Monday, December 28, 2009

Guest Post By Jeanne Althouse: Writing Jasmine Man--One Writer’s Process

I know from my writer friends that the process of writing fiction is very individual. Some writers get ideas from the news, others from family stories, but I am often inspired by my dreams and use them to write short-short stories. Here is what happened one morning early:

That night I dream about an old man. His face is marked with liver spots and folds of wrinkled skin. His neck has disappeared into rolls of fat. Suddenly he grows backwards, to a time when he is young and fresh, with slender hips and smooth skin. I feel the excitement of spring, of romance. I want to touch him. When I reach down between his legs, I grasp a package of flowers. My hand folds around the petals; the perfume is released.

When I wake up, I smell jasmine. It is the vine on my deck, its fragrance coming through the open window. Or is it? The window is closed. I roll out of bed, reach for my robe, walk downstairs, make a cup of Earl Gray, and sit with my writing journal. Bits of the night dream are still clearing out of my mind, like wisps of clouds passing. I start:

6:35 a.m. 3-18-09 Old man. Vine.

I write down the time because I make a deal with myself that I have to keep writing for at least 30 minutes. The date and subject help me find my notes, if I ever need to. An old man, a vine: As I try to put together these two unrelated images in my head, I know writing about them will stretch my brain, force me to find new connections, exercise my action verbs, even if I don’t find a story. I start writing.

The jasmine man…

I like those words together. A musical sound. I say it out loud: jasmine man… I wonder: is he half man, half vine? What does he look like? I look down at the page. Keep writing.

The vine grew up his leg, wrapped around his middle and glued its fierce tendrils into his belly button…

Glued? Don’t like that word. Doesn’t feel right. I suck the end of the pen. I think about how dew covered leaves feel against my face, like the wetness of a man’s tongue in a deep, long kiss. That is definitely more interesting than how a vine grows. I put the pen back on the paper: never cross out, just keep writing.

In spring the ladies buried their noses in his white petals, soft as cloud, and some, intoxicated, kissed his leafy lips.

Now this sentence I like better—the sss sound echoes from petals to soft to kissed and I like how leafy lips rolls off my tongue, feels kind of like kissing. I say it again leafy lips. Okay stop reading out loud. Figure out what happens. Keep writing.

As summer progressed, the roots thickened around his feet, and their endings secreted themselves into the sole of his foot, crawling up his veins and arteries, searching…

I don’t like progressed. Sounds like a science essay. Fix it later. But the rest is interesting; the vine crawling up his veins and arteries…will his vine strangle him from inside his body? Or is vine man just getting old? Don’t stop to think. Keep writing.

By July his leafy girth had grown wide, giving him an obese look, a man of wide tee shirts, baggy pants, disappearing neck, and a waddle walk…

How will the ladies feel now about kissing an old man’s tongue? Ugh. Even his papery thin cheek with its folds of winkles? My pen hovers above the page. I force it down on the paper. Keep writing.

The jasmine man, no longer in bloom, with a pot belly of tangles drooping over his thin, bony stems…his leaves wilted and browning, he yearns…

It was an especially good writing day; I finished the whole story in one sitting that morning, although there was lots of editing later, including helpful suggestions from Aggie, my writing group and the editor Whitney Steen, at Pindeldyboz. If you want you can read the finished “Jasmine Man” at

For these short-short stories my idol is the writer Lydia Davis. My favorite writing book is—not surprisingly—From Where You Dream, by Robert Olen Butler. I’m constantly grateful to my once-a-month writing group and to Aggie and the writers at Kepler’s who help me decide which of my stories are keepers.

No matter where the ideas come from, the most valuable thing I’ve learned about the first draft process is the most simple: keep writing. Anywhere, anytime, anyplace. Every writer says the same. Keep writing. Something good will happen. Just keep writing.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Robin Black Guest Post: Shaking Up The Workshop

Many thanks to Aggie for inviting me to post! It's a real honor. First, I want to introduce myself. I'm a fiction writer and my first collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, is coming out from Random House in March. There are ten stories in the book and it took me eight years to write. I always tell people that because, early on, if anyone had told me it would take that long to finish a collection I would have thought either a) that they were crazy or b) that I must be crazy to be doing it. But it turns out that eight years isn't even a weirdly long time for a book - and I think that's important for writers to know from the start. If it's taking a lot longer than you had imagined or hoped to write even an individual story, it may be because you're doing something right.

On my mind today is the subject of the feedback writers get along the way. I think I'm focused on that because next month I'm returning to classroom teaching - undergraduates - after two years of taking private students and teaching one-on-one. This means that I have to face the dreaded workshop again. I say 'dreaded' because though I see a lot of advantages to the workshop format, I also think it has a pretty impressive capacity to do more harm than good. Here's how I see it: As a teacher, at the heart of my commitment to every student is the goal that after our work together, she will be even more excited about writing than she was before she met me. There's a lot more to teaching than that - I'm a total craft nerd - but without that increase in enthusiasm and commitment, I haven't done my job. And workshops, with their emphasis on on perfecting individual stories, their potential for competition and their drive toward consensus can all too easily have the opposite effect. So I have been thinking about ways to shake the format up - and I'm hoping that some of these thoughts will interest those of you who are in workshops now.

One big change I'm introducing is that for the first few classes we're going to workshop early drafts of stories by people who aren't there - friends of mine. I want to give my students practice critiquing and teach them skills for doing that, without risking the feelings of anyone in the room. I want the freedom to discuss a problematic piece frankly and consider strategies for the best, most helpful ways to present those concerns to the author - without the author there. The process of translating a private response to a story into a useful comment is a complex one. Knowing how to do that isn't something we're born with - but I'm hoping it's a skill that can be taught.

I also want my students to see that the main benefit of a workshop is not having your own work critiqued, but learning from reading other people's. That had better be the main benefit - if you have ten people in a workshop, each will spend 90% of their time critiquing and only 10% being critiqued. And I think that's fine, because there's a huge value to reading work in early drafts. Don't get me wrong, I also think that studying how gifted writers accomplish what they accomplish is a crucially important thing to do. But looking at significantly under-realized work can be at least as instructive. I have many bad writing habits that I never saw until I encountered them in other people's work, if only because I was too close to my own to have much perspective at all.

I mentioned that another tendency of workshops is to drift toward consensus. In my view, that's a particularly insidious danger because one of the most important lessons for any writer to learn - and for some of us it takes a long, long time - is that there will always people who don't like our work. There are people who don't like Hemingway, Woolf, Austen, Faulkner and on and and on. Having detractors is inevitable. Yet when we're in a workshop, we want the approval of the group - sometimes even more than we want advice. So, along with using my anonymous drafts to illustrate that inevitably participants respond more and less positively to particular works, I'm going to ask that each student be honest with herself each time about whether she feels connected to the author's basic intent, and if not, to consider playing a smaller role in the discussion. Years of experience have taught me that people who respond positively to a piece are almost always more helpful to an author than people who don't - which makes a certain amount of sense, though too often in workshops it's the most negative who speak loudest.

I hope some of that gives you all some food for thought. Again, thanks so much to Aggie for inviting me to visit this blog! Oh, and the picture above is just a reminder that every writer needs someone in their life who will never critique their work. . .

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Advice for Writers

Last month, at Wordstock, Portland’s marvelous gathering for writers and readers, I taught a class on “The True Business of Writing.” I took about 30 class participants through the thorny parts of my career, trying to show them how—creativity aside—I got to the point now where I have a book. I told them that there were plenty of other places where they could go to discuss craft, and the art of writing. I wanted to talk practicalities, the things that no one really wants to discuss.

I showed them my original query letter.

I had asked my agent for query letters she'd rejected from her slush pile and shared these with my class, asking them to try to point out the predictable errors the rejected had made. (In this I guess I drew upon my experience as an SAT tutor, when I would teach kids to look for "predictable errors." It's not a bad skill to have.)

I let them read my own rejection letters from editors, then asked them what they would do if they were in my shoes.

I showed them my submission stats for a short story that ultimately did pretty well (it generated two readings, one of which had an audience of something like 150 people, and a Pushcart nomination). The stats weren’t pretty: I’d been rejected 29 times before someone took the story. Six of those rejections came from editors who said they wanted the story but didn’t have enough room in their journals, which at the time, rather felt like the people I knew in high school who told me they would love to have taken me to the party with them, except there hadn't been enough room in the car . . .

In other words, I tried to share with these writers all the things that I had learned, and wished I’d known before embarking on a real career.

Some problems you can’t foresee. And sometimes it isn’t helpful to arm yourself with a lot of information; it can make a writer neurotic and skittish, unable to write because he’s so worried about what might go wrong. I sympathize. I’m sensitive. But still, if you want to write, then you will and you will find a way out of the problems that you face. It's important to be prepared and to be proactive.

So here is some advice and here are some thoughts I wish I’d known when I had started writing.

1. No, you do not need an MFA.

I don’t have one. I wondered if I needed one for a long time. What you need-in addition to good writing skills-are: 1) persistence, 2) a vision and 3) really great teammates. You will need to be persistent when, as I said above, you are rejected because a journal doesn’t have “enough room” for you. You will need vision when an editor wants you to change your work to fit what “he” sees as important in your writing. That will also make it easier for you when you do meet the editor of your dreams—as I did—who seriously gets you and wants you to be a better you. You will need teammates who tell you when your writing needs work—and who are right. Some of these things you can find in school, and some you can’t. I will always wonder if I might have gotten my act together sooner had I gone into an MFA program. But I know now that it’s not necessary.

2. Write as much as you can.

I had a job for about a year, working for a literary agent. This was back when I had published some short stories, but was always worried about whether or not I had a “real career.” It didn’t take me long to realize that the writers who were doing the best at the agency—aside from the ones who were just lucky and who had managed to develop a large following early on in their careers—were the ones who were constantly writing. They wrote poems, articles, essays, opinions, stories and, of course, books. They never stopped. If the agent was not able to place a piece, they placed the piece themselves. Their names were constantly being circulated and talked about because they constantly had opinions.

And actually, this is a good habit to get into now, wherever you are in your career, even if you have no book. There's a practical benefit to this way of working. If you are feeling low about your writing, it does help if you constantly have at least one pieces circulating. If you always have a short story out there somewhere in the ether, then there’s always the chance that it might be accepted. You are always hopeful about something. You've created your own reason to maintain faith.

Because basically, writers write. They don’t wish they had written. They don’t like the idea of being writers. They treat writing as work and they write. All the time. And one reason they do it is because they are persistent (point number 1).

3. Everyone struggles.

I never thought I’d have anything in common with a model or an actress. But writing is a subjective business and someone will find a reason to discriminate against you. If you are white, you might have written something that is too similar to someone else, and the marketing department can’t figure out how to sell you (I mean, of course, sell your book, but for those of us who write-what's the difference between our books and ourselves?). If you are a girl, maybe you’ve written a thriller and men are supposed to write thrillers. If you are black, maybe the independent bookstore you visited to try to book a reading assumes you have self-published and aren’t a “real” writer (true story—happened to a friend of mine). If you are gay, maybe your story isn’t “mainstream enough” and the field is currently considered too crowded for "gay" writers. If you are from Jamaica but live in the US, maybe the marketers don't know what to do with you because you aren't acting like a Caribbean writer, but like an expat, and that's confusing since only English people get to write "international literature." Maybe you feel that if you were a minority, your work would be taken more seriously, since minority writers look so “hot” to you right now—in a marketing sense. (Again, all of these are true stories).

You might, for example, feel disheartened by the National Book Award news. To which I say, I told you so.

But this is when you have to go back to point 1, and be persistent, hone your own particular vision and find strength from your believers and supporters. And always, always write.

4. Your connections matter.

And it will matter if you have none. So, make some.

Lest that sound mercenary to you—I know it does and did to me—try thinking of the whole “connections” thing another way.

Lots of people don’t care about books and writing. They care more about reality TV or sports or video games (and I write this as someone who cares about some of these things too!). Find people who care about books and writing. It only makes sense. You have this thing that you love to do, and it’s nice to be able to share it with people. There will be days when you'll think about that jerk in high school who is making more money than you because he took over his family’s car dealership and then you'll wonder why you committed yourself to this higher calling that isn’t getting you ahead in life. Your friends, the ones who think that there is nothing more wonderful than a good book, will remind you of why you’ve decided to do what you do (see point number 1 and number 3).

Then, when you have a book or a reading or something to promote, you’ll have people who want to help you.

The important thing about this, though, is to also be helpful yourself. See point number 3, also above. Because everyone at some point has something very unfair happen to them. Yes, some groups are more marginalized than others, but believe me, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t have battle scars. Hence, the important of point number 1, where you remember to be persistent.

Being a good friend also means being a good reader. It means supporting your local independent bookstores, which is most likely full of people who love books. It means buying the books that your friends write, even if you are super jealous they published before you did. Remember point number 3—your friends still need your help. Publishing a book isn’t the end game.

And on that note, a huge thanks to Aggie at the Well Read Donkey for asking me to guest blog. It's been a pleasure. And thanks to all of you for reading!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Japanese Fairy Tales

Fairy tales cast a spell on the mind. And not just because they often feature magic cauldrons or evil witches. We imprint on fairy tales when we are young. We learn about brave men on dragon-battling-quests and women yearning to get out of towers. Over time, the predicaments of these princes and princesses don’t seem too far from the psychological reality of the real world.

Something else happens too—we learn to expect certain things from stories. They will unfold in a certain manner. We will encounter danger, but this tension will resolve. And even though the modern novel has come a long way from ending either in a wedding or a funeral, I think there’s still something in our culture that looks for and yearns for this kind of conclusion: the prince and princess end up together, or we will find redemption despite loss, or even death.

My mother, who is from Japan, tried to teach me her language. I resisted, but she had a powerful arsenal: Japanese fairy tales. Seductively, she’d pull out the story of “Kaguyahime: The Bamboo Princess,” who was discovered by a poor bamboo cutter inside a fat bamboo stalk. The baby grew up to be the most beautiful and accomplished woman in Japan. Men came from all the corners of the island to try to woo and win her love. Except, unlike a western fairy tale where someone would eventually succeed, no prince ever managed to capture the bamboo princess’ heart. The story takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when Kaguyahime reveals her true identity—she is from the kingdom of the moon—and flies away, leaving everyone broken-hearted. Something about this accomplished but unattainable woman always captivated me. My mother and I would sit together and she would read a line in Japanese. Then I would read a line. Then I would read a page. On we would go until we were finished, and then we would begin again.

A couple of things happened as a result. I have a crude but efficient ability to read Japanese; I speak it much more fluently. This means I’m lucky enough to go to Japan and to be able to converse with friends and family and, more recently, interview people for stories and essays. On a practical level, it also means I’m never hungry in a restaurant, and never completely lost. It means I’m not afraid to travel and certainly not scared to try out new languages. But something else happened too. As much as my brain was programmed by the western fairy tales I read with my father, I know I’m also wired to feel comfortable with stories from Japan. And by this, I don’t mean novels written by westerners about Japan, or how they think Japan might be, but stories that actually originate from the culture itself.

If you are at all familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, or anime and manga, or even Haruki Murakami, then you too know that Japanese stories develop in unexpected ways. Inanimate bjects spring to life. An apparently linear narrative will veer in another direction.

Evil things don’t necessarily stay evil; fans of the movie Spirited Away can recall the moment when Zeniba, the big nosed sorceress whom the audience thinks is responsible for turning the parents of Sen, our heroine, into pigs, invites the little girl to sit down for tea . . . and becomes benevolent.

Recently, a friend who had read and loved my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, asked me to come visit her college class. She’s teaching a course on fairy tales, and she thought it would be fun if I discussed the first chapter of my book with her class. And then I thought: why not also teach her students something about Japanese fairy tales?

I’d spent some time thinking about Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and its very animistic sensibility, and how this lingering sense that anything can be alive permeates everything from a beautifully designed toilet seat, to Hello Kitty. I put together a forty-five minute talk. I’ve given the talk twice, and what’s impressed me is how easily kids understand it. The world of anime and manga and even video games has made an aspect of contemporary Japanese culture very accessible to this new generation. As an artist, I find this flexibility, this openness to a new way of telling stories to be tremendously exciting.

Now I want to get them reading. This is a very open-minded generation. It's going to be interesting to see what they create--and what they accept as art.

Some writers shy away from anything having to do with fairy tales, seeing them as childish, obsessed with the supernatural and overly simplistic often. I see their point of view. The beauty of adult fiction is that it offers us richness and a complex and often more conscious reflection of the world than we were able to apprehend as children. Not all fairy tale/fantasy derived work can do this. However, my favorite writers are aware of the lasting impact of fairy tales on their own art, and on our culture. And I like to stand with them.

Perhaps I’ll see you on November 30th, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, for an evening of Japanese fairy tales, and religion and storytelling and more.

PS--Obviously, the lecture isn't just for kids. It's just that, if you have a kid inside you, you might like it more.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Literary Prizes Seldom Make Passes at Tits and Asses

In an early interview I did before my novel was published, I was asked: "Are there enough women in leadership positions in your field?"

I said: "Publishing is full of women. Most readers of fiction are women. Stephanie Meyers and JK Rowling are, by all accounts, millionaires. And yet don’t most men win the high literary prizes?"

Fast forward to about a week ago, when Publishers Weekly announced its best books for 2009. All were by men.

"It disturbed us when we were done that our list was all male. There was kicking and screaming for a science fiction title. A literary ghost story came so close, it squeaked."

Ever since, the internet, that new hub of literary discussion, has been up in arms. Furious bloggers challenged readers to create their own alternative lists. SheWrites, a recently created online community for women who write, urged participants to take action. Twitter is aflutter. There’s a lot of digital noise.

I feel like paging Dorothy Parker who famously wrote: "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses." Is it too crude, if true, if I add: "Literary prizes seldom make passes at tits and asses"? The sad thing is, I accept this as a reality of my industry. The majority of fiction published by prestige magazines—okay, I’ll name one name: The New Yorker—isn’t by women. Some have complained that male authors get more marketing dollars from publishing houses, and that’s why “the smart people” are generally men. On a practical level, I can understand why this happens. If men win prizes, and prizes are good for publishers, why wouldn’t you, the publisher, support your most likely candidates?

But I’ve got to say, it’s a little . . . curious that in November of 2009, in a fall that has been incredibly crowded with very famous (Dan Brown) and accomplished (Lorrie Moore) writers putting out books—and making it very hard, I might add, for a debut novelist to make much headway—it’s difficult to believe that Lydia Davis or Margaret Atwood or AS Byatt or Lorrie Moore or Sarah Waters aren’t on the list. What happened?

In my original interview, I answered other questions the way that I did because I'd naively assumed that I'd just written a novel—a novel, about a lot of things. I thought people would probably notice the subtle references to sexual trafficking of women, when one of my characters finds herself stuck in America with a man she barely knows, without money or community. The sexual trafficking of women—and children—is an ugly but very real problem, the result, in part, of a world that can shift around with greater ease due to air travel and the internet. The novel is full of references to Buddhism, to the ways that westerners take and reshape Eastern religions in ways that suit them, and how, frankly, Asians do the same with western culture. I was pretty sure people would notice—since the theme is stated in the very first sentence of the book—that mostly I was trying to write about what happens when a woman goes to extreme lengths to develop her talents, at the expense of her relationships, just so she can be "safe" in the world.

As it happens, I actually wrote an "Asian American novel" and a "mother daughter novel" and even "women's fiction." I didn't know this until the reviews started coming in. And then there were the complaints that I had not stuck to the standard "mother-daughter" storyline that readers expect (because of all that other stuff). And then I wondered: are men punished for failing to conform to expected narrative norms? Do men write "men's fiction"? Is there such a category?

As far as I can tell, there is no such grouping, but at least we have the books on the PW list, the ones that do all their analyzing, and observing of how things and societies operate and how things can be understood and discovered. And some of these I have read and loved and agree are among the very best books of 2009. However.

It is very rare for a female writer to be praised as having written a "novel of ideas." Google the exact phrase to yourself, along with "writer" to see who turns up. Most often, the writers who are women and who write "novels of ideas" hail from foreign countries. They don't come from the west. Women in the west write about trivialities. Translation: relationships. But, as Joanna Trollope points out in her article in The Guardian:

". . . while books about young men's lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene. Take anything from Toby Young's How To Lose Friends and Alienate People to The Contortionist's Handbook to Toby Litt or David Nicholls's One Day, or the works of Dave Eggers and Jonathan Lethem. Often these books are far more sensationalist than those by the authors' female counterparts: about how many women the protagonists have slept with, how many drugs they've done, what a crazy nihilistic time they're having in London / New York."

It's not like men don't write and agonize over relationships too. Why, then, are they so smart and we are so . . . sentimental? So fluffy and hausfrauey and silly? Let's take the question even further. Let's say that most women—for argument's sake—actually do focus on more on relationships and less on abstractions. And . . . so? Why would novels about relationships be trivial in the first place?

I thought that relationships were one of the core principles of that most testosterone driven of all worlds—sales. Do we in publishing think we are above such trivial worries as sales? (Ah, but we aren't are we?) Why on earth wouldn't relationships be a sharp and focused lens through which to view the world and to draw conclusions? Why, in fact, would this not be a way for us to understand a great many complicated things—how technological speed, the abstraction of love, the exchange of spiritual practices—are in fact changing our lives on a personal level?

I like men too much to believe, however, that they’ve conspired to turn attention away from women’s work; much of publishing is run by women, after all. Instead, my suspicion—and this is a hunch and not something I can back up right away—is that we women, we who make up the majority of readers—still believe that men are smarter than we are. And we want to show you we can be as smart as you, and we want your approval, just like we did in college or graduate school when it was so exciting that you noticed us as the smart, not-silly girl student in the room. We are competing with each other, though we are often in denial about this, and the best way to successfully compete amongst ourselves, is to get your approval.

And the best way to get your approval, is to show that we get you, with all your abstracting and analyzing and warring. We can speak your language, as they say. We are, in other words, just as good as you are.

In that same early interview, I was asked: "Are you a feminist?"

I said: "I’m generally not comfortable with labels or groups. Do I think that everyone should be treated with respect, dignity and fairness? Yes. Does that make me a feminist?"

In other words: I don’t need your labels. I’m above them. But as it turns out, I’m as susceptible to being labeled as anyone else.

I’m rethinking my position on feminism.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Post Halloween Guest Post: Chuck or Treat or Welcome to My Nightmare

"Relax and have a seat, let us get you a drink. You'll need it..."

Photo and caption, by Marilyn Smith


CooKoo Charlie the Cannibal Clown is in the house.
While the witches brew, I'll cook my stew
a little pigs feet (swine or human) one brown mouse
Hey, be thankful one of the ingredients isn't you.

This is my first appearance on the well-bled, I mean Well-Read Donkey. And it truly is a horror, I mean honor.

I want to take this moment to talk to you about monsters.

Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman and that amphibious abomination, the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I love how he swims in sync with the ladies. Grace with gills. Rage that kills. A perfect combination.

Anyway, these are the monsters of the past. Today we have Freddy, Michael Myers, Chucky and...Pumpkinhead!

Good or bad, monsters make an impression on all of us. There's nothing like a cool, scary as hell, monster that invades your sleep and terrorizes you until you wake up screaming with your sheets soaking in sweat.

Although, truth be told, nothing scares old CooKoo. Hell, I'd make Freddy whimper like a whipped pup.

Way before Hollywood silver-screened monsters and writers put their nightmarish visions on the printed page, humanity has gone to bed with horror stories. Frightening folklore is in every culture. It's a given, no matter where you're livin', where there are people, there are monster tales.

Which leads me to an amazing book by Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker award winning author of the chilling Pine Deep trilogy, and David F. Kramer. They Bite Endless Cravings of Supernatural Predators is a copious, cultural compendium of creepy creatures that should fuel your inflamed imagination. Lurking and preying in these predatory pages are vampires, werewolves, hell hounds, seducers and many more monsters of mayhem.

Point is: whether you're a budding novelist searching for inspiration or an average Joe, I prefer sloppy Joes, although they don't have to be Joes, they can be Franks, Chucks or whomever, leisurely scanning the sections for entertain and education.

Me, I'm always looking for new ways to stir up my ravenous repertoire.
Stir it up; ...Little darlin! Eh, Bob.

Oh, hey, before I vamoose, to cook livers and goose, I want to make sure you check out my video CooKoo The Clown reviews Pilo Family Circus, by Will Elliot and Maneater, by Thomas Emson.

I also want to give a shout out to John Ray whose savory directional and editorial skills made this eerie endeavor a truly appetizing artform.

Maybe I'll invite him over for dinner. Don't worry John Ray, I actually won't have you for dinner. I'll cook you up something special...but I won't tell you everything that's in the pot.


Text written by Chuck Perunko

Friday, October 16, 2009

Day FIVE of Five

For anyone who checked in early, apologies! I set this post to appear at 12:01 AM, but must have missed a step. In any case, welcome!

My last day to post and I'm wondering how to close. With a dramatic moment...or a quiet walk into the sunset? I thought I'd put out a question that has always intrigued me and see what an expert says. Have you ever wondered why a publisher creates a hardback version of a book, followed months or a year later by the paperback? Especially considering that the paperback is less expensive and more often selected by book/reading groups. I posed this question to Brooke Warner, Senior Editor at Seal Press, and her response is very interesting:

This is a great question, certainly one we talk about a lot since Seal used to be an exclusively trade paper house that now publishes at least one hardcover a season. My take on hardcover publishing is that there’s still a belief among publishers, reviewers, and authors themselves that hardcovers have more clout, and will be taken more seriously. My personal opinion is that this is misguided and that it’s the result of hanging on to a model that’s no longer working. For the vast majority of books, it’s not cost effective. It’s also not good for the buying public. However, it used to be that the New York Times and other major media would only review hardcovers. I’m not sure what the statistics are on this today, but it’s still true that hardcover first editions get more attention because of the industry practice of putting the most money behind those books. Publishing in hardcover means that you paid more money for the book and that the author does or should have a platform that can support sales of a hardcover book. Meanwhile, booksellers and distributors are often against hardcovers. We’ve had experiences of our distributor trying to talk us out of doing a book in hardcover. In at least two instances they’ve been successful. They are more difficult to sell through. The only upside is that you can do a strip and rebind, so if a hardcover doesn’t sell well you can literally turn it into a paperback. I would love to see the industry as a whole stop publishing hardcover books. I know that’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s an expensive practice and it would be amazing to just level the playing field and save consumers lots of money at the same time.

I had the pleasure of working with Mary Jo Eustace in the anthology, The Other Woman. Many of you know her story: weeks after they adopted a baby, her actor husband left her for Tori Spelling. For several years, Mary Jo has been hounded by journalists, torn apart in cheesy magazines, and excoriated on talk shows. All the while, she has remained dignified and focused on the well-being of her children. After all of this upheaval, she's written a book and it comes out next week. Divorce Sucks.

Masha Hamilton is more than an exceptional writer. She is also the founder and heart behind the The Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which she created in May 2009. To quote the project's website, this program is "an effort by U.S. women authors and teachers to work with young Afghan women on developing their literary voices in telling their stories." In Afghanistan, women might be permitted to attend school, but higher education is often discouraged. Nevertheless, they persevere, which is why this project is not only reaching out to many women, but Afghan women are reaching right back. Writers and educators volunteer their time to work Outstanding author/teachers volunteer their time on a rotating basis to work online, connecting with women from all parts of the country. I urge you to visit the website and learn about this very important project.

Masha's new novel, 31 Hours, is getting wonderful reviews and you can order it through Kepler's at

This is the end of my week on this blog and I've loved every minute. I hope you've enjoyed the viewpoints about writing, the mention of a few new books, and a smattering of programs and courses. Again, thanks to Kepler's, Aggie Zivaljevic, and Bobbi Emel for the invitation and the continued support...given to me, authors everywhere, and the community. If you'd like to contact me with questions, suggestions, information about my online UCLA writing course, whatever, I can be reached through my website at Just click on Contact and you're there!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Day FOUR of Five

I met Arabella Grayson at a writers' conference and was drawn to her at once. In addition to being a beautiful woman, she sat in the lecture alert and ready, those lively eyes truly sparkling with the anticipation of learning something new. It was no surprise to learn that she had a very unusual "hobby"...a passion, truly, and one that she has developed into what will soon be a book. Arabella has amassed what is possibly the world's most comprehensive collection of African American paper dolls, one of them going back to 1863. I've asked her to visit the blog today and post more about her collection. She'll check in during the day and again tomorrow, so please ask questions!

(Arabella has posted a fascinating response, so be sure to scroll to the bottom of today's post and click on comments!)

I'm often asked about writers and their processes, so I decided to put out two questions and see what kind of responses I received. Here are their responses. If you have questions for them, click on "comments" at the end of this post and I'll try to get responses before my time's up on Friday night.

Question One: With one (or more) of your books, how much time passed between writing that first sentence and submitting a final manuscript to the publisher?

Sandra Gulland: Finding that first sentence is what takes a long time! The original Mistress of the Sun was a short story, written in 1992. I started the novel version the following year, but put it aside after signing a contract for a trilogy. I picked it up again in 2000, when the last of the trilogy was published. Mistress of the Sun was published in 2008, a genesis of 16 years.
Christine O'Hagan: My novel took 2 years to write. My memoir a little less than 2 years.
Amanda Eyre Ward: About 3-4 years of cozy, wonderful, nerve-wracking, despondent, thrilling, slow and lightning-fast typing. (Which adds up to approximately 4681 cups of coffee and 1429 glasses of evening Chardonnay, 54 margaritas, 1856 pages written but never used, 13-23 characters completely developed but yanked from the novel when they don't belong, 754 nights of reading others' brilliant books, and 530 mornings where I wake up at 3am and scribble for a while, convinced that I know something more and better about my novel.)
Beverly Donofrio: For my first memoir, seven years; my second, two and a half.
Eileen Goudge: Takes me about 9 to 10 months, with three drafts.
Liza Nelson: 10 years from first sentence to submitting to agent. Two months from agent to publisher. It was my first fiction book written. Also, it has taken me another ten years to complete my second (and no publisher yet).
Carrie Kabak: Cover the Butter: 4 months; Deviled Egg: 4 years and still going

Question Two: When your book was published as "first novel/book"...was it the first you had written...or the first published? And if you're willing to share this, how many books did you write before you were published?

Sandra Gulland: I stole the title of [my] first one, The Last Great Dance on Earth, to use as the title of the last novel in my Josephine B. Trilogy. I imagined that the characters in the original Last Great Dance were hopping mad about it, too. Plus, I ballooned a chapter of the second unpublished novel into the Trilogy. So you see: nothing is wasted!
Caroline Leavitt: I never intended to be a novelist. I wanted to be a short story writer. A short story, Meeting Rozzy Halfway, that I had entered into Redbook's Young Writers Contest, won first prize (to my astonishment--it was a bleak story of mental illness in 1960s Boston suburbia) and immediately it got me an agent—and a book deal. I had no idea how to write a novel, or how the short story could grow to a novel, but my agent helped me map out an outline so I wouldn't feel like hurling myself out the window!
Christine O'Hagan: My first novel/book was the very first I had ever written. Up until that time, I wrote newspaper and magazine articles.
Amanda Eyre Ward: I wish! I wrote a whole long novel called Between A River and A Sea—a mother disappears during Hurricane Bob on Martha's Vineyard. The book is hundreds of pages of beautiful sentences strung together with absolutely no plot or resolution. Then I wrote four versions of Sleep Toward Heaven, which was rejected by every big house in New York, and finally published by MacAdam/Cage in San Francisco. Close Your Eyes will be published by Random House in 2011.
Eileen Goudge: I published a number of teen novels before I wrote Garden of Lies, my first adult hardcover, 34 in all—I was one of the original Sweet Valley High stable of writers. My very first novel, though, was published by a now defunct press, for the princely sum of $1,500, under a pseudonym which will never be revealed. Needless to say, it was flawed.

So all of you writers who think you can't write because it's taking forever, don't despair! And those of you who have never written, but are burning with a story that must be told, please tell it!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Day THREE of Five

When I was asked to host this wonderful blog, so many thoughts passed through my head. What do readers want to know? Are there subjects that fascinate...or are those the subjects that actually turn readers away? I contacted my dear friend, author Caroline Leavitt, and asked for her input. "Write about fear in writing," she told me. "Write about letting go to find the deeper truth." She triggered a memory of all the messages I've posted to my writing students, those deeply personal words reminding them that writing is often painful, difficult, frightening. And that's what I'm going to share with you today.

When I wrote my first novel, The Bone Weaver, I explored loneliness from the viewpoint of a woman who had never married. Readers learned about her isolation, both physical and emotional, and her well as her allow herself to be loved. Was she me? I had married, was the mother of two adults, and I certainly understood what it was to be alone. Unlike Mimi, that main character, I most often enjoyed that time alone. As I wrote her story, it was sometimes frightening to breathe life into her because she took on a life of her own, sometimes going in directions I had not expected...or planned. I watched with fascination and occasional discomfort as she charted her own path, almost demanding what I if she knew before I did and my job was to put her into words. Was this the fear writers talked about? And then stumbled into the realm of personal essay, and that's when I learned what fear really was. In my first anthology, The Other Woman, I struggled with my essay. I had never been unfaithful and I had never suffered the other woman, so when I wrote about my experience with infidelity, I was able to hold it at some distance. After all, I had been long divorced, as was the man I loved, but he had never put to rest old issues with his ex-wife; all that unfinished business hung over us. It was an interesting essay to write, but the subject was no longer painful, certainly not a memory that elicited fear. It was the next anthology, For Keeps, that changed everything. As I began to write, I realized with some terror that I could no longer hide. I was asking twenty-six women to reveal themselves, to dig deep and write from a place of profound truth and sometimes profound pain... and they did. Could I ask any less of myself? So I wrote. I wrote about the pain of racism and overweight, the wanting so much to be loved and accepted that I created distance; I confronted parts of my history that had never been honestly viewed...except in the privacy of a therapist's office. And suddenly, here it was, on the page for many to see. But that's not the real story here. I'm about to admit to something that few know. The day before the final manuscript went to the printer, I called my editor and begged her to let me revise. I had given too much, revealed beyond my safety zone, and I had to renege. Did my mother need to read what would certainly jeopardize my already fragile relationship with her, now a woman in her eighties? Did my friends and family need to know? So I removed perhaps ten words; I chickened out. Do I feel guilty? Yes. Do I regret having done it? No.

Here are a few new books from authors whose work is always a pleasure to read. Julia Glass, recipient of the National Book Award for Three Junes, is on tour for the paperback edition of I See You Everywhere
International bestseller Sandra Gulland, author of several remarkable French historical novels, has just launched the paperback version of Mistress of the Sun
Clea Simon is enjoying that rush of pleasure because her newest novel, Shades of Grey, the first in her new Dulcie Schwartz feline-filled mystery series, has hit the bookstores.

Thanks for visiting, and please post your comments. It you post questions directed at me or any of the authors mentioned in this blog, they'll be answered. Until tomorrow!

Day TWO of Five

Did you know that Jane Smiley has published a YA novel? I haven't read it yet, but the reviews are excellent and most readers agree that this is a story enjoyed by children, young adults, and old adults. It's called The Georges and the Jewels (Knopf/Hardcover), and you can order it from Kepler's by clicking on this nifty link:

San Francisco-based author Kathi Kamen Goldmark is one of our natural wonders. She not only writes terrific novels but is a gifted singer and guitarist. You can enjoy see her tonight at El Rio, 3158 Mission Street, San Francisco, when she plays with the Los Train Wreck's All-Star Jam. Music from 8:00pm-11:30pm. Tomorrow night, she's appearing with her husband, Sam Barry, as they "braise" (rather than roast) Amy Tan at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, 8-11PM. It's part of LitQuake. Also appearing are Armistead Maupin, Andrew Sean Greer, Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds), and lots of other literary and musical friends.

Speaking of LitQuake: it's perhaps the most exciting book-related event in the United States. Where else can you meet hundreds of writers, thousands of book lovers, and listen to a reading in a hardware store, clothing boutique, you name it.

I never intended to have such a focus on anthologies, but I seem to have found that niche, at least for now. This month's Writer's Digest is running my article on how to create an anthology...and how to get yourself invited to contribute to one. If you have any questions at all about this genre, please post your questions. I may know a little about lots of things, but I know lots about that!

The great thing about blogging is that you can edit your own posts! After hearing from Clea Simon, I thought you'd like a brief description of her newest novel: "Shades of Grey" is the first in her Dulcie Schwartz mystery series. Dulcie is a grad student writing a thesis on the Gothic novels of the late 18th Century, but she's a rational young woman. Therefore, it comes as a shock when an apparition that seems to be her deceased cat, Mr. Grey, shows up to warn her, but she ignores his warning, walks into her apartment, and finds a guy she hates (he sublets her place) dead on the floor.

Thanks for reading, and please post questions and comments.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Day ONE of Five

I'm thrilled to be back...and thank you, Aggie, for the invitation. During my last blog-invite, I invited many authors to join me and discuss their books, and I'm hoping a few will come into our 'den' over these five days.

I'm hoping that Joyce Maynard will also join us for a few minutes this week. She's touring with LABOR DAY, which I gather was optioned for a film before it hit the bookstores, and she's booked day and night. I've been reading about her writing class taught at her place at Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. Joyce graciously read with me recently in Marin. Her essay appears in my new anthology.

Yes, a new anthology! On 9/30, I was joined at Kepler's by five of the contributing authors and we had a wonderful time reading from, and signing copies of, THE FACE IN THE MIRROR: Writers Reflect on Their Dreams of Youth and the Reality of Age. (We signed a few extras, which are undoubtedly on the shelf awaiting loving buyers...and did I warn you that I've lost all pretense of subtlety?) You can imagine my excitement when MORE magazine's website named this book one of the 21 'must-read' books for fall/winter.

Eileen Goudge is also in the anthology and joined me in New York a few weeks ago to read from her very funny and moving essay. Eileen is the New York Times bestselling author whose novels include THE DIARY, DOMESTIC AFFAIRS, WOMAN IN RED, ONE LAST DANCE, GARDEN OF LIES, and THORNS OF TRUTH. There are more than five million copies of her books in print worldwide. She will try to post, although she's also on the road. Her new novel, ONCE IN A BLUE MOON, is getting terrific reviews.

This week we'll also be visited by Arabella Grayson (is that a name for a novel...or what?!), a writer who has lovingly put together perhaps the world's finest collection of African-American paper dolls...going back hundreds of years. Arabella had an exhibition at the Smithsonian and is completing a book. You'll be taken at once by the beauty and significance of each piece.

I'll extend an invitation to Malachy McCourt and perhaps he'll be able to check in and say hello. He's in the new anthology and mesmerized the audience at our reading in NY. Julia Glass is on book tour with the paperback launch of I SEE YOU EVERYWHERE (Anchor) and I'm hoping she'll drop in on Wednesday. We'll also discuss Jane Smiley's YA novel and a number of new books about to be released.

Thanks for reading the blog and please, let me hear from you. It's so much more interesting (and fun) if we have a give-and-take of ideas. I'll be checking in several times a day and will respond to all questions and comments.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Ghost of Writing Future by Keith Raffel

Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by ghosts of past, present, and future. I’ve tried to follow the example sat by Ebenezer in my three postings here on The Well-Read Donkey. Monday was the day I dealt with the ghost of the past when I posted about growing up among the wonderful independent bookstores of Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Wednesday I discussed how I write now and how the ghost of writing is enticing me into an alternative reality. Today I want to scribble a little about what comes next in my writing life.

The near-future is pretty much laid out. Next week I’m off to Indianapolis for Bouchercon, the world’s largest mystery conference. (In 2010 it’s in San Francisco -- not to be missed.) Yes, I am speaking there and doing some publicity, too, but the best part is hanging out with old friends and making new ones. Writing can be a solitary profession. Bouchercon is summer camp for us stir-crazy writers. From experience I know that my favorite parts of the conference will not take place in lecture halls, but in cafés, restaurants, and bars. After a couple of days with my pals, I know I’ll get on the plane back to SFO inspired and charged up.

I’ll need that energy. I’m launching my book tour for Smasher at Kepler’s on October 20 at 7.30. I know that’s going to be a highlight of the whole publishing process. I love talking to the readers at Kepler’s, and many of the booksellers there are my friends. But that’s just the beginning. After Kepler’s comes two dozen more stops on the book tour.

With all that on the schedule, I figured I won’t have much time to write. My objective was to finish the manuscript of my next book and get it to my agent before the tour begins. Mission accomplished. So while I’m out touring, I’ll be hoping to hear from Josh about what’s going to happen with my next book. (Jewish folklore says that when you talk aloud about your hopes, the Evil Eye can intervene to stymie them. The antidote is to stay “Keinahora” and spit three times. There.)

I went down to Hollywood after my first book was published and talked to movie agents and producers. It was fun to play what if. Now though, a team with a track record has done an outline of a script for Smasher, and they’re talking to my agent. Stay tuned. It’s still an incredible longshot, but I’m willing to take a chance on success going to my head. Keinahora again.

After everything settles down, I’ll start on my next book. The sportswriter Red Smith said: “There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” Despite the aches, the frustration, the loneliness, when I’m not writing, I miss the exhilaration, the excitement of being transported to another reality. What Rodgers and Hart wrote about not being in love applies to me when I’m not writing:

I sleep all night appetite and health restored.
You don’t know how much I’m bored.

The sleepless nights, the daily fights

the quick toboggan when you reach the heights
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites
I wish I were in love again!

After doing some research this past summer at the Kennedy Library in Boston, I have great ideas for setting and for characters for a thriller. It’s that damn pesky plot where I’m missing inspiration. How will it come? I’ll sit down and start writing. There’s bound to be a false start or two. There sure was with Smasher. My first idea just plumb didn’t work. Then my wife and I went out to dinner on Castro Street with old friends Brian and Cindy. Brian made a chance remark, and – poof! – there was my plot. Again there’s an analogy to love. When the real thing strikes, you know it. Can’t wait to experience “the heights” of writing a novel again. Keinahora.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Do I Like Being A Writer Too Much? By Keith Raffel

I have something like career ADD. I’ve been a carpenter, a history teacher, a U.S. Senate counsel, a candidate for political office, a horseplayer, and an Internet entrepreneur. Now that I have a second novel out, can I add writer to the list?

It’s a cliché that the hardest thing about being a writer is not getting published, it’s staying published. Last Friday, the terrific mystery writer Lora Roberts wrote in The Palo Alto Weekly, “If the proof of the author is in the second novel, Raffel delivers with his new mystery, Smasher, set in the convoluted corridors of Silicon Valley power.” Looks like I passed the test. So I think I will add writer to the list of my careers. Do I like being a writer? Maybe too much. Let me explain.

Oftentimes, people ask if the main character in my two books is me – whether Ian Michaels, the protagonist of both Dot Dead and the just-released Smasher, is a lightly fictionalized version of Keith Raffel. Once I went to someone’s house and the host said she was sorry for not having Fortnum and Mason’s Queen Anne's Tea. I’m a green tea drinker and so that black tea is not my favorite. I wondered for a moment why she was apologizing. Then, bingo, I got it. “No, no, that’s Ian’s favorite tea, not mine,” I told her. “Ian is not me.”

In fact, things run the other way around. It’s not that Ian is me. It’s that in writing I become Ian. I enter an alternative universe and adopt someone else’s identity. I see what’s happening through another person’s eyes. (Something like that must happen to kids who pick an avatar and control it in a video game.) Well, anyway what do you call someone like me who spends his days living in an alternative universe and hearing voices talking to him? E.L. Doctorow offers a hint. He says, “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” Yeah. So now that I’m a full-fledged writer, do I like it? Yeah, maybe too much. Why not live in the skin of someone who’s smarter, better-looking, richer, and more attractive to women than I am?

Look at the alternative to living in a fictional world. Reality? Bah. Who wants to live in a world where dangerous countries are closing in on getting nuclear weapons, where world economy teeters on the brink of depression, and where Congress refuses to do right by the American people because of entrenched interests?

In Smasher, as CEO Ian Michaels battles a take-no-prisoners billionaire for control of his company, a black car runs down his wife Rowena, a deputy D.A. The police figure it a hit-and-run accident, so it is Ian who races to track down the assailant before he can strike again. As his wife lies near death, he rushes to an atom smasher at Stanford to fulfill what may be her last wish – that he prove an unsung female physicist was cheated out of a Nobel Prize. This world Ian lives gives him the chance to resolve knotty, dangerous problems. I hope you’ll like living there with him as much as I did.

Take a look at the book trailer to get a taste of Ian’s world.

I do hope to see you at Kepler’s on October 20 at 7.30 where I’ll discuss Smasher, read an excerpt from it, answer questions, and raffle off the right to name a character in my next book. And if you want to know more about me or Ian or Rowena, take a look at my website, Thanks, Keith.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Kepler's and Me: A Lifelong Romance by Keith Raffel

I want to tell you about a lifelong romance. You see, Kepler’s Books and Magazines and I go way back. I remember being a young boy and trying to figure out how the store was organized when it was in a ramshackle series of connected buildings on the west side of El Camino. (The picture on the left isn’t the store I remember. It's even a little before my time. Maybe I’m talking about its next venue.) The shelves, which slanted every which way, were gorged with paperbacks affordable even to a boy who had only change in his pockets.

I’ve lived in Palo Alto almost my whole life. Two highlights of growing up here were watching the Giants of Willie Mays and spending hours hanging out at terrific independent bookstores. Does anybody remember the Guild Bookstore in Menlo Park? I returned one of the countless dictionaries I received for my Bar Mitzvah there and received a credit I hoarded for months. The Peninsula Bookstore in Town and Country was where I rushed to get the newest Willard Price book (Lion Adventure, Volcano Adventure, South Sea Adventure, etc.) that my brother and I adored. A real old-time favorite was Shirley Cobb Books on University Avenue. (Kind of says something about the upward spiral of evolution that a racist ballplayer would have a bookselling daughter.) Once I reached adulthood, they allowed me to open an “account” there. That meant I just signed my name and paid nothing for books – at least until the monthly statement arrived. Can you imagine how that inflamed the addictive tendencies in a bookaholic like me? (Might as well have pushed no money down and low interest mortgages to people who couldn’t afford to pay them back. Wait, we did that and know how that turned out.) I remember buying a book in the C.P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series and being challenged by a bookseller on my choice. For twenty minutes we argued over Snow’s place in the literary pantheon. I can see the book on a shelf in my office as I type this.

What made all these stores distinctive is that they were staffed by fellow book-lovers. They could advocate their favorites books, argue with you over your choices, and learn your own likes and dislikes and make spot-on recommendations. When one of those booksellers said, “I think you’ll like this one,” you took out your wallet.

Of course, what the Guild Bookstore, Peninsula Books, and Shirley Cobb Books have in common now is that they are all only memories. Pfft. Disappeared. In more recent years Heintzelman’s, A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, Stacey’s, Printer’s Inc, and Bob and Bob have all vanished as well. The most obvious thing that differentiates Kepler’s from those stores of yore is that it’s still here. Perhaps that’s the most remarkable feature of the Kepler’s story. Its triumph is in its survival. Remember the lyrics from the Sondheim song? “Good times and bum times, I've seen 'em all. And, my dear, I'm still here.” And Kepler's is still here because it is a booklover's Nirvana.

I have those fond memories of Kepler’s from my childhood, and I know my children will, too. There’s nothing the kids love more than a trip to Kepler’s combined with a nosh at Café Borrone next door. My 10-year old son received a lesson in what makes Kepler’s great just last week. As usual, he was looking for a book to read. (I’m waiting for the scientists to discover which gene transmits bibliophilia down the generations.) I pretty much insisted that he ask a bookseller for recommendations. Angela listened patiently as he told her that he liked D.J. MacHale, Anthony Horowitz, Rick Riordan, John Flanagan, R.A. Salvatore, and Jim Rollins. (He and I have heard the first four speak at Kepler's.) She immediately suggested Gone by Michael Grant. My son told me this morning it might be his favorite book ever – high praise from a boy who goes through three or four books a week. What other bookstore is going to give you that? Kepler’s is a lifelong romance for me and one being passed along to the next generation. Bravo.

In my books I try to give a sense of what life in Silicon Valley is like for someone like me. And Kepler's is an integral part of my life here. No surprise then that Kepler’s itself makes a cameo appearance in Dot Dead, my first book.

No surprise either on where I’m kicking off my book tour for my second book. Where else but a store I loved as a boy, a store my children love, a store staffed by booklovers? So I’ll be at Kepler’s on October 20 at 7.30 talking about Smasher: A Silicon Valley Thriller.

I’ll post again on Wednesday. Thanks, Keith.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Passion

Well-Read Donkey Bookshelf at Kepler's with guest bloggers books and their reading recommendations

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to be on a panel in Chapel Hill, NC, with Robert LeLeux, who wrote The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and is as moving and amusing in person as he is in his memoir. When I first got word of the pairing with Robert, I considered this another one of those mango-and-peanut-butter author mixes for which literary festivals are famous. For example, I was recently on a panel about the future of Southern Women Writers, though I was born in the Arizona desert, lived a decade overseas, now reside in Brooklyn, and have no more than passed through the South. (I like the South, though, and adore fellow panelists Janis Owens and Cassandra King. I sometimes imagine the people who create these panels gathering around a wooden table with a few dozen bottles of wine, a dart board, and all of our names on printed sheets, intent on getting a laugh somehow during the intimidating and grueling process of organizing a festival for writers and readers.

On the face of it, Robert and I are very different writers. My four books are novels, often on serious topics and with an international bent. His is a poignant American memoir and in some passages, a laugh-aloud look at life.

Yet our panel topic was passion, and its place in our work, and on this we found a lot of common ground.

Beginning and not-so-beginning writers are told to write what they know. Some have amended it to say: write what you’d like to know. But perhaps the adage actually should be: write what you care about. Deeply. Write what wakes you up at night, what you don’t understand, what makes you laugh so hard you cry, what you wish you could turn away from but can’t. Write to discover, not to expound.

The first reason to incorporate those deepest personal concerns in our writing, be it fiction, non-fiction or memoir, is that it invariably makes the work stronger. If this is the stuff that matters to us, we stand a better chance of getting our readers to care also.

But the second reason is actually more important, in my view, if more private. It is very old news by this time that publishing is in turmoil, uncertain what the future—even six months from now—will look like. Content has been devalued. Websites that demand writers to write deeply, or research broadly, or report diligently, still have no business model in place, and thus no way to pay those writers for their work, or even ensure their own continuation. In this climate, editors often find it safest to reject a manuscript. A good friend and dynamite literary writer recently told me she’s having trouble publishing her next novel because her “numbers aren’t good enough.”

And yet, many of us can’t stop writing. We write when happy or sad, we think in stories, we’re on the hunt for the subtext and telling gestures, and we feel compelled beyond our control to search for the fresh, well-turned phrase.

For some of us, in fact, writing—and reading—is spiritual work; it’s how we interpret our world, understand our lives, maybe even try to make ourselves better humans. To achieve that, we have to write about what makes us avidly curious or angry or frightened. We have to write with an unwillingness to settle for simple answers, an enthusiasm for embracing flaws, and the desire to see deeply and non-judgmentally into the Other.

This is what creates writing that is honest and authentic, perhaps with a shot at getting published, maybe getting read, maybe briefly impacting another life. And sometimes, if we’re very lucky, it draws us to others (like Robert, or my inspiring editor Fred Ramey at Unbridled Books who share our sentiments about the potential of words to take flight and connect.

It is also the work that can continue to feed us emotionally and psychically during the days and months of countless revisions or rejections, when the paragraphs buck us or our characters have fled underground or the computer eats a chapter or someone wants to discuss our numbers, when we’re distracted by loss or joy or fear and the only way forward, after all, is to write, write again, keep writing about what makes us passionate.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: Love Song To Artists’ Colonies

I’ve only twice been able to organize my life in such a way that allowed me to drop out of it for a month, but both times have resulted in astounding and memorable experiences. One, I’m convinced, directly impacted the way my latest novel, 31 Hours, turned out. The two colonies I’ve visited are Yaddo and Blue Mountain Center, both in New York State, easily reachable from my Brooklyn home. (We don’t own a car: I want a place I can reach by Amtrak.)

Yaddo, right outside Saratoga Springs, was my first colony experience. For those who don’t know, when accepted to a colony, you go free of charge and you receive a room, three meals a day, and privacy to work. In the case of Yaddo, they also gave me $1,000 toward childcare for my three kids while I was gone. The evenings tend to be communal, with a shared dinner and activities that invariably arise afterwards. But the days are loaded with silence and privacy.

Just being at Yaddo was an amazing gift. Collectively, the artists who have spent time at Yaddo have won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards, 22 National Book Critics Circle Awards and a Nobel Prize. I felt completely humbled, but determined. I got about six months worth of work done in that single month. So that’s one way artists’ colonies impact novels: they allow them to get finished!

Yaddo (named by one of the children to rhyme with “shadow,” as the story goes) was founded in 1900 by Katrina Trask, herself a Brooklyn-born poet, and her husband, financier Spencer Trask . The couple lost all four of their children in infancy or childhood, so decided to turn the estate into a retreat for artists. Spencer died in a train accident on New Year’s Eve 1909. Katrina died in 1922 and is buried on the grounds.

So of course, Yaddo is haunted. But in a good way. Every day, when I got to a sticking point in my work, I went into the magnificent piano room to keep writing, taking a yellow pad with me. After an hour or two of working by hand, I would return to my room and laptop. On my way out of the room, I would pause briefly before one of several life-sized paintings of Katrina in the mansion, her curls piled atop her head. “Thank you,” I would whisper. One day, a vase in front of the painting trembled audibly. I could never make it happen again; It was, I’m convinced, Katrina saying: “You’re welcome.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I have other Yaddo stories—one about a flying squirrel, another about a Ouija board—but I’ll save them for some other blog.

A few years later, I went to Blue Mountain Center, in the Adirondacks. Blue Mountain is very strict: no cellphones allowed, and the only Internet connection is in a musty basement room underneath the kitchen – they want you to forego the distractions of your daily life, find harmony and focus on work. I went with only a few pages written of 31 Hours and while there, I wrote the entire first draft.

I needed to be away from my home, in a small room overlooking the nonjudgmental Blue Mountain Lake, I believe, in order to write the first draft of 31 Hours. In that room for those four weeks, I lived and breathed the story that was revealing itself to me. I wrote letters to the characters, argued with them, found myself struggling with tears and nightmares as I wrote about their lives. I don’t think I could have submerged myself that deeply into the story at home, given the demands of regular life.

I also believe completing that initial draft in one rush of 28 days contributed to the driving pacing of the story—a pace I believe necessary in this case, part of the story’s “voice”—and that it would have turned out differently I’d written that draft over many weeks and days.

Thank you, Yaddo. Thank you, Blue Mountain. And for any writer whose story is pressing against them, but who cannot find the time in between the distractions of daily life, consider the colony.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Masha Hamilton's Guest Post: 31 Hours

Many thanks to Aggie and Kepler’s for inviting me to blog here about my new novel, 31 Hours. I feel fortunate to be in such great company of readers and writers. I’m going to do three blogs covering marketing, money and love. I’m starting with marketing because I’ve become intrigued by book trailers—by what they can do, and what they can’t—and I wish we were all in a room together to discuss it.

Because I come from a background that included both television and radio, I grew interested early in the idea of reaching beyond print to draw in readers. In 2003 for my second novel, The Distance Between Us, I put together an audio recording with crucial help from my husband, who works for NBC and MSNBC. In 2006 for my third novel, The Camel Bookmobile, we pulled together a video from my visit to the real camelback library in isolated northeastern Kenya.

Still, none of this quite prepared me for the full-on book trailer, which somehow seemed both more complex and, simultaneously, not complex enough. Here’s what I kept stumbling over: I love novels. They incorporate an overlaying web of ideas and questions, a crescendo that builds as the pages turn. Many of us spend years writing our books. How can we, on a shoestring budget, condense this layered ocean of fictional life into a 120-second book trailer that works?

31 Hours, for example, is about missed connections. It’s about how we parent our young adult children, and it’s about the possibilities and limitations of intuition. It’s about the edgy poetry of the subway. It’s about religion and spirituality in the modern ironic world. It is about empathizing with a panhandler, or a man planning violence—the kinds of people we may not be inclined to like. It is about suspending judgment long enough to listen.

Yet if I tried to include all or even most of this in my book trailer, my website designer and friend Rose Daniels convinced me, I’d be doomed to failure.

“Making a trailer lets you distill the emotion of a book,” Rose told me. “You can’t tell the whole story in a two minute trailer (and you shouldn’t). Instead, you create visuals that express the overall mood/tone of the book. I love bringing the energy of a story to life with images and sound. When creating a book trailer, you must reveal enough of the story to intrigue the reader without giving too much away. You have to leave room for the reader’s imagination. For instance, I feel you should never reveal what a main character looks like.”

In some ways the 31 Hours trailer is a home-grown effort: I always wanted the eerie and mysterious image of a young man shaving his legs, the “mother” seen from the back is me and my 19-year-old son Che took most of the photographs for the trailer. But in most ways, Rose is the brains behind the operation, breaking new creative ground.

We’ve come a long way in a short amount of time with the book trailer. In February 2007, award-winning author Gayle Brandeis created one of the first book trailers I ever knew about for her novel Self Storage.

“The film is very rudimentary, not flashy at all—I used my digital camera, which only films very short spurts of video, and the most basic iMovie tools—but it was great fun to put together,” she told me recently. “I have two books coming out next year and am trying to decide what sorts of trailers I could pull together for each of them. It's certainly fun to think about taking the book off the page and into a whole new media; it gives the book a fresh jolt of life, a new way to send its tendrils out into the world.”

What do readers want to see in book trailers? What makes them interested in reading the book itself, and what sends them running the other way? What I wouldn’t give to listen to a panel of readers pondering this topic.

For more on book trailers, Ron Hogan has written a number of great articles, and this is one of my favorite: Finding the Short Film in Your Novel (for Less!).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Notebook after Notebook Part Three

Journal writing was a safe and familiar place for me to start. I have been able to capture thousands of moments in my life that, perhaps some day, may make themselves into a book for many to enjoy. Who knows.

Photo taken from my journal on the day Van and I met 13+ years ago.

Shortly thereafter or on the day I knew he was the one! Today we celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary.

Pages from a journal can unlock memories and emotions from many years ago. Whether it's a few silly words, rhymes and sketches or a beautiful piece of written work; journal writing is where many writers begin, and I for one, hope to continue this practice until the very end!

After looking at these pages from my journal thirteen years ago, I realized that poetry and illustration were probably not in my future!! But that's OK -- It's ALL Good!!

Happy 10 year anniversary Van. I love you with all my heart! wc??