New Year's Writing

Mywritinglife1.1 So many of us write New Year’s lists: what we’d do if we could. The people I know (many of us WEbookers are in this category, too) often write a variation of this sentence: I will write this year, if I can. If I find the time. If I had a place to write.. A better job. If my son/daughter were a little older. Graduated from high school. College. Law School. If I had more money. A better job.  If I didn’t have to take care of my aunt. My mother. My diabetes. If I were thinner or fatter. If only I had a new computer.

Nora Roberts, the remarkable and not uncomplicated writer who generates book after book, said in The New Yorker this summer, when asked for writing advice: Put your ass in the chair.
I have read many writing books. In fact, I’m addicted to them, although I know that no one even me can tell you how to write. I’ve read Anne LaMott and Brenda Euland, Stephen King and John Irving, Dorothea Brande and Annie Dillard: all experts, in different ways, of how to write. And I’ve taught writing, for years. Or tried to. But I’ve never heard such succinct and practical advice. To be a writer is to write. To write is to sit in one place – the circumstances don’t matter, even a little. The room could be a dark small warren crowded with pizza boxes or a villa on top of the Tuscan Hills. What matters, and all that matters, is putting words right down on the page. One of my favorite writing book authors, Peter Elbow (what a name: Peter Knee, Peter Shoulder, not nearly as succinct) talks eloquently about how you have to write many words, inane flat words, to get to those words that sing.
Buy a new notebook, if that’s part of your ritual, or a ream of Staples paper. And begin. That’s all. Just begin. Remember that you are not Leo Tolstoy or Joyce Carol Oates, and that’s a good thing.
For so many years now, as one of the ways I’ve earned a living, I’ve helped people, friends and strangers, write their books. The way I’ve helped, in weekly sessions that sometimes lasted for years, is just by being there as a reader, repeating over and over again that writing is what matters. Writing anything and everything. Dreams and journals often help writers find the story they want to tell. All writing is stories. If we’re lucky, if we practice and try and don’t give up,  if we listen carefully, pay attention, and live as fully as we can, our stories will be good enough to tell one another, somehow. I await all the stories, all the unexpected sentences, that WEbook writers will create, in 2010.

Many words to you all..

Esther Cohen shares her writing life on the WEbook blog and  teaches Good Stories at Manhattanville College. She’s the author of 5 books,
Book Doctor, Don’t Mind Me And Other Jewish Lies, and God is a Tree. Read more about Esther's Writing Life.


Bestselling Author Joe Finder Answered SO Many Questions! Thanks Joe!

Company Man PART 3 of the amazing 3 PART interview series with bestselling author Joseph Finder. We have learned so much! Thank you Joe for all of your thoughtful insight about research, outlines and writing in general. If you aren't too busy wrapping presents, hanging mistletoe and/or eating delicious holiday goodness...start from the beginning: Click to read PART 1 and PART 2. Or hop in right here with PART 3:

I'm a pretty young writer, so I have very little experience in this field. I enjoy writing, but I have a lot of trouble putting all my ideas on paper... It's a bit frustrating... XD  So... How do you get a novel going? What steps do you take to put those first words onto paper? Thanks!! –KATY

It sounds simple-minded, but if you're feeling really intimidated, you start with lists.  Character names.  Events.  Places. Over a period of many years, I've learned that I have to work from an outline; not all writers do, but I do. It's not an elaborate outline, and it changes along the way, but it lays out a sequence of events for my characters, lists character names, includes some details I want to incorporate, etc. 

Power Play The biggest challenge for any beginning novelist is simply the time it takes, which intimidates most people. But no one sits down and cranks out 90,000 words at once; you do it 1,000 words at a time, or even 500 words at a time. If you can write a page a day, you can finish a book in a year. 

For me, the first words of any new book come from a "What if?" question.  What if a mid-level marketing guy started taking those "business is war" books a little too seriously?  What if a group of criminals took a company's whole leadership structure hostage? How might an ex-Special Forces operative put his devious talents to use in the business world? 

Keep a notebook or one of those small digital recorders close by, and write things down as they occur to you. Not every idea will pay off, but you'll always have a reserve to go back to.

And finally, the most important weapon you can have to combat the fear of the blank computer screen is what I call the crappy draft.  (Well, I use stronger language than that….)  You have to allow yourself to just write something, anything, to write a draft that’s bad in a lot of ways.  Tell yourself this is the crappy draft and don’t worry about it. You’ll fix it later. Otherwise, if you’re too much of a perfectionist, you’ll never get a word down.

Vanished Could you tell us a little bit about how your first novel got published? Was it a struggle to find an agent? Did you do a lot of rewrites and revisions? –MATT

I had written a nonfiction book about Dr. Armand Hammer that drew a great deal of attention — mainly from Dr. Hammer, who wanted to make sure that no one ever read it. But what I really wanted to do was to write a novel.  I was intimidated by fiction, though, and it took me years to decide to try it. I gave myself a deadline of three years to write it and find an agent, and I sold the book just weeks before that self-imposed deadline expired. 

Finding an agent was a challenge. It's tough for everyone, and although I knew some people in the business, it was tough for me as well. Especially for fiction it’s hard to find the right agent, because so many of them aren’t willing to actually read past the flaws and figure out how to fix a beginner’s manuscript.  That takes an agent who’s both skilled and motivated. The agent who finally did take me on told me that the first 55 pages of my manuscript needed to go; he was only willing to represent the book because he'd managed to make it past the book's long, needlessly expository opening section. I looked at the manuscript again, and realized he was right

Follow Joe on Twitter or check out his website. 

Joseph Finder
is a bestselling thriller author and hailed as the “CEO of Suspense,” has published nine novels including the bestselling
High Crimes which was turned into a film starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. He has recently sold two more bestselling novels to Hollywood and his latest thriller, Vanished, landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Vanished, published in August 2009, is the first book in a continuing series featuring corporate security specialist Nick Heller.

PART 2 Joe Finder Answers Your Questions!

Finder-joseph This is PART 2 of a 3 PART Q&A series with bestselling author Joe Finder. Questions by WEbookers and answers by Joe. Want to start with PART 1? Or just dive in right here and read about Joe's thoughts on outlines, research and Twitter. Thanks again Joe!

I've heard a variety of opinions from popular authors regarding outlines. Some writers swear by them, while others say they don't like constricting their narrative with a pre-set plan. You strike me as an outline guy, but I wanted to ask anyway: What are your thoughts on outlines? And have they changed at all over time?

Yeah, I’m an outline guy.  You’re right.  But I came to this realization the hard way.  I’ve tried it a bunch of other ways – no outline at all, a skeletal outline, an immensely detailed outline. . . It took me a while to work out my system.  But here’s the important thing: you do what works for you.  That’s the cool thing about writing: you make your own rules. I know and admire authors who don't outline at all — Lee Child and Harlan Coben, for instance — but I’ve learned it's not the way I write.  I experimented with writing Power Play without an outline, and it took me twice as long as it should have, because I didn't give myself a map. 

That said, I know some authors who write outlines that are almost novella-length; Jeffery Deaver, I think, starts with an outline that might be close to 100 pages long. Robert Ludlum used to write outlines that were easily 150 pages. That's not me, either. That saps the writing process of all the fun of discovery and spontaneity. So I compromise: I lay out a sequence of events — the "beats" of the novel — and I'll make lists of character names and descriptions and even scenes and scraps of dialogue that I want to incorporate.  It's not especially detailed, and it does change along the way when new and better ideas present themselves, but it gives me the feeling that I'm working with a net.

Here’s how I think of it, since I’m a techie guy: it’s the difference between driving with a GPS and driving with directions you’ve downloaded from Google Maps.  If you drive from Boston MA to Syracuse NY using a GPS, it’ll drive you crazy, having that voice tell you “in three tenths of a mile right turn on I-90…”  You can’t listen to music, you can’t be in your own head, you’re always aware of that control-freak voice telling you what to do. No fun. But if you drive without any directions at all, you’ll end up in Tulsa. (Not that there’s anything wrong with Tulsa.) So I print out my directions on Google Maps; that way I have the directions, I know the route, and it allows me to take the more scenic route at times.

Hi Joe, I'm a very young writer (still at school) and was just wondering how you would go about researching your books? If you were to write a book set in a country that you dont live in, how would you go about finding out more about their culture, accents, etc? –MEL

Visiting in person is always the best way, but the Internet is a pretty decent second best.  YouTube lets you hear accents and even languages from all over the world, and Google Earth gives you not only satellite views but sometimes street-level views of neighborhoods all over the planet.  Search for blogs from the region you're writing about, and look for biographies and memoirs of people from there; memoirs, in particular, often give details of everyday life that history books omit. 

Hi Joe! Great question from Mel, let me do a follow-up -- how would you then integrate that information in a way that was smooth and believable, and check to make sure it was represented accurately? –LITTLEFLUFFYCAT

Nothing is more jarring than a book that shoves in all kinds of details in order to show off the author's research. One way to test yourself, if you're not sure whether you've got too much information or not enough, is to rewrite a sequence as if it were set in your own neighborhood. What would you need to tell a stranger about your own neighborhood in order to establish that sense of place? Street names, landmarks, characteristic noises or smells — but just enough, not too much. In Boston, for example, a giant Citgo sign looms over Kenmore Square, and you can see it for almost a mile in any direction. It's not far from my own office, and when I see it, it tells me I'm home. Look for signifiers like that, but don't distract your reader with unnecessary details. Here’s my rule: research should be like the tip of an iceberg – no more than 10% should show.

I'd like to ask you to describe both positive & negative experiences that you may have had using these social media. You are very engaged with your fans, especially on twitter, and I'm wondering if at times it can be overwhelming or even "frightening?" MERLECHLOE

I love new technology, and I love all the new means of communication we have now – e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. – but at the same time I hate them, because they split your attention, divert your focus.  The immediate gratification you get from e-mail can ruin your concentration. I find Twitter to be an especially amazing and powerful way to connect with my readers in a way that I’ve never done before: it’s immediate, intimate, informal – and, yes, totally overwhelming at times. I've met literally thousands of new friends and readers through Twitter, and I love interacting with them. But it can take over. I can tell myself I'm taking a quick break from writing just to check in with my readers, and before I know it, half the day is gone.  There's always one more message to respond to, one more question to answer, one more great piece of information to follow up on. It's a little like research, in that way. I've had to ration myself, especially lately, while I'm finishing the next book, and at times I even have to go cold turkey. I still haven’t figured out how to balance Twitter with my writing life.

Keep reading...check out PART 3!

Joe writes about how he gets a book started and how he got his first book published! Follow Joe on Twitter @joefinder or visit his website.

New York Times Bestselling Author Joe Finder Answers Your Questions - PART 1

Joseph Finder For the last few weeks, bestselling author Joseph Finder (@JoeFinder) has been reading your questions. He answered so many (and wrote such thoughtful responses) that we are going to split the Q&A into several posts, one this weekend (now), one on Monday and the last one on Tuesday. It's a three part-thrilla-palooza! And there is quite a bit to look forward to...

Take it away Joe....!

Hi Joe! I am a new fan. I just finished several of your novels, including Vanished. They are all fantastic! I would like to know who your favorite novelists are? –LISA
Thanks! I'm like most writers I know, in that I became a writer because I love to read so much. The first books that really captured my imagination — and gave me the idea that I could be a writer — were the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron (The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet, etc.). I wrote Mrs. Cameron a letter, and she wrote me back; it was a revelation to me, as until then I don't think I realized that books came from regular people who just sat around and made them up. Then I fell in love with Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and so it began . . .

The novelists I love most as an adult are the ones who combine the power of storytelling with characters you can't forget, and many of these are "literary" novelists: Saul Bellow, especially Humboldt's Gift; Philip Roth; Robertson Davies, whose Deptford Trilogy is magical; E.L Doctorow, especially the pageant of Ragtime; John Fowles, in The Magus; and Sue Miller, who happens to be a friend but is also an amazing writer.

How did you get your inspiration from all your books? –ANONYMOUS

Inspiration is everywhere. I'm serious. Watch the news, drive the carpool, shop for groceries, and play the "What if" game. What if the person in the car in front of you were plotting to kill his boss?  What if that nanny on the playground is secretly adding herself to all her employer's financial accounts? What if a deranged shoe store employee decided to take her revenge by dusting zombie powder inside that foot-measurer contraption, and planned to marshal a zombie army to take over the mall? More realistically, look for sources of stress and conflict in the world around you. Every conflict is a story: somebody wants something, somebody else wants something different, and the path to resolution is your plot.

Hello Joe, I was wondering if you have any tips on writing a synopsis? Is there a formula to follow? Thanks! –J.E.WEBBER
Think of it as like the jacket copy on a novel: it grabs you, tells you what kind of novel it is, who the basic characters are, what the premise is, what kind of other books it’s like. A reader in a bookstore picks up a novel because of its cover, but then she or he reads to jacket copy to see what it’s about, and in 400 words or so she gets it. That’s all you need, but it’s highly compressed. If you’re doing a longer synopsis for an agent, it helps to think of it as a newspaper article that reports the events of your novel. Name your characters, establish their environment, lay out their goals and describe the journey they take to get there. Synopses should follow the narrative sequence of your book (that is, if your book is structured in flashbacks, the synopsis should reflect that), but in general, shorter is better. 

What writing faux pas do you commonly find yourself falling victim to (and subsequently having to go back and fix) in your writing process? RICH
You’d think that after having written 10 novels I’d have the process down perfectly, but I don’t. Someday, but not yet. I often give a talk at writer’s conferences that I used to call The Six Biggest Mistakes That Even Bestselling Writers Make, and then it grew into the Ten Biggest Mistakes, then the Thirteen Biggest Mistakes….. None of us is perfect, no matter how successful. None of us gets the book right in the first draft.  Often, in my own first drafts, I find it takes me way too long to get the party started – I call this Joefinderfan-1 throat-clearing.  Then I’ll re-read it and find myself mentally drumming my fingers – get to it, already!  That’s a big one. Some mistakes I find I seem to just have to make as a way of finding myself into the story.  For me, it’s just part of the process.

Hi Joe! I'd like to ask about your most embarrassing moment; I'm sure there are many! :> -MERLECHLOE
Ugh, do we have to talk about this?  No, really, I've never done ANYTHING that embarrassed me.  We won't talk about the time I broke my fly zipper the morning before interviewing a major corporation's CEO, and he found me dealing with it in the men's room on the executive floor immediately before the interview (before we had even been introduced), my pants puddled on the floor on top of my shoes.  No, we'll just skip right over this question . . .

...keep reading...jump into PART 2

Joseph Finder
is a bestselling thriller author and hailed as the “CEO of Suspense,” has published nine novels including the bestselling
High Crimes which
was turned into a film starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. He has
recently sold two more bestselling novels to Hollywood and his latest
Vanished, landed on The New York Times bestseller list. Vanished, published in August 2009, is the first book in a continuing series featuring corporate security specialist Nick Heller.

Good Stories , or I Lost My IPHONE

Mywritinglife1.1 Esther Cohen teaches Good Stories at Manhattanville College. She’s the author of 5 books, including Book Doctor, Don’t Mind Me And Other Jewish Lies, and God is a Tree. Her last post was about Watch Repair and Other Sources of Inspiration.

“A real writer is always shifting, and changing, and searching.”   

                                                                                                     - JAMES BALDWIN

This week’s good story (I hope good is the right word – it’s a story anyway) is about losing my IPhone. I am not a techie. I don’t (this is a confession) actually know how to turn on my new big flat screen tv. Although my husband’s given me lessons. As readers of this column may remember, I write with a pen, in a notebook. But the IPhone, a gift from my husband a year ago this December, transcended my fear of Cuisinarts, new televisions, and other familiar equipment. I fell in love with my IPhone on site. It is beautiful. And I even played my first ever game (is it a video game, if it’s on the IPhone? Maybe.): skeeball.
So when I lost my IPhone last week, it seemed a little, like losing a child. I felt I lost everything: my dates, drafts of poems, my small beautiful office, scores of notes and dates and addresses. The weekend before, I’d bought a third world IPhone case, a beautiful piece of embroidered Peruvian cloth, with bright blue beads on the strap. My phone was in my case when I lost it. I didn’t know what to do, so I googled online: What Do You Do If you Lose Your IPhone. The answers were not satisfying. Nothing clear.
I started calling my own number, frantically. Hearing my own message. I called half a dozen times over the course of an hour. The sixth time, a man answered with this perfect sentence: Is This Your IPhone? For one minute, I was completely thrilled. YES I shouted. Where are you? I will come there immediately. I’m on Central Park West, he replied. But I’ll come to you. Give me your address. I found it on the corner of Columbus and 77th. On the street. Do you live nearby?
That made me nervous. Who was he? I didn’t want him here. Even with my IPhone. I’ll meet you on the corner in front of Isabella’s Restaurant, I said, trying not to sound apprehensive. But I was. And I wasn’t quite sure why. He had my IPhone. I wanted it back. That’s all that mattered.
I stood in front of Isabella’s Restaurant, one of those chopped salad places, and as if in slow motion, every conceivable odd human being walked by me: an old homeless guy who looked kind but crazy, a man pushing a shopping cart filled to the top with pieces of cloth, a hip hop teenager, two men who had the Sopranos gait. Everytime someone walked passed me I wondered Does He Have My IPhone? Was it a scam? Did he want money for my phone?
I had a twenty dollar bill in my hand. Waiting was one of those interminable times (it could have been l5 minutes, or 20. No more.) A man walked up to me in Comme des Garcon clothes. Beautiful, expensive, French-Japanese. He had one of those incredible noses that you’d paint if you were a painter. Thin, long, wide. He looked wildly successful, artistic, worldly, handsome. And he had my IPhone.
I like strangers, and always have. I like meeting people on planes, in foreign countries, in cities I’m visiting for business. I like to hear the details of life, and as WEbook readers know, I like Good Stories most of all. Many of my best stories came from strangers. We are freer with one another, sometimes, to tell a good story. Especially if we know we’ll never see one another, again.
“You look like your case” said the stranger.
There are some sentences that seem innocent enough. And some just don’t.
I wanted to run away, but not before I’d secured my IPhone.
He handed it over, and I said, Can I give you the case, to thank you? Oh no, he said. It’s clearly yours. I don’t suppose you want $20? I asked. He was clearly prosperous. Successful, not nearly as in need of the $20 as I was. Or the many people who might have had my phone, who’d walked down the street before him.
Where are you going? he asked. And I who don’t drink beer, who have literally never bought beer in my life, said, I’m walking down the street to the supermarket. They sell cheap beer.
Thanks, I added, in a far more cursory way than I felt. HE RESCUED MY IPHONE AND GAVE IT BACK. Still, I left very quickly. Thinking to myself: At least this was a story. Maybe even a good one.”What about you, WEbook friends? What are your good stories this week?

Yours on the web,

Finding a Theme (Or Letting the Theme Find You)

Sanjay Bahadur, author of The Sound of Water, guest blogs about finding a theme for a novel -- or letting the theme find you. A bit of background about the book, and about Sanjay's process, which included getting feedback via the internet! 

The Sound of Water The Sound of Water provides an account of an Indian mining disaster as seen from three perspectives: an old miner struggling to save himself and his coworkers hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth; the company and government officials charged with managing the rescue efforts; and the miners' families anxiously awaiting word of survival or death.

While writing the book, the internet proved to be an effective resource for Sanjay. Not only did it strengthen his research but it enabled him to connect with some discerning readers whose suggestions improved the readability of the book. He also received technical guidance from mining engineers promptly through emails, including diagrams or process descriptions. Sanjay writes: “Writing can be a lonely process but internet ensured that I never lacked support or advice.”


As a first time author, the question posed to me most often is: So how did you choose the theme of The Sound of Water? To be frank, I think themes of novels are like taxmen. You don’t find them – they find you.

You may think I am debunking the art of writing and the ability of a writer to craft a good story. Well, I’m not. When a raw theme presents itself to a writer, she (or he – to retain the old world charm) still has to hammer, carve and chisel all her lumps of thoughts to fit that theme and make it presentable.

Imagine if the following “theme” were to strike me: A confused adolescent boy of 17-20 -- perhaps also prone to hallucinating -- gets it into his head that his father had been murdered. He sees ghosts, rants and raves about injustice in this world, takes out his anger on his hapless girlfriend, freaks out his close friends and hatches a wacko plot to take revenge. The plot hinges on performance of a weird play named, say, “The Murder of Gonzago” performed by some traveling drama company! It all ends in plenty of dead bodies, some killed by mistake, some deliberately and some in utter despair.

I don’t know about you, friend -- but I would probably make a mess of it. Or Hong Kong would have produced a B Grade karate flick called “Fist of Blood” or something. But it made “ye olde bard”, Shakespeare create Hamlet. See my point? The skill and presentation always matters. A theme grows like a kernel in the fertile soil of the writer’s imagination. It is how much love, care and attention it gets that makes it a sapling and eventually a flowering tree. All it takes is the courage to plant it -- on paper. Like babies, all themes are potentially great.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, let’s try out an open experiment here. Let any aspiring writer put down a theme that has grabbed her or his mind. Let it be just 10 sentences – or a single line. Plant it here, in this public space just so you know you have sowed your kernel in front of witnesses. If you really want to write a book, it will grow. In all probability, you would be the proud owner of a finished manuscript within the next 2-3 years.

Are there any disbelievers out there?


Sanjay Bahadur has a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Mumbai and a MBA from the University of Birmingham, UK.  He joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1989. During 2000-04 he worked as a Director in the Indian Ministry of Coal, which gave him the opportunity to observe mining operations and lives of miners at close quarters.

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