Monday, January 30, 2012

Where Elizabeth Berg Finds Inspiration

I just finished reading Elizabeth Berg's captivating collection of short stories, Ordinary Life. I was drawn in immediately her portrayals of everyday men and women, struggling with the ups and downs of ordinary living and loving. The Boston Globe raved, "Elizabeth Berg's gift as a storyteller lies most powerfully in her ability to find the extraordinary in the ordinary, the remarkable in the everyday."

I think that could be a challenge for all of us writers: how can we imbue the ordinary with a sense of extraordinary in our work?

About ten years ago I was fortunate enough to get the chance to meet Elizabeth Berg when she gave a talk at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went up and introduced myself to her afterwards, and after she had signed my book -- her terrific novel Durable Goods -- I asked if she had any advice for a young writer like me. She gave me some of my most cherished writing advice, words I find myself turning to again and again: "First, please yourself." The older I get and the more I write, the deeper this advice rings true to me.

In an interview at the end of her story collection Ordinary Life, Berg discusses where she finds inspiration for her stories and novels:

Ideas come from life: what happens in mine, what I see happening in others', mixed with a great deal of imagination. I might see a person in a grocery store and build a whole character and life out of what's in her basket. I might read a newspaper story about a guy on a bus and build a family for him. I might get a phone call from an old boyfriend and it might raise a lot of "what if" questions that become material. I might watch people in a bar, overhear a piece of a conversation. material is all around, all the time. Pots are boiling on all four burners. The only thing I have to do is feel in the mood to cook, which I usually do. Once I get a vague idea, I let the story write itself. When I write, I operate as a writer and a reader both -- I never know what's going to happen.

Do you write this way, too -- as a "writer and reader both"? Or are you more of the outlining type? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section!

I'll close with a final passage from Elizabeth Berg's "Author's Note" at the end of Ordinary Life:

I love these stories the way I love my novels, which is rather how I love my children. My children are not perfect, but they are perfect. These stories are not perfect either, but they are the best I could do to portray certain life events, to illuminate certain ways of thinking, to illustrate the way we can get from here to there, or document some interesting insights. More than anything, they are meant to celebrate the extraordinary moments and events that make up ordinary life.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Part Two: Interview with Jeevan Sivasubramaniam

I am honored and delighted to have Jeevan Sivasubramaniam as my guest on the blog! I first "met" him on Twitter (follow him @EditorialHell) after becoming a fan of the informative and hilarious monthly newsletters he sends out for Berrett-Koehler Publishers. (Check out their website and subscribe to their newsletter here.) Berrett-Koehler is a publisher of nonfiction books and is a company dedicated to "creating a world that works for all." They are celebrating their 20th anniversary and also have a feature article in the latest issue of Publisher's Weekly:

Read on for an editor's insights on the writing and publishing process!

Some writers are anxious about today's publishing landscape-- the loss of many independent bookstores, the rise of ebooks. What are your thoughts about publishing today? Any advice for writers, particularly ones anxious about so much change?

The landscape is always changing in media and someone's always complaining. Back in the 1950s when there was a gradual shift to paperbacks, publishers said it was the end of the industry. I am old enough to remember when videotapes came on the market and everyone said that television was now dead because you could fast-forward through commercials so advertising would dry up. Traditional publishing is changing but I think there's a tremendous opportunity here if someone could just figure out the answer to the challenge. The challenge is this: people are reading more today than in any other time in history. They may not be reading books, but they are definitely reading -- mass quantities of it, in fact. Publishers are essentially generators of reading materials, and we are living in a time when people are reading more than ever before. Do you see how frustrating that is? Ideally, this should be our time to shine, not crash. So, writers, don't be anxious, but be innovative and don't restrict yourself to traditional mediums. Look what Amanda Hocking did by being innovative about how she created a market for her writing -- and sold over a million copies of her book (

For you as an editor, what makes a writer great to work with?

A genuine openness to guidance. I understand why writers are hesitant about letting someone get involved with their writing. Writing is the most personal thing we can create and we're inevitably going to be very protective and guarded about it. That said, you have to trust the editor because, quite honestly, you can't trust yourself. This is why surgeons don't operate on their own family -- a level of distance and objectivity is needed to really assess and edit a project and a writer's over-protectiveness is not going to help. Just as the even the best surgeon in the world will hand the scalpel over to a trusted colleague when it comes to operating on a family member, writers need to listen to their editors. Remember that an editor's job is to make the book the strongest it can be and so make the author look the best he or she can be. Editors' names do not appear anywhere on the book (unless they are specifically thanked in the acknowledgments) and no will ever know their role in creating a book, so authors should understand that editors are not in this business for personal gain or fame. They genuinely like what they do.

Do you have some favorite books that might be helpful for writers to read?
  • Elements of Style has always been the primer for any writer, I think.
  • On Writing Well by Zinser
  • And of course the instruction manual for language, The Chicago Manual of Style (though I hate that they keep revising it annually).
  • Also, my friend and author Mark Levy's book Accidental Genius: Using Writing to Generate Your Best Ideas, Insight, and Content.
Is there anything else you would like to add?

I was thinking of something clever to say here but I think that if I really wanted to help your readers, I would be better off saving the pithy remarks and instead saying I am happy to take any questions and will do my best to answer them. Just email them to me at and in the subject line, say "Question after reading Dallas' blog interview" so I'll know it's one of your folks.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Interview with Jeevan Sivasubramaniam, Managing Director, Editorial at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

I am honored and delighted to have Jeevan Sivasubramaniam as my guest on the blog today! I first "met" him on Twitter (follow him @EditorialHell) after becoming a fan of the informative and hilarious monthly newsletters he sends out for Berrett-Koehler Publishers. (Check out their website and subscribe to their newsletter here.) Berrett-Koehler is a publisher of nonfiction books and is a company dedicated to "creating a world that works for all." They are celebrating their 20th anniversary and also have a feature article in the latest issue of Publisher's Weekly:

Read on for an editor's insights on the writing and publishing process!

What would you like readers to know about you as an introduction?

Well, I'm the Managing Director for the Editorial Department here at Berrett-Koehler Publishers. I do work on acquiring a project or two here and there but by and large I am the chief administrator for the Editorial Department and handle a lot of the inter-departmental stuff. People never think of editorial departments as having administrators, but they actually need it more than anyone else because a company lives or dies by the acquisitions and decisions the editorial department makes. I am responsible for tracking all projects, drafting contracts, administrating editorial reviews, overseeing signings by the editors (and meeting various signings goals), handling author relationships, inter-departmental communications, legal and copyright concerns, communications with various Library of Congress offices, and a few other boring things. I am also given some leeway to do the initial legwork on acquiring some promising projects and authors and I usually pull in about two or three a year. Because I don't have a quota of signings like the other editors, I can be very selective and hold out for the most promising authors -- a luxury few editors can afford.

How did you get interested in editing and publishing?

I was originally interested in intellectual property and legal documentation but slowly gained an interest in copyright and publishing legal issues during my time with a legal services company after graduation from college. In grad school I worked with a professor as a graduate research assistant and her big task for me was to find a publisher for an anthology of plays by women from around the world. I had to educate myself as I went along and it was quite exciting. It was also downright frustrating as I saw how publishers can treat authors. Almost all authors you meet have an adversarial relationship with their publisher -- as if they consider each other as necessary evils. I felt publishers could do better, and also wanted to be a part of a better publishing model.

What grabs you as a reader?

A compellingly different way of looking at things. I say "compellingly" because just seeing something in a different way is not enough. As human beings, we are programmed to see things differently whether we like it or not -- that in itself is nothing too exciting. But some people see things that almost contradict what everyone else sees. To give an example, there are so many books on how to act on the here and now -- how the past is not relevant, only the present moment and what you choose to do with it. Then I met an author who actually felt that was simplistic and wrong. He felt that the past was the most valuable tool we had to shape our futures -- that the lessons from our regrets and things we would rather not think about are most important to this exercise. I liked that he was not afraid of going up against an entire movement (you know which authors I'm talking about and you know how big they are) and challenging how they advised people to do things. A colleague once told me that I'm always looking for a good fight when it comes to the books that I like. I think his assertion was spot-on. I like books that create trouble and make people question what they thought they knew.

Check back tomorrow for PART TWO of my interview with Jeevan!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Boost of Motivation for the January Slump

It's now a couple weeks into the new year. Is your motivation lagging? Are your goals and dreams getting eaten up by the daily grind and busyness of your everyday life? Sometimes all it takes is a little boost of encouragement to get you back in the game! Here are some quotes that might help:

"Don't let your learning lead to knowledge; let your learning lead to action." ~Jim Rohn

"Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do." ~Goethe

"It's not what you've done that matters - it's what you haven't done." ~Mark Twain

Take a little time today -- even if only 15 or 20 minutes -- to work on your goals and keep moving forward. A little bit every day goes a looooooong way if you keep it up! I believe in you!

(And thanks to the wonderful Karen Cioffi & my friends at Writers on the Move for these inspiring quotes!)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Dan Choan on Sharing "Common Ground" With Your Reader

I recently finished reading Dan Chaon's superb collection of short stories Among the Missing, which I would highly recommend. The stories are thought-provoking, funny, heart-wrenching, and beautiful. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously said, "Easy reading is damn hard writing," and Choan's stories manage to seem both effortless in their reading and masterfully complex in their execution. My favorite stories tend to be those that leave me with a sense of inevitable surprise. Choan's stories certainly evoked that feeling within me.

I was delighted to find an interview with the author in the back of the book, and I really liked what he had to say about his process and intent:

I think one of my main interests as a writer are those moments that are unpackagable, and, conversely, trying to remystify the stuff that's been already packaged. I feel like we already live in a society that is too constantly encapsulating and explaining and summarizing itself, and that we're often too quick to find easy insights, themes, and messages. I'm not particularly interested in the idea of Truth, or even of "epiphany" in fiction. Instead, I think the thing I value most is the stuff that shakes us up and makes us question our solid ground. I don't feel like I can stand up on a stage and preach anything convincingly; I'd prefer if the reader and I were standing together on common ground, both of us puzzling and wondering in the face of these moments that can't be explained. (Among the Missing, 267.)

What do you puzzle over in your everyday life? What are you obsessed with, curious about, interested in? Maybe you can take inspiration from Dan Choan and write about what puzzles you. It's okay if you don't have all the answers -- in fact, maybe that's a good thing!

I'll leave you with a quote from Dan Choan to give you hope and inspiration whenever criticism
or rejection knocks you down:

Many of the stories in the collection that went on to win prizes were flat-out rejected by any number of magazines, and even when I personally feel confident that something I've written is the best that I can do, I can't hold on to more than a hope that someone else is going to like it. It's always a shock when a story gets attention or wins a prize, and it doesn't seem like it will be less of a shock as time goes on, because it always feels to me like I'm starting over every time I start new work. (271.)

So, onward and upward, and remember -- you're in good company!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Story Published & Nominated for Pushcart Prize

A *big* thanks to the editors at the Valparaiso Fiction Review for not only publishing my story "Jared Sampson's Mom" in their debut issue, but also nominating it for the prestigious Pushcart Prize! I feel honored, humbled, and very grateful for their support of my work.

Here is the opening of the story:

She died in a car crash yesterday. She was driving down Hawthorne, past the strip mall with the Benihana's, when her '05 Corolla unaccountably careened over the center meridian and into oncoming traffic.

"I just thought you should know, sweetheart," my mother says. My cell phone feels hot against my ear. "I know you and Jared were never close, but you did go all through school together. And Annette was such a lovely woman." My mother sighs loudly into the phone. "Only fifty-three. So young. I just can't believe it."

"Me neither."

"Maybe you could send Jared a message on that bookface thing."

I'm not Facebook friends with Jared Sampson. I haven't really spoken to Jared since eighth grade, when I asked him to dance at the semi-formal and he said, "Um—no thanks, I’m okay." That was the first time I wore mascara, and Jared was the first boy I cried over in a musty, cramped bathroom stall, and I unknowingly wiped mascara-tears all over the front of my new white dress.

"Yeah, Mom," I say now. "I'll do that."

You can read the rest of the story here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

New Supplies, New Motivation

I know it has been less than a week, but I am proud to report that my backpack and purse are still organized, my teaching and writing materials are filed neatly into folders, and you can still see the varnished wood surface of my desk--it has not yet become hopelessly cluttered with papers and memos and old coffee cups. Hooray! It does seem true that once you get organized, it is easier to find motivation to keep things that way.

In addition to organizing my space, I did something else this week that got me in a productive, positive, new-year-new-opportunities mindset: I went shopping.

No, I didn't go the mall and blow a hundred bucks on shoes or purses or expensive hair products. (And that is definitely not what I am encouraging you to do!) I went to Office Depot and bought myself some new writing and office supplies. Remember as a little kid, when you would go buy new school supplies at the start of every new school year? To me there is still something so exciting, so hopeful, about a brand-new spiral-bound notebook, a fresh ream of paper, a package of unsharpened pencils.

As writers, we're fortunate that all we really need is a pen and paper to do what we love. I am always scribbling down notes and ideas on the backs of envelopes, scraps of paper, old receipts, you name it. Yet there is also something refreshing about treating yourself to a nice set of supplies to practice your craft. It is like you are saying to your writing self, I am proud of you. I take you seriously. I support you.

These little gifts can also be great ways to motivate yourself throughout the year. I like to reward myself every month for staying on track towards my writing goals. Here are some possibilities:
  • a new Moleskin reporter's notebook to take with you everywhere to jot down words and phrases and ideas that float through your consciousness throughout the day
  • a really nice, comfortable pen
  • a new mug for your tea or coffee
  • one of these neat prints inspired by classic children's books
  • a fun set of stationary
  • buying a new book you've been dying to read in hardcover instead of waiting for the less-expensive paperback version to come out

What gifts would top your writerly wish list? How do you stay motivated throughout the year? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Get Organized This Year!

My semester -- both as a teacher and a grad student -- starts tomorrow. As exciting as a new semester can be, like a blank page of possibilities and opportunities, it can also be a little stressful. For me, I think a lot of that stress comes from the unknown. What will my students be like? Will I be able to give them the time and attention they deserve? What about my own studies--will I be able to keep up without feeling overwhelmed? Will I manage to carve out enough time to write? And read? And spend time with my friends and loved ones?

One of my writing friends likes to say, "The dirty dishes never seem so important as when I am struggling to write." I know what she means -- when facing the blank page or empty Word document, or when I'm 200 words into my writing for the day and already feeling as empty as my car's gasoline tank, it seems like anything else would be more appealing than staying there in front of my computer screen typing or pressing my pen again and again to the notebook page. When that time comes, and the dirty dishes call, it is best to ignore them. Stay put. Butt-in-chair. Keep writing. In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he urges that this is when the magic happens -- when you push through the distractions and stay there in the story.

But, after my writing time is over for the day, I'm going to attack those dirty dishes. When I get home, instead of collapsing immediately on the couch, I'm going to take ten seconds to hang up my jacket, put away all the groceries, place my keys in that little dish by the door so I can find them the next day. This year, I am going to get -- and stay -- organized. That is the gift I am giving myself to cut back on stress, to make an already busy semester less hectic than it needs to be.

When my surroundings are neat and free of clutter, my mind feels less cluttered, too. I feel calmer. And the funny thing is, once you get organized, it is easier to stay organized -- it just takes a few minutes every day to keep that way. And really, how much harder is it for me to file that important paper away in my file cabinet than to set it on the kitchen table, where it will continue to take up my mental space before getting lost or buried underneath other stuff, eluding me when I am frantically looking for it weeks later? Answer: actually a heck of a lot easier to just file it away from the get-go.

Today, in between working on my novel, going to the gym, and preparing my lesson plans for the week, I am going to take half an hour to clean out my backpack and purse. I am going to sort through the papers scattered on my desk and kitchen table. I am going to make a list for the grocery store instead of winging it and forgetting something I need.

I am going to get organized, and stay that way!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What I Learned From the Movie "Young Adult"

Yesterday I went to see the new movie "Young Adult" starring Charlize Theron. The premise: a writer of young adult novels returns to her small hometown to woo her high-school ex-boyfriend. Only problem? He's married with a newborn baby. Not exactly the recipe for a fairy-tale romance. But the screenwriter is Diablo Cody, who wrote the smart and quirky movie "Juno," so I went to see "Young Adult" with pretty high hopes.

Well, suffice to say it didn't live up to my expectations. After the movie ended, a woman sitting in front of me turned around and addressed the theater: "What did y'all think? I was not impressed." Still, I believe there is something to learn from every experience, so here are some writing take-aways I got from "Young Adult" that might be helpful to your own writing, too:
  • Write anywhere and everywhere. In the movie, we see Charlize Theron's character working on her young-adult novel in coffeeshops, restaurants, in her bed and at her desk. When she checks into a hotel, the first thing she does is plug in her laptop. That said, I was annoyed by the portrayal of her getting incredibly drunk every night and waking up hungover, yet still magically being able to finish her book. I think the drunken artist/writer is one of my least favorite cliches. I also didn't agree with the way the movie depicted the YA genre as shallow, uncomplicated, and easy to write. If classic books like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird were published today, they would be considered YA.
  • Be mindful of your details. Charlize Theron's character constantly eats junk food throughout the movie, and a lot of it -- a family-sized meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken, pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, liters of Diet Coke. Yet she remains supermodel-thin and looks down on other characters from her hometown for being "fat." There is no way she could eat that way and look the way she does!
  • Avoid stereotypes. Charlize Theron's character returns to her small town, and her stereotypes about "small-town people" are reinforced. The comic-book lover is a "boring loser" who paints model action figures and lives with his sister. The women her age all got married at twenty and never left town. They wear tacky sweaters and have no idea who Marc Jacobs is. It would be one thing if this was just how Charlize Theron's character saw these people -- that would fit well with her character -- but that is not the sense we are given from the film. Case in point: a scene towards the very end, when one of the young women who lives in this small town asserts the stereotypes to be true: "People here are all fat and dumb." As someone who now lives in a small Midwest town, I personally know this is not only completely untrue, it is also offensive and, in terms of writing, sloppy. Push past stereotypes! Deepen your characters!
  • Have your characters grow. This is perhaps the biggest problem I had with the movie "Young Adult" -- Charlize Theron's character doesn't grow or change from beginning to end. She is immature, narcissistic, and self-centered when we meet her, and she is the same way when the credits roll. It's fine if you choose to write an unlikeable character, but even unlikeable characters should have likeable sides to them. The best characters, in my opinion, are nuanced people. What makes me care about and root for a character is seeing them grow and change, hopefully for the better. Charlize Theron's character certainly had plenty of room to grow, yet she didn't take any steps forward, not even baby steps. I left the theater thinking, What was the point of that?
Have any movies -- good or bad -- taught you something about writing? I'd love to hear your comments!