Monday, September 9, 2013

MatchBook from Amazon: Good, or Not-So-Much?

Amazon is launching a program called MatchBook to bundle e-book versions of new titles at rock-bottom prices with their print versions. The e-book will cost from $0 to $2.99.  So far, Amazon is including 18,000 self-published titles from Kindle Direct plus other titles published by Amazon.

One of the big traditional publishers has decided to participate in MatchBook with backlists of some of its authors.

The jury is out.

  • Is this a boon to authors? It undoubtedly could be, especially when applied to backlists for authors with rights to their backlists that haven't been sold for a long time. The e-book profits will be minuscule, but real. 
  • Or is it more of an assault on the value of e-books which, in turn, undermines the price-points of print books. As long as the two (print books and their e-book companions) are bundled, the print book pricing shouldn't be affected on the face of it. But over the long haul, if e-books continue to grow as a percentage of books purchased in the general marketplace, and e-books are broadly seen as worth less than $3.00, what does that do to the market, and to authors?

One traditional publisher has come out to say that the program erodes the value of e-books and, more importantly, the publisher's incentive to keep books in print.

Below is the September 6 Publishers Weekly article on this topic. What do you think?

Are Publishers a Match for Kindle MatchBook?
By Rachel Deahl | Sep 06, 2013
When Amazon announced on Tuesday that it was launching a program to bundle print and e-books, called Kindle MatchBook, the effort drew little response from publishers, and even less participation. Among the major houses, HarperCollins is currently the only one participating, and it is doing so in a limited fashion. With publishers largely unwilling to talk about the program—most houses PW contacted declined to comment on MatchBook—the question remains whether publishers are not yet willing to try bundling, or whether they simply don’t want to try it with Amazon.
Through MatchBook, Amazon customers can buy e-book editions of new print titles, as well as e-book editions of print titles they have already purchased, at price points ranging from $2.99 to free. The program is set to go live in October and, currently, offers a mix of self-published titles (18,000 by Kindle Direct Publishing authors), as well as titles released by Amazon Publishing. A spokesperson for HarperCollins said that the house has "a selection of our backlist books" available through MatchBook. Amazon remains confident that more publishers will join the proram in the future.

Bundling has been a simmering topic in the publishing industry. Some executives, like Evan Schnittman, formerly at Bloomsbury and now at Hachette, have publicly said that the approach could be beneficial. What Schnittman conceived, though, was not a program along the lines of MatchBook. In a previous story, Schnittman told PW about what he calls the “enhanced hardcover,” a bundle with print and e-book editions of a title offered at a price point 25% higher than the standard hardcover price point. The enhanced hardcover, he felt, would entice consumers, while also working towards the profits of both authors and publishers.
MatchBook is nothing like Schnittman's enhanced hardcover concept and, for some, the price points it offers are underwhelming. One publisher, talking off the record, said he was nonplussed about MatchBook. He felt the low prices in the program "further devalues e-books," and makes them "look like a throw-in item."
All the major publishers declined to say what they think of MatchBook, or whether they will join the program. Agent Robert Gottlieb is even skeptical about whether publishers have the right to submit their books into the program.
Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, said MatchBook exemplifies “a further erosion of the value of authors’ work.” More importantly, for Gottlieb, is the question of whether a program like MatchBook is covered under existing contracts authors have with publishers. “I don’t believe there are provisions in contracts for this type of arrangement,” Gottlieb said, noting that clauses around digital rights ownership in standard contracts do not cover a transaction like the one proposed by MatchBook.
An Amazon spokesperson said that sales made through MatchBook "are part of the business terms we have with publishers, and we’re paying publishers off of the MatchBook price." Gottlieb, though, still has questions, and concerns. He dismissed the notion that MatchBook is providing a new revenue stream to authors, allowing them to receive a royalty, albeit a tiny one, on a sale that might not otherwise happen. In Gottlieb's eyes, MatchBook does more harm than good for authors, because it takes away a publisher's motivation to keep an author's book in print. “It’s not a question of what you’re getting," he said. "It’s a question of what are you’re giving up.”

Monday, August 19, 2013

How Good is Your Attention Capability? (It's Often Key to Good Writing)

I love positive brain games, and I've been playing them on a fabulous site for optimizing brain function called Lumosity. Go to their site to learn about the company (excellent bona fides) and sign up if you're interested (I can't put a link in this post because for some reason, every time I try, it goes to my own lumosity activity instead of the basic site--hmmm, maybe these brain science geniuses need to do a few tech tweaks!)

Anyway, within the categories of brain activity I selected that I want to focus on (problem solving, flexibility, memory, acuity, etc.) is Attention, which is consistently THE hardest category for me.

I live in my head a lot, like many other writers. I've known all my life that when I walk down a city street, I'm totally aware of the ambiance, the energy, the colors and sounds, and the light or dark feeling that surrounds me in an aura-ish, or a gestalt-ish way, and I can reproduce that feeling in words.  But if you ask me where a particular shop is that I walk past every day, I probably don't even know that it exists, much less where it is on the street. 

I've considered asking the government if I can get disability payments for this inability (along with some $$ for the no-sense-of-direction problem that also just has to be a physical, neurotransmitter glitch in my brain), but have decided to just work on it to improve it instead.

One of the reasons I want to improve my Attention Capability is that it is so important to notice physical details and retain them for authentic writing. Not just for description of place, but for context in characters' reactions and feelings. Names of shops and their physical appearance, for example, can have power and meaning in the context of a character's experience. 

Of course you can take pictures to help you remember later, but that doesn't have the emotional immediacy of noting the meaning to you in the moment, or the specific feeling that particular name or shopfront or outfit a person is wearing creates in you that is memorable. Real details can be SO powerful when it comes to conjuring experiences and feelings on the page.

This week, at the Brainpickings Weekly site, there's a wonderful article on Attention, called The Art of Looking: What 11 Experts Teach Us about Seeing Our Familiar City Block with New Eyes. Annie Dillard is quoted, beautifully lamenting how urban living can rob us of this key element in experiencing life and expressing in words how that feels, but the article also offers an endorsement of a book that can help us open our eyes to what learning to pay attention to details will do for us:

“The art of seeing has to be learned,” Marguerite Duras reverberates – and itcan be learned, as cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz invites us to believe in her breathlessly wonderful On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes (public library) – a record of her quest to walk around a city block with eleven different "experts," from an artist to a geologist to a dog, and emerge with fresh eyes mesmerized by the previously unseen fascinations of a familiar world. It is undoubtedly one of the most stimulating books of the year,

It does look like a beautiful book, on a subject that is important to any writer (especially if you live in an urban location and also mostly in your head!)

Do you notice all the details of your environment or no? Are you aware of how you use these kinds of details in your writing? What do they do for you??

Monday, August 12, 2013

Using Social Media's Marketing Data to Sell Books

"As publishers realize—or perhaps more accurately stated—embrace the fact that they must demonstrate to authors and retail partners that they are the best at connecting books with readers and driving demand, the question becomes how to do so. It is difficult for me to think of any other efforts publishers can employ that will yield the insights and long-lasting audience development of social media. Very Difficult."

Those are the concluding words of Peter McCarthy in an article (Five Reasons Social Media Will Always Sell More Books. . .) that he wrote that was published on Digital Book World's site July 31. McCarthy is a social media pro who used to work for Random House (Marketing Innovation) ad for Penguin Group, USA, Online (VP). He makes a strong case for social media as a book marketer's core. Here are the five reasons he lists:
  1. The Core Book-Buying Audience Uses Social Media (and so do all those other folks who will buy books if they hear about them…)
    This is true unless your audience falls outside of the 85% of the U.S. population that uses social media or isn’t between the ages of 18 and 65+. Check the most recent Pew stats. Perhaps even bump them against some book industry studies. The audience is there. Fish where the fish are.
  2. Real Consumer Data
    The audience data that marketers, publicists, and salespeople can gather about social media followers, fans, and general users should be invaluable to anyone marketing or selling books. Acting on an understanding of the demographics, psychographics, and behavior of an audience with regard to an author, a title, or a site will grow sales and marketing efficiency. If it doesn’t, then something else is very wrong. Gathering and acting on data certainly helped Obama whip Romney. And it can even be predictive (Holy Grail!); in 2010 a couple smart HP researchers predicted opening box office using Twitter volume and sentiment along with number of screens. They did so with 97% accuracy.
  3. Identifying Adjacent Audiences
    Once you’ve analyzed your core audience, it quite straightforward to identify key attributes of that audience and find “look-alikes.” In other words, folks with similar key attributes (hobbies, beliefs, activities, likes, dislikes, locales, marital status, education level, etc.) and place your book in front of those folks who, it happens, will behave much like your core. This is the social graph and it is major.
  4. SEO
    This could be an essay. Short, over-simplified version focusing on two key points: 1) Both the “general” engines such as Google and the more-specific engines (eg. Amazon) use social “signals” to assist them in determining the authority of everything – including authors and books. Authority=rank. So, positioning. If the title holds up (eg. garners clicks and/or more links over time), it will retain that rank or rise… and 2) As a corollary; an author or title’s presence on the major networks will nearly always enter the first page of a Google search for the author, title, and even some of the longer tail terms. Ranking higher in search sells books; ask Google or Amazon.
  5. Making the Next Campaign Easier
    We hear a lot of talk about scaling marketing efforts. Social is often seen as a hurdle to scale. Social is actually scalable using technology. But it doesn’t really matter if the “IT” hurdle is too great; scale is inherent in using social to market. A marketer’s ability to look at the performance indicators and underlying consumer data of past social campaigns will increase her understanding of what works, for what, and how well. Also, what doesn’t work. This will speed and hone her next efforts. Every time. Knowledge, process, and a better “feel for the game” is scale. Lather, rinse, learn, repeat. Scaled marketing sells more books.
This makes good sense to me, and makes me want to know more about how, exactly, to get my hands on this kind of data, or how to ask a publisher if they are doing this (and know from their answer if they are doing it well). Check out the bottom of the article—McCarthy is going to be making a presentation at DBR's upcoming conference in NYC. Could be interesting!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Online Book Buying Grows

No big surprise—buying books online continues to increase. That refers to both paper and e-books. Here are some statistics from Bowker, just published in Shelf Awareness. The lag time in reporting means things have probably changed a bit since these were current, but the trend is clear, and interesting.

Interesting that e-books account for only 11% of spending. I thought that would be higher. And the other surprise for me was the genres that sell best as e-books, particularly mysteries. Hmm. Food for thought!

From Shelf Awareness Pro, 8/7/13:

Consumer Spending: Online Sales Keep Growing
Among findings from the 2013 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review, published by Bowker Market Research and Publishers Weekly:
  • In the year after Borders's closing, online retailers' share of the market rose to 44% in 2012 from 39% the previous year.
  • Women increased their lead over men in book buying, accounting for 58% of overall book spending in 2012, up from 55% in 2011. However, men bought more hardcovers, the only area where their buying outpaced women's.
  • The slowly improving economy is slowly improving the climate for purchasing books. By the end of 2012, 53% of consumers said the economy was having no effect on their book buying habits, up from 51% at the end of 2011.
  • E-books continued to rise in popularity, accounting for 11% of spending in 2012, compared to 7% in 2011.
  • E-books were most popular in fiction, particularly in the mystery/detective, romance and science fiction categories.
  • Traditional print book output grew 3% in 2012, to 301,642 titles.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What Is Beautiful Writing?

We all want to write beautifully. We know beautiful writing when we read it, but being able to do it is a whole different animal. What, exactly, is it? Is it lyricism? Is it simplicity? Is it dramatic, deep insight?

For me, beautiful writing can be summed up in one word: heartfelt. Any of those things above (and plenty of others) can be beautiful if they meet this criterion.

When the writing reflects a natural, deep, organic connection to the feeling the writer is attempting to express, it's incredible.

Not too many people achieve that, at least not consistently.

We are self-conscious about our words, not wanting to sound too sentimental or too unsophisticated. We massage our words to make them better and better, and sometimes the effect is just the opposite—they lose resonance because the 'heartfelt' has been massaged right out of them.

Maybe, as adults who work at being writers, we need to go through this stage to come out the other side where we can reach for fewer and more succinct words that beautifully express our most heartfelt feelings and ideas. The way we would have done when we were very young.

Below is a short piece of prose poetry that shows what I mean about heartfelt writing far better than I can describe. It was published by Seattle Arts and Lectures along with pieces from other children and teens in their Writers in the Schools Program.

The author is Harlow C. Knoerlein, 3rd Grade, B.F. Day Elementary School.


     When you draw my portrait, do it with colored pencils. Draw me in the sand with my hair flying in the wind and waves crashing down on rocks. Draw me wearing a light blue long silky gown with a tiny bit of ruffles at the end. Draw the sun setting on the ocean. Draw the artist's name in the sand. Draw flowers flying in the wind.
     Please don't change anything about my face.
     Draw me running in the sand, with all the crabs crawling right next to me. Draw me singing, and the ocean singing with me.



I don't know about you, but I'd like to take a page out of Harlow's book, and let my writing be as fresh and immediate and heartfelt as this. I noticed that, in the publication this was in (IN THE SLIVER OF A SECOND), even the 8th and 9th graders had become self conscious, even when their writing was really, really good. And that's when it hit me that finding our authentic voice as a writer might just require finding a way to let go of what we think we've learned about life, love, loss etc., so we can burrow down to our most authentic selves.

What do you think? And, do you have favorite beautiful writers?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Elizabeth George's Writing Process: From Idea to First Draft

I just listened to Elizabeth George speak about writing. She was the featured speaker at a wonderful brunch held each year by the Seattle7Writers—a collective of (now about 60) well-published Northwest authors devoted to promoting literacy in their communities. The brunch is held to raise money for literary support for young writers in underprivileged circumstances, and is always fun and enlightening.

Elizabeth George is the author of the famous Thomas Lynley crime novels set in England that were made into a PBS series. Since the brunch audience was made up of book groups, writers, and others involved in the book business, she answered a question that is often asked of her: how does she go about writing her novels?

Her process (I'm liberally paraphrasing and interpreting here, because I did not take detailed notes!):

1. Every author, she says, first "is struck" by something—something in the news, something in their community, an idea, that rivets them. So, the first thing that happens for her when she's going to write a new novel is that she's struck by something that she wants to write about.

2. Once she has the idea, she focuses on place. For her, that involves going to that place and doing voluminous picture-taking, exploring, focusing on physical detail, and asking the place to speak to her--to tell her what there is about it that she will include in her story. She claims to be seriously unimaginative and so finds it critical to get as much concrete detailed info as she can for her story development.

3. The third step, which she might do on the airplane home or shortly thereafter, is to write up a short statement of what the book is about—about a page long.

4. Next come the characters. She jots down a list of characters who would be involved in the story. This first list is broad, and characters might be identified loosely, like witness one—milkman, witness two—mailman, investigators—police sergeant and inspector, etc. There may be fifteen or so characters on this list, who would be involved in the crime, the investigation, the subplots, etc.

5. She develops the characters in more detail—writes briefs on them and their involvement in the story she's writing, including some quick scenes. From this she is able to identify which of the characters are the strongest and will become the main characters in the book.

6. She writes brief descriptions of many or most of the scenes that will make up the story, including subplot scenes. Included are things like who's in the scene and what happens. She lets the characters tell her those things, rather than controlling the characters. They are the source of the storyline at this point.

7. From this she develops a quite detailed outline of the entire book.

8. Now, she feels secure in where she is in her story development and can finally do what she loves, which she says is the part where her soul gets involved and soars—she writes the first draft.

It's always fascinating to me to listen to authors talk in such detail about their writing process. Writers are all over the place on this topic, from not being able to write a story if they know what's coming next, to not being able to write a story if they don't know everything that's going to happen before they start.

I'm in between, and find that detailed outlining ahead of time totally kills my creative process—I've tried several times because authors I admire sing the praises of detailed outlining. It just doesn't work for me. But knowing some detail ahead of time is HUGE for me. It helps me visualize all sorts of scenes and interactions.

So a couple of the things Elizabeth talked about really spoke to me: exploring place in detail to obtain concrete information on the setting you're going to write . . . ruminating on those concrete details and letting them speak to you; and I also love that idea of sketching out all the characters you can think of that might be in your story and then developing their involvement in plot/subplot lines before you decide where the story is going. Let them tell you where it's going.

Are there things in Elizabeth George's process that you find work for you?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Subway Pop-Up Newsstand

I read a lot of trade press these days, just trying to keep apprised of what's happening in the book business and aware of the important issues affecting writers and readers.

My top news item pick for the past week is a brief on one of the most innovative and promising developments I've seen: pop-up newsstands. It's like a grown-up version of the neighborhood lemonade stand we all had as kids. The stars in our eyes back then were powered by mom and dad's generous support and our own entrepreneurial fantasies.

But this new development could actually have profitable legs for all involved (and serve a need), as long as participants stay satisfied with 'small.' As in small space, small number of offerings (but well-chosen for target customers), small time commitment in leases, small, shared profits. Awesome.

from shelf pro, July 3, 2013:

Brooklyn Gets Pop-Up Subway Bookshop

Newsstand staffers Eddie Goldblatt, Lele Saveri and Jamie Falkowski.
photo: Robert Wright/NYT
The Newsstand, a pop-up shop located at the Metropolitan Avenue subway station in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn until July 20, "has transformed an ordinary subway space into a store for independently published magazines, books, comics and zines. In a digitalized world, it is a small haven for printed media," theNew York Times reported.

Offering "a kind of 'staff picks' for the tight space," the Newsstand carries selections from McNally-Jackson Books in SoHo,Dashwood Books on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the Desert Island bookstore in Williamsburg and Ohwow in Greenwich Village, the Times wrote. The shop, which opened June 15, splits profits with the bookstores.

"I was trying to find a way of supporting that scene without stepping on their toes," said manager Lele Saveri of the stores he asked to participate.

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority usually leases spaces by the year, it was open to a short-term tenant for the Newsstand. "They had an interesting and innovative proposal for how to have an amenity in there for our customers and generate a little revenue for us," said Adam Lisberg, an authority spokesman.

Have you seen anything like this? If you live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or nearby, have you perchance seen this one? Would love to hear about it!

Monday, June 24, 2013

First-to-Read Program from Penguin; Amazon Pays Advances

Some interesting things are happening in the publishing world these days. Following are two items that were publicized in the past week that give me hope that some of the kinks are being worked out in what has been a huge disruption in the publishing industry. Are traditional publishers and non-traditional publishing taking steps toward each other?

Item One: from Penguin
Penguin is an intriguing publishing company. They seem more 'out there' than the other big publishers,  testing the edges, pushing the envelope, checking out market possibilities that are outside the square old publishing box. Of course, they've done plenty of not-so-enlightened things lately, too (remember the library e-book lending kerfuffle?) But the company does seem to have a history of proactive marketing in some key areas, from the creation of the soft-cover paperback a long time ago, to the following., a great daily literary trade and reader report, published the following article last week about Penguin's new First to Read program, which not only focuses on utilizing social networks to get readers to spread the word about books Penguin publishes, but offers the tantalizing chance for participants not only to get excerpts of upcoming books (Penguin has been doing this a while through email subscriptions), but access to digital galleys. Wow. Zingy.

6/19/13 issue of 
Penguin Launches 'First to Read' Program for Consumers
Penguin Group (USA) is launching First to Read, a program offering readers free excerpts from books months before they are available for sale, as well as potential access to digital galleys. Describing the initiative as part of its "ongoing efforts to increase book discoverability and engage with readers," Penguin said it hopes to harness the power of word-of-mouth by offering members an opportunity to share news and information about books through their connected social networks. First to Read also includes a loyalty program that awards members points for their participation that can be redeemed for guaranteed galley access and other perks.

"First to Read is a program created for all readers, providing exclusive, early access to our upcoming books," explained Suzie Sisoler, senior director of consumer engagement. "We know people love to talk about and recommend the books they've read and are reading, and to encourage that, we've integrated social sharing throughout the site."

I don't know about you, but I find this impressive—whether it turns out to be a success or not. Penguin is accessing social media in creative ways, recognizing and utilizing the power the internet has given grass-roots efforts through social media connections.

Item Two: from Amazon
Amazon has started to pay decent advances and provide substantial editing, cover design, and marketing support for some top selections in their Amazon-published titles. And this includes titles that were initially self-published, then picked up by Amazon Publishing.

Between this and Penguin's news, I'm starting to wonder if the shakeout in the publishing industry is finally beginning to find a shape that might work. Wishful thinking probably, but these two developments do seem to have popped out as both pragmatic for readers and writers and clever from a marketing viewpoint.

What do you think?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ann Patchett Wins Women's National Book Association Award

I was lucky enough to be in Nashville last week, attending the the annual national chapter meeting of the Women's National Book Association, when the marvelous Ann Patchett accepted the WNBA Award. (WNBA-- the group is about books, not basketball!)

From PW Daily (Publishers Weekly), June 12:

Author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett accepted her WNBA Award at a reception at Parnassus Books on June 9 from Award chairperson Nancy Stewart of Ingram Book Group and Women’s National Book Association president Valerie Tomaselli of MTM Publishing. (left to right).
Photo Credit: Annette Haley 

From my iPhotos:

Yup, that's me chatting with Ann Patchett about her books. We are in her bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tennessee. (She opened this independent bookstore in 2009 when the brick-and-mortar independent bookstore options in Nashville had become slim-to-nonexistent.) I told her how much I loved her sentences . . . how they draw me back to the books over and over again. She thought that was interesting because she doesn't consider sentences to be her strength in writing. "What do you consider your strength to be?" I asked. "Plot!" she said, and very decisively, too. "I'm good at plot." Well, she is, of course. It's just that that's not what I would zero in on as the main reason I read her work. Fascinating, and great to think about.

What is the Women's National Book Association Award? It's an award given every other year to "a living American woman who derives part or all of her income from books and allied arts, and who has done meritorious work in the world of books beyond the duties and responsibilities of her profession or occupation." 

The Award has been given continuously since 1940. A few of the many other recipients have been: Pearl Buck (author), Eleanor Roosevelt (former First Lady and author), Barbara Knopf (publisher), Barbara Bush (First Lady, literacy advocate), Doris Kearns Goodwin (historian, author), Nancy Pearl (librarian, author NPR personality). 

The WNBA also gives out other awards and grants, and runs an annual writing contest. You can be part of this organization, which is open to all women (and men) who are involved in the world of books, from publishers to librarians to writers to readers, and everyone in between. There are networking and publicity opportunities involved. To read more about the WNBA and a Chapter near you that you can join, go to the national website at From the site's home page you can access the list of Chapters, and go to their websites to find out more about them and apply for membership. (You don't have to live in a city where there's a chapter. You can join as a network member and affiliate with a chapter of your choice.)

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Problem to Wish For?

I'm still not back home yet, but hoping you'll be entertained by the posts and articles I've come across that I'm sharing with you while I'm gone. The one highlighted here, about the travails of being a wildly popular author who decides to cancel a series, was too good not to bring to you . . .

Do you have your copy of the recently released DEAD EVER AFTER, the last book in the Sookie Stackhouse series? Charlaine Harris, author of the wildly popular vampire series, has called it quits after all these years, and it appears that her fans are not only upset, but many are beyond furious.

It seems like this problem of Ms. Harris's is one we could all wish for: to have sold many millions of copies of our books and had HBO make a hugely successful television series (True Blood) based on them, but then have our fan base be horribly distraught when we finally end the series. But it goes beyond that.

Shortly after DEAD EVER AFTER came out, the Wall Street Journal published this fascinating article on the series and what Ms. Harris is facing from her angry fans.

Personally, I believe deep down that an author should be able to end a series when she or he needs to without being threatened or called awful names by fans, but I do know there's a greedy little part of my heart that is very glad that Arthur Conan Doyle caved to fan pressure and brought Sherlock Holmes back to life after Doyle had tired of the series and killed Holmes off in a battle to the death with his arch enemy Professor Moriarty. (I'm a bigtime mystery fan, but not so much one of vampires—mainly because they scare the bejeezus out of me—so I haven't gotten hooked on Sookie Stackhouse. But I can relate.)

So I'm torn, but I do come down on the side of the author, here. Where do you stand?

Monday, June 3, 2013

How Do Agents Read Your First Pages?

"The most successful openings are the ones that suck me in and make me quickly forget that I'm reading something. These are stories that get me involved in the character and welcome me with a voice I'll want to spend lots of time with."

That is part of how Agent Marie Lamba (Jennifer de Chiara Literary Agency) answered a great question from Jan at the Adventures n YA & Children's Publishing blog some weeks ago. Her answer and the answers of eleven other agents are featured in the post. The question:

"What is different about the way you read the first pages of a manuscript as an agent versus how you would read them as a reader or critique partner?"

If YA or children's writing is a major interest for you, you may have seen this blog post already. But even though the agents all do focus in those categories, their responses are appropriate for pretty much all writing, I think.

So, in a continuation of bringing you great blog posts from others while I'm away wandering and exploring other lands, here is the link to Agent Roundup: Reading As An Agent.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Direct Sales/Digital First from Big Publishers

I'm traveling and off my regular routines these days, so I'm taking a short cut on this blog for a few weeks--namely, providing you with links to great blog posts at other blogs that I think are really interesting for us as writers, but may not be on your usual list of must-reads.

Today, a post by Jason Allen Ashlock over at Digital Book World from a DBR series called The Change Agents, which is about people inside Big Publishing who are confronting the digital disruption to traditional publishing head on and are working to help their companies adapt, innovate, and succeed with digital.

In this interview he talks with Dan Weiss of St. Martin's Press, which has created digital-first imprints and is exploring how to become a major player in the digital book world.

Have you thought about getting your book published traditionally in the digital first approach? Although Weiss says the Big Publisher perks of developing a book for publishing are in effect with their digital approach, presumably there's another perk: getting the work out faster. Here is the discussion between Ashlock and Weiss.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Right Agent Is Key: Jennie Shortridge on Her New Book, and On Writing

Jennie Shortridge is a founding member of Seattle7Writers, a collective of well-published Northwest authors devoted to promoting literacy in their communities. She writes mainstream fiction/women's fiction that often touches on serious mental health issues in some way. I went to a reading she gave on her latest book (LOVE WATER MEMORY). Two things stood out from that event—how interesting the book is, and how important it is to find the right agent and publisher who will support the writing process that's right for you.

First, the book: I was riveted by the passages she read, about a woman who wakes up standing in the San Francisco Bay and has no idea who she is, where she is, how she got there, or why she's there. She has a rare and dangerous form of amnesia called dissociative fugue, which is brought on by emotional trauma.

She's taken to a hospital in San Francisco, and her fiancĂ©, who has been searching frantically for her since she disappeared from their home in Seattle a week earlier, finally finds her when her picture is put on tv. But of course she doesn't recognize him when the doctors bring him to her, and for a long time after she goes back to Seattle nothing seems to help her jar her memory so that she can reclaim her life. What snippets of memory she does get are confusing, and as she begins to learn about herself from possessions and people around her, she realizes she doesn't like her old self much at all.

Needless to say, the book is a great read. Highly recommended.

Second, making sure your agent is one who will support your writing process. Rather than reprise what she said at the reading, I'm going to share a video of Jennie with you, in which she's being interviewed for Author Magazine. It's an interesting 9 minutes, (she talks about the agenting issues starting around minute 4).

Click the link below to go to the video, and enjoy!

Jennie Shortridge (Love, Water, Memory) says the biggest lesson she learned writing her fifth novel was that agents make a difference. In this case, her new agent told her to take as much time as she needed to finish her novel. As she explained in her interview with Bill Kenower, the result was perhaps her best work to date. Writing teaches us that all our choices matter. Jennie says she will never choose to rush a novel again.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Happy Mother's Day!

To all of you out there who are moms, a big Happy Mother's Day! And to those who are not moms, you, too, know how important Mom is in the equation of life, how your own mom shaped you. Yesterday, one of my favorite sites, Brain Pickings, in a tribute to Mother's Day, posted some letters of love and advice from famous women to their children.

Have you considered leaving a letter for your child to read once you are gone? It's a powerful thing, not just for your child, but for you.

I was struck by moments in several of the letters, which are quite different from one another. Anne Sexton, a renowned and powerful poet who suffered from undiagnosed mental illness, which was deeply damaging to her daughter, Linda Gray (no relation), expresses her love and care and makes it clear that her daughter is beloved. Does this redeem Anne Sexton for the chaos she created as a mother? Only her daughter could tell you, but the letter is heartfelt, and no doubt was important to Anne as well as to her daughter.

On a less emotional but not less powerful note, the excerpt below, from Abigail Adams to her son, John Quincy (who, as you know followed in his father's footsteps to become President of the United States), is one of my favorites. It reminds me of what we reach for in the characters we write. A vigorous mind and contending with difficulties, yes, these are qualities our favorite characters have.

The Habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All History will convince you of this, and that wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the Lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the Heart, then those qualities which would otherways lay dormant, wake into Life, and form the Character of the Hero and the Statesman.

For the full post on motherly advice, go to the Brain Pickings post, here.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Self-Publishing Pros/Cons: The Best Discussion Yet

For my money, the attached discussion of pros and cons of self-publishing now (spring, 2013), is the best I've seen. It was presented last week by blogger and author, Allison Winn Scotch on the blog, Writer Unboxed.

Rather than write a post today, I'm just going to give you the link to that blog post and discussion, in case you missed it. This topic is too important to writers not to be highlighted. We need all the good, down-to-earth discussion of this thorny issue we can get to make the right decision for ourselves in our constantly evolving publishing landscape.

Hint: If you don't have time to give Allison's post a thorough read, scroll down in the comments section to Donald Maass's (well-known literary agent) first comment. The back-and-forth that begins there, which is v. civil and on-point, is excellent.

The New Era of Self-Publishing, by Allison Winn Scotch.

Where do you stand?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Laughter IS the Best Medicine

Remember third grade? Remember Robbie? Or Danny, or Mikey? It's usually a boy. You know, the class clown. And if he's any good at it, he stays the class clown all the way through high school, and maybe beyond.

Why would this person stick with clowning around when his teachers ARE NOT HAPPY with him and he spends way more time than is healthy in the principal's office? Well, obviously, because we love him, and he loves being loved. We might find him annoying sometimes, but really, we need him and his silliness and his risk-taking to get ourselves to stop taking other things so seriously: arithmetic, the sadness of WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, our own selves.

We need the release, the perspective, the visceral understanding of how important the joy that comes with laughter is in everyday life. It opens everything else up to us with the literal breath of fresh air we get from the act of laughing.

And then we can get back to our serious tasks with renewed energy.

As we become adults and take on adult responsibilities, silliness is often not only discouraged, but disdained, and our sources for laughter narrow, especially for the powerful belly-laugh type.

Thank goodness for the likes of Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and others who choose to entertain with intelligent, adult irony and yes, silliness. They are especially necessary when things are very bad in the world. But what about plain old boring every day when the threat of war and disastrous policy-making is not in our faces? Stewart and Colbert still play the class clown, but are they enough?

This post is dedicated to sharing laugh-out-loud sources of humor that we can indulge in to help us enjoy our lives and our work.

Below is my list of favorite authors, movies, tv shows and personal connections that allow me to let go and laugh out loud, but there are never enough! Please, please, please share yours.

Authors: Dave Barry, Janet Evanovich, David Sideris, Carl Hiaasen
Old Movies: The In-Laws (the one with Jack Lemmon), Airplane (Leslie Neilsen), My Fellow Americans (Jack Lemmon, James Garner)
New Movies: can't think of any—oh, jeez! Is it generational??
TV: 30 Rock, The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, The Big Bang Theory, The Vicar of Dibley, Doc Martin (help! what happened to all the good sit-coms?)
Real Live People: my son; my sister; my friend, Bob

What makes you laugh out loud?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Advanced Manuscript Revision (with 'Great Scene' Checklist)

Hello, Revisors,

Revising to polish a manuscript to its best self is an art, and an act of devotion. It takes a long time to get it right, for most of us. There are loads of anecdotes from famous authors about this—the one that pops into my head at the moment is Hemingway stating that he wrote the first draft The Sun Also Rises in a matter of weeks, then it took six years of diligent work to revise it to its finished form.

Revising can be a joyous process, though, and doesn't have to take that long, so long as we believe in our manuscript and in our ability to be objective and figure out what to do. Fortunately, there's no shortage of good advice on the subject.

Today I want to share a technique I've cobbled together from a couple of experts that makes sense to me as an advanced revision technique . . . one to apply when you've done all the basics and want to polish the high notes of your story to their utmost.

Once we have done the basics:
  • basic copy edit level—eliminate all unnecessary adjectives and adverbs (especially adverbs); edit spelling, grammar, and punctuation, and if you're not great at that let someone who is great at it do it for you, even if you have to pay, etc.
  • basic structural level—make sure the story arc elements are in place: inciting incident, major plot point one, midpoint, major plot point two, climax, and denouement.

. . . and the more advanced content level:

  • use of detail, strong sentences, when to tell and when to show, setting descriptions and character development, use of tension, etc.

. . . we are ready to look at our manuscript in a broader sense, to see if it is, in fact, a wonderful manuscript.

Let's say you've finished your second or third draft, but it's still not quite where it needs to be. Let's say you've hit the mark on the basics, though, including not only the copy basics, but you have a good story that unfolds quite well, and wonderful characters to make it come alive. And your writing style—the voice of your book—is good and strong. But there's something missing, because even though you and at least one or two of your beta readers love it, others whose opinions are important to you are not finding your manuscript compelling enough to give it a big thumbs up. What's missing?

You might need a spot check to make sure your key scenes are not just adequate, but outstanding.

Key scenes, or Great Scenes, are the ones that your readers will remember in detail when they close the book for the last time. They act as pivot points in the story, which everything else either flows to or from. They can make or break your success in writing a truly compelling story.

You should have a minimum of three of these scenes, but a novel-length project can have seven, eight or more. The climax is almost always a Great Scene, for example, and the early scene that incorporates the inciting incident (the event that turns everything upside down and sets the story on its trajectory) often is, as well. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers)

Think about your story. What are the key turning points for the protagonist and for the story itself? This will help you identify your Great Scenes.

Once you've identified what and where they are, it's time to make sure they qualify as Great Scenes on the basis of how they're written. Great Scenes must meet certain requirements:

A Great Scene must be packed with conflict, emotion, and surprise.* Passions run high; the stakes run higher. What happens in the scene affects the rest of the story, and in a big way. (James Scott Bell, The Art of War for Writers, p. 160)
*Conflict: Crank up the conflict through emotion. Make sure readers see the stakes to the inner life of the character. (Bell, p. 161)
*Surprise: the unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events. (Bell, p. 161)

There must be a reversal of intentions and emotions on the part of the main characters in the scene. (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Fiction). In other words, by the end of the scene, the characters' intentions and emotions must be different than they were at the beginning of the scene.

There must be setting details, physical sensations of the pov character; and the scene must end with surprise or disaster (Lyon).

So, your Great Scene Checklist is:

1. Conflict (built up through emotion)
2. Emotion (stakes to the inner lives of the characters)
3. Surprise (unexpected setback, revelation, or question raised by the events)
4. Reversal of character's intentions and emotions between the beginning and the end of the scene
5. Setting details
6. Physical sensations of pov character
7. Scene ends with disaster or surprise
8. Scene must affect how the rest of the story unfolds, in a big way

For a more in-depth discussion, including an example of a Great Scene and how it meets the requirements, check out this earlier post.

And here's a trick I was taught years ago that I've come to appreciate as essential. When you're choosing what particular actions are in the scene (remember, action includes dialogue), make sure the action is driven by the character's emotion, and not by your need to make a point or move the scene forward. This holds true whether it's a large or a small action. When the action comes from the character's emotion, the authenticity quotient skyrockets.

Best of luck with your final revisions. May you polish that manuscript to an irresistible shine!

Monday, April 15, 2013

What's Happening to American Authors?

I made a decision a few months back to focus on reading and writing fiction, both for myself and for this blog, which translates into blog posts about writing itself.  But once in a while I can't help feeling that some of the stuff coming out in the press regarding the literary marketplace—our marketplace—is too important not to take notice of and put out there for additional attention. Below are three of the past  week's articles that raise important questions and demonstrate trends.

Different viewpoints reign among writers about the issues raised in these articles, so please, weigh in—leave a comment expressing what you think about them!

First, a couple of things from Scott Turow, President of the Author's Guild, bestselling author of legal suspense novels, and attorney.

Slow Death of the American Author: Turow's article in the New York Times last week:

Among other points in the article, Turow says:

—a recent Supreme Court decision to allow the import and resale of foreign editions of American works (previously prevented by copyright law) means:
  • cheap imports, and
  • no royalties for the authors on those sales 
—this is just the latest on how the e-market is "depleting authors' income streams . . . (a)lmost every player—publishers, search engines, libraries, pirates, and even some scholars—is vying for position at authors' expense."

—constitutional protection of copyrights is in play, in that "the value (of the copyrights) is quickly being depreciated."

—hardest hit by this depreciation: new authors and mid-list authors, not well-established authors

Lest you think this doesn't affect you, because you might be an indie-only author, give the article a read, particularly the bit about what happens when all those players mentioned above get their hands on indie newcomers; and also consider the implications of one of Turow's concerns, as explained in his analysis of Amazon's acquisition of Goodreads, below.

Amazon's Acquisition of Goodreads

The acquisition has many people up in arms and many others trying to cool the flames with level heads . . . but do the level heads see the long term big picture? Scott Turow's take is that this is a clear step toward monopoly through vertical integration (i.e. through owning all the pieces that go together to make an industry. Traditionally, in the pre-internet world, that meant owning companies: that have the raw materials; that manufacture the product; that have the 'software' like replacement parts or functional parts like toner for a copy machine, for example; that do the advertising and sales; and anything else involved in making and selling a product. As you know, monopoly, which by definition prevents competition through 'restraint of trade,' is illegal in our country and in many others. Vertical integration can allow major cost-cutting to production and sales, some or all of which is passed along to the consumer, creating a company that beats out all the competition so effectively that it's the only real game in town—a monopoly. Smaller companies typically just can't survive trying to compete against it.) 

It's a new form of monopoly that Turow is talking about—what he calls a 'modern monopoly.' My take on this is that this modern monopoly is based on a world of products (in this case, books) that incorporates the effects of the internet  revolution into the traditional model of monopoly.  This probably means the legal precedents that would normally be used to challenge monopoly are not sufficient now because they haven't caught up with the big changes in what constitutes production and software or services. I may be reading too much into Turow's statement, but I don't think so.

Here's the link to the article.

And then there's this:

Bestseller Lists for Print and Digital Are Very Different from Each Other

Finally, an article in this week's Publishers Weekly caught my eye. It's a report on the bestseller lists from the first quarter of 2013.

The Top 20 lists are taken from Nielsen Bookscan for print, and from Amazon Kindle for digital. Right there an issue arises, since we know neither of these sources represents a full picture of the market, given the constant changes and new efforts. But if we accept that these two sources represent the most significant sections of their respective markets, it is clear that there is a distinct parting of the ways for print and digital.

Print is the home of non-fiction bestsellers and also still includes adult fiction and children's fiction, while digital is pretty much all about fiction.

On the face of it, that doesn't seem alarming. If you dig in a bit, though, there are pieces of information that could be extrapolated to mean that there's a growing divide between the types of authors who can do well in print vs. digital, with only a few big names as crossover exceptions.

Here's the article, for your perusal.

What do you think? Are these issues of concern to you, and do you see opportunities that counteract the negative influences mentioned above?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Your Hero Must Suffer!

Warning: this post is for writers (and readers) who believe in suffering. They may not like it in their own lives. They may hate and revile it. They may resent its unwelcome but inevitable intrusion as they try to complete everything on their crazy-long to-do list; put in huge numbers of hours at work to make ends meet; or just get the children organized and reasonably clean and nourished and outside to play with friends so they can collapse on couch for just five minutes--gawd!! But they know, from personal experience and without a doubt, that suffering is what makes us appreciate what's real and important and good in life. Especially if the suffering is major, like losing a loved one or facing a potentially terminal situation yourself. It kind of sucks, but there you go.

In classic dramatic fiction, the hero or heroine of our story must suffer on the page, or the story is not compelling. Suffering is central to the protagonist's growth. We are told by writing teachers to make things continually worse for our protagonist from the get-go—worse and worse and WORSE—until, in the darkness, a pinlight of hope/possibility appears far in the distance. This happens somewhere around 3/4 through the manuscript, and the protagonist knows what she has to do. She plunges forward into the dark and aims herself toward the light, live or die. There will be peril along the way and every reason to believe she may have made the wrong decision.

The type of drama and suffering (physical, psychological, emotional, functional) can vary within or by genre. It's there not only to create powerful tension that keeps readers turning those pages, but to make the protagonist figure out what action to take:

                                          "The deeper my crisis, the clearer my choices"
                                                    Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

As it happens, I was reading Andrew Boyd's book as a way to avoid my own work. I can't easily describe this little book. I bought it for moments of inertia when I needed a good, dark, ironic laugh. (If you don't have cynicism and irony smothering your soul now and then, you may not love Boyd's book, but if you're a writer, I think I'm talkin' to you.) The book offers a series of bite-sized but very chewy, and frequently hilarious, pieces of reflection on life and meaning. It's like daily affirmations, only it's afflictions.

But there's this amazing section in the introduction to the book that is not such a reflection. It is the telling of a near-mythical experience—a perfect example of the classic, impactful suffering of the hero/heroine. It's written about Boyd's thinly-veiled alter ego, Brother Void, who, we are told, is a mystic who earned his mystic stripes through suffering mightily. Brother Void has experienced personal tragedy, and been through "heartbreak, failure, confusion, and despair."(p. xx) But he's fully rounded, because he's also experienced "joy and victory." (ibid.) According to Boyd, these life experiences are what led Brother Void to write the book's "harsh little bits of wisdom."(p. xx)

Well, while the bits are fun, what I want to share with you is that section that is the vignette on what suffering does for our hero.

So here is Boyd, talking about the mystic, Brother Void's, first vision:

"It is fitting that his first vision occurred in the desert. It is fitting to the point of irony that the desert carried the name, Death Valley. There he was, a young man barely 20, tromping around the desert like a fool. It was getting late, he was trying to make his way back to camp. The desert air had cooled considerably. He was hurrying against the closing twilight, scrambling down a gully—fast, and then slow, and then fast again—sliding on his ass down a crease of broken sandstone, loose rock spilling alongside him. A narrow twist and the ravine steepened. He turned around. With his back to the dimming sky, he worked his way down. He was moving faster than was wise. He noticed his error too late.

Fear flicked up through his legs. He pressed his weight into the rock, instinctively, hands and feet needling deeper into their holds. The rock wall dropped down and away. There was nothing beneath him but empty air. For the first time, his life was completely in his own hands.

He held on to the rock for long moments. His past collapsed behind him; his future lay truncated on the rocks below, its head cut off from Time. There was only death, wafting under him in the empty air. Nothing before this had been real. It was as if, for years, he had been held in a protected field, a set-up life, and now death had cut away the false foundations. He had never faced death before, but he could feel now that it had always been there—a fearsome abyss holding life in its empty fist, just as the empty air held him now.

He had to move. He was excruciatingly in command. He had to step deeper into his terror and further out over the void. There was no other way. To his left was a rounded outcropping of rock and on the other side of it a means of descent. Make for over there. He let go of his left handhold and slipped off one strap of the backpack, then switched hands, then slowly the other strap. He let the pack fall down to the rocks below. In some far-off place, in some unreal time, he hoped the flashlight had not broken.

Then slowly, he began to inch his way left cranny by cranny, hold by hold. He made slow, careful progress. He was halfway across. With the toe of his sneaker he felt out the loose-fitting rock in the next cleft. He kicked away at the broken bits of rock. Nudging his way in, he tested its strength. It was okay. He transferred his weight over to it. It held. He trusted it, committed to it. All his weight, now. The rock slipped and gave way. His knee banged against the rock wall, his foot forced down violently, jangling in the air, weightless. I'm falling. I'm dead.

But he did not fall. He clutched even harder to the rock wall, clenching it, hugging it—and held on. And within the flow of that single motion, a remarkable thing happened: his face also reached closer to the rock and kissed it—in farewell or in thankfulness. I cannot say. It was a pure bodily reaction, yet it was sacred; it was an act of instinctive reverence. He was kissing his fate, kissing God, kissing nature, kissing the desert, kissing the moment, kissing the particular piece of rock that held his life and chose to spare him.

He continued moving left. Once again he lost a hold and thought he was dead. But again, he managed to hold on. Finally, he reached the edge of the outcropped rock. One last pivot and, throwing his weight over, he had it straddled. He held on for a moment, breathing. I'm safe. I'm going to be okay. He rolled over to the other side, clambered down the side slope, grabbed his backpack, and headed down the mountain.

He didn't bother to get out the flashlight. He was burning lucid, white hot. He pounded down the gully, invincible. Through the dark, his feet sensed every rock. His body was a beautiful machine; it moved with certainty, almost with an uncanny foreknowledge. He knew at each turn what he would find. He was flush, fierce, bewildered with his own reality, his own natural power. He felt like a warrior, welcome in the desert.
                                                                 (Boyd, Daily Afflictions, pp. XXI-XXIV)

The hero has survived and triumphed! How satisfying that is! It's what we want our readers to feel when our protagonist finally gets through the horrific rapids on her river of no return. She may be bruised and battered, but her victory is all the more sweet for that.

So, what do you think? If you check your protagonist's journey (the harrowing part of it, starting with the moment he or she takes that first false step) against this vignette, do you hit all the beats represented in Brother Void's harrowing experience as the tension builds and the stakes get unbearably high? Until we get to that last pivot, and complete it, we, like Brother Void, are doing our best to hang on and we are risking becoming dust in the wind. Something to think about,  :-)

Monday, April 1, 2013


Hi everyone, I'm on a mini-break for this week, but will be back here next Monday and hope to see you then. Meanwhile, I'll be checking in with your blogs. :-)

Back soon.


Monday, March 25, 2013

Revision Quotes

Ah, revision. A topic we love, or hate, or love to hate. But one that we cannot fail to recognize as critical to good writing.

Here are a few favorite quotes on revision from some famous writers:

"In writing, you must kill all your darlings." William Faulkner

"Substitute 'damn' every time you're inclined to write 'very;' your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be." Mark Twain  (no longer true, but you get the idea)

Interviewer:"Was there some technical problem? What stumped you?"
Ernest Hemingway: "Getting the words right." (from an interview question on why Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms so many times)

And finally, this gem:
"Let's say it's a mess. but you have a chance to fix it. You try to be clearer. Or deeper. Or more eloquent. Or more eccentric. You try to be true to a world. You want the book to be more spacious, more authoritative. You want to winch yourself up from yourself. You want to winch the book out of your balky hand. You try to liberate it. You try to get this wretched stuff on the page closer to what you think your book ought to be—what you know, in your spasms of elation, it can be. You read the sentences over and over. Is this the book I'm writing? Is this all?" Susan Sontag

Are you comfortable revising? Do you love it? Do you merely tolerate it?

It seems that as we mature as writers we come to embrace revision because, as Sontag says, we have a chance to fix our mess. Once we realize that everyone creates a mess that has to be fixed, and that revision comes with the deal if you want to write, we can get excited about this phase of the process.

What are your favorite things about revising? Do you have any fun revision stories or quotes (yours or someone else's) you can share?

Monday, March 18, 2013

Tap Into Your Creativity—Let Your Cat Help

The love between writers and cats is storied. The likes of T.S. Eliot, Edward Gorey, Ernest Hemingway and others have written poems, stories and snippets about the special connection. What is this special thing? It's mystical, playful, a form of connection that, under the right circumstances, can translate somehow into a flow of creative expression on the page.

If you are a cat lover (and I know not all writers are, although I find that fact to be astounding!), then you know what I'm talking about.

While reading one of my favorite websites (, I came across a charming description of this mysterious process. Brainpickings writer, Maria Popova, in her article, How a Cat Boosts Your Creativity, offered this passage from a book by Muriel Sparks:

“… the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you.”
History is laced with cat-loving creators, fromHemingway’s profound affection for his felines toEdison’s pre-YouTube boxing cats to the traditions of Indian folk art. But hardly anyone has made a greater case for the cat as a creative stimulant and a mystical muse of writing than Muriel Spark in this wonderful passage from A Far Cry from Kensington (public library):
If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work … the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a desk lamp … gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

I've gone back and forth between writing on my laptop and writing longhand at my desk. I like both, but find computer-writing a less creative process. Reading this snippet from Muriel Spark gave me all sorts of visualizations of the times my cats "assisted" me at my desk by lying down in front of me with at least a hind paw or the tip of a  tail touching my writing paper, while they snoozed or otherwise demonstrated their extreme nonchalance. (Writing at the computer with a 12-pound cat taking up my whole lap and wanting to put her paws on the keyboard all the time was a bit more challenging.)

As some of you know, I am sadly catless at the moment. Our kitties lived long, good lives, (to 19 and 21), and they are sorely missed. I've enjoyed being able to travel without worrying about them, though. And not having to clean the catbox has been a treat. But it might be time for a cat in my life again. Just the idea of one snoozing under my desklamp while I write is enough to make me smile.

How about you? Do you like having a cat with you when you write? Do you tap into the mysterious and powerful cat-muse energies? Have you found this type of energy from other pets?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reading Poetry Can Improve Your Fiction Writing

I was skeptical of poetry for many years. Maybe because it's such a demanding form that a lot of the poetry that's out there isn't really great. Then I began to discover poets who blew me away, and realized how varied poetry is, and how important it is for fiction writers to find poetry that speaks to them and resonates deep within them. I believe this applies to all types of fiction writers in all genres, whether literary of YA fantasy or mystery or any other.

Why? Because an awareness of and love for words, and a sense of how to use words to have the greatest impact and be the most compelling, are keys to good writing that we can learn from poetry. We want to write in a way that uses clear, meaningful combinations of words that seem simple and specific (even when the phrases are metaphorical), and that both communicate the message we are trying to get across, and do that in a way that is fresh, sometimes surprising, and has—especially at moments of emphasis—a beat. Those qualities are guaranteed to draw readers in. Literary agents and publishers are always hoping for exactly that type of writing.

Great poetry can help us get there. If we read it out loud on a regular basis, to hear and feel the rhythms and the impact of the word combinations, it helps us get there faster.

Last week I posted about Ann Patchett's excellent sentences, and how they draw me back to her writing even when I think I'm tired of reading. If you scrolled down to her LA TIMES interview at the bottom of the post, you no doubt saw that she believes every writer should have a deep love of poetry from the time they are a child.

While I agree that being transported by poetry as a child can give writers a big advantage in developing their own successful writing style, it's not an advantage that can only be obtained in childhood. We can learn this skill at a later age. Contemporary brain scientists have discovered that our neurons are incredibly adaptable—if we spend time regularly practicing an ability, the neural capacity for that ability grows physically within our brains, making us more naturally adept at performing it. This is true at any age.

One of the poets whose work I love is W. B. Yeats. He published poems over a forty-year timespan—from 1899 until the late 1930s. Below is one of my favorites of his poems. It's about a man at the end of a stellar career in the public eye, realizing how much of his achievement in climbing the ladder of success was built on showmanship using props (circus animals, as he calls them), rather than meaning; and how, having come full circle, he feels empty at this late stage—back to "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

The Circus Animals' Desertion
by W. B. Yeats

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so,
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
'The Countess Cathleen' was the name I gave it,
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough 
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

If you read this poem out loud a couple of times, does it affect you?

Do you have a favorite poet? Is his or her work oriented toward nature, or fantasy, or love, or futurism, or something else?