Sunday, December 4, 2011

Join the Writing/Reading Conversation

Through December, I'll be hanging out at the Reader-Author discussion over at The Next Best Book Club blog on Goodreads.

I'm really enjoying the comments and questions, and would love to hear yours. Join us! Click here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

My Kind of Town(s)

Given my recent luck with delays and canceled flights, I can't say I'm looking forward to heading off to LaGuardia Airport on Thursday. But I am excited about my destinations.

On Friday, I'll be signing books at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. I've also been invited to be on a panel Saturday morning with several other authors. Our topic: "Books on Families and the Peer Cultures of Our Times." It's been awhile since I've had to answer questions from an English teacher, never mind a room full of them. But I'm really looking forward to it.

After the panel, it's up to Milwaukee for an afternoon (2pm) reading and signing at the one and only Boswell Book Company. If you're in the area, please come by! It's a great indie bookstore.

Unfortunately, I'm flying back to LGA that night, so I won't have time to to re-discover some of the beers that made Milwaukee famous... unless, of course, there's another delay or cancellation.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What an Editor Does

I'm sometimes asked about the role an editor plays once a book is written. I get the feeling that the question-behind-the-question is, "Did you get into any interesting screaming matches with your editor?"

My answer never fails to disappoint, since I agreed with virtually all the changes suggested by my editor, the wonderful Liz Van Hoose of Viking. (By the way, she always had the sensitivity and class to refer to her edits as "suggestions.")

Anyway, this morning I came across a blog post this morning that does a great job of answering the question around the editor's role. Find it here:

What an Editor Does, by Steven Harper - Penguin Community Blog post

What's your question or observation about the author-editor relationship?

Friday, November 4, 2011

More on The Next Best Book Giveaway from The Next Best Book Club

Here's a chance to win one of ten free copies of the paperback edition of Bill Warrington's Last Chance.

All you have to do is go HERE and make a comment. That automatically qualifies you for a chance to win one of the books, as well as a personalized bookplate, signed by yours truly.  Then, all through December, there will be an ongoing Reader/Author discussion on The Next Best Book Club on Goodreads. I'll be answering any and all questions about the book, writing, procrastinating, first drafts, letting others read your work-in-progress, working with editors, dealing with reviews... you get the idea.

I am flattered to be invited on TNBBC and can't wait for the Reader/Author discussion. Please join me. Remember to enter the Giveaway today!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Back to the Heartland

 One of the highlights of my recent mini book tour in Ohio was an early-morning interview on WNWO, the NBC affiliate in Toledo. Anchors Michael Henrich and China Sellers were incredibly friendly and hospitable and made the whole experience a delight.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Getting Tense About the Present

Does anyone else get irritated when television news reporters use the present tense to describe events that happened in the past? It makes me want to go all Elvis on the TV set.

This present-past tense is the preferred style used on those true-life murder "mystery" shows--the ones in which you know before the first commercial that the husband did it. As in, "It was a hot August night in 1986 in the small town of Dry Stream when Joe Beater decides to run off with his little girl's Sunday school teacher. But the day before he leaves, he goes into Big Daddy's Gun and Tackle shot and buys a 12-gauge shotgun and ammo. Two days later, his wife is found dead in what police call..."

Much to the chagrin of my family, I call out corrections, louder with each one. As in: "It was a hot August night in 1986 in the small town of Dry Stream when Joe Beater decides ("Decided") to run off with his little girl's Sunday school teacher. But the day before he leaves ("Left"), he goes ("Went, you idiot!") into Big Daddy's Gun and Tackle shot and buys ("BOUGHT!!!) a 12-gauge shotgun and ammo. Two days later, his wife is found dead ("WAS FOUND DEAD!!! OH MY GOD WHEN DID YOU DROP OUT OF SCHOOL?!!")

Needless to say, by the end of the show, I'm watching alone.

Unfortunately, this grammatical irritant is no longer confined to those magazine-y shows. On NBC News with Brian Williams tonight, aired two hours ago, one of the reports used the present tense to describe an event that happened over the weekend. Or perhaps I should have written, "On NBC News with Brian Williams tonight, aired two hours ago, one of the reporters uses the present tense to describe an event that happens over the weekend."

I guess I'll soon be watching the news alone, too.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Not That I Asked Him: A Son's Advice

While I was pouring my fourth cup of coffee this morning, my son mentioned that he had read my past few blog posts.


"If you want people to buy and read your next book," he said, "you might want to stop whining about how hard it is to write and how much trouble you're having with the story."

Hmmm. Anyone else wanna weigh in here?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Writing the First Draft: Don't Look Back

Yesterday I completed the 250th page of a my projected 350-page novel. This had a sort of milestone feel to it, so this morning, instead of working on page 251 as I knew I should, I decided to reward myself by flipping through the pages completed thus far. Result?

Artist's rendering of my expression after perusing the pages of my work-in-progress
Allow me to share with you some of the thoughts of my inner critic.

"Wow. That opening sentence will grab approximately no one."
"Excellent scene! If only you had written it in English."
"You do understand the concept of a timeline, right?"
"This is a novel, not a run-on sentence competition."
"The logic flow in this chapter is impeccably flawed."
"Is there a cliched expression you haven't used yet?"

Fellow writers, if you're in the middle (or beginning or near the end) of your first draft, do yourself a favor: Do not look back. Keep going until it's finished. There will be plenty of time afterward to make whatever changes are needed to silence the inner critic. But if you let that critic get to work too soon, it becomes all the more difficult to carry on.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

I Can Not Not Write. Not.

I enjoy reading articles and interviews with writers about the writing process. Inevitably, the writer is asked, "What would you do if you couldn't write?"

The answer that knocks me out of my chair, ROFLMA-style, is, "I can't imagine not writing."

Really? As a full-time writer, I can most definitely imagine not writing. In fact, I spend a good deal of my writing time not writing. I believe it's a Newtonian Law of Physics: the more time available for the written word, the fewer words written.

Why the seeming contradiction? In my case, the explanations are as logical as they are numerous. For example, I have bookshelves. These bookshelves hold many books. These books are of varying height and width. How can one write when yesterday's arrangement is no longer satisfactorily aligned with the creative pathways?

I also have a desk. Pens, notepads, coffee mugs (see pic), more books, aspirin bottles, and a variety of other items must be rearranged, put away, or used to sharpen my stacking-items-of-different-shapes skills before I can focus properly. I also have a dog who pretends to sleep contentedly at my feet when I know she is just dying to go on a four-mile walk. I have a Facebook page that needs face time; a twitter account that needs tweeting. Have I mentioned that I have fast-growing fingernails? Before you know it, it's the cocktail hour. And it is very bad karma indeed for a writer to ignore the cocktail hour.

And, oh yeah, there's the fact (for me, anyway) that the writing process itself tends be a wee bit painful.

So why do I do it? Beats the hell out of me. All I know is, when I'm finished not writing, I just can't help myself.

What about you? Can you not not write? If not, why not? (Extra points if you can figure out that question. I can... not.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

New Cover Part II

The new cover was developed by the talented artist and illustrator Jim Tierney. I thought you might enjoy seeing some of the other covers he submitted.

In this first one, I like the road leading... perilously but eventually... to a new day. (Or is it setting?)
 "Walking Bill" below will grace the back cover of the new paperback.
 I like April in the one below, but not nearly as much as the April on the final.
Here's another sun that raises the question: rising or setting?
And because I love it so much, here's the final again:

Thursday, June 2, 2011

New Cover for Bill... and April

I'm very pleased to announce that the paperback version of Bill Warrington's Last Chance will be out in October. And it has a completely new cover. Whaddya think?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Letter to a First Love

Dear SC:

Surprise! I know it's probably weird hearing from me after all these years. But the other day I was on the internet and your picture came up on a Google search and all of these memories overwhelmed me and, well, I just had to write.

Remember the day we met? High school graduation, June1973. I knew from the moment I opened that big, black Smith Corona carrying case and saw you for the first time--sleek, blue, and ready to qwerty--that  you and I were going to do great things together.

Sure, you were a bit heavy and, true, a lot of writers would have preferred an electric. But you seemed to know, somehow, that I wasn't like other writers--probably because you found out, first hand, that my writing sucked. LOL!

But you stuck with me through college, waited patiently for me to return from overseas, and then came all the way out from Ohio to join me in San Francisco. I couldn't wait to get my hands on you. The Great American Novel awaited our combined talents.

You were so kind not to tell me how truly awful that first novel was. Supportive, too, through all those query letters to agents and all the follow-up letters thanking them for their consideration of my manuscript and apologizing that it did not meet their needs at this time. So many of those letters! I tried not to let it bother me, but I admit I sometimes took out my frustration on you. I still cringe when I think of the night I  picked you up and nearly threw through the window at a passing cable car. That must have been terrifying for you. I'm sorry.

Actually, SC, the real reason I'm writing is to explain why there came that awful day when I couldn't bring myself to open your case, place you gently on the rickety table next to the bay window, and stare at you for hours. I let you think that I was working late, building my career. Oh, I was at work all right. But the fact is that I was staying late to write my novel... on the office IBM Selectric. It was wrong of me, I know. And I know I was in way over my head: Those suckers cost about $600, which was a ton of money back then. But I simply couldn't resist the auto-correct, the limited memory, the magical font ball. An office fling. It was cliche. It was shameful. I'm sorry.

I guess you could say I've had problems with commitment. After Selectric, I had a fling with Kaypro until the operating system went obsolete about five minutes after we'd met. There was Apple II, until I thought I'd discovered my lifelong writing partner in Macintosh. But then I met Toshiba, a laptop with the siren song of writing in the Great Outdoors. I fell hard. It's a sickness, I know. With each new partner, each new bell and whistle, I was convinced that novel would simply take shape, practically write itself. It didn't.

I've been with Dell for quite a few years now, and finally realized the dream that you and I worked toward all those many years ago. But here's the thing: Dell tends to get a bit restless and insists on taking me me places that working writers should best avoid: Facebook, Blogger, Twitter, LinkedIn. (And I keep hearing about this place called Farmville.)

Will you feel terribly awkward if I say that I miss you? But I do. I miss your nonelectric ways. I miss the sound of your tiny hammers against paper--so much more satisfying than the geeky clacking of a computer keyboard. I miss the ritual and promise of rolling in a blank sheet of paper, of resting my fingers on your keys, of gently returning your carriage at the end of each sentence. Pure writing. No distractions.

Would you mind terribly if I tried to find you? I think it's worth another shot together. Please don't say no. I'm going to do my best to track you down... right after I check out this new MacBook Air I keep hearing so much about.

Until then,

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

My Brush With Eternal Damnation: A Fib-Free Mini-Memoir

Tired of discovering that a memoir you read and enjoyed and perhaps were inspired by is more fiction than fact? Me, too. And so I've decided to try my hand at the genre. Here, then, is a fib-free mini-memoir... on fibbing. It is the harrowing story of an untruth that quickly grew into such a pack of heinous lies that my very soul was dangling, Sinners-in-the-Hands-of-an-Angry-God-style, above the fiery pit of hell.

I was nine years old.

Here's the situation. I had been in training for several weeks to make my First Confession with my third-grade class at St. Luke's school in Lakewood, Ohio. First Confessions are a watershed event in every Catholic's life, and the nuns had been running us hard: making sure we had memorized the Act of Contrition, suggesting potential sins to confess (mainly lies and disobedience; impure thoughts and acts came a few years later), and warning us, above all else, to make sure we didn't make a Bad Confession.

A Bad Confession is one in which you knowingly lie, omit mentioning a sin, or confess your sins but aren't really and truly cross-your-heart sorry. A Bad Confession is a sin that transcends the rather pedestrian venial sins of, say, kicking your sister or making faces at your parents' backs. It is, in fact, a Mortal sin. If one dies with an unconfessed and, therefore, unforgiven Mortal sin on one's soul, the afterlife options available are extremely limited. Heaven is out of the question. Purgatory is reserved for those doing time for venial sins. Limbo only accommodates unbaptized babies. One option is left: the place Sister Jerome spelled with double hockey sticks.

About a week before I was scheduled to make my First Confession, one of my brown-nosing older brothers announced to my mother that he was going to confession and, oh, too bad Jimmy can't go because he hasn't made his First Confession yet. Now, if you're the near-middle child in a family of seven boys and two girls, you may have a teeny tiny propensity toward competitiveness. I recognized a challenge when I heard it. I immediately spoke up and said that I had, in fact, already made my First Confession (Venial Sin #1: Lie) and that I would go with him. I believe I also called him a butt-face (Venial Sin #2: Uncharitable name-calling).

I went in the confessional, got on my knees, and when the Priest slid back the screen separating my crew-cut head from his, said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my last confession." I then proceeded to tell him that I had lied five times and was disobedient five times. The priest assigned me my penance--five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys--and sent me on my (still sinful) way.

If you're keeping track, the tally at that point was more than a few venial sins and, thanks to ensuring that my First Confession was a Bad Confession, one whopping, ticket-to-hell Mortal sin.

I tried to rectify the situation a week later, when I made my official "First Confession" with my class. But when I said, "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, it's been one week since my last confession," the priest stopped me. "Isn't this your First Confession?" he asked.

Having a priest actually ask you questions while you're kneeling in a dark confessional at the age of nine is terrifying beyond words. I started to explain that a week earlier I had lied to my older brother about making my First Confession when the priest stopped me. "Then you should just confess a lie," he said. He had misunderstood. I knew that. God knew that. My duty at that point was to set him straight, to explain the situation more clearly so that I could make a good confession and be free of the black spot of damnation that had been staining my soul for a week. But all I said was, "Yes, Father."

The tally now: A mountain of venial sins and TWO bad confessions. The next possible opportunity for me to expunge my soul would be in a week. It was the longest week of my life. On my way home from school, I was especially careful when crossing the street. At home, I couldn't tease my sister, much less hit her. Any slip up--uttering a swear word, for example, or even the thought of uttering a swear word--and I was doomed.

And so it was with great relief that I was able to make it into the confessional alive the following week. "Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been one week since my First Confession." So far so good. I saw the silhouette of the priest's head nod encouragingly. I decided to get to the really bad news first. "I have made two Bad Confessions," I said. The priest stopped me. "Didn't you just say you made your First Confession a week ago? How could you have made two Bad Confessions?"

This was like having the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost yelling at me as one. But there was no way I was leaving that dark and dank confessional with three Mortal sins weighing down my soul, so I started at the beginning. After awhile, the priest held his hand up. "Son, I can tell you are truly sorry for all your sins, and in Jesus's name, I forgive you of your sins. I repeat: all of them." I'm not sure, but I think I heard him chuckling as I closed the door to the confessional, free at last.

I hope this serves as a lesson to any memoirist tempted by the riches of this world to travel along the dangerous path of exaggeration and fabrication. It is not worth it. Honest to God.

Memoir update: My brother is still a butt-face.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Reading for the Writing

It happened again today. A friend mentioned the title of a novel I'd read recently.

"Did you enjoy it?" he asked.
"Very much," I replied. And I had.
"What's it about?" he asked.

And that's when it happened. Even though I had read the book less than two months ago, I wasn't able to provide much more information other than the uninteresting and unhelpful fact that I'd enjoyed it. Plot? I might have been able to scare up a sentence or two. Names of the main characters? Gone. 

Certainly every novel needs a plot, with interesting characters developed in memorable ways. When it all works together well, it's like a wonderful symphonic piece. But what I remember most about reading a good novel is the experience of it: the author's word choice, the variety a rhythm of the sentences, the emotional impact evoked from what is written and, importantly, left unwritten.

Do you suffer from forgot-the-plot syndrome?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Easy for Me to Say

"Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never..." Winston Churchill

"If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There's no use being a damn fool about it." W.C. Fields

This is a tough week for a lot of writers. I'm thinking specifically of the writers who found out yesterday that they will not be advancing to the next round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest... and the writers who were eliminated in the first round... and those who will be knocked out of the running during the rest of the contest.

This is the contest that, to my surprise and amazement and eternal gratitude, I won in 2009. (Two years ago already?!) So I know the reaction to any comment I make about the need to keep trying, to not give up, might be, "Easy for you to say." As a matter of fact, I do try to avoid saying it because a lot of writers are sick and tired of hearing someone tell them to "buck up." But because this contest draws so many entries from so many extremely talented writers, I'm hoping a quick recap of my decades-long affair with rejection might help someone get back to the writing desk a little more quickly.

While I've wanted to write a novel since I was six or seven, I didn't realize that dream until I was fifty-five. Before I saw my name on the cover of a novel,  I wrote three other complete novels and dozens of short stories and poems that collected enough rejection slips to influence the stock prices of Boise Cascade and Weyerhauser. I've experimented with every approach to writing imaginable. Just try to name a writer's guide or advice book I haven't read. I've taken online writing courses and have tried several different "creative writing" software programs. On the advice of a potential agent, I paid an ungodly sum of money to a book doctor to help me get my novel ready for publication. That novel that was rejected almost as quickly as my check was cashed. On the advice of a different potential agent, I rewrote one of my novels as a screenplay. Have you seen the movie yet? Me, neither. I continued rewriting, reformatting, even re-genre-ing. And still the rejections poured in, every one of them a poke in the eye, a body shot to my self-confidence.

And here's an update: It doesn't end when you get published. There is absolutely no guarantee that my next manuscript will be published. And while the majority of reviews of my book have been, thankfully, positive, the ones that aren't--like the one I read the other day wherein the reader-reviewer expressed disappointment that I wasn't a more talented writer--do, in fact, sting. Getting published did not make my skin any thicker.

But if you're a writer and not someone who simply wants to be known as a writer, you'll keep going. You'll keep collecting those rejections, learning what you can from each one, but ultimately believing in your own hunches, your own voice. You'll put aside that nagging feeling that there are a few hundred other, more productive uses of your time than agonizing over a blank screen or piece of paper. You won't blame. You'll try not to complain. You'll just keep your butt in that chair and keep writing.

If you're not a writer, you won't. Now that was easy for me to say.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Marital Reading Habits

I just received another of those gifts that every writer lives for: an email from a stranger, writing to tell me how much he or she enjoyed my novel. Whenever I get one of these, I always think of what Mark Twain once said: "I can live for two months on a good compliment."

This message, though, was a little different from the others. "This is the first book my wife and I read together, aloud to each other," the sender wrote, "and  it couldn't have been a better choice."

They read it to each other? Aloud? I tried to imagine a similar scene with my wife, Joanne. And as I did so, I felt a stab of guilt. I've worked out of my home for the past 24 years and, as a result, I not only have dinner with Joanne almost every night, we also often have both breakfast and lunch together. (And, yes, we still get along; in fact, we celebrated our 26th anniversary last month.) At breakfast and lunch, my nose is usually stuck in a book; hers, a newspaper or magazine.

Here's the problem: Joanne is a vocal reader. She loves to share what she reads. A health tip. An inspiring profile. A sad story. My reaction, I confess, is more impatience than interest. My attention span is so short that I must guard it jealously. Interruptions that take me away from a story I'm immersed in are just that: interruptions.

There's more. If I appear to be enjoying whatever I'm reading, Joanne will ask me to read a passage to her. Any guesses as to my response? If you guessed something along the lines of, "You can read it yourself when I'm finished," you win the Spot-the-Insensitive-Spouse award.

So when I received the email from the read-aloud couple, I envisioned a happy husband and wife, laughing and cuddling over a good book. I made a vow to respond more enthusiastically when Joanne reads something aloud to me. And I intend to keep that vow... right after I finish this page...

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Immersion Writing

Enjoyed this from Michael Chabon, quoted in this month's Poets & Writers:

"To do your very best work as an artist, whatever the discipline, takes complete immersion in the work. You need to get caught in the slipstream, to draft along behind it as it carries your forward. You get into a state where, even if you're not writing, everything you see, read, hear; every place you go; every newspaper you pick up; every conversation you chance to overhear feeds the work, because you are so saturated in it."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Support This (Other) Site

Slight break from my usual moaning and groaning about writing to ask you to help support an important website. As you may have noticed I steer clear of politics in my comments here and on Facebook, but among the websites I visit every day is Politics Daily. Reason:  balanced journalism and civil political discourse.  (Full disclosure: Its editor-in-chief, Melinda Henneberger, is a friend.) 

Given the often skewed and decidedly nasty tone of other sites focused on politics, it’s really important—especially at this time—to show the poobahs who control the purse strings that there are a lot of people out there who still appreciate journalistic standards and integrity. 

To do that, visit the Politics Daily fan page and click on "Like."  And if the spirit moves you, add a comment about how much appreciate the Politics Daily approach. Thanks. Here’s the link

Thank you. And spread the word!