Writing for Readers

Elizabeth Enslin is a Stanford Ph.D who has done research in Nepal with funding from the Social Science Research Council, the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, and the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She’s received an Individual Artist Fellowship Award from the Oregon Arts Commission, an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize, a Notable for Best American Essays and a Bread Loaf-Rona Jaffe Foundation Scholarship in Nonfiction to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She spent … well, read to see how long she spent writing her memoir, While the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal, which is just out. I hope you’ll enjoy Elizabeth’s story of how it found a publishing home, and look for it in your favorite bookstore. – Meg

While the Gods were Sleeping coverWhile the Gods Were Sleeping: A Journey Through Love and Rebellion in Nepal—my first book—came out in early October 2014. Depending on how I count, this memoir on marrying into a Brahman (high caste) family, giving birth and working with rebellious women in the plains of Nepal took me somewhere between seven to twenty four years to write. At several points, I pushed to the end of one vision and thought it done. After a few hours or days of basking in satisfaction, I’d decide something wasn’t right and start rewriting it again.

I thought I’d finished one version in the summer of 2001. That version was full of sadness and grief, haunted by divorce and the death of my absentee father. I queried a few agents who asked for partials then turned it down. Soon after, I launched into six years of teaching history at an independent high school in Portland, Oregon. The manuscript disappeared behind notebooks stuffed to overflowing with curriculum materials on the American civil war, the global economy, ancient history. I thought I was just waiting for a break in my hectic schedule to submit my book to more agents. But those breaks rarely came. Also, a part of me must have realized that manuscript was no longer the story I wanted to tell.

I traveled back to Nepal in 2007 for my son’s coming of age ceremony and began to imagine another version of the book. I saw how gratitude, joy and greater maturity might infuse the story. I returned to Oregon, gave up my teaching job and––thanks to the generous support of a loving partner––committed myself to full time writing.

First, I wanted to improve my writing chops. I read fiction, memoir and poetry and did more of what I had advised my high school students to do: cut adverbs and adjectives, make verbs do more work, expand details, play with imagery and metaphor. Meanwhile, I polished some chapters and scenes and submitted to literary journals. I wallowed in pity after the first rejections then revised and submitted again. My first acceptance came from The Gettysburg Review for an essay that would one day form the narrative spine through the book (though I only saw it as a chapter at the time). It went on to win an Honorable Mention for the Pushcart Prize. Like any writer, I continued to face rejections, but a steady trickle of acceptances boosted my confidence enough to keep going.

In the book itself, I could not move beyond a grand vision of a single volume that would cover every aspect of my complicated relationship with Nepal. And with each passing year, that relationship kept growing and changing. I knew the manuscript––hovering around 600 pages––would be difficult to place, especially for a first time author. But for some reason, I had to continue on with it.

I finished what I considered my masterpiece in December 2012. I was exhilarated. I’d seen it through and arranged all the puzzle pieces, layers and voices in a way that made sense to me.

Around the same time, I noticed a call for a book proposal writing contest sponsored by She Writes––a online networking site for women writers. The prize: a publishing contract with Seal Press. I perused the publisher’s catalog. Topic-wise, I figured my story was a good fit. But the version I’d just finished was far too long. Seal Press books averaged around 300 pages (a good length to aim toward for most first books, I would learn). More than that though, I began to see just how impossible it would be to write a proposal for my unwieldy creation. Clearly, a publisher or agent would see the same problem.

ElizabethESo, within days of completing what I’d been working toward for years, I started revising again. I saw that I had two possible books in the sprawling mess I’d written. I would have to carve out and focus on one. I wanted to make one clean whack down the middle. But the surgery became more delicate. I had to tease tiny nerves and blood vessels apart so that both books could go on to thrive. I put all the bits that might fit in a second book in one file and left them there. Then I began piecing the first book together.

The looming contest deadline gave me motivation and discipline. I tacked back and forth between proposal and a rough draft. Working on the proposal helped me clarify the narrative arc and arrange the chapters. Fleshing out the chapters helped me sharpen key points in the proposal.

No matter what the outcome of the contest, I figured I would have a solid book draft and a proposal in hand. With those, I’d be well-positioned to find a home for the book. But I did win the contest and soon had what had seemed unimaginable four months earlier: a publishing contract with Seal Press.

Another year of working with Seal Press though editing and design work yielded a book I now like better than those earlier versions. Those were just for me. This one is for readers. – Elizabeth

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Patience, Iago – for screenwriting as well as novel writing

Camera - FilmDiane Drake, my teacher for an online screenwriting course I’m taking for fun and potential profit – ;) – recommended this interview with Michael Arndt. If you don’t know who he is … it turns out very few of us know who creates the stories behind the films we watch. How sad is that? (Next time, watch the credits!)

Arndt wrote the screenplays for “Little Miss Sunshine” (for which he won a Screenwriting Oscar), “Toy Story 3″ (Oscar nominated), and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (which grossed a mere$424,668,047 … domestically – and nearly a billion worldwide). The whole interview is inspiring, but what I particularly loved was his closing: “Just be patient. It took me ten years of writing before I finally sold my first script.”

If you’d like to watch a fabulous little video about screenwriting by Arndt, here it is.

I think I’ve recommended this next bit before, but it bears rereading: The Twenty-two rules of Screenwriting, according to Pixar – no matter what you’re writing.

See you at the movies!

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At My Mother’s Knee: How I Started Writing

My guest author today is my friend and fellow Bay Area writer Linda Gray Sexton, whose Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair with Thirty-Eight Dalmatians is just out. Linda’s previous books include Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year which was optioned by Miramax Films; Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide; and four novels. Real Simple says of Bespotted, “Animal lovers will adore this emotional and touching story.” Linda’s story of how she started writing is one of the most touching I’ve had the privilege to share here. – Meg

book_bespottedI was born into a home filled with shelves stuffed full of books. When I was a child, my mother, the poet Anne Sexton, frequently read aloud to me, and the first book I would remember well was a dog-eared blue volume of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, full of all its macabre horrors.

As I reached the early years of my adolescence, she showed me the public library, where I spent uncountable hours with novels and the biographies of famous women. I am not sure that I recognized at this point how much of a famous woman my own mother was already becoming, or perhaps I did, on an unconscious level. At the bookstore she told me there was always money for books—no matter how strapped we were—and bought me every one for which I asked. Eventually, when I was thirteen, she won the Pulitzer Prize, at last becoming an icon in the world of what is known as “confessional poetry,” being read by thousands of those who identified with her candid poems about love and loss, mental illness, suicide, and her own personal truths.

When I turned eleven, she invited me into her writing room. There, she asked me what I thought of various poems, respecting my opinion and, after a time, playfully dubbing me her “greatest critic”. The two of us worked together on her book Transformations, which took the fairy tales of my youth and reinterpreted them. I chose the stories she would write about, and then helped her to revise them.

I began to write poetry and short stories, on which she offered her opinions. Curled up on the worn green couch in her writing room where she sat rocked back in her chair, her feet elevated on a bookshelf, I listened seriously. She was a gentle but hard critic. I grew used to writing many, many drafts and revising endlessly, as she did, but I enjoyed this part of the process; I rewrite, to this day, in both my fiction and my memoir, as mercilessly as I can. It is the first draft that I find difficult, because she taught me that to for it to “work,” you must tap down into the unconscious, and sometimes I find that difficult to access initially—though those depths have become a distinct aspect of both my fiction and my memoir. It was hard to be a writer, I discovered, and I never had one poem or short story published, but I persevered, determined to find my own voice.

When eventually I did find that voice, and my own first books were published, (initially a non-fiction book about the choices women of my generation were making between family, career and their own personal needs in the seventies, and then later, four novels and three memoirs), I found one piece of her advice equally invaluable. My mother always told me, “Linda, tell it true. Tell the whole truth.” As I went forward to tackle memoir, these words stood by me, inspiring me as I dealt in prose with topics she had confronted in poetry. I, too, wrote of family secrets, my own mental illness, and even the process of coming to forgive her for her eventual suicide. These were footprints I found myself unable to refrain from following.

Author Photo Linda Gray SextonUltimately, I am extremely grateful to my mother for having given me my start as a novelist and memoirist. Still, she always told me, “Never be a writer, Linda, because I will follow you around like an old gray ghost.” Yet she also said, “Live to the hilt! Be the woman you are!” I found myself listening nearly helplessly, without choice, to the latter. Despite continual problems with others identifying me solely as Anne Sexton’s daughter regardless of my own success, I have learned to make my own way toward peace and acceptance with the inevitable “gray ghost” she did indeed turn out to be. I bless the days I spent at her knee. – Linda

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Switchbacks: Writing a First Novel

Désirée Zamorano‘s novel The Amado Women is just out from Cinco Puntos Press. Bustle called it one of Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada and Remezcla listed it as one of 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014. She is also the director of Occidental College’s Community Literacy Center. Lovely to have her here on 1st Books! – Meg

CoverAt book chats, audience members ask me how long this novel took to write. I am not sure how to calculate. Do I count the years between drafts? Do I count the months of mourning the second draft, when my laptop (pre-Dropbox) was stolen? Do I count the years I put it aside, convinced it was the wrong story for me to tell, at the wrong time?

I’m the kind of writer who feels too many things deeply. A small moment, a tiny rupture, a casual rejection. Almost a decade ago I sent my VIP NYC agent the manuscript that would become The Amado Women. She had been unsuccessfully shopping my mystery novel around, and I thought this family drama was better, this one would be successful. My agent’s response was swift and final: she dumped me.

Now, I knew a few things about a writer’s path, having devoured thousands of pages of advice. I knew, for example, that you had to do work, the writing. I also knew every single writer’s journey was different. A very few emerge from the gate gilded and anointed. For others it is an arduous, treacherous switchback path. But with the finality of that agent’s rejection I questioned this dream of mine, and the perseverance that was overwhelmingly necessary. Was it time to abandon this aspiration and move on?

That was when I discovered Carolyn See’s book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers. I was too unsuccessful, I thought then, to call myself a writer. But I certainly was a dreamer. In this book Carolyn See offers two writing recipes, the 18-minute chili and the 18-hour chili, but in both the key beginning ingredient is “Fun First.”

Fun? I had so many layers of expectations that the fun, the entire reason my third-grade soul had been entranced by the concept, had been squeezed out. I devoured then reread that book, with its generous voice and its thoughtful counsel. That book became the mentor I did not have. From her seeds of playful encouragement I connected with other writers. I continued to attend conferences. I honored the people who supported my goals. And, of course, I kept writing.

A few years later I invited Ms. See to speak where I teach. I brought my copy for her to sign. I’m reading her inscription now. She wrote: “It’s only a matter of time!”

I began to query publishers directly.

Cinco Puntos Press liked my draft enough to give me notes and recommendations. I dove in, then sent it off, and worked on other books. They sent the draft back, with more notes, saying it wasn’t quite right for them. At this point, I was done with The Amado Women. I put the manuscript and their comments away. Again, too many layers of expectation, and I took it as a profound rejection.

The French director Robert Bresson says, “Make visible, that which without you might never be seen.” Whisper that to yourself when you’re frozen by rejection. I kept writing.

Two years later Lee Byrd of Cinco Puntos Press emailed me and asked me where my next draft was. Wait, she was querying me? I dug out the manuscript with all of her comments. What I had previously taken so deeply now looked simple and manageable.

DZamorano - author photoWhen they told me they were publishing my book I began to have sleeping problems. I would wake up for the day at 5 a.m., or stay up at night till 3, or wake up at 3 and fall asleep at 5. During these sleepless times there was this constant thrumming, in my ears, in my brain, cascading around my chest. Was I sick? I wondered, in the middle of the night. Was I dying? It literally took me months to puzzle this one out. I finally realized, not long before my first reading, what it was: I was happy.

Trust a writer’s insight.

Now I realize how ridiculous I have been, all these many years, to allow one thing to define success for me. One. How ludicrous.

And yet in July, while being introduced to the audience at my hometown bookstore I looked around at my friends, my family, my supporters. Then I took the mic. “There’s something I’ve wanted to say for a very long time now,” I paused and looked again at the standing-room only crowd. “Thank you for being here tonight.” – Désirée


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Two Resurrections in One

Liz Rosner has not one but two books coming out now – a new novel, Electric City, and the poetry collection Gravity. To celebrate, I’m running a post she did when Blue Nude came out in paperback. The Kirkus verdict on Electric City: “With deft descriptions, Rosner sketches the bustling city, on land long cherished by aboriginal culture, which grew and flourished as whites invaded and industrialized … offers a gentle meditation on love and loss.” And check out her gorgeous new website, too. It’s designed by the amazing Ilsa Brink, who also does mine! – Meg

ElectricCitybyElizabethRosnerFor many of us, writing–not to mention publishing–may feel like a matter of life and death.  In my case, the past two years have been a period of grappling quite literally with both, and winning two big prizes at once:  my own restored health after breast cancer treatment, and the resurrection of my out-of-print second novel.

Here’s the story, in hopes it might inspire others who are facing life-threatening illnesses and/or a loss of faith in the writing life.  On my 49th birthday, new year’s eve in 2008, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I later discovered that I carry the genetic mutation called BRCA-1, which guarantees a rather high risk of developing the disease, it seemed that my fate had been inscribed all along; it was simply a matter of timing.  My mother had died of breast cancer in 2000, so my anxieties about survival were elevated even further.  As readers of my novels The Speed of Light and Blue Nude already know, much of my writing reflects an exploration of my inheritance as a daughter of two Holocaust survivors, so it seemed doubly ironic that now I was dealing on a physiological level with my legacies as well.

Allow me to note that my two book deal with Ballantine Books came about in the year 2000, just months before my mother’s sudden death.  The actual publication date of Speed , September 4, 2001, meant that 9/11 was the first day of my book tour.  Need I explain?  Cancellations everywhere.  My agent said to me: “Well, we’ve lost momentum, and we’ll never get it back.”  The tears I might have shed stayed caught inside, as I felt forced to acknowledge losses so much greater than my own.  So what if I’d been waiting my entire life for this moment?  Death and devastation were ruining the lives of thousands, even millions of others.  It took me almost a year to realize that this pattern of deferring to the pain of everyone else was a perfect echo of my entire childhood; nothing I suffered could ever begin to measure up to the vast traumas endured by my parents.  I was supposed to be grateful to be alive.  No disappointments were important enough to capture anyone’s full attention when epic tragedies deserved all of my sympathy.

The good news?   The Speed of Light garnered prizes in the U.S. and Europe, was translated into nine languages, and was optioned for a film by Gillian Anderson, who was determined to adapt and direct her first feature film.  Sales rose and fell and rose during the next nine years, almost always in direct correlation with some news flash from Ms. Anderson.  The book “still has legs,” as they say in the business.  The film remains “under development,” with the option renewal money keeping me afloat.

Fast forward to the publication of my second novel, Blue Nude, in May 2006.  Warned by just about every writer I knew to be wary of the “Sophomore Syndrome,” I dared allow myself to hope that the book would defy those expectations and prove even more successful than my first novel.  Friends joked that as long as a world war didn’t break out within a week of my publication date, I’d be in great shape.  Having been orphaned at Ballantine no less than three times, I was now under the care and guidance of Random House executive editor in chief, feeling blessed by his approval and support.  Or so I thought.

GravityPoemsbyElizabethRosnerHomeland security and world peace notwithstanding, the book received some rave reviews and was purchased for translation by one of my nine foreign publishers.  No film option, no prizes, but terrific recognition as one of the year’s best books by the San Francisco Chronicle, and status as a national bestseller.  When I found out that my editor was retiring, and that Random House had decided not to print the paperback edition of Blue Nude due to mediocre sales at Borders and Barnes & Noble, I began to feel the shocking pangs of loss yet again.  My second novel went out of print, and as far as I was concerned, it had died of unnatural causes, and without an obituary.

In May 2008, and despite my new agent’s suggestion that I give up on any hope for a paperback edition until I had a new manuscript to pitch, I requested and won reversion of rights for Blue Nude.  All it took was a letter from an attorney who specialized in intellectual property (since my contract had stipulated this option was available to me).  With my rights in hand, I was blessed to have the biggest and best champion of my novels on my side:  Dan Smetanka, former executive editor at Ballantine, who had been the one to acquire my work in the first place, back in the year 2000.  He had never given up on me, and as an independent editor, now proceeded to pursue some of his own leads for a possible paperback deal.

Meanwhile, my cancer diagnosis grabbed and held onto center stage.  I went through two surgeries in February 2009, and began chemotherapy in late March.  The day came when I felt it was necessary to shave my head so that I didn’t have to watch my curls fall out in terrible clumps.  Looking into the mirror, I saw the face of my father as a concentration camp survivor.  Genetic history was rising to the surface all over again.  I drove into the hills of Marin to visit a friend who had survived two bouts with breast cancer.  We sipped tea together.  She told me I looked like a Buddhist nun.

Driving back downhill from that visit, I received a cell phone call from Dan Smetanka.  He insisted that I pull over and park the car before he would talk to me, so I did. “Blue Nude has a paperback deal with Simon and Schuster,” he said.  I had nearly forgotten such a thing was possible.  Can you picture a bald woman by the side of the road, sobbing behind the wheel?  Can you spell the word miracle?

Blue Nude is itself the story of a resurrection, about a return to life by way of artistic collaboration, a healing of history that is both personal and collective.  When the paperback comes out in September 2010, it will have a beautiful new cover, and an astonishing second chance, against all odds.  My cancer is gone now, and my hair has grown back too.  I’m nearing completion of my third novel, “Electric City.”  We’re alive. – Liz

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Nothing but a Desk and a Typewriter

Delighted to host Elena Mauli Shapiro, who first appeared here when her debut novel, 13 rue Thérèse came out. She’s back with a sophomore novel, In the Red, which Koren Zailckas calls “exotic, dangerous, deviant, delicious.” – Meg

SHAPIRO_INTHEREDI was in college when she first came to me.  It was summer of my sophomore year and I was working as a teller at Wells Fargo Bank to raise tuition money for Stanford.

Bank teller is one of those jobs where the body repeats the same motions all day, over time acquiring muscle memory for the work.  Sometimes I could leave my body at work and send my mind elsewhere.  I would often write snippets of poetry on pieces of blank receipt tape when there was a lull between customers.  These small papers were all over my workstations, like white leaves fallen off the language tree.

The rhythm of the work made sentences pop into my head in voices that were sometimes not my own.  One morning I heard in a slightly accented voice the words I am not a child of America.  Until my lunch break, these words floated at the top of my consciousness like these insects that can skitter Jesus-like on top of water.

When time came for my half-hour lunch break I went to an empty room upstairs from the bank where there was nothing but a desk and a typewriter.  I rolled a piece of paper into the typewriter and met my new protagonist.

She was Romanian and her name was Irina.  A name that mirrored my own in structure and sound.  Over the years I wrote many stories for this double of mine, always of tortured love, always with an undercurrent of menace. I carried Irina inside me for seventeen years until she was ripe to be a book. Finally the story came to fruition as the novel In the Red.

authorpicIrina, a Romanian orphan raised by Americans, has never felt at home in the good life given to her.  When she meets Andrei, a dashing criminal from her unknown country of origin, she comes unglued from all the good things she has been given in an attempt to find out who she is.  The draw of sex, power, and money certainly plays a part in her decision–which never really feels like a decision.  It feels like being sucked down a tunnel with no light at the other end.  In this tunnel, she meets other criminals, both compelling and terrifying, and a young Russian mail-order bride named Elena.  Elena is a mystery who becomes her only friend.  Irina’s story, underpinned by Romanian myth, asks what is a lone woman’s place in the world, and how is she supposed to find it?

In the Red is a novel about foreignness, morality, capitalism, the meaning of America.  It is a novel about how trauma informs history, turns it into myth.  It is a novel that asks how we tell ourselves who we are, and how we hold ourselves up against a world that never ceases to swallow us. It is a novel about how Irina was wrong when she first came to me that foggy morning all these years ago: we are all children of America. – Elena

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