Saturday, April 27, 2013

Going to the Festival

By Caitlin Rother

Being invited to participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this past weekend to discuss my latest book, LOST GIRLS, was a great honor for me, a personal and professional milestone as well as an opportunity to see and hear some of my favorite authors speak on various panels.

Books have always been a part of my life. Ever since I was a little girl I have been a voracious reader, riding my bike home from the library with the straps of my little canvas backpack digging into my shoulders from the weight of a stack of hardcovers. I kept a checklist too, so that when I finished each one I could check it off. Mission accomplished.

Growing up, I read stories about magic gardens, fantasy and all those classics about times gone past. Later, I went into the darkness: neurotic women, dangerous men, medical mysteries, forensics and murder. I spent many late nights turning pages, with characters taking me on trips into the beyond and detectives solving puzzles. Escaping.

Sometimes it was about the writing, or studying the craft, or learning the formula or searching for inspiration. But for as long as I can remember, it was a goal and a dream of mine to have a book published. The authors I chose – sometimes reading most every book they wrote – were my role models. They represented what I wanted to be. And that hasn’t changed.

Last week, I was thrilled and humbled to join them on those stages, and yet I was also at the festival as a fan, listening and learning. Watching and taking it all in. Overwhelmed by all the information they imparted and seeing that they were real people too, eating soup and salad at the next table in the Green Room.

Many of them still are who and where I want to be someday, so I took notes on things they said, things I could do to emulate them, and to pass on to you folks here on the blog. Here are a few tips I want to share, some of which I already do and some I aspire to myself:

  1. Some of these authors said they write every day, whether it’s 500 or 1,000 words, or more if they are on a roll. Sometimes they just do what they can, or when they are in the zone, they simply go until they run out of steam.
  2. Sit your butt in the chair or at your desk and don’t get up until you do get those words down, even if it’s just a writing exercise you give yourself to break through the blocks.
  3. If you run into a block or feel yourself fading or stuck, switch gears, pick up another project or task. Just. Keep. Going.
  4. Keep in mind that even the best authors experience rejection (with the exception of one of my favorites -- Ann Patchett, who I’ve heard say had her very first short story AND first novel both accepted on first try by a reputable literary journal and publisher, respectively.)
  5. To keep your name out there and to maintain and expand your platform, write short stories, essays and op-ed pieces in addition to a continuous stream of books. (This is where I started wondering, when do these people sleep?)
  6. Don’t focus on the book that’s about to come out. You’ve already finished that one. Always be thinking about and working on the next one. Keep the momentum going. (I do recommend taking a break in between, though, because too many books written too fast can drain your creative juices.)
  7. Stay up to date on changes in the publishing industry. It is changing faster than you can say “New York Times bestseller.” Start thinking “singles,” i.e. 30,000 word pieces published online.
  8. When you get rejected, get the hell up and back at it. (I’m well acquainted with that one.) To me, persistence and rebounding are the two keys to getting published and staying published.
  9. Don’t expect that once you write your book that your job is finished, that it will sell itself. If you aren’t big enough for your publisher to send you on a book tour (most of us aren’t), then get to work months in advance to come up with a promotions plan of your own.
  10. Seriously, and above all, don’t expect to get rich. Books, for the most part, don’t pay much, so you’d better really love the journey, the writing and the writing life. And feel like you couldn’t live without it. And be sure to enjoy the occasional highs and joyous surprises, as I just did, of getting your panel discussion televised live on C-SPAN. Sometimes they come when you least expect it.
 Write on.

New York Times bestselling author Caitlin Rother, a Pulitzer-nominee who worked as an investigative reporter for nearly 20 years, has written or co-authored eight books: Poisoned LoveDeadly Devotion/Where Hope BeginsMy Life, Deleted, Body Parts, Twisted TriangleNaked Addiction, and Dead Reckoning. Her latest book is Lost Girls, about the murder of innocents Chelsea King and Amber Dubois by sexual predator John Gardner. Next up is I'll Take Care of You. For more information, please check her website, 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Testing... Testing..."

by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

It might be assumed that a “writer’s tricks” are about fooling readers. For me, it’s about fooling myself.

New projects are intimidating, so I begin by telling myself that I’m not a great writer, just a good one. I don’t have to be literary, merely clear. I’m composing a new version of Fun With Dick and Jane rather than the Great American Novel.

But I’m happy in retrospect, having just completed a new work of American history, to find I can at least clear one bar.

Another blogger recently asked me to take the “Page 99” test established by the great English poet, novelist, and literary critic Ford Madox Ford. (His parents must have had that wacky British sense of humor.)

Ford famously said, "Open the book [any book] to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

I fretted of course. What if page 99 of American Umpire (released March 4 by Harvard University Press) was a blank sheet between chapters, or worse, filled with the antlike footnotes that spell geek?

But I now feel I can look Ford in the eye at a Bloomsbury soiree.

Turning to page 99 of American Umpire, I found the dramatis personae all on stage in their customary poses. The year was 1823. The American president (played in this scene by cleft-chinned James Monroe) worries that the United States is unprepared for foreign threats. Craven Cabinet members echo and amplify his fears. The Secretary of State (starring the prickly, gimlet-eyed John Quincy Adams) suffers fools silently, if not gladly, and bides his time before introducing the solution he knows will take others by surprise. Off stage, British Foreign Minister George Canning is overheard in soliloquy, plotting the grand strategy of the Pax Britannica.

On page 99 and throughout, American Umpire re-examines the familiar terrain of U.S. foreign relations between 1776 and the present, discovering new overlooks and hidden trails that reveal the nation’s place on the terrain of world history.

The first thing it finds is that—contrary to many scholarly and even casual critics—the United States is not an empire. Instead, because of its unusual federal structure, the government has always functioned as a kind of umpire, compelling states’ adherence to rules that gradually earned collective approval.

My book traces America’s role in the world from the days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to the present. It argues that the United States has been the pivot of a transformation that began outside its borders, in which nation-states replaced the empires that had dominated history. The “Western” values that America is often accused of imposing were the result of this global shift. American Umpire finds that the United States has been distinctive not in its embrace of these new values but in its willingness to persuade and even coerce others to comply. Yet there are costs, some quite terrible. Taking sides in explosive disputes imposes significant financial and psychic burdens. By definition, umpires cannot win.

On page 99, my umpire looks outside the domestic ballpark for the first time, and onto the international playing field. Uncle Sam must decide whether to join with Great Britain in defending the right of Spain’s colonies to declare independence. The larger question on Page 99 is whether America should guarantee “international security” to ensure its own–or not?

Here, friends, is Page 99. Tell me. Did I pass the test, or am I fooling myself again?

American Umpire, by Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman (Harvard University Press)...

The offer was an extraordinary compliment coming from the victor of Waterloo. For the first time in its brief history, the United States was being asked to sign on to a high-level international diktat. George Canning, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom and America’s former adversary, courted Washington’s opinion.

Only the U.S. secretary of state, John Quincy Adams, disagreed. He shrewdly waited until others had vented their enthusiasm and then appealed to every politician’s soft spot: vanity. Britain wanted to deter France and Spain from forcibly re-imposing imperial control over the breakaway Latin republics. This was splendid. Adams himself had acerbically lectured Britain’s minister in Washington that “the whole system of modern colonization is an abuse of government and it is time that it should come to an end.” But America ought to proudly issue its own preemptive declaration, he said, rather than rowing behind the Royal Navy. “It would be more candid, as well as more dignified,” Adams observed, “to avow our principles explicitly to Russia and France than to come in as a cock-boat in the wake of a British man-of-war.” Actually, it would have been more candid for the United States to acknowledge that the whole idea of a public protest had been England’s from the start.

By the end of the long afternoon, Monroe was nearly persuaded. The president certainly did not wish to be seen as deferring to the United Kingdom, not after the United States had just lost 2,200 men defending its honor on land and sea in the War of 1812. Not after the carpenters and painters had just finished restoring the burned-out shell of the White House, torched by British troops in 1814. But with the weight of the country on his shoulders, Monroe remained anxious that Spain, France, and Russia might send as many as 10,000 troops to quell republicanism in the Americas. He could not quite bring himself to adopt Adams’s breezy self-confidence. Britain was the only country equipped to stop the menacing European powers. Prudence counseled acceptance of its offer.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Dealing with Bad Reviews

by Margaret Dilloway

Today, I read J.A. Konrath's tongue-in-cheek blog about how to deal with bad reviews. Which got me to thinking how I deal with reading my own bad reviews.

It used to be a lot more difficult, when I was newer and my skin was as thin and pink as a naked molerat's. I'd read all the Amazon and Goodreads posts and fret.

But I never responded, no matter how much I wanted to. It's counterproductive-- it makes people feel defensive and it makes you, the author, look too sensitive and egomaniacal. If I get a bad review on a blog, sometimes I'll thank them for reading it anyway, because I am happy that the blogger at least looked at it.

These days, I hardly ever read my reviews. If I see a five or four star, and thus know it's completely brilliant critique, I read it. It's just so easy for everybody in the world these days to have a big old fat opinion about everything.

It's like when I watch the news. Every station in the world does this Twitter thing now. They discuss a story, and then the anchor says, "Let's see what people are saying on TWITTER!" and then they broadcast a bunch of Tweets with whatever their hashtag is. As if a bunch of random people have valid, newsworthy opinions about complicated subjects that they can express in 140 characters or less.

I guess allowing everybody to voice their opinions is very egalitarian. But what if they're not basing their opinions on a reasonable critique, but something like, "I wish Dilloway wrote about outerspace instead and left Japan out of it. Or had more recipes. I only like sci-fi and cookbooks. One star"?  It's even worse when people who didn't bother reading the book give you reviews. Those should be deleted. If you did not read the book, at least lie about having read it.

Still, I don't say anything. You will never win. People like to argue. It's not just on the Internet. People argue with me during bookclub discussions all the time. They challenge me over imaginary characters-- characters that I wrote.  And readers say shocking things to my face all the time-- things you would think they'd only be comfortable with saying on an anonymous Internet forum.

Which brings me to this revelation I've recently had. Once you write a book and put it out into the world, it is no longer yours. I feel this way when I speak at book clubs-- like I'm engaging in a literature class discussion about the book, like I'm no more knowledgeable about the book than anyone else in the world.

So these days, I just take reviews less personally. It's an individual reader experience. I can't force someone else to like anything.

And please, if you read my book and wished it was a different book, then feel free to go ahead and write the book in your head. But don't judge the actual book against the imaginary one.