamberlain (Necessary Lies)

I think it's a book that you read & remember, that you recommend to friends, that you will "reread" again and that you look forward to the next book by that author as soon as you finish this one. And if you border on "stalking" the author by going to a book signing, you may just have a "big book"!
~ Cindy C. J. (Of course, I advised Cindy to stalk as many authors as possible in this way—by attending book signings!)

What about you? What do you think makes a "big" book/story? Please join the discussion in the comments!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Don't ask, don't get

By Joan

When I first wake, I slap on my glasses, pick up my phone from my nightstand and scroll through emails. I’ve got my eye open for agent emails from still-outstanding manuscripts – even though everyone knows emails are for rejection and phone calls are for offers of representation. Like many writers, I’m on mailing lists for publishing industry newsletters and literary magazines' calls for submissions and contests, such as Publisher’s Weekly, Writers’ Digest, The Bookseller (in case one day I want a London publishing job!), Ploughshares, Glimmer Train and Granta.

If I’m in recluse writer mode, I often delete these – write first, read about writing later! But Wednesday morning I was scrolling through my email and noticed a Ploughshares email which read:

Ploughshares Lit Mag (@pshares) mentioned you on Twitter!

I opened it up to see that Ploughshares had published my essay online in their Writing Lessons feature. I scrambled out of bed and went to tell my husband. Before I had a sip of coffee, I read and reread my essay, paced and jumped and screamed. Before re-Tweeting and Facebooking it (are these verbs yet?), I wisely waited for caffeine.

At our last retreat, Pamela and I made a pact to submit something every month of 2014--to a contest or literary journal or writing program, and when our current manuscripts are ready, to literary agents. We both started early by submitting in December. Pamela was rewarded right away with a lovely essay she wrote about her Mom, published in the New York Times Magazine

Writing a novel is a long process with few rewards along the way. This week Susan shared some tips on setting writing goals. She wrote: “Not only does submitting your work keep you focused, it keeps you writing.”

So far in January, I’ve submitted a novel excerpt and the first two pages of my WIP for an online agent workshop. In February, I will submit a short story to another literary magazine and will likely apply for one or two summer workshops, as well as enter some contests in the spring. By year end, I hope to be submitting my new manuscript. Getting rewarded right away was definitely motivation to continue. Don’t ask don’t get, or in this case, don’t submit, don’t publish.

I’ll leave you with an inspiring clip posted on The Australian Writers' Centre's Writing Bar blog from Neil Gaiman, a true advocate for aspiring writers. 

In the clip he says:

“If you’re only going to write when you’re inspired, you may be a fairly decent poet, but you will never be a novelist.”


“... as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.” 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Writing Goals for 2014

By Susan

It's January!
Have you made your list of writing resolutions for 2014? Here's a simple formula that will help keep your writing on track this year.

1) Learn
One of the best things you can do as a writer is to learn everything you can about what you are writing. Whether this means researching for your novel with travel, attending conferences and workshops that focus on craft, or taking creative writing or poetry classes through your local community college, make learning about writing one of your top goals for the year. Find things that interest you, and set measurable learning goals for 2014.

2) Read
So you want to write short stories? The best way to write a better story is to read one. Go back to the classics and read all of the short stories you only pretended to read in high school and college. (Hemingway, O'Connor, Chekov, and Welty are good places to start.) Are you more interested in modern stories? The Best American Short Stories of 2013 just came out, edited by Elizabeth Strout.

If you are interested in novels, or poetry, or creative non-fiction, remember that libraries, bookstores and the Internet are full of books just waiting for you. Read what you love, and write what you love. I plan to read at least sixty books this year. What about you?

3) Submit
Poets & Writers Magazine has an incredible database of upcoming contests, grants, and literary journals open to submission.  Set a goal for yourself to submit something each month of the year. There are contests, grants, and small presses, all available for you, if you look. Beyond that, agents and editors are on the lookout for great novels. Not only does submitting your work keep you focused, it keeps you writing. Which brings me to the most important writing goal…

Write as often as you can, and finish what's worth finishing, whether that means completing the tenth edit of a poem, the fifth rewriting of a short story, or the third complete draft of a novel. Write what you love and complete it.

Here's to a great 2014!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


by Elizabeth

How is it that after the holidays, when you are ready and raring to get back to a normal schedule, it always takes longer than you thought? Sure, Christmas came and went, but then family came in from out of town, and then New Year's hit, and then you'd think it would be back to normal, but the kids were still out of school and gnawing at the furniture with boredom. Finally they trudged like schoolboys reluctantly to school, and my days were again my own! I managed spend several in a row working on my manuscript, which was great, and then I came to a good stopping spot, and between dreading the next step and my non-writing life once again pouting for attention, another breather ensued.

But things are once again "back to normal" and I have no excuse, so the knitting must begin.

This is the work I've alternately anticipated and feared since our retreat in early December. That weekend I went through the hard copy of my entire manuscript, writing notes in pink ink, pasting on further notes with yellow post-its, and in the lull between Christmas and New Year's, I incorporated much of that into my computer draft. What I didn't bother with was the reordering, moving this chapter further forward or back, and also finding the proper home for many chapters that were just tacked onto the end of the manuscript during composition.

I guess this is one of the perils of learning to compose on a keyboard. With my two earlier completed manuscripts, virtually every word was first written by hand in a spiral notebook, and the ordering of the chapters took place as I transcribed. This time, a good half or more was written right where I sit right now, and I just added new words to the bottom even if I wasn't certain where they belonged. Today, I finally begin to pay the piper and, as I've explained to my husband, my mother, my kids, random strangers in the return line at Target, I don't know if this will take me eight hours or eighty or eight hundred. Initially, even as I joked I believed it would likely be somewhere between the first two options. After settling in for the first couple of chapters already this morning, I begin to fear it will be somewhere between the second and third.

No matter. This knitting, at the end of which I will have a solid third draft, and hopefully penultimate to the draft I send to the first set of Beta readers, has to be done. If I must spend the next month tackling it, then that's what I will do. I've suffered disquietude over this, but now that I've begun, I realize it's just another form of editing, and editing is in fact one of my favorite parts of this process, the part I truly enjoy the most.

Which is really lucky, isn't it? Because as hard as it is, putting the words down on the paper the first time is, for me, the easiest and shortest part of the job. It's the refining, the polishing, the knitting and the unraveling to find the best possible final product that takes the sweat and the tears.

Look for me for the next while in the land of the wet. 'Cuz that's where I'm going to be, and I couldn't be happier about it.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Lessons from Mr. Letts

By Pamela

I find it easy, as a writer, to get lost in comparison. Is my work as good as this other writer who just got a book deal? Is my story compelling enough or important enough? Does it have enough detail/depth? I get particularly anxious when I read historical fiction and become overwhelmed by the amount of research that obviously took place. (Not to say present-day works don't require research; they certainly do.) And so my work stalls. Why bother completing something that no one will ever read?

I write women's fiction. I draw my characters from people I know or people I believe you might know. And yesterday, in my annual quest to see as many award-nominated movies as possible prior to the Golden Globes and The Academy Awards, I went to see August: Osage County.

The movie's screenplay was written by playwright Tracy Letts, who tells us a story about a family dealing with "drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide, death, family dysfunction, sexual harassment, pedophilia, aging, generational change, racism, incest, infidelity, and ultimately love." What he also hands us is a story that's raw, hilarious, sad, disturbing and emotional. After the credits rolled, my friend Tracy, Joan and I sat in awe at the powerful story and marveled at the brilliant acting by Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale and the rest of the ensemble cast.

What stayed with me was how this wasn't your typical Hollywood movie. No elaborate sound stage or special effects. No chase scenes. No stunt doubles (maybe one or two during the post-funeral dinner fight). Just one family trying to make its way through the chaos that surrounded them. I was so emotionally exhausted afterward, I had to take a nap after I got home!

What I learned from Letts' writing are lessons I've heard before:
  • Push your characters. 
  • Nothing is off-limits. 
  • People seldom react in predictable ways.
  • Everyone wants to be loved and accepted.
  • Laughter among pain is cathartic.
  • The past shapes your characters' actions.
  • Not everyone lives happily-ever-after.
  • Not everyone gets what they deserve.
  • It's perfectly OK to not tie the ending up in a pretty red bow.
As I dive back into my WIP, I'm feeling a sense of liberation. A freedom to let my characters go to places they might not want to visit. A license to fly a bit loose with my conflict and see what happens. Thanks, Mr. Letts, for the reminder of what makes a great story. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Our Best Reads of 2013

By Kim

Are you looking for something great to read? The contributors here at What Women Write have some recommendations for you. Here are our top picks for 2013.


The Pieces We Keep by Kristina McMorris

This is McMorris’ third novel and, I believe, her best so far. It has the elements I loved about her previous books – WWII setting, unconventional love story, gorgeous prose, and a bittersweet conclusion. It would have been simple to stick with a formula that has proven to work in the past. Instead, McMorris challenged herself (and her readers) by taking two seemingly unrelated story lines, one present day and one from WWII, and presenting them in alternating chapters. A careful reader will soon have theories about who is haunting Jack and why, but the puzzle is so cleverly unraveled that I doubt anyone will have all the pieces in place before the end. To see my full review, click here.

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

I devoured this lush novel during every spare moment of my recent vacation, hating to look up and remember I was in Missouri, not on Skye. On several occasions I wondered how Elspeth and Dave could possibly meet, let alone have a happy ending. I read on with bated breath. Every time I thought I had things figured out, I’d find out I was wrong.

This is a beautiful debut, and a must read for all romantics. For my full review, click here.

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

The grace on the Opera stage contrasts sharply with the lives of the dancers backstage, many of whom, like Marie and Antoinette, are from the Paris gutters.The Painted Girls unflinchingly contains all the grit and blood of the Paris slums, though it is far more hopeful a tale than novels like Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. The alternating first person point of view plunks the reader right into Marie’s tattered shoes or Antoinette’s sweat-soaked wash-house clothes. That the narrative is in present tense adds an immediacy to the tale that keeps pages turning. As a mother, my heart alternately ached and swelled for those girls, especially because I have my own “little dancers” – ages eleven and seven. Neither of them will be reading The Painted Girls any time soon, but when they are grown, or at least nearly grown, I will hand them a new copy. My own will probably be as tattered as Marie’s shoes by then. To see my full review, click here.

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

Sometimes when I’m familiar with the subject matter of a novel already, it disappoints. This one amazed! I’d only known “Josephine” as half of a famous couple before, but Webb introduced me to Rose Tascher, who was a force to be reckoned with. Napoleon did not make an appearance until about page 175, and I didn't miss him. Not a bit. He’s not even named when he’s first introduced, and the description of him made me sputter my mocha latte all over myself at Starbucks. I was tempted to read that part aloud to those who stared at me for laughing. See my full review here.

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

A gripping novel filled with sensuality, danger and passion. I read Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven in school, but knew very little about the man other than that he was a bit odd looking. Cullen made me see him through Frances Osgood's eyes and, I admit, I fell a bit in love with him. Mrs. Poe (not Frances) is a remarkable character herself. Victim or villain? I had a hard time coming up for air until I found out.

The Moon Sisters by Therese Walsh

I loved Walsh's The Last Will of Moira Leahy a few years ago and was thrilled to receive an ARC of The Moon Sisters, which will release on March 4th. (It is available for pre-order now.) This gorgeous novel is about two polar opposite sisters who, while grieving their mother's apparent suicide, embark on a magical journey to the setting of her unfinished book. If you are a sister, or have one, you won't want to miss this literary feast for the senses. I will do a full review for my March 7th post.


The Goldfinch-Donna Tartt

Whatever you've heard about Donna Tartt, and whether you've read her other two highly acclaimed novels, The Secret History and The Little Friend, you really must tackle this near 800 page work of genius. I literally walked around the house for ten minutes in a daze with my hand over my mouth after I reached the end. This is simply a stunning and brutal story written with the most gorgeous language and insightful prose I've seen in a long, long time. Released at the end of October, it’s been named at the top of several “best of the year” lists. I would venture to say it’s one of the best novels I've read in the past decade of hard-core reading. This book is a masterpiece.

Madame Bovary-Gustave Flaubert

Of course, this book is the original time-tested masterpiece of fiction, and I’m embarrassed to say that this reading of the classic was my first. I read the Francis Steegmuller translation (although I’ve heard wonderful things about the more modern Lydia Davis translation, and was cautioned by the checker at the bookstore that when reading Bovary, the translation is key.) Flaubert is used as the benchmark for interiority in characterization, for his complete grasp of close third point of view, and for use—albeit in the original French-- of verb tense. I should also note that it was important for me to read How Fiction Works, by James Wood, before reading Madame Bovary (at the advice of a literature professor friend.) More on that book below.

The Tilted World-Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

This novel is another great study in point of view. Husband and wife team Franklin and Fennelly wrote the alternating POVs of Ingersoll and Dixie Clay in this compelling tale of the 1927 Mississippi River Great Flood. Slipping between chapters was a delicious experience in language and exposition, with the gender-specific details shining through. Fennelly, a poet, and Franklin, a novelist, both teach at the University of Mississippi, and collaborated on this piece at the urging of their agents, husband and wife team Nat Sobel and Judith Weber. It is a beautiful story, rich in historic detail, yet is also a touching tale of family and ultimately, of love.

How Fiction Works-James Wood

Don’t allow the size of this book fool you: it is absolutely packed with insight and references in 123 segments. James Wood, the highly regarded literary critic for The New Yorker, also teaches half time at Harvard and is married to author Claire Messud. I've carried How Fiction Works with me for the past six months and still haven’t finished it. With a four page bibliography, reading this was almost like taking a master class is fiction and literature. Wood covers everyone from the Russians to Homer to James Joyce, covering topics like character, consciousness, and sympathy. This little red book was named A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, a Los Angeles Tomes Best Book of the Year, and a Washington Post Best Book of The Year and was published in 2008.
Others with high recommendations that I read this year:

Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert
Let the Great World Spin - Colum McCann
The Woman Upstairs - Claire Messud
The Tenth of December - George Saunders
Guests on Earth - Lee Smith
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin


Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert 

One of the most compelling novels I've read—ever. A brilliant birth-to-death book about a woman botanist in the 19th century. It's a potion of life, determination, philosophy and world culture. Read my full review here.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Anthony Marra

An intense, stunningly written novel set in the backdrop of war-torn Chechnya - so tragic and intense, and darkly funny. Read my review here.

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson 

This novel is a literary conundrum. It starts when Ursula is born to a British family in a 1910 snowstorm and dies that day. She is reborn on the same day in slightly altered circumstances, only to die at age five. And then again. Each alternate life has repercussions for her family and possibly the world. After I finished this one, I did not want to pick up another book for days.

Burial Rites, Hannah Kent

A breathtaking debut set in early nineteenth-century Iceland. A woman imprisoned for the murder of two men is placed with a family to await her hanging. The narrative alternates between diary entries for the accused woman and third-person of those around her. Fans of Sally Gunning’s books will love this one.

The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom

Who wouldn't root for a six-year-old Irish orphan who is raised in a slave kitchen after losing her parents on a ship from Ireland? The characters in this novel are so finely drawn, from the chilling farm manager to the strong-willed daughter of the plantation owner. Their voices are still in my head.

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer

This novel is based on the author’s grandfather, a young Hungarian who gets the chance of a lifetime to study architecture in Paris, only to have it taken away from him when World War II erupts. I read a lot of WWII fiction and this is one of the best.

Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline

A beautifully written novel that balances the gritty realities of orphans in the Depression era to those in present-day. Kline studied and researched orphan trains and has received much praise from those who have lived through this haunting time in our history. Read my full review here.

Sure Signs of Crazy, Karen Harrington

Wow – what engages a reader most? Voice, voice, voice. This book from our friend Karen Harrington had me laughing, crying and rooting for the precocious Sarah Nelson.

Still Writing, Dani Shapiro

So inspiring, true, personal and universal.


2013 was a bizarre year for me in terms of reading. I went through my goodreads account as well as my Amazon purchase history to refresh my memory. What I discovered is most of what I'd read were books I'd already read! I'm in two book clubs and in charge of selecting the books for one at a retirement home and have learned to choose books I've vetted, so I know the content will be well-received. I mistakenly chose one I'd not read beforehand and NO ONE liked it--even though I did, but quickly realized the content was a bit too dark for our membership. 

Therefore, much of the new books I'd hoped to read in 2013 remain unread as of this blog posting. Along with some other goals for the new year, I'm adding: Make a significant dent in my TBR stack! Among those are several titles already listed here by Joan and Susan. 

A few I enjoyed this year include Julie's Calling Me Home, Elizabeth Berg's Tapestry of Fortunes and Dani Shapiro's Still Writing.

My inability to focus for long stretches of time due to my mother's illness and her eventual passing had me doing some light reading which books included Tina Fey's Bossypants, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt by Caroline Preston and Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.    

My sister sent me three books by Lisa Genova and I thoroughly enjoyed Love Anthony, a story about two women whose paths cross at the most opportune times--as one grieves the loss of a child and the other mourns the end of her marriage. Still Alice and Left Neglected are in my TBR stack. Here's to an upcoming Year of Reading!!


A few years ago, I logged every book I read, and it was a smart choice. Why have I not repeated that? This year, I intend to, but for 2013, much of what I read is lost to me. I know I re-read some old favorites including a couple of Jane Austen's novels, some Maeve Binchy, Anne Tyler. I also added Binchy's last (A Week in Winter) and Tyler's latest (The Beginner's Goodbye), and refreshed my enthusiasm for both of them amongst my very favorite writers.

I also added a new favorite author to my list: Ron Rash. I think Susan gave me the heads-up on this North Carolinian, and I could not stop gushing to friends and family and strangers and dogs and bugs and light bulbs about the terrific Nothing Gold Can Stay, a collection of short stories published in February. It helps that I'm familiar with the area, visiting each summer, but even if you've never been to Western North Carolina, the stories will hopefully resonate with you anyway for their truth and wisdom and tiny heartbreaks and triumphs. I followed up quickly with his novel Serena, and cannot wait to see the movie this year with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.

In December, I bought myself a copy of Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy Kaling's hilarious memoir, and I admit to an ulterior motive, but even if I weren't hopeful that she and I will eventually cross paths, I'm glad I read it. Funny and smart, it was a great read for the busy season and one I will no doubt read again.

A few more that I recall from the year:

Mary Coin, by Marisa Silver
Still Alice, by Lisa Genova (yes, Pamela, read it!)
Divergent, by Veronica Roth (and yes, dear daughter, I will read both sequels this year)


2013 was a bit of a blur with the release of Calling Me Home in February, then gearing up late in the year for the January paperback release, but I did manage to start reading a lot again by summertime when I was traveling. Instead of looking at my list and seeing what I read and choosing from those, I'm just going to name and annotate a few that float to the top every time someone asks me what I loved reading this year--the ones I truly "couldn't put down."

I kept seeing Liane Moriarty's The Husband's Secret popping up here and there, most notably the New York Times Bestseller List week after week, and then when She Reads chose it for their September pick, I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about. I was not disappointed. I dove into the story headfirst and while I figured out fairly soon what the secret was, I couldn't stop reading. The way Moriarty puts all the pieces together is really kind of genius--especially when you get to the very end of the book. I won't say anything else because that would spoil the fun. But speaking of fun, Moriarty is also very funny. In the droll way that is my very favorite type of humor, she had me chuckling on countless pages in the midst of a pretty dark storyline. Rather inappropriately at times, I might add. But she also had me gasping and nearly in tears a few times. I love a book that inspires a range of emotions like that.

A book I picked up rather randomly (but remembered later that author Allie Larkin had told me about it months earlier) was Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. I usually don't read a lot of young adult fiction, but man, this turned out to be another book I can't stop raving about. I don't know if it's because I grew up in pretty much the same time period as the two teen narrators (mix tapes? punk rock? no cell phones, anyone?), or because I was a misfit an awful lot like Eleanor (and maybe a little like Park) when I was in high school, but this book slayed me in numerous ways. And guess what? It was another dark storyline laced with humor and tears and surprise. Hmm, now that I think about it, I like to write dark story lines laced with humor and tears and surprise. I guess that makes perfect sense. (I think that's why I've always loved fiction by Elizabeth Berg, and hope to read the one Pamela mentioned very soon.)

Next, every year, I read a lot of books by friends, and 2013 was no exception. One I was privileged to read and blurb ahead of release but was published in 2013 was The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan. I loved it! And it was definitely a favorite for the year. I'm sure it's partly because I was thrilled to read it early and excited to be so drawn in to a story by such a dear friend. But mostly? It's just a great story. I'm reading her work-in-progress, too, little by little, and Amy is simply a talented writer of women's fiction, not to mention a champion of it. (See her blog, Women's Fiction Writers.) Also? The Glass Wives is a book with a rather dark story line, laced with humor and tears and surprise. GO FIGURE!

Finally, did anyone mention Me Before You by Jojo Moyes? You guessed it: Dark story line. Humor. Tears. Surprise. Another one I was happy I decided to read to see what all the fuss was about, and happy to discover I loved it. I've actually been reading Moyes for years, and am continually surprised at her success with genre bending and hopping around a bit. But with Me Before You, she clearly hit upon a subject and voice that sent her plummeting from "solid author" status to bestseller on just about every possible list. It was a perfect storm, much like this fabulous story.

What are your favorite reads? Tell us about it in the comments.
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