Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down

Muscular male torso

Provocations in Poundage

Yeah, I know. Better I make fun of about 10 religious faiths at once, right?

We’re not supposed to mention the other f-word, it’s not PC at all. (I’ll just spell it so we don’t scare the chubby children: f-a-t.)

Somehow in the States, it’s considered better to “not say anything.” Rather than embarrass someone or “hurt their feelings,” we’re encouraged to allow our friends and loved ones to eat themselves to death. I’m still searching for the kindness in that. I mean is, “Darling, you look 15 pounds heavier than you did the last time I saw you” really that horrendous to say to someone you care about? Apparently.

Do I have statistical renderings here to demonstrate to you that, as a group, the writerly congregation may be pressuring the pews more this year than last? Are you kidding? We can’t even get an ISBN on every book out there.

But I’m at these conferences a lot, you know. Well, of course you know. And for a while I thought the meeting rooms were getting smaller. Then I figured it out. We’re getting bigger. We the People. We, the Writers Unweighed.

I had a particularly busy round of conference events in the first six months of this year, lots of time on the road, and found myself part of our expansionist movement. My exercise routine went south, young man, not west, and I’m now enjoying the special pleasures of reducing my weightier contributions to the field. And I couldn’t help but notice that I was hardly alone.

Do I have statistical renderings here to demonstrate to you that, as a group, the writerly congregation may be pressuring the pews more this year than last? Are you kidding? We can’t even get an ISBN on every book out there.

But I’ve got eyes, as my maternal grandmother used to say. (She did indeed have two of them, she was unassailable on the point.) And nobody knows the truckloads I’ve seen of what does not look like muscular development among our bookish brethren. Male and female, mind you, the scales jump for the just and the unjust.

I’m concerned about the issue on the wider range, meaning beyond publishing and in terms of our American experiment — which was not intended by the Founding People to be about face-stuffing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (yes, “Centers,” plural) can sober you right up with their Obesity and Overweight collection of facts and figures. Pear-shaped figures, as it were.

Among US adults 20 and older:

  • 35.1 percent are obese
  • 69 percent are rated as overweight

I’ll bet my Omron pocket pedometer that the writerly sector trends heavy. So I want you to at least think about it with me. Might burn a calorie or two in the cogitation. Even in this summer of our discontent (boy are we hearing from some hotter heads), let’s look at the pale and paleo realities, and think together about what we could do to avoid collapsing those podiums when we pick up our literary awards.

I’m going to give you one alternative and then I want you to share your best idea with us. Continue Reading »

Flog a Pro: would you turn this bestselling author’s first page?


Trained by reading hundreds of submissions, editors and agents often make their read/not-read decision on the first page. In a customarily formatted book manuscript with chapters starting about 1/3 of the way down the page (double-spaced, 1-inch margins, 12-point type), there are 16 or 17 lines on the first page.

The challenge: does this narrative compel you to turn the page?

Flog the first page of this bestselling author’s newest novel. Please judge by storytelling quality, not by genre—there are folks who reject an opening page immediately because of genre, but that’s not a good enough reason when the point is to analyze for storytelling strength.

This novel was in first place on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for July 13. How strong is the opening page—would this have hooked an agent if it came in from an unpublished writer? Would this opening page be compelling if you picked it up to sample it in a bookstore? Following is what would be the first manuscript page (17 lines) of Chapter 1.

This time I know it, I know it with a certainty that chokes my throat with panic, that grips and twists my heart until it’s ripped from its mooring. This time, I’m too late.

This time, it’s too hot. This time, it’s too bright, there’s too much smoke.

The house alarm is screaming out, not the early-warning beep but the piercing you’re-totally-screwed-if-you-don’t-move-now squeal. I don’t know how long it’s been going off, but it’s too late for me now. The searing oven-blast heat within the four corners of my bedroom. The putrid black smoke that singes my nostril hairs and pollutes my lungs. The orange flames rippling across the ceiling above me, dancing around my bed, almost in rhythm, a taunting staccato, popping and crackling, like it’s not a fire but a collection of flames working together; collectively, they want me to know, as they bob up and down and spit and cackle, as they slowly advance, This time it’s too late, Emmy—

The window. Still a chance to jump off the bed to the left and run for the window, the only part of the bedroom still available. The enemy is cornering me, daring me, Go ahead, Emmy, go for the window, Emmy—

This is my last chance, and I know, but don’t want to think about, what happens if I fail— that I have to start preparing myself for the pain. It will just hurt for a few minutes, it will be teeth-gnashing, gut-twisting agony, but then the heat will shrivel off my nerve endings and I’ll feel (snip)

My vote and editorial notes after the fold.
Continue Reading »

What Sort of Books Do You Write?

Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go

Flickr Creative Commons: Daniel Go

There are precious few satisfying answers to the question above. I have gone to the trouble to list them for you here.

“Oh, I dabble in literary fiction, you may have heard my address at the Nobel Prize ceremony?”

“Joanne Rowling. Lovely to meet you.”

“Mainly plays.  Probably nothing you know.  Ah, you’ve read King Lear, have you?”

Or even: “Very few, actually. I’ve barely put pen to paper since dashing off Catcher in the Rye back in the 50s.”

What you don’t want to say is this:

“Well, I’m technically speaking a children’s writer, but not entirely, I mean, older children, some not children at all, many perfectly sentient adults, in fact, seem to like my books, which do, of course, feature adolescents, but often incorporate quite difficult themes, say, on the subject of life and death, so that about half of my UK readers are over thirty and many of my Finnish readers are over fifty…oh, and by the way, I’ve also written three or four picture books, and am kind of mulling over a middle grade series, just for a change of pace.”

And if you think it gets simpler, think again.  I’m just finishing up my new book, with a protagonist who has graduated from art school which makes him at least 22 — a good two or three years older than many of my past protagonists.

Imagine that for a radical departure.

The new book is called Duck Zoo, and my hero has the wrong job and the wrong girlfriend, and two dogs who are trying to sort his life out for him.  It’s pure Meg Rosoff territory, if you’ll allow me to refer to myself in the third person for a minute here (ala Gwyneth Paltrow).  It’s a comedy, kind of surreal, all about love and work with lots of dogs.

But it’s a whole new genre because technically speaking, Jonathan is not a young adult.

And all I can think is, oh dear god, won’t someone save me from marketing departments.

I wonder if anyone said, “Hey, Harper Lee, whaddaya mean you’re writing a book for grown-ups featuring a six-year-old protagonist?  What are you, nuts?  Who’s going to be interested in a six-year-old other than another six-year-old?”  Did anyone say, “Hey, Henry James, you know this What Maisie Knew book you’ve written, could you make Maisie thirty-six so your adult readers can identify with her more?” Continue Reading »

Newton’s Third Law of Writing

Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling

Flickr Creative Commons: Geoff Ackling

Newton’s Third Law of Writing


For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.


Take a look at this passage from a workshop submission.  It’s set in the depths of the depression.  Mary Ruth and her family have just moved into a poor neighborhood, and she’s out walking past a home where two vicious dogs are tied outside:


     Mary Ruth slowed when she noticed a third rope tied around an old, leaning tree on the opposite side of the porch.   She started to move faster, fearing a third dog was loose.  She saw the rope around the tree move.  Slowly, very slowly the circle of rope moved from the back of the tree to the front, where she could see a shape attached. It was on four legs, crawling toward them. Mary Ruth stopped and took in slowly the figure of a young boy, naked, wearing only a collar of rope line. He stood up, his arms hanging in front of him. He stumbled toward her and the girls.

The boy’s mouth twisted. He was trying to speak. A guttural noise came from his throat like a bark.  Mary Ruth said, “Hello.”


What’s the problem here?  Continue Reading »

Unlocking the Story-Box

photo by Flickr's A♥

photo by Flickr’s A♥

“Where do you get your ideas from?”

It’s the classic question you nearly always get asked, as a writer, and there are always the classic answers to give back: something you’ve experienced, read about, observed; a place, a person, an overheard conversation, a newspaper report, a dream, an emotion, a picture, a fairy tale, a poem. These are my usual kinds of triggers, some happened on by chance, others more deliberately sought. But there are other kinds of triggers: objects, things that by their very presence seem to fire off the story-nerve. And they can be the most exciting triggers of all. That’s certainly been the case for me very recently.

I’m back in Europe at the moment and the other week, in London, on my way to the British Museum, I took a wrong (or right!) turn and came across an antique shop. In the window were trays of old coins, small figures, and old jewelry—very old jewelry, for as soon became clear, this was a shop specialising in objects from the ancient world, in particular Greece, Rome and Egypt. Some of the things were very expensive indeed, but a few were in the affordable range, so on a whim, I decided to go in and have a closer look. And there was the ring.

It is an Ancient Roman bronze ring, small and fairly plain, except for one unexpected feature, for it features a built-in key shank. Once, sometime in the 1st–3rd century AD, a Roman wore it on his or her (most likely her, given the size) finger, making sure it wasn’t lost. As soon as I saw that ring, I got a tingle, a prickle of story-nerve, and instantly a host of questions came to my mind. Questions, but also the beginnings of answers. Continue Reading »

Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

photo by Leo Reynolds

photo by Leo Reynolds

Today’s guest is author Abdi Nazemian. Abdi is the screenwriter of The Quiet, Celeste in the City, Beautiful Girl, and the short film Revolution, which he also directed.  He is an alumnus of the Sundance Writer’s Lab, a mentor at the Outfest Screenwriter’s Lab, and has taught screenwriting at UCLA Extension.  He lives in Los Angeles with his two children, and his dog Hedy Lamarr.

The Walk-In Closet is his first novel. It was chosen as the winner in the Gay and Lesbian Fiction category at the 2014 International Book Awards, and was named a finalist in the Best Mulicultural Fiction category at the 2014 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

What’s the book about?

Kara Walker has never found much glamour in her own life, especially not when compared to the life of her best friend, Bobby Ebadi. Bobby, along with his sophisticated parents Leila and Hossein, is everything Kara always wanted to be. The trio provides the perfect antidote to what Kara views as the more mundane problems of her girlfriends and her divorced parents. So when the Ebadis assume that Kara is Bobby’s girlfriend, she willingly steps into the role. She enjoys the perks of life in this closet, not only Leila’s designer hand-me-downs and free rent, but also the excitement of living life as an Ebadi. As Kara’s 30th birthday approaches, Leila and Hossein up the pressure. They are ready for Kara to assume the mantle of the next Mrs. Ebadi, and Bobby seems prepared to give them what they want: the illusion of a traditional home and grandchildren. How far will Kara be willing to go? And will she be willing to pull the Persian rug out from under them when she discovers that her own secret is just one of many lurking inside the Ebadi closet?

You can learn Abdi and The Walk-In Closet on his website, and by following him on Twitter and Facebook.

Five Things Every Screenwriter Should Know About Writing A Novel

During my very first book reading for my very first novel, The Walk-In Closet, I was asked how writing screenplays and writing novels were different. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer, so I thought I’d compose this list of the five crucial things every screenwriter should know about writing a novel.

  1. There is no software to guide the writing process. 

You know how screenplays sometimes feel like they’re writing themselves. That’s because Final Draft is an intuitive friend that often knows what you want to write before you do. Just press one letter, and suddenly Final Draft has magically written the name of your next speaking character. You haven’t written a word, but nevertheless there is a word on the page, and from there, it’s not so hard to write another. There is, sadly, no software that will intuitively write any portion of a novel for you, though I sure hope that someone in Silicon Valley is working on one.

  1. You can’t blame the director.

If anyone ever criticizes a film whose script you wrote, it’s quite easy to use the standard phrase, “It’s the director’s fault.” In fact, “It’s the director’s fault” is probably as common a phrase in Hollywood as, “Is this gluten free?” Unfortunately, there’s no one but yourself to blame if and when someone criticizes your novel. Every word is on you, unless you hired a ghostwriter, and even then they’re a ghost, so every word is still on you.

  1. You can’t fix it in post.

Continue Reading »

Twitter Etiquette 101

photo by Ron Mead

It might (or might not) come as a surprise to you that many writers hate Twitter. I confess that I’ve had my own “die, Twitter, die” moments over the years, and it’s usually due to discourtesy. The character limit, the flood of information, the time drain: those I can stomach. But people being rude or obnoxious? Well, I think we’ve all had moments where we wanted to jump ship.

Unfortunately, we can’t make everyone else use Twitter well. What we can do as denizens of the writing Twit-o-sphere is make sure that we are using Twitter well. Of course, this is subjective, but isn’t all etiquette subjective? Today I’m going to cover my top 10 etiquette guidelines in hopes of encouraging a livable, courteous place for us all to tweet. Let’s go!

1. Don’t be a numbers hog.

Remember my first Twitter column about my 5 unshakeable beliefs? One of those was “quality over quantity,” and it still is. (Can’t shake it.) What this translates to behavior-wise is treating people as people rather than tally marks. Don’t follow 500 new people at once just to see who will follow you back. Don’t unfollow everyone if they don’t follow you back immediately. Instead, try finding people who actually interest you and engaging with them. Build relationships, not a big number. You’ll feel better, your platform will be stronger, and your followers will like you more (and actually know who you are).

2. Unhook your outside accounts.

I know I’ll get some flak for this, but it drives me crazy when people hook their outside accounts to their Twitter account. I don’t want to see every single post from your Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, or tumblr. And if I do… I can follow you on those platforms. In fact, having these hooked to your Twitter makes me less likely to follow you at those places. Why would I sign up for double information? Not to mention that most of these “hooked” accounts require Twitter users to click out to see/read the information, which is really annoying.

Instead of hooking Twitter to your other favorite platforms, try occasionally tweeting links to how to follow you elsewhere, sometimes mixed with what type of things you offer there. For example, I sometimes lure my Twitter followers with cute cat pictures if they come “like” my Facebook page. But if I were to share those same pictures on Twitter every time, why would they bother? Offering varied content without cross-pollinating creates value in each place, rather than just one. (Occasional cross-over is fine.)

On a related note: many writers also run secondary Twitter accounts, either for organizations, groups, magazines, or whatever. It’s fine to occasionally retweet these secondary accounts so people know they’re there, but don’t retweet every tweet. It’s the same as above; if your followers wanted to see every tweet, they would simply follow that account.

3. Don’t mass-tweet a personal tweet.

I’ve noticed a growing trend: the practice of replying to everyone to reply to one person. Someone tweets something. A follower @ replies. The original tweeter replies to that publicly instead of directly. They do this by putting a period in front of their response so everyone can see it, or by tagging the person at the end instead of the beginning of the tweet. Continue Reading »

The Crushing Weight of Expectations


Rock Slide by ActiveSteve (Flickr)

It is a truth rarely acknowledged that the act of writing often comes with an entire catalog of weighted expectations attached to it. For published writers, it is SO easy for our self worth to become wrapped up in our commercial performance; it is almost inevitable that the weight of those hopes and expectations will leak out into our work. Maybe this book will bring us the coveted significant advance, or maybe this is the one the publisher will throw the entire weight and heft of their marketing and promotion machine behind. Maybe this will be the book that hits the list or earns a starred review or finally—finally—causes that elusive fame and recognition to appear.

Published authors don’t have the corner on the expectation market. Pre-published authors are often just as weighed down. This will be the manuscript that lands me the Famous Agent, or grabs the attention of the Rock Star Editor, or at the very least gets me that damned contract I’ve been dreaming of for YEARS.

This will be the book/manuscript that validates me in the eyes of
my family,
my friends,
or my peers.

This will be the book that brings me the recognition I crave. The recognition that will finally allow me to feel that I’ve made it, that I’ve achieved something of worth and value.

This book/manuscript will—at last!—make me a Real, Fully Licensed Writer instead of the impostor I’ve actually been all these years.

Dear reader, let me share with you a truth I’ve discovered the hard way—none of those things will bring you what you seek or make you feel validated. Or, if they do, it will only be for the most fleeting of moments.

As Anne Lamott so brilliantly said: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” In truth, they are one of the surest fire ways to suck the creative joy our of our lives and work. Continue Reading »

Why Writers Are More Powerful Than The Supreme Court

These days it often feels as if we have very little power to change things. After all, how can one actual flesh and blood-type person make a difference in the world if the Supreme Court says that corporations, with their billion dollar megaphones, are people too? Money talks exponentially louder than you or me, even when we’re shouting. We live in a country that fully personifies George Orwell’s Animal Farm maxim: All people are equal, but some people are more equal than others. Citizens United, indeed.

Thinking about it, my blood always begins to boil. That’s when (after taking a deep cleansing breath), I remind myself of the power we do have – not in some new age “we are all one” sort of way – but as writers. Because story is the most powerful agent of change on the planet. You have more power than the Supreme Court. You have more power than the biggest corporation. You can affect people directly because story mainlines meaning deep into our hearts and minds. It’s a biological truth. Story changes how we see the world, how we feel, and therefore what we do. Want some proof? Continue Reading »

Doubt, Fear and Constipation

bananasOnce upon a time, I didn’t believe in monsters under the bed. Boogeymen were also make-believe, and hostile, big-eyed aliens were only real in movies. I didn’t want to believe in scary stuff so I chose not to believe in it. Behold, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . da Queen of de Nial!

I applied the same head-in-sand mentality to Writer’s Block. When my high school English students claimed Writer’s Block rendered them unable to write their Hamlet essays, I rolled my eyes and called them pribbling, beef-witted pollywockers. When, in 2005, I had the pleasure of hearing Dorothy Allison speak about her paralyzing, three-year Writer’s Block, I didn’t yell Shakespearean insults, but I didn’t quite believe her either. Lionel Messi doesn’t suddenly find himself unable to play soccer. Meryl Streep doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to act. Barbara Walters doesn’t suddenly find herself unable to ask nosy, semi-inappropriate questions. And three years? Surely Dorothy Allison wrote something over those three years.

But let’s get back to the monsters.

While I didn’t want to believe in monsters, deep down I have always known that they exist. They come in the form of pediatric cancer, domestic violence and chronic mental illness. They look exactly like political leaders who don’t care that their country’s people are hungry and voiceless. They are the terrorists who lob bombs into crowded public spaces. They may not live under my bed, but they do exist.

And, as I have been writing over the past fifteen years, I see Writer’s Block is equally real. My students did feel paralyzed. Dorothy Allison was unable to write for three years. It’s a monster that resides under my bed after all . . . under your bed too.

Continue Reading »

Drawing from Real Life in Fiction

Looking back at our own livesUnlike many people I know, I’ve never wanted to write the story of my life. And I’ve come to belatedly believe that this lack of autobiographic desire on my part has affected my fiction writing, and not necessarily for the best.

I say “belatedly” because I’ve been writing fiction for close to 15 years, but only a few years ago did I start to readjust what I now see as a rather closed and negative mindset I’d been maintaining.

In the past, I used to consciously avoid drawing on my own life and experiences when writing fiction. I’ll admit that I probably got a bit snobby about it, making blithe statements like “I prefer to write about lives far more interesting than my own,” and looking down my nose at authors who wrote what I considered to be thinly veiled memoir, but who positioned their work as fiction. Frankly, I thought they were being both lazy and self-absorbed in doing so. I’ve since reevaluated that stance.

So what has changed? Well, despite being an opinionated bastard, I do pride myself on actually listening to others, particularly those who are further along in their literary journeys. So I pay attention to the advice and insights of successful authors, and I make an attempt to try their advice on for size before dismissing it. To that end, today I’d like to share some insights I gained from two very different writers: WU’s own Barbara O’Neal, and the author of the Jack Reacher series, Lee Child.

A wise woman weighs in on the stories we each own

Back in 2011, I was fortunate enough to see Barbara O’Neal presenting at the RWA Women’s Fiction Conference (back when the RWA still acknowledged women’s fiction as a valid category, but don’t get me started on that sore subject). At the time, Barbara was serving as the “Wise Woman” for the Women’s Fiction chapter, a title she more than deserved. The entire conference was terrific, but I think I got the biggest personal takeaway from Barbara’ segment, where she made this simple but powerful statement:

“We’re all stuck with our own stories.”

Continue Reading »

The Labor of Launch

image by Ashley Webb

image by Ashley Webb

It’s not uncommon, especially among those of us who are both writers and moms, to compare books and babies. For a while there was even a blog called Book Pregnant. In my experience, having one go-around with each, books and babies are different in a whole lot of ways.

But as I prepare for the arrival of my second baby (likely later this month) and my second book (a decent interval afterward, thank goodness) I’m reminded of some similarities between the baby part of life — the labor — and the book part of life — the launch.

You can never really be ready for either, in my experience. But if you’re looking to launch a book into the world, you could do worse than to take a few lessons from labor.

To wit:

Find the line between education and obsession, and stay safely on this side. Labor stories and launch stories can both turn into horror stories. And there are plenty (thousands! tens of thousands! and then some!) of people, especially on the internet, who are happy to tell you their stories in stunning/gory/boring/excr-uc-ia-ting detail. In the book launch realm, it makes a lot of sense to research what your options are for all the different things you could do during the launch period for your book, but you will never, ever be able to do all of them. So don’t go alllll the way down the rabbit hole. When you reach the end of the internet it’s likely you will have read an equal number of people avowing that something was the worst decision they ever made — or the best. Gather information and then use your own judgment; that’s really all you can do.

Choose your team wisely. Especially if it’s your first time, you’re going to need some people on your side who’ve been there before. A combination of amateurs and professionals is usually best, since they’ll provide different types of support. In labor, who do you want with you? Continue Reading »