Monday, December 14, 2015

Serve the Work

As 2015 comes to a close, my writing news ends on a high note. After many, many rewrites, Mr. Agent says my manuscript passes muster and we can send it out to publishers in January, after the holiday chaos. I am beside myself with relief and excitement. Just when I came close to giving up on this story, I stuck with it. Maybe the gamble will pay off. Whatever happens, I take comfort in knowing I did my best. I also look forward to finally returning to the business of writing after such a long hiatus and reporting the process to you, dear blog reader, along the way. 

There is one small detail to attend to before Mr. Agent sends out the manuscript. It's a plot point that happens in the third act that he feels needs to be reworked. At first look it seems an easy fix, but as I move deeper into the changes I realize it ripples out and affects many scenes. Whether I make the changes or not is entirely optional and up to me--but his feeling was that since we're waiting until January, why not?

I've given his suggestion a lot of thought and I've decided to go for it. If it doesn't work, we can always revert to the previous version. Part of the reason why I'm taking on the challenge is that the change we came up with together is actually an idea I had pursued many drafts ago, but had abandoned. Why? Because even though the story led me there, it didn't feel literary enough to me. It was too obvious, predictable. I wanted to create something more subtle, nuanced. 

Looking back now, I can see many instances when I tried to steer the story instead of letting it steer me. And what happened? I veered off course. Trying to make the story something it was not cost me a lot of time and pages. 

On a whim, I borrowed a copy of Madeleine L'Engle's WALKING ON WATER: Reflections on Faith and Art from my local library. Shortly after my conversation with my agent I came across the following passage (don't you love it when this happens?) which refers to her process of working on A WRINKLE IN TIME, her masterpiece:

"I began to comprehend something about listening to the work, about going where it shoved me. And so the long two years of rejection slips which followed were especially difficult; it wasn't just that my work was being rejected; or, if it was, it meant that I had not even begun to serve the work."

Serve the work. Yes. This is what I've been learning. When we get in the way of a piece by trying to make it something it is not--either by deciding the story isn't lofty enough or it's in a particular genre we don't care for--we ruin it. Our job as writers is to accept the story as is and let it guide us into being. Our choice, our art, comes from how we tell that story. This is where we can let our heads rules our hearts. 

Is there a story you're stuck on? Think for a moment--are you trying to make it something it's not?

See you in 2016.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

9 Great Gifts for Writers (2015 Edition)

It's time for my annual roundup of 9 Great Gifts for Writers. While I mostly create  this list in service to my readers, it also use it as a thinly-veiled wish list for any of my loved ones who read this blog. Happy shopping *wink, wink*!

Blackwing Pencils.  On last year's list I extolled the virtues of a smooth-writing, medium point pen but this year I rediscovered the beauty of the pencil. And not just any pencil. After reading BETWEEN YOU & ME: CONFESSIONS OF A COMMA QUEEN by Mary Norris and learning of the devoted following the Blackwing had (especially among editors of The New Yorker) I just had to try them out.  They are expensive ($21.95 for a pack of 12), but so worth it. The pencil is extra long and the Palomino model is painted in a shiny slate metallic color. When it's in your hand it just feels special. The writing is smooth and the erasing clean--the eraser is rectangular and flat and slides out as needed so you don't run out of eraser before you run out of pencil. I loved these so much that I started using them all the time instead of my beloved gel pens. One word of advice: make sure to buy the special 2-step pencil sharpener ($7.50) made for it.

Litographs. I have a niece who is an avid reader and who just earned her doctorate in entomology. Her favorite color is orange. I was searching for the perfect gift to celebrate her achievement and came across this amazing company. Litographs takes classic works of literature and creates graphics using the text of the work. How cool is that? They put the graphics on t-shirts, tote bags, and posters. For my niece, I bought a print of Kafka's THE METAMORPHOSIS, which is in the shape of a giant bug, and chose to have it printed in orange. She loved it. I'm partial to Thoreau's Walden, pictured above. ($24-$39)

Gift Certificate from an Independent Bookstore. This year I made a concerted effort to buy fewer books from a certain online mega-retailer and more books from my local bookstore. By purchasing from independent bookstores you are supporting your local economy and saying no to predatory practices that hurt all writers. Any writer in your life would be thrilled to have some mad money to spend at the neighborhood bookstore.

Grammar Nerd Shirt.  I'm no expert when it comes to grammar (as you've probably noticed) but like most writers I do have certain grammatical pet peeves. This is my new favorite t-shirt until I find a snarky one that shows the proper use of the possessive. ($27.95)

Bookish Candles.  The scent description of these soy-based candles makes me swoon--paper, dust, newsprint, vanilla. Other scents include Oxford Library, The Shire, and Sherlock's Study, which smells of pipe tobacco, cherrywood, and fresh rain. ($18 each)

Scapple. No, this is not the cousin of the famous Pennsylvania Dutch breakfast treat but a poorly-named program from Literature & Latte--the makers of Scrivener--my all-time favorite word-processing program. Although I have yet to purchase this particular product, it's on my to-do list. The next project I'm working on is research-heavy and this mind-mapping software should help with plotting, note-taking, character development, and making thematic connections. Literature & Latte offers a free trial period, but at $15, it's a minimal investment.

One Story Magazine. Co-founded by a former Writers House colleague of mine, Hannah Tinti, One Story is a unique literary magazine that simply publishes one story every three weeks. Contributing authors only get published once, allowing for the discovery of new talent. Subscriptions are available in both print and digital formats, or you can purchase single back issues of you favorite authors. Fun fact: Maine's own Lily King is featured in the latest issue. (12 issues for $21)

Thermos. I've never been to a writers' colony, but I'm a little obsessed with the idea of spending a month or two in the woods of New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony. Spending a couple of weeks in a cabin with nothing to do but read, write, sleep, and eat from MacDowell's legendary picnic baskets that are delivered right to your door. Those picnic baskets reportedly come with a thermos full of coffee to keep you at your writerly best. Since my children are still too young to have me running off for weeks at a time and since my backyard in the Maine woods basically looks like the MacDowell campus, I won't be applying anytime soon. Instead, I've made my own pseudo-retreat by filling up this thermos with my favorite hot beverage and heading out to my kids' play house to write. It's not quite the same, but at least my coffee stays hot for 12+ hours. ($23)

Wise and Otherwise. I received this board game as a gift a few years ago. Players are given the first half of an obscure saying or proverb and must finish the rest of it. Everyone's answers are read aloud (including the original ending of the proverb) and then players must vote on the most convincing answer. Players with good writing skills tend to do well--which is why it's become one of my all-time favorite games. Not that I'm competitive or anything. ($42)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Getting Into the Groove

I just received a really nice note from a Goodreads friend named Alex who has the itch to write but doesn't know how to start.

We've all been there, haven't we? Think about all the skills you've learned over your lifetime--reading, riding a bike, cooking a pot of pasta, driving a car--and what it felt like at first. The word that comes to my mind is overwhelming. I remember, vividly, my first driving lesson: hands on the wheel trying to steer, foot on the gas (or brake, more often), eyes bouncing from the road to the mirrors to the dashboard, my brain on overload. It seemed impossible that I would ever be able to drive with ease. But eventually I did--and I never would have if I hadn't gotten behind the wheel in the first place.

And so it is with writing. You'll learn by doing. The trouble is that learning to write, or learning to create any kind of art, feels different than other skills because our thoughts and feelings are so exposed. Emotionally, there's more at stake. We're afraid of appearing idiotic or dull to others--or, even worse--to ourselves. Spoiler alert: No matter who you are, at one time or another both are going to happen. But you will also experience moments of joy when you turn out work that surpasses your expectations. If ups and downs are a given for all of us, why not stop fretting and just get to work?

Whether you're picking up a pen for the first time or returning after a long hiatus, here are a few baby steps to help you get into the groove. 

Step 1.  Buy yourself a beautiful notebook and a bunch of your favorite pens. 

Even if you think you'd rather work on a computer, I urge you not to skip this step. For the first several months it's best to stick with paper and pen. Nothing is more discouraging than a blinking cursor, or more distracting than knowing the Internet is just a tab-click away. Lovely paper and a smooth-writing pen are a pleasure to use. By purchasing good writing materials, you are making a commitment to taking yourself seriously as a writer.

Step 2.  Schedule your writing time.

No matter how busy you are, I guarantee you can find ten minutes a day to write. You can either block out the same time every day or you can choose to be flexible--as long as your ten minutes are done by bedtime. No excuses. For the first month, I recommend sticking to ten minutes only. Even if you're on a roll and could write for an hour, shut it down after ten minutes. It's always best to stop when you're hot--it makes it a lot easier to sit down and write the next day. In fact, it will make you look forward to writing the next day. Getting the motivation to sit down and write is half the battle.

After the first month or so, up your time to fifteen minutes. Then twenty. Settle into a block of time that is comfortable for you. Most writers I know only write for a maximum of about four hours a day. How long you write for is less important than keeping a consistent schedule. Some writers insist that you must write every day. Personally, I take weekends off. If your schedule allows you to only write on weekends, do that.

Step 3.  Give yourself permission to be bad. 

Oh, the hours I wasted, staring at a blank screen, afraid to write a single bad sentence! It would have been so much better to just give myself permission to write the worst possible sentence and then fix it later. You can't edit what isn't there. Every writer writes junky first drafts. The real art, the real skill is in the editing. You have to write garbage--a lot of it--to get to the good stuff. To learn how to write, you'll need to be a garbage-producing machine. In my college oeuvre of junk-writing I produced a schmaltzy story entitled "Pink Soap and Lilacs", that still makes me want to gag whenever I think about it. I will not be sharing the awful details of this particular story with you, which brings me to the next step:

Step 4.  Don't share with anyone--yet.

As you begin to churn out your requisite pile of word-sludge you may suddenly strike gold. You might suddenly hit upon an idea for a nail-biting thriller or you may turn out an exquisite sentence that makes you proud. Your instinct will be to share it with someone, but I urge you to keep it to yourself. As I've said over and over again, you will rarely get the ecstatic reaction you are hoping for and early on your writer's ego will be too fragile to handle it. When you find a golden nugget in your junk pile, hoard it. Keep this treasure for yourself. Keep hoarding your literary gold until you have enough of it to feel confident in your ability. If it pleases you, that's all that matters.

Step 5.  Read, read, read. 

When I got my first ghost-writing job, I still wasn't quite sure how to intersperse dialogue with action.   I wasn't even sure how to properly punctuate dialogue. To learn how, all I did was open a book and see how it was done. Every book is an instruction manual. Unsure how to open a story? Or create suspense at the end of a chapter? What about using page breaks? Everything you need to know is sitting on your bookshelf. Take down a few of your favorite books and see how it's done. I still do this all the time.

You should also be constantly reading for pleasure. Read what you like, not what you think you're supposed to read. Fill your head with words and they will be accessible to you when you need them.

Moving Forward

Once you've practiced enough to produce a rough draft of a short story or several chapters of a novel, then you might want to consider finding a writers' group in your area. Don't rush this step, but when you're ready writers' groups can be an invaluable resource for every skill level. For more info on choosing (or starting) the right group for you, see my post about writing groups.

Do you have a question about writing or publishing? Leave a comment and I'll do my best to answer it in a future post. 

Happy writing!

Monday, November 9, 2015

No Downtime For You!

I'm back!

I've finally finished my latest draft and turned it in to my agent. If you're a regular reader of this blog, thank you for hanging in there with me. I hope to be posting more regularly for a while. Finishing a draft is intense--for the past two months nearly everything else in my world has fallen by the wayside. I've managed to feed and clothe my family, but that's about it. Now I can breathe a little and clean my house, have coffee with friends, go out to lunch with my mom, get ready for the holidays.

So the process will go like this: Mr. Agent will read this version of the manuscript. He may or may not suggest further revisions. If this version of the manuscript is fine as is, he will then shop it around to various publishers. If a publisher is interested, they will make an offer. Then there will be contract negotiations. After that, the real work begins.

There's a huge amount of downtime in publishing. The steps I just described above might take several months. If you're an impatient or obsessive person--which is probably 99% of us--the publishing industry is enough to send you over the edge. What you need to do to is kick up your feet, sip a margarita, and wait for the phone to ring while basking in the glory of your achievement. You've been working hard, haven't you? You deserve to do nothing for a while--so turn on that TV, grab some salty snacks, and get down to some serious binge-watching...


To hijack the words of that immortal Seinfeld character: "No downtime for you!"

The worst thing you can do is sit around waiting for something to happen. You have to start the next thing immediately to save your sanity. It's even better if you're so excited about the next thing that the manuscript you just turned in seems old and tired and you're sick of it. The new thing should be so shiny and sparkly and full of promise that it's all you can think about. I know it sounds like a drag to have to keep going but trust me--this is the worst possible time to take a break. You can goof off later once you have your new project well underway.

I'm thrilled to say I have just such an idea in my back pocket. I also have a short story I've been picking at for a long time that I've been eager to finish. And, of course, I have this blog. These things will be more than enough to occupy me in the coming months.

Now if I could just stop checking my email.

In the meantime, are there any topics you'd like me to cover in a future blog post? Post your publishing or writing questions here and I'll do my best to answer them for you. 

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

It's All About Follow-Through

I'm coming to the end of a significant revision of my manuscript--the last one, I hope, until I have a book contract. If you're a regular reader of this blog you'll know the first draft took me close to ten years to finish (not because it's a work of epic genius but because of family commitments) and I've spent the past year going through multiple revisions. I am more than ready to move on.

I already know what my next project will be and I'm really itching to get started on the research. I have a couple of books on the subject and every now and then I look at them with longing and think,  "I could just do a little reading--what's the harm in that?"

But I know better.

The minute I start dipping into the research for the new idea I'm going to stop being interested in the project I'm currently working on. Odds are the new idea is so seductive because I'm approaching the final act of my current novel and it terrifies me. On a subconscious level, I want to be distracted. If I get distracted, I won't finish; if I don't finish, I don't have to face the possibility that no one will publish it.

This is a problem that all writers fall prey to now and then. Just when one story starts getting tough, a new and more exciting idea pops up that suddenly begs for attention. It's no coincidence. Your subconscious is protecting you from failure. It's also keeping you from success.

There comes a point when, in order to progress, a writer must stop beginning projects and start finishing them. This is the true test of a writer's mettle. This is what separates the amateurs from the pros. Anyone can start a story and call themselves a writer--but how many actually see it through to the end of the first draft? Not many. How many know when they've finished enough revisions to take the leap and send it out to an agent or publisher? Fewer still. It's much easier to let a half-finished piece sit in the drawer or start something new than to risk rejection.

When you start to have the itch to begin a new project--pay attention. Instead of giving in to the urge, use that desire to finish your current project. Make it a reward. Tell yourself you can start that next story as soon as you finish the one you're working on. Follow-through is one of the most important parts of the process.

Do you use new projects as a way to avoid finishing a piece? Do you revise a piece over and over and never send it out? What are the ways you keep yourself from taking the next step?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Don't Speed Date Your Characters

I'm back! I can't believe I haven't posted since July. As you could probably tell by my mid-summer lament, I didn't meet my goal of finishing my rewrite by the end of summer. It was too difficult to concentrate on my kids and my work at the same time. When given the choice my kids will always come first. I put away my laptop for the rest of the summer, forgave myself for not meeting my deadline, and spent my time playing games and having water fights instead.

Now that school's back in session, I'm right back on schedule. I'm nearly finished rewriting 2/3 of the book. My new goal for completion is the end of October.

So, where were we?

A while back, I promised a post about getting to know your characters. That seems like a good place to start.

Sometimes when writers talk about getting to know their characters, we treat the exercise like speed dating. We sit down and knock off a list of traits in the span of a few minutes. To show you what I mean, I'm going to set a timer for two minutes and come up with a character from scratch. Ready, set, go...

Character Name: Krista Mahoney

-22 years old
-Short brown hair, bangs
-Blue eyes
-Small build, sometimes mistaken for a teen
-Crooked smile
-Wears bulky clothes she can "hide" in
-Parents are divorced, one brother
-Dropped out of college after one semester
-Likes cats
-Works at an ice cream shop
-Has no significant other
-Likes to read mysteries
-Eats a tuna sandwich every day for lunch
-Crawls under the bed during thunderstorms

Okay for two minutes work, I guess. Notice the kind of details I came up with--most of them are superficial. She's a little compelling but a bit of a stereotype. Could I write a story about her? Sure, but I don't have much to work with.

This list, dear blog reader, would not be enough information to know if you wanted to date someone in the real world, let alone spend time with them in a fictional one. A person or a character, is more than just a list of traits and likes/dislikes. Rather than just quickly sketching out the basics, getting to know your character should be more like those long, all night phone calls with a new crush; where you don't want to hang up so you ask every conceivable question that comes to mind. To truly know your character, to fall in love (which is a necessity for good writing!) you need to take some time and dig deeper. You need to know the answer to the following questions:

-What does this character want above all else?
-What is she willing to do to get it?
-What is she willing to lose?
-What does she need?
-How are her wants and needs in conflict with one another?
-What does she value most?
-What is her major weakness?
-How does she hide this weakness?
-What in her past makes her this way?
-What, internally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What, externally, is getting in the way of her getting the goal?
-What event causes her to change?
-How does she change?

Let's apply the above questions to Krista and see what happens.

-Krista wants to feel safe and secure.
-In order to feel secure, she is willing to avoid anything that involves risk.
-She is willing to sacrifice friendships and romance in order to avoid being hurt.
-What she really needs is to come out of her shell.
-Coming out of her shell will put her at risk of having her heart broken.
-Above all else, she values a peaceful, quiet life.
-Her biggest weakness is not allowing herself to trust others.
-She hides this weakness by avoiding social situations.
-She's this way because her parents divorced when she was ten. Her older brother, her closest confidant, sided with her father in the divorce and left to go live with him. Krista could never understand why her brother took her father's side. She felt betrayed. She lost both her father and her brother/best friend at the same time.
-Internally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she's afraid to risk having her heart broken.
-Externally, she's unable to reach her goal of security because she lives alone and has a job that allows her to work in isolation (instead of an ice cream shop, maybe she's an artist?)
-The event that causes her to change is her work forces her to be in contact with a client/patron/philanthropist. If she refuses to contact this person, she will lose her livelihood. The person she is forced to deal with is unpredictable and difficult and keeps her on her toes.
-Krista changes by gaining confidence in herself. She realizes that even when she's involved in events  (or with people) she can't control, she is resourceful enough to handle the unknown and come out fine. With a little experience under her belt, she is now equipped to take bigger risks in her life.

I spent about 30 minutes on the above. Still not a huge time investment, but there's a lot more meat to work with here than on the previous list. Better questions yield better answers. The answers to these questions even suggest the outline of a story. 

You could make a list of character traits even before you start writing a story, but where this exercise becomes most powerful is when you use it on the characters in a story you've already started, especially a story that has stalled. Often when we're stuck it's because we have yet to make some crucial decisions about what our characters want. Take what you already know about your character and use it to answer the questions. Spend time thinking through their motivations. As if by magic, new plot ideas may suggest themselves and you'll be able to move forward.

Are you stuck on a story? Give this exercise a try. Let me know how it works for you.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Writing and Motherhood

My summer started with such good intentions.

The plan was to get up 1-2 hours earlier than my minions in hopes of getting a little writing done. Getting up early wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, given that I'm not a morning person. I loved watching the sun rise and finishing the most important task of the day so early. 

The problem began when the minions started getting up even earlier than usual. I, in turn, got up even earlier and went to bed earlier to make up for it. It didn't help. With all the running around from activity to activity and all the meals (why must children eat so much?) I was exhausted. And cranky. In short, sleep won out.

Now, four weeks into summer break I'm back to the haphazard approach of stealing a few moments here and there. I'm just starting to fall behind on my rewriting schedule but trying my best to keep up. I'm attempting to embrace all that summer entails--the messy house, the up-ended schedule, the spontaneous opportunities for fun. All the while, though, my novel simmers on the back burner and I wonder if I'll ever finish by my self-imposed deadline. It's really important to me, so I keep plugging away.

I once met a writer whom I greatly admire and he asked me if I had any children. I told him about my twin girls and how it was difficult for me to be fully present for them and for my writing at the same time. This particular writer had several grown children and sympathized with my situation. "Raise your children first," he said, "then when they're in college, write like crazy."

This isn't the first time I've heard this advice. Over and over again I've been told to put my work aside and focus my energy on raising my girls. The writing, they say, can wait.

I'm sure the author (and others) meant well and had the best of intentions. Perhaps he even thought he was offering me a bit of comfort in the form of permission to not be so hard on myself. I'll admit that his advice did comfort me at first, but then I couldn't help thinking that had I been a male writer, he probably wouldn't have told me to put my career on hold for the next ten years.

Must I choose one over the other? I love being a mother and having the luxury of spending lots of time with my children. I also love being a writer. If I was forced to pick one over the other, I would choose my kids. Thankfully, I don't have to make that choice. Still, there has to be a way I can have both without feeling depleted every single day. Am I asking for too much? Was that author simply stating the truth and I just don't want to hear it?

How do you juggle a writing career and motherhood?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Getting Unstuck

I've spent the last few weeks moving forward with my stuck manuscript. I'm usually a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of writer, but since the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results I decided to try a new approach. Instead of just diving in with the umpteenth rewrite, I took a step back and did a little planning--something I almost never do.
I can't believe how much of a difference this approach has made.

Sometimes you have to do a 180 to get a fresh perspective. Do you have a stuck manuscript? Here are a few ideas to help you get back on track. They really worked for me.

Immerse Yourself in Other People's Words.  The best way to get inspiration is to read, read, read. Read classics, read contemporary authors, read non-fiction and poetry. Learn from others. I'll truly never understand writers who don't like to read or who say they avoid reading when they're working (What? You're not working all the time?).  I know I'm reading a great book when it makes me want to run to my computer and write. I love this quote from Lisa See: "Read a thousand books and your words will flow like a river." Amen.

Share Your Work With a Trusted Reader. When you don't know how to move forward with a piece, it's often a good idea to get a fresh perspective from someone who is an avid reader in your particular genre. He doesn't even have to have mad editorial skills to be helpful--the reader's reaction alone can be informative. Which scenes or characters stand out for him? What themes is he picking up? What piqued his attention? Where did it wane?

Write Out a Sketch of Each Character. How well do you know your characters? The more specific you get about each character the easier it's going to be to get to the heart of the story. Knowing your character goes far beyond superficial details. Even though I had a complete manuscript with well-developed characters I still sat down and wrote out everything I knew about them. What I discovered is that throughout the manuscript my characters' motivations and wants were a little cloudier than I thought. It's not enough to know what they're feeling--you have to know what's at stake for them and what they're willing to lose. I'll have more specifics on this in a future post.

Make an Outline. Most writers belong in one of two camps--outliners and wingers. Some need to plan out the entire plot in advance, while others--like me--follow wherever the characters  take them. I've been a longtime proponent of winging it, believing in Robert Frost's assertion "no surprises in the writer, no surprises in the reader" but I'm changing my tune a little bit. I've realized that part of the reason why my story wasn't working was that I'd failed to make some key decisions. The plot was chugging along, but since I didn't know my characters as well as I should have, their actions weren't specific enough. To remedy this problem, I went through the entire manuscript and wrote a summary of what needed to be accomplished in each scene. I also wrote summaries for scenes that appeared to be missing. As I did this, the story became much more focused. Now, as I'm rewriting, I'm able to approach each work day in a more relaxed way because I've already decided what each scene needs.

Keep the Momentum Going by Setting Goals. When you feel ready to tackle your rewrite, set a deadline and tell others about it to hold yourself accountable. I've chosen August 31st as my deadline (with you , dear blog reader, as my witness). In order to stay on track, I've divided the number of days until my deadline by the number of chapters. I need to edit a chapter every three days in order to keep on track. I have written each chapter deadline on my calendar so I know where I stand. Currently, I'm three days ahead of schedule--yay me!

Write Every Day. Until now, I've given myself weekends off. I'll probably go back to that schedule eventually, but right now I can't imagine letting a day go by without doing a little editing. It's been tough with summer break and the kids being home. I have to steal my writing time any way I can. The confidence I'm feeling right now is a brittle, fragile thing. I can't afford to let myself get stuck again.

What do you do to get unstuck?

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Tie Breaker


It's been an interesting week.

As some of you know, I've found myself in new territory this year. I finished the first draft of a novel that I love but that my agent doesn't. My original plan was to put it on the shelf for a while and move onto something else, another novel that I started a few years ago. Instead, I gave the draft to a trusted friend, a novelist who has a lot of experience in the field. He gave it a read and the verdict is in: he loved it. Maybe even a bit more than I'd hoped he would.

We met for coffee and had a long talk about agents. I learned some interesting things. My friend has had the same agent for over thirty years and they've had many disagreements. As one might expect, agents have biases. Depending on the kind of novel my friend turns in, he already has a sense if his agent will or won't like it. Agents also have their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to editing. My friend listens carefully to his agent's suggestions and if he strongly disagrees, he then turns to his editor as a tie-breaker. Ultimately, my friend decides what stays and what goes.

It was empowering to be reminded that I, as the creator of the work, have the final say. I've generally approached criticism with an open mind and trust that when someone finds a problem with my work there must be an issue that ought to be addressed. I also trust in the expertise of others and think that those who ignore counsel do so at their own peril. And yet there's a time, I'm beginning to see, that maybe you need to trust yourself more.

I received a few great podcast suggestions after last week's blog post, one of them being OTHER PPL with Brad Listi (thanks to MWPA's Joshua Bodwell for the suggestion). Listi is the Marc Maron of the literary world and I've been immersing myself in his author interviews. One that stood out for me is a conversation with Stewart O'Nan. His approach is to work is to be slow and steady and to roll with the punches. Among his more traumatizing moments in the publishing business: the time his publicist left in the middle of a book launch and the time the entire staff of his publishing house was fired. Hearing these stories made my current squabble with my agent seem small. I've been writing professionally for twenty years and yet I'm still so green.

So now that I'm feeling confident, I will ride this wave and dive right in. I will spend the summer taking my friend's and my writing group's suggestions and power through another rewrite. I will "write a little every day, without hope, without despair" as prescribed by Isak Dinesen.

I am back.

Friday, May 15, 2015

7 Great Podcasts for Writers

I'm not one of those writers who can sit still for 10-12 hours. I can put in a good 3-4 hours before the quality drops off and I need to move around. With two young kids and many different obligations, I spend most of my time attending to other matters. When I'm not writing, though, I pop in my earbuds and listen to podcasts that feature books, writers, and the creative process. It makes me feel productive, even when I'm not.

Here are seven of my favorite podcasts:


Accomplished actors reading short fiction by great writers in front of a live audience--what's not to love? The mix of old and new writers gives listeners the chance to be reacquainted with revered storytellers and to discover new talent. Listening to actors read is a master class in how to perform a story.


The complete antithesis of SELECTED SHORTS, in that the stories are usually autobiographical and often told by regular people. The storytellers are not allowed to have any notes, but Moth editors help them shape the stories and emphasize certain beats before each performance. The stories are confessional, usually funny, and often heartbreaking. There's a lot to learn here about storytelling. The supportive audiences are a good reminder for all of us who have to speak in public that most audiences are on your side.


Etymology at its most entertaining. Hosts Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett field questions from callers about the origins of phrases and words. The historical tidbits and cultural references revealed are fascinating. With a couple of puzzles thrown in, it's word nerd heaven.


The Canadian Broadcasting Company's Eleanor Wachtel is the queen of the literary interview. While the authors she interviews every week are the crème de la crème of the writing world, the real star of the podcast is Wachtel herself. Unlike many interviewers who seem to have superficial knowledge of the book they are discussing, Wachtel is a thorough, informed reader. She is not only versed in an author's current book, but his entire oeuvre. Wachtel also has a firm grasp of the author's history and makes fascinating connections between his work and his past--often to the surprise of the author himself.


Lopate interviews a range of guests, many of them writers and artists. Unlike Eleanor Wachtel, Lopate seems to have a superficial grasp of any particular topic he is covering, which allows him a layman's approach to any subject. His  intense curiosity and sophistication lead to insightful questions that he fires off at terrifying speed. Many of this guests end up being thrown a little off-kilter, which allows for refreshing moments of candor.


In depth interviews with interesting people (many of them authors) in front of a live audience. The conversation generally steers toward the creative process and the role of art in our lives. The tone is casual but insightful and reflective. It's an easy-listening podcast, yet still thought-provoking.


This is where I go when I want to find out what's shakin' in the publishing industry. In-depth reviews, reports on publishing trends, and bestseller news make me feel like I'm still in the literary loop.

What's your favorite podcast for writers?

Friday, May 8, 2015

A Good Kick in the Pants

Since my last post, I've been taking stock. I've been reading a lot, listening to podcasts for writers, talking to my friends, family, my agent. I've been working on a short story and luxuriating in the freshness of new characters and in the economy of language that short fiction affords. I've been trying to fill the proverbial well as described by Julia Cameron in THE ARTIST'S WAY by taking long walks, riding my bike, watching films, and looking at art. Most of all, I've been doing the soul-searching necessary to decide how to proceed with my stalled novel.

I've had quite a few moments of self-pity. I've felt spent, used up, obsolete. I've felt like the literary world is a grand ball and I am a wallflower, thrilled to be invited to the party but worried that I'll never really fit in. I've spent far too much time fretting over how much time has passed since my last novel. I've looked at the titles on the bestseller lists and decided that the type of books I write are a real long shot for that kind of success.

Blah, blah, blah. Funny how the universe seems to know just when to give you a good kick in the pants.

One day, while I was sulking and cleaning the house (to make myself feel worthy and useful), I was listening to an episode of The New York Public Library's podcast. It was an interview with Cheryl Strayed, the author of WILD. While they were talking about publishing and the writing process, the interviewer relayed this story told by EAT, PRAY, LOVE author Elizabeth Gilbert:
[I found the transcript of the story here.]

I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” 

Wow. This was exactly what I needed to hear.  I copied Herzog's quote and hung it above my desk.

I've been repeating this mantra to myself every day. It helps me remember that this life, this career is of my own choosing and by extension so are the problems that accompany it. No one has asked me to write. The world will continue on just fine if I don't. But I won't be all right--I'll be miserable. So I  must write for me and no one else. I will let go of expectations. I will stop whining and get back to work.

And you know what? Suddenly, I felt the pressure lift off my shoulders. Last night, I was minding my own business, when ideas for the novel surfaced. I grabbed a notebook and starting writing as fast as I could. The well, it seemed, had been replenished.


Friday, May 1, 2015

Back to the Drawing Board...Maybe

As you know, Dear Blog Readers, I am an optimist by nature and tend to use this platform as a place of encouragement and support. While my view of the publishing industry may seem overly sunny at times, it's because my six years of working in NYC exposed me to many of the smart, well-intentioned, passionate people who work in the industry. Everyone I've ever met who works in publishing is crazy about books and getting good manuscripts into the hands of readers. I like to mention this as often as I can because it pains me to hear these people being repeatedly maligned by those who have little understanding of what really goes on in Big Publishing.

That being said, things can and do go wrong--and I would be remiss to gloss over the bad times. If I'm here to share my experience of the writing life, then I have to be honest when things get tough. Since we writers can be competitive and a little bit protective of our reputations, I think there's a tendency for us to avoid talking about failure. Maybe we don't want to appear vulnerable. Still, we do each other a disservice when pretend we everything is rosy all the time.

As I wrote in a previous post ("The Summer of Crazy"), last May I turned in my first draft of a novel I've been working on in fits and starts since my twins were born ten years ago. At the time, it felt terrific to finally complete something after being out of the publishing world for so long. I was sure it was my strongest work to date and was thrilled to finally show it to my agent. Unfortunately, my agent didn't share my enthusiasm. I cried for two days.

When we discussed the story at length, he raved about the writing but thought the plot needed some work. His comments were insightful and on the money. I felt better--energized and ready to get back to work. I did a round of revisions, pretty sure that I fixed all his points of concern.

I was wrong.

We had another discussion and this time I felt a little fuzzier about what I was supposed to aim for. I did a second round of revisions. I took an ax to the manuscript. It still fell short.

Third round of revisions. This time I felt like I was completely in the dark. I was losing confidence and interest. I was beginning to go against my own instincts. We both knew this was bad news. In the end, my agent's verdict was the same: it wasn't coming together the way he would like. Time to put it aside. Did I have any other stories to develop?

This was really tough news to hear. How could I possibly toss away something I've spent so much time and effort on, especially when I felt this was my best work and that maybe, just maybe he was wrong? I cried--though much less than the first time around--thinking about all the time I'd lost and how the manuscript wasn't any closer to publication. I went to war with myself, considering my options:

Should I....

1) Throw in the towel? Every author has a book or two in their closet that had to be scrapped. This will be mine.

But I can't imagine giving up on this story. This is some of the best stuff I've ever written. My gut tells me that one way or another, something from this manuscript will be published.

2) Cannibalize the story? I could chop the novel up into separate short stories or use a character for something new so it wouldn't feel like a complete waste of time.

This is a realistic solution, but something I'd like to avoid having to do. 

3) Step away from it for a while? Maybe if I put it aside for at least six months I could gain a little clarity and figure out on my own what needed to be fixed.

Aside from losing more time, this is a good plan. 

4) Get a second opinion? Share it with a few trusted readers to get their take on it. If they feel the same way my agent does, then I'll have to really do some soul-searching.

Yes! Other opinions are exactly what I need right now. It can help me make an informed decision about what to do next.

5) Get a new agent? Maybe it's time to find someone else who can better articulate what the story needs or whose vision is closer to mine.

Something to consider, but not something I'm inclined to do. Aside from this hiccup, we have a good relationship and I trust him. Plus, he's a top agent. Trying to find another agent is a big risk on many levels. 

So, after thinking it over a bit, my plan was to set it aside for a while and come back to it in six months with fresh eyes. 

Then, an interesting thing happened: I met with my writing group. I had been giving them a few scenes at a time to get their opinions and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They seemed to love the characters and were very invested in the story. They couldn't wait to read the rest and wanted me to send all of it at once instead of in dribs and drabs. I couldn't believe it....and I was more confused than ever.

Suddenly, I found myself unable to put the story aside. I contacted a friend of mine who is a novelist and he offered to take a look. I'll be interested in hearing his point of view. I have a feeling he'll be a 'tiebreaker' of sorts and his feedback will give me a better sense of how to proceed.

In the meantime, I'm polishing an old short story I've been wanting to finish and hope to send it around in a few weeks. It will be nice to have something else to think about for a while.

Have you encountered a big setback in your writing career? How did you move forward?

Friday, April 17, 2015

Living the Dream: Patrick Robbins Part III

[Update: I've now included a link to the video of Pat's Reading here.]
As some of you might recall, I did a few blog posts back in 2008 following my friend Patrick Robbins as he cloistered himself in an Airstream trailer to write his first novel. While the manuscript came together very quickly, it took six years before the book was published. Read my follow-up interview to find out how Charles Schulz, Greg Brady, and an old friend eventually helped to make Pat's dream come true.   

How does it feel to be a published author?

Oy! (To coin a phrase.) This is something I've wanted for years, decades even, and now that it's here... it's just as good as I always imagined it. Picture a combination of the satisfaction in a long-term job well done and the delirium of an oil well finally coming in. I would compare the whole thing to a sports team winning a championship - on the one hand, "Mission accomplished, gentlemen." On the other hand, "WE WON!!! WE WON!!!"

I mentioned in a previous post that your first book signing felt a little like a graduation party--it's one of those few events in life when you are surrounded by so much love and support from your friends and family. How do you remember that day?

Photo by Alina Pauksis
Sheer unadulterated joy. It was so much fun seeing people from throughout my past - grade school, high school, college, various jobs - mingling with my family, all of them in couldn't-be-happier mode. The event was originally just going to be a signing, but people were clamoring for a reading as well; major, major kudos to Stacy Shea, the Barnes & Noble community relations manager, who whipped up 30 chairs in nothing flat. I hadn't read aloud from my work in years, but I wasn't nervous in the slightest - who can be nervous about having their dream come true? The whole thing went great; people wanted to buy it after hearing it, and one of my coworkers was so overcome she couldn't speak, which was something to see. One friend took pictures and video of the whole event, so I've got a permanent scrapbook. And my dad said he never knew I could carry a tune (part of my reading included the singing of "Amazing Grace"). The expected snowstorm didn't even show up. It was just a perfect day.

Your road to publication was a little bit unusual. Tell us how it came about.

I started sending letters of inquiry to agencies and got between forty and fifty rejections. After a while, you start to believe these people really know what they're talking about. One [agent] said it was clear I had real talent, but my book didn't seize the reader by the throat within the first five pages and that's what was selling these days.

Looking for another way to skin a cat, I got in touch with a friend of mine who's a branding strategist. At the time, he maintained the Facebook page of Barry Williams, a.k.a. Greg Brady on The Brady Bunch; he said he'd have Barry talk about my manuscript  [on Facebook] and ask for help getting it out there. Ninety-eight percent of the responses were "Get it self-published!" or "Can't help, but it sounds great!" But one man said, "I think I can help your friend" and left his contact info. I called, we talked for a few hours, and he said to send the manuscript to his agency, with his recommendation. "But don't you want to read it first?" I asked. He said that it was his experience that when you do good, good comes back to you. I'll never forget him for that act of kindness to a guy he'd never met.

I sent in the manuscript and, mirabile dictu, they were interested and wanted to represent it. I took it through three more drafts per their request. After the third one, they wrote to say that it still hadn't come together the way they wanted, and they were going to step away from it. That was pretty devastating - so close and yet so far. On the other hand, it was three drafts better than it had been.

At this point, enter Thom Hayes. He was my boss [when I worked at] Barnes & Noble. He read a draft or two of the book and told me not to give up on it. But I had. When the world reaches a consensus, it's very, very hard to go against the world. I chalked it up to bad luck, consoled myself with the fact that I'd actually written a novel, and got on with my life.

Then, maybe a year and a half ago, Thom  said he was going to be starting a publishing company, 3 Wide Press, that was going to focus on sports titles. He asked if I'd let him publish my book once he got the company going, even if it was outside the company's mission statement. Hey, sure, I said, it's good to plan ahead. Then I promptly forgot about it.

Last December, Thom wrote and said, "Are you still cool with me publishing TMOH?"  By the end of February, I was holding my book in my hands. One with a bar code and everything. The whole trip took six and a half years; if it had taken half that long, the book would not have been as good as it became. My dad, who taught high school English for over 30 years and still reads two or three books a week, told me after he'd read his copy, "The first draft was the work of an adolescent; this is the work of an adult." I grew up with To Make Others Happy, and it introduced me to a lot of true heroes. I'm truly grateful that the road to publication was as long and winding as it turned out to be.

Publicity and marketing for a first-time author can be a real eye-opener. What has surprised you the most?

The biggest surprise was that I didn't get responses to emails that I sent stores. I crafted a hell of a cover letter, emphasizing my/my book's connection to the various towns these stores were in, and got no responses. I would've guessed that emails were how many of their author contacts were born, but apparently not. So I've switched to actually driving out to the stores, letting them hold the book, making eye contact as I make my pitch. It's worked a lot better. It's also nice to see their faces light up when I tell them the book has a national distributor.

Have you used social media to get the word out?

I've created a Facebook page and have taken initial steps on my author page for both Goodreads and Amazon. I'm also a regular contributor to two blogs - I'm features editor for Cover Me, a blog about cover songs, and I'm "Grandpop Culture" on Acts of Geek - and I spread the word there. I don't Tweet, but frankly, some might consider that a blessing.

You've said that TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY is inspired by Charles Schulz. What's the connection?

A series of Peanuts comic strips from 1961. Lucy asks Charlie Brown why he thinks we're put here on Earth, and he immediately responds, "To make others happy." Instead of saying "You blockhead!", as is her wont, Lucy dwells on this response over the course of three strips. [TMOH] is divided into three parts, and each part begins with the dialogue from those strips (thanks so much to the Schulz estate for granting permission). An even closer look will reveal that each part of TMOH is a sort of mirror to the Peanuts dialogue - but where I take a hundred pages to tell that segment of the story, Schulz only needed four panels. He was a genius. He had punchlines like "There's no heavier burden than a great potential" and "This world is filled with people who are anxious to function in an advisory capacity."

In many ways, the relationships at the center of the story reminded me of THE GREAT GATSBY. 

Very much so - of all the Books You Have To Read In High School, it's probably my favorite. I like books where the first person narrator isn't the center of his own story (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is another good example of that); you're as close to the hero as you can be without being in his head, and as the hero affects the narrator, so he affects us. Also, in TMOH, Ned and Nadine are second cousins, while in Gatsby, Nick and Daisy are second cousins once removed. And Tedd Long, Nadine's unpleasant partner, is a sort of Tom Buchanan. I didn't set out to write a Gatsby Jr., but as I wrote, I recognized that there were distinct echoes; I figured the best thing to do would be to not look at Gatsby at all during the writing and rewriting, for fear of being too influenced. But I couldn't resist one good tip of the cap; Nadine, talking about a restaurant says, "The place is full of money," which is a mini-tribute to Gatsby saying of Daisy, "Her voice is full of money."

At my last writing group meeting, we all lamented the fact that what we write is often so vastly different from what we love to read. For example, a friend of mine loves literary fiction with a gothic or fantasy element but is finding that her latest work is a straight-up genre piece. Do you find this disparity in your own work? 

To be honest, no, I don't. My work is grounded in old-school storytelling, in no small part because that's the kind of stuff I like to read the most. I'm talking William Goldman, Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark, Stephen King, the short stories of Irwin Shaw, that kind of thing. But I also love the lyrical flourishes of Fitzgerald, Amy Hempel, Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mark Kram, and more. So if the writer is keeping the story moving, but also taking the time to have fun with the language, the field they're writing in doesn't matter so much to me. I see the genre as the clothing and the storytelling style and craft as the body. Keep the body in shape and you can dress it any way you want.

I met you when we were both undergrads at Colby, where we both studied with Jennifer Boylan and Richard Russo. You later went on to get your MFA from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. What are your thoughts on the MFA/no MFA debate among writers?

I'm pro-MFA. Quick story: I was in a tavern with several others from the program, and there was a lot of griping going around about office politics, who taught which classes in which rooms, etc. Someone said I must be mad with the program, as I was unable to land a teaching gig and was therefore paying off the whole thing with student loans (I'm currently $49K in the red). I said that I couldn't be mad because I was becoming a better writer, which was exactly why I went there, so anything going on around me that didn't interfere with that was just white noise to me. Kind of brought the discussion to a grinding halt.

Where it helped me the most was with rewriting. Grad school was where I finally learned how satisfying it was to rip out the middle of a story, to arrange a sentence so the most important part came as close to the period as possible, to always look for better verbs, to seek and destroy the passive voice.

If you learned everything you needed to know about writing from a quality undergrad program and from extensive reading and writing, God bless you. Nothing wrong with that at all. Me, I needed that extra fine tuning, and in my MFA program, I got it.

Are you working on anything right now?

I've got two ideas I like - wunza road trip / treasure hunt, wunza story of an actor turned cop. I'm further along on the first idea - I've got the whole thing plotted out on index cards and have written about twenty pages - but I'm taking down good plot points and quotes for the second idea as they come to me. Now that I've quit my job of five and a half years, I'll get to make some real progress on both of them. That's the plan, anyway - if things progress like they did with the first book, we may not see them until 2021 or so. Well, something to look forward to!

Patrick is scheduled to read from and sign copies of To Make Others Happy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, NY, on May 9 at 3pm, and at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, on May 19 at 7pm. Good seats still available.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Professionalism (or, Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot)

For those of you who don't know, I used to work in the accounting department of a literary agency. My job was to process royalty statements, but I'd often make the rounds to chat with agents and assistants. The mountains of unsolicited manuscripts the agents had to read was staggering. Stacks and stacks of paper would cover every available surface, bookshelves, and occasionally the floor (this, clearly, was before the age of electronic submissions). And every day the mail carrier would bring more. The assistants' jobs were to separate the wheat from the chaff. If the assistant liked a particular manuscript they'd write up a report about it and then pass it on to the agent. It's a wonder they ever had time to do anything else.

One time I remember chatting with an agent who was bemoaning the fact that she was interested in a particular manuscript, but found the writer to be difficult to deal with on a personal level. "He calls every a day to see if I've finished reading it and then I can't get off the phone with him," she said. "I can tell he would be a difficult client." After a lot of careful thought--and one too many calls from the author--she decided to pass.

It was so unfortunate that this talented author shot himself in the foot. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but I've seen it happen time and time again. While good manners won't make up for a manuscript that's lacking, bad manners can definitely tip the scales against you. There are simply too many talented writers out there and too many choices for agents. They have the luxury of being extremely selective.

I'll admit that the submission process seems a little backwards. You are submitting your work to gain the approval of someone who is ultimately going to work for you. It's like going to an audition before hiring an attorney. Since agents work on your behalf, some authors feel they have the right to be aggressive or intrusive during the submission process. Also, publishing is a competitive field and our culture rewards ambition. But really, the author-agent relationship is more of a collaboration and the submission process ought to be looked upon like a job interview. You apply for a job at a company that interests you and the employer decides if you're the right fit for the company. Likewise, you have chosen to submit your manuscript to a particular agent because you like their reputation and area of expertise, and now it's agent's turn to decide if they want to be in a partnership with you. If ever there was a time to be on your best behavior, this is it.

During the course of their careers, writers develop reputations based not only on their writing ability but also on their level of professionalism. We've all heard stories of famous writers who act like divas and I can't help but think that their lack of manners close doors on occasion. Likewise, those authors who are a joy to work with are revered within the industry. Agents and editors move around a lot in publishing. Whether you choose to build bridges or burn them, your past actions will likely affect you at some point in the future.

So what does it mean to act like a professional? Much of this is obvious and falls under basic manners.

Respect Other People's Time. Be on time for meetings, functions, appearances, scheduled phone calls. Honor deadlines. If you think you can't make a deadline, contact the person as soon as possible so they can plan around it. During phone calls a little small talk is appropriate, but keep in mind that the person you're speaking with has a lot of work and other authors to attend to. Read social cues. Keep it short and to the point.

Be Kind to Assistants. Sure, assistants are usually fresh out of college, but they are also the ones who picked your manuscript out of the slush pile. Most are sharp, friendly, and eager to please. They are also the ones who get things done. Treat them like the ally that they are.

Show Your Appreciation. Hand-written thank-you notes are rare and classy. So are gift baskets. When someone goes above and beyond for you, let them know how much you appreciate them. Kind words are free and always welcome.

Don't Talk Trash About Others. Not just editors and agents, but other authors as well. The publishing world is small and fluid. Snarky comments will come back to haunt you, guaranteed.

Be Humble. There are thousands of talented writers in this world-- remember that you are one of many. Nothing will alienate your colleagues faster than thinking you're God's gift to the literary world.

Respectfully Disagree. When the inevitable dispute arises, state your case calmly, clearly, and respectfully. As in any business partnership, being honest while carefully choosing your words to express yourself will get you much closer to your goal than failing to keep your anger in check.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Being Part of the Writing Community

Over the past week, I had the pleasure of attending two book signings for first-time novelists. The first was for my longtime friend Patrick Robbins, who just published his novel TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY (Three Wide Press). It was heart-warming to see Pat surrounded by copies of his book, as well as the crowd of friends and family who came out to support him. A friend stood by with a camera to snap pictures for a memory book (including the one below). It reminded me a little bit of a graduation party--one of those precious few days in a person's life when you are showered with so much love and support and admiration and pride. It can be overwhelming and humbling in the best possible way. Pat's busy with promotional duties at the moment, but soon I'll have a follow-up interview with him to fill you in on all the details about his road to publication.

Patrick, me, and my daughter, Kate.  (photo credit: Emily Richards)

The second event I attended was a literary introduction series co-sponsored by The Author's Guild and Richard Russo, who currently serves as one of the guild's vice presidents. Russo has long been a champion of young writers (myself included) and understands how difficult the publishing landscape is right now for unknown authors of what he describes as "hard-won novels" or literary fiction. To help these writers get discovered, Russo has launched a reading series where established writers interview up-and-comers whose work has caught their attention. There will be a few of these readings in Portland, Maine and in New York City, with the hope that they will eventually roll out across the country.

The featured author of the night was Eddie Joyce, author of SMALL MERCIES (Viking), a story about a Staten Island family devastated in the wake of 9/11. While I was waiting for the even to start, a woman sitting in the row in front of me turned around and noticed I was reading the book flap. She touched my arm and said, "It's a wonderful book, you know. My son wrote it." We both started to laugh and I offered my congratulations. As it turned out, Richard Russo happened to be her favorite author. Joyce and Russo share a publisher, so the young author's editor suggested they send Russo a galley in hopes that he might blurb the book. The fact that Russo had chosen her son's novel to feature among the enormous pile of requests he regularly receives was a stunning turn. Other members of Joyce's family were in attendance and once again, like my friend Pat's signing, the room was filled with the most wonderful spirit of excitement, joy, and awe.

One of the goals of this literary series is to not only to help new authors break out, but to establish a sense of community among writers. When it came time for the question-and-answer portion of the program, a man stood up and acknowledged that it was a difficult time for writers and asked what we, the public, could do to support them. It was such a brilliant question--so many questions in this type of forum are limited to the "inward" pursuit of writing, such as inspiration and process. How often do we, as writers, look outside ourselves and to the larger community of writers to see how we contribute to the culture as a whole?

Both Russo and Joyce stressed the importance of shopping at your local independent bookstore. We all know the economic arguments for shopping locally, but the added advantage to both writers and readers is that local bookstore owners read widely and can make recommendations. By developing a relationship with your local booksellers, they can learn your tastes and suggest new writers you might like.

So often it feels like we writers are at the mercy of a difficult industry, but the events of this past week made me feel empowered. If we--members of the writing and publishing community--decide to come together and support one another by attending readings, purchasing books locally, and taking a chance on lesser-known writers, then just maybe we'll begin to turn the tide in our favor.

In what ways do you support your writing community? Please share your thoughts.