Sunday, May 8, 2016

Being a Good Literary Citizen

Readers as well as aspiring and even experienced writers are often eager to be a part of the literary world, but might not realize exactly how they can contribute and support their favorite authors. Yet there are a number of ways to participate in a literary community. Think there’s not much you can do or that you’re too busy? Here are some practical ways to pay it forward and be a good literary citizen.

~ Use the “Like” Button on Facebook – It’s so easy to click on “like” on a Facebook post and it takes very little time out of your busy day. The more likes a post receives, the more traction it gets, and the more people will see it. So if your favorite author or a fellow writer has posted a blog post, some news about a new book or a reading, just click “like.” And clicking like doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you literally like something or “endorse” it. It can also just mean: I’m here, supporting you.

~ Favoriting and RT’ing on Twitter – In the same vein, you can easily select to make a post a favorite on Twitter. It only takes a second. Retweeting an author’s tweet is also an easy way to show your support without having to take the time to come up with your own tweet. And you can even retweet a writer’s tweet about another writer. The possibilities are endless and the time it takes is minimal.

~ Attend a Reading (But It’s Ok To Not Attend Every Reading) – There’s a lot of pressure on writers to support fellow writers by attending readings at bookstores, literary festivals, events, etc. And we writers do appreciate anyone and everyone who shows up. But sometimes we’re just overwhelmed with work and life or, frankly, just burnt out on literary events and can’t make that one more trek to the big book launch party. But you can still buy the author’s book. Or you can try making it to an event that’s later on down the line after the book’s been out awhile; the one at the venue that might not attract as many people, or at the odd time of day, the one on a rainy night at Christmas time when everyone’s too busy. The writer will surely appreciate this.

~ Take Photos – And if you do attend a reading or event, take some photos of the writer in action and post them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or your social media of choice. It’s another easy thing to do. You might not have time to write a book review or blog an interview, but this can give an author another valuable boost.

~ Buy the Book – Yes, buy the book if at all possible, but don’t buy it at a used bookstore—the author will get nothing out of that. And avoid borrowing the book from a friend or loaning your copy to your mom. Encourage people to buy their own copies to support the writer. If you can’t buy the book, request your library to stock it and check it out there. And if you can purchase the book, ask the writer what type of purchase will most benefit her. Yes, we want to support independent bookstores, but perhaps buying off the publisher’s online store (in the case of small and independent publishers, for example) might be more helpful in certain cases. Or if Amazon rankings are vitally important, it might be best to purchase the book there. Or buy a copy at a book signing at Costco. You never know. Ask the author what will help her the most.

~ Don’t Feel Guilty – We all get overwhelmed from time to time and have to take the time to care of ourselves. Don’t feel guilty if you just don’t have the time, money, energy, etc. If you can’t manage that blurb, tell the writer quickly so she won’t get her hopes raised. Give her a nice shout-out on social media instead. Don’t feel people are judging you or that you aren’t a good enough literary citizen. We’re all doing the best that we can and that’s what counts.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

5 Questions to Ask About Your Book’s Beginning

So you’ve finished the first draft of your novel or memoir—congratulations! Now you’re on the road to revision and you need to ask yourself some hard and pointed questions. Of course a good place to start the analysis of your manuscript is at the beginning. Your book’s opening pages are the place where you make a contract with your reader. You’ll want to draw her in and keep her reading. And if this reader is also an agent, making the best impression you can is even more important.

Ask yourself the following questions and make some notes on your manuscript. It doesn’t matter if you’re working with a hard copy or Scrivener or something in between—use what feels the most comfortable.

1 - Are you spending too much time warming up?

A lot of newer writers feel they must set the scene and prepare the reader for what’s to follow. Or they think that they need to warm up with a long description of the trees dotting the mountaintops and the clouds billowing in the sky before getting to the action. Am I saying that you can’t have some description in your beginning? Nope. But you need to get things moving—to not waste any time in getting to the interesting part of your story.
You don’t want to put your reader to sleep. Now there are some writers who are so skilled at their craft that they could make the dullest environmental impact statement riveting. I am not one of them and neither, probably, are you. So think about dispensing with the dull and irrelevant bits and don’t hesitate to get to the point. You can always fill in other details later if necessary. Show the action first and explain later.

2 - Is There An Inciting Incident or Triggering Event?

This is the interesting part (see above). A lot of time this will have to do with something that happens to your protagonist, not necessarily something he is actively pursuing. It can be, for example, when the dead body is discovered or when the protagonist receives an invitation to her college reunion or when a father receives a call that his son has just been arrested. The inciting incident or triggering event usually signals that the stability of the protagonist’s world is in jeopardy. Remember the Teletubbies? When something happened that wasn’t quite right, little Po was sure to say, “Uh-oh.” Make sure your beginning has an “uh-oh” moment or two.

3 – Is There Too Much Backstory?

Sometimes critique group members might complain that they want to know more about your protagonist. This can be a legitimate concern, but the trick is to not be bogged down in the beginning with lengthy explanations about the character’s background. If you can pull off a riveting opening and show your character in action with a problem at hand, you’ll find that readers will be patient enough to wait for more details that will fill in the blanks. You should be evoking the feeling that they’re in good hands with you as a writer, that you will be taking care of them in due time.

4 – Why Should the Reader Care?

A reader wants to feel that he is getting somewhere as he reads and not just experiencing a series of random events without any cause and effect. You should be evoking a feeling of forward momentum and emotional energy and urgency, and this is whether you’re writing a coming of age journey, a tale of suspense, or a love story. Of course not everything needs to be revealed immediately, but your reader needs to feel rest assured that there is a point to all of this and that it’s worth his while to keep going with your book. It’s a big question and it bears repeating: Why should the reader care?

 5 – Is That Prologue Really Necessary?

Yes, there are certain genres where it seems to be de rigueur that you start with a prologue. But often prologues can be red flags to agents. In the hands of a less skilled writer, they can simply be construed as a filling in of a plot point that should be employed elsewhere or not at all—or trying to fix a plot hole. Or giving a point of view of a mystery character who we don’t end up hearing from until 200 pages later and by then he’s long forgotten. And readers often skip prologues anyway. Think outside the box and see if you can’t employ your prologue’s information in another way or dispense with it altogether. Ask yourself objectively what it truly adds to your book.

Monday, April 25, 2016

14 Books That Can Help You Become a Better Writer

Back in the day when I was a budding novelist dying to get an agent and get published, I was always looking for the ANSWER. What did I need to do in order to write the best novel I could, the one that would finally get me an offer from an agent for representation and then get a book deal? What did I still have to learn? There had to be some secret that everyone else who’d gotten published (seemingly all my writer friends except me) seemed to know that I wasn’t privy to. Because I sure as hell wasn’t getting anywhere.

So I embarked on a journey of learning. Of critique groups, workshops, developmental editors, writing teachers, writers conferences, online networking, writing contests. And I read books on how to write fiction.

What a journey it’s been. By now I’m a published novelist. I have an MFA in Creative Writing and teach classes on how to write novels. I have my own manuscript consultation practice where I help authors make their novels and memoirs become the best they can be, and some clients have even seen their publishing dreams come true. This past February I was at the San Francisco Writers Conference as a panelist and moderator of several panels about writing and editing. I also acted as a consultant, where attendees could make an 8-minute appointment with me to pick my brain about their query letter, pitch, opening to their novel—whatever they needed. Frankly, I’m thrilled to be at this stage of my wild and crazy journey and being able to help writers.

No, there is no magic ANSWER and there’s no shortcut to writing a good novel. But there is all kinds of help out there if you know where to look for it. And while books on writing aren’t a panacea and there are no perfect ones, they can really help and inspire you as well.

So here’s a list that I share with my students. Some of these books have helped me personally, and some I know have helped other writers. Some are strictly about the craft of fiction, while others serve the purpose to inspire. Check them out and see which might resonate with you.

The Making of A Story – Alice LaPlante (highly recommended)
Beginnings, Middles and Ends – Nancy Kress
Fiction First Aid – Raymond Obstfeld
The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors – Catherine Wald
Writing the Breakout Novel – Donald Maass
Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction – Stephen Koch (highly recommended)
Conflict and Suspense – by James Scott Bell
The Art of Fiction – John Gardner
The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile – Noah Lukeman
Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go – Les Edgerton
Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction – Edited by Alan Cheuse and Lisa Alvarez
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life – Dani Shapiro
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott (highly recommended)
Revising and Self-Editing for Publication – James Scott Bell

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Wendy's Best Writing-Related Tweets from the Week of October 1

* Fiction Writers, Skip the Paris Cafes and Get a Good Pen - Word Craft -
Not so sure I want to give up Paris cafes and I hate writing my novels in longhand!

* Women, Men And Fiction: Notes On How Not To Answer Hard Questions : NPR -
I love this: “Nothing is more vexing than a question where 10 percent of the public discussion is spent trying to answer it and 90 percent is spent arguing about whether it matters. Such is the question of why, in many major publications, far more books by men are reviewed than books by women.”

* Why the Internet and Ebooks Are Changing Publishing and Writing for the Better:
Vitriol, fear and reactionary responses abound around the changes going on in publishing.

* 90+ Published Novels Began as NaNoWriMo Projects - GalleyCat
Every month is NaNoWriMo for me but I’m all for people participating!

* Being a cartoonist is a bit like being a writer of very, very short stories: The New Yorker
There are some funny New Yorker jokes about writing here.

*In defense of #chicklit: "I wrote a book about a woman, for women, and I’m proud." - Slate Magazine
Still people are forced to “defend” chicklit.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Expat Women in Asia Anthology: Call for Submissions

Editor Shannon Young is seeking contributions from expatriate women in East Asia for a new anthology from Hong Kong’s Signal 8 Press. The collection will feature the writing of women who are currently expatriates or who have previously lived in an East Asian country. For the purposes of this anthology, this includes Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and the ASEAN countries. All submissions should be creative non-fiction and/or travel memoir pieces that speak to the expat experience in modern East Asia. Potential topics include travel, work, relationships, gender roles, safety, family and repatriation. Stories should have a strong and personal narrative arc, not just travel guides or descriptions of the places where the writer has lived. The anthology strives to be as inclusive as possible and welcomes submissions from women from different parts of the world.

Submissions should be between approximately 2000 and 5000 words in length. Each writer will receive two copies of the completed anthology and a percentage of the royalties to be determined by the final number of contributors. Please send all submissions, with a brief paragraph about the author to Shannon [at] typhoon-media [dot] com. Submissions should be in Microsoft Word, .doc or .docx format, and in a standard font. The deadline for submissions is February 28, 2013. The anthology will be released in paperback and e-book formats in the spring of 2014.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


Today we’re celebrating the release of Julie L. Cannon’s novel Twang from Abingdon Press, about twenty-three-year old Jennifer Clodfelter’s journey from rags to riches as she pursues her dream of becoming a country singer in Nashville. Julie is the author of the award-winning Homegrown series, published by Simon & Schuster, described as “Southern-fried soul food.” Her novel, I’ll Be Home for Christmas made the CBA Bestseller Lit as well as Nielsen’s Top 50 Inspirational Titles. Her next novel, Scarlett Says, will hit the shelves in October 2013. Prolific Julie lives in Watkinsville, Georgia, and when she isn’t tending her tomato patch, she can be found listening to some great country music or teaching memoir-writing workshops. Recently she took some time out from her busy life to answer some questions…
Tell us about Twang and the inspiration behind it.
Conway Twitty said, “A good country song takes a page out of somebody’s life and puts it to music.” I’m a big country music fan and it seems every article I read from a star’s perspective has some bit about how their great songs spring from tortured times in their past. There’s a saying that you can’t be happy and write good songs. Then, I thought about how, for me, my writing is cathartic, and that is when I decided to write about a wounded girl named Jennifer Clodfelter, with a childhood straight from hell, who runs off to Nashville to sing and escape her past. But her manager convinces her to dig up those old bones and write hit songs from them. Ultimately, Twang is about how cathartic art is. My prayer is that this novel shows how the seemingly unredeemable things in life can be used for good. Fellow author Walt Larimore (Hazel Creek and Sugar Fork) says  – “Twang is powerful and moving . . . with profound insights into finding grace, even beauty in the ugliest memories and events.”
Who are your current favorite country music artists? And is there anyone in particular who Jennifer is based on?  
My current favorites are Alison Krauss and Josh Turner. But I feel as guilty saying this as I would naming any of my three children if someone were to ask: Which is your favorite child? I've got dozens of country music stars who are my favorites at different times for different reasons - from Glenn Campbell to Tanya Tucker.   

As for Jenny, she was inspired by Taylor Swift and Loretta Lynn. I borrowed Taylor Swift's intensity and Loretta Lynn's rags-to-riches story.

Which book(s) on craft have inspired you most throughout your writing career?
The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray, which relies heavily on dissecting one of my favorite novels, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist to guide a fledgling writer in sculpting a story. Next, the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Workshop (published 1996) which I poured over for years, and most recently, Donald Maass’s Writing The Breakout Novel.
Writers are usually big readers too. How do you make time for reading and what are you reading at the moment?
I rarely watch TV, and I steal time away from things like cleaning the house and cooking nutritional (time consuming) meals for my family. Here’s my motto: ‘A Tidy House is the Sign of a Misspent Life.’ Right now I’m reading Mia Farrow’s memoir, What Falls Away and Save Me From Myself by Brian “Head” Welch, former lead guitarist of Korn, and I just finished The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve. 
How do you approach writing a novel? Do an outline of the plot, start with a character or…?
I’m the belt-and-suspender type, and so I outline extensively. In The Weekend Novelist mentioned above, there’s an extensive examination of plotting which includes Aristotle’s Incline; a diagram/arrangement of the parts of your novel from the opening scene to the wrap up. I tape three pieces of blank paper together to make one long strip and then I hand-draw this ascending plotline and obsessively fill in each act and plot point and the catharsis, along with symbols and lists of scenes. Then, I write a long and detailed synopsis in the present tense.
Describe your writing routine and schedule.
I’m a lark married to an owl, and so, like today, I can hop out of bed while it’s still dark and get my 1,000-word minimum for the day done before noon, sometimes before my beloved even awakes! Then I try to handle stuff like marketing that uses another part of my brain. I’m not much good for writing or hawking my wares after 8 PM.  
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love, love, love reading, listening to music, and hanging out with my family and friends.
What is your advice for those who are looking to get their novel published?
Don’t be afraid to murder your darlings. By that, I mean to really LISTEN to criticisms from your writer’s group, from editors/publishing houses or agents who have rejected your work. When you do hear criticism, don’t get discouraged. Get right back up on that horse! Never stop studying your craft, read constantly, and write unceasingly.
What’s next for you?
Scarlett Says is coming out in October of 2013. It’s about a woman in her 30’s who suffers from extreme social anxiety. Here’s the elevator pitch: “Lonely, yet nervous in social situations, Atlantan Joan Meeler is the secret hostess of a wildly popular blog called Scarlett Says. She falls in virtual love, gets married on-line and enjoys much conjugal bliss in the virtual boudoir. When her husband decides to travel from Manhattan to Atlanta for the 75th anniversary of the film Gone With the Wind, Joan prays she can channel enough of her heroine’s feistiness to be able to come out from behind the keyboard.” It’s a story about the transforming power of words, both good and bad, and those vulnerabilities that hold us back from our potential.  
You can visit Julie at her website HERE, connect with her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @JulieLCannon. Here’s hoping you go triple platinum with Twang, Julie!

Thursday, June 21, 2012


I’m teaching another one of my “Strong Beginnings” classes on Saturday, July 28 from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm at Book Passage Corte Madera! This class is geared toward all levels of writers who are working on novels. Memoir and creative non-fiction writers will also find it helpful.

Making a good impression in the first five pages is crucial for the success of your novel, whether you want to keep a reader reading or are hoping to get an agent to offer representation. Common mistakes include starting the story in the wrong place, giving too much backstory or using an action scene that serves no purpose. In this class, we do what’s called a close reading of first chapters of a variety of successful published books. We analyze all the elements (pacing, characterization, style, tone, voice, structure, etc.) to understand what grabs a reader. Then we take a look at the first five pages of students' novels to see what works and what needs improvement.

Over the years, students have responded quite positively to this class, citing its practicality and usefulness as opposed to other creative writing classes that emphasize more abstract concepts that can’t always be applied to a student’s specific work. And the things you learn in this class can also help you with revising your entire novel.

Looking forward to seeing you there! You can sign up here: