Giving, Not Taking: Expectations of Author Interactions

hal blockIn 2009, I was at the annual AWP conference in Chicago, heading into a panel session about flash fiction. Coming out of the room from the last session was Audrey Niffenegger who, even without her name tag, would have been distinguishable by her auburn hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Did you write The Time Traveler’s Wife?

“I did,” she said.

“I just wanted to thank you,” I said.

She thanked me for saying that, and then excused herself, saying she had to run to another meeting.

“Oh, that’s okay,” I told her. “That’s all I wanted to say.”Continue Reading

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

One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

The Thirsty Games

drinking drinkersIt’s so cold in Chicago that the temperature isn’t even negative; it has one of those calculus sigmas in front of it, and there’s some kind of logarithm involved. Maybe you’re sitting in the sun on your California balcony, you ingrate, but here in the Midwest there’s little to do but read and drink… So here are some literary drinking games to start your week of involuntary Arctic exploration off right. (Please note that Ploughshares probably wants you to drink responsibly. So do I. But I also want you to read irresponsibly.)

Continue Reading

Roundup: End of the Year

In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week.

The end of the year is a season of gift giving, goal setting, and celebration. Here are some posts to help you gear up for the last two weeks of 2013.

From Ploughshares

From Around the Web

Everyone likes to make “best books” lists at the end of the year. For your convenience, here is a lists of some of these lists.

If wading through all these lists is too overwhelming, you’re in luck! The Daily Beast compiled a number of “best books” lists and presented the results.

Happy Holidays!

One Gift Guide to Rule Them All

It’s getting late, people. And your literary friends expect brilliant Festivus gifts from you. So let’s get cracking! Here’s something for everyone on your list.

For the English major:

gift glassesThese fake blood page markers and some hipster glasses. (Remember: your goal is not to educate the English major. Your goal is to get the English major laid by other English majors.)

For the poet:

The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry, now out in paperback. And some tea. (Don’t poets like tea?) And, let’s face it, a loan.

For your relative who mostly just watches Jersey Shore and reads US Weekly:

A subscription to Tin House or Ploughshares or American Short Fiction. Because she’ll be like, Whaaa? but she won’t be able to return it and you’ll have spent $20 supporting literature, so ha.

Continue Reading

Write As If…

as if 1

This is not me. But I’m getting there…

I have a problem with inversion. I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel, a handstand, or a headstand. On my high school swim team, I was consigned to the backstroke because I couldn’t dive off the blocks.

(I balk, I panic, I freak out, I fail. It might be some instinct for self-preservation, or perhaps I wasn’t swung by the toes enough as a child.)

Over the past ten years, I’ve developed an otherwise dedicated and intense yoga practice that happens to include curling up in a little ball whenever people start balancing upside down.

And then a few weeks ago, my Ashtanga teacher said something so weirdly profound that at first I dismissed it as yoga-patchouli-lemongrass speak. “Don’t just try to do a headstand,” she said. “Do a headstand as if you already knew how.”

This was so different from the usual advice (Strong core! Straight legs!) that I decided to try. It would require a mental leap, but then mental leaps are what writers do best. It was more acting than yoga: I am a person who loves headstands. What’s my motivation? Upside-downness.

I was so into my role that I wasn’t even shocked when my legs started floating up, when my body locked into a balance that felt as familiar as bike-balance, as walking-up-stairs-with-a-coffee balance.

I started thinking that night about the writing students I’ve seen struggle with confidence in their projects and their own skills. They’ll often stop and examine their insecurities, as if dissection and analysis might get them past the fear that they’re writing the whole thing wrong. I wonder, though, if there isn’t a more expedient solution.

This is what I’m going to tell them from now on, what I’m going to wish for them:

Continue Reading

Writers Behaving Badly

1 aI’m at that stage in editing my second novel where I’m confronted with my own bad habits. It’s much like cleaning out your closet only to discover you still own not one but three pairs of those chunky clogs that were popular in 1996. How have they hidden this long? And what were you ever thinking?

In reading my draft, I noticed a character rolling her eyes more than once. I ran a search on the word “roll” and discovered I had 17 separate eye-rolling incidents, most of them from that one (really fed up, apparently) character.

I was also horrified to find twenty uses of the word “fool”—and I should clarify here that my novel is in no way about the courtly entertainments of the seventeenth century.

My choices were simple: I could either beat myself over the head with my manuscript, or I could drag other writers into the literary equivalent of that fifth-grade slumber party game, where you all tell your most embarrassing secrets. I chose the latter—and the results are below.Continue Reading

The Coffeeshop You Meet in Heaven

roastery

It’s a good start. But we can do better.

The New York Times blog recently highlighted a website called Coffitivity that plays ambient coffee shop noise on an endless loop to help you work more productively from home. I can only assume they previously deduced, through the same vigorous scientific trials I myself have undertaken, that Barista Noise is marginally more helpful to the creative process than Screaming Toddler.

I think it’s a little sad to stream the noise, though. You’re just going to sit there wishing for a mocha—and who’s going to bring you a mocha? Not the toddler.

The coffee shop (we’ve known this from the beginning) is the ideal place to work. You’re wired; you’re dressed; you’re in society but not fully participating in it—the perfect writer’s vantage point. There are bathrooms nearby, and someone to call an ambulance if you crash your head too hard on your computer.

But as long as we’re bringing things up to date, I have some improvements to propose.

Continue Reading

How to Shop at a Bookstore: An Easy 20-Step Guide for Authors

bookshop1) First, smell it. Look at the new arrivals, lined up like candy. See if, for just one second, you can remember what it was like to walk into a bookstore as a reader. Just a reader, a happy, curious reader. With no agenda, no insecurities, no history of bookstores as scenes of personal failure and triumph. Wish for a time machine.

Continue Reading