I am no hoarder. Not yet. But cloth shopping bags are luring me down that dark path.
As a child, I helped my mother ferry groceries home in brown paper bags that were then recycled into wrapping paper for boxes or bird cage liners. I never even saw a “green” shopping bag until my stint as an exchange student in Argentina, where I went to markets with my host family and marveled at the string bags that fit in a raincoat pocket, yet expanded to carry everything from hunks of Argentinian beef to jars of dulce de leche.
Disposable shopping bags were in vogue by the time I graduated from college. I got used to the “paper or plastic?” question in every checkout line starting in 1977, and recycled those airy white clouds of odious but useful plastic by using them to clean up after my dog.
As environmentalists argued the pro’s and con’s of the “paper or plastic” question, some clever, forward-thinking individuals began making cloth bags available. And not just in grocery stores, either, but in department stores, bookstores, libraries…you name it, there’s probably a cloth bag for it.
So now my house and car are stocked with cloth bags. I won’t use plastic or paper anymore, so if I’m stupid enough to forget my cloth bags when I go to the store, I buy more. It’s a cheap do-gooder’s thrill, whether I’m choosing a giant TJ Maax bag in bright teal paisley or a Barnes & Noble bag imprinted with my favorite classic book cover. Other favorites: a bag from a posh London department store, a museum bag with tea cups, and seven bags—yes, I counted them—from different libraries.
At home, these bags are put to uses that have nothing to do with shopping. One holds my son’s extra shoes, when I’m tired of seeing them lying around the kitchen and need to carry them upstairs. Those shoes sit in the bag until he needs them again, a time which, at the rate he’s growing, may never happen. I have a bag for extra socks, waiting to be paired with whatever socks show up among the clean sheets or in the dryer vent.
Another bag—this one from a Trader Joe’s in San Francisco–is devoted to mittens and hats that once belonged to people in our family who no longer use them. I will take them to Salvation Army one day, as soon as I make sure nobody wants them back.
Then, maybe I’ll find the time to clean out the cloth library bag with the owl on it that contains all of the used children’s backpacks I’ve accumulated but haven’t had the heart to clean out and give away. (I know it’ll make me cry to see all of those wadded pieces of lost art from elementary school that never even made it onto the fridge.)
But wait, there’s more! I have a red cloth bag designated to hold the mail that goes out to the post office, and six blue Market Basket bags filled with papers that need to be filed. I just have to make sure not to hang them from the back of the chair in my office like I did last time—the chair ended up tumbling over under the weight of those bags like an ant beneath a tower of sugar cubes.
A few more bags on the floor of the closet in the living room hold my craft projects: the two sweaters I started and then got stuck on, the embroidery kit my mother knew I’d love, and my daughter’s watercolor set that she forgot to take to college.
I will paint some day, I will. I will! First, I just have to find the right bag to hold my art books and canvasses.
I’m so happy to welcome author Emily Liebert, a fellow NAL/Penguin Random House author, to my blog. Emily’s new novel, You Knew Me When, is a touching tale of a childhood friendship between two fascinating women whose lives take different directions and tear them apart–until circumstances force them to reconnect and face the hurt each inflicted on the other. It’s a fast, emotional read with some surprising humor that made me laugh right out loud and startle my poor husband. (Don’t even get me started on the scene where one girl coaches the other about using feminine products.) I read the book in a single day, and I bet you will, too!
Q. Emily, you’ve had the kind of celebrity life many people only dream about, working as an editor and author, and appearing on national television shows like The Today Show and Rachael Ray. You’re also raising a family. So who’s the real Emily? A thoughtful writer in pajamas, a suburban soccer mom, or a TV personality?
Celebrity? Ha! I get that often, but it couldn’t be further from the “real Emily.” I’m no suburban soccer mom; that’s for sure. But I’m definitely, at least in part, a thoughtful writer in her pajamas. I work from home, so no need to get dressed up! (Or wear makeup). The real Emily is a devoted mom, wife, sister, daughter, granddaughter, and friend to those I hold dear. I’m also a businesswomen. And, fine, I’ll admit there’s a little slice of the “real Emily” who’s a TV personality. What can I say? My mother is an actress!
Q. What’s your typical workday like? (In other words, how the heck do you juggle everything you do?)
Every day is different for me. It depends where I am in the cycle of book writing. When I’m in full-blown writing mode, I wake up at 7:20 am and take my kids to school (Jax-4 and Hugo-3). Then I come home and write for about 4-5 hours. After that, I pick my kids up and return home to work some more—mainly returning emails and having conference calls. When I’m in publicity mode, my days are more hectic. I’m in and out of NYC for appearances, interviews, and meetings. I do have help in the way of a nanny, so when it’s time to buckle down, she’ll take the kids to the library or the park while I work. I think it’s important to implement strategies. For example, I set things up the night before, so that—in the morning—when we’re rushing to get out the door, there isn’t that feeling of being completely frazzled. I also set things up for dinner in the morning, so that when the witching hour is upon us, I’m not running around like a crazy woman. You do the best you can. You can’t be everything to everyone all the time, though I do try!
Q. Tell us a little about the inspiration for your first novel, You Knew Me When. What’s the story behind the story?
I’ve always been interested in the bonds of female friendship. When I was younger, I had a best friend who dumped me when I met my first serious boyfriend. And I’ve had other friends who’ve either been disappointing or quite the opposite–who’ve stuck by me through the best and worst of times. I wanted to explore this. I also wanted to present two women–one with a husband and child who was unhappy with her job, and the other with a big career but no family to speak of. It raises the age-old question: can women really ” have it all?” My answer to that is no. I believe you can have a lot of everything, which may be your all. It’s the same with dieting. You can have it all, just not at once!
Q. With all of the fiction and nonfiction writing you’ve done, I’m sure you must have met some challenges and hurdles along the way. What kept you going as a writer during difficult times?
I’m an innately driven person. I’m not going to lie. There have been rejections. There have been people who’ve been discouraging, but I do my best to ignore the haters (not always easy!). My motto is: If someone slams a door in your face, kick it in!
Q. What strikes me most about your career as a writer is how many different types of writing you’ve done. Do you have a different process for writing nonfiction than fiction? Do you prefer writing one over the other?
For me, it’s easier to write nonfiction. It’s clinical. That said, I far prefer writing fiction. I’ve always had a vivid imagination and when I’m inspired, it’s the best feeling in the world! When I write nonfiction, I don’t need an outline. When I write a novel, I need to map everything out ahead of time, though so often things shift along the way.
Q. You worked as an editor for a number of years. What has being an editor taught you about writing?
It has helped keep my writing very clean and concise. My editor at Penguin is always amazed at how error-free my first manuscripts are. When You Knew Me When came back from the copy editors, there were ten changes. Ten. Kind of unheard of. At the same time, editing yourself in this way can be limiting. I’m not the author who sits at her computer and lets the words flow free form, which—sometimes—I think can really help the creative process.
Q. With all of your television and radio experience, do you have any good tips for new writers who quake at the very idea of having to be on air, either on TV or on the radio?
Be yourself. People pick up on authenticity. They also pick up on artifice. Pretend you’re having a conversation with your friend and relax!
Q. What sorts of books do you choose to read when you’re just chilling out?
I’m a huge Jane Green fan! I can’t wait for her novel, Tempting Fate, to come out in March. I’m also partial to Judy Blume, Jill Kargman, and Sarah Pekkanen.
Q. Tell us about your next novel, When We Fall.
I’m so excited about When We Fall, which comes out in September! It follows the lives of two women—Allison and Charlotte. Allison lost her husband in a tragic accident 11 years earlier and found out two weeks after the accident that she was pregnant with her son Logan. Now she’s moving back home to a suburb of NYC. She runs into her dead husband’s best friend, Charlie, from summer camp, where they all met, and ends up becoming good friends with his wife Charlotte. Unfortunately, Charlotte and Charlie are in a tumultuous marriage and that leads to a whole set of problems. Like You Knew Me When, it’s about women who are trying to find their way and their happiness.
Q. If you could list three unbreakable rules for fiction writers just starting out on their journeys, what would they be?
1. Write what you know 2. Write what you’re passionate about 3. Write as often as possible
M.L. Gardner is a role model for any busy working mom who fantasizes about writing novels–a LOT of novels– between caring for kids and cats. Here are her fabulous tips on writing–and the story behind her popular 1929 series. Enjoy!
Q. You’ve written several books around the 1929 time period, starting with Jonathan’s Cross. How and why did you first become interested in setting novels in that particular era?
I have always been interested in the era for as long as I can remember. It has always appealed to me from the food to the fashion, the music to the manners. Ironically, it was the only era in which I didn’t have a waiting story in my head. One day in 2008 I watched our own modern market crash 777 points. I knew this was really bad news and having independently studied the market crash of 29, things were looking really familiar. To make a long story short, later that day I saw an interview with Clive Owen on tv and shortly after that heard the song, “Moment of Surrender” by U2. Somehow these three things collided into a plot and I could see a man on his knees, totally devastated. The story began to swirl and take shape almost faster than I could get it down. It was so powerful in fact that it forced me out of a twenty- year abstinence from writing. I wrote a (hopefully) humorous blog post about that here.
Q. How much background research do you typically do for one of your novels? And how do you keep the plot at the forefront, without weighing down the novels with period details?
Luckily, I already had a lot of that knowledge just by personal interest. However, I did find that I had to look a few things up to see if they were available in that era. In the first release of 1929 I had garbage bags lining the streets of the slums of New York. Only those weren’t available yet! So, of course I revised that. Showers in the tenements were another thing that were rare to never. In my research I found that very occasionally a pipefitter who lived there might retrofit the bathtub into a shower. I did revise the manuscript to omit all shower references except the one with Caleb and Arianna. The muse (Lisa) demanded that one stay in. So it did.
As far as other period details, I tried to include casual references in dialog or description that set the scene while not distracting from it: the buckles on Ava’s shoes, claw foot bathtubs, straight razors, using condensed milk as baby formula. That kind of thing.
Q. Like me, you grew up with a father in the Navy. How did moving from place to place as a child inform the themes you tackle in your books today?
I’ve never thought about that consciousl,y but looking back over a childhood of moving nearly every year,I think I really wish that I had grown up with one set of friends like Jonathan, Aryl and Caleb. Even the wives became close despite their differences over the years and they all became a very tightly knit group. I’ve never really experienced that, and perhaps that’s why I enjoy spending so much time with my characters.
Q. You often ask people you interview on your own web site to describe a “typical day.” Now it’s your turn: tell us how you get so much writing done!
It’s funny, because I really don’t feel like I do! I have tried setting daily word goals, scene completion goals, you name it, I’ve tried it. Nothing works consistently. What it comes down to in the end is my compulsive nature. On a day when the characters are talking and ideas are swirling I won’t do much else but write, sometimes not even getting dressed until after noon. I’m just absorbed and productive. My husband says it’s almost like I’m not even here in reality with everyone else. A running joke around here is when the house is destroyed and fast food boxes are everywhere, mom must be working. That will last for a week or two. Then, as if I’ve completely run out of steam I’ll stop writing for a bit and do other things, clean my neglected house, brush my cats, canning, pre-cook dinners for the next writing binge, crochet, catch up on reading, jump on Facebook and let people know I’m alive, or my alternate passion, woodworking. After a few days to a week of that, the voices will start again and I dive back in until I run out of gas. And round and round it goes.
Q. What do you think are the best social media tools for marketing your work to readers?
For me the best tool seems to be Facebook. However, the best practice is to be involved with my readers’ lives. Any social media platform is useless if you don’t engage readers on a personal level.
Q. Give us a peek at your desk. What do you see from your chair? (I’m imagining lots of cats here.) Do you have any special foods or drinks that keep your butt in the chair as you write? How about music?
Yes, there is a cat. He is staring at me. Judging. There’s a printer, dictionary and thesaurus, wicker baskets full of random junk, my stack of idea notebooks and a five point candelabra with candles I’ve never lit. I’m staring at cream colored curtains I made myself because I like doing stuff like that. I drink too much caffeine when I write (my editor really loves it when I’m all hopped up on coffee and speed typing.) I eat a lot of cheese and will accept it in any form I can get it in. Cheddar, Cheetos, Cheese Its, stick, block, wheel or slice.
Music while writing is a must. I make soundtracks for each book and always have my headphones in.
Q. Tell us about your work-in-progress.
I frequently work on more than one book at a time, and right now I am working on Purgatory Cove and 1931 Caleb’s Err.
Purgatory Cove is an interesting novella that takes the moment when Elizabeth shatters into a third personality and expands it out. I get to go inside her head and play that out and show readers how that happens. It also provides quite a bit of backstory about Elizabeth in the process. It is by far the darkest writing I have ever done but also tremendous fun.
1931 is the sixth book in the series and the last book in which readers will be able to spend any appreciable time with the cast of 1929. There will be Simon’s Watch, the seventh book and the official end of the series. The most anticipated based on reader feedback is 1931.
Q. If you could list three unbreakable rules for indie writers, what would they be?
Do not read reviews. Ever. It’s tempting to look for that validation but don’t. What other people think of you is none of your business. I read all my reviews up until the 52nd one with 1929. Every one was an emotional roller coaster and a major distraction from writing.
Edit, Edit, Edit. And then edit some more. Lisa and I alternate doing two edits each before it goes off for professional editing. Twice. And guess what? There are still things that get past all of us. Now sometimes reviews can provide clues to those editing issues especially if your new and broke and can’t afford a professional editor. But reading reviews conflicts with rule #1 so I ask a friend to watch the reviews, just do a weekly scan and let me know if there’s anything specific i need to give some attention to.
Don’t post your book on other’s walls (uninvited) as a sales tactic. I have never known this to work.. Don’t be that Indie jumping up and down screaming “Buy my book!” Be graceful. Be generous. Be tactful. Another pet peeve I have is posting the reviews you shouldn’t read on social media. I don’t know why, it just bothers me. It seems unprofessional.
I know you asked for three, but I have a fourth. Know yourself well enough to know where you need to improve. Me? I have a very, inappropriate relationship with, commas. Actually, that’s not the fourth. (But it is the truth.) The fourth is never stop having fun. The moment if feels like work take a step back and figure out what changed. Then change it back. Because this is honestly the best job in the world and every day should be a blast.
We writers quake in our slippers at the thought of actually having to get dressed and emerge from behind our laptop shields. Whether we’re indie or traditionally published, we count our lucky stars that digital marketing is the It Girl. We rely on social media to build our platforms and push our wares on the reading public. No book tours or public speaking for us! Even the big publishers know better than to pay for authors to attend events as lame as book signings!
Digital marketing may be the easy and affordable route, but it’s a huge loss. Sure, reading’s a wonderful solo entertainment—few pleasures beat crawling into bed with a great book—but authors who don’t put in face time with readers cheat not only the people reading their books, but themselves.
Recently, for instance, I was invited to meet with a book club whose members were discussing my new novel, The Wishing Hill. I was stunned when one member pointed out that, early on, a key character is always looking through binoculars or windows.
“It’s a great metaphor for how removed she is from real life,” the reader noted.
I loved her insights on my novel, along with the comments made by her fellow book club members. Any time I’ve appeared in public—at libraries, bookstores, book clubs, house parties, or whatever—I learn as much from my readers asking questions as they do from me talking about writing, publishing, or the book at hand.
Even if you do it on your own dime, I’d urge you to schedule a book tour. Plan it carefully—see the tips below—and you’ll reap infinite rewards, by both building an audience and learning all about what you’re doing right—or wrong—in your writing. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Forget about Sales. Book tours aren’t really about selling books, though of course that’s always a nice side benefit. They’re really about creating connections between readers and authors, and instigating conversations about reading and writing. Even if you sell just a handful of books at each event, you will have made new friends—and those friends will tell people about you.
2. Plan Your Presentations. Think of a few presentations to appeal to different audiences. If, for instance, your book highlights local settings, you might talk about how and why writers choose certain settings. Or, if your book blossomed from a family story, discuss how you expanded the story into a memoir or novel.
3. Meet Local Booksellers. Take the time to personally visit every bookstore within a reasonable drive. These book sellers are more likely to host an event with you if they feel a personal connection. Some will even host events with indie authors, provided you’re willing to take returns.
4. Visit Libraries. Most libraries sponsor author events. Some host writing workshops. Talk to the librarian or volunteer who organizes community events, offer to donate a book to the library or teach a class, and be sure to help with marketing the event.
5. Ask Everyone You Know about Their Book Clubs. Your friends are always a great resource. Everyone will know someone in a book club; offer to visit these book clubs and discuss your writing.
6. Think Outside the Bookstore. If your book features a social angle, like adoption or caring for aging parents, contact support groups or fund raising organizations and offer to make a presentation about a select topic of interest to that group. Some of these organizations will even be willing to feature your book in their newsletters.
7. Stay for Free. Book touring is a great time to visit your dad’s cousins, your children, or your roommates from college—especially if they have an indie bookstore or library near them. Don’t be shy about showing up on their doorsteps—and always bring the refreshments and offer free signed copies of your books. If you stop thinking about this as a sales pitch and more like a conversation, it’ll be easier to reach out to people who might have fresh ideas about where you can speak or do a book signing.
8. Contact Book Festival Organizers and Universities. Check out local author events and see if there’s a way you can join a panel or visit a class of aspiring readers.
Ready? Set? Go! Write about your own book tour experiences and let me know how they go.
Last month, I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel at the West Hollywood Book Fair with writers T. Greenwood, whose latest novel is the fantastic Bodies of Water; Meg Howrey, author of the poignant novel Blind Sight; and Amy Wallen, author of the hilarious Moonpies and Movie Stars. Our topic—doled out by the fair organizers—was “the fictive mind.”
This title sounded like a disease to me, but the real topic was a familiar question to most writers who meet with readers or teach creative writing: Where do novelists get their ideas?
Superstar writer Neil Gaiman answers the question on his web site this way: “I make them up. Out of my head.” He then does a marvelous job of trying to answer that question more thoroughly in his daughter’s elementary school class—only to arrive at the same conclusion.
As I listened to Tammy and Meg talk about their novels, I realized that, although all novels evolve differently, every writer’s mind is like a junk drawer. Just as I stash odd rubber bands, bits of string, coins, bottle caps, and mystery objects in my kitchen drawer, I keep interesting stories, scenery, and characters in some dark, cluttered compartment of my mind. When I need an idea, I pull out the drawer and marvel at what tumbles out.
Tammy talked about a true story about ill-fated love told to her late one stormy night (yes, really) that spurred her to write Bodies of Water. Meg talked about the various elements in her life that allowed her to inhabit the mind of a seventeen-year-old boy in her book.
For The Wishing Hill, my most recent book, the kernel story involved sibling rivalry between my grandmother and great aunt, who were separated as teenagers when their grandmother only chose to raise one of them. There is a snuff mill in that novel that was in the backyard of my old house, and one of the characters hikes the same marshes with her dog that I do with mine.
Some novelists try to catalog the things in their junk drawers, furiously writing everything down in journals. I’ve done this as well. But the truth is that many details slip out of that drawer as I’m writing, details I didn’t even know were in there. And, no matter how hard I try to stuff that particular character or tropical storm or black dog back into its proper dark musty place, the detail will keep escaping until I have to use it somehow. Otherwise my mind is too crowded.
“Write what you know,” say writing teachers around the world, but that isn’t the same thing as writing fiction. What sets fiction writers apart from other people is that our junk drawers are infinitely deep—and we rarely use objects in their original form.
We take that snippet of conversation overheard in a restaurant, the comical event in the grocery store, the fight with our mother, the worry about our children, the neighbor’s house, the plaza in Spain we love, and cut it up with scissors or paint over it. We wad it into a ball and lob it at the dog.
As we play with the things in our junk drawers, they transform, changing shape and reflecting edges and colors we never noticed until now. That’s when we know we’ve done our jobs right.