Creativity Friday: A Crowdsourced Bookshelf for Beginning Novelists

Posted on Feb 27, 2015 in creativity, friends and colleagues, news & muse, publishing, stuff I like, the Next Novel

some favorite books

Above: a few of the resources on my bookshelf.

I’m knee-deep in revising my first draft of the Next Novel, which is at the point where I’m starting to share chapters with beta readers. (Hooray? Yikes?) While I’ve been in the midst of this, someone asked me to recommend resources for someone who wants to write a novel, but doesn’t know to begin. Which is a great question—hence, this blog post.

My first answer was obvious: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. After all, if it wasn’t for the miracle that is NaNoWriMo, I seriously doubt I would have jumped off the high board into the manuscript that became A Gathering of Shadows. Beyond this, I was surprised to find myself flummoxed for answers. I mean, I have my favorite books on the craft, but I’ve been writing for as long I could set words to paper. Some of my earliest memories are taking out “how to get published books” from the adult section of my local library while my mother assured the librarian, that yes, I could read them, please let the kid borrow them already.

So, if in doubt, crowdsource! What follows is an edited list of books and other advice generously shared by writers who know their stuff.

Anca Szilagyi: ”Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. One is all about close reading fiction, and reading for courage to do your own writing. The other encourages writing in a more general/zen sense and has a “keep going” shtick that is helpful.”

Shelley Schanfield: ”A good craft book that has lots of practical instruction on character development and story arc is Janet Burroway Writing Fiction.”

Ellen Seltz: ”The Snowflake Method. Even if you don’t wind up using it exactly, it helps to have concrete tasks to keep the manuscript moving forward, so you don’t get so abstract and woo-woo that nothing gets accomplished. It’s a good tool. If you don’t already have a process, it’s a starting point to help you build one.”

Susanne Dunlap: ”I like Story by Robert McKee. And I love Janet Burroway’s book as well.”

Diane Brandt Wilkes: ”Here are the ones that help/ed me the most, in no real order. These are off the top of the head of someone who would much rather read books about writing than actually write.

”Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
If You Want to Write by Brenda Euland
Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner (My favorite.)
The Art of Fiction by Ayn Rand (She helped me finally understand what plot meant.)
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Becoming a Writer by Dorothy Brande
Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See
Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft by Natalie Goldberg
Telling Lies for Fun and Profit by Lawrence Block (He’s the best at the nitty gritty.)”

Melinda Belle Harrison: “For genre fiction, I recommend The Marshall Plan Workbook : Writing Your Novel from Start to Finish. If more beginning writers used it, they would leap years ahead in work.”

Melodie Rose Winawer: ”The Business of Writing, edited by Jennifer Lyons. Given to me as a gift by my editor. Great stuff.”

Libby Sternberg: “I recommend joining Romance Writers of America and one of their chapters, even if you don’t write romance. The romance community is the most supportive and encouraging writing community I’ve encountered, willing to share information and cheer you on. And some chapters — such as New Jersey’s — have terrific conferences.”

Claude Rothman: ”There are four books I consult permanently: How Fiction Works by James Wood, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Naming the World by Bret Anthony Johnston. The last one includes very smart exercises for the creative writers to which I come back when I have a problem.”

Stephanie Renee Dos Santos: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, Stein on Writing & How to Grow a Novel by Sol Stein, The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long, and Between the Lines by Jessica Morrell.”


I hope this list helps and inspires! And many thanks to all who shared their wisdom.

Publishing Monday: Rewarding the Process

Posted on Jan 26, 2015 in news & muse, publishing, the Next Novel

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

I recently took a half-day novel writing workshop with Donald Maass at the Backspace Writers Conference. The workshop was based on his new book on 21st century fiction writing techniques; it definitely left me excited to continue working on the Next Novel. However, the morning session was a three hour talk by bestselling science fiction/thriller author Jonathan Maberry on various aspects of writing novels—everything from researching fight scenes to making a living as an author.

Maberry’s advice had something for everyone. How do you write about the first time a character is involved in a fist fight? Maberry’s insight: first fights are lost because of psychological shock. Want to know how to cross genres as an author? Try writing a young adult (or YA) novel instead of an adult novel. You’ll have the advantage of being more easily discovered: YA novels are usually shelved together in a bookstore, instead of by genre. I especially appreciated Maberry’s acknowledgement of the financial implications of pursuing a career as a novelist. Unlike nonfiction authors, who usually receive a book advance based on sample chapters and a proposal, novelists are paid after the book is completed and sold—a process that can take years, if at all. This can make writing fiction seem an especially precarious venture.

To circumvent discouragement, Maberry offered one suggestion I particularly liked: to encourage yourself to work on your novel every day, set a low minimum word count goal you can’t possibly not make unless you actively try to. Say, 250 words or 500 words. (250 words is approximately the word count of one double-spaced typed page.) When you make your daily minimum word count, you put a dollar, or whatever financial value you want to set, into a jar.

Once you finish your first draft or another goal (I like the goal of completing a month of writing, so it’s more accessible), the accumulated money in the jar must be spent on something pleasurable to you—no  responsibilities. A new book, a meal out, a facial. Whatever floats your boat. However, if you miss a day’s writing, you have to withdraw a week’s “wages” from the jar, which must be used to pay bills or similar.

The concept is to train your subconscious to associate receiving money for your writing, since it can take so long to write a novel and sell it. To reward the process rather than the result.

Easy, right? But clever.

Publishing Monday: The Second Time

Posted on Jan 19, 2015 in friends and colleagues, news & muse, publishing, the Next Novel

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

This week I’m deep in preparation for the Historical Novel Society Conference, which takes place June 21-23 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Besides preparing for the panel I’m moderating on literary versus genre historical fiction, I’ve a Victorian tea gown to alter for the costume pageant (I’ve lost weight since I last wore it), novels to finish beta reading/reviewing for author friends, and even an amber necklace to restring. So, a busy time! Yet I’ve managed to keep moving forward on the Next Novel, even if it’s only 500 words a day with an hour here and there. Below is my novel bible so far. As you can see, it’s already quite overstuffed.

I know I’ve been deliberately withholding information about the Next Novel. The truth is it’s too early—too nascent—to share much without feeling intensely vulnerable. That written, I will reveal I do have a title for it that I think rocks. I’ll also confess that the Next Novel is set four decades earlier than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS, during the mid-nineteenth century. Much of it is written from the point of view of my male protagonist—the first time I’ve done so. On top of this, he’s a photographer specializing in post-mortem portraits, a particularly perculiarly Victorian obsession.

So, mid-Victorian setting+ male point of view + death photography = new things to master.

Even with these new creative challenges, I’ve found my second time writing a novel a far less mysterious proposition than when I first set out to write A GATHERING OF SHADOWS way back when. Since then, I’ve grown much more patient with the process. I understand my first draft is only that—a draft to be shaped as needed as my book develops. I know it will take time for me to know my characters—that they’ll only reveal themselves through process and perseverance. I’ve also spent considerable hours—heck, years—attempting to master the craft of fiction writing. I’ve taken workshops, read books, studied, beta read, and beyond.

All of this makes my experience of writing the Next Novel far less fraught with fear than A GATHERING OF SHADOWS. However, my second time experience led me to wonder whether it was similiar for other authors: Were their second novels easier to write? Harder? Or just different?

To find out, I asked these questions to several authors I know via the Historical Novel Society. To my delight, they were generously forthcoming with their responses.

Donna Russo Morin, author of THE KING’S AGENT: “There is a change with the second, that mental shift between ‘I want to be an author, and I am an author.’ For me, it gave me the courage to take some risks, to take my plot places I may have watered down with the first. There was a confidence that gave my pen greater power.”

Susanne Dunlap, author of THE ACADEMIE: “My second novel ended up being much harder than my first. I think mostly because I was writing to a one-page proposal that my publisher accepted. I kept trying to make the premise work, and it simply wouldn’t. I knew it was crap. Then I finally decided I had to break free of what I told them I would write and just do what worked. I set the novel a year earlier, during the cholera epidemic in Paris, and everything just fell together. It was a lesson for me: write what gets you going, don’t try to write to a brief!”

Anne Easter Smith, author of ROYAL MISTRESS: My first novel was written in stolen moments while holding down three part-time jobs, moving three times to different states and having not a clue how to structure a book. I just wanted to tell Richard III’s real story, and if my husband and children ended up reading it, I would have been thrilled. It was 960 pages long when I came to its end and I was exhilarated that for once in my life I actually finished a project. So when astonishingly, someone wanted to publish it, I found myself facing a two-book deal that was not expected at all. I had no intention of ever writing another book once Richard was down on paper. So the second novel was a bit of a chore–for me the difference between writing your passion and writing as work. However, chore or not, my second protagonist, Margaret of York, ended up one of my favorites through this whole series. The difference between no deadline for the first (took me seven years), and an 18-month deadline for the second.”

Lynn Cullen, author of MRS. POE: “I have come to the conclusion that it never gets easier to start a novel, be it first or fourteenth. The blank page still holds its terror. I think the main difference is that while there is terror, there is not panic. You know that somehow, from some magical place, words will come. I find, too, that books are like your own children in that you love them all equally. It seems impossible when you have that first story/child that you could never love the second as much, but you do. You love each one for what makes them unique. The last thing I have to say is that I am no more organized about writing now than I was for the first novel. I like to tell myself my messiness is part of the creative process. I don’t completely buy that but it sounds good.”


And there you have it: four multi-published authors on their second time writing a novel. I’m so grateful to Donna, Anne, Susanne, and Lynn for sharing their experiences! Though I’ve listed only their latest novels here, I hope you’ll take a moment to learn about their previous ones—they’re all fabulous.

Publishing Monday: Hidden in Plain Sight ~ Or, When the Cuckoo Calls

Posted on Jan 12, 2015 in news & muse, publishing

I’m away through the end of January at a writer’s residency at the Virginia Center of the Creative Arts, where I’ll be hard at work on the Next Novel.  During my absence, I decided to repost some old blog favorites about publishing and the creative process. Enjoy!

Over the weekend book lovers were stunned to learn that J.K. Rowling—yes, the J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame—had published a crime novel under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith. She was outed on Twitter by an anonymous tweet stating THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was, in face, authored by Rowling; the tweet was in response to someone musing that THE CUCKOO’S CALLING seemed too accomplished to have been written by a debut author. When approached, Rowling immediately ‘fessed up to her deception: “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.”

To Rowling’s credit, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has received overwhelmingly positive reviews—far more than THE CASUAL VACANCY, Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel, did. Both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal granted THE CUCKOO’S CALLING coveted starred reviews; PW called it “a stellar debut.” So, it’s a good book. Yet, despite this, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was turned down by publishers before being acquired by Little, Brown, Rowling’s publisher for THE CASUAL VACANCY.

More stunning news: Since its April 2013 publication, Nielsen Bookscan reports THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has sold only 459 copies in the United Kingdom. [ETA: And only 500 copies in the United States, according to Time magazine.]

Repeat after me: 459 copies. 

To place into context, most self-published authors sell on average less than 250 books—about 200 copies less than Rowling’s anonymous debut in the UK.


A much older book’s wheel of fortune.

I’m bemused and horrified by this story in so many ways. First, I’m certain the anonymous tweet was generated by someone with a vested interest in Rowling’s career. Since being outed, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING has assuredly sold far more than 459 copies in the UK. Within 24 hours it had raced up to #1 on Amazon’s bestseller list; I presume the New York Times Book Review will follow suit. Secondly, it brings to mind how incredibly capricious publishing a book can be: if an anonymous book by J.K. Rowling can sell less than 500 copies in three months, despite being brought out into the world by a major publisher and receiving glowing reviews, is there hope for any of us? Or is it only a matter of authors having their turn on the wheel of fortune? Sometimes you get lucky; other times, Barnes and Noble doesn’t approve your co-op advertising.

This story of Rowling’s hidden-in-plain-sight new novel brings to mind a post I wrote in 2007 about the violin virtuoso Joshua Bell’s experience of busking in the DC Metro. Since it seems relevant, I’m reposting it below. Enjoy!


A friend forwarded me this article today from the Washington Post about Joshua Bell, one of the most brilliant violinists of our time. As an experiment — or PR stunt, you decide — Bell was asked to perform as a busker for 45 minutes during rush hour in L’Enfant Plaza, a major Washington DC Metro station.

The concept: To see if genius would be recognized if hidden in plain sight.

The disguise: None. Unless you count Bell wearing street clothes instead of concert formal a subterfuge.

The instrument: Bell’s beloved Gibson ex Huberman, which was crafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari. This violin is considered one of the greatest stringed instruments created by perhaps the greatest luthier who ever lived.

I’m sure you could guess what happened. Of the more than one thousand people who passed Bell as he performed, only several stopped to listen. And only one person recognized him. For his efforts, Bell received a measly $32.17 in hand outs — about $40 an hour.

So why didn’t anyone pay attention to Bell’s free concert? It wasn’t the Metro’s accoustics — Bell said they were particularly resonant. Nor was he slouching — he thought that he played particularly well on some especially difficult pieces, such as Bach’s Chaconne.

One theory that comes to my mind is that the number of people who stopped were in proportion to classical music lovers everywhere. Or that many of the commuters were plugged into their iPods, unable to hear anything outside of their chosen aural environment. More likely, it was that they were so used to quickly classifying (excuse the pun!) whatever stimuli reaches their senses down to its most basic info-byte to save time: I see a violinist, is he asking me for money? Will he slow me down? Am I running late? Will I get to work on time? This is a common survival mechanism for city dwellers (and I’m guilty of it myself). There’s just so much going on around you at all times that you filter things. Otherwise, you’d just be overwhelmed with Too Much Information and become strained and drained from the effort of processing it all.

Still, it’s so sad to consider that so many people missed such an experience of beauty. And it was there, right in front of them for the taking.

I was thinking about this strange-but-true story this afternoon, as my toddler daughter searched for easter eggs that we had hidden for her to find. Tom and I were careful to hide them in easily accessible places, so Thea would find them without becoming frustrated. Thea was so persistant as she hunted. Yet every so often, an egg would elude her, even though it was right there before her eyes. It was almost too obvious, too easy, even for a two year old with a limited attention span.

These sort of events, great and small, makes me wonder how often we stumble across gifts of beauty and inspiration, hidden in plain sight. It makes me wonder how many I’ve missed along the way, because I was too busy or too preoccupied with the soundtrack of my thoughts.

Sometimes all we can hope for are eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to recognize.

Publishing Monday: 2015 Historical Novel Society conference

Posted on Jan 5, 2015 in events, news & muse, publishing, stuff I like, travels


Already 2015 is shaping up to be a better year than 2014 on the author travel front. Besides my upcoming residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be traveling to Denver for the Historical Novel Society Conference this June, where I’m on a panel entitled “The Art of Book Cover Design for Historical Fiction.”

My co-panelists are Sourcebooks editor Anna Michels, Emily Victorson of Allium Press, HNS’s own Sarah Johnson, and book cover designer Jenny Quinlan. I guess you could say I’m the author representative who just also happens to be a designer. I plan to expand upon my presentation on the semiotics of book cover design, which was a hit at 2013′s conference.

The Historical Novel Society Conference is one of my favorite author events of the year. I’ve attended every one since 2011 save for last year’s in London—alas, the timing didn’t work because of family obligations. So glad that 2015 will be different!



Photos from HNS 2013: Me with my critique partner Teralyn Pilgrim dressed for the costume dinner—Teralyn’s pregnant vestal virgin brought down the house. Below, author friends Stephanie Lehmann (ASTOR PLACE VINTAGE), Mary Sharratt (ILLUMINATIONS), and Margaret George (who needs no introduction). Happy times!