Speaking of dialogue revision, part V: genius is no excuse for lack of polish, or, quoth the raven, “Next!”


What a week it has been, campers! On top of the annoying crutches, the difficult physical therapy, and the seemingly endless series of doctors’ appointments, I seem somehow to have contracted a cold. Can’t imagine how that happened, spending all of that time next to sneezers in medical waiting rooms…

Fortunately, my will to communicate is apparently stronger than my scratchy throat’s ability to inhibit it. Onward and upward!

Before we launch into today’s installment from our long-ago and much-beloved fearedcommented-upon series, Seeing Submissions From the Other Side of the Desk, I must mention: something happened that exactly mirrored one of the attitudes I discuss in this post. I won’t tell you about it up front, though — you’ll appreciate the story much more, I suspect, if I introduce it afterward. Enjoy the anticipation!

We’re almost at the end of our very, very long examination of reasons agents tend to reject a submission on page 1, Can’t you feel the air buzzing with excitement? Haven’t you noticed the bees murmuring in their hives, the birds stopping in mid-air to gape, and every little breeze seeming to whisper, “Louise!” like Maurice Chevalier?

No? Are your dreams still haunted by Millicent the agency screener hovering over your workspace, intoning “Next!” in the same sepulchral tone in which Edgar Allen Poe’s raven purportedly squawked, “Nevermore!” while you try to crank out query letters?

Quite understandable, if so. Facing the truth about just how harsh agents and their screeners can be in their readings — and need to be, in order to thin out the steady barrage of applicants for very, very few client positions available in any given year — requires great bravery.

“True genius,” Winston Churchill told us, “resides in the capacity for evaluation of uncertain, hazardous, and conflicting information.” You can say that again, Win.

At first, it’s can be easier to keep cranking out those queries and submissions if a writer isn’t aware of the withering gaze to which the average submission is subjected. The pervasive twin beliefs that all that matters in a submission is the quality of the writing and that if an agent asks for a full manuscript, s/he is actually going to read the entire thing before making up his or her mind has buoyed many a submitter through months of waiting for a response.

Be proud of yourself for sticking around to learn why the vast majority of manuscripts get rejected, however — and not just because, as Goethe informs us, “The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.” (So true, Johann Wolfgang, so true.)

In the long run, a solid understanding of the rigor with which the industry eyeballs manuscripts is going to serve you well at every stage of your writing career. While the truth might not set you free of worry, it will at least enable you to take a long, hard look at the opening pages of your manuscript to scout for the most common red flags, the ones that have caused Millicent to grind her teeth so much that she has TMJ syndrome.

She has to do something with her mouth between cries of, “Next!” you know.

Speaking of jaws, you may find yours dropping over today’s selection of submission red flags. Even in this extensive list of fairly subjective criteria, I have saved the most subjective for last. In fact, this set is so couched in individual response that I have reported them all within quotation marks.

Why, you ask? Because these, my friends, are the rejection reasons defined not by the text per se, but by the reader’s response to it:

64. “Overkill to make a point.”

65. “Over the top.”

66. “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it.”

67. “It’s not visceral.”

68. “It’s not atmospheric.”

69. “It’s melodramatic.”

70. “This is tell-y, not showy.”

From an agent, editor, or contest judge’s point of view, each item on this subset of the list shares an essential characteristic: these exclamations are responses to Millicent’s perception that the submission in front of her is unlike what she and her cohort expect a marketable manuscript to resemble. Not because it’s formatted incorrectly or uses language poorly (although submissions that provoke these cries often exhibit these problems, too), but because the writing doesn’t strike them as professional.

Since most aspiring writers operate in isolation, often without even having met anyone who actually makes a living by writing books, this distinction can seem rather elusive, but to the pros, the difference between professional’s writing and that of a talented amateur not yet ready for the big time is often quite palpable. How so? Because a professional writer is always, always thinking about not only self-expression and telling the story she wants to tell the way she wants to tell it, but about the effect of the writing upon the reader.

What makes that thought so obvious to Millicent on the printed page? A combination of talent and meticulous polish. As Thomas Carlyle liked to put it at the end of a long day, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.”

I’m not merely bringing up the concept of genius for comic effect here, but as a conscious antidote to the all-too-pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers that if only a writer is talented enough, it’s not necessary for him to follow the rules — literarily, in terms of formatting, or by paying any attention to his work’s marketability. Trust me on this one: every agent and editor in the biz has fifteen stories about writers who have tackled them, shoving manuscripts into their startled hands, claiming that their books are works of unusual genius.

Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t — who could possibly tell, without reading each and every one? — but this kind of approach is a very poor way to win friends and influence people in the industry. Why? Because so many writers who don’t happen to be geniuses so frequently make precisely the same claim. Or, if they do not state it outright, they at least imply by how they present their work that they are so talented that it should not matter whether they follow the rules of standard format (or even grammar) at all. It’s Millicent’s job, their attitude proclaims, to see past all of the presentation problems, not the writer’s to clean them up.

Quoth Millicent: au contraire.

A much, much better way for honest-to-goodness genius to get itself noticed (not to mention a more polite one) is by polishing that manuscript to a high sheen, then submitting it through the proper channels. Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but as Thomas Alva Edison urged us to bear in mind, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or, to put it rather more bluntly, Millicent can generally tell the difference between a submission that the writer just tossed off and one that has been taken through careful revision. Ditto with a half-revised Frankenstein manuscript. Many a potentially marketable book has blown its chance with an agent by being stuffed into an envelope before it was truly ready for professional scrutiny.

I just mention, in case any of you were on the cusp of sending out requested materials before having read them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, to catch any lingering unpolished bits.

Yes, now that you mention it, I have suggested this a few thousand times before. I’m perfectly capable of repeating that advice until the proverbial cows come home, and shall probably continue doing so as long as talented aspiring writers keep submitting manuscripts containing mistakes that even a cursory proofreading would catch.

Enough banging on that particular tom-tom for now. Let’s get back to today’s list of red flags, shall we?

Present-day Anne here again, all ready to share today’s beautifully illustrative example. I had mentioned, I think, that since I have been posting a little less often post-accident, more readers have evidently been combing my archives — or so I surmise from the wildly increased volume of questions on years-old posts. Sometimes, the questions are simple to answer; sometimes, I have written on the topic since, and can quickly refer the questioner to the relevant subsequent post (or series — it’s always worth checking the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page); sometimes, I give a brief answer to a complex question, then file the matter away on my ever-burgeoning to-blog-about-soon list.

The vast majority of questions on past posts fall into one of these three categories. From time to time, however, a well-meaning writer will simply unload a barrage of hopes, fears, and inquiries.

Lest that sound like a fever-induced exaggeration, today’s correspondent left four pages’ worth of questions — not a record for an Author! Author! comment, by the way, or even a posted list of questions here. Most of his concerns were relatively straightforward, easily addressed in a paragraph or two, or, failing that, a referral to some subsequent posts. The last question, however, made my heart bleed for the asker: he claimed, in all seriousness, to be unable to follow either the rules of standard format or the usual formatting for dialogue. Instead, he wanted to know if he could submit the dialogue in play format, while the rest of the manuscript was formatted like, well, a manuscript.

The short answer is no, by the way, but that was not why his question made me sad. What made me sigh far more over his short last question than the long, long list that preceded it was that he argued that he should be able to ignore the prevailing structures and hard-and-fast rules because he was creating a new form of writing, a mash-up of screenplay and novel, something he seemed unaware had ever been done before. (It has.) He thought that switching between formats lent something to the dialogue that fleshed-out scenes would not convey as well. He genuinely seemed to believe, in short, that violating the formatting rules would strike the literary world as exciting and different, rather than — and I hated to be the one to break it to him — ill-informed about the norms of the biz.

In short, interesting, innovative, and/or experimental are not the words most likely to spring to Millicent’s mind upon seeing a mixed-format manuscript. The only word we can be almost positive she would use is, “Next!”

I’m not bringing this up to make fun of the obviously earnest writer who asked about it — believe me, I don’t particularly enjoy bursting people’s creative bubbles — or even solely to discourage other readers from embarking upon ambitious formatting experiments in a first novel. (Save those for later in your career, when your work won’t have to make it past a Millicent.)

No, my reasoning was more basic: while the specifics of this writer’s approach were unusual, his reasoning is unfortunately all too common amongst aspiring writers. Any professional reader has heard a hundred versions of my writing/book concept/gift for {fill in the blank} is so obviously good that I don’t need to follow the rules; it’s the standard excuse used by aspiring writers exasperated by the necessity of following submission requirements. Or even those requirements’ existence.

Oh, they may not express that attitude openly, but what other conclusion could Millicent be expected to draw from a single-spaced submission in 10-point type? While most deviations from standard format are the result of simple ignorance — hey, I don’t discuss the rules several times a year here because they’re widely-known — some are so extreme that they come across as deliberate.

Indeed, some aspiring writers evidently believe flouting the rules is a legitimate means of making their queries and submissions stand out from the crowd. But as any pro could tell you, while submitting your book proposal in a hot pink folder, or your manuscript bound in leather, would indeed make Millicent notice your work, it would not be for the right reason. No aspiring writer should want the first impression she makes on an agency to be, “Wow, this one’s not very professional.”

That’s why, should any of you conference-attendees have been wondering, so many agents say from the conference podium, “Please, don’t send me cookies/balloons/DVDs of interpretive dance versions of your story along with your query or submission.” The sad fact is, they have been sent all of these things in the past — and that strategy has never once worked in attracting positive attention to the book projects to which those goodies were attached.

Don’t believe me? Okay, the next time you hear an agent bring up the no gifts, please policy at a conference, ask about the last time she or anyone at her agency has received such an extra in a query or submission packet. If so, ask her to name the title of the book, its author, or what it was about.

I guarantee you that in even the most egregious case, she will not be able to remember the first two. And if she can recall the third, it will be because the gift in question was directly related to the book’s subject matter.

As in, “Oh, God, remember the time that the live iguana crawled out of the box holding that jungle survival memoir?”

Trust me, that’s not how you want Millicent — or anyone else at an agency, on a contest-judging panel, or at a publishing house — to remember you or your work. Nor, really, do you want to be memorable primarily as the person who sent the wacky formatting. Ultimately, wouldn’t you rather be remembered for the beauty of your writing, the poignancy of your plot, the trenchancy of your analysis, the depth of your character development…

Well, you get the picture. If you happen to be a genius — and, again, who am I to say, without first examining the evidence? — removing the distractions of unusual formatting, non-standard spelling or grammar, and so forth can only help Millicent notice it. Positively, that is.

Let your writing speak for itself. The same holds true, of course, for magnificent dialogue. Read on!

Obviously, whether a particular opening page constitutes overkill, over the top, laughable, or is melodramatic (rejection reasons nos. 64, 65, 66, and 69, respectively) lies largely in the eye of the reader — specifically, in the reader’s sense of the possible. The agents on the panel cried, “Unbelievable!” and “Implausible!” a lot in response to the submitted first pages that they rejected for these reasons.

That’s not all that surprising: whether a situation is believable or not is largely dependent upon the reader’s life experience, isn’t it? Since my childhood strongly smacked at times of having been directed by Federico Fellini, I tend to find a broader array of written situations plausible than, say, someone who grew up on a cul-de-sac in an middle-class suburb, attended a minor Ivy, and was working at a first job in Manhattan while her parents paid a significant portion of her living expenses because that glamorous entry-level job in the publishing industry didn’t pay enough to live.

Does that mean I would probably be a more sympathetic reader for most manuscripts than the average agency screener or editorial assistant? Probably — but remember, these people are individuals with individual tastes, not manuscript-scanning robots sharing a single computerized brain. Naturally, not every Millicent or Maury (Millie’s cousin who screens submissions at a publishing house, if you’ll recall) is from the background I mentioned above; some have conceptions of the probable that would undoubtedly make mine seem downright prosaic.

So what kind of level of credulity should an aspiring writer expect in a professional reader? Good question — but not one with an easy answer.

The safest strategy is to bear in mind that even if you hit the submission jackpot and your work slides under the eyes of a Millicent very open to the worldview and style of your particular book, it’s the writer’s job to depict that world believably — and to do so not merely for her ideal reader. No matter how sophisticated you expect your target audience to be, the first person who reads your submission at an agency or publishing house is probably going to be new to the milieu you are painting in your book.

Sometimes, this shows up in surprising ways. Recently, I found myself dealing with a well-respected publishing professional who was surprised to learn that couples often pay for their own weddings now, rather than relying upon their parents’ wallets. Apparently, she was not yet old enough to have many friends well-heeled enough to run their own shows.

Yeah, I know: where has she been for the past 30 years? (Partially, not yet being born, I would guess.)

While there’s no way to disaster-proof a manuscript so no conceivable reader could ever find it implausible, not all of the rejection reasons above invariably spring from personal-experiential approaches to judgment. Most of the time, these criticisms can be averted by judicious presentation of the story.

And that, my friends, the writer can control.

For instance, #64, overkill to make a point, and #65, “over the top,” usually refer to good writing that is over-intense in the opening paragraphs. It’s not necessarily that the concept or characterization is bad, or even poorly-drawn: there’s just too much of it crammed into too short a piece of prose.

Since most of us were taught that the opening of any piece of writing needs to hook the reader, the critique of over-intensity can seem a bit contradictory, if not downright alien. As we’ve discussed many times before, good writers are people of extraordinary sensitivity; “Genius,” Ezra Pound taught us, “is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one.”

Setting aside the fact that as much could be said for the delusional — is it genius that produces dancing pink elephants in one’s peripheral vision? — Mssr. Pound’s observation may be applied productively to talent. Good writers do notice more than other people, typically.

So is it really all that astonishing when an aspiring writer attempting to catch an agent’s attention (especially one who has attended enough writers’ conferences to learn that Millicent LIKES books that open with action) begins with slightly too big a bang? Not really, but this is a classic instance of where additional polishing can make the difference between an exciting opening scene and one that strikes Millicent as over-the-top.

The trick to opening with intensity is to get the balance right. You don’t want to so overload the reader with gore, violence, or despair that she tosses it aside immediately. Nor do you want to be boring. Usually, it is enough to provide a single strong, visceral opening image, rather than barraging the reader with a lengthy series of graphic details.

Before half of you start reading the opening page of THE LOVELY BONES to me, allow me to say: I know, I know. I don’t make the rules; I just comment upon them.

Allow me to remind you: there is no such thing as a single book that will please every agent and editor in the industry. If you are worried that your work might be too over the top for a particular agency, learn the names of four or five of their clients, walk into your nearest well-stocked bookstore, and start pulling books from the shelves. Usually, if your opening is within the intensity range of an agency’s client list, your submission will be fine.

The same tactic works well, incidentally, for dialogue. If you want to gain a sense of what kind of — or how much — dialogue the agent of your dreams thinks is just right for an opening page, take a judicious gander at page 1 of that agent’s clients’ most recent books. Ideally, the clients who have published their first or second books recently. (Don’t bother with releases more than five years old; they won’t necessarily be reflective of what the agent is selling now.) If that particular agent isn’t a fan of opening with dialogue, or prefers a higher character-development to action ratio, that should become apparent pretty quickly, once you have an array of books you know he likes in front of you.

No need to be slavish about it — “His clients average 6.7 lines of dialogue on page 1, so I must revise until I have no fewer than 6 and no more than 7!” would, in fact, be an insanely literal response. There’s no magic formula here. Just aim for the same ballpark.

You could also, I suppose, apply this standard to the question of plausibility. (Ah, you’d thought I’d forgotten about that, hadn’t you?) For that test to be useful, though, you should limit your book selections to titles within your chosen book category.

Oh, does somebody out there think what would be believable in a paranormal urban mystery would also fly in a Highland romance?

#69, “It’s melodramatic,” and #66, “Makes the reader laugh at it, not with it,” are the extreme ends of the plausibility continuum. Both tend to provoke what folks in the movie biz call bad laughter, chuckles that the author did not intend to elicit; because the writing seems mismatched to the action (the most common culprit: over-the-top or clichéd dialogue), the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is broken.

Thus, both #69 and #66 refer to ways in which the narrative pulls the reader out of the story — the exact opposite of the goal of the hook, to draw the reader into it.

What’s the difference between melodrama and just plain old drama, you ask? The pitch at which the characters are reacting to stimuli. Although most of us tend to think of melodrama as being constantly concerned with operatic, life-and-death issues (“I can’t pay the rent!” “You must pay the rent!” etc.), usually on the page, melodrama is the result of the stakes of the conflict shown not being high enough for the characters.

Lowering the intensity level to drama then is making the stakes and the reaction seem proportionate. For example, if your protagonist bursts into tears because her mother has died on page 1, that will generally come across as dramatic. If, however, she sings a self-pitying aria because there is no milk for her cornflakes on page 1, chances are good that you’ve strayed into melodrama. (Or comedy.)

Need I even say that the rise of reality TV, which is deliberately edited to emphasize interpersonal conflict, has increased the amount of melodrama the average agency screener encounters in submissions on any given day? Or any given hour?

A good rule of thumb for revision purposes: it’s dramatic when a character believes that his life, welfare, or happiness is integrally involved with the outcome of a situation; it’s melodramatic when he ACTS as though his life, welfare, or happiness is threatened by something minor. (Before anyone rolls his eyes at me: as I’ve mentioned earlier in this series, “But the protagonist’s a teenager!” is not an justification that generally gains much traction with Millicent.)

If you open with a genuine conflict, rather than a specious one, you should be fine, but do bear in mind that to qualify, the conflict has to matter to the reader, not just to you. As I pointed out above, one mark of professional writing is a clear cognizance of the reader’s point of view; many a manuscript has been scuttled by bad laughter at a submission’s overblown insistence that a minor inconvenience is one of the major slings and arrows to which flesh is prey.

As Carl Sagan so trenchantly informed us, “the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.” Hard to argue with that, Carl.

And this goes double if you are writing comedy, because the line between cajoling the reader into laughing along with the narrative and at it is a fine one. Overreaction to trifles is a staple of film and television comedy, but it’s hard to pull off on the printed page. Especially on the FIRST printed page, when the reader is not yet fond of the protagonist or familiar with the protagonist’s quirks — much sitcom comedy relies upon the audience’s recognizing a situation as likely to trigger character responses before the character realizes it, right?

Generally speaking, comedy grounded in a believable situation works better in a book opening than a scene that is entirely wacky, or where we are introduced to a character via his over-reactions. The more superficial a situation is, the harder it is for the reader to identify with the protagonist who is reacting to it.

#71, “It’s not visceral,” and #72, “It’s not atmospheric,” also share a continuum. The latter deals with a sense of place, or even a sense of genre: if a reader can make it through the first page and not be sure of the general feeling of the book, you might want to rework it before you submit. Ditto if the reader still doesn’t have a strong impression of what it would be like to stand in the room/in the wilderness/on the burning deck where your opening scene takes place.

Not that you should load down your opening with physical description — that was a bugbear described earlier on the rejection list, right? Just provide enough telling details to make the reader feel as if he is there.

Because, after all, “The essence of genius is to know what to overlook,” as William James teaches us.

And, if you can, do it through action and character development, rather than straightforward narrative. That way, you will avoid pitfall #70, “This is tell-y, not showy.” Because of all the common writerly missteps that a pro would polish away from both fiction and memoir, nothing prompts Millicent to cry, “Next!” faster than prose that tells, rather than shows.

Hey, there’s a reason that show, don’t tell is the single most frequently-given piece of manuscript critique. The overwhelming majority of writing out there — yes, including the first pages of submissions — is generality-ridden. Just ask Millicent.

Visceral details don’t just show — they give the reader the impression of physically occupying the protagonist’s body, vicariously feeling the rude slap of air-conditioning upon sun-warmed skin, the acrid smudge of smoke on the tongue while fleeing the scene of the fire, the sweet tang of the slightly under-ripe peach that girl with long, red hair has just slipped into the protagonist’s mouth.

“The patent system,” Abraham Lincoln noted, “added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (Oh, you thought it was easy to come up with an apt quote every time? Besides, I had to get that redhead’s oral incursions out of your head somehow.)

Okay, okay, if you insist, here’s a better one: “What is genius,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning asked us, “but the power of expressing a new individuality?”

That’s lovely, Liz, and couldn’t be more appropriate to the struggle to create genuinely memorable writing and a unique authorial voice. Try to view the imperative to keep the reader in mind not as a limit upon your personal creativity, but as an extension of it, an opportunity to share the world you have created in your book more fully with your audience.

Yes, to pull that off, you’re probably going to have to invest quite a bit of time in revision and polishing, but as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed, “Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Scotty. More on ramping up those visceral details follows next time — keep up the good work!

Purging the plague of passivity, part IV: please, please, please, please, please love me. Please?

prosperity cat, swift

I honestly meant to continue this series yesterday, campers, but I was waylaid by my eye doctor. Those of us who read and write for a living tend not to miss our annual check-ups.

“Now, these dilating drops will leave your vision just a bit blurry for the next three or four hours,” he assured me mid-exam. “Six at the most. I’m sure your blog readers won’t begrudge you a few hours for eye health.”

Okay, so I made up that last part. But Dr. H’s estimate was equally fanciful: nine hours passed, and I was still scowling at the world through the silly eye filter you see above, pupils the size of dimes.

And if that’s not a passive protagonist in an anecdote, I’d sure like to see one.

I’m back on the move today, however. I am delighted to report that I no longer look like a startled mole abruptly dragged out of a nice, comfortable dark hole at noon.

Back to business. Last time, I stirred up the deep waters of controversy underlying the placid surface of many a novel, memoir, and creative nonfiction manuscript by suggesting (and rather forcefully, too) that submissions with scene after scene spent amongst the limpid pools of smooth, conflict-free interaction — particularly if that interaction is merely observed by the protagonist (the boat in the metaphor? A passenger in that boat? A passing seagull?), rather than caused by or integrally involving him — might be less successful, in marketing terms, than ones that set the protagonist adrift amid a storm or two. (Okay, so s/he is IN the boat. Glad we got that settled.)

Oh, heck, I’m going to abandon the metaphor (toss it overboard, as it were) and just say it boldly: passive protagonists tend to bore readers, professional and unprofessional alike. After this many posts in a row on protagonist passivity, I would hope that doesn’t come as a big shock to anybody out there.

Yet in general, aspiring writers do tend to be shocked, or even appalled, at the very suggestion that their protagonists aren’t doing enough. All too often, they hear critique of their protagonists as criticism of themselves, believe it or not — as if a dull character’s appearance in a manuscript must by extension mean its creator is…well, let’s just say non-scintillating, shall we?

Surprised by that reaction? Don’t be. It’s really, really common for writers new to the wonderful world of serious feedback to respond to it as though it were, if not precisely a personal attack, at least unkindly motivated.

Many, if not most, writers have difficulty hearing manuscript critique as critique of — wait for it — their MANUSCRIPTS, rather than of themselves, their self-worth, their talent, and/or their right to be expressing themselves in print at all. (A phenomenon I have dissected at great length in the GETTING GOOD AT ACCEPTING FEEDBACK series, conveniently available under the self-named category on the archive list at right, should anybody be interested.)

This response is equally likely, by the way, whether the manuscript is fiction, memoir, or academic book. I suppose this particular logical leap shouldn’t still give me pause at this late date. Over the years, I’ve seen writers draw similar conclusions from feedback that indicates that their work is slow-paced, too long, hard to market, or even poorly punctuated.

“Why me?” they shriek, rending their garments. “What have I done to deserve this torture?”

Okay, so that was a bit of an exaggeration, but just a bit. And that’s a great pity, because a tendency to take feedback personally is unfortunate in the long-term. As personal characteristics go, it’s a difficult one to reconcile with an author’s work life.

Why? Well, being a professional writer pretty much requires not only getting used to hearing such critiques from one’s agent and editor — yes, Virginia, even an agent who adores your writing style will want you to make revisions from time to time — but being able to incorporate feedback into a manuscript. Often very quickly.

How quickly, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, it varies. Let’s just say that I’ve actually heard my agent utter the words, “Oh, you know that editor who liked your manuscript? She’d like you to give it a different ending, and I told her I could have the revised version to her in three weeks. That’s not going to be a problem, is it?” and leave it at that.

Oh, dear — that wee anecdote made some of you unconsciously clutch your chests, didn’t it? “But Anne,” critique fearers across the globe whisper, darting their eyes thither and yon, “I try to take feedback as constructive criticism, but I like my manuscript as it is. So I worry that when faced with professional critique — i.e., the completely honest examination of every last syllable and comma in a manuscript, that agents and editors convey without pulling any punches — my resolve to act like a pro may wilt a trifle.”

I have faith in you, critique fearers. When the time comes, I’m sure you’ll take it on the chin. (Speaking of unpleasant metaphors…) Unless, of course, the first serious feedback you’ve ever gotten on your work comes from your agent or editor.

Why did half of you just turn pale? You weren’t planning to have the first human eyes to have the pleasure of sliding over your manuscript be Millicent the agency screener’s, were you?

A hint to those of you who are hesitating about how to answer that question: we’re talking about Millicent the Merciless here. You know, the one who just stops reading a query at the second typo — and a requested manuscript at the third? The gal that works for the agent who reserves, “Well, you’re just going to have to rewrite this to this ten-point list of specifications,” for manuscripts she likes?

If you’re thin-skinned about feedback on your writing — and what writer who doesn’t have a lot of experience hearing critique isn’t? — it’s an excellent idea to rack up some experience listening to constructive criticism of your work before you expose your baby to professional critique. Like any other muscle, the part of your psyche that enables you to keep a quiver out of your voice as you say, “Oh, lose my protagonist’s best friend and relocate the whole story from Cleveland to Madagascar? No problem!” gets stronger with practice.

Besides, if you’re going to have a meltdown — and I’ve known many relatively stoic writers who’ve suddenly gone ballistic in the face of their first professional feedback, where nothing goes unnoticed — wouldn’t you rather do it in front of your writers’ group or a trusted first reader, rather than, say, on the phone with the agent of your dreams?

Oh, it hadn’t occurred to some of you that sometimes, the response to a successful submission is, “Yes, I’d love to represent this. Let me just dig out my revision list,” followed by the sound of 17 pages shuffling into place?

While that mental image sinks slowly into your brainpan, let’s try a little critique-desensitization exercise. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and picture yourself sitting at a table in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America. The agent of your dreams is sitting across from you, about to order a second round.

“Oh, by the way,” he says casually, just as you were thanking your lucky starts that since you’ve already landed an agent, you were not at the conference to pitch, “your protagonist isn’t all that active, and it’s slowing down the book. You can pump up the energy in the next revision, right?”

Quick: how does that make you feel? Like getting right back to work on your manuscript, or as if tossing your half-finished club soda with lime into his smiling face might feel pretty darned good?

If it’s the latter, go punch a sofa cushion until that urge goes away. Repeat the visualization as often as necessary until your gut stops seizing up at the very notion of being on the receiving end of such a sweeping critique.

Or join a good writers’ group and participate like mad. Over time, it can have a similar response-numbing effect.

Your protagonist doesn’t do much, does he? seems to be an especially hard critique for many writers to swallow. I suspect that’s because so many first books, fiction and nonfiction alike, tend to be at least partially autobiographical. Not everyone is thrilled to be told that she would be more interesting (or, heaven help us, more likeable) if she were a more active participant in her own life. Or if her life were more interesting in general.

If she were a rhinoceros-wrestler, for instance, instead of sitting at home and writing a book about it.

In answer to that very loud unspoken question all of your minds just shouted at me: yes, I can tell you from personal experience that memoirists actually are very frequently told by their agents and editors that their books’ protagonists could get into the game more. And yes, even if a writer is experienced at handling critique, that can feel quite a bit like a personal attack.”

“Wait,” I found myself thinking as my editor and I worked on my memoir, “my publisher is allowed to edit my LIFE? What am I supposed to do, travel backward in time so I may pick a few more fights or join the Foreign Legion?”

But I’m getting ahead of myself; writing the real to make it more interesting on the page — without, you know, lying — is near the top of my to-blog list at the moment.

Darn — now I’ve gone and ruined the surprise. And I wanted Flag Day to be so special this year.

A slight case of identification with one’s own protagonist is not the only reason that many aspiring writers squirm at the suggestion that s/he might be a tad on the inactive side, though. Even for non-autobiographical fiction, the very notion that something that one wrote oneself could possibly be less than marvelous seems to come as an immense shock.

I’m quite serious about this. I’m perpetually running into writers in my classes, at conferences, and online who seem to believe that the publishing industry should buy their books simply because they have written them.

“Target market?” these well-meaning souls echo, wrinkling their noses at the inference that a true artiste ever considers why someone out there might want to buy his or her art. “That’s the publisher’s job to figure out.”

Um, yes, in the long term, but in the short term, it’s very much the writer’s job to figure out. How can you revise with an eye to pleasing readers if you have no idea who your ideal reader is? Or what she likes about the kind of book you write?

While writing is unquestionably art — some might argue the most inherently creative one, since the writer uses fewer outside materials than other artists to create her effects — if one has any intention of doing it for a living, it just doesn’t make sense not to think about who might buy one’s books and why.

Why not, you ask? Well, would you expect an aspiring doctor to work all the way through medical school without first ascertaining that there were sick people in the world?

Again, perhaps a too-colorful analogy. But you know what I mean.

Yet many, if not most, aspiring writers seem to have genuine trouble seeing their own books as a third party might. That’s a major stumbling-block to marketing one’s book to agents and small presses, because, let’s fact it, no matter how much a writer adores his manuscript, at least a few people other than one’s mother, spouse, and/or best friend will have to admire it at least at much in order for it to get published.

Again, that’s not too great a shock to any of my long-term readers, is it?

So it is perfectly reasonable, and even necessary, to step outside your role as author to try to view your story as an outside reader might. (If you have trouble pulling this off — and the vast majority of writers do — you might want to take a gander at the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right.) Specifically, to make a valiant attempt to see your protagonist as a reader might — and from a reader’s point of view, an active, decisive character in the driver’s seat of the plot can be a mighty fine thing.

Why, that’s what we’ve been talking about for the last week, isn’t it? Funny how that worked out.

One of the first things a writer needs to accept in order to read from a reader’s perspective is that conflict is not something to be avoided — it’s to be courted, because moving from conflict to conflict is how the protagonist typically moves the plot along. Protagonists who are purely reactive, as popular as they may be in movies (the trailer for half the dramatic films released within the last few years: “Coming soon to a theatre near you: the story of an ORDINARY MAN drawn against his will into EXTRAORDINARY events…”), are frequently frustrating.

“DO SOMETHING!” Millicent is likely to shout in their general direction.

Of course, in most book categories, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction, driving the plot forward so quickly that there’s little time for character development. (Unless, one presumes, you happened to be writing THE DA VINCI CODE.) Non-stop conflict can result in a one-note narrative, one with very few dramatic highs and lows punctuating the story — but in most genres, if a book is going to be consistent, it’s much better to be consistently exciting than consistently low-key.

I’m going to make some of my higher-brow readers cringe by bringing this up, but one of the best recent examples of a protagonist who ostensibly has little control of the forces controlling his life, yet manages to fight back on practically every page is Harry Potter of the self-named series. (Don’t laugh; many of the English-reading adults currently in their twenties grew up on that series, and thus drew their ideas of exciting pacing from it.)

How did JK Rowling keep the tension high in books that are largely about a child with little autonomy going to school in what frankly seems to be an educational system intent upon punishing students? The old-fashioned way: by including some kind of conflict on every page.

But not all of it has to do with fighting He Who Shall Not Be Named. More than half the time (until the last couple of books in the series, at least), Harry is beset not by the forces of ultimate evil, but by teachers who don’t like him, a crush he doesn’t know how to handle, mixed feelings about his elders, and so forth.

All that’s conflict, too, right?

Rowling also tends to have more than one threat looming over her protagonist at any given time, as well as forces buffeting about his friends, and even his enemies. All of this contributes to a complex plot — and plenty of occasion to introduce conflict on any given page.

If you genuinely feel that it’s important to your story that your protagonist is acted-upon (true in virtually every memoir professional readers see, incidentally, as well as most first novel manuscripts), adding subsidiary action can go a long way toward pepping up the pace. Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment in a plot, for instance?

For example, consider a story set in an office with an intensely sexist boss of the “Hey, good-looking, why don’t you sit on my lap while I discuss our new policy for file-sharing” variety. Now, our heroine and her cronies could type away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them for fifty pages on end, obviously.

But what if, in addition to all of that glorious silent passivity, some of the typers happened to be going through menopause — and started responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes?

Inherently quite a bit more dramatic, isn’t it? Lots of room for ongoing conflict there.

But not everyone out there is comfortable with this strategy, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” some of you passivity-penners cry, “you told us last time that there were a lot of reasons an agent, editor, or contest judge might take a dislike to a protagonist. Even if mine is just one of several coworkers being nasty to one another, won’t they like her even less?”

Ah, that old bugbear: the belief that a character must be a nice person to be likeable on the page.

Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we fear being told that our characters are not likeable enough. So we tend to self-edit for harmony.

Translation: many writers will deliberately make a protagonist passive, on the theory that if she isn’t, this chick might not play in Peoria, according to someone in a New York agency or publishing house.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, though, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I liked the story, but I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her in X, Y, and Z ways, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

You were hoping my earlier example of an editor asking for revisions prior to offering a book contract was just an anecdotal misstep, weren’t you? How shall I break it to you?

Directly is probably the best way: it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions prior to making an offer on a novel. Agents will frequent make similar requests prior to being willing to market a novel to editors. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free.

That’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed outright at such an editorial request before a contract was signed.

Much of the time, though, the author responds to critique about character likability by making the character more passive — a very bad move, strategically.

So why do they do it? As I mentioned, it’s a common writerly misconception to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one. An interesting conclusion, isn’t it, given how often first novels and memoirs feature at least semi-autobiographical protagonists?

Which begs the question: is the common writerly obsession with protagonist likeability at some level a cry to the industry: “Love my character — and me!”?

Bears a spot of thinking about, doesn’t it? Psychology aside, it’s understandable that writers might mistake a propensity for avoiding confrontation for likeability.

Passive Paul the protagonist is a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Courteous to a fault, he’s always doing nice things for others, generally thanklessly. A good employee, fine son/husband/potential partner, he is dependable. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue.

Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. Or, better still, silently drew amorous cartoons of you in the margins of his notebook, plotting how he’s going to show up at your 10th reunion as a rock star and sweep you off your wee feet. In real life, it might take this guy until the 20th reunion and after his second divorce to work up the nerve to tell you that he ever had a crush on you at all.

On the manuscript page, Paul’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part.

And astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this! Go figure, eh?

A delightful person to encounter in real life, in short; the kind of person you might like to see serving on your city council, library board, or living next door to you in a time of natural disaster. But think of Paul from a reader’s point of view: he makes so few moves that he’s practically inert.

So why, if you’ll pardon my asking, would someone pay $25 to read a book in which he is the central figure — other than the beauty of the writing, of course?

That may sound like a cruel or dismissive question, but actually, it isn’t — it’s precisely the question that Millicent is going to need to be able to answer if she’s going to recommend that her boss, the agent of your dreams, should read it, right? It’s also the question the agent of your dreams is going to have to make to the editor of your fantasies in order to get her to acquire it.

And isn’t it, ultimately, a question your target reader will, at the very least, find of interest between the shelf and the cash register?

Next time, I shall talk a bit more about Passive Paul — and what, short of challenging him to a duel (for which he would probably not show up, we can only assume), his creator can do to get him into the game of his own life a bit more. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The Hilarity of Carnage, by guest blogger Jonathan Selwood


Hello again, all — Anne here. For those of you who have found the ongoing Author! Author! series on subtle censorship a trifle, well, depressing, I have a great treat in store for you today: a guest post by Jonathan Selwood, in my humble opinion one of the funniest dark comedy writers currently drawing breath within the continental United States.

Who better, then, to share his thoughts on dark comedy with all of us here at Author! Author! — or to talk about the risks a writer takes by walking the thin line between outrageously funny and just outrageous? Or, frankly, to lighten all of our moods whilst enlightening us?

How funny a writer is Jonathan, you ask? Well, while reading his first novel, THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (Harper Perennial), on an airplane, one paragraph started me laughing so hard that passengers in adjacent rows came tumbling out of their seats to come to my rescue, convinced that I was having some sort of fit that required immediate medical attention, if not actually turning the plane around. When I had caught my breath enough to apologize and read the relevant paragraph to my would-be helpers, their laughter kicked up such a din that two flight attendants came running. (They thought the passage was pretty funny, too.)

That’s right: parts of this novel are so subversively funny that they disrupt air travel. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

pinball theory cover selwood

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Would this be the right moment to tell you that THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE is available for sale at Powell’s, Amazon, and other purveyors of fine books? Or that if you want to read more of Jonathan’s words of wisdom on the writing of startling comedy, you could also check out his earlier guest post on this very site?

Or that he’s recently yielded to popular demand and started a blog, Terminal Alienation? He describes it as n exercise in Evangelical Absurdism. Its goal is not just to support the billions of terminally alienated people around the globe, but to help snuff out the last flicker of hope in those still holding a tenuous connection to the culture at large.

All of which is to say: I’m overjoyed that he has agreed to guest-post. I hope that those of you who are planning to push the proverbial envelope in your writing pay close attention and come up with good questions, because it honestly is rare to be able to glean insights from a comedy writer this talented.

So please join me in giving a big Author! Author! welcome to Jonathan Selwood. Take it away, Jonathan!


“An amateur thinks it’s really funny if you dress a man up as an old lady, put him in a wheelchair, and give the wheelchair a push that sends it spinning down a slope towards a stone wall. For a pro, it’s got to be a real old lady.” — Groucho Marx

1992 was the year I first read the novel Lolita, first saw the movie Reservoir Dogs, and first decided to dedicate my life to writing. The connection? Dark Comedy.

As far as literary genres go, Dark Comedy is usually considered something of a bastard child. While it can certainly sell well, it rarely rakes in the staggering sums of mass market blockbusters like Da Vinci Wears Prada Traveling Pants. And yet, it’s precisely its lunatic fringe position within the culture that makes it — in my unbiased opinion — the greatest genre.

Tragedy, in simplest terms, is the story of a character who falls away from society and its rules and therefore suffers — think Oedipus. Comedy is the story of a character who is initially alienated from society and its rules, but happily rejoins in the end, traditionally with a wedding — think Elizabeth Bennet. (Yes, I know these are gross oversimplifications, but bear with me.) Dark Comedy combines elements of both Tragedy and Comedy to critique society itself–think Humbert Humbert.

By its very nature, Dark Comedy has to be the bastard child. A comedic novel with a sociopathic child molester for a protagonist (i.e., Lolita) is always going to upset the mainstream, because it’s supposed to upset the mainstream. It’s hands-down my favorite novel of all time, and it even upsets me — particularly now that I have a child of my own. But given the truly deplorable state of the economy, the environment, and just about everything else in the world right now, WE SHOULD BE UPSET!

Lolita is not some sick attempt on Nabokov’s part to make us sympathize with child molesters, it’s an absolutely genius attempt to make us reexamine American society as a whole. There will always be “mainstream” people trying to ban Dark Comedy — from Catch-22 to South Park–precisely because it’s a very real threat to society and the “mainstream” they hold so dear. At the end of a Dark Comedy, there’s no tragic lesson warning us not to break the rules, nor is there a society-reaffirming marriage. But if the work is successful, it can expose the flaws in society itself.

As if that wasn’t enough, where a regular comedy (or, to be more derisive, a “Light Comedy”) will make you laugh, a Dark Comedy will make you gasp. The most obvious example is when a standup comedian tells a joke that’s right on the line. If it goes over, it will likely be the funniest moment of the entire show and elicit that bizarre “Ahhhhhh…” sound that humans produce when the laughter center of their brains suffer petite mal seizures.

Of course, that’s a big IF the joke goes over. Not only is Dark Comedy the funniest form of humor (again, in my unbiased opinion), but it’s also the most likely to flop. And while a standup comedian can quickly move on to the next joke and at least have a chance of making the audience forget, a novelist is most likely going to get his book tossed onto the bedside table for good.

So, in addition to being the greatest and funniest literary genre, it’s also the most risky. But hey, if you were a coward, you never would have thrown your hat into the literary ring in the first place, would you?

Let’s face it, people don’t make a “rational” decision to become writers. It’s an inherently irrational pursuit, and in the years since I decided in 1992 to be a writer, it’s only become more irrational. (If you’re a writer and don’t know what I’m talking about, than I think it’s safe to assume you require immediate hospitalization.) So if the pursuit is irrational in the first place, and we’ve already established that you’re not a coward, why not go all the way?

I invite you all to join me on the Dark Side…

Oh, and if you live in the Northwest (or anywhere else, for that matter), pre-order a copy of Portland Noir. Not only do I have an (unbiased, yada yada yada) masterpiece in there, but it’s really a great collection.

portlandnoircover selwoodExplore the dark, rainy underbelly of one of America’s most beautiful but enigmatic cities through brand-new stories by Gigi Little, Justin Hocking, Chris A. Bolton, Jess Walter, Monica Drake, Jamie S. Rich (illustrated by Joelle Jones), Dan DeWeese, Zoe Trope, Luciana Lopez, Karen Karbo, Bill Cameron, Ariel Gore, Floyd Skloot, Megan Kruse, Kimberly Warner-Cohen, and Jonathan Selwood.

From the downtown streets littered with strip clubs and gutter punks to the north side where gentrification and old school hip-hop collide, Portland, Oregon, is a place that seems straight out of a David Lynch movie. It’s a city full of police controversies, hippie artist houses, and overzealous liberals, where even its fiction blurs with its bizarre realities.

Portland Noir is an encompassing literary journey where your tour guides take you to the Shanghai Tunnels, dog parks, dive bars, sex shops, Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnuts, suspiciously quiet neighborhoods, the pseudo-glitzy Pearl District, Oaks Amusement Park, and a strip club shaped like a jug. Violent crime, petty mischief, and personal tragedy run through these mysterious tales that careen through this cloudy, wet city.

Portland Noir is sure to both charm and frighten readers familiar with this northwest hub and intrigue those who have never traveled to this proudly weird city.


selwood-1Jonathan Selwood is the author of The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse. He also enjoys talking very loudly when intoxicated, composting kitchen scraps, excessively rolling his Rs when ordering burrrrrritos… using ellipses…

An antidote to literary naysaying — or at least a slim volume to keep within reach of your writing space


Before I begin today’s show-and-tell, I want to blandish those of you who haven’t yet done so into entering the First Periodic Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence. Entry is free, the topic interesting (your very own contribution to our fascinating ongoing series on subtle censorship and other factors that discourage writers from writing what and how they want), and fabulous prizes await the winners.

Not to mention the immortal fame and ECQLC (eye-catching query letter candy) that winning such an award would doubtless entail.

The deadline for entry is Monday, May 18. To get those of you who have not yet entered inspired, I shall be devoting the rest of this week to continuing our discussion of ways in which writers are discouraged from sharing their stories, their writing, or even their opinions with the world at large.

In other words, to further exposition on the contest’s essay topic.

Not entirely coincidentally, today, I’d like to talk about a brand-new collection of essays on censorship edited by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, BURN THIS BOOK: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word (HarperStudio). Given the subject matter, I had picked it up in the expectation that it would provide a tremendous amount of food for thought about our ongoing subject; what came as a pleasant surprise was how squarely some of the essays in it spoke to writers about the problems of self-expression that are not externally imposed.

Before I get too carried away, here’s the publisher’s blurb for the book. I added the links, so anyone who is interested may learn more about the authors cited:

Published in conjunction with the PEN American Center, Burn this Book is a powerful collection of essays that explore the meaning of censorship, and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves. Contributors include literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, David Grossman, Nadine Gordimer discusses the role of the writer as observer, and as someone who sees “what is really taking place.” She looks to Proust, Oe, Flaubert, and Graham Greene to see how their philosophy squares with her own, ultimately concluding, “Literature has been and remains a means of people rediscovering themselves.” “In Freedom to Write,” Orhan Pamuk elegantly describes escorting Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter around Turkey and how that experience changed his life.

As Americans. we often take our freedom of speech for granted. When we talk about censorship, we talk about China, the former Soviet Union. But the recent presidential election has shined a spotlight on profound acts of censorship in our own backyard. Both provocative and timely, Burn this Book includes a sterling list of award winning writers; it is sure to ignite spirited dialogue.

If some of those names sound familiar, it’s because the only reason that some of them aren’t on the current short list for the Nobel Prize in Literature is that most of these writers have already won it, and some of the others have already passed on to That Great Literary Salon in the Sky. (That, and the fact that I mentioned Graham Greene on this very blog only yesterday might have left him rattling around regular readers’ brainpans.)

This is, in other words, not just a book of commentary by writers on writing. It’s a book of commentary by WRITERS on WRITING.

The Who’s Who line-up is part of the fun of this book, actually, insofar as a serious collection of essays on the horrors of censorship can be said to be fun: quite a number of these essays involve exceedingly well-known authors whom we all admire writing about the work of exceedingly well-known authors that they admire. Let me tell you, if you’ve never seen John Updike gush about the bravery of Henry Miller’s early novels, or Francine Prose sigh about how she wishes she had known Roberto Bolaño — well, suffice it to say the besotted reader is a side of an Eminènce Grise one seldom sees.

Since pretty much all writers start out life as besotted readers, it’s rather refreshing to behold the greats owning up to it. And hey, I’m not too proud to admit it: I did feel incrementally cooler, literarily speaking, upon seeing that Ms. Prose and I share an admiration for Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER — but of that excellent play, more follows below.

This volume’s tendency to praise means, among other things, that BURN THIS BOOK is an absolutely terrific source for what I like to call good book surfing — learning what books have influenced authors one loves, tracking those works down, and reading them. I know of few better ways to gain a sense of being part of a literary tradition.

(The months I spent following the reading tips Jane Austen so carefully laid out in NORTHANGER ABBEY completely changed my understanding of 18th-century female authorship, for instance. Aunt Jane’s shelves were apparently stuffed to the gills with women’s writing — which I imagine would come as something of a surprise to all of the compilers of English literature syllabi who habitually present her as having sprung into literary history as a complete anomaly. And don’t even get me started on what Anne Brontë — whose brilliant novel about substance abuse, THE TENANT OF WILDFELL HALL, was dismissed by contemporary critics as “utterly unfit to be put into the hands of girls,” speaking of disregarded voices — or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley were reading in their spare time.)

I also found it both fascinating and amusing to see really, really famous authors incorporate the same essay-writing tactics that, say, a high school junior might use in making a case against censorship. Who’d have thought, for instance, that Updike, surely enough of a literary name to express his own opinions unaided, would feel the need to justify his statements about how difficult writers find their work by citing what Flaubert said of his own struggles?

And after having spent many years patiently explaining to university students that defining one’s terms in an essay did not mean just opening the nearest dictionary and reproducing what’s printed there, what was I to make of Nadine Gordimer’s using the Oxford English Dictionary in precisely that manner in her essay? Oh, how glad I was that I’m no longer lecturing when I saw that. My students would surely have waved Ms. Gordimer’s piece in my face endlessly, as proof positive that it is possible to incorporate a verbatim dictionary definition gracefully into a written argument without boring readers to death.

But I would still urge amateurs not to try it at home. The twins goals of defining one’s terms in an essay are to demonstrate that one knows what one is talking about and to make sure that the reader does as well, not merely to plagiarize what some underpaid linguist at Funk & Wagnall’s said about a particular word or phrase. For this reason, hyper-literalists tend not to make the best essay-writers.

Despite undermining one of my first rules of academic essay-writing, I would highly recommend BURN THIS BOOK to readers of high school and college age. Why? Well, because this book contains so many good examples of the kinds of essays high school and college students are so frequently asked to write, it’s an inadvertently helpful how-to manual on how to structure and argue a piece on an abstract topic.

(Are the standardized test folks still giving vaguely provocative essay topics like, Censorship: is it ever a good idea? and Should a government try to legislate morality? They seem so open-ended, but the graders are invariably looking for a particular type of argument. In my day, the Achievement Test scorers would automatically spot you quite a few points if you managed to work Rosa Parks’ historic bus ride into your essay, regardless of the topic. The point of academic writing is not necessarily knock-your-socks-off style, if you catch my drift.)

For this reason, BURN THIS BOOK seems like a natural to assign in a composition course, to teach young writers the tricks o’ the trade, as it were. Or perhaps it would make more sense in a literature class. I would slap it onto the syllabus right after THE GRAPES OF WRATH, to provoke some interesting discussion about the hows and whys of banning books, and just before THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.

Speaking of Nobel laureates, are you surprised to hear that THE GRAPES OF WRATH was ever banned? No kidding: schoolteachers all over the US had a hard time assigning it for decades, and not always because of that left-leaning speech that Henry Fonda, the Tom Joad of the movie, gives at the end. (But usually. You’d be amazed at how seldom clamorers against a book have actually read it; it’s not unheard-of for parents to go roaring into school board meetings to scream about a scene from the movie version of an assigned book, only to learn that the objectionable bits were the filmmaker’s invention. The protests over the movie version of THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, for instance, were over a love scene that wasn’t particularly startling in the book; what brought the threat of excommunication onto novelist Nikos Kazantzakis’ head was the book’s treatment of Judas‘ role in the story, not the Big Guy’s.)

Wondered long enough what anyone who wasn’t worried about Communist infiltration of America’s high schools might have had against THE GRAPES OF WRATH? Not surprisingly, it’s a scene that didn’t make it into the movie, although it’s far from explicitly written: Rose of Sharon feeds a man who’s starved too long to be able to ingest solid food what, ahem, she might otherwise have fed her stillborn baby.

The reason I’m being a bit vague here, incidentally, is that some of my readers have access to this blog only through their school or public library computers. If I described the ending of the book any more clearly, the individual words that I would have to use might result in this page getting blocked by what are euphemistically known as parental control programs.

I know; it’s not pleasant to contemplate. But like it or not, it is the world in which we write.

By suggesting that BURN THIS BOOK might make for some interesting classroom discussion, I don’t mean to imply that that all of the essays here are equally good; they’re not. At times, the reader is left wondering what some of this undoubtedly well-written rambling has to do with the topic at hand, or even if there is a single topic tying the book’s many entries together. (Also, semicolons are not always used correctly throughout, something that’s likely to bug a teacher charged with explaining to students that ; and is in fact redundant in a list that contains a series of semicolons, since the earlier semicolons were ostensibly replacing and.)

The authors’ assigned briefs seem to have been rather disparate, as if contributors were merely asked to contribute an essay, rather than an essay on book-banning: collectively, this is a better collection of writing about writing than writing about censorship. As a result, the subtitle (PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word) is a substantially more accurate indication of what lies between the covers than the title.

Of course, being a book about writing is not necessarily a drawback in a collection of essays whose target market is writers. As one would expect from an edited volume by such a terrific bunch of writers (a contributor list that also includes Paul Auster, Pico Iyer, Russell Banks, and Ed Park, in case you were wondering), BURN THIS BOOK abounds in really glorious quotes, the kind that aspiring writers like to jot down on little scraps of paper and tape to their computer monitors to inspire them in moments of creative desperation.

Seriously, there is some lovely, inspiring stuff here. Take, for instance:

“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are its necessity.” -Toni Morrison

“When we write, we feel the world in flux, elastic, full of possibilities — unfrozen…I write, and the world does not close in on me. It does not grow smaller. It moves in the direction of what is open, future, possible. I imagine, and the act of imagination revives me. I am not fossilized or paralyzed in the face of predators. I invent characters. Sometimes I feel as if I am digging people out of the ice in which reality has encased them. But perhaps, more than anything, the person I am digging out at the moment is myself.” — David Grossman

“Thus the true task of the novelist is to dramatize first for himself or herself and ultimately for the rest of us what it is to be human in our time and for all time. What it is to be human in our place and in every place. As a species, we have always depended upon our storytellers to tell us what it means to be human. To be ourselves.” — Russell Banks.

“The artist’s personality has an awkward ambivalence: he is a cave dweller who yet hopes to be pursued into his cave…J.D. Salinger wrote a masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, recommending that readers who enjoy a book call up the author; then he spent his next twenty years avoiding the telephone.” — John Updike

Okay, so I thought that last one was sort of funny. My point is, there’s a lot of rich ore here for the writer searching for insight to mine.

Finally — and most relevant to our ongoing series — despite a certain range of topic, most of these essays have quite a few interesting things to say on censorship. Or, more precisely, about the kinds of things than can happen to people who write the truth when those in power don’t want those truths bruited about.

As Wallace Shawn’s THE DESIGNATED MOURNER (I told you I’d be coming back to it) makes so mournfully clear, the writers, the artists, the truth-tellers tend to be among the first carted off in times of great fear. The world is substantially less interesting for it — and less safe, my friends, for people like us.

BURN THIS BOOK reminds us to ask ourselves every so often when we look at the world around us, gathering impressions to inform our writing: what stories are going unheard? Whose voices are not particularly audible, from a literary perspective? Which voices are actively discouraged, and which do the fine folks who run publishing houses just not think will sell very well?

To share some questions that popped into my mind when I first began to contemplate running this series: what does the reader of mainstream memoir currently know about the kind of prison conditions that guest blogger Shaun Attwood told us about last weekend? Heck, how much does the mainstream novel reader know about the other side of the legal equation, what goes on behind the beautifully-veneered doors of the high-powered law firms Mary Hutchings Reed wrote about? If those inside these institutions don’t share with the world how they run, how precisely are the rest of us to find out? Telepathy?

And how much does the fear of riling nay-sayers affect what we ask readers are able to find on the shelves? Considering how hot narrators with mental disabilities have been over the last few years, why do readers so seldom see book either about or by people with physical disabilities, as Eileen Cronin brought to our attention in April? Does a hot-button political debate actually have to be over before the publishing world would get excited about an intriguing memoir like Beren deMotier’s, which couldn’t possibly be more timely? How much does the prospect of negative reader reaction cause even established authors to alter their content in order to avoid controversy, as Bob Tarte discussed?

These questions trouble me in the dead of night; honestly, they do. And what’s more, they should.

Yet while all writers are potentially affected by censorship, subtle and otherwise, we don’t tend to talk much amongst ourselves the more draconian ways in which it is wielded, up to and including imprisoning or even killing outspoken authors. Those possibilities certainly deserve more of a place in writerly discussion of what does and doesn’t get published than we usually hear — and, to be candid, what you hear from me here on this blog.

For the most part, the untold stories and as-yet-undiscovered voices we discuss are ones that are having trouble pleasing someone with the authority to get them published, rather than the ones that must overcome actual legal barriers or strong social taboos in order to see the light of day at all. As a result, writers’ conferences, writers’ fora, and yes, blogs like this one tend to focus upon finding a market for our work, or better ways to touch the heart of a reader, or decoding the often perplexing ways of agencies and publishing houses.

So an alien from another planet landing in the middle of your garden-variety North American writers’ gathering would probably assume that a great undiscovered writer’s voice not being heard is primarily the result of her submissions being rejected or ignored, rather than, say, a heavily-enforced prohibition upon writing anything remotely critical about her government, or laws that ban a writer from offending someone else religious sensibilities. “My, what a lot of freedom creative artists have here,” E.T. might conclude.

That’s not meant as a criticism of the very practical concerns of those trying to get published — far from it. It’s completely natural that worrying about freedom of expression worldwide may not be the most immediate concern for a writer who is trying to find an agent for a torrid romance involving a country doctor and a cowgirl or hoping to publish a science fiction trilogy on the colonization of the Crab Nebula. At that juncture, it’s certainly understandable if trying to second-guess what the gatekeepers of the book world want to see is of far more absorbing interest than which might be happen to a writer one doesn’t know personally someplace else.

Heck, after seemingly endless rounds of querying, a series of rejected submissions, and/or being told flatly by an agent or editor after a verbal pitch, “Oh, there’s just no market for that kind of book right now,” plenty of writers feel that there’s an active conspiracy against their kind of work.

In a moment of feeling unheard — which, let’s face it, forms a large part of the frustration of trying to find an agent or waiting for one’s agent to sell one’s books — a collection of essays like this that deals with more drastic means of keeping writing (and writers) out of the public eye can be very useful for reestablishing perspective. Sometimes, we could all use someone who has been down the path before us to remind us that it is indeed worth taking — and that as writers, we are all part of a global community that some people are always going to find threatening.

I just mention.

While I’m at it, I’ll also mention that BURN THIS BOOK is available on Amazon and at Borders.

Does all of this high-falutin’ talk about the importance of considering the situation of writers worldwide mean that I’m abandoning the attention to nit-picky, practical details for which Author! Author! has become so justly famed? Of course not; rest assured, bread-and-butter issues will once again abound here soon.

But in the meantime, consider giving some thought to the big picture. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Jon’s Jail Journal, by guest blogger Shaun Attwood


Welcome again to our ongoing series on censorship, subtle and otherwise. Fair warning: today’s is of the not-so-subtle variety, so as they say on television, viewer discretion is advised.

I’m quite serious: this is most emphatically not going to be a guest post for the queasy. It is, however, an important voice talking about often-taboo subjects — and, I think, a fairly stunning tale about a writer struggling against incredible odds to tell a story that desperately needed (and still needs) to be told.

Therefore, I’m delighted to be introducing today’s guest author, Shaun Attwood, blogger extraordinaire. Since 2004, he has been writing Jon’s Jail Journal — and yes, in response to what half of you just thought, it was not safe for him to write under his own name when he first began trying to expose the grim realities of prison life.

Inexplicably, the folks who ran the prison took exception to that. I imagine that the authorities in the Dreyfus case objected to Emile Zola’s writing about that, too.

As my parents liked to point approximately once every 42 seconds throughout my excruciatingly literary childhood, that’s precisely what good writers are supposed to do, isn’t it?

To give you a sense of the scope of the incredible story Shaun has to tell, here is a blurb for his memoir-in-progress — which I, for one, cannot wait to read — that he was kind enough to share with me:

Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail is an account of my journey through America’s most notorious jail system, a netherworld revolving around gang violence, drug use and racism. It provides a revealing glimpse into the tragedy, brutality, comedy and eccentricity of jail life and the men inside. It is also a story of my redemption, as incarceration leads to introspection, and a passion for literature, philosophy, and yoga. The book ends with me starting Jon’s Jail Journal, exposing the conditions in the jail.

Call me zany, but I suspect he knows more than most of the rest of us about institutional censorship. So I am positively overjoyed that he has agreed to share some of his thoughts on the subject with all of us here at Author! Author!

Those of you reading in the UK may already be familiar with Shaun’s writing, either through excerpts of his prison diary published in The Guardian or the numerous articles on his efforts to bring public attention to appalling conditions for prisoners. He also speaks to young people about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug use.

Even if prison memoir is not your proverbial cup of tea — even if memoir isn’t your usual reading material — please try not to turn away from the horrendous story Shaun is about to share with you. Read it, and read his bio, below. Consider visiting his blog to read what a talented writer has to say about being denied the right to share his writing with the world.

As writers, no one knows better than we the vital importance of self-expression to the human soul; this entire series has been about that, hasn’t it? After all, telling the truth, regardless of obstacles, is what good writers are supposed to do.

So please join me in welcoming a very brave and interesting writer, Shaun Attwood. Take it away, Shaun!


Towards the end of my stay at the Madison Street jail in Phoenix, Arizona, I asked a guard how Sheriff Joe Arpaio got away with flagrantly violating federal law by maintaining such subhuman conditions.

“The world has no idea what really goes on in here,” he replied.

I decided that was about to change.

sheriff_joeSome of you may be familiar with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the star of the reality TV show, Smile…You’re Under Arrest! He’s the sheriff who feeds his prisoners green bologna, puts them to work on chain gangs, and makes them wear black-and-white bee stripes and pink underwear.

He has labelled himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” but he never mentions that he is the most sued sheriff in America due to the deaths, violence and medical negligence in a jail system subject to investigation by human rights organisations including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In a maximum-security cell — about the size of a bus-stop shelter, with two steel bunks and a seatless toilet — I used a golf pencil sharpened on the cement-block wall to document the characters, cockroaches, suicide attempts, and deaths. Wearing only pink boxers, I wrote at the tiny stool and table bolted to the wall, trying to ignore the discomfort from my bleeding bedsores. Outdoor temperatures — that sometimes soared up to 120 °F — converted the cell into a concrete oven, making it difficult to write without the sweat from my hands and arms moistening the paper.

Here are the first few paragraphs I wrote:

19 Feb 04

The toilet I sleep next to is full of sewage. We’ve had no running water for three days. Yesterday, I knew we were in trouble when the mound in our steel throne peaked above sea level.

Inmates often display remarkable ingenuity during difficult occasions and this crisis has resulted in a number of my neighbours defecating in the plastic bags the mouldy breakfast bread is served in. For hours they kept those bags in their cells, then disposed of them downstairs when allowed out for showers. As I write, inmates brandishing plastic bags are going from cell door to door proudly displaying their accomplishments.

The whole building reeks like a giant Portaloo. Putting a towel over the toilet in our tiny cell offers little reprieve. My neighbour, Eduardo, is suffering diarrhoea from the rotten chow. I can’t imagine how bad his cell stinks.

I am hearing that the local Health Department has been contacted. Hopefully they will come to our rescue soon.

Fearing reprisals from guards notorious for murdering prisoners, I wrote under the pseudonym Jon. As the mail officer could inspect outgoing letters, posting my words was too risky. To get my words out undetected by the staff, I employed my aunt.

She visited every week, and I was allowed to release property to her, such as mail I’d received, legal papers, and books I’d read. The visitation staff’s chief concern was stopping incoming contraband such as drugs and tobacco, so they never thoroughly examined outgoing property.

I hid my words in the property I released to my aunt. She smuggled them out of the jail, typed them up and emailed them to my parents who posted them to the Internet. Considering the time involved in maintaining a blog, I was lucky to have such outside help.

That’s how Jon’s Jail Journal came about. It was one of the first prison blogs, and went on to attract international media attention after excerpts were published in The Guardian.

After serving almost six years for money laundering and drugs, I’m now a free man. I’ve kept Jon’s Jail Journal going, so the friends I made inside can share their stories.

Like most prisoners, those in Arizona do not have Internet access. To get their writing online, they need outside help. Unfortunately, most of them do not have family members willing to run a blog for them.

I started Jon’s Jail Journal unaware Arizona had been the first state to censor its prisoners from the Internet. This came about after the widow of a murder victim read an online pen-pal ad in which her husband’s murderer described himself as a kind-hearted lover of cats. A law passed in 2000 carried penalties for prisoners writing for the Internet. Privileges could be taken away, sentences lengthened.

The freedom to speak without censorship or limitation is guaranteed by the First Amendment, so the ACLU stepped in and challenged this law. In May 2003, Judge Earl Carroll declared the law unconstitutional. Since then, no other state has attempted to introduce such a law.

But even with that law repealed, any inmate writing openly about prison is running the risk of reprisals from the staff and the prisoners. The threat of being harmed or killed by your custodians or neighbours is a strong form of censorship.

I always got permission from the prisoners I wrote about. I hate to think of the consequences if I hadn’t. But even with that safeguard in place, I still ran into occasional problems.

I once wrote about how the prisoners made syringes from commissary items. A prisoner received a copy of that blog in the mail, and circulated it on the yard. Some of the older white gang members gave the order to have me smashed, claiming they were concerned the staff would read that blog and stop the inmate store from selling the items the prisoners needed to make the syringes.

Fortunately, I was writing stories about some well-established prisoners at the time. Like Two Tonys, a Mafia associate classified as a mass murderer. Frankie, a Mexican Mafia hitman. C-Ducc, a Crip with one of the toughest reputations on the yard. They intervened, pointing out that the staff were well aware of how the prisoners made syringes, and that I hadn’t divulged anything that the staff didn’t already know about. After a few tense days during which they instructed me not to walk the yard alone, the matter died down.


To avoid conflict with the administration, I never used real staff or prisoner names. Using real names would have enabled the administration to classify me as a threat to the security of the institution. If you are deemed such a threat, the administration can invoke laws that strip you of your standard human rights. You can lose your privileges, be housed in the system’s darkest quarters, and if the staff really have it in for you, you may suddenly receive a gorilla-sized cellmate intent on using you as his plaything.

On that front, I must credit Shannon Clark — my friend in prison who writes the blog Persevering Prison Pages — for being a much braver man than I. He has sprinkled guards’ names liberally throughout his blog, and he’s not exactly praising them for their humanity. Shannon has a reputation for being fast to slap lawsuits on the staff, which I hope continues to protect him from major retaliation.

After my release in December 2007, I figured my censorship battles with the Arizona Department of Corrections were over. I was maintaining the blog mostly for the stories of the friends I’d made inside, stories they were mailing to me in England. But in August 2008, I stopped receiving mail from them. Then in September, I received a disturbing email:

I wanted to let you know that *** called me today with a message for you. I guess the prison spoke to all of the guys that write to you and told them they are not allowed to write to you anymore. He thinks it’s because they (the prison) don’t like what is being said on your blog. It is a free country isn’t it? Can they do that? It’s ridiculous!

Attempting to sabotage Jon’s Jail Journal, certain staff members had ordered the contributors to stop writing to me. If they continued to write to me, they would receive disciplinary sanctions such as losing their visits, phone calls, and commissary.

This violation of their freedom of speech earned me a nerve-racking live spot on Sky’s headline news. The publicity attracted a prisoners’-rights attorney, and the problem eventually went away.

With all of these obstacles, it’s unsurprising that so few prisoners are writing for the Internet.

Googling for prison bloggers, I immediately noticed the absence of women in this fledgling community. I found one writer, but she had been released. Hoping to bring the voices of women prisoners online, I wrote to two women — Renee, a lifer in America serving 60 years, and Andrea, a Scottish woman arrested for the attempted murder of her abusive boyfriend in England. I’m delighted that these two women are now regular contributors to Jon’s Jail Journal, giving their unique insights on what it’s like in women’s prisons.

To keep Jon’s Jail Journal going, I’ve had to overcome censorship from many angles, some foreseen, some unexpected. The blog has managed to survive these challenges, and to build up a loyal readership over the years. It has become a bridge to the outside world for my prisoner friends. They really enjoy the feedback from the public, and some of them receive pen pals from around the world. Through blogging, they are cultivating their own writing skills, and focusing on something positive in such a negative environment. Jon’s Jail Journal has come a long way since when I lived with the cockroaches.

shaun-attwoodShaun Attwood grew up in North West England where he was an early participant in the burgeoning rave scene that soon took over the whole country. Graduating from Liverpool University in 1991 with a business degree, he immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona to try his luck in the world of finance, and rose quickly through the ranks to become a top-producing stockbroker.

But it was not quite plain sailing. Shaun lost control of his life and finances in the mid-nineties, declared bankruptcy and quit his job.

The rave bug had never left him, and Shaun started to throw raves in Arizona while investing in technology stocks online. By 1999, he was living in a luxurious mountainside home in Tucson’s Sin Vacas, working as a day trader in the day and partying at night. It was the time of the dot-com bubble and he made over a million on paper, but the bubble was soon to burst and Shaun lost most of his fortune and moved back to Phoenix.

In May 2002, he was arrested in Scottsdale during a SWAT-team dawn raid, and alleged to be the head of an organisation involved in a club-drug conspiracy. The local media described him as “bigger than Sammy the Bull.” Facing a life sentence, he entered a lengthy legal battle.

In 2004, Shaun started the blog,Jon’s Jail Journal, documenting the inhumane conditions at the cockroach-infested Madison Street jail run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio. After two years of being held on remand while three trial dates were cancelled, Shaun signed a plea bargain admitting guilt to money laundering and drug offences. He was sentenced to 9 ½ years, of which he served almost 6.

Shaun had only read finance books prior to his arrest. While incarcerated, he submerged himself in literature – reading 268 books in 2006 alone, including many literary classics. By reading original texts in philosophy and psychology he sought to better understand himself and his past behaviour. His sister sent him a book on yoga, which he still practices.

In September 2004, blog excerpts were published in The Guardian attracting further media attention, including several BBC news stories.

Shaun was released in December 2007, and has since kept Jon’s Jail Journal going by posting prison stories sent to him from the friends he made inside. In July 2008, Shaun won a first prize, a Koestler/Hamish Hamilton Award, for a short story, which he read to an audience at the Royal Festival Hall. In February 2009, Shaun moved to London to work for the McLellan Practice speaking to audiences of youths about his jail experiences and the consequences of his drug taking. He is presently working on his memoir, Green Bologna and Pink Boxers: Surviving Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Jail.

Marriage Rights Fight Not Enough of a Conflict? by guest blogger Beren de Motier

Welcome back to the ongoing Author! Author! series on various stripes of censorship and how they affect writers. As those of you who have enjoyed these posts in previous weeks are already aware, in an effort to provoke serious thought and spur some interesting conversation, I have blandished a select group of some of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on the forces that discourage writers from writing (or publishing) what they want — or writing in the way that they prefer.

I’m very pleased that today’s guest blogger, Beren deMotier, author of the multiple award-winning memoir THE BRIDES OF MARCH has agreed to share her insights with us.

I discovered her memoir — a beautifully-written, quirky look at the pros and cons of same-sex marriage from the inside out, smart without being preachy, funny without being bitter, emotional without being maudlin — as a judge in a well-respected writing competition. Since, like all respectable literary contests, the judging was blind (meaning that the judges do not know who the entrants are), I read her first chapter anonymously. I spent the long intervening months between my round of judging and the announcement of the winners gnawing on my nails, waiting to discover who this gifted memoirist was, so I could get my mitts on the rest of the manuscript. When I was able to track her down at the awards ceremony (after the judge’s ethical imperative to remain silent had evaporated), I more or less demanded to read the rest of it.

Nor was I disappointed in the result. This is a pretty amazing book.

I’m not the only reader — or the only contest judge — who has felt this way about it, either. In the years since THE BRIDES OF MARCH placed in my contest, it has won a National Indie Excellence Award, a , an Independent Publisher Book Award. It garnered Honorable Mentions in both the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards and the Reader Views Awards.

It was also a finalist in creative nonfiction at the Oregon Book Awards, a pretty impressive achievement in any year. The head judge praised the book’s skillful “veering from laughter to despair and at times a breathless ‘you-are-there’ intensity…Beren deMotier manages to create a spirited romp out of a contentious and often painful civil rights issue.”

So you would think that a book like that would have agents and editors clamoring for it, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t you?

Well, I’ll let Beren tell the story — I think it will be of vital interest to all of you memoirists out there. (For a more in-depth look at the book’s rocky road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)

Please join me, then, in welcoming today’s guest blogger, Beren de Motier. Take it away, Beren!


I have become an expert, over the years, at receiving rejection letters. I know their feel, their smell; I can almost sense one in my mailbox.

When I first started sending manuscripts out years ago, rejection letters were crippling, leading to self-doubt, a re-questioning of priorities, and an aversion to completing any further literary projects. Then, I adapted somewhat, and though they didn’t stop me in my tracks upon arrival, they slowed me to a crawl, and three weeks could mysteriously pass without a word to paper. For a period they were depressing, requiring a day on the couch, much moaning, and an impulse purchase of lipstick or a half-gallon of ice cream. Nowadays, while I don’t rejoice over an envelope in the mail that contains a form letter or the personal note that still says “no,” I am definitely capable of surviving it intact and moving forward.

I got a lot of practice getting my memoir published.

Five years ago my spouse and I got married on a rainy Wednesday morning in March, and the next day I started writing a book about it. Not that I knew I was writing a book at the time. It began as a piece for my column, “I Kid You Not,” which ran in GLBTQ newspapers for over ten years. I called the piece “They Can’t Take This Away From Me.”

That morphed into a longer piece with a “you-are-there” urgency, trying to capture the day in its socio-political/romantic glory for those who couldn’t think of same-sex marriage other than theoretically. Then, when I heard a local gay rights advocate was pondering writing a book about the three thousand Multnomah County, Oregon, marriages, I decided I should write one, too; hadn’t I been writing articles about same-sex marriage for a decade?

The irony is that by the time I was finished writing my book, The Brides of March: Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage, they had taken the marriage away from me — the marriages were annulled by state Supreme Court decision and declared null, void and legally non-existent. No gray area in that language. The book went from a joyous celebration of love conquering all after seventeen years and three kids together, to what I describe as “a giddy leap through a legal window, straight onto the barbeque pit of public debate.” History made it a better book (how many pages can you spend saying, “We finally got to get married and it was great!”), but I’d have bagged the book gladly and written a mystery if the marriages could have just stayed put.

After a strenuous campaign to get my memoir traditionally published, I self-published it so that I could add my two cents before same-sex marriage was off the political plate. This was definitely not my first choice for getting it in the hands of readers; having already published over a hundred articles, I had some confidence that I could write my way out of a paper bag, and the story seemed au courant and important. I was reasonably optimistic that it could find a publisher, however small, and maybe even an agent, after I did my leg work.

I know I did some of the right things (and read through Author! Author! to find out what these are, you won’t find better or more detailed writing advice anywhere) because not only were a good quarter of my rejection letters personally written by friendly editors and agents seemingly sorry that they couldn’t put my book on the best seller list (though that could have been an understandable desire to appear queer-friendly), but several agents and editors took it to the “send three chapters” and “send whole manuscript” level before deciding it was not for them. I was experienced enough to consider these rejections compliments, though a girl can’t help but get her hopes up.

However, some themes emerged among the rejection letters over time. One was of the “good writing/important story/can’t make any money” variety, and the low number of GLBTQ publishers who publish nonfiction (one, two?) indicates that the money part may be either a cold hard fact or an industry-wide assumption.

Another theme was “We don’t handle this kind of thing; you should send this to a gay-specific publisher, maybe Alyson?” I have a feeling that Alyson Books must get piles of submissions from writers rejected by “mainstream” publishing houses, but they can’t accept all of us.

The last and hardest to hear was the “not a big enough story” variety. One editor didn’t think it was a book — maybe a screenplay or a story for the New Yorker? One agent thought it could be “a novella or a terrific article.” Another agent said my writing was “charming, sexy, appealing and fun”… but that nothing dreadful happened; everyone lived, the couple was together in the beginning, still together at the end, and getting marriage rights denied, granted and taken away again wasn’t enough of a problem. She also said she’d have a better time getting my memoir published if I was an alcoholic, single mother—not that she wished that on me.

My wife, when I told her about it, responded, “Well, just rewrite the ending and have me killed by a hate crime; that should sell.”

Umm, talk about bad karma.

To give the agent credit, she read three edits of the book, which was darned generous.

But back up to the part about being denied the right to marry not being dreadful or enough of a problem; surely an author writing about interracial marriage before 1968, and how it impacted their family, wouldn’t be told that the subject lacked gravitas? Though the number of social commentary/humor memoirs about an interracial couple getting a marriage license with cries of “Why Don’t You Marry Your Dog?” and “God Hates This!” echoing from protesters outside the building, exchanging vows covered in cracker crumbs, holding a wedding reception only slightly marred by the additions of dog doo and razor blades in front of the house, mourning a constitutional amendment making sure their kind can never get married in that state again, and then their marriage being annulled by legal decision, must be low.

Anger was also something the book elicited; a literary contest judge (in which the unpublished manuscript won second place) began his comments with quotes from the synopsis of the book’s conclusion (“…devastated that the state we love, does not love us… How do you go on, in a nation that finds you so worthless?”) and wrote “That tone isn’t present in the chapters, but if it were it would make this reader stop at once. This book calls for humor, candor, insight, vulnerability and courage. Not self pity, and not made-up ideas of what the state or nation thinks.”

To paraphrase, it’s my memoir and I’ll cry if I want to.

But seriously, even though the lines he quoted are included in a synopsis of the book’s conclusion, and he himself says the tone isn’t present in the chapters he read, he found the lines so offensive, he put them at the top of his comments page.

The truth can be disconcerting; okay, all you queers reading this, raise your hand if you ever felt “devastated” and alienated when constitutional bans on same-sex marriage were passed? Anyone?

Yes, I’ve heard from you. Having our relationships legally defined as unworthy of marriage can make a person feel pretty worthless. I consider the ban on same-sex marriage character assassination on a national scale, and the idea that I shouldn’t find it “dreadful” enough to ponder repatriation involves a level of self-hate I’m not going back to. That’s what high school is for.

Not that, as a lesbian writer, I haven’t encountered the attitude again and again that “our” issues are less important than others, that all topics are straight unless otherwise specified, and that anything related to the queer community cannot be considered “universal.” I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve been asked by well-meaning people, “When are you going to write for real publications?” or been challenged by heterosexuals who think I’ve wasted my time writing about queer topics, i.e. the right to marry, my children (who happen to have two moms, making them a queer topic apparently), and, as a memoirist, my life.

There was the children’s book editor who asked why my main character needed to have two moms, instead of a mom and a dad, and I thought, well why not? About three million kids in the United States have gay parents. There was the literary journal editor who, looking at my list of published work, went on a tirade about one issue authors and found the issue of sexual orientation and gay relationships “tiring” and “looked forward to a day when gay men and women… can ‘forget’ about orientation and just write about all kinds of things.”

To the woman who writes about autism, Diet Coke, maggots, catching frogs, rejection letters, sex ed and being a high school “Band-aide,” among other things.

Fortunately, I’ve become a pro at receiving rejection letters and disparaging remarks with grace (and I wouldn’t share this story except that it does illustrate the subtle censorship that surrounds queer writing), so I didn’t give up on my book. After a whopping one hundred and ten rejections (ten percent “not without an agent,” forty-percent form letter, ten-percent hand-written note on returned query letter, ten percent “not at this address,” twenty-five percent individually written friendly letter, five-percent going on to request chapters or whole manuscript before saying no), I decided to self-publish through iUniverse, which was significantly less expensive at the time.

Since it was published in April 2007, The Brides of March : Memoir of a Same-Sex Marriage was a Finalist in the Oregon Book Awards in Creative Nonfiction, won a National Indie Excellence Award in Current Events: Political/Social, a in Gay/Lesbian Nonfiction, an Independent Publisher Book Award in Gay/Lesbian and Honorable Mentions in both the Writer’s Digest International Self-Published Book Awards in Life Stories and a Reader Views Award in Memoir/Autobiography.

I’m working on a Young Adult novel now, and yes, there are queer characters. There are also straight characters, Goth characters and a Pit Bull named Grendel. When it is time to send it out to agents and editors I will be interested to see if I get some of the same comments when the manuscript is fiction, not memoir, and lots of dreadful things happen (that’s what YA is all about, Charlie Brown).

Last fall I was on the “Queer Portland” panel at Wordstock, in Oregon, a sleeper hit of the literary festival full to the brim with writers and readers there to see Ariel Gore, Diane Anderson-Minshall, Marc Acito, Jake Anderson-Minshall, and me read and talk about our writing, and the invisibility/marginalization of queer writers. What seemed clear is that despite the success of specific GLBTQ authors, we are not at the place the literary journal editor described, where we can “forget” about orientation when it comes to where we can be published and what audience we reach, and that being “too gay” means limited options as an author.

Strangely enough, the underlying message of my memoir, wrapped in loopy conversational layers of relationship history, weaning the baby, exchanging vows, assembling a wedding reception in three days, and walking the beach in Canada with our kids, is that love is love, gay people are people, that the similarities vastly outweigh any differences between straight and gay, and that taking part in the culture we were raised in is not too much to ask.

The pronouns we employ in our writing shouldn’t limit access to an audience because publications and publishers find “queer topics” too marginal for the (assumed to be heterosexual) reading public. Right now, they do.


berensmilingBeren de Motier spent her first 21 years in three seven-year stints in California, on Vancouver Island, and in Seattle, resulting in a Californadian accent confusing to her peers. After graduating from the University of Washington, she leapt head first into domestic bliss, moving increasingly south of Seattle, until coming to a full stop in cozy liberal Portland, Oregon. During that time, she wrote humor and social commentary about life as a lesbian mom for Curve, ecomagazine green*light.com, award-winning And Baby, prideparenting.com, on her website, and for newspapers across the country. She contributed to The Complete Lesbian & Gay Parenting Guide by Ari Istar Lev, and wrote for eHow as an expert in Gay/Lesbian Family and Relationships. The Brides of March was published in April 2007.

When she’s not up to her elbows in dishes, driving kids across town, or trying to find something funny to write about the flu, she paints portraits of dogs and horses. She lives with her spouse, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse. You can read all about it on her blog, That Lesbian Mom Next Door.

The marketability of the unexpected, by guest blogger Mary Hutchings Reed


Welcome back to our ongoing-but-episodic series on the various species of censorship authors today face. While we’re going to be talking about formal, state-sponsored censorship later in this series, this month, I’ve asked a number of the most interesting authors I know to share their thoughts on ways in which writers are discouraged from writing what they want — and how they want.

Today, I am delighted to introduce the brilliantly incisive Mary Hutchings Reed, author of the startling COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN a Star’s “Hot Book of the Week.” Based on Mary’s personal knowledge of what goes on behind those beautifully venerred law firm doors, lawyer Kathleen Hannigan shrewdly plays the partnership game with her whole heart until she is called to testify in a sex discrimination suit and is forced to choose between her partners and her principles.

A prolific writer, Mary writes across a wide variety of categories, from novels to short stories (including one in the most recent issue of Ars Medica to, believe it or not, a well-received musical comedy about golf. But her first novel is why I blandished her into speaking to us today.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like Mary, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is.

Why might that have proven problematic for the book at the marketing stage? Well, remember our chat a few weeks ago about book categories, those conceptual containers into which a manuscript must fit in order to be marketable to a major US publisher? While the industry is always looking for fresh book concepts, as well as new spins on well-worn stories, it’s sometimes difficult to convince agents and editors that an audience exists for a kind of book that doesn’t fit comfortably into any of those boxes.

Why, you ask? By definition, the only way to demonstrate positively that there are readers already eager to buy a story would be the successful recent publication of a similar story, right? So how one prove that readers would want to buy a particular kind of book, but have not yet hat the chance.

COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN was not the kind of book agents and editors tend to expect people with Mary’s staggeringly impressive credentials to write — and this made it a rather problematic to market as well. But I’ll let Mary tell you all about that. (If after you read today’s post, you want to learn more about CKH’s very interesting road to publication, please see my interview series on the subject beginning here.)

I shall only add this: women writers (especially good literary ones like Mary) often get pigeonholed, as any agented mainstream or literary fiction writer who has been stunned to find her work summarily recategorized as women’s fiction can attest. If a writer is female and so is the author, yet the novel is not genre fiction, that category assignment tends to be automatic.

And that can be limiting, because within women’s fiction, a protagonist is expected first and foremost to be likable. Of course, depending upon genre, all protagonists are subject to the criticism of not being likable Which makes some sense, since the reader is going to need to feel positively enough about the protagonist in order to want to follow him or her as the plot unfolds, right? Yet as those of you who have been pitching, querying, or submitting a novel or memoir centered on a strong female protagonist may already know from personal experience, highly educated female characters — like, say, lawyers — or ones engaged in professions where aggressiveness is a positive trait — like, say, lawyers — are often, if not dismissed out of hand as not particularly likable, are at least under suspicion of soon becoming so. That can be very limiting for a writer trying to produce a convincing protagonist acting within a realistic present-day work situation.

I just mention.

Please join me in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Mary Hutchings Reed. Take it away, Mary!


My first novel, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, was a disappointment to literary agents. I was a lawyer. I was female. I was from Chicago. Unread, they’d anointed me the next Scottie Turow or at least Scottoline.

But I let them down. I’d written a novel about the life of a woman lawyer in a powerful law firm—the life of any person, actually, who has to overcome the handicap of being different in order to succeed — I’d not written the novel they were looking for, a legal thriller by woman lawyer.

Adding insult to injury, more than one said how well-written CKH was, but lamented that it had a very limited audience. When I had the chance to speak with agents at literary conferences, I heard comments like, “Who wants to read about a woman lawyer in a law firm?”

My first defense of course was that there were more than 300,000 women lawyers in this country, and another couple hundred thousand paralegals, and they all had mothers and friends (check Facebook) and secretaries and husbands and brothers and fathers who might want to know what their little girl’s life was life, especially in the early years of women in law. (I also knew, from readers of the novel in manuscript form, to know that much of what was true in the seventies and eighties continues to plague women in the profession today, although perhaps in more insidious, less visible ways.)

My second response, of course, was just that Kathleen Hannigan happens to a strong and interesting woman character attempting to exercise some power over her own destiny—certainly a universal-enough theme. (It hadn’t occurred to me, until Anne asked to guest here, that “powerful woman character” was itself a no-no, but it may be.)

“Yes, but it’s not a thriller.”
One could draw several different conclusions from my first encounter with the gatekeepers. You could conclude that publishers and literary agents aren’t interested in strong female characters or women characters wielding power. You could conclude that lawyers should stick to lawyering, with the exception of Turow, Grisham, Scottoline and other former prosecutors (or criminal defense lawyers) who can translate their blood-and-guts experiences into suspenseful (and commercially viable) plots.

You could conclude, quite rightly that practicing law at that powerful law firm is a helluva lot more lucrative than writing novels.

On the other hand, you could conclude that if a novel is that limited in its appeal, it ought to be self-published, since the audience—only half a million, off the top!—is also easily targeted. You could also conclude that if you a writer, you write; you write about the things that interest you and worry later about the commercial viability of your work product.

Luckily for me, I drew these last two conclusions, publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan in the fall of 2007, and going on to write six more novels, two of which are now placed with an agent, April Eberhardt of Reece Halsey North.

(OK, these new novels are not about lawyers, but they are about strong women characters — a street musician and a mother dealing with her daughter’s sex-change operation in a small town. My agent was intrigued with these stories, even though I warned her they were doomed to failure: How many street musicians are there? Surely, not even half a million. And small towns? Lots, of course, but people don’t read books there, do they? And they certainly don’t buy books–they go to the library!)

Self-publishing Courting Kathleen Hannigan was a wonderful experience—I get new sales every day and “fan” mail from women of my generation (Yale Law ’76) thanking me for telling their story, for validating their experiences, for writing the social history of women in law so that today’s young women might understand how hard fought were their maternity leaves and diversity committees and mentoring programs.

I also get letters from audiences I hadn’t considered: a thirtyish insurance broker who serves the legal industry, a sixty-year old gay partner at a big firm who identifies with the story because, he, too, felt he was living a “double life” in the seventies, trying to be himself and to be the person the law firm assumed him to be.

So, I’ve learned that I was right about the audience for the book, and I was wrong to give heed to the “censors.” Nurses, secretaries, boyfriends, fathers, women in corporations—all have found Kathleen Hannigan to be a character they could relate to, admire, cry with, root for. If I’ve made a mistake in marketing Courting Kathleen Hannigan, it was in listening to the literary agents/censors who dubbed the book “for women lawyers only.” (Most of the reviews on Amazon, for instance, are from attorneys.)

In marketing the book, I concentrated there; I have not reached out broadly to corporate women generally, and only recently sent out a mailing to book clubs, joined Facebook, etc. (Visit my website for the book club questions/fact sheet.)

The nice thing about self-publishing: nothing stops me from doing now what I maybe should’ve done before — having now glimpsed how my thinking about my own book was warped by other people’s characterizations of it, I can do something about it. I can reach out to non-lawyer readers and assure them that if they are looking for a book about a powerful woman character (and given that you read Anne Mini’s blog, you probably like such characters), they should rush off to Amazon and buy now — either paperback or Kindle!

The point is, I suppose, that when you are aware of censorship, you can respond to it. The more insidious is the censorship that seeps in to our consciousness, as with my marketing of my first novel.

As writers, we need to be on-guard against the censorship of the marketplace, the censorship that could prevent our strong women characters from making it to the page in the first place. It would’ve been easy to conclude that the only book the publishing world wanted from me was a legal thriller, and I suppose I could have learned enough and borrowed enough from the genre to have turned one out.

But that’s not who I am as a writer; crime stories, like criminal law, don’t interest me, except on TV when I’m too worn out to pay attention to anything else. Strong women, women who take charge of their lives, women who seek power and women who wield power—they do intrigue me, and I enjoy meeting them, both real and imagined.

So, in order to write my second novel, and the third, and each one up to the seventh, which is in progress as we blog, I’ve had to forget the market, forget that I’m a lawyer, ignore those expectations for what a woman lawyer from Chicago will write about, and write.


marys-photo-jpeg.jpgEver since turning 40 a few years ago, Mary Hutchings Reed Mary has been trying to become harder to introduce, and, at 57, she finds she’s been succeeding. Her conventional resume includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brown University (both completed within the same four years, and she still graduated Phi Beta Kappa), a law degree from Yale, and thirty-one years of practicing law, first with Sidley & Austin and then with Winston & Strawn, two of the largest firms in Chicago. She was a partner at both in the advertising, trademark, copyright, entertainment and sports law areas, and now is Of Counsel to Winston, which gives her time to write, do community service and pursue hobbies such as golf, sailing, tennis, and bridge.

For many years, she has served on the boards of various nonprofit organizations, including American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, Off the Street Club and the Chicago Bar Foundation. She currently serves on the board of the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago (and chair of its fundraising committee); Steel Beam Theatre, and her longest-standing service involvement, Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

Her current book, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN, is available on Amazon or directly from the author herself on her website.

Ducking Responsibility: Details to Include in your Pet Memoir and a Topic You Might Want to Leave Out by guest blogger Bob Tarte


Welcome to the second installment of my periodic series on censorship issues large and small, concentrating especially on ways writers are discouraged from writing on or what they want. As you may recall from last week, I’ve asked a number of interesting authors to share their thoughts about subtle censorship — and I’ve been blown away by their enthusiastic and generous response.

I’m especially delighted to bring you today’s guest blogger, the inimitable and hilarious Bob Tarte, author of the brilliant pet memoirs ENSLAVED BY DUCKS and FOWL WEATHER. Bob’s got a great voice, highly personalized, an essential for effective memoir — anyone seriously interested in writing humorous memoir should take a gander (so to speak) at his seemingly effortless wit.

In case those of you who are not comedy writers are wondering why: there’s nothing more difficult than appearing to be spontaneously funny; it takes great art.

Those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while may recall Bob’s name: his is one of my standard examples of a fabulous author bio. If you haven’t yet written your bio (and you should be thinking about it, if you are querying or submitting; it’s not the kind of project that benefits from being tossed together at the last minute), you might want to check his out: in a scant few paragraphs, he manages not only to showcase his writing credentials beautifully, but also create an indelible impression of a fascinatingly quirky personality.

But let’s get to the question doubtless on everyone’s mind: what’s a pet memoir, you ask?

I’ll let Bob’s books speak for themselves — or at least the publisher’s blurbs do it for them. Let’s start with his first book, ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, to which I’m told Patricia Heaton from “Everybody Loves Raymond” has already bought the film rights:

enslavedbyducksjacketEnslaved By Ducks
How One Man Went from Head of the Household to Bottom of the Pecking Order

When Bob Tarte left the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan for the country, he was thinking peace and quiet. He’d write his music reviews in the solitude of his rural home on the outskirts of everything.

Then he married Linda. She wanted a rabbit. How much trouble, he thought, could a bunny be?

Well, after the bunny chewed his way through the electrical wires and then hid inside the wall, Bob realized that he had been outwitted. But that was just the beginning. There were parrots, more rabbits, then ducks and African geese. The orphaned turkeys stranded on a nearby road. The abandoned starlings. The sad duck for sale for 25 cents.

Bob suddenly found himself constructing pens, cages, barriers, buying feed, clearing duck waste, spoonfeeding at mealtime. One day he realized that he no longer had a life of quiet serenity, but that he’d become a servant to a relentlessly demanding family: Stanley Sue, a gender-switching African grey parrot; Hector, a cantankerous shoulder-sitting Muscovy duck; Howard, an amorous ring-neck dove; and a motley crew of others. Somehow, against every instinct in him, Bob had unwittingly become their slave.

He read all the classic animal books — The Parrot Who Owns Me, The Dog who Rescues Cats, Arnie the Darling Starling, That Quail Robert, The Cat Who Came for Christmas — about the joys of animals, the touching moments. But none revealed what it was really like to live with an unruly menagerie.

Bob Tarte’s witty account reveals the truth of animal ownership: who really owns who, the complicated logistics of accommodating many species under one roof, the intricate routines that evolve, and ultimately, the distinct and insistent personalities of every animal in the house – and on its perimeter. Writing as someone who’s been ambushed by the way in which animals — even cranky ones — can wend their way into one’s heart, Bob Tarte is James Herriott by way of Bill Bryson.

Then there’s FOWL WEATHER, one of NPR’s Nancy Pearl’s Under-the-Radar Books for January 2008. Quoth Madame Nancy: “If you’re longing for a book that will make you laugh out loud, then run, don’t walk, to the nearest library or bookstore and pick up a copy of Bob Tarte’s Fowl Weather.”

Before you lose yourself in daydreaming about receiving a review like that, cast your eyes over the official blurb:

fowlweatherjacketFowl Weather
How Thirty-Nine Animals and a Sock Monkey Took Over My Life

Bob Tarte’s second book, Fowl Weather, returns us to the Michigan house where pandemonium is the governing principle, and where 39 animals rule the roost. But as things seem to spiral out of control, as his parents age and his mother’s grasp on reality loosens as she battles Alzheimer’s disease, Bob unexpectedly finds support from the gaggle of animals around him. They provide, in their irrational fashion, models for how to live.

It is their alien presences, their sense of humor, and their unpredictable behaviors that both drive Bob crazy and paradoxically return him to sanity. Whether it’s the knot-tying African grey parrot, the overweight cat who’s trained Bob to hold her water bowl just above the floor, or the duck who bests Bob in a shoving match, this is the menagerie, along with his endlessly optimistic wife Linda, that teaches him about the chaos that’s a necessary part of life.

No less demanding than the animals are the people who torment Bob and Linda. There’s the master gardener who steps on plants, the pet sitter applicant who never met an animal he didn’t want to butcher, and a woman Bob hasn’t seen since elementary school who suddenly butts into his life.

With the same biting humor and ability to capture the soul of the animal world that made Enslaved by Ducks such a rousing success, Bob Tarte shows us that life with animals gives us a way out of our small human perspectives to glimpse something larger, more enduring, and more wholly grounded in the simplicities of love — even across species lines.

Speaking of radio, Bob also hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that is, he says, ostensibly about exotic pets, but as frequently lapses into “a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters.” It’s well worth a listen, whether you own pets or not.

As clever souls among you may well have gathered by now, I’m a great admirer of Bob’s work — which is currently available both on Amazon US, with a different cover on Amazon Canada and Amazon UK, and, for the indie bookstore-minded, Powell’s, should you be interested. However, that’s not the only reason that I’m genuinely tickled to present his guest post today as a combination Orthodox Easter treat (it’s Sunday, in case you were wondering; like many another nice Greek-American girl, I’m cooking up a storm even as you read this) and reward to all of you for having made it successfully through my recent very dense HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED, ANYWAY? series.

When Bob and I were discussing his guest post, I realized something startling: I have literally never run a post about how an author might handle readers’ responses to his work. How on earth had I missed the topic of the fan letter — and the anti-fan letter? Bob has been kind enough to remedy this oversight — and to give us his insight on how seemingly uncontroversial topics can abruptly bloom into a forest of unexpected feedback.

So join me, please, in a big round of applause for today’s guest blogger, Bob Tarte. Take it away, Bob!


I write humorous books about pet ducks and bunnies. And I get hate mail.

Most of the comments from readers of Enslaved By Ducks and Fowl Weather josh me about spoiling our animals, and deservedly so. My wife Linda used to sing a lullaby to our grumpy rabbit Binky. And we once kept a goose named Liza on our front porch for an entire summer while nursing her through a lung infection — plying her with bowls of duck pellets, dandelion greens, water, and gourmet-quality mud.

So I’m surprised when I’m occasionally scolded for not lavishing enough care upon our pampered critters. And a few times, I’ve been accused of outright animal abuse.

“You People Make Me Sick”
Binky died from an unknown malady after acting listless for a few days. Linda rushed him to the vet when he suddenly grew worse. After we had buried him, I was so distraught that I constructed a neurotic backyard monument to him complete with winding walking paths.

We hadn’t realized that once a bunny shows signs of illness, it is often too late to help. We had read books on keeping rabbits, phoned the breeder frequently for help, and did our best for him. But this was in the pre-Internet era when life’s mysteries were further than a Google search away. We know much more about our critters now, though this doesn’t make us feel any better about past mistakes.

Maybe I should have included a disclaimer to this effect. A reader responded to Binky’s story in Enslaved By Ducks by sending me a sheet on basic rabbit care adorned with a sticky-note that said, “You people make me sick.”

The same book contains the story of Weaver, a starling we rescued who was unable to fly. We had just started raising and releasing orphaned songbirds for Wildlife Rehab Center in Grand Rapids, and Linda successfully brought Weaver and his siblings to a state of ear-splitting good health.

She fed them the standard-recipe formula that rehabbers use with insectivorous birds: kitten kibbles, pureed chicken baby food, a squirt of liquid vitamins, and water, all slushed together in a blender. Weaver eventually took wing and left us. But a reader emailed me, outraged and frothing at the keyboard that we had fed him such a concoction. “I would bring charges against you if I could,” she wrote.

Because of comments like these — as well as an online review criticizing Enslaved By Ducks as a lousy ‘how-to’ book, though I had written it as a ‘how-not-to’ book — I find myself over-explaining things these days rather than assuming that readers will realize we’re not secretly running a taxidermy service here. But there’s a stronger reason for over-explaining than staving off criticism from the occasional malcontent. I want to decrease the odds of my contributing to anyone’s animal mishap.



Inoculate Yourself
Here’s an example of what I’m blathering on about. I’m writing a book about our six cats called The Funnel of Happiness. My sister Joan and her husband Jack with their 12 cats make several appearances, beginning with Jack live-trapping three feral cats with the help of a wireless video camera and the hindrance of many sleepless nights.

Once the cats are settled on the front porch, and after one of the females unexpectedly has kittens, Joan and Jack take them successively to the vet to get them spayed or neutered. Before releasing them into the house to mingle with Winston, Gizmo, Mimi, Linus, Libby Lou, and Max, they also have them tested for feline leukemia.

I mention this fact more than once in The Funnel of Happiness, but not because it contributes to my madcap narrative. I include it because I don’t want a single reader to introduce a feline leukemia-positive kitty into their home and endanger their other cats due to information that I failed to include.

Some details, however, are probably best excluded from a pet book.

In Fowl Weather I chronicled a horrendous July in which five of our animals died, including a Muscovy duck who managed to hang himself in the fencing while trying to get at a rival in an adjacent pen, and two khaki Campbell ducks that fell victim to a burrowing raccoon.

A reader chided me for being reckless about housing our animals, and he was right at least in the case of the industrious raccoon, but was fetching from afar when it came to the suicidal duck. We’ve taken steps to make the recurrence of these occurrences improbable, but it’s impossible to plan for everything.

This past March we lost more birds to a predator. I opened the barn one Saturday morning and was shocked to discover a dead and partially eaten hen on the floor. I didn’t see how any animal could have gotten inside, so I decided that the elderly chicken had succumbed to natural causes, and a rat, perhaps, had taken advantage of the situation. When closing the barn that evening, I checked the shadows for a lurking raccoon, then took care to batten down all hatches. The next morning two more hens had been killed.

Mink Attack
The banks of the Grand River are usually 500 feet from us. But they raised their skirts and scuttled to within 100 feet of our barn, thanks to an early March snowmelt and lots of rain. A mink apparently moved forward with the flowing water. We deduced this after our handyman Gary looked over the dead hens and concluded that an animal with a small mouth had killed them — and after a buddy of our neighbor’s reported seeing a mink cross his driveway after dark.

With Gary’s help, I fortified an old, unused chicken coop that occupies a corner inside the barn, covering the open side with chicken wire and plugging up any cracks and holes large enough to wiggle a couple of fingers through — because minks can weasel in almost anywhere. Linda examined the outside of the barn, identifying a slit in a window frame here, a knocked out knothole there, which I sealed as I best as I could.

Our rehabber friends weren’t encouraging, though. If a mink or weasel really wants to get inside, there’s little you can do to keep it out — especially if you house your ducks and chickens in a 100-year-old barn that’s not exactly airtight. Herding our birds into the coop, keeping the lights on, and playing a talk radio station for a few nights paid off, because we didn’t lose another bird.

In addition to shoring up structural security and setting live traps for the mink, we took a more direct and drastic step. We hired our friend Charlie to stand guard with his .22 rifle for a couple of hours after sunset the first two nights with our blessing to blast the mink into fur hat-dom if it reappeared.

I mention Charlie’s sentry duty in the “Mink Attack” episode of my podcast What Were You Thinking? for PetLifeRadio.com. And I’m planning on working the mink story into my cat book, which funnels in tales of our other animals. But I haven’t made up my mind whether or not to include Charlie’s contribution. It’s probably best to leave it out. Many people who read pet memoirs are opposed to killing animals under any circumstances.

I’m with these folks in spirit. But I loved the hens that died. They were delightful creatures who greeted me at the barn door for treats each evening, pressing so close that I had to carefully wade through the flock. So, in a choice between losing more chickens or forfeiting a mink, I picked the hens, or would have, had it come down to that choice. Charlie never caught a glimpse of the nocturnal marauder. The river receded, and our birds once again have the full run (and flight) of the barn each night.

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

Victor, Juanita, and Two Tone

It’s Hopeless, So Just Give Up
In the end, you can write and write and write, but people will still read into your book whatever they want to.

At the beginning of Fowl Weather I include a cast of characters, because our many animals (36 at the time) are hard for readers to keep track of. I grouped the cast under three headings: ‘Nonhuman’ for animals, ‘Humans’ for us lesser beings, and ‘Inhumans’ for entities like the telephone that have power over our lives. Just for a gag, I put my friend Bill Holm in the ‘Nonhuman’ category to emphasize his standing as an annoyance.

A book reviewer for a North Carolina newspaper was generous in her positive comments about Fowl Weather. And she chuckled about the scenes that featured my “imaginary friend Bill Holm.”

Being imaginary came as quite a bombshell to the real-life Bill Holm, who insists that he exists, and if he doesn’t, people who have heard him speak when he accompanies me on book signings are due for intensive therapy. Apart from the joke in the cast of characters, nothing in the book suggests that Bill is merely a product of my imagination, even though from time to time I find myself wishing that he were.

That critic accurately recounted all other facts about Fowl Weather in her review, unlike another who groused that she found it impossible to finish the book because of its supposed prejudice against the elderly. Ignoring the fact that I’m hardly in the bloom of youth myself, the comment is breathtaking considering that a major thread of the memoir is my mom’s fight with Alzheimer’s disease and my family’s efforts to help her. I’ve received countless emails from readers who are going through a similar situation with a family member, and to a person they have appreciated how I treat the subject.

A few years ago, Linda ran an ad in our local paper seeking help with a strenuous landscaping job. One man who applied had an obvious physical impairment that made it difficult for us to imagine how he could perform the work. When I wrote about the incident in Fowl Weather, I didn’t want readers in our community to say, “Oh my, gosh, that’s so-and-so,” so I disguised the man by making him asthmatic.

I also often play fast and loose with the gender and location of our vets, since there are so few avian veterinarians in our county and they could be readily identified. Nevertheless, I get emails that say, “Hey, we go to the same guy.”

Anyway, that critic who accused me of age discrimination decided that my passage about the asthmatic was more evidence of my grudge against the elderly, even though the age of the fellow was never alluded to in any way.

I should have noted in Fowl Weather that he was in his forties, and I should have taken pains to emphasize Bill Holm’s corporeality, too.



Unbearable Recklessness
This brings me back to the reader who posted the online comment that we lost some of our animals due to substandard housing. The afternoon of the second mink attack, Linda took a walk through the woods behind our house by sticking to the high ground (which I need to learn to do in my books). Spotting what she thought was a crow’s nest in a tree, she focused her binoculars and backed slowly away after realizing that the big brown heap was, in fact, a bear.

I didn’t believe her at first. We’re way too far south in Michigan for bears, but I saw the sleeping animal myself and backed away at a speedier clip than she had.

In the fifteen years that we’ve been keeping ducks and hens in our barn, we’ve never had problems with a mink until this spring. I’ll explain this in The Funnel of Happiness, of course, partly to alert other poultry keepers of a potential problem if they live near a river, and also to ward off criticism that we were reckless enough not to have identified every possible element that might go wrong in our lives.

But what if the bear had come crashing through the woods to tear our backyard goose pen apart as if it had been made of matchsticks? What potential havoc might Michigan’s version of Bigfoot wreak on the outdoor pets? Shouldn’t we anticipate these potential threats and act accordingly?

I’m afraid I can’t answer these questions. I’m too busy at the moment. I’ve started work on a meteor deflection screen for the top floor of the house to protect our parrots on the first floor, and I’ll definitely include the plans in the appendix of my next book.

I just hope I’m not overdoing the over-explaining. It’s humorous pet book I’m writing, after all.

bobtarteBob Tarte and his wife Linda live on the edge of a shoe-sucking swamp near the West Michigan village of Lowell. When not fending off mosquitoes during temperate months and chipping ice out of plastic wading pools in the depths of winter, Bob writes books about his pets, namely Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather. He’s currently working on a book about his six cats called The Funnel of Happiness.

Bob has written the Technobeat world music review column for The Beat magazine since 1989 and posts his columns at . He has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Miami New Times newspapers.

He hosts a podcast for PetLifeRadio.com called What Were You Thinking? that’s supposedly about ‘exotic pets’ as a general topic, but just as often turns into a chronicle of life with his own troublesome critters. For a direct link to Bob’s show, click here.)

Bob and Linda currently serve the whims of over 50 animals, including parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, a rabbit, doves, cats, and hens. They also raise and release orphan songbirds (including woodpeckers) for the Wildlife Rehab Center, Ltd. in Grand Rapids and have the scars to prove it.

Visit Bob Tarte’s website for photos of Bob, Linda, and the animals, information about Bob’s books, links to Bob’s music review website and pet podcast, Bob’s email address, and several totally useless videos.


I Need a Hero! by guest blogger Eileen Cronin


Hello, everyone –
I have always been very interested in every aspect of censorship, from the official variety where a government chooses to jail authors it considers seditious to groups yanking a book from the shelves to destroy all available copies of it to aspiring writers being discouraged from writing about certain topics — or even about mainstream topics in non-mainstream ways — to the self-censorship that leads writers to avoid saying certain things in print. I could go on about it all day; it fascinates me.

However, since a blog is, by definition, one writer yammering at great length on her chosen topics, I thought I would open up the conversation for the next couple of months, at least from time to time, to hear what some other writers have to say on the subject. To this end, I have been busily soliciting many interesting authors to contribute guest blogs on how various aspects of censorship affect the writing life.

You’re going to be hearing from them periodically in the weeks to come, I’m delighted to report. There’s also going to be a contest, some door prizes, a book review, and what I hope will be a genuinely illuminating interview, but you’ll hear about all that when the time is ripe. For now, let me introduce the first guest blogger in my subtle censorship series, Eileen Cronin.

Eileen has the kind of writing credentials that make query letter-writers drool. An assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, she’s currently in the running for the coveted Pushcart Prize. Last year, she won the Washington Writing Prize; she has thrice been a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

Currently, her novel, Orphan Sanctuary, is a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. If you want to help out with the judging, download her entry (as well as any others that might interest you, of course) and write a review before April 15.

I asked Eileen to write the first guest post in this series for a couple of reasons. First, I knew that I would not agree with everything she would say, something that strikes me as quite appropriate for this series. I want guest bloggers who will disagree with me. (And it turned out that I was right that we would not see eye-to-eye on the post: I wouldn’t characterize Amy Tan as infamous, for instance; my understanding of the 1970s film term blaxpoitation is quite different from hers, and as a long-time fan of actor Peter Dinklage, I’m quite surprised to hear that anyone would have had a problem with his role in Elf. But apparently we both rolled our eyes and cried, “Oh, come on!” at precisely the same point in The Poisonwood Bible.)

Another reason has to do with why I, at least, rolled my eyes at The Poisonwood Bible: I’ve noticed that there are not all that many complex disabled characters turning up in novels these days. One of the two protagonists in Eileen’s novel — yes, the one that’s up for the Amazon award, so you may read an excerpt for free here — is an amputee, a complex character who sidesteps the vast array of stereotypes surrounding disability.

Who better to ask, then, to talk to us about how and why fiction readers aren’t seeing many well-rounded disabled characters of late? Take it away, Eileen!


If you were pressed to come up with the names of five contemporary writers with physical disabilities, could you do it? Now, how about writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

Are you scratching your head? I am, and I have a physical disability.

Memoir is what most often comes to mind with respect to writers with physical disabilities, and there are some lovely examples. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, written by the former editor-in chief of Elle Magazine Jean-Dominique Bauby, is one such book.
5cd0228348a033301b1f3110lAfter his massive stroke caused a type of paralysis known as locked-in syndrome, Bauby dictated his book to a transcriber using the blink of an eye. His prose is incisive and ethereal as he guides us on his journey inward with the curiosity of a New World explorer.

But physical disabilities should not be limited to memoir nor should writers with physical disabilities. I’ve heard it said in writers’ workshops that disability is a “subject” best handled in memoir, as if disability had no place in fiction. I’ve also heard workshop leaders advise that characters with disabilities should remain secondary or tertiary characters so as not to bog the story down. But writers of fiction tend to write about what they know, so where does that leave the fiction writer with a physical disability?

In my case, I have written a novel with an amputee as the protagonist, Orphan Sanctuary. An excerpt is now online as one of the quarter-finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards — reviews are welcome! — and it was a finalist in the Novels-in-Progress category of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom competition.

It was difficult to write this story, as the choice of protagonists spawned from my own experience as an amputee. I know that students of writing are encouraged to write the “universal” story and in the past that has been interpreted as: Caucasian, college-educated, able-bodied heterosexuals. Those attitudes are shifting as we see more stories published by writers from different cultures.

Every year at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a summer workshop, Amy Tan, an infamous Chinese-American writer, generously allows the administrators to post a selection of her own rejection letters for all new writers to witness. My personal favorite is one from a publisher who questioned why Tan would rely so heavily on the “Chinese idiom.” Tan’s success proves the point that in the past stories about characters from cultures outside of Caucasian were called “ethnic stories,” today they are called “bestsellers.”

But writers with physical disabilities, even characters with physical disabilities are not nearly as visible.

And disability, by the way, is not as “marginal” as it has been characterized in the publishing industry. Given that estimates of persons with a disability (of any kind) could amount to up to twenty percent of the U.S. population, with numbers as high as fifty million, it’s likely then that disability affects most Americans, if not directly, then at least through a familial or personal connection. Disability is in fact “universal.”

And as persons with physical disability are more likely to be restricted to more sedentary activities, reading and/or writing perhaps occur more commonly in this population. I have only logic to rely on in this case—logic and Laura Hillenbrand.
Hillenbrand, the author of Seabiscuit, was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr, also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a disease which often limits a person’s physical activity substantially. She has said in interviews that in becoming disabled she was forced to be more introspective; she had more time to read and write.

Other than Hillenbrand, where are all the writers of fiction with physical disabilities?

To find a few, I Googled “physically disabled writers” and the only contemporary writer I found was a woman named Noria Jablonski.
534100367_mJablonski’s collection of short stories, Human Oddities, has been compared to the photography of Diane Arbus, although in my estimation Jablonski’s strong suit is more her ear than her eye. Ironic when you consider that her disability is a partial hearing loss.

Jablonski is most often cited for her story, “Pam calls her mother on five-cent Sundays,” which is about Siamese twins, Fern and Rose, and this is an excerpt from a scene in a beauty salon where Fern and Rose are having their hair done:

“If we could,” said Fern, “we’d go back to being show folks. But live shows are kaput. People look down on them. Also, they’re so expensive to run. Now, if you’re lucky, maybe you could get a two-headed baby in a pickle jar—”
“Or a five-legged cow,” said Rose.
“Or one of those kids with a unicorn horn,” said Fern…

This dialogue works beautifully because the characters lack the self-consciousness that most would assume as part and parcel of being a Siamese twin. The characters are fresh, and while provocative, they are humorous and enchanting. The dialogue is musical.

It might even be that the driving force behind that marvelous ear is Jablonski’s hearing loss. Perhaps she hears things differently than most of us?

Jablonski’s work is noteworthy for bringing the physically disabled from the unmentionable and invisible into the spotlight. Still, her writing might also be criticized as another form of sensationalism; and many with physical disabilities could justifiably argue that there is a demand for characters whose physical disability is only one of many traits instead of the defining feature.

For me, the challenge in the invention of a hero is in developing a psyche, a cohesive blend of unique traits mixed with irony. Even more difficult is the task of unveiling humanity in its most compassionate light.

There have been recent portrayals of characters with physical disabilities by more famous contemporary writers who have no known physical disability.
2534-1In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth includes Alvin, a World War II veteran with an amputation and the all too familiar “chip on his shoulder,” the plague of so many amputees in novels. Heaped onto this chip is Roth’s fascination with the festering wounds on the amputation: a metaphor no more evolved than the concept of Heggedy Peg. In the end, the rotting limb becomes symbolic of a rotting soul.

What’s new in that? And what a shame. There were so many fascinating aspects of Alvin left undeveloped.

imgthe-poisonwood-bible-a-novel3In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver includes one twin, Adah Price, with hemiplegia (a paralysis on one side of the body). In doing so Kingsolver brings out a complex family dynamic: When disaster strikes, the twins’ mother grabs the able-bodied twin in the rush to evacuate, while the neurologically impaired twin has to survive on her own strength.

The scenario is beautifully rendered until the end of the book when the impaired twin grows up to become a neurologist and cures herself, which seems unlikely. Besides, it begs this question: Must a heroine be physically cured in order to make a viable heroine?”

For my money, the film industry has made more evolved choices than the publishing industry with regard to physically different characters in recent years. I doubt that this is due to an influx of screenwriters with physical disabilities, but somehow, disabled characters are sneaking in under the wire. My two favorite examples being: 3:10 to Yuma and The Station Agent.

3-10-to-yumaIn 3:10 to Yuma, the hero is an amputee (so of course I love it). The concept is realistic enough without being weighty and yet it’s dynamic. Christian Bale as the one-legged-rancher-turned-bounty-hunter is soulful. His character (seen in the photo as crouching on what must be his “good leg”) exudes both heteroerotic as well as homoerotic sensuality. The dialogue is classic Western with a down-on-luck spin that takes an unexpected twist when the hero turns out to be an amputee.

My favorite line from the movie is when Bale’s character speaks as a man who has been kicked around one too many times. He’s arguing to his wife that he’s going to become a bounty hunter because he’s tired of watching his boys go hungry, his wife go without, and his ranch fall apart; he says: “I been standin’ on one leg for three long years waitin’ for God to do me a favor…and he ain’t listenin.’”

He got me at “standin’ on one leg.”

stationagent_1And then there’s The Station Agent, a film about a very short man with a larger than life persona. This film made it clear to me that an enduring sense of integrity could be sexier to some than six-pack abs. Peter Dinklage’s wry, terse style is disarming. Even in films where he plays a self-effacing caricature of a “dwarf,” he dominates the screen and comes out with his dignity intact. Some would argue that he loses points for roles such as the “angry dwarf” in Elf but I would argue that once established as a noteworthy ensemble actor, Dinklage has created the freedom to laugh at himself.

And that really is what’s at stake for writers and even characters with disabilities. In fact, that is what’s at stake for any group that is marginalized by the “taboo” label.

For those of us in the physical disability taboo box, it’s cumbersome to argue after every stereotypical portrayal. If physical disability were treated as multifaceted in literature, then perhaps the disabled would feel less of an affront each time a stereotype creeps in. Physical disability would move (as race has) closer to the mainstream.

shaftConsider the movie Shaft, for example. The same film concept with a slightly different spin over three decades yielded a vastly different result. In 1971, Shaft was considered “Blaxploitation,” (a term coined in the seventies to describe films that exploited black actors). But the 2000 remake was a success. Why is that? It’s because in the period between those movies an increasing number of films featured African-Americans in multifaceted roles. By the year 2000, the stereotype had lost much of its power.

In advancing the storyline, the freedom of expression expands and we all feel a bit less constrained.

So maybe the publishing industry should give a closer look at physical disability. Take it seriously. Take it out of the closet. In doing so, we can all lighten up because we will have one less cultural taboo bogging us down.

And for those interested in accessing my novel, Orphan Sanctuary, please feel free to download it on Amazon!