10 Great Gifts for Writers (and Readers Who Want to Write!)

Unless you’re an editor willing to wrap up a book deal and set it under a tree, consider one of these eight great gifts – from stocking stuffers to more substantial – for the struggling writer in your life, or the reader who might like to have a go at it:

1. Have you used a Pencil Pouch lately?

Mine (photo below) was given to me by the amazing Emma Clayton, and it moves from my backpack to my purse along with my journal and my computer. She filled it with a pencil and pen, a pencil sharpener with a good little heart-shaped eraser, a highlighter, and post-it notes. I added a nail file (all that working with paper dries nails) and a Tide Pen (a trick a journalist shared with me when I splashed a small dot of coffee on my sleeve during an interview). Yes, I DO imagine sitting at a 3rd grade desk every time I open it. For most writers, that’s a good thing.

The expensive alternative: See #2 below.


2. The Pen is Mightier than the Sword, if Not Quite as Mighty as the Keyboard

Choose an extravagant one your giftee wouldn’t likely treat themselves to, one that writes well and comes to hand nicely. Add a note of optimism about the books they’ll soon sign with it! It will so remind them of you every time they pick it up that before you know it, you might find yourself reading “For the Gifter of My Favorite Pen” on a dedication page. Mine is silver, and it came in a tell-tale turquoise box, from my mom.

The expensive alternative: The mighty keyboard with attachment computer.

3. High Quality Caffeine and Appropriate Drug Delivery Paraphernalia

It’s the primary fuel for writers, after all. A bag of good beans, a bur grinder, a pour-over set and a beautiful mug. A pretty personal-sized teapot that will look nice on a desk. Or the goofy stuff: the mug that says “Writers Block = When my imaginary friends won’t talk to me,” “Go Away, I’m Writing,” or a wonderful writer’s quote, like T.S. Eliot’s “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

The expensive alternative: An expresso machine. One of the automatic ones you just stick your cup under, so we don’t have to look up from our manuscripts.

4. A Room of One’s Own

…or if that’s not in your budget, a  Gift Certificate to a Favorite Coffee or Tea Shop. It turns out, according to a recent study, that the best amount of ambient noise is the volume found in your average coffee shop, so go ahead and go for the less expensive alternative here.

The expensive alternative: Definitely the room.

5. An Ornament 

But not just any one. Your writer friend’s book jacket on a miniature book. I think all you need is a small piece of wood, a jpeg of your friend’s book jacket, a printer, some glue and a hook – but you’d have to ask my mom’s best fried, Dritha McCoy, as mine came from her. (Photo to come, when I get the ornaments out, which my son has forbidden me to do until he gets home.)

The expensive alternative: There is no expensive alternative; this one is so touching that it cannot be improved upon with mere infusions of cash.

6. Software and Paperware 

My favorite writing software is Scrivener’s, which allows writers to open a manuscript, outline, inspiring photos, and notes for writing a scene in a single window, and drag and drop scenes or entire chapters. Seriously, this is the best writing software I’ve found for folks writing book-length works. My favorite paperware: John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. No, I’m not getting paid to say this.

The expensive alternative: The software installed on the expensive attachment computer mentioned in #2 above. But if I could only have one or the other, I’d take the book.

7. Books 

You did know this was coming, didn’t you? You can’t write well if you don’t read broadly and well. A hardcover signed by the author, makes a particularly nice gift. Check out your local independent bookseller on indie Saturday, coming a week from today. Local authors including the likes of Neil Gaiman and moi will be helping out at their local stores, and happy to sign books and chat. I’ll be at Books Inc. in Palo Alto — please come say hi!

The expensive alternative: A whole private library. Private librarian optional.

8. A Journal 

You did know this was coming, too, didn’t you? A journal is so liberating for a writer, because it’s not meant for public consumption. I personally love moleskines, because they’re small but have room for lot of words, and come with a handy pocket at the back for storing inspiring little bits (and, ok, a photo of my husband and kids).

The expensive alternative: Have you been journal shopping lately? Those swanky leather ones cost a fortune.

9. Jewelry 

Do you really need an explanation here? Okay, then: something expensive, so we writers can sell it to pay our rent.

The expensive alternative: This is the expensive alternative.

10. Your Support

There is nothing you can do for a writer that will be more valued than offering your support for his or her writing. Value the fact that your friend is trying to write; it’s harder than it looks, by a margin. Help him find time to do so. Read her work, and share it with others. Leave comments on his online pieces. Use that Facebook “share” link. Mention something she’s written to friends. If your friend is book-published, mention his book to your local librarians and booksellers, gift it to a friend … or two … or twenty. Blow the dust off your own copy and put it where your holiday visitors will see it, and perhaps ask about it, or even pick it up and read.

The expensive alternative: See the expensive alternative to #5 above.

Happy Holidays!


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Mastering the Art of French Writing

I had the great fortune to read a galley for Ann Mah’s gorgeous memoir, Mastering the Art of French Eating – a lovely mix of travel, food, and personal exploration – and to host her here last year when it first released. It has since then collected so much deserved praise, from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, the Daily Beast, and Elle, which says of it, “Our readers were enraptured by [Mah’s] luscious and detailed descriptions of the meals that became the rich medium for a lonely wife’s tentative socializing in a strange land.” Ann’s story of how her book came about is as bighearted as the book itself – which is now out in paperback. – Meg

One of the first things I bought for our apartment was the picture. It was a photo of Julia Child in her kitchen in Paris and I wanted to hang it in my own, a talisman to inspire my cooking and writing.

Those of us who love Julia are each touched by her story for a different reason: the late bloomers, the kitchen unconfident, the professionally unsatisfied. As a food lover and enthusiastic home cook, I had long appreciated Julia’s cookbooks – but I didn’t begin to truly admire her until I found myself in a situation similar to hers: a trailing spouse, a diplomat’s wife.

A month after we got married, I left my job in New York and moved with my husband to China. I loved being married, but in those early days, newly unemployed, I floundered. I missed my job as an editor so much I felt like I’d lost an internal organ. I wept, I worried, I spent weeks alphabetizing our bookshelves. I wondered how I’d ever adjust to life as a trailing spouse, moving around the world for my husband’s career while lacking my own.

It would be disingenuous to say that Julia Child led me to food writing. She was one among a pack of writers whose work inspired me to strive and to despair. But I had read her biography and I considered the parallels in our lives: her stint in China, her marriage to a Foreign Service officer, her life as a trailing spouse, her career nurtured throughout multiple international moves. In Beijing, I started writing for a local expat magazine, a free monthly that, though littered with typos, burst with energy. I wanted to write about food but they needed stories about everything else so I wrote about orchid care, Chanel knock-offs, men’s seersucker suits. Eventually, when the dining editor left, I leapt at the chance to take her place. I loved reviewing Beijing’s restaurants and writing about Chinese regional cuisine, experiences that would eventually inspire me to write a novel. As the months passed, I slowly built a path in another direction, a new dream to nurture.

The wonderful, terrible thing about diplomatic life is that you move all the time. After four years in China, we moved to Washington, DC, and then Paris, each overseas transfer a reminder of the things that couldn’t be packed into boxes and sent on a transport ship: contacts, friends, ideas, the daily routine that was my life. But I looked at the loving teamwork of Julia’s marriage to Paul — unwavering despite multiple untimely overseas relocations. The self-mocking tone of her letters when she became a little maudlin over professional or personal disappointments. The success that bloomed from her hard work and sheer will, despite the upheavals of diplomatic life. And I felt hopeful.

Ann-in-Paris KGLJulia and Paul arrived in Paris in 1948, when Paul was assigned to a job at the American Embassy. In 2008, my husband began an assignment at the American Embassy in Paris, and, like Julia, I too became a diplomat’s wife in France. In the four years that I lived in Paris, she was never far from my thoughts. I looked for her in all the usual places — her apartment at 81 rue de l’Université, which she dubbed rue de Loo. Her old haunts like E. Dehilleren or Au Pied de Cochon; lesser known spots, too, like the Hôtel de Talleyrand, home of the Marshall Plan and post-war diplomatic cocktail soirées, or Place de la Concorde, where our husbands worked at the Embassy, albeit separated by sixty years. I tried to replicate her culinary curiosity by remaining open, adventurous, passionate — even when faced with a heaping plate of tripe sausage. I used her cookbooks as a guide to eat and travel through France – eventually, they inspired me to write a food memoir called Mastering the Art of French Eating, which I hope honors her enthusiastic spirit.

Julia floundered a bit professionally in her youth. But once she discovered traditional French cuisine, she became committed – deeply, seriously committed – to learning to cook it. Among all her qualities, I strive to replicate this the most: her determination despite discouragement, her dedication despite tedium. Cooking – like writing – isn’t always fun. But at the end of the struggle, the long hours, the loneliness and frustration, sometimes there’s something to share and enjoy. To quote Julia: “That’s what human life is all about – enjoying things.” I keep her photo on my kitchen wall to remind me of the hard work – and the enjoyment. – Ann

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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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