Truth Telling in Blogging: Do you feel like a fraud?

Are you an avid blog reader? Do you read for industry insights, confessional tidbits or something in between? Top blogs are serious business—even personal blogs can earn upwards of $100,000 per month.

If you have a point of view and a unique voice, you can reach millions of people just by writing about your life. People will come to you, as they came to blogger Heather Armstrong, to live vicariously.

But if you write about your personal life, you may have to pay a price. And that price is feeling like a fraud. (Not to mention dealing with the haters.)

What do bloggers owe their readers?

A recent internet ruckus about mommy blogging got me thinking: what do personal bloggers owe their readers? Let me fill you in.

Back in 2002, Heather Armstrong single-handedly—and totally by accident—launched a new journalistic genre: the confessional blog. (Here’s a great summary from the NYT on how she became such a powerhouse.) As journalist Lisa Belkin writes, “Readers of personal blogs return again and again for the connection, the feeling they really know the writer.” Readers love the no-holds-barred nature of this kind of writing. It’s what they come to the site for.

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It’s the reason personal bloggers get paid millions in advertising revenue.

Heather was fired after her boss discovered her blog and read about himself. She wrote about the experience and her readership skyrocketed. When she had her first child, she wrote about it: page views went up. When she moved back to Utah, up. Had her second child, up, up, up. Got shingles, up.

Got divorced? People screamed bloody murder. There hadn’t been so much as a hint on her site that anything was wrong. Readers felt cheated.

Since then, Heather has been seriously on the defensive. Does she have to write about her divorce, given that she wrote about her happy marriage? Recently she posted this explanation of where she draws the line, and it got me thinking…

The rules of nonfiction

I am working with a Pulitzer prize winning journalist who is on deadline for his first nonfiction book. He was having trouble shifting from only the facts, ma’am to a more leisurely—and compelling—storytelling mode.

Most of our discussion centered on finding the comfort zone around truth telling. In nonfiction, when is embellishment a lie? Is creative nonfiction really fiction in sheep’s clothing? For example: Can you recreate a conversation if you weren’t even present when it took place? Is that considered embellishment or lying–or neither?

Frey's not-quite-totally-truthful memoir

I found the James Frey debacle endlessly fascinating. He was discovered to have fudged some facts in his memoir and readers were horrified. His publisher recalled his books. Oprah raked him over the coals on national TV. When I was studying journalism, my law professor told us that we risked getting thrown in jail if we made up as much as one word of dialogue. That high standard stuck with me. The lesson I learned was that real writers never “lie.”

But what does that mean? Not everything David Sedaris writes can be 100 percent true, can it? What does truth telling actually mean in this new confessional genre? And are blogs held to the same standard as books? Should they be?

What do you think?

I don’t have an answer to these important questions. Personally, I don’t think Heather Armstrong owes me, an anonymous blog reader, an explanation of why she got divorced. But was I taken aback when I read that what I thought was a cool, fun, happy relationship (because of stories she chose to tell over the years) was actually such a mess that it ended in divorce? Yes, I was.

Do I still read her? Yes, I do. But do I enjoy it as much—absolutely not. Am I skeptical about everything she writes? Yes, and that takes away much of my pleasure.

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As I read her posts about how she deserves her privacy, what I see is a personal struggle with reconciling herself to her career. I see a woman who feels like a fraud. Ultimately, I think it’s not about what she owes us, it’s about whether she can keep making money from this kind of work and live with herself at the end of the day.




Alone Together at Launch

paparazziYour book is coming out! It’s the best time of your life!

Or is it?

One of the strangest realities of publishing is how lonely your book launch experience can be. It’s something you’ve worked toward for years, it’s such a thrill, and then… what? You sit by the phone on pub day, on your own. You wait for the call from TODAY or the New York Times Book Review. Or Holly wood. And? Silence.

Who do you commiserate with? Your launch community.

One of the best outcomes of helping to run Launch Lab at Grub Street was the tight knit, supportive community that was created by bringing these first time authors together. You can do it too: If you have a book coming out, find some local authors you can team up with and create your own community. There’s real power in being alone together.

We have a Facebook page going where our Launch Labbers keep in touch with questions, helpful links, high-fives, and conversation about the state of the industry. Here’s what they have to say about finding their peeps:

1. A launch community has your back

“Even within an already great organization like Grub Street, Launch Labbers are unique because they have weathered a pivotal professional time with you and that creates a lasting bond.” Marjan Kamali, Together Tea

“There’s an incredible well of kindness in this group and it’s so nice to feel that support and also to give it.” Susan Kaplan Carlton, Love and Haight

2. A launch community gives you permission to gloat

“There for you when you want to brag a little and even more so when you’re feeling insecure as hell and need some support.” ML Nichols, The Parent Backpack

3. A launch community gives you permission to bitch

“Sometimes it’s hard to complain to non-authors. They think, “You should be grateful, your book has come out, your dream has come true,” etc. And while they’re correct… it’s not quite the same as hanging out with people who really, really, understand how frustrating it can be when a blogger or reviewer tells niggling fibs about your book because they’ve (clearly) only skimmed it; and all of the little snubs and slights we put up with all the time, which somehow sting, even though they’re largely beyond our control.” Ilan Mochari, Zinsky the Obscure

“So true– if you dare utter a word of frustration about the publishing world to non authors, you can practically see their eyeballs rolling backwards.” ML Nichols, The Parent Backpack

4. A launch community answers questions you’re too embarrassed to ask anyone else

“I CANNOT imagine having to go through a launch without Launch Lab or my compatriots and their wisdom (also their questions and insecurities that tell me it’s really normal to go through nine emotions in five seconds or to be unsure of what markings to use when correcting a proof). The publishing industry, when faced alone, seems hard and prickly and capricious–and much less so when you have a community and “well of kindness” from which to draw.” Maria Mutch, Know the Night

“There’s great comfort in being able to hive-mind questions both mundane and profound (where to print bookmarks, what can I expect of a publicist; how to build a ‘brand’ and how to decide whether you’re even the brand-type). For mock-interview/one-liner purposes, it was great to have a beta group to try (and try) out different ideas.” Susan Kaplan Carlton, Love and Haight

As we enter another exciting Launch Lab this year with a fascinating and talented–and somewhat overwhelmed–group of debut authors, we wish you all the best with your own launches, too. Just know that it is possible to feel more in control of the process, to be more proactive and less uncertain, and to have some great fun along the way.


An Editing Binge: Burp

imgresAs luck would have it, I’ve recently been inundated with manuscripts to critique. In the space of just a few weeks, I’ve read about southern sharecroppers, speaking mammals called “Aminals,” coke dealers, cult survivors, summer camp mischief, and a make-believe place called “Persiran.” It’s been a bit of an editing binge. Burp.

Here are some conclusions I’ve drawn:


1. An editor will “fix” your manuscript. (An editor can help you fix it.)

2. He/she will introduce you to his or her agent. (Editors are incredibly selective about recommending clients to their agents, because their own reputation hangs on the line every time they do so.)

3. Critiquing should only take a few hours, max. (It takes two to three times as long as you think it should to give constructive and thoughtful feedback.)

4. It’s not worth paying for an editorial letter. (It’s always worth it: Editorial letters are a bitch to write because they require the editor to think holistically about the project and articulate not only what isn’t working, but offer up suggestions on how to fix it. Without an editorial letter you’re getting a bunch of random comments, half of which you’ll forget or discount.)

5. Once you address the editor’s concerns, your manuscript is DONE. (This one’s tough, but most manuscripts need a professional perspective, and then multiple rounds of tweeking and re-writing.)

6. It shouldn’t be so darn expensive! Here’s what Jane Friedman has to say about this on Writer Unboxed: Writers may sincerely seek professional help, but very few are willing to pay for it. You probably will not receive a quality review on your entire manuscript—that will actually affect your chances of publication—for less than $1,000—unless it’s line editing (copyediting, proofreading).



1. Telling rather than showing. Yes, this happens all the time, even though most writers know it’s a no-no. There are times when telling is fine, but most of the time? SHOW.

2. Characters are not differentiated enough. Readers need to be reminded frequently of what characters look like–and I don’t just mean their hair or eye color.

3. Dialogue is boring or stilted. Read your dialogue aloud. Pick your favorite book and analyze the dialogue. Then take yours and chop it up, give it subtext, make it personal.

4. The book is too long. If you can say it in fewer words, do. Everyone will thank you.

5. The themes are not clear or sustained.

6. The end is rushed. Take your time with the denouement. The reader is more interested than you think in how this all ties together. A rushed or incomplete ending can negate the entire reading experience.



1. I always learn something.

2. It’s fun to help people.

3. It’s even more fun when those people are grateful.

4. It helps pay the bills.

5. It keeps my brain sharp.



1. It’s stressful to deliver bad news, and anything other than, OMG THIS IS FANTASTIC is usually perceived as bad news.

2. It’s harder than you think to be encouraging and constructive and truthful.

3. If you’re anal, obsessive and conscientious (I’m not naming any names), I you usually take longer than my your estimated time and end up eating the cost.

4. Sometimes, writers don’t listen. This is far worse than when my children don’t listen to me.

5. One month, I’m binging, the next I’m subjected to the lemon/maple syrup fast.

Please, writers, keep the manuscripts coming, I’m not sated yet.

May the Force be with you,


Are We Undermining Our Children?

imgres-1Over the years I have become kind of obsessed with millenials and the workplace. While writing about teens at the same time as my son–an amenable and highly capable serial underachiever–was applying to college, I became stuck on the horrifying notion that the way we are bringing up our children today is preparing them poorly for tomorrow’s workplace.

Rather than worry about college, I started worrying about how my kids were going to find their way through the work world.

The model my husband and I show them through our own work behaviors is one of extreme diligence born of a deep-seated and authentic interest in our work. This is combined, for both of us, with a clear understanding that in order to do what we do, we MUST work well with other people. So we live with compromises; we have learned to persuade, manipulate and direct; and we respect others while also having firm opinions.

In my case, this has been earned only after decades of experience. There’s been a fair amount of failure and pain along the way for me, but that’s been necessary for me to learn. Navigating the work world did not come all that naturally to me, but I am a doer with high standards for others and for myself, and so by nature I just kept forging ahead. I trusted that each hurdle had some hidden reward.

imgres-2When I wrote my first book, I was astonished to learn just how guilty mothers felt if they didn’t focus 100 percent of their energy on their kids. Since that’s basically impossible, most mothers feel guilty most of the time.

Except me. I love work so much, I don’t feel guilty about doing it. I also need to do things like shower, lounge around, and go out with friends. Anyway, my point is this: it was and still is truly perplexing to me that modern (western) attitudes to parenting seem to require that we dedicate ourselves exclusively to our kids or–so goes the accepted theory–we’ll screw them up.

I think the opposite is true.

Now, years later and in the middle of working on my 7th or 8th book, it’s all coming full circle. I’m reading about how ill-prepared these kids we’re raising really are. They are driving employers crazy because they are demanding without having earned the right to be so. A recent Wall Street Journal article explains these kids expect high pay, flexible schedules, promotion within a year and great vacations. When they don’t get this, they quit, knowing of course that they can always fall back on their parents.

And then at the end of the article, I read this: “After all, the grumbling baby-boomer managers are the same indulgent parents who produced the millennial generation.”

Payback. Yikes.

imagesI loved this Harvard Business Review article that looked at work from the touted “find your passion” perspective. It offers up four things kids should focus on in order to prepare themselves for a satisfying work life:

  1. Develop situational awareness: “There’s too much focus on knowing the self. Balance this with knowing the world.”
  2. Look into problems that affect you in a very personal way. “We’re more likely to be motivated by problems we can relate to on a personal level.”
  3. Connect with people working on big problems. “In a world where problems are by their very nature interdisciplinary, just getting to know people who are passionate about one problem leads to discussions on how other problems can be solved.”
  4. Take time off and travel. “Forget about traveling as a tourist… The broader and richer experience pays dividends down the line.”

And I would add here are a few things parents can do, too:

  1. Let your kids fail every now and then.
  2. When you say no, mean it.
  3. Model a good work ethic, and talk with them about your work.
  4. Make them get real jobs when they are teenagers.
  5. Think long term instead of short term.
  6. Take time for yourself when they are little, so they grow up understanding they’re not the center of the universe.
  7. Feel less guilt, and enjoy the moment more.
  8. Forgive yourself for being imperfect.

What do you think? Email me at, I’d love to hear your opinion.


Locked Up


The Norfolk County Courthouse is right in the middle of town, and I pass it many times a day. Today, I park, gather together my notebooks, computer, I.D., take a deep breath and march in.

The Asian police officer at the front desk barely glances at me as I put my bag through the X-Ray machine and walk, stoop-shouldered, through the metal detector. A curving stairway lined with stained marble leads upstairs to the room where, a few years ago, I listened to the jury foreman say “guilty.” The Judge’s chambers are up there too, where I sat and watched as my friend was sentenced to four to five years in prison. I watched the police cuff him and lead him away in front of his wife and children. That night, I watched it all over again on the evening news.

I hitch my bag up on my shoulder. To my left, behind tall oak doors with etched glass panels, is the Clerk’s office. Inside is a messy warren of mismatched desks and file cabinets. Enormous windows overlook the High Street.

No one looks up as I enter.

“Hi?” I say, putting my bag down on the floor between my legs. Half the space in the narrow entryway is taken up with a counter upon which piles of papers are stacked haphazardly. No one appears to hear me. “Hello? I’d like to see a court transcript. Of a trial. From a few years ago?”

Three sets of eyes look up at me simultaneously.


When does a story become ours to tell? This simple question had been haunting me since the trial. Over and over again, friends came up to me at parties, woozy with beer. “You haveto write about this!” they’d say, eyes on fire. It was all very exciting, for them. I perfected a frozen smile.

Meanwhile, I was living my own hellish reality that no one suspected: I wasn’t sleeping. My doctor put me on sleep medications and anti-depressants. I developed a mysterious back ailment I couldn’t get rid of. Almost every morning, I spent the first few hours trapped inside the deep and secret guilt of my stupendous hangovers. I suffered my first ever anxiety attacks. Twice I experienced vertigo so intense I had to stay in bed all day. Thank god I had a nonfiction book contract. I was surprisingly productive. I went on TV to publicize my book. I got steady editing work.

To the outside world, everything was normal. To me, everything had fallen apart.


“Transcripts?” a lady at the back says. “Well. We don’t keep those in here.”

“Oh,” I say, relief flooding through me. Easy. I’ll just turn around and leave and forget this project. It’s taken me years to gather the nerve to come back here, and now I can just go home and forget about it all.

The woman at the desk closest to me turns her eyes back to her computer. That leaves four eyes on me. No one bothers to get up. I’ve been dismissed.

I feel myself beginning to get irritated. I’m here now, aren’t I? I have a right to see those papers. Those files are public.

“Really?” I say after a moment, keeping my voice light. “So… where are the transcripts kept, then? You’ve got court documents here, right? I’m allowed to see those by law, aren’t I? I mean, they’re in the public domain.”

I smile my most guileless smile. Everyone is watching me now.

A thin, middle-aged woman in a fitted green T-shirt stares at me through thick glasses. “Case number?” she asks.

I say the case number.

“What kind of case was it?”

“Statutory rape.”

The two women at the back of the room exchange glances. The one who told me they don’t keep transcripts here leans back in her leather chair, pencil in hand. “You want to see the transcripts of a rape trial? Is it over?” she says after a while.

“Yes. Uh, a few years ago.”

“Was there a conviction? Did it go to appeal?”

“Both,” I answer. “He was convicted and then appealed.”

“You a journalist, or a lawyer?” the woman in green asks. “You need to fill out paperwork, you know. You’ll have to say why you want to see the files. Not everyone’s allowed to see the files. There are rules.”

“That’s okay. I can do that. I’ll fill out paperwork.” My heart is racing.

On the sheet of paper she hands me, I state my reason for the request: personal research. After “Relationship” I write:friend.


For years, I’d been locked up in a kind of jail myself. After a two-week writer’s residency during which I wrote 500 words, I finally admitted to myself that I might never write fiction again. This realization was relief and torture in equal measure.

One day, I decided that I was powerless to do anything to change what had happened or what was happening. I let go of my guilt. It wasn’t my job to fix this mess. My back pain disappeared almost immediately. I never suffered another anxiety attack. Eventually, I laid off the pills and booze.

As a writer, when do you have permission to write about someone else’s tragedy? No matter how hard I tried, I could not stop wrestling with the questions that lingered for me. Those were my demons.

Though I was no longer physically ill, I could not move on. I still wasn’t working on my novel.


That day at the courthouse, I succeed in getting hold of the court documents, and I sit there for hours poring over transcripts (incomplete), depositions (tragic), police reports (wordy), and appeal filings (indecipherable). It’s all horribly familiar to me. But I feel okay. I am sad, but not devastated.

A transformation is taking place as I read: the story is changing. It is morphing into my story. I’m not thinking about my friend, I’m thinking about my plot. I’m thinking about how to tackle the questions that have been bothering me. My imagination starts to kick in.

My eyes begin to hurt and I go home. Even though I have a deadline for other writing, I decide to work on my novel for a bit. To try, one more time. I’ll put in 15 minutes… half an hour…. maybe more…

I write 2,000 words. It’s been a very long time since I wrote 2,000 words in one sitting.

I take something I lived through, claim it as my own, and make peace with my discomfort. I am not writing that story, I am writing my own story. It doesn’t belong to others, I decide, it belongs to me.

It has taken me a long time to get here, too long. But I’ve done my time.


Have you ever experienced writer’s block? I would love to hear your story. You can reach me at



The Happy Secret to Better Work…

… is stumbling on super cool research while slogging through studies and academic treatises on the Internet.

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Because I often write about family dynamics, I end up doing a lot of research on what makes people happy. After all, as parents our #1 concern is that our children grow up to be “happy” (yes, we also want them to be “successful” and healthy, but their happiness will typically make us feel like we’ve done a good job).

Frankly, happiness is a hard thing to write about. I often find myself quite frustrated trying to untangle the various ways in which parents influence the long term happiness of their children. There are days when I’m confused, irritated, and even a bit bored by our culture’s insistence on happiness.

And then I start surfing the web. When I stumble on talks like this, by Harvard researcher Shawn Achor, I’m happy again.

First, I love the way he makes his points by telling vivid stories. It reminds me that above and beyond everything else, when we’re trying to change how people understand the way the world works, we are most effectively served by telling stories. Lively stories about real people are relevant, meaningful and have impact.

Second, I love to a good laugh. I learned a lot about how to give a great speech by listening to this one. I don’t consider myself a funny person, though actually my husband insists I’m hilarious (um, should I be taking this as a compliment??)–but wouldn’t it be great to be informative AND entertaining?

And finally, I think his insights are both clear and helpful. I eagerly listened to The Secret in my car when it was all the rage, and I just couldn’t quite buy into the idea that you create your own reality with your thoughts (so my dear friend who is dying of ALS–it’s his own fault?).

But I get what Achor is saying. “When you can raise someone’s level of positivity in the present,” he says, “then their brain experiences a happiness advantage.” He explains this as a state of being in which you are able to increase your intelligence, creativity and energy.

The key is not to expect work or success to create a feeling of happiness. The key is that when we live in a happier state–when our brains are more positively inclined–success follows. “So if we change our formula for happiness and success,” Achor explains, “what we can do is change the way we can then affect reality.”

The Biggest Myth About Self Publishing Is…

tiffany-box_cover_3DOne of the great pleasures of teaching at Grub has been helping to develop and run the Launch Lab (subtitled, Introducing Your Book/ Directing Your Career, which nicely describes its purpose). The experience is invigorating: what’s better than convening with a group of dedicated writers, focused on spreading the word about their books in an authentic, sustainable and energy-giving way?

Wearing my Launch Lab hat, I interviewed Kathleen Buckstaff, a writer from Marin who just self published her memoir, The Tiffany Box. I was most interested in the new found sense of control and opportunity that many can achieve when they take the reins for themselves instead of placing all their trust and hope into traditional publishers. And in the process, I found out the greatest myth about self publishing…

1. Some years ago, you were a popular humor columnist for The Los Angeles Times, but stopped when it felt too intrusive to your personal life. What made you decide to publish these intimate emails about your mother’s death?

I lost my ability to write humor when my mom was diagnosed with cancer.  Many years after my mother passed away, I went back and started sorting through old emails and diary entries.

Initially, I read them out loud to a dear friend who is also an Artistic Director of a Theater.  I’m a compulsive note-taker.  I like words that people say.  Funny things, inspiring things.  I write them down.  I did this in my emails and inadvertently captured a lot of things I’d forgotten.  When I read those emails out loud to Carol in her kitchen, we were both stunned.

I had preserved something intimate and raw.  There was a voice there that I could never have created for a public audience. It was what you tell your very, very closest friends at night after a long, crazy day of taking care of everyone.  It’s about me becoming a mom to my own kids and then becoming a mom to my own mom.  And it’s told as it’s happening.  Emails were how I sorted through contradictions of life– humor and pain, sorrow and joy that were right next to each other everyday.  Carol is the one who told me I had to do something with those emails.

2. Have there been any surprises for you in the few weeks since your book came out? Good and bad?

Yes!  People are buying the book.  They’re reading it and then they’re coming back and buying handfuls more to give to friends.

3. I often wonder whether self-publishing is for everyone, or if there’s a certain personality type who would be better at it. What do you think?

Good stories float.  People love good stories.  We love telling them. We love hearing them.  We love sharing them.  Having a good story to share is a wonderful commodity. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter at all who publishes it.  What matters is that the story touches someone and lights up a tiny corner in the world and someone else gets to see that place for a little while.  Stay a bit.  Feel something new.  Experience something new.  Share something you thought only you knew.   A good story says, “hey, I’m human and this is how.”

4. In the last five years, self-publishing has grown by 287 percent. That’s a lot of books flooding the market. How do you approach marketing your own book without getting overwhelmed? What can you do to stand out in the crowd?

I do get overwhelmed some days when trying to figure out how to market my book.  But I am studying online marketing and am learning a lot.  1. It’s essential to have a great website that easily discoverable (read about SEO) 2. Study Google Analytics at least 1 or 2 times a week (learn where you are getting traffic and put more energy there and reduce energy where you are not getting traffic) 3. Reach out to organizations that are connected with your book (your main character, a trauma in your story, a joy in your story) 4. Target your audience (find your most likely readers and find what sites they frequent and write guest blogs) 5. Write blog posts on related topics (to your book), making yourself an expert.

Most people at some point in their lives are caring for someone they love who has a serious illness.  It’s a big market.  And my story is crazy and honest.  People read it and laugh and cry– probably because that’s how I got through that time, laughing and crying.

5. Are there some steps in the process that are often overlooked by self-publishing authors that you think are critical?

I spent months going back and forth with my book designer Shannon Bodie at Lightbourne on cover design and interior design.  She and I iterated and iterated.  I had absolutely no idea how much time it would take to make a cover feel the way I wanted it to.

I love experiencing a book.  I love holding a book.  I now have so much more appreciation for what goes into creating an experience with a book.  Together Shannon and I chose every single detail carefully.  We took time.  A lot of time and I think it comes through.

6. What’s the biggest pitfall of self-publishing? The greatest joy?

I think the biggest pitfall, which I consider bigger than any pitfall associated with self-publishing, is a story that is written and never shared.

The greatest joy of self-publishing?  I got to make this story mine, all mine– the story, the title, the cover, the book.  I had a vision for the how the book would feel and worked closely with Shannon, my book designer, and we got what I wanted.  We actually created a cover that exceeded my expectations.

7. Your book cover really stands out. It’s eye-catching and professional. Tell me about the process of designing it.

We wanted it to have texture.  The story has texture—it is told only through emails, letters, diary entries and columns.  I took hundreds of photographs of the actual Tiffany box to use for the cover.

The box is almost 25 years old now.  It had contained a wedding present for my husband and me, and I saved the box.  After my mom died, I put her correspondences there along with letters she received and other things.  I always associated that box with her death, until I opened it.  And I found life.  I wanted the cover to feel like something old that is treasured.

The process of working with Shannon was creative, collaborative and extremely fulfilling.  She helped me see what the book cover could become. We laughed, iterated, got goose-bumps and pushed each other hard to make it what it is.  I also love the layout of the interior, the variety of fonts we chose as well as the placement of diary entries and emails on a page.  We paid attention to the details.

8. A lot of indie and self-published authors cut corners on costly things like covers. Why did you choose to spend money in this way?

I’m a visual person and I often judge a book by its cover.  When I walk through a bookstore, I am aware of picking up books that I want to touch.  Something in the cover calls to me and I want to know more.  A book cover done well sings the song of the book and the passerby hears it and responds.  This is my experience of books and I wanted to honor that with my book.  I knew I was investing in the story by investing in the cover.

9. What would be your advice to other writers in the process of assessing whether they want to go legacy or indie?

My experience is that most writers don’t have the choice.  Very few writers are getting their books published by traditional publishers these days.  A lot more writers have great stories completed sitting in files in their computers.

I believe it’s important to share our stories. I need to restate that– I believe it is essential to share our stories, as essential as breathing.  If you are a writer and you write, then I believe that you have a message to the world, a unique message and you need to share it, with the best of your ability and give it away.  I have been in many writers’ workshops and I have heard beautiful, poignant stories being read out loud and most of those stories have not become books.

The barriers are gone.  It is possible now to make a beautiful book without waiting for someone else to give you permission.  I’m thinking of the dance scene in Grease when a girl had to wait for a guy to ask her to dance and only some girls were asked to dance and the criteria was narrow and exclusive.  That’s changed.  Everyone can dance now.  Thank God.

10. What’s the biggest myth about self publishing?

That it only takes a few hours!

Kathleen Buckstaff, author of The Tiffany Box

Kathleen Buckstaff, author of The Tiffany Box

Kathleen Buckstaff wrote humor columns for the Los Angles Times and The Arizona Republic. She performed her one-woman play “The Tiffany Box, a love remembered” to sold-out theatres in CA, AZ and NYC. Kathleen has a BA in Creative Writing from Stanford and a MA in Journalism from Stanford. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their three children and their dog Lily.

New Website–Yahoo!!

I’m so thrilled to have a new website that reflects my personality and manages to connect all the dots in a coherent way. Thanks to Kim Drain of Thumbtack design who designed it in record time for not so very much mula.

Sorry to not offer the option to comment on the blog posts. I just can’t deal with the incessant spamming. You get it, right?

My books, more to come soon

My books, more to come soon

Richard Burton and the Writing Process


I’m in the middle of a really challenging project. One day, I’m full of beans, the next I’m in despair. But over the years my creative routine has become very familiar and comforting to me. And one of the things I do a lot more frequently when I’m in the throes of a project is read.

Yes, that’s right. I read a lot while I’m writing. I read both new material and old. Currently, on my desk, I have these books:*

These aren’t necessarily all my favorite books, but they’re the ones I want at hand so I can I dip into them as I work, just to remind myself of the kind of writing I aspire to. Over the last 20 years, I’ve read The Good Mother four times, because the pacing is exquisite and the human drama so poignant. The Diving Bell is heavily thumbed: oh to be so spare with words and yet so eloquent!

I could go on about each of these books at length (the voice in Nipple Jesus!) but the one I want to tell you about today is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Here’s a great NPR segment on it.

When I finished reading it, I wanted to muse for a day and then pick it up and start all over again. I learned something—about craft, about the world, about myself—on every page. Here are some writing truths that it brought to mind for me:

1)   Character is everything

Walter’s characterizations are among the best I’ve ever read, whether he’s writing about fishermen in a remote Italian village in 1962; a surgically enhanced movie producer whose face looks like a 9-year old Filipino girl’s; or a hapless young wannabe with his fake cowboy shirt and cheesy self-empowerment tattoo. I believed in them all. Specific and unique characters make a book come alive. And despite a vast cast, this book retains an intimate feel. That comes from the reader being truly invested in each character.

2)   But plot counts too

Whether I liked them or not, I cared about what happens to the people in this book. I turned pages because I had to find out what their dreams were and whether or not they came true. Even though Walter constantly switches point-of-view and genre—including long sections of a screenplay, war novel and memoir in the middle of the primary narratives—this isn’t distracting. It doesn’t interrupt the flow, despite interrupting the story. This is a feat of genius.

3)   Snappy dialogue creates character

This is, of course, obvious but can’t be stated often enough. Here’s one example: “I was thinking about Larry.” Richard Burton looked at Pasquale. “Olivier, lecturing me in that buggering-uncle voice of his.” Richard Burton stuck out his lower lip and assumed a nasal voice: “ ‘Dick, you will, of course, eventually have to make up your mind whether you wish to be a household word or an ac-TOR.’” He laughed. “Rotten old sotter.” And, yes, Richard Burton is the beautiful ruin of the title, which refers to this Dick Cavett interview.

4)   Every scene should have a purpose

There are not many pyrotechnics in this book: no one gets shot, there are no explosions or big reveals. It’s a slow build toward a devastating overall commentary on the human condition. Yet while many of the scenes seem small scale, each one has purpose: it unveils deeper nuances in the characters.

5)   Readers want to learn

A huge part of the fun of reading is being taken to unfamiliar places and learning about something new. While lying in my bed, I travelled to Cinque Terre, Italy; Los Angeles; Edinburgh; Sandpoint, Idaho; Seattle—and elsewhere. I learned about movie-making, music, fishing, geography. Ultimately, we read about the lives of others for the insights this gives us into ourselves. A great book teaches us about worldly happenings as a way to teach us about the mysteries of our own selves.

A deeply romantic book at its core, Beautiful Ruins is also cynical, lacerating, exuberant and timely. It asks the question: what do any of us really want from life?

This, then, is why I read when I write. So that I keep aiming high.  Readers deserve it.

May the Force be with you,



* Links are to interesting info about the books, not Amazon. Just saying.

Editing: Empowering or Soul-Destroying?

Some people hate editing. They think the magic lies in creation not correction. Some people love editing.  They think it’s when they have a chance to find the magic and make it come alive.

Myself, I have a love/hate relationship with editing. I love editing my nonfiction work because it so vastly improves how well my ideas are communicated. And I hugely appreciate being edited by a professional. 

But I hate editing when it comes to my fiction writing. Why? Because it’s really hard to know whether you’re making something better or worse. I’m pretty sure I made my first novel (the one that’s deep in a drawer) much, much worse with my editing. It can be agonizing. Getting editorial input can hurt as much as it helps.

But edit we must. It pays to be a relentless, hard-ass editor of your own work. You come off as far more professional, and you learn how to write better in the long run. Here are my top-ten personal editing rules, that I share with my students:

1. I Take Time Off: I try not to edit new work on the same day that I have created it. I can be much too ruthless if I do that. When I have had a break (even just 24 hours) and gained some perspective, I see my work with fresh eyes. This is necessary for me to be appropriately tough on myself.

2. I am Dogged, Relentless, Absolutely Anal: I go back again, and again and again, even when I think I’m done. Chances are, I’m not actually done the first, second or even third time. I hold myself to high standards. Writers are a dime a dozen, and I want to distinguish myself. You should too.

3. I Always Edit on Hard Copy: I do first edits on the computer. I always print out a hard copy when I begin deep revisions. Something about pencil on paper, seeing the work in a different format, triggers the editor’s eye. Some writers change fonts when they edit their work in order to see it differently.

4. I Take it a Chunk at a Time: I read each and every scene and ask myself, What am I trying to convey here? Have I achieved that? For nonfiction, I do the same for each chapter and each sub-section within the chapter.

5. I am Looking to Slash and Burn: In re-reading, I am mostly looking to CUT extra words, scenes and/or characters. Anything that is repetitive must go. MUST. Most agents/publishers want fewer words not more. Then I look at where I need to ADD more detail, more action or more facts.

6. I Step Back: I take a macro look. What are the big themes? Is the pacing good? Are my anecdotes varied? Does the book/ story/ chapter begin and end where I want it to, and are the beginnings and endings connected? Are the settings varied enough? Here is where I look at continuity issues: crosschecking names, ages, descriptions, references.

7. I Step In Close: I take a micro look. Grammar, sentence structure, rhythm, errors that spell check might miss (it’s & its, their & they’re etc). I look for “filler” words, or words I over-use, like: very, suddenly, so, surprise, look, turn, smile, moment. I vary the way I structure each sentence and look out for the passive voice. I read entire sections aloud to see how they flow. When I trip up, I detangle and/or cut.

8. I Get (and Take) Serious Feedback: After doing an exhaustive edit myself, I listen to the advice of a professional editor. Their objectivity and experience is invaluable. I am rarely defensive. Though I remain open to all suggestions, I don’t always implement them (instead, I’ll offer another option). I don’t expect to be told how to fix things, just what needs to be fixed. I only give work to friends to read if they have a specific expertise or perspective that could be helpful to me.

9. I Follow the Guidelines Like a Total Suck-Up: I use a cover page, put my name in a header on each page, number the pages, give a word count and save in Times New Roman or Arial 12 point. I read submission guidelines carefully. It can take me an entire day to check and re-check a document before submission. Errors nonetheless occur, but much less frequently. Sometimes, I hire a copy editor since that’s not my forte. My goal is to have the presentation be flawless, and to be noticed only for the content.

10. I Chill: If I’ve done the best I can, I try to chill. I have a nice meal, I watch a great movie, I go for a run. Everyone deserves to feel good about the level of effort they put into their work.