Sunday, December 05, 2010

McCarthy's Bar by Pete McCarthy

From time to time, I read books that confound me. In my middle-dotage, I've started shoving those books to the side with a phrase along the lines of "There's not enough time in the world to finish tripe like that." Within the first fifty pages of Pete McCarthy's McCarthy's Bar, I found myself wondering what the heck was his point. But I continued. I love Ireland and I'm not averse to drinking. And McCarthy has a way with words and phrases. At that point, I wasn't so sure about his having a way with books, but like I said, I'm not averse to drinking.

Before I'd reached page 100, I had realized it was basically a travelogue. He's driving around Ireland drinking in pubs, visiting stone circles, being accosted by killer cows (ok, not a killer), waxing philosophical and spiritual at times, and sleeping in B&Bs of all sorts. And telling stories about the many, varied people he meets in all these places. I don't really read travelogues too often, but that's fine. I mean, the guy's funny, so why not?

See, this is where I had a problem. McCarthy is funny. I would laugh out loud at times, which can be a little strange when you're sitting among weary commuters heading to or from New York. By page 150 or so, I'd decided that I would finish reading the book even though I was having a hard time justifying it to my inner book-reading snob.

Along the way, I discovered that the book has more going for it than just a travelogue. It really is about learning about your identity. McCarthy's asking, "Where do I belong?" He was born in England, though his family is Irish and he still has cousins and uncles living in Ireland. His accent is English, so there's no BSing about it to the Irish. (He's not visiting the U.S., after all.) And those he meets on his travels include people from Germany, Belgium, Russia... I think there may even have been an Uzbek in there somewhere. And they're becoming Irish — at least their kids are.

So can an English-born guy with Irish roots claim to be Irish? I'll let you read for yourself.

So carry the book with you for a few weeks. I wouldn't recommend you read it all in one sitting, unless you've got a lot of beer and hearty food with you. No, take it with you to a pub, read a few pages over a pint. Mark your place when someone sits down near you and chats (it may help to stop in an Irishy pub; they're everywhere now, which also is a point McCarthy makes), and enjoy the craic.

You may not remember every single person you meet on these pages, but you don't have to. This is one of those books where the journey is far more important than the destination. But when you've reached the last page, you'll realize you've found a nice place for resurrection.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Irene Goodman Auctioning Off Critiques to Support Blindness Research

Hello, fellow writers. I'm passing along some information that came to me from a colleague — one of the many talented writers who make up the community at Agent Query Connect. His name is Robert K. Lewis, but this post is related to the agency that represents him.

Irene Goodman is auctioning off critiques of partial manuscripts via eBay (i.e., critiques of the first fifty pages or so of a complete manuscript), with the proceeds going to the Foundation Fighting Blindness, the Deafness Research Foundation, and Hope For Vision. She's doing this every month; the next auction will begin on December 1.

Mind you, this is not a gimmick. It's a real cause being supported by a real agent who's volunteering her time in order to raise money and awareness of diseases that cause blindness. Why? One major reason is because her 23-year-old son has Usher Syndrome, which is causing him to lose his hearing and vision.

So, take another look at her guidelines for what she'll critique, but again, this is a cause worth supporting regardless of whether or not you write in the genres she represents.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book Review: The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee

I know Halloween is over. I've already qualified for the free turkey at my local supermarket. But I still like a good scary story, and almost as good is a well-written review of a good scary story. I found one of these not too long ago at the blog of one of my followers, Brian James who's a pretty darn good writer himself. With his permission, I'm reprinting his review of Lewis Buzbee's The Haunting of Charles Dickens. Feel free to post a comment here or on Brian's blog. And if you have a review you'd like to see reposted here or posted here for the first time, please contact me. You can do so via or via

The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee
(Feiwel & Friend 2010)

Sometimes there are stories that float around in my mind that I want to read, but know not within what pages they lie. As soon as I began this book, I knew it was one of those stories I'd been searching out for a long time.

This book is so wonderful on so many levels that it's hard to know where to begin praising it. But I'll start with what is always the make or break for me and that is character. The main character, twelve-year-old Meg, is one of those characters you don't want to leave off and who keeps you reading. She's smart, courageous, and altogether real. I love when the child characters are real heroes in middle grade novels. And though set in Victorian London, Meg is not unlike a modern character. After all, a twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old no matter what scenario you drag them through.

The story moves at great pace, always leaving the reader wanting to push ahead. The central mystery is full of adventure that unravels perfectly. And the book doesn't talk down to the reader. Even at its most complicated, it's direct but never condescending. This is something that I think young readers will really respond to.

The themes of this book are incredibly relevant to our world. In many ways, I think our world has reverted to the industrial and corporate greed of Dickens's time. Child labor is as much a problem today as it was in Victorian times. Just because it's not happening in the streets of Western Civilization's shining cities, it shouldn't be ignored. It's important for children today to be reminded of the cruelty that comes with this practice, especially when the very same practice is partially responsible for enabling most of us to have cheap electronics and clothing.

There isn't anybody I wouldn't recommend this book to. It's one of those rare stories that can transport you into it's world and make it so you want to stay. I can't imagine any reader not cheering Meg on and feeling proud of her each time she succeeds.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Thoughts on Branding, Voice, and Dedication

I'm not sure if this is something that comes with age or it's just a facet of the age we're living in, but I'm finding it more and more difficult to meet my many goals. For example, just to write a blog post each month has proven to be a major challenge. Of course, that's not nearly enough to maintain a consistent following (and I thank all of you who do come back post after post.)

Earlier this week, I pulled out a book about writing nonfiction book proposals. It's from 1995. To be sure, a lot has changed in the past fifteen years. But then again, many things remain the same. A writer still needs to have a saleable idea, a marketable product, and the dedication and enthusiasm to see those ideas and products brought to frution.

That's not exclusive to nonfiction. Fiction writers, too, need to have those elements in abundance. My fiction tends toward "literary fiction" and with that often comes slow, character-driven plots. There simply aren't as many people willing to spend their time reading the work of an unknown writer whose story is slow-paced.

But if a writer can sell his product 𔄤 fiction, nonfiction, memoir, poetry — and become virtually synonymous with his own style of writing, he can develop an audience who loves his work. That's not easy, but I think that's what separates the wannabe's from the superstars.

I used to hate Stephen King. I hadn't read his work, but back when I was in high school, it seemed that he could put all his disjointed nightmares on paper and sell a few million copies. What kind of writer would allow himself to descend to such levels, I wondered. After I saw the movie Stand By Me, which I later discoverd was based on his novella The Body, I softened on Mr. King. I softened further when I met the woman who is now my wife and who loves King's work. And I softened even more when I read his work On Writing.

What happened while I was getting all squishy is that I realized what I thought I knew about King was completely wrong. He wasn't a horror writer — not that I have anything at all against horror. He was a masterful story teller. He wa not always a great writer, but he could spin a yarn as well as spider could spin a web. First and foremost, he wrote about people. But he also wrote to, knew, and appreciated his audience. Read his forewards and afterwards. You can't help but get to know the guy. And like him.

I wouldn't call myself the biggest Stephen King fan in the world, but I've read enough of his work now to say that he's got a definite style. The marketing folks would talk about his brand of story. Others would reference his voice. To me, his work shows that he's put his time in and still does.

How about you? Are you able to put as much time in as you need to your writing? What would you need to sacrifice to meet your goals for yourself?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

An Actual Trip

Not that I've exactly been burning the blogosphere up with the past of my postings, but I'll be away from a computer for the next several days on an actual trip. But I've already got a blog post yearning to breathe free. Actually, it'll be an interview with an agent! I might post something else before I conduct the interview, but I believe it's fair to say that before October is history, you'll see more activity here on the Elephant's Bookshelf.

In the meantime, feel free to read and write at your leisure.

(And no, the person in the image at the side is not me, not my wife, not anyone I know. Just someone writing on a plane. During my travels, however, I'll be the guy with the young child on his lap.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: Shiver

I don't know if you feel it too, but I think someone punched the afterburners into high gear. I could have sworn Labor Day was a week ago. (And no, I still haven't taken that vacation...) It's also hard to believe that the year is almost three-fourths done. Around New Year's, I asked readers if they'd like to contribute book reviews. I got one back then. Now I have another to share with you. Though I know the writer's name, she prefers to be identified by her Agent Query moniker, Big Black Cat. Thanks, BBC, for your contribution.

Yes, I'm a YA librarian and I hadn't read Shiver yet. There, I said it.

With that off my chest, I have to share that I approach all YA romance with trepidation. I'm virulently anti-love-at-first-sight, which is so common in the genre. Maybe I'm a jaded adult, or perhaps I was just an unattractive teen, but I find the idea of love at first sight is usually an excuse for not having to bother with character development vis a vis the relationship. So I found myself pleasantly surprised by Shiver — but I digress.

The story's basic plot is human girl loves werewolf, which had me gagging at hello. But guess what, BBC was won over by something I didn't expect — really good writing. Stiefvater does a stellar job of using a cliched genre as a vehicle for some excellent writing. She also takes a big leap by introducing YA readers to a little culture, such as the German poet Rilke. Yes, that's a true statement.

While there is an element of "ba BOOM I'm fantastically in love," the rather complicated backstory of Grace, the female main character, and her obsession with a wolf pack, produces a relationship that builds on (gasp!) friendship and trust before evolving into something else. True, the male MC (werewolf Sam) is in his wolf form at the time, but hey — building blocks are building blocks, and if you can’t dig interspecies relationships you have missed the YA bus.

Another pro for me in this book was the supporting cast being well written — something you don't always see in YA, or adult literature for that matter. Teen characters often come off as stereotypes, so I was pleased to find an exception. There were perhaps two characters that I didn't feel I "knew" by the end, but for the most part the whole group was well written and individualistic.

Maggie Stiefvater is represented by Laura Rennert of the Andrea Brown Agency, and I can tell you, I'm jealous as hell about that.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

When Writing Takes a Vacation

Sometimes I wonder if these pauses of more than a week in posts concern the readers of The Elephant's Bookshelf. (It's probably worse for readers of Matt Sinclair's Coffee Cup, which often goes several weeks without an update.) But then again, it's still summer, and readers and writers often take vacations.

You know vacations — those all-too-short respites from the workaday jobs that pay our salaries, feed our families, and are the source (too often) of stress as well as self-definition. The problem is, I don't know them very well. As a writer and father of young children, I tend to live without too many luxuries, such as disposable money, a flush savings account, and a reliable car. I've also been a writer long enough to know that even if I'm fortunate enough to sell the novels I write, they'll likely never account for much supplemental income. But I'd like some supplement, anyway.

Which brings me to the challenge. Should you take a vacation from your writing? I don't know about you, but having failed to take any time off this summer, my brain is much more fried than any portion of my skin. So I'm wondering if the work I'm putting into the manuscript is good enough or if I'm just wasting my time.

Of course, it could be that the evil demon over my shoulder is whispering snippets of doubt and pessimism into my ear.

My inclination is to keep writing and reading it after I've done — or have my trusted readers give it another go.

What do you think? And what do you do when faced with writing while mentally fatigued?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

How Do You Do It?

I don't know if you regularly look at the comments on these posts or return to see what other folks have said after you've left your mark; I get the wonderful task of moderating all that lands on the Elephant's Bookshelf, so I see them all. But if you didn't come back, you may have missed a great question from a reader who I presume is a relatively new writer.

Dr3am3r said, "I've just begun working on a manuscript, and the enormity of the task freaks me out like nothing I have ever before experienced. How do you all do it? What keeps you focused and how do you not become overwhelmed?"

As someone who has penned stories and poems and songs and anything else my little heart imagined since I was a small child, I can't really speak to the whole freaking out part of things. I've always written and started without any expectation of making money at it. As I grew up, I was more concerned with telling stories that I thought were interesting, and if I could get other people interested in them too, all the better. But I've worked with writers most of my professional life, and I've seen some of them freak out. I accept that the blank sheet of paper can be daunting.

The question reminds me of the story behind the name of Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I don't have the book in front of me at the moment, but it went something like this: As a young girl, she was putting together a report about birds and hadn't done all her research. The night before the report was due, she was in tears and her father asked why. She confessed what had happened and he agreed to help her. "How are we going to get it done? There's so many of them!" And he said, "We'll go through them one at a time, bird by bird."

Again, I may have gotten some of the facts wrong, but the gist of it is that her dad helped and explained that to reach your goal, you take it step by step. Perhaps I even said something like that when I offered a review of Bird by Bird back when the Bookshelf was still a young elephant.

But I'll ask you all, fellow readers and writers, how do you do it? What compels you to tell a story? What makes you go back to the story you've started to make it better? How do you overcome the seemingly enormous task of writing a novel? What have you been smoking to make you think you can do this and do it well?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rediscovered Quote

I'm in the midst of cleaning a desk and found several old notebooks from conferences I covered as a reporter. Written on the inside cover was this quote. It's probably not mine, but I'll claim it if no one else will. It sounds like something I'd write.

If you stand around waiting for destiny, you will only meet fate.

It seems appropriate today, as we start a new month. I've had a sense of destiny lately. Some things are clicking, and the revisions of my "completed" manuscript are moving ahead nicely, though I've put the work-in-progress on hold for the summer. Of course, as we discussed in a previous post, we're always writing and I know of some significant changes I'll be making to that manuscript once I return, and I'm sure it'll be much improved.

So, welcome to August, friends and fellow writers. What are you working on?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Getting Personal

First, I'd like to say thank you to all the new followers. I believe you all arrived after a thread of conversation on Agent Query, which, for the uninitiated, is a site that includes tons of information about how to query a literary agent, information on agencies, and a community of writers — both agented and not.

That particular thread also broached a topic that I thought I'd like to address here: personal information.

Here's a little story about myself and my blogging. When I created my first blog, Matt Sinclair's Coffee Cup, one of my brothers visited and warned me to be less informative about my personal things. At the time, I think I was just discussing the random things going on in my life — umpiring baseball games, watching baseball games, drinking a beer while watching baseball on television after having umpired a game that night... I wasn't griping about work or calling someone names or whining about a hangover or anything completely idiotic like that. But I understood where my brother was coming from, and I toned down some of what I discussed. When my kids were born, I became even more standoffish about personal information, especially as it pertains to them.

But there are times when personal information is useful to making a point. As a writer, a lot of my scenes in what I write are informed by what has happened in my real life. They're fiction, but they might have a germ of reality in them that morphed into some imaginative piece of crafted prose (or maybe something else that starts with the letters "cr.")

A blog post is different, but the goal can be the same: engage the reader, be honest, be interesting, and oh yeah, be honest. As John Lennon sang "All I want is the truth. Just give me some truth."

I ask you, faithful readers, followers, friends, Romans... How much personal information do you include in a blog post? How much do you allow to enter your fiction? Do you think of these things as different? Mutually exclusive? Closely tied together? Wrapped in leather?

Come on, you can tell me....

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Versatility and Range

The other night, on a softball field off the East River in the sweltering city of New York, I did something I hadn't done since I was a little kid. Not only did I hit two home runs — I wouldn't call myself a power hitter, by any stretch of the imagination — I also pitched. I've played baseball-like games since I can remember. When I was two years old, clad in an elephant shirt, one of my brothers would pitch Wiffleballs to me that I'd chop at with a little orange bat. So I've been around a ball field pretty much all my life and have played every position.

But in high school and college I was a catcher. When I could no longer allow a few at bats to justify a plummeting grade point average, I decided that my baseball career was, sadly, at an end. So my softball career started in earnest. Long story short, I've played everywhere, filling a utility role on strong teams and leading mediocre teams from whatever deep hole needed filling. But as I've aged, I've found that sometimes I can't do the things that used to be so easy. I can't move as quickly or as well as I did when I was in my twenties (or, GASP!, my thirties). The other night, it made sense for me to pitch. I was more useful there.

What does any of this have to do with writing?

Versatility and range often go unheralded in writers. "Those are traits of journalists," some might scoff. And while that's not untrue, I wonder why fiction writers don't always allow them into their world. Or maybe it's not the writers.

How many of you either say or think you'd like to write in more than one genre? I bet there are many of you; I'm one. And I'm not talking about writing fiction and nonfiction. I mean writing, say, literary fiction and science fiction, or thrillers and young adult.

If you're fortunate enough to have an agent, you might hear her say, "Stick with what you do best and make yourself even better." Indeed, that's good advice in my opinion.

But what about those of us who feel not only comfortable but capable of writing in a variety of manners? What about the versatile writer? Perhaps this is where you develop a pen name (or second pen name, if you write under one already) to keep the distinction clear. Let's face it, I doubt most Stephen King readers would feel warm and fuzzy about finding a romance novel by their favorite author — unless, of course, the readers' eclectic tastes include such flavors.

But I'm not sure even that is necessary. Graham Greene would step back and write his "diversions" — humorous stories like Our Man in Havana — that aren't steeped in Catholic symbolism and issues of great import. A more contemporary writer, John Connolly, came to my attention through The Book of Lost Things (a wonderful read if you've not tried it!), which is essentially a coming of age fantasy story. Connolly is perhaps best known as the writer of the highly engaging (and sometimes wince-inducing) Charlie Parker thriller series. Again, brilliant stuff.

As a reader, I trust Connolly implicitly to tell any type of story. Perhaps it matters that he also plied his trade as a journalist.

So I wonder, do you write all that you can write?. Are you telling the stories you want to tell? Do you write to the market you think you can sell or do you write the story and let things fall as they might? Inquiring minds want to know.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The Daily Deed

As we head into what promises to be a lovely and exciting holiday weekend (at least around here in God's Country, a.k.a. New Jersey), I find myself with something I'm not too accustomed to having much of: free time. Like now, for example. The wife just left for an appoinment and the girls are getting drowsy as Bert and Ernie sing about words starting with the letter "l."

Now, a conscientious writer would head into the current work in progress (or two as the case may be) and continue where he left off. I, on the other hand, am squeezing in a moment to post a blog, maybe check up on Facebook (where I'll likely post a link to this on the Elephant's Bookshelf page -- feel free to follow me there, too!), and check out a writing site or two, like Agent Query.

These are not unimportant things, but they are distractions from the primary task at hand, which is to prepare my manuscripts for heading out into the big blue world of publishing. Their first stop, presumably, will be an agent. I don't know who that will be yet, but sites like Agent Query certainly help me get closer to answering that question. Yet, if the manuscript isn't written and as polished as I can make it, then searching for an agent is wasted time.

That brings me to a question: Do you write every day? And perhaps more importantly, does writing that isn't directly related to your manuscript count?

For example, I don't work every day on my manuscript. Try as I might, I just can't guarantee that I'll have the time and access between my workaday life and my home-with-babies demands. But my workaday life is a writing life. Does that count?

The other aspect of this question is, who is asking? I ask it of myself all the time. I ruminate over the lives of my characters often. What would Bonnie do, for example, if she never were able to return to Antarctica? Could she handle returning if Taylor had died in a helicopter crash? Is that what the death of her parents prepared her for? Or is their death meant to spring her into thinking about love and her future? Those are questions that can only be answered fully by writing and revising. Because her life isn't just about her — there are several characters moving across the pages — and I'll only pull back the veil on her life by allowing her to live it in combination with those characters.

But if a non-writing friend is asking how my novel is going, I'm going to say, "It's going well. I'm making progress every day." I might even offer a word count, because that can be impressive to people, even though I've done enough of this to know that 57,000 words now means nothing until after I've gotten through the first draft and started reshaping that collection of words, removing thousands of the wrong ones and adding hundreds if not thousands of others.

I write every day. Just not always with a pen or computer.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Brush Brush Here, Brush Brush There....

That squeezy sound you heard was me shoe-horning a moment into my busy work week to finally affix an award onto my electronic wall, courtesy of Lisa Gibson at Random Thoughts to String Together. (Thanks, Lisa!)

Like many of these awards, it comes with no financial prize, no guarantee of a bump in readership, and, despite my repeated requests, no suspension of the rules of space and time. Given the state of the economy, the need to show advertisers how you are growing your readership, and the coolness aspect of suspending time, you may wonder why any self-respecting writer would accept such accolades. Of course, we writers already know the answer to that: We have no self respect. If we did, we'd never share the painful pieces of our personality with readers who may end up on our doorstep and scream, "Finally, someone understands me!"

Just kidding, of course. (And no, I have no advertisers that I communicate with for this blog. Even I don't completely care about growing my readership via ads just yet.)

I'm posting this because I like what Lisa does on her blog and because I like helping other writers.

But wait, there's more!

The award also comes with a few tasks. I don't think I'll fall into a deep abyss should I fail to accomplish one or two of these tasks, but I'll list them for one and all anyway.

I'm required to:
1) Thank and link back to the person who gave you this award. (Check!)

2) Share 7 things about yourself.

3) Pass the award along to 15 bloggers who you have recently discovered and who you think are fantastic for whatever reason! (In no particular order...)

4) Contact the bloggers you've picked and let them know about the award.

So, let me try this. Hmmmmmm, seven things about. Well, I'm a Pisces and like long walks in the dark..... Nah, that's not helpful.

2.1) I trace my love of writing to falling in love with music and lyrics; I made up songs while walking to and from kindergarten
2.2) I have loved elephants since childhood.
2.3) I'm a registered Democrat, despite my love of elephants
2.4) I learned to read in the summer between pre-school and kindergarten, when I couldn't get my family to read The Elephant's Child by Rudyard Kipling often enough.
2.5) I've played baseball at least as long as I've made up songs and stories
2.6) I created a wiffleball team to compete with my brother, who loved turtles. My team: The New York Elephants.
2.7) If I'd realized my dream of becoming a major league baseball player, I still would have become a writer. I know this as certainly as I know that Heaven has baseball fields.

As for numbers 3 and 4, I'm going to have to get back to that. Lisa and I know several of the same bloggers, so that might seem like overkill. Then there's the chain-letter aspect of this request. Of course, Lisa didn't say anything about cute kittens or puppies dying or babies going without diaper rash ointment should I fail in my appointed quest, so I suspect I'll be ok. But then those faithful readers who stop by might not learn about other writers, as I'm learning from Lisa's list.

I'm pretty sure I can add three or four to the list and will do so soon. I promise.

Once again, thanks Lisa, and thanks to everyone else for reading this far.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Multitasking Manuscripts

June has been a funky month. Aside from the usual torrent of busy-ness at work and at home, my modicum of a writing life has been tossed about on a crazy train.

In one of those "fish or cut bait" moments, I decided to quit whining about how I don't have any time to get my first novel out the door. But I'm too much of a perfectionist to not give it one last massaging, taking into account the many prescient comments my early readers have offered. If you're a writer, you know what I mean: "I liked it, but I'm not sure I know what value [insert name of character] provides." Or "I can almost taste that room, but I think I'm getting lost there. Too descriptive!"

Masked in compliments, remarks like those are vital to getting a manuscript in shape, because they cut to the heart of the matter: It's not ready yet. However, while I've appreciated the support of my carefully selected early readers, I didn't always hear what they said. As writers, we're trained to put a finished draft aside for several weeks and work on something else before going back to revise. In a sense, I've found that I needed a similar bit of time to let my readers' comments simmer too. Finally, the remarks have sunk in and I'm eager to get this puppy out into the field to run.

So, I've reopened the manuscript, stripped out some of the detail, added more character development to those people who needed it, and even happened upon a couple typos that somehow escaped the typo-spray I'd shot at the manuscript months if not years ago. Damn insects!

But I don't want to lose the momentum on my current work in progress. I've made great progress in a short amount of time, and I intend to finish the first draft by the end of the year. Hence, the challenge: How do you get a manuscript in shape for agents when you're also writing something new?

For me, the biggest challenge is time. (I know, I know. Not only have I joined that club, I serve on the board, which hasn't helped at all.) So trying to manage multiple manuscripts is like keeping two toddlers safe when they're exploring the house in different directions. I know whereof I speak.

What advice do you have for your fellow writers? Do you focus on one manuscript at a time? Do you move back and forth each week or each day? Do you have other suggestions? Feel free to share.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Write On! Stephen King's On Writing

After an altogether disappointing reading experience with Firefly by Piers Anthony, I decided to go for something I knew I'd enjoy. So into my backpack went my copy of Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. To my mind, this is one of the best primers out there for aspiring novelists, and I was surprised at how long it had been since I last read it from cover to cover. Put it this way, tucked between a couple pages is a small calendar page from January 2005, and I don't have this book listed among those that I read that year, so I probably used it only for reference purposes at that point. It has been too long.

In the book, King breaks things down into digestible bits and helps readers/writers understand that if things stink pretty bad on the other end of that process, that's ok too. After all, rewriting is a vital part of writing. Anne Lamott had a similar sentiment in her widely acclaimed Bird by Bird: All first drafts are shitty.

But one of the things that I enjoy most about this book is the author's voice. On each page, King sounds not like some pompous jerk telling you how he succeeded and why he's earned a mint on his books. Rather, this is the voice of your favorite teacher as he offers suggestions and a healthy dose of laughter. This is the guy you want to impress with your own stories and whose class you're disappointed to leave when the bell rings.

In the opening sections of the book, he recounts his impoverished fatherless youth, his development into an alcohol- and cocaine-addicted commercial-publishing megastar, and finally his progression into the prolific write-every-damn-day author we know him as today. At the same time, it's his answer to that annoying question: "Where do your ideas come from?"

So, if you're a writer and you've never read this, put it on your list of must-reads. If you can't remember the last time you read it, pull it off your shelf and rediscover his simple lessons. If you're a writer who doesn't like reading, Steve has a special message for you too (though you're not going to like it). And if you're a fan of Stephen King but not looking to write anything of your own, you'll find more than enough to keep you entertained as well.

Monday, May 24, 2010

What Do You Do? What Do You Do?

As some of you may have noticed, I've not written much here lately. There's a very good reason for that: I've been awfully busy. Things are getting set aside, brushed aside, looked at sideways. Aw, hell, I've just been frigging busy.

I've been able to keep working on my current novel, which now tops 52,000 words, but that's because I have a very clear routine to it.

Which brings me to my question, inspired somewhat by the oft-used Keanu Reeves' line in Speed, What do you do?

In this case, it goes like this: You're a writer with an idea burning in your head that needs to be written down. But you've got a job, a spouse, a family of kids twisting you every which way but to the computer, and you know that if you gave them all up, you'd be more screwed up than if you kept struggling to get by with the status quo.

So what do you do? How do you get that manuscript out of your brain, onto paper or a computer, out the door, and into the minds of agents and readers?

Me? I keep writing. I sequester these stories in my computer and pray that a lightning bolt doesn't make me regret that I've not backedup my files since the Bush Administration. There's probably some psychological term for this — other than denial, which everyone seems to suffer from. But it doesn't make me feel any better.

What do you do?

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

When the Time Comes: Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs

This morning, it happened. I hit that page. You know the one I mean: the page when you realize you don't have much left in the book you're reading and you'll have to find something else to read — or start the same book over from the beginning.

There are few writers whose work I enjoy enough to do that, but Michael Chabon is one of them. A co-worker let me borrow her copy of his latest, Manhood for Amateurs. Now, my being a man probably makes this a more enjoyable read than it was for her — and she enjoyed it. But, from my perspective, what makes it worth immediately re-reading is that it rekindles thoughts about childhood while simultaneously making me wistful for my future years of parenthood.

Like the best nonfiction, Chabon makes everything in this collection of essays feel like a short story. From his own recollections, Chabon transports me to my special hidey-holes of kid-dom. Those secret paths through the woods where I tracked tribes of Indians. The moments on home movies long since muted when I didn't know I was being filmed. Even the essay about the changing of a radio station's playlist brought back car rides along roads I haven't traveled in years.

Though I sometimes wonder if people who aren't blessed with a good vocabulary and the knowledge of how to use a dictionary can fully appreciate the nuance and virtuosity he applies to each sentence, he also scars the landscape with enough f-bombs to make any 13-year-old boy proud.

So here I am, poised to begin page 301 of his 306-page book, and I wonder whether I'm man enough to do it all over again.

Do You Like Me? Join the Herd

In a mad dash to scoop up as much money as possible ... Ok that's not even close to true. Let's try again.

The Elephant's Bookshelf is now on Facebook. I haven't quite figured out what to do with it yet, but so far, I think it'll complement the blog. Perhaps we can get into more complex discussions about the things we're writing or reading these days. Or maybe you're an evil stalker wondering how to infiltrate my life and riddle me with spam — or worse.

We'll see if this is a good idea, but for now, I will formally invite you to check it out, "Like" it, and share your thoughts and ideas. Welcome to the family.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is It Ok to Cheat on Your Manuscript?

After years of stops and starts, I've gotten back into a fairly consistent pattern of writing. The Antarctica novel is progressing slowly but surely; I should top 48,000 words during my next session. And I'm getting to know both my characters and their worlds better each time I write.

But I'd kinda forgotten about the other thing that happens when I write regularly. Strangers come between us. Other characters, some sexy, some surly, some childish, some selfish, slip into my mind when it's otherwise fairly blank. Story ideas emerge. Other novels or short stories or songs that I should write knock on my synapses, doing all they can to get my attention — to distract me from the work in progress.

Some mornings, I indulge such fantasies. What's wrong with a little literary flirtation, after all. It's not like anything will really get in the way of my manuscript. After all, I've been with it for so long, I must see it through to its logical conclusion.

I know I'm not the first writer to have had wildly attractive characters pop into mind and promise excitement beyond anything I've written so far. "Write about me," said the character on the New York subway train. "I'm younger than your current character. She's much stuffier than I am." I will admit, there are a couple paragraphs that would shock my current protagonist. No, not shock; she's a scientist. She'd understand, but she'd also know how to get back at me.

Still, when I get on my commuter train each night — sometimes with a beer — I know who I'll go home with.

Have you ever cheated on your characters? Was it a long-term affair or were you able to keep everything on the up and up?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Interviews Galore

As someone who writes for a living — both as a journalist covering a distinct beat and as a freelancer of various stripes — I often find myself conducting interviews. Sometimes I just get into journalist mode and put any unsuspecting rube who crosses my path or sits on the barstool beside me under an impromptu game of 20 questions.

But lately, since I kinda call a lot of the shots for my full-time gig, I don't get to do many interviews. Perhaps that seems counterintuitive, but I won't bore you with the details. Suffice it to say, I don't have a lot of time to conduct the types of thorough interviews I enjoy doing.

Tomorrow, however, that will not be the case. I'm interviewing a leader of a major nonprofit arts organization (which I won't divulge here; I try not to mix work with pleasure too much, the same way some children don't let the brocolli touch the chicken.) And later I'll be interviewing someone for my college's alumni publication. Beyond that, I hope to conduct another interview with the researcher who works in Antarctica to get some more details about life there for my novel.

Which brings me to my point. Do you as writers of fiction feel you know how to conduct interviews? Do you wish you were a journalist? Or were you like me when I graduated from college aspiring to be a Writer (emphasis and capital letter added for pomposity).

Well, from my perspective it's good to conduct interviews to keep those intellectual muscles in shape. Because readers ask questions. They may just let them linger in their brain, but don't you love it when you're thinking about these characters and then all of a sudden a scene emerges that basically addresses exactly what you were thinking about? A character's love life? Why does he do certain things day in day out? What does she see in that new guy in accounting?

If you don't already, give it a try: conduct interviews. Chat with your kids. If they're teens, grill them about what's going on with their lives and those of their friends. You may not like the answers, but if you can use it in your fiction, perhaps it's useful on multiple levels.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

In the Beginning

A few of you have heard or read my descriptions of the inspiration of my current work in progress, which is set "in part" in Antarctica. For those who don't know, the idea came from a press release that crossed my desk. I read about a strange salt deposit that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. From what they've learned there, scientists and researchers are exploring all sorts of things such as whether the existence of life in that environment might suggest how life might exist in extreme cold on other planets and moons.

At least so far, my story doesn't explore the questions of life on other planets. Rather, it explores whether there might be love for one scientist in particular. Or is she locked in a cold, barren wasteland in which an occasional, potentially devastating warm wind blows? I've never been a love story writer, so in some ways this is uncharted territory for me, too.

Still, when I first saw that press release lo these many years ago, I had an almost immediate image of characters and how the novel would start. But this past weekend, in between cooking scrambled eggs and driving to Home Depot, I pondered a change. What if the story doesn't begin where I thought it did? Or, another way of looking at it: Why do I start a novel that I always describe as "taking place in Antarctica" on a road in California, where the scene culminates in a fatal car accident? Why does a reader care? And at 40,000 words written, is it too late to change?

A fellow writer who helped me think about my previous novel called on Friday. He writes science fiction — a genre I like very much though I've not written much of it lately — and we chatted about our current WIPs. He remarked about how our pieces had one fundamental similarity: world building. That phrase and all it implies lingered with me even as I worked on the novel as I had before we spoke.

Recently, I returned to some research notes and rediscovered the incredible variety in the landscape surrounding my setting in Antarctica. And I realized my friend was right: readers need to know what this place looks like. Of course, I don't want to load my first pages up with icebergs of backstory, but I've begun rewriting my opening chapter — and probably several early chapters will need to be changed.

What I've written previously remains viable. After all, those people must die. But I think I've made a significant shift. I hope it will be a fruitful change. If nothing else, I will get to use more of what I've learned researching Antarctica. California simply is nowhere near as fascinating to me.

How about you? Have you realized in the midst of writing a novel that you've got some fundamental flaws? What did you do about it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Best Laid Plans

This was going to be a special week. I was going revise my "complete" manuscript while also writing more of my work-in-progress. But then there was a torrential rain storm. With the sounds of a crash and a splash, my vacation writing plans shifted like the now-warped tabletop that fell to the floor of my basement. (The table was on the way out anyway, which is why it wasn't attached to its legs.)

These few words here are the only bits of quasi-creativity I've written all week. Dozens of diapers later, I've cleaned most of the basement and gotten the clothes dryer to work again. But it's Friday and my vacation is almost over.

There's a saying I've shared before that seems appropos here: How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans for tomorrow.

So here goes:

Are you there, God? It's me, Matt.

First, thanks for the sunshine. It's a fair sight better than the frigging ark weather you laid down on us last week, but I don't want to sound ungrateful. Now, I need to do a couple errands before the whole shebang collapses around me — milk for the wife, diapers for me, maybe some scotch for the cats... And then I'd like to actually put some writing time in. But if that's not to be, as Kurt Vonnegut said, "So it goes."

I've still got a great family and this sun of yours is supposed to keep burning brightly in the sky for most of the weekend. And as long as my guardian angel hasn't been downsized due to the economic doldrums that seem to be affecting everything, can you remind him or her that I need to avoid the spring bloom of potholes in the road if I actually get a chance to jog.

Thanks again, God.

Oh yeah, Live long and prosper.


What, you didn't know God was a Vulcan?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Salman Rushdie on Love, Sex, Writing, Friendship. What Else Is There?

Emory University posted a video of writer-in-residence Salman Rushdie talking with Chris Hitchens about various subjects. If nothing else, I want to have this somewhere I won't lose it so I can view it when I get a chance. In the meantime, check it out. Feel free to share what you think.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Spring Springing

I know there's still snow on the ground and more forecast in the near future, but I swear that I smelled spring in the air yesterday. And with spring, a male writer's mind turns to thoughts of ... love scenes.

Ok, not all the time. At my age, I need a little bit of time in between writing such scenes. But in my work in progress, I'm getting very close to determining what kind of story I'm really writing. Is it a love story or is it a tale of love gone cold?

It has all the makings of a love story. There's thousands of miles of distance, rancor between family members, young kids who tell it like they see it... It opens with death. Love story all the way!

Here I am, 35,000-words-plus into the story (with lots of holes since I've kinda leapfrogged over some of the important 'What the hell is happening?' stuff), and I'm about to print things out so I can literally cut and rearrange chapters and scenes. It's not the way I handled my first novel, but this one feels different and feels like it needs some back-to-basics "storyboarding" tactics.

I'm not sure this will work, but when it comes to love, I've found that you never know exactly what will work until it doesn't. I've got to be myself and let the shreds of story fall as they may.

How do you approach a crossroad in your story?

Sunday, February 07, 2010

J.D. Salinger, You Goddam Phony

Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, for a guy who's supposedly dead, you've been in the news an awful lot.

And for a guy who mostly hid out in his hermit hole, coming out on occasion to scream at trespassers, get eggs and coffee and shoot the shit about the weather at the local place in town, and gawk at the girls at the high school, you've been getting a lot of how ya' doins by all those folks who you probably wouldn't give the time of day.

Seems to me that all that talk of phonies (I mean, who talks like that?) seems, how should I put it? hypocritical now that you're back on the literary circuit. When's your next book coming out, anyway?

I keep seeing folks on the train reading your previous work. As if you're going to rehash that old tripe! I mean aren't the Glass family pretty much half empty at this point? Off to the vapor, with you Zooey. And don't forget to send Esme a bit more squalor, Seymour. Bananafish, bah!

Jerry, you've found a new family to write about, right? The people of New York became boring long ago. But what's been going on down at the Cornish, New Hampshire, Post Office? What have you been listening to down at the barbers where you get your ponytail waxed? No, that probably wasn't you, actually. But it coulda been.

I don't know, Jerry, I think you've probably got it all wrong. You actually can't stay locked in the 1950s and '60s. Literature needs to breath or else it gets really dusty. But then that might have explained your penchant for younger women. Keeps us young, they say. But, Jerry, you were 91 years old when you died! Goddam, that's pretty friggin old.

Still, you did ok, man, God love ya. Maybe it's all right that you might have new works come out as long as you don't have to deal with the media freak show that would have occurred if you'd actually had them appear during your lifetime. Maybe your kids will go into seclusion in your stead if new works by you emerge from your Cornish cave.

Hey, stranger things have happened.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ad Astra, Jerry

By now, you've probably heard that J.D. Salinger has died.

Rest in peace, you old curmudgeon. It's a goddam shame.

My thoughts go out also to my high school English teacher, Robert Kaplow (who wrote the novel that became Me and Orson Welles). I remember how hard he took it when Welles died. I can only imagine how much tougher it is for him now that his biggest literary hero has typed The End.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Naked Guest Post (Safe for Work)

Earlier today, my first "guest blogger" post was published at Caroline Hagood's blog Culture Sandwich. I have to admit, I love seeing creative things I've written on sites that I don't control.

It's a topic I wouldn't normally blog about — nakedness. But Caroline's got a great site with a fun voice and perspective, and I felt comfortable there. She writes poetry as well as commentary and was my first outside book reviewer here at the Bookshelf.

Not that anyone was asking, but no, I was not in my birthday suit when I wrote it. And I'm sure you're all happier about that.

I'd love to hear what you think.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Resolutions/Goals Update

The decorations are down, the bottles have been recycled, and even the fruit cake is gone (and who knows if the same one will be resurrected next Christmas). All that's left are the promises we made to ourselves to work hard to achieve our personal goals.

So, we're a few weeks into 2010, and outside of still having trouble starting with a "1" in the date, I'm doing ok with my goals. I've been writing about 1,000-1,200 words a week so far, which for me is a whirlwind of activity

But how are you guys doing? Are you changing things up already? Are you surpassing your expectations? Have you forgotten those Champagne-induced promises? Have you gotten that impromptu elopement annulled?

Care to share?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Review: House of Leaves

The following is the first of what I hope will be many book reviews written by a guest reviewer. Thanks so much to Caroline and to other followers of The Elephant's Bookshelf who've said they would like to write reviews. ~ Matt

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
Review by Caroline Hagood

Every once in a while, a reader falls in love with a different kind of fiction that changes how we as readers (and writers) think about characters.

In House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski uses the house in the title as a trope for the challenges of written testimony. Here, he has secured himself a space outside of time and narrative from which to survey both.

The inner flap reads: “House of Leaves by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant,” (two of the characters) with no mention of Danielewski. This is followed by an introduction from an edgy countercultural youth (Truant) who claims to have found a collection of writings in the home of an old man who has recently died (Zampanò).

The papers he finds are Zampanò’s scholarly analysis of The Navidson Record, a documentary by yet another one of Danielewski's characters, the world-renowned photojournalist, Will Navidson. The film catalogues Navidson's exploration of the house he moves into on Ash Tree Lane that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

With input and copious footnotes from still more authors and critics real and imagined, the text addresses the physical and psychological world that Navidson examines. The quality that makes Navidson’s house different from the average home is that it suddenly develops new doors, staircases, and hallways; this tortuous structure becomes the novel’s central metaphor for writing.

The labyrinth at the heart of the novel is not only a single location that the characters explore, but also a symbol of the intricate structural composition of the narratives of each of the authors, including Truant, Zampanò, Danielewski, Navidson, and even Navidson's wife, Karen, who also contributes a short film to the novel’s roster of texts.

Since the majority of the critics and authors mentioned either do not exist, or exist but did not say what the novel claims they did, House of Leaves critiques writing's truth claims when it comes to representing individual and communal history.

Danielewski is not at all interested in our progressing right-side-up trip through his literary phantasmagoria. Clearly, authorship is being turned on its head as unstable meaning is filtered through multiple creators. But how do we read a book like this? Easy: we have to change the way we read.

Danielewski is not concerned that we locate an answer; rather, he wants us to note how each new interpretation changes the labyrinth of the narrative structure. In this way, Danielewski demonstrates that the trajectory of history, or present reality, can be altered.

That one writer’s analysis is not an absolute truth is made clear to us as readers of a heap of invented criticism. In a novel that comprises stories from multiple authors, as well as criticisms of these authors that we are forced to engage with as though they were, like us, real outside readers, we are confronted with the changeable nature of written "truth."

In the end, the house represents not merely language but metalanguage. It is the commentary on all stories, both fictional and historical; it's a chance to rewrite reading, writing, and history.

Caroline Hagood is a poet and writer living in New York City. She has written on books, film, and culture for Film International, Film-Philosophy, Film Catcher, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Campus Progress, The Journal of Popular Culture, The DVD Lounge, in her own column on writing for Blogcritics, and her own blog, Culture Sandwich, among others. Her poetry has appeared in Shooting the Rat (Hanging Loose Press), Movin' (Orchard Books), Oxymoron, Angelic Dynamo and Ginosko. This is her first review for The Elephant's Bookshelf.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

So You Say You Want to Write?

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. Or something like that.

Lately, I've been feeling rather optimistic about a lot of things (and yeah, I've been worried about a lot of other things too.) While this blog is certainly not the most important thing in my life, I have to say I've been thrilled by the increase in visitors and the number of "followers" I've been able to see. I know most of it is related to my fellow aspiring novelists at AgentQuery, but I don't think all of them are.

I've also been a bit concerned about the state of freelance writing; I'll admit that part of my concern is due to my desire to do more of it in 2010 to help supplement my income and keep diapers on my babies' butts. (Note to self: Invest in companies that produce A&D ointment!)

But maybe I can mix these two things a bit and create a Net positive. An Internet positive, if you will. As those of you who read the short interview I did with Victoria Dixon of the Ron Empress blog already know, I had intended this blog to be a place where I could write and edit book reviews. So now that I have nearly twenty followers, I thought I'd see whether any of you have any interest in writing book reviews.

I'd be willing to post them here, I'd give it a quick copy edit (or depending on the quality, more than that, perhaps), and voila! you'd have a book review published. I know, getting a review published on a free blog is nothing too difficult; you could easily do it at your blog too. But I kinda like seeing stuff that I've written posted elsewhere. Maybe you do too.

To be honest, I don't expect many of you to agree to this — especially since I can't pay a dime. Indeed, it's possible I'll remain the lone book reviewer here at the Elephant's Bookshelf (Quick review: Blindness, by Jose Saramago is both disturbing and excellent!) But if just one joins, then I'll be happy as a clam.

So, what do ya say? If you're interested, you can let me know via the comments section or send an email to I look forward to hearing from you.