Tag Archives: Books

Finding Your Place as a Writer: Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

Like most people, the majority of what I read is non-fiction. Conservatively, I would estimate I read half a dozen novels per year and twice as many non-fiction books. This does not include blogs and online articles, slanting the balance even further away from fiction.

So, I cannot help but ask myself, which would I rather write? Shouldn’t I write what I spend my time reading?

True life is tricky. Non-fiction has its own rhythm, requires research, veracity. Moreover, it comes in all shapes and sizes, from blogs, to online magazines, to full-length books. It is hard to know where to start. Then there is the issue of telling other people’s stories. I have thought about writing the stories of my first students, but somehow their histories do not feel like they belong to me, even in those moments where I was present.

Then again, fiction feels increasingly artificial to me these days. I admire those of you who consistently enjoy it, losing yourself in a world you have created. I have been there, but I am having a hard time finding my way back. Every story I begin is a dead end. Expecting Happiness still floats in the recesses of my hard drive, but it too feels stale, like the cap and gown that hang in my closet but I will never wear again. I do not identify with it in the same way I did two and a half years ago.

I know part of my disruption in focus is the transformation my life is undergoing in becoming a mother, but I find myself wondering where I will begin again. I know I will not stop, but I want to put my energy where it matters most, where I am most likely to finish what I start, to write something worthwhile.

So, seasoned writers, I want to know– how have you discovered your niche? Did you dabble in everything? Have you gone through seasons of different genres? Or, has it been a simple love for the same type of stories from the beginning?

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Excited to Share the Debut of Patrick O’Bryon’s Novel!

Follow the link below for more information:

AND NOW FOR ALL YOU eBOOK READERS…CORRIDOR OF DARKNESS!.

I was lucky to be among the first readers and highly recommend it! Patrick offers a unique perspective on Nazi Germany through the eyes of a young American. The pages will turn quickly, a fantastic read.

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Why Beta Readers Rock

I met with one of my beta readers yesterday to discuss my book. He helped me see a couple holes I could fill. I knew he was right because he addressed spaces I had seen myself but not known how to fix. By having someone else see them, I could then push myself to do the hard work of figuring it out.

Last night I sat down and tied together these loose ends. Maybe it is not 100% fixed, but it’s better, and that’s the point. I am so grateful to my readers for their honesty. So far, they have spotted typos, cheered me on, and even explained why they could not keep reading.

While the majority finished with a smile, it helps to know exactly why it’s not a story for everyone, something that sounds difficult to bear but was actually quite reassuring. We all know every book has an audience. Getting to ask a reader why they did not finish is a real gift.

And, last but not least, sharing my writing with more people, including acquaintances instead of just close friends/family, is building my confidence. It is no longer such a scary feeling to imagine unfamiliar eyes on my work. Some will like it and some won’t, and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s really liberating!

So, thank you, thank you, thank you to my beta readers. If you’re still reading, take your time, I’m still working. And, if you’ve written a book without a beta audience, I suggest giving it a shot. By no means do you have to listen to everyone, but you may be surprised by what you learn and how it changes your confidence in your work. I definitely feel a lot stronger and braver for it.

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Launching your book: Could you benefit from a beta audience?

In the past I have talked about beta readers as a way to test my book. Today I came across an article about an author who is publishing his book to a beta audience of 1,000 people before he even makes his work available to the public. While this size sample audience is likely too large for most self-published authors, it does raise an interesting idea.

By releasing a book to a smaller audience, there is an opportunity to build a buzz and a collection of ready-reviews before your book is available for purchase. Admittedly, I am more likely to buy a book with at least some reviews (even mediocre) than one with none at all. Likewise, it provides more opportunity for refinement as readers provide input before the book hits Amazon.

Now, I know many authors question the validity of seeking so many different opinions, but perhaps this method of a larger beta audience (be it 1,000 or 100 or 10) provides the opportunity for a consensus to form. While the opinion of one may not be extremely useful, the overlapped opinions of many start to hold more value, particularly if the audience is picked intentionally. In the article, the author seeks readers in his academic community, not just any old volunteer.

I am curious of your thoughts– do you see advantages to a larger beta audience? Is there some secret to successful marketing in this approach?

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In other news, I see why it’s easy to reject manuscripts.

I just stopped by the pitch party over at Brenda Drake’s site and scrolled through dozens of pitches only to realize my attention span is quick– authors either had me or didn’t in the first couple lines and only a few got me to read their whole entry. Likewise, I realized I have distinct taste in what I will read and won’t, as some genres were an instant skip.

This is not to say the entries I did not read were bad, but rather I now empathize a bit more with agents. They know what they like/are looking for and if you send a query to an agent who doesn’t rep your genre, you’re wasting your time. If you write, I challenge you to go read through some of the entries, really puts everything into perspective to imagine an inbox full of pitches. It also takes a little of the burn out of rejections to recognize your own narrow interests.

The good news, there are a lot of different tastes out there…

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I Always Love a Contest to Pitch my Book…

As I wrap up my final re-read and contemplate how to move forward with self-publishing and a last round of queries, I can’t help but enter a pitch contest. You know, if it could really all be so easy as to submit a 35 word pitch and the first 150 words of my book and then kaboom– agent/published/hurray. I guess the little kid part of me knows it happens for someone, so it might as well be me.

Information on this latest pitch contest can be found here. Per usual, I’m not over-thinking my entry because I question whether it is worth much of an effort, however, I will share in hopes you will consider entering as well!

My 35-word pitch: 

After a jarring miscarriage, Jake and Kristen embark on separate journeys. Kristen departs for Europe in search of independence, while Jake sets off on a cross-country adventure. Torn between old and new, they must choose.

The first 150 words of my manuscript:

It began as a drop. One smooth drop of blood running down her pale thigh. She touched the moisture with her fingers and looked to see the crimson stain on the back edge of her beige, linen skirt. Aware of her coworkers in the neighboring cubes, she fought the urge to fall to her knees and cry in the small break room. She clutched her glass water bottle tighter, careful not to let it crash to the ground. Her heart ached. Dizzyness followed. She needed to sit.

The cessation of pregnancy symptoms left her in denial, the nausea gone, the sore breasts once again pliable. She read on the internet it could be a sign of miscarriage but did not know what to believe. She refused to call the doctor, unwilling to shatter the illusion. It made her happy to imagine a child growing inside her. A dull ache echoed…

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Changing the Way We See Self-Publishing

This morning my perspective on self-publishing shifted. I had always seen it as a second phase, either the space you reach when you cannot find an agent (at no fault of your own, of course…) or the choice you make when you’re already established and want to regain control over your profits. Sure, I had read all kinds of success stories, but I had also scrolled through the sea of titles, lost in the myriad of choices, uncertain of the quality and dissuaded by the prospect of reading on an electronic screen.

However, this morning as I sat over tea at my favorite French bistro with my uncle and my husband, I was swayed a different direction. Suddenly, self-publishing was the indie choice I loved all along without ever realizing it, akin to making an independent movie instead of waiting for a big studio with its formulaic tastes to discover your project. I adore many independent movies. I don’t know why I never made this connection before.

In fact, this past weekend, I saw an indie flick at Tower Theater in Sac, the kind of place you sit and revel at moviemaking’s past, the crown molding and neon sign making up for the struggling air conditioning and sagging seats. We watched Frances Ha, a movie which at first makes you wonder if you’re witnessing a slow theatrical train wreck but eventually blossoms into a genuinely funny and touching film. Indie movies may have their flaws, but they also bring you into worlds more refreshing than those where everyone has a shiny new car and drinks Coca-Cola with the label pointed outward.

I see my book as kind of the same deal. It may lack some of the sheen of a blockbuster, but there is enough beneath the surface to make it worthwhile, especially if you stick around until the end. Likewise, I recently read my uncle’s first novel, a book which marries Dan Brown’s ability to create suspense with Pillars of the Earth’s timeless heroes and villains. It is exactly the kind of thing I would expect to see on the bestseller’s shelf at the local bookstore, yet he has not been picked up by an agent. Proof the old system is imperfect, overlooking true gems in the ocean of submissions.

So, as I left our little book meeting, I could see my novel self-published with an indie charm, no less meaningful without the mark of a major publisher on its spine. I’ve always been an acquired taste, as my father likes to say. It only makes sense I would find a quirky world for my words to thrive, an audience who appreciates this sort of thing, the kind of people who go to sit in Tower Theater instead of always opting for the comfort of the megaplex. The gatekeepers may bemoan the changes in the publishing world all they like, but it is about time the indie book market follows in the footsteps of its movie-making big sister.

Part of my late embrace of the self-publishing model is also learning to experiment with e-readers. So far, the borrowed kindle kicks the iPad’s butt and I’m coming around to the idea of reading my own words on one of these screens.

Part of my late embrace of the self-publishing model is learning to enjoy e-readers. So far, this borrowed kindle kicks the iPad’s butt and I’m coming around to the idea of reading my own words on one of these screens.

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My grandmother and I are connected by books

I always wanted to be closer to my grandmother while I was growing up. She lived far away and we usually saw her on holidays, when the house was full of people competing for her attention. I was the youngest granddaughter. I know she loved me, but there was a lot going on, not to mention the fact that I was always chasing after my older cousins instead of hanging out in the kitchen, where you could find her.

I have this memory of sitting in the back seat of her car, my grandfather driving in LA traffic after we left Disneyland. It was hot and my little brother was in the seat next to me, probably making annoying noises. My grandparents bickered loudly in the front seat– the traffic, Disneyland, the heat, children, each undoubtedly testing their nerves. I think I learned a few new adult words that day. Still, I was somehow comforted by the predictability of their squabbles. Love was never missing. Even then I admired her fire.

As an adult, we finally spent time together, alone. We took a drive to Southern California to visit relatives and she told me all the secrets to our family tree– the Native American blood, the car accident that stopped their Western migration in Bakersfield of all places during the Dust Bowl, the hard work of all the women in our family on farms and in factories to keep the household afloat. She spoke openly about relationships and loss, her three big loves in this life each gone before her.

My mother bought her a book of questions to answer for her granddaughter, me. She filled them out lovingly and gave me the book of her words before I got married. I will always cherish the beautiful arches of her cursive, the unexpected memories from her childhood revealed in her shaky pen. The day of my wedding, she and my mother carefully hand-crafted a beautiful dragonfly out of beads to put on my bouquet. Even if sometimes there was not a sea of words between us, she has always shown her love through actions– cleaning, cooking, painting, sewing, creating. I get that now. As a child I thought closeness required more words.

Now there are more words. Today I returned my grandmother’s phone call, to see if she would ride up to my mom’s with me for Mother’s Day. I sent her Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as an early birthday gift. Just three days since it arrived, she is already halfway done. We spent most of the time on the phone chatting about Cheryl’s journey. We both call her that, Cheryl, as though we know her on a first-name basis. My grandmother cannot get over Cheryl’s courage. We both are haunted by her memories before the Pacific Crest Trail, especially the scene with her mother’s horse, Lady.

There is a part in the book where Cheryl reaches Kennedy Meadows, and that is the point where I knew I had to send my grandmother the book. It is a place she has told me about many times, but I could not place when or why. The first thing she told me on the phone, “You know, we used to go up to Kennedy Meadows all the time– your Grandpa Don and I lived near there, you know.” I did not even tell her that was why I sent the book.

My grandmother, 81 on Monday, and I are connected by books. Every time I finish one I especially love, I send it to her. She has read Middlesex and A Thousand Splendid Suns, never off-put by the complexities of life, but intrigued in very much the same way I am. I thought about this today, how much I love that we share our secret world of written words, how even fifty-one years apart, we both devour good books ravenously.

The first time I decided to send her a book, I hesitated, uncertain she would like the same things I do, worried I might somehow offend her with the brashness of my taste in literature. To my great relief, she loves my favorite stories too. I should have known. She still has a lot of fire.

Our grandmother on her 80th birthday last year in Bodega Bay. I'm proud to say I made the birthday crown!

My cousin and I with our grandmother, on her 80th birthday last year in Bodega Bay. I am proud to say I made her birthday crown in very much the same fashion she has made so many things for me over the years.

I look forward to our drive in May. She requested we talk more about Wild. I cannot wait. I am grateful we found a way to exchange more words than can ever be spoken aloud, that our shared love of books has helped us know one another more deeply than I ever expected.

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Writing Improvement Program: Which authors do you most admire?

According to The Art of War for Writers, “The idea is not to try to become an exact copy of the writer you admire. Rather, you are incorporating rhythms and possibilities into your own inner writing.” The book recommends copying down memorable passages and reading them aloud to feel the cadence of the words as part of your personal writing improvement program. I love this idea.

As my dream writing self, I would borrow the soulful honesty of Cheryl Strayed and combine it with the expert narrative weaving of Audrey Niffenegger and Jeffrey Eugenides, who both bring their stories to life through the eyes of unusual, but still relatable characters. Below you’ll find some quotes from their works that capture the gifts I would most like to cultivate in my own writing. Maybe there are better examples, but I always lend out my most beloved books, so I had to rely on Goodreads.

Which authors best embody your ideal writing self? I know the goal is to be unique, but there is something to be said for slowing down to examine what it is you most enjoy about your favorite writers. I’d love to hear who you admire. And, who knows, maybe you’ll inspire me to add a few more books to that growing pile on my dresser.

Stolen from Pinterest.  Not sure if that counts as stealing when it was already stolen, moral imperative I guess.

Some of my favorite Cheryl Strayed words… Thanks Pinterest.

Cheryl Strayed: Words that pierce your being.

“It is not so incomprehensible as you pretend, sweet pea. Love is the feeling we have for those we care deeply about and hold in high regard. It can be light as the hug we give a friend or heavy as the sacrifices we make for our children. It can be romantic, platonic, familial, fleeting, everlasting, conditional, unconditional, imbued with sorrow, stoked by sex, sullied by abuse, amplified by kindness, twisted by betrayal, deepened by time, darkened by difficulty, leavened by generosity, nourished by humor and “loaded with promises and commitments” that we may or may not want or keep.” – Dear Sugar

“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.” – Dear Sugar

“Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.” – Dear Sugar

***

Audrey Niffenegger: Intricately woven narrative with love at its core.

“We are walking down the street holding hands. There is a playground at the end of the block, and I run to the swings and I climb on and Henry takes the one next to me facing the opposite direction. And we swing higher and higher passing each other, sometimes in synch and sometimes streaming past each other so fast that it seems we are going to collide. And we laugh and laugh, and nothing can ever be sad, no one can be lost or dead or far away. Right now we are here and nothing can mar our perfection or steal the joy of this perfect moment.” – Time Traveler’s Wife

“The hardest lesson is Clare’s solitude. Sometimes I come home and Clare seems kind of irritated; I’ve interrupted some train of thought, broken into the dreary silence of her day. Sometimes I see an expression on Clare’s face that is like a closed door. She has gone inside the room of her mind and is sitting there knitting or something. I’ve discovered that Clare likes to be alone.” – Time Traveler’s Wife

***

Jeffrey Eugenides: The world seen through distinct but somehow familiar eyes.

“We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together. We knew that the girls were our twins, that we all existed in space like animals with identical skins, and that they knew everything about us though we couldn’t fathom them at all. We knew, finally, that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.” – Virgin Suicides

“I was thinking how amazing it was that the world contained so many lives. Out in these streets people were embroiled in a thousand different matters, money problems, love problems, school problems. People were falling in love, getting married, going to drug rehab, learning how to ice-skate, getting bifocals, studying for exams, trying on clothes, getting their hair-cut and getting born. And in some houses people were getting old and sick and were dying, leaving others to grieve. It was happening all the time, unnoticed, and it was the thing that really mattered.” – Middlesex

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A Call for Inspiration to Keep Writing

The last couple months I have given myself a free pass. I’ve scribbled little notes in journals, written blog posts, but spent no time on any particular writing project, other than to send out query letters. I told myself that until my 50 queries ran their course, I would take a break. Well, 43 queries later, it’s time to write again. I have 7 more to send, and, yes, I will, but I also need to start something new.

It’s interesting where the end of a project leaves you. 43 rejections piled up on top of me. The ones that bugged me most were from the agents who asked for more. The others I could brush aside, but those who read more, really thought about my work, and then still said no, hurt. I get it. I expected it, but it still shook my writing confidence. Every writer wants to think the first book he or she writes will be successful. You write and edit and revise for a year or more, feel like a superstar for actually finishing, and then think maybe you really did it.

However, the reality is that good writing takes time, practice, repetition, and more than anything else, proliferation. I think this pyramid sums up the reality for most writers:

Inspiration. Credit: The Art of War for Writers

Credit: The Art of War for Writers

So, here I am, with a manuscript that most likely needs something, no idea what to do with it, tired of thinking about it. The solution, move on for now. I’m going to send those last 7 queries to meet my goal, (and because, of course, a little ounce of hope still exists that maybe I’m one of those authors who makes it after an inordinate number of queries…). I will come back to it again, either to revise or self-publish. I just need a little distance with some more writing under my belt until then.

This realization in itself is an accomplishment. Last weekend I felt completely stuck in what to do next. Over our family dinner on Sunday night, my relatives encouraged me to just keep writing. A journalist friend suggested I write and submit some articles to pad my resume. My husband bought Ruby Sparks for us to watch which made me smile because it captured so many little feelings of being a writer. My aunt and uncle bought me a copy of The Art of War for Writers, the inscription on the front right page telling me not to stop.

Great way to kick off a new season of writing.

I’m so grateful to my family for finding ways to keep me inspired.

Alright, universe, you’ve made your point. Time to move forward. But then, I spent the past week agonizing over how to move forward: an article, my unfinished NaNoWriMo novel, something new altogether. Then, I realized it doesn’t matter. I should just write whatever sounds like fun. After all, as much as I’d love to be paid to write, I still have growth ahead of me, so I might as well enjoy whatever is next instead of trying to predict which project is most likely to bring me success.

Thankfully, the first third of the Art of War for Writers has also helped me regain this perspective. Sometimes, as writers, we need to hear the same advice again and again, or slightly differently. My favorite takeaways so far:

  • Don’t obsess over numbers or reviews. This was geared more toward published writers, but sometimes I waste time analyzing my WordPress and Facebook stats. Write instead.
  • Create a “writing improvement program” with: 1. Passages you love from other writers, 2. A compilation of the outside critique you receive, 3. Areas of focus and notes on how to improve.
  • Set a weekly word quota. Mine is now 3,000 words. Any words count, including blogs, but the hope is that at least half end up in projects. If I write 3,000 words a week, no matter what, then I’ll write 156,000 words a year, which darn well better include a book. Definitely an achievable goal.

More to come on all of this, but for now, I am just happy my motivation to keep writing has returned, thanks in large part to all of the wonderfully supportive people in my life.

If you write, I’d love to hear more inspiration– favorite books on writing, quotes, routines, tips for staying focused. What keeps you typing?

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Spring Break Anticipation List

Last year, my spring break was magical. We went to Carmel, ran with the dog on the beach, dined in fancy restaurants, spied on fish at the aquarium, and ate German food with friends on a rainy evening in SF. Like I said, magical.

This year, no big trip planned. My husband has to work, and I’m left mostly to my own devices. One of the blessings of a teacher schedule is that some of my breaks are spent at home. Back when I only had three weeks off a year, every one of those vacation days was spent going somewhere. Now, I have the time to unwind.

There is, however, a catch. I have found that if I just wing it and don’t use my time wisely, I get anxious that I am squandering my valuable time off. My solution, a long to-do list, which I’ll spare you here, (because some of it is not so fun, like lesson planning and writing my last darn State of California teacher essay). Instead, I’ll just give you my favorite pieces:

  • Yoga. I know you’re shocked. I plan to use up those darn Groupons I keep buying and luxuriate in yoga all week. That in itself is a relaxing escape from normal life.
  • Read. I’m a funny reader. People give me books all the time, and instead of waiting to start a new book until I finish whatever I’m reading, I usually get impatient and add the new book to the mix, which leads to reading six books at once. I’m excited to go sit on a coffee shop patio, enjoy the week-long 70 degree forecast, and read, read, read.
  • Dogs. Yoga cat disappeared. She’s gone, our dog is lonely. My husband wants to get him a friend. I might give in… Or just take him to the dog park with my teacher friend.
  • Day-trip. If I can’t spend the week somewhere, I can at least get us out the door for the day. Thank goodness Northern California is filled with so many amazing spots. Look forward to a post about one of our favorite adventures– a Muir Beach hike and a lazy lunch on the lawn of the Pelican Inn.
  • Write. Oh yeah, and maybe I’ll write something. I have lost my momentum, but I hope to find it again over the next week.

I know I’m fortunate to have this time at home. I wish we lived in a society that created more time for people to stop and enjoy life. I know we create what we want for ourselves, but it is a nice thought. When I lived in Spain for the summer, I was taken aback by how everything shut down for summer festivals and holidays and siestas and quiet shop-free Sundays… I hope you get a little spring break in there somewhere too.

My sweet husband surprised me with some spring break tulips.

My sweet husband surprised me with some spring break tulips, a great start to my week off.

I am an ADHD reader. Here is the pile I have been reading simultaneously. My goal, finish them all so I can start a new batch!

I am an ADHD reader. Here is the pile of books I am reading simultaneously. My goal, finish them so I can start fresh.

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My Golden Teaching Ticket: Residency & Doug Lemov

You know you’re a teacher nerd when you get asked to attend a Doug Lemov training and it’s like you hit the jackpot. For those of you who have no idea who Doug Lemov is, let’s just say he’s a rockstar in teacher land. In fact, in some circles, my excitement could even be misconstrued as bragging, (imagine that, bragging about work training, but it’s true, Lemov is the guru of effective teaching).

Lemov’s name caught my eye in a New York Times article about crafting effective teachers a few years ago, before I was even accepted to a teaching program. I thought I was ahead of the curve when I walked into my interview with it practically memorized. Little did I know, my entire teacher training program would be connected to Lemov’s book, Teach Like a Champion. Not to mention all the professional development meetings at my school to this day centered on his findings.

So, when I received an email this morning asking if I’d be willing to read his newest book, Practice Perfect, and attend a two day training down in the Bay, I enthusiastically said yes. That’s the thing, as hard as my job often feels, I am incredibly fortunate to work for an organization that is forward-thinking.

Just last night, I sat in a restaurant with representatives from a non-profit whose sole aim is to perpetuate the teacher residency model as the most effective way to train new teachers. Inspired by the medical field, residencies puts trainees to work side-by-side in the same classrooms as highly effective mentor teachers full-time, for an entire year. Instead of the usual student teacher label, residents are called co-teachers and treated accordingly.

The residency I participated in, which is also part of the organization I still work for, has proven to be one of the most successful in the nation. As I was interviewed about my second year in my own classroom, I was reminded of my passion for changing the way education looks in this country. I was also asked more than once about whether I got my strategies from Doug Lemov. I was happy to say yes.

Teacher or what-have-you, this book sounds intriguing!

Proud to be a teacher nerd.

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