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.