For some unknown reason, this faq page is not working. At all. It has up and died. I don’t have time to find a fix just now (July 2017) but please check back, because I will get to it.


Yes, much is missing. If there’s a question you’d like to see risen from the ether, or a new question, please use the form below to ask me. I’ll do the best I can.

What about Natty Bumppo, and is this a sequel?

Every once in a while I get an email like this one from Larry:

In James F Coopers books, the original Hawkeye was Nathaniel
(Natty) Bumppo. Why did you rename him Daniel Bonner?

So here’s an explanation.  Kinda.

James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po.

I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.

Something else I’d like to say, very clearly: when I wrote Into the Wilderness it was not conceived as any kind of sequel to Last of the Mohicans. I never, ever called it a sequel, and Bantam didn’t, either. However, some reviewers did call it a sequel, and that idea stuck in the minds of readers. Criticism of ITW as a sequel to Last of the Mohicans followed — and still follows.

You see how this would be frustrating.

So ITW is not a sequel. It’s my take on an older story, and as such, I changed things to suit my version. Think of West Side Story, where you get Maria and Tony instead of Juliet and Romeo. Think of A Thousand Acres, where you get Larry Cook instead of King Lear and his daughter Ginny instead of Cornelia. There are hundreds of examples of retold stories, and often the author shifts names and places and times, and then lets his or her own imagination go to work.

Ethan and Callie

This from a sleepy reader:

Midnight and I can’t get to sleep until I ask this question: what’s wrong with Callie? I understand that she’s been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, but I just can’t get at the core of her, and it’s keeping me up at night! She’s so shut down, emotionally. She’s a volcano ready to go off. Can you please speak plainly about her? Thanks. My tsecond or third time reading though the series and it’s new to me every time. Love, love, love these books.

I have tried to answer this question in a lot of different ways in the past but I think this might be the best effort. About Ethan and Callie

I loved/hated the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forests. Why did you do that?

People seem to feel strongly about the epilogue at the end of The Endless Forest: they love it, or they really, really do not love it.

I wrote it because I personally needed to have some closure, and to say goodbye to my characters. The idea that they were wandering around out there in the world and having adventures without me just did not sit well.

There are people who like surprises, and people who don’t. I do not like surprises. I prefer to know. And thus the epilogue.

As to how I decided about each character: I often flipped a coin. Is person x going to die in his sleep in a happy old age, or die in his forties, unhappily?  Sometimes I just know — I know what happened to Simon, for example, but other times I need a push.  This is one of those odd things about writing that is hard to explain.

Jennet & Luke and Why?

The most common question I get about The Endless Forest has to do with Jennet’s death and the aftermath. After Jennet died, Luke returned to Manhattan alone, leaving the children behind to be raised in Paradise. Many readers have trouble with this.

It was very common until not-so-long ago that families traded children around after the death of a parent or because of some other family disaster. Exactly why Luke chose to leave the children in Paradise is a question with dozens of possible answers, for example:

Jennet told him she wanted her children raised in Paradise, or

Luke’s business concerns were failing, and he didn’t know if he’d have the finances to provide the staff and resources the children would need, or

Luke fell into a depression so deep he was barely able to take care of himself, or

One or more of the children developed complications after the infection that killed Jennet, and needed the kind of medical care they could only get in Paradise,

I’m sure I could come up with a couple dozen reasonable scenarios, but my job is done. I have to sit back and let the readers decide what happened and why it happened. An author who tries to explain a character’s actions after the fact comes across as somebody unsure of the story. I am very sure of my story.


What is the order of the Wilderness novels? And what about Hidden Wolf??

1. Into the Wilderness

2. Dawn on a Distant Shore

3. Lake in the Clouds

4. Fire Along the Sky

5. Queen of Swords

6. The Endless Forest (working title: Hidden Wolf)


I have been working on a novel for quite a while now and I would so much appreciate input. Could you possibly find time…?

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. (new editions come out every two years or so) Addison-Wesley Pub Co.

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

I wrote to you and never heard back.


I get a lot of email from readers. So much that I can’t answer it all. Once in a while I find the time to answer a handful of emails, but I read them all, just so you know that.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to know what to say. I fall back on the old reliables: thank you, you are very kind or: I’m so glad you enjoyed it. There have been so few negative emails that I haven’t had to come up with any kind of standard reply to them, but I suppose I could: I‘m sorry to hear you were disappointed or you clearly aren’t the right reader for these books or you’re right, I’m not Diana Gabaldon.  People tell me their own stories, family stories which are precious to them and I always try to write back and thank them. But it’s hard to respond to praise; I blame my twelve years in Catholic school.

To be really honest, I feel a little strange taking credit for the books. Each of them feels so long ago and far away (and still, a part of me). As if somebody came up to me and said, wow, you have two hands. And I’d look down and sure enough, two hands. I should take some pride in that? They are just a part of me, parceled out in the genetic sweepstakes along with blue eyes, big feet, and an ear for language.

You take a year or two to write a book and then it goes off and if you’re lucky, makes a place for itself in the world. Much like child bearing, where all the drama and pain fades with time until what you’ve got left over are a lot of memories, most of them not very reliable. And here’s this incredible being running around in the world on its own terms, independent of you. True, once it was inside of you and might never have emerged if not for the dictates of simple biology and opportunity. And fate.

But there it is, making friends in some places and pissing other people off (critical reviews, ah, there’s a topic for another day), and some of those people sit down and write to me: thank you, I really loved this book, the way people say to me: what a great kid you’ve got. (Because, of course, I do have a great kid. I’m more sure of that than I will ever be about any book.) And of course I’m thrilled when people recognize what a great kid I’ve got even while I’m thanking the fates (because I’m Italian enough still to worry about tempting them) for the good fortune of a healthy, happy, smart, beautiful daughter. Just as I’m very touched and truly pleased when somebody tells me a novel I wrote means something to them.

So if you write to me and don’t hear back right away, please know that I read your email or your letter (which will get forwarded to me if you send it to Bantam) and you gave me a moment’s confused but sincere pleasure.

Unless you’re the guy who writes to lecture me about Treenie; if you’re that guy, go away.


How did you come to write the Wilderness novels?

Into the Wilderness came into being because I wanted to read stories of the women on the New York frontier in the post-revolutionary period. Since no one else seemed inclined to write those stories, I began to consider writing one after re-reading James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers. While I was pondering how such a story might be approached, I saw Michael Mann’s 1992 film adaptation of Last of the Mohicans, and that provided the spark: what if (as Mann implies at the end of his film) Hawkeye and Cora actually married and made a home for themselves in the wilderness? This was contrary to Cooper’s storyline for the Leatherstocking Tales, in which Hawkeye ends his days sad and disillusioned.

So I gave Hawkeye and Cora a son, Nathaniel, and I opened the story almost forty years after the fall of Fort William Henry. But I needed a female character to challenge Nathaniel and the wilderness both, a woman who would come to see the endless forest with new eyes. I was re-reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion (I try to reread all of Jane Austen every year) when I began to wonder about her characters. What would Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice have done, how would she have acted, if Darcy had decided to pursue his future in the wilderness of the newly formed United States? What if Captain Wentworth, upon marrying Anne Elliot and taking her away from her obnoxious Kellynch family, had said “let’s see what adventures await, let’s get out of this genteel country neighborhood setting?” What about Jane herself, if she hadn’t come down with the disease that killed her at such a terribly young age, what if she had been given the opportunity to travel away?

Of course, Jane Austen probably would not have given up her quiet home and family. But her characters, there was another issue. Thinking about them, eventually my Elizabeth Middleton took shape: a woman aware of the world and her role in it, and never quite resigned to either. She has some of Elizabeth Bennett’s insight, Anne Elliot’s curiosity about the world, Elinor Dashwood’s extreme rationality, her sister Marianne’s passion. But there is also a dash of Mary Bennett in Elizabeth: the book-obsessed young woman understood by none of her family. Mary Bennett has always seemed to me the one female character in Pride and Prejudice who gives away some of Jane Austen’s own weaknesses. Austen is unable to show any kindness towards Mary, and I have always wondered why. So this was my opportunity to take these women out of England, and to see them make their way in a different kind of world. Thus Elizabeth Middleton slowly took shape.

Q: How would you classify your novels?

I suppose I would call them (in fact, I have called them, when forced) historical fiction or historical adventure. That is, a lot of research goes into each one and a prime concern is making the era come to life. Beyond that, I hope to keep the reader turning the pages, interested in the characters and the plot. There is a lot of plot; some of it has to do with a love story. Various bookstores and reviewers have called these novels ‘romance’. Sometimes they seem to expect me to be put out or angry about that, but in fact I don’t mind. A love story is a love story, after all. I’d consider Pride and Prejudice and Taming of the Shrew romances, too. One label I do not like is ‘bodice ripper’ because it is disrespectful to me, to my characters, and to the readers. Not to mention that it’s factually incorrect: no bodices are ripped, torn, or damaged in any way in my work. That is, I don’t write gratuitous sex scenes.

What is the relationship of the Wilderness novels to James Fenimore Cooper’s work and the movie, Last of the Mohicans?

James Fenimore Cooper wrote a series of books called the Leatherstocking Tales. His main character was Natty [Nathaniel] Bumppo (also called Hawkeye, and several other names), and seemed to be based on the legends that grew up around the real life character Daniel Boone. One of his novels was The Last of the Mohicans; another, set in Hawkeye’s later life, was The Pioneers. The Last of the Mohicans has been filmed a number of times, the last and most memorable by the director and producer Michael Mann. That is the movie staring Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe. In Mann’s version of the story, Hawkeye’s real name was Nathaniel Po. I wasn’t so much interested in retelling the story of The Last of the Mohicans — that has been done often enough — but I was interested in Hawkeye’s later life. So I set out to do a few things: first, write a very loose retelling of The Pioneers (keeping some of the plot, some of the characters, and some of the themes, especially the environmental ones); second, to tell the story from the female perspective (Cooper was a fine storyteller, but he didn’t write women very well — they come across as idealized and two-dimensional); third, to put my own spin on the legend of the frontiersmen who populated the New-York frontier; fourth, to try my best not to contribute to the stereotypes rampant in literature about the Mohawk. I hoped to portray them as a people who survived in spite of great hardship. Because I wanted to put my own version on paper, I changed Hawkeye’s name yet again. Not Bumppo or Po or Boone, but Bonner. So I have a Dan’l Bonner and his son, Nathaniel Bonner.

How much creative license did you take in writing about the Mohawk culture and overall day-day life back then?

The truth is, sometimes details are not available no matter how hard you search, and you have to make logical jumps. I could find out a great deal about Mohawk village life, but not everything. When I couldn’t avoid the murky areas, I tried to extrapolate as cleanly as I could. For example, I never did find out with any certainty what materials were used for swaddling baby bottoms. I assume it was some kind of moss, as that is used for similar purposes, but it’s only an educated guess. As far as daily life for others — European types — there was more information available. I have hundreds of books on topics as diverse as lighting fixtures and household servants to the way in which a birchbark canoe is constructed, from the bottom up. I also had consultants — generous people with expertise in various areas. A surgeon who happens to be an expert on historical methods in hunting and trapping. A specialist in infectious medicine. An expert on the history of Scotland; people who do historical recreations of the French and Indian wars, and know first hand every detail down to how itchy the wool underwear can be. So I did my best — but I know, as any author who is honest with herself knows — that anachronisms will have slipped by me, and that it is almost impossible for me to really know what it is like to live in a world that is lit only by fire.

Isn’t Elizabeth Middleton too much ahead of her time?

This question always takes me by surprise. I am reminded of myself at about age eleven, when I figured out about the relationship between sex and pregnancy. I was watching Johnny Belinda — a movie about a deaf woman who is raped and has a baby, a story set maybe in the forties or so — and I realized with huge surprise, disquiet and even disbelief that those people knew that sex led to having babies! I couldn’t believe it. I was positive this discovery must be very recent.
Women in the late 18th century were very much aware of their lot in life. Not all of them protested publically (most of them did not have the means to do so); certainly not all of them had any objection to the status quo. But many did. While the struggle was a hard one, women of the period wrote fiction and poetry and social commentary. Women were extremely active in the abolitionist movement (which began in Europe, not in the U.S.); they founded hospitals and schools. Mary Wollstonecroft was not alone in calling for a more reasonable and fair approach to educating girls. So no, Elizabeth is not at all ahead of her time.

Why did you decide to bring Scotland into the story rather than keep them in America for Dawn on a Distant Shore?

It came to me very suddenly, when Elizabeth is berating Nathaniel for keeping rather crucial information a secret from her. She says to him “Any more surprises? Land holdings? A peerage in Scotland?”; At the moment I wrote that I realized how much fun it would be if Nathaniel turned out to be heir to an earldom. Just the opposite of what Elizabeth thought she wanted. Also, to be truthful, I wanted to try my hand at a sea-faring tale. Of course, once I got into the research (I know more about ships than I ever thought I would need to — or ever wanted to know) — I realized what I had got myself into. Rest assured that the Bonners are not about to go sailing off again.

What’s with the pen name?

I write more than one kind of fiction. Two of my novels sold within a few months of each other, and one of the publishers was worried about “confounding reader expectation”. Thus was Sara born.

Why use characters from other stories and times?

Why not? Retelling stories is as old as the hills. West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet. A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear. Some people claim there are only twenty possible basic plots, and everything is a retelling of something else. We tell stories to make sense of the human condition, and we keep doing that because we haven’t yet figured it out. Stories — telling them, listening to them — seem to be an important part of the human psyche. As far as the characters are concerned, some characters are brought to life by a particular author with such stunning success that they outlive their creator. Hawkeye is one such character — so many people have been compelled to bring him back to life in one way or another. The Man of LaMancha is another — the underdog, always fighting windmills. He can be found in a hundred stories. I took some characters who mean a great deal to me to see what I could do with them; I invented others of my own, but even those owe a debt to all the stories that came before.

How do you know Diana Gabaldon,and how is it that her characters wandered into Into the Wilderness?

I met Diana through the Research and Craft section of CompuServe writers’ forum, where I used to visit regularly. R&C is a forum for discussion of matters having to do with technical issues (point of view, flashback, character motivation, etc) and research problems (how did a person light a fire in 1790? how long did it take a horse and buggy to travel ten miles on good road?). Diana and I had many of the same interests, as our characters were involved in some of the same historical events. One day the subject of the Battle of Saratoga came up and Diana mentioned that she had used the battle as a setting for a scene, and this happened just as I was writing a similar scene. I said (truly in jest) hey, I need a doctor over here for this boy with pneumonia, can I borrow Claire? To which Diana said, Why not? Diana is one of the most supportive and generous people I have ever known, but still I was taken by surprise. I did write the scene and send it to her, but said that I would drop it if she had not been serious. She liked it, and so it stayed. The idea was simply a bit of an inside joke — characters wandering from one novel to another — and was never meant to be anything else. I have been called a Diana Wannabe, which of course is silly — who would not want to write such wonderful stuff as her Outlander series? But there’s only one Diana. I have my own stories to tell, in my own voice.

More on this subject, excerpts from an interview I did with Linda Richards of January Magazine when Dawn on a Distant Shore was published.

I understand that you and Diana Gabaldon are friends.


Does that precede the books? Or is it through the books?

We met online and started conversing about our research and work. Then once in a while she’d show me something she was working on and I’d show her something I was working on. This was before Into the Wilderness sold. Diana was extremely supportive. I had an agent at the time that I wasn’t really happy with and she introduced me to the agent I have now.

The funny part is — and most of her readers will know — is that when I was doing the research [for Into the Wilderness] there’s a flashback to the battle of Saratoga which was a major battle in the Revolutionary War. I mentioned this to Diana and she said to me, “Hey my characters are in the battle of Saratoga too.” It was the first time our storylines intersected. And I said, “Well, I’ve got this sick boy over here and Nathaniel is looking for a doctor. Can I have Claire?” I was completely joking. And Diana said, “Sure. I’ll send her over.” So her characters show up briefly in my storyline.

Oh how fun!

And it’s just meant to be an inside joke — you know it’s very short, it’s in flashback. It’s like two paragraphs, there’s no dialog between the characters or anything — they come and they go. 

Did readers catch it?

Oh yes! Did readers catch it? Yeah! In fact there was this persistent rumor  that we were the same person. People were sometimes very insistent on that, and I know that Diana was sometimes irritated by the whole debate.

The periods you write in are close but your stories and your styles are very different.

My novels are  not time travel and hers are; I write in third person, and she writes in first.  The beauty of her books — and it was a really masterful stroke on her part — is that since Claire is from the 20th century she can observe what’s going on in the past from a modern sensibility. So mine is a very different kind of story in every way.  It’s human nature to compare things, though, and there were some pretty heated discussions among readers about my work. Which was unfortunate, because I don’t consider myself in competition with Diana or with any other novelist. What we do is too idiosyncratic for that kind of comparison. 

What are the laws in regard to using another author’s characters? This question came up on a discussion board that I visit and your books were mentioned.

Any work published before 1928 is in the “public domain”. A good summary of copyright and domain facts can be found at: http://www.unc.edu/~unclng/public-d.htm. Anybody can use the characters, retell the story, etc etc. if a work is in the public domain. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and James Fenimore Cooper fall into this category. So I am completely within the law by retelling Cooper’s The Pioneers and using some of his characters. There are hundreds and hundreds of books in the public domain that you can get for free over the web. A good list is maintained at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ Works that are still in copyright: no, you can’t just borrow the characters. You can’t write a novel about Captain Kirk and Spock on the Enterprise unless you first get written permission from the owner of that copyright — I think it’s Paramount that owns it. So technically fan fiction is illegal, though I don’t think anybody has ever sued over it. I used Diana Gabaldon’s characters with her permission, both oral and written. Anybody else who wanted to publish a novel using my characters or hers would have to ask first — with the exception, of course, of those characters already in the public domain. So you wouldn’t have to ask me to have Hawkeye tramping through your novel, but you would have to ask me if he had a son called Nathaniel with a wife Elizabeth Middleton who lived in Paradise on the Sacandaga.

I am trying to figure out the relationship between the Savards in The Gilded Hour and the Wilderness series. Can you help me with that?

There’s a whole website dedicated to The Gilded Hour, and on that website are multiple pages dedicated to the genealogy of the Wilderness families. Please have a look over there, as there is a wealth of background and research material as well as a lot of maps and images that you may find of interest.

When is the sequel to The Gilded Hour coming out?

This is the zillion dollar question, one I hear every day. Of course it’s very gratifying to know that the novel is successful at drawing readers in, but I am not a fast writer and I fear many of them are less than understanding on that point. 

But I am making progress. And we have a title: Where the Light Enters. I hope to finish it by the spring, and then it’s up to the publisher to get it out there into the readers’ hands.


I am frustrated (irritated, confused) by the cliffhangers in The Gilded Hour. I want to know…

I answered this question at length on the weblog, here: Mea Culpa, Mea Cliffhangers.  If you still have questions or comments after you’ve look at that post, please be sure to leave a comment there.


book love

Talking about used books with Rachel reminded me of a phenomenon which interests me greatly, in part because I participate to a limited degree. There’s a species of book collector who specializes in one book or set of books alone, but tries to find as many editions as possible. I’m not talking here about somebody who’s obsessed with Catcher in the Rye and has an apartment filled with thumbed paperbacks of the same edition. I’m referring to people who collect Alice in Wonderland or the works of Jane Austen or the Oz books. Because these are well loved books and out of print, any old publisher can come along and put together a new edition. Mostly what you get are very cheap efforts (you know that table at Barnes & Noble that proclaims Classics! Get your Classics, Three for Twelve Dollars! — poor paper, worse binding, and the damn thing will fall apart on you probably before you make it to the middle) but many publishers do try to put together an attractive new edition in the hopes that they’ll catch the eye of the casual reader who decides that they really should have a copy of Sense and Sensibiity on their shelves, and isn’t that a nice picture on the cover? This is from an on-line auction, a lot of three different editions of Alice in Wonderland up for grabs:

Alice in Wonderland

THREE COLLECTIBLE BOOKS by Lewis Carroll, “Alice in Wonderland”: the first illus. by W.H. Walker with 8 in color, 42 in black & white, London: John Lane The Bodley Head, illus. blue cloth cover, dust jacket. Second, illus. by Harry Riley, first edition thus, London: Arthur Barry, 1945, dust jacket; third, 28 illus. & colored frontispiece by Thomas Maybank, London & N.Y.

I’m not talking here about true first editions for the simple reason that if you could find (for example) a first edition of Pride and Prejudice from the year 1813, you’d pay a minimum of $15,000 for it. This is more about the book itself, its design, the cover art, the workmanship that went into making a package for a particular well loved novel.

Someone gave me an edition of Sense and Sensibility (or maybe it was Persuasion; I can’t find it just now, of course, although when I went off searching I found a few other books that had been eluding me. I’m convinced that my books hold meetings in the middle of the night to predict which one I’ll need next and thus, whose turn it is to hide)… but the point is, this particular edition, paperback, really struck me for its artwork: a close up, detailed painting of the sweep of a highly embroidered skirt. When I do run across this book, I always think I have to look to see what publisher put it out and go see if the other Austen books are done in the same style.

I don’t read these editions I collect for their physical selves; when I do sit down to re-read, I always go back to the same hardcover critical edition, which is full of bits of paper and stcky notes.

Enough, I think, of obsessing about books, for the moment.

heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Down the Rabbit Hole

Column written for and first appearing at WriterUnboxed

For the historical novelist – for anyone interested in history – the internet has brought about a revolution. We are floating in a sea of information that deepens and spreads minute by minute. It’s incredibly empowering, but it also has its dangers.

If you came of age before the internet, you will remember how things were. An argument over supper about any given war could not be resolved by opening a laptop. If it was a Saturday night, you were most probably clueless until Monday, when you could call a reference librarian or go there yourself. A million questions, small and large, simply remained unanswered, and we lived with that. The capital of Peru, the author of Antigone, where Napoleon was held captive, when women got the vote – if you didn’t have access to a good encyclopedia, you wondered or started calling friends in the vain hope that one of them would know when Wrigley Field was built.

Since that time, we have gone from one extreme to the other. At two in the morning I can crawl through newspaper archives to find out the rent on a typical three bedroom apartment in Manhattan in the year 1900. I can look at museum exhibits on Edwardian dress or Bronze Age artifacts, or read an article on bovine diseases. As more and more becomes available on-line, things only get better. Or worse, depending on your perspective. My husband, the Mathematician, has developed a particular expression he puts on whenever I start a sentence did you know: Just interested enough to prove that he is listening; just distant enough to discourage me from telling him exactly how pencils were manufactured in 1800. If I’m particularly animated about something I’ve found, he will raise an eyebrow a half inch or so to acknowledge my discovery.

And that’s fair enough. I don’t understand anything about his work, either.

For writers of historical fiction, there is a Too Much of a Good Thing Syndrome. You look up a particular murder trial that happened in 1799 because you need to know how lawyers addressed each other; three hours later you finishing reading about horse breeding in Turkey and can’t remember what you wanted in the first place, or why.

A scene you’ve been trying to write for days simply will not come together. You decide that the reason for this is simple: you don’t have enough background information. In a part of your brain you are ignoring you know that the scene may not belong in the story, or the characterization might have taken a wrong turn, but these are thorny problems that make a writer anxious. It’s much easier to try to find out when they started using screens on windows to keep out flies. (Something I haven’t been able to track down, by the way).

Curiosity is, of course, a good thing. It’s when curiosity and compulsion get together that research starts to overshadow story. I think of it as the fraternity hazing syndrome: It took me hours and hours of work to learn how to make a boot, and by God, you’re going to learn it, too.

Most usually we couch it differently. When the editor asks, so very gently, if maybe the research is getting in the way, you stand up to defend not yourself, but your readers. Of course they will be interested in the way Egyptians irrigated their crops, this is fascinating stuff. When you hear yourself saying – or just thinking – that kind of thing, you must recognize that you are in trouble. Your characters are being neglected, your story arc is in danger of collapsing. The simple truth is that just because the information is available doesn’t mean you have to use it.

But there is hope. It turns out that the internet is both the cause of, and the solution to, this problem.*

If you find yourself luxuriating in two hundred year old classified ads for Restorative Liquors, don’t burden your story with all those glorious details. Use the smallest possible bit, and then take the rest of it and post it on a weblog.

Weblogs are easily set up, and can be had for no cost at all. You can start one in ten minutes, and then use that space to share all the bits and pieces you have collected so lovingly. Readers who would have been irritated by a long description of early treatments for syphillis will come of their own free will to your weblog to read about such things, and (another bonus) discuss it. The internet is not just a gigantic, 24/7/365 encyclopedia, it is also a communication tool, and a way for writers and authors to reach out to old readers and win over new ones.

*With apologies to Homer Simpson.

literary illusions & conceits

Originally posted March 2009

Eudaemonia has a very thoughtful post up about what she looks for in a novel, in which she first considers what a few other people have said about their preferences before she explains her own. As I was reading the post — which is beautifully put together and worth the effort — I was thinking about Martin Amis.

Most specifically I half remembered an interview with Amis on Salon. And lo and behold, I found it right where I left it.

Here’s one relevant quote:

Discussing his fiction in an interview with the Paris Review, [Martin Amis] dismissed “story, plot, characterization, psychological insight and form” as merely “secondary interests” compared to a novelist’s prose, little more than the apparatus on which to hang some bitchin’ sentences. So it hardly seems an insult to say that his specialty is not substance, but style.

From “Terror and Loathing” by Laura Miller, Salon 1 April 2008

Then I went back to Lisa’s post and read the comments, and I came across Steve (who writes a weblog called on the slow train). I’m going to quote an excerpt from his comment on Eudaemonia because he has expressed something I have been trying (and failing) to say about the literary genre (as it is represented by Amis) for ages:

I’m afraid modern literary fiction is going the way of orchestral music in the twentieth century–aiming toward such a specialized audience that it alienates virtually everyone else. Just about anyone can enjoy Beethoven or the Beatles, but few can appreciate Alban Berg without years of study. And even then, it can be an ordeal.

I think Steve has hit it on the head, and some evidence of that is provided by Amis himself (passively, I admit). He is a very large presence in the literary genre, but I always wonder how well known he is outside those confines. If you asked ten people at random if they recognized his name, what kind of return would you get? And why this perverse pride in honing his art to a point that it alienates the majority of readers?

In any case, if you are interested you can read more about Amis in a lot of places. For example: the review of his London Fields in the New York Times (calling Amis “fiction’s angriest writer”) and a biography of sorts at The Guardian.

Finally, I repeat my mantra: literary fiction is is just another genre with a self-defined readership and a set of arbitrary conventions. That is, it is not intrinsically better or worse than any other genre. No matter what Amis may think.


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information heaven

When I started writing historical fiction seriously (approximately 1995) I was still on the faculty at the University of Michigan. This meant that I had a fantastic library as my disposal. Faculty could (and probably still can) send an email or call and say, here’s a list of books and articles I need. Later that day, the books would arrive at your office door. The article would be copied and delivered, too, even if it had to come from another library.

liam-stackYou could keep the book as long as you needed it, unless it was recalled because somebody else wanted to look at it. I held onto some books for the full ten-plus years I was there. If  it turned out to be no use to me, I’d make a pile and leave the pile for the library to pick up.

Spoiled? You betcha. And blissfully happy.

Then I left academia andfor a good long while I was really stuck. In the early 2000s, there was not much available online. I ended up buying a couple hundred books — some of them which turned out to be no use to me — and paying for the copying of hundreds of articles.  Some books were simply out of my budget range. Sometimes I was able to get a banged up reading copy. Thacher’s New American Dispensatory (1802) was something I really needed, but the copies I found were all between $500 and $3,000. I eventually got hold of a so-called reading copy, which means the book is in such bad shape that it’s not really collectible. I paid $60 for it, and it was well worth the expense.

In general though, this process of tracking down references  was frustrating to the extreme, not to mention expensive. If I wanted to collect books, I would not be complaining. In fact, many of the books I need I would like to have in hard cover, but this is for research and I don’t need the beautiful tooled leather and gilded edges.

I keep thinking I could put at least fifty books up for sale at Amazon or Ebay or one of the bigger used-book conglomerates. Eventually I’ll do that. But even if I regained a good portion of what I spent, that wouldn’t address the bigger problem. Public libraries are generally really good about inter-library loans, but the things I need are often so unusual and rare that the ILL system soon sways under the burden..

And then Google Books came along. Google decided to scan books — all books, every book they could get) and make them available and searchable online. This caused huge (and well founded) consternation among authors like me, who pay the mortgage with royalty checks. If you could read The Pajama Girls for Lambert Square for free, would you buy a copy? Most people would not. So the Authors Guild stepped in and the lawyers got busy and in the end there was an agreement and a settlement. The Electric Frontier Foundation summarizes the situation (read the whole article here):

First, this agreement is likely to change forever the way that we find and browse for books, particularly out-of-print books. Google has already scanned more than 7 million books, and plans to scan millions more. This agreement will allow Google to get close to its original goal of including all of those books into Google’s search results (publishers got some concessions, however, for in-print books). In addition to search, scanned public domain books will be available for free PDF download (as they are today). But the agreement goes beyond Google’s Book Search by permitting access, as well. Unless authors specifically opt out, books that are out-of-print but still copyrighted will be available for “preview” (a few pages) for free, and for full access for a fee. In-print books will be available for access only if rightsholders affirmatively opt in. The upshot: Google users will have an unprecedented ability to search (for free) and access (for a fee) books that formerly lived only in university libraries.

This is the best thing to happen to historical novelists, ever.  And here’s how it works. Say you are writing a novel set in 19th century Boston, and the central character is a woman with three children and a philandering husband.  She’s expecting her fourth, and worried. You call up Google Book’s advanced search screen and enter some keywords in different combinations including Boston, housekeeping, childrearing, birth, midwifery, budgeting, manners, etiquette, marriage

You get back a list of books that will fall into one of three categories:

(1) snippet view means that the book is still in print and that the author and/or publisher is not allowing anything of any length to be shown on Google Books. However, you might just find something you really want to look at. In that case you can use the resources on the book’s information page to find it in a library or at a bookstore.

(2) limited preview means that there will be some whole pages and passages available for you to read.  You might be able to rule out the book at that point, or again, look for a copy to buy.

(3) full means just that: the book is out of copyright, and so Google Books is making it available to you. The whole scanned book. You can download it as a pdf, or read it on line.

Of course this is fantastic for the historical novelist in and of itself, but there’s more.  Here’s a book that might be of interest, available in full:

civilizedamerica1859Civilized America by Thomas Colley Grattan
Edition: 2
Published by Bradbury and Evans, 1859

You could download it straight away, but first you havea closer look. Use the search function, read the “about” and “favorites passages” sections. In the end the book isn’t something you really need, but you do run across a couple passages you’d like to put into your notes.   Just a few years ago you’d have no choice but to type those passages into a word processing screen. Now you can either look at the page images, or ask for plain text. Plain text gives you just that. The whole book has been run through OCR (optical character recognition) and so you can highlight and copy passages to put into your notes. In this case:

As to the yearling aristocracy, that branch includes a number of individuals who have neither manners nor character to boast of; nothing, in fact, but their money. Vulgar, violent, robust, and hardhearted. Many of these persons, notwithstanding the worship paid to the great god Mammon, and the glory reflected upon all those who seem to be his favorite, have yet so begrimed themselves in their struggle after wealth, and are naturally so unamiable, and their manners so gross, that though each one has his circle, larger or smaller, of dependants and ‘toadies,’ they find no admission for themselves into the two-year-old circle above alluded to. There are others, lucky fellows, and honest enough, as the world goes, but too rough and rude for fashionable drawing-rooms; and others yet, persevering old fellows, who have grown rich by long assiduous industry, who retain all the simple and economical habits of their childhood, snap their fingers at show and display, and who look upon fashion and its attendant extravagance with indifference, disgust, or contempt.

You might decide you do want a pdf of the full book on your hard drive, but when you need to find something particular in that book, you’ll have to go back to the Google Books page to use the search function. Given the fact that thousands of otherwise invisible books are available to you, this seems like a small problem. You’ll have to spend some time searching before you really understand the depths of material that are now available to you. Experiment with advanced searches. Ask for books published before 1800, for example, or restrict your search to only those books that are available in full (though this means you will miss a lot of great references to more recently published work).

Here’s a selection of what I came up with in a few minutes. This is a great resource, but be warned: it’s the ultimate time-sink, too.

The young trigonometer’s compleat guide: being the mystery and rationale of plane trigonometry made clear and easy 1736

Letters between Emilia and Harriet 1762

Delights of wisdom concerning conjugial love: after which follow the pleasures of insanity concerning scortatory love 1794

The Universal Cook 1792

Practical husbandry, or, The art of farming with a certainty of gain: as practised by judicious farmers in this country : the result of experience and long observation 1799

The student’s guide to diseases of children 1885

The assassination of President Lincoln: and the trial of the conspirators 1865

Plantation Life Before Emancipation 1892 (revisionist history, not easy to read)

Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, who Gained Their Freedom Through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents 1880

Dear Editor

I’m at that crucial juncture where I’ve got more than half a book done and I need serious input from my editor, except I can’t ask her. My experience has been that it’s a very bad idea to get the editor involved at a crucial juncture, no matter how much you might actually need her. Because the editor is the one who bought the book; s/he went to the editorial board and publisher and pitched the book you wrote, sold them on it, fought for the money, and presented the package to you (or better said, to your agent). So the editor has a vested interest in the book, and cannot be objective. It’s also just plain hard to send a half manuscript to somebody who has ventured their reputation on your ability to write the damn thing when you’re feeling fragile.

Here’s what the cover letter would look like:

Dear Editor:

Why did I ever think I could write this book? Better asked, why did you think I could? Because here I am more than half way through it and nothing seems right. The characters strike me as insipid and unbelievable, the plot sucks, and I can’t write a harmonious sentence to save my life. Obviously I’m done writing, forever.

PS thanks for the great advance.

Possible responses, as I imagine them:

Dear Writer: Crickey, you’re right. It is crap. I see no hope. Send back the advance, today. With 5% interest.

Dear Writer: This is the most beautifully written, funniest, most insightful and moving piece of fiction I’ve ever come across. It’s finished. Here’s a million dollar bonus and a first class plane ticket to come to Manhattan so we can celebrate.

Dear Writer: It needs more (sex/violence/insight/character development); now don’t bother me until you fix it.

Dear Writer: Stop whining and get back to work.

None of this is what I want to hear, really. There’s no editor in the world who can tell me what I need to hear, which is something along these lines:

Dear Writer: Breathe deep. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this many times before. You can do it again. I’m not going to read what you sent because you’re not really ready for me to read it, are you? I thought not. I have total faith in your ability to pull this off. What you need right now is a massage, and an afternoon with a good book and a box of chocolate. Tomorrow you’ll look at this manuscript and know what’s right and, if anything, what needs to be fixed. It will all happen. And if not, you have two advanced degrees and lots of other interests, right?

Towards the end there my inner demon editor got hold of the keyboard again, but that’s the general idea. In a nutshell: you’re alone when you write, and you have to live with it. Pardon me while I go try to gather my senses and see if we have any chocolate in the house.

Advice for aspiring authors of fiction

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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encouragement or schadenfreude? you decide.

Every once in a while you run across an article about the rejections great/successful writers got when they were starting out. Here’s one such list which includes names like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway and William Golden:

Though Lord of the Flies was one of my favorite books from high school, it seems some publishers disagreed. One unimpressed agent called the classic “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.” To date, the book has been required reading in high schools for nearly fifty years, 14.5 million copies have been sold, and Golding’s work has been adapted for film twice.

I’ll admit that I don’t think Ann Rand should be on this list, but I’m not sure I can take any satisfaction in the other names.  It all reminds me of hazing, in reverse.

ebook readers, can I get your feedback, please?

The controversy over ebook pricing is not going to resolve itself anytime soon, and here’s the reason why: publishers are confounded.

A hardcover novel is on the market for a year before they release a softcover edition, specifically because they count on recouping a big part of the investment through hardcover sales. The higher the hardcover sales, the longer it takes to put out the softcover. This approach has been set on its ear by ebooks, because people expect (quite reasonably) to pay less for a product that has so much less overhead (no paper, printing, transportation costs).

So if the publisher releases the hardcover ($25) and the ebook ($12) at the same time it’s pretty clear that the traditional sales strategy is no longer going to work. The are two obvious solutions to this: (1) charge as much for the ebook as the hardcover; (2) don’t release the ebook until the softcover version is released (thereby protecting hardcover sales).

Readers don’t like either of these options. So publishers came up with an alternate approach. For example:

Publishers seem to indulge in a lot of magical thinking.

Assume for a moment this is a book you really want to read, and your first choice is the Kindle ebook. What do you do?

talking about reading

Sandi at Fresh Fiction has posted about what it’s like for her to give up on a novel she’s reading. She feels compelled to finish, no matter how bad the match. This reminds me of the fact that I still feel guilty for reading all morning. I read and write for a living, but it was drummed into me as a kid that I READ TOO MUCH, and I can’t shake it. Even though I do, sometimes, read all morning.

As far as starting a book that doesn’t work for me, here’s my routine: I put the book-that-isn’t-working into one of three piles:

Pile 1: The problem has to do with me. It’s where I am at this moment, emotionally or in terms of work. I can see that I might like or even love this novel at a different time — or at least, that I might learn something — but that day is not today. I put the book on the “try again later” pile. On second reading, this novel may be recategorized as Pile 2 material.

Pile 2: The story is sound, but the  subject matter is inherently not a good match. Example: A few years ago there was a historical novel, the title of which I am blocking out. It had to do at least in part with the development of hypodermic syringes. It doesn’t matter if it is best book ever written, I can’t read it. It goes into the “probably worthwhile but I can’t for personal reasons” pile. I don’t read religiously-themed, cautionary novels (what are those romances called again?) for the same reason. There are most likely many such novels that are very well written and plotted, but I am not the right reader for them.

Piles 3a and 3b: There are two kinds of unreadable novels, in my view of things. One is so horrifically poorly put together that I keep reading it in the same way I would keep watching a propane truck skidding at high speed  into  backed-up traffic on the other side of the highway. I think of it as the awful-book trance. I could name three such novels without trying, but I won’t because (1) there’s nothing to be gained by hurting anybody’s feelings  and (2) there’s a lot to be lost by offending them. Offending another writer just for the thrill of it is a useless and counterproductive thing to do. It damages my  self-respect, but there’s  also the possibility that I will be launching  a wild-fire-type internet war. Some people thrive on the chaos of battle. Some people are almost pathologically  provocative and offensive (think: Ann Coulter). That doesn’t work for me. This is not to say that I never get involved in such battles; just that I avoid them if at all possible.

And finally there’s the book that I cannot find any value in, not even in the abstract.  Pile 3b contains  the ones I donate to the library, because it is possible that somebody else will find value in them. Hard to imagine, but possible.

Pile 3a is an interesting category, because any author lives on both sides of it. If I come across a novel that is really, really bad, I will not write about it here unless there is something to be learned, and I can do it in a way that it is at least somewhat objective.  I can only remember one review I’ve written of a novel that stunk, and it took me a long time to decide to write it, and a long time to get the tone right.  People who don’t write for a living but who talk about books online don’t have the same inhibitions, which is to be expected and even welcome. How else does an author get honest feedback?

Google sends me an email when somebody posts something about one of my books. I usually go have a look, and this is where I find out where other people rank my stuff.  It might be something fantastic — just recently a major author mentioned on her discussion board that she was loving Pajama Girls, for example. This is not somebody I have met or corresponded with, so it was very gratifying, because I respect that person’s work and opinion. On the other extreme, this is one paragraph in a longer post (dated June 2008) from a young woman who graduated from college a few years ago, and who is active in the theater. She did not like — really did not like — Pajama Girls. My Pajama Girls fall into her category 3b:

There are several troubling elements in this modern Southern romance. The handful of African American characters are treated like caricatures from a minstrel show. Agnostics are referred to as heathens. And “Yankees,” in general, are objects of scorn and suspicion. Local churches stage haunted houses about the dangers of birth control. Grown women are referred to as “girls.” This portrayal of the South may or may not be realistic, but it will likely inspire more irritation than amusement in feminist readers.

And that’s not the worst of it, but honest feedback means just that, and it’s sometimes pretty brutal. So what did I do?

Nothing. The author is entitled to her reading.  I may find the way she expresses herself strident and her interpretation offensive, but she’s within her rights.  It seems to me that she has not read very closely, but that’s not a discussion I can have with her. Any response from me would be seen as bellicose or self-serving or worse still, bullying.  So I didn’t respond, and I haven’t put a link here, because the idea is not to have anybody else respond, either.

I do wonder if she wrote her review thinking that I would see it, or assuming I would not. I’m not sure what either of those would mean.  For my own part, I try to remember that I shouldn’t write anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be comfortable repeating to somebody’s face. This doesn’t mean I can’t be honest in a review about a book I don’t like, but it does make me think about my tone and approach.  Which is why I keep this little reminder  on a sticky note on my computer: You can no more take something off the internet than you can take pee out of a swimming pool. (Attribution unknown)

Dear Grieving Reader

Dear Rosina,

I have just finished your book The Endless Forest. I must admit it was with considerable trepidation I began to read the epilogue and could quickly see the direction we were headed. I had suspected such an ending was coming but I am devastated all the same. Please, I beg you, tell me you will be starting a new series along the same tenor as the Bonner series!  I have enjoyed this family so
much and your storytelling I am hoping this is not the end of this genre o writing for you.

Yours truly,
A grieving fan

Dear Deanna:

I hate to think of you grieving, but on the other hand I am glad to know that the Wilderness series means so much to you. I can tell you that the novel I’m working on is about some of the Bonner grandchildren The first novel in what I hope is a trilogy is set in Manhattan in 1883. Its tentative title is The Gilded Hour.

If you are really interested in following along as a couple of Nathaniel’s and Elizabeth’s grandchildren make their way, please leave a comment. I  welcome your thoughts and appreciate your support.

frequently questioned answers

Since this blog has been up, I’ve been getting quite a lot of email from various people, 99.9 percent of it fine and good and interesting. I often hear from people who are struggling with their own writing, and they’ve usually got one of two questions: 1) who is my agent and will I introduce them; 2) will I have a look at their work.

My agent is a matter of public record (I dedicated Lake in the Clouds to her). Like all agents she gets a lot of inquiries from potential clients. Over the years I have sent a few people her way (by this I mean, I’ve mentioned their names and said they might be in touch). Of all those names, only one is now her client. So getting an introduction from me really doesn’t help one way or the other. If your work is something she feels she can represent, you may work something out with her, but that’s between the two of you.

As far as getting people to read your work, I’m not the right person for that. I’ve got a longer answer about that on my FAQ page but I’m going to reproduce it here:

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited….



The thing I like about HBO (beyond the basic issues of quality storytelling) is the lack of control it brings to the audience. When I was a kid, The Wizard of Oz came on television once a year; you caught it, or you waited another year. No revival showings at lovingly restored theaters, no video; you were at the mercy of the networks. There was a certain charm to that, a real excitement that went along with a once-a-year event.

HBO puts together movies or series and then shows them on their own schedule, at their own whim, without much reference to the big network scheduling system. They might show three episodes of something and then not show the next three until January, and if that’s the case, you wait. We wait long long months between seasons of The Sopranos, for example. A marketing ploy, you sniff, and sure. But it’s one that works.

In a way, this approach is re-educating the audience. The networks taught us to expect short story arcs, problems presented and solved in a half hour or hour; between eight and nine cancer is faced and fought, an attraction matures into committment, criminals are found out and brought to justice. We are impatient. We want not only clear, tight, seamless endings, but we want them fast.

But not on HBO. HBO snickers at such whinings. You’ll wait for The Sopranos, and you’ll like waiting, by gum. Carrie’s romantic fate keeping you up at night? Too bad. Sure, the last episode of Sex and the City is filmed and waiting, but it’s not for you or me to see, not yet. Shocked that the main character in The Wire showed up floating in the river, and can’t figure out what in the heck is going on with the Russians — are they really just going to get off free? Sooner or later, when the people at HBO have had their fun watching us squirm, they will bring back the Baltimore crew, but I’m pretty confident it’s not going to be anything I’m anticipating.

Samson - Carnivale

Carnivale is a new series, a short one. Just twelve episodes. We’ve seen nine of them so far. Critical reviews aren’t great. Too odd, too quirky, too slow, too demanding. The audience wants some answers, they say. The audience is confused.

Maybe we are, and maybe we aren’t. Confused might be just the ticket in a case like this. I sit down to watch Carnivale on Sunday nights and it’s true, I don’t understand every odd David Lynch-ish turn, but I’m sure interested. Just when I think it’s going to turn into a remake of the pretentious Twin Peaks, there’s a quick shuffle and voila: I’m surprised, or touched, or just plain scared. I’m normally not big on religious symbolism or mystical goings-on, but I find myself wondering about these grimy, other-talented characters who are slogging their way through the depression, grappling with good and evil and things they don’t understand but have to pay for anyway.

If your normal bill of fare is loving Raymond and you get fidigty waiting while Regis draws out the answers on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, you’re not going to like Carnivale. You probably won’t like a lot of the other stuff on HBO either. But if you’re willing to put yourself into the storyteller’s hands and let somebody else make the decisions, you will be rewarded. If you sit back, relax, and let it happen.

editors, copyeditors, division of labor

There’s a battle that people don’t talk about much, one that goes on (has always, will always) between authors and editors, most particularly copy editors.

I have been very fortunate in the editors who I’ve worked with on my novels. For the most part, I’ve been able to get along the with copy editors, too. But especially with copy editors, there’s always a bit of tension. I imagine it’s the same kind of push-pull that exists between architects and engineers.

The thing any author wants and hopes for from an editor are pretty simple, the first and most important being: please catch me when I fall. That means, if a paragraph is impossible to follow, I need to know. If I used the wrong character name, please, shout. If I’ve got the wrong word (sure, this happens once in a while) then by all means, don’t keep it to yourself. Most of all I want a copy editor to catch me when I repeat myself. I hate doing that, and while I re-read a hundred times, I will always miss a few instances where I let the same word creep into a sentence or paragraph after it’s come to the end of its usefulness.

From a really good editor, one whose instincts I trust, I hope for more. I hope that editor will raise deeper and more complicated issues, for example: do you feel this is enough of a transition for readers who are new to the series? Or: this feels a beat too long to me, or: Have you read this dialog out loud? [one way of saying, this sounds awkward]. And a big one: Do you realize that you’ve used this imagery [facial expression, turn of phrase] before on pages xx, xx, xx and xx ?

These are things that make the editorial process important to me personally. Less important to me (and I think, to most authors) are issues of spelling and punctuation. I’m pretty good at that stuff, probably because I have done my share of editing, but I’m not perfect. And there’s a reason: it bores me, and worse, it distracts me from the important stuff.

I am writing this partially in response to Pat Holt’s essay Ten Mistakes Writers Don’t See (But Can Easily Fix When They Do) , in which she (as editor) shakes her finger at authors for comma sins:

Compound sentences, most modifying clauses and many phrases *require* commas. You may find it necessary to break the rules from time to time, but you can’t delete commas just because you don’t like the pause they bring to a sentence or just because you want to add tension.

Well, sorry, but I can do that, if I find it necessary in a particular passage. I will admit that it’s usually not necessary , but I reserve the right to omit commas the same way I reserve the right to compose (on occasion) really, really long sentences. She goes on:

Entire books have been written about punctuation. Get one. “The Chicago Manual of Style” shows why punctuation is necessary in specific instances. If you don’t know what the rules are for, your writing will show it.

Now see, this is where we get into trouble. Pat Holt is a great editor, by all accounts, but she and I would not get on. Does this tone put me in a snit? Damn tootin’.

I would guess that about 90 percent of the editorial marks in the manuscript I’ve got in front of me have to do with commas. The copy editor wants serial commas. I don’t use them. Do I care? Not really. If s/he wants to go through 1,170 manuscript pages aligning commas, I’m fine with that as long as the outcome is consistent and it doesn’t interfere with some greater purpose of mine. Should I have done this while I was writing? The answer is simple: hell no. I’m juggling a hundred characters, a half dozen plot lines, three different battles, two love stories, and a million words of backstory. When I’m re-writing I’m looking hard at characters, the way they talk to each other, what they do. The commas are of secondary (or even tertiary) importance, as are other matters of punctuation-rules-of-the-moment (because much of punctuation is, in case you never noticed, a matter of style, and changes over time).

The bottom line is this: my job is making sure the story works, the characters move, the conflicts engage. Sometimes, rarely, I use punctuation as a tool to achieve a desired effect. In those cases, I simply tell the copy editor (by means of that wonderful abbreviation sic) to Leave It As I Wrote It. Thus far, nobody has gone to war with me about such an incident. I hope that never happens.

copyedit done done done

copyeditedThis is what a marked-up manuscript page looks like.

Mostly the corrections have to do with hyphenation, commas and similar matters, but the copyeditor does have a query here — she’s asking me to make sure I’m using the right names, as the text on page 1060 conflicts with the text here on page 1077. Which is very possible; I mess up like this all the time. So you can see this is where the copyeditor is invaluable.

The ms. goes back to Bantam on Monday. The next stage is galley proofs, in six or eight weeks, I’d reckon. Then the ARCs (advance reader’s copies, sometimes called uncorrected galleys), come out and go off to reviewers and other such people.

the non-writing part of publishing a novel

I’ve spent some time these last few days talking to the illustrator who does the maps for the endpapers of the novels. Her name is Laura Hartman Maestro and she does beautiful work, for many different publishers. My end of the deal is to supply her with all the maps I used in my research, along with supplemental materials such as drawings of buildings and ships, and then give her an idea of the range of the maps I’d like to see. It’s actually a lot of fun, and very satisfying. I got it all organized and color copied at Kinko’s and then I sent it off to New York by FedEx, came home and wrote for a couple hours.

Now the artist who’s doing the cover has been in touch and needs a different kind of commentary from me, and that’s also a part of the process I like, though it’s much more fraught with anxiety than the creation of the map. I like the concept for the cover, and I think it will turn out well. But I’ll admit that I’m a bit obsessive about book design and cover art. I’ve been known to buy books that didn’t interest me at all because I was so struck by the physical fact of the thing. With different mentoring as a teenager I could have well ended up as a graphic artist somehow involved in book design. Does this mean I want to design my own cover? Probably that would be a bad idea; I’d spend a year doing it and get nothing else done.


…are generally seen as tight-fisted, narrow-minded philistines only interested in the profit margin. But of course that’s not always true. Mine, for example, really likes to read, and she calls me now and then, as she did today, to say kind and encouraging things. It’s always a little strange to hear her voice on the phone. This is a very big name, and a very busy person, and here she is calling to tell me that she loved the first three chapters of Queen of Swords. When contracts are being negotiated I have nothing to do with her or the process — I am very happy to leave all that to my agent, because the idea of these two women head to head makes me want to go hide in a closet. On the other hand, the occasional phone call is very welcome.

rejection letters

This weblog essay by Teresa Nielsen Hayden — a person who actually writes rejection letters — is worth looking at. It’s sociologically interesting, funny and a little sad (note: link by way of The Elegant Variation).

My only quibble: rejections are sometimes (if rarely) personal. It does happen that an author has a history with an editor or a house. I once was confronted with accepting or rejecting something written by a former student of mine, somebody who had not endeared him/herself to me. How can that not be personal on some level? And before you ask: I rejected it. It just wasn’t good enough to make me swallow my dislike. And no, I didn’t use a photocopied rejection letter. And yes, s/he almost certainly felt affronted/insulted/poorly used.


story in the spotlight

My own definition of good fiction is pretty simple. If a story pulls the reader in so successfuly that the words as individual entities no longer matter, it’s a success.

There are many factors that go into constructing fiction that can achieve that end. A simplistic list would be: character, plot, language. I’ve spent some time here talking about issues specific to one or another of these three cornerstones, and I’ll continue to do that, but just at this moment I wanted to say something about mechanics.

If the idea is that you want your reader to fall into the story, you need to avoid things that will interfere with that delicate process. Anything that draws attention to the mechanics of storytelling will work against you. Spelling, punctuation, the way the text looks on the page – these things are irrelevant to the story, but not to the experience of reading.

As a professor, I tried very hard to read first for content, regardless of how badly mechanics had been handled. I made the decision to do that because I didn’t want to discourage students who had something interesting or insightful or creative to say. There’s nothing worse for the creative process than a reader who refuses to really read. Imagine a kid bringing home a watercolor she is proud of, to have the parent’s first reaction be something like oh no, look at the poor quality paper you’re using. It’s a short sighted parent (or teacher) who focuses first on the mechanics.

In publishing, editors don’t want to be bothered with mechanics, and they have no patience with writers who take liberties. Most probably a masterpiece or two has been lost to the public because the manuscript was so riddled with mechanical problems that no editor would bother with it. So my simple rules for handling mechanics:

Spelling. Do not rely on your spell checker alone. Spell checkers get things wrong all the time. Make a list of problems that reoccur in your writing and double check for them. There are some kinds of errors that drive editors (and many other people) so absolutely crazy that you are well advised to triple check for them. I personally know people who seem to be capable of murder for the inappropriate use of an apostrophe in the word its. In order to save such over-caffeinated types from a case of the fits and give your manuscript a fighting chance, make sure that you don’t use it’s when its is called for.

Punctuation. You already know how I feel about exclamation points, those little daggers, those pox upon the nation. What you don’t realize is that some people, many of them editors, get worked up over things like serial commas and when to use a semicolon. You don’t have to look very far on the web to find raging arguments about punctuation, which says to me that some people have too much spare time, if that’s the best thing they can find to argue about. I absolutely refuse to be drawn into discussions about punctuation, although people have tried. Once a friend called me late at night to say, hey, you’ve got a PhD in linguistics, you can resolve this disagreement for us: is it the Jones’ house or the Jones’s house? To which I said, You dope. Go away and find something interesting to wake me up about. Puncutation, like bell bottoms and poofy hair, is a matter of fashion, and is constantly changing. Pick a way to do it, and be consistent. Your editor may not like it that way, but as long as you’re consistent you should be okay (until you run into a Copy Editor with an Attitude, but that happens down the line).

Form. This is the simplest part, but people tend to resist. When I teach creative writing I make clear on the first day that I want all work handed into me in exactly the same format: courier 12, one inch margins, double spaced, plain paper. No negotiation, no wiggle room. I have had undergraduates hang their heads in sorrow at the idea that they can’t show me the truth depth of their creativity by means of their font choice, and to them I say what I’m saying here: if you find yourself experimenting with fonts, you’re avoiding writing. Get back to it. Courier 12 is the only font I use in manuscripts, because it’s very legible. It’s the only font I’ll ever use in manuscripts. You may hate it, in which case you’ll pick another non-descript, very legible font and stick to it.

Finally, don’t confuse a well-formatted, clean, error-free manuscript with a story. Good mechanics — like a beautifully wrapped present — goes to waste if the box is empty.

the agent question

I had been thinking about what to say about getting an agent (a good portion of email that comes my way asks about this very problem) when Teresa Nielsen Hayden beat me to it, and did a better job than I would have, or at least a more thorough one. See this longish entry called, appropriately enough, on the getting of agents.

My agent history is short and sweet. My first agent dumped me because she couldn’t sell Homestead (somewhere in the discussion of why it wasn’t selling, she mentioned that it ‘wasn’t the kind of book that you’d see men reading on the subway’). More than that, she didn’t want to try to sell the other manuscript I had sitting there. So I did what most people do, I asked somebody who had an agent and she kindly pointed me not to hers, but to somebody else, and one of the junior people at that agency took me on. Thus was the happy match made; Jill promptly sold both Homestead and Into the Wilderness within three months of each other, for a combined very healthy mid-six-figure advance. Jill went off and started an agency of her own in partnership with another excellent agent, and they take care of everything. I’m very fortunate (1) that my first agent dumped me and (2) that I found Jill.

When I signed the Bantam contract I sent my first agent a postcard (I did want everybody in the office to read it, I admit) with the gory details on how much money was coming in. I sent another postcard when Homestead won the PEN/Hemingway award. Yes, now that you ask, I do have a mean streak if you prod me hard enough. But in my defense you should also know that I admitted to her she was right: to this day I have never seen a man reading Homestead on the subway.

truth in advertising

last night I saw a commercial that made me mad, and so it’s stuck in my head. Is that a successful marketing ploy? Not in this case, because I’m not going to mention the company that produces this product. Which is, in a word: false hope.

Imagine a classroom filled with a crowd of twenty-something students. The professor, about fifty, in stereotypical Ivy-league tweed, careworn, is lecturing them on why most of them will never be published. Close up on disappointed, disbelieving faces as he tells them the reason: money. Publishers have to invest too much money and hence they are more likely to reject a new writer.

Now a young man jumps in with an interruption. That’s not true! He tells the class. It’s not a matter of money anymore! Not with on-demand publishing, no siree. One book at a time, if need be — no big storage problems for the publishers. It’s all digital these days, sez he. It’s all changed. The professor looks slightly dazed, and offers no counterargument.

Got snake oil? How about real estate in Florida? Haven’t found a publisher interested in that novel? You’ve invested two years of your life, now invest your money– publish it yourself.

There’s so much more to the business than the printing end of it: editing, book design, distribution, advertising, marketing, the review process, all of those awful details. Forking over a thousand bucks to have a hundred copies of your novel printed is akin to renting studio time to record your own sitcom premiere — unless you do your homework ahead of time and you’re willing to take on all those jobs the publisher would have done for you.

I’d like to say also, very clearly, that hundreds of books that deserve publication, really good novels, never make it and the authors of those novels have every right to be put out about it. A few of them will decide to self-publish, and if the fates are kind and their timing is good, they might have some success with it. Unfortunately, the odds are against them.

Now in the spirit of disclosure, I’ll point out that I actually wrote a blurb for a self-published book. I hate writing blurbs and almost never do it, but in this case, I made an exception. Because I liked the novel a lot and thought it deserved to be read. This is what I wrote in my blurb about David Karraker’s Running in Place (1stBooks Library; April 2003 ISBN: 1410716880):

“As a nation addicted to nostalgia, we like to think we remember and understand the sixties… Karraker…gives us a multilayered story set at the dawning of those times. It is the tale of a young married couple on a middle American college campus, told with a clear eye and beautiful but deceptively accessible prose…This is a compelling and deeply felt story, and one that deserves a wide readership.”

first pass page proofs

The typeset manuscript (or page proofs) for Fire Along the Sky arrived today. After all the hand wringing by various publishers about the length of this novel(the English editor being the loudest) it turns out to be exactly as long as Lake in the Clouds. About which nobody complained. So I’ve got 610 pages to proofread, and here are my instructions: “please read them carefully and return only those pages needing correction as soon as you can.”

This is a hurry up and wait business, no doubt about it.

The reason they feel it necessary to remind me to read them carefully is this: it does get old quite quickly, reading the same sentences again and again. Especially as I wrote them, and in the process, rewrote every single one of them someplace between three and ten times. That’s how I work, editing as I go along. However, the first pass page proofs aren’t so hard to concentrate on because everything looks very different once it’s typeset.

It’s from this set of proofs that the bound galleys will come. Don’t have a date on that yet, but I’ll advise when I do.

page proofing

I’m almost finished with the first pass on the page proofs for Fire Along the Sky. It reads pretty well, seems to me (she said cautiously). Things are coming together.

(1) Disaster Down-Under (2) Pajama Pyjama Girls

First, I want to say a word about the wildfire disaster in Australia. With more than 1,800 homes lost and as many as 200 people dead I went to see about how to make a donation — but without much luck. If anybody in Australia has information about this — is there an Australian RedCross, for example? Please post in the comments.

In the meantime, I had a question from Meredith:

So, here’s my stupid question of the day – has Pajama Girls been published in Australia yet? I’ve searched for it all over the place (both here and in Brisbane) and have met with blank looks and offers to order it from the States… I’m happy to order it from the US if I need to, but I do like to support the Australian industry where possible.

Pyjama Girls in Australia
Pyjama Girls in Australia

Not a stupid question. In fact, I should have posted about this long ago. The novel did come out in Australia and is still available, but it may be difficult to find for a couple reasons:

  • In the U.S. this novel came out under Rosina Lippi; in Australia you’ll find it under Sara Donati.
  • In the U.S. the title is The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square; in Australia the spelling is different:  The Pyjama Girls of Lambert Square.
  • It may be listed under The Pyjama Sisters of Lambert Square.

This is how number three came to pass:

Random House Australia was getting the book ready for publication. As a part of the process they sent me a mockup of the cover, which is very visually appealing but has little to do with the story. However, that wasn’t the real problem. Somehow, somewhere along the line, the title got changed to The Pyjama Sisters of Lambert Square. The mockup of the cover was the first I knew of that. I pointed it out to my agent, and she got in touch with Australia, pronto.  Unfortunately, by that time a lot of promotional material had already gone out.

They did their best to fix the problem but the confusion remains in many places. You’ll note that on this Australian bookstore page Pyjama Girls and Pyjama Sisters are both used.

The Random House Australia webpage for Pyjama Girls also has a long list of bookstores (brick-n-mortar and online) where the book is available.

So thanks to Meredith for raising the subject.

whining, whinging, survival

There’s a lot of back and forth in the blogosphere just now about the pros and cons of trying to write for a living. Not that this is a new topic of discussion; writers like to whine only slightly less than they like to appear stoic and above it all. I try for the second, and sometimes, in spite of my best intentions, end up in the first camp muttering to myself balefully.

At any rate, all this newest discussion has been sparked by an anonymous essay on Salon called The Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author (you don’t have to subscribe to read it; you can get a day pass by agreeing to deal with the advertisements; oh and, Robyn pointed it out to me first). The gist of this article is that the author has four books published which (1) won prizes and (2) got good critical reviews but (3) made little or no money and (4) got her no lasting recognition so that (5) she had to get (gasp) a day job.

My problem with her essay is this: she never addresses the crucial question: do these prize winning books of hers actually contain a good story? Because, as she notes so mournfully, other, less well written books are selling like hot-cakes; what she fails to realize is that there’s a simple reason for that. People want a story. They will put up with awful writing at the sentence or paragraph level as long as you give them a reason to turn the page.

Really, I hadn’t planned to write about this here but then I caught scalzi.com’s reaction to the Salon essay, which made me laugh and cringe at the same time with statements like this: “Of course the article is also running in Salon, which has a history of chronicling the ‘misfortunes’ of unfathomably privileged people who by all rights should be beaten in a public square for their heedless lack of clue.”

Scalzi had a longish entry earlier this week with advice for writers which I liked a lot. The highlights:

1. Yes, You’re a Great Writer. So What.
2. I Don’t Care If You’re a Better Writer Than Me.
3. There is Always Someone Less Talented Than You Making More Money As a Writer.
4. Your Opinion About Other Writers (And Their Writing) Means Nothing.
5. You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, You Know.
6. Until You’re Published, You’re Just in the Peanut Gallery.
7. Did I Mention Life’s Not Fair?
8. Don’t Be An Ass.
9. You Will Look Stupid If You’re Jealous.
10. Life is Long.

My favorite of these are numbers six and eight; go read them, I promise it’s worth the jump. But I take exception with number five. For whatever reason, Scalzi dislikes people writing on their laptops at Starbucks, but that doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t on the up and up. Of the million words I have in print, about a third of those were written at a Starbucks, before I had a place to write at home.

Scalzi’s main point — and it’s a good one — is that you can’t go into this business expecting to make a living from it alone. Many published novelists teach creative writing while they are pecking away at their next book. You have to take a day job as a given; if by some chance you get to the point where you can write full time, that will be the metaphorical icing on the cake. And it may not last. I have every expectation that some day I will have to go find an employer, and I’m prepared for that. In some ways, it will be a relief.

In the meantime, I’m not planning on divulging what kind of advances I get or how much I clear each year, because those numbers would have no substantive value to anybody else, at all.

along publishers row

The Authors Guild (the largest organized group of published authors in the U.S.) has a bulletin that comes out quarterly. Each issue contains a number of articles on publisher-author interactions and contracts, book sales, censorship, and other serious subjects. These are important and well written articles, but I’d bet most people turn immediately to the signature, recurring column called Along Publishers Row, written by Campbell Geeslin (who also writes children’s books). It’s a compilation of news about recent book deals, authors acting out, booksellers of note, and gossip. APR is about half the whole bulletin. We’re a gossipy bunch.

In this newest issue there are items like this: former presidential candidate George McGovern, 81, has opened a bookstore in Stevensville, Montana… what are book clubs reading these days? This roundup…Maurice Sendak is working on a book inspired by Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale…

This bit is also from the current bulletin:

The late Lewis Thomas was author of Etcetera, Etcetera: Notes of a Word-Watcher. He wrote:

“Any writer of prose should be compelled, by law if necessary, to submit professional credentials and undergo a waiting period of seven days before placing an exclamation point at the end of a sentence. Writers of poetry are automatically excluded from such use, almost by definition. There may be occasions when an exclamation point is excusable, perhaps even justified, in certain kinds of writing — public street signs, for example, like STOP! DANGER!, TERRIBLE DOG!, but not among the sentences of any ordinary paragraph.”


The really, really big news is that the miniseries is done and is scheduled to be aired on the SciFi Channel in the fall. The Henson Company (who owns all things Farscape) has made an announcement here and of course there’s a huge amount of discussion and excitement over at SaveFarscape, especially on the Frell Me Dead board where Brian Henson himself stopped by to make the announcement. This is part of the official statement from Henson:

“This special television event would not be a reality were it not for the tireless, unwavering efforts of the Farscape fans to bring the series back. Like all of us at The Jim Henson Company, they believed that the epic story we were telling was something special and deserved a proper ending. We are thrilled to respond to their dedication be creating this miniseries, thus resolving many of the unanswered questions from the final episode and giving fans their just due.”

Of course no good news is complete without a controversy, and here it is: SciFi, having cancelled the scheduled and contracted fifth season, is anathema to many of the Farscape Faithful, and now they’ve gone and bought rights to air the miniseries. In many ways it makes sense, from a marketing perspective; hopefully they will run all four seasons in prime time leading up to the mini, which will give us a chance to boost ratings and a shot at a real fifth season.

In any case, it’s very hard to imagine those four hours finished, sitting on a shelf someplace waiting to be watched. From the letters I get from my readers, I guess this is how many of them feel about knowing that book four is finished, but they just can’t have it yet.

Do you suppose Ben Browder and Fran Buller have neighbors and friends over to watch those four hours? Has Claudia Black shown it to her family? I’ll go do some work now so I can stop worrying about unknowable things.

readers vote with their feet

I have mentioned Teresa Nielsen Hayden before. She’s one of those very practical, down to earth writers who can really tell a story and talk about how to tell stories, and I like the way she does those things. So it’s no surprise that she has managed to articulate something that has escaped me for a while. You know how the lit-criterati get on my nerves with their whining about the decline of (what they like to call) serious reading? TNH looks at one such example of extended whining about the closing of an independent book store in Boston and comments thus:

It’s such a fine and mournful and elevated sentiment—Emmeline Grangerford herself couldn’t have done no better—that you almost don’t want to tell him that by our best calculations, using every scrap of reliable data we can lay hands on, at this very moment more people are reading more books, reading a greater variety of books, continuing to read them later in life, et cetera and so forth, than ever before in the history of civilization.

This was the piece I wasn’t articulating. People are reading, and reading a lot. So when the lit-criterati ask what’s happened to the relevance of the serious novel, and how can we restore it? what they want to know is, why their own books are under appreciated. The problem couldn’t be the book or the writer, of course; it must be the readers.


used books and your favorite authors

There’s another round of letters about the Jane Austen Doe article mentioned here a few days ago. The thing about an on-line magazine like Salon is that there’s no space limitation, so they can bung two or three dozen letters up rather than picking and choosing the best. Thus you’ll find a lot of repetition, and a great deal of self promotion, most particularly a few of the lit-criterati waving their hands wildly in the air like the over-achievers in English class, wanting to be called on. I plowed through a lot of the letters and found only a few that made any new contribution to the discussion, most particularly this paragraph from a letter written by Kay Murray [edited to add: I think this must be the Kay Murray who is General Counsel and Assistant Director of the Authors Guild Foundation.]

Readers who want to support midlist authors should buy new, not used, copies and donate their used copies to people who can’t afford books instead of selling them online. Alibris, the used and rare bookseller that is going public this year, has revealed that it earns some $30 million in commissions alone on used and rare book sales. Imagine how much Amazon, which markets used copies aggressively, cuts into publishers’ sales.

This is a topic that few take on because it’s pretty contentious, but it is relevant. Used books are a sore point for any published author. We all have stories about this. My favorite happened to an acquaintance who was invited to speak to a bookclub here in town about her latest novel. This is something I’m happy to do locally, too — as are many authors — you spend an evening talking to friends of friends and answering questions about the book, your writing habits, your inspiriation. At any rate, she goes along one evening to a bookclub of about twenty people, and is told, right up front, that some of them had read the book as much as a year ago because (I’m still astounded even as I write this) — they had bought one copy and were passing it around. The novel cost $24, which means they each put in a whopping $1.20, and then on top of that, they ask the author to come by for nothing and entertain them. She was furious, and I was furious for her, when I heard the story. It’s rude, and insulting, and shows such a tremendous lack of respect that it’s going to be hard for me not to ask, the next time I’m invited to such a bookclub, what their buying habits are.

It’s a different matter completely when you’re talking about readers who can’t afford a book, but then that’s what the public library system is for. I am not upset when somebody tells me they got my novel out of their local library before deciding whether or not to buy it; that makes sense, certainly. On the other hand, if somebody tells me with great glee that they got all of my softcover books off of ebay for a total of twelve bucks plus shipping, I start to run numbers through my head. How much of a profit is the used bookseller making on my novels? Is s/he actually pocketing more from the re-sale of those three books than I did when they were first sold? Sometimes the answer is yes. And this is, to put it simply, frustrating. No wonder it’s hard to make a living at writing.

What to do about it? Nothing. We live in a free market, and some things can’t be legislated, but sometimes I wish people would think a little about what it means when they buy used books. Most especially I think about a used bookseller I once saw interviewed on television who said, very proudly, that his goal was to resell every book so many times that he put publishers out of business. Is this the height of stupidity, or greed, or some wondrous combination of the two?

I try to follow a few simple rules that make me comfortable in my own purchases. (1) I never buy an ARC before a book is published; (2) I never buy a used book unless that book is out of print; (3) I try to buy all my books from independent booksellers;* (4) I buy hardcover copies of books by authors who I admire and who are struggling to make a name for themselves — I think of this as a professional courtesy; (5) I donate books that are still in print and I can’t use any more to schools and non-profits who don’t resell them. I do use Alibris and Abebooks quite a lot, but only for stuff so old and musty it’s not available anywhere else. That’s what the online used booksellers excel at, and that’s what I use them for: finding esoteric books on particular research topics, old newspapers, and oddities.

There was one other letter to Salon’s editors that really got my attention, and not in a good way. It made me so spitting mad that I had to go walk the dogs to cool down. More about that, maybe, another time.

*updated August 31, 2007 to say that my stance on this has changed. See this post.

In which I am conflicted about weblog advertising

If you read this weblog regularly you know that I often post about how the industry is changing, and the additional burdens being placed on authors. Publishers have adopted a sink or swim approach: instead of publishing 100 novels and backing up each of them with real marketing and advertising, they publish 1,000 novels, provide little support for any of them, and watch to see what will sink and what will swim.

This is not so much a complaint as it is an observation. That is, I know that talking about this is not going to change anything. In fact, my guess would be that things are going to get worse. The whole industry is evolving and will continue to evolve in response to new technologies and the increasing cost of traditional book printing. How that will shake out in the end is anybody’s guess, and authors have no influence on the outcome.

The simple reality is that any midlist author has to take at least some responsibility for marketing, and in many cases, the whole burden falls on the author. This means hiring a publicist, or trying to handle things on your own. Buying advertising space in magazines, for example (very expensive and not very effective); arranging readings; providing online resources for readers. Forums, reading guides, excerpts, etc etc.

And then there is weblog advertising.

It seems a fairly straightforward thing: You can make money by putting ads for other people’s stuff onto your weblog or website, or you can spend money by placing ads for your stuff on other weblogs and websites. Google’s Adsense is probably the biggest and most organized approach to hosting ads to earn money, and Google AdWords is the opposite side of that coin: you go there to buy space on weblogs and websites to advertise what it is you are selling. Another example:

Blogads are ads that appear in blogs and other independent web sites. Each “strip” of Blogads is managed by an independent publisher who sets prices and decides which ads appear.

It seems straightforward, but it isn’t, simply because this is an industry in its infancy and things are volatile. And there is, of course, the issue of ethics. What does it mean to sell advertising space on a weblog? Are you responsible to your advertisers in any way? Does accepting money for ads compromise the content of the weblog in some way?

This is the question that bothers me and still, I do sometimes spend money to place ads on other websites. I don’t do this often, because I’m not convinced that it’s a good use of marketing dollars and also, because marketing dollars are precious. Most of my budget goes into giving away books — I spent close to $700 last year doing just that last year — which seems to me a pretty good way of getting the word out there and keeping readers interested. Certainly $700 in books goes a lot farther than $700 in ads.

If I buy advertising space on other weblogs, then I must be okay with the idea in general, right?

Not exactly. This is why I’m conflicted. I understand that people put time and effort into weblogs and would like some return, but I also am bothered by the way the whole process works. There are author weblogs and review weblogs that accept advertising (Making Light, Bookslut, Filthy Habits, Smart Bitches, and Beatrice are some examples.) Of these, I have
advertised twice, briefly, on Smart Bitches, who have reasonable rates. This seems to me a good place to invest my marketing dollars, because their readership is very, very large and pretty well targeted for my novels. Do they owe me any consideration, given the fact that I advertise with them? Absolutely not. Will other people see it that way? That’s the question.

The Smart Bitches make decisions about advertising based on the needs of their weblog, which is common sense and good business practice. They run ads primarily for new novels, but also for services such as book-rental companies. This strikes me as a conflict, for the simple reason that I’m not nuts about the idea of the ad for my book running next to an ad for a company that exists to take business away from libraries, and royalties away from me. But it’s my choice, in the end: I don’t have to spend the money to place an ad there. I could give away a couple pile o’ books, instead.

I don’t have ads on this weblog, because (1) it’s another layer of complication I don’t need; (2) I’d worry about conflict of interest; (3) it seems tacky. I wish I could come up with another word, but that’s the only one that fits. Unless a person’s sole income is derived from blogging or running a website, I am uneasy. If I go to an author’s website and find a lot of ads, my attention is not on the content of the website, but on the ads, and not in a way the advertiser would hope for. I wonder about connections that probably aren’t there — but I do wonder, and thus I’m not getting what the author was hoping I’d get from the weblog.

Do you notice ads on weblogs? How do you react when you do notice them? Do you have any reservations about ads? And, do you ever buy a book or a service based on such ads? I’m really curious about this, and would like to know what you think.

Blame Amazon. Please.

I emailed my editor about the Amazon situation (in which they give 29 December 09 as the release date for The Endless Forest), and got this reply… but before you read it, I ask you NOT to shoot the messenger.

But as it turns out, [at Amazon] they don’t know everything. In the usual shift of getting the best position on our list, THE ENDLESS FOREST has moved a month later to an on sale date of 1/26 and a pub month of February. Amazon will have the new date within a couple of weeks when they update their feed from our system.

I’m not happy, either.

point of view slippage

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything on craft, but over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about POV.

In every discipline there are some concepts which are particularly hard for students to absorb. In linguistics there’s the concept of the phoneme, or, on the syntactic level, the passive. I run into really intelligent people who are confused and frightened by the passive. On a few occasions I have used a napkin in a restaurant to do my little passive spiel, and almost always it’s like coaxing somebody out on a high wire with no net. Once that’s been managed, I sometimes trot out my second party trick, which requires another napkin: the great vowel shift, or the house/husband goose/gosling puzzle.

Back to POV. In introductory creative writing classes it’s often simply explained with who’s the camera? — which character’s head are we in (assuming third person limited POV), through whose consciousness is this scene being filtered?

Lately I’ve been noticing a lot of sloppy POV work. A scene opens with the POV character coming into a house where he’s never been before, meeting a person he wants to like. The details of what we as readers see can’t go beyond what that character sees and perceives. Which depends, in turn, on the character’s powers of observation, what’s on his mind, his background, and whether he got enough sleep last night.

There’s a famous writing exercise by John Gardner that goes something like this: character walking down a hill in a small city towards a bay. The weather is bright and warm. Describe the town and street from this character’s POV…

1. a woman who has just got a promotion she worked hard for
2. a teenager whose brother was just arrested for drug dealing
3. a man who has been spiraling deeper and deeper into depression
4. a five year old child on his or her way to the library with a parent

Each of these people will experience the street and the town differently. Of these four, only one is likely to notice, for example, that the crocus are coming up on the lawn outside the post office.

In the last couple days I’ve read passages in published novels where tough guys have observed things so counter to the characterization that I was pulled out of the story. Of course, a big bad detective could take note of the fact that the dead woman is wearing lilac pedalpushers, but then at some point you have to show me that he grew up doing his homework at the back of his mother’s dress shop, and has a quiet interest in watercolor. Otherwise it’s clear that the female author is observing and pushing her big bad male character to do the same. That’s classic author intrusion.

At different times, different POV approaches are fashionable among writers. First person narratives really had a strange hold on novels for a while there, but I think (I hope) that’s relaxing a little. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, which won a lot of literary prizes and was widely read, is written in omniscient. I can’t remember the last contemporary novel I’ve read in omniscient POV. I was quite shocked, and then I settled down into the story and I admired the chance she took (which paid off).

Really, all you have to do is this: decide what approach you’re going to take, and stick to it. And hope for an editor who reads closely enough to catch this kind of slip.

Amazon author pages & Piper protests

So Amazon has started this new thing called, simply enough, an author’s blog. Here’s the link to mine. The idea is to write a little something for the readers who have purchased one of that author’s books in the past. If you have ordered something of mine from them, you should see my first post over there when you go to the main page. I don’t intend to post there very often, but when something big happens I’ll put up a few sentences.

Now here’s the thing. If you’re not interested in this newest author-post marketing doodad, you can turn it off. You can control which author posts you get and if you get any at all.

My first post has been up for only two days and one nice thing is that it has directed some readers to this weblog who didn’t know about it before. Of course, there’s always room for the less enthusiastic readers to voice their opinions. Ms. Piper, for example, who took the opportunity to be the first to leave a comment. A Piper protest. A declaration of negative Pintent. Never, never again shall she read any of my work. And why? Because there was a discussion of a review here. She took exception to the review, and to the discussion of the review, and specifically to me.

Listen, people. I hope you like my stories and look forward to the next one. I hope you recommend them to friends who you think might like them, too. But if you find yourself publically admonishing another author because that person encouraged discussion? Step back, please. Reconsider.

UPDATE: Amazon deleted Ms. Piper’s proclamation of protest, and I deleted my response to it.

Italians behaving really, really badly. Again.

First, Sarah Weinman has a good summary of this whole sorry story, which you might want to read first so you don’t get confused. I’ll wait while you go do that.

So there you go. It’s not enough that women are getting napolied by an Italian American Republican in South Dakota. Or that Antonin Scalia napolied the whole country after the 2000 election. In case there’s any doubt about how bad we Italians can be, the Perugian officials involved in the (long and unsuccessful) hunt for the serial killer Il mostro di Firenze just couldn’t resist the temptation. They had to arrest and interrogate Douglas Preston. An American journalist. Somebody with lots of friends in the media. So you know, not only were they behaving badly, they were being really stupid. They thought they could intimidate him. They thought they could act big and mean and shake their fingers in his face and that he’d come back to the States cowed, and keep the whole thing to himself.

Dumb. Very dumb.

At least Preston got away; Mario Spezi is still there, and in real peril.

When Italians behave really badly, nobody is safe, not even (or especially not) other Italians. Preston could come home; Spezi is already home, and he’s stuck.

something useful, something useful and funny, and general moaning

First, I know I have nothing to complain about, but I hope you’ll forgive me a little whine. I cannot imagine how the people who were displaced by Katrina — many of whom still can’t go home — have coped. I sit here in a nice motel room, I’ll be going back to my own house tomorrow, and I’m completely discombobulated. Which brings me to a website that Charlotte brought to my attention:

The Little Rock Friends Meeting (Quakers, in other words) is busy building bunkbeds for those who are trying to get reestablished after the hurricane. You can contribute by sponsoring a whole bunkbed with bedding, or some smaller part of a whole. Or you can send linens, blankets, pillows. Any way you do it, this is the kind of practical help that people really need.

edited to add this note from Charlotte:

Thanks for mentioning the project! Here’s a little more info from the Friends’ mailing list…Why bunk beds? They provide a semi-private space for a kid (even one who is sharing a room with several other people). Remember from your childhood the reassuring feeling of retreating to your own little “fort”? That’s what we want the kids to have. Beds are also designed to be easily taken apart and reassembled if the family has to relocate again.

If you feel moved to donate, any amount is welcome, and receipts for taxes are available from the Meeting. A complete bed with bedding costs $200. Volunteers are also needed, singly or in groups, to come help build beds. For info about volunteering, contact Marianne Lockard: MariQuaker AT Arkansas.net

Another way to participate: have your kids send drawings, messages, or books to put in each child’s pillowcase.

Onto something else that has nothing to do with writing fiction or my books. I saw a television commercial last night that made me laugh out loud with glee. The American Council on Education has launched an ad compaign (print and television) to remind people that higher education has a practical and highly necessary output. There’s an article about the ad agency who has donated the time to put the campaign together.

Also, here’s the website of Solutions for our Future, a consortium of institutions who got together to launch this whole project.

The dialog for the screen cap (you can find videos of all the commercials to download here):

“Still broken. Take six more pints.”

And the voice over: “Less support for higher education means fewer medical breakthroughs. Open-heart surgery and other advancements came from colleges and universities.”

The next time somebody tells me they won’t support taxes for education because they have no kids or their kids are out of school, I’ll have something to show them.

doom and gloom from the WSJ, and just the opposite from fuse#8

Every now and then the media decides that the novel is on the decline and they might as well hold a funeral right now. The Wall Street Journal is doing that today with an article on how memoirs are in, and novels are out.

Of course there’s no hard data. It’s all spicy little anecdotes. I am amazed, really, at the degree to which some journalists buy into their own sense of power. The WSJ declares the novel dead, and so it must be. Put down that copy of Pride and Prejudice (not you, Beth. you keep reading) and pick up a memoir. Forget that Byatt has a new novel out, you want to read James Frey’s memoirs… oh. Those memoirs turned out to be fiction, didn’t they.

I’m never following a link to the WSJ again. I’d much rather read weblogs written by librarians. For example, fuse#8, who has the best job of any librarian I’ve ever come across. She works in the Donnell Central Children’s Room in Manhattan. And who is there working with her? Winnie the Pooh. The original. The real. She has a lot of interesting news about children’s books, and she writes wonderful, thoughtful reviews.

how the money works in publishing: the real skinny

Anna Louise at LiveJournal provides hard facts. The tag on this post is “demystifying publishing” and indeed, it is a very very detailed and for many probably very sobering account of how advances are calculated and where all the money goes.

My take on all this: I don wanna. I won’t even read my royalty statements. I call up my agent and ask for a three sentence summary/bottom line, and then I let all that go. In my case, too much exposure to Numbers results in a shut down in the writing process.

sloppy sloppy sloppy

[asa book]0316059889[/asa] Every once in a while plagarism raises its head outside of the classroom. This time the accused is a young woman whose a Harvard undergrad, whose first novel (How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life) apparently borrows pretty directly from Sloppy Firsts, a novel that came out a year or so ago.

[asa book]0609807900[/asa] The sad details, if you care to look, are here, along with a comparison of the contested passages.

I see the similarities, and because there are quite a few of them, my guess would be that the courts are likely to decide in McCafferty’s favor. Which would mean considerable difficulties for Viswanathan, beyond legal and financial ones. Will she write another novel? Will she get it published?

What bothers me is how it all came to happen. This is obviously a bright kid, but then she was seventeen when she signed her first book contract. Seventeen. Seventeen is Mars. Seventeen is a universe all its own, no matter how smart you might be. And how does a seventeen year old working to get into Harvard even think about selling a novel? Where is the motivation? WHO is the motivation?

What I find really interesting about this is not so much the plagarism, but Viswanathan’s backstory.

deadline crunchiness

The first pass proofs for Queen of Swords is due back to the publisher tomorrow. And, I’m not done. Really not done.

So excuse me while I get myself moving. I’ll be back. Oh and: the first copy of Tied to the Tracks arrived on my doorstep yesterday.

oh, the pressure

I’ve got an urge to hide in the back of my closet with a big bar of chocolate. And why, you’re wondering. Or maybe not, but I’ll tell you anyway.

It’s not the deadline for getting the first pass proofs of QoS back to the publisher; it’s not the deadline for finishing Pajama Jones. Or at least, these things produce the normal day to day pressure that I can (usually) cope with.

The source of my wanting to hide in the closet has to do with the fact that Tied to the Tracks is about to come out. This is always the worst time. Waiting for reviews is never fun. And today the publicist emailed me with news about what she was up to (all good stuff, yes) to ask that I keep her in the loop about whatever publicity/marketing stuff I was doing for Tied to the Tracks.

Now, see. Beyond posting here once in a while, I’m not really doing anything to promote Tied to the Tracks because well, I’m busy with the next book. And then today Fuse#8 posts about a small press book that has hit number one on Amazon before it even came out because of the efforts undertaken by its blogging author. Now I feel like a slacker.

And on top of that, over at the Smart Bitches there’s a discussion about ARCs being sold (on ebay and elsewhere), about unscrupulous reviewers making a buck off ARCs, and how authors feel about that. A rather sharp discussion has broken out in the comments. Some readers are disgusted with us authors. Authors have no right to be angry about the ARC issue; we are all whiny babies, some of those commenters tell us, and we should get over ourselves.

A thought comes to me. A crazy but perhaps ingenious idea. A cyber fistfight, a hair-pulling screaming cursing girl rumble between me and an angry Smart Bitch commenter. Now, that’s what I call publicity. It’ll get picked up on the news services, and people will click there way here to watch the bloodshed. What’s this all about? they’ll ask, and somebody will tell them: this new book, see. Tied to the Tracks, it’s called. And there’s something called an arc. I heard a guy say it’s some kinda sequel to that Raiders movie, Harrison Ford’s gonna play the lead. You wanna buy a copy, you’d best get moving, bub. I hear they’re all sold out at Amazon and Barnes and Noble too. Look at the way those two are going at it. I ain’t seen a spectacle like this in years, I tell ya. Years. Must be some book.


I think I’ve written about this before, but as there are some questions popping up, I’ll repeat myself:

No booktours for moi.

Why? Let me count the reasons. First and foremost, I’m not a big enough name. It’s hugely expensive to send an author on a booktour, and publishers only do it for the heavy hitters. Those who regularly hit the best seller lists, for example, and the literary icons.

Now, most authors will tell you that booktours are hell and hey, they’d rather stay home. I’m one of those authors. When I have done booktours, I am in a high state of agita, I don’t sleep well, I get no writing done, and I’m homesick. And on top of all that, readings aren’t all that well attended. At least, mine aren’t. The smallest audience I’ve had is three people, and the largest (not counting the PEN/Hemingway award) was maybe seventy-five.

What I have just written is absolutely true, but it’s not the whole truth.

I don’t want to go on booktour, but it would be fun to be asked. I can’t pretend it wouldn’t be nice to have the publisher call and say, hey, can you spare two months? We’ve got twenty cities lined up and oh then, Europe…

Of course that would be really flattering. But I wouldn’t go. Not with a teenager and a house full of pets. Not reason enough? Well, for me it is. As a twenty year old I could travel nonstop, sleep on train station benches, wander for days. Now I don’t like traveling. I think I may be developing a touch of agoraphobia, but whenever I’m away from home I have trouble relaxing and enjoying myself.

I like my place in the world. I’d rather be right here.


I forget sometimes that people new to the weblog might be confused by abbreviations. Jody asked about the word ARC. If you know all about this, you can skip the next bit.

ARC stands for Advance Reading Copy. Basically the publisher takes the first pass proofs of the novel — that is, the uncorrected proofs — and binds them into large format soft covers. They don’t print a lot of ARCs, and there is always fierce competition for them. The lion’s share goes out to the reviewers and booksellers in the hope that they’ll fall madly in love and publicize the book and/or write good things about it; authors and their agents get a couple copies. It’s really pitiful to see, but I have to admit I have begged and groveled to get more ARCs than they want to send me. And I have to fight my agent for them too. She actually needs them to send out when she’s making a pitch for an overseas sale, so she’s got a good reason.

So why do I want ARCs? Because I have people chomping at the bit. People who helped with research or gave me feedback, who want to see the damn thing. And I have readers like you all. I like giving away ARCs — as long as some ground rules can be established. Which I’ll talk about next week when I give the first Queen of Swords ARC away. Probably on Monday.

Bruha Barbara

In case you haven’t been following this story, there’s a literary agent of low repute. Her name is Barbara Bauer. Because of her business practicees, she showed up on the 20 Worst Agents list. You can also read about her and others like her at Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors. Other links on this topic (as suggested by Making Light): Everything you wanted to know about literary agents and On the getting of agents.

Bruha Barbara went on the offensive after her name showed up on that list. She has tried to get people fired. She has threatened legal action. She pulled strings with an internet provider and had Absolute Write (a long standing resource for writers with a very large following) shut down. In general, she’s done everything in her power to draw attention to the fact that she’s on the list of 20 Worst Agents .
As a result, many people have read the carefully constructed case against her than would have, if she had sat quietly in the corner.

I don’t think much of an internet provider who would boot a long standing website — of good repute — on the basis of a complaint from one person with questionable motives. It all smacks of censorship, and that I really don’t like. So take note of the 20 Worst Agents list, and be informed when you go out looking for representation.

read read read

M.J. Rose may well be the most connected writerly person ever. Or at least just now, in cyberspace. She’s an author but she also writes about publishing and the challenges facing authors.

She’s got a post up that serves as a call to arms. The message: the publishing business will continue to decline unless people start not just to read more, but also to invest in buying books.

Using stats published by R.R. Bowker. Lulu.com worked out that if we keep publishing at the rate we are publishing now, in 2052 148.4 million books will be published — but only 129.4 million Americans will actually read a book.

Do the math. This means 19 million new books will not find a reader.

Even if this is an exaggeration, those of us in the industry know that the challenge we all face is how to keep people reading and how to get more people reading. With the internet, cell phones, iPods and other listening devices, laptops, cable television, netflix etc there is no lack of competition for the book.

She’s got some suggestions for ways to encourage reading. For example, if you’re off to dinner at a friend’s house, bring a book instead of a bottle of wine. I’m thinking there are lots of occasions where books could be substituted for traditional gifts, but not everybody may appreciate the gesture. A book for mother’s day would suit me fine, but many might not feel that way.

So the problem is more than just getting books into people’s hands. It’s getting people interested in reading the books once they’ve got them. Getting them into the reading habit. And that’s harder to do.

M.J. is launching a recurring feature. She’s asked popular authors for a list of books to read this summer. The first one up is Lee Child (whose books I often write about here). I’m curious to see who else she’s got lined up.

and while we're on the subject of books

TtttpubbannerYou realize that Tied to the Tracks is about to come out, right? You might not realize — because I just found out myself — that the publication date has been moved up to June 8. Three days from now.

Now, of course I hope you go out and get a copy but what I was brought up to say is something like this:

Of course it may not be your kind of book, and please don’t worry about it if you don’t have time/energy/interest/money/inclination or you’re too busy/too depressed/not interested/caught under a large piece of furniture without hope of escape. Because of course books are expensive and you probably have more important/interesting/rewarding things to do with your money. So really, I insist that you don’t bother. Send your money to the charity of your choice, I’ll feel so much better about that.

That’s what I should say, according to the good sisters of St. Francis who were my teachers at St. Benedict. Self promotion was as horrifying as self abuse in that setting. Modesty and humility, those were the things that mattered.

Case in point. I am sitting, right now, at Starbucks getting up the energy to open the PJ manuscript. I sit at a corner table so nobody can come up behind me and read what I’m writing. It’s right next to the pickup spot on the counter. Two women just came over to ask me about my computer. This happens once in a while; mac people are drawn together by a mysterious magnetic-y force. So they come over, admire the computer, remark on the new intel based macs, and then they ask me what I do.

Here’s my standard answer, which I gave them: “I’m a writer.”

Sometimes people ask what I write. I prefer that they don’t, but I answer if they do ask. This time they didn’t ask, but because I’m sitting here writing about the challenges of a new book coming out, I was infected — infected, I use the word purposefully — with the need to be proactive. So I said: As a matter of fact, I have a new novel coming out this week. On Thursday.

Oh? came the answer. With a slightly glazed look. The oh no look. The more information than I wanted look. The how quickly can I walk away look. But having jumped in, I wasn’t going to drown. I said: A novel. called Tied to the Tracks. On Thursday!

Then they went away, leaving me here to feel embarrassed, but also with the odd and almost irresistable urge to stand up and talk to the whole room. In my old teacher voice.

Hey! If you come in here regularly and often see me sitting right here typing, you might be interested to know — well okay, you might not but I’m telling you anyway. What I was writing was this novel (holding up example I don’t have with me) about half of which I wrote write here. It’s a darn good novel. BookList says so. So on Thursday, why not wander by the bookstore and have a look? Why not INVEST in my writing career? You’ll get a good story and my thanks.

You know what? I bet that would cost me sales. I bet people who might otherwise have picked up Tied to the Tracks will decide, when they do happen to see it in a store, not to. Because of the weird, self promoting, loud mouthed author.

You see my dilemma. The damnedifIdodamnedifIdon’t nature of the beast.

However. If you are reading these words you came on your own power, and so to YOU I can say: (repeat refrain).

Village Books
If you have time, of course. And interest. You would find it — if you’re so inclined, really, no obligation, at Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, at your local independent bookseller by means of Booksense, or you could order a copy from Village Books, my local independent. You can even request first edition signed and/or inscribed copy — I stop by there to take care of such things — and then they ship it off to you. Give ’em a call (360 671-2626). If you are so inclined.

Fiona, down undah

Fiona is my Australian editor for the Wilderness books and also for Tied to the Tracks.

Some time ago somebody asked (and I don’t think I ever answered) why TTTT is coming out under the Sara Donati in Aus/NZ, and Rosina Lippi on the flip side. It’s simple. Sara Donati is a best selling author in that market. I’m not sure why, but the Kiwis and Aussies really, really love the Wilderness series. Of course Australia is also the place that nurtured and housed Farscape, so I’m not surprised at their communal good taste (she said modestly), but I’ve never been quite clear on it, either.

Rosina Lippi — that name isn’t familiar to the Sara Donati readers down undah, thus the name switch.

And now back to Fiona, the fabulous. An email from her today:

(we need to to make doubly sure our author knows the book will now be released here in August, not July(as a result of us rethinking the cover, but was obviously worth it) so she can holler about that on her website as we’re doing the same.

This is me hollering: Did y’all get that? TTTT in August for you. Fiona also tells me that their marketing people do not like the US cover for Queen of Swords and she has to come up with something else. She didn’t know what they don’t like about it, but they were adamant. Which makes me sad. Finally a cover I really love and it’s being rejected. Now I have to think up some alternate ideas to suggest. And you know what? I don’t have any idea.


If memory serves, that was the title of a movie about people whose heads exploded…. yes indeed, according to google. Exploding heads. Maybe that’s why the name BookScan makes me laugh. Pam sent me this link to “Book Clubbed” an article by Daniel Gross on a company which keeps track of book sales. And so what, you ask. We are nation of people who love statistics. We invented baseball, after all. What’s the big deal about sales figures for books? It’s simple: there aren’t any. It’s almost impossible to get reliable sales figures on books because the industry is very secretive about that end of things. The article explores this topic in some depth, by means of BookScan:

BookScan, a Nielsen service started in January 2001, tallies retail sales from chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders, from Amazon.com, and from stores like Costco (but not Wal-Mart). James King, vice president for sales and service at BookScan, suggests that the database captures about 70 percent of sales for a typical hardcover book. As such, BookScan has emerged as a powerful tool for the editors and agents whose employers pay several thousand dollars a year to subscribe.

And before you ask: I don’t have access to BookScan. Which is good, because I can think of no better way to feed the howling dogs of anxiety. You think I’m overstating, but Gross agrees:

… in the hands of journalists and polemicists, BookScan data has becomes a blunt instrument to humiliate, minimize accomplishments, and express joy at the misfortune of other writers.[…] Edward Wyatt of the New York Times has been a connoisseur of disappointing BookScan figures. Last December, he gleefully noted that Martha Stewart’s The Martha Rules, which had garnered a $2 million advance, sold a not-very-good 37,000 copies, and he cited even smaller figures for Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (“just 26,000 copies”) and Myla Goldberg’s Wickett’s Remedy (“only 9,000”). In November 2004, he cited BookScan figures to show that the finalists for the fiction category of the National Book Award were a bunch of poorly selling obscurities.

Here’s my dilemma. I have to admit that if I did have access to BookScan, I would find it next to impossible to resist looking for other people’s bad news. Oh, I am awful. But I am not alone. From one of my favorite poems “The book of my enemy has been remaindered” by Clive James:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys
The sinker, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of moveable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

You can read the whole poem here. Have mercy on us writerly types, for we are deeply flawed, but we tell a good story.


Four days from now — on the 25th — I’ll be pulling the name of the person who will get the last available Queen of Swords advance reading copy.

There’s still time if you’d like to be in the drawing. What you have to do:

1. Go on over to the forum (link is just below the banner at the top of the page);

2. Sign up;

3. Find a discussion that interests you and post something. Or start a new discussion thread. Every time you post you’ll be entered into the drawing, so the more posts, the better your chances.

good luck

the shortest ever explanation of how an author makes money

I’m writing this post because I’m in real danger of falling asleep (at 9:30 in the morning) and missing Bunny’s vet appointment. So if I’m a little disjointed, that’s why.

Lauren’s question:

I’ve got a question about book purchasing. I buy from everywhere (Amazon, B&N, Borders, B.Daltons, Target, Costco, used bookstores, paperbackbookswap.com, library sales, ect, ect) but I never really gave thought to the author, I truly beleived that the publisher paid up front for the book, x amount of dollars, and then they paid to print, distribute, & advertise and the author didn’t get paid residuals for each book sold. Was I incorrect in this? I know you went over this before, but I couldn’t find it. I’ld love to know your take on this, in your opinion, wheres the best place to purchase?

I can only tell you about my own experiences, but I think they are pretty typical. Also, I can’t tell you where to shop. Or at least, I don’t think it would be right of me to try to tell you where to shop. Opinions? Sure. I’ll share some of them.

So this is how it works.

My agent goes to a potential publisher with (a) a finished manuscript or (b) a partial manuscript or (c) an outline and story idea. She does this by approaching the editor in the house who she believes is most likely to respond to the book and fight for it.

If she’s right, and the editor likes the book enough and finds it marketable enough, the editor goes to the editorial board and pitches the book. I don’t have much insight into this part of the process, but I do know what comes out the other end: an offer, or nothing.

If the publisher wants the book they sit down and crunch numbers. Given the market, the author’s Q factor, current production and distribution costs, how many copies of this book could they realistically sell? They come up with a number. On the basis of that number (10K or 50K or whatever number of book sales projected) they put together an offer and present it to the agent.

The agent looks at the numbers, talks to the author. they make a decision.

The deal will look something like this:

on signing of the contract, the author will get an advance. That advance is based on projected sales. It can be anywhere from $500 to millions (if you’re a consistent number one NYT author). But the advance is just that: an advance on royalties.

The contract stipulates how much money you get for each book sold. Usually the arrangements are pretty complicated, depending on format, and often there’s a sliding scale. The more books sold, the bigger the author’s percentage. So when a book sells for a cover price of $25, where does that money go? About 12% of that $25 goes to the author (and 15% of the author’s 12% goes to the agent). The rest of the money is the publisher’s to spend on editing, book design, printing, marketing, promotion — which a profit margin tucked in there too. Of course. This is a business.

The publisher makes deals with chain stories. Order xxxx copies of Book X and we’ll lower the cost to you. This is how Amazon can offer 30% off the cover price of a brand new book, because they’re buying bulk and they get a discount.

The author only gets money from the first sale of the book. The first time it’s purchased at the full cover price, or at a discount, the author gets her 12% of the stated cover price of $25. This is why small bookstores complain about the chains: the chains can negotiate lower rates, and thus lower the cost of the book to the consumer. It’s hard to pass up thirty percent off.

If a book is read and sold again as a used book, there’s nothing in those subsequent sales for the author. In fact, the author won’t get any more money at all until and less the advance “pays out”. That means, if you took home an advance of $20,000, enough books have to sell so that the royalties that accrue to you meet that $20,000 mark. If the book flops and it doesn’t sell at all, that’s still your money — the publisher takes the loss. However, you’re unlikely to get another contract with that publisher. So you live off your advance in the hope that the book will move beyond the projected sales. If not, you have to produce another book, or go work as a bank teller. Something thrilling, and far more regular and easier than writing.

I know I’ve left questions unanswered I’m too sleepy to have possibly done everything that needed doing. So speak up if you’ve got more questions on this.

bow down before the beta reader

A beta reader is somebody who volunteers to read work at an early stage, when the ride is going to be rocky. Like those daredevil types who test new airplanes, a beta reader survives on curiosity and faith.

Some people have the interest and generosity of heart to be beta readers, but are otherwise not experienced enough to be of much help. And a beta reader has to have some knowledge of your genre to be really helpful.

If you’re writing a book about a place and/or time that is not within the sphere of your personal experience, a beta reader who is familiar with those things is really necessary. You may manage with a huge amount of research, but you will miss things that a good beta reader will pick up. Even if you’ve already sold the novel you’re working on and have a great editor at your publishing house, it’s unlikely that your editor will know enough about (say) New Orleans in 1814 or the things Baptist church ladies in the Deep South are most likely to argue about.

Writing a second book set in the Deep South, I am a little more comfortable than I was last time — in some ways. But then again, Tied to the Tracks was centered around a small liberal arts college, and that is an environment I know very well. In some ways Pajama Jones is much more of a stretch. So beta readers? Absolutely necessary.

My Pajama Jones beta readers are friends, a married couple who live in the south. Between the two of them they can identify pretty much every misstep, but better still: they send me links to local newspaper stories and classified ads that provide excellent and genuine detail. And they don’t laugh at my Yankee mistakes. They are firm, but kind. No, I may not have these men playing touch football. Absolutely not, not in that town at that time. No, that is not how you address a preacher from that church. And so on.

Thus I am very aware of the debt I owe to my beta readers. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

a deceptively simple question

In the forum Dianne asked a question that at first had me flummoxed. She asked: what is the process of writing a novel?

The first thing that went through my mind was that the question couldn’t be answered. It’s a little bit like asking how do you build a house?. I don’t know much about building, but I would answer this question if I had to: You do the research and make a plan. You get the materials together. You start work. You keep at it. When you’re done, you wait to see if it is actually livable, and if somebody might want to live in it.

If you ask a builder this question, you’re likely to get a reaction much like my response to Dianne’s question: too big. Can’t answer it.

The comparison (writing a novel : building a house) is valid in some ways and not in others. In both cases, something is created that wasn’t there before, but then this is also true of tuna on rye, or planting a garden. A novel or a building are meant to have some permanence, of course. They may last a long time or fall into ruin quite quickly. You can work from somebody else’s plan to build a house; you can take a standard plot and tell a story. In this case, the quality of the final product will have to do with attention to detail and workmanship. You can play with form and confound expectation by telling a story in some way that’s rarely done; you can build a house that looks like an inverted pyramid (or at least, you can try).

The big difference is that to build a house you most probably need the help of other people. Even if you’re capable of building a cabin by yourself, you will probably depend on various utilitiy companies to make the place warm and light, to bring in water and take out waste.

A novel is the creation of an individual, built on a lifetime of experience and stories heard in multiple contexts. You can’t farm parts or aspects out to contractors.

Because a novel isn’t a physical thing, the restrictions on how you go about it are few. You don’t have to take the laws of physics into consideration. And this is why it’s really impossible to describe the process of writing a novel. I can describe my process, but I know for a fact that everybody approaches this task in their own way.

Some people plan extensively. They use spreadsheets to break down storylines into chapters and scenes. At the other extreme, some people start with a character and a line of dialog.

I don’t have a standard way of coming to a story. I like the process of reimagining an older story, as I did for Cooper’s The Pioneers, but I also like starting from scratch, as I have done three times (Homestead, Tied to the Tracks, Pajama Jones).

The one constant I do have is this: I draw diagrams and sketch and jot down notes. Characters, and how they relate to each other, houses they live in, lists of the things a particular character has in his or her glovebox, the trees they see every day. My own process is very visual and I need the mind-eye-hand connection.

So I usually start with a lot of information, but some of that (sometimes a lot) will change in the early stages of writing, when the characters are still getting to know each other and me. And then I feel my way. From scene to scene, from dialog to dialog. I have a general idea where things will end up, but how I’ll get there? Usually no idea at all, to start with.

The hardest part is keeping with it and I’m sorry to say, that never gets easy. In my experience, every novel is harder than the one before.

this may interest somebody

Now, I encourage everybody to support local booksellers, okay? That clear? On the other hand, it’s not my business to lecture you on how to spend your money. Twenty-six bucks for a book is way more than most people can spend, after all.

So let me pass on one of the little tidbits Amazon is always sending me as an author who set up an A-Store:

Friday, December 15th is the last day your site visitors can get Free
Super Saver Shipping to receive Amazon.com orders by December 22nd.

This is, sorry to say, limited to purchases being delivered in the U.S.

Edited to add: You can get stuff other than my books and still use this free shipping promotion. If you need some gift ideas, I’ve included lists of some of my favorite books and movies. Link to the Amazon store in the right sidebar.

If you're wondering where I am:

I’m not here much, am I. I’m hardly on the forum, either. Because (1) I’m trying to write the Thing That Must Not Be Named. (2) I’m putting together the end of the month email newsletter and all the bits and pieces that go into it. Some interesting announcements, I think. And (3) Both the Girlchild and the Mathematician are ailing.

Re (2): You’ll only hear the interesting news if you sign up for the danged newsletter. And, I’ve got a small pile of books put aside for the person whose name I draw this time. So put your name on the list. You can opt out at any time.

The truth is, these days an author can’t afford to just let the publisher take care of marketing. Because they can’t, or won’t. And most of us can’t afford a first class publicist (or any publicist, for that matter). I do what I can to keep you amused, put interesting reading material in your hands, and remember my stories when you go to a bookstore or login to Amazon.

Of course I have no idea how much good any of it does. There are people out there who swear up and down that the right internet media blitz will put you on the best seller list, but in my opinion there’s a big dash of fate involved, no matter how much you invest in time, money and energy. Unless you happen to be Harry Frankfurt and you’ve got a publicist who can get you onto the freakin Daily Show with Jon freakin Stewart.

I will forever be wondering about that.

At any rate, I like staying in touch with the readers, but sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day.

If you’ve got questions you’d like me to answer, speak up. Then I will make a concerted effort to answer them (and thus, post).

self discipline: how to not work

For more than two years now, I have spent every waking hour worried about not writing. No matter what I was doing, I felt like I should be writing. And now that time is past. I have no deadlines hanging over me. I am free.

So I made some resolutions. I have a list of projects I’m working on, prioritized in a couple different ways, and a Chinese-menu-type setup. As long as I work for x amount of minutes on one project from each of the three columns on a given day, I’m good. If I hit a certain mark, I can stop early for the day (this has only happened once so far).  And here’s something important: no working on the weekends.

You’d think that the hard part would be staying on track with the projects, right? But what I’ve found is that it’s almost impossible not to work on the weekends. There are a few things that force me into at least temporary  Saturday/Sunday retirement — going to a movie, for example. Sewing is another one. These are things I do in the evening on regular work days, and now, at least according to my own rules, I could do over the weekend. Right now I could be playing with fabric. But I’m not. So I put away the computer and read. I pick up a novel I’m liking, a novel I’m half way through, and I start reading. Suddenly I’ve got Victorian Babylon in my lap, both books open.  What is this?

Does that seem unreasonable? That I should (whispering) take the weekend off from work? In theory I know it should not, but in fact it feels awful. I’m getting quite cross with myself about this. Yesterday I was writing an email to a friend and suddenly, there I was looking up information about small towns in Virginia. This was because of a percolating novel set in Virginia about somebody named Jackson, who is an EMT. Bad. I slapped my hand and went back to non-work.

I decide I’m going to get more sleep. A long bath and then into bed. This seems to be working, and then I wake up at 3 a.m. thinking about wicked sisters. Who are these people, and why are they talking to me about a very-raw story idea? Go away! Let me sleep!

Well aren’t you just a bitch? This from the taller of the two. The other one giggles. She’s got bright fuschia fingernail polish on, and on each nail a tiny glittering stone. Diamonds? Who puts diamonds on their fingernails?

I try to go back to sleep but they are staring at me.

Fine, I say. Tell me.

It’s simple, says Diamonds. If you want Jackson, you get us too. We’re his big sisters and it is our responsibility to see he doesn’t get led astray.

Huh, say I. Why is it you look like those evil bridesmaids in My Best Friend’s Wedding?

I should hope we do, says the taller one. She’s got helmet hair and a botox forehead.

That’s when we climbed in, says her sister. We’ve been riding around back here for what, ten years? Sitting  in your subconscious, waiting for an escape route.

And this novel about your brother Jackson gives you that.

I hope she’s not always this slow, says Helmet Hair. It’ll take her forever to write this book. I cannot wait to get out of here.

So you can climb into other people’s heads? I say.

I can promise you, says the younger one, holding up one hand and waving her glittery fingers. That we will do our damnedest.

So you see, this taking the weekend off business is a lot harder than I imagined. I wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of it.

once again, with feeling: POV and head hopping

First, I can’t remember where I found this link. If it was your blog, I apologize for not giving you credit. Whoever you are.

So here, Therese Fowler’s weblog. She’s got her first novel coming out soon, with a high profile house that’s putting a lot of marketing energy and money into her debut. I’m looking forward to reading her book.

On the other hand, after reading her post on the perennial POV debate and thinking about it for a while, I would like to boil the whole discussion down to a few points and get in my two cents at the same time:

1. POV is one of many technical skill that fiction writers have to master.

2. For some that will be easier than for others. In the same way, all of us have our strengths and weakness (dialog, description, etc etc).

3. Writers reading other writers are far more observant and critical than the average reader out there. In the same way an accomplished tailor will look at a garment and find all kinds of flaws I don’t see, most readers won’t be aware of POV cheats or shortcuts.

4. Nevertheless, I would say that a serious writer works to get these things right.

5. Maybe there’s an annual convention where tailors sit around arguing about hemming shortcuts. I would guess that some of them truly enjoy such ongoing discussions. Authors love to bat around the big questions: POV, present vs. past tense, third vs. first person narration, etc. I’m not such a fan of these discussions, but I can see that they are important to some people.

6. If there is a rule that says: no POV switching within a scene, then that rule is a matter of fashion and aesthetic. Trends come and go in fiction as they do in most things. Minimalism hung on for a long time and has slid away, mostly, into the shadows. The obsession with the semi-colon — fueled to some degree by John Irving in his Garp phase — faded.

7. There’s a difference between breaking a rule, and bending a rule to suit your needs. If you break the rule and the story falls flat because of that, you have not succeeded. You took a chance, it didn’t work. Back up, think it through.

8. Some authors are better at bending the current rules than others.

9. Some don’t care to try, out of fear or laziness or whatever.

10. Rather than contemplating this on-going, never-ending debate, I (and you) should be writing.

Note: In the spirit of full disclosure: I am not Nora Roberts, but I do switch POV within scenes sometimes. I believe that it mostly works for me, but feel free to disagree.

The Trouble with Titles

Settling on a title for a novel is a very slow and laborious process that can go on long after the darn thing is written and sold.

Pretty much any author can tell you title battle stories. Paperback Writer just resolved one such set of negotiations for the next book in her StarDoc series. She reports about the new title (now called Omega Games) in a neutral tone. When a writer strikes a purposefully neutral tone on a subject like this, you know he or she had to give in on the one thing they really, really wanted to keep or really, really hated and wanted to lose.

Example. The novelist says: My publisher is very excited about the artwork for It’s All in your Head. Translation: Is it too late to take my name off the cover? When we get closer to the pub date, I’ll be reporting in a purposefully neutral tone about the hardcover jacket for Pajama Girls.

Some highlights from the past:

The title of the second volume in the Wilderness series was supposed to be The Farthest Shore but ended up Dawn on a Distant Shore. Which sounded overly dramatic to me, and reminded me of those awful Native American romances. But I lost that battle.

For the fourth volume in the series I wanted Thunder at Twilight but got Fire Along the Sky. Now, I don’t dislike FAsS, but it wasn’t what I wanted. The publisher said my title sounded like those awful Native American romances. Go figure.

So if it’s hard to find a title for one novel, you can imagine what it’s like to find titles for weblog posts. I’ve got near 1,500 of the little buggers, and titles are more difficult all the time. I thought about just following the meteorologists’ example and naming them randomly. This post, for example, could be Elvira. I fear I wouldn’t last long naming my posts, and anyway, it would be poor practice. The title is supposed to give you some idea of what the post is about.

My troubles are many, but very small.

I know I still owe you the community story for this week. With any luck you’ll get it tomorrow. I have to write another thousand words today, and then there’s the Pajama Girls page proofs. I’m trying to think of a way I might give away this pile of paper. You could call it the advanced reading copy of the advanced reading copy. I’ll see if I can come up with something.

the author as a local business, and fair play

I live in a small town that is big on supporting local businesses. And we do. For example: our milk comes from a farm just a few miles away (glass bottles!) and we buy local produce and eggs. There’s profit for both sides in this kind of relationship. We get better quality food; the farmers make a living at what they like to do.

But say I go to the farmer’s market tomorrow because I want to make a big mixed salad for dinner. Once I’m there, going from stand to stand, all I find is cauliflower, brussel sprouts and cotton candy. I ask about tomatoes, romaine lettuce, fresh corn, peas, beans. Nowhere in the market can I find these things. I turn to leave, headed for the grocery store when the farmers call out to me: wait! Support local businesses!

I will support local businesses as long as it is mutually beneficial to do so. This doesn’t shake down to money: I am willing to pay more for high quality, especially organic, food. But I’m not willing to be bullied. I’m not a capitalist pig because I won’t settle for brussel sprouts and cotton candy.

Where am I going with this, you’re wondering.

If you look back a few posts ago, you’ll see that more than half of the bookstores contacted by my readers were not stocking any copies of TTTT and had no plans to do so. Almost all of them offered to special order a copy. In most cases that requires prepayment.

So I’ve been thinking about this for days, looking at it from all directions. The fact is, if people don’t see a book or hear about it and go looking for it, that book will not sell. It’s not enough to make sure that your target readers know about your new book: they have to be able to find it, too. No matter how interesting a book may sound, if a person asks in three bookstores and none of them stock it, that’s pretty much the end of the line. The potential reader goes away thinking. Huh, maybe not such a good book afterall, if nobody’s stocking it.

So this problem which plagues most midlist authors can be summarized:

1. lack of publisher marketing effort (making people aware of the book through publicity and marketing);
2. lack of bookstore support (making the book available and easy to find).

I am abstracting away from aestetic questions for the moment, please note.

Here’s a fact: Brick-n-mortar bookstores (small and large) aren’t big on midlist authors. One more fact: Pretty much any on-line bookstore will sell you any book in print (including Tied to the Tracks ) without delay. There’s no talk of special ordering, no hoops to jump through. The on-line booksellers are there 24/7; there are no clerks to do deal with (friendly or judgemental); they’ve got everything, or immediate access to everything. Obscure cookbooks, no problem. Biography of a Brazilian soccer player, no problem. And pretty much every midlist author is sitting on that virtual shelf making googly eyes at you. You pop that book into your shopping cart and in a couple days, it will show up at your door.

The brick-n-mortar stores can’t compete with this, but of course they still want your business. There is no argument for mutual benefit — or at least, not any compelling argument. This is where they appeal to your sense of community and loyalty. They ask you to buy locally, because they want to survive.

I want to survive too. And so I am going to come out and be straightforward about this. If you want to read my books (and I hope you do), don’t bother with the brick-n-mortar stores. If you want to read more of my stories and you’re willing to back that up by buying a book now and then, please do so through an on-line bookseller. Amazon or Borders or Powells (an independent, by the way), Barnes & Nobel, anybody who has a decent on-line interface.

As an author I ask you to support on-line booksellers, because at this juncture, it looks as though the on-line booksellers are the only ones consistently supporting midlist authors. Like me.

a helping hand

Chicago’s Mayor Dailey (the first one, not his son) was infamous for his bon mots. My favorite: “They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me.” When asked about the fact that pretty much every relative of his was employed by the city, and if that wasn’t nepotism, he looked genuinely surprised and said (in paraphrase): if you can’t help your own kids, who can you help?

Nepotism is one of those things that puzzles me. I don’t know how to feel about it. I do know how I feel about people who get huge book deals on the basis than nothing more than a famous face or name (I’m looking at you, Suzanne Somers) or some horrific crimes (OJ). It stinks, but worrying about it is a waste of time. The famous get book deals easily, because their names and faces are well known and such a book (whether excellent or foul) will sell itself. Those who are attached to the famous can sometimes grab a ride on this train. Sisters of murder victims, friends of serial killers, assistants to actors, lesbian daughters of conservative vice presidents. Whether or not these books will sell is more of a gamble, and sometimes one that doesn’t pay out (as in the case of the book written by Cheney’s daughter).

Then there’s the more direct kind of nepotism: a person established in some field guides his or her child into that profession. And what is wrong with that? The daughter of a master carpenter will most likely have an easier time getting a union card when she wants to start her training; people who own small businesses often bring their kids into the shop or factory so they can learn what they need to know to take over some day. The children of actors have an easier time getting into the business — but whether or not they stay around has more to do with how well they perform.

The same is true of insanely successful writers. Ann Rice has a son who writes novels and has made a name for himself, though in a quieter way than his mother. And now Stephen King’s son has come out with his first novel. Joe Hill (as he calls himself) has written a horror novel called Heart-Shaped Box. I noticed it when I was in the bookstore today, because it was in a stand-alone display, and the blurbs were from really big names. That is unusual for a first novel, so I picked it up and read the flap and the back cover and the blurbs.

Something fishy going on, is what I thought. The author blurb says only that Joe Hill lives in New England, but … definitely something odd about this.

When I got home I started checking, and I wasn’t exactly surprised to find out that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son — though that information is not to be found anywhere on Hill’s website.

So here’s the thing. You’re the son of the most popular and successful living author on the continent, and you want to write novels in the same genre. Your choices range from one extreme to the other: cash in on the connection, use your own name, allow the publisher to put a metallic sticker on the front cover proclaiming the new generation of King horror masters, use all the power of your connections to get whatever you can to place your novel in the public eye. Because marketing is pretty much everything, at least for a first novel.

Or you could go to the other extreme. Change your name. Don’t call yourself Joe King when looking for an agent, or when working with your agent to negotiate a book deal. Struggle along like most people, fighting for a decent marketing budget, trying to get the word out there.

I don’t know what I would do in this situation. I don’t know what I’d do if one day in the imaginary future I found myself consistently on the best seller lists and the Girlchild wrote a novel of her own. My urge — of course — would be to help. Introduce her to the right people, make sure she got an excellent agent (say, my agent, for example). Would she want that? Would it be a good idea? I have no answers. What I do know about the Joe Hill situation is this: he’s torn. He changed his name, but he used the connections he had to get a stupendous marketing deal, and high-flying blurbs. What other explanation is there for the kind of five star treatment he’s getting at Amazon, where they’ve buttonholed big name authors to do comparative reviews of a first novel?

I can understand that he would feel both ways about this: he wants to make it on his own, but trudging up a hundred flights of stairs when you’ve got a key to the express elevator, that must be a tough decision.

Joe Hill may have written an excellent novel. I hope he has. I’m going to read it, and I’ll let you know what I think. About the novel, not about the deal he got from his publisher. Because I just don’t know what to think about that.

Edited to add:

Just a little more about Joe Hill.

In a comment to yesterday’s post, Alison Kent provided a link to an interesting post by Jason at Man in Black. According to Jason, they really did manage to keep Hill’s connection to King a secret when they put the book up for auction. Jason seems to have solid footing for this claim, so good. Good for Hill. On the other hand:

Now here’s the Catch-22: Publishing the son of a famous bestselling novelist essentially assures that the book will get more publicity than 99.9% of debut novels. So a publisher would have to have some real brass cojones to simply ignore this incredible opportunity. Yet if all the coverage focuses on the father-son link and ignores the book–which, unfortunately, has happened in a few instances for Hill–you’ll get a ton of coverage and no sales. It seems Morrow has been trying to have their cake and eat it too, distancing Hill from King while “bashfully” conceding the relationship. Basically saying, “We don’t want the guy to be known only as Stephen King’s son, but come on, he is Stephen King’s son.”

So Morrow bids on a first novel they like, they win the bidding, and then they find out that the author is Stephen King’s son. Something like buying a lovely antique writing desk at a fair price and then finding a dozen long letters from Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra in a secret compartment. Jackpot.

The thing to remember is that the auction is only the first part of the equation. After that, Hill’s agent went to work negotiating the fine points, and Hill’s connections played into that process. Obviously. Every year there are a couple of first novels that go for a lot at auction, and then get good marketing packages — but what’s going on for Heart-Shaped Box is way beyond even that standard. If they were really serious about playing down the connection, my advice (if anyone cared, or asked) would have been to cut back on the high profile blurbs. That’s where the connection to King jumps out and grabs you.

pleading for attention: oi, the pain

Human beings do like to contemplate the belly button. It’s so obviously there, and convenient.

Book reviewers have a few bellybutton-type issues that require regular revisiting. For example: the question of objectivity. A good reviewer is a fair, even handed reviewer. A good reviewer will admit up front if they bought the book in question at full price, or were given a free copy. That same reviewer will disclose any connection to the subject matter that has a bearing on the review.

Now, some of this is just logical. If I spend my whole life campaigning for civil rights, if my mother was interrogated by faschists for her journalistic efforts on behalf of freedom fighters, those are things you should probably know before you read my review of Cheney’s autobiography.

On the other hand, how I got that book is (in my opinion) not so important. If I bought it, if somebody gave it to me or lent it to me, none of these things matter: you have to know up front that I am not going to like anything the man has to say. Even if I did get that $24 book for absolutely free: would I sell my conscience for that paltry sum?

But here’s the more complex problem.

A new novel comes out. Given the need for authors to do a lot of their own promotion, I will send copies to friends. Some of those friends will be in a position to review the book. I will also send the book to reviewers, in hopes of a review.

Do I send them my new book hoping for a bad review? Of course not. Do I expect every book I send out to result in a review? Nope. What I do hope for is a certain kind of response. Here are some scenarios:

1. (Fairy tale version) I send the book, three days later I get an email or phone call, gushing praise. Wow, what a book. What can I do to promote it? Tell me, your wish is my command.

2. (Horror story version) I send the book. Three months, six months, a year goes by. No word. So a gentle inquiry, did you ever get… and then I wait, cringing, for the shoe to drop.

a. (the boot version) I’m sorry, I’ve just been swamped. No idea when I’ll get to it, sorry sorry. By the way, have you read Joe’s newest and Sandy’s newest and Maggie’s newest? Fabulous. I highly recommend them.

translation of the boot version: there’s a cool crowd of people whose books I do read, no matter how swamped I am, and you’re not in it.

b. (the stiletto heel version) oh yes, I did, wait, was that the one with the photographer? Your stuff always cracks me up, I don’t know how you do it.

translation of the stiletto heel version: You pitiful thing, you misguided, self-delusional dope, how do I let you down lightly? Never mind, maybe a knock to the head will clear things up for you.

c. (the ballet slipper version) gosh, I have been meaning to write that review, it’s been on my mind for months, I’ll nudge it to the top of the pile.

translation of the ballet slipper version: where in the hell did I put that book? Did I ever finish it? How long before she forgets she ever sent it to me? Soon, I hope.

d. (the tap-dance shoe version) the thing is, I did read it and I want to review it but I don’t have the right venue for it now, it’s such an interesting book, it doesn’t really fit into the genre, does it? And I don’t want to misstep with this review.

translation of the tap-dance shoe version: I have no idea how I can write a review that won’t piss you off. So I’m not going to write one at all. Please let me off the hook.

Between these two extremes there’s this (hoped for) possibility:

I know you were hoping for a review, and I wish I could help you out. The problem is that while I really admire your work, this particular story never quite made it for me. You know the old truism: I’m just the right reader for this book. But I am looking forward to your next one.

or, best of all,

You know I liked this novel of yours, I meant it when I wrote to you a few months ago to say so. But I’m at a loss about reviewing it. Politically it’s too hot a potato for me right now given that episode with the Podunk Times and the red wine fueled indiscretions at my last book launch party. I hope you know that if I could do it, I would. What I can do, and will do, is mention it to friends and other readers in a less formal way.

You can see that I’ve been on both sides of this issue. More usually I’m the author, wondering why in the heck I haven’t heard from x, y or z about the book and trying to guess what kind of shoe I’ll hear dropping if I should ask. In the case of Tied to the Tracks, I’ve got three people out there, standing around, shoes in hand. Pardon me while I go put on a safety helmet.

a project to make my crafty little heart beat faster

Pam had a suggestion:

Publish Hannah’s medical journals. Or fragments of the same. A partial even. Sort of a Sabine and Griffin-ish publication in appearance. You’d have to collaborate with your favourite artists and font designers, but isn’t that interesting regardless? Include side notes where Hannah, in her old age, goes back over the journal and adds reflections in a Curiosity-like manner. And Hannah hopefully will not age cynically.

I’d include recipes, character portraits of her notable patients, and a list of symptoms and diagnoses. Bonus – sketches Lily had done and given to Hannah could be clipped in or inserted (imagine on tracing paper weight paper, they fall out of the book when you unseal it from its vacuum packed plastic wrapping – hey, other things might fall out too. Hm, what budget am I imagining here? Craziness.). And, Neat-o. Likely a bugger to publish. And expensive. Us fans would simply drool and wonder what was in the plastic wrap until our birthdays or Christmas, eh?

I think I once mentioned that a not-so-secret desire of mine was to include letters in the novels. Not transcriptions of the letters, but folded letters, in handwriting. Yellowed paper, the whole thing. So you’d have the sense of holding the actual letter Nathaniel wrote to Elizabeth while he was in New Orleans. Also, newspaper clippings. All these bits could be in an old fashioned (miniature) letter portfolio in the back of the novel. And if we’re going there, the story itself could be illustrated. Not in the traditional sense — a glossy page with a formal painting showing a cabin in the woods — but small illustrations on various pages. The pine tree with the crooked top. Elizabeth’s writing table.

So I love Pam’s idea. Given the realities of the way publishing works, it’s unlikely to ever happen — unless suddenly all five books in the series jumped to the top ten NYT bestseller list. Ha!

in which I find I have more ego than I thought

Today, in between packing and running around, I checked over at Wikipedia to see if they had banished me yet, and had a look at the ‘discussion’ page. One king kind person made an argument for my notability; another scolded her soundly. Obviously, she said, finger wagging, you don’t understand the meaning of the word notability. A few publications do not notability make. We need secondary sources.

I mentioned this to a close friend who looked at me as if I’d lost my mind. Secondary sources? Secondary sources? What about the article in People Magazine? What about the mention in Entertainment Weekly? What about the New York Times Book Reviews review, and the Washington Post book review, and the articles in the English papers when you were short listed for the Orange Prize?

For a minute I was very disoriented, and then I did remember those things. But you know what? I never kept records. All I remember about the little article in People is: 1) really awful photo; 2) lukewarm praise; 3) I first saw it on a ferry on my way to Vancouver Island and I laughed out loud, so that everybody moved away from me. All I remember about Entertainment Weekly: they quoted the first sentence of Into the Wilderness, which was nice. I can’t even remember if either of these short pieces mentioned my real name, or if it was just Sara Donati.

But do I have those citations? Clippings? Anything. Nope. I do have the citations for the big book reviews and some of the Orange Prize and PEN/Hemingway award stuff. I put it here for posterity, in case my forgetfulness creeps up and grabs this stuff out of my head sooner than expected:

“Orange Prize special report” Guardian Unlimited (London),
Wednesday June 6, 2001

*this special report was notable for two things: another terrible photo, and the odds against my winning were pretty bad. Like, third from the bottom (of seven finalists). However, somebody with worse odds than me won, so I have no idea what that means. I do know that two of the five judges told me afterwards that I had been a very, very close second, and that they had fought for me and almost won. And that was comfort enough for me. Although the fifty thousand pounds would have been nice, too.

“The Orange Prize Challenge”The Independent (London), May 24, 2001

*I have no distinct memories of this article at all.

The Orange Prize (Britain)
2001 shortlist: Homestead by Rosina Lippi reviewed by Dylan Evans

Homestead (review) by Brigitte Frase The New York Times Book Review May 9, 1999

“PEN/Hemingway Award 1999” The Hemingway Review, Vol. 19, 1999: 155

“Shaped by Time, Place and Family: Fictions About Farthest Austria”
Review of Homestead by Carolyn See. The Washington Post May 29, 1998

So there. Even if Wikipedia doesn’t find me notable, I do have a career.

PS: I have a longer list of book reviews some place, dog knows where; that list includes all the academic stuff as well.

file this under: problems I'd like to have

Tess Gerritsen has a post up which explains the complexities behind what ends up at the top of the NYT bestseller list.

She’s looking primarily at the way month of release influences the NYT list. She was recently offered the possibility of releasing her new book in March (better chance of getting to Number One) or August/September, when she’d sell more books. She chose August/September.

Here’s the thing. Most authors aren’t ever offered a choice on pub date. You hand the manuscript in, you work through any kinks with your editor, and then you wait to hear when it will be out. I finished Pajama Jones (new title still being discussed) in the fall of ’06, and I found out in January that it won’t be out until ’08. This did not make me happy, but there’s absolutely nothing I (or even my excellent agent) can do about this. In fact, my policy is to let the whole thing go. What I can’t do myself, what is out of my sphere of control, that I have to let go.

When Homestead came out, I had been hanging around the industry for a good while, and I knew very well what its chances were: not good. A small independent press, not much of a marketing budget, a quiet little sad book, these things equal a short life span on the bookshelves. But I was prepared for that. The fact that it did so well, that took me by surprise.

It’s good to understand more about the vagaries of the NYT bestseller list, but actually trying to join the game — that’s available only to certain, very high selling authors.

And I’m looking forward to Tess’s new book.

Pajama Jones pub date; and TTTT in trade paperback

asdfg wanted to know why the delay on the pub date for Pajama Jones, so here’s the situation as I understand it.

The publisher has a whole stream of books they are getting ready to release, and some complex formula to decide about timing. Mostly the marketing people have the upper hand in this negotiation. I had thought they would release PJ at the same time the trade paperback edition of Tied to the Tracks comes out, but they decided not to go that route, for reasons unclear to me.

release date
I can’t say this with authority, but my guess is that when TTTT is released in paperback, they’ll be watching closely. If it does really well, they might move up the pub date for PJ.

This is all guess work, but it is based on close observation over many years.

So if you want PJ earlier, tell friends about TTTT in paperback.

storytellers: born, or built?

Rachel commented on yesterday’s post:

Now, I always think of these things: but what happened to the first person ever to write a fiction novel? I know it’s a bit much, but you say that you have to read a lot of a genre to write that same genre. It seems unfair. What happens if you wanna write something completely different? And wouldn’t you be scared of “stealing” ideas?

There are still a few societies in the world where the spoken word is dominant, as it was in all of Europe until the 1700s (or later, depending on the nature of any given community). In those older European communities storytelling was just as important as it is now. This is as close to a universal truth as you can get. Storytelling is the way cultural goods are passed on, how we teach children about the world and our expectations and hopes. Byatt wrote in an essay (which I can’t find right now) that people need storytelling to function, that it’s as important as shelter and food.

So in a society that has no written language, stories get passed along verbally. Parents tell children stories, merchants who come back from a long trip are surrounded by people who want to hear about what is going on in the world. Someone who is especially good at storytelling will have a following. If old Margaret is sitting by the fire knitting, adults and children will drift in and she’ll start talking. She might tell a story from the community’s mythology or a fable, she might recount the day her neighbor, a greedy sort, got his head stuck in the milk bucket. Her audience reflects back to her how she’s doing by gasping or laughing or yawning.

The children are listening. It’s an apprenticeship. They will hear dozens of stories every day, short and long. Some of them will start when I was a girl or back in the days of before the great fire or now that reminds me of McNulty’s son James on his wedding day….

Children listen and learn how to tell a story. They learn about holding back surprises, about the importance of detail, about the narrative arc. They don’t know they’re learning these things, but they are. They will tell stories to each other, practicing, and give each other feedback in quite abrupt ways. Some will grow up to be excellent storytellers and some will never master the fine points, but they will all tell stories. The few with real talent might make a reputation for themselves that goes far beyond the small community where they live.

Writing a novel is a much more complex process, but there are many similarities. There are skills involved that you can only absorb and master by reading like a writer and then writing — in that order. I can tell you about the narrative arc, but you won’t really understand that idea until you’ve read closely — as someone interested in the mechanics of the process. This is the way many skills are passed on. A carpenter looks at a window casing differently than I do, for example. A painter looks at a painting and wonders how the artist got that particular effect. On the way home she thinks about how it might have been done, and she looks forward to trying it herself.

Francine Prose (a favorite author of mine) has a great book out on this whole topic. She provides excellent arguments for the importance of close reading if you want to write. Certainly it’s a far more comprehensive treatment than this little post of mine.

So you do have to read, and you have to read a lot. There’s no shortcut around it. Some people will pick up the skills more easily; some will be innovative in ways that catch on. Is that unfair? Fair isn’t really a word that applies here, it seems to me. Some people have an intrinsic talent for storytelling, the way others are able to solve complex abstract mathematical problems. That’s the luck of the draw. What the Mathematician can do without much thought I can’t do at all, and he’d say the same thing about me.

Finally, on stealing ideas:

Every story has already been told and retold, and will be retold in the future. Some people claim that there are only seven basic plots. I had a look at that idea here.

Does this mean that all authors are stealing? Hardly. If I lift whole paragraphs from another writer, that’s stealing. If a story I read twenty years ago suddenly gives me an idea for a book of my own, that’s not stealing — but if I copy the book in the hope that no one make the connection, that is most definitely stealing. You can’t copyright a plot. If you could, there would be very few new novels published in any given year. The trick is to make the plot your own. It’s the author’s voice that makes a novel unique.

while I'm cranky I might as well take advantage

I’m not going to get into the discussion about used books, but I do want to share an oddity that I can’t figure out.

If you go to Amazon and look at Into the Wilderness, you’ll see the paperback edition is still in print. You’ll also see that you could buy it used, and there are a 104 such copies to chose from, ranging in price from .59 (plus $3.49 shipping) to $10.00 (plus $3.49 shipping). The two copies being sold for ten bucks are listed as new, but there’s nothing collectible about them otherwise, as far as I can see.

But here’s where it gets very odd. If you look a little further (search “Sara Donati” and a list of all editions will come up) you’ll find a few copies of the books at prices I can’t figure out at all. For example:


If you look at the listing page you’ll see that somebody is selling a copy of ITW in paperback for $51.49, plus shipping. It doesn’t claim that the copy is new, or a first printing, or signed. The only claim: “Buy without risk! Excellent customer service.”

I should hope so. If you pay more than sixty bucks for a book you can buy brand new for 7.50, you had best get excellent customer service. I would expect the book to be hand delivered on a silver tray at that markup. And isn’t that adding insult to injury? If you go off and buy a used copy of ITW for a couple bucks because you’re broke or for whatever reason, the used book seller makes a slim profit. I don’t get paid at all, but that’s not the point here. The point: the person who manages to sell a paperback copy of ITW for $51.95 is making more money on that copy than I ever did. Many times more.

What’s the deal? Are these just opportunistic merchants who are hoping for a gullible person to walk by?

Hey bud, com’ere. You need a watch? I got beeeooo-tiful watches, these babies’d cost you more than a thousand bucks over in Switzerland, I’ll give you the pick of the bunch for an easy twenty. And whle you’re looking, you got any interest in rare books? I got a once in a lifetime deal here, let me show ya.

Somebody explain this to me, would you? Because I truly don’t understand.

celebrate THIS

You know PBW has a new novel out, right? And here’s the reason to celebrate:

Romance Paperback Bestsellers for Borders Group Inc. w/e 5/5/07

1. Night Lost by Lynn Viehl (Signet Eclipse)
2. When I Fall in Love by Lynn Kurland (Jove)
3. Susannah’s Garden by Debbie Macomber (Mira)
4. The Demon You Know by Christine Warren (St. Martin)
5. Wicked Fantasy by Nina Bangs (Berkley)
6. Kiss of Midnight by Lara Adrian (Dell)
7. The Wrong Hostage by Elizabeth Lowell (Avon)
8. Wolf River by Jill Gregory (Bantam)
9. Dark Seduction by Brenda Joyce (HQN)
10. Not Quite a Lady by
Loretta Chase (Avon)

Joshua resurfaces

If you remember Joshua’s weblog you probably miss it. I certainly do. Strip Mining for Whimsy was one of those blogs that I had to check a couple of times a day.

Today I had to email Joshua about something. At the bottom of my email there is now a little promotional bit. It looks like this:


And here is the email I got back from Joshua:

Dude, there’s a Coppertone ad at the bottom of your e-mail.


Now you see why I miss his weblog.


I’ve had like, twenty emails this afternoon, people saying they heard me on NPR, and: the hell?

So here’s the skinny:

Every once in a while a journalist will do a human interest story on accent, so-called accent reduction, accent discrimination, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (which protects you against discrimination in employment on the basis of traits linked to protected categories.)

accent — native language — national origin

National origin is protected.

Language subordination and language discrimination were my areas of expertise when I was still an academic. Once in a while I get asked to be an expert witness in Title VII cases. Usually I just write a report and it ends there. Only once I actually had to testify. And once in a while a journalist calls.

I do telephone interviews maybe twice a year for radio programs, but mostly they are local and not national broadcasts. I haven’t even heard this one. I tend to avoid them because they condense a half hour interview into a few soundbites, and often (not always) what I was trying to say gets mangled.

So that’s that.


that’s not that. I just listened to the report. I feel the need to state publically what I just said to Richard Gonzales in writing:

[your report] was a nicely put together piece, but (you know that was coming) I find it unfortunate that the overall impression was that accent reduction classes are a viable proposition. The assumption that accent can/should be reduced wasn’t really questioned. My guess is that these action reduction people will get more business based on this report.

So again it’s a case of the people being discriminated against having to change, rather than any effort to educate and rehabilitate those who are doing the discriminating.

one shitty day

Things have not gone my way today.

1. There is a very smelly plumbing problem which I have tried (many times) and failed to fix. Which means I have to call a plumber. Which means research and getting recommendations, cha cha cha.

2. Somebody in this family who shall remain nameless (but it ain’t me) missed a FIFTH dental appointment. Five no-shows since January. This unnamed person (who I’d like to strangle) has now been booted out of the dentistry practice to wander the streets at his/her own peridontal peril. This person must now find a new dentist. Without my assistance, and before he/she loses every tooth in his/her head.

3. Also today: the guy who was doing garden work for me has disappeared, with about a hundred bucks of pre-paid time. So I’m out a hundred bucks, I have to find a new garden person, and the weeds, no dummies they, are already on the march, the invading army bent on world (or at least garden) domination.

5. A bill arrived. This bill had big red letters on it: SERIOUSLY OVERDUE (who writes these things, a surfer dude?). Then lots of dire warnings. Except I had never seen this bill before, so I called, using my reasonable let’s-figure-this-out voice, and I explained.

Me: I’ve got this overdue notice. You seem to think you’ve billed me for $150 in the past, and that I haven’t paid.

Accounting Person: You haven’t paid, that is correct. You are three months in arrears.

/note/ Do they force them to talk like this? /note/

Me: You’re right, I haven’t. Because this is the first such bill I’ve received.

AP: You received four other notices.

Me: I beg to differ. But wait, can I back up a minute? What exactly is it that I’m being billed for. Because there’s no indication here.

AP: Services rendered.

Me: Okay. Which services? You are a large organization. I have consulted more than one professional under your roof. And you will note, I have always paid my bills on time.

AP: So it seems.

Me: Are you doubting me, your computer, or both?

AP: If people would just pay their bills on time.

Me: I sense frustration.

AP: Pay the bill, I’ll be nicer next time.

At that point I asked for this person’s supervisor. It took about five minutes to straighten it out, and it turned out that I did owe them about fifty bucks. I volunteered to pay immediately by credit card, and before I could stop her, the supervisor transfered me back to the SAME AP.

6. And one more, just for fun: My computer is making Noises. Off and on, clicking/grinding noises from deep inside its shiny little heart. I did a full backup but every time I type a page I wonder if I’ll ever see it again.

My solution to this problem? New computer. Load ‘er up with RAM and dual processors and all kinds of goodies, damn the price, full speed ahead. But the Mathematician, the Voice of Reason, the Cautious One, the Patient one (more patient than I am, anyway) thinks I should wait. Just a day, to see what happens.

Good and fine. But I won’t be sleeping much.

Here’s an idea I had. What if I got in touch with Steve Jobs old buddy old pal, and suggested that he give me a top of the line, fully decked out laptop. He can engrave something clever on the lid so people see that (1) I am an author using a mac; (2) Everything I have in print (more than a million words) was created on a mac; (3) that he, Steve Jobs, is a patron of the arts and generous, to boot. heck, I’ll even put one of those MADE WITH A MAC icons on the darn book jacket.

Now I’m going back to work.

fatal or fatalism

Odd things going on today in my head. Some of that has to do with Book Six (why oh why did I think I could write a sixth novel in this series? and why did nobody STOP me from signing the contract?); some of it has to do with the trade paperback release of Tied to the Tracks


and the sinking feeling I’ve got that there will be no marketing for this book other than what I can cobble together in my amateurish way. Which is not unexpected — every other midlist author out there is in the same boat — but it’s still discouraging.

When Homestead came out in hardcover with a teeny tiny little press, I fully expected it to sink quietly into oblivion. A novel in an unusual format about women in rural Austria a hundred years ago, doom and gloom on every page… no surprise if it didn’t even make a blip on the radar. I was still proud of it, but I didn’t have any expectations.

But in the odd way the universe has of screwing with expectations, Homestead won the PEN/Hemingway Award and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I found myself flying places to talk about it. I was standing near Margaret Atwood at the Orange Prize ceremony because we both had books shortlisted. Never, ever would I have imagined such a thing happening when Homestead sold to Delphinium Press.

There was no marketing budget for Homestead. Somehow it was in the right place at the right time, the indies took it under wing, and it began to roll downhill.

A lot more energy was put into Into the Wilderness by Bantam, and it did better than I expected. It is still in print. I don’t know about the sales figures because I just refuse to look at them. I know my own weaknesses, and obsessing about numbers I can’t control is a big one. I do know one thing: it paid out the advance. I don’t know if that’s true for the other books in the series.

I think it’s fair to say that I’m standing at a kind of crossroads in my career as a novelist. Pajama Girls is in production; I’m working on Book Six. Beyond that I have no contracts. Nor am I actively looking for any at this point, because on paper I don’t look like a great bet. TTTT did modestly in hardcover. If it does better in trade paper (please dog), and if Pajama Girls does well, at that point I’d have some bargaining power — or better said, my agent would.

At this moment it could go either way. In a year’s time I might be looking at going back to the traditional workforce and writing in my spare time.


If you look back at the early entries in the original weblog you’ll see that I have always been keenly aware that this ride could end before I was ready to get off. I’m doing what I can to promote the work so that it has a chance of finding a readership, but there are hundreds of novelists out there doing the exact same things I am. Some of them have written better novels, or novels with a more popular theme. Some of them will do something in terms of marketing that goes viral, and then the lack of publisher support won’t be as important.

At the end of the day, I can look at the novels I’ve got out there and be satisfied. Some of them I like more than others, but I’m proud of all of them. Maybe things will start to roll and ten years from now I’ll still be going strong. Maybe not. In either case, I have no regrets.


Joan at Village Books
I’m taking a little break for something not workshop related. I have to say thank you to my favorite bookseller. Joan works at Village Books, about ten minutes from home. I stopped by there today and found (to my great delight) that she has been busy hand selling Tied to the Tracks.

Hand-selling is the term for one person talking to another person about a particular book. So if you went into Village Books and asked Joan if she had any suggestions, she might steer you over to Tied to the Tracks and give you all kinds of encouragement about how much you’re going to love it.

She did this this morning, in front of me. Joan’s enthusiasm was infectious; the woman bought the book (which of course I signed, at Joan’s urging).

Handselling doesn’t really happen outside small bookstores. The chains usually don’t have people on staff who can make real recommendations. The online booksellers are trying to duplicate the hand selling process by parsing your buying habits and serving up suggestions whenever you come to browse. If you loved … you’re gonna love …. even more.

Sometimes those recommendations are successful. More than once I have found out that an author whose work I follow has a new book out I didn’t know about. And of course there is the internet, flexing its muscle. Publisher websites, reader websies, author websites — you could jump from one to the next for days. You’d come away with a long list of books you didn’t know about, but now you do and you want to read them. That’s a kind of handselling, too.

I’m going to post about the publishing biz after the workshops are over, but for the moment let me say this: what every lesser known author really needs is a Joan of his or her very own.. In fact you need hundreds of Joans, in bookstores all across the country.

If you're going to fantasize publically…

I missed this story when it first made the rounds last week. Then I ran into it at Writers Unboxed.

The short version: a guy writes a novelette (*his term)), self publishes it, and does some promotion. Among other marketing approaches, he starts claiming that his book was an Oprah pick. He goes so far as to put a transcript of his on-air interview with Oprah. Oh, how she loved his book.

fakeblurbsWhen I first read about this, I wondered if the guy might really be delusional. Psychosis can do things like that, make you absolutely sure that you had tea with the Queen when you were last in London. Then there he came clean, apologized, and claimed it was “an error in judgement.” Which means, he wasn’t delusional, and it was a conscious decision on his part to perpetuate the fraud.

I have no idea if there will be legal action against him, but that’s less interesting to me than this guerilla-style approach to marketing. Damn the topedoes, full speed ahead. This is a writer who is so desperate for attention that he lost all perspective. What he did was absolutely wrong, but I can see how he got there. Those of us who struggle from book to book and contract to contract know how frustrating and discourging the process can be. Authors often play games with fake covers (see the blurbs here for Pajama Girls?) but this is usually for personal consumption and a bit of a laugh.

One other thing that I’ve been thinking about since i read about this fictionalized Oprah love-fest: why Oprah? If you’re going to make something up, if you’re willing to be exposed as a fraud, why not go all the way? Unless, of course, you know you’ll get caught and that there will be corresponding publicity (author goes off the deep end!), the kind that puts you on the front page of newspapers. Which is, after all, what the guy wanted. So maybe things worked out just the way he hoped.

If I had to make up a fake interview, it wouldn’t be with Oprah. Most probably it would be Jon Stewart. He doesn’t do novels, but so what? On paper we could have a grand old time. Or you could go at this sideways. If you had to make up a television interview with a major personality who (of course) adores your work, who would it be?

Pajama Girls

Pajama Girls coverThe hardcover dustjacket. I just got this .jpg today. It’s not what I was hoping for, but the editor and publisher like it.

Click on the thumbnail for a great big version.

promotion postcards: your opinion?

full postcard size valentine PG cardThree possible approaches to a postcard (4×6 — that is, bigger than you see here) that will be part of the Pajama Girls of Lambert Square press kit. In every case, a larger image of the cover will be on the backside, along with ISBN, etc.Thoughts? Suggestions? Preferences? Dislikes? Edited to add: thoughts on Give her a love story for Valentine’s Day? Also added the thumbnail to the right. Clicking on it will give you the bigger version of the red card.

threepostcards-pajama girls

do or die

If you’ve followed along here over the last year or so you know what a struggle it has been to get my contemporary novels into the public eye. I’m not going to rehash all that right now (the posts are at the top of the ‘greatest hits’ list in the right hand column, if you are interested).

After long discussions with my agent and other writers whose opinions I trust, I have decided to invest in hiring an outside publicist who will be organizing the promotion of Pajama Girls. This is not an inexpensive proposition — I will have to spend somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 to have any chance at all of making a significant impact. But if Pajama Girls doesn’t do well — and it won’t, if marketing is handled the way it was for Tied to the Tracks — I’m unlikely to ever get another contract to write a contemporary novel. And I have some contemporaries I’d like to write. (more…)

writing workshops

Bunny woke me up at two-thirty in the morning because he was in need of a belly rub and, no connection whatsoever, a stroll around the garden to make sure there were no lurking beasts from which he had to protect us. That is the nature of our relationship: the dogs provide me with unconditional love, and I rub their bellies. Sometimes at an ungodly hour. Seems like I’ve got the better end of the deal.

Sometimes though I find it hard to get back to sleep, so I read or I go wandering around the internet. I just got back from that little jaunt around the webby world, and here’s what I stumbled across, an interesting opportunity.

Once in a while I have posted about Cary Tennis’s work. He’s an advice columnist at Salon.com who has been answering questions from the public for years now. If I remember correctly, he’s a writer, and not a psychologist or psychiatrist or therapist of any school. He’s just a writer with a gentle approach that appeals to a lot of people.

He has written columns that I loved, and some that I really, really disliked. I often disagree with him completely on how to approach a problem, but then that’s okay; he doesn’t need my approval and nobody asked my opinion, anyway. And there are dozens — if not hundreds — of regular Salon readers who are quick to comment on his columns. A few of them are sure to make the points I would have made, and many are not afraid to tell him that he’s got the wrong end of the stick. So really, it’s not about an advice column so much as it is a discussion set off by his answer to a letter from a stranger.

At any rate, Cary has a website, a collection of his columns in a new book, and also if you live in the San Francisco Bay area, you could take a writing class from him. In his home. His description:

If you write, if you want to write, if you dream of writing, this workshop can help you discover ideas, dreams, emotions, images and stories of profound significance, and recall them in tranquility, in their original voice, with all their original brilliance and luminosity. And it can give you the structure and support you need to make those stories, poems and memories as good and true as they can be.

I invite you to join us. The workshop will take place at my house in San Francisco on Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The price is $380 for 10 weeks. Enrollment is limited to 12 writers. E-mail me at workshops@carytennis.com,

I suggest that you read about his approach and philosophy of writing, and then if you live in his area, have the time, interest and money, you go on ahead and take his course. And then let us know how it went, okay? Because I’m dead curious.

Writers are always looking for ways to make a living that cuts out the publisher. A great many serious writers end up teaching — not because they like it, or are good at it — but because it’s one way to pay the rent that doesn’t involve contracts and marketing and all that other awful business that goes along with publishing a book. My guess is that if you polled everybody who writes seriously and who also teaches writing, you’d find that the vast majority would give up teaching immediately — if such a thing were financially feasible. This doesn’t mean the individual is a bad teacher. There are some excellent teachers out there who would simply rather be doing something else with their time.

I have to assume that Cary Tennis likes teaching and wants to do more of it, because there he is offering the opportunity to work with him, in his home, on your writing. This is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If my arithmetic is right (and that’s an iffy proposition right there), you’d bring in an annual salary of about 20k if you ran these workshops back to back for fifty-two weeks, and had an average of ten people in each class. Certainly taking a class at a college would cost you more.

So there you are: somebody who is teaching writing because he wants to.

what's in a name

A week or so ago I invited questions and somebody (you out there? please speak up) came up with an interesting one that I haven’t answered yet. And maybe it can’t be answered. But it was something like this:

Do you think your contemporary novels (Tied to the Tracks, Pajama Girls of Lambert Square) would do better if they were published under Sara Donati rather than under Rosina Lippi?

First, I should note that all my novels — contemporary and historical — appear under the name Sara Donati in Australia and New Zealand. The publisher asked how I would feel about this, and I said: fine. I really didn’t mind, and I could see their reasoning. Sara does really well downunder, much better than she does here in the States. I will never forget the day my Australian editor emailed to say that Sara had knocked John Griffith off the number one spot. So there’s one way to answer this question: ask my Australian editor how TTTT is doing. Except this is something I will never do. Talking about numbers makes me so anxious I can’t write for days.

In this country nobody ever raised the subject of which name to use for the contemporaries. The thought did cross my mind, but I didn’t pursue it. Now, in retrospect, was that a mistake? Would the contemporaries do better if they were Sara’s instead of mine?

I dunno. I suppose it’s possible — Sara has better name recognition, after all — but there are also ways it might have worked against me. Sara was born precisely because the publishers were worried about (their phrase) confounding reader expectations. Homestead and Into the Wilderness came out within three months of each other, and they were nervous about that fact.

Which means very simply this: Joe has read all the Wilderness novels and really likes them. He sees Sara has a new novel out, and he bops on down to the bookstore and buys it immediately.Then Joe sits down to read and he’s disappointed. He was expecting adventure and high jinks with a love story or two thrown in, battles, Curiosity-like characters. And instead he got Angie Mangiamele. He is unhappy. Sara has disappointed him by switching direction.

My hope would be that he is so delighted with Angie and Rivera and the rest of them that he soon forgets he was expecting something else, but that may be unrealistic of me.

Please note: this is not my conclusion. This is how the publisher looks at it. Are they right? I have no idea. I’ve tried to think of a parallel — some author who changed direction and threw me off balance — but nothing comes to mind. So the question is, would Tied to the Tracks be selling like gangbusters if Sara’s name were on the front cover? Or — hold onto your hats — a third, completely new penname?

I just don’t know. What do you think?

Pajama Girls cover copy

Here’s the flap copy for the Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. (*two changes made since first posting*) Does it make you curious, or would you move onto the next book on the shelf?

When Julia Darrow’s life in Chicago falls apart, she moves to small town South Carolina and opens Cocoon, a shop specializing in luxury linens. Five years later she’s satisfied with the life she’s made for herself: Cocoon is doing very well; she wears designer pajamas all day, every day; she’s got a houseful of foster dogs; friendly, efficient if quirky employees, and all the other Lambert Square shop owners to occupy her. Julia has no interest in going anywhere.

John Dodge grew up an army brat and he’s still a rover: the idea of sticking to one place gives him hives. He makes a living moving around the country, fixing up small businesses on the brink of disaster. The newest venture to capture his imagination is an odd little shop that specializes in collectible pens located in a renovated printing plant in the deep south. He arrives in Lambert Square on a sunny fall day, and on his first morning he runs into belllicose fishermen, curious tourists, a former underwear model who is now the no-nonsense mayor, a dozen friendly new neighbors full of advice on how to clean his bathtub and where to go to church, and Julia Darrow, walking across Lambert Square, in pajamas.

When he goes to Cocoon to introduce himself, Dodge ends up spending a fortune on linen and asking Julia out to dinner. He takes her refusal in stride, but he also comes away with the distinct sense that there’s something going on with this woman from Chicago, something below the surface that she never lets anybody see. He is warned, right from the start:

Don’t set your sights on our Julia. She’s shut up tight as a Chinese puzzle box, nary a seam to be seen.

But Dodge likes puzzles, and he’s really good at fixing things.

There is a collision in the making, and all of Lambert Square is watching.

are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing: (more…)

writing fiction: not for the easily discouraged

If you are over 50, and despair about ever getting published, have a look at a piece that Tess Gerritsen wrote for Murderati, here.

Tess’s weblog is a really good place to look when you’re feeling discouragede. She’s been in the business for a long time, and she has some of the best advice for writers available on the web.  Here’s another one of her posts that I particularly like.

Amazon does its part for Pajama Girls

The listing for Pajama Girls is up — with cover image — at Amazon. Here it is if you want to have a look.

Two things I wanted to point out: The list price is $24.95, but the Amazon price is $16.47, and:

Pre-order this item now and you will receive an additional 5% off at checkout. Also, if the Amazon.com price decreases between your order time and release date, you’ll receive the lowest price as well as the 5% pre-order discount.

Which is a pretty darn good deal. And also, if you know you are going to buy a copy, preordering now will help get things off the ground Book distributors pay a lot of attention to early orders.

And one more thing. For a limited time Amazon is offering gift wrapping for ninety-nine cents. Just sayin.

bon bon slippersBehind the scenes I’m thinking about promotional efforts, and I wanted to ask your opinion on something. If I had a drawing and gave away (to two or three people) signed copies along with a pair of slippers, do you think guys might be intrested? I mean, if it gets to them before Valentine’s day. The slippers I’m thinking about are from Goody Goody, and they are called Bon Bon slippers. There are at least two dozen styles, for example the one you see here.

So the question: how do you think this giveaway would go over?

how the writing is going

I’m shouting down  my superstitious italian side to say:

All is well. The writing is flowing very well, better than in a long time, and so I’m trying to focus on that. Which means email goes unanswered, and I haven’t yet sent out the ARC or drawn a name for the last giveaway.

But all of these things I will do, just as soon as my muse, the fickle bitch, takes a break.

prequels, postquels, quelquels

Nancy asks:

Have you thought about doing a “prequel” to Into the Wilderness (with the focus on Daniel and Cora–Nathaniel’s parents)?  

I’ve had quite a few readers suggest this idea. I appreciate and understand the interest, but the realities of publishing that I’ve talked about before apply here as well. The bottom line: I’m not sure I could write a prequel, but even if I desperately wanted to, Bantam might not be interested. The only way that another book could ever be written in the series would be if Book Six takes off like a rocket.

Bantam has put a lot of energy and support into this series, but unless sales pick up significantly, they will step away. They almost did step away after Queen of Swords. Book Six is actually a bit of a miracle. So there it is: you, the book buying public, are the ones who make such things possible.

Assuming for a moment that there is no more interest from Bantam in the series, this does not mean I’ll stop writing historicals. I am working on a proposal for a three-volume series set in the early 1700s in New England, with the hope that the proposal will be picked up early in the new year. When I finish with Book Six, I would start on the new series (which you can think of as 1723, as a temporary reference) immediately.

I also have an abbreviated outline for another contemporary, but again, whether or not that ever sees the light of day depends on how Pajama Girls takes off. 

Publishers live and die by the numbers. They also have pretty much abandoned any serious marketing for mid-list novels, which is why many authors (and I’m in this boat myself) have to spend time, energy and money on getting their work into the public eye.

Thus the Lambert Square and the Pajama Girls websites, the giveaways, upcoming pajama-related contests, and other marketing bits and pieces that I’ve invested in. 

Let me repeat: I am very fortunate in my readers, and I appreciate every one of you. When you write and tell me what you’d like to see next, I am pleased to know that you want more. But  what comes next is not up to me.   

Frey’s Million Little Pieces, Oprah, and Success

James Frey

Given the difficulty of marketing novels these days, I keep an eye out for new and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, there aren’t any. Everything has been tried, and everything has failed — or succeeded. There’s no way to know until you give it a go yourself. Invest the time, money, energy, and hope that all that results in more book sales. Because hey, a girl has to eat.

The idea I’m going to present isn’t new,either, but bear with me for a minute, because it does have an interesting twist. You know that old chestnut: no such thing as bad publicity? One example is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that was supposed to be a memoir and turned out to be a fake, at least in part. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except it was Oprah he embarrassed and she decided to make an example of him on national television. If she was trying to sell more copies of his book, she couldn’t have done a better job, as described by CNN:

In January 2006, the Web site The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey’s memoir of addiction and recovery contained numerous fabrications. Frey and his publisher then acknowledged that he had made up parts of the book.

Drury noted that 93,738 copies of the book were sold in the seven months after the controversy erupted.

“Amazingly, the book remained a best seller for another 26 weeks,” the Chicago-based lawyer told Holwell. Drury said Frey had received more than $4.4 million in royalties.

Now you might be tempted to conclude that crime paid, and paid well. But this situation could not have been planned, and it’s not a strategy that will work for most of us anyway. First you have to get Oprah interested, then you have to do something to really piss her off. It was a crapshoot that paid off for Frey; it made him some serious money. But there’s a big question mark about whether or not he can sell another book. And if he does, will anybody be interested, or will all his badboy currency have played out?

And then again, he’s got $4.4 million; maybe he’s not interested in writing another book.

Back to my point. The underlying principle is solid: make your book the center of a scandal. How? One of the best ways to do this is to get parents of teenagers up in arms.

Take, for example, this mother on the warpath. Her daughter was assigned an essay in her freshman English class that offended mother and daughter both. Bad language, talk about bestiality — they were not amused, nor could the mother be satisfied when her daughter was excused from the assignment. She wanted the essay and most likely the whole book banned from the school, from the district, hell, she probably would have liked to see every copy sent off to another planet. What she did accomplish was just the opposite. Thousands more people became aware of the essay and went out to find it and read it. Did it get banned from the school? No. And good for the school and the district, too.

What’s to be learned from this? Quite simple. When your novel comes out, take in a big stack to your local high school and hand them to an English teacher. Offer to come in and speak to the class about writing and publishing. Teachers are overworked, and they appreciate help –but you have to mean it. Be prepared to go into the class and talk to the kids and answer questions about your book, about their writing, about everything.

Then wait a week, and write a letter to the editor of the local paper and ask what the heck the school was thinking, giving the students that novel to read? Ask if it isn’t wildly inappropriate to expose them to such adult experiences and ideas. Ask if we’ve lost all sense of morality.

Just ASK the questions. Don’t answer them. Let the questions stew, and then about a week later have somebody you trust write another letter to the paper, this time taking up the book’s cause. Accuse the first letter writer of censorship, and talk about other books that have been banned in the past. Tropic of Capricorn is a good bet, everybody knows that was a dirty book, and the more conservative parents will sit up and take notice. Other people will think, hmmm, Tropic of Capricorn. Maybe I better have a look at this new novel.

If things go according to plan, one or two or a whole crowd of parents will raise a ruckus. They’ll go to PTA meetings and insist on meeting with the superintendent; they’ll feed stories to the newspaper. And the topic of all that noise will be your novel. You will be gracious when they ask you questions, but unyielding in your assertion that your novel is not morally corrupt. That will get you some more sales. Maybe there’s nothing sexual in the novel at all, but that doesn’t matter. Put the idea in people’s heads and it will flourish. Imagine mothers and fathers reading your novel under cover of darkness with a flashlight, looking for the sex scenes… and wondering if they are so out of it, they don’t even get double entrendres anymore. Now nobody can admit they don’t see the problem with the novel, because that would expose them to ridicule.

Do you know of a better way to interest people in a book than to forbid them to read it?

So there you go, instant celebrity on the local level. If you work really hard, you might be able to parlay it up a notch to regional papers, and if it’s a slow newsday, who knows where it will end? You might find yourself sitting across from Oprah after all.

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stripping down to sell books

There’s an article in the Washington Post (“Leaping at the Chance“) about a conversation between editor Nan Talese and one of her authors, Valerie Martin (author most recently of Trespass). The question:

What will it take to get the American public to pay attention to Martin’s book?

They have some pretty outlandish suggestions, but in fact they both know the answers. There are a couple things that would make this happen.

[asa book]0385515456[/asa] 1. With the right publicist and a lot of money, any book/author can be thrust into public view. Show your face on the big talk shows, get celebrities to talk about it, and voila. Best seller. This approach is the easiest and most expensive, and clearly would require Martin’s publisher to invest heavily. Which I am sure they’d be willing to do — if she were already on the best seller list.

2. A scandal is a quicker way to get to the best seller list, which Nan Talese knows very well, as she was the editor of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. (I posted about that here.) You can listen to Nan (on YouTube) telling her version of what happened with Oprah, which is extremely interesting.

3. A scandal that escalates and becomes a legal matter, even better. Ask Cassie Edwards about this. I have no figures, but I’d bet that her sales have not suffered as a result of the plagiarism kerfuffle.

authors + rough riders + amazon reviews = kerfuffle

I’ve been very good for the last few years when it comes to Amazon. That is: I have weaned myself away from going over there every day, because (as I’ve mentioned before) there’s really nothing to be gained except anxiety of an astonishing depth and variety. For example, these questions:

Where does my novel rank today overall? In fiction? In historical fiction? In family saga historical fiction? In kinda-romance-kinda-not-women’s-fiction?

How many reader reviews? Really? That many? That few?

What’s the average reader score? Really? And the standard deviation? You don’t say. Any zingers today? What’s an author to do?

And so on.

I am writing this post because apparently some authors actually do answer that last question by calling on their fangirls to ride out and demand justice (as they see it). It goes like this: Reader A writes a review of The Prince and the Everlasting Magical Orgasm that is less than glowing. Let’s say it’s directly negative. Words like: waste and trash abound. PEMO’s author takes exception, and the next thing you know, Reader A’s negative review is bombarded with negative ratings of its own. You can do that by clicking NO next to the question was this review helpful? Which really should read: Will you show some mercy to a reader who disagrees with you? So the fangirls all bombard the review with NO NO NOs, and then at some point a switch is triggered and the review gets dumped.

If the author of the negative review posts it again, the same thing is likely to happen.

If you wander through the Amazon discussions you’ll see long threads on problems of this nature along with a lot of speculation on how those negative reviews disappear. Some suspect author interference, but as far as I am aware, an author who writes to Amazon to ask that a negative review be squashed is patted on the head and sent away. There, there dear. It will stop stinging soon.

The only time Amazon will edit the review is if that review gives away major plot twists. Even then, they try to leave as much as they can when they edit out the spoilers.

If it were possible for authors to snap fingers and demand a bad review disappear, you can be pretty sure there would be no bad reviews on Amazon at all. Either the author, the editor, the agent or sometimes screaming rampaging rough riding fangirls would see to that.

All this is my way of getting around to the topic of a one-star review of Pajama Girls. I wanted to talk about it because it actually made me see something I hadn’t noticed before. The reviewer took offense because she believed the story was about a woman who had secrets and wasn’t willing to share them. Which you know, perfectly reasonable: it says that on the book jacket. But this reader could not reconcile those statements about the character with the fact that when it comes to sex, she’s not repressed at all. In fact, to be clear: she’s in bed with John Dodge two days after she meets him.

This, said the reader-reviewer in a distinctly disgusted tone, is not somebody who is secretive and closed-off.

What took me by surprise was simply this: I didn’t anticipate this problem. I’m usually pretty good at guessing where readers will get hung up, but in this case I overlooked the obvious. Julia and Dodge end up in bed two days after he arrives in Lambert Square, which for some people can only mean that Julia is a woman of questionable moral character, or at the very least, sexually over active and indiscriminate. My personal take on this is that there are many kinds of intimacy and some are easier than others. The ones that are the most difficult don’t have much to do with sex, at least, in Julia’s case.

Let me restate something I have said in the past: if you have to explain what you hoped the reader would take away from the story, you failed. Clearly I failed in this case to make the reader see Julia the way I see her. Which is unfortunate, but almost unavoidable. There will always be readers who just cannot get past some element of a novel, no matter how well done it is otherwise. That’s to be expected. This particular one-star review makes sense to me, even if I don’t agree with it.

There are one-star reviews that don’t make much sense. For example, the woman who complained that her copy of the novel had two pages out of order, and for that reason, gave it one star. But in this case, I see the reader’s problem, and I have to acknowledge it. It would be wrong to ask that her review be taken down. That would be censorship, plain and simple.

Once in a while I go over to Amazon to see what there is to learn from the reader reviews. This time there was something interesting, if not especially pleasant. Now you’re wondering if I clicked “yes” next to “was this review helpful?”

Would you?

writer, author, novelist: pick one

I always pause when somebody asks me what I do for a living. I don’t mind talking about it, but it would be nice if there was a term to use that was not so ambiguous as the standard three are.

Here’s what I get:

Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a novelist.

Stranger: Have you published anything?


Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m a writer.

Stranger: What do you write?

Me: Mostly novels.

Stranger: Have you published anything?


Stranger: What do you do?

Me: I’m an author.


Me: I write.

Stranger. Oh. What do you write?

Me: Ransom notes.


Me: I write novels.

Stranger: Like, The DaVinci Code?

Me: Um, no. Quite different, actually.

Stranger: That was a good novel.



So let me ask you, do you make a distinction between writer, author, novelist?

For me, a writer is somebody who could be writing anything at all. Technical manuals, greeting cards, letters to the editor — as long as it is a primary occupation. A writer isn’t necessarily published.
A novelist is somebody who writes novels, and, in my mind at least, has been published. Although I can imagine somebody saying: I’m a novelist, I have ten novels I can’t sell to anybody. So maybe an novelist is somebody who writes novels and tries to get them published, sometimes successfully.

An author is somebody who does not actually need to write, but who is published. So for example, OJ Simpson is an author (because there’s a so-called book out there with his name on it), but I wouldn’t call him a writer.

Joyce Carol Oates, on the other hand, is an author, a novelist, and a writer while Studs Terkel is a writer and author but not a novelist.

Do you use these terms the same way?  And do you have a suggestion for what I could say to people that would be polite, but forestall the “have you published anything” question?

take the money. or maybe not.

I’ve been thinking about doing this for a couple years, and today I was looking at a royalty statement and I thought, what the hell. I think people will find it interesting and maybe even helpful.

ITW Royalty Statement NA 2007This is the summary page of the Into the Wilderness royalty statement for 2007.

Let me point some things out. Under Current you’ll see that no hardcover copies were sold in 2007 — because, of course, the hardcover edition is out of print. This statement only represents new sales of new books. However, in 2007 the mass market edition of ITW sold 7,634 copies, or about 614 copies every month. Considering the fact that the mass market edition was first released in August of 1999, that is a pretty healthy number.

Since it was first released, ITW has sold 241,813 mass market copies and 25,246 hardcover copies in the U.S. and Canada. This statement doesn’t cover sales overseas. If I had those numbers someplace where I could find them, I’d give those to you as well. But I don’t. The number is pretty high, though, given the loyal readers I’ve got in Australia and New Zealand. Somewhere around 100,000 copies. There are also editions in Germany, Spain, Sweden, Great Britain and a couple other places that aren’t coming to mind right now, but none of those sales figures are represented here.

You’ll see that the original “guarantee” ( advance) was $150,000 (a very good advance today, and even better in 1998). Translation? The royalties on ITW exceed the advance, which is what is called “earning out” — the publisher calculated the number of copies they thought they could sell, and paid an advance based on those calculations. In this case things worked out well. Not all my novels have earned out. Yet. She said hopefully.

This is the problem: if you have five novels in print, or two, or thirty, the publisher won’t offer another contract without looking at these sales figures. If they have miscalculated badly, it hurts them first but it also hurts the author. Say for example that the publisher offers Author J. Jones oh, three million for a two book deal. J. Jones leaps into the air with excitement. Oh boy oh boy. His career is made.

But the publisher got it wrong. The J. Jones novel doesn’t tank, but it never surges. It just bobs along mid-list. Three years down the line it’s only generated $25,000 in royalties — which means a lot more books have to sell before Jones has earned the 1.5 million he’s already got in his pocket for that first novel for the two book deal. You might think that J. Jones won’t care — he gets to keep the whole three millions (as long as he delivers the second book as well) regardless of how many copies sell. If these two books never earn out, so what?

Here’s the so what: J. Jones still has lots of books he wants to write. Some really great ideas, one of which (looking into my crystal ball) is destined to hit number one and stay there for months.

Except it doesn’t get written, because J. Jones is a bad bet, according to the numbers. The publisher is not going to throw good money after bad. Now, if Jones had got an advance of $100,000 and the book earned out in two years, his agent can go to the publisher with some real leverage and negotiate a much better deal for that second contract. If things continue along that trajectory, Jones will build a career, and a lucrative one at that.

Or he could invest his three million and live off the interest, never putting words to paper ever again. If inflation doesn’t eat it all up, of course. Now, a good agent will be able to weigh the pros and cons of the publisher’s offer and make some suggestions based on long-term goals. A good agent is there for the duration, and has more invested in you that the one book in hand. A bad agent will push you to grab what you can and run so that s/he can do the same thing. Which is a disserve to you in about a dozen different ways.

This is a pretty complex topic and I’ve glossed over a lot of details. Please feel free to ask questions, and I’ll try to answer them.

EDITED TO ADD: If you find this kind of thing interesting or useful, I’ll do it more often. But you have to let me know if you’d like to hear more. If you don’t comment I figure I’ve bored everybody to death.

the midlist/midlife crisis

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

What now?

As I approach the end of this novel I see a big question mark coming at me.

At the moment the only contract I have is for the second edition of English with an Accent, which will take up time for not much short-term return. Most academics never make a dime off their published work; they publish to contribute to their areas of study. Sometimes a text book will really fill a niche and take off, but there aren’t many examples of that.

So career wise, the second edition of English with an Accent is less than promising.

There are a lot of things I could write, some of them more obvious than others. Please, do not jump in here and suggest a prequel to Into the Wilderness; I don’t think I could, and I don’t think Bantam would want it, anyway. I do have some other fleshed out ideas. For example: another novel set in the current day southern U.S. I think it’s really promising, but: Unless Pajama Girls takes off like a rocket when it comes out in trade paper, it’s going to be hard to sell this idea. I could, of course, just write it without a contract — and I may end up doing that — but it’s a big gamble. A year or two dedicated to something that doesn’t find a publisher would be okay if I had a day job. Another thing I may have to think about.

On the historical side of things I’ve got a novel set in 17th century Rhode Island, but again, I don’t think that it will find a home in this economy and market. Should I write it anyway, in these difficult and uncertain times? Did I mention we have a daughter in college?

So there’s my dilemma, staring me in the face. I’m not looking for pity, please understand. Many people are in the same situation. Some would even say that this is a good thing, as too many books are published to start with and it’s time to do some winnowing. I can’t really disagree with that.

Still, I have to keep moving forward. Do you have an opinion on what I should turn to next? If you don’t remember anything about the Volvo novel (aka Imagining Eliza), here’s a reminder. If you’ve got an idea you don’t see here, please include it in the comments.

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my druthers

In response to my question (a couple posts ago) about what you’d like to see me write next, someone asked what I really want to write, what I would write if marketing and mortgages and tuitions were not an issue.

First, let me try to wrap my head around that idea.

Okay. Here’s the thing. Historicals take a long time to write, and the research — which I love — is a drain. It took me about a year to write Tied to the Tracks and then another year for Pajama Girls, because they are (a) shorter; (b) less research intensive. Note also that I was working on those novels part time while I kept banging away at the historicals.  I don’t remember ever bogging down while I was writing either of the contemporaries.

So for the present, if I didn’t have to think about sales, I would write another contemporary. I have a pretty good outline for one in my head, and it already has a title: The Swing of Things. I do hope to write it, some day, but probably I’ll have to write it without a contract up front.

I’m not done with historicals. I am very enamored of my plot outline for the Rhode Island novel (good thing, too, or why would I write it?). But I’ve been working on these big fat historicals for 10+ years, and I could use a change of pace.

editorial bits and pieces: The Endless Forest

There’s a limbo period after you turn in a novel manuscript. If the contract was contracted ahead of time it’s not a question of selling it. The question is, is it acceptable to your editor and his or her bosses.

It’s a nerve wracking time, and there’s not one thing you can do about it. After months or even years of pouring sweat and blood into the story, you must stand aside and just wait for a verdict. This may take a couple weeks or even months. During that time you try not to think about it too much. I personally forbid myself from looking at the manuscript while I’m in this limbo.

A thumbs-up from the editor will be full praise. The letter will also contain a list of issues the editor would like to address. These can be minor or earth shattering. It does happen sometimes that an editor will want a big change. It also happens that the editor wants a change that you absolutely do not agree with. That’s when negotiations become tricky. Most usually the list you get contains thoughtful and reasonable observations and suggestions.

So you work through that list, make changes, and off it goes to the next stage in the process.

When I handed over The Endless Forest, I hunkered down to wait for three or four weeks. Editors are busy people, is what I told myself. Don’t look at the manuscript. Don’t look at the calendar. Don’t think about it.

The big surprise was that I heard on January 12 — less than two weeks in — and not from my editor. I heard first from Nita Taublib, who is a Big Cheese at Bantam. The following is via Publishers Weekly:

NITA TAUBLIB is appointed Executive Vice President, Publisher, and Editor in Chief, Bantam Dell. Formerly Deputy Publisher and Editorial Director, Nita joined Bantam in 1982 and became Associate Publisher in l990. In her new role she will direct the hardcover and mass-market publishing programs of the Bantam Dell imprints—Bantam, Dell, Delacorte, Delta—as well as remain the editor of Danielle Steel and Luanne Rice. The Bantam Dell editorial department continues to report to her, as do GINA WACHTEL, who has been promoted to Vice President, Associate Publisher, and KATE MICIAK, editor of Lee Child and Lisa Gardner, promoted to Vice President, Editorial Director.

Nita has been closely involved with the Wilderness series from the beginning. She is the person who called me way back when to congratulate me on joining the Bantam family, and she’s the ultimate decision maker. So when I saw I had an email from her on January 12 with the subject line Endless Forest, I started to hyperventilate.

It would be bad manners to reproduce the email, but I’ll quote one line, because it is the nicest thing any publishing executive has ever said to me: “I have to tell you that in the last month I have not felt like reading — anything. Its been such a trying time, but […] you brought me back from the brink of not wanting to read — to being so happy to be in your pages and living with all the Bonners.”

Reading that was a huge boost, of course. All my worrying could be put aside; I could wait for my editor’s letter in the certain knowledge that the news coming my way was good, and that the changes would not be very many or large. And that’s the way it turned out. About ten days ago I got the editorial letter, with a short list of questions and suggestions. If I concentrate hard, I can take care of the whole thing in one day.

But I haven’t. I find it really hard this time, and the reason is pretty obvious. For the first time it really became clear to me that I’m at the end of the series. Really at the end. My goal is to take tomorrow to make all the changes, and then to send it off and sit down and get used to the idea. I think the process may require chocolate. A lot of chocolate.

on the vagaries of publishing

bridgette wrote:

I’m just wondering about your little note, stating that from your editor The Endless Forest will not be published until early 2010. Why is that so small of a note on the website but no explanation? I dont mean to be rude but we were all
looking forward to this book, first I heard it was Feburary 2009 that we would see the book, now another year? I check your website everyday and there is absolutely nothing regarding the book, obviously most of the people who come
here are for news on the book. Help us out.

I was surprised, reading this email, that anybody might feel underinformed. I’m always worrying that I go on too long about details, and I certainly have posted enough about Book Six over the last months. Mostly whinging and tearing of hair, but I have tried to provide you all with a basic understanding of what’s going on.

So a couple things.

You can find all posts that mention Book Six by clicking on the appropriate tag: The Endless Forest (Book Six). If you would like to wander around via tags, a cloud of them is to be found in the tabs at the top of the main column.

I have never stated or claimed that the book would be out in February 2009. Bantam may have said so, but publishers are notorious for their wishful thinking.

Book Six was late, something that  I wrote about many times. Missing deadlines is not something I take lightly, but I tried not to provide too much information on my laundry list of personal catastrophes that stretch back over the last two years.

You all  found out that the pub date was December 2009 the same day I did. As soon as I got the note from my editor moving the pub date from December 2009 to early 2010, I put that up here in an obvious spot. I suppose I could have posted about that, but I wasn’t happy about the change, either, and things to say didn’t come to mind beyond: damnit.

But for those who feel underinformed, let me say again: the book is in production. Cover art and endpaper maps are being created. Marketing plans are being laid down.  Copyreaders are sharpening pencils. And: I’ll let you know as things happen.

soap opera vs drama

Not so long ago the Mathematician and I were watching Big Love (HBO), and he turned to me and asked a simple question. Why, he wanted to know, was this not considered a soap opera?

The simplest answer — the one that came to mind first — was that ‘soap opera’ refers specifically to day time serial dramas. If I remember correctly, the name  originated in the fact that the commercials were primarily for soap-like cleaning products.  I watched soap operas as a teenager and in college, and I have a few vivid memories. But only a very few.  The fact is, daytime dramas are fairly formulaic and predictable because they have to be. You can’t tell an hour-long story five times a week for ten or more years set in one place without recycling. It would be like writing a series of a hundred full-length novels with fifty characters handcuffed together.

But the Mathematician has never watched soap operas, so he only has a general sense of what is meant by the term. Which leads me to believe that it so overused that it doesn’t really mean much any more at all.  It’s a pejorative term. The Mathematician wasn’t impressed; he’s more a Battlestar Galactica type.

Big Love is about a half dozen interrelated families living in Utah. Some of them are mainstream Mormon, but the majority of them are non-traditional (polygamous) Mormons. Of those, some live on a compound but the central family lives in the city, hiding in plain sight. So now, beyond that primary fact, what do you have?  Family conflicts. Generational, religious, cultural. Romances tucked in here and there. This season we also had political machinations that escalated, and then bigger issues were raised.  To wit: If polygamy is a free choice by consenting adults, that’s one thing — but if fourteen year old girls are compelled to marry men who are old enough to be their grandfathers, then that’s entirely something else, with complex long-term repercussions on women of every age. A matter for the law, in fact.  I for one would balk at taking this on,  but the writers and actors and director are in tune and they produced a season’s worth of first class televised storytelling.  The season finale surprised me about a dozen times, and in the best way .

My sense is that there may be two more seasons of Big Love, and then HBO will decide that the storyline is done. This is one of their strengths; they aren’t afraid to let go when the time comes. They will do a brilliant job of winding this up, and move on to the next story. So it seems to me that that is the difference between a soap opera and a drama A drama has a story arc that results in a natural lifespan, something a  soap opera can’t afford.

There are some ways this compares to the writing of novels. A series that goes on past a reasonable lifespan (I’m sure you can name a number of these; I sure can, most of them mysteries).  How this comes to happen is something else to talk about, another time.

about names and pen names

It has been a long time since I’ve posted about this, and I’ve had a couple questions over the last few months. So here goes: author names and pen names, what’s the deal?

At one point, a woman who actually got her work into print was a rare bird. Many early female novelists chose to write under a pen name — or were forced to by their editors and publishers — as a way to avoid coming into the public eye for reasons that ranged to modesty and privacy to sales. There’s a good article here that provides an interesting list of early women writers and their pen names.

Today people write under pen names for a wide variety of reasons, and sexism is still one of them. A man writing romance will often use a female pseudonym, in the same way  a woman writing techno thrillers might use a man’s name or just initials. Julie Ann Jones  – J.A. Jones – which one would be shelved next to Tom Clancy?

There are occasional cases of writers who are too prolific. Yes, I mean that they produce too much publishable stuff. Imagine such a problem, would you? Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates are two writers who fall into this category. They are both famous enough that they don’t have to resort to pen names. King did use a pen name at one point in his career; I don’t know about Oates. This reminds me of the Mathematician, who insisted we tell the Girlchild  the truth about Santa Claus when she was four. His reasoning: Santa Claus was getting all the credit, and it wasn’t fair. I still have to laugh when I think about that conversation. The girlchild scowled splendidly, crossed her arms, and said I suppose this means the Easter Bunny isn’t real either.

Sometimes an author will take a pen name to help flagging sales by getting a fresh start. Sometimes simple privacy is the issue.

And sometimes a publisher will push the idea of a pen name for purely marketing reasons. This is why I write fiction under two names.  When Into the Wilderness and Homestead sold within three months of each other, the publishers were worried about what they call ‘confounding reader expectations.’  Translation:

Reader X loves your work and is excited to see you have a new book out. There is a great rushing about as Reader X tracks down this new book, and then anticipation when s/he sits down to read. Reader X is shocked. Shocked, I tell you, to realize that this is not another serial killer/mystery, but a novel about lady golfers in the thirties.  In my case, Homestead came out first and Bantam was worried that readers would find the jump from a quiet book of linked stories to historical adventure/romance too much to negotiate.

Picking a pen name is not particularly straight forward. Publishers prefer something in the middle of the alphabet, so your book will show up in the middle rather than a far-end of the display, where people are less likely to see it. That is, if your last name is Zombrowski or Aaron, your publisher may ask you to consider something in the D-L range.

Anastasia Gianbatista  is in the right part of the alphabet, but this would not be a good pen name. Imagine your book takes off (despite the fact that readers can’t remember how to spell your last name). Imagine sitting at a table signing two hundred copies of your book.  You will regret Anastasia Gianbatista. You will contemplate the beauty of a minimalist name. This, I can promise you.

Readers have pointed out that a pen name may have a negative effect. I have heard any number of times something like: you write under two names?!?!!! I’ve missed all those other books? Oh no! Which is why I make no secret of my pen name, and try to be as transparent as possible.

Do you know what pen name you would use, if asked?

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scribd pirates

You may have noticed that I have some links to short stories and essays in the right hand column.  I put them up at Scribd, as it seemed a good way to keep bits of writing I wanted to share in one place. If the links aren’t there, keep reading and you’ll find out why.

The other day I had coffee with two novelists, and the discussion turned to plagarism and copyright. The name Scribd came up, and I learned, to my horror, that Scribd is one of the most egregious sinners when it comes to distributing copyrighted material for free (this practice is often called ‘pirating’).  Just today I had the time to have a look, and I didn’t have to go far. I found whole books available for download, books that are still in copyright. Jennifer Crusie, Christina Dodd, Lisa Kleypas, John Sandford, Lee Child … the list goes on and on.

This means that you can wander over to Scribd and download whole novels that you otherwise would have to pay for. The bottom line: it cuts the author (the publisher, the agent, the typesetters, the editors…) out of the loop. It is, in fact, stealing.

If Scribd had a way to flag such abuses so that they’d be taken down immediately that would go a long way, but as it is, there’s no way to do that. The author him/herself has to fill out a long form, which will be sent back for correction multiple times if you don’t get every detail right. After this long process, the document will be taken down.

This is just not good enough.

Most authors — something like 95 percent of all published authors — do not earn enough from royalties to live. They supplement their income with day jobs, because they need to pay the rent and put food on the table.  It’s a constant struggle  and harder every day to get anything into print. Publishers live and die by sales figures, and every single sale counts.

This whole thing reminds me of an exchange I had some years ago with an acquaintance.  These are very, very wealthy people with investments in real estate and the stock market, but they built their business from the ground up, and they earned their money.  Then one day they came back after a long trip to Asia, and offered me software. Windows, Photoshop, all kinds of very expensive software, and announced with glee that they had bought all of it at about ten percent of what they’d pay in the States. That is, the software was pirated.  Here’s the funny part: these people own a lot of stock in Microsoft. They were taking money out of their own pockets. Either they didn’t realize this, or the thrill of getting something for almost-free was too much to resist. I was shocked, I have to admit, and they could see it on my face. We didn’t see much of them socially after that.

So while the Scribd pirates don’t have a direct impact on me, I am still taking down everything I have posted there. I will make them available through this website, though it may take a couple weeks to get organized.  If you happen to use Scribd and you feel about this issue as I do, you might write a note sometime to the management, who seems very lackadaisical about this problem.

I’m just sayin.

historical thrillers

I’ve been trying to come up with a list of historical thrillers that have been commercially successful, but I haven’t got very far.

The Name of the Rose, The Alienist … there must be others that have hung on the best seller list for a while. I can think of quite a few novels that deserve to be read more widely than they are, but that’s not what I need at this moment in time. I can also come up with a couple alternative history thrillers — Fatherland, for example, that is set in Europe thirty years after Hitler won WWII.

Usually thrillers have a murder in there somewhere, but are otherwise known for fairly quick action and lots of twists. And often a really distinct primary (good guy) character with a lot of personality. Sometimes this kind of story is based on actual events. Sort of historical fictionalized true crime.

Can you think of any? That is, a novel set in the past (pre WWII) that enjoyed a lot of commercial success. At this moment I’m not worried about critical success.

To say nothing of the dog: on proofreading

via buzzfeed
via buzzfeed

I’m almost finished with the first-pass page proofs for The Endless Forest, and I hope to hand it over to FedEx late today or early tomorrow. As I am at the hair-pulling stage, I’m taking a break to tell you about this process and how I handle it. Or don’t.

I believe I can pinpoint the very moment when my proofreading phobia started.  Writing a dissertation is never easy and everybody who has ever written one will have horror stories to tell.  I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories than more recent doctoral students. Usually, though, the horror stories don’t happen after the fact.

It was the day after I defended my doctoral dissertation. A beautiful late spring day, and I was free. FREE.  I was so full of energy, I was almost floating. Three years of hard work in which I often doubted that I could ever finish — much less defend  — my dissertation, but I had done both. I can still recall that feeling. It ranks up there with the first sight of the Girlchild’s little new-babies-look-like-monkies face, and seeing the Mathematician down there at the end of the aisle smiling at me, and getting the first copy of the first published novel delivered. It’s that good.

Then the phone rang, and I made a mistake. I answered it.

On the other end was a very earnest librarian from Princeton’s library, who was holding a copy of my newly minted dissertation in his hands.

Librarian: Dr Lippi, I have a number of questions regarding your dissertation.

Me: Huh?

Librarian: Before I can add it to the library’s collection there are number of … infelicities that need to be addressed.

I remember my gut rising into my throat, which explains why my voice came out like Minnie Mouse on steroids.

Me: I defended it yesterday. I’m done.

Librarian: I’m afraid not. Do you have a copy so you can follow along as I ask my questions?


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?

What I wanted to say: But you don’t understand, I swore last night that I would never, ever, open my dissertation again. In fact, my plans for today include embalming my copy in a barrel of wet concrete. In short: no, I don’t have a copy to follow along, and no force on earth is going to compel me to go get one.

Me: Just go ahead.

Librarian: On page 223, chart 27a is not titled.  And on 275, chart 55 is titled ‘Distribution of Marked Phonemes by Generation’ but in the index, the title is given as ‘Distribution of Marked Phoneme by Generation.’

I think I went into shock at that point. I simply stood there listening as he droned on with his list of missing commas, reversed index numbers, and other details I did not care about. Not one bit. A long time later  I realized he was waiting for some kind of reply.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that last bit.

Librarian: These problems will have to be corrected before your dissertation can be officially logged.


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?


Librarian: If I might make a suggestion, I could make these corrections for you —

Me: You could? Really? Oh, bless you. Bless you. Please go ahead and change things as you see fit. No need to run things past me, no sirree.

And I hung up.

Ever since that day, I cringe when a proofreader makes him or herself heard. Which happens a lot while you’re doing the first-pass reading of a manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, the proofreader is crucial at this point because I don’t see half the small things she catches, and those things do need to be caught. For the most part there will be a couple of marks on a page — a comma added or a semi-colon changed to a period, for example. More serious and important are the small errors in continuity, so the proofreader will write “Do you mean Nathaniel here instead of Daniel?” And 99% of the time she’s right.

But every once in a while I flip over a page and see a long paragraph in the margin in dark blue ink, and my heart leaps into my throat. The proofreader has found a major problem in logic or a large inconsistency in backstory, and attached to those observations is a list of pages on which the fact in question has come up and has to be compared to the current page, so that corrections can be made all around.

Today I’ve run into more than the usual number of those marginal blocks, which explains why my heartbeat is galloping along and my lip is bleeding where I’ve been chewing on it. I think it was especially bad today because of the dog.

There is a dog in this story, as you probably would have guessed if you’ve read any of my stuff.

Here’s the problem: the dog is mentioned and described as a puppy, belonging to a young couple. From its first appearance, the proofreader is obsessed — obsesssed, I tell you — with this dog. Wherever the couple shows up, there must the dog be also or the proofreader is unhappy. I stopped counting the ‘where’s the dog?’ queries after ten or so. By that time I was ready to slash right to the heart of the problem and instruct her to take out every reference to a dog, anywhere. Everywhere. In everything I’ve ever written. Please, just don’t ask me about the dog anymore. And you know how much I love dogs, so things have to be pretty dire around here just now.

So now I  have to go back to proofreading. Light a candle, would you? I need all the help I can get.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Valentin.Ottone

writer’s remorse, regrets, satisfactions

Your questions, my answers (these all kind of fit together, which is why I’m handling them as a group):

Kelly D:

Of your published work, is there any writing that you wish you could take back and rewrite…anything that makes you cringe now?

mrs mj:

Who, of the characters that you’ve written, is your favorite?


Are there any characters in the Wilderness series that you have killed off and then wished you hadn’t because they would have fit in really well in one of the later books? I don’t have any particular person(s) in mind, I just wonder if it is common for Authors to ever think, “Darn, I should not have killed off so-and-so because they would have tied in perfectly with this storyline.”

My sense is that published authors always have regrets. I suspect that few of us ever sit down to read (or listen to) earlier work, unless there’s some compelling reason. On a couple occasions I’ve had to read from an older book, and two things are always true. First, I’ll find something I don’t like, sometimes something that makes me cringe; second, I’m usually relieved that it isn’t worse. Once in a while I’ll be pleased with a turn of phrase, or happy that the scene flows the way I wanted it to.

In my case, my regrets are always about wording or phrasing. I can’t remember ever regretting a plot turn. Which brings me to the question about killing off characters.

It’s really hard to explain this without sounding silly or melodramatic, but here it is: Characters decide for themselves when they’ve had enough. And probably for that reason, I’ve never looked back. I can’t remember ever feeling the lack of somebody who has moved on.  See? I told you it would sound odd.

As for favorite characters: I have many of them. Some are more persistent than others — a few from Homestead still make themselves heard now and then. It would be easier to name characters I never much liked. But I’ll let you guess. Except, don’t guess Jemima, or Julian. Because you’d be wrong. There are other characters I liked much less.

books — by other people, too

I’ve posted some questions in the discussion forum about Fire Along the Sky, in case anybody would like to get involved in a more detailed discussion. These are just a few issues that interest me, for anybody who has the time and energy.

While I was in London I went into Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. Foyle’s is one of the last big independent bookstores on Charing Cross — I’m sorry to say that Border’s has been on the rampage over there, too, eating up independents like so many bonbons. My great fear is that Border’s will insinuate itself into the lovely space across from Trinity College, Cambridge, where there is now a great bookstore called Heffer’s. The Mathematician was a fellow at Trinity, so we could have got married in the chapel if I hadn’t been too shy (which in retrospect I regret).

At Foyle’s (and Heffer’s) I spent a lot of time looking for historical fiction. For some reason the Brits like it more than Americans do, and I have never come home without a half dozen novels that look interesting, but are unlikely to be published over here. This time I got the sequel to Diana Norman’s A Catch of Consequence (which I reviewed ast year). The sequel is called Taking Liberties and it’s very good, but then everything of hers that I’ve come across really is worth reading.

[asa left]1410401731[/asa] I also got (but have barely started) a novel called Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone, which is about a young man who comes from England in the early 1800s to search for his sister who has been lost, and is now living among the Ottawa. While I was gone I also read James Lee Burke’s White Doves at Morning, which I liked tremendously. Burke normally writes contemporary mysteries (his Dave Robichoux series is highly regarded by critics and readers both), so this historical novel about the Civil War in Louisiana was a departure from him. It’s based in part on his own family story, and it’s extremely compelling. I’ll be posting a full review sometime soon. I hope.

what to read

I’ll be doing book signings/readings for Fire Along the Sky later this month, for anybody who might be in the area: on Monday, September 20 (7:30 pm) at Village Books in Bellingham; and on Wednesday, September 22 (7:00 pm) at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Usually I read for about a half hour and then take questions. I have no idea yet what passage I’m going to read, and I’d be open to any suggestions y’all may have.


I’m at that crucial juncture where I’ve got more than half a book done and I need serious input from my editor, except I can’t ask her. My experience has been that it’s a very bad idea to get the editor involved at a crucial juncture, no matter how much you might actually need her. Because the editor is the one who bought the book; s/he went to the editorial board and publisher and pitched the book you wrote, sold them on it, fought for the money, and presented the package to you (or better said, to your agent). So the editor has a vested interest in the book, and cannot be objective. It’s also just plain hard to send a half manuscript to somebody who has ventured their reputation on your ability to write the damn thing when you’re feeling fragile.

Here’s what the cover letter would look like:

Dear Editor:Why did I ever think I could write this book? Better asked, why did you think I could? Because here I am more than half way through it and nothing seems right. The characters strike me as insipid and unbelievable, the plot sucks, and I can’t write a harmonious sentence to save my life. Obviously I’m done writing, forever.

PS thanks for the great advance.

Possible responses, as I imagine them:

Dear Writer: Crickey, you’re right. It is crap. I see no hope. Send back the advance, today. With 5% interest.

Dear Writer: This is the most beautifully written, funniest, most insightful and moving piece of fiction I’ve ever come across. It’s finished. Here’s a million dollar bonus and a first class plane ticket to come to Manhattan so we can celebrate.

Dear Writer: It needs more (sex/violence/insight/character development); now don’t bother me until you fix it.

Dear Writer: Stop whining and get back to work.

None of this is what I want to hear, really. There’s no editor in the world who can tell me what I need to hear, which is something along these lines:

Dear Writer: Breathe deep. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this many times before. You can do it again. I’m not going to read what you sent because you’re not really ready for me to read it, are you? I thought not. I have total faith in your ability to pull this off. What you need right now is a massage, and an afternoon with a good book and a box of chocolate. Tomorrow you’ll look at this manuscript and know what’s right and, if anything, what needs to be fixed. It will all happen. And if not, you have two advanced degrees and lots of other interests, right?

Towards the end there my inner demon editor got hold of the keyboard again, but that’s the general idea. In a nutshell: you’re alone when you write, and you have to live with it. Pardon me while I go try to gather my senses and see if we have any chocolate in the house.

Pajama Girls and the Evolution of Romance Fiction

I hope you haven’t forgot about Pajama Girls, who are in limbo until the trade paper edition comes out early next year. Lynn, Southerner that she is, has kept an eye out and found an interesting review by Mary Beachum in Augusta Magazine. It’s one of those reviews that starts out a little wobbly — I’m not sure if I’m being panned or not — and then turns toward the positive. You may think I’m odd for saying this, but I almost prefer this kind of review to a no-holds-barred love-it review. There’s some of the reviewer’s personality here, and some real thought.

Funny (and quite accurate, in my opinion) is Ms Beachum’s take on the evolution of romance fiction:

Once upon a time, the pattern of a romantic novel was predictable. Man and woman meet, in some cute way. Despite setbacks, they develop feelings for each other. Then they overcome a major obstacle, declare their love, fall into each other’s arms and are swept away by passion. Well, that is just so 20th century. Today man and woman meet, in some cute way. They decide to indulge in some recreational sex, discover a few common interests and are dismayed to find that they are developing emotional entanglements. After a dance of “on again and off again,” they reluctantly admit that they are in love and walk hand-in-hand into the sunset.

odds and odder ends, including scolding publishers and mean readers

One of the many Jennifers pointed me to this article on the ABC site about authors who write weblogs. Pros, cons, the usual — but the bit that really caught my attention was the publishers weighing in.

At Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where one prominent author, Shirley Hazzard, doesn’t even own an answering machine, president Jonathan Galassi says he doesn’t pay much attention to blogs.

“Maybe we’re behind the times,” says Galassi, who publishes such award-winning authors as Hazzard, Susan Sontag and Jonathan Franzen. “I just think there are too many words out there already. I hope our writers will be spending their time writing their books, not their blogs.”

This both makes me laugh and irritates me. What is the relationship between the publisher and the author, anyway? Teacher to student? Parent to child? Galassi shaking his finger at his authors (now Shirley, get back to writing stuff I can sell ) galls me.

The truth is, publishers won’t or can’t invest the money necessary to bring an author and his/her work to the public’s attention. Ask any published author (below the level of Stephen King) and you’ll hear about the trouble with marketing these days. So authors hire outside public relations people (which I haven’t done) or go to market-it-yourself seminars (which I haven’t done) or arrange their own book tours (ditto) or just sit by and wring their hands while a newly published book gets lost in the thousands of other books published every year. A weblog is one way to reach out to readers, and thus I write.

Other reading: by way of Old Hag I found author/columnist Amy Sohn’s website. Have a look at her angry letters section. Dogdamn, there are some mean people out there. I’m bookmarking it so that I can read it whenever I’m thinking of complaining about my reviews. (Which have been very good for the new novel, she added hastily).

The observant RobynBender sent me this link to Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, the writings of Brit Mil Millington about Margret, his significant other. Go over there if you need something funny to read. For example:

The TV Remote. It is only by epic self-discipline on both our parts that we don’t argue about the TV Remote to the exclusion of all else. It does the TV Remote a disservice to suggest that it is only the cause of four types of argument, but space, you will understand, is limited so I must concentrate on the main ones.

1) Ownership of the TV Remote: this is signified by its being on the arm of the chair/sofa closest to you – it is more important than life itself.

2) On those blood-freezing occasions when you look up from your seat to discover that the TV Remote is still lying on top of the TV, then one of you must retrieve it; who shall it be? And how will this affect (1)?

3) Disappearance of the TV Remote. Precisely who had it last will be hotly disputed, witnesses may be called. Things can turn very nasty indeed when the person who isn’t looking for it is revealed to be unknowingly sitting on it.

4) The TV Remote is a natural nomad and sometimes, may the Lord protect us, it goes missing for whole days. During these dark times, someone must actually, in an entirely literal sense, get up to change the channel; International Law decrees that this, “will not be the person who did it last” – but can this be ascertained? Without the police becoming involved?

the midlist/midlife crisis

Original post date: 14 July 2007

It’s no secret that the publishing houses are spending ever less resources on marketing and advertising novels. More and more it’s up to the author to handle these things, and most of us don’t really know how, or really don’t want to. Paperback Writer has an excellent post on how different authors handle (or fail to handle) the necessity of self promotion.

Because it’s the only way to survive, these days. Here’s the reason why:

You sell a book to a particular editor at a particular press. The offer is made, and the agent and the editor start to hammer out the details. Royalties, copyright, all those crucial matters are discussed. Somewhere in the negotiations, the agent asks the editor for details on marketing and advertising. What will the house do to promote the novel? The agent wants specifics: print and internet advertising, ARCs, media promotions.

Here’s where Alice falls into the rabbit hole. Because somehow or another, your novel is unlikely to get any real marketing no matter how enthusiastic the publisher sounded when you were in negotiations. Unless you are already a big, well known name. Then you will get a decent marketing package. There will be product placement in the big chain stores, sometimes special cardboard stands designed specifically for the novel in question, posters, national print advertising, guest spots on talk shows.

Most authors get none of that. Instead, this is what often happens:

A novel comes out in hardcover. The publisher has great hopes for this novel, but they aren’t willing to invest the funds for a real campaign; if the author wants to pay for a publicist of his or her own, great! But the house isn’t going to do it. The sales staff go to meetings with the buyers from big chain stores but they have dozens and dozens of books to pitch, and instructions on which ones to push hardest. They focus on certain novels — the ones by the big names. The chains are conservative, because they too are responsible to their shareholders. They buy lots of the new novel by the big name, and token amounts of the midlist.

From here it spirals downwards.

When the softcover comes out it won’t sell because it’s not in the stores. It’s not in the bookstores because the big chains didn’t order it. The chains didn’t order it because the hardcover didn’t do very well. The hardcover didn’t do very well because the big chains didn’t order it. They didn’t order it because it was clear the publisher wasn’t really behind it, no marketing, no advertising. The publisher didn’t make the effort, because…? That’s the mystery. Publishers these days seem to be indulging in a lot of magical thinking.

Imagine you go into a gardening center and buy a big, leafy, healthy plant. You pay a lot of money for it because by gosh, it’s exactly the kind of plant your neighbors have had such luck with. Once you get home with the plant, you put it in a closet and neglect to water it. A few weeks later you open the closet in the hope that the plant will have doubled in size and be heavy with big beautiful flowers.

Now you are peeved. The plant is dead, and you’re put out because really, if the plant had been any good to start with, it would have taken care of itself and not demanded things like sunlight and water. You clearly made a mistake when you bought that plant. It failed you completely.

That is the situation for hundreds and hundreds of novels. More every year. Every year authors get more inventive — and desperate — about self promotion. I predict wild stunts. Come see the author walking a tightrope twenty stories up, and no net! Can I interest you in this free, glossy full-color five page introduction to her newest novel? Do you think the head buyer for Barnes & Noble might like expensive chocolates?

The publisher and the bookstore chains are responsible to their shareholders; they watch the bottom line and cut back on the cost of things they hope to do without. Authors need to get their books into print and so they grit their teeth and sign on the dotted line. Thus another co-dependent relationship blossoms.

Sooner or later, something has got to give.

The Trifecta of Storytelling, or the Whole Pie

I came across this diagram and decided to put it back up here, because it’s useful. I, at any rate, find it useful when I’m thinking about what I’m writing.storypie


The star in the middle represents the holy grail in fiction: a book that is loved by critics and devoured by readers. There are a few such beasts out there. Lonesome Dove always comes to mind when I think about this, a masterpiece of storytelling with characters who are going to outlive all of us, with pitch perfect prose and dialogue. The critics adored it, the public did too. It rode the top of the best seller lists for a good while, and made a lot of money.

Most novels fail in one or more of these three key areas. What’s interesting to me is that the litcrit crowd is vocally dismissive of one piece of this pie, but it’s the one piece you can’t do without if you want a novel to really take off, because here’s the universal truth: people need stories. Human beings think and perceive and understand in terms of narrative and story. The story is what makes the reader turn the page.

Strong supporting evidence for this can be found on almost any day’s best seller list. There are books out there which have made fortunes for their authors, which are (bluntly stated) badly written at every level. Off the top of my head, two titles: The DaVinci Code, and Fifty Shades of Grey (and yes, I’ve read them both). What these novels have going for them are their stories, and some of the wildcard elements (marketing in particular can do a lot for sales). They are both built on shocking but appealing ideas: In the first case, Jesus of Nazareth had children; in the second case,  a well-raised young woman can be sexually curious and open to the possibilities of kink,  if the guy in question has a ton of money and a tragic background.

Both of these novels are pretty awful in terms of prose and dialogue and characterization. I’m not going to quote anything here because the idea isn’t to point out what’s wrong with them, but what’s right. Either of them could be a fantastic whole-pie novel if their authors had taken a different approach.

And still: none of that matters because the stories work.

People who write and enjoy the genre generally called literature consider their work or taste  superior to all other genres, and they’ve convinced almost everybody else of this too — the emperor’s new clothes, on a grand scale. But even the most respected writers of literary fiction rarely get near the top of the best seller lists, because plot is, for them, a four letter word.

I personally  consider all three elements of the story pie equally important, but  it’s pretty rare that I come across a whole-pie kind of novel. Byatt’s Possession, Dunnett’s Niccolo Rising series, Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, some of Austen and Dickens and Hardy.  I’m always looking for candidates for the whole-pie shelf, if you’ve got any to suggest.




Even Book Size is Relative (& Relevant)

I had an email from a concerned reader through my Goodreads page. Polly is a bookseller with a valid worry:

Hello there, so sorry to bother you, but I just had to voice my concerns over the recent transition of “Into the Wilderness” from a mass market paperback into trade paperback format.

I’ve been a small bookstore owner for 22 years and have sold a lot of your books, because frankly, I love them (it’s easy to sell something you love!). I keep the full set available at all times on my shelves and recommend them often. So when I attempted to reorder “Into the Wilderness” a few weeks ago from Ingram, I was informed it is now only available in a $16.00 trade paperback. I doubt very seriously it will keep a place on my shelves, especially now that the first book does not match the other books in the series in size, and it is a considerable increase in price for the first book – the one that gets the reader hooked on the series. I expect this is a publisher decision, but I’m so disappointed to see this wonderful series disappear from my shelves.

Polly’s impressions and experiences are to be taken very seriously, as she is at the heart of the business, but (and you knew this was coming) I have no control over the format of the novels.

The increased cost is the biggest issue, of course. I haven’t seen any figures from the industry, so I can’t speak to trends more generally and I don’t know where ITW fits into the larger scheme of things. I do know that sixteen bucks is a chunk of money to pay for a novel. The long-term result is going to be some combination of 1) fewer sales of new books and 2) increased sales of used books.  The other complicating factor has to do with ebooks. The whole Wilderness series sells really well on Kindle, but I’m not sure how that’s relevant to the changed format for ITW.

And again, there’s nothing I can do about any of it.

I will say that I really like the cover art for the trade paper edition of ITW, far better than I liked the original. I would hope it would draw in potential readers. Is it possible that a person would decide to buy ITW in trade paper and then give up on the series because of the change in format — that is, the difference in size and how that looks on the shelf? Anything is possible, I guess. Can I do anything about it? Not a thing, of course. People are by definition idiosyncratic, and make decisions based on all kinds of things that can’t be anticipated or controlled.  Given the current state of flux in the industry, very little can be predicted. The only thing I can do is strive to write a really good story. And that’s what I’m doing.

writing a series

When I wrote Into the Wilderness  I had no idea where it would end up. Ten years later I had six novels in the series (and a couple out of it; well over a million words in print). If you had told me that at the beginning, I might have balked. But it all happened gradually, in an almost organic matter.

In my experience the second book is harder than the first, and I think that a second series is going to be harder that the first one, for a variety of reasons. The biggest, for me is simple: this time I know what I’m getting myself into.

So I’ve got one book finished, and I’m launching the second. Maybe better said: I’m sneaking up on the second one. If I look at it directly it runs away to hide in a dark corner.

It is almost like embarking on a second marriage: a long-term commitment that will take a lot of work and make me happy and crazy by turns.


Here’s the letter you get when your novel is at the starting gate

This email was waiting for me this morning, from one of the production people at Berkley (actually now Penguin/Random House — who can keep up with the mergers and splits in publishing? Not me.) It gives you a sense of how things work, when you come down to it. Note that I haven’t edited out the serious tone or admonitions.  This is my tenth go-round, and it still makes me nervous.

Subject: The Gilded Hour for author review

Here for your review is the fully edited manuscript for THE GILDED HOUR, as well as additional style sheets for your reference.

Please read through it carefully, noting the changes, comments, and corrections. Track changes is already turned on and the file has been protected. You will not be able to “accept” or “reject” changes, so if you want to stet anything you can either retype the words as you want them or insert a comment telling us what to stet. We ask that you please respond to all queries and please do not change or delete any of the copyeditor’s comments.

Please note: this is your last opportunity to make editorial changes to the manuscript. The next time you see the book it will be in the form of typeset page proofs (“galleys”) that you will read for proofreading purposes only. We can only correct typos, grammatical errors and production errors at that stage. We cannot accommodate editorial changes, so it is important that you review these copyedits carefully and ensure that you are happy with the manuscript you return.

The managing editor asked that I have the manuscript back by 3/25. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns.

At this stage I pull up this graphic which helps me hold on to perspective:



Aspiring Writers Ask Questions

bookstack-tall.jpgWhen I have a few minutes and I come across an ad for a conference marketed to self-publishing writers, I go have a look. I admit I am cynical, but I am also willing to be convinced that these are legitimate offerings.

For example:  the San Francisco Writers Conference  has got me wondering.  It runs for three days, costs $750 plus hotel, travel and $60 if you want to do the speed dating for agents thing.  One part of what they list on the website front page:

  • Launch your writing career–or take it to a more professional level.
  • Choose the sessions you want from a schedule of workshops and panels that fit your specific writing needs and goals.
  • Learn about a wide range of publishing options from leaders in self-publishing and traditional publishing.
  • Get your questions answered at the Ask-a-Pro session featuring New York and California editors…included in your registration fee.
  • Go to Speed Dating for Agents – Pitch your book ideas one-on-one in a room full of literary agents ($60 option for registered attendees only). Since the literary agents at SFWC are on the lookout for new clients, you may find the perfect agent for you and your book.  
  • Receive free editorial feedback on your work from freelance book editors. Click HERE for the FAQ sheet!
  • Build your personal writing community at SFWC’s onsite Cafe Ferlinghetti with writers from all over the United States…and other countries, too.

There are opportunities to talk to other people who are pursuing self-publishing, of course, and to the hundred or so exhibitors who are there to sell their services.  Freelance editors, for example. I’m guessing there will be many opportunities to hire people to help you with marketing and book design, as well. I don’t know if there are any reliable statistics out there about how much money people invest in getting self published, but it would be helpful to have such figures.

If you went to this conference you might decide not to invest in any of those services, and be satisfied with what you learn in the three days. There are some well established and respected authors on the roster.

But there are some red flags. First and foremost: At the bottom of the page you’ll see that this horizontal list of links to more information: 


Beyond the typo in San Francisco, the real problem here is the link to  San Francisco Writers University. The link goes nowhere, which might mean they are having server problems, but then  (according to Google) no such university exists. Which makes me wonder about the non profit status as a 509(a)(2) organization.

My understanding is that this non-profit status is for organizations that exist to support organizations with full non-profit status, such as schools. Or universities. So the question is, if San Francisco Writers University doesn’t exist, which organization is being supported?

My advice to anyone interested in self-publishing is to be very careful about this kind of offering. Ask a lot of questions. Ideally they would let you get in touch with other people who have attended in the past. Ideally, they would have statistics to offer on how many people published (and how successfully) or found an agent following from the conference. I would want to know how much time that the featured authors spend mingling, or if they are only present for the classes or panels they participate in. And I would certainly want to know about the San Francisco Writers University. 

If you’ve been to this conference and have something to say, please do comment.  

revealing words on words

There are many things to admire about Barbara Kingsolver’s work. She has written some novels that I think about all the time, even years after first reading them. Her people and their stories crawl into my head and make a permanent home for themselves there, settling in between  Aunt Helen’s overgrown garden at sunrise in the hottest days of summer and the sound of chalk squeaking in Sister Peter Joseph’s fourth grade classroom.  What more could any author ask for? 

Then today I came across this quote about writing, and now I know that she is indeed the wise woman I suspected she must be on the basis of her fiction. Because it all comes down to this.

“A novel can educate to some extent, but first a novel has to entertain. That’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page. I have a commitment to accessibility. I believe in plot. I want an English professor to understand the symbolism while at the same time I want the people I grew up with — — who may not often read anything but the Sears catalog — — to read my books.”  

Barbara Kingsolver

Here in one small image: the end of publishing

Or at least, the end of publishing as we understand it. Consider this fact: In one month there were more than 100,000 new book releases on Amazon Kindle.amazon-com-kindle-ebooks-kindle-store-literature-fiction-foreign-languages-romance-moreI took this screen capture last week and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Two extreme ways of looking at this:

One: Electronic self-publishing has democratized the book industry. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

Two: We are caught up in a tidal wave with no refuge in sight. It’s an embarrassment. 

There’s a weird disconnect in the mind of most of the reading public. Pat doesn’t want to spend $15 on a novel, so s/he jumps into Kindle Land, wanders around, and exits some time later having paid $1.99 for a novel that will be tolerable, or vaguely amusing, or awful, or (this is also possible) excellent.

The author of the $15 novel is an endangered beast in this new landscape, and still Pat finishes the  $1.99 novel and dreams of giving up the day job to be a novelist. And not just any novelist, but a rich one. Someone who knows Oprah’s cell number and who has a film agent. The fact that Pat is unwilling to pay more than $1.99 for a novel should put a crimp in these day dreams.

But this is not happening, as is plain to see because in one month, 100,000+ new books appeared on Kindle. And there are lots more in the pipeline, waiting to be sucked into the tsunami.

It would be very useful to get this huge number broken down and put in context.  Here’s an inquiry for Amazon that I might send, but they will never answer.

Dear Amazon:  

I am researching the career  and life cycle of the modern American novelist and require data for quantitative analysis.  Your assistance would be very much appreciated and duly acknowledged in the author’s notes. 

The data I require:

  1. Total number of new book releases for the years 2000 ______, 2010 ____ and 2015 ______
  2.  For each of these years, I would like the percent published in paper and electronically.  
  3. For each year and category (paper/electronic), please indicate what percent were published by established houses, and what percent were self-published.
  4. Now the same figures, but limited to fiction for the years 2000, 2010 and 2015.

If Amazon were to cough up these numbers (and please don’t hold your breath) we would have the makings of a really interesting discussion. As it is, I can only give you my impressions.

Publishers are in trouble, and will continue to be in trouble until the whole industry self-corrects. Publishers are not particularly good at introspection, so this is another area where you should not hold your breath.

Authors are in trouble because not only is the market saturated with cheap books, the publishers have no interest in helping midlist authors keep their heads above water. It’s sink or swim.  If 50,000 new novels are released over a two or three month time period, how will a reader ever find the novel you just published? What are the odds that your novel will even make it onto a shelf in a brick and mortar bookstore?  Answer: poor.

And that’s where we find ourselves. On the bright side, you’ll be busy for the rest of your life trying to read your way through the mountains novels that are piling up, right now.

Crowdsourcing your Novel

fighting tooth and snail
fighting tooth and snail from The Marginalized Art of Snail-Fighting in Medieval Europe; because publishing has always been crazy

Two years ago Mick Rooney at  The Independent Publishing Magazine reviewed a British publishing outfit called Unbound, which is a new approach based on crowd-sourcing.  That is: you go to their site, read about an author and a book that author is proposing to write, and if you really want to read it, you pony up some money. When the funding goal is met and the book is written, it goes to press and eventually you get a copy.

I vaguely remember reading about Unbound and wondering if it might actually work.  Just today it came back to mind because Raphaela Weissman, a local author but someone I don’t know personally, emailed to say that she was launching a campaign through Unbound for her novel Monsters.  Raphaela originally had an agent and got great feedback from publishers, but in the end nobody took Monsters on, and thus she decided to proceed with the help of Unbound. Her launch page is here. With all this in mind,  I went back to find and re-read Rooney’s review of Unbound.   

It’s going to take me a little while to figure out how I feel about Unbound and that needs to happen before I can commit to anything.

If I knew Raphaela personally I might be tempted to contribute to her crowd-sourcing of the novel just to be supportive of a friend. And that is probably Unbound’s major weakness when it comes to lesser known writers. Monsters may be a fantastic novel, but whether or not it ever sees the light of day depends on how well Raphaela can push the crowd-sourcing.  She has about 90 days to hit the mark. The review at IPM summarizes:

Since Unbound was founded in 2011 [this article was written in 2014], it has successfully funded and published 54 books. There are currently 5 books funded by more than 50%, and 36 books below the 50% funding target. According to this article in the Telegraph UK, each funding project on Unbound needs the support of about 2,500 reader/patron pledges — ranging between £10 and £250. There are various levels of support depending on the amount of each pledge; typically, £10 would provide the reader with a digital copy and access to the author’s community ‘shed’; £20, an additional limited edition hardback; the reader’s name mentioned at the end of the book as a supporter; a signed hardback edition; tickets to the launch party; or a personal appearance by the author (about £750).

Unbound is interesting because it at least is honest about the way it operates. The author is responsible for raising the money necessary to get the book published. They estimate the cost for everything (except the author’s time, which is not calculated and no advances on royalties are paid), come up with a figure, help the author with the launch webpage, and then wait to see if s/he can make it happen. Once the author reaches a certain stage — somewhere about 70 percent of the estimated cost to publish — they step in. 

Traditional publishers go about this from the other end. They never tell the author what they think it will cost to publish the book. Instead they offer an advance and assume the costs of publication up front. So for example they might estimate that it will cost them $25,000 to get a book into print and out into the marketplace (and don’t ask me to verify that number; I’m basing it on the numbers Unbound uses). They assume that cost and offer the author money as well, let’s say $20,000 advance on royalties (which in this day and age would be very good). So that’s about 45K the traditional publisher commits before hand. If the book flops, that’s money the publisher loses. The author is unlikely to ever sell another book to a traditional publisher, but that 20K advance doesn’t have to be paid back.

As soon as the author finished the book and hands it over, the pressure begins. Once public relations teams would take over at this point, but these days — unless you are already a superstar, in bookselling terms — you are expected to be directly and deeply involved in marketing through social media. If the book fails it may be because it wasn’t strong enough or the timing was bad, but it will also be because the publisher put no money into promoting the book. Without promotion, it’s almost impossible to for a novel from a new author to gain a readership. I’ve said before that I truly dislike and resent the way publishers burden writers with marketing and selling their work. For most of us it’s torture and generally not very effective — unless they are already widely read with a large, loyal readership. And then the whole enterprise is beside the point, anyway. 

So I’m not sure what to think about Unbound. I have a large and loyal readership, but even so I find it hard to imagine that a minimum of 2,500 people would invest a minimum of $20 before I’ve ever finish writing the novel.***  Another thing: without an advance, how do I pay the bills while I’m writing the novel? The traditional publisher has that much confidence in me, at least. Of course, here’s where Unbound beats the traditional publisher. Penguin or FSG gives you somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the amount the book sells for, but with Unbound you get 50 percent — an even split with the publisher.

Unbound is trying something different and attempting to move beyond a model of publishing that doesn’t really work anymore. For that they deserve credit. How well they are succeeding is something I can’t tell without investing a lot of time in reading more about them, their authors, and the individual case histories. Something I can’t afford to do because I have a contract, and a novel to finish. 

In the meantime I wish Raphaela Weissman well and I truly hope that the Unbound approach works for her. I’m just not sure that I can climb on board at this point.

***NOTE: Please do not comment to tell me that I’m right or wrong about this; I’m not considering crowd-sourcing, and not looking for encouragement in that direction.  

lend a hand to authors (young and old)

Like everybody else I have to limit the amount of time I spend wandering around in the ether. There are so many things to read and keep track of, I could easily spend the entire day doing nothing else. In these difficult times especially it feels like there’s an emergency every hour  on the hour, so getting stuff done is even harder. Add depression and anger (also about recent events) and it’s takes some real willpower to persevere. 

And yet, here I am asking you to read something new.  

Young writers — young people in general — are having a tough time. I see this up close and personal with my daughter and her friends. A college degree doesn’t mean much in this economy (and yes, it’s still pretty bad, especially for the very young and the 50+ crowd).  

Jason Howell is a talented writer who runs a website where writers chime in on questions he poses. One of his talents is asking interesting questions, so I generally get stuck there for a half hour or so when I stop by. Once in a while I participate by contributing an answer.  Please stop by and see what he has to offer. His website: Howlarium; his Twitter account: Jason Howell;  he’s also on Goodreads. Lend a hand. I can’t hurt and it might help.

See this ad to the right? Yes, I’m changing the subject, but not by very much.  

Bookbub seems to forget that if they put authors out of business, they will have nothing to sell. Isn’t that the definition of a parasite? How do authors counter this kind of mind-set? 


Please remember that like almost every other novelist out there, there is almost no marketing coming from my publishers so somebody else has to do it, and that person is, of course, the author. We scribblers depend to a very large degree on word of mouth and the goodwill of our readers. I have wonderful readers, but you’re all very busy, too.  I hope you’ll understand why I post this reminder of the things you can do to help me keep writing:

  1. Hit ‘like’ here and/or on Facebook (see the bottom of this post or the right hand column). 
  2. Hit ‘share’ for Facebook and/or Twitter.
  3. Save something you see here to your Pinterest pages. 
  4. Share a post you like by email.
  5. Post a review at Amazon or Goodreads or Barnes & Noble or your own website. Mention something I wrote on Facebook or Twitter or your favorite discussion forum.  

And that’s it. The end of the regularly scheduled fundraiser. 

crazy all the time: writers

Here’s the thing about writing, especially writing fiction: You do it alone. In your head, sitting by yourself, your mind splits itself into three or ten or a hundred personas. These characters talk to each other, conflicts blossom and a story takes root and grows.  If writing is going well, you lose time. You fold in on yourself and disappear into your own mind. Your subconscious becomes superconscious. When you come back into the world, you may be surprised to see that it’s raining. Or the sun has set. Or the dog has peed in your slipper.

The kind of focus that generates a story comes easily to a few writers, less easily to most of us who write. Solitude — the ability to isolate oneself, to live inside the mind — is what makes writing possible. So it makes sense that authors tend to be introverts, but even for those of us who are introverted by nature, the necessary mindset is often elusive. Some writers are so desperate for solitude, so frantic for focus that they’ll go to great lengths to impose it on themselves.

Victor Hugo. Imagine him naked.

Demosthenes, an Athenian orator and contemporary of Plato and Aristotle, shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to leave home.

Maya Angelou shut herself into a hotel room and wouldn’t allow housekeeping in until things got fragrant.

Victor Hugo had his servant hide all his clothes and wrote naked to stay focused — and in the house.

Friedrich Schiller had to have a desk drawer full of rotting apples in order to focus on writing.

Dickens had nine little objects that had to be on his desk when he wrote, including a figurine of a dog fancier surrounded by puppies.

Here’s a question that might occur to a logical, impartial observer of writers: if you must have solitude to write, but the getting of solitude is so difficult, why? Why write? Why are so many people enamored of the idea? Scratch a plumber, a pediatrician, a tug-boat pilot, and a would-be novelist emerges.  Any traditionally published writer is aware of this, because the plumber, pediatrician and  tug-boat pilot have said as much, to his face. What is less clear to me personally is if the people who are so enamored of the idea know what they’re getting into. From all different angles, do they have any idea?

I have no research to back this up, but I have the strong impression that many people want to see in themselves the next millionaire author.  My first bit of advice: If you really want to write, make sure you’re not doing it just for the money.

The Authors Guild published results of a study on author income in 2015  (you can download the pdf here) with some unhappy truths: the majority of authors earn below the poverty line. Worse than that: Since 2009 authors are earning less, and because the Authors Guild wants you to understand what that means, they provide this graphic:

click for a larger image

If writing were easy, maybe people would do it for fun. But it isn’t easy, as Orwell points out in his usual forthright way:

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.George Orwell

Consider the conundrum basic to the pursuit of publication:  The writer is (most usually) an introvert with a goal. The end result of all her solitary inward-turned creative endeavor is a story, and stories require an audience. You need solitude, and you need an audience. There’s a disconnect there. A built in neurosis, which can be defined very simply as ‘arising out of inner conflict.’

There are a couple ways to get an audience. You send out your stories to friends and family; you join a critique group, you post your work online. And this may be enough of an audience for you. You’re not worried about getting paid; you just want to be heard.  If you do want to earn a living writing, your options are narrow. You find a traditional publisher, or you self publish.  Either of these options presents you with a conundrum. You need solitude to write, but the publishing business seems designed to deny you the solitude and peace of mind you need.

In the film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson is a novelist in a deep rut and unable to finish her overdue work. Her publisher sends her an assistant: confidante, cheerleader, mentor, played by Queen Latifah. Quick hint: this doesn't happen. If you can pay for this kind of help yourself, great; otherwise, don't hold your breath.
In the film Stranger than Fiction, Emma Thompson is a novelist in a deep rut and unable to finish her overdue work. Her publisher sends her an assistant: confidante, cheerleader, mentor, played by Queen Latifah. Quick hint: this doesn’t happen. If you can pay for this kind of help yourself, great; otherwise, don’t hold your breath.

There are writers successful enough to afford publicists and marketing experts and others who will shield you from the crass side of getting a book out there, but most of us aren’t in that crowd.   In the here and now, a writer who wants to be published has to interact with a wide variety of people. Agents, editors, and all the dozens of people who are involved in getting a book out to the public. A good agent will run interference, but s/he can’t play the game for you. Then, in the current market, you find yourself dealing with bookstore owners and clerks, book reviewers, book group coordinators, social media groups, and readers.

I hear you asking: what about your editor?  That assumes (1) that the novel is already under contract and your editor isn’t juggling 20+ authors and novels and has nothing better to do than to sit down with you over a long lunch twice a week; or (2) that you’ve hired a private editor (again: refer to the diagram above).  So the answer: you need other writers, people who understand the process, who know something about plot structure and point of view.

Finding a writing group is not easy. We need each other, but we’re introverts, we’re anxious, we’re underpaid, and we’re creatives with egos. Let’s say you have found the right group, people who are at approximately your same skill level and you all click, you get and give solid feedback, the feedback helps you polish your work, and your epic novel (on the colonization of Mars, or twin sisters in a death battle over an inheritance, or a depressed teenager) starts to come together.  In the modern day you have two choices: you can try to find an agent who will try to find the right editor and publishing house, or you can self publish. And this is where the real crazy starts.

 It doesn’t matter which route you go, it’s crazy all the way. Even before the 2008 crash publishing was as stable as a drunken sailor;  since that point it is more like the shuffleboard court on the Titanic. On top of that, the new technologies have created a crisis that will take another twenty years to sort itself out. Unfortunately, we — you and I — we live in the here and now. This is our circus. These are our monkeys.

The truth is that publishers are terrible business people who indulge in a lot of magical thinking. They buy hundreds and hundreds of novels every year and toss them  (and their authors) carelessly onto  ever-more-crowded world stage.  Introverted people who are most comfortable, who actually need solitude to create their work are pushed into this chaos. Today it’s not enough to write; even if you have a traditional publisher, you have to take responsibility for your novel’s success, and that means either hiring professionals, if you have 25K or so extra lying around, or teaching yourself how to do it. Which is a drain on your mindset and sense of self and the solitude you need.

Your writing will suffer for your writing.

Speaking to a group of college students, Hunter S. Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”
Is it any wonder that writers tend to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder? That a good number of us self medicate with drugs and alcohol?  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway about his troubling reliance on alcohol. Hemingway wrote back: “Of course you’re a rummy. But no more than most good writers are.” The writers who gathered for lunch at the Algonquin round table — what they referred to as their vicious circle — embraced their excesses. Dorothy Parker, the quickest of the wits, had a serious alcohol problem but played it for laughs with bon mots like “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.”

There are legions of stories about hard drinking writers sitting together, talking about writing and stories and human nature. Because writers in this situation are often drinking and because they are introverts and prone to depression, they get into arguments and, sometimes, fist fights. The worst of that generation was Norman Mailer, who head butted Gore Vidal right before they were supposed to walk onto the Merv Griffin show together.

Mailer acted out before that term had any currency. He once tried to bite an actor’s ear off, he regularly punched people in the face, stabbed not one but two wives, and got away with it. Mailer was a violent alcoholic who could tell a story. Underneath the crazy he may have been a traumatized and depressed introvert. Or he may have been a narcissistic self indulgent sociopath and ass.

The worst writer craziness has to do with alcohol and drugs, but not all of it.  A large proportion of our kindred suffer from bipolar disorder as well as depression. Robert Frost was a depressed introvert, possibly bipolar, and according to Wallace Stegner, a prima donna. He demonstrated that nicely one year at the Breadloaf Writers Conference. While the poet Archibald MacLeish was giving a reading, Frost started a fire in the back of the room. Just a little fire. Easily put out. So MacLeish did not stop the reading, and Frost stormed out in a huff.

To this point I’ve been focusing on traditional publishing, but there’s just as much, if not more, craziness in the newer world of epublishing. At first glance it seems like a good idea: cut out the middle man, those publishers who are great at gatekeeping, but not so good at tending their own gardens. The problem: cutting out one middle man just leaves a hole, and in the way of all things, vacuums get filled, these days, mostly by Amazon. And by scam artists. People who want to teach you how to be a self published success. For a price.

Of course, they haven’t done it themselves, but they can do it for you. Log into any social media site and identify yourself as a writer, and you will get to know these people right away.

Those who write and want to be published are vulnerable. They are driven, and needy, and clueless, lambs to the slaughter. Even experienced people who should know better are so desperate for a way into publishing that they fall for these scams. I personally know a physician who was writing a medical thriller, an extremely intelligent, successful woman at the top of her field. She was so focused on this novel, on the acknowledgement that it would bring her, that all common sense went out the window and she paid out some five hundred dollars to one of those online organizations who will so gladly show you the way.

She would never fall for somebody trying to sell her aluminum siding, or for a down-on-his-luck Nigerian prince who writes pathetic emails. But she did fall for somebody who recognizes her wish to be an indie published  writer, and that person goes in for the kill. I would call that crazy behavior on her part, but it’s understandable, how it happens.

Google the phrase “self publish my novel” and you’ll get 3,940,000 hits in a matter of seconds.

I have been pondering this nuttiness for most of my adult life. As it turns out, there is, I think, a fairly simple answer. This quote is from Jhumpa Lahiri:

It was not in my nature to be an assertive person. I was used to looking to others for guidance, for influence, sometimes for the most basic cues of life. And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, ‘Listen to me’.”

Of course at this point you have to consider Hemingway. He yelled ‘Listen to me’ and people listened. The whole western world listened. And still he ended his own life, as successful and well received as he was. Maybe people tell stories and work to get them published because they want to be heard, or maybe that’s just one small part of the larger mystery of why we do what we do. Certainly for Hemingway, being heard was not enough.

So you have to ask yourself, will you be satisfied with being heard by what will probably be a fairly small circle of people, for little monetary return? Are you willing to invest not just your mind but your peace of mind?  If so, then arm yourself, and sally forth. I look forward to reading your novel.

The truth about self publishing

Nicole Dieker has a post on Jane Friedman’s weblog that is essential reading for anybody who is thinking about self-publishing.  Here’s the reason you should read it if you fall into that category:

So I spent several months researching the self-publishing process and planning my own marketing and publication strategy. It turns out that there’s a lot of information on how to self-publish a book, and a lot of advice regarding marketing, social media, and so on—but there aren’t as many case studies showing how well these publication strategies work.

Which is why I’m giving you my own case study. Everything I’ve done so far, along with the costs and the results.

I’ll start with the most important statistic first: as of this writing, I’ve sold 167 ebooks and 118 paperbacks, and my royalties and earnings total $803.90.

Dieker has earned a total of $803.90 for her The Biographies of Ordinary People. She breaks down what she has paid for production, shipping, and marketing from multiple angles.  What she doesn’t include in her analysis: her time. The time it took to write the novel, and the many, many hours that went into organizing publication and marketing.  My guess is that if you could add all the time up she’d have earned something far below the minimum wage.

It was courageous of Dieker to self-publish, and in my opinion, even more courageous to write in such detail about the process. Certainly I’m thankful that she went to the trouble to actually analyzing how well the various (often highly priced) marketing strategies work.   


never buy a pig in a poke: the bookish adaptation

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.
Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. (more…)

Queen of Swords cover copy

This is my revision of what the marketing people came up with. There will probably be some more changes.


It is the late summer of 1814 and Hannah Bonner and her half-brother, Luke, have spent more than a year searching the islands of the Caribbean for Luke’s wife and the man who abducted her. But Jennet’s rescue, so long in coming, is not the resolution they hoped for. In the spring Jennet gave birth to Luke’s son, and in the summer she found herself compelled to surrender the infant to a stranger in hope of keeping him safe.

To claim the child, Hannah, Luke, and Jennet must journey first to Pensacola. There they learn a great deal about the family who has the baby: the Poiterins are a very rich, very powerful Creole family, and without scruples. The matriarch of the family has left Pensacola for New Orleans, and taken the child she now claims as her great grandson with her.

New Orleans is a city on the brink of war, where prejudice thrives and where Hannah, half Mohawk, must tread softly. Careful plans are made as the Bonners set out to find and reclaim young Nathaniel Bonner. Plans that go terribly awry, isolating them from each other in a dangerous city at the worst of times.

Sure that all is lost and sick unto death, Hannah finds herself in the care of a family and a friend from her past, Dr. Paul de Guise Savard dit Saint-d’Uzet. It is Dr. Savard and his wife who save Hannah’s life, but Dr. Savard’s half brother who offers her real hope. Jean-Benoit Savard, the great grandson of French settlers, slaves, Choctaw and Seminole Indians, is the one man who knows the city well enough to engineer the miracle that will reunite the Bonners and send them home to Lake in the Clouds. With Ben Savard’s guidance, allies are drawn from every segment of New Orleans’s population, and from Andrew Jackson’s army, now pouring pouring into the city in preparation for what will be the last major battle of the War of 1812.

I've been wikkied

Somebody set up a page at Wikipedia.* It’s a very factual page, nicely done. Anybody who registers can add or edit information, if so inclined.

*It wasn’t me. That would be considered very bad form.

book trailers

Early last month I saw Marta Acosta’s blog post about a book trailer contest. I didn’t give it much thought. Or at least, I tried to put it out of my head. But eventually I sat down and played with this idea I had. And the result (eventually) was a two minute book trailer. In a fit of courage I uploaded it, and then took it down again. Now the deadline’s coming up, and I decided to go ahead. I don’t expect to win anything, but I did have fun doing this. I just uploaded it to YouTube tonight.

The idea, if you didn’t go over and read about it on Marta’s weblog, is simple. You pick a classic novel (Marta’s definition is pretty flexible) and put together a two minute book trailer that convinces people to read the book. Or you can go in the opposite direction, because there are prizes for the best bad book trailer.

People who have been reading this weblog for a while won’t be surprised that I did a book trailer for Gone with the Wind. It will be very clear that I’m just a hobbyist. But an earnest one.

writing prompt: ads

There are lots of writing exercises out there that involve the quick-fire approach of using an classified ad as a starting point. The infamous Hemingway baby shoes one-liner is an example (forgive me if I don’t provide the link, yet again). I often had students write or respond to personal ads as an in-class writing assignment. One kind of classified ad is less suited to this kind of writing exercise, and that is, job ads.

Job ads tend to be very dry. We need x, y, z; get in touch if this is you. Some companies take recruitment more seriously and they indulge in marketing speak. Wow, are we a great company to work for!

My personal advice for anybody writing any kind of ad? Stay away from WOW.

Every once in a while I see an employment ad that jolts me, the kind of thing that gets story ideas firing immediately. Here’s one I saw today:

Farsi Linguist with Final Top Secret / SCI clearance for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

Who would apply for this job? Really, I’m serious. A fluent speaker of Farsi is somebody either native to that part of the world, or somebody with close ties and long associations. So I ask again: who would apply for this job?

Have you ever run across a job ad that stopped you in your tracks? I’m not talking about the overblown fake-ads (for example: earn 3k a month lounging on your couch and eating bonbons!) I mean real ads that are astounding or outrageous in some way. Back a long time ago when I was looking for my first academic appointment I remember seeing some postings that took my breath away, usually from small colleges, something like this: non-tenure track faculty member to teach four introductory composition sections each trimester, take over undergraduate advising for the English Department., and assume the normal range of administrative responsibilities.

Which basically meant: come work your rear off teaching the most time intensive courses we’ve got and anything else we can think to heap on your desk, including but not limited to sweeping the halls, fixing the copier, and taking notes at every itty-bitty committee meeting. We’ve got next to nothing to pay you and after three years or so when you’re rung dry, we’ll boot you out for the next new PhD desperate for a job. If you had any research aspirations or family obligations let us just say: ha.

And still, I have to say the Guantanamo Bay linguist is the most disturbing ad I’ve ever run into.

Charleston in the spring

Just fyi, if you happen to live within shouting distance of Charleston SC, I’ll be at the Spring Book & Author Luncheon on May 1. It’s a fundraiser in support of Lowcountry Literacy. Book signings, food, etc. I don’t know who the other three authors will be, but when I do, I’ll post about that here.

And of course I’ll be reading from The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square.

pardon me while I… whooopeee!

We are now on the new server, and things are looking good. That is a great relief, no? Also good news… but first, a question:

Do you get tired of me talking about what’s going on with Pajama Girls? It occurs to me that maybe I’m overestimating your interest. But there is something I want to share (good news) so here it is:

Woman’s Day Magazine (with a circulation of about oh, 43 gazillion) has a list out in its new issue (and on its website) called Ten New Must Read Books and the first one on the list is, yes, Pajama Girls. Below is a screenshot from the website slide show of all ten titles. It’s too small to read, but click on it to go to the actual webpage.

Did I say this is good news?

Later this evening (in case you were wondering) I’ll post about the status of the pajamarama contest, and also about the upcoming meme.

Woman's Day Magazine February 2008

Into the Wilderness in trade paper

I may have mentioned that Bantam is re-issuing Into the Wilderness in the fall, in trade paperback format. ((TPB, sometimes referred to as a trade paper edition, is a paperback book in which the text pages are identical to the text pages in the hardcover edition. It is usually the same size as the hardcover edition. The only difference is the softbinding; and the quality of the paper is usually higher than that of a mass market paperback.

Trade paperbacks are typically priced less than hardcover books and higher than mass market paperbacks. Virtually all “Advance Reader’s Copies” are issued in trade paperback format. Wikipedia ))

What Bantam hopes (and I hope too, of course) is that this new edition will catch the eye, leading to a whole new readership. If it does well, (and I mean, really well), they will probably re-issue the other titles as well in new format with new cover art.

I’m quite happy with this design. The cut-off face thing is big now and sometimes I don’t like it, but I think it works here. And they got the clothes right. And the hair. So I’m satisfied. No, I’m more than satisfied. I’m really pleased that Bantam has such faith in the series.

evocative cover art

[asa left]0061430226[/asa] Will you look at this cover art for Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow? Now this is great design. It pops out at you from across the bookstore. An unusual size, the strong coloring, it all works. But there’s more. There is no dustjacket, instead the front and back have paper cutouts that are afixed to the bookcloth.

This author knows how to promote his new novel. Look at this whizbang website . I am truly impressed.  And here’s the starred PW review:

Starred Review. Barlow’s gut-wrenching, sexy debut, a horror thriller in verse, follows three packs of feral dogs in East L.A. These creatures are in fact werewolves, men and women who can change into canine form at will (Dog or wolf? More like one than the other/ but neither exactly). Lark, the top dog in one of the packs who’s a lawyer in human form, has a master plan that may involve taking over the city from the regular humans. Anthony Silvo, a dogcatcher and normally a loner, finds himself falling in love with a beautiful and mysterious woman (Standing on four legs in her fur,/ she is her own brand of beast). A strange small man and his giant partner play tournament bridge and are deep into the drug trade. A detective, Peabody, investigates several puzzling dog-related murders. The irregular verse form with its narrative economies proves an excellent vehicle to support all these disparate threads and then tie them together in the bittersweet conclusion.

five things you can do to support your favorite authors: new & improved!

Talk to people about YFA’s newest book, let them know why you like it; mention it at dinner with cousin Trudy or in an email to a friend you think might like it. And if you have no friends who fall into this category, consider that you might need to get out more.

The next time you are in a bookstore, ask for YFA’s newest book, and also for one of his or her backlist. If they don’t have it, look surprised. If they volunteer to special order it, say, thank you, but (a) I saw a pile of them at B&N or (b) I’ll get it from Amazon.

Every once in a while, buy one of YFA’s books new. If you have Joe Morgenstein’s fifteen volume series of novels about a pirate with a weakness for high heels, but you got them all used, then consider buying volume sixteen, Manolo Masquerade, new. Because used books don’t really help YFA out much.

If you visit the author’s website or weblog, look for clickables. You know, “digg this” or “stumbled upon” or “technorati favorites” or “email this to a friend”- and click ’em – in moderation, but do click. Think of it as a thumbs up, much appreciated by YFA.

Concise Amazon reviews that provide balance Maybe not so much in terms of actual sales, but they do a lot to dispel that feeling that you’re shouting into an empty room.

Let’s turn this around

Edited to reformat and reformulate::

Let’s take for granted that you want a good story, plot, characters, and all that. What else makes the experience of reading a novel or a body of work more enjoyable or interesting? You can pick all or none of 1-13, or tell me to mind my own business with 14. If there’s something you’d like to suggest, please mention it in the comments. (if you don’t see the poll, hold on; I’m tinkering).

Well, shoot. The polling plugin isn’t working with the new version of WordPress, so I’ll have to do this the old fashioned way. Here’s a list of things you might like or dislike. If you are so inclined, could you tell me which ones appeal to you?

  1. maps (somewhere inside the book)
  2. illustrations (other than maps)
  3. a note from the author about how the book came to be
  4. a note from the author on the research (if there was any)
  5. suggestions for further reading that’s relevant to the book’s theme or setting
  6. a cast of characters list
  7. footnotes (this has been done in novels, specifically in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example)

more specifically to the author, are these things you’d rather have, or not have

  1. an author website
  2. an author weblog that is regularly updated
  3. a discussion forum maintained by the author
  4. discussion forum, but it can be anywhere and the author doesn’t need to be present
  5. author biography
  6. photographs
  7. book recommendations and reviews
  8. writing tips and exercises
  9. interviews with other authors
  10. giveaways/contests

Use the comments to tell me what you think, okay? This would be a help to me — and other authors, too.

And I was doing so well…

Well, hell.

This sometimes happen towards the end of a novel. 200,000+ and I realize I have to start all over from scratch. Dump the whole thing.

I’ll try to get it done within a year.

Okay, I’m kidding. But I do have to rewrite three chapters. That’s better than the whole thing, no?

In the meantime, the trade paper release of Pajama Girls is just around the corner, and the marketing people are starting to rouse themselves. If you plan on ordering it from Amazon at some point, why not preorder it now? It would certainly help if folks showed an early interest.

Click the cover to be magically transported to Amazon:

[asa book]0425225917[/asa] I realize that this cover does not show up well on a white background; when I have a chance I’ll give it a frame.

Newsflash via the NYT: Things are Tough for New Novelists

If you don’t laugh at this, you’ll really have to cry. If you’re an aspiring novelist, you may find yourself weeping.

The New York Times has an article about the pseudo-anonymous novel The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling. If you’re not aware: Rowling wanted to see how publishing feels for the rest of us, so she used a pseudonym (Robert Galbraith)  to sell a mystery novel, which got only a few mediocre reviews and sold few copies. She planned to reveal herself as the true author but was sad that it got leaked so soon:

“I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer, because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name” (quoted in The Author’s Guild article on this same phenomenon).

I don’t know how to feel about this. The Queen dresses as a peasant and goes out to wander the city, and is surprised when her cover is blown. She intended to blow her own cover, but gosh, somebody beat her to it.  What’s that about? The theories in my head are not complementary, so I’ll let this aside for the moment after pointing out that Rowling stood to make no money from the novel, all the proceeds go to charity. The thing you need to know is, she wrote a mystery. It did not sell, and got mediocre reviews. Somebody leaked the fact that she was in fact the author, and sales are now through the roof. And positive reviews are pouring in. A lot of negative ones, too, but quite a few that glow on the page.

In my last post I talked about the fact that a first class novel, one with both critical and commercial success, is  rare. There are some wild cards:; an indifferent novel can dance at the top of the best-seller list  for weeks with the right marketing or name on the cover. And the NYT kindly provides an example of this exact thing happening, but starts by pointing out the painfully obvious::

In any event, a publishing contract is hardly a guarantee of critical or commercial success. Much depends on how a new manuscript is treated by the publisher.

Thanks for clearing that up, NYT.  My own rather jaded version of this can be found here.

The example they provide is for the 2010 novel Matterhorn  by first-time novelist Karl Marlantes. A prominent editor with deep pockets  found one of the 300 printed copies of the book, and set out to make a star of it. This really was excellent news for Marlantes, but the odds of this happening were astronomical.

First time novelists should be realistic about the chances going in, of course. But it’s still frustrating to see concrete examples of how very stacked the deck is.  I believe that there are many hundreds of really excellent novels out there that their authors will have to fight for before they see the light of day. I hope they persevere.

Now I have to say one more thing about JK Rowling. Somebody made up a bio for her alter-ego Galbraith, which appeared on one of the publisher’s websites (this is also from The Authors Guild article):

Born in 1968, Robert Galbraith is married with two sons. After several years with the Royal Military Police, he was attached to the SIB (Special Investigation Branch), the  plain-clothes branch of the RMP. He left the military in 2003 and has been working since then in the civilian security industry. The idea for protagonist Cormoran Strike grew directly out of his own experiences and those of his military friends who have returned to the civilian world.  Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym.

This sits wrong with me. Authors who claim authority that they don’t really possess are viewed askance by readers and critics both. Or am I’m being too critical?

book reveal? your opinions please

The cover art for The Gilded Hour is done, and I’m really pleased with it. I asked my editor when I could post it here, and she gave me a choice.

I can post it as soon as it gets through all the approval stages (in about three weeks), or if I want, I can do a cover reveal.

It’s true that I haven’t been reading a lot of weblogs over the last year or so, trying to stay focused on writing and dealing with family issues, so I shouldn’t be surprised about new trends creeping into the way authors promote their books on the internet. But this did surprise me. I’ve read what I could find about doing a cover reveal, and I’m still not clear beyond the fact that it involves asking other writers and weblogs to participate, some how. This goes against my nature, but I could possibly do it, if the results warrant it.

So here’s the question: do you pay attention to cover reveals? Are they interesting and worthwhile, or strained and silly?

Examples where you liked a book reveal would be welcome. Also, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, that would be interesting information. New online marketing techniques evolve, and many fail. It would be good to know where this one stands.


Book Expo America and free books

I’m going to Book Expo America at the end of the month, where I’ll be signing ARCs of The Gilded Hour  to give away. Lotsa writers and novelists there doing the same.  Publishers Weekly has a list of major books to grab, including The Gilded Hour.

Fighting crowds has never been my thing, but I’m going to try to get a copy of Maira Kalman’s Beloved Dog.

And then there’s Alice Hoffman’s The Marriage of Opposites.





Historical fiction: USA Today article

Donna Thorland, The TurncoatMadeline Hunter  not only writes great historical romances, she also has a column she writes for USA Today called HEA (Happily Ever After) about romance novels more generally. For today’s edition she interviewed a number of historical novelists (including me) about the difference between historical fiction and historical romance (you can read it here).

It was very interesting to me to see how other writers (including Donna Thorland, whose novels I really like and I have been meaning to review) answered some very thought-provoking questions. 

What is Amazon up to with *Romance Literary Fiction*?

Genre is a subject I have successfully avoided for years. I purposefully stopped writing about terms like ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ ‘women’s fiction’ and ‘bodice-ripper’ because it felt like a useless exercise. Opinions about romance novels seem to be carved in stone.

“I’m not really into espionage novels,” is something you might hear someone say. No censure, just a simple statement of preference.  I have a hard time imagining the same person saying “I’m not really into romance novels.” To say ‘romance novel’ to most people who consider themselves educated and well read is like a Texas border guard demanding papers. People scramble to prove they are worthy, and that means disassociating themselves in no uncertain terms. When it comes to romance, you’re far more likely to hear “I don’t read trashy novels.”

At the same time it’s true that genres – or the reception of genres — evolve. Hard-boiled detective fiction was once a secret vice; now authors like Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos are held in high regard. Larry McMurtry and Elmore Leonard brought westerns out of the shadows.

The question is, will the same happen for romance fiction? Could it be happening now?   I started thinking about this when I noticed that Amazon had come up with a new and (in my opinion) awkward classification: Romance Literary Fiction.


So I did some googling. 

In 2014 there was a Huffington Post article with the provocative title “How I Learned to Stop Being a Literary Snob and Love Romance.” It was written not by a person, but by a corporate entity: Zola Books, which has a website called Bookish, where the object is to sell books. What’s off-putting about this is the way the anonymous author claims authority:

Then, in my second week on the job, I was invited to a romance author luncheon. I faked my way through conversations about “my first Julie Garwood“ and was delighted to discover that the authors I met were sharp, outspoken, well-read ladies. (I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t expect I’d be able to talk to the women about Internet culture, body image and other non-romance topics.) Six months later, I was moderating a panel with those two of those authors, talking about fans’ tendencies to scold heroines over heroes, the ideal of the happily-ever-after (including when or when not to employ it) and other intricacies of the romance genre.

Bookish has no insights to offer, clearly.  

The article “The Lure of Romance Writing (and Earnings) for the Literary Set” (2015) also did not do anything to clarify for me what’s going on in the genre.  Jane Friedman is a professional consultant to writers; I haven’t met her or worked with her, and I know nothing about her, good or bad. But I have to say  that she  doesn’t really seem to understand the inner workings of the genre.  She knows that writers want to be published, and that they hope to make a living do that, but here’s what she says about an author who trained in a traditional academic MFA program who turned to romance writing:

And Iva liked the romance community she found, comprising women who she says are warm and outgoing, vibrant and middle class, who reminded her of the women she grew up with. “I felt at home with them. The literary world is much more introverted, and much more bitter, cynical, and weary to some degree. There’s a vast amount of transparency in the romance world. That’s how women operate; it’s a women-dominated field.”

In the romance industry, emerging authors don’t have to search out advice or mentor-shop, Iva said. Experienced authors and peers will tell you how it works, repeat what they told you, then take you by the hand and show you. “You could call that mothering,” Iva said. “It’s just how they do it.”

I re-read this about twenty times trying to pinpoint what bothers me. Some of this is from the author Friedman is interviewing, but it’s presented without commentary and so I wonder:  Do the author and Friedman really see romance novelists as middle-class females? Do they see writers in other genres as upper class or working class?  Is it expected that a writer of romance novels will be kind and supportive of one another and selfless in promoting each other?  I know some romance novelists who are like this, but not many. Most of us are regular people, and we do not all get along. Believe me when I tell you that you do not want examples. And if you do want examples, do a little searching here for “Dear Author” and “Smart Bitches” to see how less-than-motherly things can be.

Friedman goes on to discuss how an MFA can be useful to a writer of romance novels: 

Iva says she owes her skill at the craft to her MFA program, and other romance writers I talked to who have MFA degrees—including Marina Adair and Kait Ballenger—emphasized the value of their degrees in teaching them the craft and how to accept feedback and criticism. The combination of disciplined writing chops and romance’s marketability certainly appears to be rocket fuel for a publishing career. Adair sold seven romances while earning her MFA from San José State University; while she started out in screenwriting, focusing on family films and teen comedies, she says she can’t imagine writing anything else now except romance. Ballenger also signed traditional publishing deals while enrolled in a low-residency program at Spalding University, and now has multiple romance books out, with more on the way. Before pursuing romance, Ballenger focused on writing and publishing young adult novels (her degree concentration is children’s/YA), and she continues to pursue both genres. But romance is now paying her bills, and she doesn’t have a YA deal yet.

The debate about the relative worth of MFA programs is an old one, and fraught. Some successful writers (with and without MFAs) will tell you that it’s a waste of money. Writers who teach in MFA programs will tell you the opposite.  I have a PhD and not an MFA; I sometimes teach at conferences and I taught fiction as a regular faculty member at two universities, but never in an MFA program. My feelings are mixed, though I do agree that learning to accept feedback and criticism is crucial to developing as a writer. 

And I’m still no closer to understanding what is meant by Romance Literary Fiction, which Amazon thinks I write. It is  clear to me that as a for-profit corporation, Amazon only changes things if they see a potential for increased sales.  That’s not something to complain about, on the face of it. What is less clear to me is whether they made this decision based on trends they were seeing, or if they are trying to start something. A google search for “Romance Literary Fiction” in quotes provides a partial answer:  it shows up only on Amazon.com.  So they are trying to start something, but what?


o! my eyes! my eyes!
o! my eyes! my eyes!

Pardon me while I melt down.

If you’ve read Homestead or know anything about it, you will also know that there is nothing Heidi-like about it. Not a thing. But today I discovered that the Hebrew language edition has a Heidi cover. Yes, it’s true. And here’s the proof.

all (american) girl

cogan_aagirl Fiona Jeffcoat-Yu left an interesting comment in response to my list of female protagonists, with two recommendations for further reading.

The first is an academic study called All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America, by Frances B. Cogan, 1989. This is a University of Georgia Press book and will probably be a bit of a challenge to find in paperback, but I think I’ll have to have a look at it if only to give me more to argue with the next time somebody writes to say that Elizabeth Middleton is an anachronism. Ali-Hostage

(The two extremes of criticism I have got about my Elizabeth are: (1) she’s unrealistic for her time; (2) she’s June Cleaver. In the first case, I reject the criticism on the basis on historical fact, and in the second, I laugh. I can’t see June Cleaver going after Jack Lingo with a rifle butt.)

Fiona’s second recommendation was for a novel, Thalassa Ali’s A Singular Hostage (Bantam ISBN: 0553381768) which is a historical set in 1836, and looks to be the kind of book I like best, with a heroine in line with My List of Seven. I’m ordering a copy from Village Books today.

subjective illusions: on criticism

This quote is from W.H. Auden, who was one of the principal poets of the last century. It comes from his autobiography (it’s not a standard autobiography, but there’s not much else to call it), A Certain World:

For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.

This both interests and disturbs me, because while it looks very even handed and reasonable, there’s one flaw I can’t get past. Every book must fall into one of two primary categories: this is good or this is trash.

So I tried to figure out how this does or doesn’t work for me. I’ve named novels that fall into each category, for me personally.

1. I can see this is good, and I like it. The Magician’s Assistant; Pride & Prejudice; A Thread of Grace

2. I can see this is good, but I don’t like it. almost all of James Joyce

3. I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that [with perseverance] I shall come to like it. Atonement

4. I can see that this is trash but I like it. I prefer the wording: guilty pleasures: Princess Daisy

5. I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it. DaVinci Code

But there are so many books that don’t fit into any of these five categories. Many, many books that I cannot call good, or trash. So now I’ll try to come up with my own variant on Auden’s list. In the meantime I’m off to Starbucks, my laptop firmly under my arm.

With apologies to Auden, this book evaluation scheme works for me better than his more streamlined version.

***** well written, great characters, great plot

**** some flaws, but still all around pretty darn good

*** nothing out of the ordinary

** some redeeming features

* poorly written, cardboard characters, terrible plot

(+) I like it.

(-) I don’t like it. (boring, annoying, irritating)

(~)Under other circumstances, I might come to like it.


Now, thinking about this further, I would be even more comfortable going the whole way and using the system I set up when I was trying to figure out why some novels become best sellers. You see the diagram here, with seven categories. That would mean, for example, that a given novel might be a 6(~) or a 4(+) or (less likely) a 1(+), in my evalation.

A German idiom comes to mind: warum einfach, wenn es kompliziert auch geht?

The comment function should be working now; however, if you run into an error message, please email me, okay? Because that’s the only way I know that something’s off. In the meantime, this comment from Robyn on my Auden-esque ramble:

I’ve decided that my qualifiers for a Great Read (one
worthy of shelf space and re-reading and pressing on
to others) is, it: made me laugh, made me cry, got me
sexually or sensually involved, made me think, and had
at least one compelling character who CHANGED or
LEARNED and whom I still cared about some time after I
had closed the book. For bonus points, or if one of
these areas was weak or neglected, having been
surprised in a satisfied manner (or satisfied in a way
I didn’t see coming).

If it made me see something in a new way, or had a few
words that stuck in my head that I had to copy down to
read again, that’s extra points, too.

If I can’t muster that much critical energy, then the
fast, economy test for me is a two-pronged question —

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,

So, interesting — I, the consumer, judge a read by
the effects it has on me. You, the pro, (pro-ducer and
pro-fessional) describe it in terms of its structure,
prose, etc.

I love your illustration, btw. Putting things in their
proper spot on a Venn diagram always makes me feel
that the world is in a teeny bit better order [g]

Now see, this is why I need input. Because Robyn’s qualitative questions work in a way that my venn diagram does not. I suppose my approach has some merits, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, basically Robyn’s two-pronged question:

Did it keep me in a trance? (judged by, lost track of
time, lost track of where I was, wasn’t bothered by
bodily signals) and, When I came out of the trance,
was I glad I had read it? (vs. embarassed, ashamed,
cheated of the time, made slightly worse as a person,

I’m not sure where the compulsion comes from to quantify something so objective and personal as a story. Maybe my academic training; maybe the fact that my right and left brains are always in a struggle for the upperhand. Maybe because it’s what I do for a living, and as Robyn says, it just gives me a feeling of having some kind of understanding or control over a process that is opaque by its very nature.

Off to write.

war of the words

plot-heartremember me being bitchy about Harold Bloom being bitchy about Stephen King? This was back in November when King got the lifetime award from the National Book Foundation. The whole debate (popular fiction vs. so-called ‘literary’ fiction or, to get right to the heart of the matter: commercial vs. critical success) flaired up again when The Washington Post ran a story about that night in November when Stephen King said some Sharp Things to the literary elite and Shirley Hazzard (a card carrying member of that crowd) responded in kind. Then of course lots of other writers, editors and literary types jumped back into the pool to dunk each other one more time, notable among them Terry Teachout whose blog is called (auspiciously) ArtsJournal.com: the daily digest of arts, culture & ideas.

I like Terry’s blog; he’s interesting and funny, and mostly I just change the channel when I start to get irritated. Which I had to do this time. The only reason I’m bringing it up here is that there is one interesting observation to point out, and I’m quoting:

But it’s just as worthy of note that theWashington Post is now behaving as though litblogs have become a recognized part of the world of literary journalism.

I should leave it at this, but I can’t. Bookslut has also weighed in on the King-Hazzard controversy, again quoting:

It seems a matter of common sense. I think anyone who reads King’s comment that the new Peter Straub book lost boy lost girl deserves the National Book Award knows it is ridiculous. Unfortunately for King, the National Book Awards are not run like the Oscars where big and dumb rules, giving The Titanic the award over L.A. Confidential. (Yes, I’m still fuming.) And not that Straub is big and dumb, but it is a matter of storytelling vs. writing.

I didn’t realize that storytelling and writing were at war. In fact, pardon my populism, but it seems to me that the best novels combine good storytelling with good writing. (But then I’m an unapologetic member of the I like Plot club.) Peter Straub aside, it strikes me as an odd (and rather bellicose) to equate dumb with storytelling. Although I do agree with her about Titanic.

Moonflower Vine on the horizon

[asa book]0061673234[/asa] I haven’t mentioned NeglectedBooks.com in a while, probably because I hesitate to go there too often myself. Every time I do I get caught up for hours. Lists of great books that have been forgotten, often with images of the original dust covers (why am I so mezmerized by these? no idea) — what’s not to obsess about?

At any rate, NeglectedBooks has a lot of information on The Moonflower Vine — one of my all time favorite novels, long out of print — and its journey toward new release-dom. The new edition is published by Harper Perennial and will be available on March 24, 2009. (Clicking on the cover image above will take you to the Amazon order page.)

There’s  a short piece on the history of this novel in Publishers Weekly (via  Robert Nedelkoff):

by Lynn Andriani — Publishers Weekly, 2/2/2009

Books fall into obscurity all the time. If they’re lucky, someone rescues them and reintroduces them to a new audience—which is exactly what happened with The Moonflower Vine, a 1962 novel by Jetta Carleton, a one-hit wonder from Missouri who lived from 1913 to 1999. But in this case, it wasn’t just a person who rescued the long forgotten novel. With the help of a Web site called NeglectedBooks.com—and novelist Jane Smiley—The Moonflower Vine will be reissued by Harper Perennial in April, and will even benefit from a co-promotion with Vintage.
The Moonflower revival began when a small press contacted Carleton’s grandniece, Susan Beasley, telling her it wanted to reissue Moonflower, which is set on a farm in western Missouri during the first half of the 20th century. Beasley got in touch with agent Denise Shannon, who didn’t know the book but Googled it and wound up on NeglectedBooks.com, a site launched in 2006 that features thousands of books that have been, according to the site, “neglected, overlooked, forgotten, or stranded by changing tides in critical or popular taste.” Run by Brad Bigelow, who works as an IT project manager for NATO, the site features books with links to online sellers and also links to publishers who reissue books, like NYRB Classics, Paul Dry, Persephone and many others.
When NeglectedBooks featured Moonflower in December 2006, it had an endorsement from Jane Smiley, who also grew up in Missouri; Smiley had included it among the classics she discussed in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. Robert Gottlieb, former editor-in-chief of Knopf, had edited Moonflower, and later said, “Of the hundreds upon hundreds of novels I’ve edited, this is literally the only one I’ve reread several times since its publication.” When Moonflower was first published, it spent more than four months on the New York Times bestseller list. After reading about it on NeglectedBooks, literary agent Shannon—who’d never been to the site before—ordered it from a used bookseller. She loved it and went on to sell it to Terry Karten at Harper Perennial, along with five foreign publishers.
Smiley, whose novel Moo is just out in paperback from Vintage, wrote the foreword to the new edition of Moonflower, and will promote it along with her book when she goes on tour in April. “Jane has been like a fairy godmother for this book,” said Shannon. Smiley will participate in events in Missouri, tied in with the ReadMOre Festival, a statewide literacy program that has chosen Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) as its 2009 selection. Copies of Moonflower, Moo and A Thousand Acres will be sold at all events.mondwinden

My only quibble here is that I claim to be the Fairy Godmother for this novel. I first read it in German in 1975 and then went through contortions to find the English language original, and ever since I have given away dozens of copies. Whenever I see one in a used book store, I buy it and press it on somebody. As I will press this new release on you all. I’ll be giving away some of the new edition as soon as they are available.

One thing I wish I had done  all along — scanned the various covers I’ve come across, which range from the abstractly gorgeous to the downright tacky.

fanfic, copyright, plagarism, cha cha cha

All the hoopla about Opal Mehta has resulted in some really good discussions about the nature of storytelling. Over at Making Light, Teresa Nielson Hayden’s comment (transmuted into a post) on fanfic gets to the heart of the matter:**

[…] In a purely literary sense, fanfic doesn’t exist. There is only fiction. Fanfic is a legal category created by the modern system of trademarks and copyrights. Putting that label on a work of fiction says nothing about its quality, its creativity, or the intent of the writer who created it.

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction this year went to March, a novel by Geraldine Brooks, published by Viking. It’s a re-imagining of the life of the father of the four March girls in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Can you see a particle of difference between that and a work of declared fanfiction? I can’t. I can only see two differences: first, Louisa May Alcott is out of copyright; and second, Louisa May Alcott, Geraldine Brooks, and Viking are dreadfully respectable.

I’m just a tad cynical about authors who rage against fanfic. Their own work may be original to them, but even if their writing is so outre that it’s barely readable, they’ll still be using tropes and techniques and conventions they picked up from other writers. We have a system that counts some borrowings as legitimate, others as illegitimate. They stick with the legit sort, but they’re still writing out of and into the shared web of literature. They’re not so different as all that.

Fanfic means someone cares about what you wrote.

Personally, I’m convinced that the legends of the Holy Grail are fanfic about the Eucharist.

This really is a basic impulse.

Which brings me back to the discussion in the comments to my post Genre – Literature. I made some similar points regarding storytelling as a basic human impulse to de Rien, and now I’m thinking of A.S. Byatt’s essays on this subject. I can’t put my hands on the particular one that comes to mind, but I believe it’s in Imagining Characters, which is an attempt to capture in print a discussion about literature between Byatt and Ignes Sodre, who is a psychoanalyst.

de Rien asked me if I was saying that storytelling as a cultural good was primarily a vehicle for educating children and less relevant for adults. That’s a huge and really interesting question. My short answer: no, not just for children. A longer answer (or at least part of one) I’ll try to put together today.

Thanks to murgatroyd for the headsup.

unhappy endings

I’m not a dense person, really, but I would like it if someone could explain to me in simple terms why the Literati see the unhappy ending as a badge of high-mindedness and good taste in fiction and film. Take for example the discussion here, at a fairly new blog called The Reading Experience (via Bookslut), and this quote:

Maybe more people are now prepared to accept unhappy endings, but as usual it probably has more to do with commercial formulas and market research and temporary trendiness. Or perhaps a few talented filmmakers decided to tackle somewhat more challenging subjects and just got lucky.

For the record: I don’t always have to have a happy ending (or even an ambiguous one), but I don’t like being force fed unhappy endings because they are supposedly good for me. And I reject out of hand the assumption that an unhappy ending is somehow more challenging to write than a happy one.

A critic (and somebody tell me who it is, please, if you remember) called this preoccupation with doom and gloom The Culture of Ugly. I suppose I could take some comfort in that idea, because if that’s all this no-pain-no-gain approach to storytelling is — a cultural phase — then eventually it will pass. Like acne.

And before you ask, I do have better things to do than be irritated by this. I’ll go do some of them now.

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updates: reading and readings, Pajama Girls

All kinds of little bits of information and commentary I’ve been meaning to post:

Starting tomorrow, I’ll be contributing a once-a-month column at Writer Unboxed. Please stop by and say hello. I would like to see some familiar faces over there.

The ‘tell me what happened in 1883’ experiment is going better than I ever imagined. Y’all have dug up some fantastic stuff… more on that when I close the post and do the giveaway drawing.

I just finished reaading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a novel I really liked for a variety of reasons. I’ll post a review soon.

Thank you for all the suggestions on how to resolve the when-is-the-book-coming-out question. I’m going to implement a couple of them and hope they do the trick.

On February 12 I’ll be reading and answering questions at the Burlington Public Library here in northwestern Washington State. If you are nearby, please stop in.  The session starts at 7pm.

[asa book]0425225917[/asa] The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square will be coming out in trade paper on March 3. If you do plan on buying a copy, please consider pre-ordering from your favorite book store or from Amazon. Preorders are one of those factors that really contribute to a book’s success. Pajama Girls needs to do well if I want to write another book.

The puppy mill saga is still ongoing. They’ve now seized more than five hundred dogs from mills owned by one family in two different counties. I offered to foster one or two pups when they get that far. This is a dangerous thing for me to be doing, as I will find it hard to give them up. But I do have experience with small-breed rescue, and I think my two monsters would be a great help at rehabilitating dogs who have been shut up in cages.

In my next post I’m going to talk about The Endless Forest and the publication process.

where does a critic's authority come from?

There were fireworks for a while — last year, I think — when we got into a discussion about the process of reviewing, the responsibility of reviewers, the role of authors, etc etc etc. Should I let this sleeping dog lie?

I can’t. Because I came across an excellent weblog post that makes points I tried to make back then, when I was dodging all those incoming missiles.

book daddyThe post is by book/daddy, also known as Jerome Weeks. Weeks has a long list of credentials, for example: he’s a member of the National Book Critics Circle and was a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. Thus: the very embodiment of the litcriterati. But wait. I tend to use that term negatively, so I’ll say instead that he’s versed in the language of the litcriterati, but he also knows what it means to take yourself too seriously. And he’s got a great motto (I’ve got to get me one of those), even if it does demonstrate his weakness for Latin and Greek:

The official book/daddy motto: Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt! (Roughly: To hell with those who published before us)

So this last May he posted the question: where does a critic’s authority come from?

The post is long, but I want to give you just a little bit so that you’ll actually go over and read the whole thing. Here it is:

The questions occurred to me while reading Richard Schickel’s instantly notorious, flame-bait outburst against bloggers, “Not everybody’s a critic” in the LA Times. Much of what Mr. Schickel grumps about is — pace all of the outraged bloggers — perfectly accurate. Reviews aren’t just opinions, no matter how wittily and dismissively they’re expressed. Much of what passes for literary criticism on the web is simply very loud likes and dislikes, often not very enlightening likes or dislikes, unsubstantiated and barely argued, if at all — dragged down, perhaps, by the way the web inspires flame wars and insults. If Jessa Crispin (Bookslut) trashes another book — like Don DeLillo’s Falling Man — while declaring her contempt for the work in question is so mighty and inviolate that she’ll never stoop to reading the book, I’ll stop paying attention to her judgment on most any book. And I heartily agree with her on many graphic novels. But the surly imperiousness does her no favors.

So go forth and read book/daddy. I just spent an hour I could not afford reading through his posts. An hour well spent.

in solidarity

The Writers Guild of America is the labor union that represents film, television and radio writers. They called a strike on November 5 that is still ongoing. Most people don’t know what’s at stake. They only know that Jon Stewart is missing from their lives, that there’s no new episode of The Office or anything else and won’t be, until the strike is ended.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about the coming revolution in the publishing industry, how everything is going to shift in terms of distribution and thus, power and money. For screen writers, the people who write the stories that end up on your television or on movie screens, everything is shifting right now. For them it’s all happening as we speak, because the New Media is here and it isn’t going away. (more…)

via Webpetals

A quote from Neil Gaiman via Webpetals that needs no further commentary:

Sometimes making stuff up feels a lot like Coyote running across the empty space between one rocky pinnacle and the next, and as long as you keep moving you’re fine. When you stop and look down, it’s suddenly all too apparent that there’s absolutely nothing underneath and that you’re keeping in the air by a peculiar effort of will.


in which Alison Kent winkles a confession out of me

I guess I have to thank Alison Kent for her confession because I feel compelled to follow her example. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I admit to all the books I’ve preordered from Amazon. So here we go, in no particular order:

The Serpent’s Tale (Ariana Franklin); Change of Heart (Jodi Picoult); Evermore (Lynn Viehl); The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson); Duma Key (Stephen King); Dreamers of the Day  (Mary Doria Russell); Phantom Prey (John Sandford); Nothing to Lose (Lee Child); Elvis Cole untitlted (Robert Crais);  LA Outlaws (T Jefferson Parker).

what you should know about anonymity: yours, mine and ours (in which I admit: I review for PW)

The internet is a wondrous thing. It brings together people from all over the world to discuss and share the things they love: Stamp collecting, horse breeding, politics, antique electric fuses, baseball, the perfect martini, hedgehogs, Sanskrit, Buddhism. It’s hard to imagine a topic that’s not represented someplace, and this is only one facet of the whole enterprise. Sales, marketing, corporate branding, all that has been turned on its head. Banking, investing, selling or buying property — all revolutionized for the consumer’s ease.

And then there are the personal weblogs. People who keep journals about their daily lives for the sake of friends and family. People who start a weblog to keep track of a pregnancy, losing weight, learning a language, battling cancer, organizing a bridge club, caring for a parent with Alzheimers, looking for a job.

The internet is also a free-for-all, a megaphone for every cause, worthy or fabricated. It’s a way to reach out and touch, or reach out and punch neatly on the nose.

I mostly stick to the publishing/reading/book-ish part of the internet. Weblogs by authors and writers, weblogs for readers of a dozen different kinds, review weblogs. Booksellers. Book group organizers. Weblogs by agents and editors. Big name review venues, and teeny little weblogs. Some of them anonymous.

Anonymity is an issue that people talk about a lot, and that they will continue to talk about because there’s a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved. Four years ago Amazon’s lackadaisical anonymous review policy finally backfired and the result was a first page article in the New York Times. Laura Lippman’s concise overview of the whole debacle came down to this:

Why does Amazon allow anonymous reviews at all, especially when there have been numerous reports of vendettas bordering on actionable libel? Legal issues aside, it’s just darn strange as a business practice — and saying the reviews are “popular” is a weak defense. The Paris Hilton video was popular, and Amazon didn’t make that available for downloads. Can you envision any independent bookstore, or Barnes & Noble, handing out Post-its to customers and encouraging them to affix their scrawled thoughts to volumes? Imagine going into a bookstore and seeing little yellow squares stuck to Huckleberry Finn (“An erotic masterpiece,” LF in Montana), Portnoy’s Complaint (“Don’t shake hands with this author” — A reader from Central Park South) and the latest Atkins diet. (“He’s dead, but it might work for you.” Hizzoner, Gracie Mansion) Look, I sign my reviews and I think other people should, too.

In the end Amazon did change its review policy, and my guess is it had more to do with the issue of actionable libel than anything else.

The question of anonymous reviews predates the internet, of course. Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly, for example, both publish reviews anonymously. The idea, it seems, is that they want a uniformity of tone and approach, an argument that many people don’t find convincing. Quinn Dalton’s essay on this topic demonstrates how destructive one anonymous review from a respected source can be.

Anonymity means the reviewer has nothing to lose by writing a negative review, and nothing to gain by writing a positive one. Fair enough. But anonymity doesn’t remove personal bias on the part of the reviewer—for or against certain authors, or certain types of books. It just cloaks bias behind a brand name, and is therefore untraceable for librarians and booksellers and the authors whose careers suffer or are nurtured as a result.

I have had my share of mean-spirited reviews, some from Kirkus, some from Publishers Weekly, and more than a few from anonymous Amazon customer reviewers. I’m not talking about negative reviews, which any reasonable author expects and will learn from. I’m talking about the nasty stuff. But I think it was Dalton’s article — read some years ago for the first time — that made me want to pursue the subject.

I do some reviewing myself, right here, but I also write reviews for Publishers Weekly. Anonymous reviews, because that’s the way they do it. I’ve been writing PW reviews for about a year now, two or three a month. I started because I wanted to understand the process from the other side and then I found I started looking forward to what might show up next for me to read. I have never been sent a book by anyone I know personally, or by any author I strongly dislike. I’ve seen a few big names, but more usually novels of authors who are just starting out. Here’s something that may surprise you: even if I wanted to get up to anonymous mischief, I couldn’t. The editors do their job. They make sure that the PW style is maintained and word count is observed. They’ve got procedures in place to make sure I read the book I’m reviewing. Most of all, they stand there ready to step on any excess of negativity. Sometimes I think they are too quick with that, but hey, I’m only the reviewer and let me assure you: I’m not doing this for the money, which is negligible. I do it for the perspective. Last year I asked the editor where he had been when PW’s review of my (I think it was) Lake in the Clouds came out with the never -to-be forgot line color by number cartoon caricatures. “Before my time,” he wrote back. I like the two editors, both male, even when I don’t agree with their decisions about my copy. Because my name isn’t on it, I can live with the changes. Usually.

From this angle, it seems to me that it’s sensible to distinguish between anonymous reviews that are vetted by editors, and those that aren’t. Kirkus and PW might get it wrong; off track, mean spirited, even petty. But the anonymity is only one layer deep. There is always an editor there in front of the anonymous reviewer, and a publisher in front of the editor. There are responsible parties.

There is no depth to an anonymous weblog, no responsible parties at any level. For a certain amount of money, you can cloak your personal information so that even the ownership of the web address remains hidden. And then there are different kinds and degrees of anonymity. I’ve only ever found one list, from back in 2003 (via Joho):

  • Hiding all biographical facts but using your real name (= shy blogger or professional journalist blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts using your real name (= liar blogger)
  • Making up biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= fictional blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using an obviously false name (= informant blogger)
  • Telling the truth about biographical facts while using a false name (= witness-protection blogger)
  • Hiring someone to boast about your life and sign it using your name (= CEO blogger)

Sometimes the reason for anonymity is clear and compelling. You don’t want to get fired, or make your spouse unhappy, for example. GetUpGrrl was one of my favorite weblogs of all time, smart and funny and important, too. Grrl documented her history with infertility treatment, right up to the point where her son was born to a surrogate. She remained anonymous, and in that case I don’t think anyone even thought of trying to out her, because she had the respect, admiration and good wishes of her readers.

But in many cases there seems no reasonable argument for anonymity. Lorelle the WordPress goddess has written at length about this:

You can stay anonymous by not clearly identifying exactly who you are, but help us to understand at least where you are coming from and why we should 1) care, 2) trust, and 3) read. If you are pontificating about the rain in Spain or number of terrorists inside of the United States, I will want to know how you know this and whether or not to take you seriously.

There are also compelling arguments against anonymous blogging at The Aardvark Speaks, and the more in-your-face position of The Gothamist:

Gothamist does not approve of anonymous blogging: We believe all bloggers should stand behind their posts with their real names. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be blogging.

But anonymous weblogs won’t go away. The Supreme Court has made it clear any number of times: anonymous speech falls under the First Amendment rights, and is protected. ((More detail on the legalities at The Electronic Frontier.)) So there’s no question of legality, unless the anonymous blogger causes real harm to someone else.

There are quite a few anonymous weblogs that focus on some aspect of reading or publishing fiction. Miss Snark — a literary agent — wrote a sharply entertaining weblog, where she was clearly trying to be helpful to people trying to get published — but the masses wanted to know who she was, and eventually she was identified as Janet Reid. At which point she stopped blogging, much to the dismay of her many readers.

I have been thinking about anonymous reviews for a long time (obviously, given my PW gig), and trying to sort out for myself whether they do what they set out to do. Which is? I hear you asking, quite rightly. And no, I’m not going to get into the sticky territory of defining the review in all its forms and approaches. But I can ask a different question instead:

Why anonymous review blogs? I can think of reasons that someone might want to be anonymous, but none of them are encouraging. Someone who has not been able to get their own books published, and has an axe to grind with the industry (and published authors); a person with conflicts of interest (such as the husband of the poet, at Foetry) ((I’ll tell this story in another post; a cautionary tale when it comes to anonymity)); a person who wants to be published someday and therefore couldn’t afford to offend people openly; somebody with strong opinions who likes to stir up controversy, but not be held responsible for it.

Are there any compelling arguments for this practice? I can’t think of one, but maybe you can.

short stories read aloud at NPR Chicago

I ran across something at the Chicago Public Radio website that really made me happy. They have a program called Stories on Stage — actors reading short stories. Some of my all time favorites are there, including Toni Cade Bambara’s “My Man Bovanne” read by Cheryl Lynn Bruce (toward the bottom of the page). If you happen to have a copy of the story, read along with the performance. There are other favorites of mine, as well, including Charlie Baxter’s “Gryphon.” A few I would love to hear aren’t available, for some unknown reason.

To listen to audio on their site, you need to have RealPlayer 8 or later. You can download the current version for free.

Publication dates

Kate asked a question:

Do you mean Dec 2008 or is it really Dec 2009 when book six will be for sale.

My goal is to have the finished novel to the publisher by the end of this month; that is, by 30. November 2008. There’s no reason for you to be familiar with the technicalities of publishing, so let me explain (briefly):

Once the book gets to the editor, she sits down with it and reads it. There will most likely be some changes needed (plot points clarified, for example). After that, the book is typeset and they send me the first page proofs — basically the entire book on normal typing paper, on one side. Generally a pile of papger at least a foot high. I have to proof read that, and at the same time it’s being proof read by others. The copyeditor’s questions and suggestions get incorporated on the second pass.

All of this takes about four months, at the very minimum.

The the advanced reader copies are printed and the marketing people start to get involved. Reviews are solicited, and the sales people start talking to book buyers.

In the meantime, the cover art is being hashed out.

So it’s at least six months — more usually nine or ten — before the book is printed, reviewed, and ready to go.

Publishers schedule books at least a year, and often longer in advance.  They put The Endless Forest on the schedule for December 2009 — about a year from now — for reasons having to do with marketing and sales and a dozen other reasons I know nothing about.

I’m sorry it won’t be sooner. I hope you’ll find it worth the wait.

prequels, sequels, alternate realities and the wilderness series

There’s a page for the Wilderness series on Facebook, but I don’t often check it. Supposedly I get email notification when someone posts something on that page, but that doesn’t always work. Today I went over there to see if there were questions to answer, and found about ten of them dating back to the summer.

The common question I get — on Facebook or anywhere else — is about Ethan and Callie, but second most common are requests for new novels about specific characters. I’ve had people tell me they’d love to hear Blue-Jay’s story, as well as Wee Iona’s, Robbie’s, Nathaniel’s parents, even Jemima’s story. I am truly touched by these requests.  I take them as evidence that my characters live on in the minds of the readers, which is a great compliment. The series has been very successful over the years which isn’t so much about me writing as it is about you reading.

Here are the reasons I can’t just sit down and write (for example) Blue-Jay’s story.

1. Characters are not always forthcoming, If I can’t get into the head of a particular character, it is next to impossible to write a story focused on that person.

2. The biggest road block has to do with the nature of publishing.

Authors who produce true best sellers — books that top the NYT charts — those are the writers who have clout.  In this context, clout means the freedom to write the book you want to write and to know that it will be published. Most writers, even those of us who have had good, long-term success, don’t have this kind of clout. We have to submit proposals to the publisher to get a contract on a novel, and that is by no means guaranteed. Which is why almost all novelists have day jobs.

And that’s the simple truth about the way things work.

how published / published how?

I’m cross posting this to FaceBook because I’m hoping to get some real feedback.

All in all I think the huge jump in self publishing is a good thing, but at the moment it’s a little bit like the wild west: lawless and unpredictable. There are self published books that are very good and that deserve to have found a traditional publisher, but there are also many, many pretty awful self published novels.

Now here’s the problem: It’s my sense (and correct me if I’m wrong) that self-published people don’t make a point of that in their bios or blurbs. So when I come across a blurb about another author that reads: author of x novels, or published x novels, I now have to stop to wonder about the how.  Are we talking Norton or Penguin or Tor, or is this Amazon self-publishing? Further complicating the matter, there are some trends I’ve noticed about self publishing on Amazon  that I don’t know how to interpret. If a novel  out for less than a year (especially a romance novel) has 5,000+ comments and 96 percent of them are 5 stars, that novel is very likely to be self published, as far as I’ve been able to determine. I’m not sure what this means; I could make some guesses, but only guesses.

At this point when I come across a new novel, again, especially on Amazon, there’s no way to know if this novel is self published unless i go look at the details and dig deeper.  Of course, I’m free to do that or not; it’s my loss if I pass up a good novel.

So now, I find myself worrying about my own blurbs. If somebody reads a bio or blurb about one of my novels or me, will they think, oh, probably self published? Which is why I’ve changed the blurb (when I’m asked for one). I now put down something like: nine novels in print with major publishers.
That may solve one problem, but it creates another one. It sounds snooty.

So what do you think is there a way to do this without (1) sounding stuck up and (2) adding a lot of details about the exact publishing houses?  Or should I just stop worrying about it? I admit there’s a bit of pride at work here. It’s not easy getting published, and I would like to be acknowledged for the fact that I have. But at the same time, I don’t want to dismiss all self published work on general principles.



Sock Puppets Infest Amazon Reviews

In my last post a mentioned my lack of confidence in Amazon reviews, and in the comments Rebecca asked about that. It made me realize that people inside of publishing pay more attention to this kind of thing than people outside, so here I am, writing about it.

attack of the sock puppets

I stopped writing Amazon reviews maybe six years ago. There were a couple of simple and practical reasons for this, but there was also the sense that things were not always what they seemed. So for example:

1. After a glitch in their computer software, Amazon/Canada’s reviews suddenly no longer showed screen names, but the review writer’s real name.  A couple of authors were thereby exposed: they were writing glowing reviews of their own work, and not-so-glowing reviews of other people’s work.

2. There have been various expose-type investigations into fake or false reviews, in which author’s friends and family organize good-review campaigns.The Cincinnati Beacon has a story about multiple reviews of a novel that can be traced back to the author’s staff. The New York Times did an indepth story about sock puppet reviews:

[so] writers have naturally been vying to get more, and better, notices. Several mystery writers, including R. J. Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke, have recently confessed to various forms of manipulation under the general category of “sock puppets,” or online identities used to deceive.  [emphasis added]

3. In 2012 a research group estimated that by 2014, 30 percent of all  reviews would be fake — paid for by advertising entities:

With over half of the Internet’s population on social networks, organizations are scrambling for new ways to build bigger follower bases, generate more hits on videos, garner more positive reviews than their competitors and solicit ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages … Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews […] in order to pique site visitors’ interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns. [emphasis added]

A whole new industry has sprouted up around the problem of fake reviews, with different research groups trying out various ways to put an end to it:

“People have been very naive and trusting initially, and then they get taken” by deceptive reviews and imposters, says John Clippinger, an MIT Media Lab research scientist and executive director of ID Cubed. “So now you’re seeing the development of services that are vetted so that [reviewers’] reputations actually mean something.”

3. This trend extends to organized groups of people who try to bring a book down by bombarding it with negative reviews — even if they haven’t read it — because it makes claims which they find off-putting. One example:  a biography of Michael Jackson.

Another example on the Goodreads discussion forum.

There are author herds (sometimes referred to as ‘fan poodles’) who can be made to stampede specifically to trample anyone they believe has wronged their author of choice.  One particularly messy war-of-the-fans took place on Goodreads last year (a full breakdown of the mess can be found in an article on Salon).

We all know about freedom of speech, the right to express an opinion. Unfortunately, that concept seems to have been banned from some corners of the internet. Sometimes even a innocuous comment will trigger an Attack of the Fandom. HelenKay Dimon experienced a vicious fandom attack on the basis of a review she quoted — did not write, mind you, but quoted — which incited the wrath of Diana Gabaldon readers.

4. It’s not great when vigilante fans ride out to punish the competition (or naysayers) but it’s far worse when authors themselves get involved, trying to recruit fan herds to join them in the attack on negative reviews. As in this case, where some of the battle happened on Amazon, in the reviews of a particular book. One excerpt:

The first few comments surprised me – I didn’t think about my review being seen but I had forgotten about Emily pointing people to the one starred reviews, which would mean that mine would come up.  Crap.  I then went and looked at the comments on the other low starred reviews and saw that already her fandom was attacking.  I girded my loins and prepared for it to get ugly but initially, the support was mostly positive.  Then someone must have alerted Emily to the post as I was shocked to see my review pop up in my Facebook feed being blasted by Emily.

So in the end, I see little reason to trust Amazon reviews. I hope they manage to rethink and revamp at some point, but they don’t seem to be very worried about it all.

brother, can you paradigm? The author bio challenge

So I’m more than a little punch drunk, as the following will attest. It’s a draft of the author bio I have to get to my editor. Dopey puns kept occuring to me (thus the paradigm) and then I got overly chatty.

How do you feel about author bios? Should they be dry and short, or entertaining? Do you read author bios at all? Do tell.

Cheap Books in 1883
Cheap Books in 1883

Also, it is true that I spend a lot of time looking at old newspaper and magazine advertisements. Many mysteries are solved in those ads. For example, where did students buy their books? This ad is from the Columbia University student newspaper provides some insight. At this same time there was a Brentano’s Books on Union Square, but I imagine that they didn’t cater to the needs or the budgets of lowly undergraduates.


Sara Donati is a former academic and researcher who spends a lot of time haunting the intersection where history and storytelling meet. She does this by wallowing in 19th century newspapers, magazines and  and street maps along with a lot of historical research, and never gets bored with any of it. She is the author of the Wilderness series, six historical novels that follow the fortunes of a group of families living in the vast forests in upstate New York in the late 1700 and early 1800s. The Gilded Hour jumps ahead two generations to follow Nathaniel Bonner’s grand- and great granddaughters into the twentieth century.

Sara Donati is the penname of Rosina Lippi, who writes  contemporary novels and academic work under own name. Rosina lives on Puget Sound with her husband, daughter, two elderly dogs and a rambunctious cat. Sara lives with Rosina and her family, but refuses to answer the phone, do windows or make herself useful in any way at all.

The Gilded Hour publication date

I have to say, I thought (and hoped) it would be sooner. But the publisher has the power, and the publisher (The Berkley Publishing Group, a division Penguin/Putnam) has decided that The Gilded Hour will be  released in  September 2015.

All in all I’m in a good place, given the state of the industry. You can read more about the future of bookselling (in general, and more specifically about romance) here , in an article written by Eloisa James, another academic who happens to write romance. My editor (Wendy McCurdy) has some interesting things to say too.

A question for you: Would an excerpt help pass the time?

The Gilded Hour is at the starting gate

The Gilded Hour
The Gilded Hour

We have a cover, an Amazon pre-order page, an interactive map (still in development) and a (rudimentary, evolving) website.

The weblog stays here; the website is a wiki-like project.

So please let me know what you think so far. I’m pretty isolated here in my little study, and it’s nice to hear from y’all.


The things that slip by you, pre-publication


 When I’m waiting for a novel to hit its publication date, I always anticipate criticism. This is a hold over from academia, where it’s important to consider flaws or counterarguments while you’re putting a paper together. Anticipating criticism is the first step toward either avoiding it or preparing a response. 


Writing fiction is different, of course, but I still try to anticipate where I might alienate or lose readers. For The Gilded Hour my concerns were pretty straight forward: it’s a long novel, and some people just don’t like long novels. For whatever reason (something in the individual’s style, or about the novel, or both)  they have trouble staying focused. 

There are also some topics which are controversial and highly emotive. I won’t be surprised if I get comments or reviews that find these storylines disturbing or even offensive. I’m prepared for that possibility. I don’t have rationalizations or excuses to offer — I wrote the story I needed to write — but I won’t be shocked to hear that kind of criticism.

There are always criticisms about anachronisms. This kind of criticism I consider closely and I will do some fact checking. However, if the reader finds that the main characters are too contemporary for their time, that I leave alone.  If you have to explain something you did in a novel, you didn’t write it well enough. Or your reader wasn’t paying attention. Either way, it’s not worth the effort to try to resolve the confusion.

And there’s the certainty that some readers just won’t be interested. I myself find it impossible to stay focused on cyber-crime novels. That’s about me, not about the novel. 

Just after a novel comes out sometimes criticisms pop up that take me by surprise. Here’s what is happening now with The Gilded Hour:

Some readers get to the end of the novel and are irritated because storylines aren’t resolved. Who was responsible for X? What happened with Y? If there were a sequel, then maybe they could live with these questions.

This is the question (is there a sequel?)  nobody anticipated. I didn’t, my editors didn’t. Nobody. It should have been made clear at the end of the novel: Sara Donati is hard at work on the sequel to The Gilded Hour. 

Alas, that didn’t happen. People familiar with my work would probably assume there is a sequel, but other people will not. As is the case with one of the reviews that shows up both on Amazon and Goodreads:

Way too many unresolved storylines. Unless there is a sequel, there are way too many unresolved subjects in this book. Given that the book is 741 pages-counting the author’s notes-there was certainly enough time to address one or more of the above subjects.

This same review gets some basic facts wrong and includes spoilers that aren’t tagged, but I am in fact thankful that the reviewer was so clear about what bothered him/her: the lack of clarity about the unresolved storylines and a sequel.

I just don’t know what I can do about it. 

The Gilded Hour and Its Sequel

I know, you want the next book yesterday.  I know. I would love to have finished it already, but: not yet. 

Have a look at this in the meantime. It comes from Electric Lit, and it makes me feel a whole lot better. Maybe not you so much, but me. And that means I can write more easily. 

click for dull size image

one star reviews

everybody gets them. I try to make them a learning experience, or at least I try to laugh at the worst of them.

Constructive criticism doesn’t hurt; it’s the stuff that writers need if they are really serious about their work. A lot of criticism out there is in no way constructive, and that sometimes does hurt, if I’m in the wrong mood or make the mistake of taking it too seriously. Amazon.com has caused a lot of writers some really bad moments, because of course the reader reviews are all anonymous and anonymity brings out the worst in some people.

Into the Wilderness has 192 reviews on Amazon, and ten of them are one star reviews. A few of those don’t like the novel because I’m not Diana Gabaldon. A few more don’t like it because Into the Wilderness isn’t a proper sequel to Last of the Mohicans (of course, I never said it was; it’s more of a retelling of Cooper’s The Pioneers; a [careless] critic called it a sequel, and I’ve never heard the end of it). Others have managed to find some bodice ripping somewhere in it (maybe some edition I never approved, what do I know?) and object on that basis. Some find fault with my historical research. Here’s the funniest one:

I was hoping Elizabeth would end up being a black bear’s main entree, but no luck. Of course, with her amazing luck, she’d have brained him with one of her “boots” and eaten him for dinner.Oh, I forgot. Elizabeth is so ahead of her time, she’s no doubt a vegan. [from Amazon]

There are, of course, many wonderful reader reviews on Amazon, very complimentary and encouraging. The point is that not every book is right for every reader. I’m not a huge fan of Hemingway but that’s my fault, for the most part. I wouldn’t put the blame on him. And what a boring place the world would be if we all liked exactly the same things.

Of course, editorial reviews are a different (and very complicated) matter altogether. More on that some other time.

Pig in a Poke, revisited: Amazon Shenanigans

The first version of this post went up in January 2013. I’m revising and reposting it because Amazon is bungling editions, in a rather deceptive and (to me) infuriating way. The update is followed by the original post.

Amazon has a newish feature I actually like, called Kindle Match. If you bought a hard copy of a book from them in the past — and it can be way, way past, fifteen years ago even, you may be able to get the Kindle edition for anywhere between nothing and ten bucks. Most of the titles seem to be at $2.99 or less. 

So I was looking through this list and I come across the fact that I bought the Norton Critical Edition of Price and Prejudice in 2006. Why I did that is a different question — I can’t remember why I wanted yet another copy. But as you see here  I did indeed buy it in 2006: 

Kindle Match
Kindle Match

A critical edition is the queen of all editions for any book that is considered classic, and the subject of study by academics and scholars. Wikipedia provides a concise description of how critical editions come to be: 

Textual criticism is a branch of textual scholarship, philology, and literary criticism that is concerned with the identification and removal of transcription errors in texts, both manuscripts and printed books. Ancient scribes made errors or alterations when copying manuscripts by hand.[1] Given a manuscript copy, several or many copies, but not the original document, the textual critic seeks to reconstruct the original text (the archetype or autograph) as closely as possible. The same processes can be used to attempt to reconstruct intermediate editions, or recensions, of a document’s transcription history.[2] The ultimate objective of the textual critic’s work is the production of a “critical edition” containing a text most closely approximating the original.

Critical editions almost always have additional materials: essays by the editors and/or other scholars, about the book and its history, the author, the time period, and anything else you can think of.  There will also be footnotes to clarify terms that may not be familiar to a current day reader.  Given all this, it probably won’t surprise you that a critical edition costs more than the run-of-the-mill edition.

To clarify what I mean by ‘run-of-the-mill’ edition (or see this post, in which I was totally cranky, but still on target):

Because P&P is long out of print and copyright, anybody can put out a new edition without paying the author or the author’s estate anything. The result is many, many hundreds of editions of P&P put out on cheap paper, with little or no attention to the quality or accuracy of the text, all in the hope of a bit of a profit. You can find new copies of this novel for a buck, and then used copies of that same edition for a penny. 

Do I want the Norton edition as a Kindle book? Need you ask? So I click on the “Get Kindle Edition” button  you see, and this is what comes up:

Not the Norton Critical Edition
Not the Norton Critical Edition

Here is what the page for the critical edition actually looks like:

This is the real Norton Critical Edition
This is the real Norton Critical Edition


You see that the critical edition has an editor (Donald J. Gray) and also that I bought it in 2006. But what I was offered as a part of Kindle Match was a crappy movie-tie in edition, one I never bought in soft cover. 

To take this one step further (because it gets worse), if I click on the “Kindle Edition” tab on the Norton edition page, this is what I get:

Still not the critical edition
Still not the critical edition

Note that this was not published by Norton, but by “Top Five Classics” — one of the many companies that specialize in run-of-the-mill cheap editions.  At this point it occurs to me that there may not  even be a Kindle version of the Norton Critical Edition, so I pop over to the Norton website and have a look at the P&P page. And in fact, it’s only put out in trade paper format.  (Click on the link if you want to see what all goes into a critical edition.) 

In a nutshell: if I pay for the critical edition, I want it. I want it for all the reasons touched on above.  If another reader doesn’t care about the edition, s/he won’t even notice the switch. But people should care, because the practice is (a) deceptive and (b) wasteful. I hate to think of all the paper that has gone into crappy editions of this particular novel, one of many.  My guess is that you could repeat this process I’m showing you for everything from Gulliver’s Travels to A Room with a View.

Here’s the question: Is Amazon just tremendously sloppy and unwilling to pay attention to something as simple as an ISBN, or is this a way to lure in less-than-attentive buyers?  

One of the first things you learn in graduate school is to never walk into a seminar where a particular novel is going to be discussed  holding a movie-tie in edition rather than the critical edition. You will not be treated kindly. Also, it’s disrespectful to the editors who put in years of work to make sure the edition is as authentic and error free as possible.

So I’m done venting. I doubt anybody at Amazon will pay attention to my squeaking, but I’m going to keep an eye on this. 

January 2013 Post:

I love all things electronic, but when it comes to buying and selling books on the internet I see room for improvement. To be fair, that improvement is coming along nicely. In most areas.

Don't make Jane angry. You wouldn't like her when she's angry.
Don’t make Jane angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.

I’ll demonstrate with (what else?) Pride & Prejudice. There must be a couple hundred editions of P&P in English alone. Poorly done editions, leather-bound editions (and sometimes those two things aren’t mutually exclusive), editions on paper so cheap it makes your fingers itch just to turn the page, critical editions (put together by academics with special care to detail and authenticity), abbreviated and illustrated and annotated editions. Most people don’t realize how different editions can be, or that one might be better than another. If you’ve read one copy of Pride & Prejudice you’ve read them all, is the general belief. This is a widely held misconception, and one that technology is not doing anything to rectify. Just the opposite. (more…)

Amazon Kerfuffle: Sock Puppets Real or Imagined

Before this spins out of control, I’d like to get something on the record. 

I posted a question on Amazon’s Kindle Forum regarding an invitation I received for Amazon’s  Whispercast program. Whispercast allows a person to register a group of Kindle owners, and then send materials to their Kindles. You can imagine this would be useful for teachers.  Today I got an invitation to be included in a group by somebody I don’t know and whose name I didn’t recognize, and I was then surprised to see that there was no way to find out who had sent the invitation. 

So that’s the question I posted on the Amazon Kindle Forum. 

Let’s just say that I didn’t get a lot of help. In fact, the tone was confrontational pretty much right from the start. I responded in kind, when I should have just gone away and asked customer service my question.  What followed:

–Four or five people piled on. 

–I remarked on this phenomenon, and pointed out that I had heard about bully tactics on Amazon Forums. 

–One person came back with the observation that I reviewed my own novel. To this point:

This was a reference to a specific review that I put up when The Endless Forest first came out because I had had so many emails asking about changes in titles and the order of the books in the series. Here it is exactly as it appeared on the page:

5.0 out of 5 stars This is the final book in the series.
By RL Green on May 9, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I am Rosina Lippi, aka Sara Donati, author of the Wilderness series. To clarify some points of general confusion: This is the sixth and last book in the Wilderness series. The whole series, in order: Into the Wilderness (Wilderness Saga 1), Dawn on a Distant Shore, Lake in the Clouds, Fire Along the Sky, Queen of Swords, and finally: The Endless Forest: A Novel. Thanks to all of you who have left comments and such generous words about the books.

At the time I wrote this so-called review, information about the series was not on the page for the novel and there was no way for me to provide it. I decided to post the missing information in the only way that was available to me at the time. Because I had to give a star rating, I gave it five stars. This is, of course, not allowed. But my reasoning was that as I  (1) identified myself as the author and was not trying to fool anybody about anything  (2) provided missing information and (3) did not actually review the novel, that it was not such a terrible sin. 
Until this person on the forum went to the trouble of finding the review and announcing that it existed, I had forgot about it.  I could have deleted at a later date once all the information was on the page, if I had remembered. As it is, it went up in 2009 and I deleted it today.  
This revelation about the non-review has thrown the Amazon Kindle Forum into a killing frenzy. They want my blood. They believe that I am a dishonorable person, and the world should know that. Here’s where it begins to spiral into the stratosphere, when J. Pence starts with accusations. My response follows. 
So I would like to repeat, for the record: any one who wants to examine the reviews of my novels on Amazon or anywhere else to see if I have been falsely inflating the ratings is very welcome to go ahead and do that.  J. Penrose may stay up all night looking for evidence of my perfidy. Everybody has to have a hobby, I suppose, but it seems pretty sad that some people  depend on the Amazon forums for entertainment and excitement.

Kindle UK Edition of The Gilded Hour

The UK Kindle edition should be available shortly


Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.
Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that. 

libraries, ode to; Jetta Carleton

As a little girl I would walk two city miles to the public library on Lincoln Avenue on Chicago’s north side, no matter what the weather. I think I checked out every book in the children’s section before I was ten. If the building hadn’t been converted to condos (I should hate this idea, but then I can imagine what a great place that must be to live) I could show you still where certain books sit the the shelves because I checked them out so often: A Wrinkle in Time or Up a Road Slowly or Our Year Began in April.

I have a great respect for libraries and librarians of all kinds. Here in my small town the public library gets almost no public funding, but they provide wonderful services anyway. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, where we lived for ten years, there was a fantastic public library with every possible service, as well as the university’s top-ranked research library. I was spoiled, then. Now I have to make due with interlibrary loan, the internet, and buying lots of books I would ordinarily check out for a few weeks and take back.

There’s a ranking of public libraries (of course, we love to rank things). Like any ranking it is flawed, but it does establish one thing: In the big city category, the Denver Public Library ranks first. Now, I have nothing against Denver, really, but this seems to me a case of gluttony. Denver already has The Tattered Cover Bookstore, my favorite bookstore in the whole world. And it’s got a good university library too. Really. I ask you.

So if you have a good public library, count your blessings. If your public library isn’t quite so wonderful, maybe you could help them out a little, eh? Especially when it comes to public funding.
One other thing, because I ran into this book on my shelf today and whenever I do I want to sit down and read it all over again.

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton.

Publisher: Bantam Books; Reprint edition (December 1984)
ASIN: 0553244221
sadly out of print

I first read this book in German when I was living in Austria. I loved it so much I tracked down the original English, and ever since I’ve been re-reading it on a regular basis. Whenever I see a copy in a used bookstore I buy it to give away. This is the story of a farm family in Missouri, set in the early part of the last century. Each section is told from the perspective of a different family member. This is a beautifully written, carefully constructed story that I have never tired of over the years. I gave it to my daughter to read this summer. She was doubtful (the cover of this particular edition was particularly awful, I admit) but she read it on my recommendation and we had long talks about it. The really sad thing, she says, is that Jetta Carleton never wrote another novel.

Jetta Carleton’s obituary, from the Albuquerque Journal on December 31, 1999.

JETTA LYON , 86, of Santa Fe died Tuesday following a stroke. She was a writer. Her major work, written under her maiden name, Jetta Carleton, was ‘The Moonflower Vine,’ a novel from her childhood in rural Missouri. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1962 and became an immediate best-seller in both hardback and paperback. It was a selection of the Literary Guild and the Readers Digest Condensed Book Club. She was a graduate of Cottey College and the University of Missouri. She taught school briefly, wrote for radio in Kansas city and for television and advertising in New York. She and her husband lived in Hoboken, N.J., and Washington, D.C., before building a home in Santa Fe in 1970. They founded The Lightning Tree press in 1973, publishing nearly 100 titles. The Rocky Mountain Book Publishers Association honored them in 1991 with its first Rittenhouse Award for lifetime contributions to regional publishing. She was preceded in death by her husband of 50 years, Jene Lyon. She is survived by a sister and grand-nephew in Wichita, Kan. Friends scatter her ashes at her home in the Santa Fe foothills at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Santa Fe Funeral Options.

first person narratives

There are fads in storytelling just as there are fads in clothes. A visit to any bookstore makes that clear; if you pick up a dozen new novels in a row a couple of things will ump out at you right away.

First person narratives are very popular just now, and have been for a while. The narrator tells the story to the reader, and thus we live in the narrator’s head and see the story only from the narrator’s limited point of view. I don’t particularly like first person narration, for exactly that reason. I think of it as the Charlotte Brontë approach, or the Reader, I Married Him school. In addition to writing first person narration, Charlotte Brontë was quite nasty about Jane Austen‘s work. Thus my scorn. Sniff. Scowl. (Quotes from Miss B about Miss A in the extended entry below.)

Okay, so I’ll admit there are many excellent first person novels out there. I just can’t think of a single one at this moment.

Now here’s the rub: the one place where first person narration works for me (in a limited way) is in epistolary form. If Character X writes a letter to Character Z, then I get to hear X’s voice, and I learn a lot about the relationship between the two of them. I am very fond of doing this for my own characters. It helps me figure them out in a way nothing else can. If Curiosity sits down to write a letter her voice sounds very clear to me, more so than at any other time. If the character wants to write a letter, I am very pleased to take dictation.

In general I love novels that mix up forms. Third person narration interspersed with letters, newspaper reports and advertisements (there’s another topic to write about here, old newspapers), legal documents. In my own work I don’t often use poetry as I’m not very good at it, though once in a while I have made a small exception.

Possession: A RomanceA.S. (Antonia) Byatt is a superior novelist and she also writes some of the very best literary criticism and analysis. For people interested in thoughtful, intense discussions about storytelling, her collected lectures are really worth reading. Otherwise I love her Possession: A Romance. Byatt is a former academic, and she dissects academia with laser-like precision in this novel. It’s everything in one: a well-plotted mystery, an intriguing love story (times two), an academic satire, a wonderfully done historical, a clear and striking picture of the lot of women (and especially women artists and writers) in Victorian England, and an ode to the poetry of that period. How this book didn’t get onto the lists of the century’s best is beyond me. Stunning prose, and first class storytelling. Possession is a demanding novel, one that has to be read closely and re-read many times to get all the complexities, but it’s so worth it. (I have also listened to it on tape, which was another wonderful experience).

Unfortunately, I can recommend the movie, which was a terrible disappointment.


book tours

Cindy asked a very good question in a comment:

don’t you have book signings to sign books that people have purchased as a way of thanking them for buying your books? I think that’s sufficient enough, don’t you? Mostly, with the wonderful world of email, if I send an email it’s thrill enough that you or webgenie Rachel respond. Sometimes books touch people and they want to reach out and ask questions because they become attached to the characters.

And of course she’s right: I’m happy to sign books for readers whenever I can. It’s a sincere compliment to know that someone might like the story so much that they would go to such trouble. I have a small collection of signed first editions, but only of books that have really meant something to me.

But tours are a complicated matter. They cost a lot of money, so the publishers aren’t wild about them. Publishing is, after all, a profit-based business. If the numbers showed that reading tours brought in hundreds of new readers, I guess the publishers might be more willing to send authors out, but the opposite is the case. I have done readings for two people, and readings for a hundred, but the average is probably thirty. Send me to ten cities to read to, say, three hundred people (many of whom are already converts and loyal readers) — you can do the arithmetic.

Reading tours are really hard on authors, too. Some authors do like them, but most don’t. You see nothing but the inside of airplanes, hotels, bookstores, and book warehouses. You might do a couple radio interviews, or a couple interviews with journalists, you might just run from bookstore to bookstore. There’s no time to think, much less write, so by the time you get home, whatever writing momentum you had is gone.

I am very thankful to my readers, really I am, and the best way to show my appreciation (as I see it) is to put everything I’ve got into writing the next one.

And by the way: made excellent progress this week, on both novels in progress.

Gunslinger introductions

I just looked at the fifth volume of King’s Gunslinger series in the bookstore, and in his intro he does a very brief background on each of the books. But he ends by saying: this is part of a bigger story, go read the other volumes first or walk away from this one.

ha! I can just see my editor’s face if I tried to pull that. King can afford to send readers away, she’d tell me.

I’m wondering about a timeline, where all the major happenings are listed… what do y’all think about that? Maybe I’ll put part of one together and post it for comments over in the forum.

In the meantime, I’m trying to get ready for the trip to New Orleans next month, where I’ll be doing research for the book I’m working on now.

Havana — Stephen Hunter

First, a bit of background about this series of novels. Stephen Hunter has two main characters: Earl Swagger, a veteran of WWII, a state trooper, tough, quiet, capable, tormented. Earl has a son, Bob Lee, who follows in his father’s footsteps in most things. In Vietnam, Bob Lee (trained as a sniper) is known as Bob the Nailer. The first novel in the Bob Lee series starts twenty years later, when he is reluctantly drawn out of retirement.

Here’s the challenge: Hunter jumps around in time, and back and forth between related storylines. My strong advice is to read the novels in the order you see here, although it will seem at first that Dirty White Boys doesn’t belong where I’ve put it. It does. You won’t see why until Black Light, and you won’t appreciate Black Light unless you read Dirty White Boys first. Unfortunately there’s almost no indication of this when you pick up on the books in a bookstore, and you might somehow miss what can only be called a near-classical tragedy if certain things don’t happen in order. So I’m telling you. My suggestion would also be to read the Earl Swagger books before the Bob Lee books. But that’s not strictly necessary.

Bob Lee Swagger

1. Point of Impact (1993)
2. Dirty White Boys (1994)
3. Black Light (1996)
4. Time to Hunt (1998)

Earl Swagger

1. Hot Springs (2000)

2. Pale Horse Coming (2001)

3. Havana (2003)

So you’ve got two interrelated series of books about a father and a son, jumping around in time. Why bother? Because when Hunter is on top of his game, these are fantastic stories. Bob Lee and Earl are both fascinating, frustrating, engaging, over the top and believable at the same time. Earl’s difficult boyhood (which makes for some of the best reading in the series) shores up what might otherwise feel like Hunter’s fraught characterization.

However. The novels are not all equal (and how could they be?) Dirty White Boys has one of the most provocative opening paragraphs I’ve ever run into. It’s a great story, flawed by what I can only call a shallow characterization of a mentally disabled character and Hunter’s (failed) attempt to portray his inner monologue.

Havana, which is the newest in the series, was a disappointment to me for a couple of reasons. First, it feels rushed and under-edited. There are passages that are simply hard to read. There are two-dimensional characterizations and passages of dialog which border on the cartoonish. (It pains me to say that, but I must.) There is a lack of cohesiveness in the subsidiary plot lines. And still Earl is there, and I am as drawn to him as I have ever been to a character. Unfortunately, given Hunter’s back and forth, I know what’s ahead for Earl in the near future, and it gives this novel an edge I’d rather have done without.

I’m the first to admit that I have a weak spot the size of Wyoming when it comes to strong, quiet, capable, physical men. Bob Lee and Earl fit that bill exactly, and Hunter tells their stories with the kind of sharp authority, intelligence and wit they deserve. Except that this time, he fumbled a little. I’m hoping and trusting he can recover.

fan fiction: why I like it

For most people, fan fiction has a simple definition: a story about a fictional character (Spock or Buffy or Scully or one of a thousand others) and/or setting (Moya or Eerie Indiana or The Matrix) written not by the original authors or screenwriters, but by a fan (or, to use a less loaded word, a viewer). Fan fiction is mostly, but not exclusively, about film and television storylines.

But there’s a lot more to fan fiction than the obvious. It has to do with storytelling in the first line, of course, but far more important: fan fiction has to do with communities of storytellers. People who get together (symbolically, of course, and mostly on the internet) and starting with a character they all love, they spin tales. Then they write back and forth about those stories, exchanging ideas. Five hundred years ago people sat together around fires and told stories about the gods, about heroes they all knew and feared or loved, about Coyote, about ancestors. That was a kind of fan fiction, too.

It’s a simple thing, really: the writer of fanfic (RobynBender, for example; see below) follows a character (John or Aeryn) off the screen and out of the script that was written so beautifully (by David Kemper or Rockne O’Bannon or Ben Browder or one of the other talented screenwriters). She then goes wherever the characters lead. She observes things they think about and do. She spends time contemplating John’s background and motiviations and what he’s feeling when he sees Aeryn grieving or injured, what it’s like to love that particular woman. And then she tells that story. Robyn and others who take the time and effort to tell these stories do so because there’s only so much Farscape on film, and the story is much bigger than can be contained in any hour-long episode. And also, you’ll see if you delve into these stories, writers of fan fiction can go places where television screenwriters cannot.

This is probably the right place to point out that a goodly portion of fanfic tends to the explicity sexual. Such things are usually prominently flagged, though; there’s a whole vocabulary, and dictionaries too. The Writers University explains everything you might want to know about slash fic or het fic or smut. Just don’t read fic marked with those abbreviations, if it’s not your thing.

If you’d like more of an introduction to the fanfic phenomenon before jumping in, the BBC has a good introductory site here.

It’s true, of course, that not all fan fiction is good. Not even most of it. Often times people bring more raw enthusiasm than finesse to their fan fiction. Fan fiction can collapse into parody or cliche or mindless repetition — just as there are some pretty awful novels out there on the bookstore shelf, there is poor fan fiction on the web. You’ve got to look for the good stuff. So here is some fan fiction that I recommend highly. I’ll start (how did you guess?) with Farscape, because for those of us who love it and who are still operating in the complete faith that it will in fact come back from this unwelcome and undeserved hiatus, fan fiction is a way to get through the waiting. If you haven’t seen Farscape (yet), these stories might well convince you to do just that, but be warned: they will also give away a lot of the plot. They will certainly make you curious.

words of wisdom from Jenny

In response to an email I got today (you know who you are) I quote Jennifer Crusie’s answer to this question which is asked too often.

Are you ever going to give up romance writing and start writing real books?

No. I like writing fake books. It gives such joy to those who need to feel intellectually superior.

No. I prefer to write to entertain. You know, like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens.

No. I think it’s important not to trash the taste of those who read and supported you while you were learning your craft by announcing that, now that you’ve established your name, you’re giving up romance to move onto bigger and better things. …

And let me take this opportunity to remind you that Bet Me (Jenny’s new novel, which I reviewed here) will be hitting the bookstores tomorrow. Also, I point all parties yet again to this essay of hers, In Praise of Scribbling Women.


I worry about thunderstorms. Or let’s say, right now I’m worried about writing about a thunderstorm. It’s a hazard by the time you get to the fifth volume of a series, the been-there-done-that element. I need a good storm, and as I’m trying to visualize it there’s the alarm is ringing in my head.

You’ve used that image before. You’ve done this storm before. You’ve been here; you’re recycling.

So I go off and search through the earlier books, and in this case I find I’m okay. There’s a big thunderstorm in ITW but none of any significance in the others. So I can let loose, as long as I avoid echoing myself. Sometimes it happens in spite of my best intentions, and maybe it’s inevitable. Sometime I have to go re-read all twenty of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin novels and see how he manages to keep things fresh in a limited environment (ships, sea, men, war).


well, I will

Over at Absolute Write Jenna Glatzer has interviewed Victoria Strauss (who writes fantasy, and is very active in the sf world). Here’s Victoria’s answer to a loaded question:

Have you encountered any “genre prejudice?”  That is, I hear that some genre writers feel they don’t get as much respect as those who write “literary fiction,” whatever that may mean.  Do you think that “literary” and “fantasy” are mutually exclusive genres? 

Yes, I do encounter genre prejudice. I think every genre writer does. Many people assume that genre writers are not “serious” writers, or that the fiction they produce is by definition inferior, or that it’s somehow easier to write than “real” literature. There are also the people who are surprised when I tell them I research my novels, because they think that with fantasy you can just “make it all up.” It’s irksome not just on a personal level, but because it closes off potential audiences. For instance, I think that anyone who enjoys historical novels would enjoy my latest book, in which history, culture, and tradition is as important as magic and adventure. But most mainstream readers never go into the sf/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Well, I read across genres and I’m always looking for a good historical. Off to Village Books to order The Burning Land.

Link via Elizabeth Bear by way of Sillybean.

author readings

a confession: I don’t like doing readings. No matter the venue — a few kind people in a small bookstore, or a big crowd in a fancy auditorium, no matter how genial the people there, it just always feels… not quite right.

The only place where I don’t mind reading very much is at our own independent bookseller here in town. I know many of the people who come and the owners and the booksellers and it just doesn’t feel like such a big deal; it’s just me, and them, and a half hour of noise. They ask questions and laugh at my answers. I sign books and set off for home, ten minutes later I’m there.

another confession: I’m not even comfortable going to somebody else’s reading. I only go very rarely, if it’s a close friend who’s reading. In fact, the more I’m interested in the author’s work, the less likely I am to go listen to him/her read. It feels too awkward. Should I go up afterwards and get my book signed? Do I identify myself, if this is somebody I’ve had some indirect contact with? Will that feel intrusive? A word of praise, perhaps? No, that would be condescending. So I generally stay away, although I’m often tempted.

Guy Vanderhaeghe (what a great name) will be here soon to read from his new novel The Last Crossing. I do intend to read the novel — it’s historical, after all. Will I attend the reading? Probably not. I’ll let you know.

One other thing about this particular novel. It was recently named the 2004 Canada Reads winner, a very big deal up there, as you can see here. This is how they chose it:

During this year’s competition, broadcast over the [..] five days on CBC Radio and CBC TV, five panellists each championed a work of Canadian fiction as the one that all Canadians should read.

Hard to imagine something on this scale on this side of the divide, though Homestead once was chosen by Orcas Island in the San Juans as an all-island read. People ran around with pins on that said “I’ve read Homestead. Have you?” That was fun, I’ll admit. Though I still disliked doing the reading.

The Love Letter — Cathleen Schine

[asa book]0452279488[/asa] This is one of those books I meant to read years ago and finally got around to, simply because it slipped out of a pile and fell on my foot, and I took the hint.

One of the basic rules about telling stories, or at least one of the rules I agree with, is that somehow, in the course of the story, the main character has to change. Not in any particular way or direction, but the story itself has to work on the main characters in some observable way. Cathleen Schine took a main character I didn’t like much — Helen, 42, divorced, the owner of a bookstore in a small New England town — and shook her up, and I liked the result.

This is a novel about a selfish, amusing, charming woman who is side-swiped by an inappropriate love affair with a man much younger than she is — someone she should be able to control, because she does that so well. Things get away from her. It’s gratifying to watch.

It all starts because she comes across an anonymous love letter which upsets her view of her world and paves the way for Johnny. Schine does an interesting job with Johnny; he’s young, but not shallow; he’s interesting but not quirky. Schine is just plain good when it comes to quick, vivid characterization. Here’s Helen’s mother:

“Lilian was severe and short-tempered with a throaty voice. She smoked in the bath. When Helen was growing up, her mother treated her like an adult who, for reasons no one cared to go into, was too small to reach the light switches. Helen trailed around after her mother in a soft haze of half understanding. Adult conversations, thrilling and somehow important, surrounded her, as indecipherable and compelling as new art. Lilian, propped against the pillows, would gossip mercilessly and good-humoredly into the telephone. Lolling on the bed, at the foot like a lapdog, Helen listened contentedly to her mother’s side of the conversation.”

The only problem I had with this novel, which is witty and wise and sharply observed, is that the pacing seemed very slightly off once or twice. Otherwise it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a good long while, and thus, a success.

reader mail & worries about Jennet

This lovely message from a reader reminds me of something:

Sitting, waiting out here in the North Pacific rain, for QofS to fill the time while my military husband finishes his tour, please ask Bantam to hurry, I have to know if Jennet meets up with pirates and returns to Luke.

You know the paperback of Fire Along the Sky is out there, right? Well there’s a sneak preview of the new novel at the end, and it pretty much resolves any worries there might be about Jennet’s survival.

Not that you need to buy a copy, she said earnestly. You could read it in the bookstore, if need be.

more Pajama Jones prep work

I really like the questions and thoughts y’all had when I posted basic information about Julia. Of course I’m not going to answer your questions — this is a delicate process, and I’ve got my characters to protect — but they were useful to me in a variety of ways. So thanks.

Now here’s the same deal for her counterpart.

Name: John Adams Dodge
Home: His father is a JAG lawyer and constitutional scholar, his mother a nurse. Moved from base to base when he was growing up.
Hair & eyes: He looks a lot like his maternal grandfather Papadapolous, who still lives in Greece — very dark hair and eyes, olive complexion.
Height: 6’2″
Favorite foods: doesn’t have any; will eat about anything, and likes to try new things. Rarely finds anything he likes enough to remember what it’s called.
Won’t eat: Doesn’t much care for things that have been pickled, but will make exceptions.
Favorite things to drink: water, beer, wine. He likes Blue Meanies as well.
Favorite Music: talk radio, for its entertainment value
Likes to wear: stuff that doesn’t stand out. Jeans, chinos, etc. Owns a couple very nice, very expensive business suits he doesn’t often wear.
What his living space is like: He’s lived in so many places in the last ten years that he doesn’t think of any particular place as home. His universe center is at his sister’s house in Brooklyn, or with his parents; father currently stationed in Berlin.
Methods of transport: Whatever gets him where he’s going. He likes to drive, has a ten year old Mercedes he bought at an auction and keeps good care of.
Politics: His reading material of choice. Mostly keeps his opinions to himself but as his father’s son, he doesn’t like the current administration.
Magazine subscriptions: None. Reads the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, New Scientist, Economist when he can pick them up.
Favorite Book: He reads a lot of history and biography. Hasn’t re-read anything in a long time.
Favorite TV Show: Baseball.
Favorite Movie of the last few years: The Quick and the Dead
Expression: Slow down.
Movie star crush: As in, I”ll go see anything with . . .: sees pretty much everything that comes out
Pets: Grew up with a mixed breed terrier called Boo, and still misses him.
Creative outlet: John draws.
Favorite Muppet: Maria.
Favorite ice cream: pistachio
Favorite desert: baklava
The thing he’d never do: skip Christmas with his sister and her family
The thing he’s always wanted to do: start a library of his own
Childhood toy that’s still in his room: he has a box of stuff at his sister’s house, including his first baseball mitt, a gift from his grandfather Dodge.

what she does for a living: Julia was the head buyer at Marshall Field in Chicago (bed and table linens and housewares) for seven years. When she came back to Greenbriar she opened a shop called The Well Made Bed. She specializes in high end and antique linens. More than half her sales happen through her website. She has clients all over the world and she’s very successful. She’s president of the Lambert Square Business Cooperative.

what he does for a living: John finds small businesses that interest him and that are in trouble financially. He buys the business, works to reorganize it until it’s profitable, and sells it. The process takes between six and eighteen months, and then he moves on. Many of his projects have been small town bookstores, but he has also bought/fixed/sold businesses as diverse as a dress shop, a corner drugstore, and a drive-in movie theater.


There you have the primary characters, in as much detail as I can provide at the moment.

booknerd contemplation

It is probably no surprise that I am somebody who thinks a olot about books — and not just what’s inside them. The story is my main interest, but it doesn’t stop there.

Just about everything about books intrigues me. Book and cover design, typesetting and typefaces, publishing history in general and editorial history in particular. So for example I have more than one edition of Pride and Prejudice, some of them quite odd and old picked up at flea markets.

I was in college before I started to think much about different editions of the same book. Tom Sawyer was Tom Sawyer, whether he appeared on pulp paper or in a hideously expensive leather bound volume. It made no difference to me which edition I read, as long as it wasn’t abridged. Then I started taking literature courses and my outlook changed. I remember when I was told for the first time that I could only use the critical edition to write a paper, and the idea caught my attention right off. A critical edition is one that has been put together by a scholar who specializes in the work of the author in question. A good critical edition is true to the original, earliest editions, and will include notes on the original manuscript as well. For example, if the author kept changing one sentence back and forth from edition to edition. There will also be cultural and contextual notes — what was going on in the world when the book was being written, how it was received, how it fit into the author’s career and life.

All that and more belongs in a good critical edition. And after so many years of higher education, I am a footnote junkie. I do love me a big overstuffed detail ridden critical edition.

Some fifteen years ago or so I started noticing how big bookstores and publishers in general put out new editions of the classics on a regular basis. I remember once being in a store where a table was stacked with copies of Dickens, Austen, Cooper, and every other big name you can think of. Three bucks each or six for fifteen dollars. Printed on the worst kind of paper, shoddily put together. When my daughter was a little younger she used to pick up these books and ask for them, and she was always surprised when I refused.

I don’t buy used books — if the book is in print, and the author is alive, I buy it new. that’s a solidarity thing and also just plain common sense. If we are to survive as scribblers, we’ve got to support each other. On the other hand, I feel no obligation to buy new when it comes to authors who are dead for hundreds of years (unless it’s a critical edition, in which case the editor deserves to earn something). So when the Girl wanted a copy of the Odyssey, I went to a good used book store and looked until I found an edition from 1950, solidly put together, good quality paper, no obvious short cuts in production or editing.

Now publishers will tell you that they put out the classics in cheap form to make them available to a greater audience, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s an attempt to boost the bottom line, and in this day and age when publishers struggle, I can see why they’d try this. I still don’t think it’s right, but I can see it as a business decision. So if the Girl needs a copy of Jane Eyre or Adam Bede or the complete works of Voltaire, I will go find her a critical edition, often used. Which critical edition depends on the circumstances, but if you’re really interested have a look at Bookworm’s post on this question. She looked at four paperback critical editions of Jane Eyre: Penguin Classics, Modern Library Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, and Norton Critical Edition.

a little perspective would be nice

I like most of Margaret Atwood’s work; The Handmaid’s Tale is on my list of 100 favorite novels. When I met her a few years ago (backstage at the Orange Prize ceremony in London) I liked her too. She was funny and engaging. So I’m wondering why this bit of news about her is so irritating to me.

The Raw Feed reports
that Atwood has invented a robotic hand called the Long Arm. This invention will sign her name. So imagine this: you get in the car, on a train or bus and travel to some bookstore or event specifically because you’d like to get your copy of [insert title] signed. You wait in line. When you reach the front of the line you find a mechanical hand, and a video screen. She’s sitting at home in Canada watching her Long Arm sign her name for you. A face in a box, a mechanical hand.

I know the woman writes sci-fi, but this just strikes me as silly. I do like to get my books signed by the author when possible, sure. Having a book signed by a hunk of metal just isn’t the same thing. And why go to all this trouble? The reasons to do this that come to mind are not complimentary.

Beth made me do it*

It’s all her fault, really it is. Because she asked us, her loyal readers, if we remembered the first romance we ever read. So I posted a comment about that. The basic facts:

When: circa 1975
Where: Austria
What: a book called Kalifornische Sinfonie, translated into German from English. I remember the author’s first name was Gwen. I remember quite a lot about the story.

So after that my curiosity was not going to let it go. I hopped over the Amazon Germany and was I shocked to find it, immediately, on the basis only of the title and the author’s first name. This isn’t the cover I remember, but it’s definitely the same book.

Finding the German edition made it possible to track down the original title.
Jubilee Trail is still in print, as are all of Gwen Bristow’s novels. Unfortunately they’ve redesigned the cover.
Jubilee Trail
I think the original (1950) cover is wonderful. I can say with absolute certainty that if I ran into that cover in a bookstore today, I’d be forced to pick it up and walk to the cash register.

As it is, I put a more recent edition on hold at the library, along with The Diary of Mattie Spencer by Stella Dallas. I read this one too, a long time ago, and remember it vaguely.

As a teenager I had a real weak spot for stories of women in dire circumstances traveling west. Mrs. Mike, for example. Most women my age have fond memories of Mrs. Mike. I’m really wondering how these novels will strike me, so many years later.

NOTE; the formatting on this post is wonky. That’s not Beth fault, but I can’t figure out what’s wrong. I hope you’ll muddle through somehow.

release date confusion

Andrea writes that she checked Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble, the release date on Tied to the Tracks now reads Tuesday, June 13.

Which is odd, because when I just checked Amazon, it still said June 8. So, confusion reigns, as usual. Just be aware: it is coming out. I promise. And if your local bookstore tells you no, it’s not: you have my permission to smite that person about the head with a wet noodle. Or you could just correct them. Choose one of the following:

A) Pardon me, but you are very much mistaken. This novel was indeed published by Putnum Penguin, and if you cannot be bothered to look into your computer machine with the proper degree of attention to detail, I shall take my trade elsewhere. Good day.

B) I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. I shall go away before I taunt you again.

C) Most likely you aren’t paid very well and you work long hours and people pick on you. I expect life hasn’t been pleasant since the newest Coulter came out, what’s it called? Heartless? Oh yeah, Godless. So I understand, things slip by you. But this book does exist, and in fact, it might be just the thing for you to read too. Cheer you up a little. Go ahead, indulge.

Andrea also mentions that her book group is going to read Into the Wilderness which of course is lovely, and many thanks. Books groups are wondrous things. People talking about books. What could be better?

where characters originate, and the mangled mathematician

Update on the Mathematician: he’s got a herniated disc. C4-C5, which is shorthand for the cervical spine.

So my question to women reading this: do you find it a little odd that they refer to the upper part of the spine — just below the neck — as cervical? Because my mind goes someplace very different when I hear that word. A place men don’t have to worry about when it comes time for an annual exam.

Nomenclature aside, we know what’s wrong. Now it’s just a matter of getting him in to see the neurosurgeon. Hopefully early in the week, but we have been warned about delays. Not that I’ll settle for any such thing, of course. I am quite willing to speak up and advocate for me and mine.

Which brings me to the subject of how real life reflects on the writing process and characterization. It has to be obvious that no character is created in a vacuum. Any character I put on a page can only come from my personal experience, fifty years of interacting with other human beings (both real and fictional) in a variety of settings. Pam’s comment on this topic:

It seems so exposed to be a writer. Turning your thoughts inside out for others’ pleasure.

How true. You put books out there and people are curious about the characters and the author and the connection between the characters and the author. One of the most irritating questions to come from a reader is this: “Is your character [insert name] based on you?”

So if my characters aren’t me, who are they? The only possible answer is that each character is an amalgam of people I have interacted with over the course of my life. Some only in passing, on a bus or at a dry cleaning counter or in a cab. Sometimes five or ten minutes with a person you’ll never see again has such an impact that you know, sooner or later, you’ll be drawing on that experience in your writing.

An example out of my own life.

About eight years ago I was in Seattle to read and sign books. I was up on Capitol Hill and I had to get downtown. As it happened, I ended up sharing the cab. No problem, I’ve done that many times without incident, though this was my first such experience in Seattle.

The woman who shared the cab with me was maybe thirty-five, tall and slender and blond. Completely normal looking human being, wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase and a suitcase. Well groomed. We made small talk as we waited for the cab. The cab pulls up and the driver gets out to put the other woman’s suitcase in the trunk.

The cab driver was a woman of about sixty, very lean and athletic looking. Very short hair.

“Oh great,” said the blond. “A dyke. I’ll hold on to my suitcase.”

She said this loud enough for the driver to hear her. I froze in place. I would have cut out, but I was already late for my reading. So I climbed in, and the blond climbs in with her suitcase. And she’s chattering away at me, mostly about Seattle, restaurants, shopping. She mentioned a particular restaurant and a street and the cab driver said, very politely: “Actually that restaurant is on X Street.”

The blond’s face contorts and she snaps her head forward. “Nobody is talking to YOU.” Really loud. “Nobody wants YOUR OPINION.” Louder. “Mind your own business, you fuckin LESBO.”

I was shocked out of my skin, but I managed to stutter hey, that’s uncalled for.

The blond didn’t even hear me. She kept on berating the driver, for what seemed like forever but must have been about three minutes until she got out. She tossed a five dollar bill into the back seat, dragged out her bags, and stalked off.

There was a moment’s silence in the cab and then I leaned forward. I said, as calmly as I could, that I had never seen the blond before in my life, and hoped never to see her again. That I wanted to apologize for her absolutely outrageously unacceptable and rude behavior.

The driver shrugged and gave me a half smile. Takes all kinds, is what she said, and then we had a very civil discussion about bookstores in the city until I got where I was going. I way overtipped, and my hands were shaking.

Ugliness happens every day. It happens to people who are minding their own business, going along living their lifes. Some of them are used to it and handle it with at least outward composure, others have a harder time. This driver struck me as a woman very much comfortable in her skin, and able to weather the storm. So over the years as I’ve thought about this situation, it’s not so much the driver that comes to mind.

It’s the blond. I think about her quite often, especially when I’m writing. When I have to deal with a character who is willfully cruel and hurtful. I can still see her face, and I focus on that when I’m trying to get that kind of irrational fear and hate for a character. I have never written a main character that extreme and I don’t think I could stand to do it — why would I want to climb into that person’s skin for any amount of time? But neither can I only write about more rational, reasonable people.

The blonde business woman has a story, of course. It’s probably an interesting story, if not particularly pleasant. Whatever her story is, there’s no excuse for her behavior. But it might be a way to understand that kind of person, how they think.

I also think of this incident when I have to assert myself publically. When it’s necessary to speak up, and I’m uncomfortable about that. I think about myself in that cab, how shocked I was, and how incapable of acting in the driver’s defense. I have wondered how it might have gone if this had happened in a restaurant with a waitress, if I would have been more able to speak up. I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that I am more able now, at this age, to confront this kind of bad behavior than I was even ten years ago. Maybe I have the blonde to thank for that, at least in part.

So there’s no simple answer to the question of where character inspiration comes from. A hundred or a thousand different moments over the course of a lifetime. A long gestation, and then a birth which is sometimes amazingly easy (Curiosity just about sprang onto the page in mid sentence).

The more unlikable the character, the more arduous the process.

cover copy

Imagine you picked up a novel in the bookstore, and this was the cover copy:

Miss Zula Bragg, a literary legend and the most famous citizen of Ogilvie, Georgia, has finally said yes to a documentary about her rich, fascinating, and until now, intensely private life. The problem? The film company Miss Zula has chosen to come to traditional, deep-south, conservative Ogilivie is an unconventional operation (“with an edge”) out of Hoboken, New Jersey.

Rivera Rosenblum, Tony Russo and Angie Mangiamele arrive ready to get to work, but soon find that it’s not only Miss Zula’s secrets that need to be brought into the light of day. Everybody in Ogilvie has a story to tell — or hide — including Angie. Who now finds herself against all expectations in daily contact with John Grant, chair of the English Department where Miss Zula still teaches.

Their summer romance was a long time ago, they are both reasonable adults, and John is about to marry the daughter of a prominent local family in what promises to be the wedding of the century.

What could possibly go right?

Intrigued? Repulsed? What parts work or don’t work?

things to hate about books

1. I despise those on-the-fly dirt-cheap editions of out-of-copyright classics. The ones so poorly put together they won’t last more than two readings. The ones with paper of such piss poor quality that as far as depletion of the forests is concerned? Insult to injury. I despise the way Barnes & Noble and the big publishers package up Austen and Dickens and Cicero and Moliere like trollops and send them out to make a quick buck.

War and Peace 1946 ed
War and Peace 1946 ed

If you’re dying to read War and Peace, for dog’s sake, don’t waste your money on shitty editions that will sit on your coffee table and look like the worst kind of posturing.

Go to the library. You’ll find a decent edition and you’ll be supporting a community resource. Or, if you’ve just got to have a copy, this is the time to go to a used bookstore, one in your town or online. Tolstoy doesn’t need the royalties anymore, and you might just find a really solid edition. One advantage of finding an older edition of an out of print book: sometimes you’ll get a bonus. An envelope stuck in the middle addressed to Mrs. Mabel Winterbourne, 41 Handcross Lane, Luton, Bedforshire with a 1932 postmark. A receipt for a suit that was drycleaned in 1973, three piece, wool, for six bucks. A movie ticket stub for Easy Rider, Last Tango in Paris, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Who knows, the spark of a story idea may be waiting at the end of chapter four, a simple folded piece of paper with a scribbled note: tell her you didn’t mean it.

Then again, if you’re a serious scholar of Russian literature, you will have to reconsider. You’ll want to look into the translation, and maybe even spring for the critical edition.

2. I heartily dislike bookclub editions, which aren’t much better than abomination number one above. A slightly better quality of binding, bad paper that feels almost sticky to the touch and will turn yellow in less than a couple years. Yuck.

Do you really need a bookclub to tell you what’s out there to be read? If you’re reading this, you know how to get around the internet. There are hundreds of websites and weblogs that will tell you everything you could possibly want to know about books new and old. Don’t let yourself be led by the hand. Go out there and make your own decisions.

3. It makes me laugh (and not in a good way) to see the big chain stores who sell abomination number one (and sometimes even get into the act by coming out with their own shitty editions) complaining to publishers about abomination number two because they don’t like being undersold. For example: U.K. Booksellers Threaten Publishers Over Cheap Book Club Editions

Payback is a bitch, or put much more eloquently by Elbert Hubbard: “Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.”

4. I like independent bookstores and I want to support them. But I find it hard to promote a bookstore who (1) sells my novels at full price and then (2) stocks used copies of that same novel on the same shelf. There’s a lack of logic there that ticks me off. I imagine a reader standing there in front of the shelf. You, maybe. You’re looking at Queen of Swords, new, $27. That’s a hunk of money. You’re thinking you haven’t paid the phone bill yet this month and really, you could get it for ten bucks less someplace else. But wait. There’s a used copy, and wow, only $14.

I can’t blame you for wanting to pay your phone bill. I absolutely understand and appreciate the fact that you really want to read the story, but $27 is just too much of an investment. What I don’t like is that the independent bookstore who wants my support has pretty much forced you to buy used, which cuts me out of the equation. If they only had the new, $27 copy on the shelf, no discount, you might think about it but most likely you’re going to leave and get the book someplace that’s selling it cheaper. But if the used copy is there, what are you going to do? It’s obvious. And it makes me really, really cranky — not with you, but with the bookstore.

What good people

Alison from NZ writes to say:

BTW I went to one of my local bookstores last week to buy a copy of TTTT as
a birthday present for a friend. It was at no. 6 on the bestseller list.

And my response: woooohoo! I love the folk downunder.

distribution problems with Queen of Swords

I’ve had a few emails and messages today from people who went out to buy Queen of Swords and were unable to find it, even in big chain stores in urban areas. Some stores just didn’t have it yet, some had ordered very few copies. In two cases people went home and ordered from Amazon.

This is not good. I forward the information to my agent and my editor, and tomorrow I’m going to get some answers. Also, It seems to me that if brick and mortar bookstores want to compete with online vendors, they need to be more proactive.

If you’ve had a similar experience, could you please let me know in the comments?


aha! moment

You know the hardest thing about writing a series? The publisher would really love it if each book stood on its own. That is, somebody picks up Book Six in a bookstore and is interested enough, after reading the first few pages, to buy it.

What they don’t want is for that person to realize that there are five earlier books in the series and give up right there.

So it’s a challenge, bringing new readers up to speed without boring the loyal readers to tears. And the gymnastics required to avoid info-dumping are tiring. That’s one of the hardest things about this novel.

Then yesterday somebody said something that made a light go on.

Anybody familiar with the Niccolo series by Dorothy Dunnett? These are probably the best historical novels I have ever read; I love them each and every one. But they are not easy. Tremendously detailed, hundreds of characters accumulated by the end of the series, a writer who doesn’t coddle her readers.

I usually re-read the whole series just before a new novel came out, which I enjoyed doing — but which many would not. Then with the last book (maybe not every edition of the last book, but with one at least), she provided a one-page summary of each of the previous books. They were very well written, just enough background information to get somebody into the novel before them.

Lady Dunnett did this for her readers, sure. But she also did it for herself. It alleviated the need to build all the backstory into the first couple chapters, so she could concentrate on moving forward with the story.

I am not Dorothy Dunnett. Not even close. It feels like hubris to even consider following her example, but it also feels like an excellent way to resolve some issues.

It will take a chunk of time to actually write the summaries, but I think it would be a good investment.

Any thoughts on this? Would you find such summaries a good thing, or irritating, or would you just skip by blithely?

regarding the book trailer

I’ve had a few emails, so let me say briefly:

Book trailers are a fairly new approach to advertising forthcoming novels. There are a lot of them out there, all you have to do is search on Google Video or YouTube. The quality is pretty uneven. Some of the best ones are (as is to be expected) the professional book trailers done by, or paid for by, publishers.

A couple I like a lot:

Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Malkani’s Londonstani

I’m not so enthusiastic about the trailer for Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, but that’s just my taste.

Generally I prefer book trailers that are collage-like with music/audio backgrounds. The ones I’ve seen that are live action with dialog … well, let’s just say that they don’t work for me. At all.

Brenda Coulter has a post about how she created her trailer for A Season of Forgiveness. If I have time I’ll put together a summary of how I did mine. Brenda works in the world of Windows and I’m on a Mac, so my approach was different.

If you look at book trailers on YouTube, you’ll see that some of them aren’t too fussy about where they get their images and/or music and audio. Most do take copyright seriously (as we are, after all, authors and make our living from royalties), but a few don’t. I bought the rights to some of the royalty-free images I used, but most of them were made available for use under the Creative Commons license. Ditto for the music. Full credits at the end of the Tied to the Tracks trailer, in case anybody is interested.

In a comment, Anne reminded me about Cory Doctorow‘s work on behalf of Creative Commons and the principles behind it. Cory releases the full texts of his novels in electronic format on the day the hard copy is released for sale in bookstores. Sometime I’ll have to find out how he and his publisher worked out the details of this.

Finally, a note: if you have time to go over to YouTube to have a look at the Tied to the Tracks trailer, please do. And while you are there, if you’d care to rate the trailer, that would be kind of you. The trolls are already out and active, in force.

No weblog? No worries.

NOTE NOTE NOTE: There was some kind of technological hiccup, and the first two comments to this post went missing. If you were one of those people, I apologize. Please enter your comment again — one comment for each bookstore you visited/called.

For those of you who

(1) would like to participate in the Tied to the Tracks meme
(2) but don’t have weblogs
(3) and still are interested in
(a) helping me get the word out about the TTTT trade paper release;
(b) an Amazon gift certificate;
(c) a pile o’ books…

…here’s a different kind of contest.

NOTE: this is for those of you in North America. There will be yet another contest for the rest of the world, coming soon.

Between now and July 5, either visit or call a local bookstore (that is, a brick-n-mortar store, near where you live or work). Once you’ve got the attention of a human being, ask:

1. When Tied to the Tracks will be released in trade paper;
2. When they expect to have it in the store;
3. How many copies will be available.

How you handle the answers you get is up to you. I certainly don’t expect you to buy a copy from every bookstore in your town. Or any copy at all, for that matter. I refrain from asking questions about the purchasing habits of people who visit here for a good reason: none of my business.

How to enter the contest:

Leave a comment to this post in which you state:

1. the name of the bookstore you called;
2. the city;
3. briefly, what answer you got to your questions.

So for example: I called a Barnes & Noble on State Street in Cincinnati and they said they had one copy of TTTT on order, but no idea when it would be in the store.

Or: I called the Tattered Cover in Denver (Cherry Creek) and they said they have three copies on order, they expected it on July 3, and did I want to reserve one?

Or: I called Borders in Ann Arbor, and they couldn’t find any record of anything you’ve ever wrote, and told me I was hallucinating.

(Let’s hope there aren’t too many like the last one.)

If you call or visit three different bookstores, you can enter three times. That means: for each phone call or visit, you submit a new comment.

I will draw two names at random (so if you enter more than once, your chances are much improved) and each of the winners will receive a $50 Amazon gift certificate and a pile o’ books.

Some notes:

Your help in getting out the word is very much appreciated. If I could give everybody a pile o’ books, I would do that happily.
For the most part, this contest depends on the honor system. You could cheat, of course, by making up the information you submit, but that would make you a Hater of Democracy.

All decisions of the judge (me) are final.

If you are going to participate in the meme, you can still enter this contest — but you can’t win both of them.

Your help in getting out the word is very much appreciated. If I could give everybody a pile o’ books, I would do that happily. For the moment, I can promise two people fifty bucks and a pile o’ books for making a phone call.

There’s a lot riding on this release of TTTT. If you can suggest it to one person, that would be a great help.

first sighting

A friend in Florida just sent me a digital photo of her beautiful daughter holding up a couple copies of Tied to the Tracks in trade paper.

So it’s out there. It’s OUT THERE.

PS I’m guessing a lot of people are away for the long holiday weekend, so I’m going to keep the bookstore-reporting contest going until Saturday.

romance vs general fiction

I’ve had a couple emails from people to tell me about their experiences looking for Queen of Swords in paperback. Two points keep coming up:

1. They find it in the romance section rather than the general fiction area.

2.  There are only a few copies, and none on the new fiction shelf.

First some good news: Queen of Swords has gone into a second printing, so people are looking for it until they find it.

Now, here’s my official reaction to being shelved in the romance section: I don’t mind. Romance novels are always at the top of the mass market best seller list, because you know what? Women read. So if my stuff has a better chance of being noticed and picked up  in romance, that’s fine with me.

I don’t take offense at the idea of my Wilderness novels as romance. Some of my favorite novels are romances, from Pride and Prejudice to Faking It. Eleanor Roosevelt said: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. I refuse to participate in the trivialization of fiction that women like, and I wish I could get more attention from the romance crowd. So if you see one of my novels in the romance section, you should know I’m glad it’s there.

The issue of the novel being relegated to dark corners is more complicated. In chain bookstores, publishers pay a premium to have new releases right up front on the new release table. They may have done that this time for certain chains in certain areas. If a small independent bookstore isn’t showing a book you think is good enough for that kind of treatment, you can talk to the manager about it. As long as you are reasonable and polite, you can have a conversation on these issues and maybe make a difference in the positioning in the book. If you’re angry at the way Barnes & Noble (for example) handle a new book, a talk with the manager isn’t going to change much at all. If you feel really strong about this, you can write to the publisher of the house in question. Enough letters and emails will may get some attention for a minute or two.

The only thing you as an individual can do is to recommend the book to friends and acquaintances, and encourage them to get copies of their own.

Diana Norman* talks about her work

*edited to add: Diana may well stop by here at some point, so if you have questions for her, please include them in the comments and you just might get an answer.

Serious readers of fiction — and I count myself as one of this group — often form strong attachments to their favorite authors. A reader comes across a new novel and falls in love with the story, the characters, and the voice of the storyteller. Soon that reader is compelled to go out to find anything and everything the author has written, without delay. If the fascination lasts, the reader will start wondering about this author who has so captured the imagination.

These days, readers have access to more information than ever before. Curiosity about the author’s background, how he or she started writing and dozens of other questions can often be addressed by an internet search. But sometimes there is nothing to be found. We are spoiled by technology, and disappointed when the internet fails us.

“Resplendent with historical details, filled with beautifully crafted characters, and kissed with a subtle touch of romance, Norman’s [A Catch of Consequence] is historical fiction at its best.” (Booklist)

Diana Norman’s first novel, Fitzempress’ Law (St. Martin’s Press; Hodder & Stoughton) appeared in 1980 with twelve more novels to follow, but until recently she has been better known in her native Great Britain than here in North America. Then, in 2003 a trade paperback edition of Catch of Consequence (see my notes here) was widely distributed and seriously marketed, which brought Norman a new and enthusiastic North American readership.

This trilogy (set during the American and French Revolutions) sent many readers out in search of the rest of Norman’s work, but most were disappointed. A great deal of her blacklist is out of print and very difficult to find. For example, Fitzempress’ Law shows up on abebooks.com for anywhere from $100 to $900. The good news: many libraries seem to carry some or all of Norman’s novels, which is where I found most of them. I must confess, however, to spending quite a lot of money to invest in a copy of The Morning Gift.

In all the years I have been reading Diana’s work, my questions have been piling up. Occasionally I would do a search, hoping to find information on how she chose a setting, where she found some particularly wonderful historical detail (see her comment about Oliver Cromwell, below), or why she used a particular approach. My curiosity was never satisfied until just recently, when I had the opportunity to ask Diana some questions. The interview presented here is the product of our very lively email conversation.

As is the case with many of the very best historical novelists, Norman’s background is not academic and so to start, I asked her for some of her own history. Most specifically, how she came to write historical novels with such insight and obvious love of the subject matter.

My mother was a single parent and I went out to work at the age of sixteen to help support her and my two young brothers. I worked on a local paper in my home town of Torquay in Devonshire, graduated to a bigger one in London’s East End and finally made it to a national newspaper in Fleet Street where you don’t learn anything much except how and where to find things out. Oh, and a lot about human nature.

Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something.

History always fascinated me. One must know the causes of things or one is walking blind. If ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair had been aware of history, he wouldn’t have taken the U.K. into war with Iraq. My husband, daughters and I marched against that appalling decision (a) because it was wrong and (b) because history told us it would be disastrous. Sorry about that – I get carried away on the subject.Male history wrote women out, unless it could blame them for something. To answer your question, I started studying history after I was married and found myself living in a Hertfordshire village having babies. Life in Fleet Street had been turbulent but exciting and, turbulent and exciting as looking after children is, it wasn’t enough.

I decided to use my spare time to write a novel about Henry II – the 12th century king who has always fascinated me, flawed perhaps but the instigator of one of those enormous leaps forward that have brought us out of the Dark Ages, a man who gave us the jury system, Common Law and who restored England after an annihilating civil war. (All right, the murder of Thomas à Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral was attributed to him, although the king was in France at the time, but St Thomas was a very, very trying man.) So, three novels about Henry and then I was off cantering through the succeeding ages, mainly trying to chart the course of women by means of novels. Male history wrote them out, unless it could blame them for something, but if you peer deeply enough into the archives you find amazing women, not necessarily the famous ones, but ordinary widows pursuing trades from which, officially, they were banned, women who kicked against the pricks (I use the term in more ways than one.)

Your interest in the untold story of women in history comes through in all your work. You create strong women characters who are put into the situations which test them and their beliefs to the extreme.

I come of a long line of strong women. At the age of fourteen, my Welsh grandmother was sent to England to work as a laundry maid in what was then known as a lunatic asylum without being able to understand a word of English. At first she didn’t know who were the staff and who the inmates, but she lived to old age to terrorise and fascinate us, her descendants. Women through the ages have had it so tough that I flounder in admiration at their struggle against prejudice and adversity, especially those who made the path smoother for those of us who came after. So, yes, I suppose all my heroines are bound to reflect that.

[asa book]0399154140[/asa] Most recently your work has taken a turn toward historical mystery with the publication of two very different, but equally compelling novels under the pen name Ariana Franklin. The Mistress of the Art of Death is set in Henry II’s England, but with City of Shadows you jumped to post World War I Germany. How did the change in focus and geography come about?

The answer is that I was running out of steam. Suddenly I was approached by a literary agent called Helen Heller – and if ever there was a forceful woman, she’s it. “What about an historical thriller? Change your name and format.”

Well, I’ve always adored thrillers and Helen’s suggestion that I should write one based on the story of Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the sole survivor of the massacre of the Russian Tsar and his family in 1918, Grand Duchess Anastasia, was intriguing. Researching it, I found that it was impossible to make Anna the heroine – too flaky, too pro-fascist and bad-tempered by half, nor was she Anastasia, as was proved by DNA later; though it looks as though she convinced herself that she was. But there was fascinating stuff there; she met and approved of Hitler, for one thing. All grist to a writer’s mill.

The twenties and thirties were such turbulent times in Europe — especially in Germany. Did you struggle with your own feelings about the events of the time, or did your Fleet Street experience provide a way to stay objective and avoid author intrusion?

My family, like most British families, suffered during the war – but it was probably the one war the UK was involved in that had to be fought. Nevertheless, if the Allies hadn’t been so vindictive towards Germany after the first World War, Hitler wouldn’t have had the material to work on that he did – and I hope City of Shadows shows the disintegration and hideous inflation that brought him to power. It’s a murder story, of course, but I tried to set it against that real and depressing background.

Just one more question about City of Shadows, for fear of letting plot twists slip: Quite a few of the major characters would have to be called off-putting (for example, Prince Nick and Anna both) but you still manage to make the reader feel real empathy and in some cases, sympathy for them. Is the construction of these characters something you have to consciously work at, or do they simply evolve? And how do you feel about them?

It’s nice of you to say that. Thank you. But don’t you feel there always has to be an explanation for wickedness? And unless you try to show that, you’re creating characters that don’t throw a shadow.

I certainly do agree with you, and I think you’ve just coined an excellent phrase: characters who don’t throw a shadow.

Mistress of the Art of Death is the first novel in a trilogy about Dr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar of Salerno, a trained physician and pathologist. The second novel in the series (The Serpent’s Tale) is to be released in late January 2008. Like City of Shadows, Mistress of the Art of Death is called historical mystery, though both novels — as is the case with all of your novels — hardly fit into one genre. Beyond murders that need to be solved, how does your most recent work differ from the earlier efforts? Or does it?

It doesn’t much. I like the corseting framework of thrillers. As the great Raymond Chandler once said: “When in doubt have a man come in with a gun.” In my case, if I’m writing about the 12th century when guns hadn’t been invented, it has to be a man with a dagger or a bow and arrow. But the principle is the same – it moves the story along. And there’s plenty of space to expand on historical background or make a political point about the time.

A bit of an odd question, but I hope you’ll find it interesting. If you were offered a chance to go back in time to spend a few days in one of your settings, which time and place would you choose? Assume that your safety (and your return trip home) are guaranteed.

Well. I’d hate to be seven hundred years away from the nearest aspirin, but I would risk it to spend some days in England in the latter half of the 12th century. People who don’t study them think of the Middle Ages as all the same, but the worst came after the Black Death in the 14th century, when a third of Europe’s population died so horribly.

It had a lot to do with the weather; there was a mini ice age in the thirteen hundreds which destroyed crops and encouraged the plague-bearing rats. Before that, in the age of Henry II, there were good summers and crisp winters that killed off a lot of disease. It was, for its time, in England at least, an enlightened and humanistic age – no witch-burning on a grand scale like there was later, no heretics going up in flames. The beginning of the Renaissance, really. Yes, I’d like to go back there – for a bit.

–Barry, Barry, did you know that Oliver Cromwell died of malaria?

Your husband is the well known and respected film critic Barry Norman. Is there a place where his interests in modern film and yours in historical storytelling intersect? Does he provide feedback on your work in progress?

–Well, good for him.

Oddly enough, no. We’ve been married a long, long time, Barry and I, and it’s been a success because we give each other space. He’s a fine writer in his own field as well as being a great film critic, and, of course, we discuss the mechanics of writing a lot, but we don’t let our work impinge on the other. I don’t think he’s ever read a book of mine until the first proof copy comes in, and vice versa – we work in such different fields that we don’t feel qualified to criticise the other’s work. Besides, we get thrilled by different things – him by films, when I prefer the theatre; me by gobbets of history that leave him cold.

This has been a really wonderful opportunity for me and for all your North American readers. I appreciate very much all your time and effort. To close, Is there anything you’d like to say us?

Just that I’m thrilled to bits to be suddenly getting such a lot of attention and finding a readership that is very intelligent. I mean that; the come-back I get is so interesting and so well-informed that I shake in my shoes in case I get something wrong.

I think every historical novelist has that fear. I know I wake up at three in the morning in a sweat because I realized (in a dream) that I was using the wrong kind of lantern in a scene. Your ability to make a time and place come alive is evident on every page, and yet you make it look effortless. When The Serpent’s Tale comes out in January, I hope you’ll come back again.

As I wrote yesterday, a pile o’ books could be coming your way Anybody who comments on the interview posts (yesterday’s, and today’s) will automatically be entered. That lucky person will get a pile o’ my favorite Diana/Ariana novels. I’ll draw a name at random sometime later next week. Everybody is eligible to enter this drawing.


*If you google Diana Norman, you are likely to find many references to an English art historian by that name. The art historian is someone else entirely; this interview is with the Diana Norman who is a former Fleet Street journalist and novelist


Diana Norman and Ariane Franklin at Fantastic Fiction (from whence the cover of Fitzempress’ Law)

Diana’s page at Literature Map

A full list of Diana’s novels, with library and bookstore links (where available)

I would like to acknowledge Lynn (Paperback Writer) who contributed to this interview by brainstorming questions with me.

hey you there, reader or weblog author: send me a link

I used to have a list of links to websites I read regularly (or try to read regularly), over there in the sidebar. I finally got rid of it when I realized it would always make me uncomfortable. Who was I forgetting? Who was I offending? Who was wondering how I got such a high opinion of myself (Catholic school. What can I say?). Better not to have it there at all.

Then I got a bright idea. I would put up links to writers’ weblogs, but only if I could include a direct link to a specific post that I particularly liked. Some accountability, thought I. That’s the ticket.

Except, two things: 1. It would take a lot of time to carry this out, because being the compulsive type I am, I would not find it easy to pick a representative post. 2. I would end up worrying just as much about this list of links as the old one. It’s still a good idea. I just needed a different way to implement it. And here it is, I think. Coincidentally, it lifts most of the burden off my shoulders and puts it — well, on yours. Here’s the plan.

There are two kinds of people who come by here. Those who read weblogs, and those who read them and also write one or more of their own. First to those of you who read weblogs but don’t write one, a question: can you name one of your favorites, and (most important) can you point to what you consider to be a really excellent post?

To those of you who write a weblog, can you point to one of your own posts that you think was particularly successful (how ever you define success; that’s up to you).

Now, I know nobody will come out and say something like this in public, so this will all be anonymous. If you’ve got a weblog & post to recommend, you can do that by signing your comment as your favorite fictional character, or by sending me an email. I am hoping that weblog authors will actually take heart in hand and point to their own favorite posts, because I think this would be the making of a really useful list of links. Not just for show. A list with some umph. Some character. And best of all: you won’t know if the link & post were suggested by a faithful reader, or by the author him or herself.

To put my money where my mouth is, if I had to pick one post of my own… damn, it’s hard. But okay, this one: On Depression. I didn’t say it had to be a funny post, just a post that you feel strongly about. I have other posts I like that turned out funny, but none of them ring quite so true as this one.

Imagine this, that when people click come by here and look at the list, when they follow the link to your weblog they don’t end up on today’s post about the mail being late, or the rant about the bookstore clerk, or anything else you consider not your best effort. Instead, they end up at a post you feel good about. I think people would be more likely to click in the first place. Everybody wins: more good stuff to read, and more readers discovering writers they didn’t know.

Here are some caveats (you knew these were coming). I expect I’ll get a lot of suggestions for some of the more popular blogs, and that’s fine. However, if I get fifteen different favorite post suggestions for the same weblog, I can’t put them all up. I will put up the first three. If the weblog author has a suggestion, that link will be one of the three, but you won’t know who suggested what.

Does this sound complicated? It really isn’t. If you’ve got a weblog, send me a link to a post you like a lot. If you have a favorite weblog, send me a link to a post you like a lot. You can say why you like the post in a few words, if you like, but it’s not obligatory.

And again: Anonymity all around.

If this takes off, I’ll have to find room for all the links, but I’ll take that chance.

finding DDS in Great Britain

I’ve had email from a number of people over the last few months saying they haven’t been able to find a copy of Dawn on a Distant Shore in England. Just today Jill — my agent — got back to me about this, after talking to the publisher in London. Whatever the problem was, it seems to be fixed — Amazon UK now does have copies in stock, and your local booksellers should be able to order it. Sorry for the inconvenience. I don’t pretend to undertand that mysterious goings on, but Jill does. Thank dog.

first lines

The first lines of a novel or short story are an invitation written in shorthand. Here’s an example:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere nor a chair misplaced. We are alone here and we are dead.

Tropic of Cancer | Henry Miller

The first few lines of a novel have to draw the reader in and hold her captive, which makes those sentences the hardest and most important sentences to write. Browsing in a bookstore I might read the first lines or first paragraphs of twenty novels in a half hour. Twenty different authors + twenty opening lines = days and days of work, but it only takes me minutes to make decisions on whether or not I will read the rest of the book. I’m looking for evidence that I’m in the hands of a real storyteller. Somebody with a voice, and vision.

I’ve said before that I’m not crazy about first person narratives, but these days it seems like I can pick up a dozen novels one after the other and they are all in first person. I keep wondering when this fashion will pass. I am rarely so struck by a first person narrative that I’ll buy the novel, but there are exceptions. Tropic of Cancer is such an exception. I actually remember reading this opening line many years ago, because it made such an impression on me; it was exotic (Villa Borghese), with strong imagery, and there is that shock of listening to a dead man tell a story.

Here’s an example of an opening done with dialog which works (for me) like magic. From Dickens’ Hard Times:

NOW, what I want is, Facts.

In this case it’s the comma and then the capitalization of Facts that makes me sit up and pay attention. People who talking in capital letters are bound to be interesting. Something very different:

In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses — and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread-lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak — there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.

Silas Mariner | George Elliot

To start with this sounds like a traditional story in a traditional setting, saved from the curse of the ordinary by use of interesting details (thread-lace, polished oak). It’s the last part of the sentence, the juxtaposition of the expected (brawny country-folk) with the unsettling (remnants of a disinherited race) that pulls me in.

Another example:

The schoolmaster was leaving the village, and everybody seemed sorry.

I’m wondering if anybody recognizes this? I’ll spill the beans if nobody wants to speak up. I’m also wondering why the sentence has always stuck in my head. The only explanation I’ve got is the use of the word seemed. With that one word, a world of possibilities opens up before us, and the story might take us to any of them.

And for something completely different, sometimes pure shock value works. Here’s an example:

Three men at McAlester State Peniteniary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s own figureing, hardly human at all. His was the largest penis ever seen on a white man in that prison or any of the others in which Lamar had spent so much of his adult life. It was a monster, a snake, a ropey, veiny thing that hardly looked at all like what it was but rather like some form of rubber tubing.

Dirty White Boys | Stephen Hunter

I like Stephen Hunter’s books about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger. I had read a few of them before I picked up Dirty White Boys. Maybe I was taken in by his opening because I already liked and trusted the author — I knew enough to give Hunter a chance, and my reaction was tempered by that. Thus a warning: an opening like this, calculated to shock on multiple levels (sexual imagery, racism, crime) might backfire if you don’t have the skill to pull it off. Especially if you aren’t Stephen Hunter.

In summary, first sentences are really hard. Wickedly hard, for me at least. But once that first sentence is solid on the page… the rest of the damn novel still has to be written.

characterization & cheating

edelsteinBrowsing in the bookstore I came across this: The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein. (Hardcover  
ISBN: 0-89879-901-5
$18.90). In less than three hundred pages you get (just for starters):

• Profiles of 20 adult personality types, from adventurers and eccentrics to conformists and creatives
• Child and adolescent types, including descriptions of mild to extreme developmental disorders

• Typical personality traits associated with 46 different careers ranging from astronauts to social workers

My question is, does this cookbook approach really work for anybody? I’d be interested to hear from an author (if anyone would admit this) who has successfully constructed characters with a book like this. It just seems way too simplistic, or maybe I’m just too much of an A personality to take one person’s word on such a wide range of topics. For example, I’m working (in a very preliminary way) on the first stages of a character for a novel I haven’t started yet. This woman is agoraphobic. At the moment I know only very basic things about agoraphobia, but I’ll learn a lot more before I launch into writing for real. I can’t imagine how a paragraph in a how-to book could possibly be enough.

I started thinking about this in more depth after reading Joshua’s post on the complexities of post traumatic stress disorder. If you ask the average joe on the street for a definition of PTSD you’ll probably get some vague response about Vietnam vets and violence. You’ll get that response because vets/violence is the only aspect of PTSD the media has chosen to bring to your attention. But if you want to write a character who deals with PTSD and you care about things like reality and depth and complex characterization, you’re going to need to really look into this stuff, and dig far deeper than the six o’clock news. Joshua’s post touches on a lot of really interesting aspects of PTSD in a way that makes it clear that he’s thought about the issues. If he choses at sometime to write a story or novel about somebody whose life is complicated by PTSD, I imagine he’ll pull it off because he’s put in the work.

Now you might be wondering if it’s really important, and isn’t it possible to cut a few corners, now and then? Do you have to get an MD to write a story about a surgeon? Do you need to climb Everest to write about the maniac people who trudge up there trying to get by without oxygen?

There are places you can cut corners, sure, but characterization isn’t one of them. You don’t need to know how to perform bypass surgery to write about your surgeon, but you sure do need to understand what makes him visit chatrooms every free minute, where he tells everybody he’s a janitor who breeds cockatoos as a hobby. When it comes to the inner workings of the character’s mind, cutting corners is not a good idea, because believe me — readers will put up with a lot, but they will call you on it if you fumble PTSD or pretend you know what it is to be the hearing child of Deaf parents. And rightly so.

get out the vote: writers of fiction, unite!

Michael Stelzner’s weblog for writers is called Writing White Papers. I don’t stop by there very often because the focus is primarily (as you would guess) on white papers, defined as

A white paper is an authoritative report; a government report outlining policy; or a document for the purpose of educating industry customers or collecting leads for a company. White papers are used to help people make decisions. (Wikipedia)

I had a quick look at Michael’s blog this morning and I saw an interesting post. He’s asking his readers to nominate the top ten writing weblogs. There are a lot of nominations, but almost all of them have to do with websites that promote freelance writing, copy editing, and other kinds of non-fiction. Which struck me as a little one sided, so I nominated Paperback Writer as an excellent source of information and the occasional belly laugh, not to mention all the useful bits and pieces she gives away. I also commented on the fact that so many of the nominations pointed to Deborah Ng’s Freelance Writing Jobs. Which shouldn’t be a surprise if the target audience is primarily non-fiction writers, because that is an excellent resource. Long story short: I should have said that to start with. So now that I’ve taken my foot out of my mouth, my original concern still stands:

Why are the fiction writers not participating? Go on over there and vote for the website/oldweblog which is most helpful and/or interesting to you as a writer of stories. Here are some sites that I like:

Paperback Writer
Tess Gerritsen’s Blog
Smart Bitches Trashy Books
Alison Kent
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

You will note that I do not list this website. That’s because I would prefer you don’t nominate it, lest I end up again on the authors behaving badly list. Nominate some other weblog that focuses on providing support for writers of fiction. Go forth, and be counted.

reading, writing, and the opening paragraphs of Thunder at Twilight

John and Aeryn

Farscape. You knew that was coming, right?

Watched episode Green-Eyed Monster on dvd last night, listening to the commentary by Ben Browder, who plays John Crichton and also wrote this particular episode. Listening to storytellers talk about the creative process is something that I could do forever. This particular episode is interesting because it’s mostly about the drama that goes on around the triangle of John, Aeryn and Crais, the slightly-off-center former PeaceKeeper commander who lusts for (as Ben Browder puts it) John’s girl. It’s this episode where John and Aeryn both make the decision to pursue the relationship, and it’s handled beautifully.

Ben Browder, in his commentary, seems somewhat uneasy about his own work; he keeps refering to himself as schmaltzy, when in fact there’s a wonderful mixture of strong emotion and tentativeness in the way John and Aeryn approach each other. You know the old addage about how porcupines mate; you can see it happening here.

Sense & SensibilityAnother movie/dvd to watch again and again, with or without the commentary, is Sense and Sensibility. I have great respect for everyone associated with this adapation, from Ang Lee (the director) to each and every minor character. But I’m in awe of Emma Thompson‘s work on the screenplay, and I recommend her commentary on the dvd very highly.

I’ve been writing very little, but thinking a lot. And reading constantly, about islands in the Caribbean just now.

It occurs to me that readers might get a little panicky, thinking that I’m sending the Bonners off to an island somewhere for the duration of book five in the series. Let me say: that’s not the case. The first few chapters of Queen of Swords do take place on such an island, but only a subset of the family is there.

I’m aware that many of my readers don’t like it when I take the action outside of upper NY state, but I hope they’ll stick with me. Most of novel five takes place in New Orleans and environs, with occasional peaks back at what’s going on in Paradise. New Orleans in 1814 was an incredible place, and I hope I’ll do it justice. Certainly I know my characters are all wound up about it.

Another problem I should mention: since there’s such a long gap between the time I finish a novel and the time the readers get to see it, I forget sometimes what they know already and what they don’t. I try very hard not to let spoilers into my discussions, but I may slip in a small way sometimes.

I have to go now and draw a map. Luke is requesting it.

And here’s the opening page of Thunder at Twilight, something I’ve been promising the members of the discussion board at yahoo for a while. See the “continue reading” link at the bottom of this post.


another short excerpt Fire Along the Sky

Just in case you had the idea that this new novel is not about the Bonners themselves…there’s another short excerpt below (see “continue reading” at the bottom of this entry).

That will be the last excerpt, but please know that while the younger Bonners (Lily, Hannah, Jennet) play a large role in this story, Elizabeth and Nathaniel are still central.


fan fiction

… is the term generally used when people draw on an existing fictional characters and settings (in book, tv or film format) to write a story of their own.

There’s a huge universe of fan fiction out there, writers and readers both. There are some very talented people writing Farscape fan-fic (more about that in another post); I know there are many websites where people post and read fan-fic for Friends (my daughter reads them on-line and tells me about those stories).

It’s an interesting phenomena. As an author I approach it with equal measures of curiosity and trepidation. On the one hand it’s tremendously flattering that the characters conceived and created in the author’s mind have taken on such life that they go out into the world on their own and have new adventures. On the other hand, it’s a little bit like knowing that you have a child out there dating somebody you don’t know anything about. Anybody with kids knows that this is nightmare material.

In technical terms, fan-fic is probably a violation of copyright, but I have never heard of an author prosecuting, and in fact I think that would be stupid. If a few people get together to tell stories about Author X’s people and places, and there’s no attempt to sell or make money from those efforts, then I don’t see that there’s any problem. If a fan-fic writer tries to claim a character, of course, then things would get a little complicated and uneasy. All of the fan-fic I have seen, however, makes a great effort to establish who owns copyright, and that the stories presented are not meant to be any kind of infringement.

John Crichton action figure

John Crichton

In fact, some authors and writers encourage a certain kind of fan-fic; that’s why they sell action figures — so we can sit at home and construct our own scenes between characters, the way we’d like to see them happen. And sadly, while the John Crichton action figure will never be John Crichton, role-playing is not unhealthy and might even be therapeutic for the… truly engaged viewer. Note I haven’t used the ‘f’ word here.

A related but distinct area is screenwriting. Ann posted this query:

… would you mind if I practiced learning screenwriting skills by using your books? I would not be looking to sell the screenplay – just an exercise for myself.

The reason this is more complicated than simple storywriting is that the screenplay rights for the Into the Wilderness are under option to a producer, and thus they are not exclusively mine to make decisions about. Certainly if the deal begins to come together, it’s very unlikely that I would have anything to do with the writing of the screenplay (or the casting of the actors, either). So if somebody has an idea for writing a few scenes from one of the novels and is doing so for their own enjoyment and as an educational exercise, I see no problem with that — but that’s about all it could ever be.

Crais Controversy

Martin at Legends of the Sunpig has got a very well considered and documented essay on the recent controversy around Robert Crais and his filing of a copyright infringement lawsuit against Activision. Copyright issues around characters are very complex and growing more so as different medias develop. It’s something every author needs to think about.

I have given these issues a lot of thought, from a number of different angles, and I’ve written a little bit about copyright in relationship to genealogical research. That essay is here.

Nathaniel & Elizabeth

for the holiday season, a little glimpse from Fire Along the Sky (the new title for book four, which was called Thunder at Twilight). You’ll have to click on the link below (unless you are the kind of person who dislikes any spoilers (actually, it’s more of a preview and doesn’t give away anything big) at all, in which case, well, don’t).


excerpt: Queen of Swords

A few paragraphs from the first chapter of Queen of Swords — the fifth novel in the series — to demonstrate that Hannah is well (as the cover copy for Fire Along the Sky seems to have worried some readers):

copyright Sara Donati
All Rights Reserved

Just behind Lieutenant Hodges stood Hannah Bonner, dressed in men’s breeches and a leather jerkin over a rough shirt, her person hung about with weapons: a rifle on her back, pistols, a knife in a beaded sheath on a broad belt. She could heal or kill; he had seen her conjure miracles and blasphemies with equal ease. No mortal woman, he had called her to her face and she had not corrected him with words.

The moonlight was kind to her, as the sun was kind. In the year since they had made their uneasy alliance he had seen her every day, and still the sight of her was startling. By the standards of Wyndham’s own kind, Luke Bonner’s Mohawk half-sister could not be called beautiful. Her skin was too dark, her hair too black, her mouth too generous for pale English blood. Below dark eyes, the bosses of her cheeks cast shadows. Most damning of all, the expression in those eyes was far and away too intelligent. If her skin were as pale as snow, her mind would have isolated her; Englishmen did not know what to do with a woman like her.

practicing what I preach

Georgina posted a question: “How do you feel about fanfic involving the characters from your books?”
The short answer is: As long as the basics are observed, I’m fine with it. The basics, to be specific:

1. Appropriate disclaimers. From the BBC fanfic article: “Fan fiction websites invariably contain a host of disclaimers, acknowledging the borderline legality of the pursuit. While not done for commercial purposes, fan fiction inevitably involves the use of copyrighted characters and settings, and fanfic authors basically operate at the mercy of [the copyright holder/author]. The good archives all recognise this – hence their clear legal disclaimers – and are usually only too willing to take down any material if [the copyright holder/author] ask them to. …Any responsible site which archives fanfictions will have a blanket disclaimer on the main page and any index pages, stating that the stories were written for fun and are reproduced on the web for the enjoyment of other fans, and that there is no commercial intent. This is preceded or followed by a copyright disclaimer, stating – for general fanfic sites – that all characters and settings are the copyright property of their creators, or on specific sites stating to whom the rights belong.”

2. Anybody writing fan fiction about my characters must understand that I cannot and will not — primarily for legal reasons — read it. This is to protect myself from claims that I have stolen ideas that might show up in any such fan fiction. I just have to stay away from it, no matter how wonderful it may be.

I quite like reading the disclaimers on fanfic sites — they are often quite funny. Somebody should compile a sampling and post it somewhere (not me; nope). But. This is what I mean:

From Jess’s Buffy fanfic:

DISCLAIMER:  What’s the Numfar of this fic?  In other words, Joss [Wheldon] is the malevolent god that owns all, although sometimes I sneak Spike out the side door and do wicked things with him.

And from Ann Harrington’s Farscape fanfic:

Farscape is owned by The Jim Henson company, Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network Australia and the Sci-Fi Channel. They own all rights to characters mentioned within this story. I have merely borrowed these characters to play with, and promise to return them in good working order.

new versus used books

Here’s the summary (and this is my take alone):

1. If you can afford to buy new books, that’s an excellent way to support the work of authors you like best.

2. If you can’t afford to buy new books, the next best way is to borrow from the library. Libraries deserve support. Libraries also support authors.

3. There are times and situations in which buying a used book is reasonable. If the work is out of copyright or out of print and/or if the author has been dead for a while.

If I buy a copy of a book new, I am then comfortable buying a second copy used if it’s for my own use.

If the author is new to me, I will get his or her work out of the library until I decide whether or not I want to purchase the books new.

Once I decide to buy a used book, I will try to get it from a nonprofit. For example, a library or school sale. There are a number of organizations that collect and sell used books for non-profits. The most visible one is Better World Books.

These are my guidelines. Everybody has to decide for themselves how best to proceed.

Do you recognize this man?

Edit: sketch moved to the wiki.

I sometimes do drawings or sketches of important characters. If you’ve read Queen of Swords you may recognize this man.Tomorrow when I post some of the background on Curiosity, I may post her sketch as well.And by the way, any sketches I post are my original work and my copyright. Please don’t use them in anyway without getting my explicit permission first.Edited to add:Someone asked about the coloring you see here. This is in fact a pencil drawing, but I decided to do the eyes in watercolor. That accounts for the lack of color in complexion. Ben is tri-racial, and his skin is medium dark with a strong reddish cast.There is an interesting website about the family history of tri-racial groups in Virginia with some great photos, here.

an idea whose time I don’t have

This came to me in the shower. Many ideas come to me in the shower but most of them have to do with grocery shopping and social obligations.

If you aren’t familiar with the online versions of Pepys’ Diary or Martha Ballard’s Diary, you should really have a look. Or let’s say, you should have a look if you’re at all interested in history and historical fiction.

English: Author: Guy de la Bedoyere. Letter by...

Each of these diaries takes on the job of annotating an older historical document or set of documents for modern readers who aren’t familiar with the cultural context. In the case of Pepys’ Diary, there’s a large community of people who participate by annotating entries. If somebody happens to know the background of a particularly obtuse usage, or a place where it was used in another way, or anything relevant to understanding the passage, they can submit an annotation.

Reading the annotations are as much fun as reading the diaries.

Okay, yes. I’m a history geek. But mostly I’m interested in the stories that are buried in the diaries and that come out, bit by bit. Martha Ballard’s diary contains some tremendously surprising stories of things that happened in her small Maine village where she was a midwife in the late 18th century. Pepys had a much wider view of the world, and so his stories are different in tone.

I know, I’m taking a long time to get to the point. Here it is: any book that is out of copyright could get this treatment, and the list of out of copyright books is very, very long. If one person got the ball rolling with a well loved novel, and the process took off, it might be the beginning of a whole new way of reading, and certainly a new way to discuss the books we read.

I nominate Pride & Prejudice as an excellent starting point. There are so many people who love this novel, I think it would have a much better chance of succeeding than say, Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s possible that the Pepys’ people might be open to an adaptation of their software, which would make everything so much easier.

So there. I’ve put down the idea. It will be a huge amount of work, lots of fun, very satisfying. Not a penny’s profit to be made.

Who’s game? That’s what I thought.

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Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness

This excerpt from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart is anything but a typical or generic sex scene.

The two main characters in this historical romance are Stuart Aysgarth, a viscount, and a woman called Emma Hotchiss. Emma has a very shady past but at this point in her life she is an utterly respectable and unremarkable woman who owns a sheep farm in Yorkshire. Stuart gives her cause to seek him out when he causes harm to her livestock, but after getting no satisfaction she takes matters into her own hands. Thus, he catches her in the act of robbing him (I’m simplifying this, please note). So he ties her to a chair to keep her from running off, but more importantly because this is an opportunity he had been hoping for. With her questionable connections and background, she can help him with a problem — or if she prefers, he can call the sheriff.

There is a long, interesting, complex discussion between these two while she’s tied to the chair, business negotiations and personal observations, all fraught with a great deal of sexual tension arising from strong mutual attraction. Emma is experienced and not easily frightened, but she is at a bit of a loss on how to handle Stuart, who tells her she must give up two minutes of her time to experience the personal trespass he has suffered over a longer period.

This initial confrontation, discussion and negotiation takes many pages, and eventually they get to kissing (another couple pages). Remember that Emma is still tied to the chair where this excerpt begins.

Untie My Heart. Copyright Judith Ivory.

Somewhere along the way his hand returned to her knee, light, dry, warm possessive. Just his hand on her knee. For balance. Still, for a second, she knew a tiny panic. He stroked it away. His thumb rubbed the inside of her knee, two soft, short strokes along the bend, the first reassuring, the second bringing such a shocking physical rush of blood to the core of Emma, she nearly lost her breath. Her legs … dear heaven, her legs. She felt all at once exposed … aware how close he was to… well, he could have put his hands, that thumb, those fingers anywhere.

Almost gentlemanly, sweetly, as if he read her mind, he broke away long enough to lean over sideways. With one hand, he yanked at the ties at her legs, ripping them in part, setting her right knee free first –oh, lovely!–coming back to kiss her again briefly–then stopping long enough to lean in the other direction. She lifted her free foot out, straightening her knee to stretch, as he undid her other one. Not that he was letting her free or up exactly, because as soon as her legs were freed, he came back to that astonishing kiss, having her rather trapped against the chair.

Then, the next thing she knew, his hands hooked under her knees, and he lifted her legs up as he moved forward and straddled the chair himself, sitting, while in the same movement lifting, running his hands under her legs down her calves to her ankles. He sat, taking her legs up over his. He still had to bend forward slightly, he was so much taller, but he was less awkward, more comfortable, she thought, sitting on the chair-until he moved forward and brought their bodies close, up against each other. She would have slapped him perhaps. Maybe. Difficult to say, since her hands were still held behind her. In any event, it was a shock at first to feel him — his male body up against her spraddled female one.

He bent forward, kissing her harder. One moment, his hands were at the sides of her, gripping the chair posts over her head. He curved his hips hard against her, and she knew the heady thickness of him. All so oddly familiar, yet not. The next moment, one of his hands was between them, at her waist, then the back of his hand glided down her belly, almost protective. Then he took his hand away–and nothing. Absolutely, positively nothing whatsoever was between them. Unless one counted something else she hadn’t felt in a very long time: a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection.

He either knew or was inventing on the spot how to have sexual congress on a chair … they were about to…she was letting him … no, she jerked on her hands, they weren’t free in back….she was his prisoner…wasn’t she? Was she letting him? She wet her lips to say stop. The word didn’t come out. Did she want him to? Now was certainly the moment to say so. Decisions seemed to hang, demanding her attention, yet her brain couldn’t seem to keep up with her body.

She felt herself swollen, lit, as the head of his penis dropped against her. It slid down the length of her in an instant acknowledgement of how ready she was. The warm movement of his hand was there, adjusting himself into position – here was certainly the moment to protest. Did she want to?

Then it was too late to protest anything. With a swift, sure movement of hips, he thrust himself deeply, thickly inside her. Her body all but pulled him into her, swallowing him up. His arms were at either side of her again, enfolding her against the chair, against him, his chest, the spicy-warm smell of him…his strong, muscular shoulders hunched toward her, one hovering at her face till the starchiness of his shirt rose into her nostrils like steam, till she tasted it in her mouth. . . his hips under her, his presence inside her, hot and substantial, driving … intrusive, amazing . . . he lifted into her with a kind of rhythmic spasm that was so satisfying she bit down on his shirt, clenching her teeth. Seconds. It lasted seconds — perhaps three deep, solid stokes of Stuart’s body into hers. While her own contracted around his the moment of entry and simply kept contracting… tighter and tighter and tighter. . . until an explosion… or implosion, things collapsing and shoving and moving inside as she couldn’t remember in years, maybe ever, . . with both herself and Stuart making such noises, mutters, animal sounds, groans.

She came to her senses again like this, her heart pounding with him right there in her face, his body up against her, still inside her.

Two minutes. Had it taken two minutes? Feasible. It was entirely feasible.

When I read this over again I am entirely taken in by Emma’s voice, her very distinctive voice as we follow her thoughts through this scene. She’s such a down-to-earth, practical woman, unprepared but not particularly upset by Stuart’s direct approach. More upsetting to her is her own inability to produce the reactions she knows she supposed to have. She’s supposed to not want this; she should be protesting. But her body has the upper hand, and her body wants Stuart, and she goes along for the ride, amazed, dumbfounded, but absolutely able to acknowledge the pleasure it brings her. This has nothing to do with love; she never even thinks about that.

The approach here is very explicit: we see what Emma sees, and feel what she feels. Every one of Stuart’s actions is recounted, but in rather sober, vaguely surprised language. She registers things: the shock of his body against hers, the familiarity of a male body still after a long dry spell, and a very calm assessment of his body in a state of sexual arousal. What kind of woman, in this situation, thinks a very capable, fully naked, and perfectly beautiful male erection. Notice the juxtaposition of the sensible observation (capable) with the appreciative one (perfectly beautiful).

She debates with herself what she wants, and her role in this whole business. I’ve read this many times to see if I could talk myself into believing that she is being abused or raped, but I can’t see it. She knows perfectly well how to stop him, considers doing that, and doesn’t. She never makes a direct and conscious decision to go ahead and have sex with the man; it’s more of a decision she makes by letting opportunities slip by. Once the act has actually begun, she’s caught up in the physical sensations, and they are provided for us in detail: the things she smells, tastes, feels, sees.

Her final thoughts — Two minutes? Entirely feasible are completely in character, and perfectly caught.

I’ve wondered too what to make of the lack of dialog between them in these two minutes — they certainly chatter away in the first twelve or so pages of the scene, and now complete verbal silence. This experience is for Emma a fairly solitary one; if she looks into Stuart’s eyes we don’t know about it; it’s all about what’s going on inside her own head and her own body.
Has Emma changed in the course of this encounter, has the narrative shifted? That’s something you’d have to decide for yourself by reading the whole novel, but I think that this is in fact a turning point for her, and for Stuart.

I think I like this and find it to be successful because it is unique and unusual and evocative. I’m curious what y’all think.

Series Navigation<< G or PG or Nothing: Unhappy Readersplayfulness >>

Falling in Love

I love Jane Austen, and I don’t care if that’s a cliche.

If I could jump in a time machine I’d go back to see her at age twenty or so and bring her a lifetime supply of cortisone supplements — still the only treatment for Addison’s disease, which is what killed her. Imagine another five or ten books by her. Wouldn’t that be worth a spin in a time machine?

At any rate. Other people love Jane as much as I do, and some of them are very … exacting. Austen Purists do not like anyone to fuss with the Work. Purists are opposed, unilaterally, to the small industry that has sprung up around Jane’s stories, particularly to the dozens of sequels that have been published. Currently the list of such works over at the Republic of Pemberley numbers 68, and it is not complete. Personally I try to judge every after-the-fact sequel on its own merits, but thus far I haven’t run into one that really worked for me.

All this by way of introducing Linda Berdoll’s
Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife — which works in a very limited way.

One thing I would love to ask Jane (when we’re sitting in her garden and after I’ve explained to her the [asa left]1402202733[/asa] function of cortisone and why her inability to produce it is going to be fatal) is this: when we get to the most crucial scene in Pride and Prejudice, the one we’ve been working toward for so long, why does she step away? Darcy and Elizabeth are finally declaring mutual love and a future together, but we are no longer in scene. Very frustrating, really. I would guess she’d tell me that it was far too personal a conversation to put down on paper. I expect that’s exactly what the purists say, too: if Jane didn’t want it told, we should be satisfied to leave it at that. But of course, nobody is ever satisfied. Fictional characters live on and independently of their creators. Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are a case in point; maybe the ultimate case in point. Linda Berdoll was not the first to sit down and write the story of what happens after they get married, and I doubt she’ll be the last. What sets her apart, though, is her willingness to explore the sexual relationship between them.

There is a lot of sex in this novel, probably too much. Some of it works very well; other bits don’t. Part of the problem is that Berdoll decided to try to emulate Jane’s late 18th century style and tone, which she pulls off only inconsistently. What she does do well is to give us scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth that go beyond sex, the very kinds of scenes that reveal so much about the inner person and the relationship. The passage I’m quoting here is after-the-fact. They have been married a very short time; Elizabeth, of course, has come to the marriage bed with very little concrete idea of what’s going to happen, but great willingness and an open mind (she is, thus far, still in character as Jane created her) — but she is also confused and at odds and worried that she’s not performing to expectations, because she doesn’t know how to interpret some of Darcy’s reactions and comments. That’s where this begins, with her misunderstanding of something he’s said having to do with her loss of virginity.

Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife. Copyright Linda Berdoll.

Before she had found reason or even anger at fate, which would have been a truer reaction for her nature, she bitterly (and with a great deal of self-pity) announced her obvious shortcoming.

“I am stunted,” she proclaimed.

Still in heaving contrition atop her, he raised himself upon both elbows and inquired, “You are what?”

“I cannot accomodate you. I am obviously stunted.”

Still raised upon his elbows, breathing heavily, but blinking at her remark in non-comprehension, he could only repreat, “You are ‘stunted’?”


Impatient that he did not follow her reasoning, she explained to her exceedingly satisfied husband thusly, “My body obviously cannot meet your needs. I thought it was only at first, but you see now, it is not. I am stunted and cannot perform satisfactorily as your wife.”

“Lizzy, that is absurd!”

“‘Tis not absurd! You yourself said, ‘This will not do.’ Indeed, last night you said again and again that I was too small.”

“I said you were small, meaning….” he searched for an explanation.

“Paltry,” she answered for him.

“No. I meant, small — diminutive — petite. Lush and tight.”

At that unprecedented explictness, he well-nigh blushed.

Then, hastily, he continued. “It was a compliment, Lizzy, not a complaint. As far as my saying ‘it will not do,’ I only meant it would not do for me to continue to hurt you. That is my failing, not yours. I must rein myself in, for you are not too small. I am…” He flailed about for a delicate way to put it. “…rather large.”


This was an interesting turn of events. The entire conundrum was the fault of his body, not hers.

She bid, “Do you mean too large?”

“I mean to say, you are small, but not too small.”

“You mean to say, you are not large, but too large?”

“I am not all that large…” he made a frustrated little half-snort, obviousy unhappy at the direction the conversation was taking, but that did not deter her curiosity.

“How large are you?”

“As you see.”

“Well, you must understand, sir, my frame of reference is somewhat limited. Would you not grant I have no true way to compare it?”

He almost smiled then reclaimed it, not wanting to encourage further discussion of the meritoriousness of his member. But he was tardy by half, leaving Elizabeth feeling saucy enough to inflict a tease.

“Are you large enough to incite gossip? Are you large enough to be put upon display in Piccadilly?”

By then thoroughly defensive, he said, “I said I was large, not a freak of nature.”

“I am just trying to get some idea of what sort of largeness we are dealing with here…”

“I should have said I was not small.”

“There is a very wide gap in definition betwixt ‘too large’ and ‘not small’.”

“It will have to simply remain so, for I refuse to discuss it further.”

He shook his head slightly, then said, “I truly believed I would be whispering endearments in your ear at this moment, not discussing logistiques.”

“But the dilemma has not been solved…”

“I promise you, Lizzy, it shall be solved,” he said. “With very diligent practice.”

I find this touching and funny, the idea of the very correct Mr. Darcy unable to extract himself from such a conversation. This playfulness is something we don’t see at all in Pride and Prejudice, but something we suspect is there beneath the surface — something we hope for. We want this Mr. Darcy for Elizabeth. A sexually aware, adventurous, considerate Darcy who is able to talk to Lizzy about their relationship, who stretches outside of his areas of comfort because he likes and loves her.

There are many little bits like this in the novel, where we see what falling in love has done — and continues to do — for Darcy. They both evolve, but he especially changes and grows, and it’s a delight. Those bits alone made the novel worthwhile for me; I could overlook or forgive almost every other kind of infelicity, given this window into the way the newly married are continuing to fall headlong in love.

Tomorrow I’ll try to draw out some guidelines that have been rising to the surface while I looked at these various sex scenes, or, maybe, I’ll do one more. If I can find the book.

Series Navigation<< Reader Feedback: On Writing Sex ScenesGood Bad Sex >>

Less; More

I have been wanting to look at a sex scene from a hardboiled thriller/detective type novel. I vascillated for a long time between a very short scene from John Sandford’s Rules of Prey and one from Dan Simmons’ Hardcase and finally decided to look at them both.

Both of these novels are excellent examples of their genre. Sandford’s Lucas Davenport is a tough, no-nonsense homicide detective; Simmons’ Joe Kurtz was a tough private investigator until he killed the guy who raped and murdered the woman he loved — in a very well written, very shocking scene, I might add, the very first scene of this series of books about Kurtz.

Davenport has his very dark side, but Kurtz doesn’t have anything but dark, no matter how you look at him. Davenport loves women, likes to talk to them, his closest friend is a nun. Kurtz is so hard bitten and terse that it’s hard to imagine him smiling. We know he likes jazz; we know he’s concerned (from afar) about his daughter; that’s the end of it. These scenes are so different in tone you know, even if you read nothing else, that they are not from the POV of the same character.

Rules of Prey. Copyright John Sandford.

“You should have been a shrink, ” he said, shaking his head ruefully. He cut the water off and pushed open the shower door. “Hand me that big towel. I’ll dry your legs for you.”
A half-hour later, Jennifer said hoarsely, “Sometimes it gets very close to pain.”

“That’s the trick,” Lucas said. “Not going over the line.”

“You come so close,” she said. “You must have gone over it a lot before you figured out where to stop.”

Hardcase. Copyright Dan Simmons.

They moved together hard. Kurtz made his right hand a saddle and lifted her higher against the tiles while she wrapped her legs around his hips and leaned back, her hands cusped behind his neck, her arm and thigh muscles straining.

When she came it was with a low moan and a fluttering of eyelids, but also with a spasm that he could feel through the head of his cock, his thighs, and the splayed fingers of his supporting hand.

“Jesus Christ,” she whispered in a moment, still being held against the tile in the warm spray. Kurtz wondered just how capacious this loft’s hot water tank was. After another moment, she kissed him, began moving again, and said, “I didn’t feel you come. Don’t you want to come?”

“Later,” said Kurtz and lifted her slightly.

I should note that these are both the first novel in a series written by a male author. This is the first time you see Lucas in a sexual situation, and the same is true for Joe Kurtz. The Rules of Prey scene is so short and so lacking detail it’s hard to see why it might be erotic. There are two things: he orders her to submit to being cared for (the dichotomy here is intrinsically interesting) in a fairly matter-of-fact, gruff way; and then it is a half hour later when she is coherent enough to raise the subject of his methods, in a hoarse voice. A hoarse voice is a very distinctive thing, and should by rights be a cliche, but it still works, if used sparingly, to get across something about the scene.

Mostly this short scene is erotic because it makes the reader wonder what in the heck was going on, and draws on the reader’s own imagination. “And then they had sex,” does the same thing, but not like this. In this case, you have just enough information to make you understand a few things about Lucas Davenport. Interesting things.

The Hardcase scene is extremely explicit, and from a man’s POV, which is interesting in its own right. I would say, though, that it’s so mechanical, and Joe Kurtz’s POV is so detached, that there’s nothing erotic about it. The author lets us into Joe’s head, where we find him wondering about hot water heaters — and this is the first time he’s had a sexual encounter after eleven and a half years in prison. Would “and then they had sex” be a suitable substitute for this scene? Nope. Especially not if you read the whole scene from the beginning, which starts with Joe’s contemplation on how doing without sex in prison drives some men crazy, and how he read the Stoics to deal with it. This scene gives you a lot of information about Joe. It’s not very pleasant, it’s slightly disturbing, but most of all it’s very intriguing, for me at least. I kept wondering if he was ever going to put down the defenses and let himself feel anything. That’s why I kept reading the series, to answer that question. You’ll have to read it too if you’re interested.

So now I’m done; this is the last time I’ll post scenes for analysis, at least for the time being. I’m going to try to gather my thoughts on what I’ve learned by the process and I’ll post them tomorrow.

Series Navigation<< NC-17Where Things Go Wrong >>

characterization, part two

Here’s Cindy’s email question again:

My (compound) question is this: What else can I do to ensure that my characters are not too far off the mark, and how much should I worry about it? As far as possible I’ve based my characters on historical fact, but it looks as though a fair amount of extrapolation will be necessary. It seems to me, at this point in my literary development, at least, that one of the worst things that could happen would be for my work to be dismissed as inaccurate.

I take this question to be about more than one issue. It has to do with the nuts and bolts of storytelling (setting up, undertanding and following a character around) — when that character is from a very different time and place.

The first part of the question is relevant to any kind of storytelling. There are a lot of ways to try to get closer to a character, exercises that range from the odd (go out and decide what clothes they’d like or not like, what they would order for breakfast at a particular restaurant) to the scholarly: not to ask ‘what happens now?’ but to ask ‘why does this happen now’ (which some theorists will tell you is the ‘better’ question, and maybe it is. What do I know.)

Here’s the thing. You need to know the character very well. You need to know what she wants, and what is stopping her from getting what she wants. It’s by means of that conflict that the character becomes real to the readers. That’s true of anybody, whether they lived in the year 200 BC or in the year 2040.

Now, if your character does happen to be living in the year 200 BC or the year 1830, your job is that much more difficult because while human motivations are basically the same, the way people go about getting what they want depends a lot on the society they live in. I find it hard to write characters who really, truly are governed and even terrorized by strict religious beliefs because it’s almost impossible for me to get my mind to that place. It’s easier for me to get close to a character who is schizophrenic than one who really, truly believes in the literal word of the bible. So I avoid such characters — lazy of me? Maybe. That’s one of the benefits of writing fiction, you get to make up your own world.

But say you’ve got some characters (as Cindy does) who lived a long time ago, and you want to do them justice, or come as close to doing them justice as you can. My suggestion here is pretty much always the same. Find diaries and letters of the time, and read them. They will give you more information, real information, than any history could ever hope to impart. Sometimes those kinds of documents are hard to get hold of, that’s true. It might take some digging. But it is always worth it. When I was writing a study of language change in 16th century Nuremberg (long story, and a long time ago) I read volumes of diaries and letters written by nuns, women whose husbands were away on business trips, boys at university, etc etc, and it was those letters that let me hear their voices, for the first time.

So you do your homework, and you work hard on understanding the character, and you stay true to them. That’s all you can do. That is fertile ground out of which you may well be able to coax a good story.

One more thing: if you let your fear of potential criticism stop you, you’ll never finish anything. Not everybody will appreciate what you write, and some people will dislike it intensely. There’s no avoiding that. Will you let those people keep you from telling stories that interest you? I hope not.

Somewhere out there is the (anonymous) reviewer for Publishers Weekly (probably a graduate student being paid $25 a review, and resentful as hell) who wrote that my novels are populated by “color by number cartoon characters.” And there’s another one (maybe the same one?) who compared Elizabeth and Nathaniel Bonner to Wally and June Cleaver. But I’m still writing, and I’ll keep writing. And you should too. If you stopped, you’d be giving that kind of critic what he or she wants: People like that don’t care about the story, they only care about who gets their writing in print. Especially because it most probably isn’t them.

lost and found: books, opinions, snark from PW

1. It’s Friday, which means not the end of my workweek, but something even more wonderful: Battlestar Galactica. Which let me say, is outstanding this season.

2. Beth loves my new header.

3. I found a bunch of missing books: Norton’s Critical Edition of The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (I do love Hardy most sincerely), some biographies I had been worried about. My stash of ten copies of Homestead in Chinese (which really, what am I ever going to do with them? I had twelve and gave two away to people who actually speak Chinese, and now here the rest sit.)

4. I’m reading a book that apparently the whole world has read already, but I somehow overlooked: and it’s good. Really good. Year of Wonders (OWC), by Geraldine Brooks. The only thing I don’t like is the review from Publishers Weekly which is very positive, but also manages to dismiss the rest of the historical novelists in the universe with a flick of the superior fingers:

Discriminating readers who view the term historical novel with disdain will find that this debut by praised journalist Brooks (Foreign Correspondence) is to conventional work in the genre as a diamond is to a rhinestone. With an intensely observant eye, a rigorous regard for period detail, and assured, elegant prose, Brooks…

I am indignant not for my own sake (or not much for my own sake) but for A.S. Byatt, Dorothy Dunnett, Barry Unsworth, and all the other novelists who bring such talent and passion to the daunting task of writing stories set in the past. So: a raspberry to PW.

5. This week I have written eight thousand words. Really. Iin five days. Don’t talk to me about this, okay, but that would jinx it and if I can keep up this pace, wow. That would be great. The good people of Greenbriar South Carolina are talking my ear off, Julia and Dodge are talking to each other and letting me in their heads, and words sprudel up like cheap champagne.

6. Stephen King’s new book. Cell: A Novel (OWC) should be in my hands just about the time I finish Year of Wonders. Eclectic is one of my numerous middle names.

who knew? PW wisdom strikes again

So over at Amazon the cover for TTTT is up, and so is the first official review, by Publishers Weekly.

I’ve talked about the review process before, at length and I won’t go into that song and dance again. The PW review isn’t bad in any direct way; it’s more of a short plot summary with a couple of observations attached to the end. Snark, my agent and editor said when they called to warn me.

Now I’ve had some pretty nasty reviews in the past. Who can forget color by number cartoon caricatures? Obviously I can’t. It always strikes me as funny, when I think of that review. Somebody was trying so hard to be clever, I still get an immediate vision of a graduate seminar.

This newest review declares that while TTTT has some charm, “the novel makes no real emotional demands.”

So I’ve been thinking about that all day. Where do I get my emotional demands? That’s easy: I have an almost seventeen year old daughter. I have a husband and in-laws and good friends. The government is imploding, I find that emotionally demanding, even draining. But books?

If I think about novels I really like (here’s three, at random: Lonesome Dove, Possession, Pride and Prejudice) do I re-read them because they make emotional demands? Why do I re-read them? What about the story and the characters draws me back to the book? They make me think. They make me feel — well sure. What story doesn’t make me feel something? If I feel nothing, then the story doesn’t work for me. The range of feelings I get from novels is large, though. Is a novel that makes me sad better than one that makes me laugh?

Aha. Here we are, back at the culture of ugly argument. The no-pain-no-gain approach to writing and storytelling.

So the bottom line: Tied to the Tracks will not make you weep, or huddle into a conflicted ball of emotions, challenge your view of eternity. It hopefully will make you think about some things and make you laugh. I’m satisfied if I get that far. I’ll leave emotional demands to your loved ones, and the news of the day.

PW likes Pajama Girls

The Publisher’s Weekly review of Pajama Girls is already in print, and it is really good.

The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square
Rosina Lippi. Putnam, $24.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-399-15466-9
Southern hospitality and sweetly loose-lipped neighbors ooze from the pages of the sparkling latest from Lippi (Homestead). John Dodge is a traveling man, rescuing small businesses around the country to flip for a profit. When he finds himself in Lamb’s Corner, S.C., to take over a stationery store, he is greeted by some kooky Swedes building an automotive plant and an observant young girl who is determined to uncover his past, among others. Dodge, as he calls himself, befriends Julia Darrow, the owner of a fine linens store who is always in her pajamas. Julia is secretive and mysterious, but Dodge cannot ignore his attraction to her. He doesn’t plan to stay in Lamb’s Corner very long, and it becomes apparent that Julia can’t leave. Lippi’s characters are heartfelt and pricelessly named (one 10-year-old boy is called “Bean Hurt”). While the novel moves slowly, it’s never shy of drama: Lippi makes a great story out of how a hardcore wanderer and an agoraphobic come together. (Feb.)

They got some facts wrong (Bean is short for Beatrice and Scriveners specializes in antique pens) — but I’m really pleased with this review over all.

We’re off to a good start, review wise.

tell it slant

Wolfy posted a comment asking how a person goes about writing a memoir, if the process is similar to the writing of fiction. The question can really be extended to any kind of creative nonfiction, a term you may not be familiar with. I’ll cut to the chase: if you write about something real (WWI, dog breeding, airline safety, Winston Churchhill) that has no personal connection for you, that’s plain old nonfiction. It can certainly be creative nonfiction, which means that the author has taken pains with content and style so that the reader is drawn in. A newspaper article may read

A two story flat burned down last night after an electrical short ignited a stack of papers in the cellar. There were minor injuries to three persons, including one firefighter, who were treated at County Hospital and released. The owner of the building could not be reached for comment.

Or, somebody may decide that the story is bigger and give it full investigative journalism treatment, in which case it will become creative nonfiction. If the journalist knows what s/he’s doing.

A sixth grade book report is nonfiction about fiction. So is a review in the New York Times.

I read a lot of creative nonfiction. It’s a genre I really love, for the care and thought that goes into sharing esoteric knowledge or stories that otherwise go unremarked.

[asa book]0375760393[/asa] A title that jumps to mind is Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire — which is where I got the idea for the Wilde’s apple orchards). Here’s the PW review:

Erudite, engaging and highly original, journalist Pollan’s fascinating account of four everyday plants and their coevolution with human society challenges traditional views about humans and nature.

Memoir is a very different undertaking. You are contemplating your own being and history. You feel your way along as you write. There’s very little invention here — unless you happen to be the putz who wrote the fake memoir that Oprah bought into — but a great deal of room for style and presentation. The process is so very different from fiction writing that it’s hard to even compare the two, at least for me.

And now I contradict myself: there is, of course, no such thing as a factual memoir. Everything is reshaped by memory. Goethe called his autobiography Wahrheit und Dichtung (truth and imagination, for a loose but colloquial translation) . Because the two are indistinguishable from each other. [asa book]1206577296[/asa]

My friend Suz wrote a memoir called Body Toxic, a truly masterful piece of work that is a hybrid — memoir, yes, but also a look at environmental mayhem in her native New Jersey from various angles. The research is there, and so are the personal memories and the re-imaginings. Terrifically difficult to pull off, but she did. Body Toxic evokes tremendous reactions from people who read it, especially people from New Jersey. Such emotion doesn’t come out of nowhere. The anger some readers pointed at her as the author makes it clear that her memoir tapped into a greater consciousness and a great deal of conflict and pain.

If you’re writing a history of gardening in Japan, you may love your subject but still approach it with some degree of objectivity. It’s next to impossible to be truly objective about your own history.

Writing about my own history is something I’ve been trying to do for all my adult life. If I’m writing fiction I may ask myself: what does this character want right now, and why? But when I think about writing memoir the questions are more complex and far harder.

What was she thinking? What did she want that she never got, and why?

[asa book]0072512784[/asa] Tell it Slant is (a) from a poem by Emily Dickinson; and (b) the title of a book also written by Suz and Brenda Miller, a colleague. ((Suzanne writes her creative nonfiction under a penname, you may have noticed.)) The book was designed for students of creative nonfiction, and attempts to demonstrate the idea of Dickinson’s poem: you can’t run at the truth head-on. If you approach it at the right angle, your story will not only be told, but heard.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–

we have a title

My editor gets the credit, as I simply could not come up with a title.  Book Six is now

The Endless Forest
The Endless Forest

The Wilderness Series

another short excerpt Fire Along the Sky

Just in case you had the idea that this new novel is not about the Bonners themselves…there’s another short excerpt below (see “continue reading” at the bottom of this entry).

That will be the last excerpt, but please know that while the younger Bonners (Lily, Hannah, Jennet) play a large role in this story, Elizabeth and Nathaniel are still central.


BIG news: change in title

Here are the titles of the books in the series as they were first envisioned, along with final title as it was published

Heart of the Wilderness Into the Wilderness
The Farthest ShoreDawn on a Distant Shore
Hidden WolfLake in the Clouds
Thunder at Twilight Fire Along the Sky
Queen of Swords?

I’m not unhappy with this title, but I would have liked to keep Thunder at Twilight. I’m looking forward to seeing the cover art, and I’ll put it up here when I do.

books on tape

Not so long ago I got this email from a reader:

Your books are wonderful and I have reread all three several times.  The conversations, relationships and natural surroundings are depicted so well, I feel as if I am in the book.  I would also like to add that Kate Reading’s narration/reading is fabulous.  I hope she will be selected for your next books.

I’m reproducing the email here because, well, Kate Reading is wonderful and everybody should know that. She’s a theater and voice actor and I count myself very fortunate to have had her read the first three books in the series on tape. I believe she will be reading Fire Along the Sky, but I’ll let you know here when I get final confirmation.

Nathaniel & Elizabeth

for the holiday season, a little glimpse from Fire Along the Sky (the new title for book four, which was called Thunder at Twilight). You’ll have to click on the link below (unless you are the kind of person who dislikes any spoilers (actually, it’s more of a preview and doesn’t give away anything big) at all, in which case, well, don’t).



Robyn pointed me to a LiveJournal entry by Jane St. Clair which contemplates Farscape (most particularly the relationship between Aeryn and John), and heterosexual relationships across genres. The issues have to do in the first line (but not exclusively) with the wide wide world of fan fiction (if you go have a look, don’t be startled at the word “slash” — it’s not about knives).***

She writes:

[…] I demand more stories in which people have bad first sex.

(For some strange reason, my urge to write an long series of tales in which people have extremely bad sex. So awful that they never want to see each other again. But it doesn’t really satisfy anyone but me. No one expects their porn to include, “Can we stop? You’re on my hair.”)

This made me laugh, but it also made me think. Do I always leave out the not-so-nice parts about two people getting together? I think the closest I come to writing about a relationship that begins with a really rocky ride is in Fire Along the Sky, but I can’t say more here without giving a major plot line away. So this is something I will continue to think about. Maybe when FAS comes out this summer people will have an opinion on this.

The other thing that really struck me was this:

My beloved Shakespeare prof spent a long time reconciling us to the notions of love the plays offered, which often didn’t sync well with our own. What she led us to was the recognition that the strongest sign of love or affection is play. Sometimes teasing (Much Ado About Nothing) or wordplay (The Taming of the Shrew — she had us quite convinced that Katherina didn’t mean a word of her final speech on the place of women, that it was all humorously ironic and meant for Petruchio’s amusement), or gameplay (The Tempest). But in most modern portrayals of love, we go for either deep drama (angst) or domestic tranquility (curtainfic), leaving no space for a healthy relationship interesting enough to hold its audience.

Jane St. Clair has put her finger on something here. My sense is that sex takes second seat to playful banter for many of my readers. It certainly does for me. But how it all these elements work together — playfulness, drama, tranquility — that’s something to contemplate for a good while.

***I’ve got a longer entry on fan fiction I’ve been working on for a while. Hope to post it soon.

Series Navigation<< Stream of (Sexual) Consciousness


A box sitting in front of my door yesterday. Inside it was the copy-edited manuscript for Fire Along the Sky. This stack of paper is 10.5 inches high and weighs just under 13 pounds. It is due back to the publisher by January 28, or before, if I can manage it.

Wish me luck.

update: 19 January and I’m not quite half way through.

Fire Along the Sky: news

newsI get between twenty and fifty emails a week asking about the publication date of the new novel, which I can finally state with certainty: 08/31/2004. ISBN: 0-553-80146-5.

This is the North American publication date; when I know about Australia/NZ, you’ll know too — but it’s most probably at the same time. Yes, this date is later than I expected. Please don’t kill the messenger.

When I have the new cover art I’ll put it up here. In the meantime: below (ta-da) is the cover copy, which will answer some of the many questions readers have been asking.

The year is 1812 and Hannah Bonner — known as Walking Woman among her husband’s people, the Seneca — has returned to her family’s mountain cabin in Paradise in upstate New York from the wars in the west. She has come home without Strikes-the-Sky or their son…and with a story she can’t bear to tell. As Hannah resumes her duties as a gifted healer among the sick and needy, she also slowly gathers the strength she will need to heal herself. Little does she realize that she is about to be called away to face her greatest challenge ever.

News of the latest conflict with Britain finds the young men of Paradise –including eighteen year old Daniel Bonner –eager to take up arms. Against their better judgment, Nathaniel and Elizabeth must let him go, just as they must let his twin sister Lily pursue her independence in Montreal under the protection of their eldest son, Luke, who will face his own challenge: on the eve of the War of 1812, an expected guest arrives in Canada from Scotland. It is the Bonner’s distant cousin, the newly widowed Jennet Scott of Carryckcastle. Far from their respective homes, Lily and Jennet will each deal with regret and the possibility of new love.

While Paradise copes with a harsh winter and the far-reaching repercussions of an old enemy’s schemes, it is Hannah who must risk everything once more—this time to save Daniel, who’s been wounded in battle and taken prisoner by the British. As the distant thunder of the War of 1812 threatens Paradise, Hannah may learn to live—and maybe love—again in one final act of courage, duty, and sacrifice.

thanks to Tracey for catching that typo.

excerpt: Queen of Swords

A few paragraphs from the first chapter of Queen of Swords — the fifth novel in the series — to demonstrate that Hannah is well (as the cover copy for Fire Along the Sky seems to have worried some readers):

copyright Sara Donati
All Rights Reserved

Just behind Lieutenant Hodges stood Hannah Bonner, dressed in men’s breeches and a leather jerkin over a rough shirt, her person hung about with weapons: a rifle on her back, pistols, a knife in a beaded sheath on a broad belt. She could heal or kill; he had seen her conjure miracles and blasphemies with equal ease. No mortal woman, he had called her to her face and she had not corrected him with words.

The moonlight was kind to her, as the sun was kind. In the year since they had made their uneasy alliance he had seen her every day, and still the sight of her was startling. By the standards of Wyndham’s own kind, Luke Bonner’s Mohawk half-sister could not be called beautiful. Her skin was too dark, her hair too black, her mouth too generous for pale English blood. Below dark eyes, the bosses of her cheeks cast shadows. Most damning of all, the expression in those eyes was far and away too intelligent. If her skin were as pale as snow, her mind would have isolated her; Englishmen did not know what to do with a woman like her.

first pass page proofs

The typeset manuscript (or page proofs) for Fire Along the Sky arrived today. After all the hand wringing by various publishers about the length of this novel(the English editor being the loudest) it turns out to be exactly as long as Lake in the Clouds. About which nobody complained. So I’ve got 610 pages to proofread, and here are my instructions: “please read them carefully and return only those pages needing correction as soon as you can.”

This is a hurry up and wait business, no doubt about it.

The reason they feel it necessary to remind me to read them carefully is this: it does get old quite quickly, reading the same sentences again and again. Especially as I wrote them, and in the process, rewrote every single one of them someplace between three and ten times. That’s how I work, editing as I go along. However, the first pass page proofs aren’t so hard to concentrate on because everything looks very different once it’s typeset.

It’s from this set of proofs that the bound galleys will come. Don’t have a date on that yet, but I’ll advise when I do.

unit coordinator

this is what it’s like to be obsessive. I find that since I confessed my interest in clerking in a hospital ward, I couldn’t just leave it at that so I did a little checking. You can take courses. You can get a certificate.

Unit Coordinator and Medical Computing Skills

AHWC 9183. Unit Coordinator
Advise: ABE 2071
Practical skillls and techniques in transcribing and processing of medical orders; maintaining chart forms; requisitioning diets, therapy, laboratory tests, and medications; and admission and discharge of patients. Emphasis on communication skills pertinent to patient care.

AHWC 9188. Medical Computing Skills (90 hrs)
Instruction in a variety of computer applications related to the health care technology field and utilized by the Health Care Technology Department. These programs are Microsoft Word 2000, Corel WordPerfect Suite 7, Nutrition Interactive, Delmar’s Administrative Medical Assisting, and Delmar’s Medical Terminology for Health Professionals.

Of course, this makes perfect sense if you look at my Myers-Briggs Personality assessment, which puts me in the 2% if the population which is ENTJ, or (their shorthand) The Field Marshall Personality. One definition:

ENTJs “tend to be: friendly, strong willed, and outspoken; honest, logical and demanding of selves and others; driven to demonstrate competence; creative with a global perspective; decisive, organized, and efficient. The most important thing to ENTJs is demonstrating their competence and making important things happen.”

Add in my deep and abiding love of office supplies and bits of paper, and I wonder how it is I didn’t end up doing this for a living. I’ll probably be pondering that for a while today, until I can get myself to sit down with my laptop and look at the mess the characters have got themselves into. There is also news about the endpaper maps for Fire Along the Sky. Next post.

endpaper maps

FAS mapLaura Hartmann Maestro is the artist who does the endpaper maps for the Wilderness novels. I have to say that just looking at the maps as she develops them makes me truly happy. It’s better than a movie, for me. Here’s the final draft of the map for Fire Along the Sky. If you study it, you might get an idea of some of what happens in the novel.

Click on the thumbnail for a bigger version.

letter from Win

I get some lovely mail from readers, but I think Win has to be one of my favorites. Here’s an email that came a couple days ago:

Hi Sara, It’s Win again, It’s some time now, since I last wrote, infact 13 months to be exact. I’m hoping to encourage you into more writing. I last wrote saying how I had enjoyed the 3 books I have so far.
I was 73 at the time and had asked the Dear Lord to grant me a few more years to enjoy your books,
Well he must have heard my call, as the past 6 months, has seen me in and out of Hospital with heart problems, but I’m still here ( must have been the vitamin tablets you advised me to take ) ( smile )

I am now 75 years old, and have just been made a great grandmother for the 16th time. How proud I am.
A lot of my time now is spent reading, and I love my books dearly.

How are you going with THUNDER AT TWILIGHT???????I have been into the shops a few times looking for it, but to no avail. I hope everything is going well your way, and your health is good I think I’ll have to start on the first book again INTO THE WILDERNESS, that’s the best thing about getting old, one can often pick up a book and read it a second time, not quite remembering everything the first time
So just look what you have to look forward too.
All the best with your work and take care
WIN [d].

I wrote to Win and gave her the information she wanted. I’ll also enter her name in the drawing for a signed advance reader copy of Fire Along the Sky. In fact, I’ll enter it twice, and I’ll do the same for anybody else with sixteen great grandhchildren.

page proofing

I’m almost finished with the first pass on the page proofs for Fire Along the Sky. It reads pretty well, seems to me (she said cautiously). Things are coming together.


Jill (my agent) has just finished up the deal with Books on Tape for the unabridged edition of Fire Along the Sky, hopefully with the same reader (Kate Reading).

A well read audiobook is a thing of great beauty. Some sentences I have heard on audiotape were so perfect in tone and cadence that they have stayed with me for years. I especially like to have a really good audiobook waiting for a long drive. Some of the best I’ve listened to, books that lend themselves to this format and had excellent readers: Ordinary People (Guest), Possession (Byatt), Niccolo Rising (Dunnett), Wyoming Stories (Proulx), and in a collection of short stories by Stephen King, “Dolan’s Cadillac” read by Rob Lowe.

The wrong reader can turn a good book into a disaster. I tried to listen to one of Dennis Lehane’s mysteries on tape and found that the reader had no grasp of Angie’s personality at all; he read her like a simpering adolescent. I gave up after about fifteen minutes. There are other books I would like to listen to on tape, but they have never been recorded (Magician’s Assistant is one such example) or are impossible to find (Hearts and Bones, by Lawrence).

Right now I’m looking for the right audiobooks for two trips: when I go to teach at a conference in Gig Harbor at the end of this month, and then at the end of May, I’ll be driving down to the Bay area for a workshop. That’s a two day trip, and I can get through a big book.

reader mail & worries about Jennet

This lovely message from a reader reminds me of something:

Sitting, waiting out here in the North Pacific rain, for QofS to fill the time while my military husband finishes his tour, please ask Bantam to hurry, I have to know if Jennet meets up with pirates and returns to Luke.

You know the paperback of Fire Along the Sky is out there, right? Well there’s a sneak preview of the new novel at the end, and it pretty much resolves any worries there might be about Jennet’s survival.

Not that you need to buy a copy, she said earnestly. You could read it in the bookstore, if need be.

more on mothers and daughters

This is related, in a very roundabout way, to yesterday’s post and the thoughtful comments y’all have left regarding parenting sixteen year olds.

I had an interesting email from somebody who just finished Fire Along the Sky and really loved it, but had one major disappointment:

I must say I am disappointed in the direction of Elizabeth’s character. I see so little of the fire in her that we had in Into the Wilderness. I felt as smothered as her children. She is controlled so much by her fears, and I believe it to be a very poor reflection of her character. I think that’s why I cling to Hannah’s character so much. She has experienced great loss, has witnessed horrific tragedies – but she’s not so incapacitated by them. — M.B.

My first reaction to this is bafflement. I did expect to get reactions like to this to Lake in the Clouds, where Elizabeth does come very close to falling over the edge when she’s confronted with another epidemic and threat to her children. But in Fire Along the Sky?

My second reaction was to wonder if this has to do with age. At twenty-five I might have had the same thoughts. I would guess that women my age might be more understanding toward Elizabeth, who has lost a number of children in difficult circumstances. It would seem odd to me if a woman experienced all that and had no vulnerabilities as a result. But of course, I understand her because she’s a part of me. It’s a given that there will be a range of reactions to characters as they develop.

There’s also an underlying theme here. Motherhood, and mother-daughter relationships are something that I explore a lot, in a never-ending quest to figure some things out for myself. I say never-ending because I can’t imagine the questions ever being settled in my mind. This comes in part because of the tremendous gulf between my own upbringing — much more like Norma’s, in yesterday’s comments — than my own daughter’s. The question I’m always asking myself is what kind of person I would have turned out to be if I had been raised as we try to raise our Girl. One way to explore this question, something I plan to do someday, is to write a novel about a woman (set in the future, fifty or so years) who finds herself in the position of raising a clone of herself. An identical twin, in genetic terms. Watching yourself grow up, trying to avoid the mistakes that were made and making others in the process, that topic really draws me in.

Listen to me ramble. At any rate, I’m interested in the different ways people react to Elizabeth as she meets (or fails to meet) various challenges.

confusing the readers

A comment that came in today:

I have read all the Sara Donati books. Just finished “Fire Along the Sky” and the beginning of Queen of Swords. I am just wondering why Luke Scott Bonner and Hannah Bonner became Luke Scott and Hannah Scott. I thought this was the story of the Bonners. Why confuse the readers?

If I do something like this (and by the way, if Hannah is called Hannah Scott, it’s only an assumption made by somebody else who knows her brother), there is always a reason. Think for a minute about where the characters are, what is going on in the world at large, and about the dangers of the situation.

Though it may seem at times as though I sit up late thinking of ways to be confusing, in fact if I’m up late it’s for the opposite reason. Or because I can’t put a book down. See the next post.

new improved Strikes-the-Sky question… and an almost answer

Sara has more questions regarding Strikes-the-Sky:

So now I’m going to do the bold and unthinkable and ask you a question, which as author you aren’t obligated to address (though I surely hope you will). Why — when his character was so immediately interesting, endearing and obviously significant — did you have Strikes-the-Sky die? I simply sensed such potential had he lived — in whatever circumstance. I humbly admit, however, that I have secretly hoped he still did live, and I know that however the story ends up it will be right.

It’s an interesting question, but not easy to answer. Why does any character die? Why does Strikes-the-Sky die? Was that a cold blooded, cold hearted decision on my part?

To be truthful, I don’t even remember when I knew that Strikes-the-Sky wouldn’t be around for Fire Along the Sky. What I knew, before I started writing, was very little beyond a basic fact: Hannah needed to be in the Ohio territory during the time Tecumseh was trying to unite the tribes. She had to be a part of that, and to experience first hand what was coming for all the first peoples. Strikes-the-Sky took her there, and made it possible for her to have those experiences.

The loss of her husband and son is mirrored and made more intense by a larger loss of what was widely believed to be the last real chance for the native peoples to resist European encroachment. But I never sat down and reckoned this all out for myself. It happened behind the door of my subconscious, and then appeared one day as a done deal.

I don’t know if that is an answer that will help anybody understand the process, but it’s as close as I can get to describing how things came to pass for Strikes-the-Sky.

favorite posts?

If you have a favorite post or posts, could you comment and say which one(s)? I could make a list based on hits, but that doesn’t feel quite right.

It has been a hectic weekend, but I hope to have more to post about tomorrow.

Oh and: a few people have posted general comments about the Wilderness books in the comments recently. Which is fine; I like to hear from readers, in whatever format. Bruce (or maybe his wife; it was unclear) just posted that s/he was disconcerted by the lack of a clear antagonist in Fire Along the Sky. It’s an interesting observation, and makes me wonder if other people had this same feeling.

news-like items

Things are unsettled here still, and I’m often disoriented and distracted. But I wanted to get a few things down before I forgot.

1. Lots of people signed up on the forum, posting away madly in the hope of winning the Queen of Swords ARC. I’ll be drawing the name on Friday, so get over there and say something if you’re interested. Even if you don’t care about the ARC, you might find something to interest you on the forum. There are lots of interesting conversations going on. I’m also thinking of posting the original, longer first chapter of Fire Along the Sky over there.

2. So far I’ve had about twenty-five letters (or postcards) from people who would like a page from the Queen of Swords galley proofs. I sent out a pile on Saturday and I’ll send out another pile tomorrow. I’ll open a thread on the forum where you can, if you like, indicate if you’ve received one of the pages and which page it is. It would be fun to see how much of the galley proof we can reconstruct. In a quirky, I’m the only one laughing way. If there’s interest, I’ll open another spoilerish thread for people to talk about the pages they’ve got and what they think is going on.

3. Still time to send me a SASE or postcard (I got a Farscape postcard today, now there’s somebody who knows what makes me happy), and I’ll send you a signed, dated page in return.

Booklist likes Queen of Swords

Yiiiippppppeeeeee! A really good review from Booklist:

Donati, Sara. Queen of Swords. Oct. 2006. 564p. Bantam, $27 (0-533-80149-X).

In the fifth volume of her popular Wilderness series after Fire Along the Sky (2004), Donati sweeps readers into two strong women’s personal journeys of rescue and redemption. It is 1814 in the French Antilles, where Scots noblewoman Jennet Scott Huntar is being held captive. But when her future husband, Luke, and his half-sister, Hannah, finally locate and free her, their troubles have just begun. To ensure the safety of her son, born during her imprisonment, Jennet had made a devil’s bargain with a dissolute, untrustworthy man. As the trio travels from Pensacola to New Orleans in their attempts to learn the child’s whereabouts, Jennet struggles to heal herself and her marriage, while Hannah, half-Mohawk, uses her medical training to help the city’s Indian populace and faces deadly illness herself. It’s both a smoothly written, engrossing adventure about an early American family and a vivid depiction of the little-explored War of 1812, yet it’s more than that. Donati also delves into much deeper realities, such as race and prejudice in one of America’s famously multicultural cities, the complex patterns of revenge, the price of loyalty during wartime, and the transformative power of love. Avid historical fiction and romance readers will devour it. —Sarah Johnson

edited to add this link to Sarah Johnson’s weblog

Unabridged audio: Fire Along the Sky

On eBay. A good deal, looks to me.

Library Journal review

Jeanne alerted me to the Library Journal review for Queen of Swords, which had somehow slipped by unnoted. Here it is:

Library Journal

The latest volume in Donati’s popular Bonner family series opens where Fire Along the Sky (2004) left off, with Luke Bonner’s wife, Jennet, a captive of a renegade priest in the Caribbean. Luke and his half-sister, Hannah, rescue Jennet, but soon realize that she had to give up her newborn son, named Nathan after his grandfather, to keep him safe. The Bonners track Nathan to New Orleans, where he has been adopted by the matriarch of a prominent Creole family and her profligate grandson. Finding Nathan isn’t difficult, but keeping him and avoiding the ire of the Poiterin family is, and the Bonners soon find themselves caught up in the wartime politics of 1814 New Orleans. As with the previous books in the series, Donati treats her characters with sensitivity and does not shy away from tackling thorny themes, such as racial relations between Native Americans and whites during the early 18th century. This fast-paced, engaging book is sure to draw in readers. Highly recommended. Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL

I’ll take a ‘highly recommended’ any day — and with a smile. However, I have to point out that there are a few factual innacuracies here. Anybody pick them out? If so, please post a comment.

Which means: WARNING. Possible spoilers in the comments.

background work

Here is a partial list of things I need to know about to get a good start with Six (as I’m going to call it for now. Maybe the title really will be Journeys End, but maybe not).

1. I have to decide when this story starts. Right now it looks like 1822, spring through fall.

2. Character list. As this novel takes place almost exclusively in Paradise, I have to review everybody who has lived there in the past (still living? moved away? doing what?) and newcomers (children born, families who have come to Paradise since Fire Along the Sky).

3. Sketch of the village, and who lives where. New buildings, etc. Farmsteads with family names.

4. World situation 1820-summer 1822. Major wars, sociocultural advances, technological changes since 1815, especially those that may effect Paradise.

5. National, local and state changes in politics, culture, technology since 1815.

Examples: the Panic of 1819:

The Panic of 1819 was the first major financial crisis in the United States. It featured widespread foreclosures, bank failures, unemployment, and a slump in agriculture and manufacturing. It marked the end of the economic expansion that had followed the War of 1812. (Wikipedia)

The life of Denmark Vesey, who was hanged for planning a slave rebellion in the Carolinas.

Popular (and often unfounded, outrageous) opinions, for example, regarding Native Americans:

FORT SNELLING. June 1838. Morality and Chastity among the Indians.

In many customs the Sioux are closely allied to the Jewish nation; indeed, a work has been published in America to prove that the Indians were originally Jews.

I pull dozens and dozens of bits of information like this together, and they all sit in my head, along with the characters. The conflicts that will drive the story derive in part from this kind of background work.

Tomorrow I’ll post about the prep work for the primary characters. For each of them I have to figure out how old they are now, what physical changes we’re looking at, the household in which they live, and how the households relate to each other in a variety of ways. I’ll post some of the material for Curiosity — but nothing that could be construed as a spoiler.

supportive (and conflicting) email from readers

I’ve had some really nice email lately. Of course I have no time to answer it. Here’s proof: I’m so distracted and (shall I say it?) overwhelmed that the rate at which I lose, misplace or forget things has taken an alarming upturn. Last week I went to get the Girlchild’s registration renewed and new tabs. I took in the registration from my car instead of hers and handed it over to the clerk, who looked dubious and then downright worried. I’m surprised he didn’t call the cops on me.

Fixed that. Got the registration, got the tabs. Put them in my purse very carefully.

Then I couldn’t find my cash card and I was so irritated with myself that I sat right down and cleaned out my purse. And a miracle: I found the durn card hiding in a pocket where it doesn’t belong. Guess what came next?

That’s right, the registration and tabs are gone. Missing. Or really not so much missing; I’m pretty sure they’re in a trash can somewhere. I can’t even subject myself to going through the trash because I’m not sure where I was at the time this cleaning fit came over me. So tomorrow I have to go back to the DMV, confess my absent mindedness, and pay all over again.

However. I did write 1,500 words today, which is quite respectable.

So some nice emails:

I CAN’T SAY BONJOUR TO Hannah and Ben. I just finished “Queen of Swords”. I loved the pace of the story action and most of all its characters. I live in a tiny town in Newfoundland, Canada. When is the next novel in this series? We can’t let them go yet. (DPB)

I’ve just finished Queen Of Swords, and once again you’ve penned a great story. I’ve read all 5 books in the Wilderness Series and I really enjoy the character development of all the protagonists plus the scintilating plot twists.

1) Embellish the battle scenes with more specifics of the fighting.

2) Be more specific when descibing the physical traits of the characters so we readers can picture them more clearly.

3) Your love scenes could be a little “steamier”.(BB)

But K is of a different mind on the last point at least:

I just finished Queen of Swords and I absolutely loved it! The best one yet! The last 50 pages took me 5 days because I didn’t want it to end and I read very slowly and made myself stop. I crawled in bed at 10 pm last night with chapter 63 and put it down. I finished it when I got up at 6:40 am :(

I tell everyone about these books. I’ve had to speak directly to my librarian at the West Bloomfield, Michigan branch at Westacres. Believe it or not they have Lake in the Clouds, Fire along the Sky and Queen of Swords but NOT Into the Wilderness nor Dawn on a Distant Shore!!!! I have requested they add these two to the collection. Has yet to happen.

I love the way you write your stories. I really appreciate your ability to capture love and passion without all the “steamy details”. So much better left to one’s imagination. We get the picture (K)

Just felt compelled to thank you for the unforgettable journey of the Bonner’s… The only setback that results from reading this series is the feeling of desolation that comes from leaving these characters at the end of the novel…

But this at least, is short lived, as time and again I have found that they yet have persevered and off I go
tailing after them on yet another most memorable adventure.
And most incredible being that after all my years of reading a vast multitude of stories – I am yet unable to for-see well, what plot may lay ahead… Marvelous!!!

Thank-you for the gift of many hours spent in breathtaking adventure and learning! (DD)

These emails mean a great deal to me. When the going is rough, they give me a boost I couldn’t get any other way. For all of you who have emailed me and are not included in the bunch, please know that I do read everything that comes my way. If we ever hit it big on the lottery, I’ll have a full time assistant to take care of things like car registrations and misbehaving printers. Then I could answer all my mail.

Queen of Swords in paperback

On September 25, 2007, the paperback edition of Queen of Swords will be released. That is one month minus two days.

I never did open things up for questions about Queen of Swords. For a long time after I wrote it, I was too unsettled to have anwered them, anyway. It’s hard to do bad things to your characters, even when the story demands it. For example, I know many people were sad or even upset with me when a character died in Fire Along the Sky. I was pretty upset with me too, to tell the truth. (more…)

The Trouble with Titles

Settling on a title for a novel is a very slow and laborious process that can go on long after the darn thing is written and sold.

Pretty much any author can tell you title battle stories. Paperback Writer just resolved one such set of negotiations for the next book in her StarDoc series. She reports about the new title (now called Omega Games) in a neutral tone. When a writer strikes a purposefully neutral tone on a subject like this, you know he or she had to give in on the one thing they really, really wanted to keep or really, really hated and wanted to lose.

Example. The novelist says: My publisher is very excited about the artwork for It’s All in your Head. Translation: Is it too late to take my name off the cover? When we get closer to the pub date, I’ll be reporting in a purposefully neutral tone about the hardcover jacket for Pajama Girls.

Some highlights from the past:

The title of the second volume in the Wilderness series was supposed to be The Farthest Shore but ended up Dawn on a Distant Shore. Which sounded overly dramatic to me, and reminded me of those awful Native American romances. But I lost that battle.

For the fourth volume in the series I wanted Thunder at Twilight but got Fire Along the Sky. Now, I don’t dislike FAsS, but it wasn’t what I wanted. The publisher said my title sounded like those awful Native American romances. Go figure.

So if it’s hard to find a title for one novel, you can imagine what it’s like to find titles for weblog posts. I’ve got near 1,500 of the little buggers, and titles are more difficult all the time. I thought about just following the meteorologists’ example and naming them randomly. This post, for example, could be Elvira. I fear I wouldn’t last long naming my posts, and anyway, it would be poor practice. The title is supposed to give you some idea of what the post is about.

My troubles are many, but very small.

I know I still owe you the community story for this week. With any luck you’ll get it tomorrow. I have to write another thousand words today, and then there’s the Pajama Girls page proofs. I’m trying to think of a way I might give away this pile of paper. You could call it the advanced reading copy of the advanced reading copy. I’ll see if I can come up with something.

Kate Reading reading ITW

orange boxesKate is the lovely voice and strong narrative presence between the unabridged audio releases of the WIlderness novels. There are many different ways to get ahold of the books on audio, everything from instant download (Audible.com) to cd and cassette.

BooksonTape produced the audio versions, and now they’ve got a new feature on their website. I’m going to test it here. You should be able to click on this button and hear an excerpt of Kate reading Into the Wilderness. Edited to add in the other four novels, as this seems to work quite well.

Let me know what you think, please.

Into the Wilderness:

Dawn on a Distant Shore:

Lake in the Clouds:

Fire Along the Sky:

Queen of Swords:

Pajamarama Photographers, your prizes (Jacqui & Elias are up):

(post moved up top by r — AND I need addresses from y’all. I know, you’ve probably given your address to me before, but I need them anyway. Pronto.)

The stuff to pick from:

  1. signed copy of Pajama Girls Patty & Heather
  2. signed copy of Pajama Girls Wilma
  3. signed hardcover copy of Homestead Malbrec82
  4. signed softcovers of Fire Along the Sky AND Queen of Swords Beth
  5. signed softcovers of Fire Along the Sky AND Queen of Swords Soup
  6. signed hardcover of Queen of Swords
  7. signed hardcover of Queen of Swords
  8. signed hardcover of Tied to the Tracks Judy
  9. signed hardcover of Tied to the Tracks
  10. grabbag pile o’ really good romances Wolfy
  11. grabbag pile o’ really good novels, some romances Jennifer M.
  12. LibraryThing lifetime membership

contest update

We’ve got 143 entries for the signed first edition of Fire Along the Sky. Contest ends on the fifteenth — ten days from now. I find it curious that more people signed up for the advance reader copy, but hey.

I especially like the comments people have been leaving with their entry information, sometimes very funny and always very much appreciated.

Here’s the link to the post where the contest lives. Scroll all the way to the bottom to get to the screen you’ll need.

PS This is the 501st post I’ve made since I started this blog.

NEW CONTEST: signed first edition of Fire Along the Sky


I’m moving the contest entry up front as there are only three days until the drawing on August 15, at which point I should have already received a few copies; if I haven’t, I’ll still hold the drawing and pick the winner, and the book will go into the mail as soon as I receive it.

If you’ve tried and failed to enter in the last week, it should work now.

The rules are simple: by entering a comment here, you have entered this contest and you acknowledge and agree to the following:

  • the author (me) is not responsible for technical difficulties arising from the software or hardware running this contest, and reserves the right to cancel without awarding the signed first edition if such difficulties make continuing impossible.
  • the author (me) reserves the right to delete entries that (a) are duplicates [though if you make a mistake by clicking twice, send an email and it will be fixed]; (b) contain objectionable material such as spam, advertising or anything else that the author (me) deems contrary to the spirit of the whole undertaking.
  • The winning entry will be drawn out of a hat, by the author (me), the one and only judge, and notified by email. If the winning party does not respond to email notification within one week, a second drawing will be held.
  • All of the author’s (mine) decisions regarding this contest are final.

No information provided will be sold or used in any way beyond required to carry out this contest, just so everybody’s clear on that. The signed first edition will be sent to the winner wherever he or she lives in the world, by airmail.

In your comment/contest entry you need to do the following:

1. State your first name and the first letter of your last name.

2. Provide a valid email address.

3. Reproduce this statement (you can copy and paste): I’ve read the rules for this contest and I agree to them.

4. You can add a comment if you like (for example, let me know what you would like me to discuss here on the blog, or what you like about the books). However, please be aware that while I really, really like comments, a particularly complimentary comment won’t help your chances at all one way or the other and conversely, no comment at all won’t hurt you, either.

One last thing: if you have difficulties with the contest or questions about it, please get those to me by email. The only comment you should post right here is your contest entry.
Good luck to all.

contest winner

Tanya S. has won the signed first edition of Fire Along the Sky. I have emailed her but haven’t heard back yet. She has a week to get in touch. I have drawn a backup winner as well; if in a week’s time I haven’t heard back from Tanya, I will contact that person by email to arrange sending the book.

I’m rushing around getting ready for this trip to Europe and won’t be able to post — possibly until I get back at the end of the month, depending on connection possibilities. I’m also going to shut down comments while I’m gone, or I’m afraid the spammers will move in and get comfortable. Please check back now and then, but I will be here for sure as of August 31 — the day Fire Along the Sky goes on sale. Just two weeks. Imagine that.

Fire Along the Sky is available

The new book is out. I have no idea how it’s doing as (1) I can’t get hold of my agent (2) I can’t get hold of my editor (3) my internet access is up the spout. So post if you’ve got a copy, and let me know where you found it — I’d appreciate it.

Edited to add: FaS will be published in New Zealand and Australia on September 30.

a word on the creativity of reviews

Writemeastory (down there in NZ) has posted asking about a review that refers to Hannah’s ‘final act’ of bravery and what exactly is meant by final, and if she should be braced for something awful. The short answer is: don’t worry. Hannah survives.

Thus far it looks as though the review gremlins have decided to be nice to Fire Along the Sky, which of course is great news, wonderful news, I’m very happy– but. It’s pretty much always the case that reviewers get something factual wrong. No matter what reviewers say, Nathaniel Bonner is not half Mohawk, nor was he raised by the Mohawk; Hannah’s actions in the new book are not final, in any way. There are a dozen other mythologies perpetrated by reviewers, the biggest of which is an early review which stated that ITW was a ‘sequel to Last of the Mohicans’ — which it is not, was never meant to be, could not be. I never claimed such a thing, but I’ve been paying for that reviewer’s opinion ever since, because I get all kinds of critical comments based on the idea that it was meant to be such a sequel.

Thus, while I look for reviews and hope for good ones, I’m no longer surprised or even upset by the factual errors, and you shouldn’t take anything in a review as gospel.

On other fronts, I’m having trouble opening up comments on older posts (I closed them all while I was away), but I’m still working on it. I’m also pretty jet lagged, but here’s good news: my internet connection has stopped being wonky (DNS server was having fits, so I changed it). Bear with me for a short time while I get back up to speed.

the dreaded question

This always happens, and I know it’s a compliment, but believe me, this makes any author’s heart fall. A posting from Nancy B:

I just finished Fire Along the Sky, and feel empty. I have nothing to look forward to now! When will Queen of Swords be ready?

I really don’t even know how Fire Along the Sky is being received, yet. This month I will get nothing done on the next book in the series at all. It’s like having a new baby in intensive care, really. Will it be okay? Is it healthy? Why don’t I hear more details from the doctors? And while you’re chewing your fingernails in real anxiety and worry, somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, wow, that’s a beautiful kid. When are you going to have another?

So I do appreciate the sentiment, really, but I have no answer for you. Not unless you can provide me with a real prognosis for this newest production I’m worried about.

I’m off to a wedding half way across the state, but tomorrow I have plans for a longer post.

clarification, and questions

First, please excuse what may have seemed like an overreaction to Nancy’s kind words about looking forward to the next book in the series. I plead jet lag, and a virus. Second, I did start working on Queen of Swords as soon as Fire Along the Sky was finished — I just haven’t been working on it lately. I’ve got maybe 250 manuscript pages, and I’ll be going back to it relatively soon.

Generally I work on two projects at once. When one bogs down for whatever reason, I can work on the other. For the last two months I’ve been working primarily on Tied to the Tracks because that story has been cooking — which only means that things are flowing well for that story, at this moment. That will change. It always does. Then I’ll go back to New Orleans where Hannah is in a bit of a pickle at this moment. The reason the story bogged down for me is that a few new characters have just showed up, crucial characters to say the least, and I don’t have a handle on them yet. So I hope that puts everybody’s mind at ease.

Thank you all very much for taking the time to give me your reactions to Fire Along the Sky. I really, really appreciate feedback at this stage especially. I hope others will jump in. I’d be really pleased if people felt comfortable giving me specifics — what parts of the story they liked particularly, which characters had their attention, and also what didn’t quite work for whatever reason. I will answer questions, if you have any, where possible. Finally, for those who haven’t read the book and still intend to, I expect there will be some spoilers in the comments to this post, so you might want to stay away.

When I left for Europe I still hadn’t summarized my thoughts about the excursion into writing sex scenes — which I still intend to do. I also read a couple of interesting books while I was gone, which I’ll review in the next few days.

books — by other people, too

I’ve posted some questions in the discussion forum about Fire Along the Sky, in case anybody would like to get involved in a more detailed discussion. These are just a few issues that interest me, for anybody who has the time and energy.

While I was in London I went into Foyle’s on Charing Cross Road. Foyle’s is one of the last big independent bookstores on Charing Cross — I’m sorry to say that Border’s has been on the rampage over there, too, eating up independents like so many bonbons. My great fear is that Border’s will insinuate itself into the lovely space across from Trinity College, Cambridge, where there is now a great bookstore called Heffer’s. The Mathematician was a fellow at Trinity, so we could have got married in the chapel if I hadn’t been too shy (which in retrospect I regret).

At Foyle’s (and Heffer’s) I spent a lot of time looking for historical fiction. For some reason the Brits like it more than Americans do, and I have never come home without a half dozen novels that look interesting, but are unlikely to be published over here. This time I got the sequel to Diana Norman’s A Catch of Consequence (which I reviewed ast year). The sequel is called Taking Liberties and it’s very good, but then everything of hers that I’ve come across really is worth reading.

[asa left]1410401731[/asa] I also got (but have barely started) a novel called Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone, which is about a young man who comes from England in the early 1800s to search for his sister who has been lost, and is now living among the Ottawa. While I was gone I also read James Lee Burke’s White Doves at Morning, which I liked tremendously. Burke normally writes contemporary mysteries (his Dave Robichoux series is highly regarded by critics and readers both), so this historical novel about the Civil War in Louisiana was a departure from him. It’s based in part on his own family story, and it’s extremely compelling. I’ll be posting a full review sometime soon. I hope.

Seattle Times review

It’s a good one. Here’s the link, and the review too:

Great news for Sara Donati fans: It is time once more to immerse yourself in her richly imagined world. It’s been two long years since “Lake in the Clouds,” the third novel in her Wilderness series about frontier life in upstate New York (beginning with “Into the Wilderness”). Now the fourth book, “Fire Along the Sky,” advances the fortunes and trials of the Bonner family and their friends — and enemies — as the War of 1812 threatens all they hold dear.

In the new book by Donati (the pen name of Bellingham resident Rosina Lippi), the focus shifts from the heads of the Bonner clan (Nathaniel, a famous hunter, and his strong-willed wife, Elizabeth, a teacher) to the younger generation. It’s a complicated cast of characters. Nathaniel has fathered five children by three women; the youngest three of the five children are Elizabeth’s. Then there are all the subsidiary characters, most of them familiar from previous novels in the series (Donati gives a two-page list of the primary characters as a preface).

Do you need to know the previous books in order to enjoy “Fire Along the Sky”? It’s probably not necessary — but the more you know about Donati’s world, the better you understand the complicated motivation, history and interaction of these well-drawn characters. References to earlier betrayals, romances, disagreements and disasters will strike a chord in the longtime Donati fan that may be less resonant in first-timers.

There’s a lot to enjoy here. Donati keeps the plot moving at a terrific pace; there are deadly dangers, harrowing journeys, tense confrontations, life-and-death struggles. The day-to-day minutiae of frontier housekeeping and provisioning are regularly jolted with shocks of all kinds: warfare, abduction, drowning, unexpected pregnancy, violent death.

Her characters compel the reader’s attention. In the opening pages, the newly widowed Scottish noblewomen Lady Jennet voyages to Montreal in quest of young Luke Bonner, the man she originally wanted to marry. Then Luke’s half-sister (and half-Mohawk) Hannah returns after a long absence — without her husband or her son. It takes most of the book to discover what has happened to them, and why Hannah, a talented healer, is unable to speak about the tragedies that have befallen her family.

Then there are the Bonner twins, Daniel and Lily, who spend much of the novel estranged from each other: Daniel wants to go off to war but is seriously wounded and imprisoned in a Canadian stockade. Lily is a gifted artist who doesn’t always make wise personal choices; she is in love with a married man who is unworthy of her.

And there are fascinating villains. Jemima Kuick, a viciously amoral woman who wreaked considerable havoc in earlier books, returns for a stunning blow against the little society of Paradise. This character just might be Donati’s argument for the existence of absolute evil; Jemima is so willfully horrible that she’s too good to kill off (and Donati seems to be positioning her for a return in a subsequent installment of this saga).

Donati’s strong women characters are the heart of her books. They don’t just sit around and stir the gruel or knit the socks. They go charging off to infiltrate an enemy camp, operate on wounded soldiers, rescue kidnapped hostages. They speak their mind, often so bluntly that it’s a wonder there wasn’t more warfare on the frontier. Young girls or wise octogenarians, these are characters that tug at the reader’s imagination. After four “Wilderness” books, these women seem as real as your own neighbors.

Melinda Bargreen is The Seattle Times’ classical-music critic.

what to read

I’ll be doing book signings/readings for Fire Along the Sky later this month, for anybody who might be in the area: on Monday, September 20 (7:30 pm) at Village Books in Bellingham; and on Wednesday, September 22 (7:00 pm) at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park.

Usually I read for about a half hour and then take questions. I have no idea yet what passage I’m going to read, and I’d be open to any suggestions y’all may have.

if you want a signed copy of the new book (or an old one)

I have had a lot of email lately regarding signed copies of Fire Along the Sky, so I checked in with Village Books, and here’s the skinny:

Village Books would be happy to take credit card orders over the phone, at which time they’ll arrange to have the book signed (by me) when I read there tomorrow (or really anytime; I live ten minutes away) and mailed to you.

1210 Eleventh Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
Tel: (360) 671-2626
Fax: (360) 734-2573

They do have an on-line order form, but it’s pretty slow in my experience and it’s probably more efficient to just telephone.

Shipping costs in the continental US: five bucks. They have the rest of my books in stock too, in softcover, if there’s any interest. Shipping, etc, would have to be discussed with them directly, but this is something they do all the time.

If you do call them to reserve a copy of FaS, make sure to say how you want it signed — if you want it personalized, or if my signature alone will do. For purposes of collection it’s best not to have the book personalized, but I’m happy to write whatever you want. Within reason.

I’m in the middle of writing a very big and complicated scene with too many people, but I’m going to go back and dive in again.

newspapers in research

I have a collection of old newspapers that were published in the places where my stories are set. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy (for example) an issue of an Albany or a Boston paper from the year 1814, and they are almost always in very good shape — pages intact, if somewhat fragile.

My favorites are the advertisments, for the hundred different kinds of information they provide. The beginning of Lake in the Clouds uses my recasting of a couple dozen such ads in an attempt to set the stage for various storylines in that novel.

New Brunswick adThis is an ad from a Canadian paper dated 1786 (there was slavery all over the continent, something many people don’t realize) offering a reward for the return of a runaway. The details of clothing the young man was wearing are very useful to me when I’m trying to get a feel for a place and time. Such ads also make the facts of slavery much more vivid and undeniable.

One thing I like to do is to set up little mini-plots that span all the novels, and exist solely within newspaper references. The Mathers brothers and their marital woes are one such plot. This mention from Lake in the Clouds:

HEREBY BE IT KNOWN that Meg Mather, lawful wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her husband in the company of a Frenchman known as Andre Seville. She took with her the subscriber’s infant son, a French Negro slave girl called Marie, and a mantel clock. A reward will be paid for return of the boy, the slave, and the clock, but a husband so maligned by such shameless and sinful behavior is glad to be free, and will give no reward, nor will he allow the wanton back into his home. He therefore warns all persons from trusting her on his account. He will pay no debts of her contracting. Jonah Mathers, Butcher. Boston Post Road.

And from Into the Wilderness:

“Lydia Mathers,” Elizabeth read,

the wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her lawful husband in the company of one Harrison Beauchamp, known gadabout and suspected thief, taking with her a good pewter jug, twenty pound in coin, three silver spoons, a snuff box, the slave girl Eliza and her husband’s good underclothes. By this notice her much injured husband thinks it prudent to forewarn all persons from trusting her on his account, being determined, after such flagrant proof of her bad behavior, to pay no debts of her contracting. I treated her well.
Thy-Will-Be-Done Mathers of Canajoharee.

The Mathers continue in the same vein in Thunder at Twilight. I keep wondering if one of them will show himself more directly, but so far neither Thy-Will-Be-Done nor Jonah has come around a corner to surprise me in mid scene.

frequently questioned answers

Since this blog has been up, I’ve been getting quite a lot of email from various people, 99.9 percent of it fine and good and interesting. I often hear from people who are struggling with their own writing, and they’ve usually got one of two questions: 1) who is my agent and will I introduce them; 2) will I have a look at their work.

My agent is a matter of public record (I dedicated Lake in the Clouds to her). Like all agents she gets a lot of inquiries from potential clients. Over the years I have sent a few people her way (by this I mean, I’ve mentioned their names and said they might be in touch). Of all those names, only one is now her client. So getting an introduction from me really doesn’t help one way or the other. If your work is something she feels she can represent, you may work something out with her, but that’s between the two of you.

As far as getting people to read your work, I’m not the right person for that. I’ve got a longer answer about that on my FAQ page but I’m going to reproduce it here:

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited….


characters (part one)

It’s very nice to hear from people who have read books I’ve mentioned here. Cathy wrote to say how much she enjoyed Diana Norman’s A Catch of Consequence. She’s also having trouble getting hold of The Vizard Mask (which hasn’t been published in this country). My copy was a gift from my English parents-in-law. The only copies I’ve seen on this side of the Atlantic are very expensive. It’s really discouraging when there’s a great book out there to read and you can’t get hold of it for less than $50. Cathy wants to know ifVizard Mask is worth that much; my answer would have to be — it would be to me, but I can’t predict if it will be to her.

Cathy also asked:

I was wondering how the new book was coming, and if you could maybe at some point post another excerpt as well as maybe who the main characters will be. I love Nathaniel Bonner and his “Boots”, but any character you write is great and amazingly interesting.

I can tell you that old characters you haven’t seen for a while come back to hunker down in the new novel (the title of which is still being debated, by the way). Jennet comes from Scotland, and Luke (Nathaniel’s son by his early alliance with Giselle Somerville) has got a large role to play. There’s also Simon Ballentyne. You may remember his father, who took Hannah up on his horse on the journey to Carryckcastle in Dawn on a Distant Shore. Nicholas Wilde, who was so involved in apple husbandry (and who married Dolly Smythe at the end of Lake in the Clouds) is also very much in evidence. Of course various army battalions come tramping through, and you’ll spend some time getting to know them on Nut Island. Oh yes, and Kit Wyndham, who is a major in the King’s Rangers. He’s around a bit in this novel, and a lot in the next one.

Hope that’s enough to keep you happy for the moment.

I also had an interesting question from Cindy by email:

My (compound) question is this: What else can I do to ensure that my characters are not too far off the mark, and how much should I worry about it? As far as possible I’ve based my characters on historical fact, but it looks as though a fair amount of extrapolation will be necessary. It seems to me, at this point in my literary development, at least, that one of the worst things that could happen would be for my work to be dismissed as inaccurate.

That’s an excellent question, but one that needs a longer answer. I’ll start to put one together and post it here.

Selah's map

I had an interesting email regarding Selah Voyager’s plot line in Lake in the Clouds from Melissa, who is a handweaver, a compulsive knitter and an embellisher (in part):

I was fascinated by the runaway slave woman’s skirt/map in Lake in the Clouds.  Can you tell me anything about the source of this idea?  Have you ever seen one, or seen photos, or was it an idea, a likely thing to have existed? 

I wondered when somebody might ask me about this. The idea for Selah’s skirt/map came from a controversy in quilting history. The original theory, put forth in a book called Hidden in Plain View : A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Raymond G. Dobard & Jacqueline L. Tobin) claims (in brief) that runaway slaves exchanged information about the routes north by means of codes in quilt blocks. Recent research into this seems to indicate that there’s little basis in fact, and that the quilt code might best be thought of as a folk story. Hart Cottage Quilts has a good essay about the whole topic here.

Textile history is something that has always interested me (Martha Ballard’s diary is a treasure trove of such information), and I am very active myself in mixed media textile art and (to a lesser extent) quilting. I do write regularly for Quilting Arts Magazine. A little known fact: the detail from a crazy quilt seen on the cover of the Premiere issue (about to be reissued, by the way) is my work.

Queen of Swords cover copy

This is my revision of what the marketing people came up with. There will probably be some more changes.


It is the late summer of 1814 and Hannah Bonner and her half-brother, Luke, have spent more than a year searching the islands of the Caribbean for Luke’s wife and the man who abducted her. But Jennet’s rescue, so long in coming, is not the resolution they hoped for. In the spring Jennet gave birth to Luke’s son, and in the summer she found herself compelled to surrender the infant to a stranger in hope of keeping him safe.

To claim the child, Hannah, Luke, and Jennet must journey first to Pensacola. There they learn a great deal about the family who has the baby: the Poiterins are a very rich, very powerful Creole family, and without scruples. The matriarch of the family has left Pensacola for New Orleans, and taken the child she now claims as her great grandson with her.

New Orleans is a city on the brink of war, where prejudice thrives and where Hannah, half Mohawk, must tread softly. Careful plans are made as the Bonners set out to find and reclaim young Nathaniel Bonner. Plans that go terribly awry, isolating them from each other in a dangerous city at the worst of times.

Sure that all is lost and sick unto death, Hannah finds herself in the care of a family and a friend from her past, Dr. Paul de Guise Savard dit Saint-d’Uzet. It is Dr. Savard and his wife who save Hannah’s life, but Dr. Savard’s half brother who offers her real hope. Jean-Benoit Savard, the great grandson of French settlers, slaves, Choctaw and Seminole Indians, is the one man who knows the city well enough to engineer the miracle that will reunite the Bonners and send them home to Lake in the Clouds. With Ben Savard’s guidance, allies are drawn from every segment of New Orleans’s population, and from Andrew Jackson’s army, now pouring pouring into the city in preparation for what will be the last major battle of the War of 1812.

some questions and some answers re: the next novel in the series

I had a very kind email today from C.S. in England:

Dear Sara

I would just like to email you to say that I think the ‘Into the Wilderness’ series is just simply fantastic. I have only recently discovered them but have now read (and re-read) all 4 four books and have loved every one. I am now desperate for Queen of Swords! I have read a plot summary of the book on Random House’s website which tells me that the main focus is the Luke/Jennet/Hannah story. But I have two burning questions though which I would be so happy if you could answer: are Elizabeth/Nathaniel/Lake in the Clouds mentioned in the new book or is it completely the Luke/Jennet story? And, is the Queen Of Swords the end of the series or are you planning on writing any more?

As a UK resident, I am planning on pre-ordering the book so that it can be shipped to me straightaway!

Thank you so much for transporting me to a world of adventure and romance!

So let me answer the two questions:

1. While Queen of Swords is primarily about Hannah, Luke and Jennet, you will see something of [two other main characters] at some point. Also, there are lots of letters exchanged so even if you don’t see some people directly, you certainly hear their voices and know what’s going on with them.

2. It had seemed until very recently that this might be the last novel in the series, as publishers are very wary of historical fiction these days an not so keen about investing in it. However, Bantam raised the topic of another novel in the series and so we’re pursuing that conversation. It won’t be quick, I have to warn you, but at this point I can say that it is likely to happen, one way or another.

I’m so glad C.S. has enjoyed the story thus far. For some reason unclear to me, the books haven’t done nearly as well the Brits as it has with the crowd Down Under or here in the States. But I’m ever hopeful that more people will discover the novels, as C.S. did.

G or PG or Nothing: Unhappy Readers

This email came in today:

I started out really enjoying the book Lake in the Clouds, but quickly lost that enjoyment when you described the sex scene. How I wish that all books had a rating like the movies so one’s money would not be wasted. If you have any family rated (G or PG) books please let me know.

A-Would-Be Reader

It’s unfortunate that she started with Lake in the Clouds, as the scenes that (I’m guessing) bother her are (in one case at least) more about violence than sex. I really do try to avoid gratuitous sex scenes. If there’s nothing to be gained in character development or plot, I’ll skip over the details.

So I’m sorry to lose a potential reader, but I don’t really see a way around this conflict. I write the story — which isn’t always pretty — to the best of my ability. Some will like my stuff, and others won’t. Such is the nature of the beast. In the ten or so years since the first novel in the series came out, I’ve had a handful of emails from people who tell me why they can’t or won’t read my work.

There’s was the guy who was outraged that a dog was shot (the many human deaths didn’t seem to bother him); there have been other people who objected to violence or sex. A few people decided they didn’t like me personally and so they don’t want to read my novels. All fair enough. I make similar decisions every day.

On the other hand it wouldn’t occur to me to write to an author and tell her (or him) what steps would be necessary for me to become a faithful reader. I might write and express an opinion, but I can’t imagine telling somebody how to tell a story.


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interview with the wilderness crowd

Regarding this post: I thought I had posted this a long time ago, but I can’t find it in the database. If I did post it, I apologize for the repetition. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a transcript of one of my meetings with my characters. It was written some time ago — at least six months — but it’s still pretty relevant. I ask questions; the answers in bold face.
So, who wants to get this story started? Elizabeth?

No thank you very much. It’s time for someone else to have a turn.


You know me better than that.


You can’t handle my story.

Lily. Come on.

Possibly. Let me talk it over with Simon. But you do realize we’ve been away from Paradise for a long time?


Look around this village, you’ll see I don’t have time. And please don’t ask Ben, he’s distracted enough as it is.

But Hannah, I can’t just ignore him. Ben?

Happy people make boring fiction, I’ve read that on your weblog a number of times.

You read my weblog?

We all do.

Jennet! You’ll get us started, won’t you?

Ye ken we spend half the year in Manhattan, aye? I fear I couldnae do it justice.

Carrie? Gabriel?

I mean no disrespect, but I hardly know you. And Gabriel isn’t here. He’s never here. Go up to Lake in the Clouds if you want to talk to him.


I don’t tell stories the way you do.

Curiosity. Hello.

Don’t you play games, missy. I know you’ve had your eye on me this whole while.

Shouldn’t I have my eye on you? It’s your turn.

You think you so clever, but I’m wise to you. I surely am.

I don’t know what you mean.

Is that so? And ain’t you the one who pulled me out of thin air? You know what’s holding things up, you just don’t want to face it.

Now I’m curious. Go on.

One thing you keep forgetting. You know us all because you gave us breath and bone alike, but we know you too. We know you down deep.

Wonderful. So tell me, why don’t you: why does every path I try dry up? Why won’t any of you talk?

You make me laugh, you do. You say you listening, but you ain’t. Not really. One of us whisper something in your ear and you turn away.

You mean that image I keep getting.

You know I do mean just exactly that.

The [] family around the table and the terrible silence.

Didn’t I tell you? You know already. You just don’t like what you know. Last time you come to stay with us was hard. Took a lot out of you. Took a lot out of Hannah, too, but it’s been ten years now for Hannah. She had the time to heal and catch her breath. Get her feet back under her. You got to rush back in. I ain’t surprised you dragging your feet.

Hey. I sit here writing and rewriting every day.

Uhuh. Like a child digging in sand with the tide coming in. Now, don’t you think for one minute I ain’t took note of the fact that you changed the subject. You said something about the [] family around a table and then you turned your back on it.

So I need to start with the []?

I ain’t said that. You the one tapping away, putting the words down. I’ll say this one more time, and you had best take it to heart. You forgot how to listen to us, because you lost your talent for sorrow. You want to tell a happy story, but there’s more going on here. We got happy, sure we do, but that’s just the sugar that makes the medicine go down.

I don’t think that’s it.

No? And here I was thinking you needed help. So what is holding things up?.

There’s just too much story to tell, it’s overwhelming.

Lot of story ain’t never slowed you down before.

That’s true.

Times so much happening so fast, my head like to bust but you sail right along.

Yes, okay. But this time feels different. It feels like–

The end of things.

I suppose.

Look here, you let me get this old. Now you got to show me it was worth it, all this long time, all these words. More than a million words. You got to pull it all together now, I been waiting long enough.

So you’ll finally tell all those secrets you’ve been keeping?

If you writing, I’m telling. Now or never.

Playing it Safe. Or not.

Paperback Writer has an interesting post on how the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica has inspired her. The result is that she has vowed to write one dangerous book this coming year.

By that she means, something out of the ordinary for her personally. A departure from what’s comfortable. The reason this feels risky for her is simple:   she’s got a large followship and has been very successful with  more than one series of novels, so to make any big changes in approach or topic is somewhat frightening. You don’t know if the readers will make that jump with you or not.

[asa book]0399154663[/asa]

I’m kind of in the middle of that experiment myself, hoping that the Sara Donati crowd will follow the Rosina me into contemporary romatic comedy. I can’t really say how it’s going to turn out in the long run, but it was a risk I took. And it was scary. It still is scary. Every once in a while  — not too often — I get a note from an irritated reader who is not happy with my departure:

Stick to historical fiction.

Don’t lecture me about gay rights.

You’re not as funny as you think you are.

I’ve had snarky comments about the Wilderness novels too. The guy who was furious when he thought a soldier had shot Treenie. He didn’t care about people being killed, but the death of the red dog had turned him off my work forever. Or the person who was very unhappy with me about Liam’s behavior in a certain barn. People who have read Lake in the Clouds will know what I mean. But that’s different. Those kinds of negative reactions I can take and consider with equanimity. It’s harder when you’re talking about a new novel in a new voice, with a new approach.

And that’s why it’s tempting to stick with what works. If you’ve put out three mysteries in three years and your readership is going up up up, it’s hard to stop. Your editor and publisher certainly want you to keep going and building on your success. The readers are eager for more, and in many cases they won’t care if the quality starts to slide. They’ll hang in there for another three or five or even ten books in the hope that you’ll get the magic back.  Some of them won’t even notice, or won’t care.

And you, you might be pulling out your hair, begging to be let lose from a stale character-author relationship. But there’s the mortgage and the orthodontist and so you sit down yet again and grind it out.

Or you take a chance. You put aside the tried and true and you write something that excites you. Sometime that gives you back that old feeling, the let-me-at-the-keyboard thrill. This is what Lynn is talking about, having the courage to take on that challenge and hope that the readers come along for the ride.

For my part, once I finish book six I have to concentrate on something I can be fairly sure will find a readership. Maybe I’ve got great ideas for another couple contemporaries, but those will have to wait for a while. At least until the mortgage is paid off. In the meantime I’ll most likely be spending my time in Rhode Island, circa 1720.

good questions

I’m going to answer all the questions y’all asked in response to yesterday’s post, but I’ll start with asdfg because I had to think about the answer for a while.

She wanted to know how I decide which characters will be upfront in book six, and if I’m bringing in new characters. It’s a good question because as everybody knows, I’m prone to overpopulating my imaginary worlds. Critics often shake a finger at me about this. It’s the most common criticism I get of Homestead, even.

I don’t know why my mind works this way. I have written short stories that have very few characters (there is a link to a set of three such stories in the right hand column) but my novels tend to be crowded. It’s not like I set out with the idea upfront in my mind. I start generally with anywhere from three to six major characters and things just evolve from there.

Take, for example, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. When the idea was first developing, I was sure of the two main characters (Julia and Dodge). Both of them have backstories, but in the early stages I wasn’t sure how many characters from those backstories would show up in the novel itself. I did know that the setting itself — a small upscale shopping/community center — would require quite a few characters, and I did sit down and think about who they were and how they fit into the story as a whole. It was this line of thought that brought me the secondary story line about Mayme and Nils (more about them below), and the tertiary story line about Lydia and Leo — which had to be cut because the novel was too long.

If I tried, I think I could do an approximate reconstruction of how the Wilderness novels expanded, character wise. I remember very clearly the moment at which  I realized I’d have to have a whole boat full of characters to follow through with the Scottish-family storyline. My emotions, as I remember them, were a combination of excitement and dread, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Out of that crowd, Jennet hung on and spawned a couple story lines of her own.

So here’s my answer: it’s an organic process. The story evolves and characters spring up to people the story. If that makes any sense at all. Some characters are happy to fade into the background once their storylines are finished, but others won’t go away and demand more time with the readers. Jennet is an example of that, maybe the best example. She bugged me all the way through Lake in the Clouds about when she was going to get to come back (thus the letters she wrote to Hannah).

Now, for Book Six. The Bonners are in Paradise, all of them. The old-time residents of Paradise are there, the ones who haven’t died or moved away. And the new residents are there. I seeded this idea in the last novel by means of letters that mentioned Ethan’s determination to breathe life back into the village, and the challenges of finding families who would be willing to settle in a village on the edge of the wilderness where Mohawks and freed slaves were landowners and respected citizens. Because you know, I might be able to sell a couple families with progressive ideas like that (such people did exist) but I couldn’t sell that as a common thing. Most people back then, would have been shocked at the idea. Quakers, who were so forward thinking about emancipation and abolition, were the logical choice but even then I had to be really careful about romanticizing them as a group. Quakers could work hard toward abolition and still be prejudiced. There are documented cases of freed slaves being relegated to pews at the back of the meetinghouse, for example.

So in book six the only new characters are secondary ones, the newer settlers brought in by Ethan, all of them Quaker. There’s some, but not a great deal, of interaction with them. They are good neighbors but not friends, for the most part.

And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that, for now.

Tomorrow I’ll post a little to the question of favorite characters.  You might expect me to give the traditional parental response: I love all my children. But I won’t go that route, because in fiction, as in life, the question is far more complicated than who you love, and how much.


[asa left]0399154620[/asa] The New York Times has a review of a new biography of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), the man behind the original thesaurus.

I am interested in this biography for a lot of reasons, the first one being the simple lure of the footnote. Historians and biographers like footnotes. Historical novelists love them. Footnotes are usually a treasure chest of the good details that make a story come alive. When I was researching the eastern Great Lakes during the War of 1812 I came across footnote descriptions of the role clergy played in the fighting, and I used some of it in Lake in the Clouds.

In the case of this biography, my interest in historical detail is actually secondary to my interest in Roget’s personal demons. He was obsessive-compulsive, with a full range of symptoms. The Med-Net definition:

A psychiatric disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking, counting, or hoarding. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one of the anxiety disorders, is a potentially disabling condition that can persist throughout a person’s life. The individual who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. OCD occurs in a spectrum from mild to severe, but if severe and left untreated, can destroy a person’s capacity to function at work, at school, or even in the home.

Roget’s whole family suffered from what sounds like a range of brain chemistry related problems. What’s interesting to me, personally, is how his OCD was perceived in his time and place because my sense is, not much has changed in two hundred years.

Clearly Roget was able to channel most of his obsession in socially acceptable directions, with the end result being the thesaurus. It was the nature of his time and place that he could set the rules for himself, and as long as his list-making showed some kind of profit, live the way his disabilities required him to live.

OCD is an invisible disability — that is, there’s no outward signs that there’s something physically wrong. Nor are there scans or  blood tests to diagnose based on brain chemistry, or how much serotonin you have or should have. An OCD diagnosis is based on observed and reported behaviors — the same way appendicitis or heart disease was diagnosed a hundred years ago when laboratory and imaging sciences were in their infancy.

So maybe it’s not so surprising that public opinion doesn’t seem to have changed much. I have to think about this some more.

DRAWING CLOSED: Queen of Swords

A little late, but never mind.

If you’d like to be included in the random draw for a signed first edition of Queen of Swords, please leave a comment here. You have to use a valid email address, but I don’t need a last name.

Also (and this is not a requirement): if you have a favorite post that comes to mind without a lot of thought, could you please let me know what it is? Because I’m trying to sort some things out, archive wise. You don’t have to give me a link. The one about Aunt Bea and the pickles would be enough. And just to be clear: that’s an example. No Aunt Bea, no pickles anywhere here.

So go to it. Queen of Swords awaits.

moving on

I’ve been struggling to get this weblog into shape, which meant changing software, which meant a bit of a wait and a lot of experimentation… but here it is, finally, and I believe the format will stay this way. Note there is now room for comments, if you’d like to make them. Play nice.

Now that I’ve got this blog running the way I want it too, I will try to write a little tomorrow about Queen of Swords and where I am in the creative process.

Oh and, Farscape was on tonight. The episode from season four: A Prefect Murder. On a ten point scale I’d rate this episode a six, except it focuses a great deal on Aeryn, so it gets an extra point for a total of seven. It did move the overall story arc along, especially regarding the relationship between the main characters.

reading and writing male characters

Someone asked in a comment how reading science fiction and crime novels contributes (if at all) to my own writing. It’s a good question, but I think the answer is fairly simple.

It seems that people who write well are people who read a lot. I don’t know anybody who writes for a living who doesn’t need to read constantly. It’s like… gassing up the car, you gotta have fuel to tell stories. Now this might seem like I’m saying that you take stories from elsewhere, but that’s not what I mean at all.

It has more to do with the fact that storytelling is a community endeavor, something that can’t exist in solitude. If you tell stories you have to listen to them too, or your ear for the rhythms starts to deteriorate.

So I read widely, all kinds of fiction and non-fiction. Pretty much across genres. There are those corners of the storytelling universe where I don’t go often (I’m not a big fan of traditional whodunnits, for example). But I love the needle sharp prose of quality crime fiction, the tight plotting, the strong characterizations (when it’s well done, of course). I read Dennis Lehane, John Sandford, Stephen Hunter (he’s got a new _Earl Swagger_ novel coming out, be still my heart), Lee Child, Andrew Vachss and half a dozen more writers in this genre with great enthusiasm.

Dan Simmon‘s Hardcase and its sequel, Hard Freeze, typify why I like this kind of story: the opening chapter is hair raising, and I defy any reader to put down the book once Joe Kurtz has made his first move. _Here’s a hint:_ it involves, first, a garbage disposal and second, a third story window.

As a writer, I often find it hard to just read for enjoyment. I’m too busy observing how the author did one thing or another, thinking about process and alternates and word choices. If a book draws me in to the point where I forget to pay attention to those details, then the story really works for me. Then I read it a first time for story and a second time in order to observe process. This is especially true when I’m reading crime fiction, because the characterization of the kind of man who populates these stories (hard, hardened, cynical, often sad, almost always with a big simmering lake of anger right at the surface) is a challenge for me in my own work. I think, huh, that’s interesting, how Joe or John or Reacher reacts to this; I wouldn’t have gone there first thing.

So reading outside my genre, reading widely, is an important part of my process. Science fiction feeds into my work in a different way; I’ll try to talk about that sometime soon.

Today I did do some writing of my own. There’s a new male character who shows up for the first time in Thunder at Twilight (I’m fully aware that you haven’t read it yet, I won’t give much away here, don’t worry). He’s a career soldier in the British army, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars in Spain, with some twists that are just being revealed to me as he has jumped feet first into the beginning of Queen of Swords. Uninvited, I might add. There he was, wanting to tell the opening scene from his point of view, so now I’m followin