Friday, May 28, 2010

An Evening with Jenna Blum

Last night was the book launch for Jenna Blum's much anticipated second novel, The Stormchasers. Her first novel, Those Who Save Us, was a New York Times bestseller and a book club favorite. There's every reason to believe The Stormchasers will live up to the high-water mark set by its predecessor.

The night kicked off with Jenna's reading at The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline. Braving Thursday afternoon rush hour traffic from Lowell to Brookline, Liz and I got to our seats just as Grub Street's Chris Castellani introduced Jenna onto the stage. Jenna was gracious and appreciative, thanking her many readers and supporters. She introduced The Stormchasers and read from chapter 20, which was a great introduction of the main character Karena, a woman searching for her bi-polar, storm chasing twin, Charles, whom she hasn't seen in twenty years.

The chapter details a pending storm through Karena's point of view while she heads off in a jeep with group of chasers. Jenna's vivid descriptions of how Karena, a novice chaser, witnesses the storm's build up while also catching sight of Charles for the first time in years was gripping and real. These storm details were no doubt a result of Jenna's extreme research techniques, which have amounted to storm chasing during the stormy spring months in the midwest over the past few years.

After she read, Jenna answered questions from the audience. Her various answers encompassed a terrifying experience she had while storm chasing (getting a flat just as a massive storm descended), confirming that there would indeed be some love elements in this new book, and explaining why she wrote The Stormchasers in the present tense: it's more immediate and visceral, and gives the reader the impression that nobody and nothing is safe whereas in third person there is an implication that, because the story is being told in a voice that is looking back, that it's possible things have worked out on a certain level. Whereas present tense destroys this supposed (and possibly subconscious) comfort zone for the reader.

After the reading Jenna signed books across the street at one of the best independent booksellers in the area, Brookline Booksmith. Having taken numerous classes with Jenna at Grub Street, it really was a joy to be at her reading and book signing. 

After the signing, Liz and I went with writer and publicist Sharon Bially (whom we had chatted with while waiting in line at the signing) to dinner up Harvard Street to Khao Sarn Cuisine, a wonderful Thai restaurant (I recommend the Thai Garden Chicken). At one point I spied a whole table-full of fellow Jenna students (as well as bloggers from Beyond The Margins) off in the corner. Oh, serendipity.

From there it was time for the launch party at the Hampshire House on Beacon Street, across from Boston Common and upstairs from Cheers. Open bar, and it was time to chat with fellow writers. I love walking into a party and knowing people. Beats not knowing people and standing at the bar drinking free beer alone and then striking up awkward conversations with strangers. Even if they are fellow writers.

Me and Leslie Greffenius:

But, tonight many familiar writer faces were out to help Jenna celebrate the chasing of the storms, including Henriette Lazaridis Power, Iris Gomez, Becky Tuch, Leslie Greffenius, Whitney Scharer, Kathy CrowleyChris Abouzeid, Necee RegisCecile Corona, Nichole Bernier, Lisa Borders, Christiane Alsop (the newest blogger on Beyond the Margins), Stephanie Ebbert, Michelle Seaton, Javed Jahangir, Sonya Larson, and many others.

J.P., Chris, Kathy, Henriette, and a party crasher:

Henriette and Jenna:

It was a great launch for what promises to be one of this summer's most talked-about books. Have a great book tour, Jenna! 

Special thanks to my lovely wife, Liz, for snapping all these great photos.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Location Location Location

I collect locations. Whenever I travel, I take photographs and catalog streets and businesses. On a recent trip to Manhattan I spent an afternoon walking the streets within a ten block radius of my hotel with my Easyshare snapping the streets, architecture, and geography to be (possibly) used in future stories. I snapped clandestine shots of people on sidewalks and in crosswalks, and overheard their conversations (“So, what you’re telling me is you've done dick all day…”).

In the spring of 1999 I took a road trip across the country. One of the reasons I took the trip was because I knew I was going to use the experience in a novel. I wasn’t sure what would happen or how the locations would come into play. But I took about ten rolls of film, which, as I predicted, became the general route of my main character in “A Little Disappeared."

But, one of the best locations I’ve found was one I didn’t seek. It came to me.

A few years ago I had a temporary job where I worked in the inventory department of a computer network company. Part of my job was counting computer parts that, for one reason or another, had been sent back to the company. Call them gently used. All these parts, from large routers and backplanes, to reels and spools of various sized microchips, were boxed up and stored in a warehouse.

The warehouse was a temporary one, housed in a five-story building that had originally been home to another networking company. But aside from pallets of computer bits and pieces on two of the five floors (microchips sure can take up lots of space) it was vacant. It had not been designed to be a warehouse, so much of the space was made up of vast areas of cubicles. On the third floor was a dormant cafeteria. Next to that was a corporate gym. Always darkened. Always musty. Always a little creepy.

What struck me about the building was that all the chairs and desks were still in place, waiting in the cubicles for the next occupants which, due to the financial downturn of 2001, were nowhere to be found. Everything was gathering a gritty, grimy dust. Not only that, but some of the desks still contained files and paperwork and office supplies.

It was a fun place to work, because I was often alone in the building. Sometimes when I had to drive over from the main inventory department—in another corporate park a couple miles away where I did most of my work—I would spend an extra ten or fifteen minutes poking around the building.

It was like a movie set. I could pretend that the world’s population had been wiped out and I was the last man alive, lamenting humankind’s fate while working out in the gym. I walked the stairs alone. I used the still-functioning restrooms. I took the elevator alone. I stood at a fifth floor window and looked out over the empty parking lot. I looked through every desk in the building, and procured fistfuls of paperclips, file folders, and binder clips. I found a drawer full of Wall Street Journals all from a couple years earlier. I found a Beatles CD and birthday cards. I was fascinated about how a building that had obviously been full of workers could become, and remain, a shell.

I never took any pictures of the place, but I still remember it. I started writing a story that grew from this location, the idea of such an empty building, and how it got that way through corporate downsizing. So, details like how the lobby was three stories high and contained leather chairs, are still logged and ready. I haven’t finished the story, but it’s still there, like the memory of the location, ready to be used when I’m ready.

A great location helps make a great book. Stephen King uses locations to add menace to his horror, often using locations like characters. Think of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. In A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole used all of New Orleans as a tapestry on which he imprinted his own brand of literary insanity.

As a writer, what are some of your favorite locations? As a reader, what stories made an impression through use of location?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Was it Good for You?

It wasn’t intentional, but the last two stories I’ve had accepted for publication deal with sex to varying degrees. One has a sex scene and the other has what I’d label adult content, including sexual situations and drug use.

So why all the sex? Like I say, I didn’t do it on purpose. The first story, Younger Things, published in J Journal last fall, takes place over one feverish night and morning in which a young man and his older lover face one of your typical dark nights of the soul, including power struggles, crazy behavior, dares, and confessions. The second story, Casey, due out in Fiction Magazine #56 this spring, concerns a teenage boy falling in love for the first time. Part of that love is depicted in a sex scene, I hope both tender and realistic.

Each publishing experience was different. With Younger Things, I worked with the editors of the journal who requested specific revisions. Some changes were at the sentence and word level. With others they pushed me to shade the characters more, and to tweak the ending into something more solidly hopeful. But they never asked me to tone down the mature content. In fact, I had the feeling that it was because of the more adult material that the story had been considered in the first place.

Casey was accepted three years after I sent it out to Fiction. I hadn’t sent it to any other publication because I wasn’t sure about it. It was an outtake from my finished novel "A Little Disappeared." When the acceptance email finally came through, I had to dust off this phoenix and determine why it made the cut. I remembered it as a tidy slice of nostalgia, in which I incorporated my glowing memories of growing up on Cape Cod and spending my summer nights working in restaurants. I think it achieves some truth about what it’s like for a young man to be surrounded by college girls and older knowing women.

But it also builds to a sex scene. After it was accepted, I reread that part. I blanched thinking how my family might see this! I had also forgotten about the power of sex. And it’s not some rushed three sentence dry hump. No, I had to include the entire sloppy, awkward, first-time enchilada. But the editor requested almost no changes, only to clarify a couple word choices. What I believe makes this story stand out is the unflinching depiction of a young man’s sexual experience.

So again: Why all the sex? I've always thought that sex scenes offer a unique opportunity for you to delve into the psyche of your characters. Intimate moments give you a way to show how honest or dishonest your characters are. To each other and to themselves. Characters bare more than just flesh when the lights go out. Late night and early morning hours can work like a truth serum, turning an on switch where confessions and longings bubble to the surface, too close and real to ignore.

Writers: are you still unsure how your main characters think and act in all situations? Throw them into a sex scene and let them show you what they’re really feeling. Who are your lovers? Husband and wife? A couple cheating on other people? A teacher and a student? Strangers? Do they treat each other with respect in bed or only outside the bedroom? Are they in love with other people?

Even if you don’t use the scene, the information gleaned from writing it will help inform future decisions and may even give you ideas for other scenes to write. But be careful. You don’t want the sex to take over your characters, or your entire story. Too much sex and not enough characterization and the story gets repetitive and boring. Sure there’s a market for it, but not the type of market where you can proudly include your byline. Unless your name is Chad Camaro or Savannah Cavalier.

Let me know how it goes!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Chuck Palahniuk at the 2010 Muse and the Marketplace

Chuck Palahniuk was the keynote speaker a couple weeks back at Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference.

The conference was two days, and I was there Saturday helping Henriette launch her new online audio lit mag The Drum. She was recording walk-ins reading flash fiction and, between sessions, some of this year's panelists reading their work, including Maud Casey, Lauren Grodstein, Jon Papernick, and Adam Stumacher, among others.

Sunday was the keynote address. I didn't attend. If you missed Chuck's talk like I did, fear not. Here's the almost 60-minute keynote for your listening and watching pleasure:

Chuck Palahniuk from Grub Street on Vimeo.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wanted: New Agents

Literary agents new to an agency are more likely to be interested in debut novelists and writers who haven't been able to crack more established agencies. Often the agents have previously worked in publishing in some capacity, either as an editor or writer and they are making a career change, as a promoted intern or junior agent, or as an established agent who is changing agencies.

So, for this post I'm going to highlight five agents who are relatively new (in the last few months) to the game and also some good resources for finding out more about new agents and general agent information. If you're a writer with a finished first novel or memoir you're proud of and which you think is ready to send out, then read on.

New Agents

Agent: Suzie Townsend
Agency: FinePrint Literary Management
Background: High school teacher, then intern at the agency before being promoted.
Looking for: Everything from children’s books (chapter books to YA, both fiction and nonfiction) to adult fiction (speculative, fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and romance, especially paranormal). She gravitates toward strong female protagonists, complex plot lines with underlying political, moral, or philosophical issues.

Agent: Nicole Robson
Agency: Fischer-Harbage
Background: Assistant at Fischer-Harbage before being promoted to associate agent.
Looking for: Compelling fiction and nonfiction, specifically books with an international focus. In nonfiction, she loves narrative nonfiction and history.

Agent: Marissa Walsh
Agency: FinePrint Literary Management
Background: Worked previously at Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, the Ellen Levine Literary Agency, and Delacorte Press/Random House Children's Books. Also, author of two books: the comic memoir Girl with Glasses: My Optic History and the YA novel A Field Guide to High School.
Looking for: Children's picture books, middle-grade, and YA.

Agent: PJ Mark
Agency: Janklow & Nesbit Associates
Background: Formerly an agent and international rights director at McCormick & Williams.
Looking for: Fiction: graphic novels and literary fiction. Non-fiction: celebrity, pop culture, music, film & entertainment, current affairs & politics, humor & gift books, journalism, and multicultural.

Agent: Joyce Holland, associate
AgencyD4EO Literary Agency
Background: A former newspaper columnist for the Northwest Florida Daily News, she has been reading for the agency since last fall, and is also an author.
Looking for: Romance, science fiction, mystery, horror, YA, and nonfiction of all kinds.

  • Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents website. He's always posting alerts regarding new agents (it's one of his categories). A great resource.
  • Media Bistro covers the highlights what's new and exciting in the publishing biz.
  • Get on the Publishers Weekly PW Daily emails list. In most emails there is a section called Job Moves where you can read all about who's going where in the industry. This is a great source of staying on top of not only agents that have recently joined agencies, but also agents who have left. Just as important when you're querying: you don't want to rely on out-of-date information. Even an agency website can contain old information.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How to Balance an Unbalanced Writing Life

Lately it feels like I've been putting more effort into my posts over at Beyond the Margins. And I admit, I've been saving some of my ideas for that blog. While some of my posts on Unreliable Narrator are less personal or less about the craft of writing. Mainly, that's a result of having a deadline at BTM. I can see on our Google calendar that once every 11 business days (or so) a sparkling new post is expected of me. I know what I signed up for and if I get overwhelmed I can opt out at any time.

But I'm not going to. Having my own blog and being a writer in great company on a co-op blog is just too good an experience to let flag. So I plan to continue participating in both. It's really a matter of keeping my writing life balanced. Because not only am I blogging, I'm also working on a novel-in-progress, querying agents and smaller publishers regarding my finished novel A Little Disappeared, putting finishing touches on a handful of stories and sending those out to literary magazine, and enjoy contributing literary magazine reviews to The Review Review

As a writer who works to pay a mortgage, I need to find that balance of work and writing. My balance is a little unbalanced. I try to use the weekends as much as I can. Weeknights after using my technical writing brain I'm pretty frazzled. But I try to do a little reading, emailing, or social networking. I also try to keep up with the many excellent blogs and websites that help inform writers who are querying, synopsizing, and otherwise seeking publication. Publishing is a business and as such I need to work at it. I know this, I just have to work harder at it.

In general, I'm happy with my writing life. I am able to get up about an hour early each weekday and work on my novel-in-progress. It's slow going, a slog if you will (if it were a song, it would be a dirge or My Bloody Valentine stretching their 4 minute pop ditty You Made Me Realise into a 20-plus minute live sonic assault), but one that moves forward. And soon, I'd like to add to my unbalanced writing life by taking another writing class or reinstating an existing writing group currently on hiatus or joining/starting a new one. But that's a writing life decision for another day.

How do you keep your unbalanced writing life balanced? What goes, what stays, and what kind of schedule do you have just to get through the week?

In the meantime, here's You Made Me Realise for your listening pleasure (or pain, depending):

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bill Murray Reading Poetry

This clip is a year old, but it's starting to make the rounds. It's Bill Murray reading a poem to a construction crew working on Poets House's new home in May 2009.