Friday, April 23, 2010

Guest Post by Jennie Shortridge: How to Host an Author at Your Book Club Meeting (Not!)

Let us begin by saying book groups are doing more than anyone to save the publishing industry, and I, for one, love you all. Unequivocally. I will do anything I can to help you have a great meeting when you choose any of my books for your group to read and discuss. I’ve now attended well over a hundred, either in person, by phone, or on Skype.

I’ve made cookies, brought wine, called from my car (hands-free!), sent signed book plates, CDs of music inspired by the book, recipes that come from the book, galleys of my yet-to-be-published books, and generally tried to make myself useful to you. Why? Read the first sentence. And also because we who love books and reading have a certain kinship, a knowing between us. Books can save the world or just your soul on a lonely Wednesday night, and those who get it, get it.

It is with tongue planted firmly in cheek that I offer you, oh dear book group people, this list. It was way too much fun to write, and I hope you understand that I am so very kidding. I love you, I do.

Jennie’s Snarkalicious Step-by-Step Guide for Hosting Authors at Your Book Club Meetings

1. We writers are a happy-go-lucky bunch with not much on our schedules. Writing, after all, is really just sitting around eating bonbons and making stuff up. It’s always best to extend your invitation as close to the actual meeting date as possible. This week? Sure! Tonight? Why not?

2. If the author lives over forty-five minutes away, of course he or she will drive to your home. No need to gather your members and find a nice restaurant in the city, of course not. We like to drive. At night. In the suburbs where every street has the same name. We consider it research.

3. Writers are generally extroverts, which is why we sit in front of computers all day, alone. When an author attends your meeting in person, there’s no need to make introductions. Just take our coat and shove us into the middle of the room so that others may gawk, whisper “Is that the author? I thought she’d be thinner/prettier/younger.” We love that sort of thing.

4. We have no need for food or drink. Even if you’re having the meeting at dinnertime. Ritz and celery sticks? Fabulous. We really should have eaten at home anyway before coming at, what time is it? 7:00? Right. Um, maybe just an olive or two.

5. And of course, we have no time limit as to how long we can stay. Go ahead and talk about your children’s latest cute escapades for that first hour or so. We will nod and smile, even though we don’t know your gifted Ashleigh from her little Robby with ADHD. He did what to a cat? Oh, how amusing.

6. If we’re doing a speaker-phone meeting, by all means, use your inexpensive mobile flip phone, set on a dining room table with twelve chatty women gathered around it. The clarity is less than desired, but the enthusiasm more than makes up for it. Especially after the first glass of wine.

7. Here are the questions we enjoy the most:

a. How much do you make as an author?
b. I’ve written a book, too. Can you send it to your agent for me?
c. Do you have a real job?
d. Why did so-and-so do this-and-such in the story? That’s never happened to me, so I totally didn’t buy it.

8. Here are the questions we hate:

a. What inspired you to write this story?
b. When so-and-so did this-and-such, I wasn’t sure why. Tell us what your intention was with that scene.
c. What other books have you written that we might like?

9. When it comes time for the author to sign books—which we really do love doing as a way to thank you for supporting us and your local booksellers—make sure the vast majority of your group has either, A. shared the same book, or B. checked them out from the library. That gives us a warm happy feeling inside that you are not wasting trees.

10. We don’t require thank yous or nice little gifts. Really! No, no, take back that nice note, that card, that box of chocolates. It’s been such a swell (gurgle, squelch, gurgle) evening (well, make that night as it’s after ten), that I really—What? We’re not done? Oh, okay, maybe one more story about little Robby.

Yes, I know your group would never do any of these things, and if you did, I would still love you, just as a wife still loves the husband who leaves the milk out and the kid who forgets to say “Thanks, Mom,” for help with his homework. We were meant to be together, book groups and authors, and you can always find me at

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Guest Post by Jennie Shortridge: Will Work for Meaningful Contribution to Society

We writers are an odd bunch. We choose lives in which we sit alone all day in front of computers. Not in cubicles, not in rows of other computers, mind you, but completely, entirely alone. All day. Did I mention every day?

Now, this is fine if you’re deep in the “introvert” range of the Meyers-Briggs scale, but for those of us who nose over the line into the “extrovert” category, it can get a little lonely.

Lucky for me, I live in Seattle, a holy grail convergence zone for writers. Sure, the Pacific Northwest is dark and dismal nine months each year, but it’s excellent (either in spite of or because of all that moisture) for quite a few things: coffee, music, natural beauty, bookstores, and many of the authors that fill those shelves.

When I first moved here five years ago, I didn’t know a soul, but that didn’t last long. I met Garth Stein (before the dog book) at an event we were both reading at, and liked him immediately. It’s hard not to—he’s pretty much the most likable guy on the planet. As writers are wont to do when frustrated by writing, we met for coffee. It became a regular thing, and soon other writers were joining us. Before long, there were seven of us.

What is now formally called Seattle7Writers, an awareness and fundraising nonprofit comprised of over 20 published authors, started simply as a coffee klatch, a kvetching, laughing, celebrating bunch of friends who got what each other was going through on a daily basis. We could clink to the good stuff—a good cover, a manuscript turned in—and offer condolences on the not-so-good stuff—a delayed pub date, a request for massive revisions, even sometimes the “orphaning” of a comrade (the state of an author whose agent or editor has left for greener pastures in another company).

The core seven now gather monthly for business, and by business I mean juggling the demands of putting on several fundraisers at a time, collecting and distributing donated books for pocket libraries throughout our community (in shelters and prisons), and the myriad other requests we receive and ideas we generate.

One of our aims is to energize and connect reading communities. We provide book groups with ways to connect with us, offering ourselves up to attend meetings by phone or Skype, or when possible, in person. We put on events at bookstores and libraries where book groups can come and chat with several authors at a time, perhaps get to know authors in the community they weren’t already aware of, and of course, support those local booksellers and libraries. And, yes, we ask for charitable donations at these events, or deduct it from the price of books. This year, our fundraising efforts are supporting a wonderful program in Seattle, Writers in the Schools, a residency program that puts real writers in schools, helping kids write.

It’s exhausting, and it’s amazing. Groups of writers in other cities are now considering organizing as well, the most lovely tribute of all to the work we do.

Lest you think we’re workaholics, the entire group is invited quarterly for social time, that precious couple of hours where we laugh hard at our stumbles and mourn together over titles not chosen, readings ill-attended. If not for the company of these writers, we’d all still write. We’d still publish and tour and do the work we do. We just might not be as happy, or as fulfilled.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Guest Post by Jennie Shortridge: What Does the Truth Have to Do with Writing Fiction?

When working on my first three novels, I toiled in the garden of personal experience. I wrote about a mother’s war with mental illness and a singer-songwriter daughter who never quite achieves success in Riding with the Queen. I wrote about a food magazine writer who is dissatisfied with the drivel she must produce to pay the rent in Eating Heaven. I wrote about a woman at midlife who can’t quite understand her body or her emotions in Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe.

Even though these details are inspired by my own life, I didn’t want to write thinly veiled memoir or fictionalized autobiography, or even a roman a clef. I just wanted to use bits and pieces of my experience to build stories with verisimilitude. (Kinda like putting your life in a blender, adding a bunch of other ingredients, and pouring out a big old made-up smoothie.)

When it came time to write the fourth book, When She Flew, I was ready to do something different. For many years I’ve collected news clippings of stories that fascinated me. One story kept surfacing, that of a Vietnam vet raising his young daughter in the woods near Portland, OR. Though a Seattle-ite now, I lived in Portland in 2004 when the pair were found by police and brought out of the woods, and I was mesmerized, wondering how it would all play out.

I loved how the very blue-state city of Portland reacted: the citizenry pitched in for a college fund for the girl, raising some $10,000. The girl was not placed in foster care, as one would imagine, nor was the father charged with child abuse or neglect. The police sergeant who took them away from the system and to a shelter instead was lauded in the press.

The events raised so many questions: why did the sergeant go against protocol? What was different about this particular case and these two people? Was the girl really being looked after sufficiently? Through continuing news stories, we learned that she was home-schooled by the father and, at 12 years old, reading at a 12th grade level. A physical exam determined she was healthy, not abused; she didn’t even have any cavities. She was clean and seemingly happy and articulate, even though she lived in a lean-to in the forest.

For me, good stories arise from questions. As a former magazine features writer and generally curious person, I love research. I emailed the police sergeant in Portland and introduced myself. I told him I loved the story, and I appreciated what he did for the father and daughter. I told him I wanted to write the story, but as a novel. In his short reply, I could feel him scratching his head. “Let me come to Portland and buy you lunch,” I wrote back. If I could just talk to him, I thought.

A week later I caught the train to Portland. Inside the darkened restaurant sat just one other person near the back. He was oh-my-god tall, broad-shouldered, shiny bald, wearing dark glasses, a dark suit, and sporting a holster shaped bulge beneath his jacket. He scared the crap out of me.

By the end of lunch, we were simpatico. The events from 2004 were still very much on his mind. Over the next year, I met with him several times in Portland and emailed and called him with questions while writing. Getting the details of police procedure and forest setting were the fun parts of the process. He even took me hiking to the encampment one hot summer day, the best research I could have hoped for, complete with the ghosts of the characters swirling about and a red yo-yo pulled from the earth beneath where their lean-to had been.

What I didn’t realize when embarking on this book, however, was how difficult it would be to figure out which truths to tell, and which not to. As with my first three novels, there were people I wanted to protect, or at least not insult. I had a fierce, almost maternal instinct to protect the real girl. It drove me to rewrite, scrap certain elements, go back and disguise other things. I wrote characters as different from the real ones (easy, having never met the father and daughter) in as many ways as I could. The sergeant morphed into a Hispanic single mom cop who was not in charge at all, and had even more hurdles to face in doing what she thought was right for the father and daughter. Even the city of Portland became a fictional city to obfuscate the routes they took, and the implied location of their encampment.

In the end, it was one of the most satisfying writing experiences I’ve had, and people like the book. I like the details and drama I infused, using imagination to create a media gone wild (well, that doesn’t take too much imagination) and an underground movement that helps those in need.

At readings, though, I’m often asked a question that haunts me:

What if the real girl reads the book?

I have no answer for that question, only a twist in my chest, and hope that she will understand my need to write this story.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Jane Austen, Harry Potter, and a Bit of Both

After a college friend, currently an English professor, gave birth to her second child, she lamented to me, “These days, I’m too sleep-deprived to read anything in the evenings but mysteries and regencies.”

Well, I knew about mysteries; I love early 20th-century detective novels, and I consider Dorothy Sayers to be the gold standard. (I read her translation of Dante at Stanford before I knew she wrote mysteries.) I knew about true sleep deprivation, too, since I had a preschooler and an insomniac baby at the time. But what were regencies?

“Regencies,” answered my English professor friend, “are for those of us who are unhappy about running out of Jane Austen novels.”

Delightedly recognizing myself in this intriguing statement, I set off in search of regencies. I mean, how many times can you reread Jane Austen’s six novels? I happily investigated this whole new genre for awhile before realizing that, with few exceptions, Georgette Heyer wrote the only really good ones.

Don’t try Heyer’s serious historical novels – they’re abysmal. But her regencies, written with effervescence and humor in the early part of the 20th century, are like lighthearted, frivolous Jane Austen novels, replete with the kind of airy witticisms I always wish I could produce at will (except that on the rare occasions that I do, I get queer looks, because – let’s face it – nobody talks like that anymore) and vivid, funny character sketches in the bigger context of class-bound Regency England. As romantic social comedies go, these are charming.

Heyer’s 1920s mysteries are well-done, too. The plots do not rival the sophistication and complexity of Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie, but Heyer’s holistic product of social mores, social satire, witty repartee, and elegant writing make for satisfying reading. Why Shoot a Butler? is typically ironic from its title to its ending. I love her mysteries, but I laugh out loud reading her regencies.

Elizabeth Aston writes "continuations" of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Now, what if you combined Jane Austen’s Regency England with Harry Potter? You would get Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Clarke writes of an original, fascinating fictional world, yet it’s her prose that I love. I have rarely read popular prose that is as deeply beautiful as Susanna Clarke’s. Yes, she has some serious plotting issues, but her writing and her characterization and the epic quality of her novel are a joy to read. Even her footnotes are a delight. (How often do footnotes make you laugh out loud in admiration and humor?) This is a jewel of a book; if she had woven her threads better and tightened the denouement, she would have had a masterpiece. It’s enough of a good yarn that the 800-some pages will rush by. But it’s better, by far, to savor them.

When I first explained my bedtime reading criteria in Monday’s blog, I began with Possession as a book that satisfied it all. So it’s only fitting that I finish with another writer who satisfies everything I want from any book. I first read Henry James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” when I was nineteen years old, and I stayed awake long into the night because I couldn’t put it down, so riveting it was. Henry James never had to resort to cheap tragedy or specious violence to achieve depth. His stories are mesmerizing and wrenchingly profound without ever leaving their commonplace settings. The Turn of the Screw and Other Short Fiction has it all – psychological suspense, a ghost story (or is it?), a love story, and an intensely incisive evaluation of the human psyche, all bound together in some of the most magnificent prose ever written.

My husband always rolls his eyes when I rhapsodize about Henry James. But no blog about my favorite reads – whether fluffy or serious or escapist – would be complete without a mention of him. When I write The Great American Novel, I could do worse than use James for a model.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll consider my current book, The Muslim Next Door, for your nightstand, as well. Admittedly, it’s academically reliable information on what Muslims believe and practice (I have a degree in Islamic law), but it’s also written for the bedside table. I wrote it for those of you intellectually curious people who are somewhat tired by day’s-end and want a bit of learning and a bit of entertainment rolled into one engaging, fun-to-read book about the world's second-largest religion.

Happy bedtime reading!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bedside Table Reads That Won't Endanger Your Peace of Mind

In Monday’s blog, I confessed to how and why I read escapist books for pleasure. The best of these inspire hope without whitewashing all the troublesome aspects of the human condition. After all, although I certainly don’t want to read about Barbie and Ken living placidly in their singular dimension, I don’t want my bedtime reading to give me nightmares, either.

But it’s not always easy to find books that qualify for my nightstand these days. I disagree with the current vogue that catastrophic tragedy is a sufficient substitute for penetrating insight into the human psyche. I don’t want to be shocked by violence, enough of which pervades the news. I also confess that I dislike reading about empty, meaningless, power-driven sex. (I mean, honestly, whatever happened to innuendo?) And finally, it’s a rare book, modern or not, that manages to sustain its crescendo until the end, pulling together all its various harmonies and melodies into a resounding resolution.

Yet, one of my all-time favorite books, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, achieves all these things. A literary mystery involving two Oxford scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets, this book is an antidote to our sound-byte culture. Byatt takes her time developing her characters; she writes in beautiful, elegant sentences; and she weaves a tight, slowly gathering, inexorable plot. The threads are flawlessly woven, and if her characters are initially somewhat slow to draw the reader’s sympathy, her patient and subtle unraveling of their layers culminates in a multidimensional picture that I found immensely satisfying. Despite winning the Booker Prize for Fiction, I think this book is still underrated. I loved it so much that I even liked the movie.

Jeremy Northam (a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor) and the original source material are what make "Possession" an enjoyable movie -- but, of course the book is better!

Most books that qualify for my bedside table are a bit lighter. But what my favorites have in common with Possession is, to a greater or lesser degree, extremely good writing. Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution is one of them, a short volume of rich, creamy writing. The plot is minimal but sly; the characters are sketched rather than painted. (I daren’t give away more than that, and I entreat you, for the sake of your own enjoyment, not to read the back-cover blurb before beginning.) But the wonderful language is what makes this book worth reading. My husband was surprised I took so long to read it, given its brevity – my response was, “I’m savoring every sentence slowly.”

Jasper Fforde’s books, on the other hand, are fast. Given the dubious distinction of being equally appealing both to my husband and to me, The Eyre Affair and the three books that follow it in the series are a rollicking roller coaster of literary puns, swashbuckling adventure, and science fiction. Fforde blurs the line between literature and reality in a series that’s not particularly deep, but rather immoderately clever, very literate, and laugh-out-loud fun. The books are also social satires, though they’re not usually billed that way. I relished all four, but the third, The Well of Lost Plots, was perhaps my favorite. And although I have absolutely no right to say so, I’m sure Jasper Fforde had an absolute ball writing these books – his enjoyment and humor infiltrate every word.

Neil Gaiman, though, is someone I can’t picture at all. Angela in the children’s section at Kepler’s said to me once, shaking her head, “He’s a very strange man. . . .” I suspect she’s right. Gaiman is the kind of writer who does not guarantee that you’ll like all his books just because you happened to like one or two. And it’s one or two that I (quite) like: Anansi Boys and Stardust, his two lightest. Both adult fairy tales, both just on the very verge of what I find unacceptably creepy, they’re yet whimsically written and indulgent examinations of what motivates people to behave the way they do.

All these books are modern, obviously. But, for me, it's old-fashioned, graceful, uncontrived writing that's at issue here, whether written recently or in the last century. More of it on Friday!

It's not the Booker Prize (which is for fiction, anyway!), but I'm quite pleased that my book, The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, is a Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publishers Awards.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Guest Post by Sumbul Ali-Karamali: Confessions of an Escapist Pleasure Reader

I first met Aggie at one of the events Kepler’s held for me last year, when my book, The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing was first published. Shortly afterwards, while we both wrestled with unexpected formatting obstacles on my first Well-Read Donkey Blog Post, Aggie and I instead diverged into the much more pleasing subject of books we read for pleasure. We found our tastes to be wholly divergent when it came to pleasure reading, which itself struck us as so humorous (given our instant rapport) that we talked late into the night, laughing at our own dubious literary jokes, and without regard to the lateness of the hour. What better beginning to a blog?

Books that qualify for my bedside table (as opposed to those that qualify for my study) are, simply, escapist books that don’t leave me feeling depressed and hopeless. I must hasten to add that my definition of “escapist pleasure reads” does not refer to books devoid of riveting writing or labyrinthine plots or incisive character development. It does refer to books that conspicuously lack gratuitous death, destruction, and tragedy – literary devices that I can no longer stomach.

Why so squeamish? Well, the news these days is already replete with enough horror and invective to quench the hopes of even hardened optimists. And since I have been blessed with children to raise, I find I worry enough about them that I shrink from also having to worry about the characters in my pleasure reads. But most of all, I read feel-good books at night because of the work I do during the day.

These days, I am the author of a book on what Muslims believe and practice, as well as a public speaker and commentator on that same subject (having, in addition to my undergraduate English degree and law degree, a graduate degree in Islamic law). This means that I read a lot of Very Serious Factual Nonfiction with titles like Islamic Finance in the Global Economy and The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (two excellent books, incidentally). If my bedside table supported these sorts of virtuous titles, however, I would have night-long nightmares about wrestling extremists entering into shari’a-compliant general partnership agreements. Or something like that.

Authoring a book on Islam, however readable and full of memoir-like reminiscences it may be, means that I am often a magnet for all the anger, fear, prejudice, and hatred that some of my fellow Americans harbor with respect to my religion. A Gallup poll recently found that a majority of Americans view Muslims negatively and that over half of Americans think that American Muslims cannot be loyal to the United States. I find this statistic deeply shocking and very disturbing. Although I try to bring a light-heartedness and humor to both my writing and my talks, building bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims is a stressful field to inhabit these days.

Is it any surprise that, in my spare time, I don’t wish to read books riddled with death and destruction, xenophobia and bigotry? I want to read stories that inspire hope, not devastate it. I want to read about epiphanies, if I can, and optimism. I want to read love stories, rather than hate stories, folded into plots ensconced in beautiful writing instead of in videogame-like, action-oriented sentence fragments. I want old-fashioned grammar. I want to smile, even laugh perhaps, at our human attempts to become what we can be, not weep over what we are.

So when Aggie asked me to write about my feel-good pleasure reading, I couldn’t resist. Here they are then, in the next two blog installments this week: a few of my favorite mysteries, historical novels, romantic comedies, and social satires. All have literary merit, and all qualify for my bedside table.

If you prefer depressing books that delve into the Stygian depths of the human psyche, you might be disappointed in my choices – or you might not. Does profoundly plumbing the human condition require a descent into depression? Tune into Wednesday’s blog to find out!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Ten Tips for Writers

I want to start my final post for The Well-Read Donkey by saying thanks so much for letting me participate in this wonderful bookstore's wonderful blog.  It has been a lot of fun.  While I'm relatively new to the world of blogs, much of my work as a creative writing instructor has taken place online.  For the past three years since its inception, I have been teaching creative writing workshops through Stanford's Online Writer's Studio.

I help facilitate this program, planning the curriculum and training instructors, as well as leading my own workshops in both fiction and creative nonfiction every quarter.

The program started when I was pregnant, and it was a job I was able to keep doing even when my son was a newborn (sometimes holding live chat hours while nursing--a fact which I didn't share at that time with my students).  I had taught writing in the classroom before that, and I enjoyed the chemistry of a live interaction, the crackle of excitement when a class is going especially well.  But I was surprised and pleased to find that I love teaching writing classes online just as much.  It's not the same, and you do miss certain aspects of the live classroom, but there are definite tradeoffs.  I enjoy being able to work at odd hours in my pajamas, a glass of wine by the computer and my feet propped on my desk.  I also like the intense focus of getting to know my students through their writing, and I do feel like I get to know them as people, which was confirmed when I met a group of them for dinner before the Kepler's reading. They were even more remarkable in person than on the page, which is saying a lot.

For my final post, I thought I would share some tips or suggestions that I give students in my writing workshops, for those of you out there who are beginning writers, or struggling with some stage of the process (as we all do from time to time).

1.  Make and stick to a regular writing schedule, and keep that time sacred--no email or checking facebook.  It doesn't have to be four hours per day, seven days per week.  In fact, setting a goal that's too lofty might doom you to fail, and that feeling of failure might keep you from picking up and trying again.  Be ambitious but also realistic.  If you're busy with a job and family, but you can carve out one hour each morning before the kids wake up, then try setting your alarm clock an hour early--even just two or three days per week.  If you go from zero hours per week to three hours per week, you'll be accomplishing three times more than you were before.  If you have Sunday afternoons free, then try setting those aside.  I just read an interview with a young adult novelist who has written three books using one weekend day per week to write.  The point is that you don't have to make it a full-time job, but you do have to set aside time to do it, and regularity and consistency tend to work wonders for writers.

2.  Whether you are in a writing workshop or not (and I definitely think they're a good idea, especially for those just getting started, to learn craft basics) find a writing friend, someone at about the same stage as you are, and trade work on a regular basis.  Having a close reader, and hearing that person's take on your work, will help you to be able to revise it.  Without a reader, it's very hard to have any objective sense of what's working well and what could still use improvement.  You can definitely use readers who aren't also writers, but I find that fellow writers tend to be better at giving constructive feedback.  It's nice to hear, "This is fabulous," but only hearing praise won't help you to grow or your writing to improve.  (Yes, I'm a big believer in revision.  Without it, I wouldn't be a writer).

3.  Do exercises.  I love prompts.  I love to give them to the classes I teach, and I love to be given them as well.  The secret about writing prompts is that it almost doesn't matter what they are.  You might be staring at a blank page, with no idea what to write, feeling utterly uncreative, and if I were to say, "In your first paragraph, make sure that there is a prosthetic arm, an animal and a hot beverage," I have no doubt that you would soon pick up your pen and a story would start to flow.  In grad school at Iowa, my friend Chelsey and I used to give each other arbitrary prompts like this, and it never failed both to amuse us and to trigger our imaginations.  The point of a prompt or exercise should never be to force you to do an assignment "perfectly."  There is no "wrong" way to follow a prompt.  The point is to trick your mind into forgetting about self-consciousness and perfectionism, and to get you free associating and imagining things outside yourself, and writing and enjoying writing.  You can make up your own exercises, or pick up a book like What If that's full of great prompts.

4.  Read four times more than you write.  This was the advice given by Frank Conroy (rip), the legendary former director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, when I was a student there.  It can be hard to follow when you're frantically busy, trying to hold a job, raise kids, walk the dog, exercise--oh yeah, and write.  That said, it is crucial that you read at least as much as you write, and that you read both in the form that you want to write in, and also in other forms.  You will not learn to write amazing short stories unless you are actively reading as many short stories as you can get your hands on, seeing all sorts of variations on the form, figuring out what works for you and also what you're not enamored of.  You won't be able to write a mystery if you don't read mysteries, or have a good idea of the goals and limitations of young adult fiction without becoming an expert reader of the genre.  But also read nonfiction, magazines, histories, biographies.  Saturate yourself in the written word.

5.  Take in other art forms, as many and as often as you can.  When I'm really stuck on a piece of writing, I've been trying and trying to figure out how to fix it, and the hours of applying the seat of my pajamas to the seat of my chair just aren't doing the trick, sometimes the thing that helps me most is to take an afternoon off and use it to go see a matinee or go to a museum or listen to music while taking a walk.  Visual art is especially helpful and inspiring to me, as is movement.  I've had story breakthroughs while jogging and listening to a favorite song on repeat.  After a lot of struggle, it's often when I surrender and stop trying so hard, and so consciously, that I'm able to figure out what I need to do to make a piece of writing work.

6.  Try the accordion approach to revision.  If one draft is really long and expository, with way too much backstory and lengthy asides, try making the next draft as streamlined as possible, cutting out everything that could possibly go without making the story overly opaque, perhaps sticking mainly to dialogue and just a few stage directions.  Then, on the revision after that, add back in the lines and details that you really miss and don't want to live without.  In other words, grow a long draft, then shrink it to the bare minimum, then grow it again, then shrink it...  After doing this a few times, you'll probably land on a final version that is just the right length.

7.  When you're learning how to write--and even after you're a seasoned writer, if possible--try not to think about getting published as long as you can possibly stand it.  Write as if no one were going to read your writing, allowing yourself to be fearless with the feelings and details that you put on the page, vulnerable and brave and experimental, even ruthlessly honest.  Take every risk that tempts you as a writer.  There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to get published, but my perception is that most people who focus on this too soon actually hurt their writing and (ironically) their chances of eventually finding their way into print. 

8.  When I was at a stage with my novel where I had been working on it for a few years but couldn't yet see the end, I was laboring to make pieces come together, and I didn't know if they ever would, I started to feel incredible resistance and resentment toward writing, and I actually made a header for my manuscript that said, "Remember that you choose to write, and try to have fun."  For me, it was helpful to remember that no one was forcing me to do this.  I could have been spending that time doing something to earn money, or out at a restaurant or walking on the beach.  No one had a gun to my head. 

9.  Have a boring job or have a baby.  I say this somewhat jokingly, and yet I found that a lot of that resentment or resistance that I just described went away after I had a child and suddenly found myself with a lot less time to spend on my writing.  Furthermore, the writing time I did have were costing me a lot in childcare, not to mention time away from my kiddo.  I no longer felt that I could afford to waste that time, but also--interestingly, because I hadn't anticipated this--I appreciated that time more.  I was less likely to torture myself over revising and re-revising the same paragraph over and over.  Having less time in which to write made me want to use what little time I have more efficiently.  I am a bit less precious and perfectionistic about my writing, more willing to move forward, to call something finished in order to move on to another project.

10.  Write the poem/story/article/book that you wish you could be reading, but that you haven't found out there in the world.  This is my favorite piece of advice, that I always come back to as a writer, and pass along to writing students whenever I can.  You will do your best writing if you feel passion for your subject, and if you're saying something that you think needs to be said, and hasn't yet, at least not quite the way that you want to say it. Don't copy someone else's book, even if it's a book you love.  That book already exists, and doesn't need to be rewritten. 

If anyone feels like commenting, I'd love to have other people add to the list of tips for writers. 

What inspires you, keeps you going when it's going slowly, or helps you out when you're stuck?

And since I mentioned the fact that I was pregnant when I started teaching online, and then the way that having a baby proved unexpectedly useful (not to mention challenging) to me as a writer, I thought I'd post a picture of said child holding my book.  Shameless, I know.  But he'll never let us get away with forcing him into cute poses like this later on, or let me write about him either, I suspect. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Accidental Blog Tourist

Last month, while I stayed home, my novel went on a “virtual tour” of book blogs. The person who set this up encouraged me to visit the tour stops and contribute to each comments thread, to thank the bloggers and answer potential readers’ questions. I found this a little embarrassing, as if I were eavesdropping on conversations about me (which I was) or obsessed with people’s opinions about the book. I’ve heard some writers swear that they never read their reviews, good or bad, and while I’m not sure I believe them, I can understand why this might be wise.

The tour started with a book blogger who didn’t want to read “another depressing book about suicide,” and resented having to read about a woman in a relationship with another woman. She doesn’t like reading fiction in which the characters make “objectionable lifestyle choices,” a point she made more than once, carrying it into her comments thread. “The lesbian thing was the icing on the cake!” (Um—that sounds kind of good).

While I knew that I should just brush it off—clearly this wasn’t the right reader for my book—her review irritated me. She is entitled to her opinion, and her politics too, I guess. Still, her criticisms struck me as odd, coming from someone who apparently wants to review fiction, if not for a living then at least for free ARC’s and a public platform. When I write book reviews, I’m sometimes assigned novels that aren’t exactly my thing, books I wouldn’t necessarily choose to read in my free time, but I try to approach them on their own terms, not to contrast them with books closer to my taste.

I was tempted to remind her that fiction represents the spectrum of human experience, and that homosexuality and suicide both occur fairly frequently within that spectrum. But I figured she didn’t want to hear it from me. Besides, I didn’t want to be accused of recruiting. I chose not to post a comment on that particular blog post.

But aside from that first stop on the tour, the book bloggers who took the time to read and write posts on my novel were generous and insightful, measured in their varied opinions, which interested me greatly. Before the advent of book blogs, I don’t think that writers had the chance to see how readers (not just professional book critics) were responding to their choices on the page. Aside from that lingering feeling of voyeurism, it was cool to follow the comments threads, to see how something that one person mentioned especially liking could spur another reader to want to pick up a copy, or how the same thing could make a different reader decide this probably wasn’t the book for her.

The book bloggers and their followers were clearly passionate and close readers, and they made me doubt all of the fear-mongerers who have been dourly predicting the death of the novel, and the collapse of the print media as a whole.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that it’s an easy market for fiction writers—especially literary fiction writers. The print media is struggling, and book reviews in particular are dwindling or getting cut with disappointing frequency. I hadn’t realized how little print space there is for book reviews, compared to the number of books being published, until I paid a recent visit to the basement of the San Francisco Chronicle, a labyrinthine space devoted to the storage of galleys, most of them gathering dust before getting boxed up and donated to the library. There is precious little space left in print journalism for book reviews, most of which go to authors with established reputations and readership, making it hard for beginning writers to get attention paid to their books, so that they can find their readers.

But book bloggers are definitely working hard to compensate, and they’re doing a great job, not just filling a niche but creating something new and dynamic on their interactive sites. One of the things that I love about some of the book blogs that I only recently discovered, like Sasha and The Silverfish (, and The Constance Reader's Guide to Throwing Books With Great Force ( is that there’s no market-driven pressure behind what they can choose to review, no need to satisfy advertisers or a particular demographic. They can blog about adult and young adult books, literary and genre fiction, just-published novels and classics. They also have space to do interviews or run pieces by guest bloggers. With readers able to leave comments (and authors encouraged to chime in on the comment threads) it fosters a real literary community, and gives me hope that the novel will survive and even thrive, in spite of (or maybe even because of) the changes in publishing.

This picture has nothing to do with the post, it's just something I found in a drawer, taken when I lived in Japan, after a fellow teacher dressed me up in kimono and then took me to 7-11.  Looking at the rice balls and sushi for sale on these 7-11 shelves, I'm wishing we had things like this for sale at American convenience stores!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Guest Post bt Malena Watrous: Why I Wrote a Novel, Not a Memoir

“Wait,” the woman cut me off, after I mentioned that my husband’s family had connections to the bookstore where she worked. “Your husband? When did that happen?” She looked bewildered and (was I imagining it?) irked.

“Five years ago?” I said, my voice rising in a question the way it does when I get nervous.

“So when did you write the book?"

“Um... I started it in 2000 and I guess I finished it about two years ago?”

Upon hearing this, her scowl deepened (no, I wasn’t imagining it), which was disconcerting since until the conversation took this detour, I had been enjoying speaking with her. She had told me that she’d begun reading my book earlier that week, and that she planned on recommending it to customers at the bookstore. I was thrilled. This was the week that the book came out, and I was still getting used to the fact that strangers—people aside from my mother—might actually choose to read my novel.

“You do realize that it’s a novel,” I said on a whim, figuring that of course she must. After all, the words A Novel were printed on the spine.

“What?” she practically sputtered.

“It’s a novel?” I sounded as if I doubted this fact myself.

“I had no idea,” she said, shaking her head. "I'm really sorry."

“That's okay,” I rushed to try and put her at ease. “There’s a lot that comes from real life.”

Let me stop and tell you a little bit about the book, which will help explain her confusion.

My novel (and it is a novel—I swear), If You Follow Me, is about a young woman who moves from Manhattan to a small town in rural Japan. She is in her first relationship with another woman, and is following her girlfriend, who wanted to teach abroad, on a Japanese government program. When they learn that they’ve been placed in a remote and conservative region—in the nuclear power plant town of Shika—they decide to keep their relationship a secret for a while, so as not to scare people. Unfortunately, this creates pressure that contributes to the erosion of their relationship. Even though they’re not “out,” they both find plenty of other ways to alienate themselves from the senior citizens who preside over their neighborhood—mostly to do with their inability to follow the Kafka-esque garbage laws about how to dispose of things.

The novel follows the narrator, Marina, over the course of a year, as she struggles to adapt to this new culture and job, and to come to terms with her father’s death. He killed himself during her senior year of college, ending his life right when hers was about to begin. While she tries to set her grief aside and move on as if nothing had happened, her sadness and confusion and guilt follow her to Japan—they’re as hard to “throw away” as the trash. The novel is also, as the back of the jacket says, “a strange kind of love story,” as she starts to fall for her Japanese supervisor, a karaoke aficionado who writes her letters that are initially intended to teach her how to obey garbage laws, but grow increasingly personal.

So why might that woman have mistaken my novel for a memoir?

For starters, the main character’s name is awfully close to my own. “Marina” is what I was called when I lived in Japan, because “Malena” was nearly impossible for most native Japanese speakers to pronounce. The Japanese characters Ma-Ri-Na were etched on my hanko, the bamboo stamp that was registered at Shika’s town hall, that I used to “sign” bank statements and bills. Like my fictional namesake, I lived for a year in the nuclear power plant town of Shika, where music did in fact pump from speakers aimed at every house, “to test the PA system in case of some emergency evacuation,” according to my supervisor. I taught at a vocational school not unlike the one in the novel, where the classes were split by gender. I also followed someone to Japan, where the relationship unraveled for different reasons, not so dissimilar from what happens in the book.

But I took plenty of liberties with the story as well. In Shika, I lived not with my girlfriend in a rickety old house, but by myself in a postage-stamp-sized apartment that was largely made of plastic. The house featured in the novel was actually in Kanazawa, the small city where I lived during my second year in Japan, with two other women—one of them a semi-professional fencer from Canada. We did bury a cat, but he died of natural causes, not at the hands of a furious shut-in, as happens in the novel. No such shut-in lived across the street. However, there was an obese boy who happened to be the only male student in my all-girls class back in Shika, who had allegedly been living in his room throughout junior high, and who was bullied by other kids. I taught him for a year, but never got to know him. My lingering fascination provoked me to want to write about him, to imagine what had motivated himself to hide from the world and why he’d come out again--but so tentatively.

Sometimes I feel like I should have a checklist, where the parts of the book that are true are listed on one side, and the parts that aren’t are true appear on the other, that I could bring as a visual aid to readings. It might simplify things for readers, and satisfy their curiosity, which I get. Whenever I read a book that is semi-autobiographical, I always wonder which bits came from real life and which were invented. I don’t have a particular preference for autobiographical fiction, but I do like to read something where the emotions of the characters (especially the narrator, in a first person novel) feel fresh and spot-on, where the writer is using fiction to explore complex and nuanced feelings, often about difficult things. A reporter asked me recently if I could say what percentage of the book is true and what percentage is made up. I said that the emotional core of the book is largely true, or as true as I could make it. While writing, I was trying to sift out and find language to dramatize feelings that are still murky for me. But the story is largely made up. A lot of the characters are inspired by people I knew, or who captured my imagination when I lived in Japan. But they didn’t do the things or say the things that happen in the novel.

“So why did you write this as a novel and not as a memoir?” a woman asked at a reading--a question I'm getting used to, although I still can't give a quick answer (as you can see).

“Because I like to lie,” was the first response that came to me, tongue-in-cheek but also at least partly true. I’m the kind of person who, when telling an anecdote from real life, can’t help but embellish the details a little (or a lot) if it makes a better story. This is why I love fiction, why I mostly read stories and novels instead of memoirs, and why I want to write it as well. During the James Frey scandal, I was struck by the fact that he’d written his book first as a novel, which he failed to sell, only succeeding in finding a publisher after he turned it into a memoir. When Oprah attacked him, one of the issues she had was the seeming randomness of some of his lies, which seemed needless and exasperating. The reason for this, I’m sure, is that he’d grown attached to the fictionalized version of events, the one he struggled to find while crafting the dreary or disconnected bits of his life into a novel with a coherent story line, a book with a structure and a plot and themes, an arc and some kind of resolution--things we ask for in a work of fiction and seldom get in real life.

In this book, I wanted to have it both ways. I wanted to be able to write in almost documentary detail about this incredibly surreal place where I lived in Japan, and also to capture the feelings, ranging from claustrophobia to wonder, that I had while living there. I started the story that turned into the novel while I was in graduate school at Iowa. For a year I'd been inventing characters, jumping from one perspective to another, never quite satisfied that I’d nailed these fictional people or captured their voices. Before that, I’d worked in journalism. Writing essays and articles, I found it easier to capture a natural or authentic sounding voice, partly because I could imagine the reader. I knew who I was speaking to. When I started writing about Japan, I wanted to tap into that voice, the one that I use when I write nonfiction, but I wanted to use it to tell a story. That was my chief goal: to give readers the satisfaction of a story, rather than just stringing together a series of vignettes from my two years abroad, where I would have been unable to resist the temptation to exaggerate—and gotten in big trouble after getting caught, I have no doubt.

Now, when I get caught, I can always point to those words, A Novel, written on the spine of the book. It's true, sort of, just like the book itself.

Posted By Malena Watrous to Well-Read Donkey at 4/05/2010 11:23:00 AM

Friday, April 2, 2010

Guest Post by Tatjana Solli: Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Publishing a First Book

Your relationship with your husband/significant other will get worse.

Your relationship with your mother won’t get better.

You relationship with your dog will.
I remember attending a writing conference years ago and having some extremely successful writer tell us that the most important thing to him was the act of writing, that creation was where the pure joy of the profession was, that if we were all writing to the best of our abilities, every day, we should consider ourselves successful, publication or not.


I, and I’ll guess everyone else in that class, thought, easy for you to say. His books in every bookstore, reviews to die for, awards and more awards. We assumed we were getting the consolation prize speech.

Fast forward some _________ (cough, cough) years, and I’m on the brink of publishing my first novel, The Lotus Eaters. In my own limited, extremely miniscule way, I’ve learned a few things. Number one: Writing is the most important thing.

Don’t yawn yet.

In the beginning, I do think it’s necessary to be a little obsessed with publication, only because it’s so quiet those first years. No one is telling you, Yes! The first time you see your name in print, in my case a small quarterly long since out of print, is genuinely thrilling. Then it’s over. You push little journals on your friends and family to read, but after a while you have no choice but to shut up and go back to work. This is your refuge from the quiet, your refuge from the constant barrage of rejection slips that we all suffer through.

Once you publish a book, you have a different problem. Instead of silence, there is nonstop noise, and if there is no noise, you get nervous and make your own. Publication and promotion is a full-time business. If you don’t believe me, look at the thick shelves of advice books to aspiring and new authors. This last year I created a website, a blog, got on Facebook and Twitter. You are reading my guest blog here. I’ve dipped into the world of non-fiction essays and reviews. It’s a lot of noise for a quiet person to make.

Without peace and quiet, normal writer mode, I get irritable. Hence, my husband has been extremely tolerant of my rollercoaster moods. I’m busier than I’ve ever been —juggling writing novel two, teaching, and keeping up with my website, blog, readings, twitterings. I haven’t visited my mom in a while. Mom is not so happy with her debut-novelist daughter. But I’m happy to report my dog still is wild about me. Two meals a day, a walk, and a good scratch behind the ears, and he’s happy. He doesn’t much care about the novel one way or another. He did sniff it to see if it was edible.

All this is to say that as much as publishing changes your life, it doesn’t change it fundamentally. Writers write. Good times, bad times. The best part is that a few days ago I got my first fan mail. The woman totally got the novel, and said how deeply it moved her. I printed it out. All that exhausting noise, but some of it so beautiful. I’ll tell the truth at this stage — I’m itching to get back to my desk, itching to start new stories. That famous writer was correct: writers write.