This year in writing

In the spirit of retrospection—and also recognizing that without Facebook to update the friendly masses on my writerly aspirations, contributing to my underused blog is the best way to let the world know what I’m up—I feel the urge to share the latest and greatest adventures in writing.

I started off the year working on a new novel (yes, this marks number three for those keeping score) written mostly during November 2016 NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated). In January, I joined a critique group (recently dubbed La Madeleine Writers in honor of the Bethesda cafe where we convene) which meets monthly, inspires daily. I recruited new beta readers and when those readers funneled back dissatisfaction with the novel’s ending, I edited, wrote and rewrote and found new suckers readers to take on a revised version.

Then I edited and wrote and rewrote some more.

As a self-imposed May 31st deadline to have a query-ready manuscript approached (for those who don’t know, I amicably broke up with my previous agent in 2016) I snuck in writing/editing time when I could, mostly at five o’clock in the morning before sun, kids, and cats rise. I started with a light pitch in June, sending the manuscript to a handful of literary agents.

While those queries did not yield a match, one agent provided feedback. Detailed feedback. And engaged in a back and forth exchange where I could ask questions, which she promptly answered. If you aren’t a writer struggling to forge this impossible seeming professional relationship, you don’t understand how glorious and rare unsolicited feedback is in a world of form letter email rejections. (The process isn’t unlike online dating.) Her suggestions made my manuscript stronger, even if we didn’t find happily ever after.

In August, I submitted my novel for #PitchWars, an online contest pairing aspiring authors (aka mentees) with agented/published authors or others in the industry (aka mentors). Mentors help mentees edit their novel/pitch in preparation for an agent showcase round, where matches are made in heaven. I wasn’t selected as a mentee, but made a writer friend out of my dream mentor. Her advice has helped me improve in immeasurable ways, and she always responds immediately to my “what do you think if I xxx” texts.

In November, I hired Hyphen Craft, an editing service recently established by former literary agent Jennifer Johnson-Blalock. She honed my Twitter pitches for #PitMad and reviewed my submission package (i.e. query letter, synopsis and first ten pages) advising on what grabs—and holds—an agent’s attention. In the process of all that fine-tooth comb editing, together we realized my working title didn’t convey the serious aspect of the manuscript. I vowed to spend Christmas batting around ideas when out of the blue, I got an email from her with an inspired (secret, for now) title suggestion. That’s working overtime!

Also over Christmas, I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, and while he doesn’t know me—and doubtfully remembers the time I went to a birthday party at his house when I was 12 years old—his words helped propel an aspiring author (and fellow Mainer) forward during a time of despair. So as the new year approaches, I continue to edit, write and rewrite. I have no deadline in mind, but I maintain hope I’ll find my perfect literary match.

Then maybe I’ll try online dating again.

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My favorite reads of 2017

I just added to Goodreads the latest (and probably last) read in 2017, marking 110 books read this year, 35 more than the goal I set in January.

I hear you ask: how do you have so much time to read? And to that question I respond, I wish I had more time. To be a good writer, I have to be a voracious reader. Thus the librarian recognizes me, Amazon gift cards put a smile on my face and a stack of untouched books pouts next to my bed, each wanting to be the next up. Also facilitating my reading appetite, I gave up cable TV in 2015 and Facebook in 2016, two conduits of time suckage. I sleep and read better without the digital distractions. Not that I don’t partake in social media (hello, Twitter) or watch TV; Project Runway, Game of Thrones, the Bachelor franchise and Veep vie for my attention. But I like books better. And I love recommending books. Not every story is for everybody, thus I put careful consideration into what books I push on which friends. But hands down, the following were my favorite reads of 2017.

Fiction:

Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge. The last book I read in 2017 is one of my favorites. This gripping account of castaways stranded on a remote island reeled me in and left me sobbing.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The most anticipated book of 2017 did not disappoint as the story effortlessly floated between points of view (so hard for the writer to pull off). I cared about each character and felt their absence once I was done reading.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. No one conveys disaffected suburbia better than Perrotta and this tale made me laugh out loud. As a Gen-X-er, it was refreshing to read about a woman my age taking on life’s challenges from parenthood to dating.

Touch by Courtney Maum. I cannot stop thinking about this book and how prophetic the notion that someday our digitally obsessed culture may pay for human touch. This work of fiction inspired real life efforts to connect on a deeper level than our handheld devices permit.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. The old school Hollywood glamour and grit of this novel kept me turning pages and the love stories gutted me. I read the last 150 pages on an airplane, where my body heaving sobs earned me sympathetic glances and the offer of a package of tissues.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. I felt like I was taking that New Year’s Eve walk with Lillian, who in my perfect book world could meet A Gentleman in Moscow. A lifetime of ups and downs recounted in one night, this story will forever make me look at New Year’s Eve—and a life well lived—differently.

Nonfiction:

Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. I am not including my dad’s book just because he’s my dad. Hudson Booksellers listed it as a top ten of 2017, as did the Washington Independent Review of Books. This account of a little-known troop of Jewish naturalized American soldiers returning to their homelands to fight Hitler tells a story of redemption, patriotism and bravery.

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose by Joe Biden. I am a sucker for gut-wrenching stories and listening to Biden talk about his son’s illness and death gave me new perspective on the former Vice President, his family’s strength, and what it means to be a public servant. I only rolled my eyes a few times.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. I like nonfiction books that teach me something I don’t already know, and though I live in an urban area not immune to poverty, reading the housing struggles of the Milwaukee families profiled in this work reminded me how even when times are tough, how very lucky I am to have a roof over my head and not have to choose between food or shelter.

What were the books you couldn’t put down? Give me your recommendations. I’m preparing my list for 2018.

Happy reading!

good reads

I read, therefore I make book recommendations.

According to Goodreads, the social media platform for books, I read 54 books in 2015, surpassing my annual reading challenge goal of 50. Borrowing ambition from fellow reader and dear friend Emily, I tacked one book onto the previous year’s accomplishment and set a 2016 goal of 55.

To date, I’ve already read 17.

I haven’t made a recommended books list in ages, so here are a few recently read favorites that have ushered me through various stages of convalescence.

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara: A top five lifetime favorite, no book has gutted me quite the same as A LITTLE LIFE. I finished over a month ago and still miss the main characters, four male friends whose lives entwine seamlessly but emotionally over several decades. Have the tissues handy; I ugly cried for the last 200 pages.

SMALL MERCIES by Eddie Joyce: I’m a sucker for anything 9/11 related, and this touching tale did not disappoint, weaving together varying perspectives of a family dealing a decade later with the tragic loss of one of their own. I’ve never been to Staten Island but reading this book, I felt immersed in its sights, smells, sounds, pizza, people and anguish.

THE ONE/HIDDEN BODIES by Caroline Kepnes: Sequels often disappoint me, but not the one-two punch socked by these contemporary psychological thrillers. So smart, a little sexy, devious and fast paced, I found myself cheering  (goddammit!) for the dark side throughout both books.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal: I love food. I love to cook it. I love to eat it. This book, which centers around the professional (yet emotional) journey of a young chef, will leave you craving the magic its main character evokes with her culinary skills. Wine figures prominently in the plot, too.

Other reads worth a trip to the library or bookstore: THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, THE KIND WORTH KILLING by Peter Swanson, and THE BOOK OF SPECULATION by Erika Swyler.

Happy reading!

a year in good reads

You can’t be a good writer without being a voracious reader, and I take the book stack on my bedside table seriously. I find there’s practically no better way to overcome writer’s block than to pick up a book and lose yourself in its pages. Love the book or hate it, there is inspiration to be found in other people’s words. In fact, I so disliked one recently read book (which I will not mention because I do not want to author-bash) that I just had to get back to the computer and write because if that book got published, surely mine stands a chance.

Anyway, 2014 was undeniably a good year for reading enthusiasts. My absolute favorite book of the year was ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr. This book is an achingly beautiful interwoven tale of a blind French girl and young Nazi boy during World War II. I can’t even begin to do it justice with a plot description so just take my word for it and put it on your Christmas list now. And I mean, now now.

A close second was STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. I picked a good time (shortly after the Ebola panic subsided) to read this novel about the end of most of humanity due to a highly contagious flu. Contrary to what you might think, there is nothing about this book that is hysteria-inducing. In fact, the death of ninety-nine percent of humans is very matter of fact; it’s how the remaining one percent connect to each other as they move on with life, love, religion and the arts that sucks you in and leaves you turning page after page, well past a reasonable bedtime hour.

EUPHORIA by Lily King and A LIFE IN MEN by Gina Frangello (both profiled in my summer reading list) rank in my top five, and rounding out the top is REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by debut novelist Bret Anthony Johnson. This heart wrenching account of the upheaval a family endures after their kidnapped son is found and returned to them left me sleepless and teary. Okay, maybe that doesn’t make you want to run out and grab a copy, but you should.

As the last days of December tick down, I’m sad there are still so many books on my TBR list that I won’t get to before 2015 and its slate of offerings. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng, THE CHILDREN ACT by Ian McEwan, and THE PAYING GUESTS by Sarah Waters would all be great finds under my Christmas tree and would quickly jump to the top of the pile of books currently awaiting my eyes.

 

 

summer reading

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Summer has arrived, as evidenced by the thermostat in my house, which is registering a balmy 87 degrees at least until my new AC system is installed and/or the heat wave breaks. I may resemble a wilted flower, but my state of mind (rather, body) hasn’t slowed me down. Summer wouldn’t be summer without books, and I’ve been reading them faster than a popsicle melts.

If you’re looking for a good summer (or any season) read, here are my favorites this year, in the order I read them because there is no way I could actually order them in my heart. Whether it’s your turn to host book club or you have a vacation coming up or you just need new fodder for your bedside table, look for these titles at your local bookstore.

1. A Life in Men by Gina Frangello. This story is like a beautiful tapestry; the plot lines are intricately woven together. I coughed when the main protagonist coughed. I cringed when she made moves that were unsafe. I cried. I caught the travel bug.

2. Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I have a girl crush on Maggie both for her beautiful prose which just makes me want to write better and because she is delightful in person. Her most recent novel flows like a ballet and made me long for pointe shoes (though I could do without the rigors of ballerina-dom).

3. Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. If this story didn’t take place in the summer, I’d want to read it in front of the fireplace. A little gothic and mysterious with a quick pace, you’ll be wondering who is good, who is evil and oh my god, the setting reminds me of my friends’ family compound on a lake near Cooperstown. (Janet and Wendy, read this book.)

4. Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro. I won a signed copy of this book, and Julia is my most recent twitter friend I want to know in real life. Putting aside for a second that her debut novel is so very dark but funny and painful yet entertaining, I want to invite her over for wine and cupcakes. Next time you are in DC, Julia…

5. Euphoria by Lily King. I had a bit of a Margaret Mead obsession as a child, but even if anthropologists aren’t your thing, please read this love story. I’m going to spend the rest of my days looking for that person who is both bread and wine.

Am I at five already? I’m tempted to take my list to ten, but my ice cream is turning to soup. Seriously, each is lovely (gritty, intriguing, fun) and your life will be richer for adding them to your reading list.

where have all the bookstores gone?

Remember the days when if you had a little extra time, you’d meander into a bookstore? Walk between the aisles, looking for something new or maybe a long lost book written by a favorite author? Nowadays we instead spend our leisure time taking Buzz Feed quizzes and following on Facebook the lives of people who wouldn’t under other circumstances make the friend cut.

I miss bookstores. Hey, I fell for it like everyone else. I jumped on the Kindle bandwagon early. It felt safer to travel with an e-reader in case I’m ever stuck on the Tarmac for so long that if I finish my book, I conveniently have another waiting without all the bulk. But lately I’ve been craving books. Real paper and binding books.

I love the way books smell. I love the way they feel. You can bathe with them, sleep with them, and even dribble ice cream on them without concern.

My desire to trade my electronics for paper did not come out of nowhere. I’m inspired by the fact that I JUST WROTE A NOVEL and at some point in the undefined future, I’m going to want people to buy my book. And not the electronic version (though if that’s the only way to get you to read it, then fine). I want you all to buy the tangible version and take it with you everywhere so passers by ask, “hey, how is it?” To which you will reply, “I can’t put it down.”

But I digress.

These days when I buy a book, I usually order from Amazon because there are no more bookstores. I read an interview with a literary agent who said if you are a debut author and you aren’t going to a bookstore at least once a month to buy in hardback another debut author’s work, you aren’t supporting other writers. I want to help, I do. I believe in karma. Please someone let me pay full price for a hard cover book. But where?

Today I tried to hit the only Barnes and Noble I can think of, which I know is really no better than Amazon but forget finding an independent bookstore. Traffic jams, too many tourists and lack of parking got the better of me and I gave up the mission. This evening I stopped by Busboys and Poets. While I appreciate the curated (i.e. small) fiction collection, it wasn’t as satisfying of an experience. You can’t get lost in between two bookshelves.

I’m determined to bring back books. Let’s make it sexy again to carry a book. (I’d totally date that book toting guy.) If we demand it, they shall build it, right? As shopping trends move toward buying local, don’t forget that there are and should be more places to buy your reads than Amazon.

the gift of Clooney

photo credit: Chris Meck Photography. cover design: Belmont, IncAre you panicking because you still haven’t found the perfect gift for your sister, girlfriend, mother, hair dresser, great aunt, cousin or co-worker?

Have you considered ordering someone My Night with George Clooney? Even though it is electronic in format, you can indeed follow these easy Amazon instructions to gift it. The recipient need not own a kindle; anyone with a handheld device can read it if they get the free kindle app. And since this is a short story – about 40 pages in length – it is totally manageable to read on a smaller device. I mean, if I were giving someone Anna Karenina, I might want to make sure they had a reading tablet of some sort. But this story is the perfect length to take you to and from work, get you through a long conference call or just entertain for an evening before going to sleep.

With Christmas just two days away, you are one click away from not having to weather the crowds (or weather the weather, if you live in the Plains states or New England) to finish up your shopping. You would be supporting an emerging young(ish) writer with your purchase, and sharing the gift of Clooney with your loved ones. In other words, you’d be giving in two ways.

And that is truly in the spirit of the holiday season.