Thursday, November 25, 2010


“A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.” –Cicero

Thanksgiving Day, a wonderful opportunity to feel and express gratitude for abundance in all of its forms.  Thank you!

Monday, November 22, 2010

The beginning

I’ve been giving some thought to the opening section of my novel The Qualities of Wood.  The book is, as I like to call it, a slow simmer, and in the opening section what we have is a sort of panoramic view of the setting, the main characters, and the situation in which they find themselves.  I have received hundreds of comments on this opening section and once in a while, readers complain that nothing much happens right away.  Some people like a fast pace, with a clearly defined problem right from the start.  In my opinion, Qualities does present a problem, right from the start, but it’s of the interior sort.  At any rate, I’ve been thinking about changing up the first section because sadly, this is all anyone will read, if you can get them to read it at all, and thus far, my opening hasn’t gained much attention from anyone in the publishing world.

The other day, I read one of the best openings I’ve ever seen.  It’s the beginning of Ian McEwan’s 1997 book Enduring Love:

The beginning is simple to mark.  We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.  I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Daumas Gassac.  This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map:  I was stretching out my hand and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.  We turned to look across the field and saw the danger.  Next thing, I was running toward it.

So…what really happens in this opening?  A man and woman prepare to open wine.  True, there is an allusion to danger, the promise of a pending event, but really, nothing much happens.  In fact, McEwan spends many, many more pages dancing around this event, exploring every possible aspect leading up to it, and analyzing every stimulus, every moment.  And yet, because the writing is beautiful, I was dialed in.

A favorite book of mine is Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.  In my mind, it truly is a book where not much of anything happens.  The initial chapter describes an old man in a cabin alone.  Nothing happens, and yet I was on the edge of my seat.  In thinking about beginnings, I decided to pull it off the shelf and see how Petterson began.  The first paragraph:

Early November.  It’s nine o’clock.  The titmice are banging against the window.  Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again.  I don’t know what they want that I have.  I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake.  It is starting to blow.  I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

There is something so assured in his spare prose, something so rhythmic in his writing, that I think he could describe, well, titmice banging against a window, and I would be riveted.  Nothing much happens here, although there is the mention of the reddish light.

Change the beginning, leave the beginning.  What do you think?  My book The Qualities of Wood is online at  Click on the cover to the right and give me your thoughts on the opening.  Does it enthrall, interest, bore you?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A writer's market

I’ve been “building my online presence” for a couple of weeks now.  I’ve started this blog (which I’m enjoying more than I thought I would) and put together a very rudimentary website.  I’ve joined Facebook, which I am mostly avoiding but also enjoying.  None of it has dramatically decreased my actual writing, maybe because I’m currently spurred on by the Nanowrimo challenge.  I’ve been finding (and in some cases, subscribing to) blogs about writing, blogs about reading, blogs about readers who write and writers who read, and blogs written by editors and literary agents, both about the industry in general and as a method of information dissemination to aspiring writers such as myself.  It’s this last group, the agents and editors who blog, that confounds me the most.  Don’t get me wrong.  After ten years of keeping to myself, I’m happy to find information on the current standard for formatting a manuscript.  I find it helpful, I guess, to read about other people’s dismal queries and what agents found particularly dismal about them.  I’m interested in the industry, in what’s selling and who’s getting these great signing deals.  But it seems that there’s an entire, separate industry with goods for sale to writers:  advice books written by editors and agents, “Webinars” hosted by agents during which you can craft the perfect query, the endless conferences and workshops.             
Let me say that I’ve never empathized with agents and editors so much since I started to read many, many manuscripts on a site called Authonomy.  It’s a Harper Collins venture, wherein writers can post a fraction or the whole of the novel, even design and post a cover and write a pitch for it.  Books are rated by a complex mathematical equation of support received from other members and the author’s participation on the site.  That’s a very simple explanation, by the way.  The exact rating system can be found at  But the end result is that the top five books are rewarded with a review by a Harper Collins editor.  Not publication, a review.  Okay, so the reason I empathize with agents is because I’ve been reading and reading the opening sections of novels and non-fiction offerings for months.  And what surprises me is not that there is a huge amount of bad writing (that I expected), or that there is an even bigger amount of something worse—mediocre writing.  No, to my complete amazement, there is a significant amount of intriguing, complex, accomplished and in my unprofessional opinion, print-worthy books of every genre.  The people who wrote these polished works are writers, which means they are reclusive, introspective and in general, not great marketers of anything.  To require a writer to be their own marketer seems entirely unreasonable.
Everyone knows that the publishing industry is beholden to the best sellers.  But with the change that’s a-comin, the revolution that awaits in regards to self-publishing, e-publishing, etc., I would argue that agents, editors and publishers, instead of “creating an online presence” for themselves, would be better served to log off the blog and read more manuscripts.  In my experience, most queries end two ways:  1) a generic “not right for us” or 2) no response at all.  Again, I realize that they are inundated with, well, let’s face it, with a lot of crap.  But think of the stuff that they’re missing.  Even at Authonomy, when you get your coveted review after reading and commenting on hundreds, sometimes thousands of books, the review usually says something like:  “Well done, many good aspects, not for us.”
In a lot of ways, the publishing industry is like the current economy.  Many things involved, all intertwined, all difficult to fix.  Agents can’t sell books that publishers won’t buy.  I acknowledge that we live in a new time, a technological, look-at-me time.  But let writers be writers.  Let the rest go back to selling books, not advice on how to sell books.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Useless Art

We are approaching the 110th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's death, which occurred on November 30, 1900.  He's known for his plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest,

his stint in prison for "gross indecency" with other men, his wit and acerbic quotes, his outlandish style of dress,

and his single novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I am just beginning to read again this month for my book club

Wilde's life was filled with moments of great drama and over a century after he died from cerebral meningitis, destitute but with the final comfort of a Church baptism, it is still a life of interest to legions of fans.

Here are some links to some Wilde-mania, including a listing of famous quotations.

Official Oscar Wilde site

Picture of Dorian Gray online

Wilde Quotes

And in a strange twist, an Oscar-Wilde-themed restaurant that is in my old neighborhood in Chicago:

Wilde Chicago

So...what's your favorite Oscar Wilde quote?  I think my current favorite is from the Author's Preface of Dorian Gray, which begins with "The artist is the creator of beautiful things," and ends with:

"All art is quite useless."

Friday, November 5, 2010


If you weren’t aware that November is National Novel Writing Month, you are now!  I’ve signed up at, where each year they challenge thousands of writers to get off the couch (or blog), and finally finish the novel that’s been bouncing around the padded walls of their minds.  The goal:  50,000 words in thirty days.  They provide encouraging emails, a personal page where you can update your word count, and forums where you can commiserate and procrastinate with other writers.  The site is almost always bogged down and inaccessible during reasonable hours, which makes me think that most writers, like myself, are really good at finding ways NOT to work on their novel.  Five days into the challenge, I’m at 8900 words!  Maybe not the best stuff I’ve ever written, but it’s all about getting a first draft.  So if you’ve been looking for the motivation to start that break-out novel, there’s always next year’s Nanowrimo, which leaves you an entire year of avoidance!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Stories and Old Friends

            This is the actress K.T. Stevens, who portrayed Vanessa Prentiss on the early years of the soap opera The Young and the Restless.  Vanessa appeared on the show in 1976, wearing a black veil over the lower part of her face to cover scars she incurred while plucking her son Lance from a house fire.  She was housebound and bitter, and insanely protective of Lance and his brother Lucas.  In 1978, viewers rallied around their television sets to see Vanessa, finally unveiled!  I was only ten years old at the time but I was one of those viewers.  And to this day I remain disgruntled and disillusioned because it turned out that Vanessa had undergone plastic surgery and her face was miraculously unscathed.  Hoping for graphic and disturbing burn-marks, we saw instead clear and lovely skin.  Vanessa was never quite as intimidating, post-veil, even as she repeatedly targeted and blackmailed her nemesis, Lorie, who ended up marrying Lance.  In 1981, Vanessa leapt to her death from a balcony, leaving behind evidence to frame Lorie for her murder.
            I have to think that this early exposure to soap operas contributed to my dramatic flair and love of a good story.  I watched the show at the home of our neighbor and family friend, Elsie Cole.  My brother, sisters and I spent many summer days at her home while my mom worked at the family auto electrical shop.  Her home was a duplicate of ours, only flipped, a fact that I pondered often.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it opened some creative valve in my mind, this knowing that other people could have the same framework but be very different.  Our house was messy and full of kids; Elsie’s home was neat and organized and smelled of things that still remind me of childhood:  frying hamburger, cigarettes, laundry drying.  And Elsie herself was someone you wouldn’t soon forget.  She had a loud voice and an exuberant laugh, at times a quick but harmless temper and at other times, a sudden tenderness.
            Elsie Arline Cole died on October 1st of this year, one month shy of her 88th birthday.  I don’t have a photo to share but her face is vivid in my mind, where it matters.  The memorial service was peopled with old neighbors and friends, and grown children who had been kept safe in her care, everyone with fond memories of the fun and food to be had at Elsie's.  Thanks, Elsie, for your laugh and your open door, for taking care of us and for letting me watch soap operas with you.  One of these days I’m going to work a scarred, veiled woman into something I write.  And there will be no plastic surgery.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka