Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Not Not-Writing

By David Abrams

Last Wednesday night, I stood in front of thirty high school English teachers at a restaurant in Bozeman, Montana, ready to deliver my prepared talk, "How to Tell a War Story."

Before I began, I held up my cell phone.  "You'll excuse me if I check my email one last time before I begin," I said.  "I'm waiting to hear whether or not the government shutdown is officially over."

I, along with the rest of the country, was holding my breath, shifting uncomfortably on a bed of pins and needles, as the inane, insane, and utterly needless staredown contest in Washington, DC wound to a close until one player finally, FINALLY blinked.  [Yes, as a Writer-With-a-Day-Job, I am also a government employee--the public affairs specialist for the Western Montana District of the Bureau of Land Management (part of the Department of the Interior); I, along with all the other employees in my district, save one (our law enforcement ranger), were furloughed on October 1.]

By the time I'd finished talking to the English teachers, the deal had finally cleared Congress and was headed for President Obama's desk.  I was both relieved and a little melancholy.  I was happy to once again be getting a paycheck, but I was also ruing the days I'd spent during the past two weeks Not-Writing.

You'd think I would have spent all that "free time" putting pen to paper, productively working on all the writing projects which were clanging like fire alarms in my head: the novella, the short stories, the one-act play, even the epic revisions I should be doing to my second novel about the midget Hollywood stuntman.  But no.  Apart from a few false starts at sentences here and there, I spent my furlough Not-Writing.

I should have been more productive during those first weeks in October.  I had such high hopes, but I only ended up disappointing myself.  I'd be lying if I said that as I watched the evening news on September 30, with the clock ticking down to the fiscal year deadline, I wasn't already forming plans to get a lot of writing done during the shutdown.  We writers always envision these kind of gifts of long stretches of time spread before us like a Hawaiian luau buffet.  Shipwrecks on deserted islands (with a typewriter and reams of paper), prison sentences, even stay-at-home recoveries from broken arms--these are our fantasies which we decorate with ambition and determination.

I am, however, the worst--the absolute WORST--at self-discipline.  I cave so easily to distraction and surrender with a white flag before idle temptations have even fired their first shot.

And so, I spent my available writing time in early October not writing.  I didn't do nothing, of course.  In all other regards, I was productive.  I helped my wife organize her vintage furniture shop, I read books, I fixed our home theater system in the basement, I picked up sticks and leaves from our front yard, I attended a couple of book festivals, I gave a couple of interviews to blogs and C-SPAN's Book-TV.  I kept busy to the point of distraction...and a thin layer of dust built up on my laptop's keyboard.

In her brilliant, beautiful new book Still Writing, Dani Shapiro urges me to block out interferences like the Internet, email, laundry, baking, sorting files, filling out insurance claims, or whatever pulls me away from the writing task at hand:
Sit down.  Stay there.  It's hard--I know just how hard--and I hate to tell you this, but it doesn't get easier.  Ever.  Get used to the discomfort.  Make some kind of peace with it....When I sit down to meditate, I feel much the same way I do when I sit down to write: resistant, fidgety, anxious, eager, cranky, despairing, hopeful, my mind jammed so full of ideas, my heart so full of feelings that it seems impossible to contain them.  And yet...if I do just sit there without checking the clock, without answering the ringing phone, without jumping up to make a note of an all-important task, then slowly the random thoughts pinging around my mind begin to settle.  If I allow myself, I begin to see more clearly what's going on.  Like a snow globe, that flurry of white floats down.
I love Dani's book and for the past two months, I've been using it as a motivator, a propellant to push me to my desk and get my ass in the chair.  I begin each morning by cracking open Still Writing like it was my scripture reading from Our Daily Bread.  But for all of Dani's wisdom and gut-honest accounts of her own writing life, I still felt myself go limp with inertia these past few weeks, while at the same time self-distractions raged like a blizzard in my snow-globe head.

Here's the thing: the more I don't write, the more I don't write.  The longer I go without pulling fresh words from my head and putting them on the page, the more I wallow in self-pity and depression.   Not-Writing begets Not-Writing.

Until finally, one day, I hit a wall of self-loathing and try to pole-vault over this wall to whatever waits on the other side.  Which, hopefully, is Writing.

I do all sorts of self-motivation exercises.  I read Dani Shapiro's inspirational Still Writing.  I write a poem about the trees outside my office window.  I Tweet things like "When I punch myself for not-writing, I remember @JoyceCarolOates is somewhere writing her 3rd short story of the day & I'm refueled w/ fire."  Whatever it takes to convince myself that I'll never "find the time to write."  Instead, I must make the time to write.

Ironically, now that I'm back to work at the government job, I'm once again rising at 3:30 a.m. and getting some writing done.  Maybe I need that squeeze of deadline, that ever-narrowing window of time in order to get motivated.  Whatever it takes, I suppose.

Here's a shot of my home-office desk--my second-story lair where I do my early-morning writing.  This was taken two days after I went back to work:

Notice the copy of Still Writing which is close at hand
That Moleskine notebook contains the first draft of what I've tentatively called "FOB Sorrow."  These past few days, I've made some nice progress on that novella about soldiers hiking on foot from one end of Baghdad to the other in order to attend their sergeant's memorial service:
      We keep walking—through the dust, through the thirst, through the rising heat, and now, through the growing crowd of Iraqis who are starting to fill the marketplace with their goats, their dishdashas, their cooking smoke.
      We are hungry.
      None of us had time to grab chow this morning before we stole the Humvee and none of us thought to grab an MRE from the back seat after it broke down barely two miles outside the Entry Control Point.  And now our stomachs think our throats have been cut.
      We round a corner and push forward into the marketplace.  Skinned goats hang on ropes.  Pyramids of pomegranates, figs, neon-yellow mangoes.  Two men crouch over a grated fire, turning puddle-shaped slabs of naan with their bare hands.  We can smell the sweet yeast and it drives us crazy.
When I type paragraphs like that, I feel rejuvenated, envigoured, shot full of determination.  In fact, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my soldiers in that Baghdad neighborhood.  I have words to pull from my head.  My hands are on the pole vault.

David Abrams is the author of Fobbit (Grove/Atlantic, 2012), a comedy about the Iraq War which Publishers Weekly called “an instant classic” and named a Top 10 Pick for Literary Fiction in Fall 2012.  It was also a New York Times Notable Book of 2012, an Indie Next pick, and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.  His short stories have appeared in Fire and Forget (Da Capo Press, 2013) and Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53), anthologies of short fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at:

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


By Erin Cashman

Since my debut novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was published, the question I get asked the most is how I became a writer. What I’ve discovered is that most people don’t want to hear about how I used to sit up in a tree and write stories when I was in elementary school. They want to know how I wrote a book and saw it through to publication. Each author has his or her own process. This is what works for me:

1.      Write a novel. This seems obvious, but it is actually quite harder than it seems! It takes countless hours and fierce determination to see it through. At times you will have inspiration, other times you will trudge through the muck. You will be brilliant, you will be cliché. The important thing is that when you are done, you will have finished a first draft of a novel. If you are like me, when you write the words The End you will be incredibly proud and fairly certain that your manuscript is amazing and will require little revision. YOU WILL BE WRONG.
2.      Put your novel away. DO NOT LOOK AT. Leave it for at least two weeks, preferably a month. Then, read it again. If you are like me, you will be fairly certain that it is the worst piece of crap that anyone has ever written. I try to take a first pass without revising, but just marking where the story drags, which characters are really just there to move the plot, and places that don’t work.
3.      Now comes the real work – revising. Revise, revise, revise.
4.      At this point, I interview my main characters. I ask the same questions all the time, such as: What is your deepest fear? What is your darkest secret? If you could meet one person in history who would it be? I always discover that I don’t know my characters as well as I thought. You will be surprised by what you learn.
5.      Take your new found insight and go back and revise again, focusing on fleshing out the characters as much as possible.
6.      Now you have poured your heart and soul into the manuscript, and you feel that it is pretty damn good. Read the whole thing out loud. You will know immediately when the dialogue is flat or artificial sounding. You will not only pick up on errors, but phrasing that might be grammatically correct, but off for some reason.
7.      You may think you are done – but you’re not. You need a fresh set of eyes on your novel. And by that, I don’t mean your family or friends. Find a writing group or critique partner. I just did this recently, and I wish I had done it years ago. It makes a huge difference. It is not easy to sit in your writing group and listen to people pull apart your baby. You will have the urge to defend your boring or one dimensional characters, who, by now, are very real to you, and explain your convoluted plot. Bite your tongue.  Take notes. LISTEN. You don’t need to take all of their advice, but pay attention to the big picture items. If your partner or group doesn’t really care about your main character, you need to fix it. Spend a day mulling over their advice.
8.      Revise, revise, revise.
9.      When you feel like your novel is the best that you can make it, put it away for at least a week, and read it out loud again, from start to finish with as few interruptions as possible. I usually start on a Saturday morning and finish it by Sunday sometime. Are you crying during sad parts? Swooning during the romance scenes? Is your heart racing during suspenseful parts? If so, you are done. Congratulations! You finished!
10.  Rejoice! As Tom Clancy said, “Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.” Whatever happens now, whether you send out queries letter in hopes of publication, submit your manuscript to your agent or editor, self publish, or simply share your masterpiece with your family and friends, celebrate your accomplishment. You are a novelist.

      Erin Cashman is a YA author. Her debut fantasy novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was published by Holiday House in 2012 and named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. You can find her at the group blogs The Enchanted InkpotBookPregnant Blog, and on Twitter,Facebook, and her Website

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Defining Success for the Debut Novelist

By Barbara Claypole White

Debut authors are a neurotic bunch—with a long list of expectations and a longer list of fears. The learning curve can continue to torture months after publication, especially when it comes to defining success.

Over at Book Pregnant, some of us are about to launch novel two; some of us are steaming ahead on novels three and four; some of us have won incredible acclaim while others have faced crushing rejection. But most of us have shared one thing: a belief that our debuts have underperformed.

One size does not fit all in publishing; you cannot compare your success to that of other authors. Think about the volume of books published every day. Not all of those can be Amazon Spotlight Books of the Month. Your novel might not be the belle of the ball, it might not be chosen for a single dance, but that doesn’t make it a failure.

My debut novel, THE UNFINISHED GARDEN, wasn’t an Indie Next List pick, a Target Book Club Pick or a New York Times bestseller. I didn’t sell movie rights, or audio rights, or even large print rights. (And my mother is still bemoaning the fact that TUG is not available in English bookstores.)

Three months out from my release date, I was despondent over what I interpreted as low sales figures—even though my editor wasn’t. I invested in an Author Buzz promotion, viewing it as the final step before issuing last rites. While planning the promotion, I asked M J Rose whether I was merely wasting time and money trying to promote a book at such a late stage. I will never forget her response: “Any book is a new book to someone who’s never heard of it.”

Realizing that was a turning point for me. I stopped worrying about how to gauge whether the novel was performing as it should in those vital first months, and I kept up with the business of being an author. I did guest blogs and giveaways when I was invited, continued to network—even forced myself onto Twitter—and threw myself into writing novel two.

And while I wasn’t paying attention, TUG kept bobbing along, quietly doing its own thing. I continued to receive requests from book clubs, and a number of lovely reviews popped up on my Google Alerts. (As I type this, I’m trying to negotiate between two book clubs that want to host me on the same day. At the same time.)

Even more amazing, TUG earned out. When my first royalty check arrived in the mail, I was convinced it was a mistake; it took a second royalty check for me to realize it wasn’t.

Earlier this week, Harlequin MIRA sent me to the New England Independent Booksellers Association annual conference. My publisher invested a chunk of money in getting me there—and keeping me housed, watered, and fed—so that I could spend one hour signing ARCs for THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, my second novel. I took that to be a huge marker of Harlequin’s belief in my success. Finally, I got the message: My debut had not been a failure.

Thirteen months out, I have four book clubs coming up, and TUG is a finalist in the 2013 Golden Leaf Contest and the 2013 Book Buyers Best Contest (both to be announced later this month). And just the other day, I found a new review on Amazon that may be my favorite E-V-E-R.

My point is this—your novel doesn’t have to hit the world as a hare. Tortoises can still complete the track in good time. And the notion that debut novels have six weeks to sink or swim is, in my mind, a myth. Certainly my publisher is interested in career building, which can be a slow burn. On that happy note…

Dear Debut Novelists,

Keep writing, keep smiling, keep networking. And ignore the instinct to obsess over Amazon rankings (which will only drive you to gin).

Happy writing, young Padawans!

Lots of love,
Barbara x

Barbara Claypole White writes love stories about damaged people. THE UNFINISHED GARDEN (Harlequin MIRA, 2012) won the 2013 Golden Quill for Best First Book. Her second novel, THE IN-BETWEEN HOUR, has a release date of December 31, 2013. Connect with her on Facebook or Twitter

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Debut Support Is Not A Training Bra

by Mindy McGinnis

It's done. I did it. And I survived.

My debut novel, NOT A DROP TO DRINK is out in the world as of last Tuesday. Release week was doubly insane, as I was going on a national tour (Dark Days) with a group of Harper YA authors. Life was hectic, my laundry was out of control - but of course no clean underwear - I was eating takeout and pizza and not washing my hair enough.

I also had revisions for my 2014 release due before I left.

And I was about to be in the spotlight.

Every day I was answering two to three requests for interviews, then tweeting or promoting them. Somehow I managed to keep my own blog running, finish my revisions, work 40 hours a week, get a pedicure, and pack to leave for a whirlwind four-cities-in-four-days tour with a group of veteran writers, two of whom had hit the NYT on the release weeks just a month earlier.

Honestly, it was wonderful. I've always said I thrive on chaos, and I guess Fate decided to make me prove it. But what got me through wasn't necessarily my own chutzpah, or the Emergen-C I started guzzling at the first signs of a head cold.

It was the support of groups like this one, along with the Class of 2k13, Friday the Thirteeners, my fellow debut authors who crossed this bridge earlier in 2013 than me, and also the veteran authors who I'm lucky enough to know in person and are cool with me asking the hard questions.

Publishing is a small industry - really small. Everyone knows everyone, and they'll know you soon too. First impressions are important, and I'd like to think I made a pretty good one, with the support of everyone around who knows me than I do, and doesn't mind sharing.

So thanks, everyone who talks to me, answers questions, and basically gives a shit that I'm here.

You're awesome.

Mindy McGinnis is a YA author and librarian. Her debut, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, is a post-apocalyptic survival tale set in a world where freshwater is almost non-existent, available from Katherine Tegen / Harper Collins September 24, 2013. She blogs at Writer, Writer Pants on Fire and contributes to the group blogs Book PregnantFriday the ThirteenersFrom the Write AngleThe Class of 2k13The Lucky 13s & The League of Extraordinary Writers. You can also find her on TwitterTumblr & Facebook.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

What Jonathan Franzen is really angry about

by Sam Thomas

By now, Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “What’s Wrong with the Modern World,” (a.k.a. “Hey you kids, get off my literature!”) has made a couple of trips around the internet, and excited quite a bit of commentary.

Even at this moment, Johan Franzen
is not  as angry as Jonathan Franzen
One interesting response came from Amanda Hess in Slate. In her analysis of Franzen’s ode to the 1950s and ‘60s (except the nasty bits like Jim Crow), Hess writes: “But Franzen fails to draw any connection between the segregated swimming pools of his youth and his own ability to ‘find my place’ as a writer in the long tail of that old world.” This seems spot on, for Franzen’s reaction to the changing literary landscape is conservative in several senses of the word, but Hess goes far enough.

According to Franzen, back in the Good Old Days, “every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers... who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control.”

There are a number of way to respond to Franzen’s portrayal of a prelapsarian literary world. First, we could actually have a look at it. While there are works of which Franzen might approve, they are outnumbered by authors along the lines of Stephen King and Clive Cussler; authors whom I loved, but probably do not pass muster with Franzen. And as Sara Gran pointed out (on Facebook, no less), wandering through the ten-cent paperback section of a used bookstore will quickly dispel any illusions of the past’s literary superiority.

As is so often the case, the Golden Age wasn’t.

But I think the more problematic element of Franzen’s lament is that it boils down to this: Literature and literary culture have become more democratic. The advent of self-publishing means that there is no quality control over what finds its way into print, and thanks to Amazon, GoodReads, and the decline of print journalism, “responsible book reviewers go extinct.” (It might be more accurate to say, “responsible book reviewers blog,” but never mind.)

What has happened, of course, is that power has passed out of the hands of the literary and publishing establishment and into the hands of the hoi polloi. This is the true revolution in publishing, and this is what Franzen cannot abide.

To be blunt, serious problems arise when we consider the place of gender and race in Franzen’s complaint. The old order that Franzen is hell-bent on defending was overwhelmingly white, male, and the product of established economic privilege. And with the exception of Bezos, who is only now becoming an establishment figure, the objects of Franzen’s rage are neither white nor male.

This is most obvious in the misogyny that drips from Franzen’s every word, as he attacks Jennifer Weiner, impoverished and elderly German women, and traces the roots of his anger to a woman with whom he didn’t sleep. (Ironically, Franzen resisted this Eve’s temptation, but he nevertheless found himself expelled from the Garden. No wonder he’s so angry!)

Salman Rushdie
Then, when Franzen turns his attention to the baleful phenomenon of self-promotion, the man he singles out is Salman Rushdie with his ungodly 2,525 tweets. As Jennifer Weiner wonders, why not Nicholson Barker or Jeffrey Eugenides? Weiner attributes Franzen’s decision to give Eugenides a pass to their friendship, but that can’t be the entire story.

The fact is that as white men, neither Barker nor Eugenides challenge the established order, and as a result Franzen allows them to flog their books in public. But when Rushdie – and Weiner – do this, they are “yakkers and tweeters and braggers.” The demographics of this double standard are difficult to miss.

As a final observation, it is striking that Franzen’s lament is very much of a piece with conservative rhetoric since 2008. Both Franzen and the Republicans are baffled and alarmed by the rising power of women and minorities, and both have ceded the youth-oriented ground of social media to the enemy.

Like the Romney campaign in 2012, Franzen has no idea how to relate to those who are not like him. And both the Republican Party and Franzen have made it clear that the world would be a better place if these interlopers would go away. If they did, America could return to a time when white men monopolized political power and acted as both producers and arbiters of literary culture.

Friday, September 13, 2013

It’s Not Just Words.

It’s Not Just Words.

Back in the day, almost as far back as when man was first learning to harness fire for his benefit, I used to write screenplays. I started my writing career with a stage play, then immediately switched to writing movies (yes, the play was that terrible). I wrote movies for many years. Had some very small successes, many huge failures, but I loved the heck out of it.

Now I write books. My debut novel, Untold Damage, came out on April 8th of this year. Next April will see the second Mark Mallen novel, Critical Damage.  A lot of people liked my debut novel, and that is super-duper awesome as it took me about ten years to learn my craft, get an agent, and then get a publishing deal. One thing that everyone who reads the book agrees on, outside of liking Mallen (which bodes well for a series, right?), is that the book is very visual. And that’s where we come to the point of this post: writing with a visual style.

And just how do you do that, you ask?

You write in all forms.

Screenplays. Plays. Even poetry can teach you something. Screenplays are all about movement and action, with as little dialog as possible. Plays are the opposite, they’re mostly dialog, BUT, you also have to have a sense of where you want the actors, what you want them to do as they’re talking. That’s great practice for setting your scenes and writing about things as simple as a character moving from one room to the next. Poetry can teach you how to find the right metaphors, find the BEST possible word to draw your word picture.

You can find screenplays all over the Internet. It’s not a hard form to get the hang of, but it’s a very difficult form to master. Very few ever do. Obviously you can also find plays everywhere on the ‘net. Through writing screenplays, I learned not only how to write in a visual manner, but also how to tell a story that contains a strong forward movement and pacing. Through writing the one stage play that I mentioned earlier I learned SO MUCH regarding what good dialog is, and isn’t. (mostly isn’t). Through writing poetry, I learned how to better use metaphors to make the scene in my head match the scene I was writing.

I’m being very serious here, if not a bit convoluted, hahaha. Bottom line: If you want to be the best, most visual writer you can be, open yourself up to writing in different forms. Heck, even spend some time writing Haiku. Writing a Haiku REALLY shows the power of just the right word.

It’s this looking at words, sentences, and the story form in entirely new ways that will take you far. 

Bay Area resident Robert K. Lewis has been a painter, printmaker, and a produced screenwriter. He is a contributor to Macmillan's crime fiction fansite, Criminal Element. Lewis is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, the International Thriller Writers, and the Crime Writers Association. Untold Damage is his first novel. Visit him online at and at

Friday, August 30, 2013

For the Love of Old Books, Sheet Music & Fountain Pens

 by Priscille Sibley

On a recent visit with my older sister, she told me I took all the good stuff from our parents. To be honest, they didn’t leave much behind of value, but as the youngest, I would have traded more years with them for the few material things I received. Honestly though, at the time, my sister could have taken anything she wanted or at least have gotten dibs on it.

My sisters didn’t seem to have any interest in the old books I pulled off the shelves, my grandfather’s sheet music (from his days playing honky-tonk in a speakeasy), or the odds and ends, snapshots, whistles, or an old fountain pen, I found in my grandfather’s desk after he died. At the time these things were trash to my siblings. The junk didn’t go in my oldest sister’s house or into the sleek, newlywed digs of my middle sister. I kept them because I still needed a connection to my parents, and to my grandfather.

Novels are also usually about connections – or disconnects. Human beings push and pull away from each other like protons and electrons in atoms, always circling, always prying and stretching from those connections. It causes tension. In a story, you need that tension. Even if you read the first sentence here, you might recognize that my things, these loose odds and ends, these material mementos I kept to connect were, at least during that conversation with my sister, a source of tension. (It didn’t escalate. I wouldn’t let it that day.)

When we write, there should be tension on every page. Even those things, which can bind, can tear people apart. Let them. As you write, let the tension roar.