By Leslie Lindsay
Selling a whopping 700,000 eBook originals of her debut, THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE, Darcie Chan is a force to be reckoned with. She definitely has gumption and the tenacity an author in today’s market needs. Having read the first book, I was eager to jump back into the enchanting fictional world of Mill River Vermont, the very place that oozes kitchy charm and memorable characters; it’s like Mayberry come to life. Plus, it’s fall and who can resist a book with such a lovely autumnal cover?
But there is more to Darcie Chan than meets the eye. She’s a mom, a wife, and former attorney. How does she do it all?
L.L.: Thanks so much for being with us today, Darcie! We busy writers would love to know how you balance all of life’s demands. Can you share how you managed to write two books, work, move, and have a baby? Wow. That’s like 4 of life’s “top stressors.”
Darcie Chan: It was a busy time, for sure, but perhaps not quite as busy as it might seem. I wrote my first novel in the early 2000s, ten years before I had my son, and put it in a drawer after it didn’t sell to a publisher. After that, it was pretty much just work and normal life until 2007, when I moved to New York with my husband. Our son came along in 2010, and in 2011, I uploaded my first novel as an e-book, which officially launched the insanity.
I suppose I got through the crazy years of 2011 through 2013 by juggling as best I could, taking things in stride, and focusing on getting things done. Leaving my attorney position in March 2012 helped decrease my stress level, certainly. It was a tough thing to do, because I loved my office and my legal job, but I still believe it was the right decision. Also, the changes in my life at the time were mostly happy and exciting, so I always felt more like I was riding a roller coaster than digging myself out of a hole.
L.L.: Tell us a little about how you created and envisioned Mill River Vermont? I understand there is some basis of a real-life town and “recluse” in a small town located in Indiana. Can you expand on that?
Darcie Chan: I grew up in small towns in several states, so I knew that I wanted a cozy, friendly small town as the setting for the first novels I planned to write. I tried to model my characters and the appearance of the town after the places in which I’d lived or visited while growing up. I didn’t base the fictional village of Mill River on any one particular town, though, because I wanted to be able to create and modify aspects of it to fit the story I was trying to tell. And, I selected Vermont as the state in which Mill River would be located because that state (in addition to being the home of countless beautiful small towns and villages) has a unique and longstanding town meeting tradition. Every town in Vermont holds a town meeting on the first Tuesday in March where residents come together to vote on town business. An annual town meeting was the perfect place for Father O’Brien to address the people of Mill River at the end of the novel.
It’s true that the character of Mary McAllister and the central story idea for The Mill River Recluse do have a real-life origin. The basic concept for the book was inspired by a certain gentleman named Sol Strauss who lived in Paoli, Indiana, the small town in which I lived during high school and my mother was born and raised. Mr. Strauss, a Jewish man who fled Nazi Germany, operated a dry goods store in Paoli in the 1940s. Even though Mr. Strauss lived quietly alone above his shop and never seemed to be fully embraced by the town’s predominantly Christian population, he considered Paoli to be his adopted community. When he died, the town was shocked to learn that he had bequeathed to it substantial sum, which was to be used for charitable purposes to benefit the people of Paoli.
The Sol Strauss Fund is still in operation today, and Mr. Strauss is still remembered for his extreme generosity. I thought it would be very interesting to build a story around someone who is misunderstood or different in some way, and to show that even someone who is seemingly far-removed from his or her community may in fact be more special and integral than anyone could imagine.
L.L.: Both of your books have some pretty colorful characters. Is there one you feel a particular affinity toward? One who might share some of your personality?
Darcie Chan: I’m not sure that any of them share my personality, but I probably felt the strongest connection with Ivy Collard, a character in The Mill River Redemption, who shares many characteristics with my late maternal grandmother. “Nanny,” as everyone called her, was as loving and giving as Ivy, and she also shared her bawdy streak. Many of Ivy’s funny quotes are things I heard Nanny say countless times growing up.
L.L.: Lots of folks are interested in the self-publishing arena. There are so many ways to get our stories “out there,” more than ever before. What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into the e-publishing/self-publishing world? Traditional publishing?
Darcie Chan: Regardless of which avenue a writer chooses to pursue, I think the main thing he or she has to do is figure out a way to get his or her books to stand out from the millions of others out there. If you want to catch a reader’s attention, you need a quality product and a way (or several ways) to get the word out about your books. With those goals in mind:
- Put your emotions into whatever you write. They’ll carry through to your readers, and that’s so important. Think of the last memorable book that you read. Did it make you laugh out loud? Break your heart? Feel terrified or angry? Chances are that it did at least one of those things. Readers remember books that move them emotionally and often recommend them to others. Those “word-of-mouth” recommendations are what create bestsellers.
- Put on your editing cap. Do everything you can to polish your manuscript before you show it to anyone, and be tough on yourself. Read your writing aloud to yourself to hear how it flows, how realistic the dialogue sounds, etc. Research your subjects carefully, because there will almost always be readers out there who know more (much more!) than you do about them.
- Seek out constructive criticism. Write for yourself, but gracefully accept as much constructive criticism as you are able to get. “Test readers” are so vital to my process because they’re not as close to the material as I am and can see areas in need of improvement that I miss. It’s much better to fix problems in a draft early on, before you send it on submission to an agent or publisher or self-publish it for all the world to see. As with anything, you get only one chance to make a first impression.
- Social media is your friend. These days, increasing numbers of people buy and learn about new books online. It’s so important to have a strong social media presence, and that’s something I’m still working on myself! People won’t become interested in your book unless they hear about it, and the Internet is an amazing tool for spreading the word and getting word-of-mouth recommendations started for books,
- Believe in yourself and never give up! It’s true that trying to get a novel published is very difficult. Be prepared for that. Know that you will get many rejections, criticisms of your writing that you don’t understand or agree with, and an occasional mean-spirited note that cuts you to the core. Keep an open mind about the criticisms, as repeated mentions of the same issue might be signaling a problem with the manuscript. Other than that, keep your chin up and continue your quest for an agent and publisher. Keep writing while you’re waiting to hear from agents (or editors, when you find an agent to shop your manuscript). And, above all, always believe in yourself, never stop dreaming, and never give up!
L.L.: Finally, can you tell us what you are working on next…and when it might be available.
Darcie Chan: The first draft of my third novel, which is also set in Mill River, is currently with my editor. I’m hopeful that it will be published in September 2015, but I don’t have a firm release date yet. Beyond that, I’m not sure what I’ll write next, but I’m working on ideas for other Mill River books, just in case I decide to go in that direction. Time will tell! :)
And Leslie, I’d just like to thank you for inviting me to do this interview. I truly appreciate it! :)
L.L.: Thank you so very much for taking the time to be with us, Darcie! We so enjoyed you.
For more information:
- Darcie’s Website where you’ll find a blog, media kit, Q&A, book club information and more.
- MILL RIVER REDEMPTION is available at Target and where books are sold!
Bio: Darcie Chan is the author of THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE, a debut novel that became a word-of-mouth e-book sensation. With nearly 700,000 copies sold, THE MILL RIVER RECLUSE appeared on the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for 30 weeks and became a heartwarming favorite of readers across the country.
Darcie was born in Wisconsin and grew up in the small towns of Brandon, Wisconsin, La Junta and Cheraw, Colorado, and Paoli, Indiana. Thanks to loving and supportive parents who are both educators, she learned to read and write at an early age. She has two younger sisters, with whom she is very close.
Currently, Darcie lives just north of New York City with her husband and son. Her second novel, THE MILL RIVER REDEMPTION, is also set in the fictional town of Mill River, Vermont, and will be released by Ballantine Books on August 26, 2014.
[Special thanks to Susie Stagland and Darcie Chan. Author photo credit: Carrie Schechter]
By Leslie Lindsay
It’s that time of year again. There’s a nip in the air, an excitement humming about campus, and perhaps the ivy is a little greener and a little more lush along those stone and brick buildings.
I am thrilled to welcome author—and president of Vermont College of Fine Arts—Thomas Christopher Greene—who prefers the less pretentious Tom—to our literary blog.
Having just read THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s Press, 2014), the fourth of Greene’s novels, I have to say, this one blew me away. It’s part mystery, part literary academia, and part psych thriller. Definitely a blend of my favorite genres. What’s more, it takes place—in part—at a Vermont prep school.
Leslie Lindsay: Thank you for being with us today, Tom. I found THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE compulsively readable. While overall the prose is easy reading, the subtext is complex. We definitely get that ominous vibe that something is amiss. Well, okay—it is amiss. In the opening lines, our middle-aged headmaster is wandering around outside in the buff. Was this your intention all along, or, as many things with writing, did the narrative take a life of its own?
Thomas Christopher Greene: I often find the beginning of a novel after writing the first seventy pages or so six or seven times. It’s a horribly inefficient way to write but the only one I know. So in this case, I added that beginning after I had developed Arthur’s voice, and also the in between sections where he is being interviewed by the police.
Leslie Lindsay: Let’s talk about structure. It’s a big obsession of mine of late. You do a wonderful job of creating a sort of bifurcated narrative with framing the story along the lines of now—not now—now; tossed in for good measure are some scenes in which Arthur is being interrogated. The writing just seems to flow organically. But something tells me this was carefully thought out. Can you explain?
Thomas Christopher Greene:When I start a book, I spend a lot of time thinking and living with the characters in my head. Structure is critically important, in that it is the framework for how you tell the story. That said, this idea I came across by accident—I wrote the long first piece that is Arthur’s point of view and initially I thought the whole book would be told that way. But I knew I needed Elizabeth’s point of view and the conventional way to do it would be to alternate it with Arthur’s, which is often done. But then I came across the idea of essentially telling the same story—with different viewpoints, in, as you put it, a bifurcated narrative. And once I had that figured out, the rest of the structure took care of itself.
L.L.: THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE was born of personal tragedy and grief in your own life. Oh, I can only imagine the heartache of losing a precious young baby. Grief is a tricky thing, and yet you write about it so eloquently. What would you recommend to others who are attempting to write about grief without being stereotypical?
Thomas Christopher Greene: The great thing about fiction is that it allows writers to deliberately obfuscate a story in order to find a deeper truth. In this case, I didn’t actually have the resources—emotional, mental etc—to write about my own experience with losing our daughter. But I found that through characters I could write about the emotions and feelings I had, and there was enough distance, paradoxically, to allow a certain measure of honesty. I don’t know that there is any good advice I could give someone writing about grief, just as there is no blueprint for grief itself.
L.L.: Let’s shift over to the business of writing. What is your advice to aspiring novelists?
Thomas Christopher Greene:Read everything you can. Be thick-skinned because that will carry you. Trust your own vision. And come to Vermont College of Fine ArtsJ
L.L.: Can you tell us a little about the writing programs at your college?
Thomas Christopher Greene: We have two low-residency programs, one in writing (poetry, fiction, memoir) and one in writing for children and young adults. They are widely recognized as two of the top writing programs in the country. Next fall we are also starting our first full residency program in writing and publishing.
L.L.: Can you share a bit about what you are working on next?
Thomas Christopher Greene: I’m writing a novel that for now is called SOMEBODY I USED TO KNOW. It will be published by St. Martin’s Press hopefully in early 2016. It’s a story of a great unrequited love and what happens after a chance meeting on a Manhattan street.
L.L.: Finally, how can we learn more about you and your work?
Thank you so very much for being here today! We so enjoyed.
Thomas Christopher Greene
Thomas Christopher Greene was born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts to Richard and Dolores Greene, the sixth of seven children. He was educated in Worcester public schools and then Suffield Academy in Suffield, Connecticut. He earned his BA in English from Hobart College in Geneva, New York, where he was the Milton Haight Turk Scholar. His MFA in Writing is from the former Vermont College. [book cover image and author image retrieved from www.thomaschristophergreene.com with author's permission 10.01.14. College image retrieved from http://www.wherezit.com/listing_show.php?lid=423779 on 10.01.14]
By Leslie Lindsay (image source: www.alphabetart.com on 9.4.13)
When it comes to priorites, you could say Matt Wertz has them; he’s pretty driven. You could also say the guy can belt out some tunes, resulting in a fantastic melding of melodies ripe for this era. His new album, HEATWAVE was released yesterday, August 27th. You may say Mother Nature was on his side. Seems the nation is being swept with a heatwave–whether that is the acid-washed, jangly pop sounds of his new album, or the actual searing heat, but it’s fair to say the two events are a trippy coincidence.
With tracks like Shine and Sunny Day, you may think Matt was channeling the giant star in the sky, but in reality the album isn’t inspired by any one event, person, or theme, but rather a general sound he was shooting for–that of the late 1980’s. Think Richard Marx and Bryan Adams. Think boom boxes (hey–weren’t those once called ghetto-blasters) and lace. Matt admits that to get the sound he wanted he had to change the way he wrote songs, which was bit challenging. But the sound–and the feeling–these tracks evoke are positively epic.
Although I did reach out to Matt to provide a little piece on defining home, he graciously declined. “Practice for tour is really eating up at lot of time, plus there are a slew of publicity events…” all of which I can completely appreciate.
But I can tell you this: Matt Wertz likes his Tennessean home, a 1920s-era bungalow where he’s lived for the last twelve years writing, practicing, and entertaining. In fact, there are several YouTube videos showing Matt doing just that (I adore the friendly banter between band-mates, and the acoustic sound is fantastic). Take a peek into his life: the mindless ring game on the front porch (Matt indicates this is his favorite place to unwind and let the new lyrics and sounds percolate–it’s also where he wrote new track, “Get to You”). You’ll also glimpse the bike riding, the coffee gulping, and a peek at his ever-growing shoe collection in these videos. (He once wanted to design shoes for Nike). www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsI6SmMwUnk
But there’s more: be sure to read this Trib article from years past–same house, same musician, another little look inside the place he calls “home.” http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/chi-matt-wertz-snoop-1012oct12,0,3258691.story
In the meantime, be sure to pick up a copy of HEATWAVE, pop it in your computer, iPod, or cassette player (yes, there is a cassettee version) and see what writing inspiration you get from this number–I assure you, it’s a throw-back, and a good one at that!
So, Write on Wednesday!
By Leslie Lindsay (image source: www.alphabetart.com 9.4.13)
How do we define home? Is is an actual building? The people we surround ourselves with, or is it tangible pieces of things that bring to mind the comfort and stability of home? Today, we hear from author Amy Sue Nathan on just that:
“For me, home means things I can see and touch.
Photos on shelves, pre-school artwork next to high school graduation pictures, a china platter that belonged to my grandmother that sits on the middle of the dining room table. Home is being surrounded by sights and sounds and also, by textures. I often sit with a crocheted blanket on my lap as I write. It’s made up of squares, and baby-size. My grandmother made it when my son was born almost twenty-two years ago.
Let’s face it, crocheted blankets can itch! I never put it on him as a baby, but it has follow us through five homes in five states. It hung over the back of the rocking chair in the nursery when my daughter was born too. And while it’s not the softest blanket in the world, it’s the best one I have. And I think as long as I have it with me, I’ll be home.”
For the sake of extending Amy’s concept of home, here’s an exercise to help you hone in on the things that remind you of home:
- Close your eyes and drum up some of the items from your past that signifiy “home” to you. For you me, it’s the water-logged Baby Beth doll I carried everywhere–even the bathtub. There was also my imaginary friend, Jenn-Jenn, but also the antique dining room table, the old sewing machine, and the slanty part of my closet where I used to hide out and read.
- Now go a little deeper. What were some to the items you held onto into your adolescence and college years? Was there a particular item that went with you to your first apartment? Was there an item that stayed with you for a season, only to let it go once you felt more comfortable, confident?
- How about your characters in your work-in-progress? What do they hold onto? An old key? A diary? A person? A memory? A book? A photo? Make a list for each of your characters, but especially your protagonist and antagonist. It can be very telling what these “people” hold onto in various parts of their life. Go ahead…what did your protagonist value when she was a child? A teenager? Young adult? Adult? Now, in your story? Can you see a pattern
[Exercise created by Leslie Lindsay]
Special thanks to Amy Sue Nathan for sharing her lovely words about her son’s blanket. For more information on Amy and her books, please see:
Up Next Week on Write on, Wednesday: Memoirist Tanya Chernov talks about her place of home…at summer camp.
By Leslie Lindsay
You know those slightly annoying, yet crazy fun time-waster quizzes that pop up on Facebook, ones like “what color is your aura” and “what animal were you in a past life?” Of course you do–you’ve guiltily clicked on them while looking over your shoulder to make sure no one was watching, completed the quiz and learned that, lo and behold you were a fun-loving optimistic dolphin in a previous lifetime and your aura is yellow, because you’re so freaking optimistic how could it be any other color but that of the blazing sun.
Have you come across the quiz entitled, “What Emotion Drives YOU?” I write this with a slight distaste and shrug only because shouldn’t we inherently know what drives us? Ah, the conumdrum.
So, I completed the 10 questions and the result: curiosity. Yep, I am driven by intrigue. I knew that. What writer isn’t? What psychologist isn’t? I write because I am curious. I study human behavior because I find it fascinating. And when one combines the two—human behavior and curiosity—an amazing thing happens in literature: your characters come alive. Writing is a means to explore all of those questions, moments of intrigue, and things you want to reach further into your psyche for.
Many folks will say that to be a writer, one must know a lot of things. That might be true to a certain extent. Being a writer doesn’t mean I have all of the inner workings of the human mind tightly locked into my brain or that I am particularly astute at human behavior, it just means that I observe it like nobody’s business. And it also means that if there is something I don’t understand 100%, I will look it up. In today’s standards, it is so much easier to be a curious writer than in days past. We have this lovely thing called the Internet.
I don’t know much about Victorian-era brothels. So, I turn to my good friend, Google for some answers. I really don’t know squat about college fraternities, either. But my trusted cohort of Facebook friends know a few things….or they can point me in the right direction for a little more. And how about single-occupant freak car accidents and the Mob in St.Louis? Was there a mob in St. Louis? Well, I am going to find out. And yeah…what about that older-than-dirt building that sits on the corner of Cherry and 9th Streets in Columbia, Missouri? (I do know it’s the oldest standing building in the college town, built in 1837 and once scheduled for demolishment in 2012—alas it has been saved).
And then there is weaving all of these little brain curiosities into a novel. Easy-peasy, right?
I am a whopping 14,000 words into this novel and that’s pretty darn good considering I just finished the “other one” on Labor Day. But now, I feel a little stuck. La-di-da…I’m sort of sitting her twiddling my thumbs and thinking of a post-Thanksgiving retreat to my old college town in my home state of Missouri. You know, a little research.
The Tiger Hotel is supposedly haunted. And historic. Maybe I should book a room? Of course, there’s got to be a trip to the State Historical Society located at Ellis Library where I can look at old plat maps of Columbia in the late 1800s. I’ll do a few frat house drive-by, too. And while I am out that way, I just may swing into the rolling bluffs of Rocheport for a little winery action. Nah—scratch the Tiger Hotel, I’ll stay at the welcoming Yates House B&B where the food is mighty delicious. I’ll roll up my sleeves and do a little writing…and ghost hunting…and reminiscing with my hubby, who also knows a thing or two about MU
And in the meantime, I will continue to poke around on various websites and read some books, and look at old Savitar images on-line and re-read my Mizzou Alumni Magazine hoping for a little shove in the right (write) direction…because, you know…inquiring minds want to know.
[image of niedermeyer builing retrieved from law.missouri.edu on 10.22.14]
By Leslie Lindsay
It’s Thursday, I know. Yesterday came and went in a blur and well, I didn’t get to my blog. Plus, the very busy and very kind Thomas Christopher Greene, author of 4–most recently THE HEADMASTER’S WIFE–was also living life in the blur and was unable to appear on the blog as promised. But never fear-for he plans to make an appearance next Wednesday, October 1st! Oh gosh–the cover of his book even *looks* like October! You’re in for a treat. Also, be on the look-out for interviews from Darcie Chan and her Mill River series.
In the meantime, I am happy to announce that I’ve completed, revised, and polished my most recent manuscript and will soon be in the process of submitting to literary agents. Yahoo! Fingers crossed someone loves the book and concept as much as I do. For more information on what I’ve been working on tirelessly for the last year, check out “Zombie Road” right here on the blog.
Okay. And for today, my 9 year old loves to give me ideas for my stories. What she doesn’t know is she inpires me all the time without doing much other than just being herself. She knows I am in serious brainstorming mode for the next one and so whipped up this uh…sandwich: the art of story writing. I love the first part: get a “peace” of paper and start brainstorming ideas….add some lettuce (“ledece”) which says, “When you are ready, you can start thinking of your characters, setting, problem, arch emeny.” Okay…and then you plop a piece of meat down (beginning, middle, and end.) and then “write ‘the end,’ add some pictures, and come up with a great title.”
I had to smile–and give the kid a giant hug–I mean, seriously–‘arch enemy?’ and the whole idea that a book needs to have a problem….well, I am embarrassed to admit I totally didn’t know that when I was 9. She beamed and said, “I think I might want to be a writer like you when I grow up.” And how’s that for some inspiration?
By Leslie Lindsay
For a writer, anything and everything is inspiration for writing. It’s just something with the way our brains are wired. We’re firecely observant. We scruntinize small things. And when we stare at something innocuous for a little longer than what might be “appropriate,” you can bet we’re thinking of some sinister little story or perhaps how to describe whatever it is in words that eventually make it on a page.
Yep. We’re weird.
And so it comes as no surprise that I found this little patch of land while walking my lumbering geriatric basset hound the other day. “It’s Mel’s yard!” I wanted to scream. No, not really. Well, kind of. Sure, my stomach did a little dip as I felt the story coming to life. Here’s an excerpt from an early chapter in my WIP, “Zombie Road,” which ironically contains no zombies. Sorry to disappoint.
“As I pulled the back door of Marianne Ashton’s home closed, a silent gasp worms through my throat, something grazed upon my back. I turn, but no one is there. I shake the feeling and teetered along the slate path between the side of her garage connecting our yards.
When I approach the bed where my begonias lay, the tiny plastic cartons are upturned, their heads broken off, revealing slick wet stalks.
Vandals. That word tumbled around again. This time, I consider the history of our lot. It doesn’t make sense. An animal, then?
My eyes scan the yard to the front porch, and up and down the driveway, to the small tree in the middle of the yard. No spade. Finally, I glance to the retaining wall where the land slopes downward, but no yellow spade.
Anxiety presses forth. Clumsy. Forgetful. Stupid. Maybe I took it into Marianne’s kitchen? No.
The sky darkened and appeared mottled with swaths of muslin contrails. I sit the pile of publications on the grass, patting the utility pockets of my pants. I frown at an old piece of chewing gum encased in worn, dented foil. Swarming at my ankles, as if a colony of ants has moved in, the ground peels back, revealing a patch of dead grass. Did Ran’s Lawnboy do this?
Clouds moved swiftly, an animated visage circulating god-knows-what. Just wait a minute, it will change. At least the rain will revive that dead patch of grass. Little Sally Water, choose the one you love best. I lean to retrieve the plastic flower bins as fat, heavy drops of rain splash the stack of reading materials.
A rumble of thunder, then a snap of electricity brightened the sky. No car ever arrived at Mrs. Ashton’s home depositing a music student. But her face, shrouded in a flowing curtain of Dorothy Hammil hair peers from the front window where the piano sits, a blank stare. I squint, tenting my hands over my forehead to get a better look. Maybe she’s not there, my imagination again. Maybe her student cancelled. Granite clouds lumber in from the west, darkening the sky. I raise my hand anyway, a semblance of recognition. She does not reciprocate. Embarrassed, I duck my head, scoop up the papers, and hustle to shelter in our garage, first passing by Ran’s “Big Green,” caked with cut grass. I toss the plastic tins into the recycling bin.
Another clap of thunder booms. Startled, I press the interior garage door button, allowing it to lower. I step into the mud room then, deposit water-logged papers from Marianne on the bench. A crack of lightening rocks the house with sheer ferocity. A hollow emptiness scrapes my gut. Solid, unyielding drops of rain smack the roof, resonating with life.”
[Thanks for reading! As always I appreciate feedback and "likes." Remember, this is an original work of fiction and not to be taken as your own.]
By Leslie Lindsay
I’ll let you in on a secret: writers love to read. The inverse relationship is not always true; readers do not always like to write.
Let’s say you are lucky enough to find yourself planted in both camps. You read. You write. Now, the moment of truth: is that a blessing or a curse?
There are times I read books and I am just floored. I mean, swept-away-jaw-on-the-floor wowed. It seems so effortless, so magically transporting. And so I think (perhaps erronously), “hey, I can do that.” So, I roll up the sleeves and curl the fingers over the keyboard. I watch the cursor blink. Uh…yeah…maybe not.
But since I am a pretty tenacious person, I plod through anyway.
And I recall those mesmerizing words and sublime transitions, ones that are so subtle they hardly feel calculated. Effortless. There. That word again. Interestingly, the effort is there. You just don’t see it. And that is what defines good writing.
I read a lot. I probably throw back a book a week. Five days. Some are undeniably better than others. Some blow it out of the water. And some, well some make me feel as if I am drowning in a world of….I don’t know…muck. Sophomoric talent. If you can call it that.
So, the next time you’re reading something and you’re in complete adoration as to how the author makes you feel as if you aren’t even reading, take note. Study those words not just for story purpose but locking phrases, transitions, emotional reactions into your noggin. Pause from time to time asking, “Do I have a scene in my WIP that needs a little TLC?” Perhaps Your transition is rough, but This Author does it masterfully. What technique does he use? Can you rearrange your words to mimic a similar rhythm? I bet you can.
One pet peeve of late–okay, maybe always–is cliched verbs and attaching unoriginal (and sometimes unnatural) emotional responses of characters. It reads like big time cheese. For example, “My heart felt like it had it’s own jump rope as I ____.” Um…no. What about descriptions, “I looked into his smoldering eyes.” Also, no.
And poorly executed transitions. “Just then,” happened to be one I read over and over ad nauseum. Get creative, think differently.
How would Stephen King show something sinister? What would Nicholas Sparks do to make you feel twitterpated? What great comparison would Jodi Picoult use that felt original, yet natural? Try to think like a writer.
By Leslie Lindsay
The manuscript is finished. It’s actually not too terribly rough, either. Now it just needs a title. You’d think titles would be easy-peasy, but they are not.
You have to summarize everything that happens in–oh 100,000 words–into a few words (about four). No pressure, right?
You also don’t want to be so overt about it, in that all literary ‘secrets’ are given away.
And God forbidden the title is already “taken.”
Okay, you’re technically “safe” on that–titles aren’t copywrited. But who wants 8 books called WAR & PEACE?
Something pithy would be nice.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep for
obsessing thinking ruminating perseverating. I tossed and turned. I thought of every teacher who taught 4th grade and then 5th grade at my elementary school 30 years ago. That got me to sleep. But I woke up to pee around 2 a.m. and guess what I was thinking about?
Here’s some other advice I’ve gleaned of late, “We talked a lot about branding at [a local chapter meeting], and you really want to think about what kind of writer you want to be (the other books you hope to write), your genre, even the look of your covers.”
Again. No pressure.
Here’s what else I know about titles: they often change. Sure, what you slap on your manuscript may be absolutely beautiful and you could be completely in love with it. Swooning, even and then your agent cringes. Or your editor does. Or the art department can’t think of a suitable cover. Or sales/marketing know the chosen title will sicken and not intrigue the average consumer. So they tinker with the words and present a whole new alternative. At that point, you shrug and go along with it.
But, on the other hand, you don’t want something dull, dorky, or too close to something out that is “already out there.”
Finally, after hours of deliberation (seriously–I did some alone thinking on and off during the day and then picked my hubby’s brain–and crit partner’s brain “after hours”), my poor, exasperated other half said, “Hon, just pick something and slap it on the manuscript already.” He squeezed out a faint, “I love you” at the end of his mini tirade.
So I did. I chose a title and plugged it into the header of the manuscript. It looks pretty good. I’ll sit with that for awhile.
At least till tonight when I try to sleep. And then I just may have to recall all of the 1st and 2nd grade teachers from my youth. All 8 of them.
Write on, Wednesday!
By Leslie Lindsay
Oh, I am thrilled (bad pun) to introduce debut mystery/thriller author Elizabeth Little to our literary blog. (Like the alliteration there?) Well, if you do then you may want to check out these other titles by our guest, BITING THE WAX TADPOLE and TRIP OF THE TONGUE, both give a glimpse into the linguistic quirks of mankind.
But really, Elizabeth is here to talk about her newest book—one I am currently reading—DEAR DAUGHTER (Viking, July 31).
Here’s what you want to know about this book: it’s good. Here’s what else you want to know: it’s often “paired” with GONE GIRL and THE GOOD GIRL (see my review here) across the web-o-bookstores. That means it’s edgy. It’s smart. It’s a mind-twist of psychological suspense and so much more.
Leslie Lindsay: Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. First, I am curious to know how your launch experience of DEAR DAUGHTER varies with that of your previous (non-fiction) books? More fan-fare? Less? And what kind of promotion are you doing for the book?
Elizabeth Little: My experience with DEAR DAUGHTER has been so different than with my previous two books: significantly more fanfare (inasmuch as we have fanfare in publishing). In part, I’d imagine, this is because there isn’t exactly a broad audience for narrative sociolinguistics, no matter how many jokes I tried to shoehorn in there. But I’ve also been lucky enough to get some fantastic coverage in the press for this book, and I am absolutely blessed with a group of dedicated and enthusiastic collaborators and coworkers at Viking. (Also maybe I’m just getting better at writing? I hope??)
But whatever the reason, I’ve had the chance to tour bookstores around the country with DEAR DAUGHTER, and it has been such an amazing experience to meet with booksellers and other rabid mystery readers. I used to work in publishing, so I thought I knew a thing or two about the business, but I’ve learned so much from my tour about what booksellers look for and what readers want—to the point that I’ve totally changed my plans for my next book!
L.L.: And so…the book! Wow. It’s masterfully done. I love reading it because, well you have such a finely tuned feel for words. For example, ‘speculative glint’ is a turn of phrase I came across while reading last night. And don’t even get me started on the sublime verbs you plucked from the verb tree: bellowed, jammed, jangled, mashed, swelled, swarming…you must have studied linguistics.
As with English, I’ve never had a particular facility with spoken languages, but I love to pick up grammars and dictionaries and to try to decipher sentences and stories in languages I’ve never seen before. I suppose I’m always trying to chase that same feeling I had when reading HOP ON POP—that magic “Aha!” moment.
All this time spent with foreign language grammars and dictionaries has, I like to think, made me particularly sensitive to English grammar and vocabulary. Although sometimes I wonder if it’s as much a weakness as it is a strength. I can very easily get lost in the construction of a single sentence when really I should be thinking about extremely basic matters of plot. And of course some readers might prefer a more pared-down writing style! But it’s a love of words that drives my love of writing, so I can’t imagine that changing any time soon.
L.L.: Full-disclosure: I had to look up the word ‘diaphanous’ because I was thinking it has something to do with two, as in di-; but I was wrong. Now I am using it all the time. For example, I told my hubby that our basset hound is so not diaphanous. And he chuckled. “Yeah…let’s put a picture of our geriatric basset in the dictionary next to antonyms for diaphanous.” But let’s get this back to the book. Jane is the main character and she, like the basset hound is not diaphanous (by the way, it means opaque, flimsy, delicate, lacy, sheer, thin). Did you develop this character with those anti-qualities in mind? And let’s look at her name: Plain Jane. Which she is not. Can you explain?
Elizabeth Little: Well, first of all, in the interest of mutual full disclosure there are definitely words in DEAR DAUGHTER that I discovered in the course of writing it. I guess I’m just an inveterate word hound to the end!
So many of my characters changed their names from the first to the final draft, but Jane has always, always been Jane. There is a plot-based reason for this—her mother named her very deliberately—but I’m also placing Jane at an intersection of allusions that Jane herself references: Jane Austen, Jane Eyre, and Jane Doe. DEAR DAUGHTER is part social commentary, part Gothic journey of self-discovery, and part whodunit (or, perhaps more accurately, whoisit). I also loved the incongruity of a celebutante having such a pedestrian name. Paris Hilton she is not.
Jane’s character, though, really developed organically as I wrote and revised (and revised and revised). I didn’t set out to make her in any particular way: I wanted her to be true to her history, to be a credible product of her unique circumstances, and eventually her voice made itself known to me. And sometimes that voice is absolutely the opposite of diaphanous! But that’s because—in my mind, anyway—she is terrified of letting the world see her very real weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Every time she cracks a joke or unleashes an insult she’s essentially saying, “Look over there!”
I was never interested in opening with a perfectly believable premise—I mean, it’s a high-concept mystery novel, not Marilynne Robinson—but I always aimed for psychological believability, no matter how tough that sometimes made Jane to take.
L.L.: The structure of the book fascinates me. It’s written (so far) as the after-effects of Jane’s time in prison for killing her mother. (I’m not giving away any spoilers, that’s fact stated on the back jacket). And then we have letters and emails, texts, police reports sprinkled throughout. Can you tell us a bit about how you determined the structure of the book? Did this go through copious revisions or did this structure pretty much “appear” to you that way?
Elizabeth Little: The initial inspiration for the book came from the CNN breaking news alert that went out when Amanda Knox’s conviction was overturned in 2011. I started writing DEAR DAUGHTER—about my own infamous murderess released back into the wild—the very next day. It seemed natural to open with another CNN alert, and it was an easy step from that to other types of text. I lucked into it, in other words. But it turned out to be such a useful tool for expository purposes, for pacing purposes, and for plot purposes—sometimes I needed to let the reader in on information that Jane would never have supplied herself.
Otherwise, I stuck to a very traditional three-act structure, and even though the details of the plot changed radically as I wrote it, I always kept that basic structure the same: an inciting event, two major turns, a mid-point sea change, a dark night of the soul. There are plenty of writers who would yawn at that choice, but it’s a classic structure because it generally works. (And, um … is a great crutch for us beginning writers.)
L.L. And now I have to ask about St. Louis. It’s such a big-little city, but we don’t know each other. You’ve since moved to L.A. and me, well I’m in Chicago. But, there’s some really great writers of late who have popped out of the Show Me State (Laura McHugh in Columbia, Gillian Flynn has ties to Kansas City, Daniel Woodrell in the Ozarks, and there’s a bunch more). What is it, in your opinion that gives Missouri writers a grit that’s unlike others?
Elizabeth Little: That’s a great question that I’m not sure I have an answer to! I’ve been told on numerous occasions that Missourians have to compensate for their fundamentally friendly, Midwestern exteriors with equally menacing interiors, and I always laugh, because inevitably the people who say this with such authority have never been to Missouri except on a layover. We’re always just thrown in with Kansas and Iowa and Nebraska and—weirdly—Ohio. (Why not Illinois? I think because everyone knows Chicago is cooler than anything in Missouri.)
I don’t think of myself as Midwestern at all—I think Missouri and Missourians as very much their own demented creatures. Maybe there is a environmental element to this. Even though I grew up in the city, when I think about my home state I think about all the camping trips I was forced to go on. It was always damp; there were always possum. No matter what the season, if the ground was warm, it was just from the heat of decay. Caves aren’t intriguing or beautiful or mysterious: they’re flash-flood death holes. It’s a bit of a fancy, I suspect, but even though these trips can’t possibly comprise more than 5% of my childhood and adolescence, this is the land that I feel the most connected to. There’s a literal darkness to the landscape, and I feel that same darkness in my bones.
Or maybe I’m just a weirdo.
L.L.: What is the single most important thing a writer can do to improve his or her chances of getting published? I know, big question…but we all want to know!
Elizabeth Little: It’s different for fiction and for nonfiction, but for fiction I’d say that you have to make sure you have a hell of a query letter. When I worked in publishing, a big part of my job was sifting through the slush pile, and what I learned was that the sheer volume of queries means that a writer has to catch the agent’s or assistant’s eye immediately. The first two sentences of that query letter have to wow the agent. And then you have to capitalize on that interest by showcasing your unique voice as a writer. There are many ways to do this—with style, with humor, with smarts—but it has to sparkle, and it has to be you. A great query letter should be so full of personality that I would be able to know who wrote your sample pages even if they didn’t have your name on it.
(I hate the word “slush,” by the way, because those were people’s dreams I was handling, but I guess you do have to distance yourself emotionally or you’d be passing along every single query to your boss, which is not what they pay you (very little) for.)
L.L. What is currently obsessing you?
Elizabeth Little: As I’m sure you understand, it’s tough to find too much free time when there’s work to be done and a child to be raised. But when I do have a quiet moment, I’m currently spending a lot of time reading about comparative religion and the history of Christianity. I’m a truly terrible Catholic, so I’m not sure where this is coming from (guilt, probably), but there you have it. And the concurrent language obsession is New Testament Greek. I spent several years in my youth studying Ancient (Attic) Greek, so I definitely have a leg up here, and there’s something about the very manageable size of the vocabulary that is appealing to me at a time when my work and home life very often seem totally unmanageable.
I also read so, so many mystery and romance novels. Again, it’s tricky to do with a little kid and a husband who for some reason really likes to hang out with me. But I’ll confess something: Sometimes I’ll pretend that I’m taking a shower when really I’m hiding in the bathroom with a book!
L. L. What haven’t I asked that I should have?
Elizabeth Little: What am I reading right now? (A: The Paying Guest by Sarah Waters. It’s magnificent.)
And, even more importantly, who is my all-time favorite St. Louis Cardinal? (A: Bob Gibson.)
L.L.: Finally, can you tell us what you are working on next?
Elizabeth Little: I can! I’m currently working on my next book for Viking, which at the moment I’m calling DO AS I SAY. It’s the story of a well-meaning therapist with some serious boundary issues whose patients start dying under mysterious circumstances. I can also tell you that an important character from DEAR DAUGHTER will play an even more important part in this story….
L.L. Thanks so much for being with us today!! We’ve so enjoyed you.
Elizabeth Little: And thank you so much for having me! This was a real treat.
Elizabeth Little is the author of the nonfiction books Biting the Wax Tadpole: Confessions of a Language Fanatic and Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages.
Her work has appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, and she has been a guest on NPR’s All Things Considered, The World, and Here and Now. A graduate of Harvard University, she grew up in St. Louis and now lives in Los Angeles with her family. More about Elizabeth can be found at her website, http://elizabeth_little.com/
or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/authorelizabethlittle
. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethLittle.
[author image: Jonathan Vandiveer, courtesy of Elizabeth Little. DEAR DAUGHTER over image courtesy of Viking/author, other image covers retrieved from Amazon on 8.26.14]