No one needs another Titanic book.
That’s what kept going through my head as I started work on what would become ON A COLD DARK SEA. Everyone’s seen the movie; the tragedy has long since been over-exploited. But I had this idea I couldn’t let go of, one of those all-too-rare inspirational moments when I saw exactly how the story should go. So I went with my gut and wrote the book I wanted to write.
And luckily, it turns out there are still people who want to read about a ship that sunk more than a century ago.
Remember that hackneyed advice to write what you know? What you’ll hear from actual working writers is to write what you love. After all, you’ll be living with that topic/setting/character for years–you’d better start off super-excited about it, or there’s no way you’ll be motivated to keep going.
Sounds great, right? But let’s get real. Just because you want to write about something, doesn’t mean anyone else will be interested.
Writers face this dilemma all the time. Follow our hearts and hope an audience follows? Or try to adapt our passion projects into the kinds of books that actually sell? A few literary A-listers can write whatever they want and get awards; other prolific authors churn out series that are target-marketed to very specific readers. Most novelists I know fall somewhere in between, but you definitely have to start with a strong reason for telling that particular story.
The problem is what comes next.
For years, I’ve been fascinated by a certain Big Historical Event. (Sorry, I’m not telling which one.) “Write what you love!” friends urged, so last year, I finally took the plunge and started brainstorming ideas for a book. But this time, no perfect storyline magically presented itself. I struggled and restarted and struggled some more. After many false starts and lots of stomach-churning, I finally figured out that it wasn’t enough to just write about The Event and assume everyone else would be as interested as I was.
So here’s the advice I’ll now be giving to aspiring writers:
Write what you love in a way that makes readers fall in love, too.
Think of your book as a new boyfriend you’re bringing home to meet the family: He’s so great! So smart! You’re going to love spending time with him! A good writer can make any topic interesting–through distinctive characters and dialogue, elements of suspense, and other literary tricks. I’m now reworking the storyline so that readers will hopefully understand why I’m so interested in The Event. (And no, I’m still not ready to share which event is it. Trust me, you’ve heard of it.) Who knows if I’ll pull it off? Stay tuned….
It’s four days until Christmas, and I’ve gotten hardly any Christmas letters. You may remember those from the distant past….say, 1995. In mid-December, your mailbox would fill up with cards from great-aunts and cousins and friends from college who’d moved far away. The cards almost always included a one-page summary of what the family had been up to that year. Since so many of those letters were full of humble-bragging, they got a bad rap. (“Our beautiful daughter is a straight-A student at a super prestigious college and our amazing son plays seven different sports, plus my darling husband got a promotion!”)
Such letters didn’t necessarily reflect the messy realities of family life–or the stress of holiday To Do lists.
But I liked them! They helped me stay in touch with people I didn’t see very often, and each one was a reflection of the person writing it. I remember one former co-worker who sent out a brutally honest report from her dysfunctional family: her son was finishing up rehab, her daughter had gone off to Tokyo and disappeared for awhile, she and her husband kept bickering but were still married. In the years before confessional mommy blogs, her honesty was pretty shocking–and made me like her even more.
After I had my eldest daughter, I vividly remember writing my first Christmas letter–it was one of the milestones that signaled I had now officially started my own family. My own parents continue to write about me and my sister in their Christmas letters, even though we moved out of the house decades ago. (For years, she and I would also keep track of who’d scored a bigger paragraph…i.e., which one had done something worth bragging about.)
But this year, I never got around to writing one. Why bother? When you get Facebook status updates on friends’ and relatives’ lives, it doesn’t seem worth it to write up a whole year-end rundown. We’ve all got plenty of other stuff to do. The vast majority of cards I get these days are beautifully printed with family photos, but don’t have actual writing on them.
And that’s fine, if you’re sending cards to everyone you know. I love seeing pictures of everyone’s cute kids! But for me, as a writer, it feels wrong to send out a card without writing at least something on it. So I’ve come up with my own self-imposed system: I send cards to all my close relatives, and to good friends I don’t get to see often enough. I scribble some kind of personal message, and for those few minutes, I feel connected to that person. Which I think is kind-of the point.
I’m not sending cards to the parents of my kids’ friends or neighbors I chat to when I’m taking a walk–and that’s O.K. I’m not getting caught up in the “you sent me a card so now I feel obligated to send you one” dynamic. I love getting cards, whatever they look like, but Christmas should never feel like a competition. And whenever I get nostalgic about Christmas letters, I can always count on getting one from my parents.
The cover design process is one of the most exciting and nerve-wracking parts of publishing a book. A great cover helps sell your book to readers, but it also needs to convey the story and tone in the right way (so those readers know what they’re getting). And take note, aspiring authors: the publisher gets the final say. Yes, the writer is consulted, and their suggestions are taken into account (to varying extents), but you don’t always get what you want.
I just went through all that with my upcoming book, ON A COLD DARK SEA. The publisher sent me three possibilities, based on a questionnaire I’d filled out about the book and other covers I liked. Then my editor and I began a long series of emails, as I gave my critiques, and she sent them on to the designer, and then the designer sent new versions, and I gave new critiques, and the marketing team gave their input, etc. etc. The whole process took about two months.
I nixed one of the three contenders pretty early on, but that left two that were equally good. Both showed female figures on a boat, but one was close-up and moody, while the other was more pulled-back and brighter. I honestly could not decide which one was better. So I started polling friends and fellow writers….who annoyingly voted 50/50. Each version had an equal number of pros and cons.
In the end, there were just slightly more cons to the lighter, brighter version, and while they could have probably been fixed with a whole lot of Photoshop, my editor and I mutually decided we were done. We had one cover that didn’t need any further work, and that we were both happy with. And while I get a kick out of sorting through multiple possible visions for a book, it’s also a relief to have the whole thing finished.
Now I just have to wait six months for ON A COLD DARK SEA to actually be published! (Seems like an awfully long time….)
When a fellow writer recently told me she’d abandoned her latest manuscript after working on it for eight months, I felt awful for her. How terrible to spend so much time and mental energy on something that didn’t pan out, and how brave to finally say enough was enough. Sometimes you know it’s for the best, she told me, and once the decision was made, it was a relief to let go.
And that’s when I realized writing books is a lot like dating. We’re always searching for the next great idea, the next great love. We need to feel passionate about our next project, because it requires a years-long commitment. But true love, as we all know, isn’t something you can easily summon.
I recently finished my next book (“finished” being a relative term, since I’ve still got months of edits and proofreading to go). With my previous books, there had been lots of stops and starts as I reworked the plot and characters. Writing this latest one felt more like tumbling into a whirlwind courtship. The idea came to me almost fully formed, and the characters felt real from the moment I dreamed them up. I can’t say every minute of writing as a joy–the process came with all the usual frustrations as I pieced the parts together–but I never once doubted that this was the book I was meant to write. I knew it was The One. And now I’m coming down from that endorphin high, looking around for my next prospect, and I’m starting to feel like the Bachelorette at a particularly disheartening rose ceremony.
(O.M.G, I really don’t know who I’ll choose….)
I have three different story idea vying for my affection, all of them with great potential, but I don’t have that rush of certainty that compels me to work on one rather than another. I’m not in love.
Is it that I’m expecting too much? After all, good relationships take work, just like novels. One of the ideas I’m considering might be come more compelling the longer I think it over, like a nice-but-boring boy next door who reveals hidden depths once you get to know him. Or the ideas could turn out to be the literary equivalent of bad dates. I’ve been trying them out (i.e. writing a few chapters) but ultimately may have to face the fact that we’re not meant to be. Maybe something completely new and unexpected will sweep me off my feet.
I can dream, right?
IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST and my next, untitled book (coming Spring 2018) are published by Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon. This makes some people confused: “Amazon? So, you’re self-publishing now?” Nope. Lake Union works just like a traditional publishing house: there are professional editors, proofreaders, and copy editors, and I can say from experience that they are all 1) very thorough, and 2) follow the same editorial process as traditional NYC publishers. The only real difference is that Amazon works faster and gets books into the hands of readers sooner.
Amazon has a number of different imprints–for mysteries, romance, sci-fi, etc. Lake Union specializes in what’s generally called “book club fiction” (mostly books about women, written by women). That allows for a pretty wide range of stories: contemporary to historical, heartwarming to suspense-driven, dark & challenging to light & fun.
Here’s a sample of Lake Union books I’ve got at home:
So, here you have: THE LAST WOMAN STANDING (the story of Wyatt Earp’s outspoken wife, set in the Old West); ALL THE GOOD PARTS (a lovely contemporary story that tells the funny-but-touching story of a woman figuring out what she really wants from life); and A DROP OF INK (a seductive drama/mystery featuring an intertwined group of scandalous literary types in the 1870s).
One of the best parts of joining this imprint is that the other authors really support each other–for example, by doing #LakeUnionAuthor events on Twitter. When you spend most of your days alone in front of your computer, it’s great to feel that you’re also part of a larger whole: a group of women who love to read and write, all telling our own stories.
Today was Publication Day for IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST, a book I spent years writing and rewriting and rethinking and agonizing over (in typical writerly fashion). And as thrilled as I am to have it out in the world at last, it’s not like today was all that different from many other days: I still had to drag myself out of bed to get my kids breakfast; I puttered around the house, thinking of all the things that needed to be cleaned/thrown out; I read a few chapters of the mystery book I fell asleep over last night; and I ate a fast-food lunch in my car while running errands. (Ah, the glamorous literary life!)
This is the start of LAKECREST being out in the world, but it’s also an ending of sorts. The book is now out of my hands: no more rewrites, no more discussions about the cover or title….it’s done. And that’s pretty liberating, especially since I’m now consumed with finishing up my next book (which I’ll get into another time).
The thing is, when it comes to books, I’m all about the ending. A great ending will make me love an otherwise OK book; a lame ending will overshadow an otherwise great book. One of the all-time great endings, for me, was ATONEMENT, by Ian McEwan. It had a twist I did not see coming at all, and it wasn’t one of those twists that are there just to be shocking–it genuinely moved me. I remember having to sit and process that ending for quite a while afterwards.
Another memorable ending was IN THE WOODS, by Tana French. I raced to the end of that book, wondering how she’d tie up all the storylines, only to find out….wahh?? I won’t give it away, but let’s just say, not everything was resolved. I was mad at first, and then I went back and re-read whole sections, and eventually I forgave Ms. French, because her writing is just too great. I had a similar experience with THE LITTLE STRANGER, by Sarah Waters: adored the book, raced through it, got to the end and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t all neatly explained. A hour or so later, having disappeared down the Internet rabbit hole and read dozens of online discussions, I realized that there was a solution hidden there all along….which held up when I re-read the book a few years later.
I rewrote the endings of WHILE BEAUTY SLEPT and IN THE SHADOW OF LAKECREST multiple times, trying to meet my own “great ending” test. Not sure if I succeeded or not, but I’m happy with the choices I made. And I’m thrilled that LAKECREST is out at last…my own version of a happy ending.
Yes, it’s that time of year again, when I flip through my reading journal and see how many books I’ve read this year, marvel at how many I’ve already forgotten, and get re-excited about the ones I loved. Here, in the chronological order I read them, are the ones I remember most fondly. (Note: only some of these were actually published in 2016–unfortunately, I’m not a Big Time Author who gets free review copies.)
- Dare Me, Megan Abbott: I’d heard of Megan Abbott, but somehow never gotten around to reading her books until I saw this on the discount shelf at Barnes and Noble (alongside While Beauty Slept…hooray?). Dare Me turned out to be dark and sarcastic and suspenseful and mind-twisting. It’s superficially about Mean Girls and cheerleading as a kind of warfare, but goes way deeper than I expected.
- The Darkest Secret, Alex Marwood: Looking for a twisty, multi-viewpoint, multi-timeline thriller? Here it is. The storyline kept me guessing, and its social commentary on the British nouveau-riche gave it an added bite.
- Party of One, Dave Holmes and You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein: OK, I’m cheating by fitting two titles in one spot, but I loved these two memoirs for the same reason: the mix of laugh-out-loud humor, genuinely touching emotional moments and perfect pop-culture references. Both are very much in the spirit of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, one of my all-time favorites.
- The King Must Die, Mary Renault: A re-read of a classic that totally held up. This retelling of the Minotaur story was a little slow to get going, but within a few chapters I was totally lost in the ancient Greek world. Renault is required reading for anyone who wants to write historical fiction.
- All the Good Parts, Loretta Nyhan: It’s tricky to recommend the work of someone you know personally (Loretta is fellow Chicago-area writer). That said, I got totally caught up in All the Good Parts because it had 1) a truly engaging narrator, and 2) an unpredictable plot and 3) a real dilemma at its heart: how does a woman of a certain age deal with her ambivalence about having a child? By the end of this book, I felt like I’d spent time with real people I cared about.
- Piranha to Scurfy, Ruth Rendell: I’m a huge Ruth Rendell fan. Since her death last year, I’ve been re-reading a lot of her books, and I was thrilled to find this collection of short stories at the library, stories I’d never read. How does Rendell make creepy, unsettling characters so compelling? It’s a real-life mystery.
- Why? Explaining the Holocaust, Peter Hayes: I read this as a homework assignment of sorts, before interviewing the author for a magazine story (he’s a retired history professor at Northwestern, my alma mater). But I soon realized it’s a book I would have read willingly even if I didn’t have to. Hayes clearly answers all the lingering questions that remain about the Holocaust (why did it happen in Germany? why didn’t the Jews fight back?) and raises questions about authoritarianism that I’m still thinking about months later.
- Versions of Us, Laura Barnett: I’m a sucker for a good “what if” story, and this one takes you through 3 different versions of a relationship. What if they met and fell in love right away? What if they didn’t meet in college but found each other later? It was sometimes hard to keep all the timelines straight, but I really liked the idea that there are many different versions of a “happy” ending.
- Church of Marvels, Lauren Parry: Another multiple-viewpoint narrative, with plenty of plot twists along the way. While I wasn’t sure I’d get drawn in by the Coney Island/carnival setting, it turned out to be a much richer portrait of turn-of-the-century New York than I’d expected.
- A Wild Swan, Michael Cunningham: I’m always down for a good fairy-tale retelling. But this collection of stories went so far beyond that. I can’t even come up with a pithy, clever review because I am still reeling from the emotions and insights and clever characters that Cunningham created from familiar stories. So I’ll simply say: I loved this book. Read it.
I’ve always been a sucker for those lists of “Top Ten Writing Tips.” Which means I’ve read many versions of the same advice: get your butt in the chair; write at the same time every day; set consistent goals. All good stuff, but it doesn’t always relate to how I do things. I can’t claim to have everything figured out, but I’ve been writing fiction for 10+ years, and here are the most important things I’ve learned along the way:
You don’t have to write first thing in the morning. I’m always hearing that you’re most creative and free when your brain is emerging from sleep. It may indeed be the perfect time to scribble in a free-association journal, but I am not and will never be a morning person. I can barely speak a coherent sentence when I wake up, let alone write one. Because I know and accept this, I start my day with other critical tasks, such as Facebook scrolling and scrubbing hardened pieces of food off my kitchen counters.
This is me, when I could be writing (NOTE: This is not literally me. My hair would be much messier.)
You don’t need to have a regular routine. I have nothing but admiration for those people who get up at 5am and knock out ten pages before anyone else in their house is awake. But that will never be me (see above). I write at all different times of the day, in all different locations of my house. Sometimes, I’m in an amazing groove and the words are flowing and everything’s great right at the moment my kids come home from school and start demanding snacks and waving permission forms in my face. On those days, I throw a box of crackers in their direction and say yes to any and all electronic devices so I can get in another hour or so of work. (My kids love “be-quiet-Mom’s-working” days.)
You will make less money than you think. Or maybe not—maybe you’ll make more money than you ever dreamed! I hope you do. But the sad truth is that I’m lucky to be making any money off my fiction, and even though I had a book released by a major publisher (hooray!), I still do other stuff to help pay the bills. Everyone wants and deserves to be paid something for what they write. But if you’re planning on doing this long-term, you have to accept that financial insecurity is part of the deal. Or have your own reality show, in which case you’ll get a six-figure book advance with no problem.
No matter what, you will feel like a failure. Wow, this list is really getting depressing, isn’t it? You’re looking at this website, and maybe you’ve read a nice review of my book, and you’re thinking, “What is she talking about? Elizabeth’s got it made!” (Excuse me while I chuckle.) Every single professional writer I’ve had a more-than-superficial conversation with has admitted having these feelings. If your first book sells great, you sit down to write the next one with almost unbearable expectations: I’ll never do that well again—it’s all downhill from here. And if your book sells just O.K., or bombs? Then the self-doubts have a field day: Who am I kidding? Everyone hated my last book! I suck!
You will have to keep writing even when you’re convinced you’re a failure. This last step is the one that sorts out the poser-writers from the writer-writers. I’m not going to give you a pep talk about how you should embrace your inner sunshine or find your happy place. Now that you know literally every other writer out there gets depressed and doubts themselves, you can accept those feelings and move on. Write even when you hate yourself, or while hating all those other writers who may be depressed but still get paid more than you. If you keep at it despite all the negatives—congratulations! You’re a real writer.
It’s been a busy week for social-media grieving: one day my Facebook feed was full of David Bowie videos and quotes, a few days later it was dedicated to actor Alan Rickman. I was surprised by Bowie’s death, but it was Rickman’s death that hit me with deep, genuine sadness. Why? It wasn’t as if I knew him, or had seen all his movies. If you’d asked me who my favorite actors were, I doubt his name would have topped the list. (Top 10, maybe.)
I thought about this as I scrolled through the Facebook and Twitter tributes to both Rickman and Bowie. Like so much of what’s supposed to be “social,” many of the posts were in fact self-centered: here’s what this man meant to me, here are my memories. Like people were trying to insert themselves into the center of attention, making themselves part of the story.
And yet I found myself clicking the link to Rickman’s obituary in The Guardian. Scrolling through a slideshow of his film roles. Reading the tweets and reminiscences from fellow actors. I remembered movies he’d been in that I loved and wanted to re-watch (first up: Sense and Sensibility). It was the same process Bowie fans went through as they watched old videos of his concerts or listened to albums that spoke to them when they were teenagers, even if they’d barely listened to those songs in the decades since. Yes, this grief is selfish: we mourn these artists because their work intersected in some way with our lives. Maybe we’re mourning the loss of our younger selves, too.
I found Rickman charismatic. (C’mon: that voice!) He grabbed my attention in whatever movie he appeared. I don’t think I can genuinely grieve for someone I didn’t know, but when I added pictures of Rickman to my Twitter and Facebook feed, it wasn’t because I was jumping on some bandwagon, or trying to grab credit as his greatest fan. It was a gesture of respect. I’m sorry Rickman won’t be making any more movies, but like Bowie–like all artists–he isn’t really gone. They’ve left us their work, which makes them immortal.
I’m a sucker for a good End-of-Year list, so I’m sharing some of the books I most enjoyed in 2015. I read many other good books this year, but these are the ones that made a lasting impression and taught me something (either writing-wise or life-wise). These are in no particular ranking, just the order I read them.
- LOST FOR WORDS, Edward St. Aubyn. Fun literary satire about the leadup to a British book award. An entertaining read for bookish types.
- STONE MATTRESS and MADADDAM, Margaret Atwood. OK, I’m cheating by putting two books here, but they both made me worship Margaret Atwood all over again. Stone Mattress is a set of short stories (many about aging) that manages to be both funny and touching. MadAddam finished up a futuristic trilogy that was terrifying at times, moving at others. Atwood is now officially one of my literary role models.
- THE SECRET PLACE, Tana French. Layers upon layers upon layers in this story about a murder at a girls’ school. One of those books I had to simply sit and think about once I’d finished.
- THE GOOD GERMAN, Joseph Kanon. I’ve read a lot of World War II books. This is the first one that made me understand what Berlin was like right after the war (a perspective you don’t often see in novels). Plus, there’s a mystery that keeps the plot moving.
- LIFE AFTER LIFE, Kate Atkinson. Not the easiest read–in fact, I’d tried it twice before and given up. BUT….once I plowed through the first 50 or so pages, I got invested in the characters and the concept made sense. Like the best books, it created a world (worlds?) I got lost in.
- ELEANOR AND PARK, Rainbow Rowell. Are you brave enough to mentally return to your most awkward teenage moments? These characters took me there (esp. since it’s set in the 1980s). A love story that felt painfully real.
- CHOOSE YOUR OWN AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Neil Patrick Harris. I don’t read a ton of celeb memoirs (sorry!) but this is one of the best I’ve ever tried. Funny, honest, and a hilarious concept overall. Plus, it comes with cocktail recipes!
- A JUDGMENT IN STONE, Ruth Rendell. OK, this is kind-of cheating, because I’ve read this book a few times before. But I picked it up again after hearing of Rendell’s death this year, and was thrilled to see that it still held up. I couldn’t stop reading–even though I knew exactly what was going to happen!
- HONORABLE MENTIONS (other books I raced through once I’d started): THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins (everyone knows that one, right?), ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey (narrated by a woman with dementia–a really challenging voice to write, pulled off well), CHILD 44 by Tom Rob Smith (murder mystery set in Stalinist Russia), STORM OF SWORDS by George R.R. Martin (the 3rd in the “Game of Throne” series, this book had some seriously “OH MY GOD!!” moments).