Write What I Fear? Yeah, but . . .


Another one of those quotes rolled by in my feed–something about writing what you fear, and I think this time it was from Nadine Gordimer. I have always ignored that advice. I’m adventurous, but I write escapist fiction on purpose, and if I write something that goes beyond the visceral or seems original and deep, that’s an accident. My experimentalism is about pretty phrasing, too–I’m a confectional writer–rarely driven by meaning. If it comes to meaning or creates a unique effect, that’s swell.

Except. Here I am about to move into the final acts of a manuscript draft that turns out to be about a subject I have feared and avoided all my life. That subject is mental illness, and my goal of addressing it with meaning in within the context of a murder mystery may not be met, but at the end of the first draft process I will have “gone there”–I will have written about what I fear.

But here’s the twist–the only reason I have been able to do this with any confidence/relative comfort is because I have a safety net that’s never been there before–a publisher who is committed to me and invested in my work. That’s no guarantee that this book will see the light of your e-reader, but it’s just enough support for me.

Go Set a Watchman and Reading as a Writer


There is so much noise surrounding today’s publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman that I’m sure you don’t need my contribution, but here’s my initial take anyway: whether this book is worthy or not, it’s presence accomplishes a particular transfer of experience–readers of the new book are reading as writers read. They are analyzing every element of the new work through the filter of authorial and editorial decision.

This certainly happens in other media, especially series work with canonically built arcs, but I think this is a different moment, say, than the Star Wars prequels. Mockingbird has been delivered to us as a conventional book release, but also over the past 55 years via school reading lists, nostalgia, and other cheap vehicles–to say the least its readership is a broad, demographic-smashing one, and everyone is an expert.

I’m half sad, half grateful for the phenomenon. On the one hand, reading like a writer means that absorptive experiences are harder to access–suspension of disbelief is a fragile condition for a writer. On the other hand, we have a rare opportunity to share ideas about construction and constructed-ness as we test the resilience of the original book and our memories.

Here, have a logroll, they’re delish


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Can you trust my book reviews? Probably not. When I look at my output on commercial sites like amazon or goodreads, it’s clear I rarely write narrative reviews for any author I don’t know in some capacity. It takes focus for me to distill my thoughts about a novel into a slim and sassy paragraph, so I tend to save my energy for signal boosting purposes. That said, I don’t think I’ve ever written a glowing review for a shitty book, and when I write longer form reviews for literary sites (as when I wrote for Prick of the Spindle), I’m definitely analytical and critical.

In terms of non-narrative reviews, I’m pretty stingy. I might rank fewer than a dozen books a year–why? I’m a slow reader, and I don’t finish books I don’t like. That also means that when I do rate books, I’m giving out 4 and 5 stars.

Obviously I’m thinking about this in light of amazon’s latest efforts in book review quality control –there’s weird stuff going on, with reviews being removed, ostensibly because the reviewers “know” the author as determined by a proprietary process (social media, of course.) An author friend of mine just saw every review of his Kirkus lauded debut removed, only to be restored later. My reviews are still up–both by me and for my novel, so I’m assuming amazon’s policy and practice are evolving, and that the algorithm is experimental for now. The concept of “know” is a fascinating one–always has been in the lit world.

The Path might not be a path



Too many good things happening! 1) My former student/current friend Jonathan Harper‘s debut collection, Daydreamers, has been nominated for the Kirkus 2015 Fiction prize. Check out the full list of nominees here–it’s amazing. 2)ARCs of Art Taylor’s debut novel On The Road With Del & Louise roaming around in the wild, and you may be able to get your hands on one via a Goodreads giveaway that ends June 28.

On the horizon, we’re expecting Erin Fitzgerald’s novella, Tara Laskowski’s second collection, Steve Himmer’s third novel, and of course, my second. We all started this journey at different times, but it feels like we’re reaching important benchmarks together. This leads me to wonder if, as a writer, I haven’t been laboring under the wrong metaphor all this time–maybe this stuff is less path-oriented than event-oriented–like doomsday only way better–and we’re the best preppers.

That Time of Year Again . . . Wigleaf Top 50!


t50mainpanel2015That time of year again came even later this year, but the Wigleaf Top 50 (very) Short Fictions 2015 is live, and once again I’m really happy to have been on the reading team. This year, Mel Bosworth ran a tight ship as the Series Editor, and scored a real coup with Roxane Gay as our Selecting Editor.

As always, this year’s Top 50 and the Longlist feature exciting new authors alongside the usual suspects, and can I just ask what’s happening over at dogzplot? FIVE stories on the shortlist!

Congrats to all—


Novel notes: The first 10 pages


I know we have lots of anxiety about those first ten pages, especially when we’re looking for an agent or a publisher, so this may seem like counter-intutitive advice:

You’re first 10 does not have to be high energy, crowded, or chaotic to “hook” your reader. Hooks are for yanking fish out of water just before you kill and eat them. Your reader isn’t a trout.

How about assuming your reader has picked up your book quite willingly. She’ll probably want credit for that. A little respect, even. You know what would be nice? A particular and focused moment. Something to care about and some ground to stand on.

Consider the opening to Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked:

    Welcome to Sunny Florida! A sunburnt man in a Crocodile Dundee hat poses in front of the Citrus Travel Shop. With one hand on his waist, the other raised and dangling a shellacked baby gator, the man in the postcard grins unnaturally and beckons the hapless tourist to come and visit beautiful Crystal Springs.

   James turned the postcard over.

   Your daddy’s dead.

   You might want to

   Come on home now.

That’s about as focused and singular as you can get, a man reading a postcard. But it’s an important damn postcard, and there is no way that Post’s reader is going to put her book down. Tree is a thrill ride of a book, but Post doesn’t need to start with the beer brawls or the car chases. She starts with a moment, the moment the postcard is turned. A moment that is easy to understand and yet compelling.

Another example is in the first pages of Steve Himmer’s FRAM. The job of his first chapter is to introduce the ridiculous secret government entity that is The Bureau of Ice Prognostication, and like all spy novels, comic or otherwise, FRAM‘s plot is wild. So how does it start? With a lightbulb. A single lightbulb that has lasted far too long:

   That bulb had crackled and hissed through his years in BIP’s office, hanging from the same few inches of cloth-wrapped cord it had in the early days long before Oscar’s time. It persisted despite losing some luster, despite ancient filaments fraying and sizzling and threatening to snap.

What a simple image, full of portent.

Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes. Sure, the first chapter ends with the killer plowing a car through a crowd of people waiting in line for a job fair, but it doesn’t start there. It starts with a careful and intuitive study of two characters waiting in that line–people with all too real economic problems, who–after we get to know them and care about them–will be run over.

I don’t have anything very sophisticated to say about this. Just putting it out there that sometimes it’s a good strategy save the noise for later and use those opening pages to establish a relationship with the reader. Try centering her first, then knock her off her pins.