Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Moth of Hope

Worried about the death of publishing or the public’s diminishing appetite for stories? The Moth offers hope.

Last night, as a Christmas gift to me, my daughter took me into NYC for a Moth storytelling event. The doors opened at 7, and we figured that getting there at 6:30 would assure us of a seat. Wrong. The line outside the Bleecker Street entrance snaked around the corner and all the way down LaGuardia Place to Third Avenue. We stood in line for over an hour, braving the wind, the cold, and an incredibly annoying laugh from one of the women standing behind us. We made it to within a few feet of the entrance of the aptly named “Bitter End” rock club, only to be turned away.

All was not lost. My daughter and I had a nice Thai dinner and got to witness two creative subway begging routines (one played the saxophone and claimed to be a space alien). And the woman behind us in that long, wintry line will undoubtedly one day end up in one of my daughter’s own stories… or mine.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Different Sort of Writer's Block

Someone once asked Michelangelo how he was able to sculpt an angel out of a block of marble. His reply: "I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

Writers face a similar task. They must chip away everything that holds their story back, that prevents it from taking flight. But there's an additional task. Unlike sculptors, writers must first create that block of marble, the material that will require so much chipping, carving, shaping, and polishing.

Some writers enjoy making the marble. They revel in writing the initial draft, setting their imaginations free and allowing their characters to take them wherever the magic of creativity takes them. They dread the process of carving and polishing. Other writers prefer the chipping and carving. I'm in that camp. For me, the first draft is the most painful part of the writing process.

The problem is that inner voice, some call it the inner editor, constantly telling me that what I'm writing is stupid, obvious, or done before by much more gifted writers. It also enjoys reminding me, frequently, that progress-to-date is woefully slow.

"But go ahead," it says every morning. "Try to fill that blank computer screen with something someone will actually want to read. Good luck, pal."

And so, every morning, I must first take my hammer to my inner editor. It gets messy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Who'd a Thunk...

...the Wall Street Journal would offer writing tips.

The title is a tad misleading, but reading about writers' various idiosyncrasies is always interesting. To me, anyway...

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

One Step Closer

Yesterday I received the "vanillas" of my novel, which are bound copies of the manuscript.

Next step: galleys, which will feature the new cover and be used to start building awareness and interest among reviewers, distributors, and basically anyone who can help promote the book.

Can't tell you what a thrill it was to hold these in my hands. Looks like a book... feels like a book... smells like a book.

Vanilla always was my favorite flavor.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Cover

Hot off the press: the official cover.

Am I psyched or what?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Joys of Not Writing

I've been having all kinds of fun getting started with my next book. Here's the progress I've been making.

First, after I identified an absolute killer of an idea, I decided to just run with it. Write like crazy, see where the idea and the characters take themselves and in a year or so, voila, I was sure to have a blockbuster.

That worked well for about 15 pages.

Index cards! That's what I needed. Create scenes on different cards, post them on the wall like a Hollywood storyboard, and it would all come together. One of my kids would surreptitiously snap a photo of that wall, which would be included in a biography many years from now: "The actual index cards King used on the actual wall of his actual office (scratch that--"study" sounds more writerly) to plan his second novel."

Outstanding approach, until I realized I was unnecessarily killing a lot of trees by throwing into the wastebasket more cards than I was posting on the wall.

An outline in Microsoft Word was next. I told myself it's important to know everything that's going to happen, every step of the way. I would outline the novel in exhaustive detail so that when it came time to actually write the thing, the words would just... flow.

I never did get the hang of outlining in Microsoft Word.

Current status: PowerPoints! A separate slide for each scene. AND I can do all sorts of worthwhile things, like add different colors for titles and bullets, insert background graphics, use WordArt to make funny shapes with different character names.

I'm having so much fun not writing I may jump out my actual office... er, study... window.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Derek Jeter and Writing

Last Friday night, Derek Jeter broke Lou Gehrig's record for most hits by a Yankee--a record that had been unbroken for more than seventy years.

Jeter is the classiest guy to play for the Yankees--or any other team--in my lifetime. He's not a braggart or a trash-talker. He works hard, keeps his mouth shut, and focuses on his job.

And, yes, he's talented. But that's not what makes him successful. What makes him successful is his uncompromising commitment to the game; more specifically, his ability to play the game. He doesn't practice only when he's in the mood. He doesn't wait for "inspiration" before stepping into the batter's box. He doesn't take a day off during the season because, well, he's been playing a lot of ball and has "earned" a day off.

When it's time to practice, he practices. When it's time to play, he plays. He does not allow himself to get distracted from that valuable, irrecoverable time by... er.... blogging.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Readings, Signings, and Courage

I admit it: I love getting authors to sign their books for me. (I once breached the curtain between the coach and first class sections of an airplane to get Tom Wolfe's autograph.) I also attend readings when I can. I find these events motivating.

Last Wednesday was one of the more inspirational I've attended in a while. Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, Ann Kidd Taylor, were reading from their just-released book, "Traveling with Pomegranates." During the reading, mother and daughter talked about the courage it takes to write. I've heard that many times, but somehow I always felt that writing--fiction, anyway--was more about narcissism than courage. But listening to Sue talk about the leap she made from nonfiction to fiction and Ann discuss her very understandable fear of trying to become a writer in the wake of her mother's huge success... well, some writers definitely are courageous. These two most definitely are.

And, yes, I got BOTH of their autographs.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Just Buy It

My friend Kevin Pilkington has just had another collection of his poetry published.

Buy it.

Click here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Good Thing She Didn't Hate It

I've just completed revising the manuscript for my novel, Bill Warrington's Last Chance, based on line-by-line edits suggested by my peerless editor, Liz Van Hoose of Viking/Penguin.

During the process, Liz kept telling me how much she "loved" the work I'd done.


See all the pretty green on the page to the left? That's an actual page from the manuscript, with Liz's line edits. My manuscript is 300 pages. This is one of the reasons I haven't posted for two weeks.

Fortunately, not every page was this, um, busy. But every page was proof that every writer needs an editor. I lucked out with mine.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Here's Why

A lot of people ask me why there's a year's gap between acceptance of a book and the actual release of said book. My strategy is to mumble something about marketing and strategy, and hope to hell there are no follow-up questions. But thanks to this, all is revealed.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Twerrific Twitterers

I haven't quite figured out how Twitter is useful for most writers, but there are two people I enjoy following on this... social network? ... whatever it is:
  • Ron Charles of the Washington Post for great news and reviews on books, publishing, writers, and all things literary (and not so literary) .
  • Andy Borowtiz of the Borowitz Report for when I need a laugh. (Thanks to Sheila O'Brien for the tip!)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Book Club Basics

Last night I participated in the first meeting of a book club that a friend of mine has started. I've never been in a book club before and wasn't sure what to expect. The other five guys in the club are all hugely successful in their respective fields--primarily investment/money/fund management. Then, there's me. Here's roughly how it went.

6pm - Meeting called to order at Yasuda, 204 E 43, NY, NY.
6-6:15 - Small talk.
6:15 - Someone mentions the title of the book we were supposed to be discussing. Rationale for its selection offered.
6:17 - Discussion of the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. Opinions shared on current administration, previous administration.
6:30 - Huge platters of sashimi and sushi arrive at our table. Political discussion continues.
7:00 - One of the members reads reviews of the book we were supposed to be discussing. In-depth discussion and analysis of each member's feelings about the book followed.
7:07 - Back to Obama and Bush, with some digressions to the Roman and Egyptian empires.
8:00 - Unanimous decision to continue book discussion across the street at an excellent Sake Bar.
8:03 - Arrive at Sake bar. Began drinking sake.
8:04 - In lieu of further discussion of the book we were supposed to be discussing, discussed potential books for next meeting and discussion.
9:00 - Decision made on book and date for next meeting.
9:01 - Near unanimous decision to test one more variety of Japanese wine.
9:29 - I begin mad dash for Grand Central Station to catch the 9:37.
9:36 - I board the train, grab a seat, and try to ignore my sake-filled bladder.

Ah... the literary life...

Monday, July 13, 2009

When Less is More, Not Less, Incorrect

Until yesterday, I had nothing against NY Governor David Patterson. Seems like a hard-working guy. (No snide remarks, please, about his post-Spitzer revelations.) He's smart, articulate, and doesn't back down from a fight with... well just about the entire NY State Assembly.

But then, when answering questions yesterday on the thorny issue of education, he started saying things like, "We'll have less students in less schools..."

Your Honor, may I suggest that you meant to use the word, "fewer" instead of less? As in "fewer students" and "fewer schools."

I know I'm being picky; after all, the guv was speaking off-the-cuff. But I hear this misuse all the time and it sets my persnickety teeth on edge. If you happen to care about these sorts of things, here's a quick rule of thumb to follow when deciding between less or few:
  • Use "fewer" when you are writing/talking about things you can count.
  • Use "less" for those things you can't count.
Of course, because English is such a fun language, there are several thousand exceptions to this rule. So for a more in-depth (and interesting) treatment of this subject, check out what Grammar Girl has to say.

She says it in fewer words than I ever could, which means you'll spend less time mastering this fine point of grammar.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A Face for Radio

If you've got about 40 minutes to kill, here's an in-depth interview on the experience of winning the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, the publishing process, and all sorts of extraneous information about yours truly.

I was interviewed by Wayne Norman, a radio legend. He made my first radio interview easy and fun.

Click here and follow the links to the audio file.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Insider's View of the Future

Interesting article in the American Journalism Review about the future of journalism--and what young journalists should do to prepare for it.

Interviewee is a senior exec with the New York Times by the name of Marc Frons.

Interviewer and writer is a sharp young journalist by the name of Katherine King. (Full disclosure: Yes, Katie is my daughter. And yes, I'm extremely proud.)

Here's the interview: Forecasting the Future.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rewrite or Remove

For years, I've been telling clients that "Writing is rewriting." Makes me sound like a reasonable, even-keel, professional writer, doesn't it?

Well, that temperament was put to the test recently when I received a few "notes" on my novel from my outstanding editor at Viking/Penguin, Liz Van Hoose.

Okay, I'll be honest: Seven pages of notes and suggestions.

After I picked myself up off the floor and read the notes carefully, I was struck by the number of "cut or revise" suggestions that reminded me of the internal debates I held while writing the book. My gut would tell me that a certain sentence, or entire scene, didn't quite work. I couldn't say exactly why, but it just didn't feel quite right. Still, I kept it, because I had so impressed myself with my own unique brilliance.

Wrong approach. If your gut is telling you that something sounds contrived, rewrite it or get rid of it. If something sounds out of character for one of your heroes, rewrite it or get rid of it. If the beginning is slow, rewrite it or get rid of it. If the ending is too Hollywood, rewrite it or get rid of it--unless you're writing for Hollywood, of course.

Not easy. But your work almost always benefits from the process.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Beginnings and Endings

No matter how you feel about John Irving's writing, I think you'll find this peek into one author's writing process interesting:

Source: Paper Cuts, A Blog About Books, New York Times

Friday, June 5, 2009

New York Times Update

I hereby rescind my earlier birthday de-invitation to the New York Times, thanks to this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Next Exciting Step: A Literary Agent!

Today I am thrilled to announce that I now have a literary agent.

But not just any agent: Rebecca Gradinger of the renowned Fletcher & Company. Yesterday morning I met with Rebecca and with Swanna MacNair, who handles the film end of the business. It became immediately obvious that I would be fortunate to be accepted onto their roster of clients.

Here's what I liked most about Rebecca's approach. She talked about my writing career, not just one particular book. She focused less on big advances than on the process of writing the best book possible. She was clear about roles and responsibilities. She had read my book and talked about it in such detail and with such insight that it was obvious she cared deeply about the "project."

In short, she represents everything a writer should look for in an agent.

But I didn't rely on just my impressions. I got in touch with two of her clients, who could not say enough nice things about her. The highest compliment: "She's a writer's agent."

So for the second time in a week, I've hit the jackpot!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Now What?

It has always stuck with me: the final scene of "The Candidate," in which the politician played by Robert Redford realizes his goal of being elected senator. "Now what?" he asks the people who helped make his dream a reality.

It's the question many people have asked me since the results of the ABNA contest:

"So what's your next novel going to be about?"
"Have you started your next novel?"
"When is the next one coming out?"

In other words, "Now what?"

I got the answer yesterday in a nice telephone conversation I had with last year's ABNA winner, Bill Loehfelm, who wrote Fresh Kills and has his second novel, Bloodroot, coming out in September.

He told me to focus on what I know how to do: Write. Enjoy the moment, but start writing. Right away.

And even though he is a Mets fan, I do believe I will follow his advice. Seems like good advice for all writers. Even writers who are Yankees fans.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The ABNA Awards Event

I don't know what other writing contests are like, but I can't imagine one that could top the ABNA Grand Prize: a publishing contract with Penguin Books. As if that wasn't awesome enough, get a load of the awards event:

Tuesday, May 26:
My wife and I checked into the Crowne Plaza, Times Square, and
were given a room on 33rd floor. We had a beautiful view of Times Square and the Manhattan skyline. We could even see both the East River and the Hudson. Our rep from Amazon greeted us with a bag of goodies--including several books, spending moola, and a Kindle 2! Incredible. That evening, we were taken to a private restaurant in Greenwich Village. After a nice little Happy Hour, the other two finalists -- Brandi Lynn Ryder and Ian Gibson, both extremely friendly, interesting, and talented writers -- and I were interviewed, on video, by a panel of editors from Penguin and Amazon. Watch for the video on www.amazon.com/abna sometime next week. We were then treated to a delicious dinner of... I forget. But it was great. Around 10 pm, they got tired of listening to the writers pontificate, so they put us in cabs and sent us back to Times Square.

Wednesday, May 26: After a sleepless night, it was time to head down to Battery Park for the announcement of the winner. We got to experience morning rush hour in Manhattan from the inside of a Kamikaze yellow cab. The restaurant had a beautiful view of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The announcement was to be made at 9am. I was amazed at how slowly the time passed from 8:30, when we arrived, to 9:00. I can't really describe how I felt when they announced me as a winner. I made a short acceptance speech. Somewhere in there I got a laugh, but I'm not sure if it was something I said or the vacant I-can't-believe-this look that was, no doubt, frozen on my face. Later that day, I visited the Penguin offices down on Hudson Street. There, I met "my editors," the publisher, and the publicist. An incredibly friendly group of professionals.

Friday, May 29: Got a free pass to BEA. Spent the day meeting other folks from Penguin and taking in BookExpo America at the Jacob Javitz Convention Center. Another great day.

What can I say? Every aspect of the awards event was handled with complete professionalism. We were treated like kings every step of the way.

And the Grand Prize? Jackpot!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

INCREDIBLE!!!! Thanks for All Your Support!!!

Bill Warrington's Last Chance will be published by Viking in August 2010. To be notified when the book is available, click here.

I'll write more about this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime experience over the weekend. But in the meantime, thanks to everyone who supported and voted for the book. You've helped make a dream come true!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Countdown to the Final: T-Minus 24 Hours

Off to NYC, at last, for the ABNA awards event. Here's the schedule:
Tonight: "Meet and Greet" event with the editors and publishers. Finalists interviewed.
Tomorrow morning, 9am: Winner announced at breakfast ceremony.
Tomorrow morning, 10am: Huge sigh of relief, no matter what the results, that the contest is over.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Pale Writer

Last night, in a vain attempt to distract myself from thinking about ABNA, I watched Clint Eastwood's "Pale Rider" on TMC. It was made in the 80s, but I'd never seen it. Yet as I watched, I got the feeling that maybe I had seen it and had forgotten. I started paying close attention to the story's arc -- which wasn't easy, since the movie was interrupted every 90 seconds or so by four or five minutes of commercials.

Anyway, the arc as I see it:

Mysterious stranger rides in. Bullies in town causing trouble. Sexual tension between stranger and good man's wife/intended. Offspring of good man's wife/intended infatuated with stranger, threatening relationship with parent. Violent incident forces mysterious stranger to dust off his six-shooter. Blows away the bad guys. Rides off, with good man's wife/intended's offspring calling after him.

After the final commercial... I mean, credits... rolled, I realized that I had seen the movie before. But it was called "Shane." It starred Alan Ladd. And it was made in 1953.

I'm not criticizing Clint Eastwood. (Hey, I've seen Dirty Harry.. I'm not stupid.) I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. My point is that the movie reinforced for me the challenge of putting new twists into a plot.

Case in point: I groaned out loud when I saw another Eastwood film, Gran Torino. The hero is a Korean war veteran who forms a friendship with a teenager. The hero of my novel, Bill Warrington's Last Chance, which by the way I finished writing well before Gran Torino hit the theaters, is a Korean war veteran who bonds with his teen-aged granddaughter.

We are all pale writers. (No, I could not resist that pun. Sorry.) Our blank pages come alive on the shoulders of myth and archetypes. Our challenge as writers is give them creative twists, to make the old stories new. So that when readers finish our books, we can hear them calling out, "Shane! Come back, Shane!"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Countdown to the Final: Worried? Who's Worried?

The voting period for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel is now closed. We now enter the waiting period. Final results will be announced on Wednesday, May 27 in New York City.

Some people have asked if I'm nervous or worried about the outcome.

Uh... hell yeah!

In fact, I recently read the excerpt from one of the other finalists: "In Malice, Quite Close," by Brandi Lynn Ryder. In Tristan Mourault, Brandi has created one of the most creepily compelling characters I've read in a long time. And while I have not yet finished the other excerpt, Ian Gibson's "Stuff of Legends," I have no doubt that he has justifiably garnered a lot of votes.

In any event, now that the voting is over, it's out of my hands. No matter what happens, this has truly been one of the most rewarding experiences ever. I have received an incredible amount of support from family and friends, for which I will always be grateful.

Now the trick will be to keep my mind off the contest for the next five days.

Yeah, right.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Countdown to the Final: Last Day to Vote

Thank goodness today is the last day to vote for the ABNA.

If the voting period were any longer, I might be attending the awards ceremony on a shipping dolly, wearing Thomas Harris.

Soon, the real waiting will begin as the votes are tallied...

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Countdown to the ABNA Final: Three Voting Days Left

The ABNA contest has been a blessing in so many different ways.

One experience that's been especially wonderful is the incredible support I've received from family and friends. Writing can be a lonely profession. I am in awe at how so many people -- some of whom I haven't seen or spoken with in decades -- have expressed genuine happiness for me and have demonstrated such a willingness to spread the word. Thank you all!

BUT... there are still three days left. Please continue to tell your family, friends, and colleagues to vote.

Cringe Factor: The Importance of Proofreading

As some of you may have noticed, I've had "formatting issues" with my excerpt in the ABNA contest. Indents were lost, bullets disappeared, and line breaks didn't break. I'm certain that the fault is mine: I probably did not submit the document in the correct format, and the formatting got lost during the electronic transfer.

But as I read the excerpt, there are some mistakes I can't blame on technology. Like misspellings. Like using the word "taught" when I meant "taut." Like using the wrong name when inside a different character's head. One reader-reviewer rightly expressed amazement that this writer thought the manuscript was ready for prime time.

Well... it's almost ready. I should have done a much better job proofing the document before sending it on its way. When I come across some of those stupid mistakes, I cringe.

It's hard to proof your own writing. But that's no excuse for not carefully proofreading several times before submitting. A few ideas:

1. Start proofing from the end of the document to the beginning. This way, your brain won't automatically fill in missing words or phrases. (I got that idea from my brother Rick, a professor, avid reader, and excellent proofreader.)

2. Always get another set of eyes to read it. Every writer needs an editor/proofreader. Get your spouse, a friend, a trusted colleague to look over your masterpiece before you press "send."

3. If you have time, let the document/manuscript sit for awhile before proofing it yourself. This will give you the "distance" needed for a fresh look.

4. Read it aloud. This is a sure-fire way to identify missing words and awkward constructions.

The more comprehensively you proof, the less you cringe.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Countdown to the Final: Who You Calling "Mature?"

I knew that negative reviews can be painful, but positive ones?

Several comments in the ABNA forums referred, in a nice way, to the "mature" writer, the "older" writer, and the "Boomer" writer.

They couldn't have been talking about the other finalists, Brandi and Ian. They both appear to in their 20's; early 30's, tops. That leaves yours truly. Those comments were insulting and hurtful, don't you agree? What's that? They voted for me?

Call me Boomer.

And if you haven't already done so, please vote!

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Countdown to the Final: 5 Days to Vote; 10 to the Announcement

Here's the Penguin website that does a nice job of describing how the ABNA contest works.

This is incredibly exciting. I'm getting emails and phone calls from people I haven't spoken with in decades.

And the support I'm getting from family and friends is absolutely astounding.

Please vote if you haven't already. To do so, click here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Countdown to the Final

Still reeling from the news that I was named one of the top three finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. The Grand Prize winner, which will be determined by reader votes, will be announced on May 27 in NYC.

Click below to vote! Meanwhile, I'm off to a celebratory dinner and a brew or two with my wife and two children.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BIC Discipline

Every time I travel, which I do fairly frequently for business, I am reminded of how important it is to maintain writing discipline. I am also reminded of how undisciplined a writer I can be.

Theoretically, I should get a lot of writing done while I'm on the road. Most business meetings I attend start after 8am and end before 6pm. If I don't have to have dinner with a client, that leaves plenty of time for writing. But I rarely accomplish as much as I should. Maybe it's the change of venue. Maybe it's that huge television in the hotel room (and push-button access to ESPN) that demands attention.

Whatever. The old saw that the first rule of writing is BIC (Butt In Chair) holds true whether that butt is in its favorite writing space, a cramped airplane seat, or a hotel a continent away from home.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Mother of All Perfect Storms

This morning, while shaving and listening to the local all-news radio station, I was informed by the news anchor that increased Internet usage worldwide is leading to a "perfect storm" of energy failure.


Using a cliche is one thing (usually, the sign of a lazy writer); using it incorrectly only increases the irritation factor. According to Wikipedia, a perfect storm is the "simultaneous occurrence of weather events which, taken individually, would be far less powerful than the storm resulting of their chance combination."

But that's what happens with cliches. People become so accustomed to using them that they get sloppy. So stay alert to those hackneyed words and phrases, and get rid of them from your writing. Business correspondence, in particular, is a haven for the hackneyed.
My nominations for retirement include:
  • The Mother of all...
  • At the end of the day...
  • Think outside the box...
  • The bottom line is...
  • I can get behind that...
The remedy? Simply look for other ways to express that thought or idea. Demonstrate some creativity. Make your writing memorable by making it unique. When your writing stands out, you do, too. Just make sure it's standing out for all the right reasons.

And by the way, I think Sebastian Junger's 1997's book, "The Perfect Storm," is a terrific read.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Susan Boyle is Everywhere

The point I was trying to make on my May 1 posting?

It's made in a much better way here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Reading Voices

I was in a local bookstore recently, a gift card burning a hole in my pocket, trying to decide between a novel, a biography, and a political best seller. To make my decision, I did what I always do when browsing: I opened to the first page and read a few sentences to decide if I like the writer's style -- the writer's "voice," if you will.

A few sentences is all I'm willing to invest before making a decision. I don't think I'm alone among book buyers in that approach.

The lesson for me? Readers aren't going to wait a few pages or even a few paragraphs for me-as-writer to "warm up." I need to establish a strong, likable, readable voice immediately.

The voices that appeal to me vary according to genre. But in all cases, I need to feel that I'm in excellent hands, that the author is an outstanding writer who isn't trying to impress me with his or writing skills, but instead just wants to tell me about something I might find interesting or exciting or life-affirming or... whatever. Just not boring or pompous. In fact, the best writers make me forget I'm reading somebody's writing. I'm just "there" with whomever or whatever the author is writing about, completely immersed, and glad of it.

If you're wondering which book I selected... I didn't. All three openings were so good that I have to go back for more before I choose. Based on how I've handled this situation before, I may end up buying all three.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Two Perspectives on the Writing Life

Here's one, courtesy of Agent Nathan Bransford.

And here's the other one, via Agent Janet Reid.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Phone as Writing Tool

Let's face it: Times are tough for freelancers.

Each day brings news of another newspaper or magazine going belly up. That reliable corporate communications director you've relied on for years has been axed. Prospective new sources of writing assignments seem as plentiful as Republicans at a gun-control rally. (Sorry, that last one just slipped out...)

So how do you freelance your way through these tough economic times?

The first step is to pick up the phone. Start calling everyone you know who might be a source of writing assignments or who might be able to refer you to others in need of your services. In some cases, this means calling clients you haven't worked with in a while.

These can be awkward conversations if not handled properly. So don't even bother trying to disguise the purpose of your call, as in, "I was cleaning out my desk drawer, came across your business card, and thought I'd give you a call..." This not only sounds phony, it also positions the call as an afterthought. Not exactly the impression you want to make.

Instead, be as straightforward and as professional as possible. Think of way to make the client or ex-client glad you called. The best way to do that is to talk about what the client or potential client cares about most. (Hint: It's not you!) Then, describe how you might be able to help, or express the desire to explore ways you might be able to help. For example: "I know a lot of companies are cutting back in a lot of different ways, which usually means an increased workload for people like you. I'm calling to see if there may be a way that I can help you with that."

Put the client's interests first, and the call is likely to get the results you want.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't Forget to Remember

At the poetry festival I wrote about yesterday, I also listened to a reading by the poet/memoirist Honor Moore. As she described her writing process, she said:

"Don't forget those sentences you remember."

She was talking about those little miracles -- words, phrases, insights -- that come to you when you least expect them. You know they belong in that novel or article or poem you're writing... or a new novel or article or poem. Unfortunately, for me, they usually come at the most inconvenient times, such as when I'm driving, taking a shower, or sitting in a dark movie theater watching a movie I've lost interest in. And because I've reached the age where Centrum Silver is now part of my diet, chances are I'll lose that word or idea if I don't write it down immediately.

I used to carry around a small Moleskine pocket notebook and one of those collapsible/expandable telescopic pens so I could capture those (what I hoped would later prove to be) inspirations. I prefer the smaller moleskine with no binding so that it fits into the pocket and conforms comfortably to the shape of my fat thigh. (See pic.) My kids called it my "idea book." I've fallen out of the habit of carrying one with me. But Ms. Moore reminded me that all writers should have one "on their person" at all times. You never know when you might need an idea for, say, a blog post. So I've decided to resurrect the idea-book habit.

All I have to remember now is to pull over to the side of the road before writing.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Start Sweating: The Poetry of Prose

This past weekend I attended of poetry reading at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. The poet I went to hear was my friend and poetry mentor Kevin Pilkington. During his remarks, Kevin said that when he writes he sweats over every sentence, every phrase, every word, every comma, and every period. In poetry, that's what you have to do. Each word must work. If it doesn't, it must be replaced or deleted.

Certainly the same applies to prose. When editing my fiction or nonfiction, I sometimes find myself keeping certain words or phrases that I personally think are brilliant -- poetic, almost. Yet while I try to justify the retention, my internal editor's voice is screaming at me: Doesn't belong here! Not working! Delete! Delete! Delete!

All writers -- poets, journalists, fiction writers -- need to listen carefully to that internal editor. And we all need to do what Kevin does: Sweat it out until you get it right.

To read more about Kevin's views on the writing life and process, check out this interview. To enjoy the results of his process, check out one of his collections. Here's my favorite, so far.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Please Don't Invite the New York Times to My Next Birthday Party

Poor Strunk & White.

On the the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Elements of Style," the New York Times has published an interesting debate on the merits of this venerable little style bible. Some pretty high-powered writers and grammarians took the opportunity to, er, rain on the old boys' graves, so to speak.

I've always thought this cogent little book as a must-read for writers. Looks like I'm going to have to re-read and re-evaluate.

The debate is worth reading to decide for yourself. Click here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Present(ly) Tense

I may be the only person who cares about this, but here goes.

Imagine that you're watching 20/20 or 48 Hours or Dateline and the feature story is yet another murder "mystery." (Hint: The spouse! The spouse!)

The announcer -- to the accompaniment of somber music and a montage of the victim cuddling kittens and kissing chubby-cheeked toddlers -- says something along the lines of:

It was a dark and stormy night back in 1984, and all-American Betty Bouffant leaves work early, telling her co-workers that she must get home to bake cookies for orphaned dachshunds. She arrived home and finds, according to what she tells police three hours later, a trail of crimson blood leading from the kitchen to the bedroom. She walks into the bedroom and discovered the lifeless body of her husband, whom she calls the love of her life ever since they got married straight out of grammar school...

Does anyone else want to throw something at the television for this annoying and idiotic switching back and forth between the present and past tenses? I know that using the present tense adds drama and a sort of you-are-there quality to the narrative. Fine. But.

Please. Make the decision between past and present tense upfront... and stick to it! The inconsistency is making me choke on my popcorn. Much more of this and I will become the subject of one of those shows.

Cue the creepy music.
Tonight's episode: Homicide... or Grammarcide?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Query Confession

Right on the heels of yesterday's post about accepting criticism, I get a healthy dose of it via a blog written by Jessica Faust, a literary agent I much admire.

Here's the deal. I've been sending out a query letter, trying to generate interest in a novel of mine. The response has been... well, let's just say tepid. I've been through this query process before and I got more requests from agents for partial or full manuscripts than I'm getting for this particular manuscript.

I have suspected all along that the problem is my query letter. Yet I put so much work into it... I've revised it so many times... I'm so gosh-darned impressed with it... that I have continued to send it without doing what Jessica in her post today is telling me I need to do: Take a deep breath, open the mind, quash that Montana-sized ego, and overhaul the damned thing!

Of course, Ms. Faust didn't write that post specifically about me or my query. But as with all good writing, I was able to relate to its message. Immediately.

Here's the link. Read and absorb.

And remember: The reader is in the driver's seat, not the writer.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Lesson Learned: How to React to Criticism of Your Writing

So here are excerpts from the email exchange between my daughter and me after yesterday's post:
  • Upstart Daughter: Hi Dad. Just read your most recent posts! After reading today's post I am wondering, who is Elizabeth Strout? Where does she teach? What kind of workshop did you take and what did you learn from her? What's the book about?
  • Know-It-All Father: It's a bloody blog, not a freakin' feature article!!!! If you want answers to those questions, Google her, buy the book, and figure it out yourself. Sincerely yours, The Cranky Blogger
  • Upstart Daughter: Dear Cranky: Please consider writing your next post on how to, after a billion years as a writer, develop the ability to absorb politely worded observations regarding your work.
When you're right, you're right. In recognition of my daughter's, er... rightness... I will now offer a five-step approach to reacting to criticism of one's writing.
  1. Read or listen carefully. Do not speak, except to say, "Interesting. What else?"
  2. Be open to the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the person offering the critique has your best interests at heart. Similarly, assume that the person, as a reader, has the right to express his or her opinions on what they like, or don't like, about a particular piece of writing.
  3. Thank the person for taking time to not only read your writing, but also to offer comments and suggestions.
  4. Revise, if appropriate.
  5. Be grateful that there are people out there who care enough about writing--and you--to offer their observations (politely worded or not).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Looking for a Definition of Literary Fiction?

Just found out that Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her most recent book, Olive Kitteridge.

I had the pleasure of taking a week-long workshop she taught two summers ago. At the time, she was reviewing the galleys for Olive. I read it when it was released, and think it's a helluva book.

Read it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Blog Wars

My niece's young daughter recently started a blog. Unfortunately for her, mom is an English teacher. And mom's comments to her blogging daughter's posts are often reminders to pay closer attention to her grammar. I keep waiting for the "or else," the phrase I relied on so much when my own kids were that age: "Or else you'll find yourself in your room for the rest of the night." "Or else there'll be no dessert for a month."

Of course, her daughter is resisting, saying that nobody cares about grammar. But if she listens to her mother's advice, she will avoid many of the mistakes I see professional writers making almost every day.

Such as writing its instead of it's (or vice versa), there instead of their (or vice versa), and your instead of you're (and... well you get the idea).

I can't threaten to cut-off your ice cream, but I can warn you that too many of these sloppy mistakes in a cover note or article will quickly lead to fewer writing assignments.

Or will they? Seems like fewer readers today notice or care. That, I guess, is grist for another post. In the meantime, proofread carefully before pressing the "send" button. Then, proofread again.

After all, its important to you're image as a profesionel righter.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Frenemy of Productivity

It's getting harder to be alone these days. Even when it's just you, your computer, and your best intentions about getting some writing done, there's that constant distraction niggling away at your concentration like a friendly, funny neighbor in the next cubicle.

The distraction: The Internet.

How can you be productive when you've got an arm's length of bookmarked websites and blogs that you must visit every day? Among my must-visits: several literary agents (even though they all rejected my current Great American Novel); my daughter's blog, thefirstbyline.com; The New York Times, Slate Magazine, Freelance Writing Jobs, and the Official Site of the New York Yankees.

Then, of course, there's all that research that absolutely must be done before starting on that first or second or third draft. Followed by yet another check of my email account to see if I've received any critical new messages since the last time I checked seven minutes ago. Thank goodness I don't Twitter... although I do follow my daughter's Tweets.

The Internet is an incredible resource for writers. But let's face it: It can also be a tremendous drain on productivity. How to deal with this friendly enemy? Here are a couple of strategies.

Identify your #1 motivator. Do whatever it takes to remind yourself of that motivator throughout the day. I've found it helps to keep pictures of my daughter and son highly visible, reminding me that if I don't get some billable hours in, they won't eat, get an education, respect me or, later, visit me in the assisted living facility they've already picked out for me.

Break your day into time chunks. I divide my day into three major time frames:
1. Non-billable. I get up early, so I devote an hour or two to non-billable writing. I like to use this time for fiction or poetry writing.
2. Billable. This is an eight-hour chunk of time devoted to writing on paying projects--or searching for additional projects. I also divide the eight-hour chunk into sub-chunks, depending on the number of projects I'm working on at any one time. For example, if I've got four active projects, I work on all four--each during a two-hour chunk. Assuming I haven't over-committed on deadlines, this prevents me from falling too far behind on any single project.
3. Non-billable. I reserve a chunk at the end of the day for whatever creative stuff I was working on in the morning, or new projects. This chunk may also be used to follow up on leads, research new opportunities, or tackle some of the more prosaic aspects of being a freelancer--such as writing checks or sending out invoices (!!!!).

Manage the chunks ruthlessly. Time management requires, above all else, discipline. Don't allow your non-billiable chunks to flow into your billable chunks. Remember that you've set aside two chunks for your creative output. To make money in this business, you've got to guard your billable time/writing zealously.

Stay off the Internet. I read an article somewhere that described a writer who kept two computers: One for fiction writing, the other for nonfiction. The fiction computer was not Internet-enabled. This helped him avoid the delicious but time-eating distractions the Web offers. You may not be able to have two different computers, but the lesson is a valuable one: When you're supposed to be writing, don't surf. Write.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

ABNA 100: Made It

Found out today that my as-yet-unpublished novel, "Bill Warrington's Last Chance," made the semifinal round in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. The semifinal round consists of the "top 100" novels selected from (if the promotional literature is to be believed) thousands of entries. I was pleased when I made the quarter-finals ("Top 500") and am delighted to have made this cut. Next round: Top Three.

If you'd like to read an excerpt:


Attention Young Journalists

My daughter Kate, an excellent young journalist, has an excellent blog for young journalists. Check it out:


Let's Give This a Try

Seems I can't read an article on freelance writing without feeling chastised for not hosting a web site, writing a blog, maintaining a Twitter account, enabling RSS feeds (whatever those are), and befriending my head off on Facebook. I'll start with a blog.

I've been a freelance writer for more than 22 years. (Yep, old.) Most of my writing has been for corporations, but I also have been dabbling in fiction and poetry.

The reason for the title is that, like it or not, writing is a business. It doesn't matter what you write--fiction, nonfiction, advertising copy, movie scripts, infomercials, cereal box tops--if you hope to make a living as a writer, you've got to treat writing like a business. The starving artist routine leads to... well, starvation.

So, let's give this a try. I'll jot down thoughts, ideas, suggestions, war stories, and other items in hopes that I'm not boring the bejesus out of you. If you don't click away, I'll welcome your comments, ideas, and questions. Who knows? Maybe someone out there will tell me what an RSS feed is.