If people join book clubs – or don’t – it’s mainly about the books. Or at least that’s what people claim.
If people join book clubs – or don’t – it’s mainly about the books. Or at least that’s what people claim.
As a children’s book blogger and mother to a toddler, I’m an equal-opportunity lover of books, from board books to novels, and I’ve learned to largely ignore age recommendations. That’s how I found Catherynne M. Valente in the children’s book section rather than general fiction, and, trust me, she’s not an author to miss, no matter how you find her.
I first encountered Cat Valente’s books through her Fairyland series, novels which are listed for ages 10-14, according to the back cover. I’m 29 right now, by the way. I soon finished reading them all and delightedly reviewed them for my children’s books blog, The Children’s Bookroom, praising her for her ability to frame characters with such heart and personal growth, and to create a world so fantastical and yet so tangible.
- In your next incarnation, be born in Colombia, or anywhere that the beliefs of a traditional culture clash with those of western rationalism.
- Work as a journalist. Learn the importance of close observation. Learn how everything has political causes and repercussions. Understand that however extravagantly unique an individual may seem to be, he is as typical of his society as an animal is of its herd.
- Steep yourself in great literature: the Greek tragedians, for their belief in the implacability of fate; the great North Americans, especially Faulkner and Hemingway, for their disciplined, tightly-controlled storytelling; and the modernist masters like Joyce and Woolf, for their streams-of-consciousness and lyricism.
- Forget everything you’ve ever heard about how to write fiction. Tell, don’t show.
I consider myself a novelist not a short-story writer. In fact, I’m not satisfied with any of the three-dozen shorts in various stages of development that occupy a directory on my harddrive. Writing short stories is very different than writing novels. Some people think it’s best to start out with shorts and then move on to novels. That may work for some, but to me it’s like thinking you would be good at bull-riding because you can ride a horse.
A novel is not just a long short story. Psychologically it requires a much greater commitment because it can take months or even years to complete a 90,000-word novel. Most short story writers don’t need help deciding when their story is ready for public consumption.
Naiveté, desperation, eagerness. What does that spell to you? To me it spells V-I-C-T-I-M. It can also spell W-R-I-T-E-R.
A writer eager to find a publisher, desperate for an agent, naive enough to sign any contract that seems to promise an agent and publication. And that’s just the dirt on top. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find all kinds of “opportunities” to promote, sell, distribute or otherwise handle a writer’s opus—for a fee.
I have been a writer all my professional life and a publisher for the last twenty plus years. I know how eagerly a writer wants to be published; I know the anguish of being rejected again and again by uncaring and by, obviously, ignorant agents who can’t seem to grasp my vision.
You Should Look It Up
Kids hate dictionaries. That’s something I’ve discovered over fifteen years of tutoring elementary and middle school kids. If they come across a word they don’t know, they’d rather ignore it than go to the bookcase for a dictionary.
I couldn’t help thinking about that last month when I stopped by 17 Gough Square in London, the home of Samuel Johnson from 1748 to 1759, which is when he and a staff of six were hard at work compiling The Dictionary of the English Language [volume 1 and volume 2]. Visitors are welcome in most rooms, and all the exhibits give a taste of the Georgian life Johnson and his friends led. My favorite spot was the attic, where most of the dictionary work was done.
“You’re in a book club?” my friend asked incredulously. “Why would you join a book club?”
I was a bit surprised to be asked this question by a friend who also happened to be a professor of comparative literature. We had known each other since college. We are both writers. I had just told her that our next meeting would discuss Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, a book she greatly admired. So why was it so odd to her that I was in a book club?
“I can’t imagine being in a book club,” she said. “That’s what I do for a living.”
My Take on Plotting versus Pantsing
A common writers’ conference workshop topic is “Pantsing versus Plotting,” a reflection of the fact that many writers struggle with how to plot out their stories. If that’s you, perhaps my breaking down this issue will help you gain some insights into how to avoid some of the pitfalls of poor plotting.
The Writer as Superman or Superwoman
Naturally I also admire artists and writers who are unexceptional at anything but their art. Nevertheless, the lives of people who do nothing but write or paint or make music, often seem barren or bleak. Who would want to live Kafka’s life, or Woolf’s, or Joyce’s? I have long been fascinated by multi-faceted geniuses like Leonardo, Michelangelo or Goethe, and those who performed great physical feats. Heroes live full lives. And by ‘heroes’ I don’t mean that we must approve of everything they did. But it’s useful to reflect on those artists who live on a grander scale, who consciously or unconsciously try to live as supermen or superwomen.
On a recent trip to Florida, my husband, some friends, and I took a short boat ride out to an uninhabited barrier island. We hiked out to the beach, and they pulled up a seat while I continued on to hunt shells. I was perhaps a quarter mile away when I decided to take a quick dip to cool off. As I turned to go back to shore, a searing pain burned through my foot. I stumbled out of the water, fell onto the sand, and watched as blood pumped with every heartbeat from the top of my foot. The pain threatened to cause a blackout.
- I can’t put any weight on my foot.
Lifelong Learning, necessary for everyone, is especially relevant for writers. The range of skills and knowledge needed to write well and successfully exceeds infinity. A writer’s basic attribute has to be curiosity.
I belong to the Maryland Writers’ Association, which has chapters around the state, each holding monthly meetings with speakers. The past week, I was fortunate to attend the Carroll County Chapter meeting with author Toby Devens and the Howard County Chapter meeting with author Nancy J. Alexander. Toby writes witty books about women’s friendships and struggles; Nancy is a retired psychotherapist turned author who writes the Elisabeth Reinhardt series of psycho-thrillers.
So in one week, I got a quick course in the importance of researching the facts in a novel from Toby and another quick course in developing characters from Nancy
When Borders set up shop in Overland Park, Kansas, in the early 1990s, my fellow writers and I mourned for what we believed was the impending doom of our local bookstores. Some of us had relatives who ran local stores, and those shopkeepers told us they could never compete with the mega-store on price or selection of books. And for years it seemed they were right. One by one the local bookstores dropped out of existence. Things looked even bleaker a few years later when Amazon.com burst onto the Internet and began sucking up the book business. But today, the future of independent bookstores has taken on a whole new shine. Articles in prestigious publications including Time, Forbes, Salon, and The New York Times herald the news that indie bookstores are not dead.
If you could own a physical copy of just one book, what would it be and why? I asked this question last month and got a wide-variety of answers. Not surprisingly, several people chose the Bible, a single book that served the vast majority of people since the dawn of book publishing and ownership just fine. Other top must-haves for the digital age included cookbooks and other guides, marked-up editions, collections, and a random assortment of personal favorites, including memoirs, social analyses, and fiction.
I’m shocked when I read lists of favorite novels and see that most, and sometimes all, are American. There may be a leavening of British authors too; that’s something. Still, I think, haven’t you read the Russians or the Germans? You really think Toni Morrison or Jonathan Safran-Foer are better than Tolstoy or Musil? Anglo-Saxon culture is lamentably insular, and American culture is not merely insular but downright provincial these days. The greatest weakness of the writing done by creative writing students—graduates as well as undergraduates—is that it’s so rarely informed by wide reading. And however unfashionable it may be, my remedy is to send them to the canon. Not “back to the canon”, sadly, because most of them aren’t familiar with it in the first place.
Tamsin Silver, writing for the Magical Words blog, asked recently whether too many books on writing, too many classes and too many rules can interfere with one’s creative instinct. Clearly that’s a danger, a trap to avoid. Her post also got me thinking how Rachmaninoff might have gone about composing his third piano concerto and whether that sheds any light on Silver’s question.
Writers who seek to improve their skills are naturally drawn to books, classes, workshops, critique groups, etc. While all of the above can be beneficial, it’s also possible to drown in the deluge of available resources, many of which promise to reveal the secrets of a successful writing career––i.e., one that pays the bills and the occasional vacation.
READING MY WAY THROUGH MURIEL SPARK On Goodreads I posted the question, “Who writes like Barbara Pym, one of my favorite authors?” A friend replied that I should try Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. There began my reading of Spark, an author who had escaped me, though she was twice short-listed for the Booker Prize and in 2008 included by The Times as among Britain’s top 50 writers since 1945.
Writing is full of decisions. Did a writer make the best choice of words, plot points, structure, characterization? Recently, a writer friend asked me and other writers to respond to the questions below. How would you respond?
- Question: At what point is too late to introduce a new character? An editor who looked at her book before said everyone needed to be introduced somehow before the sixth or seventh chapter. But when she tried to do that, it seemed cluttered and disorganized. She has read many books, great books, where characters come in much later. Is there a rule about this?
A friend of mine was in four book groups for many years. She couldn’t help herself. Whenever she heard about one, she thought she’d give it a try and quickly found herself hooked.
I’m now in three book groups, so I understand. One is with friends, another is at synagogue, and the third is at a home for seniors. Each group has its own personality, and I wonder how I ever managed with only one.
Without these groups, I’d have missed many a good read and discussion. They introduced me to Harriet Scott Chessman, Howard Norman, and so many more.
The other day I left my computer in the middle of a writing project to look something up. I actually left my chair, pulled a book from grad school from my bookcase, scanned the index, and turned to a page that suddenly looked familiar, marked up with notes I had left like breadcrumbs. I hadn’t done anything like that in years.
If you read any self-publishing magazines or blogs, you’ll come across dozens of columns on how to build your brand, use the latest marketing techniques, and approach your writing as a business. Anyone who is a business person first and an author second will decide what to write about based on their analysis of what the market is looking for. They will plan their marketing campaign early in the process, and spend thousands on pre-release publicity, on an audio version, and on a marketing firm that promises to put their book on the shelves of bookstores and libraries.
Musings: When Your Favorite Author Breaks Your Heart
I’m a frequent reviewer for both the daily Washington Independent Review of Books (WIRoB) and the quarterly Historical Novels Review of the Historical Novel Society (HNS). As an author and avid reader, I find that reviewing offers a host of benefits for me. Not only do I end up reading books outside my normal genre preferences, which is good for me as a writer, it also introduces me to wonderful debut authors about whom I then get to spread the good word. Completely selfishly, it’s also pretty cool to have, say, Viking or FSG quote me in a tweet to their vast legions of followers.
But the cherry on top of the pie is the chance to review my favorite authors’ latest books.
A Sense of Place: What We Can Learn From Richard Russo
When I was in graduate school and working on an early version of my first novel, Hawke’s Point, my thesis advisor asked me if I’d read Richard Russo. I hadn’t, but when he said my writing reminded him of Russo’s, I rushed out to get everything I could lay my hands on. The advisor’s comment was reinforced when a reviewer of Hawke’s Point also cited a similarity to Russo.
A while back I shared some favorite quotations about writing, literature, and art that I’ve kept posted in my office for decades. I’ve printed and laminated these snippets whenever I find them since high school, and keep them taped to my desk drawers and file cabinets alongside a few pithy cartoons and family photos. Here I’ll share a few more favorites that have inspired, delighted, and consoled me over the years.
PREVIEW OF OUR JULY 1 GUEST BLOGGER, BETTY MAY–Betty May is a theatrical director, writer, and clown. For the past eight years Betty has worked with a group of Lifers at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. She went into the prison in response to a somewhat bizarre request: write a comedy about life in prison. While she continues with her writing and her work as a theatrical director, clown, and circus coach, she is totally committed to advocating for the women who have become her friends, and lobbying for progressive changes in our judicial and penal systems.
J.K. Rowling’s Magic Bookshop
The most beautiful bookshop in the world is surely Lello e Irmão in Oporto. It is the bookshop J.K. Rowling used to visit when she was an English teacher in Portugal in the eighties (as I was), and the one whose spectacular staircase—a neo-Gothic carved extravaganza—inspired the one at Hogwarts. For this reason alone, perhaps sadly, it has become a site of pilgrimage for Potter fans