Saturday, May 31, 2014

After the dream comes true

Let's say you've met a major life goal, maybe your biggest life goal to date. You've gotten into that school, won that Olympic medal, made that breakthrough. Maybe your dream was to publish a book, and you've done it.

What next?

I've had the chance to watch many writers break through the book-publishing barrier, and I've gone through it myself. Generally what happens is that we instantly select new goals: to publish again, to write more, to write better, to be more widely read, to try something different or repeat a success. But after passing through that gateway, the path goes all over the place. It doesn't always go to happy places. Or, more likely, it doesn't go only to happy places. It goes up and down; it twists; it may go in circles or reach dead ends. It usually has many forks.

I've seen writers turn to new goals in other fields. They decide that being a parent, or a teacher, or another kind of artist, or something else, is really where they need to go from here.

I've seen writers publish more and have incredible success.

I've seen writers put together a career from trying this and that, doing some editing, doing some work-for-hire, trying different genres, turning to pseudonyms. One way and another, they're continuing to write.

I've seen writers disappear and I don't know what they're doing now: they might be writing under pseudonyms, or they might not be writing anymore. I'm not sure.

When we reach a big goal, we don't know how it will play out for us. The road of any life is seldom a straight one, seldom predictable and smooth. But life goes on, and it goes on testing us. And most people then have to ask that question (What next?) and make some choices, and for some of us it involves reimagining our futures. Most of us thought the answer to the question would be simply, "Publish more books," but there are other answers, other options.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The art, the artist

"I don't like being around volatile people. I have no interest in being around geniuses. Those tempestuous volatile geniuses the media likes to hold up. But I had the deepest admiration for his artistry."
--Franklyn Ajaye, quoted in Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him, by David Henry and Joe Henry

There's a difference between admiring someone's art and admiring that person, a difference between wanting to spend time in the world of an artwork and wanting to spend time with its creator. I don't think every genius has to be a "tortured genius," and a lot of the volatility Ajaye speaks of ends in self-destruction.

Art draws on real emotions, real events. But one challenge artists face is drawing that line between life and art, knowing what can cross that border and what can't.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Bookfinding: a personal history

How I have found books through the years:

Growing up:
Library - Avid patron, both school and public library. If I liked a book, I would check it out over and over again.
Scholastic book clubs - Ordered after reading the little descriptions and looking at the covers. I LOVED those newsletters that we ordered from; the synopses were an art in themselves. I invented my own little newsletters with imaginary books, based on the Scholastic ones.
Bookstores - Usually I didn't buy a book until I'd already read it in the library many times. I would make an exception for authors whose other books I already knew and liked. For example, anything by Judy Blume, Lois Duncan, Paul Zindel, Paula Danziger, Marilyn Sachs, I would snap up without having read it first. Occasionally I would take a chance on a new author. I only bought paperbacks.
Parents' bookshelves - This is how I came to read a first-aid manual, Shelley Berman's Cleans and Dirtys, Saroyan's Look at us ..., a 1970s poetry book with a psychedelic cover (which I now own), my mother's nursing-school textbooks, the John Jakes bicentennial series, and various other assorted titles.
Gifts - This is how I got a good portion of the Nancy Drew series, the Five Little Peppers, a 16-volume series of classics, and Grimm's fairy tales. Most of these were hardcovers.

Early adulthood:
Library - As always.
Bookstores - As an adult, I discovered used bookstores. Philadelphia still has several, but at the time I first moved here, was especially rich in them. I rarely lived more than a couple of blocks from a used bookstore. During my time in Atlanta, the Oxford Too was a weekly habit. I often discovered authors in used bookstores, because it was easy to take a chance on a new author for a quarter or a dollar. Then I would start buying that author's newer books new (this is how I discovered Nora Ephron and Calvin Trillin, just to name a couple).
I also patronized first-run bookstores. In those days we had Doubleday, Encore, Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Waldenbooks, as well as the independents. Then Borders came, and its first Philadelphia location was unbelievable. So many books! So much room! Indie or chain, I rarely left a bookstore without buying something.
Free shelves - For a while, I lived in a building with a "take a book, leave a book" library. A great way to find out-of-print books B.I. (Before the Internet).
Gifts - Again, people usually would buy fancier books for me than I would buy for myself. Hardcovers. My parents even gave me a collection of the Brontes' work with leather covers and gilt edges.

Library - The theme continues.
Internet - I now find out about most of the books I want to read online. I read many writers' and readers' social media sites, and I am always seeing recommendations and reviews. Before the internet, I rarely read book reviews. I didn't have too many other friends who read as much as I did, so I didn't get recommendations either. Now, I get so many recommendations from my online bookloving friends that I keep a running list next to my computer.
Bookstores - Sadly, the closest bookstore to my house closed a year ago. The joys of browsing in brick-and-mortar stores are rarer for me, but I appreciate them all the more now. There are still wonderful stores out there.
Also, I do buy books online--especially out-of-print books. I buy very few ebooks, usually only if the book isn't available in print. I don't have an e-reader but use an e-reader app on my computer.
One thing that's different now is that I buy far more hardcovers and new books than I used to. As an author, I know how important that can be to supporting the authors and stores I love. But I'll still buy paperbacks and used books, too.
Book fairs and book festivals - I never went to these before I was an author; I'm not sure I really knew they existed. Now I'm delighted to have discovered so many live book events.
Free shelves - My train station has one of those "take a book, leave a book" cases, and so does my workplace.
Gifts - This is where I get books I've specifically asked for, as well as books I might not have heard of on my own.

How have your bookfinding habits changed over time?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The topics in the waiting room

I just had a flashback upon viewing this post at Iceland Eyes. I was there, at Krysuvik, a few years ago: a place of natural hot springs, the land smoking as it does at Yellowstone, but far more isolated and (it seemed to me) more strongly sulfur-scented.

My husband and I were the only people there that day. And we were the only ones at Kleifarvatn, the lake also mentioned in the post. (We did not, however, see the fabled sea serpent.)

We were there in May, and we never really saw nighttime, although I think it still got dark for a few hours very late at night. Without the cues of night and day, we kept long strange hours. We visited many places where we were the only people anywhere around. Outside Reykjavik, the land was so sparsely populated that it was a little frightening but mostly invigorating. Being the kind of people who are fascinated by the Mid-Atlantic Rift (the seam between Europe and North America), we explored the rift in several places.

Iceland keeps creeping into various manuscripts of mine. I don't think any of them have been published yet, however. I have many places, and people, and events that are like that: I feel compelled to write about them, although I don't know how yet. I try them in one story and another. I feel them up there in the Muse's waiting room.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Backstory is an area in which writers often get tripped up, especially when first starting out. "I have to tell you about where he came from and what matters to him and why he's traumatized by the sound of bells and why there's bad blood between him and his archnemesis!" the writer says. "Otherwise, how will you understand what's going on, and why will you care?"

This can lead to gobs of exposition in the first chapter: a bunch of throat-clearing before the real action starts. But I generally say, in answer to the question of how much backstory we need: As little as possible. And sprinkled throughout the book, instead of front-loaded.

Think about how we get to know people and the world. Upon meeting a new person, we don't immediately exchange autobiographies. We get to know people over time, slowly. They might reveal one detail of their past one day, another detail later on. In the meantime, we're engaging with our new acquaintance in the present, and we're learning a lot from how he speaks to us and others, how he behaves, what he does.

We observe whether someone's actions are gentle or rough, thoughtful or careless, generous or selfish. We can tell, within a short time, whether the people around us are impetuous. Funny. Forgetful. Wise. Brusque. Gossipy. Shy.

We also learn, fairly quickly, what they care about--do they talk about their kids? Bring in new baked goods from the recipes they're always trying? Put up photos of their latest ski trip? Ask you to join in on a fundraiser for a charity? Leave books lying around? Invite you to the latest foreign film?

By showing what our characters are doing now, we can reveal a lot. And when the villain first shows up, it can raise tension if we just hint at bitterness between protagonist and antagonist, rather than rushing to supply a page's worth of explanation on why the two can't stand each other. We can dole out the clues as needed--only what's needed to understand the scene in front of us.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Good walking cities

This weekend I visited Hooray For Books! in Alexandria VA, where I appeared with Dianne Salerni (author of The Eighth Day and The Caged Graves) and S. E. Green (author of Killer Instinct). We got to visit with some enthusiastic teen readers and talk about our favorite books.

While I was in the area, I swung by Chocolate Chocolate, an amazing store whose story is described in this book. Every piece of candy I brought back with me has been delicious so far. I also walked through the Mall on my way to the metro. I love walking in DC; it feels like America's living room. Passing the White House, the newly reopened Washington Monument, glimpsing the Capitol in the distance ...

And then there are the people. Protesters. People wearing identical T-shirts for a family reunion. Tourists visiting the Smithsonian. A man steering a pedicab and telling his passengers that his day job is as a teacher.

I've always found Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia to be good walking cities. This trip reminded me that Washington is high on the list. What are your other favorites?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Then write that book

The blog Three Guys One Book has a regular feature called "When We Fell in Love," in which writers talk about falling in love with stories. Recently, Jaime Clarke described how his writing career began, when the Hardy Boys joined forces with a teacher who was willing to challenge and mentor him.

A sample: "My teacher ... overheard me bragging ... that not only had I read all of the Hardy Boys mysteries, but that I could probably even write one if I wanted to."

It always looks easy until you try it yourself, right?

Monday, May 12, 2014


'Tis the graduation season, which reminded me of David McCullough's "You're not special" speech from a couple of years back.

McCullough had several other points in that speech: a call to seize the day, a call to selflessness. But mostly, what caught people's attention was that a commencement speaker started out his speech by telling the day's graduates, "You are not special." And many on the internet seemed to fall on that message with a sort of glee, to read it as a smackdown of privileged young people, a call for them to shut up and fall in line.

I don't favor that reading myself. Frankly, I think that despite all we might say about children being spoiled and thinking they're smarter than they really are, despite the view that they need to be more realistic and obedient and grateful--the truth is, it is not obedience that is the best hope for humanity.

It is usually not the most obedient among us who change the world. It is not the ones who settle for the world they have been given. It is usually the complainers, the malcontents. The ones who look at what's in front of them and say, "This could be better. This is not good enough."

We need the idealism of the young. We need to be challenged on our hypocrisies and our ethical compromises and our bad habits and our lies. We need to be reminded that along with all the gifts we give the next generation, we also pass on horrible problems: growing antibiotic resistance, nuclear waste, high unemployment, armed conflict. Just to name a few.

They will be told soon enough that they're not special. Over and over again they will hear it; over and over they will confront the indifference of the world. We all do. I actually think graduation day is one of the rare days in life when one is entitled to a few pats on the back, a few hours of feeling special. All too soon, life will revert to its normal menu of traffic jams, incomprehensible bureaucracies, incurable illnesses, fruitless job searches, and the like.

Of course, when I read McCullough's whole speech, I see him saying wonderful things like, "Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others ... . And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. ... Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives."

Sadly, I think the speech will be remembered mostly as a "Get over yourself" message, when it really seemed intended to be a "Give of yourself" message. Either way ... go do extraordinary things, Class of 2014. It's your turn.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Keeping up, measuring up

We writers sometimes compare ourselves to other writers, even though we know it's unrealistic and doesn't make a lot of sense. We're all on different paths of different lengths, with different starting points and different goals--yet the impulse to glance over and see where we are in relation to the person in the next lane is, apparently, irresistible.

It's not even about beating someone else, as in a race. I know very few writers who think that way. It's more like feeling that we need to "keep up" or "stay on track." It's about a fear of falling behind, getting lost, not measuring up. And so the internal monologue around this may go: I should be writing X words a day, because so-and-so writes that much. Or, I should be on my Nth novel now, because so-and-so's first novel came out at the same time as mine, and her Nth novel just came out. Or it could be about advances, sales, awards, guest-speaker slots, length of signing lines--any of the markers we try to use to gauge our success.

This is why I recommend Jody Casella's recent post, in which she says, "I also have to learn over and over to stop comparing myself to other writers." Her post also contains an invitation to other writers to share your process for possible inclusion (with attribution) in a conference presentation. That opportunity, with a deadline of June 30, is a way to celebrate and reinforce the fact that there are as many ways to write as there are writers.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Every phase is great except this one

The "Grass is Greener" Syndrome as expressed in the phases of writing:

1. First drafts are such a pain. Pulling ideas out of the air, doing all the heavy lifting of world-building. I can't wait to be editing this thing.
2. Foundational edits are the worst! Figuring out where whole scenes have to go. Adding and deleting characters. Major shifts in tone; addressing big-picture comments like, "Make character less boring," and, "Have more at stake." I miss the freedom of drafting, when it didn't have to be perfect or even good!
3. Ugh, line edits. These would be okay if I weren't so sick of looking at the story by now. Also, every change I make in one sentence means changing the next one. And going through a manuscript, deleting half the occurrences of the word "just," is not exactly thrilling. I can't wait to start something new.
4. If copy edits teach me anything, it is that the comma is a wily creature whose rules can never fully be known. I'd rather be line editing!
5. Wow, it's such a shock to start a first draft after spending so much time on revisions, working on a manuscript that was fairly solid. I feel like I'm floundering, facing the blank page again. If only I could be editing instead ...

And so it goes!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Hedonic treadmill

"In social psychology, this phenomenon is called the 'hedonic treadmill'--the shifting of desires relative to achievements."
--Kevin Roose, Young Money

There's plenty of food for thought in this book about young workers on Wall Street, and I may discuss it more in a future post, but this quote caught my eye. Writers and Wall Street financiers may seem to have little in common on the surface, but I recognized the "hedonic treadmill" immediately, though I'd never heard such a name for it before. Writers often talk about moving from the if-only-I-could-publish-something-I'd-be-p

erfectly-happy-and-fulfilled mindset, to wanting more and more with each goal achieved: earning out, foreign sales, stars or awards, bestseller status, selling another book, selling film rights, etc.

In one sense, it's natural to set new goals when we've met an initial goal. But in another sense, there should also be time to linger on the plateau of contentment, smelling the roses awhile.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Remember what you love

One of my favorite people to follow on Twitter is Courtney Summers (author of Some Girls Are, This Is Not a Test, and other fine books), whose Twitter handle is @courtney_s. It's not just because she has a headcrab that recommends books or because she's brilliant with the 140-character format. I once pulled this phrase out of one of her longer tweets because it really spoke to me:

"I'm not here to make sense"

I would like to have that on a magnet, or maybe a T-shirt. A T-shirt would be good, because perhaps it would lower expectations. It could serve as fair warning to those around me.

I read this recent tweet with interest:

true story I almost gave up on THIS IS NOT A TEST and then I played a lot of Left 4 Dead and remembered I loved zombies

I say "with interest" because I have given up on every single one of my published books at one point or another. While writing The Secret Year, I was simultaneously writing another book, and I sometimes left The Secret Year for dead for days or weeks at a time, convinced that the other book was really The One. (That other book has still never been published.) While editing Try Not to Breathe, one of my editorial letters temporarily flummoxed me to the point that I wondered if the whole book was going to end up collapsing. And it's probably better not to even speak of my revision process for Until It Hurts to Stop, since I gave up on that manuscript weekly. It became such a predictable part of my routine that it even got a little boring.
"Things to Do Today:
1. Eat breakfast.
2. Break up with manuscript; declare it over and done with.
3. Edit manuscript."

Like that.

I know I've heard from other writers that they, too, give up on manuscripts, and then find their way back into them. But what I like about Courtney Summers's April 28th tweet is that it lends itself so handily to a writing-office motto: "Remember you love zombies." I've never actually written about zombies myself, and I feel sort of neutral about them, but this motto stands for all the manuscripts I've abandoned and returned to. Something pulled me back to them.

As for giving up, I do it so regularly that it seems to be a natural, if strange and inefficient, part of my process for finishing a book. I just need to remember I love the zombies.