Monthly Archives: July 2012

Book Review: “Family Graces,” By Kathryn Magendie

The final book in Kathryn Magendie’s Graces trilogy begins with a quote from Shakespeare: “The wheel comes full circle, I am here.” Family Graces spins forward on the strength of the main character, Virginia Kate Carey. She brings the story full circle by demonstrating through her actions and her choices that love can overcome the hurts inflicted by dysfunctional families.

At the outset the ghost of her grandmother, Grandma Faith, asks Virginia Kate to tell the family’s stories. These stories, though heartbreaking, must be told to set free Grandma Faith and Katie Ivene, Virginia Kate’s troubled mother.

Family Graces delves into the unsettling stories of three characters featured in Tender Graces and Secret Graces. The reader learns the ugly details about Grandma Faith’s nightmarish life with her husband, Luke, an abusive drink who beats her. Her daughter, Katie Ivene, dreams of becoming famous in Hollywood, a form of escape from her bleak family life. She marries Frederick Carey and she eventually realizes she will never escape her home in the West Virginia mountains. She finds escape by turning to alcohol.

In sharp contrast to Katie Ivene is Rebekha, the woman who raises Virginia Kate. Though Katie Ivene will not allow her to adopt Virginia Kate and her brothers, Micah and Andy, Rebekha provides the one thing their biological mother cannot: unconditional love. We learn about Rebekha’s childhood in a wealthy household and about her distant and emotionally detached parents. Rebekha finds escape through her love of science, the microscope being her lens of choice. Her first love ends in tragedy and she is working in Texas when she meets Frederick Carey.

We also learn the story of Adin, Virginia Kate’s adopted daughter, who is left at her doorstep because her mother believes Virginia Kate’s ex-husband Dylan is the girl’s father. Virginia Kate finds a kindred spirit in Adin, who is visited by Grandma Faith. Like her adoptive mother, Adin overcomes a childhood of neglect to become a well-balanced adult.

Virginia Kate’s healthy relationships with Rebekha and Adin illustrate the redemptive power of love to break the cycle of abuse. The bond formed in those relationships is stronger than that found in some nuclear families.

Magendie elegantly weaves these dark stories, with breaks of levity, into a beautiful quilt, held together by the unique voice of Virginia Kate. I was sad to see this series end, but satisfied with the way the story came full circle.

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E-books Outsold Hard Covers in Adult Fiction: What Does It Mean?

It was both stunning and expected—the recent news that e-books outsold hard covers in the adult fiction category in 2011, according to a report co-produced by the Association of American Publishers (AAR) and the Book Industry Study Group, based on sales figures provided by 2,000 publishers.

It was stunning because it was one of those watershed statistics, never before achieved and unimaginable just ten years ago. It was expected because publishing industry observers knew the day would come when e-books became the preferred mode for the majority of consumers, even if it is happening in just one category at the moment.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Net sales of e-books jumped to 15 percent of the market in 2011, up from six percent in 2010
  • Overall, U.S. book market sales declined by 2.5 percent to $2.72 billion in 2011, down from $2.79 billion in 2010.
  • Majority of publishers’ revenues still come from print books at $11 billion, compared to $2 billion from e-books.
  • In the adult fiction category, e-books accounted for 30 percent of total net publishers’ sales, compared to a 13 percent share the year before.
  • Online retailers represented 13 percent of total net dollars, but grew by 35 percent from the year before.

Read a summary of the report on the AAR site

Read more about the report on the BookStats site

Here’s a good analysis of the report by Jeremy Greenfield on the Digital Book World site.

Greenfield noted two interesting facts in his story. For the first quarter of 2012, e-books represented 25 percent of all sales in trade fiction. He also pointed out the BookStats report found that publishers made over $1 billion selling directly to consumers in 2011, up from $702 million in 2010.

What do all these statistics mean for authors? Clearly, e-books will continue to grow in market share, as some analysts predict they will eventually dwarf sales of print books. The report also shows publishers are still making a heck of a lot of money. The industry is healthy, but undergoing change. Though revenues dipped by 2.5 percent to $2.72 billion in 2011, much of that could be attributed to the demise of Borders, as well as a slew of independent bookstores. Traditional publishing remains the most viable option for authors to achieve success. However, readers are flocking to e-books and that bodes well for authors whose only route to publication is self-publishing. Of course the self-published writer must shoulder all of the editorial, platform building and marketing burden.

It behooves writers to pay attention to what’s going on in the publishing industry. Writers should also watch what goes on around them. More and more of my friends are buying Kindles, Nooks and iPads. Lovers of traditional books (like me) have a dual mindset. I still read printed books, but I also read many books on my Kindle. When I travel, I carry a paperback and my Kindle.

The publishing world continues to change at a rapid pace. The good news is there is so much diversity of content available and that bodes well for reader and writers.

What’s your opinion of the changes taking place within the publishing industry?

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Writing About Yourself in Fiction: Right or Wrong?

I just finished reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s outstanding 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Middlesex. Some reviewers speculated the novel was autobiographical, as it focused on Eugenides’s hometown of Detroit and his Greek heritage, but it was not. ”I wanted to write about hermaphroditism,” Eugenides said in an interview with The New York Times. ”But hermaphroditism led to classicism, classicism led to Hellenism, Hellenism to my Uncle Pete. I didn’t set out to write a Greek-American novel. I used the history because it served my story.”

Eugenides is not alone. Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, featured parallels with his life growing up in Chicago. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle are other examples, though they are closer to memoir. Ernest Hemingway’s fiction often alluded to his life experiences.

Writers often draw on their own life experiences in their stories. There is a temptation among novice writers to base their first novel entirely on their own lives. There’s nothing wrong with using your own experiences as a springboard or gleaning traits from real-life characters to breathe life into your fictional characters.

Personally, I feel uncomfortable writing about my own life. First, it’s just not that interesting. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a wonderful life (channeling George Bailey), rich in meaningful experiences, friendships, and joys. My life is fine. It’s just not the stuff of fiction. Second, I believe it’s an invasion of my family and friends’ privacy to use them in a work of fiction.

Clearly, though, writers create their fictional worlds through the prism of their experiences. Write what you know. We’ve all heard that one before. The truth is we all know a lot more than we think we do. For instance, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a high-speed chase, but I’ve been a passenger in a car going too fast for comfort. I don’t know what it’s like to undergo brain surgery, but I do know what it’s like to go under the knife.

My first novel, Small Change, was not based in any way on my life. None of the things that happened to the main character, John Sykowski, ever happened to me. However, reflecting on the book, I realized the main character embodied many of my adolescent hopes, dreams, fears, and anxieties. No, John was not me. I was probably a mix of John and his carefree younger brother, Paul. At some level, writers infuse their characters with their own world view and perspective.

Writing a fictional story based on your life doesn’t strike me as a good idea, unless you are willing to change the facts to protect your family and friends. Here are a few tips for how you can draw on your rich life’s experiences in fiction:

  • Take the most interesting person you know (okay, not the Dos Equis guy) and redraw him in a way that is unrecognizable. If the person is a woman, write a male character with the same traits. If the person is a doctor, make him a lawyer. You get the idea.
  • Rewrite a dramatic event in your life by having it happen in a different way. Let’s say you were robbed at gunpoint and feared for your life. How about changing it up so your character is beaten senseless. If you were in a car accident, turn it into a boating accident.
  • If you were mistreated or had your heart broken in a relationship, change the gender of the abuser and alter the facts and events.

You get the picture. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all drink from the wellspring of our own experiences for inspiration and story ideas. That’s fine, as long you don’t compose a note-for-note duplication of your life. After all, as my character said in Small Change, a cover version of a song is never as good as the original.

How much of your own experiences do you use in your fiction writing?

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Changing My Work Space

The place where a writer chooses to write is crucial to success. An ideal work space for writing must have four things. It must be free of distraction, quiet, comfortable, and isolated.

I recently changed my work space. My previous work space was located in our finished basement on the other side of the family room. It was fairly isolated, but there was no wall between the family room and the place where I wrote. This never posed a huge problem. I usually selected a time to write when nobody was in the family room.

That has become more difficult, so I recently moved to a separate room in the house and set up my laptop there. It affords more seclusion and I can write whenever I want.

Where you write is a matter of personal taste and preference. JK Rowling famously wrote much of the early Harry Potter series in a crowded café because the only way she managed to get her young daughter to sleep was by going outside of her flat. She claimed the story that made the rounds that she wrote there because she lived in an unheated flat was bogus.

Stephen King, in his craft book, On Writing, discussed the writing room. “Your writing room doesn’t have to sport a Playboy Philosophy décor, and you don’t need an Early American rolltop in which to house your writing implements,” King wrote.

“The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business, you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”

King maintained there should be no telephone, TV, videogames, or other distractions in your writing room, though he does admit he works to loud music—hard rock like AC/DC, Guns ‘n Roses and Metallica, to name a few of his favorites.

Since the writer is creating her own world, King likens it to creative sleep. “Like your bedroom, your writing room should be private, a place where you go to dream…In both writing and sleeping, we learn to be physically still at the same time we are encouraging our minds to unlock from the humdrum rational thinking of our daytime lives.”

I like to think of it as an intense concentration. When I sit down to write, I block out everything else. It takes a few minutes for me to get into the story. My mind has to be totally immersed in it. I always read over the last few pages of what I wrote in my previous session. That helps me to get into the right frame of mind. It’s difficult for people who don’t write fiction to understand the energy that goes into shifting into that mood of complete focus on your work. It’s not just a switch one can turn on and off. I realize I’ve digressed here but a writing space that is quiet and free of distraction is vital to the process of getting into the mood that King calls “creative sleep.”

What does your work space look like? Can you work with outside noise around you?

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Mega-popular Series: What Are the Secrets?

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins and it got me thinking. This was one of three wildly popular series, a group that also includes the Harry Potter books and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. The Harry Potter books are the best-selling series in history and the Millennium and Hunger Games trilogies have sold tens of millions each.

Writers dream of writing a series like these and publishers crave them, but what made these books in particular succeed on such a large scale when other series have enjoyed just modest success? Was it the characters? The setting? The story? It was all of these factors and more. Here are my thoughts on why these three series achieved such staggering success:

Powerful premises. A young boy who is treated cruelly by his step-parents discovers one day he is a wizard—and not just any wizard, but The Chosen One. A young girl who is abused as a child ends up in a psychiatric hospital, left to suffer more abuse, until one day a guardian ad litem takes up her case. Another teen-age girl volunteers for the hunger games, facing almost certain death, to spare her younger sister the same fate. How could one not want to delve into such books?

Main characters who rise above bleak, harrowing circumstances and overcome incredible odds. Harry Potter must face the most powerful evil wizard, Lord Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen must defeat 23 rivals, including a possible lover. Mikael Blomqvist and Lisbeth Salander (never could figure out which one was the main character) must surmount destroyed reputations and organized crime syndicates backed by a secret state police.

Highly imaginative and detailed settings. Hogwarts is described in wonderful, minute detail, a beautiful and scary place. There is nothing beautiful about the nation of Panem in the Hunger Games. Sweden is a real place, but the land described by Larsson doesn’t fit the tired stereotypes of a place featuring gorgeous blonde women, and people buying Ikea furniture and driving Volvos.

Complex and intriguing stories with ever-changing plot lines and growing stakes. Each series features stakes that are (paraphrasing the words of Donald Maass from his book, Writing the Breakout Novel) both personal and public. Public stakes impact large groups of people, nations or the entire world. Personal stakes impact one or more characters, but they are profound enough that the reader cares deeply what happens to the character.

Empathy. All three authors create a sense of empathy in their characters. Didn’t you feel like you knew Harry, Ron and Hermione intimately by the end of the Harry Potter series? Readers badly wanted to see Lisbeth and Katniss survive and thrive.

Themes that matter. Overcoming abuse and neglect, starvation, exploitation of women, violence against women—these three series cover important themes. These authors dealt with big subjects within the context of page-turning stories.

Extraordinarily gifted authors. J.K. Rowling is a story-teller almost without peer. Larsson was a renowned journalist in Sweden who managed to write three novels while working fulltime for a cutting-edge magazine and Collins was an established author even before she wrote her series.

These three authors have given the rest of us a dream to which to aspire. It’s not about the riches their books have generated. It’s about the work itself. Its popularity speaks for itself.

Why do you think these series have succeeded on such a large scale?

 

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Guest Post on Writer Unboxed

It was an honor to be selected for a guest post on the popular blog, Writer Unboxed. My post was featured on July 7. Started by two writers, Therese Walsh and Kathleen Bolton, who wanted to share their journey as they each wrote their first novel, Writer Unboxed features a diverse group of contributors, ranging from agent Donald Maass to former publisher Jane Friedman. Make Writer Unboxed one of your favorites. It is a fantastic blog. Check out my post on writer’s block:

Read my post on Writer Unboxed

 

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Happy Independence Day!

Americans celebrate the Fourth of July holiday with barbecues, parades, parties, and fireworks. The American flag is unfurled and hung proudly along with bunting. It’s a festive occasion, but amid the revelry, do we Americans stop to think about what it means?

I’ve always liked the term Independence Day. It has multiple meanings. It’s not solely about celebrating this nation’s birth and its independence from England. It’s about the larger freedoms we enjoy. As writers, we should thank the Founding Fathers (and Mothers) for the wisdom to include the First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution. The freedom of speech and expression that is Constitutionally guaranteed to American citizens does not exist in many parts of the world. Our citizens have never known political oppression and tyranny. Americans can write or say anything they want about our President, Congress, state lawmakers and town officials. Even if the opinions expressed are vitriolic and ignorant, people have a right to express them. And that’s as it should be.

Fiction writing is a forum for the great marketplace of ideas. On this Independence Day, as we celebrate the birth of a nation, let’s give thanks for the freedoms embodied in the First Amendment and hope these will someday be enjoyed by citizens throughout the world.

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