I drop these details not to terrify, but to demonstrate that persistence is key for writers

Under her real name, Lynn Carthage was a Bram Stoker Award finalist, a Yaddo fellow, and San Francisco Chronicle “notable” listed novelist. She’s just published a new novel, Haunted, under a pseudonym – a book author Danielle Paige calls “spooky and fun.” Paige goes on to say, “If you like American Horror Story, you will love Haunted.” And Lynn shares some great advice here today. - Meg

I drop these details not to terrify, but to demonstrate that persistence is key for writers.

My path to publication for Haunted: The Arnaud Legacy almost seems like its own ghost story to me. The biggest scare? That I’d never see it published.

cover HAUNTED DP quoteOver a decade ago, I had a nightmare about a malevolent mansion that tricked me into climbing up onto its roof, where I came face to face with the evil person who became, in my novel, Madame Arnaud. I woke up and jotted a few notes down. It seemed like something I could tease into a young adult novel, so I began writing.

A week later I had a rough draft, very short and very drafty (as drafty as a haunted hallway!). I began reading it to my writers group and getting feedback to improve it.

I then embarked on an up-and-down journey involving three agents, eight title changes and ultimately my selling the book directly to Kensington Books myself, although I brought Agent #3 back—the wonderful Marly Rusoff—to help with contract negotiations.

I drop these details not to terrify, but to demonstrate that persistence is key for writers. If I hadn’t kept revising the book and pitching it, it would not be in print today. I was so unrelenting in my efforts that I’m one of the “poster child” authors featured in Jordan Rosenfeld’s upcoming Writer’s Digest book,  A Writer’s Guide to Persistence.

I didn’t give up—but I also didn’t stop improving the book, either. I revised not just on the sentence level, but also with large plot points and even characters. Anyone who reads my book and meets the teen character Eleanor Darrow, for instance, will be surprised to learn she started life in my book as an elderly male librarian named Algernon. I also continued to read other people’s books voraciously to pick up craft on an unconscious level.

The other key to my mental health and to ushering this book into print? I started writing other books.

“Don’t put all your eggs into one basket,” goes the saying, and so I doled them out. The creative buzz I get from starting a new book made the endless rejections and near-misses for this one seem bearable. And one of those projects even snuck up from behind and got published eight years ago under a different author name—so for a while I was ecstatic and distracted and forgot about Haunted. But after a while my attention returned with renewed vigor.

In hindsight, there are things I might’ve done differently to see Haunted on bookshelves earlier, but in general these three tips served me well:

  1. Keep revising with great courage. Don’t be afraid to change big things. Moving around commas doesn’t count.
  2. Keep reading high-quality literature to unconsciously (or even consciously) dissect what makes it work.
  3. Set the first book aside temporarily and write something new.

This month Haunted shows up in bookstores, and the albatross around my neck is now flying the sky. Thanks to my agent’s suggestion it’s part of a trilogy, so I’ve turned in the second book to the publisher already and will deliver the third next February. Pretty good outcome from a bad dream! – Lynn

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1st Books Weekly Guest Author: Greer Macallister on writing historical fiction

Greer Macallister is a poet, short story writer, playwright and novelist who earned her MFA from American University, where her plays have been performed. Her debut novel The Magician’s Lie is a weekly or monthly pick by Indie Next, People Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, among others. People calls it, “Smart and intricately plotted… a richly imagined thriller.” – Meg

Switching Genres: Greer Macallister on writing historical fiction

The-Magicians-Lie-Greer-McAllister_3DAs writers, we’re often encouraged to “find our voice,” as if there’s only one. But just as there are many characters and plots inside each of us, there are many voices, and many writers. I am a poet, and a playwright, and a short story writer, and now a novelist. My work is told in many different voices. I feel I become a new writer every time I begin a new piece. In the case of The Magician’s Lie, I became a historical fiction writer.

In the beginning, I was inspired by an absence. Books, movies, TV commercials and other media often refer to the classic image of a magician cutting a woman in half. I began to wonder why it’s always the woman cut in half by a man, and never the other way around. Why don’t we see a female magician cutting her male assistant in half? So I decided I wanted to write that book, about that magician.

But I had a choice to make. There are magicians, and there are magicians. Did I want this woman to be a modern, contemporary woman, maybe with a Vegas stage show and a TV special? Or did I want to set the story in a time when magic shows were more widespread, when they’d be part of an evening’s entertainment for the average citizen? In that case, it would be possible for a controversial show to truly cause a sensation. I did some preliminary research to find a time when it would be unusual but not impossible for a woman to take to the Vaudeville stage as an illusionist, and anchored the story on a real-life event where a real-life female magician took the stage for a dangerous illusion called the Bullet Catch at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.

In January 1897.

And so I became a new writer, a writer I’d never been: a historical fiction writer.

I didn’t know anything about 1897 off the top of my head. Would there have been electric lights? What would such a woman wear? How would she get around? How much did the streetcar cost? There were streetcars, right? Maybe?

I learned on the job. I started writing, and researched along the way. The action of the book started in the mid-1880s and continued through 1905. As a contemporary fiction writer I’d been fast, but as a historical fiction writer, I was agonizingly slow. The research took over, halting the writing for long periods, when I couldn’t get through a scene without stopping to gather information. Had sequins been invented yet? Telephones existed, but would a small town police station have one, and if so, what would its ring sound like? What crops would a farmer grow in East Tennessee?

Over the five years that it took me to write The Magician’s Lie, I learned how to balance research and writing. I lost some of the immediacy (and certainly the speed!) of writing contemporary fiction, but I gained something I absolutely treasure – the ability to transport the reader to a completely different world. Choosing the right details and working them into the text gently, softly, as if there were no other way – I grew to love the challenge, and to me, that’s where historical fiction really shines. If I’ve done my job, and truly become the writer I needed to be to produce this book, it will sweep the reader away. In this way I get to be a new writer – and, in a way, a new kind of magician. – Greer

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1st Books Weekly Guest Author: Tatjana Soli on silencing the voices of no

Tatjana Soli guest posted here when her first novel, The Lotus Eaters released. This lovely debut went on to become a New York Times bestseller, was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times and the ALA, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, and WON the James Tait Black, England’s oldest literary award, and one of the world’s most prestigious. Now she’s out with her third novel, The Last Good Paradise, about which Caroline Leavitt says, “Funny, sad, and hauntingly moving, Soli’s brilliant new novel is about fractured dreams, broken people, and our desperate yearning to grab for that elusive second chance, no matter the cost. Drenched in a sunny paradise climate, Soli’s novel asks, what’s enough in life to be happy, and then delivers an answer that’s as spell-binding as it is profound.” I’m off to my local indie store to get it today, and rerunning her lovely post here to celebrate its release! – Meg

Silencing the Voices of No: Tatjana Soli on Writing her 1st Novel

The-Last-Good-Paradise

Almost ten years ago when I first got the idea of writing a story about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a female photojournalist, a woman seeking her destiny within the war, the reception was lukewarm to say the least. I was told that Vietnam was considered a niche audience, all military and all male, that a woman’s perspective, not a soldier’s, would be too limiting. Discouraged, I moved on to other projects.

But I live in Orange County, CA, where the city of Westminster — Little Saigon — is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. In the local newspaper, stories from after the war are frequent, stories of leaving one’s homeland and starting life anew. Individual stories of adversity and triumph. So I began writing the stories of Vietnamese emigrants coming to the US. The idea of the war could not be left behind, it just came out a new way.

The stories started in Orange County, but they migrated across the ocean, moved backward in time. One dealt with a man who escaped on the boats and landed in the refugee camp of Pulao Bidong, Malaysia. It got to the level of an obsession. One of my favorite compliments from this time is when a literary quarterly editor knocked on my door at a writers’ conference and was shocked when I answered. She thought I was Vietnamese and had an exotic European name. My stories got closer and closer to Vietnam, closer and closer to the time of the Fall of Saigon. My first character for the novel formed — Linh, a gentle young poet, who leaves his home to avoid the war. So I began the book, not because the idea had been green-lighted or there was an enthusiastic agent or editor waiting for it, but because I couldn’t bear not to.

The dedication of my novel reads:

To my mom,
who taught me about
brave girls crossing oceans.

It’s a cliché to liken the publication of a book to the birth of a child. But I will say that it’s an extremely moving moment the first time you hold your book. It represents not only a great sacrifice of time out of your life, but also a sacrifice from those around you. Absent spouse, uncooked meals, uncleaned house, spotty social life. No matter how un-autobiographical, the book contains your essence — maybe not in location, history, or plot — but in the way that characters move through the world, the way language unspools on the page. When I received my ARC’s last fall, it was the culmination of many things for me. I sat my mother down, opened the book to the dedication page, and gave it to her. I had kept what I had written a surprise. She cried, as mothers do. Of course, she was proud of her daughter, but it was more than that.

My mother had left Austria as a single mother and come to the United States not knowing anyone. People told her she was foolish, that it was a reckless undertaking with a small child, but she was determined. She wanted a better life for us. Although she has flourished, I think in the back of every immigrant’s heart there is this doubt, this uncertainty that she will ever truly belong. In my mom’s case there is an overwhelming love for her new country that has given her so much, even as there is sadness at what was left behind. You see, once you’ve left your home, your heart cannot be whole again. I cannot imagine being so brave.

Because my mother would not listen to the naysayers, because she taught me not to take no for an answer, I kept writing a story I wanted to tell. The Lotus Eaters is coming out this spring, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Because our country is involved in other problematic foreign wars, Vietnam is again seen to be current, if not prophetic. If one didn’t know better, it almost seems planned. And yet it all boils down to the personal. It all comes down to one woman — my mother, me, the character, Helen, in my book — seeking her destiny against all odds. –Tatjana

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1st Books Weekly Guest Author: Jan Ellison on novels in drawers

Those of you who frequent this blog know that my favorite moments here are those where I get to introduce a debut novelist. This week, Jan Ellison – whose writing chops include an O. Henry Prize as well as stories short-listed for Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize – is blogging for me about the path her debut novel, A Small Indiscretion, took to publication by Random House. Booklist calls it “a deftly crafted, absorbing novel that peels back the layers of Annie’s character as it reveals the secrets of her past and present.” I picked up a copy at Kepler’s last night, and am loving it already. And P.S.: Don’t miss the very charming photo at the end of Jan’s post! – Meg

Jan Ellison: A Novel in the Drawer Finds Light

Cover of A Small Indiscretion by Jan EllisonNearly ten years from the day I began writing it, my first novel, A Small Indiscretion, was published last week by Random House. I’m a mother of four, so it wasn’t the only thing occupying me during that time. But my novel was on my mind every single day for a decade, except the year and a half it lay in a drawer and I never thought of it at all.

Back in 2005, when my youngest child turned one and my mind emerged from its fog, I set out to write a coming-of-age short story set in London. I’d published a few stories by then, the first of which had miraculously won an O. Henry Prize, and I thought that longish short stories must be my calling. I hoped to write enough of them to publish a collection. But within a few months, the material blew past story length, then blew past novella length, too. Four years and hundreds of pages later, it had evolved into a novel set in Europe in the early nineties which had characters and movement, but no cohesive plot.

One morning, I was at Starbuck’s reworking a segment of the novel set in Paris. My narrator, twenty-year-old Annie, had found herself in a penthouse with her much older British boss, his wife, and his wife’s charming young Irish lover. As I wrote, I found the narrative suddenly shifting; the narrator was no longer Annie at twenty, but Annie at forty, examining this unlikely foursome from a distance of two decades. I followed this older Annie as she began to recount her experiences in Paris not in first person, or third, but in second. All at once, the book I was writing had become a letter from an adult Annie to her son, Robbie, who after a terrible car accident lies in a hospital in a coma.

I wrote at Starbuck’s that day as long as I could. I wrote when I was waiting for my kids to climb into the car after school. I dictated notes to them as we drove. I scrawled on a yellow pad while I made dinner and on my napkin as we ate. I wrote long into the night. I put 10,000 words on the page that day; they weren’t brilliant words, but the story they advanced was a story demanding to be told.

I had just read (then re-read) Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, and the shape of that book seemed to give me permission to move forward with an ambitious structure involving multiple layers of time. But permission is not the same as ability, and I floundered. I couldn’t find the right voice for the adult Annie because I didn’t yet understand her trajectory as a character; I didn’t know how she’d ended up in San Francisco married to a doctor named Jonathan and mother to Robbie and two little girls. I needed to get to the end of the Europe story-line to find out, but I couldn’t, because the voice for telling that back-story was now in flux. I wrote in circles for two years.

In the fall of 2010, a mom at my kids’ school told me a moving story about confronting her ex-in-laws many years after her first marriage ended. It had what seemed a perfect short story arc, and I wanted to write it down. But in a bizarre repeat of history, a week of work on that “short story” turned into a month, which turned into a year and a half. Twenty pages grew to eighty, then to four-hundred, and I was knee-deep in a brand new novel. I had not made a decision to abandon Annie’s story; I had forgotten about it. My first novel became the boyfriend I pushed aside because I’d fallen in love with someone new.

A friend encouraged me to join her at the Taos 2012 Summer Writer’s Conference for a novel workshop. Manuscripts were due in June. In March, my mother and my husband took over my household and sent me to the mountains for ten days to finish a first draft of the new novel. Somewhere around day four, I remembered a paragraph from what I had begun to think of as my “novel in the drawer” that I wanted to re-use. I opened the file for what became A Small Indiscretion—which I hadn’t touched in a year and half. I started reading, not as a writer but as a reader, and I found that the story engaged me. I wanted to find out what happened, but when I reached the end of the file, the plot was just hanging there, unfinished. In five and a half years of steady writing, I had never reached the end of the story.

I have a clear memory of lying in bed that night in the rented cabin in the mountains, buried under blankets because the heat only worked in the main room. I spent a sleepless night shivering and staring at the ceiling in the dark trying to resolve the complex plot I’d unintentionally laid down. In the morning, I opened the file again and took up where I’d left off, determined to finish it.

By June, I had a rough draft. In September, I signed with an agent. On a Monday at the end of January, 2013, eight years after I started writing the novel and ten months since it’s rediscovery, I sent the finished manuscript to my agent. Two days later it was sold to Random House, and last week, it finally made its way into the world. – Jan

Jan Ellison's Family Reads

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1st Books Weekly Guest Author: Amanda Eyre Ward on writing nights and weekends

One of the dearest and most generous writers I know, Amanda Eyre Ward, has a new novel out this week! Jodi Picoult calls The Same Sky “the timeliest book you will read this year,” and Christina Baker Kline calls it “riveting.” Amanda was an early guest here on 1st Books — in April of 2009. And I’m delighted to be resharing her post today to celebrate her new release! – Meg

Amanda Eyre Ward: Writing on Nights and Weekends Can Get You There

the-same-sky-cover-for-book-page-updateIt took me years to write my first novel, Sleep Toward Heaven. I wrote at night and on the weekends while working all sorts of full-time jobs: receptionist at a country music station, librarian, babysitter, curriculum developer for an internet startup. I went to readings at BookPeople, and tried to figure out how to get from being a babysitter to being a published novelist.

One day, while I was answering the phones at a computer company called Dazel, I got an e-mail saying that my short story, “Miss Montana’s Wedding Day,” had won third prize in the Austin Chronicle short story contest. A few months later, StoryQuarterly took my story “Shakespeare.com.” These first publications gave me faith for another year.

I finally found a wonderful agent, Michelle Tessler, to represent my first novel. But Sleep Toward Heaven was rejected by every publishing house in New York. Undaunted, Michelle sent the book to a small publisher in San Francisco. I still have the e-mail Michelle got from editor Anika Streitfeld. Here it is – the book was called GATES OF BREATH at the time:

From MacAdam/Cage! Will keep you posted.
—–Original Message—–
From: Anika Streitfeld
Sent: Monday, March 11, 2002 1:45 PM
To: Michelle Tessler
Subject: GATES OF BREATH

Hi Michelle – I just wanted to let you know that I was blown away by this novel. It is intensely moving, insightful, and masterfully written. David Poindexter, our publisher, is going to read it next. Thank you so much for sharing this novel with me. I have my fingers crossed…Talk with you soon, Anika

Shortly after this note, Anika made an offer on the book. I took the entire advance and bought my husband a Big Green Egg, a fancy barbecue grill. I thought life would never be sweeter. Anika was hired by Random House a few years later, and I followed her there.

Of course, there’s no one answer. But I vowed that if I ever sold my novel, I would tell people how hard it was. It’s so hard to keep faith, when you’re writing at night while your friends nap or drink margaritas. It’s so hard believing you have something important to say. It’s hard to work in isolation, in your pajamas. But I love novels. The dream of creating something that could give a reader the hours of pleasure and thought that my favorite books have given me kept me writing, and keeps me here, typing, day after day. – Amanda

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The Little Moments a Writer Lives For!

Heavens to Betsy! I don’t often like to talk about my own writing on this blog, but this is the kind of out-of-the blue moment that perhaps bears sharing. My second novel, The Wednesday Sisterspublished in 2008–got very little attention from the press. After it hit the San Francisco Chronicle bestseller list, they did a little profile, but that’s about it. It has sold very well due to word of mouth from booksellers, bloggers, and plain old-fashioned readers (thank you, anyone who is reading this and talked it up!). But now, six and a half years later, it’s one of Entertainment Weekly‘s essential best friend novels of all time, along with the likes of The Three Musketeers, Harry Potter, and Mary McCarthy’s The Group. How about that?!

The Wednesday Sisters on Entertainment Weekly's list of 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all Time

The Wednesday Sisters on Entertainment Weekly’s list of 25 Essential Best Friend Novels of all Time

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