Novelists, You’re Doing It Right

There's a novel in here somewhere...

There’s a novel in here somewhere…

You’re trying to write a novel. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating: characters wake you in the night, yammering, springing into action. Sometimes, it’s excruciating: you stare into blankness, and finally, when the words arrive, they reek of your incompetence.

It’s taking forever, this novel of yours. It’s ugly. It’s full of holes. Is this normal? Writing advice is plentiful, but much of it boils down to:

  1. Writing is hard.
  2. Do it anyway.

“Butt in chair,” experts say. Be persistent. But maybe you’re starting to hate your novel. You have dark, escapist thoughts. You’re not feeling particularly pure of heart, nor steadfast of butt. Can you ditch your novel for long stretches, or cheat on it, or overhaul it, and still finish—maybe even sell?!—the book?

Novelists, I’m here to say: Yes. You’re doing it right. Over the past several months, I interviewed novelists who spent one year or more working on a novel and eventually sold their books. Here, I summarize everything they said about writing novels that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask.Continue Reading

Reading Cookbooks Like Novels: Bookseller Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick

Bookseller and freelance editor Bonnie Slotnick (Image: Nora Maynard)

Looking for an international cookbook by horror-film actor Vincent Price? A 1920s etiquette manual suitable for Jay Gatsby? Or Alice B. Toklas’ infamous tome with its recipe for fudge spiked with hashish? Bonnie Slotnick‘s got you covered.

With a collection of some 4,000 out-of-print and antiquarian culinary titles stocked in her cozy shop in New York’s West Village, Bonnie takes a refreshingly hands-on approach to selling. Whether she’s locating a replacement copy of an out-of-state customer’s well-loved, well-worn family cookbook, giving a local chef expert historical advice, or offering a visiting dog a biscuit, she always provides a personal touch.

I sat down with Bonnie to chat about her love of culinary writing as she cleaned and prepped some new arrivals for sale.

You once said you read cookbooks like novels. I’m intrigued.

I suppose you could say I first read cookbooks like children’s books, because I started when I was little. My mother had a 1940s copy of The Settlement Cook Book. This was put together by Jewish women who ran a settlement house in Milwaukee; it was originally published in 1901 and sold as a fundraiser.

The cover design especially appealed to me: a row of little girl cooks parading toward a heart, with the motto “The way to a man’s heart” above the title. There were also illustrations of children cooking at the start of some chapters. I used to just sit and read that book over and over again. Some of the recipes used words that were German or transliterated Yiddish or otherwise exotic—syllabub, timbale, kumquat, ramekin. I didn’t look them up, I just savored the sound of them in my head.Continue Reading

How to Feed Your Characters: The Food Timeline

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you're writing about would have paid for a case of soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help.

Need to know how much that teetotaling taxidermist you’re writing about would’ve paid for a soda in 1950s Mexico City? The Food Timeline can help. (Image: Nora Maynard)

Writing about some hungry characters? In a time or place very different from your own? The Food Timeline might just save your bacon.

Founded by New Jersey-based reference librarian, Lynne Olver, FT is a free, open-access website and research service devoted to the history of all things culinary.

I interviewed Ms. Olver to find out more about this remarkable personal project—and to get some advice about writing food-related scenes in historically and culturally accurate ways.

PSHARES: How did you get the idea for the Food Timeline website?

LO: The website was inspired by James Trager’s The Food Chronology. This epic reference book chronicles key food events from prehistory to the 20th century. I was intrigued by the concept. As a reference librarian working in a public library, I encountered food history questions on a regular basis.

W71EK7T2XW7L._SY300_hen the Food Timeline debuted in March 1999, it offered a single page with links to vetted research sources. As time progressed, additional links, original content, and topical pages were added. Today’s site has 50 pages. Most of the content is researched, transcribed, HTML coded and uploaded by the editor (me). Food Timeline entries are selected based on questions frequently asked by our patrons. It is a work-in-progress and a labor of love.Continue Reading

Roundup: Conversations and Collaborations Among Writers

As we launch a new blog format for the new year, we’re also looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. Our roundups explore the archives and gather past posts around a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we have posts on conversations and collaborations among writers.

Much has been professed about the nature of writers – that they are solitary creatures, or instead, ones that require community to fuel their work. Of course, there isn’t a definitive answer, and many writers are both. So let’s not generalize. As the great Mark Twain once put it, “All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Please enjoy these posts about writers connecting with other writers:

  • In this post, Alicia Jo Rabins explores the advantages of writers forming a creative partnership in Torah study, a “form of obsessive, passionate relation with words and meaning,” where it’s common to work in pairs.

DSC_1400Continue Reading

Hearing Voices: Women Versing Life presents: Deborah Clearman

Deborah Clearman

“You can say anything with kindness” is the oft-repeated phrase of most professors in writing workshops. It’s a reminder, of course, to speak the truth in our criticism of each other’s work, but to speak it gently. It’s one way to make the workshop environment feel safe and comfortable. Most of the time it works, which means that sometimes it doesn’t work.

But what if there was only kindness? That’s the philosophy of Deborah Clearman and her colleagues at the New York Writers Coalition: No criticism, just praise. It sounds radical, the idea that a writer would share a poem or story, receive only positive feedback in return, and continue to improve her writing, but Clearman says it works. The “praise only” model creates a whole new atmosphere of trust, which is important for Clearman because her workshops are held in a place where praise and comfort are often in short supply: women’s prison. Continue Reading

The Physics of Fiction, the Music of Philosophy: an Interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s astonishments as a philosopher and as a novelist are too numerous to list here. Already launched in her career as a philosophy professor, she reached a moment in her own life when philosophical inquiry no longer felt like a broad enough arena in which to explore the full range of human experience. In response, she began writing fiction—asking, from the perspective of her philosophical training, what seemed “the most ‘unprofessional’ sorts of questions”.

These unprofessional questions have propelled her through six novels and a book of short stories, even as she’s continued producing philosophical texts. Upon granting her a fellowship, the MacArthur Foundation stated that her works “emerge as brilliant arguments for the belief that fiction in our time may be the best vehicle for involving readers in questions of morality and existence.”

Her fiction, though, feels anything but theoretical.

Continue Reading

Tips and Tricks: an Interview with Tom Parker

For today’s post, I am interviewing my long-time writing coach and mentor Tom Parker. I first met Tom at a writer’s workshop run out of University of California, Berkeley six years ago. He was the professor, and I was an overconfident young writer who needed guidance. Since then, he has been helping me improve nearly all of my stories. He has been the person I turn to when I believe a story is done, because I know he will tell me that I am wrong and how I need to improve.

In addition to being a teacher, he is also a writer, having authored or co-authored seven books, including two novels. His short story “Troop Withdrawal: The Initial Step” was published in Prize Stories 1971: The O.Henry Awards.Continue Reading

Learning to Listen: an Interview with Susan Power

Susan Power

When I first started reading Susan Power’s novel, The Grass Dancer, I knew little about her. We’d met briefly through a mutual friend, and I knew that Susan had been a fellow at Radcliffe’s Bunting Institute. I also knew from her bio that she was an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and a native Chicagoan, and that her novel was set on and off a Sioux reservation. When I’d finished reading The Grass Dancer near dawn, though (I’d stayed up most of the night reading), I knew that Susan was a writer I’d follow into any territory she chose to explore. Her characters were funny and tragic, pragmatic and soulful, often at the same time…and the story she told was utterly gripping.Continue Reading

Writing Fiction, Writing Plays, Writing Voice: an Interview with Carol Gilligan

Carol Gilligan

I first met Carol Gilligan in 1994. I’d read In a Different Voice in college, and had been intrigued by that book’s observation that women’s voices change the moral conversation…so when I met Carol I was prepared to see her through the lens of that groundbreaking work and all the political conversation it had generated. As I got to know her, though—first through a mutual acquaintance, then as part of a group rehearsing a play at her house, then eventually as a friend–I soon realized how limited that lens was. I saw the breadth and depth of experience she brought to her work, the love of art and music and literature that infused her observations. I saw, too, an even rarer quality: an uncanny ability to listen quietly and pick up the faintest undercurrents in people’s words.

It was exactly the sort of listening that makes for a good fiction writer. Perhaps because of that, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Carol was working on a novel. Continue Reading

An Interview with Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner Thomas Lee

Thomas Lee is the first winner of our Emerging Writer’s Contest. His story, “The Gospel of Blackbird,” appears in the current Alice Hoffman issue, and he is also one of our new guest bloggers. We sat down and spoke with him several months ago about balancing work and writing, the Korean-American community, and the inspiration for his work.

Ploughshares: What was your early life like?

Thomas Lee: Let’s see – I was born in South Korea. I’m 36 years old. I was three years old when I came here, though, so I don’t have any memories of Korea. My parents moved to Queens. We only stayed there for a bit and then we moved to New Jersey. Most of my childhood was in New Jersey, in Bergen County: first in Palisades Park and then in Wyckoff.

At that point, the Korean community there was not that big. It got much bigger in the 90s. Now there are entire towns there that are Korean. I currently live in California. I lived in New York for a while, and I moved out here about five years ago.

PS: When did you start writing, or start thinking about writing?

Thomas Lee

TL: Jeez. I’ve been writing basically my whole life. It was always something I liked to do. Starting in college, I was published in a few student publications. I never thought anything would come of it. I never thought I could make a living off it for sure.Continue Reading