It’s Banned Books Week! banned books banner

You can read more about it here.

In the meantime, what’s on the ALA banned and challenged list that you’ve read and loved? The books on this list are books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century that have been the target of ban attempts.

  1. F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.
  2. J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye.
  3. John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath.
  4. Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird.
  5. Alice Walker. The Color Purple.
  6. James Joyce. Ulysses.
  7. Toni Morrison. Beloved.
  8. William Golding. The Lord of the Flies.
  9. George Orwell. 1984.
  1. Vladmir Nabokov. Lolita.
  2. John Steinbeck. Of Mice and Men.
  1. Joseph Heller. Catch-22.
  2. Aldous Huxley. Brave New World.
  3. George Orwell. Animal Farm.
  4. Ernest Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
  5. William Faulkner. As I Lay Dying.
  6. Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms.
  1. Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God.
  2. Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man.
  3. Toni Morrison. Song of Solomon.
  4. Margaret Mitchell. Gone with the Wind.
  5. Richard Wright. Native Son.
  6. Ken Kesey. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
  7. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse-Five.
  8. Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls.
  1. Jack London. The Call of the Wild.
  1. James Baldwin. Go Tell it on the Mountain.
  1. Robert Penn Warren. All the King’s Men.
  1. J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings.
  1. Upton Sinclair. The Jungle.
  1. D.H. Lawrence. Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
  2. Anthony Burgess. A Clockwork Orange.
  3. Kate Chopin. The Awakening.
  1. Truman Capote. In Cold Blood.
  1. Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses.
  1. William Styron. Sophie’s Choice.
  1. D.H. Lawrence. Sons and Lovers.
  1. Kurt Vonnegut. Cat’s Cradle.
  2. John Knowles. A Separate Peace.
  1. William S. Burroughs. Naked Lunch.
  2. Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited.
  3. D.H. Lawrence. Women in Love.
  1. Norman Mailer. The Naked and the Dead.
  1. Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer.
  1. Theodore Dreiser. An American Tragedy.
  1. John Updike. Rabbit, Run.

Breaking Yourself Up Into Your Characters

By Bob Yehling

I faced a serious time crunch, even for a life in which time always seems to fold on top of itself. I sent a list of potential “next books” to my agent—five or six ideas, and told him I was not beholden to any particular order. “Recommend whichever book or books you think will be our best next shot,” I said.

Within two days, his recommendation came back. He chose The Voice, an idea for a novel with which I’d been playing—entirely in my head, never on paper—for two years. What’s more, he marked his choice with exclamation points. In this tough-as-nails publishing climate, when a successful agent puts exclamation points next to something, you push everything else aside and write it. I shook my head. That figures: He wants the one title that has never been outlined, mapped out or even played with beyond a journal entry or two. Never mind character sketches, settings, narrative arcs, conflict/resolution treatments or the other preparatory work I normally do when preparing to write a novel or long short story.

I took a deep breath—then held it when I read the next sentence in his e-mail. “Because of the political theme, if you can get it done by October 1, we may be able to sell it in time for the 2004 (presidential political) season,” he wrote. “Hurry.”

It was May 20. I had less than four and a half months, with a one-month period looming in June and July in which my other commitments would render it impossible for me to write a word

To put it kindly, the challenge was daunting. I would need to employ all imaginable speed, creativity, focus and ability to use dialogue to propel the story forward. I would also need to develop characters in a hurry, and breathe life and realism into them so that they didn’t resemble the stick figures that lurch in and out of so many hurried novels like tin men in a snowstorm. My only “advantage,” if you can call it that, is that I’d spent time mentally grooming my protagonist, a 1960s-era rock music legend with keen political savvy and the ability to grasp and bring out the higher qualities of the human condition. He was a fun character, a creative character, one that appealed well to my lifelong fantasy of being a rock star and my tendency to dart in and out of political activism whenever the times and issues felt crucial to me. This was one of those times.

I worked out the protagonist by peppering his world with grains of my own life in order to develop a sense of the familiar. During this process, I tripped and fell into the secret of how to write this book: I would season all of the characters with slices of my own life. Everything would become fair game— travels, conversations, readings, music, dreams, intuitions, observations, likes, dislikes, realizations, journal musings, memories, relationships, adolescence, triumphs and failures. “Stand naked before your audience,” Robert Bly admonishes; I had to go all the way. The characters would “choose” what they wanted from this pool of my life, and “integrate” it into their own existences, their own experiences.

I got to work. The plot line of The Voice is straightforward: The rock music legend, Tom Timoreaux, is “drafted” to run for president by a pair of top-flight strategists—one Republican, one Democrat—who are disgusted with the disintegration of the political and governing processes. They defect and turn to Timoreaux, whose political acumen has helped numerous members of Congress and the Senate over a 30-year period. However, Timoreaux and his old band are planning a major 40-stop tour that is already sold out. In The Voice, the intensity of an 11th hour presidential campaign and a long-awaited reunion tour converge—and the protagonist’s voice and vision hold center stage.

However, one character would not make this book. The Voice is populated with subplots and side stories, to show Timoreaux’s colorful “behind-the-scenes” life. He hires his wild-child youngest daughter, Christine, to sing backup vocals in the band; as the summer progresses, she becomes a star. His wife, Megan, is the family’s core, a nod to the Native American tradition in which the wife is the true guiding force. His three other children also play roles in the book. The two strategists, Roger Wilkinson and Jason Robiski, are fully developed, as is the lead agent on the candidate’s Secret Service detail, Mike Jensen. To throw in some personal and political intrigue, I added an alluring Italian woman who may or may not be the candidate’s daughter from his formative years in San Francisco (he was a 1960s music legend, after all); and a foe who doesn’t want the status quo to change—and will stop at nothing to silence Tom Timoreaux.

I breathed pieces of my own life into each of the characters and many of the scenes. My muse brought forth a collection of 30 songs for Tom and Christine; “after all,” she sweetly whispered into my inner ear, “you can’t have an original band without original music.” These songs were the sweetest surprise of the whole process, one of the greatest occurrences of my writing career, and attested to the absolute trust I give the creative process when writing first drafts. You may receive these jewels, and you may not, but you’ll never have a chance if you question and edit and discard during the creative process. I gave Tom a number of my personal characteristics—love for San Francisco, love of 1960s rock music, a Leo’s need to be on “center stage,” teaching creativity to young people, living in the New Mexico mountains (my former home), and much more. To borrow from Alice Walker, I constructed around him the temple of my familiar—to a degree.

I gave Megan Timoreaux my love for the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire (she comes from that region), my fondness for Native American and ancient Sumerian cultures, the level of awareness consistent with a long-time meditator, an ability to shut off the noise of the world, and a talent for painting and photography (both dormant in me at present). She loves medicine wheels and the poetry of Catullus. She is a deeply loving, supportive parent. She’s a strikingly beautiful, tender woman in her 50s who takes rugged hikes and protects her family with a lioness’ ferocity. (There’s that Leo again.)

Christine Timoreaux is a partial reflection of my own daughter—stubborn,beautiful, independent, and engrossed in college. She’s also a gifted singer and art student who (unlike my daughter) loves to party. Her strained relationship with her father opened up a maelstrom of personal pain from deep in my core when I covered it. Roger Wilkinson is a political wonk, a high intellectual, a connoisseur of fine art, a bow-tied nerd—which I was until my early teen years. Jason Robiski is a fast-moving, jet-setting lover of strategy, intrigue, all things Italian and beautiful women, who sometimes gets into pickles with the latter and a figment of my very real past. Mike Jensen is a Secret Service agent with a wild streak, a rugged outdoorsman, highly protective of family and his detail, observant to the extreme, and a lover of eagles. I can relate. Damiana Scigliano, the Italian mystery woman, loves ’60s music, lives in Venice, still idealizes her romantic partners, and will not be stopped if a matter concerns principles and the salvation of her own dignity. All traits that, for better or worse, I carry.

The characters “seasoned” themselves as the writing progressed. They took on lives of their own, voices of their own. I used these personal characteristics to animate them, to develop an energetic and emotional charge between the characters and their storyteller—me. In this way, the characters’ voices rolled through loud and clear, and I could become an instrument for the story they had to tell, with all its twists, turns and surprises.

The pace was never a problem: Two of the most intense experiences I’ve ever witnessed were a rock music tour and a political campaign. In The Voice, they come together. Everything runs at warp speed, where things happen quickly and people think on their feet. So do my characters. While they began with a smattering of my qualities (and idiosyncrasies), they finished as far different personalities. That is the beauty of the entire “breaking yourself up” process. If you spread the seeds among the garden of characters, and let them sprout into distinct beings through deep characterization and effective dialogue—vital for good fiction—then your readers will never know that you utilized this technique.

By breaking myself up, I was able to grab a character and know whose hand I was holding as he or she told the story through me. From that beachhead of a trait or two, entire beings developed and blossomed in ways I never imagined when I sat down to tackle this ridiculous deadline. As the book grew, three more benefits of this technique revealed itself: I found I stayed “in character” much easier, the dialogue fully conveyed the characters’ respective voices, and I immersed in the creative, timeless pure writing flow for four or five consecutive hours a day. As Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway emphasized, that’s all a writer needs—and they produced the works to prove it.

I finished the 170,000-word first draft of “The Voice” on September 16, two weeks ahead of schedule. When I began to rewrite and revise, and trim about 40,000 words from the draft, yet another gift from this character-building process showed itself: I had only half the work of previous books. All the story needed was a comprehensive revision and a fine-tuning. I’d written as fast as I could for three months, and the entire narrative arc and personality bloom of the characters came out right the first time. It felt like an outpouring of manna from the heavens.

Following my experience, I decided to test the effectiveness of this technique for others by taking the plunge. I introduced it to a class of mostly professional writers in a September workshop I conducted, and also advised a couple of clients whose books I was editing to animate their characters by injecting more of “what you know.” The response was strong and positive; their characters sprang to life. I then asked myself, “Is this just my ego billowing to new heights by thinking my life is so interesting that it can define every character in every book I ever write?”

There were two answers to that question, besides “No”: I wrote what I knew; and my characters did not define themselves by my personal experiences or traits. They are much different than me. This just helped me to get to know them and bring them to life in the face of a near-impossible deadline. I looked back at several books of one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, and saw where she often did the same thing. She had to. So do we: We have to make our characters real. We make them real by writing what we know. Furthermore, I learned much about myself from spending the summer with these characters—and I came out of the experience feeling more complete, relieved, exhausted, and wondering if I even wanted to write another novel again.

It’s two months later. Another set of characters are knocking on the door, looking for an animating characteristic or two that will throw open their worlds. They want to form a fictional reunion of my freshman high school English class and relive an experience in that class that changed and defined my life. I think I’ll help them out.

Bob Yehling is a writer, editor, teacher and author of two books, Make Me An Eagle and The Voice. He teaches writing workshops throughout the country, including the Writes of Life series, which includes a segment on breaking yourself up into characters. You can find Bob Yehling at his Website

How to Write a Book That Will Actually Sell

By Patricia Fry
Is it possible to predetermine the success of your book before you start writing it? To a degree, yes. Some of your choices during the planning and writing phases of your book can definitely influence eventual sales. There’s no sense in leaving the future of your book to chance, when you can help to create a greater potential for its success.

As the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) and an international speaker, I meet many authors every year who are disappointed in their book sales. I think it’s fair to say that 100 percent of the time the fault lies with the author. Here are eight common mistakes first-time authors make and tips for how to avoid them:

1. The author writes the wrong book for the wrong audience.

This author hasn’t discovered the true audience for his book. He may have written a bulldozer book– one designed to change minds. It may be a valid book subject, but he plans to promote it to an audience who isn’t interested.

Many of us enter into the world of publishing with hopes and dreams. We want to make a difference, change wrong thinking, offer positive alternatives, teach better methods of being, for example. More often than not, however, our perceived target audiences don’t really give a darn. They aren’t interested in a new perspective, a different way of living and they certainly don’t want to be told that their thinking is wrong.

Examples of bulldozer book topics might include, smoking, religion, politics, parenting techniques, and pregnancy issues.

Remedy: Early on, study your chosen genre/topic and identify your audience—those people who would want to read this book—not those who should. Write the book for an audience who cares.

2. The author doesn’t know that he is responsible for promotion.

Obviously, this author didn’t take the time and initiative to study the publishing industry or he would know that his job isn’t over once the book is published.

Remedy: Study the publishing industry. Discover all of your publishing options, consider the possible consequences of your choices, and learn about your responsibilities as a published author. Read my book, The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book by Patricia Fry. Also read books by Marilyn Ross, Brian Judd, Dan Poynter, and John Kremer.

3. The author doesn’t take the opportunity to build promotion into his book while he’s writing it.

Savvy authors think about their target audiences while they are writing and designing their books.

Remedy: If yours would make a good reference book, for example, you’ll want to include a complete index. For a novel, choose a setting that is conducive to promotion. Give a character a popular ailment and present it in a positive light. Build promotion into your how-to book by involving a lot of experts and/or organizations through interviews and by including them in your resource list, for example. Solicit testimonials for your back cover from high profile people in your field or genre. Find ways to make your book more appealing to a larger audience.

4. The author neglects to establish a platform.

An author’s platform is his following, his reach, his way of attracting his target audience. Most successful authors today have a platform in place before they produce a book.

Remedy: Begin establishing or building on your platform even before you start writing the book. Your platform for your book on phobias might be the fact that you’re a psychologist in this area of study, that you suffered a severe phobia for years, that you work with women with phobias and/or that you’ve written articles and papers about this for years. Establish a platform for your cookbook by entering and judging cooking contests, writing articles for magazines, teaching online cooking classes, for example. Create a platform for your novel by becoming known as a short story writer (submit stories to appropriate magazines– lots and lots of them), building and maintaining a large mailing list, getting involved in sites related to your genre.

5. The author has unrealistic expectations.

Many first-time authors (we’ve all been there) expect to sell their books by the truckloads through mega bookstores. They believe that any good book will be eagerly welcomed by bookstore owners and managers. The reality is that few people outside of traditional royalty publishers with track records can get new books into bookstores. And space on bookstore shelves does not guarantee sales. In fact, books that are not selling will be returned– sometimes within the first few months.

Remedy: Have a promotions plan in place before deciding to produce a book. Don’t expect that your book will sell well just because it exists. Understand that it is going to take work and time to get your book noticed among the thousands of others. Having your book accepted for sale in bookstores is not necessarily your key to sales and riches. It’s still up to you to promote it– to spread the word about your wonderful, useful, exciting book.

6. The author plans to give promotion just a lick and a promise.

I’ve seen it often: An author brings out a book, notifies her local newspaper, sets up a website, visits a few independent bookstores, attends a book festival and then goes back to her previous lifestyle. She realizes a brief flurry of book sales and then they stop. She doesn’t know why.

Remedy: Authors need to understand that book promotion is ongoing. It should start before you write the book and continue for as long as you want to sell books. Your book will sell only for as long as you are willing to promote it.

7. The author gives up.

I can’t tell you how often I hear this, “I can’t sell my book, so what’s the use?” You won’t achieve the level of success you desire if you quit.

Remedy: Adopt a never-give-up attitude. Adapt the same measure of persistence, stick-to-itiveness and patience it took to complete your book project and get it published.

8. The author grows weary of the book promotion process.

Sure you’re going to suffer burnout. Promoting a book is a long, hard process.

Remedy: Tap into your sense of creativity in order to spark book sales. Try new, interesting and even exciting ways to boost sales. Plan a trip and take your book along. Visit bookstores and negotiate consignment deals. Rent a booth at a book festival locally. Give a performance featuring your book and invite the entire community. With the help of a publicist or marketing genius, launch a mail order campaign.

There’s a lot to consider when entering the huge and competitive publishing business. And promotion is a major consideration. Whether you land a traditional royalty publisher, self-publish (establish your own publishing company), or go with a fee-based POD publishing service, it is up to the author to promote his or her book. And the time to start thinking about promotion is before you ever sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Patricia Fry is the president of SPAWN. She is also a full-time freelance writer and the author or 28 books. Ten of her books relate to writing and publishing. She blogs at Matilja Press

Research: Setting Your Historical Romance

By Tina St. John

In late 1994, I quit my full-time job to try my hand at writing a novel. Yes, it was an enormous risk, and yes, I have a very understanding and supportive husband. Naively, I expected to complete my book by year’s end — never mind that said book consisted of less than fifty pages of a pre-Civil War time-travel idea that was going nowhere fast. Around Christmas, I had made no real progress and I began to panic. The story wasn’t coming together at all. Even worse, I was bored to death of it. How was I going to break the news to my husband that I had nothing to show for my four months of “full-time writing” at home?

I was in my car, pondering my immediate and utter failure as a novelist when I was hit with a sudden, blinding flash of inspiration. An old U2 song came on the radio, and, like a scene from a movie, I watched as a new story began to unfold before my eyes. Well, maybe not an entire story, but rather, a scene. A very compelling scene of a young boy fleeing from a band of armed men on horseback. He was beaten, crying, and running for his life. It was so vivid, so emotional, I just knew I had to write it. The only problem was, the scene was, without question, medieval. A subject about which I knew nothing. Where to begin?

The Internet had not really taken shape yet then, so I started my search for information at my local library. I read encyclopedias and general histories on England — including children’s books — learning what I could on a cursory level about feudal society and life in the middle ages. After some investigation, I found a brief biography on King Stephen (1138-1153). It was said that while he reigned, God and His saints slept. Stephen’s noble barons ran wild in England, plundering and pillaging their neighbors, making war without consequence or reprimand. Based on that one observation, I knew I had found my perfect setting.

Once I determined where and when to set my book, I read voraciously within that period — everything from reference books and biographies to other historical romance novels set in my chosen era. I delved deeper into the history of the twelfth century, specializing and allowing my curiosity to lead me where it would. As I read, I started my own glossary of terms, jotting down period words and adding their definitions for easy reference. I photocopied costume etchings and made a binder for all of my notes and pictures. I collected reams of information and grabbed up every book I could find on medieval culture. I could have easily spent another year immersing myself in the history of England in the middle ages, but sooner or later, I knew I would have to start writing. The question was, how much of this fascinating information should I include?

You’ve probably heard reviewers criticize historical romance novels for either not enough history to make the story seem real, or too much history that overpowers the romance. While it really comes down to the author’s personal style, I believe the trick to a commercially successful romance novel is to keep your historical content somewhere between pretty “wallpaper” and the primary focus of your story. It should provide a foundation and a framework for your story, but never forget that your focus — and your reader’s focus — should be rooted on the characters and their budding romance. Resist the temptation to show off all that you have learned about your setting. Your knowledge of setting and timeframe will show in the detail you leave out, as much as it will show in the detail you choose to include.

Another temptation to resist is that of bending historical fact or people to suit your story. If you know King Richard was on crusade in 1191, don’t put him in England just so he can interact with your fictional characters. The same goes for historic battles. If you have to change a date or location of a well-known battle, then perhaps it’s not the right battle to include in your book.

On the flip side, there are some instances where a little harmless bending of facts can help make your story or scene clearer to the reader. For example, in my next book, Black Lion’s Bride, which is set in the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, I have the English hero and Muslim heroine playing chess together. Chess, I discovered through my research, actually originated in Arabia (or China, depending on who you believe) and was brought to England and France by the crusaders in Richard’s army. What a fun and serendipitous fact! The game was called shatranj, but the board, the moves, and most of the pieces were similar to the later European chess. (For history buffs, the winning move in shatranj was called shah mat which meant “the king is dead.” This later became anglicized to “check mate” in European chess.) Rather than confuse readers with the Arabic names of the pieces, wherever possible I either described them, or gave them the more widely recognized European names. It’s a brief scene, and the chess game is used as background to the sexual tension between the characters, but thanks to historic fact and a little creative “massaging” of a detail or two, it’s got an historically authentic feel to it. (Plus I feel pretty darned clever for being able to weave it into the story!)

In addition to reference texts and biographies in researching your setting, don’t discount travel guides and other unconventional sources of information. I recently found my new favorite resource for settings while browsing my local B&N. Have you heard of the Knopf Travel Guide series? Even better than my old favorite, the DK Guides, the Knopf books are filled with full-color photographs and drawings on everything from regional flora and fauna, to geography, architecture, and clothing. There’s even a section on history, which will give you a nice starting place as you begin your study of your chosen setting.

While you’re digging for history for your book, don’t limit your research to politics and culture of your chosen timeframe and/or place. Read as much and as widely as you can, probing deeper into the fiber of your setting for greater texture and ideas. And keep an open mind– you never know what fascinating little surprises you might uncover in your investigation. You might even find the plot for your next book.

Which makes a nice segue into my next topic: Plotting!

Tina St. John’s medieval romances (Ballantine Books) have won numerous writing awards, including the National Readers’ Choice and the Booksellers Best. Her novel Black Lion’s Bride, sequel to 2002 RWA RITA Finalist, White Lion’s Lady, was a Featured Alternate Selection at Doubleday’s Rhapsody Bookclub. For more info on Tina’s books, or for links to more writing tips, see Tina St. John’s website. Tina St. John also writes under her best-selling pen name Lara Adrian.

Agents — Who Needs Them?

By Apryl Duncan

Many authors, especially first-timers, think a literary agent is someone you associate with names like Stephen King, Judith Krantz and John Grisham. Truth is, having an agent handle your work really depends on your own personality.

Before taking on an agent, you have to first evaluate yourself. Are you the type of person that has to do everything yourself or can you hand off important responsibilities to others?

You have to be willing to trust your agent. Trust that he or she is out there negotiating with publishers for you. Trust that your money will be collected, 10 to 20 percent taken off the top for your agent’s fee and then the rest sent to you promptly. You even have to trust your agent to choose the right publisher for you . . . even if it’s not a major one.

Before you decide you’d rather do all the legwork yourself, consider this: Agents are a powerful force in the publishing world.

On your own, you could send out your manuscript to 10 different publishing houses. But an agent has an insider’s view of what those 10 currently need. This helps you eliminate a waste of time and money sending out your manuscript to a publisher that’s not interested from the start.

Agents target the right publisher for your manuscript. They know the editors. Have lunch with them. See them in social settings. It’s a more casual approach than a hard sell.

Publishers also consider agents a valuable resource because they weed out manuscripts that aren’t ready to go. This saves the publisher the extra effort of having to slave through a pile of manuscripts for the one that screams, “Jackpot.”

Another advantage of having an agent is the money factor. Many writers are so anxious to see their work in print, they tell the publisher money doesn’t matter. Be glad that, for agents, money does matter. They’re motivated to get you the best deal. On your manuscript. On advances. Even on paperback and foreign sales.

And they don’t stop there. While turning your novel into a movie is a long-shot, an agent does have connections in New York and Hollywood that can help turn your dream into a reality.

Unfortunately, many authors are scared off by the 10 to 20 percent cut for the agent’s commission. But after the negotiation process, most authors find they do better with an agent even after a 20 percent cut.

Now if you’re ready to find an agent, don’t think it’s as simple as opening the phone book and hiring a plumber. Most literary agents reject 98 percent of materials that come across their desk. The market has tightened so much that agents can literally pick and choose the manuscripts they want to represent.

To increase your chances of landing an agent, research the agents you want representing you and your work. Then prioritize a list of the ones you’re most interested in. Make sure your choices accept the type of work you write. If you like to dabble in the different genres, search for an agent that handles all types of fiction.

Also, consider an agent’s member associations. The Association of Authors’ Representatives Inc. (AAR) keeps its agent members informed of changes in the publishing, movie and television industries. Agents must subscribe to the organization’s Canon of Ethics and meet certain eligibility requirements in order to become a member.

While narrowing your list of agents, pay careful attention to their submission requirements. If an agent says No Phone Calls, they really do mean no phone calls.

You’ll also find out how they want your information. Some may want a query. Others may want to see your sample chapters and book proposal.

Agents aren’t just for big-name authors. With a little research and a strong manuscript, you can find an agent that will help you reap the benefits of being published.

This article originally appeared on Reprinted with permission.

Apryl Duncan is the founder of FictionAddiction.NET, an award-winning site for fiction writers and readers. She is an author, workshop instructor and professional freelance writer who enjoys writing everything from mystery novels to how-to articles on the writing craft.

Interview with Bernard Cornwell

Interview by Christopher Seufert

Bernard Cornwell was born in London in 1944, an illegitimate “war baby” whose father was a Canadian airman and whose mother was in Britain’s Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. He was adopted as an infant and raised in Essex by a family belonging to a religious sect (now extinct) called the Peculiar People. They forbade alcohol, cigarettes, dancing, television, and conventional medicine. After an unhappy childhood, he escaped to London University, worked briefly as a teacher after graduation, and then joined BBC television. He started as a researcher in the Nationwide program and eventually worked his way up to Head of Current Affairs for BBC in Northern Ireland, and became editor of Thames TV’s News division.  It was while working in Belfast that he met his wife, Judy, a visiting American, for whom he moved to the United States. You can Bernard Cornwall’s books here.

I was astounded to find that you’ve sold more than 12,000,000 copies of the Sharpe series worldwide, which is just a fraction of your catalog. Furthermore, the Boston Globe recently stated that you were perhaps “the greatest writer of historical novels today.” Are you a success by your own standard?

I’m a success inasmuch that I enjoy my life, which is an enormous blessing and that doesn’t depend on commercial success (though I wouldn’t be such a fool as to deny that it helps). What I mean by that is that the point of life, as I see it, is not to write books or scale mountains or sail oceans, but to achieve happiness, and preferably an unselfish happiness. It just so happens that I write books, and I’m amazingly lucky that the books sell well all across the world, but even the biggest financial success will not compensate for an ill-lived life. I’m fortunate that the books sell, but even more fortunate to live in Chatham, to be very happily married and to have, on the whole, a fairly clear conscience. Anyone who claims to have an entirely clear conscience is almost certainly a bore.

The Boston Globe also pointed to the irony that “There are places where Bernard Cornwell is a household name. His adopted home here on Cape Cod isn’t one of them.” I get the sense that they’re correct, that you do in fact walk the streets of Chatham in general anonymity, as opposed to similarly successful Chatham residents. Would you say this is true?

Absolutely true, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Mind you, even in places where I’m much better known, I walk in anonymity, mainly because folks know authors’ names, but not their faces. I did a TV series for the British History Channel a few years ago and for a few weeks afterwards I was accosted by folk in Britain wanting to talk, which was flattering, but the memory faded and blessed anonymity returned.

Sharpe’s Havoc, published in 2003, was the first of your many novels to reach the New York Times best-seller list here in the U.S. Meanwhile in Britain, you’ve already had many best-sellers, [plus] the Sharpe series going to television. To what do you attribute this discrepancy? Do you see your popularity in the United States increasing with your increasing publication of stories based on American history?

The discrepancy is entirely based, I think, on the fact that I write best when I’m writing about what I know, and that is British history. And though I’ve lived in the States for over 25 years and am now an American citizen, I still hear British voices in my head. Writing British dialogue is easy, writing American is harder, and I feel much more confident writing about Brits. So the books have a greater appeal to a British audience, but that hasn’t stopped them making best-seller lists in places like Brazil, Japan, and at least a dozen other countries. In the end their appeal is not necessarily the history, but the quality of the storytelling, and a good story transcends national boundaries. I still have to crack the French market, though that isn’t entirely surprising considering that the Sharpe novels are endless tales of French defeat.

You’ve been a resident of Chatham for some years now. When you moved here, as the story goes, you didn’t have a work permit and so, began writing for a living. Were you surprised that it worked out as that practical a solution? I’d imagine many who came to that solution would end up back in England in six months.

I was astonished! Actually I moved to New Jersey in 1980 and didn’t discover Chatham until 1990, by which time the books were selling, but it was still a daft decision, based solely on love. Judy couldn’t move to Britain for family reasons, so I had to come to the States, and the U.S. government wouldn’t give me a green card, so I airily told her I’d write a book. Well, it worked, and I’m still here, and so’s she, and ain’t we lucky?

Looking back, of course, it was irresponsible, mad, forlorn, idiotic, but if you don’t take chances then you’ll never have a winning hand, and I’ve no regrets. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if the first book had not sold—doesn’t bear thinking about, but I suppose we’d have made it work somehow.

Prior to 1980 you were a television producer with the BBC. Do you miss working in that medium? Do you find there’s a simplicity to writing that wasn’t there previously in your work as a television producer?

I don’t miss it at all. Television is a young person’s medium. I had ten great years in it, had an enormous amount of fun, traveled all over the world, and got out. And yes, there’s a simplicity to writing books because you’re not a member of a team, so you make all the decisions yourself instead of deferring to a committee. I get asked to appear on television—at the moment I have two invitations from Britain to present long military history series, but I’m not sure whether I really want to do it—I fear the seduction of vanity, but recognize that it would help sell books– so I dunno what I shall do.

Do you have a local writing community or fellow writers that you look to for support and advice?

Writing is a solitary occupation. If you can’t do it on your own then you probably can’t do it. So no, no local writing community. At risk of sounding foully pompous I think that writers’ groups are probably very useful at the beginning of a writing career. Not that I’ve ever been in such a group and the only time I was ever invited to one I left in disgust because they were pushing the idea of “writing as therapy.”

Did you have a writing mentor? Do you mentor others here?

I don’t have a mentor. I have a terrific, marvelous, unbelievably helpful editor in London and she has the biggest influence, but even so we disagree as much as we agree. I’ll happily mentor anyone who wants mentoring, and most of that goes on by Internet rather than face to face. The one thing I will not do is read other peoples’ unpublished work. The reason for that is that it doesn’t help. I’m not in a position to publish them or act as an agent for them, so instead I put them in touch with an agent whose job is to read unpublished work. I know that sounds churlish, but right now, on my desk, there are four books waiting to be read whose publishers want me to give them a “puff,” two books I’m reviewing for newspapers in London, one book I desperately need to read for research, and a couple more for pleasure, so I simply don’t have time to read more. Agents will read unpublished work because they might make money, and that’s their job. It isn’t mine.

You’ve written an admirable and ungodly number of books, about forty I read in my pre-interview research, which makes almost two books a year. I’m suprised that your publisher can handle that kind of output, frankly. What is their overall strategy and are they able to put the time and attention into it that each book deserves?

So far it’s 43 books in 25 years. Publishers don’t mind! Publishers like “established” authors because they can pretty much anticipate sales and therefore cash flow in an otherwise uncertain industry. The strategy differs from place to place—in London we produce a book for the Christmas market (i.e., published in October), while New York prefers to wait for the New Year when a book has a greater chance of making the New York Times list. If there’s a second book then we put it out in April and these days that’s almost always a Sharpe novel. Paperback launches are usually in early summer (to get the vacation market) and have a lighter colored jacket than the Christmas version—and so it goes on. But publishers are in the business of making profits, so they love getting two books a year. They’d have three if they could.

How do you approach the work of writing?

Cover of Bernard Cornwall's The Last KingdomWith unabandoned pleasure. It’s fun. I sit down every day and tell stories. Some folk would kill to get that chance.

What does a typical writing day look like for you, from waking to turning in at night, and how does it compare to a conventional nine to five job?

I start early—usually by 5 a.m., and work through to 5 p.m., with breaks for lunch, boring exercise, etc., etc. But it’s usually a full day. It’s better than 9 to 5 because I’m my own boss so I can take off when I want to, and the dress code is non-existent and the commute is terrific. I enjoy it, so there’s no discipline involved, and I’m not a subscriber to the idea of “writer’s block,” or rather I subscribe to the notion that on the day a nurse can telephone a hospital and be excused work on the grounds of “nurse’s block” is the day I’ll start suffering from writer’s block. I volunteered for this life, wanted it, and am not going to bitch about it now that I’ve got it. Of course some days are easier than others, but my worst day is better than being in most humdrum occupations.

How long does it take you to write a typical novel, including research, writing, and editing time?

Research is a lifelong occupation so it’s hard to factor it in, but I reckon most books take five months from start to finish.

Does your wife get involved in your writing and research trips or is she sick to death of it by now?

She likes the research trips—who wouldn’t? Spain, Portugal, India—lots of the English countryside. Other than that she doesn’t get involved, but I don’t think I’d survive as a writer without her. She has a busy time as a yoga teacher and hospice volunteer and doesn’t want to get involved with the writing which is, I have to keep stressing this, a solitary vice.

Your books are successful enough now to give you the freedom to essentially do what you want. Do you see yourself giving less time to writing in the future?

I’d like to cut it down to three books in two years instead of two a year—but whether that’ll happen I don’t know. I took time off last year to sail the Atlantic, and if I got more opportunities for blue-water cruising I might take them. Not sure.

In addition to the books you’ve already published, I’d imagine you have many more that are in various stages or other of completion. Is this true or do you tackle one book at a time, research it, write it, publish it, and move on?

One book at a time—though I’m usually doing the research for others while I’m writing, but that sort of research is fairly desultory and I like to stick to the book being written—and writing a book concentrates the mind so the research is more productive. Then you start another book and suddenly the galley proofs of the last one come in and you have to wrench your attention away from what you’re writing and try to remember what you were thinking when you wrote the previous one.

After the great success of your Sharpe series on British television, do you have any more novels that are being considered for television series or films?

I think they’ve all been optioned—but whether any will actually be made? I doubt it, and certainly don’t lose sleep over it.

Do you take vacations or do you find that your book tours and historical research give you enough travel?

Book tours and research provide a lot of travel—too much, I sometimes think, but we do take vacations. Judy is inordinately fond of the Far East so we try to go there every couple of years, and I make a pilgrimage to England every rugby season. I’d like to make a similar pilgrimage in the cricket season, but it coincides with the sailing season on the Cape and sailing wins every time.

Do you ever get sick of working in your office, grab your notebook and hit a coffee shop?

No, never. Not sure what I’d so with a notebook other than swat flies. If I want a break I’d rather go down to Stage Harbor and talk boats.

Where’s your favorite place in Chatham to depressurize?

Stage Harbor and adjacent waters. We have a gaff-rigged topsail cutter, which sounds much grander than she really is, but she’s exquisitely beautiful and shamefully slow and we spend a lot of time aboard when we can. But there’s no better place to relax.

How do you celebrate a novel’s completion?

Not sure I do any more, other than a general feeling of relief modified by the thought that another one will have to be started soon. I’ll probably have an Irish whiskey.

I haven’t seen much in your past interviews about the production of your audio books, which I shamefully happen to really like. Are you involved in the production of those as well?

Not in the slightest.

Why didn’t you narrate the audio books yourself? I would think actor Sean Bean, who played Richard Sharpe so dynamically on television, would also be in the running.

Sean did narrate some of the earlier ones, but I imagine his fee has become too steep for the producers, or perhaps he doesn’t enjoy doing it. I’ve never been asked to do it, and am not sure I’d want to.

I’ve read that there may be a new productions of your Sharpe book series coming to television and that you’re one of the producers. Is that looking like it will happen?

It looks as though they’ll be filming in India this winter, but it isn’t guaranteed. Say 95% certain?? I’m definitely NOT one of the producers, and don’t want to be. I know nothing about producing TV drama and any involvement on my part is liable to prove an obstacle to the producers, so I prefer to be a cheerleader and let them get on with it.

Do you like living in Chatham?

I love living in Chatham. It’s a huge privilege and a constant pleasure, and I don’t want to live anywhere else, and probably won’t.

Any plans to have a book set right here, somewhere in the rough-and-tumble maritime history of Chatham? The Monomoy Lifesavers had some pretty charismatic characters and of course, the British were in our harbors in both wars.

Probably not, but it’s dangerous to say never. There are some terrific books already about Chatham—I especially love the stories by Rose Connors—but I’m best known for military history fiction and it’s probably wise to stick to that and let Rose write Chatham’s portrait.

Christopher Seufert is a documentary producer and author based on Cape Cod.

Book Review: 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity

52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity.
By Jeffrey Yamaguchi
192 pp.

Review by Amy Brozio-Andrews

There’s something about the thrill of creativity—seeing something through from idea to execution. The feeling of purpose that comes from having a project to work on, that you’ve got something worthwhile to spend your time and energy on, beyond the normal nine-to-five and day to day routine. In that vein, Jeffrey Yamaguchi’s 52 Projects is packed with enough ideas and inspiration to last a long long time.

The genesis of the book began with Yamaguchi’s own quest to compile 52 projects that he either completed or intended to complete on his website,, natch. The intense personal nature of his readers’ feedback inspired, and later this book, 52 Projects: Random Acts of Everyday Creativity.

Opening with the author’s thoughts and commentary on the importance and purpose of projects in his life, and by extension, what benefits working on a project can bring to your life, the majority of the book is taken up by his suggested projects. These aren’t highly technical plans, with lists of necessary tools and materials— they’re surprisingly low-tech; the most you’ll probably need is to dust off the camera, tape recorder, or video camera. Many of these projects are appropriate for groups, families, or gift-giving ideas. With a warm and easy-going tone, it’s clear that Yamaguchi has fun with his projects, and he wants you to have fun, too.

A couple of my favorites include making a key lime pie, inviting friends over, and photographing everyone enjoying it. Then take the photos, a few limes, and your pie recipe, box it all up and mail it to a friend. If your friends aren’t into pie, try the “Shotgun a Beer” one— buy a 12-pack of the stuff you used to drink in college and mail a can to all your old college friends, with instructions to drink it on the same day at the same time. (Unfortunately—or fortunately?—I think most of my friends probably fall into the pie-eating category more than the beer-drinking category.)

Oftentimes, Yamaguchi’s projects are annotated with a brief recollection of his own experience with this project. There are also ample suggestions for variations on many projects, plus more ideas scattered throughout the margins of the book. With additional advice on projects as gifts, and the importance of writing things down, plus how to make time for doing projects, and a list of 52 resources for inspiration, Yamaguchi’s book is a well-rounded and useful tool for people who are creative types, or who want to be. What’s especially nice is that with far-flung family and friends so common, many of these projects that involve mailing packages, photos, or letters to others are a fun and memorable way to bridge that gap.

There’s a lot of inspiration here—for creative people in general, and writers in particular. One of Yamaguchi’s suggestions, to write a letter, leave it unsigned and place it in the leaves of a library book stirred my imagination and spawned a short story. Many of the projects make excellent writing prompts: Write a one-minute autobiography; List the years you’ve been alive and write down a memory from each year.

The easy-to-browse organization of the book makes every project accessible, and wide margins leave lots of room for scribbling your own notes and ideas. The slim, pocket-sized paperback has certainly earned a place on my desk, whether for rainy day activities for the kids or a solution to writer’s block.

Amy Brozio-Andrews is a freelance writer and book reviewer. She brings more than five years’ experience as a readers’ advisory librarian to her work, which is regularly published by Library Journal, The Imperfect Parent, and Absolute Write. Her reviews have also been published by The Absinthe Literary Review, ForeWord Magazine, January Magazine, and Melt Magazine. You can find her at

The 3 Most Important Elements of Fiction Writing

By Magdalena Ball
Even highly celebrated and well-paid authors miss them. While almost all writers are clear on the importance of plot, there are other writing skills such as a strong narrative voice, good deep characterization, and relevant, subtle scenery description that set a work of fiction apart, rendering it literary or great. In my work as a reader for a small publishing house, I have seen these omissions in nearly every manuscript that has come across my desk.

If these three elements are patchy or not well-controlled, a piece of fiction will be amateurish, shallow, and potentially unpublishable (unless your name is Grisham or King). No amount of exciting plot or poetic description of the surrounding environment will make up for it.

Following is a list of the three most important elements of fiction writing, along with a series of exercises and references to help writers improve in these critical areas.

The very best way to improve your writing in these, and other areas, is to read lots of writers who have excellent control in these areas. They are also referenced. There will always be something subtle that extends beyond writing classes and even articles such as this, and that is the writer’s ear. Extensive reading of good quality literature can help develop that subtle ear for what works and what doesn’t. In the meantime, the following tips will help clarify where the main areas for writing great fiction lie. Hint . . . it isn’t in the plot.

Strong narrative voice

The narrative voice is critical to any work of fiction, and it is probably one of the most overlooked areas of focus for new writers. Vague narrators, uncertain tense, and an unclear voice are all the result of poor narration. A great writer will have total control over his/her narrative, the voice that guides the reader through the story. As Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages, says: “Viewpoint and narration comprise a delicate, elaborate facade, in which one tiny break of inconsistency can be disastrous, the equivalent of striking a dissonant note in the midst of a harmonious musical performance. The easiest way to ensure you have a clear narrative voice is to write in the first person. This makes your narrator an obvious character, and thereby ensures that, as a writer, you will be thinking about that development.

However, first person isn’t appropriate for all fiction, and it has its limitations, since it ties the work to a single perspective. For third person narratives, the key point is to ensure that the narrator is actually defined as clearly as any other character, regardless of how visible or invisible you want that narrator to be. Any straying from the main narrative voice or mistake in consistency can be a disaster, unless your control and experience are extensive and vast.

A good narrative voice is generally consistent, and doesn’t switch from first (“I”), to second (“you”) to third (“he or she”) person, unless the author is doing it quite deliberately, and it takes great skill to pull off switching narration. In most cases, switching person will destroy a story. More subtle, but equally important is the need to keep the narrative viewpoint consistent. It can be hard work to develop a single viewpoint, and using multiple viewpoints can be complex, with the need for careful, well-crafted breaks between viewpoints and a really clear, plot-oriented reason for doing so. The reader must have a good sense of the narrative voice, including why that voice sees things the way it does, and whose perspective it is taking.

Some tricks to help develop the narrative voice include the following:

  1. Read authors with exceptional narrative control. Margaret Atwood, Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes are among the very best authors for narrative control. Their novels tend to be fuelled by great narrators and characterization, and reading work like theirs will help develop the writer’s ear for what works in narration.
  2. Try re-writing a piece of your own work from a different viewpoint, and noting the effect. You may actually improve the piece, but if not, you will at least begin to understand the impact.
  3. Try creating a profile of your narrator. Write out his/her “back story.” Put together a number of paragraphs on his/her life, motivations, and fears.
  4. Take a paragraph from any great writer’s work. Try a classic like Dickens, Eliot, or Joyce, or some other well respected novelist, and take note of the narrative voice. Now write out a paragraph on the narrator. Describe his/her motivations, past, and the hints that the writing conveys on the narrator’s involvement in the overall story.

References for more information on narrative voice:

"Paradigm, Point of View, and Narrative Distance in Verbal and Visual Arts" by George P Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

A simple but useful guide to the different narrative voices, from Candace Schaefer:

A slide show by Sheila Booth of at QCC Mass — including a complete overview of the narrative voice:

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, Jane Burroway, Longman; 8th edition, 2010. ISBN 0205750346


Characterization is related to narrative voice, as the narrator is generally a character too. While most writers understand the importance of characterization, and it is not as subtle a skill as the narrative voice, modern bestsellers and genre writing still tend to be plot rather than character-driven, especially in our world of fast paced, instantly gratifying television and film. Cliched, superficial characters are the mark of a poor writer. A great character can save an overly simplistic plot, but no amount of action will make up for unbelievable or shallow characters. A good character has the same kind of depth, complexity, and believability as an interesting person. The reader wants to know more about them; to spend time with them; to imagine their lives beyond the boundaries of your fiction. There are a number of books written about creating good characters (see References below). However, the basics of characterization are as follows:

Ensure that your reader cares about the characters. Solid characters are not enough—they have to inspire strong feeling.

Good characters are complex. A reader’s response to them should also be complex. This means they grapple with the same things real people grapple with—morality, the meaning of life, love, death, time management, etc. No one is purely good or purely evil. The most unloveable protagonist must still have something to make their story interesting to the reader, and believable. Cliched, cardboard characters will ruin the best plot. This means that characters should be well-drawn, and detailed. Their dialogue must align with their history, and every character, even minor ones, must have some sort of history that is discernable by the reader.

All characters must count, and must be related to the meaning and narrative of the story. Extraneous characters who appear and disappear without relevance to the plot will confuse the reader and weaken the fiction.

Characters should sit at the heart of any story. This means beginning, and continuing with characterization throughout the entire story. It is not enough to describe your characters at the start and then forget about it. People are full of contradiction, depth, and corridors to explore. Characters should be too.

Avoid contrived description. Characterization should be woven into the plot and handled with subtlety.

Some tricks to help characterization include:

  1. Pick a passage from great fiction (any of the examples above will do, or anything you might be reading, as long as it is literary), and identify the character. Describe, in writing, his/her back story. How is it relevant to the overall novel?
  2. Do the same thing for a piece of your own work. Take one of your characters and write out a page of “back story.” This is something that isn’t going to appear in your work, but it will form the basis for the things your characters do.
  3. Try writing a few paragraphs of “stream of consciousness” for one of your favorite characters. If you aren’t sure how to do this, try doing it for yourself. Just spend a few minutes listening to the interior voice in your head. Close your eyes and let your mind wander at will, and then quickly write it down as close as possible to how it was. Leave out punctuation and let the thoughts flow, stop and start in the same chaotic rhythm as they do in the mind. If you are still unsure, check out the masters; James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner in The Sound and The Fury; all do wonderful things with this technique.
  4. Try a form of “mind-mapping” for your characters. Place one of their names in the middle of the paper, and draw a circle around it. Now around that circle, place aspects of that person in lines that emanate from the central point. This will give a good feeling for the complexity that makes up this person. Once you have done this, you will have a much better idea of who this character is, his/her motivations, and hidden internal dialogue.
  5. Developing your writer’s ear for what constitutes good and poor characterization is critical for every fiction writer, and the best way to do that is to read fiction by wonderful and challenging authors. All of the narrative masters cited above are also masters of characterization, and there is also Charles Dickens, whose characters tend towards the comic, but never unbelievable, Tim Winton, Toni Morrison, or James Joyce (who can ever forget Leopold and Molly Bloom from Ulysses?).

References for more information on characterization

The Key to Making Your Characters Believable by A.C Crispin

Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger, Henry Holt, July 1990, ISBN: 0805011714

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King. Pocket Books, May 2001, ISBN: 0671024256.

The Stuff of Fiction: Advice on Craft., Douglas Bauer, Univ of Michigan Pr; Enlarged and Revised Edition 2006. ISBN: 0472031538.

Subtle Description of Setting

browne_self-editing_for_fiction_writersMany creative writing classes focus on the writing of scenic description. Good descriptive writing is an excellent skill; however, it can be overused to the detriment of a piece of fiction, especially when combined with poor characterization. An abundance of natural scenery or the telling of a setting, unrelated to the characters, will seem gratuitous and amateurish. Gorgeous scenery is not an error in itself. Descriptive writing can be powerful, creating the setting and backdrop for the work, and providing some very moving passages. However, purely purple prose tends to be glossed over by readers, as an attempt at writing prettily rather than writing meaningfully, and it can actually be quite dull.

Every single piece of description must have some relevance to either the character development or the plot. The classic maxim is to always show rather than tell. Paint the scene, delicately, and let the characters find your scenery for you; let the scenes unfold. Let your reader enter your fictional universe and visualize the setting themselves through scenes, events, dramatization, symbolization, or open ended description in which the reader can participate directly.

Some tricks to help improve scenery description include:

  1. Try to write a paragraph of setting description with no adjectives at all. This will not only create a very vivid, dramatic scene, but will also force you to show rather than tell, as multiple adjectives are at the heart of telling.
  2. Read the following short passage from Kafka’s The Trial(165–6):

    He went over to the window, perched on the sill, holding on to the latch with one hand, and looked down on the square below. The snow was still falling, the sky had not yet cleared. For a long time he sat like this, without knowing what really troubled him, only turning his head from time to time with an alarmed glance toward the anteroom, where he fancied, mistakenly, that he heard a noise. But as no one came in he recovered his composure, went over to the washbasin, washed his face in cold water, and returned to his place at the window with a clearer mind.

    How much of the setting does this seemingly simple paragraph reveal? How much have we learned about both the situation, the character, and the scene? Try and do something similar in a different setting, with a different character (use of your own if you have a story in progress).

  3. As with narrative voice and characterization, read authors who excel in writing good setting. This will, once again, help you develop your writer’s ear for this, and ensure that you can spot purple passages in your own work.
  4. Re-write, re-write, re-write. Julian Barnes has been cited as saying that he re-writes every page something like 47 times. This may seem excessive, but the heart of good writing is re-writing, and this is critical for your setting and description of the environment within your fiction. Cut out anything that seems the slightest bit superfluous. Your writing will be more professional, stronger, and more powerful.

References for more information on description of setting:

Lori Handeland’s article on setting.

The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Noah Lukeman, Simon & Schuster, January 2000. ISBN: 068485743X.

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White, Alllyn & Bacon, January 2000 (reprinted), ISBN: 020530902X

The Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers (14th Edition), John Grossman, University of Chicago Press, Sept 1993, ISBN: 0226103897

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Benni Browne and Dave King.HarperCollins, Second edition 2004. ISBN: 0060545690.

Of course it takes more than a good narrator, good characters, and good, subtle scenery description to make a great piece of fiction, but these three areas will set a great piece of work apart from a mediocre one. The most common error is patchy narrative voice, and all writers should approach this area with some thought and caution, since it is much less well-taught in writing classes than techniques like plot development and characterization. Once again, the best way of becoming a master in these critical fiction areas is by being aware of their importance, and by reading good quality literary fiction, noting always the way the author deals with the narrator, the character development, and the subtle relationship between scenery and character, setting and plot.

Magdalena Ball is content manager for The Compulsive Reader, Preschool Entertainment, and is the author of The Art of Assessment: How To Review Anything. Her fiction, poetry, reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in hundreds of on-line and print publications.

Interview with Eugie Foster

Interview with Eugie Foster
Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews

This is an interview from several years ago. Eugie K. Foster was an award-winning writer of short fiction and children’s books. Eugie Foster, author, editor, wife, died on September 27th 2014 of respiratory failure from cancer at Emory University in Atlanta. In her forty-two years, Eugie lived three lifetimes. She won the Nebula award for her novelette “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” in 2009. She had over one hundred of her stories published. She was an editor for the Georgia General Assembly. She was the director of the Daily Dragon at Dragon Con, and was a regular speaker at genre conventions. She was a model, dancer, and psychologist. See Eugie Foster’s Website for more.

Looking at all you do—editorships, active membership in SFWA, conference attendance, writing workshops, your own writing for magazines and books-in-progress—how do you maintain the discipline and motivation to keep it all going?


Seriously, I love what I do—writing, editing, and everything associated thereof—which makes it easy to stay on track. When I was an IT cubicle monkey, weeks would go by where I would procrastinate on a project because I was so unmotivated. Nowadays, I’m pretty gung-ho about my daily writing/editing agenda. Occasionally, when it seems my “to do” list has acquired sentience and is campaigning for world domination or I’m stymied by my current work-in-progress, I may go AWOL for a day—just randomly surfing or letting my brain leak out of my ears in front of the TV. But, the day after, I’m so stressed about the time I lost and how much farther behind I am, I inevitably freak out, which is to say I launch into a desperate-panicky flurry of work. It’s the quiet implosion strategy for productivity. I quit worrying about how much I have to do because I don’t have the time to worry.

When that fails, I hook up the caffeine IV.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Pretty typical. I wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On weekdays, I wake up at around 6AM, get ready for work, and hop the metro train downtown. I love my day job (I’m a legal editor for the Georgia legislature), but the commute bites. The trip is over an hour, one way. Fortunately, the train lets me use that time to write or get some editing work done. My trusty laptop goes everywhere with me; it’s a tiny ultraportable—weighs less than 3 lbs. and has a battery which can go for eight hours on a charge. (Is it wrong to love a piece of hardware?)

My job has a cyclic work calendar, busier than God during the legislative session—about three months at the beginning of the year—and laid back the rest of the time. It allows me time to write during the day, pre- and post-session, and no time at all during. It’s a decent trade-off.

After I get home, I eat dinner, catch up with husband and skunk, then read, write, or catch up on editing work until bedtime.

Weekends are much the same, except without the commute or any day job duties. I haul self and laptop upstairs to my home office and stay there until husband and/or skunk start making plaintive noises.

Could you tell us a bit about how you got started writing?

I’ve always been a fanatical reader, pretty much ensconced in a library and buried in one book or other throughout my childhood. I always wanted to be a writer; even during my “I wanna be a ballerina” and “I wanna be a veterinarian” phases, there was “and a writer” tacked on. I started writing seriously—that is, trying to get published—after Ann Crispin’s Writers’ Workshop at Dragon*Con 2000. It galvanized me to really work on improving my craft and to treat it like a profession, not a recreation.

Has your work as an editor influenced your own writing at all?

Mostly, it’s cut into my writing time!

As an editor, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see short story writers making? Are there any science fiction, horror, and fantasy topics that you as an editor see as completely oversaturated?

Honestly, the biggest mistake for new writers is simply not paying attention to the basics: grammar, spelling, punctuation. While it’s fundamentally true that if you write a really compelling, fresh, and entertaining story, an editor will forgive your inability to spell or your penchant for creative capitalization. But they’ll be irritated. And why irritate your editor? And if the foundation of your wordsmithing is that bad, an editor might not make it to the “compelling, fresh, and entertaining” part before sticking a form rejection in your SASE.

As far as overdone tropes, I think the magic’s in how ideas are presented. If you take an old idea and spin it into something new, then it doesn’t matter that it’s an old idea. If you have a new one and fail to interest the reader with your storytelling, then it doesn’t matter that you had a good idea. The best stories are both interesting—either with fresh ideas or fresh takes on old ones—and entertaining.

But, on a personal note, I’m really jaded on stories about serial killers.

I’d always understood it that writers of short fiction generally didn’t have or need agents; is that actually untrue? How did you go about getting your agent? Can you suggest some of the elements that writers should look for in a good writer/agent match?

No, actually, that is true. Very few agents will represent short fiction, and most short fiction markets will accept submissions over the transom, which essentially removes the need for one. I and my agent aren’t an exception; he doesn’t represent my short stuff.

As far as how I got my agent, it was by and large the traditional way. I spent some time researching reputable agents online (I highly recommend Preditors & Editors as a good starting place: and then sent off a batch of queries and synopses of my middle-grade novel to my top picks. William Reiss requested the full manuscript, read it, liked it, and then called me with an offer of representation (which I wasn’t home to receive, so ended up hyperventilating at my answering machine). The only remarkable thing is that it took me less than two weeks from when I first started looking for an agent to receiving an offer of representation, which I continue to be somewhat agog about.

On your website, you write, “I’ve discovered that the best motivation and improvement resource a burgeoning writer can have is an audience.” When getting one of your short stories critiqued by fellow writers, how do you decide what’s valid and what you’d rather keep as is? Are there any factors that influence you one way or the other?

It’s instinct. Or zen. Phases of the moon?

Um, well, if it’s black and white—I made a typo or got a fact wrong or suchlike— then it’s a no-brainer; I make the change. Otherwise, if a suggestion resonates with me, I’ll implement it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t. I pretty much trust myself to know what a valid criticism is and what isn’t. There are exceptions, like if a whole slew of critiquers make the same suggestion which I don’t agree with, I might go against my gut feeling and make the change. But generally, I trust my instincts.

It’s a sort of weird line with critique groups. While on one hand, I have a manuscript that I believe could be improved but don’t know how, so I’m beseeching help, but on the other, I have to have enough confidence in myself and my writing to be able to say “no, I don’t agree with your suggestion.” It’s a precarious equilibrium, one that some writers can’t maintain, either getting defensive and hurt when they receive criticism or laboring under the belief that every single suggestion is valid and should be implemented—kind of a pickle when you get contradictory feedback.

You’re on MySpace and blog on LiveJournal; how important do you think it is for writers to stay on top of technology for the purposes of keeping in touch with readers and fellow writers?

Very. While I frequently rail against the reality and necessity, it’s inescapable. You have to network.

Editors choose what they publish on the basis of quality. That’s a truism. They will publish the very best stories they can. However, if two equally good stories get submitted and they only have one slot, and they’ve gotten drunk and sung sea chanteys in Klingon with one of the writers but don’t know the other from navel lint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which writer’s story will get bought. Likewise, an editor solicits stories to invitation-only projects from writers whose works they admire, but they’re more likely to go to writers whose works they admire and who they also know.

It’s not as bad as, say, the film industry, where you must schmooze and network if you expect to get work. But it’s still important to maintain a presence with other writers, publishers, and editors, and the best and easiest way to do that is with the Internet.

On the readership side, anything which will improve a writer’s name recognition and accessibility to readers is just good sense.

What’s one question you’ve always wished someone asked you in an interview? Here’s the perfect opportunity to ask and answer it for AW readers. 🙂

“Would you like to sign this book deal with a $1 million advance?” Me: Yes, please!

Amy Brozio-Andrews is the former managing editor for Absolute Write.

The Accidental Publisher

By Elisabeth Keely Wilson

Ostensibly, it was your basic itch just begging to be scratched. You know—the kind of itch that can’t quite be reached, so it keeps twitching and itching, demanding your attention. Finally, in order to appease the little beast, you have to twist and turn your body into various odd positions, until at last, you find just the right spot and “ah, relief!” This itch of mine, however, proved to be even bolder than your ordinary, garden variety. The little pest seemed to have a mind of its own and was clearly intent on attaining its complete and total satisfaction—no matter how long the wait might be. Even after a few years of my attempting to ignore the vexing sensation followed by a year or two of diverting its attention with creative endeavors, it persisted. In the end, completely exasperated by its relentless pursuit, I succumbed to the demand of that irrepressible itch—I will write a book!

Although I was aware that the contents of a full-length manuscript were contained in the piles of artwork and copious notes written to myself, I still couldn’t visualize how the various elements might be transformed into a cohesive whole. However, a few nights after agreeing to pursue the itch’s wishes, my unconscious mind rewarded my new-found willingness with a dream in which the book’s framework was clearly presented and the interlocking pieces seemed to fall naturally into place. Fortunately, my conscious mind retained many of the details of the previous night’s journey into dreamland and so, the following day, the writing began in earnest. Three months later, my itch was living in a state of bliss, prompting me to realize that the next phase of the process was about to begin. It was time for a publisher . . .

Now, I acknowledge there are still times when I long for that fairy tale existence where good things inevitably happen to good people; however, this wasn’t one of those times. Upon a thorough investigation of the publishing industry, it became apparent that the probability of my manuscript connecting with just the right publisher was, indeed, slim, and would be increased only with a sizeable investment of time and effort on my part and more than a bit of cooperation from the powers that be.

During one of my moments of doubt, I was struck by the realization that there were two potential obstacles that could prevent me from ever finding a publisher. Not only was I a first-time author (having previously written for magazines only), but my book, as proposed, would require the four-color process to be printed throughout. Taking these two points into consideration along with the magnitude of articles describing others’ difficulties, I chose to forego the publisher route, and instead, focused my concentration on the objective of securing an agent. At least this way, my logical mind reasoned, the agent would be responsible for producing that essential publisher.

The very first agent I approached actually offered a forewarning of what was to come. Her response to my book proposal was a handwritten note: “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You might want to consider self-publishing.” Pshaw! At the time, I was unaware of the significance of receiving a handwritten note from a literary agent rather than your basic form letter and I simply didn’t want to accept that this agent was being quite forthright with regard to my situation. Rather, my hope sprang eternal as it so often does, and I turned my attention to the numerous letters mailed to other agencies, anticipating that one of them would respond favorably.

Needless to say, over the next few months, innumerable dry responses signed with the agent’s stamp were sent my direction, basically informing me of the unsuitability of my proposal to that particular agent’s needs or desires. Luckily, or maybe unluckily, I was not one to give up until all viable options had been explored. So another batch of letters would simply be dispatched, along with my heartfelt gratitude that at least there wasn’t a shortage of literary agents.

Just as my patience and persistence were beginning to wear thin, I happened to attend a women’s writing conference, and lo and behold, seated directly behind me was an attendee who was the owner of a publishing company. Oh, the beauty of serendipity! This publisher agreed to review my book over the weekend (a copy of which was my usual appendage), reportedly liked what she read, and I liked that she liked it. Over the next few weeks, we conversed frequently, negotiated the terms of a contract, and came to an agreement. It was with a humungous sigh of relief that I signed the final contract. Hallelujah! I had a publisher!

The next few months flew by as the manuscript was checked and rechecked, the finishing touches were added to the artwork and the cover design, and the entire package was submitted to a professional editor designated by the publisher for the book’s final reading. Upon completing the suggested editorial changes, the book was formatted, chapter by chapter, so that the negative film needed for the printing process could be created directly from disk. During this period, a common question posed to me by various family members was, “Who are you going to be today—Elisabeth, Betty, Elsbeth, Lily, Lisa, or Ellie?” Now, this isn’t quite as strange as it sounds once you take into account that I was not only the author, but also the copy editor, the artist, the graphic designer, the cover designer, and last but certainly not least, the computer technician. Whoops, and I almost forgot—I was and still am somebody’s wife and mother.

Well, as the bumper sticker so succinctly says… life happens. Just two days before the complete and unabridged version of the book was to be delivered to the printer, Chicken Little was proven to be right—indeed, it was the day that the sky fell. Quite possibly, the sky didn’t come crashing down on you and your world but it certainly did on mine. That morning’s mail had brought a letter from my publisher informing me that “unfortunately the company’s doors [were] closing as a prerequisite to the immediate need to file for bankruptcy.” The intent of the letter was to state that our contract was, in three words, null and void. So I did what Chicken Little always did—I looked to the sky for answers.

I was utterly confused—perplexed and befuddled—by this unexpected turn of events. What I truly longed for in that moment was a meticulously detailed set of instructions for this experience called life. Then I would know what to think and do! Instead, I was offered the suggestion that I just go with the flow and see where the flow took me. Now, while I am more adept today at going with the flow than I once was, it doesn’t necessarily mean I do it easily or with great panache but I did agree to try. Amazingly enough, I still had the willingness to persist (that itch had taught me well) in spite of not knowing where I was going or in which direction. I simply resolved to pay attention to anything and everything that came my way and let whatever happened happen. In essence, happenstance would lead the way. In other words, I was an accident just waiting to happen.

Somewhere during one of my sojourns along the information speedway (a fancy name for the Internet), I found myself at a website designed by independent publishers, for independent publishers. After perusing the site for just a few moments, I joined the association simply because I recognized its obvious value if I were to ever self-publish. At this point, I still wasn’t too excited about the idea of self-publishing, but I had begun to tentatively consider it as a slight possibility.

Actually, there was a valid basis for my hesitation. Having owned a graphic design business for many years, I was keenly aware of the amount of time, energy, and money that would be required to promote and market a book, particularly after the book’s publication. In addition, I recalled from past experience that the reality, in terms of time and effort expended on any one project, was usually double that of one’s initial expectation. However, I was attempting to remain open to the possibilities and let life’s current guide my way. So with every twist and turn, I simply whispered a little prayer that it wasn’t toward the falls.

My meanderings on the Internet also led me to a virtual storehouse of information involving various legalities within the publishing industry. Pertinent topics for the self-publisher included applying for a fictitious business name, obtaining a seller’s permit, registering for a copyright, acquiring a UPC symbol, and cataloging one’s book according to Library of Congress guidelines. Realizing that it might be wise to have all my ducks in a row—just in case—I began the process of filling out the various forms and applications required, eventually sending them on to their respective homes.

In the meantime, it had come to my attention that many of the newly released art books and children’s books featuring color illustrations had, in actuality, been printed overseas rather than in the United States. Intending to do just a bit of research on the various printing options, I subsequently found the publishing association’s website offered an abundance of information and contacts. Armed with a written bid from a large American printer (a benefit of my relationship with the now defunct publisher), my goal was to obtain competitive bids from printers elsewhere around the globe. I quickly discovered that many of the overseas printing companies had representatives located in the U.S. in order to facilitate the bidding of jobs. Eventually narrowing the field down, I finally met with one international printer to personally review several book samples that had been produced at his printing operation in Asia over the last few years. In spite of my doubts concerning the possible roadblocks with overseas printing, his extensive knowledge of the printing industry and his very competitive bid and printing schedule were quite reassuring.

Simultaneously, the quest for a publisher was underway, with my recent abandonment furnishing the key to open the door. After successfully arranging an interview with the president of a publishing company whose current list seemed to be the perfect match for my book, my hopes were high. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, however, came the revelation that his company didn’t, in his words, “do color.” So that was that! Our brief exchange concluded with a repetition of the handwritten message received so many months before. “This is all quite lovely but would be difficult to sell to a publisher. You would be better off self-publishing.” Consequently, I was offered the names of two distributors who could skillfully represent my work and who would be apt to accept me as a publisher in my own right.

Having been tossed a bunch of lemons, I knew the scenario—it was time to make lemonade. I figured I might as well take one more step into unknown territory, reasoning that if it didn’t work out, then I would absolutely, positively know which direction to proceed. I applied for a business loan requesting an amount that would more than cover the actual printing costs if I did, in fact, self-publish. Much to my consternation as well as to my surprise, the loan was approved by the end of the following day. Yikes! I was, literally and figuratively, at a point of no return. Standing on the edge of the precipice, my mind was a muddle.

Still clinging to the notion of myself as the emerging author, being represented by a strong, stalwart publisher, I was aware that the image was beginning to look suspiciously like a dream. Or possibly a favorite fairy tale? The reality was that I had a book ready to go to print a dependable printer prepared to respond to my every need, and the necessary funds safely ensconced in the bank. If I let myself fall into the world of self-publishing, I wondered, would I crash and burn? Or would I find my wings with which to fly? A flash of clarity brought the realization that the answers to my pondering would be found only with my acceptance of the challenge, come whatever may.

A color dummy of the book was packaged along with thirteen zip disks and sent to Korea, with the hope that, at least in this case, the number thirteen would be lucky. After three weeks, I received a slightly damaged box (Korea is a long way from San Francisco) containing a professionally prepared color proof of the entire book. So far, so good. After indicating a few minor changes, the proofs were immediately returned to Korea, as I didn’t want to create any hang-ups in the printing process. The next several weeks crawled at a snail’s pace while my emotions ran rampant, catapulting from intense excitement to paralyzing fear and back again. Finally, after what felt like five months instead of just five weeks, I received the much-anticipated call—a shipment for Brookside Press was docked at the Oakland harbor, would I accept delivery?

Barely a year after surrendering to that infernal itch, I became the publisher/owner of five thousand books. Today, upon opening my garage door, my eyes are immediately drawn to the space that is covered high with sturdy cardboard boxes, each one boldly proclaiming the scope of its journey:

Brookside Press
Danville, CA
Printed in Korea

In all honesty, the actual presence of one hundred twenty-five boxes can be somewhat intimidating, particularly if you have the propensity to view each and every book as a reminder of the work still to come. Yet at the same time, I stand in awe of what I have accomplished thus far, seemingly in spite of myself. It is with a sense of ownership and pride that I reflect on the tower of boxes upon boxes leading upward toward the sky and I am suddenly filled with gratitude that I didn’t crash and burn—at least not yet. In retrospect, to classify my experience as pure happenstance or a simple quirk of fate seems, at least to my way of thinking, to be an oversimplification of the events. Indeed, the more plausible explanation for my foray into the publishing world is that it was an opportunity in disguise, just begging to be scratched.

You can find more of Elizabeth Keely Wilson’s writing as well as her art at