Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Book Notes

Judy Sheehan’s latest, WOMEN IN HATS, is in stores now. It’s being described as “...a sparkling novel that calls to mind Carrie Fisher's POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. Judy Sheehan has written a story full of humor and heart, wisdom and hope, about the rich, often fraught relationship between mothers and their daughters.”

For those of you in the New York City area, Judy will be reading tonight at Kettle of Fish (59 Christopher Street, near 7th Ave.)


A college recruiter from Random House once told me that e-books would never replace old-fashioned, bound books. Here’s why.


Am I the only person rooting for this guy?


Keith Gessen was a literary critic; now he’s a first-time novelist. That takes serious guts. After reading this article in the New York Times, I can’t wait to pick up a copy of ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Understanding Your Book Contract -- Part II

Now that we have the general accounting out of the way, we can focus on the rights and responsibilities of the author. It’s really not as daunting as it sounds.

Examination of Publisher’s Books and Records (Auditing): This means the author has the right, under certain terms detailed in the contract, to audit the publisher's accounting records for errors. Pretty cool, huh? Most authors will rarely have a use for this, unless they are major bestsellers, or have a series of books, or there is a glaring error in their statements and the publisher disputes the numbers. The cost of the accounting is at the author’s expense, unless it is found that the publisher owes the author money and that discrepancy exceeds a certain percentage of total sales (5% is an example). Auditing is a bit of a gamble, but it can certainly pay off.

Failure to Deliver Manuscript/Delivery Extensions/Acceptance of Manuscript: If you submit a finished manuscript to the publisher, these clauses will not pertain to you. If, however, you submit an outline and a few chapters, you’ll need to pay close attention to this one. These clauses outline deadlines and the penalties if you fail to deliver your manuscript. Most publishers will be somewhat flexible if you need a deadline extension, providing you are acting in good faith. Authors who fail to deliver a satisfactory manuscript within the negotiated deadlines risk having to return all or a portion of the advance. This occurrence is infrequent but not unheard of, so it may not be wise to spend your advance before you’ve finished writing your book.

Correction of Proofs: Once you and your editor have whipped your manuscript into shape, the publisher will bind it into a cheap paperback called a galley. Galleys are sent out for publicity and review purposes. They also give you a chance to see the work in print before it goes out for final printing. You will have the opportunity to review the galley and make corrections. Usually, these corrections are superficial (i.e. typos), but if a sentence or word choice really bugs you here and there, you can do a light edit. Heavy edits, however, are going to cost you. If you decide you want to change more than a certain percentage of the manuscript (15% is an example), most publishers will charge you for the cost of making those changes.

Publication: This clause specifies the timeframe in which the publisher is required to publish the book from the date of signature. It is usually 18 months.

Author’s Agent: List the agent(s) acting on your behalf and the percentage they are to receive. Fifteen percent is standard; for foreign sales, usually your domestic agent will receive 10% and your foreign agent will receive 10%.

Author’s Warranties: By signing this agreement, you are stating that you are the sole author of the work (unless, of course, it is known that you have a writing partner), that you have the right to sell the work, that this work has not been previously published, that the work does not libel anyone, and does not break any laws.

Indemnity: This is where we hit the real legalese—the clause pertaining to what will happen if you or the publisher is sued because of the book. The terms and scenarios are quite varied here and frankly, I don’t have the patience to sort any of it out. Consult your agent on this one.

Free Copies: Yahoo! As the author, you are entitled to free copies of the book. Twenty-five copies is a common amount—not enough for all the people that will be begging you for a copy, but a good number. If you have a contract with a German publisher and don’t speak German, you’ll find this amount to be more than sufficient—in fact, a hindrance. Feel free to ask for more or less. It’s probably one of the easiest clauses to change. This clause also states the discount rate given to you if you’d like to purchase additional books on your own—50% is standard.

And this concludes our brief contract overview. Remember, this is meant only as a basic guide and your terms may vary, but I hope it was helpful.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Understanding Your Contract -- Part I

I thought it might be helpful to give a brief overview of that most intimidating of documents--the twenty-page book contract. It’s been ten years since I’ve worked with author contracts, so please take my info as guide and not gospel; that being said, the publishing industry is old and slow to change. Most of what I knew then should still be relevant today.

The first thing you need to know is that you will be given a standard contract with just a few variables thrown in. Ninety-five percent of the contract will apply to you as it applies to everyone else. This contract has been carefully hammered out over the years by attorneys, agents, and publishers alike, and is relatively fair to all involved. There are sections that protect the publisher and sections that protect the author. There is no reason to approach a contract from a reputable publishing house with undue paranoia. At the same time, it is imperative that you and your agent review the contract thoroughly. If there is something you don’t like in the there, negotiate a change. I’ve rarely encountered a contract that didn’t have a clause or two axed or amended.

Here’s a brief overview of the major clauses in an average contract:

Grant and Territory: This describes how long the contract will be in effect, where the publisher will publish the book, and in what language. Exclusive world rights, for example, means the publisher can print the book in any language and sell it anywhere in the world. If you live in the US and your contract says "exclusive publication in the English language in the United States", that means you will able to sell your book to any number of foreign publishers—which means more opportunities to make money.

Subsidiary Rights: Sub-rights cover a whole host of things from motion picture rights, to Braille editions, to e-books, etc. There is also something called “first serial rights” and “second serial rights”. First serial rights are when a magazine publishes a portion of your novel before its release; second serial rights are when it’s published after. Sub-rights are side deals made with other companies, and the advances paid out are often split between the author and the publisher, 50/50, though first serial rights are usually split 90% to the author and 10% to the publisher.

Advance: This is the amount of money the publisher has agreed to pay you for the manuscript. The advance is rarely paid out all at once, and is commonly paid out in thirds. For example, if your advance is $1,500, it will usually state that $500 is to be paid out upon signing of the contract, another $500 is to be paid out when you deliver the final manuscript to the publisher, and the final third will paid out upon publication of the work.

Royalties: Here is where you’ll find the details of what percentage you’ll be paid for each book sold. Usually there is an escalation, which means the royalty rate increases with the number of books sold. Here are some typical royalty rates and escalations:


10% for the first 5,000 copies
12 ½% for the next 5,000 copies
15% on all copies sold thereafter

Trade Paperback (fancy, larger paperback)

7 ½ % for all copies sold

Mass-Market (cheaper, supermarket paperback)

8% for the first 150,000 copies sold
10% on all copies thereafter

Reserve For Returns: In order to understand the reserve for returns, you first have to know a little bit about how bookstores purchase books. Initially, they put in an order—for the sake of argument, let’s say 100 copies. On your royalty statement, these 100 books will show as sold. Unfortunately, the bookstore might only sell 50 copies. After some time has passed, the bookstore then has the option of returning the unsold books to the publisher for a refund. So even if your royalty statement shows 100 sold, in reality only 50 books were sold.

To plan for eventual returns, the publisher picks an arbitrary percentage called the reserve for returns. Twenty-percent is common. This means that if your royalty statement says you should be paid for 100 copies sold, they have the right to withhold 20% of the payment in reserve on the chance that some of them might be returned. After a pre-determined amount of time has passed, the publisher will then release the reserve, meaning that 20% may now be accounted for. (Note: The reserve for returns is a frequent sticking point for authors. A 20% return, in my opinion, is fair, but something in the range of 40-50% is excessive. Also, any author would do well to monitor their royalty statements, to make sure the reserve is released at the agreed time.)

On my next post, I’ll cover clauses related to production, as well as an author’s responsibility and rights.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Don't Tell Me the Ending

Last night I saw a trailer for Will Smith’s upcoming summer vehicle, Hancock. Instead of being a teaser, it felt a lot more like a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the movie. Like too many movie trailers these days, major plot points and resolutions were exposed. I’ve been too busy over the past few years to pay attention to previews, and as a result I enjoy movies much more than I used to. I take a story more at face value, instead of trying to connect the dots with what I remember from the trailer.

The movie studios are well aware they are giving too much away. The argument is that the public wants to know what they’re getting, even if that means blowing the ending. I’m not sure I buy that answer—especially from an industry that is also convinced that the only movies the public wants to see involve comic book heroes, sequels, or remakes of television shows from the seventies.

Grumbling aside, the Hancock trailer got me to thinking about the predictability of endings in fiction. Does knowing the ending in advance spoil our enjoyment? Unless it’s a mystery, probably not. Most stories have either a happy or at least a satisfactory ending for the protagonist, so we already know that it will usually end pretty well. What we don’t know—and what keeps us interested—is how the protagonist is going to get himself untangled from the mess he’s in. The reader, or viewer, is entertained by assessing the difficulty of the situation and imagining how he would handle it. The protagonist is usually smarter than we are, and we enjoy watching his cleverness as he navigates the conflict.

This is not to say that we should settle for predictability in our endings. A good story should reach its own natural ending, with no surprises from left field. At the same time, it should be constructed so artfully that you don’t see it coming from a mile away. The best ending seem surprising the first time around, but upon re-reading is so carefully supported by the story that it’s the only logical conclusion.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Second Fiddles

Paula Margulies over at The Writer’s Edge has an interesting blog entry entitled, “When Writers Let Lesser Characters Rule.” In it, she discusses why some writers create minor characters that are more colorful and interesting than their protagonists. Her theory is that writers do this on purpose because they fear quirkiness will render their main characters unsympathetic.

As someone who has repeatedly encountered this problem with her own writing, I was relieved to hear that others have the same challenge. I’d also like to add a few thoughts on the subject.

First off, I’m not convinced that keeping a protagonist dull is a conscious act. Often, a main character is the moral center of the story—he’s the “straight man”, if you will. The voice of reason will always need a counterpoint to keep things interesting, and that’s where the minor characters come in. Those characters have much more freedom because their actions do not affect the moral backbone of the story in the same way that the protagonist’s does.

I also think developing minor characters at the expense of the lead is a form of procrastination. It’s much more fun to focus on subplots and incidental characters than to confront the terrifying meat of your story. When there’s less at stake, it’s easier to be open and experimental, to let the characters be themselves, even if we don’t agree with their decisions. But those poor protagonists—they are our firstborns. We hold them to a higher, stricter standard. The whole story hinges on their success or failure. Oh! The pressure!

So what’s the remedy? Kick ‘em out of the house.

When a minor character starts sparkling so much she threatens to outsparkle the protagonist, it might mean that the story really belongs to her. When this happens, you have to toss the main character out and change your focus. I know, it’s painful, but I’ve had to do this repeatedly—in fact, it’s something I actually count on happening whenever I start a story. Once you get over disowning your protagonist, you’ll be secretly happy you did because you’ll realize that he wasn’t so much fun anyway, and that you really enjoyed writing about the minor character more. Run with it.

And if tossing out a character is more than you can bear, save him for your next story. Better yet, turn him into a minor character—maybe that’ll give him a little personality.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Book Notes

I don’t know why, but for some reason it’s comforting to know that even agents and publishers have no idea what’s going to be a big hit. A few years ago, I met my UK publisher and he told me a little story of how he read manuscript and was unsure about it, so he gave it to his daughter to read. She loved it so much he decided to take a chance on it. And the rest, they say, is history.


A whole lotta drama has erupted over at Tess Gerritsen’s blog. I respect her honesty and I’m sorry she feels compelled to shut it down.


If you haven’t checked out Kanye West’s blog, you owe yourself a look. Every day he features the latest in art and design. Here’s THE FUTURE OF BOOKS.


This is one heck of an ethical dilemma. If it were up to me, I’d honor the author’s wishes; on the other hand, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy.



A One Act Play

Setting: Home Depot. Last Sunday.

Cashier: Would you like a bag?

Me (looking at my tiny package of L-brackets): No, thanks. I hate bags.

Cashier (indignant): They can be handy.

Me: I have about 300 at home I don’t know what to do with. I like to bring my own bags when I can.

Cashier (somewhat scornfully): When you get too many, just throw them away.

Me (silently): ARGHHH!!!

Curtain Falls.

This being Earth Day and all, take a minute to consider that giant wad of plastic shopping bags stuffed under your sink or taking up space in your closet. Sure, recycling is a great option, but not having those bags in the first place is even better. I've bought several folding tote bags that fit neatly in my glove box, and even though I only remember to bring them into the store about half the time, I still can’t believe how much it’s reduced my pile of bags. If you don’t do this already, I urge you to give it a try.


Speaking of plays, in the next week or so I’ll be posting an interview with playwright/author Judy Sheehan. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Finding Your Voice

Over the last few blog entries, I’ve listed a few things that have helped me break through a lengthy block—these are developing my characters, having those characters form opinions about others and their situation, and coming up with a simple premise that calls the characters to action. The final piece—the piece that I’ve found really makes a story take off—is the voice.

The voice of a novel is the overall style and tone. It can be wry, ponderous, intimate, lofty, delicate or in-you-face, just to name a few. It can be a unique combination of any of these styles. The key to pulling off the voice is that it must complement the characters and story, but most importantly, it must be consistent throughout.

Think back to a movie you’ve seen where the characters and story seemed ok, but for some reason that you couldn’t quite put your finger on, you didn’t like the movie. This is often a tone problem. There was something in the way the story was told that didn’t quite reflect the story. Maybe the tone was too melodramatic for the lightness of the situation, or too breezy for a story that requires a little emotional depth. When the tone is wrong, we find ourselves laughing at the wrong times or shaking our heads in disbelief. Using the wrong voice can undermine the credibility of your entire work.

Finding your voice can be a long and elusive quest. A good place to start is to think about your natural speaking voice. How do you tell a story? Are you a person of few words or are you more leisurely? Tell the story out loud and write it as you go. You can also try switching points of view, which is one of the quickest ways to change the voice. Another method is to free write, alternating between dialogue and narration, without trying to force a particular style. What I’ve discovered is that often a bit of dialogue or a turn of phrase will bubble up and suddenly, you’ll just know…. you’ve found your voice. If you can build on this little bit of discovery, zero in on what kind of voice you have, you can use it to re-write previous scenes in this new tone. When I’ve done this with my own work, it feels a bit like performing CPR. It feels like I’m breathing life into the prose.

Even after you discover your voice, there will be times when you'll get a little off track, when your storytelling becomes flat. When this happens, return to that moment on the page when you first discovered it. Or, find a particular scene that really sings. Revisit your successes and use them as inspiration to move forward.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Characters Have Opinions, Too

As I’ve been detailing over the past few days, several parameters have to be in place before I can begin writing. First I develop characters, then I come up with a premise—not a plot, per se, but more of a situation that requires action.

I’ve discovered that once I’ve found my premise, it’s helpful to decide what my characters’ opinions are of the situation and of each other. No one should be ambivalent. Each character should have strong feelings one way or another about every other character, even if they cross paths only briefly. I think it’s fun to have a character make an offhand comment about another character they barely know. It gives fuller perspectives of the characters and can be very revealing.

Ideally, the characters won’t all love each other, or else there will be no tension. Sometimes it’s helpful to draw a circle, with each character being a point on the circle, then draw a series of lines connecting everyone to everyone else. On the lines, write a few words to explains how that character feels toward the other one. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time—as you’re writing, it’s very likely that your story will require a character to feel differently than he does. What’s more important is that you start somewhere.

What’s great about this web of relationships is that it will begin to define your characters’ motivations. If you are clear about how they feel, you’ll know what they will or will not do. Then, as their motivations prompt them to action, the chess game begins. Every action will prompt reaction in the other characters—which will spur them to action, and so on. Heck, once you get going, this stuff will practically write itself.

Tomorrow, the final piece that makes everything fall into place.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Situation vs. Premise

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I’ve had a significant breakthrough on my current project after a long dry spell. Part of my problem, as I mentioned previously, was that I tend to develop the characters first, then try to build a story around them.

The breakthrough came about when I boo-hooed to my agent that I was hopelessly stuck. I told him about a few situations I had in mind for the characters, but that so far they refused to do anything interesting—they were just loitering. It was then that my agent suggested that maybe my problem was that I was looking for situations, when what I really needed was a premise.

The distinction, as he explained, was very subtle yet significant. A situation was merely dropping them in a setting with a set of problems. A premise was dropping them into a situation that forced them to take action. Here’s a rough example: a situation might be that a family that doesn’t get along very well decides to go to an amusement park for the day. They argue, they eat pizza, they go on rides. They exist within the situation, but other than that, not much is going on. A premise, on the other hand, would be that this combative family gets locked in the park overnight. A premise begs the question: What are they going to do? It indicates movement, direction. This is precisely the kind of momentum needed to start a story.

Basic stuff, I know, but sometimes it’s good to be reminded now and then.

My agent then suggested I brainstorm 100 plot ideas—the more outlandish the better—to get myself rolling. First, I went through all the clich├ęs; the evil twin, mistaken identity, alien abduction. Then it became really hard, and I thought I’d never come up with 10, let alone 100 ideas. Still, I kept on. Then, I hit number 18. It was so simple and clear, I could hardly believe it. I’d found my premise.

But I wasn't quite out of the woods, yet. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Outliners Vs. Wingers

I’m happy to say that after three years of mucking about, I’ve had a significant writing breakthrough. Part of the problem is my process, which I’ve tried many times to alter with no avail. Instead of starting with a story, I first develop a handful of characters and then try to find their story. Backwards, I know. This method leads to a lot of false-starts and wasted time, but it works for me.

Writers are generally divided into two camps: outliners and wingers. Some writers are a mixture of both. The outliners, as you may have already deduced, first write out a sketch of the plot. They usually know all the pivotal scenes and the ending even before they begin writing. Some writers can spend as long as a year or more perfecting their outlines. I admire this method for its efficiency. Outliners tend to be quick, disciplined, and very much in control of their story.

Wingers like to fly by the seat of their pants. They start with a vague idea of what’s going on, usually with a few characters and maybe a general premise. Then they write scenes as they come, letting the characters take control of the story’s direction. Often, they don’t know how the story will end, preferring to let the plot develop. To borrow an annoying catchword that has become popular as of late, wingers let their story develop organically, which means they let it flow naturally and without the use of harmful pesticides. The problem of winging, as I mentioned above, is that you are more prone to making mistakes. The fun, though, is being surprised by the story as it takes shape. When a story is chugging along by itself, I find myself looking forward to what’s going to happen next, just like a reader would. I figure if I’m surprised, the reader will be, too.

On the next post I'll tell you more about the breakthrough and how it came about.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Living the Dream

Sadly, my dear friend Patrick Robbins’s blog, MeTube, is no more. Pat had one of the most fun blogs I’ve come across. Luckily, a fan decided to take over the blog, but it won't be quite the same without Pat's unique sensibility. The video clip he chose for his last post is fantastic. This might be my favorite farewell since watching Claire Fisher drive through the desert in the finale of Six Feet Under.

Pat is leaving MeTube to be a modern-day Thoreau; he’s moving into an Airstream trailer in the middle of nowhere with no electricity or telephone, so he can focus on writing his novel. He will go into town once a week for groceries and to check his e-mail, which I’m sure Thoreau would have done instead of visiting his mother had it been available to him at the time. I applaud Pat’s discipline and have refrained from asking him all sorts of motherly questions like, “Just how do you plan on feeding yourself with no refrigerator?”

Writing in exile has been the dream of many a writer. Even if living in a trailer in the wilderness isn’t a possibility, there is always the hope that one day we’ll be able to abandon our day jobs and devote ourselves full-time to our real work. I was lucky enough to be able to do this for a few years, so here’s my advice for Pat and anyone else who wants to stay at home by themselves all day and write.

  1. Make a Schedule. Somehow we think freedom is the answer, but most of us function best with limits. Try to wake up and take your meals at the same time every day. Schedule regular breaks and time for leisure. Organizing your time gives direction to your day.
  1. Talk to yourself—out loud. When you’re in your head all day, it’s surprising how quickly you can lose the ability to form a coherent sentence. Vocal exercises are necessary so that when the opportunity for conversation strikes, you’ll be able to reply with real words instead of primal grunts. Talking out loud also prevents you from experiencing the very unsettling phenomenon of being startled by the sound of your own voice.
  1. Lack of sleep + Isolation = Cuckoo For Cocoa Puffs. Writing well means being in top form, and that begins with sleep. Exhaustion opens the door to all sorts of paranoia, neuroses, and phobias. If you find yourself wallowing in idle worries take a nap, then go to a public place or talk to someone.
  1. Exercise. It’s tempting to work on your story every waking minute, especially when you’re on a roll, but it’s important to give your mind a rest. Exercise is one of the best ways to do this, taking you out of your mental fog and bringing you right back to reality.
  1. Volunteer. If you have the time, volunteering a few hours a week to a place like your local library is a great way to achieve all of the above. Volunteering helped me through many a rough writing patch by giving me a sense of purpose. Plus, it’s a great way to meet new people.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Jealous Name Dropper

There must have been something in the water at Writers House, because at least three of my colleagues from when I worked there in the 90’s went on to be rather famous. The agency was relatively small at the time (about 12 agents and as many assistants), and although there was a fair bit of turnover in my six years, the odds of so many successes are still pretty impressive.

First, there’s the very talented writer, Hannah Tinti, whose book of short stories entitled ANIMAL CRACKERS was a runner-up for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Hannah was also one of the founders of the literary magazine One Story. As I understand it, Hannah’s first novel, THE GOOD THIEF will be published by Dial Press this August. Go Hannah!

Next is Christian Finnegan. Christian is a stand-up comedian who has had his own special on Comedy Central and has appeared on Chappelle’s Show. He’s probably best known, though, for being a regular on VH1’s Best Week Ever. Christian was just as hilarious then as he is now, and he was always such a fan of pop culture that this must be a dream gig for him. Good on ya, Christian!

And then there’s John Hodgman.

On the off chance you don’t recognize his name, trust me, you’ve seen him. His Q rating skyrocketed when he starred in a series of Apple commercials with Justin Long. He’s the PC, as in “Hi, I’m a Mac….and I’m a PC.” Oh yeah, THAT guy.

John has accomplished so much, it’s amazing. He’s written a very funny, fictitious almanac entitled THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE, which has had a cult following. He’s appeared in numerous TV shows and is a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. He’s had a cameo on one of my favorite shows ever, Flight of the Conchords. If that wasn't enough, a few weeks ago he was in Newsweek’s CW sidebar with an arrow pointing up, for cripes sake. And these are just the things I know about. I have a sneaking suspicion that John has an underground army of fans who are plotting at this very moment to help him achieve world domination.

All right, I’ll admit it…I’m a teeny, tiny bit jealous. Just a wee bit. I always knew John would do really well—he’s off-the-charts smart, charming, and very funny—but I thought he’d end up as a power agent, not a cultural phenomenon. I knew he’d be successful, but did he really have to go ahead and be that successful?

My point here is not just to drop names, but to address the issue of professional jealousy, which is something that hits most of us at one time or another. When we know someone of similar age and opportunities who suddenly breaks out in their field, it can leave us feeling a little lacking, like maybe we did something wrong. Or we didn’t do enough. Or maybe that there is only so much success and happiness in the world, and now there’s less to go around. Who hasn’t felt this at one time or another?

But if we really take time to stop and think, we know this can’t be true. It makes no sense to take another person’s success personally, because it has absolutely nothing to do with us. Nothing. It can’t diminish us, because it never had anything to do with us in the first place. Some people hit it big right out of the starting gate, others take decades. Most of us never hit it big at all, and that’s all right, too—fame is not the only measure of a person’s worth. One person’s happiness and prosperity is good for all, and takes away from least that's what I told myself the other night when I saw that he was in Tina Fey's new movie BABY MAMA.

Knock ‘em dead, John.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book Notes

Congratulations to Junot Diaz, who just won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Diaz’s 11 year gap between the highly acclaimed DROWN and THE BRIEF WONDEROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO proves that writers don't have to necessarily churn out a book every year to be successful. I just hope that this award, along with the National Book Critics Circle Award, will give him a tad more confidence than he showed in this Newsweek interview.

Monday, April 7, 2008

What Do You Stand For?

This being an election year, there’s a great deal of talk about platforms. We all want to know what the candidates stand for. Platforms, however, need not be limited to Presidential candidates or politics.

Have you ever thought about what you stand for as a writer? As a human being? I’m not talking issues or ideology. I’m talking about the intersection of passion and talent, the place where your particular point of view gives your work energy and direction. As artists, we can’t be all things to all people and expect to have any kind of impact. We must carefully choose what is most important to us and make that the focus of our work.

For example, I love to cook. Several years ago I decided that even though I wasn’t cut out for a career in the culinary arts, I would make it part of my personal platform to feed people. That means I cook for friends, family, and any neighbors who might be going through a rough patch. I’ve cooked for a homeless shelter and donate regularly to the local food bank. Basically, if someone needs help and it happens to be food-related, I’m on it. It’s not just because I enjoy feeding others—there have been plenty of occasions when finding the time to cook for others has been a sacrifice—but because it’s something that’s important to me.

As a writer, I’m still discovering my platform. One thing that is important to me, however, is the concept of compassion. I once saw an interview with Meryl Streep on Inside the Actors Studio where she said that acting gives voice to people who may otherwise go unheard. The same is true, of course, for fiction. We live in age where people are so hyper-critical of each other, that to give readers an opportunity to step into the shoes of someone different from themselves and view them with a tender eye seems to me like a worthy pursuit. To that end, I keep compassion in mind when I develop my characters, trying to make them at least sympathetic even when they are unlovable.

Friday, April 4, 2008

I Didn't Know Saltines Were Involved

This being casual Friday and all, I thought I’d lighten up and post something fun for a change. Here’s a short video of writer/performer Miranda July showing us how buttons are made.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

That's Why They Call It Fiction

I love this article in today’s Guardian by Linda Grant about the public’s need to believe that all fictional stories are somewhat based in fact. I understand her aggravation—though I don’t feel it quite so acutely—when readers automatically assume that ‘writing what you know’ means directly lifting stories from your own life.

At every reading I’ve ever been to, someone always asks the author “Where do you get your ideas?” This is often a thinly veiled way of asking, “Is the story true?” or “Are these characters based on real people?” I recently spoke to a reader who lived close to my hometown. She said she enjoyed the characters in my book, but because she didn’t live in my hometown she, in her words, “wasn’t able to connect the dots,” which I took to mean that she wasn’t able to figure out who I was writing about. Afterward, I started wondering if people in my hometown were also trying to “connect the dots”, and if so, how horrifying that would be. I have no interest in exposing the secrets of people I know or dressing them up to be unrecognizable. Just because I grew up in a small town and wrote a book about a small town, doesn’t make my work any less fictional.

There's no question that life informs a writer's work, but fiction writers are not interested in documenting their experiences. If we were, we would write memoirs or essays instead or simply become journalists. What we love is the act of creation, not disguise.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Book Notes

Jhumpa Lahiri has a new short story collection out today entitled, UNACCUSTOMED EARTH. If you’re like me and can’t wait to get your grubby little paws on it but can’t get to the store right away, you can cool your jets on these interviews with Book Forum and The Atlantic.