Archive for July, 2010

Last night my writing critique group got together for the first time (we’re an on-line group) and one of the topics of the evening was to establish goals for the next year, specifically what we hoped to glean from the group for ourselves as writers. The answers were diverse and when I said that I had never belonged previously a writing critique group, all were shocked. One of our members said that he was particularly surprised because he was always under the impression that writers require feedback from a community in order to grow and sustain their writing. I have to admit, I always thought the opposite of writing. For me it has always been a truly solitary experience.

Now don’t misunderstand, I very much love talking about the craft with others, VERY MUCH, but in terms of working on my craft, I always considered the evolution an intensely individual experience. And until our host had posed that perspective, I had never thought of it otherwise. I gleaned instruction by reading the works of other authors, reading articles written by editors and authors on shaping everything from plot to dialog. I read and I wrote. I read and I wrote. But until I submitted a deeply revised manuscript to an agent in a query, I rarely showed.

What about all of you? What do you want from a writer’s group? Mentors on your craft, or friends with whom you can share the joys and frustrations of writing, or maybe even both?

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This was a college friend’s explanation for why she didn’t run or jog and I thought it was genius. I couldn’t agree more. I hate to run too. Don’t get me wrong–I love to bike, ski, swim, dance, any number of physical activities , but I have never understood running for pleasure.

Then recently my husband (who runs and loves it, I should add) looked at me while I was working on a draft and said, “I can’t imagine writing if I didn’t have to” and it occurred to me that his impression of writing was no different from my impression of running.

So I began to wonder: Maybe if you love something (and bear with me here) you are essentially being chased. Maybe you have to be. Maybe that’s why we stick with something that to everyone else seems like an action done only out of necessity.

Let’s face it. Writing can be exhausting. Much like running where (so I’ve heard) you build up stamina until you get to that level of fitness where you attain the infamous “second wind,” writing and submitting can leave us drained and discouraged, sure we’ll never get past that first phase of endurance to where we can run the 5K or even the marathon.

Then who or what is chasing us? Maybe our pursuant is a benevolent stalker, maybe it’s is the goal of getting published, or maybe it’s the desire to inspire our children to follow their dreams. Or maybe the chaser is something more raw, like the need to prove a nay-saying parent wrong, or that teacher in fourth grade who didn’t see the brilliance in your summer vacation essay. Maybe it’s because our great-grandmother always wanted to write and never did. Maybe it’s simply the need to prove to ourselves that we can.

Maybe it’s all of the above.

There have been so many posts recently on the need for perseverance in this pursuit that I began to wonder if we don’t all have someone or something over our shoulder, pushing us forward, keeping us looking at the road ahead and not stopping to look back, for fear of losing ground, or of not finishing the race.

So my question is: Who (or what) is chasing you?

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(This post is for junebugger–thanks for asking, June!)

When I first started writing romance novels in the early 90’s, I was still in college and didn’t know anything about trying to get published, only that I wanted to. Very much. So I sought the advice of books (please note the distinct lack of references to internet for these first few paragraphs) and found a listing of houses that accepted unsolicited manuscripts, though I don’t think they even called them that then; it was so common to send something in without representation.

I quickly amassed a collection of personalized rejections from Avon, Harlequin, Silhouette and others. I kept every last one and suggest everyone do the same (digitally or in hard-copy), particularly those responses that offer even a whisper of advice.

More romance manuscripts followed (Victorian, Vikings, Antebellum!) as did more rejections, bu more and more the responses were offering personalized critiques (I know! Can you imagine!?)–sometimes even full page line edits or the request to send the next manuscript.

But after several more years of writing romances and still not finding representation, I decided to switch gears and wrote a horror story about a female executive who is bitten by a wolf on vacation and subsequently finds her world turned upside down when she realizes she’s turning into a…Yes. That.

I queried the manuscript, sending it out to agents, some familiar and some not (it was a different genre, after all) and within a few weeks, I received a phone call from an agent who was very interested in the book and wanted to meet. (I was living in NYC at the time –otherwise, we surely would have simply talked on the phone as most do now). At the meeting, she had complimentary things to say about my writing, but was concerned about the plotting of the novel. We agreed that I would revise the story with an eye towards representation. It was a tremendous opportunity and this agent was incredibly generous and so lovely to work with. When the story still didn’t come together after another draft, she offered me the chance to propose a series of storylines to her which I did, but when life stepped in a few months later and I had to leave the city for personal reasons, my writing took a backseat. This agent was beyond gracious and I will be forever grateful for her.

In the years that followed, I wrote sporadically but didn’t complete a manuscript. I kept notes on story ideas and even jotted down a few proposals. I moved a fair amount and finally landed in New Orleans in the summer of 2002 to get my masters in Historic Preservation at Tulane’s School of Architecture. There I fell in love–first with the city and then with my husband Ian a few months later. Ian encouraged me to get back into my writing and I began a new novel about a shrimper’s wife who finds herself unwittingly involved in the disappearance of a graduate student on the eve of a catastrophic hurricane. That was the summer of 2005. Katrina made landfall two months later.

When Ian and I left New Orleans (we stayed through the storm with four dogs) and made our way to Maine to stay with my family, writing was the last thing on my mind. Yet as we began to put the pieces of our world back together, I found myself drawn to the story I’d started and finished my manuscript within a year. I queried widely and received a few requests for fulls but still no offer of representation came.

Two years later, after a move to Indiana where my husband had accepted a job teaching biology at a boarding school, I wrote a manuscript about four faculty wives (hmm, wonder where that inspiration came from…?) who find themselves at crossroads in their lives. It caught the interest of an agent and, after a few revisions, he agreed to represent it. (The project, not me–an important distinction I would learn later on.) We reworked the manuscript for THE CRYING ROOM, he submitted it to many editors but ultimately, no takers. I assumed we would revise it and send it out for another round of submissions, but he declined. I was crushed, but grateful for the experience and his expertise.

Eager to get back on the horse (not so dissimilar to rebound dating after being, well, dumped), I fired off a novel that was essentially a piece of women’s fiction with a male protagonist. In STILL, MARTIN, my rumpled, far-too-sensitive-for-his-own-good hero heads off to Europe to take his honeymoon after his fiancee leaves him the night before their wedding. (If you think that sounds ill-advised and unconvincing, yeah, you’re not alone.)

So after some soul (and genre) searching, I realized my writing heart was in women’s fiction, where it had always been, so I set about writing what would become LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

Now before this novel, I’d had the good fortune to connect with a wonderful agent who worked at a large agency. Ever since responding to a query of mine years before, she’d agreed to see my follow up manuscripts, and even granted me a second look after a revision of one, but the projects had never been right. So when I asked her if she would consider LITTLE GALE GUMBO, this agent was as generous as always. After reading it, she said she saw great potential but that she simply couldn’t take on another client at that time, but (and this is one of those GOOD “buts” in a query response) she knew another agent who was looking for women’s fiction projects named Rebecca Gradinger. She had already forwarded the book to her, and Rebecca was intrigued. I was beyond thrilled.

Rebecca called a few days later. She and I clicked at once. I loved her sense about the book, her ideas for revising it and making it stronger, so I agreed to do a substantial revision, again with an eye toward representation. Within a few months, I had a new draft and Rebecca and I made it official. Best of all, Rebecca said she wanted to help me build my writing career, that the offer for representation wasn’t just for LITTLE GALE GUMBO, but for future books.

We tweaked and tweaked until we had a draft we both felt tremendously good about, a draft that had little resemblance to the manuscript I’d first discussed with her almost a year and a half before. Rebecca sent the book out. Then, just months away from my fortieth birthday, NAL made an offer for a two book deal for LITTLE GALE GUMBO.

(Now if I could just make two decent batches of pralines in a row.)

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Good news tonight!

My editor has finished reading the newest draft of LITTLE GALE GUMBO (which includes a new ending!) and she’s delivered a hearty thumbs up! We’re nearly there, she assures me, which is wonderful to hear, because I’m due to deliver the final draft of the novel to NAL in a little over a month. Just a few changes left, she says, nothing huge. I’m relieved, and thrilled. The next step is to make edits using track changes, which means the file is now THE FILE. It’s a brave new world for this kid, but I’m ready. Put me in, coach!

All this sounds like a good excuse to celebrate. (I’m one of those people who needs little encouragement to reward myself–Laundry folded? Let’s open that bottle of red!)

So what’s a better reward than a smooth, tangy slab of  triple cream soft-ripened cheese that’s been nearly melting in room-temperature North Carolina heat?

Presenting, Le Delice de Bourgogne (just imagine an accent aigu over the second e)…

I might use some bread or I might just use a spoon, I’m not entirely sure…

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In LITTLE GALE GUMBO, one of Camille Bergeron’s signature Creole treats are her creamy pralines. Pronounced Praw-leen, these pecan-laden discs are nothing short of perfection and were a source of addiction for me during the years that I lived in New Orleans.

So when my husband and I relocated/returned to Maine after Hurricane Katrina, I could think of no quicker balm to soothe my heartache than to finally try my hand at the confection that I had adored, the confection that above all others–except a Hubig’s coconut pie or a Cafe Du Monde beignet–says New Orleans to me and always will.

But with so many recipes and variations out there on the internet, who to ask for a tried and true version? I decided to consult my husband’s great-grandmother, a native Louisianan who had been making pralines for well over fifty years. Her recipe was very simple, she assured me,  explaining the short list of ingredients. It certainly sounded easy enough, so I set about getting the sugar and cream, vanilla and  pecans, and later that day, I followed her “easy” instructions.

Well. Instead of producing a dozen shiny, beautiful pralines, I ended up with piles of brown goo that eventually hardened on the bottom of our apartment’s freezer and had to be removed with a paint scraper when we finally moved. As I should have expected, like so many things, ease comes from experience. Ian’s great-grandmother knew when her praline syrup was ready simply by rolling a portion into a little ball. I would need to use a candy thermometer. At least, for a few years. Or twenty.

But this time out, I’m ready. I’ve got the scraper standing by, but I’m so confident I won’t be needing it that I haven’t cleaned it of its five layers of paint from our old house. Heck, I haven’t even made room in the freezer–how’s that for cocky? Ian assures me that just by him, a native New Orleanian, being in the same kitchen (he was absent during my first attempt) that I can’t fail this time.

So here we go. Turn up the music, brew some chicory coffee, and let’s make pralines.

What you’ll need:

pinch of salt
3/4 cup each brown and white sugar
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup halved pecans
a candy thermometer
and a cookie sheet lined with wax paper

1. In a good, heavy-bottomed saucepan, add sugars, salt and milk.

2. Heat on low/medium heat and stir constantly, the mixture will turn the color of caramel

3. Bring to boil and insert candy thermometer (continue stirring) and let temp. hit around 235 degrees.  At that point, take off heat.

4. Add vanilla, butter and pecans and blend gently

5. Drop onto wax paper, let cool

6. Once cooled, they should have a slight shine and peel easily off paper

7.  And, lo! Pralines!

And how are they? Not too shabby for a second attempt. They taste close to the ones I used to get in New Orleans, though they are a tad on the gritty side (maybe I let the sugar get too hot? Or let it get too cool before dropping the syrup on the sheet?) and I might chop the pecans next time into quarters rather than halves so the syrup can flatten out more (I recall pralines being thinner than mine).

Not bad at all.

But I bet they’d be even better with a cafe au lait…

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Did anyone see their new nest? It must have been built by a Dodo!

It’s a simple fact: We’re all critics, and we’re all critiqued.

I’m not just talking about critiques of our writing. I’m talking about reviews of our fashion choices, our parenting, our politics, our partners; everything that we are, everything we do, is fodder for critique.

And we all do it. Come on now, admit it. The woman in the shiny Lexus SUV who almost took out your limping 1997 CRV because she was texting through a busy parking lot this morning? Yeah, you bet I critiqued her.

Of course we’re all entitled to our opinions. Absolutely. It makes us who we are and makes the world a thrillingly diverse place. But at what point does criticism cross a line between disagreement and unwarranted disdain?

I think you all know where I’m going with this. Think Amazon reviews.

Now I should admit I have never written one, and when I read them, it is usually after the fact, if I’m curious as to whether another reader shared my admiration or confusion over a book’s plot point, ending choice, etc. But what boggles my mind is the excessive amount of unproductive criticism that is out there for books. (It’s out there for just about everything, I know, but I’ll keep this relevant to writing for now.)

For example, I’ve read Amazon reader reviews that suggested Pat Conroy can’t write. Now come on, stop it. Just stop it. I mean, seriously, who can write that with a straight face? You can say Conroy’s stories are often built on tough subject matter that you don’t enjoy reading about, or that his characters are sometimes fiercely unlikable and make choices that infuriate you. But I’m sorry–you simply cannot say the man can’t write. Now admittedly, I’m biased. I’m a huge fan. I think his prose is heartbreakingly beautiful. But telling me and the rest of the reading public that an established author can’t write is not only not true, it’s not helpful.

So of course this realization has made me consider how I’ll take my own share of disgruntled readers to my debut novel when it comes out next year. Will I be tough enough to take the reviews with the necessary grains of salt (on the rim of my consolatory margarita?), or will I find myself wracked with self-doubt? It’s easy to blow off harsh criticism of another writer’s work–but what about when it’s mine?

I remember very vividly as a young girl that the very whisper of criticism sent me down the rabbit hole of despair. No matter how gentle or how faint. No matter if delivered with a no-bake cookie or a glowing smile. I. Was. Crushed.

Then, something happened. I grew up and began to take criticism..well, well.

Maybe it was my college art professor who took one look at my still life of a paper bag and declared to the rest of the class that my highlighting resembled “pigeon shit”. Okay, I thought. So it looked like pigeon shit. I didn’t sputter a defense, I didn’t wilt. I nodded, I might have even smiled. It was a review. There’d be a lifetime of them. Better get used to them if I wanted to put my work out there.

And I did, repeatedly. Query after query of work. And I won’t lie and say the rejections didn’t sting, or that it got easier to kick myself out of my own pity party when everyone else had gone home, but for those of us who put ourselves out there, for that date, that job, that manuscript, we don’t have a choice.

Nowadays I crave reviews of my writing. When my editor has notes on a draft, I can’t wait to hear them. I mean it. I see every review, every constructive piece of criticism as an opportunity to grow as a writer. And I love it. I really, really do.

So tell me how tough you think you are when it comes to criticism of your work? Have you ever written a harsh review of a book? What was the first time you realized constructive criticism could actually be GOOD for a person?

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When I first began querying agents and editors in the 90’s (Yes, it’s true–years ago, in certain genres, you could submit unsolicited manuscripts to publishing houses, AND, even more amazing, expect and receive lovely, personalized responses!), I was writing romance novels and I used something called the Romance Writer’s Pink Pages in my quest for publication. It quickly became my handbook, my bible. I highlighted the heck out of it, folded over page corners two and three times, scribbled in the margins and underlined, underlined, underlined.

By the time I had finished my fifth manuscript, I had almost memorized the exhaustive list of agents and editors that filled its petal pink pages. I had amassed (and still proudly own) many, many replies, almost all of which were typed or hand-written on letterhead. Some were for partial requests, more were gentle rejections, some even from a few incredibly generous agents who gave me pages (that’s not a typo) of notes, even though they didn’t plan to offer representation.

But with the dawn of email, the game changed a bit. Well, at least the field did, but not the rules. Whether writing to an agent using a typewriter and a SASE, or sending off an email, the basics of query-writing have remained the same  through the years and the changing technology. And out of all the query-writing tips that so many other agents, editors and writers have put more eloquently than I will have here, these five have stood out the strongest for me.

1. Keep the query simple. In the old days of hard-copy, it was obvious if your query ran longer than a page, but some might think that email allows for more wiggle-room. Don’t let it. A page is a suitable length for a query and forces you to keep your pitch short and tidy. Always include word count and genre, and cut to the chase as cleanly and fast as you can. You want to entice your reader right away. This isn’t a first date. Feel free to open the closet and let the skeletons fall out as quickly as possible.

Wicked cute picture of tiny frog found nestled in a lily, isn't it? Too bad it has absolutely nothing to do with this post.

2. Make the query about the book. An agent isn’t particularly interested in how old you are, where you live, or how many instruments you play. Unless any of those facts are needed to give credibility to your story’s pitch, leave them out. For now, your product is your book. Focus on that.

3. Know your recipient. There’s no question that the internet makes it easier to learn about an agent’s tastes, and yet we read over and over about how agents are inundated with queries for genres they don’t represent. There’s no reason for it. Maybe you think your novel is so amazing that it will be the one to change an agent’s tastes. Doubtful. In the old days, you might not have dreamed of wasting a stamp on a “what the hey” pitch, but with email, a click is free. But before you click away, keep in mind that agents remember pitches, and why take the chance of looking uniformed when you might actually end up writing a novel that does fit within that agent’s tastes down the road?

4. Keep track of your submissions. And I don’t just mean a checklist, I mean notes. If you plan to write and submit more than one book, always keep a record of which agents requested a partial or full. It is perfectly acceptable, and highly encouraged, to make mention of this in another query for a different book; ie, You kindly reviewed my last manuscript, LOVING LOBSTER, and now I’d like to offer my most recent novel, THE LAST CRAB, for your consideration. Agents have good, good memories, and will usually remember work they wanted to see more of.

5. Be courteous. Agents and editors are as crazy busy as the rest of us. Always take the space to thank them for their consideration and be patient for their reply. Out of office replies are not an invitation to converse further. And as much as we are disappointed by a no, it’s never good form to follow up a rejection with a request for why the agent didn’t want to offer representation. Move on. Query on.

Now your turn: What tip or tips for query-writing have served you the best over the years?

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According to the song by Three Dog Night, experience is as much a state of mind than an actual residence, and sometimes a person can know a place without ever visiting it. We already talked about writing with what you’ve got, but one of the most prominent pieces of advice to writers is to write what you know.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I’ve often found myself drawing from my own experiences when I’m shaping my stories. My characters have been artists and carpenters, bakers and woodworkers. They’ve lived in California and the Midwest, in New England and Louisiana. They’ve been sisters and mothers, wives and ex-girlfriends. They’ve loved to cook and loved to dance, laughed too loud, spoke their minds more than they probably should, and never met a glass of wine or a stinky cheese they didn’t like.

But for all the adventures that I’ve been fortunate to experience in my own life, there are plenty of life experiences that I want my characters to know that I’ve never known.

So what constitutes what you know?

What if you have a character who is going through a divorce and you as a writer have never been married? Does that mean you can’t authentically and convincingly portray the scope of emotions faced by a person going through a divorce? Must you have had the exact experience to understand and accurately convey the emotional components of that experience to your readers? Or is there something universal about love? About fear? About grief?

I happen to think there is, and for that reason, I don’t necessarily shy away from emotional situations in a manuscript that I might not have experience with. I have been lucky in life to have wonderful, wonderful friends who have kindly and lovingly shared both their joyous and darker times, as good friends do with one another, and I have listened and remembered their reactions to their lives’ twists and turns, as I have my own. Because writers don’t simply write, they share. They convey, they create and they explore.

What about you all? Do you feel most comfortable writing stories with characters who are facing similar life situations to your own? Or do you plot events for which you may not have a great deal of personal reference to draw from?

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The other night, Ian and watched the great Robert Redford thriller, Three Days of the Condor. After discovering that his fellow employees have been murdered while he was down the block picking up lunch, Redford flees the gruesome scene in an understandable panic, dashing through traffic in search of a pay phone and hides himself inside as he makes a desperate call for answers…

Now if that movie had been made in today’s world…Well, we all know the answer: Good luck finding a phone booth, Mr. Redford. Sure he have could slipped into an alley and pulled out his cell phone, but let’s be honest. It’s just not the same. There is simply something gripping about a phone booth, something inherently nerve-wracking and suspenseful in seeking out that singular closet of safety, something that cell phones and their infinite accessibility can’t match.

How about the countless other examples in film where crucial scenes would never work with modern technology? Think of Keanu Reeves at the beginning of Speed, and the faint, mocking ring of the pay phone in the distance as he’s watching a city bus in flames. Or what about Harrison Ford in the Fugitive, narrowly escaping the ticking clock of the phone trace every time he slid into a phone booth?

And thrillers aren’t the only genre that used phone booths as key plot devices. What about Thelma and Louise? Without pay phones, the leads would never have needed to pull over at a variety of settings to make their calls, but merely phoned from the road, (or even, gasp, texted!), a convenience that would have dramatically, and unfortunately, ruined the movie’s all-important pacing.

Now granted these are examples in film and not books, but I think the point is clear. The removal of phone booths from our landscape, and the subsequent addition of certain technologies in their place, has had a dramatic impact on the writer’s world.

So as technology advances, do storytellers retreat?

I recently read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, which is the story of a graduate student pursuing the truth of a mythical spell book that may or may not link her to the horrific events of the Salem Witch trials. Now what struck me right away was that the author, Katherine Howe, had chosen to set her story in the summer of 1991, and as I read on, I could understand why. With the advent of the internet, most of the detective work the intrepid student did might not have required her to visit the very locations (musty archives, creepy historic sites) that gave Howe’s novel its sense of place and underlying spookiness.

For my current WIP, I am faced with a similar issue. My novel takes place on the Maine Coast, but if my characters have access to the internet and cell phones, it will surely detract (not to mention all-out prohibit) certain plotting choices and key revelations. I could set my story in the pre-internet age, but do I have to do that to achieve a sense of remoteness? I don’t think so. But how much longer will readers be willing to accept that there are still places on the planet without cell phone towers?

As a result, will we all find ourselves compelled to write in earlier eras simply to avoid the pesky interruptions of technology?

So tell me: have any of you writers and readers found the advance of technology has impacted your plotting or enjoyment of a plot?

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So, you finally heard back from the agent who has had your partial or your full. You open the email/letter with your heart in your throat. Your eyes dash over the response, catching every other word, hoping to glean the real message as quickly as possible. When you do, your brow furrows. It’s not a no, but…well, it’s not a yes, either.

So what is it?
It’s the mysterious revise and resubmit request.

When I read junebugger’s post today, I was reminded of this often-frustrating but usually-encouraging happening in the world of writing and publishing. So what to do when an agent requests a revision of your manuscript and then offers a second look?
Better yet, what to think?

Let’s look first at the second question: What to think? The first answer is think good thoughts. Agents are busier than ever these days, and inundated with more material than ever. They aren’t offering you ways to possibly improve your manuscript as well as the chance to reconsider it just to be nice.  They are doing it because they genuinely believe there is potential in your work.

So if they believe there’s potential, why not just offer representation outright? Well, an agent-writer relationship is just that: a relationship. Your agent has to know that she/he can work with you, not just your written words. Are you easy to work with? Will you respond professionally, in your dealings with the agent, with potential editors/publishers, with the reading public? Can you meet deadlines? And maybe most of all, how well do you take reviews of your manuscript and subsequent requests for changes?

So when you get that wonderful offer to revise and resubmit, don’t despair. Sure, we all want the offer for representation–that’s the goal–but keep in mind the road to representation (and the road to publication in general) is winding and bumpy and never, ever straight. It’s not a yes, but it’s not a no, either.

So if  the agent’s recommendations for your manuscript make sense to you and are ones you are comfortable making, then by all means, revise and resubmit. And even if the results still don’t garner the offer, always remember that most agents have remarkable memories for material and writers who piqued their interest. A courteous and professional exchange goes a long way down that winding, bumpy road.

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