Friday, November 25, 2011


Autumn is a time for writing. Any time is, really, but especially autumn. That's what I've been doing, I'm happy to say. I've also been attending gatherings for writers, and I experienced "first pages" for the first time, where the first page of my work was read aloud by someone other than me and critiqued by real live editors. As I heard my words read aloud, I thought my heart might jump out of my chest. And I realized how much more work I have to do. In a good way. I also read my own first page (a different one) aloud with a more intimate group, and, again, my heart went thump, thump, thump. It's not like it was in third grade when I couldn't wait to be called on to read aloud in reading class. At least for me it's not. I know I need practice, which is part of why I went.
My most favorite advice I've heard lately, from two great sources, is not to worry about blogging so much. Just worry about writing. Which makes sense, because while there's a lot of chatter about the importance of building your online platform, to have a platform, you need something to support it.
I also scooted out of town recently for a change of scenery. Did you know there's a funicular in Dubuque with an elf problem?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Support = Motivation

I've been busy writing and less busy blogging, but I thought I'd check in because I was finally able to go to an SCBWI meeting this week, and, wow... thanks, SCBWI. What an incredible resource for children's authors. The Illinois chapters are very active so I'm lucky that I have so many opportunities to meet and network with other authors. And talk about support. I don't feel so alone holed up writing in my basement anymore because I know there are a bunch of other people doing it, too! We talked about critique groups and how to find a new one. Dating analogies were used. It's important not to weird anybody out when you approach them to become a member of their critique group, for instance. (Sometimes it's helpful to point out the obvious.) At the end of the meeting the organizers separated us into our interests (children's books, illustrators, YA and MG) and told us how to introduce ourselves to each other and exchange contact information. It kind of felt like kindergarten, but it worked! Somebody also mentioned how some author groups, like say cookbook writers, for instance, are kind of competitive and proprietary and don't really like to share anything at all. I'm glad I'm not a cookbook author because that sounds like a drag. It's nice to know that even while I'm on this long writing journey, even the failures are good and hundreds of fellow writers are happy to tell me so. And I like being in a position to reach out and do the same for others. Back to the writing stuff now.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Adventures in Reading and Writing

My friend and I went to Millennium Park yesterday where they were broadcasting chapter 1 from The Adventures of Augie March. There were maybe a dozen more people there besides us and the guy who was watering the lawn. The seats were gated off until halfway through the reading. And I noticed that the event isn't listed on the One Book, One Chicago events page, although I could swear it was there initially because I know I read about this somewhere. So it was kind of like a secret, and those who did show up got a free book! (A great gift idea in these difficult economic times!)
Still, we enjoyed our private reading of Augie over the world-class sound system at the Pritzker Pavilion. One benefit of audiobooks is not stumbling over difficult pronunciations or foreign words because someone else is reading them for you. That would come in handy for anything by Stieg Larsson, for instance (AudioFile audiobook review: THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET'S NEST By Stieg Larsson, Read by Simon Vance).
I also took at stab at writing a flash fiction piece for the contest One Book, One Chicago is hosting. If nothing else, it was a good writing exercise. When you only have 750 words to tell a story, you better be sure every word counts. It helped me look at my writing (and editing) in a different light and will be helpful for longer projects.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Augie Marches On

I'd been looking forward to finding out the One Book, One Chicago fall selection, especially after @1book1chicago has been playing a guessing game on their Twitter feed and Facebook page. They chose The Adventures of Augie March, and I was a little bit bummed because I've already read it. I really like participating in 1B1C. There's something comforting about knowing you're reading the same book as a lot of other people. In a city this big, a giant book club makes us all feel less like strangers because of a common, shared experience.
Augie March is a big book, in many ways, and this is the 10th anniversary of the program. So the Chicago Public Library is going all out with a huge line-up of programs and events, which I was thrilled to read about because I'll be able to do plenty of participating, after all. There will be a reading of the first chapter at Millennium Park. (Who doesn't love to be read to?) Twitter madness, of course (10 pages a day). And a flash fiction contest, which is definitely cheeky considering Bellow's writing amplitude.
Chicago is a city where great literature is not only created but also appreciated.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

WA (Writers Anonymous)

I'm starting to think of my writing group as a bizarro Anonymous-type support group. Yes, I have a habit, and my writing group supports my habit. I have no problem sharing details about my habit, and I don't apologize for it. Also, wine is by no means frowned upon. In fact, it is encouraged.
I met with my writing group recently for the first time in a long time. It's been a long time because life happens. We have jobs. And families. And we're just busy living life. Even during unproductive times, checking in with a writing group helps keep goals in sight. Sometimes that's all we accomplish, talking about projects or what's coming up next or just how we haven't had time to write anything. Sharing can be cathartic and prods us to go home and write, encouraged anew. And when we do have pages to read, the feedback and criticism we give each other is vital to improving each other's work. But even if I'm not writing, the support I get from my writing group helps my habit.
A writing group can be so good for your writing habit that some might advise against it. Over at Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour, starting a writing group is their bad advice for the week.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bear Witness

Biblioburro: The Donkey Library, airing on PBS, is the story of a schoolteacher in Colombia who delivers donated books to impoverished children via donkey. But he also seeks to elicit the children’s accounts of violent traumas, to help them change their destinies. By bearing witness to their stories, he is affirming their experiences and helping them shape their world.

Last week, Alex Kotlowitz spoke at Harold Washington Library as part of the third annual DePaul Summer Writing Conference. I’ve been familiar with Mr. Kotlowitz ever since reading “There Are No Children Here,” the story of two boys growing up in the Henry Horner homes on Chicago’s West side. His talk was titled “Storytelling as Bearing Witness,” and he presented a powerful framework outlining the importance of telling stories. Here’s my attempt at summarizing what he said.

This is the crux of it: Stories inform. Truth is the engine of freedom. The way to truth is bearing witness. You bear witness through story.

Narratives let people find their own way, and the most important narratives are those belonging to the quiet voices that get lost in the noise. The voices that wonder if anybody is on their side. In the documentary film Hot Coffee, you learn the importance of the voice of the woman who was burned by the McDonald’s coffee. (You know who I’m talking about.) Her voice was drowned out by those who had enough money to shout, to frame the narrative—those who did not want her story to be known.

How does this apply to fiction writing? Readers buy into stories that engender empathy. It’s what a really good story does, and it applies to every genre, from the detective procedural to the middle-grade fantasy. The reader has to care, and writers make the reader care by telling the truth. (Much more difficult than it sounds!)

Mr. Kotlowitz’s and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters premieres in New York later this month. He continues to bear witness to the stories of those whose voices might otherwise be lost.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Only 24 Hours in a Day

Time is different when you're on vacation. Days are slow but weeks fly by. I spent a week here...

And now it's time to get back to regular life. It is hard, so let's procrastinate. Sometimes I procrastinate by reading blogs. I especially like procrastinating with stories of how a book came to be, how to land a literary agent, or what an author's writing habits are.

None of this helps my writing. Only writing helps my writing and there are only so many hours of the day in which to do it. Squeezing out those hours is a challenge that at times (like after vacation) seems impossible. But when the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour, before other daily obligations interfere, a motivating word comes to mind. Sacred. It's a sacred time. Remembering that usually does the trick. And, of course, caffeine helps, too.
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Sunday, June 19, 2011

Summer Reading List

Every newspaper and magazine has published their summer reading list by now. When I look at these lists, I'm always amazed by how much I have not read. I was curious to see what high schools are suggesting for students to read over the summer, so I googled "high school summer reading list". What struck me about most of the lists I found was that they could be for anyone who enjoys reading, not just high schoolers. Young adult titles seem to comprise about 25% of the lists, classics another 25%, and nonfiction and literature the remaining 50%. Seeing these lists is a reminder that teenage readers don't only read YA. They read books that are good. Here's a short list (because I also discovered that long lists are a drag) of what I'll be reading this summer.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hot and Lit

I went to the Printers Row Lit Fest yesterday to hear authors speak and buy good books and soak up the literature-loving atmosphere, but what ended up happening is that I got really, really hot. It was 80 degrees by 7 am. Everyone was melting. I was impressed that the panelists could talk coherently because I could barely focus much less string together words to make a useful sentence. So my day was cut short due to heat, but I managed to see some good stuff before dissolving into a puddle of sweat.
I ran into James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish) who was moderating a panel of YA authors, including Daniel Kraus (Rotters), Veronica Roth (Divergent), and Katie Crouch (The Magnolia League). They spent a while talking about tense, an important decision every author has to make and, from what I've observed on forums and chat room discussions, a decision sometimes met with great angst. Ms. Roth and Ms. Crouch have used 1st person present and discussed the benefit of immediacy of emotions while using this tense. They also mentioned how it can be jarring at first. The Hunger Games series is 1st person present, and I wonder if the success of Suzanne Collins' books might be influential. (Coming from a screenwriting background, where everything is present tense, I wanted to get away from it and try something new.) Mr. Kraus made an interesting point about 1st person present being overdone and how it can be a crutch. He preferred 3rd person past. I was most curious to meet Ms. Roth because I've been looking forward to reading her debut, which is set in dystopian Chicago. Pretty irresistible.
I also (briefly... still melting) listened to Blue Balliett speak with the wonderful Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune. Ms. Balliett has written a highly successful middle grade series that could be described as place-based mysteries. But after hearing their discussion, I feel wrong calling it middle grade. They talked about labels and how quick we are to label books (eg, YA, middle grade) and perhaps this is to everyone's detriment. Ms. Balliett said she thinks of her books as being for 8 and older (kind of like a board game). Ms. Keller talked about Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and how if her book were published now, it would be labeled YA, would sit in the YA section and wouldn't get as much press or as many readers and wouldn't be considered for the Pulitzer Prize. It's sad to think of, but probably true. For better or worse, we're stuck with this YA label now.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Adult Adults and Young Adult

A reporter covering the upcoming Printer's Row Lit Fest asked me why I read YA, because I'm not technically young anymore. This is a popular topic as YA fiction continues to be hot. One theory is that a lot of us "old" people are reading it, which must be true. I also think it's so popular because the category is clearly defined and is marketed like crazy. But obviously there's more to it than that. Adults don't turn to YA because it's lighter fare, as anyone who reads YA knows. So much of it deals with difficult issues, like death or addiction or broken families. Perhaps adults turn to it as an escape to an earlier life, one viewed through younger eyes, and revisiting these difficult topics with the perspective of years can help us to assimilate them. The formative years shape people, and issues that are important during that time will likely continue to be important. So reading YA might open the door to a better understanding of the adult self. Adults reading YA is so popular... there's a blog about it. Forever Young Adult contains book reviews and fun discussions and pictures of "adult" adults drinking martinis while reading "The Hunger Games." Glad to be in good company.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

I Published Something

I did publish something. It's an article in the Jan-Mar 2011 issue of Science Editor called "Setting the Record Straight: Publishing Errata in the Print and Online World" and there's a blurb about it on the CSE blog. I went to the Council of Science Editors meeting last week and met with other science editor types. I always enjoy these meetings because I learn new things and meet nice, like-minded folks. Surprisingly, my technical editing background has been really helpful for fiction writing. I'm a pretty good editor because I have a lot of practice at it, and these editing skills help me when I write. Being around words so much, no matter the capacity, makes a person comfortable with them. It's also nice that I get to work with people every day who like words and all kinds of books (not just medical dictionaries and style manuals). An appreciation for the written word is a beautiful thing.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Half Pint Ingalls

Wendy McClure read from her new book, The Wilder Life, at the Book Cellar last night. This reading was different from other book readings I've been to because we churned butter and had a bonnet contest. People love their Little House! I was enamored with Anne of Green Gables when I was a girl, but hearing Ms. McClure's stories about her experiences trying to relive some of the Ingalls family's adventures made we want to read the entire series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In addition to being an author, Ms. McClure is also a children's book editor. She spoke about the voice used in Ms. Wilder's books and how it is just right for children. Rose Wilder Lane, Ms. Wilder's daughter, also wrote some stories for the series (much later) but did not capture that same special voice found in her mother's writing. It's a tricky thing, and so important to the overall tone of a book. Ms. McClure's voice is engaging and humorous, and I'm looking forward to diving into her book next.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Neil Himself

I went to a Rufus Wainwright concert once and didn't know anything about the opening act. He was a pianist like Rufus and he got onstage and sang and played and within five minutes had the whole audience in on it, singing and laughing with him. It was Ben Folds and by the time he was done, no one wanted him to leave. That's kind of what happened last night when I went to go see Neil Gaiman. He had an opening act, too, who had the audience in stitches within about 30 seconds. Chicago author James Kennedy warmed up the crowd, and by the time he was done introducing the guest of honor, he'd won everybody over, including Mr. Gaiman (himself) who said that he'd been introduced a lot of times, but that was "the best." I won't paraphrase the introduction besides mentioning that according to Mr. Kennedy, bees wrote all of Mr. Gaiman's stories. It's probably best just to watch it here.

The reading was at the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, a beautiful setting. Close to 1,000 people were there and I was lucky to be sitting up front and close to the pulpit where Mr. Gaiman spoke.

He has a lot of fans. I'm not sure how many authors have an actual fan base. They might have readers who like their writing, but having hard-core fans who want to know your every move just doesn't happen for most authors. This fan aspect of Mr. Gaiman's career is almost as interesting as his writing. He read excerpts from Neverwhere, the One Book, One Chicago selection, and then he answered a dozen questions, many about other projects and what's going to be turned into TV or films. I liked his answer to the question about the difference between writing fiction and writing a script: "This is what it's going to cost" is the response to a script, which leads to changes to fit a budget. Cost constraints aren't a problem for writing fiction or creating a graphic novel. It's only a matter of ink.

After the Q&A I introduced myself to James Kennedy, because as it turns out, he used to work where I work. He was extremely gracious. It's heartening how generous writers are in helping out other writers who are trying to get published. It's one of the reasons why I love going to events like this.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Everyday Magic

Kate Bernheimer and Lydia Millet came to Harold Washington Library to talk about fairy tales (part of One Book, One Chicago and the Chicago Humanities Festival), a subject I'm interested in because my YA novel is a modern-day fairy tale. Ms. Bernheimer noted that some of the prominent writers whom she approached to contribute to her volume of fairy tales turned her down because they didn't want to be associated with writing a fairy tale. Apparently, they are not taken seriously enough, or they are just stories for children... derivative works that are unoriginal. Thankfully, though, there is a fairy tale revival happening. Fairy tales are returning to their darker roots. Perhaps it's because we've all grown up with Disney versions of fairy tales, she noted, and artists are now responding to them with resistance. I related to this point; in my writing, I veered in the opposite direction of the princess being made complete or saved only with the intervention of a prince. Ms Bernheimer read "A Cageling Tale" from Horse, Flower, Bird and Ms Millet read her story "Snow White, Rose Red" from My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, two stories exemplifying how fairy tales are more than child's play.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mango Street

Writing group was postponed but I did finish The House on Mango Street. It was short but beautifully so. When you're reading stories written by a poet you can tell that every word matters. There's a deliberateness to it but in a good way, because Cisneros is such a talented writer. April is going to be busy with writing events. Time to come out of hibernation.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

One Chicago

I picked up the new One Book, One Chicago selection from the library last week -- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. It's refreshing that they picked a fantasy novel. Gaiman said he's been inspired by Chicago, that it's a city that can act as its own character. The best Chicago-set novels were compared in the recent Time Out Chicago, and The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow was the champion. I read it for the first time last year. Bellow is the kind of writer who makes it feel like words just kind of tumble out of his pen perfectly the way they were supposed to be. Another book on the list was The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, which I need to read for my next writing group gathering. Thankfully, it's short.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Audrey N.

It was great listening to Ms. Niffenegger last night. The discussion was good -- it's always fun to hear other authors' writing stories. My friend asked a question that ties into her current writing, so that was worth the $8 glass of wine. Cliff Dwellers Club is in a modern high-rise but the club itself is over 100 years old and it looks like they fashioned the space with artifacts from some other older building. Wood floors and bookshelves, a beautiful fireplace, and amazing city views.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cliff Dwellers Club

Going to see Audrey Niffenegger tonight at Cliff Dwellers on South Michigan Ave. It's an event hosted by the Society for Midland Authors, and I'll be meeting up with writing group pals. In other parts of the world, it's Mardi Gras, so we'll raise a glass of wine before the author discussion begins.