Friday, December 30, 2005

A Year In Review

I was grasping for an idea for this week’s entry and kept drawing a blank. So Terry suggested a year in review regarding my writing.

Last year, I completed both serials for the now-defunct site, KeepItComing – Scars of Yesterday and The Adventures of Ransom & Fortune.

I failed miserably with my fantasy romance manuscript in several contests.

I was rejected by agent after agent on the above mentioned manuscript.

Needing something light, I wrote my contemporary novella in about a month and a half and sold it to the second publisher I pitched. Talk Dirty To Me will be appearing as an ebook in July 2006. (HOORAY!)

Feeling as though the fantasy romance was going nowhere, I revamped the beginning of the book. So far, those who have read it have given it rave reviews.

Even though I still like a fairly new writer, it feels like things are starting to happen for me. I have sold one book. I hope to sell at least two more in 2006.

As a writer, making goals and keeping them is probably one of the most important tools. They help keep you on track and keep you going. Looking back at my GDR (Goals, Dreams and Resolutions), I met some of them. Others fell by the wayside. I wanted to write more articles last year, but the lure of the novel and novella kept pulling me. I gave into writing one short story I love that has yet to find a home except on my blog.

So I don’t have a half a dozen clips like I wanted. Selling my novella has been a major accomplishment for me. I never thought I’d make it this far.

Now – what are your goals, dreams, and resolutions for 2006? Are you going to finish that book? Start it? Submit it? Find an agent?

Stop waiting for the right moment, pick up that pen (or turn on that computer) and get going.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately – people who don’t understand what a “goal” is.

Webster’s defines it (outside of the playing field) as “an object or end one strives to attain.”

Strives. Strives.

I’ve noticed a trend among friends, colleagues and students, that, when they don’t attain what they’ve set out to do, they don’t strive harder or figure out a better, smarter way to attain their end – they lower the goal. They bring it closer. They make it easier.

That’s like putting the goal posts five feet from the center line so all the quarterback has to do is reach across and pop the ball in.

There’s no point.

The reason you have a goal is to stretch yourself beyond what you consider your normal capacity and your normal comfort zone. That way, when you actually achieve it, it has meaning. It’s not simply an item crossed off on the “To Do List”.

“To Do” lists are useful because they help break down the goal into bits – instead of trying to leap an entire mountain, it helps you chart a path across it. It contains the practical steps on the journey to go beyond where you thought you could.

One of the most important parts of reaching for a goal is the frustration when it doesn’t immediately happen. Then and only then will you learn what you need to do, how you need to stretch and grow in order to achieve it.

Or, you discover that maybe you set a goal not for yourself, but for someone else, and you really don’t want it. And you change it accordingly. Because, if the goal is not for yourself, you won’t feel satisfaction in reaching it.

As a writer, it’s important to set goals outside your comfort zone. To say, “Oh, I’ll get frustrated if I attempt a novel; I’ll only do three chapters because that’s what I know I can do” is sabotaging yourself. You say “I ‘m going to write a novel” and then you sit your butt in that chair and you do it.

It’s not supposed to be easy. Everyone thinks they can write a novel. Very few actually do it. Be one of those few.

Writers starting out feel like they’re outside an exclusive club, scratching at the door, trying to get in. What they don’t understand is that the only way to get in is to get outside of the comfort zone, to strive, and to sit down and get the work done. Not whenever it’s convenient, or whenever there’s time. Time will never magically appear. It has to be created to meet need.

In order for your piece to be extraordinary enough to catch attention in this highly competitive market, you have to move beyond the familiar, beyond the comfortable, pull a few creative muscles, get frustrated, refigure, and, most important, you have to strive.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

T'is The Season...

...And a day when we can reflect on all our writing accomplishments for 2005 -- no matter how large or how small. The things we've tried and were able to place for publication, as well as the things that didn't quite make it, but by taking it *back* to the drawing board for a bit of spit and polish, they're sure to find acceptance and placement in 2006.

Clearly, it all falls under the category of the "gift of learning" our craft. A very vital -- and precious gift.

Have the very merriest of holidays today.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Stop the Excuses

“I have no time to write.”

“It’s the holidays. There’s so much to do and my family needs . . .”

“I’ll write as soon as . . .”

This time of year, it’s easy to allow the writing to fall by the wayside. To feel better about their own lack of writing, many reassure each other that it’s okay.

It’s not necessarily okay.

Have you been writing regularly in the weeks and months leading up to the holidays? Have you planned it out so that the holidays are your vacation from writing, so you can approach them guilt-free?

Or do you just “not get around” to writing?

If you’ve been diligent all year and decided you want a few weeks off, by all means, do so. But, if you’ve been negligent about your writing and are now using the holidays as yet another obstacle, you need to sit back and re-evaluate.

How badly do you want to be a writer?

Time will never magically appear. There will never be enough time in the day or the week or the month to do everything you want and need to do.

If you are a writer, the writing MUST be a priority. That means telling people – including your family – no sometimes. Sometimes you simply can’t jump up and be at everyone else’s beck and call.

You have as much right to X amount of hours to yourself to write as any other person in your family with a job. Even if your income is not yet as much as your partner’s, until you stop thinking of yourself as a hobbyist, until you start respecting your own work, no one else will either.

Don’t use your family as an excuse. Set up systems that involve time and space to write. And stick to them. If your kid breaks an arm falling out of the crab apple tree, obviously you’re going to have to be flexible. If the kid is whining because he wants attention – get him interested in a book or something else. If he’s old enough, ask him to research something in the encyclopedia that you can use in your writing.

When I lived in Manhattan, seven of my ten godchildren were once dumped on me in the same week, ranging in age from 4 to 14. I was working full time in the theatre at that period of time, and under deadline for writing.

I did just as much writing that week as I did in any other week. We were crowded, but some of them baked cookies while others searched through books to help me find the right kind of leaf for my story while others played with the cats or coloured in colouring books.

During the day, we took trips to museums and went to Central Park and the zoo and wandered around the city. While I was at work, the older kids took care of the younger ones. And the house did not fall down.

Sometimes we cooked together, sometimes we ate out.

It was busy, it was not necessarily quiet, but all of our needs were met. I had my time to write, they felt included rather than excluded, and they also learned how to research – both in books and in museums.

They learned a different way to look at the world and I learned to see the familiar aspects of my city through their eyes.

It wasn’t easy, but it was fun.

And I had the time to write.

Monday, December 19, 2005


I recently spent hours at The Writer's Medical and Forensics Lab. Archived questions cover topics ranging from how blood type is used to determine paternity to what type of medical treatments were available in Ancient Egypt. The site gives directions for submitting questions to D.P. Lyle, MD. This resource is worth a look no matter which genre you're writing.

by Angela Miller

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Bending The Rules

As it is with most things in this life, and also as occasionally mentioned here by my colleagues, there will always be certain "rules of the road" in writing that should be adhered to, or at least... most of the time.

Still, beyond these stringent codes of conduct, so to speak, when it comes to the set-in-stone rules of writing vs. poetic license/style/flair/voice uniqueness, etc., I think it's always refreshing to see these conventional "dos and don'ts" not only challenged, but stretched to the limit as far as they can go. And certainly, such is the very case with Moon Women , a great debut novel I recently read by author, Pamela Duncan.

Written somewhat in the tradition of Fannie Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes, I'm sure that many staunch grammar "purists" would balk at the relaxed and rather colloquial third person narration of this wonderful novel. However, Duncan does exactly that with her down-home, Southern-style delivery, and spins an entertaining women's fiction tale of working-class life in the Carolina foothills.

Once again, I would definitely venture to label Duncan's work in this story as one of those "proceed with extreme caution" attempts at third person narrative, especially in the often tenuous case of the "first-timer" novelist. On the other hand, all things being equal -- as well as subjective -- the important thing to remember here, is that there was in fact: a) a literary agent, and b) a publishing house editor, who liked what they saw in Duncan's storytelling, and this very fine book is the *end* result. All the so-called "conventional" wisdoms and writing damned.

So for all of you who like Southern tales told in a very southern setting, do check out Pamela Duncan's Moon Women and also her second novel, Plant Life whenever you can.

Write what is inside you.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

It’s Never Too Early to Self-Promote . . .

. . . with an effective website!

Whether you’re just beginning your writing dream or are a seasoned veteran of several published books, the challenge of self promotion looms large.

In today’s published world, it is not enough to garner the three-book deal with a top rated publisher or write a Pulitzer Prize winner. One must self-promote in order to keep up book sales and maintain a presence in the industry.

Well, how does one self-promote and how does one do it with class?

For many authors the first step is a professional website promoting their work. Forget free site services unless you are making a family or personal webpage. But how does an author have a professionally completed site without spending a fortune? Well, there are several services available but you must do your research to find one that works best for you.

Registering your domain name can be done through several online sites:,, or are just a few who offer inexpensive domain registration.

Do your homework when it comes to choosing the right website host. There is tons of information on the web at your fingertips. Does the host offer email accounts? How effective and timely is the customer support? Are the website templates easy to use or do you have to know HTML to work it? Is flash media available if you want it?

Ask peers and colleagues for their recommendations. Go to your favorite author websites, scroll to the bottom and look for the designer information. It should be there. If not, contact them and find out about their service. Most will be happy to help.

Below are a few published author websites that are very well done and perhaps you can garner some creativity and innovative ideas:

Good luck!

Friday, December 16, 2005

The Frustrating Business of Writing

Writing is a frustrating business. You’ve written a book, you’ve edited, you’ve spread it around to trusted critique partners. Now you’re ready to submit. And submit. And submit.

And rejection after rejection rolls in.

Now I can’t speak for those of you who write in any genre besides romance. I am a romance writer and a member for Romance Writers of America. I’ve heard the latest rumors books are supposed to have the Hero/Heroine meet by page 15. They should have their first kiss by X page and sex by Y page. You get the picture.

Personally, I think it’s a crock. I hate formulaic fiction. That said, most genres DO follow a formula. Romance: boy meets girl, they fall in love, they live happily ever after. Mystery: a murder is solved. Science Fiction: you expect to read about strange and usual people/places/things. And so forth.

But why constrain the writer to such formulas as when the Hero/Heroine should meet? Because, ultimately, money is the bottom line, folks. Editors don’t want to take a chance on something they think won’t sell. You can be the best writer in the world with original plots and characters and still get rejected. it’s the name of the game.

So here’s my advice to struggling writers grappling with the aforementioned. Write the book of your heart and try like hell to get it published. So the H/H don't meet on page 15 or 1. SO they don't have sex until page 2203948. SO WHAT. Write what's in YOUR heart. Don't stop. Don't EVER stop because then THEY'VE won. They've killed another dream and ruined another unpublished authors' hopes. Write the book. If every agent/editor turns you down, then maybe it's time to put it away for a while, let it "rest". If you're not ready to do that... then you know what? Find a reputable e-pub and go that route.

And remember - DON'T STOP WRITING. EVER.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


I once had a friend ask me why I stick with Writing. She said to me "there's a lot of rejection, and yet you pick up and keep going. Why do you torture yourself like that?" (She said this when I was coming off of a particularly crushing rejection from a major publishing house last year.)

My response at the time, was "You know what? I don't bloody know."

Rejection sucks, for want of a better word. Thing is, if you're a writer, and you don't keep your manuscripts to yourself, you will have experienced rejection at one point or another.

At one point, every time I got a rejection, I always questioned myself. "Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this torture?"

The answer: because someday it will be worth it.

Writers are optimists. Sure, there are parts of the profession to be pessimistic about, not to mention we're human, for Cripe's sake, but whenever rejection comes, we have a day or two of self-pity wallowing, but then we're back on the wagon and going strong. You have to be in this business. Otherwise you have no business being IN this business!

Not that is doesn't hurt when rejection happens. It's a fact of life. And when it does, it tests you, it tries you, and you have to take the rejection and either A) learn from it or B) file it and forget about it and carry on. Throw yourself into other projects. Re-work your story and submit again. Even J.K. Rowling got rejected (and more than once) before she sold Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Rejection happens to everyone. Even the greatest writers through the ages have had to deal with it.

What makes us any different? Absolutely nothing. So keep plugging, and keep those chins up!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Right Writers' Group

How do you find a writers’ group?

That part’s not too difficult. You can find one via the internet; you can look for or put up notices in libraries or coffee shops.

But how do you find the right writers’ group?

That’s a little bit more complicated.

It’s a bit like putting together a hockey team to win the Stanley Cup. You can have twenty-two outstanding players. However, if the chemistry is there, they won’t win the Cup. It’s about more than talent – it’s how well they mesh.

I belonged to a wonderful writers’ group for about five or six years once. Much of what we worked on together was published. Here’s how we did it:

We all worked on different projects. We weren’t all one type of writer. I think that if everyone in the group writes in the same genre, you can’t help but start to mimic, unconsciously, each other’s voices. Also, I like the perspective I get, say, on my mystery from someone who’s working on a tome about botany on Cape Cod. The fresh viewpoint is helpful. It keeps me from over explaining things to people not in the business; it also keeps me from adding too many in jokes.

We met every three weeks. None of us could manage once a week. Living in New York, you’re lucky to see your closest friends once a year. Once a month felt like it was too long in between meetings. Every three weeks felt about right. It gave us a week to think about our discussions; a week to work on rewrites or new stuff; and a week to edit.

Materials were handed out and read in between sessions. If you missed a session, you were still responsible for getting both your pages to everyone in the group, and your comments on the materials read in between sessions. Listening to a writer read out loud doesn’t work for me. I want to see the words on the page.

Having said that, there were plenty of times when we wanted/needed to work on sections of dialogue. So we’d take a few minutes to read the material; then people who each take a role and we’d read out loud, sort of like a table read for a play. And we’d discuss the cadence of the dialogue.

Working in theatre for my entire adult life gives me the luxury of knowing many actors; if I’m not sure if dialogue works, I can pull a couple of friends into a room, hand them pages, and we read aloud. They can also tell me if it feels wrong when they try to speak it.

We managed to get through the comments on everyone’s work in every session. And these were lively discussions. The most important rule was that the criticism be constructive.

None of us were jealous of each other. We might feel an occasional pang of envy, but there was no jealousy. We all understood that there is an insatiable need for stories, and you can never have too many good writers out there, not matter what sort of bull-wacky the publishing world promotes to keep writers running scared and accepting the lowest amount of money possible.

Our aim was to help each other write the best stories we could possible write, and help each other find our unique voices. Then, we’d help each other through the publishing and promotion circuses.

But without the words being the best they can be – and that means rewriting and rewriting and rewriting – there’s nothing to promote.

Finding the right people is a gut sensation. Don’t be impressed or turned off by credits or lack thereof. How do you respond to the individual as a person? Do you like the way he or she tells a story? Does the work move you? Do you feel there’s potential for growth? Is there a lack of agenda imposition? You don’t need a wanna-be writer who only wants to tell everyone else how to do things – yet can’t back any of it up. You want to be with a group of people who want everyone in the group to succeed.

If someone does start to hurt the group, you can’t be afraid to speak up. Letting it go only allows it to escalate. It has to be discussed. The person in question has to be spoken to, and decisions need to be made. It’s far more useful to remove one person who stirs the poison pot then let the group fall apart because of the person. While it’s important for the group to have a leader, or for leadership to rotate through the group, it’s equally important to remove bullies.

It takes a long time, sometimes. I’d love to be a part of another live group someday (I have a strong group of cyber writers around me). However, I’ll know when I’ve found the right ones, and the day is not today.

Part of what makes us so wonderful is our uniqueness. That’s also part of what makes it so difficult to find the right agent, the right editor, the right publisher – and the right writers’ group.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

One City, One Book

Last Friday saw a one-off event at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh, where three of Scotland's premier contemporary writers; Alexander McCall-Smith, Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh took to the stage in front of a sell-out audience.

With their host, BBC presenter Kirsty Wark, they each made readings from stories they had contributed to a new book called One City. They took part in an audeince discussion with the purpose of launching the book, which is trying to raise awareness of social exclusion in and around the Scottish Capital through a charity of the same name.

The authors, also the charity's three patrons, have each contributed stories with a 'tiger' theme, an idea first muted by Irvine Welsh. "Tigers are something of an obsession or mine," Welsh admitted. "I was in India when the idea came to me after I met the man responsible for trying to save the Bengal breed of tigers. I thought it would be a nice challenge."

Welsh's story, Murrayfield (you're having a laugh), centres around an escaped Bengal tiger running around the back gardens of people's homes in the Murrayfield are of the city.

Smith's story, The Unfortunate Fate of Kitty da Salva, concerns a doctor from South India who comes to live in Edinburgh and has to cope first-hand with the trials of being a lonely incomer to the city.

The Great Lafayatte, a magician who died on the very same stage the author's sat this evening, and the recent Homeless World Cup staged in Edinburgh this summer, provided the inspiration for Rankin's story, Showtime.

All three authors admitted to enjoying the challenge that the theme of the book presented, and fans of each individual author are bound to be more than happy with the newly penned stories.

The One City charity is extremely lucky to have the support of these three authors as well as having JK Rowling to pen the inspirational introduction to the book; it is bound to sell out fast. As well as all the usual places to buy a copy, it will be possible to find copies lying around the streets and shops of Edinburgh as part of the drive to raise awareness.

One City went on sale in shops around Edinburgh from December 10th and is available UK-wide from January 5th. For more information on the charity, please see:

Monday, December 12, 2005

Embrace Solitude

Writing is often described as a lonely profession. It’s not like other jobs. There aren’t many "from the trenches" stories to share that others can relate to.

A plumber can talk about the time he forgot to turn off the water and ended up drenched from head to toe or a teacher can talk about funny things said or done in the classroom. A mechanic can mention burning his fingers on an engine he thought was cool enough to dismantle and a police officer can talk about gasping for air after a foot chase.

Writers can talk about typos that tickled them, accidentally deleting chunks of a manuscript, polishing scenes and dialogue. Only another writer will understand why one sentence of dialogue feels like such a milestone. Writers flock to online forums, whether small private groups or large groups, because those are places they can interact with others who "get it". Online forums join forces with email, instant message programs, telephones and fax machines to keep a writer connected to the rest of the world. In today’s world, a writer must choose to embrace solitude.

It’s hard to create while reading emails and posting to messages boards. Log off and write. The messages will all be there when you get back.

Written by Angela

Sunday, December 11, 2005

One Of The Masters

There would certainly be no argument that in an art form as subjective as writing, there are many standouts who hold the esteemed title of being the "best" in each individual genre or category. As such, when it comes to the category of the short fiction, where we as writers have a tersely limited amount of time to get our stories out of the gate and off the ground before completing a full story "arc" and conclusion, for me, no one has ever done it better than William Sidney Porter, more widely known to his admirers over the years, as O. Henry.

Unlike many famous novel-length authors, William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), was an American writer who was far more noted for the numerous short stories he wrote during his career. Born in Greensboro, North Carolina, Porter left school in his mid teens. In 1882 he moved to Texas, where he worked in various jobs, including as a bank teller in Austin from 1891 to 1894 and as a journalist in Houston from 1895 to 1896.

In 1898 he was convicted of embezzlement committed during his years as a bank teller, and he subsequently served a three-year term in prison. Porter then settled in New York City, and for the remainder of his life he contributed short stories to the popular magazines of his day. His stories about working people are characterized by colorful detail, keen wit, and great narrative skill. Their signature feature is the use of coincidence and ironic twist of circumstance to produce a surprise ending to the plot. This device, for example, used in one of his best-known stories, The Gift of the Magi (1906), has held the attention of an enormous audience down to the present day. The best-known collections of Porter's hundreds of stories include The Four Million (1906), The Gentle Grafter (1908), and Options (1909).

And certainly, the famous "O. Henry" plot-twist ending that is now one of many standard techniques in short fiction writing, is one that many have admired since first laying eyes on this author's work when it was required reading back in grade school. The art of grabbing the reader by his or her shirt collar from the very first sentence, then carefully navigating their journey, while never allowing them to see exactly where they're being taken -- until they get there. A totally unmatched experience for the mind's eye, and all done within a short space of reading time, i.e., what we have come to know as the modern day "short story." Delicious!

Thank you, William Sydney Porter. For being one of the true innovators of a lasting art form.

Along these same lines, the O. Henry Awards are yearly prizes given to short stories of exceptional merit. They were first awarded in 1919 and recognizes an annual collection of the year's twenty best stories published in American and Canadian magazines, written in the English language.

Friday, December 09, 2005

The Best Advice

Even though I’ve been writing seriously for just over five years, I still consider myself a “green” writer. By that I mean, I’m not as seasoned as some of my writing friends, but I’ve learned so much over the years about myself and my writing. Learning the craft – and learning the craft well – is the single most important thing a writer can do.

But that’s not the best advice I ever received.

The best advice I ever received was at my chapter conference in May where romance author, Lisa Jackson, was the keynote. She and her sister, Nancy Bush, were vibrant and interesting ladies who had some humorous anecdotes about how they made it in the business. Lisa Jackson writes in several genres and has a handful of books released each year. Nancy Bush is a chick lit author and both are simply delightful ladies.

But I digress…

Back to the best advice. It came from Lisa Jackson in her keynote (of which she used no notes. She just got up there and talked and I totally admire that). She said, “Write the damn book.”

Something about that really struck home with me as I sat there listening intently and trying to be a sponge at my first official RWA conference. It sank into me and I knew right then, she was right. Just write the damn book became my mantra. And I set about telling myself to sit down and write it. I cranked out a little novella – 38,000 words – in about a month and a half and sold it to the second publisher I queried. It was my first ever sale.

As my mother says, “Perseverance is the better part of valor.”

Oh yeah and write the damn book.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Contract Between the Reader and The Writer

Apologies for this post’s lateness. My computer decided that the new, non-Microsoft programs I uploaded were evil and crashed the entire system – as Microsoft does. They don’t want you to have something that actually works on the computer, so if they haven’t made it, they try to destroy it and force you to keep shelling out money for more of their programs which don’t work.

Enough of that.

Today’s musing is about the contract between the Reader and the Writer. Each partner in this endeavor has a specific role, and it is vitally important that both fulfill those roles for a successful experience.

It is the Writer’s job to tell a good story in an engaging fashion.

It is the Reader’s job to approach the piece with an open mind and be ready to view the world in a different way while taking the journey with the writer. The reader does not have to change his/her life after reading a book, although, in the best of circumstances, a good book is life changing.

But that’s the contract.

Unfortunately, in this increasingly celebrity-crazed culture, far too many readers believe that writers owe them more than a good story. They expect the writer (or actor or musician or artist) to drop everything and reel with gratitude when the fan shows up at a bad time.

That’s incorrect.

Example: Poet and novelist May Sarton loved and needed to be the center of attention. Yet, in order to create, she also needed long stretches of absolute solitude.

Because her work touched people’s souls – the way a good writer’s work is supposed to – people would track her down and knock on her door. They expected her to be thrilled that they interrupted her, because, after all, they were Fans. And she Knew Them.

Honey, she didn’t know you. She understood how to make the personal universal and the universal personal. She is a creative person who was able to reach out to you. Gratitude does not mean interrupting her and destroying her creative process.

What non-writers need to understand is that writing is not like folding laundry. If you interrupt a writer at work, chances are that you have shattered, destroyed, and somehow otherwise mutilated what might have been the writer’s best work. It won’t come back. We’ll never know, will we? Some will scoff and say that if it’s really that good, you’ll remember it. That’s not true. The Muse is jealous and inspiration is fleeting.

In order to create a body of work and make a living, a writer must develop craft in order to have something on which to fall back when the inspiration is difficult to find. But the writer must also have stretches of uninterrupted creation time – even if that means sitting in a chair staring into space and it doesn’t look like work.

In my next home, I will commission a plaque to place beside the doorbell that reads, “If you interrupt this writer at work without an appointment, and it is not an emergency, do not expect courtesy.”

I am not the catch-all for the neighborhood whenever someone doesn’t feel like dealing with something. In an emergency, I’ll put someone’s life before the writing without resentment. Otherwise . . .

If you admire a writer, feel free to drop that person a note or an email. Writers do love to get mail. And writers do appreciate their fans. Talk to them at book signings or other appearances. If you spot one in a restaurant or on the street, take a minute and really observe the person – does the person seem as though they’re open to conversation? Or withdrawn and dealing with something else? Use the same sensitivity in approaching the writer as the writer showed in approaching the work which touched you so deeply.

But DON’T show up knocking on the door and expect to be entertained, just because you “happened to pass through town today.”

You may have just destroyed the writer’s creative child and income for the next five years. Is that a responsibility and a legacy you wish?

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Muriel Spark (b.1918)

Muriel Spark was born Muriel Sarah Camberg, in Edinburgh in 1918. She was the daughter of Bernard, her Jewish/Lithuanian father and Sarah, her English Protestant mother. She attended what was then James Gillespie's High School for Girls – a time in her life she later regarded as most fortunate for a future writer

One of her teachers from Gillespie’s School, Miss Christina Kay, was the inspiration for Muriel’s most famous character – the Edinburgh schoolmistress Jean Brodie, and the school proved to be the inspiration for her most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Although the unconventional fictional character was in some ways unlike her real life model, Muriel felt that Miss Kay “had it in her, unrealised, to be the character I invented.”

Muriel was a talented student and when only 12 years old she received the Walter Scott prize for a poem entitled Out of a Book. After leaving school, she took a course in précis writing at Heriot Watt College in Edinburgh. She later taught English as a means to finance training in secretarial skills. She became known as the schools “poet and dreamer,” as her poems appeared regularly in the school magazine. In 1932 she was crowned as the school’s Queen of Poetry. Her first employment using her new skills was as a secretary in a department store in Edinburgh's Princes Street.

In 1937 Muriel married Sydney Oswald Spark, who had taken up a teaching post in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Together they had a son, Samuel, though at the age of 19 she was very unhappy. When her second son, Robin, was born the following year, her marriage was failing fast and she longed to leave Africa. She wrote a short story dealing with the subject of middle-class marriage and of expatriate life on the continent, which suggested a claustrophobic existence. Their marriage later ended in divorce

During these extreme circumstances, Muriel Spark continued writing, taking inspiration from her experiences, and collecting memorable settings and characters for her later work.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, travel was difficult and she had to wait until 1944 to secure a passage on a troop ship bound for Liverpool. When she arrived back in England, she was fortunate to get a wartime post in political intelligence at MI6. She worked at Milton Bryan, near Woburn, as a propagandist for the war effort, and which was later fictionalised as 'The Compound' in The Hothouse by the East River.

When peace came in 1945, Spark began her critical apprenticeship as a journalist at Argentor, the official journal of the National Jewellers' Association, and started writing seriously. She was already becoming well-known by the time she took up the post of editor of the Poetry Review, the journal of the Poetry Society.

Spark left the Poetry Society after a disagreement over her policy of publishing new writers. Her own writing was becoming more important, with the encouragement of supporters such as established author Graham Greene.

In December 1951, her entry in The Observer newspaper's short-story competition triumphed over nearly 7,000 others to take first prize. The success of The Seraph and The Zambesi stimulated her to write fiction.

Muriel the poet had her first collection of poems, The Fanfarlo and Other Verse, published in 1952. Aside from poetry, she was producing articles and books of criticism at this point in the early 1950s. Extensive reading and research resulted in her writing seven critical studies and editions – on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Emily Brontë, William Wordsworth, and John Masefield – in the period leading up to her crucial decision to join the Roman Catholic Church in 1954. Rapturous reviews – including one from Evelyn Waugh – greeted The Comforters, Muriel Spark's first novel, started in 1954 and published in 1957.

So began a string of six novels in a four-year period: Robinson came next, in 1958, followed by Memento Mori (1959), The Bachelors (1960), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

In the United States, the Brodie tale was first published in its entirety in The New Yorker magazine, with immediate success. Early in the 1960s, the author decided to leave London and live in New York, where she was given her own office at The New Yorker. Netting this job was quite an achievement: fellow contributors to the magazine in those days included J D Salinger, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov.

Muriel's social life in New York was full and plentiful: there was no shortage of parties and literary gatherings with the foremost authors of the period. However, this did not get in the way of two further novels, The Girls of Slender Means (1963), set in wartime London, and the prize-winning The Mandelbaum Gate (1965), which The New Yorker serialised.

By 1966, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie had been adapted for the theatre, Vanessa Redgrave heading the London cast of the first production. (Three years later the story would be made into a film starring Maggie Smith.) Before the stage version transferred to Broadway in 1968, Muriel Spark – now in the happy position of never again having to worry about earning a living – chose to move on. She was at the peak of her career, and Italy beckoned.

She took up residence in Italy where she now resides, moving between Rome and New York. For 12 years, from 1967, Muriel Spark lived and enjoyed life in Rome, at that time home to a considerable number of Britons and Americans. Cultural pursuits and social engagements in the Italian capital contributed much to her lifelong interest in people and places.

It was during this early time in Italy that Muriel wrote what she considers to be some of her finest work.

First came the 'ethical shocker' (and one of her favourites) The Driver's Seat, published in 1970 and later filmed starring Elizabeth Taylor, followed by The Hothouse by the East River in 1973. The Abbess of Crewe was published in 1974, and it too was adapted for cinema. Highly evident in The Abbess is Muriel Spark's renowned satirical skill: the work, set in a convent, is a send-up of the Watergate political scandal that rocked early-1970's America.

Moving to Italy clearly stimulated Muriel as a writer. Her fictional output during this period also consisted of the novels The Public Image (1968), Not To Disturb (1971), The Takeover (1976) and Territorial Rights (1979).

In 1979 she moved home again, this time to the Tuscan countryside, where she has remained.

Muriel Spark has continued to write since she moved to Tuscany in 1979. From Loitering With Intent in 1981, she has released a steady stream of characters and situations into the literary world. Her 22nd novel, The Finishing School (published in March 2004), takes a satirical look at creative writing in the classroom.

Muriel has received numerous awards during her career, beginning with the prestigious Italia Prize in 1962 for an adaptation of The Ballad of Peckham Rye. She now has many honorary degrees, and became 'Dame Muriel Spark' when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1993.

The Muriel Spark archive at the National Library of Scotland contains evidence of the impression the author has made on her many readers over the years, and hundreds of fan letters are testament to the popularity of her books.

After a long period of relative silence, Spark published Aiding and Abetting in 2001. Her work also found critical approval and a review of her collected short stories in The Scotsman newspaper in 2001 described them as “one of the greatest collections of short fiction in English.”

Over her long career Muriel Spark has received countless literary tributes and honours. In 1971 she was awarded an honorary degree in literature from Strathclyde University and has been similarly honoured by the Universities of Aberdeen, St Andrews, Edinburgh and Oxford. Heriot Watt, where she attended as a student, has also attributed her as a Doctor of the University. In 1993 Spark was made a Dame of the British Empire and in 1997 she received the David Cohen British Literature Prize for Lifetime Achievement.

Muriel Spark's novels, with their unique blend of realism, satire and allegory, have helped to change the face of fiction in the English language for generations.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


Once every month or two, my husband takes our daughters out for several hours while I stay home alone. Those hours are my favorite writing times but I’d be miserable if I only had six to twelve writing sessions per year. Between the cherished uninterrupted sessions, I get writing time where I can.

I stick to a cleaning routine to save time. I thoroughly clean one room every day. It takes an hour to an hour and a half. The rest of the time, I just do what I call round ups. I spend five minutes in each room of the house picking things up. Round ups are done daily, sometimes twice a day. I load the washing machine and set it up every night. In the morning, on my way to wake up the oldest of my three children, I pull the knob and start the day’s load of laundry. By the time my daughter leaves to catch the bus, the laundry is ready for the dryer or the clothesline. After lunch, I have mommy time. The two daughters still at home have unstructured play time or watch a mom-approved video while I work. Mommy time lasts until the oldest gets home from school. The rest of the evening passes in a flurry of homework, playtime, dinner, baths, a round up, and bedtime stories. Once a week, I spend the afternoon mommy time taking care of bills and other household paperwork. I always use dishwashing time to think about a WIP so I don’t spend much time staring at the screen trying to figure out what happens next. Every Sunday, I make a list of dinner choices for the week. It’s not a real menu but it keeps me from staring in the refrigerator and cupboards trying to figure out what to make each night. I work for a little while after my kids go to bed but I can count on multiple interruptions for potty trips, drinks of water or any number of things. Ideally, my day would include an interrupted writing session but that’s not realistic at this point.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

On Wednesday, November 16, 2005, Norman Mailer was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution at the National Book Awards. Still defiant at age 82, Mailer said it right when he stated, 'The passion readers used to feel for venturing into the serious novel has withered." After this bold statement, he toasted the future Tolstoys and the futures Joyces.[1]

I believe Mailer got it half-right. The passion is still there, but the mainstream publishing industry has failed somewhat to serve those with appetites for the literary masterpiece and choosing instead to force feed us overused plots, tired prose and dull images all for the sake of profits. Yet their profits still dwindle as a result of competition from other forms of media infringing on what used to be sacred ground for the publishing industry.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good contemporary commercial thriller such as those written by Barry Eisler, Lee Child, P.D. James or Patricia Cornwell, but I always return to the classics of Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and the others. There's something about these ageless works that most contemporary pieces lack.

Perhaps the definition of literary masterpiece needs to be updated. The current establishment dictates that pages and pages of exposition (no matter how superbly written and meaningful) cannot be published. The industry has created leaner standards and literary agents are the gatekeepers. Authors know the standards and play by the rules. Once in a while, a rogue author comes along – so bloody brilliant that rules don't apply. What we need today is a rogue.

[1] Even in Triumph, Mailer's a Battler, Hillel Italie, AP National Writer, 11/17/2005

by B.K. Birch

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Why do we Write?

You have to ask yourself the question: What makes me a Writer?

There are other questions that follow. Why do I write? When did it all begin? Essentially, what makes Writers tick?

Some people write out of pain. Some people write out of joy. Some people write just to see if they can craft a story. But what's in it for us? What are the rewards?

I will never forget Betty Mogus, my second-grade teacher. She was an author. And she had published a children's book (about mushrooms who talked, if I remember correctly). All I can remember is thumbing through her book at the reading table, riveted, fascinated.

I was besotted. "I want to do this," I thought. I want to write.

I began to write for selfish reasons. I was going to make it big, become a household name, and have oodles of money. But as I grew and matured, I wrote for different reasons. In High School, it was because I wanted to give people the same "escape read" that authors had given to me.
When I was a starving college student, I wrote for the money and fame again.

Now, I write for myself. I write because I love that I can create entire worlds and breathe life into characters, (and yes, some small part of me still wants the fame and glory, let's be honest) but I write simply because I can, and it gives me joy.

My Journalism professor in college told me that "great writers always find time to write, every day, even if it is just in a journal." Writing is the writer's life blood. His or her comfort, therapy, joy, pain, source of income, you name it. We are creatures of our pens. We write because we love it, pure and simple.

So, why do YOU write?