When it’s Time to Reboot

It’s exciting starting something new. People love having a mission.

It’s frightening starting something new. What if we fail?

It’s invigorating starting something new. Ideas come flooding in.

It’s deadening starting something new. Will my work find an audience?

It’s necessary to start something new. Standing still gets boring quickly.

It’s inevitable, starting something new–if we don’t, we become irrelevant.

Who likes being irrelevant?

No one.

Do Your Teens Read Books? DO THEY REALLY?








[Graphic is from The Atlantic. It shows that reading rates have doubled since 1949]

I’m one of those people who read incessantly as a teen. When I wasn’t sneaking cigarettes on the top of a double decker bus, stealing candy from the corner store, or dressing up in fishnets to go see Adam & the Ants at the Lyceum, I was reading.

When my kids were little, I read to them all the time (good parent? check). In the mornings at breakfast (I cook up a serious protein filled breakfast–good parent? check), I’m engrossed in the New York Times. On holiday, I’m invariably devouring five books. I have always made the kids take journals with them when we travel, and I’ve always made sure they wrote in them (good parent? you betcha).

And then it happened: Two of my kids stopped reading.

My oldest, now 18, stopped in about 5th grade. He has a bookshelf full of books that I’ve bought him in a desperate effort to entice him back to the written word. He’s not having any of it.

My middle child, god bless middles, does read. A lot. She inherited my Kindle and buys books constantly. In fact, the other morning I saw an email receipt in my inbox for Fifty Shades of Grey.

Now, I’ve always talked quite openly to the kids about sex, but that particular book doesn’t quite seem like appropriate reading material for a 16-year old. “Honey, do you know there’s sadomasochistic porn in that book?” I asked her, incredulous.

She looked at me, sleepy eyed and confused. Her face went bright red. “I don’t even know what that IS!” Apparently she bought it solely becuase it was #1 on the ebooks bestseller list. So she reads, though she did roll her eyes when I asked her not to read that one.

I was reading aloud at night to my youngest until just a few months ago. She is 13 1/2 years old. She kept asking me, so I kept doing it (good parent? check). I was psyched because at her age I was doing–well, let’s just say my mother was NOT reading to me at night anymore. HuffPo says up till 8th grade kids absorb way more when read to than when reading themselves.

Alas, my youngest hates reading on her own. She’ll only do it with a gun to her head. Research shows that the more TV kids watch before the age of eight, the fewer books they read after the age of eight. (Well, I’m royally screwed then.) So I get her National Geographic for Kids, let her read my People Magazine, goad her constantly. Bad parent? check.

Nothing makes me feel like a worse parent than the fact that I write books, adore books, breathe books, make my living from books… and yet two out of three of my kids don’t read them. Damn the Internet: it’s all your fault.

So, how do you get your teens to read?

One Big Happy Family

A week ago, I was at The Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference in Boston. It’s basically the highlight of my year (don’t tell my husband that). Back in the early 2000’s, I skulked in dark corners unable to bring myself to talk to anyone. Then, I met my agent through the conference. Then, I sold two books. Then, I found a champion of my fiction writing. Then, I connected with publishers and agents for editing work. Then, I started teaching.

Now, I moderate panels, hobnob with celebrities and have an orange ribbon on my name plate that reads: “PRESENTER.” You get the picture. I love The Muse.

I could gush about how fun it was (pre-conference cocktails at 28 Degrees)…. how inspiring (new writers! successes!)… how informative (behind-the-scenes at the big six publishers)… how invigorating (chit chats with Andy Warhol’s former editor)… and so on, but, shall I tell the truth?

The best part of the conference was Alessandro Nivola.

Yes, the actor from Laurel Canyon (hear his astonishingly good British accent at 1:13) and other great movies. This rather famous Hollywood guy spent time with us lowly writers and made us feel, well, more important than we typically feel. On Saturday night at the after-party, he strummed his guitar and sang while his wife Emily Mortimer (soon to be seen on HBO’s The Newsroom) snapped pictures of us all swooning. Here’s a picture of me using the wall to prop myself up. It ranks among the best night I’ve had in years.

The next day, I listened in on a panel with Alessandro and Stephen McCauley. Here are some nuggets:

  • It is not the job of an artist to be concerned with bourgeois morality.
  • Likable characters don’t have to be morally good, but they do have to be dynamic.
  • While filming Match Point, Woody Allen said the dialogue itself is unimportant, it’s the emotional understory that matters.
  • Books rely more heavily on language than film, and so does television.
  • Every scene has a rhythm and a moment. When that rhythm shifts, THAT’S where the energy is.
  • “Movies mostly suck.” Yes, he said that.
  • Dialogue should always have a subtext. Bury the lede.
  • Every scene needs an obstacle: this prevents the person saying what they really want to say.
  • The audience needs to sense what the character WANTS. That’s exciting.
  • Psychologizing is a big no-no. It’s not dramatic and it’s pretentious. Show it through behavior.
  • If it’s specific, it can’t be cliched. (This might be my favorite nugget of all.)
  • Ask yourself, “How do I want to make the viewer/reader feel?” This forces an active voice.
  • When something is tailor-made for a specific market segment, it’s never a recipe for good art.
Thanks, Grub Street. Thanks Alessandro. Thanks for making me feel part of one big happy family.

Digging Deep








When you’re shoveling shit, it gets tiring.

I sifted through some work I did about four months ago before I started my big book edit for Grand Central. It was soul-deadening. I had been writing and writing, trying to build up a good word count.

All that matters is that I get started, I thought. I just need to get words on the page.

Not so. Words on the page are no good in and of themselves. Those words have to be inspired, not forced. I’ve been reading Robert Olen Butler, and hell, he agrees with me!

Back to the drawing board.

The Search for Freedom


So, Saturday night was looking like it was going to be spectacularly dull. Mr. O was snoring next to me (having flown in on the red eye from London the day before) and all three kids were at sleepovers.TV time. Yay! No fighting about the remote.

I  flipped around desultorily, and nothing held my interest for more than ten seconds. Until I found Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington, and then The Boxer, with Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson (incidentally, the wife of Alessandro Nivola who will be at THE MUSE AND THE MARKETPLACE conference this year… Christ, hold on, wait… let me catch my breath, I’m having heart palpitations…).

Obviously, these movies are about different people living in different eras with a different set up of very fucked up circumstances to overcome. But what struck me the most was how both stories shared the very same insights: In the search for freedom comes the quest for power and that inevitably leads to corruption and corrosive jealousy.

What stimulates your imagination? What’s your favorite movie?

Office Space

This is not my office. I wish it were.

My office is sandwiched between the main hallway in my house and the bathroom. It is above the kitchen. Nothing happens in this house without me hearing it. I can hear the rabbit thumping in his cage upstairs. I can hear the mailman padding up the driveway. I can hear my husband sniff in the kitchen.

This is not a good thing. My husband has been working from home the past nine months. When he comes to use the bathroom, I sit at my computer and smoke starts pouring out of my ears. Why? Because my brain is on fire. I am so mad.

A good, strong one-minute-pee has me distracted for at least five to ten additional minutes. That doesn’t SOUND so bad, but it is bad. It is really bad. Those ten minutes put me back, like, A MILLION HOURS. I have to fight to get back to where I was before the sound of water on water took me from where I was and put me squarely in a place where I can’t think of ANYTHING but “Christ, how many cups of coffee did you have this morning?”

I have always written right in the middle of chaos. Babies crying, to-do lists multiplying, house getting dirtier by the second, errands undone. Writing is so important to me, I do it even when when I shouldn’t be doing it. The sheets on the kids’ beds are not clean. They may eat breakfast for dinner tonight. I don’t remember the name of their coaches. But I get my work done, they are happy and loved, and it all works out pretty well. How about you?

Things have changed over the years. I have become so easily distractible that I marvel at what I was able to achieve earlier in my career. If the sound of someone peeing pisses me off so much, how was it I wrote multiple books while toddlers were fighting and clocks ticked nosily and that voice in my head told me I was hungry? Am I just getting older? Am I less immersed in my work? Am I looking for distractions?

Humble, Helpful and Honest

Years ago, I got a random postcard in the mail from a San Francisco editor named Tom Jenks.  I had just ‘fired’ my agent (who was a charlatan, but taught me some invaluable lessons) and was in the need of some nurturing, but also some prodding. I applied to take Tom’s four-day course in Boston. This involved some serious money, but I was in good company. I took the plunge.

First, Tom asked to see an excerpt of my novel, which I had only just started writing. I was impressed that I couldn’t just waltz in there, checkbook in hand. Nice.

Then he called me on the phone to discuss my 20-pages. Again, nice. A big deal editor–someone who edited Raymond Carver!–was taking the time to call me. That made me feel legit. No money had exchanged hands yet.

And finally, he offered a cursory critique: lovely writing, but he was worried I was “holding the story too closely to the individual character’s perspective.” Intriguing. What did he mean? He suggested reading a Joyce Carol Oates short story.

I was hooked. He had:

  1. treated my efforts with respect
  2. created an honest connection between us
  3. given me some free advice
  4. didn’t seem overly motivated by being paid
  5. lured me with the promise of getting even more interesting advice

I had a lot of work to do and a lot to learn, still, but his friendly and assured critique motivated me immensely. In the years since I’ve been doing collaborative writing and editing, I always follow a similar model. I am (fairly) generous with my time upfront; remain unattached to whether the client signs up for my services or not; offer something of value right away; and always allow that mine is but one viewpoint.

Nathan Bransford wrote a post on what to keep in mind when editing other people’s work that I think hits the nail right on the head. Perfect. So did Natalie Whipple. I would add: Just because you’ve been asked to edit someone’s work doesn’t mean you’ve got God-like powers. Stay humble and helpful and honest.

The Heavy

One thing that always gets me when I critique manuscripts is having to be the one to explain to new writers that, no, their work isn’t ready to go out into the world yet.

I remember those early days all too well. You think your work is ready, and it’s not. There’s not really any way for you to know because you don’t yet have the persective. The years of labor. The intense study of the industry. The insights from fellow writers, editors and agents.

Early on, you are an outsider looking in and it’s easy to think–hope, pray–that your work is “good enough” when in reality, it’s nowhere near. It can be devastating to hear from a professional that you were wrong in your self assessment.

It often falls to me to let the writer know that I cannot fast track them into the publishing industry.

First, more work needs to be done. Probably YEARS of work. That does not mean the story is no good or that the writing sucks. It just means that the story and the writing are not yet good enough.

Second, I am probably unlikely to recommend your work to my agent. This is not me just being mean or pompous. (I’m thrilled to pieces when I like something enough to pass it along to my agent. That’s a truly exciting moment, and I’ve done it happily a handful of times.) It’s because your work has to be really, really good for me to risk my reputation on it. I can’t pass anything on to my agent unless I stand behind it 110%. I have to LOVE it.

I used to be astonished that agents and editors only need to read a few pages to tell whether something is good or not. Now I myself can tell in just a few pages, too.

What I do believe strongly, though, is that mine is only one opinion in a sea of opinions. Do not take my word as God’s Truth. Shop around. Get another editor. See if two professionals have similar responses to your work.

So I am incredibly careful in my critiques. I give as much praise as I can because I do not want to spoil anyone’s dream. And almost everyone’s work gets better over time, with a lot of blood sweat and tears. But you can’t avoid the blood sweat and tears. At least, us measly mortals can’t.

Yet I am also honest. I always point out what is confusing, or boring, or sloppy, too broad or too narrow. And no, I don’t use those words. I tell the truth, with kindness.

Billable Hours

I am a single-minded editing freak. I can’t help myself. It’s an obsession. Also, it makes me happy.

So when I get emails from readers pointing out typos in my books, I take it personally. The fact that that typo got in there is my fault, one way or another. A friendly reader recently emailed highlighting a typo in THE SECRET POWER OF MIDDLE CHILDREN, and asked if there were other mistakes she should know about before she continued reading her expensive hardcover copy.

Um. Yes. There are. Additional typos. Sorry.

It’s pretty amazing that those suckers find their way in there given how many beady eyes peruse each manuscript:

  1. the writer
  2. the agent
  3. often, but not always, a freelance editor
  4. the purchasing editor
  5. the line editor and/or copy editor
  6. the writer, at least twice again
  7. proofreader(s)

I read each manuscript about ten times. I will catch an extra space, a repetitious word, the wrong bullet, that stray semi-colon. But, damn those tenacious suckers! Entire words in the wrong place. A date mixed up. Spelling mistakes are rare, but other errors slip through anyway.

When I am editing a client’s work, I mull over word choice for hours on end. Long after I’ve been paid, I still put in hour after hour, worrying about getting the bio just right, or polishing the flap copy, or tweaking the press release. I’m done; it’s not my book; my hours are up. Often I’ve already been paid. But this work is still a refection on me. I really want to get it right.

I can’t help it. I’m freaky that way.

Where’s Your Voice?

It’s not always so easy finding your voice. Sometimes you have it, but no one else can hear it. Other times, you don’t in fact have it, though you think you do. Those can be the most frustrating times of all–you’re looking around at everyone like, “Hey, come on guys! Can’t you hear me?”

And then, you can have it and lose it. That may feel really bad and scary, but at least you had it once, and trust you can probably get it back.

What’s hard is when you know you need a voice, but you don’t know how to develop one.

What is voice, anyway? It’s something that is illusive and yet distinctive. It fits the themes that are percolating in your work. Some writers use one voice, while others use many. Voice can be rough, it can be smooth, it can be high or low, but it must appear at all times to be natural and unforced. Of course, we all know it’s far from natural and unforced–in fact, we labor over it endlessly–but voice must be almost unnoticeable to the reader (notice the “almost”).

What is highly noticeable is lack of voice (= boring writing) or a voice that is mismatched (= confusing writing). Sometimes we may just not like the voice we encounter, but that’s okay. If one person hates it, that almost guarantees that another person LOVES it. As writers, we have to remember that it is not our job to try to please everyone. That is a death sentence.

Here are some examples of VOICE:

1. “As strong as she was physically, most of the power was in her eyes, small and blue, and when she squinted, and she would squint with a murderous intensity that meant, unmistakeably, that, if pushed, she would deliver on her stare’s implied threat, that to protect what she cared about, she would not stop, that she would run right over you.” Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (novel about a young man who brings up his brother after both their parents die of cancer).

2. “I pictured the street ballet of the deaf and dumb: agents signaling to each other from corner to corner, stroking noses, tummies, backs and hair, tying and untying shoelaces, lifting their hats to strangers and rifling through papers–a choreography for very nasty scouts.” Anna Funder, Stasiland (nonfiction account of the trauma suffered by East Germans under Communist rule).

3. “To Irina’s mind, it was the most underrated of symphonnies: the jingle of the ring, the hard rasp, the clop of the bolt withdrawing, open-Sesame. The soft brush of wood against carpet. Engrossed in her reading, she had turned down Shawn Colvin, the better to keep her ear cocked. ” Lionel Shriver, The Post Birthday World (novel that hinges on one woman’s choice during a moment of temptation).

4. “Truth be told, we’re the only ones responsible for our own happiness. Think about how you spend your time compared to how you would like to spend your time. Work, kids, teachers, home, groceries, laundry, family, friends, commutes, doctors–you name the activity and you’re probably doing it. Can you identify what’s holding you back from fitting into your life those moments that actually fill you up?” Susan Callahan, Anne Nolen and Katrin Schumann, Mothers Need Time Outs, Too (nonfiction that looks at the reality of mothers’ lives by going to the experts themselves: moms).

5. “They never told me what it was, and they never told me why they might need someone like me. I probably wouldn’t have taken the fucking job if they had, to tell you the truth. And if I’d been clever, I would have asked them on the first day, because looking back on it now, I had a few clues to be going on with: we were all sat around in this staff-room-type place, being given all the do’s and dont’s, and it never occured to me that I was just about the only male under sixty they’d hired.” Nick Hornby, Nipple Jesus (short story about a burly security guard who falls crazy-in-love with art).

Here’s the thing: voice can be crafted. It’s not simply something you find lying around and put to use, it’s something you mold over time. In my last class at Grub Street we looked at writing by Heather ArmstrongJames FreyDavid BrooksHolly LeCrawMichael CunninghamMary Karr; the writers who wrote the examples above; and many others. The students embraced this wide range of readings enthusiastically, not because the varying voices always hit the mark but because of what they learned about how deeply and comprehensively voice influences story.

Experimenting with voice is immensely liberating and fruitful. Start your own journey toward crafting your voice or join us. I promise that if you loosen up and try to reach those new and challenging notes you’ll soon be singing loudly and joyfully.

May the Force be with you,