Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A varied topic mixture of writing opportunities, insights, and changes in publishing

There are a few things that have either come into my inbox or across my proverbial radar screen that I think others would benefit from and hence this post.

My friends Jordan Rosenfeld and Becca Lawton are sponsoring "playshops" to help inspire the creative spark in writers. It is a philosophy where enjoyment of the writing process with a sense of play is emphasized over the traditional terminology of "workshops." Plus you do not have to turn anything in, it is simply to help inspire your innate creative energy.

Here is their description:

Month-Long Write Free Playshops: Playing toward Publication
Join us each month for Write Free Month-Long Playshops in which you exercise your creative chops and aim for your publishing dreams. These month-long, self-paced Write Free Playshops begin on the first Monday of every month. Every weekday for four weeks (20 days) the following activities will be sent to you in a daily e-mail (except for the Weekly Message, which will come once a week):

  • Write Free Writing Prompt to jumpstart your own personal freewrite for the day
  • Quote on Attraction to inspire and align you with your best creative life
  • Word of the Day to spark your imagination
  • Exercises to work new writing muscles
  • Weekly Message from Jordan and Becca on writing craft, practice, and community.

All this for $19.95-less than $1/day for the whole month!

There was a nice write up about the program in a column recently in my local paper.

To sign up for the playshop, click here.


For those who live in Northern California, the San Francisco chapter of the Women's National Book Association is sponsoring a "Meet the Agents and Publishers" event this Saturday, March 28th. There are eight publishing professionals who are confirmed to be there ready to hear your pitches. Both fiction and nonfiction are covered.


My friend Lee Lofland has an incredibly useful blog for those who have any aspect of police procedurals in their writing. It is not my genre, but I still find the posts fascinating.

Yesterday, Lee's post showed that he can be just as nitpicky as I am. He dissected a television episode into ten separate segments for analysis. He judged the veracity of various details à la American Idol style. Simon Cowell features prominently.

I have never watched the show in question, but I found Lee's take (and/or spit take) on the show to be highly entertaining.

On the same day, Lee showed a different side when he did a guest post "It's Not All Donuts and Paperwork" on Terry Odell's blog. Lee starts out calmly describing how he started in law enforcement, but his story gets harrowing when he describes how he handled a crisis situation which could have easily gone horribly wrong.

I hadn't known that story before, and it increased my admiration of him.


I haven't seen much discussion about this recent publishing news and was wondering if any academics reading this blog might chime in with their thoughts.

According to the online Publisher's Weekly:

The University of Michigan Press sent shock waves through the academic publishing field Monday when it announced it is switching to a primarily digital format to publish scholarly monographs. The press expects that within two years, most of the 60 monographs it publishes each year out of a total 140 new releases will be published only in digital editions. A POD option, however, will be made available for all digital books, said University of Michigan Press director Phil Pochoda. He said the press’s regional titles and its ESL list will continue to be released primarily in print editions, though select frontlist, as well as backlist, will be made available in digital formats as well as print. Print runs consequently will be more conservative, to cut down on returns. “We’re going to try to keep [initial] print runs close to orders,” Pochoda said, with more of a reliance on offset printing for smaller print runs.

My question is: How will this impact university libraries? Will they start purchasing PDF files of those academic monographs and will they be easily accessed by professors and students?

Or will the libraries wind up using the print-on-demand (POD) option?

These types of cost cutting changes can have far ranging consequences and I wonder if everything has been thought through prior to "going digital" and abandoning the printed page.


And that brings me to a recent blog post by Tess Gerritsen.

She wrote about what might be a similar trend by publishers in regard to galleys.

Tess is a New York Times bestselling author who will write blurbs to help up and coming writers. (Lee Lofland is one of her grateful recipients of her Karmic generosity.)

However, there is a limit to anyone's generosity. Recently she received an email from a publisher who announced they were no longer going to produce printed galleys.

She understands that it is cheaper and greener, but she doesn't want to read a novel at her computer nor does she want a handheld reader.

Tess loves being able to read galleys in bed, on a beach, on vacation, etc.

She feels so strongly about this that she wrote:

I think that printed galleys are part of the cost of doing business as a publisher. If you don’t print galleys, you shouldn’t expect to get any cover blurbs.


And this email came after a novelist had approached Tess and she agreed she would consider giving him a blurb. No promises, but she would try. She never guarantees blurbs because she has a lot of demands on her time and has to find some kind of work/life balance.

Now because of the change of policy by the publisher, that author's forthcoming book will absolutely not have a blurb by Tess Gerritsen.

That makes me wonder how much discussion was generated in the board rooms as to what side-effects they would have by this change in their business practices. Did they think about how it might deter their ability to generate blurbs from established authors. And subsequently how that might impact future book sales?

Did those considerations of the "human element" even factor into their debates or was this a decision based solely on the bottom line of postage and printing costs?

What makes matters worse is that email message went on to suggest recipients of printed galleys attempt to profit by the sale of ARCs on Ebay and other such sites. As if recouping a few bucks on Ebay would be worth Tess Gerritsen's time.

They also wanted her guarantee she would read the PDF galley before they would send her the file.

In one impolitic email message they not only insulted her integrity and professionalism, but they made it unlikely that she would ever provide their authors blurbs in the future.

Nice job!

It would have been far better if they had asked her if she preferred a printed galley or a digital copy because there are many people who love their Kindles and Sony Readers. She doesn't happen to be one of them.

What does the future of publishing hold if choice is not an option?

Monday, March 23, 2009

Orlando Furioso, the Louvre, Pope Joan, memoirs, literacy and

I discovered through the virtues of Google alerts that the Louvre has a special exhibit running now through May 19th called The Imaginative World of Ariosto.

There are lectures, showing of operas based on the epic poem Orlando Furioso, woodcuts from Gustave Doré, sculptures and paintings.

One of the most famous paintings inspired by Ariosto's masterpiece is Roger délivrant Angélique, 1819 by Montauban's native son Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres housed in the Louvre.

A copy is in the Ingres Museum in Montauban.

It is a beautiful painting reflecting a famous scene from the epic poem, but the Ruggiero/Angelica pairing however brief does not capture my imagination like it has artists over the years.

I much prefer Ruggiero/Bradamante.

Here is a link to a PDF file from the Louvre explaining the exhibition in detail. It would be nice to travel to Paris and see the exhibition before it closes, but alas I do not see that in the cards or in my budget. Not between now and May 18th.

I am pleased to know that there is a resurgence in interest in the Matters of France. Hopefully that will be beneficial to me in the future.

Onto some of the other topics in my title. I received an update on Donna Woolfolk Cross' novel Pope Joan. I knew that the movie based on her novel was due out this fall, but I did not know that a different version of her book was also coming out. From her update:

Hurray! A brand-new edition of the Pope Joan book by Three Rivers Press will be released in June. This is not just a re-print; I've made corrections and additions to the text and also written a new "Author's Note" to explain/expand upon these changes. I've also included a list of "Best-Ever Reading Group Questions", gleaned from my many years of chatting by speakerphone with reading and school groups all over the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Speaking of which, I'd like to ask book group members a big favor: could you fill out this survey? (If this link doesn't work for you, then go to and click on "survey".) It will take only a couple of minutes. Surveys must be completed by March 27th.

Of course I'm hoping that you'll vote for Pope Joan as one of your favorite book group reads! (doesn't strictly have to be a book you discussed in 2008; what the survey is mostly looking for are good recommendations for other reading groups). If Pope Joan makes the list of top ten book group favorites of 2008, , it would be wonderful and much-needed publicity for the new edition by Three Rivers Press.

The advantage to book group members: the survey enters you in a lottery to win $75 toward your next book group meeting. Also, you get access to the list of Reading Group Choices (RGC) authors who, like me, are willing to chat by speakerphone with book groups.

I was also alerted by my friend Matilda Butler that she and Kendra Bonnett will be holding an online memoir writing class entitled "The Craft of Memoir Writing: Using the Five Senses to Bring Your Story to Life." It runs from April 13th to June 8th and is at a reasonable cost.

Onto the topic of literacy which is my father's raison d’être. He founded the non-profit AVKO Educational Research Foundation which has an updated website, a new blog, a Facebook Page and even a Twitter account.

If you are interested in homeschooling, dyslexia or just plain old literacy, please check it out.

You can even see in online videos how in using "word families" my dad is able to get a young man, who thought he could never learn to read or spell, to correctly read the word malicious.

I am woefully behind in finishing up my travelogue of France, but know that I have not given up on doing it. My next post in that series will be about the city of Montauban, home of Ingres and my heroine Bradamante.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Critique Groups and Self-Editing

Becky Levine and Linda C. McCabe

It has been over a month since I last posted.

I have not been hospitalized, abducted by space aliens or any such dramatic excuses. Nor is it due to me running out of blog topics. Nope, I have just been busy writing. And editing. Again.

The biggest part of writing is the re-writing process.

One of the most difficult aspects of re-writing is recognizing what works, what isn't working and what needs to be changed.

My writing club held a series of editing workshops this year and we were fortunate enough to have a roster of wonderful speakers. One of which was my friend Becky Levine who spoke on a topic near and dear to her heart: critique groups.

She was able to use her workshop as a "testing ground" for her forthcoming book by Writers Digest books on the very subject of critique groups and how to critique other people's writing.

How to offer constructive criticism that will help others to know what works and how things can be improved. It is in the process of using your analytical eye on another person's work that you can then recognize things in your own writing that had heretofore been invisible.

Because the writer is always too close to their own work to really see it objectively.

Becky has been a member of various critique groups for about twenty years and she stresses that the purpose is to help writers improve their work, but never to get them to write a different book. It is the individual's work and the writer determines what advice is taken and what is rejected.

Her preferred critique group structure is one where pages for review are submitted a few days before the meeting. This allows for thoughtful consideration of the work rather than immediate response to the text.

Becky gave handouts which included a form for a written critique. She includes questions for the reviewer to answer such as:

Character: can you identify the hero (main character) in this scene? Has the author written a hero that a reader can sympathize or identify with? Does the hero's personality show complex, even conflicting, traits? What would you do to strengthen this character as the hero?

She also includes spaces to discuss Plot, Description (settings and people), Dialogue, Point of View & Voice, as well as Scene Structure.

Becky insists that when writing a critique that you always start with something good. We are dealing with people's creative sides and their egos, so find an area to praise. Becky did not allow for the possibility that there would be nothing worth praising. She adopted her "stern mother voice" if someone wanted to skip that part and directed them to find something to admire.

After starting with praise, then move to areas where you see weaknesses. Identify areas where you were bored, confused, or taken "out of the story." If you had a negative response to the text and try to identify why it did not work for you. Offer suggestions such as "what would happen if...." or "Have you tried..." Then end on another note of encouragement.

Face to face interactions are important, but it is the written critiques which can sometimes provide the most lasting help. They might be filed away for months at a time and then the tangible bits of advice are used later during revisions.

In regard to the in person critique group meetings, Becky suggests that only one person speak at a time with the writer being critiqued remaining silent. That is unless there is some confusion and questions for clarification. However, one should remember that most readers will never have the writer there in person to answer a question so if there is confusion in the text, it may need to be addressed in the revision process. (Unless that is a deliberate aspect of the story such as a clue or red herring designed to make the reader guess the solution.)

If while another person is giving their critique you think of something you wish to add, jot that down in a note rather than interrupt. You will have your turn to speak.

Overall, Becky did a wonderful job presenting how best to conduct yourself in a critique group and it reinforced many of my thoughts on the subject. I look forward to buying a copy of her book The Critiquer’s Survival Guide, due out in Fall 2009.

I had meant to do this write up about Becky's workshop shortly after it happened, except I ran out of time. I was busily preparing myself for a week-long plot intensive workshop sponsored by Free Expressions. It was the Breakout Novel Intensive known by its participants as BONI.

The classes were taught by literary agent Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.

Donald Maass

Mornings were filled with lectures, but they were more like motivational seminars fused with writing challenges. Donald Maass is an excellent public speaker who has great passion for the subject of writing and drama as well as a quick wit.

During his talks we were barraged with questions about our characters, plot points and challenged to make things worse.

One of the first exercises was to consider the main character or hero of the story, identify defining characteristics about them and then consider what the opposite qualities would be. Then find a way to show both the ideal and its opposite in the first five pages.

Here is the notes he wrote on the easel for that day:

I realized while listening to that lecture that I had those elements built into my first chapter, but they had not been brought out sufficiently. In challenging myself to find a way for my hero to show a negative quality, in this case to be disrespectful, I had to make him hurl an insult.

A nasty insult to a superior officer.

That afternoon I worked on implementing the homework assignment. My first attempts were a bit lame, but it was a break through for me to allow my hero to do something against his nature so soon in the story.

I was excited to print out my new revision to show to the critique group that night. We were assigned groups according to our genres and I was fortunate to be a part of an incredibly lively (and bawdy) group of writers.

One of the reasons I signed up for the BONI workshop was to discover what was wrong with my first few chapters. I had good luck in getting agents interested in seeing my work, so I knew that my premise and pitch were working. However, none had ever asked to see more pages.

I had received some feedback that the beginning seem "too distant." I had been polishing the chapter for so long that I could not understand what was being asked of me to change.

I brought those comments to the fresh eyes of my BONI critique group members and it was as if I had given a sock to bloodhounds in a fox hunt. One person mentioned that when I used the term "ominous" that they wanted more. Another thought I should cut it, but then I began challenging myself to give more personal stakes for my hero in that first scene.

It was as fireworks were going off in my brain. Later that night I stayed up late re-writing the first chapter and including the new insights. I fell in love with the story again.

I also want to personally thank one of my critique group members who helped me tremendously in how to increase the insult to the ego of my antagonist. By changing the dialogue slightly, without changing any plot events, he showed me how to increase the size of my hero's cojones.

And, the insult that I am now using to end my chapter wound up flowing from my lips as the group brainstormed. Thank you, Lucien.

Lucien Nanton

The afternoons were designed for you to have time to work on your writing as well as the time set aside for one on one consultations with faculty members who read portions of your work and synopsis.

Here is one more snapshot of a morning workshop's notes which is in honor of my friend Terri Thayer. During the discussion, there was mention of some designer quilts going for as much as $100,000 to collectors. Donald Maass showing his quick wit decided to change gears and switch topics from scenes to quilts.

Not really, but it was funny and led to several rounds of puns tossed out by people throughout the room.

I have found after going to my writers club meetings that I feel energized. As if simply being around other creative people releases endorphins into my bloodstream.

Interacting with the other BONI students was fantastic. Many were veterans of other Maass workshops, but all were serious writers committed to bettering their craft. So even when I wasn't at class or in a consultation, I was networking with other writers.

The week spent at BONI took my natural post-meeting high and amplified it tenfold. I felt as if I was on mental steroids.

Seriously. I had trouble sleeping, because my mind was so fired up. I rested, but could not really get into deep sleep because of the intense mental stimulation wouldn't allow me to shut my mind off.

It took me several days at home before I was able to revert to my normal sleeping patterns.

One of the last bits of advice Donald Maass gave to us was to take 20-30 pages of our manuscript and throw them off a staircase so that the pages are in disarray. Then take another 20-30 pages and repeat the process. Do this until the entire manuscript is out of sequence. Then edit page by page for microtension.

Ye Olde Grading by Gravity trick.

The rationale was to force yourself to look at each page in isolation to identify weaknesses and avoid getting "caught up" in your own narrative by doing it in sequence.

I have begun that process and am about a quarter of the way through this round of edits, but have not yet entered any into my computer. Because I am fearful of potentially introducing continuity errors by editing out of sequence.

So I shall wait until I have finished this round of edits and then enter them sequentially. I am finding areas in my manuscript that were a bit heavy on exposition that can be tightened and/or changed to dialogue.

But I now have a new focus and energy toward making this manuscript as strong as I can make it.

Write on!