On today's menu:
1. At The Millions, Emma Straub (Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures) writes bravely and openly about her miscarriage:
My miscarriage was kept quiet, so quiet that many people will only hear of it now, a rare feat in the age of social media. And yet, the facts: I sold my first novel on a Monday. That Friday, I found out that I was pregnant. My husband and I had only been trying for a couple of months, and we were shocked. The timing was hilarious, as if our good fortune knew no bounds. I took it as a sign from the universe—that the sentimental sentient being knew how long it had taken for me to sell a novel (almost 10 years) and was making up for it by giving me a baby in a flash.This might just be one of the best pieces of writing I've read on the subject (not that "miscarriage lit" should be a competition). Please read the essay in its entirety. And (spoiler alert) it ends on a happier, hopeful note.
The feeling of giddy overabundance didn’t last.
2. At The Story Prize blog, Gregory Spatz (Half as Happy) says he normally takes up to four months to write a story (once, it took him more than five years). But there was a time--in a magical wintry wonderland--when he cranked out a story in 10 days ("oddly enough," he says, "[it's] one of the longest pieces in my new collection"). Here's how he describes the setting in which he wrote the story:
Mid-January, a quick thaw that had melted away everything, and then a sudden icy stalled out cold front that began by dropping about 4 inches of snow before clearing up and turning absolutely still and frigid. Because of the wetness preceding the snowfall, the snow stuck everywhere like it had been glued—on fence posts and phone lines and the smallest of branches and literally on every frostable surface in town—and then turned instantly light and crystalline. And because of the windless, stalled out cold that followed, that exceedingly pretty and delicate coating of snow stayed put for much longer than it should have. Ten days, give or take. The same ten days I happened to be at home, free of obligations, nothing pulling me out of town or distracting me, no classes to teach (I was beginning a quarter of sabbatical leave) and nothing to do but work on a new story. So the whole time I was working, it felt like there was this enchanted parity between my concentration and the way the world seemed to have drawn in one icy breath and never let it out—an end-of-all-things stillness which I experienced as liberating and inspiring.
3. Also at The Story Prize blog, Jamie Quatro (I Want to Show You More) answers the question: "How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?"
"Story ideas." The wily little buggers. Prodding, nagging, eventually hovering over you with such irresistible luminosity you can only submit, like the Virgin Mary: I will enflesh you. But the moment you sit down at the keyboard, the seemingly divine presence withdraws, and you're left with a blank page and the simple truth: Stories don't begin with ideas. They don't even begin with characters, as many of us were taught.Jamie's I Want to Show You More is one of the best short-story collections I've read in the last five years (and yes, I've read Tenth of December). I love this book with all the red-faced, vein-popping, sweaty-forehead passion of a televangelist exhorting his followers to tithe for Jesus. All I'm asking is that you donate $24 to further the promising career of this talented writer--that's all. (You might start by buying the book from Fact and Fiction, the featured Bookstore of the Month here at The Quivering Pen.) Really--go buy this book. Every time you do, an angel gets a pair of tin-foil wings. Okay, I'm stepping down from the pulpit now.
To quote Charles Baxter (who I believe is paraphrasing William Gass): "[Stories] begin with words, one word after another."
But where do the words come from? The impulse to sit down and make something of them? I might say that stories—my best ones, anyhow—begin with image. In my case, it's almost always something bizarre, seems to come out of nowhere, and—no matter how many times I look at it—resists meaning or symbolization. A piece of stained glass jumping out of its casing; a trickle of barbecue sauce in the corner of a corpse's mouth; a blown-glass penis inside a mesh backpack worn by a marathon runner. (The seminal images from "Demolition," "Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives," and "Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement.")
4. "Traditional readings are dead." That's bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt (Is This Tomorrow) in conversation with Mary Pols at MSN. If you're an author with a book tour looming in the future, you are well-advised to read the ultra-smart things Caroline has to say about the business of book promotion:
Most authors don't tour anymore. It's expensive for a publisher to send out an author across the country to arrive at a bookstore where five people show up, and four of them came just because they heard there was free wine and the other person showed up because he thought a celebrity was coming! I've had about 5 different publishers besides Algonquin, and though I did an occasional bookstore event, I never toured until I signed with them, and it was a revelation. They do things differently.Skype sessions are one alternative, she says; as are panels with other writers or editors:
I do think traditional readings are dead. People have such busy lives that to ask them to come out at night, after work, to hear a reading, is asking a lot, unless you are a celebrity, which is a whole different story. So what are you going to give them that might be different?
I find that touring isn't dead, it's just the way it's been done. If you are going to do a bookstore event, try to do it with another writer or two. Have a conversation. Don't make people wait until the end to ask their questions. Let them interrupt. Definitely have wine and food. Don't read. Really. There is so little time and people can read the book on their own, but how much of a chance to they get to hear you talk about the time you dressed up your cat as Frankenstein for Halloween, or whatever other tidbit you want to tell? It's all about connection, I think.From my own experience, I've found that writers also have to be aware that we sometimes speak a special clubhouse language. For instance, I did an event at my local library and sent out Facebook invitations telling friends I'd be doing a reading from Fobbit. One person who showed up said she came even though she had no idea what a "reading" was. "I thought it was something like a psychic 'reading,' so I was a little confused." Watch the lingo, ink-stained scribes.
5. But what happens if your book is coming out in e-format only? How do you handle bookstore events in that instance? Jane Ciabattari, whose short-story collection Stealing the Fire is now out in e-book from Dzanc Books, answers that question in "Confessions of an Ebook Newbie." Authors will never look at a fortune cookie the same way again.
6. Jon Mayes, a sales representative with Perseus Books Group, runs one of the most delightful blogs about bookstores and authors I've ever seen. This time around at Advance Reading Copy, he talks to Laura Lee Smith (whose debut novel, Heart of Palm, was recently published by Grove) and she shares how she landed literary agent Nat Sobel...with only a little prevarication:
Three years later, in December 2009, I got an email from Nat. He’d seen another story I had published, again in a small literary magazine, and he was writing to see if I had a novel. At this point, all my insecurities and fears went into high gear. I nearly buckled. After all, I had the beginning of a novel…I had a novel underway…but no way was it good enough for submission to one of the most respected agents in New York City. But here’s where, I sometimes think, my native New Jersey chutzpah might have kicked in.(Full disclosure: Nat Sobel is also my agent and Grove/Atlantic is my publisher--though I've never met Laura.)
Yes, I told him. Of course I have a novel. (Chutzpah or stupidity, I’m still not sure, but once I made the statement, there was no going back.)
He invited me to send 50 pages. I think I had 48 at the time. I beefed up the 50-page manuscript and sent it on. That was January 2010. A few weeks later he wrote back. We like the beginning, he said. Could you send the rest?
The problem was I didn’t have the rest. The manuscript was in disarray, a sprawling mess of notes, half-developed scenes, wrong-turn plot-lines and extraneous characters. At this point, I recognized that I had two choices. Throw myself on the floor and flail in despair, or write the novel.
I did both.
7. The Casual Optimist lists some of its favorite cover designs of books released in Canada. Here are my favorites of the favorites, starting with my tippity-top-top favorite: