Wednesday, June 22, 2011

C. J. Noonan: What a Newly Published Author Learns

“Evocative” is a powerful word in a book review. The critic implies mystery, depth of feeling, swell of remembrance, emotion rising. Readers assume fascination, excitement, complexity, sensation. As a new author, I value the adjective. It guided my writing.

“An evocative first novel from C.J. Noonan begins in the rough, early 20th century Sierra Nevada outpost of Truckee, California. It chronicles the tumultuous growing-up years of five children during the California woman’s rights movement and closes with the startling understandings of a good woman’s life, lived long.” These words are used to describe my novel, The House on Harrigan’s Hill.

A novel contains memoir and imagination. My novel’s characters, called “animated, no wooden, lifeless personalities…” from one reader’s brief Amazon review, are based on my grandmother’s early life. The events happened, told to me many times by my grandmother. Settings in the book come from places I know well in Sacramento, the Sierra Nevada, and Truckee. Beloved objects in the story decorate my home today. But these are all carefully chosen from among many events, scenes, and furnishings to add insight and to interpret the particular characters, landscape, and actions of the story. The novel is a doppelganger; two sides of a coin; or as the protagonist says things “remembered … one way and Tiny had a completely different memory.”

First time novelists are urged to block out a careful sequence of action that builds to a climax and resolves the conflicts in a denouement. They are told to spend time making character outlines. And some writers do. I used a more chaotic method. I just wrote and new ideas rolled out of my mind as the sequences developed. I moved sections around and rewrote as a new angle came to mind. I spent time thinking about what was going on in the character’s head to make them act a certain way. I recalled that the real “Mama,” my great grandmother, was a fountain of poems, lines from Shakespeare, and sayings from the Bible, so I molded that character to include those traits. They make her unique, which she was.

At workshops, on the internet, and from friends the advice was “get a reader.” The college writing professor friend who read the novel through many drafts helped beyond compare. She refers to me as one of her successful “mentees.” How lucky I was!

The Bay Area Writing Project’s emphasis on reading a draft and accepting the expert advice from colleagues was invaluable. I remember Jim Gray (first Writing Project director and friend) who promoted teachers as writers. From his words of wisdom I learned that a writing group is a must. The five pairs of eyes in my group, reading the same chapter I’d struggled over for weeks, suddenly provided a solution to a perplexing, seemingly irresolvable problem. That’s essential for every novelist, and especially a first timer.

The House on Harrigan’s Hill took four and a half years to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Yes, I took vacations, worked on senate and presidential elections, wrote short stories and weekly posts to my education blog, attended the many plays offered in the Bay Area, and generally lived my life. But the novel was in my imagination day and night.

It was frustrating that agents and publishers did not immediately see a sure winner in the novel set in early 20th century California, filled with quirky, quixotic characters living during social and economic upheaval high in the Sierra, with a climax at the time of the election for the Woman Suffrage Amendment that gave California women the right to vote.

The House on Harrigan’s Hill was published by Sea-Hill Press. It’s available at Kepler’s and Books, Inc (Mountain View) as well as Amazon. Word of thanks to the Los Gatos Library, first to put it on the shelf. And thanks to friends and relations who have spread the word about a new author and a wonderful book. They speak the magic word: “Evocative!”


Saturday, March 26, 2011

Meg Waite Clayton: In Praise of Writing Friends … and Publishing and Bookselling Ones, Too

The history of my writing starts with a purse. Like the character of Linda in my second novel, The Wednesday Sisters, my first writing teacher—at a college extension class—dumped hers out over the table and told us to write for five minutes about anything that spilled out. She swore we wouldn’t have to read (just as Linda does in The Wednesday Sisters when she’s pushing the sisters to write at the picnic table in the park). Then she called on me to read first.

Which is the good news. If she hadn’t, I’d have ducked out before she could. It had taken all the nerve I had just to get to that class, to admit that, yes, I dreamed of writing novels.

To make a long story short from that point, I’m just going to say it: Ten Years. That’s how long it took me from dumped purse to first novel on bookstore shelves. The thing that kept me going: writing friends. Like the Wednesday Sisters in the book, none of my early writing friends was published when we started out, but we now count - as of the publication of The Four Ms. Bradwells yesterday - seven books between the four of us, and an eighth under contract. We’re a stubborn bunch—which, if you’ve read any of the guest posts I’ve been honored to host on 1st Books—seems to be what it takes. So it seems fitting that the first Four Ms. Bradwells sighting was by my best writer-pal, Brenda Rickman Vantrease.

It took me another five years to get a second novel published after my first, The Language of Light, sold "modestly." (I'm absolutely thrilled, though, that Ballantine will be releasing it in paperback for the first time this June.) In the interim, I learned the hard way that while just being published is lovely, book sales are important, too. I have come to see that booksellers are the front line in helping new voices find audiences, and I do my best to support the booksellers who support writers. Selling books is as much a labor of love as writing them is.

And so is publishing. I know the publishing world can seem impersonal. Believe me, I know what a form rejection looks like. But I also know that most people in publishing stay there because they love books, and work really, really hard. I feel incredibly lucky to have a wonderful team helping me negotiate the turbulent waves of these changing publishing days.

Which leaves me with readers.

C.S. Lewis once said, "We read to know that we are not alone." It's a funny thing to think that a solo activity connects us in ways that little else does. But I know reading has made me feel understood, and helped me understand myself in ways that nothing else does. I hope that my writing will make you feel understood, too. And I appreciate all the precious time you commit to reading. Without readers, there would be no books. - Meg

P.S. If you're leaving here to take a look at The Four Ms. Bradwells - thank you! And will you take a look at The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen as well? It came out yesterday, too, and is a wonderful novel. Thanks!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Treasures of the Mind

My third novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells goes on sale tomorrow, and I'm so looking forward to sharing the joy of that at Kepler's, where friends will be gathering for refreshments and a short reading. But I'm going to be spending so much time talking about that at so many readings over the new weeks that I thought I'd use today to talk about some of the things I've been reading. I've just finished The Peach Keeper, a lovely novel by Sarah Addison Allen. It, too, goes on sale tomorrow - I hope everyone who takes a look at The Four Ms. Bradwells will take a look at it.

And like everyone else, I suppose, I've been glued to the news - Japan, Libya and Cairo and Bahrain - and sometimes wondering what good writing does in this kind of world. But for a reassuring answer to that, I turn to the wonderful historian, Barbara Tuchman, who said

"Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. They are engines of change, windows on the world and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind.

Books are humanity in print."

And so I'm doing my best to set my light glowing at the top of my lighthouse, to shed what light I can. - Meg