Sunday, January 31, 2010


In preparation for my appearance at Kepler's next week on Thursday, February 11th, where I will be discussing my novel True Confections with the wonderful Susan Karl, President and CEO of the Annabelle Candy Company (makers of Big Hunk, Look, U-No, Rocky Road, and Abba-Zaba), I want to talk here about aspects of reading and writing fiction, and I invite you to respond with your own thoughts. So this is the first of three guest posts this week.

I would also like to encourage visits to a website where the fiction of True Confections continues beyond the page,, where a musical contest with prizes for all entries awaits. There will be candy for all and prizes for the bold on the 11th, too, so do visit the Zip's Candies website, view the original 1960 commercial, download the sheet music, and start practicing your renditions of the vintage Little Sammies jingle, "Say, Dat's Tasty!"

How to Read a Novel, Apparently

At a panel discussion about book groups at last year’s BEA, I was not surprised to hear each of the panelists agree that the most successful way to lead a book group discussion is to research the author’s biography in order to discuss it and make connections between the author’s life and the chosen novel. I wasn’t surprised, because this focus has been part of my experience in the q & a at library talks, in bookstores, and in book group meetings each time I publish a novel, but perhaps it has become especially noticeable in recent years, when I was on the road for my last novel, Triangle, which came out in 2006, and now with True Confections, which has just been published. I recognize that this discussion strategy has become the default assumption about the best way to understand a novel, just as it has become the default assumption about optimal questions for the author. And whether or not the author is present, finding the links between the author’s experience and history and the novel’s characters, setting, and events has in many instances become the core of any conversation about the novel.

Why has identifying and checking off a factual basis for each significant element in the fiction somehow become the goal of many readers? Why do readers feel compelled to read through the fiction looking for the actual underlying facts, as if a novel is an autobiographical puzzle created by the author to challenge every reader? Why do so many readers approach a novel as if there is supposed to be a goal in reading, and that goal is solving this puzzle? This is not how people used to read novels, I am pretty sure.

We all know people (or perhaps we are those people) who can only go on a walk in the woods with binoculars, a bird guide, and a copy of their life list. We all know people who cannot simply gaze at the stars. They automatically begin identifying constellations. I do understand this impulse to organize the chaotic information the world throws at us in a skillful way that is reassuring to us because it makes us feel authoritative and competent and in control. But the Sudoko approach to reading a novel deprives the reader of the deepest and most satisfactory form of true engagement that fiction can offer us. What do you gain from knowing that the author of a novel about horses grew up on a ranch, or grew up in a city and never saw a horse until he was 27? What difference does it make to you as a reader? Why does it matter? Does it enhance your reading of the novel, or does it impair your chances at any sustained flight into the willing suspension of disbelief? If you need facts and facts and reality and more reality, why are you reading a novel?

Why do we read novels?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Guest Post by James Chandler: Self-Publishing Upstarts

San Francisco, 1977. I walked into a funky house in the Sunset to a seminar on self-publishing, hoping to fulfill a dream of self-expression. More than 30 years later, with the camaraderie of twenty other writers and a new technology called Print-On-Demand, I finally accomplished that elusive goal.

The Fallen Leaf Anthology is the tangible inspiration of authors attending the Stanford Write Retreat in the Spring of ’09. On the shores of the lake by the same name, we met three years ago to share our love of writing and learn new techniques. Initial discussions of “getting published” shifted more recently toward self-publishing. Stumbling over hurdles of editing, design, administration, and author sensitivities, we succeeded. Each of us now has a book to send to mothers, brothers and of course Aunt Martha who insisted we hold the pencil correctly and knew we would become writers one day.

I knew. Why else had my teacher dragged me across the hall to recite my essay on cranberries to the other fifth grade class? He was still laughing from my reference to 50,000 in a crate and a name change to “cram-berries.” For this, I became famous in my grandmother’s circle of friends who would greet me with the recollection, “Oh yes! You’re the young man who wrote about the strawberries!”

I’ve never stopped writing. It’s in my blood, or more accurately, in my mind, my philosophy, my perspective on life. Observing, thinking, writing it down is just a part of me. This perspective helps me address life more fully, just as a photographer sees more clearly through the frame of a lens.

After the first Write Retreat and the beginning of the Kepler’s Writers Group, I began to send out stories to new found, eclectic online journals. I was excited and sure that one of these would recognize the brilliance of my creative mind. Not!

At Kepler's last year, an editor of a mainstream publisher described the business in terms that sounded like a sinking ship, with publishers making wrong choices 90% of the time. He further noted the need for authors to develop their own “platform” online. When I asked what advantage a large publisher brought to the equation, he sidestepped unconvincingly. I began to question the worth of submitting stories to dozens of journals so that an agent might become interested in presenting me to a publisher who would ask me to do the marketing so he could keep the profit and rights to future works. Then it occurred to me: selection by an entity that was 90% wrong might not be such a kudo!

It is at this point that I dust off my old motto of “screw ‘em!” and proceed boldly forward. Admittedly, this doesn’t always work, as my wife will ardently attest. Yet given the odds, I find it far better to use available tools and the smattering of small companies willing to assist. You may not get limousine rides or be sent on a 7 day tour of 12 cities; but you will indeed end up with a book in hand, a tangible product of your own creation. Mothers, uncles, sisters and friends will turn the pages, proof that you are not only a writer but also a published author. Your daughter can take this legacy off the shelf to read to your grandson, as mine will do for Alex (in photo below). All this for only $500 and a few months of painstaking work – ironically less effort and money than sending out all those stories to endless journals fostering intense competition with a global call for reader’s fees.

There are downside risks. Self-publishing is a distraction from writing. Agents and editors do offer valuable counsel. Yet friends and writers’ groups can fill the gap, and time for writing resumes after the book is published. Grabbing the proverbial horns of the bull is daunting, fun, educational, frustrating, manageable and effective. We did it, rather in the style of co-operative efforts I recall from the Age of Aquarius. The irony is that having a book out there and creating your own “platform” could just get New York to give you a call. You might just hear yourself answer, “Thanks but no thanks. I’ll do it myself.”

Such is the empowerment of self-publishing. Write on! Write now!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Guest Post By Robin Black: RETREAT and ADVANCE

I've just come home from a week-long writing retreat with six friends. It was an extraordinary time. For seven days, it seemed as though all the issues and complications we had left at home - children, jobs, partners, parents - had been stilled, stopped in time by some Good Fairy with an interest in supporting the arts.

I want to blog about the experience because I think that one of the best assets every writer has is other writers. Leaving aside critiques and advice, we help one another be writers, because we believe that's an important, valid thing to be and because - unlike too many non-writers - we understand that being a writer isn't a matter of how much you've published or whether you have a website that says you are one. Or even whether you write every day. As most writers understand, being a writer is a matter of needing to write and trying to write and maybe also of understanding how very difficult it is to do. And it can be hard to feel confident with the identity all the time, even for those of us who have publications. And that is where other writers - the generous sort - can help. I didn't actually produce a lot on the page during this retreat, but I felt both nurtured and strengthened in my writerly identity, and am reminded once again of how crucial that is if you're in this for the long haul.

It can be tricky, though, getting a bunch of people of any kind in a house together. Even without the deaths and attempted impregnations of a Big Chill scenario, there can be dramas aplenty - and I mean off the page. Some years ago, I went on that kind of retreat with friends. We seemed to have packed our bags with interpersonal angst. We spent our days together rubbing each other the wrong way as surely as though we were all wearing sandpaper suits. Far from feeling nurtured, I came home feeling as though I needed to heal. Far from being strengthened in my writerly being, I thought maybe it was time to return to law school.

Now, as I look over the two trips, I can see some surprisingly practical reasons for the difference between them, and I want to share those in the hope that they'll be of use to others. So here is a list of suggestions for your consideration:

1. Have sleeping accommodations that are comparable for all. My earlier, less successful retreat began with the realization that one of us - which one? - would have a private bed and bath, while others of us - which ones? who would be left out? - would share a bedroom and other of us would be sleeping in a public area. So though we all tried to be gracious, there was friction over that from the start.

2. Make plans ahead of time about how chores will be divided. On this last retreat we had seven people and seven nights, so the question of who would cook (and pay for) dinner was easily decided: one per night. And that led to a quite beautiful ritual each evening, as that night's cook gave what amounted to a gift to the rest of us. In fact, at some point during the week, I thought about the often-asked question: for whom do you write? Yourself or other people? And I realized that cooking for the other writers in the house was a good analogy to my own response. I was doing it for them, wanting to please them; but the best way I knew how to do that, since I didn't really know their tastes, was by trying to give them something I myself would want.

3. Consider leaving home people with whom "it's complicated." Perhaps the greatest contrast between the Unfortunate Retreat and the Magical Retreat is the relationships between the people on each one. The group of us on the first one were all close, maybe a little too close. Close enough to squabble and close enough to have agendas with one another that had nothing to do with supporting each others work. We were Big Chill close. And in the end our time together was much more about our relationships than it was about fortifying our identities as writers.

4. Don't make this a time to critique each others work. There are plenty of opportunities for that, but one of the best aspects of this recent week was how safe we all felt, how unjudged. Every writer needs that from time to time, if only to bolster that part of herself that might take those all-important risks in the work. And in the end, I would suggest, a retreat is as much about strengthening your sense of yourself as a writer as it is about whatever pages you produce while there.

I hope this is helpful and I very much hope you are able to give it a try. I would love to hear about other people's experiences and advice. And whether you can go on retreat or not, I strongly recommend finding those people in your life who understand how important writing is to you and spending time with them, taking in their support - and then doing the same for someone else.

Huge thanks to Aggie for inviting me back!! The picture above, taken by a friend, is of where we were on the Jersey shore. One more hint: off-season = affordable.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Amy Greene Guest Post: How the Workshop Experience Changed My Life

I wrote the first draft of Bloodroot in secret. I spent hours shut away in my bedroom with a notebook and pen, emptying the story from my head onto paper. It took almost a year to form a novel from the messy collection of character sketches and scenes I had accumulated. For a while after finishing that rough draft, Bloodroot was mine alone. I kept it to myself, not even showing it to my husband. Having poured so much effort and so much of my heart into the manuscript, I was nervous about sharing it. But there came a time when I felt a need for constructive feedback, so I applied to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in 2007. I was glad to be accepted, but a little intimidated by the notion of a workshop. I couldn’t have known then how the experience would change my life.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference is held each summer on the campus of the University of the South. Over two weeks, I had the opportunity to learn about the craft of writing from authors like Richard Bausch and Jill McCorkle, benefiting from the advice they gave not only to me, but to the other writers in the workshop. I was lucky enough to meet with Jill for a one-on-one manuscript evaluation and she gave me some invaluable suggestions. Bloodroot needed revising, but Jill saw promise in my rough draft and offered to put me in touch with a literary agent once it was ready to be submitted.

Two months later, when I finished the revision, Jill introduced me to New York agent Leigh Feldman. Knowing that Leigh had represented Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, and Arthur Golden, who wrote Memoirs of a Geisha, I was nervous to have an agent of her caliber reading my story. I was over the moon when, on the day before I turned 32, she called and offered to represent me. Not long after that, she submitted Bloodroot to a list of major publishers. She explained it might take as long as a month for editors to respond, so I was happily surprised when she got back in touch after less than a week to say that Robin Desser, who is now my editor at Knopf, wanted to work with me.

Now Bloodroot will have a life of its own, and all I can do is watch what happens next. I look forward to all that’s ahead, but there’s fear as well. It’s hard letting go of the story I wrote in private and releasing it into the world. I have to remind myself to keep the creative part of being a writer separate from the public part. When I shut myself away with my notebook, I have to forget everything else and let each new story be secret again.

Amy Greene

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Amy Greene Guest Post: Turning My Manuscript Into a Book

It’s been a year since I turned in a final edit of Bloodroot and the work of writing my first novel was over. That’s when the process of turning my manuscript into a book began, and it has been a long one. Each step toward publication has been exciting, but if I hadn’t found something to occupy my mind, I’m sure the wait would have been torture. At some point, I decided to do what I’ve always done to pass the time. I began to write again.

I had been thinking about my second novel ever since I noticed the tops of silos and the beginnings of old roads leading to a town buried deep under the lake near my house. Its waters cover the original site of a place called Bean Station, one of the earliest settlements in Tennessee, flooded by a dam built in 1940 by the Tennessee Valley Authority. I envisioned the people who had lived in the town of Bean Station, imagined the sacrifices they must have made when it was flooded. Land that had been in families for a hundred years was lost underwater; the bones of loved ones were disinterred and moved; historical landmarks were destroyed. I knew I wanted to explore whether or not progress is always a force for good. All that was left was coming up with a story I loved.

With Bloodroot, I wrote mostly about characters my own age and the mountains as I know them. As my second novel evolved, I decided to go back in time to the land of my grandparents, and even farther back, to the land of the Cherokees who lived here first. Progress drove them from their homes many decades before dams displaced East Tennessee families in the 1930s. Most of us living in this part of Appalachia have blood ties to its native people. My husband’s great-great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, and in my father’s family of eight brothers and sisters, half were born with red hair and pale skin and the other half with black hair and dark skin. I’ve always been interested in the link between Native American heritage and my own. With that link in mind, I dreamed up Annie Clyde Dodson, a strong young woman with Cherokee blood.

Once I had a picture of Annie Clyde in my head, the story came to life. That’s how it always starts for me. The image that began Bloodroot was of a woman called Myra Lamb and her twin children Johnny and Laura living in isolation in the mountain woods, hiding from some kind of danger. With Annie, I saw a deep sadness about her and a fierce determination at the same time. I imagined that her little girl had gone missing in the months before her hometown was to be flooded by a TVA dam, and the plot of my second novel fell into place. While everyone else, even Annie Clyde’s husband, believes her child is dead, she keeps on searching alone. For months I’ve been immersed in Annie Clyde’s world, in her race to find her daughter before the dam gates close and the reservoir begins to rise.

But now it’s time to return to Bloodroot. In the coming weeks of my book tour, I’ll be reading out loud to audiences from the story I wrote what feels like ages ago. I look forward to revisiting it, getting to know the characters all over again. As much as I’ve enjoyed being lost in my second novel these past few months, Bloodroot will always be special. No matter how many novels there are to come, and I hope there are a lifetime of them, there will never be another first one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Amy Greene Guest Post: Writing Bloodroot

On the twelfth of this month, my debut novel, Bloodroot, will be published by Knopf. I imagine it will feel like a dream, seeing my own book on shelves among all those I’ve read and loved. In these weeks leading up to Bloodroot’s release, I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite books, the ones that have inspired me most. Toni Morrison’s Beloved always comes to mind first. I discovered Beloved when I was in my early twenties and new motherhood had left me with little energy for writing. It was reading Beloved that got my creative juices flowing again. I was in awe of Morrison’s lyrical prose and the novel’s magic realism spoke to me as a native of Appalachia, where there’s a rich culture of mysticism and folklore. Since discovering her novels over a decade ago, I’ve read every one that she’s written. They’re all beautiful, but Beloved remains my favorite.

I also think of All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy as an inspiration. I read it first in 1999, during the same summer when my aunt, whom I was very close to, died of breast cancer as I sat at her bedside. I wanted to write about her, but I didn’t know how to start. Reading McCarthy at that time was stunning to me, the way he used language, the way he wrote dialogue that was so real and true, especially since his characters were from similar places as me and spoke in voices that sounded like the people I had known my whole life. All the Pretty Horses introduced me to a new way of thinking about writing. I began a semi-autobiographical novel without holding anything back. Looking at the old notebooks I used, it’s hard to read the handwriting, words strung together without punctuation, sentences a paragraph long. It was liberating, learning simply to get the story down on paper, and not worrying about applying craft to it until later. I still write the same way. My semi-autobiographical novel is now in a box, never to see the light of day, but I consider it a turning point in my writing life, and reading All the Pretty Horses was the catalyst for it.

While Beloved and All the Pretty Horses might be the books that have most influenced my writing in general, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has most influenced Bloodroot. I read Wuthering Heights for the first time in high school and was swept away, captured by the darkly romantic moors and the twisted love of Heathcliff and Catherine. I didn’t think about Wuthering Heights as I worked on Bloodroot, but the mark it left on me as a writer is visible in my characters. John Odom’s obsessive passion for Myra Lamb, and his tortured soul, bring Heathcliff to mind. Myra’s freedom on the mountain and her later confinement in an abusive marriage mirrors Catherine’s freedom on the moors as a child and her later confinement at Wuthering Heights. Both novels raise some of the same questions as well, such as whether characters like Heathcliff and John are cruel by nature or products of their harsh upbringings. There’s also the major role setting plays in each, the Appalachian mountains in Bloodroot and the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights.

Reading and writing have been intertwined for me since I was a little girl, and I still keep a good book on hand while I’m writing, as a source of creative fuel. Right now, as I work on my second novel, I’m reading Jill Ciment’s The Tattoo Artist. I’m sure that each book I’ve read, going all the way back to my childhood favorite Charlotte’s Web, has influenced my writing in ways I don’t even realize. Now that my first novel is being published, I have hopes that my own stories might serve as inspiration in the same way.