Friday, February 24, 2012

Are Writers Nicer Nowadays?

Image from Jonathan
The other week, my Beloved Shelf Awareness had this piece by their regular columnist, Robert Gray, in which he wrote about how the internet was forging strong bonds between writers. Are those titanic feuds (Truman Copote vs. Gore Vidal, Mary McCarthy vs. Lilian Helman, John Updike vs. Salman Rushdie, and Norman Mailer vs. just about everybody) a thing of the past? What do you think about writers behaving buddy, instead of badly?

Here's Gray's column. It's a good one. Enjoy!

It isn't fair to begin a column about friendship and mutual support among writers with a mean-spirited, if mischievously delightful, line from Gore Vidal, but I do so only to establish counterpoint: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies."

The view from my Facebook window tells me otherwise. Although the Internet can be a den of the ├╝ber-snarky, it is also a haven where writers are building friendships (the real kind, not the FB kind) with their peers.

The recent publication of Jessica Keener's fine debut novel Night Swim prompted me to pay closer attention to the enthusiastic support she received online from authors whose work I admire, including Patry Francis (The Liar's Diary), Susan Henderson (Up from the Blue) and Leora Skolkin-Smith (Hystera), among many others.

I like this trend. It feels like evolution. It's so... anti-Vidal. I wondered what they thought. I asked.

"Over the past five or so years, with the surging growth of the Internet and bloggers, and the birth of an online private forum for writers called Backspace, I began to connect with writers in a much more supportive way than I had ever experienced before," said Keener. "The online medium fostered a wonderful world of pen palship. What writer doesn’t enjoy crafting a letter or passing a note?

"As I see it, the Internet nurtures reading and responding--a give and take in words. In the process, I discovered many writers I might never have met sitting in my office at home. I became a regular follower of Susan Henderson's Litpark, thrilling over the variety of writers and artists she hosted. I found writers whose work I respected and who sweated as I did over the language of heartache. E-mail exchanges between writers I'd never met became increasingly confessional and intimate and ultimately led to in-person meetings. When I finally met Susan and Patry Francis (in New York, at a Backspace Writers Conference) as well as M.J. Rose--whose blog about publishing and marketing I'd been reading for months--I began to see that I was surrounding myself with a supportive community of writers, peers willing to care for each other professionally and personally."

Francis noted that when she started submitting her work to agents, "I was suffering from an extreme case of writerly isolation. I viewed loneliness and fierce rivalry as occupational hazards." Gradually she discovered online alternatives, "and eventually the tangled, marvelous, distracting, infinitely fascinating world that is social media. There, counter to stereotype, I found an incredibly large-hearted and generous community. No one embodies that spirit more than Jessica Keener. Her willingness to give of herself, to offer encouragement, nurture, constructive criticism when requested, and enthusiastic support to others is truly unique."

Or perhaps not so unique anymore, if what I've seen online is any indication.

Henderson said she met Keener when they were both on a fiction panel with an editor "I’d been rejected by for years. And that’s kind of at the heart of writers' journeys, this marriage of success and failure, throughout our career. Here I am invited to sit beside an icon on this panel and yet I’m remembering those letters he wrote me. So that’s one of the immediate places we bonded, and that idea was at the core of why I created my blog LitPark, because it’s hard to be alone with all the rejection and self-doubt and still believe you’re on a path to publication. The self-doubt can eat you alive.

"When a writer lands a book deal, there's almost always a long story behind it--a story of multiple revisions, hair pulling, rejections, thoughts of quitting, and in the end, pure stamina, sometimes decades of stamina. Often when you read a little blurb about an author's debut novel, you know that debut is actually her third or fourth--the others just never saw the light of day. And I think it's knowing this that's behind the joy and celebration we feel when our friends finally achieve what had seemed impossible."

Although they had communicated online, Keener said she only recently met Skolkin-Smith, who observed that, as "the field of publishing becomes more narrow (in terms of only a few brand names getting print reviews and the rest of us authors dangling on a thin hope that we will be read at all), I honestly don't know what I would do as an author lost in the shadows without the support and recognition of people I've met in literary cyberspace. On blogs and social networking sites, it feels like a new cyber landscape is defined by a passion for literature, and in no small way the new connections made possible now have transformed both reader and writer. I am grateful, alerted to the miracle of words in a new light, a new way."

Keener summed up the view from my Facebook window nicely: "The writing business is nerve-wracking and for a long time it was incomprehensible to me. This has changed. As my peers and I exchange experiences, my sense of control and grasp of the business side of things has shifted significantly for the better. As for the writing itself--that struggle and challenge will remain personal and mysterious and unique, but the sting of isolation is gone. Even now as I write, new friendships that exhilarate and inspire are forming."--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Origins Blogfest: I was a 4th Grade Writer

1972. I was in Mrs. Benz's 4th grade class at the Intercommunity School of Zurich. Mrs. Benz was a tough teacher, and we learned a heckuva lot that year. One thing I really wanted to do was write a story that she would think worthy of inclusion in the school magazine, because Mrs. Benz didn't let any old flotsam and jetsam represent her classroom.

I wrote what I thought was a great tale, of three girls wandering into a haunted house. Mrs. Benz got out her editorial pen. I went back and rewrote. This happened a couple more times. Finally, I passed muster. The piece was sent off to the magazine. But now I had to hold my breath. Would it be included?

I remember when the magazine came out. Shiny white paper. Flags of the nations on the front. And there, on page 43, with the unassuming title--"A Story"--was the first published piece by 9 year-old Michael Gilmartin.

40 years on, I still have my copy.  I see I was very keen on adjectives. (The final line reads: "They broke into a run and never came back to the old, grimy, smelly, romantic house.") I also used words like picturesque, eiderdown, cobwebby,  and luxuriously.

That first sight of my words in print, my byline, meant there was no going back. I don't think I thought I was going to be a writer, any more than I thought I was going to be an astronaut--but I realized I loved to write, and loved the thought of others reading my words. That feeling has never left me, even though my decision to try and make writing a career came almost 20 years later. That dream, born from the first dream, lives on.

The Origins Blogfest is the brainchild of DL Hammons, who along with Katie, and Alex, and Matt are co-hosts for the blogfest. For the list of all participants, just click on  Origins Blogfest!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charles Dickens!

Mr. Dickens' birthday is today. He's 200. Now, having read English literature at university (as the British say; in America, I'm an "English major," which sounds very military; however, at least I'm not the French lieutenant's woman...) I have read my share of Charles Dickens--although it's been a while. In honor of the great man's bicentenary, I leave you with this article from my beloved Shelf Awareness. And also with an invitation. I intend to read one of Dickens' novels this year, in his memory. If you were going to do the same, which one would you read?

From Shelf Awareness:

Further Reading: Charles Dickens at 200

February 7 is Charles Dickens's 200th birthday, so it comes as no surprise that we are seeing a plethora of tributes to Britain's first literary superstar. New film adaptations of both Oliver Twist and Great Expectations--the latter starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes--are slated to hit the big screen this year, and the BBC recently aired two new miniseries adaptations of Dickens novels. New York City's Morgan Library, home of the largest collection of Dickens manuscripts and letters in the world, has a special exhibit of Dickensiana on display through February 12.

The celebrations don't stop there; these titles will also give fans a chance to celebrate Dickens's birthday.

The Cheshire Cheese Cat: A Dickens of a Tail tells a delightful story of an unlikely friendship between a cat, a mouse, a raven and Charles Dickens himself--complete with writer's block. This illustrated novel is not just for kids, however; children will enjoy the adventure tale contained herein, and adults will delight in the clever allusions to Dickens characters throughout.

Becoming Dickens offers a new approach to the standard Dickens biography, telling the story of Dickens's growth into a novelist and ending early on in his career. Dickens expert Robert Douglas-Fairhurst draws on both biographical fact and a careful analysis of Dickens's own characters to provide fresh insight into how a child growing up in poverty transformed himself into one of the most famous writers in Britain.

For those looking for a more hands-on experience of Dickens's life, Charles Dickens: The Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012 is just what the doctor ordered. Published by Insight Editions in association with the Charles Dickens Museum of London, this oversized book features full-size images, photographs, drawings and removable facsimiles of documents from the Dickens archives, letting readers get elbow-deep--literally--in the life and times of this well-loved author. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm

Friday, February 3, 2012

These Are A Few of My Favorite Things

Now that I've got you all humming a tune that has to do with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, I thought I would do a little reassessment of what sort of things I get all excited about AND which you might see on the blog in one manisfestation or another.
  1. Craft Books on Writing: I love 'em, and used to blog about them regularly (until I started recommending Middle Grade novels for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, and all that reading blew my brain.) The other person who loves them as much as I do is the amazing Stina Lindenblatt.
  2. Microfiction: I used to be religious about Microfiction Monday, but again got too busy. For a great microfiction fix, though, you can visit the tremendously talented Lisa Ricard Claro. (Her Book Blurbs on Friday also ROCK!!)
  3. Queries: Yes, I have come to love the query. Does that make me insane? A great deal of my query-love comes from my friend Matt MacNish, who I believe is going to be a world famous writer one of these days. That guy can excavate a query's hidden gems like no one else I know.
  4. Humor: That's how my very own Middle Grade Mafioso came to be born. I like wearing sunglasses and fedoras. The other person who can make me laugh more than myself is Dan from DanPloy. Growly British humor at its best.
  5. Poetry: Suz at Begin Again writes these amazing free verse poems, often tied to a photograph. They are, quite simply, beautiful.
  6. A Love of the Sentence: Beth Kephart sits high in the pantheon of writers I admire. Her blog is honest, luminous, and inspiring. She loves words--and it shows.
  7. Middle Grade Fiction: Whether it's the crew at Marvelous Middle Grade Monday--too numerous now to mention individually--or my pals over at Project Mayhem, I am a firm lover of all things middle grade. I hope to be one of its published practitioners one of these days!
  8. Belief in Miracles: There can be no more prolific blogger than my wife, Marie. Her blog Every Day Is A Miracle can't be beat for the breadth of her interests and passions. She has believed in me from the beginning. The inspiration for her blog says it all:
"There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I prefer the latter." -Einstein