Posts Tagged ‘Writing and books’

How many bestseller lists does one reader need?

March 6, 2011

As a reader, I love the Sunday New York Times Book Review. As a writer, I love/hate the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

But both my reader and writer halves look fondly back to an era when the Times ran two simple pages of best seller lists — one page of hardcover fiction and non-fiction lists and another page of paperback fiction and non-fiction.

These days best seller lists have multiplied in the book review section like mold in a leaky basement.  It started innocently enough back in 1984, when the Times supplemented its lists of fiction and non-fiction best sellers with a third category of Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous books. Then in 2000, spurred by the Harry Potter phenomenon, it added a monthly list of Children’s Best Sellers.

In 2007 the Times paperback list underwent mitosis and became two separate lists of Trade and Mass Market Paperbacks. Then, just last month, it upped the frequency of the children’s lists to a weekly basis and added four new lists of fiction and non-fiction e-books and combined print/e-book sales.

The Times is now running sixteen (sixteen!) separate best seller lists in the print edition each Sunday. That takes up six of the section’s 28 pages.

Honestly, does anyone read all these lists and care?

I suspect the Great List Explosion is viewed happily by publishers, who now have more opportunities to slap a “New York Times Best Seller” logo on any given book, and who probably welcome even the teeniest marketing bump in today’s shifting marketplace. And I know the Times’ intent is probably to stay relevant as the industry wobbles between its print past and an e-book future.

But a lot of these lists just feature the same titles over and over. This week, for instance, James Patterson’s Tick Tock is number one on the print hardcover fiction list, number two on the e-book fiction list, and number two on  the combined print and e-book fiction list,.

As a reader, I’d rather relegate some of those lists to the Times‘ web site and use the precious print real estate for more reviews of more books. (By new, unknown writers!)

Or if the editors feel a deep psychological need to run multiple lists, let’s try to come up with some that don’t keep repeating the obvious.

For instance, I’d like to see a feature listing the ten top books at a different independent bookstore each week  — with the proviso that none of those books can also appear on the main national best seller list. What books — other than the James Patterson and Stieg Larsson ones that we all know about — are people scarfing up in Stowe, Vermont, and in Austin, Texas?

Okay, I freely admit that the multiplicity of best seller lists is not one of the burning issues of our day. Crowds will not occupy Tahrir Square over it. And it’s possible there’s some writerly sour grapes in all this — if I were the author of Tick Tock rather than an obscure history of girls’ schools, would I be complaining that the Times was including it on too many best seller lists?

But still, the Times Book Review is such a powerful platform. It’s the closest thing to a national literary discussion that we have. I hate when the Times uses its power as an echo chamber, to reinforce successes that already have trumpets and fireworks, rather than showcase great stuff that people don’t yet know about.

I hate how these mushrooming lists cajole us to shift our focus ever further onto industry data, and away from reading and writing.


A small and obvious but useful writing idea

February 13, 2011

I’ve been working on revising and fine-tuning Novel # 2, even while starting to query agents about it. But one thing that I’ve found challenging about revision is retaining the whole shape and structure of the book in my mind. It’s hard when thinking about a 300-page work to grasp the ebb and flow of the entire thing, or even sometimes to remember what happens after what. This particular book goes back and forth between two different periods in time, which makes it even more challenging.

This week I tried something new — putting chapters on Post-It notes! — and loved it. Here’s a photo of what I did:

Novel revision by Post-It note / Photo by Ilana DeBare


Each pink Post-It note is a chapter taking place in 1985-6. Each blue Post-It note is a chapter taking place in 2008-09.

This is hardly new. Writers and doctoral students have been doing this with index cards, Post-Its and other pieces of paper for ages. I think there’s even software that allows you to do something similar.

But it was new to me, and very useful. It makes it easy to visualize the work as a whole. It makes it easy to move chapters around. Plus there’s a very visceral, hands-on, arts-and-crafts sense to it. It’s like making a clay ashtray or a beaded bracelet. My book becomes an actual object I can shape and sculpt.

So much of writing is in your head or on a screen — but here I get to play with pretty colored paper bits, picking them up and moving them around. It’s like the craft shed in summer camp! It probably brings a whole new set of brain cells into the mix.

No earth-shattering observations here. Just a useful idea — where writing craft may actually benefit from  a touch of arts-and-crafts.

A writing group, at last

February 9, 2011

Although I’ve focused on writing novels for the past two years, I’ve never been in a writers’ group. This is something I have wanted to do for a while. “Join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given to newbies by experienced editors and writers. There’s only so far you can take your work, locked into your own brain at your computer, and a good group provides a level of rigor that goes beyond the comments of most individual friend-readers.

Of course, “good group” is the key phrase. I joined a nascent writers’ group with two other people last year that was totally unsatisfactory. The level of writing skill was too broad; I felt that I was providing remedial instruction to one of the others, and this person’s comments on my own work were totally off base. There are all sorts of disaster stories about critique groups that devolve into the literary equivalent of Maoist criticism/self-criticism sessions (off to the writers’  reeducation farm with you!), or catfights, or soliloquies by a member who styles himself the voice of wisdom personified.

Copyright 2007 by Debbie Ridpath Ohi,

But now I’ve by chance managed to stumble into a very good group.

It’s a long-running group of women writers in San Francisco who recently lost several of their members and were looking for some replacements. They all have some life experience under their belts, and all are skillful writers as well as  (perhaps more important) skillful readers. The group dynamic seems good, with no single member hogging the limelight and people able to listen to each other.

Last night was the second meeting that I attended, and the first where people read and commented on my work.

It was awful.

I mean, it was good but it was also awful. They had read the first 20 pages of Novel # 2, the one that I’ve started sending out to agents while continuing to tinker/revise. They said many nice things but then they also — the nerve of them! — gave criticisms. All the nice comments just whooshed past me like a kid on a waterslide, while the criticisms landed with a solid, unmoving thud like an Acme safe on Wiley Coyote.

The beginning doesn’t work. My beloved first paragraph doesn’t work. The writing isn’t fresh enough. And so on…

The worst criticisms, of course, were the ones that aligned with some of my own doubts about the book.

I left feeling rather stunned. Not bad enough to come home and sob — there were the nice comments, remember, and everything was said very supportively — but still, rather despondent. Of course what I wanted was for this group of accomplished, talented writers to chime up in chorus and say “Oh, Ilana, this is brilliant! This is amazing! We can’t think of a single thing to change!” And of course that’s not what a writing group is supposed to do, and I knew that and didn’t expect that, but still, wouldn’t that have been nice?

So now it’s the morning after and I feel a little less despondent. Sleep is good for that. I have a block of free time today where I can read through the group’s written notes and comments, and look at my manuscript with these new lenses.

What’s good about joining this group — aside from the actual input — is that it is a commitment to myself. In my 20s and 30s, I wrote first drafts of novels and then abandoned them to focus on work, parenting etc. I’m at a juncture now with having to look for full-time work where it would be easy to abandon fiction again for a number of years. But joining the group represents a commitment to myself that I’m going to keep working on this, even if I can’t sell this novel and even when I get a new full-time job.

Oh… way back at the top of this blog post, I mentioned that “join a group” is probably the second most common piece of advice given by experienced writers and editors.

If you didn’t already guess what the number-one piece of advice is…. it is rewrite.

And rewrite, and rewrite.

My brain needs re-roofing

January 26, 2011

A good thing about reaching midlife: You know a bunch more stuff than you knew when you were, say, 20.

A bad thing about reaching midlife: You’ve forgotten some of the things you used to know when you were 20.

This is hammered home around here on a pretty frequent basis with teen homework. I’m sure I used to know trigonometry, and physics, and the details of the Homestead strike but darned if I remember enough to be of any help.

That’s okay with me, since Sam really shines when it comes to an encyclopedic memory for scientific and historical facts.

Where it bugs me is with books.

Becca’s homework this week was reading Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. A dutiful English major, I know I read it in college. I remembered it took place in an office. But that was all. I couldn’t hold up even one teeny bit of a conversation about it.

Similarly, I read a ton of Graham Greene and Isaac Bashevis Singer novels in 1984-85 when I was living in Israel. There was a used English-language book store called Sefer veSefel that I frequented. I remember scooping up Greene and Singer paperbacks there every week, secure that whatever I brought home would be a great read. Greene in particular was one of my literary inspirations, someone I aspired to emulate. Then 25 years went by without my reading either of them… and now, for the life of me, I can barely remember anything of their work.

It’s like my reading brain is a roof with a 20-year lifespan. It’s good for a while, but after a certain point, it wears out. The warranty expires. I need to re-roof. I need to re-read things that I’ve read already.

This is really annoying since I feel I can barely keep up with new books that demand to be read. Books by friends. Best-sellers. Critically acclaimed books. Classics that I missed. Books with some stylistic or thematic connection to what I’m trying to write.

And on top of that, now I need to start plowing through my entire college and 20-something reading list again?

This seems tangentially related to the spread of the Kindle and other electronic reading devices. One thing that is psychologically satisfying about old-fashioned paper-and-binding books is that you can put them on bookshelves when you’re done. They accumulate. Not only do all the colors and sizes and fonts look pretty lined up together, but they give an illusion of accomplishment. Each one is a trophy — consumed, digested, incorporated into our thoughts and memories. I look at my bookshelves and feel a sense of achievement at how much I have read and how much I continue to read. It all adds up.

Of course it’s a hollow achievement, if you look at it in the broadest terms. No one’s giving out prizes for reading 1,000 or 10,000 books. There are good people who read a lot and good people who read a little. On my deathbed, I am probably not going to be lying there thinking, “My life was worthwhile because I read every single novel by Hemingway.”

And now this decaying-roof of a middle-aged brain calls into question the significance of my trophy-bookshelves even more. Okay, I’ve read all these books, but if I’m forgetting them, what’s the point? Here on this shelf is Flannery O’Connor, whom I adored in college but haven’t read in 20 years. Just down the row is Moby Dick, which stretches for a whopping three inches but from which I can only recall the first three words.

BUT…. these paper-and-binding books have a physical face to remind me that they’re there. I can’t walk past their shelf without noticing them. They yell at me if I have forgotten them. They call out to be picked up and re-read.

If they were on a Kindle, they’d vanish into the files of cyberspace when I was done reading them. Sure, they’d be stored as bits and bytes somewhere, but I wouldn’t see them unless I actively looked for them. I’d be less likely to remember them. I’d be less likely, 20 years later when my roof-brain springs a leak, to pick them up as a patch.

My mind is proving to be disturbingly fickle when it comes to retaining what I’ve read. So I really like having paper-and-binding books around as memory aids.

If a book is read on a Kindle, and there is no living-room shelf to store it on, does it make a sound?

Ilana’s book of the year – To the End of the Land

December 29, 2010

Well, this is lovely — after complaining that I had not read many truly wonderful books this year, I am ringing out December having just finished an ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS novel.

It’s To the End of the Land, by the Israeli writer David Grossman. I would call it one of my four favorite books of all time.

Imagine the love triangle Jules and Jim, only set in Israel’s endless war, with all parties unutterably damaged in ways that are obvious and less obvious.

Here’s the 10-second plot synopsis: Ora is a middle-aged mother of two whose younger son is called up for additional military service right at the end of his three-year stint. In a burst of magical thinking, she decides to prevent his death by cutting herself off from the world and hiking the length of Israel: If she’s not there to answer the door when officers bring the terrible news, he will remain alive. Ora ends up taking along the man who used to be her husband’s best friend, and at times her lover, but who has lived in an isolated shell since being tortured as a POW in Egypt in the 1973 war. As they walk across the Galilee, Ora tells Avram about her sons and her marriage, and Avram starts to reconnect with her and with life.

It’s a hard book to read, or at least to start — Ora seems so crazy that at the beginning I had trouble feeling sympathy for her. But it quickly pulled me in, and the past few days I found myself purposely not reading it for fear of reaching the end — wanting to draw out my walk alongside Ora and Avram as long as possible.

Grossman writes with depth and insight on so many levels — motherhood, the inner life of a marriage, friendship, love. One of the jacket blurbs described it as an anti-war novel, and that didn’t really make sense to me until about halfway through, when like an increasingly heavy weight, you start to see how the pressures of Israel’s endless state of war distort and ravage Ora’s marriage, her family, all of life. It’s an anti-war novel where 90% of the story takes place far from any battlefield, in bedrooms of four-year-olds or in fields of wildflowers.

One example: A scene where Ora is describing her attempts to answer her six-year-old son’s questions about Israel’s enemies — a geopolitical reality that we tend to take for granted until seeing it through a child’s eyes.

“What do you tell a six-year-old boy, a pip-squeak Ofer, who one morning, while you’re taking him to school, holds you close on the bike and asks in a cautious voice, ‘Mommy, who’s against us?’ And you try to find out exactly what he means, and he answers impatiently, ‘Who hates us in the world? Which countries are against us?’ And of course you want to keep his world innocent and free of hatred, and you tell him that those who are against us don’t always hate us, and that we just have a long argument with some of the countries around us about all sorts of things, just like children in school sometimes have arguments and even fights. But his little hands tighten around your stomach, and he demands the names of the countries that are against us, and there is an urgency in his voice and in his sharp chin that digs into your back, and so you start to name them: ‘Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon. But not Egypt — we have peace with them!’ you say cheerfully. ‘We had lots of wars with them, but now we’ve made up.’… But he demands precision, a very practical, detail-oriented child: ‘Is Egypt really our friend?’ ‘Not really,’ you admit, ‘they still don’t completely want to be our friends.’ ‘So they’re against us,’ he solemnly decrees, and immediately asks if there are other ‘countries of Arabs,’ and he doesn’t let up until you name them all…

“She tried to reassure him: ‘We have a strong army, and there are some very big and strong countries that will protect us.’ Ofer treated this information with skepticism. He wanted to know where exactly these friendly countries were. Ora opened an atlas: ‘Here’s the United States of America, for example, and here’s England, and here are another few good friends of ours.’ She quickly waved an overgeneralizing hand near a few European countries that she herself did not particularly trust. He looked at her in astonishment. ‘But they’re all the way over there!’ he shouted, in disbelief at her stupidity. ‘Look how many pages there are between here and there!'”

So it’s about the ravages of war, about what living in a militarized society means for relations between men and women, about the skewed power relationships between Jews and Arabs within Israel… but it also has the most beautiful descriptions of the natural beauty of the land as Ora and Avram make their way across northern Israel.

Terebinth trees. Poppies. Cyclamens. Mountaintop views of glistening fish hatcheries and  blossoming peach orchards… Grossman uses the land’s beauty as a counterpoint to the messy scars of people and war, continually playing in the background, never at center stage but always there. The land sparks wars. The land heals. The land abides.

Grossman writes on so many levels: A love song to the land. An exploration of the universal passion and pain of motherhood. The damage — direct and indirect — inflicted by war and occupation.

This book makes me want to run out and read the other things he’s written.

It also makes me think  about how war, rather than peace, may be the default state of humanity. And how lucky I am to be living in this fragile little bubble of peace and security.

So happy 2011! May we push the needle a little more towards the peace end of things for everyone on this planet, including Israelis and Palestinians.

And my advice for the new year… To your list of resolutions, add one more: To read this book.


P.S. This is my 98th blog post. Any suggestions for what we should do to celebrate number 100?

What books would you give as holiday gifts?

November 27, 2010

I’ve had this conversation a lot lately. Someone asks, “Read any good books lately?” and I am at a loss.

I read constantly, almost all of it fiction. But strangely, I don’t end up with a lot of things to recommend.

Partly that’s because I read a lot of novels for “work.” They have a theme or structure similar to what I’m working on, so I want to check them out. Or they’re new and getting lots of publicity (e.g. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall). Most of the time I’m underwhelmed.

But I just finished a couple of books that I loved. Loved enough to want to give as holiday gifts. So I figured, why not make a list of some books that I could envision giving as gifts this year?

Here’s a short list of books that I enjoyed enough to want to share. They were either published/updated in 2010, or else I read them for the first time in 2010:

  • Someone Not Really Her Mother, by Harriet Scott Chessman. This is one of the books I just finished and loved. It’s a novel about how the Holocaust filters down through three generations of women – centering on the grandmother Hannah, sole survivor of a family of French Jews who is now living in a nursing facility in Connecticut with dementia that makes her past more real to her than her present. It is subtle, beautifully written, and wise. The bad news: It came out in 2005 and is now out of print. The good news: Of course you can still find copies on the web.
  • By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham. Cunningham wrote The Hours, his novelistic homage to Virginia Woolf, and this new novel of his also reminds me of Woolf. If you don’t like interior monologue, stay away!  It’s an insightful look at the marriage and midlife self-doubt of an art gallery owner and his wife, who are thrust into crisis when her eternally-adolescent and gorgeous younger brother comes to stay with them.
  • The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. A cancer doctor who is also a terrific, accessible writer, Mukherjee leads us through the history of the struggle to understand and cure this dreaded disease. I found it really interesting to see how my own experiences with cancer (for instance, my mom died of ovarian cancer in 1986) fit into the bigger picture of what was happening at that time in cancer study and treatments. It’s an illuminating look into the process and politics of medical research in general. And any non-fiction book that holds me for 470 pages has got to be well written.
  • My Lie: A True Story of False Memory by Meredith Maran. Imagine if one of the girls who made the Salem witch accusations later wrote a memoir admitting she had been making it all up. That’s what Maran has done, only her accusations were of incest rather than witchcraft. Maran, a progressive Berkeley writer, tore her family apart in the 1980s when she became convinced that her father had molested her. Over time, she realized that she had succumbed to the group-think of her feminist, abuse-conscious milieu and she tries to make amends. A fascinating inside look at how an otherwise smart, skeptical person can be sucked into mass hysteria.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I mentioned this book in my recent interview with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. Bryson’s scientific explanation of how life on Earth manages to exist is, to me, the definition of a spiritual book. There’s a new edition out which costs more but has lots of nifty diagrams and pictures – I just bought it for a friend’s 60th birthday.
  • The Devil’s Company by David Liss. This is Liss’ third novel about Benajmin Weaver, a Jewish boxer-turned-detective in early 18th century London. I absolutely love this character, a noir-style outsider to his society, and I love Liss’ crime/mystery plots centered on the machinations of early capitalism. Smart, gripping, fascinating! If you haven’t read them, start with his first one, A Conspiracy of Paper.
  • This is Where I Leave You (or anything else) by Jonathan Tropper. Tropper writes funny, clever novels about alienated young men who are forced by circumstances to reconcile with their dysfunctional suburban families. Having read three, I’m starting to feel like they are all a little too similar. But he makes me laugh out loud – which is not easy.
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy by Stieg Larsson. Okay, no point giving these as gifts because everyone in America and Europe has read them already. And they’re not great literature. But I tore through them– great beach reads even without a beach.
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Earlier this year I blogged on this book about the post-Katrina tributions of a Syrian-American family in New Orleans. You can read that post here.
  • To the End of the Land by David Grossman. Okay, I just started it so I don’t have an opinion yet on this new novel by one of Israel’s top writers. But I really want to like it. Does that count?

Hmm. It seems like I must have read some other novels this year that knocked my socks off.  But nothing pops into mind right now.

How about you? What books did you read this year that you loved enough to want to share?

Midway through the midlife Bat Mitzvah

October 15, 2010

I’ve posted here recently on childhood memories, movies, online political contributions, Abraham and Isaac… but not a word on my Bat Mitzvah. 

Some of you may be wondering: Is she still becoming a Bat Mitzvah? Did she forget about all this, somewhere on the fifth beer of her Czech bike trip? What’s with the title of this blog anyway? 

Well, yes. I’m still moving forward to my Bat Mitzvah date of Feb. 26, 2011. I took a break in July but in August got back to work, learning my chanting. I’ve now completely mastered the Hebrew chanting for my Torah portion and my Haftarah (Prophets) portion. Yeah!  I met with Rabbi Chester two weeks ago about starting work on my D’var Torah, the talk I’ll give based on the content of my week’s portion. You’ll be hearing more about that in the future. 

Quite honestly, though, the Bat Mitzvah preparation has been the easiest part of my life recently. The past couple of months have offered up far more challenges around “midlife” than around “Bat Mitzvah”. 

I’ve been piling up rejection note after rejection note for my novel, and having to consider whether my aspirations as a fiction writer are a total bust. And I’m starting to look for a new job — actually for an entirely new career  that does not involve newspapers.

So writing a speech and memorizing about ten minutes’ worth of Hebrew chanting feels relatively manageable and comforting! 

This is, in fact, part of why I decided to become a Bat Mitzvah this year, as opposed to five or ten years from now. With all the other uncertainty in my life, I figured I might benefit from  a project that is finite, doable, and plays to familiar skills. I thought it might be helpful to have one achievable goal amidst all the less certain ones. Smart me!! 

When I started this blog last November, some people asked if I were going to turn it into a book. (Understandably: The movie Julie and Julia had just come out.) I unequivocally said no. 

To write a good memoir-style book, you need a narrative arc with tension and drama. You need obstacles to confront. I didn’t see that kind of drama in my Bat Mitzvah process. I didn’t have a love-hate relationship with Judaism. I wasn’t returning to a long-lost heritage. I wasn’t wrestling any angels over whether I believed in God. 

I pretty much knew what I believed and was comfortable being Jewish. But I wanted to learn more, deepen my understanding of and competence in Judaism, and articulate my beliefs. I’m certainly doing all that. But it isn’t exactly gripping drama. To steal some terms from other areas of religious life, for me this process is a confirmation rather than a conversion. 

But the book idea popped back into my head the other day. 

The message I keep getting from literary agents is: It’s a terrible time to be selling fiction. But… do you have a non-fiction book-proposal?  

And I keep running into other women who say “Oh, I became a Bat Mitzvah two years ago!” Or “I’ve always thought of doing that!” This is clearly a trend among boomer-age Jewish women – who grew up before it became common for girls to become B’not Mitzvah, who reclaimed a Jewish identity as adults, and who have a reached a point in their lives where they have time to put into their own personal spiritual development. 

So there might be book potential here – not a memoir, but more of a trend-type book. We’ve got a social phenomenon that no one has really written about yet. And a clear target audience who would be interested in reading such a book.

But… where’s the drama? 

I  come back to the same roadblock as the blog-memoir idea. A book needs conflict, drama, a narrative arc that takes you from Place A to Place B. I’m not sure where to find that with the topic of adult B’not Mitzvah. 

I can envision lots of interviews. Lots of interesting women telling me stories about how for decades, they felt marginalized in Judaism and realized they needed to become a Bat Mitzvah to feel fully engaged. Or how they coached their kid through a Bar Mitzvah and realized they wanted one too. Or how they started out atheist, and through the Bat Mitzvah process, came to a personal understanding of God. Lots of stories – many of them far more dramatic than mine. 

But that still doesn’t make a narrative arc for a book. Where’s the conflict? The impact? The story? 

With my prior book,  Where Girls Come First, I saw a clear dramatic question even before I started my research: Girls schools were on the brink of extinction 20 years ago, but have staged an unexpected comeback. Why? 

That book was more than a compilation of personal anecdotes – there was movement, opposition, broad societal impact, and a “plot” that was reflected in the subtitle, The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools. 

Maybe I need to figure out a similar kind of thesis or plot for this topic. Are all these adult B’not Mitzvah having any kind of impact on the nature of the Jewish community?

Or are they just individual events, with only a minor ripple effect beyond the Bat Mitzvah herself? (That doesn’t make for much of a plot.)

For now, I’m having trouble envisioning a narrative arc for a book about adult B’not Mitzvah. 

Can you see one?

In praise of Philippa Gregory

August 25, 2010

This week I tore through the newest novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors, Philippa Gregory.

A lot of other people apparently did too. Her new book The Red Queen started its published life in the number two slot on the N.Y. Times Book Review list of hardcover best-sellers, just below the third Stieg Larsson book. Meanwhile, her prior novel The White Queen is number 22 on the Times’ paperback trade best-seller list.

Gregory certainly has sales. But I don’t think she’s gotten the literary attention she deserves. Like Stephen King for so many years, I suspect that her popularity leads critics to assume that her work is hackneyed or formulaic.

But it’s not. 

Gregory does a superb job at personalizing history, writing about the sweeping conflicts of the Plantagenet and Tudor courts through the eyes of women. If you gave me a traditional history text listing all the Henrys and Edwards and Richards who took the throne, and the Warwicks and Nevilles and Buckinghams who plotted against each other, my eyes would glaze over. But when Gregory carries you into the life of a young girl in court circles, whose marriage(s) are part of those power struggles, it all becomes vivid and makes sense. 

Her books are history, not romance, despite their popularity among romance fans. They’re all about “who gets the throne” rather than “who gets the man.” 

But they are history through women’s eyes. She shows the terror of being married off for political reasons at the age of 14, the frustration of being an ambitious woman stuck in a rural estate during times of upheaval, the crushing pressure of being a queen unable to produce a male heir to the throne. 

Gregory and her publisher never use the “f word.” But her books are deeply feminist in that they call attention to the lives and experiences of women, which have too often been ignored by male chroniclers of the great and powerful. 

She’s not a showy writer. She’s not someone who stops you in your tracks with the brilliance of an unexpected metaphor. But she’s psychologically nuanced and has an eye for small details, both of historical setting and human interactions. For me, a good historical novel needs grit and garbage as well as gowns and armor. 

Here is Gregory writing in The Red Queen about 14-year-old Margaret Beaufort, newly married for political reasons to a distant cousin in a castle in the hinterlands of Wales:

I flush and look down at my plate, heaped with overcooked and unrecognizable bits of game. They hunt better than they farm in Wales, and every meal brings some skinny bird or beast to the table in butchered portions. I long for fast days when we have only fish, and I impose extra fast days on myself to escape the sticky mess of dinner. Everyone stabs what they want with their dagger from a common plate, and sops up the gravy with a hunk of bread. They wipe their hands on their breeches and their mouths on their coat cuffs. Even at the high table we are served our meat on tranchers of bread that are eaten up at the end of the meal. There are no plates laid on the table. Napkins are obviously too French; they count it their patriotic duty to wipe their mouths on their sleeves, and they all bring their own spoons as if they were heirlooms, tucked inside their boots. (P. 29)

Now, with The Red Queen, Gregory’s done something new (for her) and impressive. She’s built the entire novel around an unsympathetic, power-hungry character who shows no self-awareness. Fourteen-year-old Margaret’s childish piety and family loyalty harden into an unquestioning conviction that God has destined her son for the throne of England. She’s kind of a 16th century English version of an Al-Qaeda partisan. If Margaret Beaufort didn’t murder the two little princes in the palace, according to Gregory, she sure as heck would have done so if she had the chance.

And Gregory pulls it off. I liked Margaret Beaufort, and I was appalled by Margaret Beaufort. I kept reading to see if she would triumph, and also with a horrific fascination to see the train wreck that would happen with her triumph. It’s not an easy thing to build a successful novel around a character whom neither you nor your readers like.

But she does it. 

I would love to see a New York Times Magazine profile of Gregory, like the ones they’ve done of Margaret Drabble and James Patterson.

Back to school, and …?

August 23, 2010

Today is Becca’s first day of 11th grade. Yes, I know that schools seem to start earlier every year, what happened to waiting until after Labor Day, etc.  But carping aside, off she went. She wrote out index cards over the weekend listing every outfit she would wear for the next two weeks. She put pencils in her new hot-dog-shaped pencil case and labels on her looseleaf binders and she was ready.

Here’s what I don’t like about starting the school year:

  1. Getting her up at 5:45 every day. Which means I’m up at 5:30. Every morning feels like an early flight to the East Coast out of SFO. Jet lag on a daily basis!
  2. Returning to Nag Mom mode. It was nice over the summer not to be constantly asking if her homework were done. During the school year, I sometimes feel that half my communication with her is telling her to go to bed, and the other half is telling her to get out of bed.
  3. The reminder that time is passing. Only one more season of back-to-school pencil cases and binders after this one, and then — college! Aak.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to like about starting the school year. I like having a routine. I get much more writing done when she’s not hanging around the house. I can go to the gym after dropping her off at BART at 7 a.m. and get a workout in before I’m even awake enough to notice. (Funny thing how there’s a lot more time to be productive when your day starts at 5:30.)

But here’s the complicating factor. The new school year signals a new year for me too — and a new stage of my work life. 

I’ve now been gone from the San Francisco Chronicle for almost two years, the window of time I gave myself to work on fiction. So I need to look for a job. More than that, I need to look for a whole new career. Not newspapers, not magazines, not freelance writing. This means figuring out how to take my 20+ years of newspaper writing and my 10+ years of non-profit work with the Julia Morgan School and bundle it all into some employable package. It means thinking about what I want to do, trying to distinguish fantasy from reality, and then calling upon various friends and acquaintances to help me find opportunities.

Over the past few months, I’ve felt alternately excited and trepidatious about reentering the job market. It feels a little bit like graduating from college all over again. There’s a good side to that — Hey, I can do anything, anywhere!  There’s also a bad side — Hey, I’m an English major! I have no skills!

It’s not a bad time to make this transition. Last week I sent queries to a half-dozen literary agents about the latest revision of my novel The Mothers’ Group, so there’s not much I can do with it until I start hearing back from them.

Meanwhile, I have another novel, a first draft, that needs significant revision. I’ll start grappling with that. But my main focus will have to be on finding that new career/job.

In my mind, I’d set Labor Day as the demarcation point for settling down and starting the job search. But now, suddenly, Becca is off at school — pencil case and all. Labor Day is barely a wisp of summer fog away.

Back to school for her. And for me, back to….?

What not to do as an aspiring writer

August 11, 2010

This morning I ran across two very funny (and very on-target) takes on what not to do as an aspiring writer.

One is a blog of daily excerpts from really bad query letters to literary agents. The blog is called SlushPile Hell. (For those who are happily ignorant of the world of publishing, “slush pile” refers to the gazillions of unsolicited manuscripts and queries received by agents.) Here are a couple of examples, followed by SlushPile Hell’s comments:

  • A little bit about myself:  I have a joyous personality, I love to make people laugh and enjoy laughing myself.  I consider myself compassionate and generous.

Wait, is this a query or an eHarmony ad?

  • Please consider my memoir….I know that my family and friends will, without reservation, pay at least $19.95 to make sure they have not been unfairly exposed or defamed.

Eureka! A brilliant new marketing angle! Publishers, take note: henceforth please be certain to include these taglines on all memoir covers, “Are you sure you haven’t been slandered in this memoir? Isn’t the cost of this book a small price to pay for your peace of mind?”

  • I have the first 5 chapters written. I know first-time novelists are supposed to present a finished work, but I think it would end up a much better piece for having had an editor’s guidance during the last draft.  He, in turn, would have an excuse to ask for a reduced price.  

Brilliant! Or wait, better yet, you should write just one page, let the editor finish writing it for you, and he can buy it for almost nothing. Then I, as your humble servant, shall be KING OF ALL THE AGENTS!

  •  I have attached my manuscript to this email in WordPerfect format, which I’m assuming is okay with you.

Um, the ’80s called. They want their software back.

 The other post that made my morning was by Nathan Bransford, a San Francisco literary agent who writes a blog about the publishing business. His entry today describes various “writing maladies” that people suffer such as:

Yoda Effect: Difficult to read, sentences are, when reversing sentences an author is. Cart before horse, I’m putting, and confused, readers will be.

Chatty Cathy: So, like, I don’t know if you’ve noticed but OMG teenagers use so much freaking slang!!! And multiple exclamation points!!! In a novel not a blog post!!! And so I’m all putting tons of freaking repetitious verbal tics into totes every sentence and it’s majorly exhausting the reader because WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.

Repetition: Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they’re repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers.

Shorter Hemingway: Clipped sentences. Muscular. Am dropping articles. The death. It spreads. No sentence more than six words. Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death.

Right on target! Of course, ahem, um, I would never be caught dead displaying symptoms of any of these maladies.   

Well, except maybe every teeny once in a while. When I might get a little repetitive, just a touch repetitive.