Sunday, December 9, 2012

Creating Unforgettable Characters: James Scott Bell

Writers' Digest hosted a free webinar this past week given by suspense author and writing teacher James Scott Bell.

Bell has written several books on writing (see his website). The one I have on my shelf (and maybe you do, too) is Plot and Structure.

He has a new book soon to be released called Revision and Self Editing for Publication. The webinar was designed to showcase ths book and was all about revision. It was great!

I wanted to highlight just one brief tidbit of Bell's webinar--how to craft unforgettable characters. It's short, sweet, but very powerful.

So here is Bell's list of traits to give unforgettable characters. Keep them close by and use them to analyze your latest hero or heroine, to see whether you've created characters that jump off the page.

So, are your characters...




PASSIONATE--They have their blood boiling about something.

COMPLEX--inner conflict--This means emotional. Remember, readers aren't analyzing their way through your story, they're FEELING. So give them something to feel about!



Isn't this a great list?

Do you have any other traits to add?

For more on James Scott Bell, visit

Monday, November 26, 2012

Creativity: Getting Out of Your Own Way

As a writer, don't you think about creativity a lot? What is it, what enhances it? And, most importantly, HOW DO I TURN THIS @#!*$% INTERNAL EDITOR OFF INSIDE MY OWN HEAD??

This weekend I heard a really interesting piece on NPR on creativity from the show Studio 360. You can listen to all the segments at

In the segment "The Neuroscience of Jazz," Dr. Charles Limb, professor of Otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins, studied functional MRI studies of muscians' brains as they they played piano. During a very creative task (jazz improvisation), certain areas of the prefrontal cortex lit up red--hot spots--and others lit up blue--cold spots. The self expressive areas were "hot" (areas of active blood flow) and the deactiviated areas--areas of conscious self-monitoring--had less blood flow.

Basically, the areas of self expression were full of activity, while the other areas were actually "turned off" areas.

This might be the neural signature of creativity--the self-expressive areas are turned up, and the inhibitory areas are turned down--so this might be you getting out of your own way.

In other words, creativity occurs WHEN YOU GET OUT OF YOUR OWN WAY.

So how do we accomplish this difficult feat? Everyone has different ways of helping themselves get "in the zone" so we can create those stories, build those worlds, experience our characters practically as real people. Coffee, music, or just writing as fast as you can so the editor can't catch up to you are a few ways.

Another segment of this program called "Enhancing Creativity" talked about when we get good at things, we do multiple tasks at once. In writing, this can be getting the creative ideas down, as well as putting them down in a grammatically and structurally correct way. With practice, practice, practice, creative tasks can get easier.

Are children more creative? Does creativity get whipped out of us as we age and go through the drudgery of school? It is true that 5 year olds are less inhibited and explore ideas more--but they often don't have the skill set to bring their ideas to frution.

So, what ways do you use to get your muse up and running and that nasty internal editor to stop talking? How do you get out of your own way?

Picture of Water Texture - Free Pictures -

Water Texture at

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Top 3 Harlequin STYYCW Finalists Announced

Despite lots of mischief from Sandy, the Harlequin editors have named the top three finalists in the Harlequin So You Think You Can Write competition. Congrats to:

Jennifer Drogell            The Divorce Party
Mel Sterling                 Grand Theft, Auto
Amber Whitford           In Defense of the Past   

You can read their fabulous first chapters here

Public voting begins again from November 16-27 to choose the ovrall winner.

This has been a really fun competition. I read all 28 of the finalists' entries. So many different and creative ideas! It's also been great fun chatting and getting to know the other finalists.

It's not too late to read the chapters, join in on the fun, and chat with the community on Twitter @sytycwglobal, #sytycw2012.

And if you are targeting Harlequin, there are many learning opportunities here to learn how to hone your ms!


Image from

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Bride for the Bachelor: I finaled in Harlequin's SYTYCW Contest!

I have a huge confession: I am a closet contemporary writer! And a few days ago, I learned I was one of 28 finalists in Harlequin's So You Think You Can Write Competition. There were around 700 entries! 25 were chosen based on popular vote and 3 were chosen by editors as "wild card" entries.

What is my story about, you may ask? It's not dashing dukes or macho marquesses or sizzling spies, my usual fare. My story, Bride for the Bachelor, is about a frazzled NYC editor who inherits a baby and the hunky reality star bachelor next door, who just so happens to be her old high school sweetheart. 

So now another secret shame is watching every episode of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette with my daughters and their friends.  I guess it got me wondering...what if a reality star had to choose between 25 gorgeous knock-out contestants...and his one true love, the girl from his past he never stopped loving?

Next step is to sit back, relax, and enjoy reading all the first chapters posted on the SYTYCW site (here). Editors are choosing the top three, and public voting to choose the winner begins in mid-November.

How fun is that?

Gorgeous fall day in Northern Ohio--today!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Learn to Pitch Better by Watching Lisa Kleypas Chat About Rainshadow Road

Is pitching your worst nightmare? Do you quake in your shoes just thinking about it? Are you a fearful public speaker who would rather have all your teeth pulled (at once) than have to sit across from an agent or editor and pitch? If you are, read on!

I adore Lisa Kleypas. Not only is she a hugely talented author, she's a savvy businesswoman, too. Lisa is far beyond the pitching stage of selling books. But the following is a YouTube video I found on her Facebook author page that she did to promote the release earlier this year of her book Rainshadow Road. I think it's very instructional for those of us who are in the process of pitching their manuscripts to editors and agents.

I studied it carefully before I pitched my manuscript this past weekend at the fabulous New Jersey Put Your Heart in a Book Conference. 

Watch the video and see how she does it.

What I learned from watching this:

--Lisa speaks in a very conversational style, i.e., she's not looking clutching an index card with white knuckles and reading her pitch. She's informally telling you about her book, as if you were sitting across the table from her (yet it is carefully worded and the information is carefully planned).

--You leave excited about her book. Why? Because she's excited about it!

--She speaks about her characters like they are real people.

--She is confident in the story. She's not cringing or embarassed or chuckling nervously. She believes in her story--she's proud of it!

--She uses her hands for expression.

--She smiles and looks directly at the camera.

--She keeps it short.

--Now look at your pitch. Have you spent so much time getting it to be under 50 words or to 3 sentences that you've neglected to check for how conversational it sounds? Try reading it out loud, then changing the verbs to sound more like conversation--more informal. 

--My worst fear in the world is fear of blanking out when I pitch (well, okay, maybe not my worst fear but it seems like it at the time!).  I am an index-card clutcher and I suffer greatly. But this fear can be overcome. I know because I did it!

--The key for me was practice. Even if you have to write out a conversational-sounding pitch and memorize it by saying it over and over--DO IT. Make yourself practice in front of someone who loves you. FORCE YOURSELF. When I pitched to an editor and an agent this weekend, I was able for the first time to do it without index cards (although I did bring them with me just in case). But it took a ton of practice. Some people may not have to deal with this kind of stress but those of you who know who you are! And if I can do it, you can too! 

--Remember, most editors/agents you pitch to will request pages from you. And guess what I heard at the conference from Bob Mayer? 90% of people who are asked for submissions at pitch sessions don't even send them? So don't be in that majority!  

--A pitch is a marketing tool. It's the first impression the agent or editor gets--of you and your book. Work hard to make it a good one. If all else fails, remember, it's only eight minutes. Anyone can survive that! If I did, you can too!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Love's Secret Fire: Debut by Rena Koontz

Love's Secret Fire by Rena Koontz

Check out the debut romantic suspense by Crimson Romance author (and my fellow chaptermate) Rena Koontz!

Undercover agent Adam Michaels (a.k.a. Mitchell) has been sent to a fire station to out a firebug. Who is targeting news reporter and radio personality Valerie Daniels with frightening emails. And Valerie’s beloved twin brother is a rookie fireman who just happens to be in all the right places at the right times to make him a prime suspect.

Sparks immediately fly between Adam and Valerie that have nothing to do with the scary fires being set.

But this book is more than just suspenseful. It subtly explores the strong bonds between brother and sister and between friends. The forbidden romance that blooms between Adam and Valerie is strong and full of feeling. Their country western date night was so satisfying and emotional it actually had me in tears. You can feel them falling in love and it’s a wonderful ride.

From the first page where Valerie forms the peas on her plate into the letter “D” to describe the dull date she has, the language in this book caught me. And this sentence describes perfectly the chemistry between Valerie and Adam:  “‘Mitchell,’” Adam’s deep voice oozed through the phone, sending a wave of heat through her like hot chocolate at a Friday night football game.” Love it!

Rena Koontz’s reporting background is evident in this suspenseful, well- researched book with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing to the end. There is a believability to the fire station protocol, intense relationships between the fire fighters, and the realistic crime details.

For more about Rena, check out her website here  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Why They Call It "Revision Hell"

I've recently had the great pleasure of coming back into the real world after a month of revisions. How you know you might need to detox if you've had a similar experience:

--An entire wardrobe of sweats is critical to survival (including my favorite sweats I call my writing pants). But the one time you wear them out (because you've deteriorated to the point where you just don't give a fig any more and all you want is just to be DONE), you will meet everyone you know--and they will all be dressed in their nice work clothes, making you feel a bit pathetic. Moral of this story: grocery shop early or late, or dress better going out!

--The mail pile becomes a mail avalanche.

--Ditto for laundry.

--You begin calling your children by your characters' names, OR

--You walk around the house talking to yourself (or others) in an English accent.

--Correlary:  You begin calling your husband's by your hero's name...

--...or (more commonly) your villain's!

--Instead of asking what's for dinner? your kids start asking you what kind of takeout we're ordering tonight.

--For company, you devise numerous ways to cheat on housework, stashing things in closets, closing doors, and tossing away everything en masse that has rotted in the fridge. You never put water on your kitchen floor unless totally forced.(i.e., some kid spills a sticky beverage that makes noise when someone walks on it or the dog barfs).

--So far, there is no shortcut I've discovered to cleaning bathrooms. (If anyone has, let me know!)

--Your back and fingers ache from scrunching yourself over a keyboard all day and skipping your exercise classes. Warning: skipping physical activity for fear of  "it takes too much time" is a hazard to sanity! (Will I ever learn this?)

--Every time you sit down at your keyboard, you start to twitch and your skin begins to crawl.

--You feel that if you so much as look at another cup of coffee you're going to hurl.

--You never want to see again.

--You feel that you can probably work on your manuscript forever and it will never be done. This is the hell part. Am I fixing it, making it better, or am I ruining it?? Will it ever be done?

--You finally get the courage to push send, and release your literary child into the universe, subjecting it to potential criticism and of course, rejection. This is reminiscient of dropping your first kid off at the first day of preschool. If only you can protect her from the bullies of the world! The kids that won't like her! But she has to go out into the world...and hey, preschool might have its knocks, but it's mostly fun!

Lastly, the nail biting continues as you wait in desperate hope, but not too much hope. Tempered by caution. And the experience of multiple "no's."  

You wash your hair, do some TJ Maxx therapy, clean your house, kiss your kids, see your friends again, maybe even make dinner and start a new manuscript. You leave the outcome to fate, knowing you've done the best you can possibly do.

I think I can finally call myself a writer now. 

Peace-inspiring scene, the Atlantic coast this summer.


Monday, September 24, 2012

Fort George, Ontario, in the Eyes of a Regency-Era Writer

To celebrate that I am now a dot-com, I thought would share some pics from my recent trip to Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada.

Of course Mr. Liasson wanted to see the fort. "It's Regency period," he said in a tempting voice. Well, I succumbed, and it was great! Okay, it's not London, but look at what we saw... 

Here is the Union Jack flying atop the fort (well, you're only supposed to call it that when it's at sea, so I suppose I should say Union Flag.)

A British Canadian soldier twirling his musket. It weighs 9 pounds, 10 with the bayonet. I got to hold it--it was heavy!

Playing the fife.

Tunnel made of stone.

British officer uniform for the Canadian army is on the left. A New York State Militia Officer's coat is on the right. Both are circa 1812.

A musket, pistols, and a sword artfully displayed on a mantel. I LOVED THIS! Who says army guys aren't artsy!

No trip to Ontario area is complete without a visit to Niagara Falls. This is my artistic effort to capture the power and the intense drop off. (How would you like to be the person whose job it is to pick up that Coke can???)

A fun trip was had by all. (Mr. and Mrs. Liasson, after a happy weekend away :)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Reluctant Debutante by Becky Lower

Love historical romance but are yearning for something unique and different? Give Becky Lower's debut a try! It's fantastic!
It's also on the top of the list of Surprising Good Books on Goodreads (see here for details).
See my Goodreads review below...
Oh, and Becky will be featured on the USA Today blog on their Happy Ever After page on Sept 11.
Way to go, Becky!

The Reluctant Debutante, Book One in the Cotillion Ball SeriesThe Reluctant Debutante, Book One in the Cotillion Ball Series by Becky Lower
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book--Lower's debut--takes you from high society of 1850's New York City to St. Louis and the burgeoning West. Feisty red-haired Ginger Fitzpatrick, the oldest of nine siblings, prefers to be friends with Elizabeth Blackwell and Amelia Bloomer than empty-headed debutantes, and would rather work in her father's bank than attend the Cotillion Ball. Joseph Lafontaine, her brother's friend, is half-French Canadian, half Ojibwa Indian. He is upstanding, brave, and understands that his Indian blood prevents him from ever having Ginger. This story encompasses duty to family, the difficulties of sibling relationships, and the changing roles of women, all interwoven in the grip of a love that cannot be denied. Lower grabs you by the ankles and holds onto you tightly until you reach the page-turning climax based on the real Gasconade Bridge Disaster of 1855. This story will have you laughing, crying and begging to know what happens to Ginger and the rest of her eight brothers and sisters. Stay tuned for more from this talented new author!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Good Read (or, What Makes a Book Good)

I came across the beginning of this spectacular book review by Susanna Sonnenberg of the San Francisco Chronicle. In it she defines what makes a book a good read.

Before you read it, I want you to substitute your name for the author, Karen Thompson Walker, and the title of your book instead of hers, which is The Age of Miracles.

Here it is:

"What do we ask of a good read? Escape, release, characters to believe in, situations that convince us, especially fantastic ones. We must be compelled from one page to the next at a pace that feels just right--not too fast, never slow. Often the good read is cinematic, suggesting the inevitable movie. Karen Thompson Walker has suffused her first novel, The Age of Miracles, with these qualities, and if you begin this book, you'll be loath to set it down until you've reached its end.

What, in turn, does the good read ask of us? Surrender.

I surrendered on page 7."

Books, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, The Latin Quarter, Paris

There, now you have it. The perfect review that perfectly sums up (in my opinion) what we, as readers, desire most in a book.

Now we, as writers, simply need to go out and write that!!! Easy-peasy, right???

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The RIGHT Kind of Conflict--from James Frey

I'm on vacation reading James Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel as I stare at the Atlantic Ocean. Life is always better when you can stare at an ocean all day!

Conflict, conflict, conflict. That's the ticket to success. We need it in every scene, the kind that impedes our character's goals.

Frey talks about the criticalness of conflict and how it uncovers the nuances of character. Here's what he has to say (see pages 39-43 of How to Write a Damn Good Novel):

  • "First, plan your novel with rising conflict always in mind. Your characters should be facing ever-increasing obstacles, their problems should be multiplying, pressures on them should always be growing. As the conflict rises, the character changes.
  • The kind of conflict we want is RISING conflict. This means the conflict is developed in a nuanced way to show the character slowly and subtly going from one level of emotional intensity up the scale to another. Frey says, for example, the character can begin being annoyed then progress through the scene to peevishness to mild anger to insane anger. What he's saying is, the better a writer you are, the better you are at making these subtle changes which show the reader the many facets of character.
  • The character is fully revealed because the reader has seen her or him acting and reacting at each emotional level. The reader becomes gripped in the slowly rising conflict.

So how can you tell if you have rising conflict? Frey says you should look at your character's emotional level at the beginning of the scene vs. the end. "There should be a step-by-step change in the character from, say, cool to fearful, spiteful to forgiving, cruel to compassionate, or the like, in every scene. If there is conflict but no change, you have a static conflict."

Static conflict is bad. It means conflict without character growth. For example, two kids arguing over the television remote will have conflict but are unlikely to grow and change as a result of it. He also cautions against melodrama or jumping conflict, where the characters change but their motivations are off. You have intensity but no motivation.

"If the characters change emotionally a little at a time as a result of the conflict, you know the conflict is rising steadily, as it should."

So go out there and make sure you've got lots of conflict in EVERY scene, that it's slowly rising to show your reader the character's emotional growth, and always make certain you have an emotional change from the beginning of EACH scene compared to the end.

Incorporating these tips will make your scenes absolutely ripple with conflict--the right kind, that is!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pearls from Cathy Maxwell

Avon Historical and New York Times Bestselling author Cathy Maxwell stopped at the Parma Snow branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library the other night for a chat. She's been writing for over twenty years and has a new release just out, Lyon's Bride (see gorgeous cover below).

The beauty of hearing an expert speak is that it makes you see things in a unique way--a way that comes from years of experience. I often feel I have a myopic view of things and long to be able to pull back and see the big picture.

Here is what she said that had a great impact on me:

A romance is the tale of a relationship but also of a commitment. We read to see if this couple has what it takes to commit to one another for life.

I love that! It's a beautiful perspective on why we read--and write--romance.

A romance begins with a woman who doesn't like the status quo and has decided to take a risk.

What a great way to describe the Call to Adventure!

Someone asked her about sex scenes in books. Cathy said that for a female, sex is the ultimate act of commitment. If the reader doesn't sense that commitment, the scene will fall flat or appear gratuitous.

Writing a novel is like working with a lump of clay. A good book is in the rewrites.

I am currently working from a fast draft and tortuously trying to turn it into a real story and finding it agonizing. I know it will need more drafting--but how much more? How much more time, how many more drafts? When does it turn from the lump of clay into something bigger than itself, a real story?   Will I ever get it right? 

(So, as you can see, I'm having some stress here.) So I asked Cathy, do you write faster now than you used to?  How many hours a day do you write?

Her answer was, it never gets easier. Some books write themselves easier than others and she has no idea why. But she did say, you're always best when you push yourself. You always have to keep challenging yourself to be better.

Cathy said the second book in her new series (the Chatten curse series) that is coming out in the fall (Harry's story) may be her favorite hero ever. I can't wait to read this series.

Cathy's also got a story in an anthology coming out on May 28th (just in time for Memorial Day) by Avon Impulse called For Love and Honor. The authors were given a one-word prompt:  Soldier. Her story is the Regency version. Lynne Hinton and Candis Terry tell contemporary tales.

I'm so glad I had the opportunity to listen (and be energized by) the words--and wisdom--of a true expert.


Monday, April 23, 2012

Jennifer Probst: Success is Not an Accident

I read on the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood blog last week that author Jennifer Probst became the first author for Entangled Publishing to hit the NYT Bestseller List with her book The Marriage Bargain (see post here).
That pretty much made me download it instantly. I found it to be sparkly, tightly written, and a don't-you-dare-put-me-down kind of read. I loved it!

So today I found myself googling this author and her NYT success, and I found this post at The Moody Muses. Jennifer talks about a blogpost she read on Kristen Lamb's blog about Quitting. It's a very inspirational post about when to turn your focus elsewhere, to focus on your goals and change them when something isn't working.  Jennifer also shows herself to be a very savvy busnesswoman.

Both of these posts are about focus and having a plan--a business plan as well as a writing plan. Read them and be inspired as I was!

                                         [ A cloudy day but who notices when these are so bright?]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Good News--Contest Finals

My manuscript The Spy Who Loved Me finaled in the San Antonio Romance Author's Merritt Contest and the Connecticut Romance Writers' The Write Stuff Contest. 

Nice to have good news!

River Thames at Night,

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

An Entry That Sparkles

Recently, I've judged a few contests and I've finaled in a few.  And I have until Sunday to revise an entry any way I want before I turn it in again for the final judging.

All this leads me to think and think hard--what exactly makes a great entry?

As I ran down the list of this week's talented Golden Heart winners, I saw some finalists who had finaled previously.  What precisely do these talented folks know??? Is there an elusive secret that makes a person final again and again?  If anyone knows what it is, please don't hesitate to come forth and tell me!!!  Bottle it and I'll pay!!!

So anyway, all bitterness aside (I'm over it, I really am :), I decided to compile a list to help me revise my entry and focus on making it the best I can.


  • Vivid, larger-than-life characters.  Characters with personality.  Sympathetic, believable, realistic and yet...more.  ***Something,*** whatever that might be (that secret spice) that pulls them out of being ho-hum ordinary.  Something that makes you care immediately what happens to them when point #2 happens. So call this high concept, call it the hook, call it that extra special unique twist on the ordinary, whatever you call it, it makes you say, Oh! I want to read that!  This is not a hum-drum victim, this is not a sit-back-and-watch-things-happen-to-me heroine, this is an active, goal-directed character who is going to fight back (maybe not in the right way) when things go wrong.

  • Their world as they know it turns upside down.  In the first chapter.  And we don't need to know every reason why, yet, either.  But we care.  Save the info dumps for your own notes.  Take them out, all out, and leave in all the action and dialogue you can.

  • An unusual, vivid setting.  A place you as a reader want to visit.  Even if it's grandma's kitchen--you want to be there.  There is something new and different about it--a new world to explore.  Yes, I said a new world.  That's for anybody who thinks paranormal is the only genre with world building.

  • Every voice is distinct and you can actually hear each character talk in your head.  An author who is able to do this has done her/his homework about their characters.  They've given them traits that come out every time they open their mouths to speak.

  • The dialogue sparkles.  That doesn't mean it has to be full of one-liners.  But it's so real you can hear it in your head.

  • The author has a strong voice.  I understand this when I see it but I don't know if I have it in my own writing.  Can voce be inhibited and written out of your work the more you rework things?  Can it be inhibited by perfectionism, by trying to get things exactly right?  If you write your first draft fast, do you get more "voice" into it?  Or does this get honed in your final drafts?  I can't answer this.

  • The language is colorful and surprising.  I'm going to show not tell by using a few examples from  Lisa Kleypas's new release, Rainshadow Road.  She is an absolute master at this.
         Here she is describing a little girl:
         "She weighed no more than a dandelion fluff, her small arms loosely wrapped around his           
         forehead."  (p. 96)

         The idea of relating the weight of a dandelion fluff to a little girl is so brilliant, and the small arms  
         wrapped around this big man's head--for anyone who has ever seen a little girl riding high on
          someone's shoulders, it's just perfect. 

          More unexpected metaphors:

          "The scene scattered like an overturned display of greeting cards."  (page 141)

         "Lucy had not been able to identify the nagging feeling that had drawn her insdes as tight as
          violin strings."  (page 5)

          And here is a description of an inanimate object, a house:  "Even in its ruined condition, the house 
          possessed winsome charm.  Unknown stories lingered in abandoned corners and rickety
          staircases.  Memories had seeped into its walls."  (page 35)

          Memories don't usually seep, but in this case it is just the perfect unusual metaphor. 

          Good authors know how to mold language in unique ways that surprise the reader. 

  • Lastly, what's not in a sparkling entry?  Backstory, lots of introspection, little action, dull and commonplace characters who do dull and commonplace things.  We are in the entertainment industry.  I think that's important to keep in mind as you write the story of your heart.  It's not all about you and what you feel compelled to put on the page--it's about your audience. 

           Okay, I'm goin' back to the drawing board!  Wish me luck.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Finalist Chicago Fire and Ice!

I just found out my early Victorian romance The Spy Who Loved Me is a finalist in the Historical category of the Chicago North Fire and Ice Contest.  Yippee!!

Fortitude.  Resilience.  Rebirth.
                  Oh, and this picture is from my garden.  There is something alive under there after all!!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Writing Inspiration for the Day

You didn't really want to hear me talk about the trials and travails of teaching my first online workshop, did you? This is more fun!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Writer and His Editor: Fitzgerald and Perkins

Yes, I am actually going to write about F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins!

(No, this is not a topic related to Regency or Victorian England!)

But I came across this remarkable book that illustrates this amazing relationship.  The letters exchanged between the two show so clearly the universal dreams and aspirations, doubts, and fears of writers everywhere.  You will recognize them in these brief passages that follow!  Perkins was friend, mentor, and most remarkably of all, full and true believer in Fitzgerald's genius.  

Celestial Eyes, the iconic cover painting of The Great Gatsby by Francis Cugat

The book I discovered, The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 219:  F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, I found quite by accident.  While hibernating one Saturday in a study room at our local unviersity library. I discovered this book tucked between the legs of my study table and the wall.

The book is remarkable in that it traces the development of Gatsby as a book (revisions, rewritings, etc.) and charts its rise to great noveldom.  Fitzgerald's struggles with alcoholism undermined his literary genius in that it hid the fact that he revised painstakingly and did layers of drafts.

Fitzgerald died young at age 44, and never lived to see his true literary success.  While he published and lived off of the money he made from writing short stories, Gatsby did not sell well.

digital file from intermediary roll film copy
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1932, Carl Van Vechten photographer, public domain (
Perkins, who discovered the likes of Hemmingway and Thomas Wolfe, was far more than an editor to Fitzgerald--he was a mentor and a father figure. 

b&w film copy neg.
Maxwell Perkins, 1942.  From Library of Congress, no copyright restrictions 

So take a look at these exerpts.  (I hope I don't ruin them with my comments.  But I was struck by how Fitzgerald's struggles embodied those of any writer.) 

Fitzgerald (July, 1924):  "I want to write something new--something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned."

(Ah, the lofty goals of artistic aspiration...we can all relate.)

Sept., 1924:
"Now for a promise--the novel will absolutely and definitively be mailed to you before the first of October.  I've had to rewrite practically half of it--at present it's stored away for a week so I can take a last look at it and see what I've left out--there's some intangible sequence lacking somewhere in the middle and a break in interest that invariable means the failure of a book.  It is like nothing I've ever read before." 

(See--even F. Scott had to deal with sagging middles and brain fatigue from re-reding his ms over too many times!)

And here is Perkins replying in November, 1924:

"The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even thse criticisms.  The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the expression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary.  The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life.  If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness of pictures your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way.  It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length."

"...You once told me you were not a natural writer--my God:  you have plainly mastered the craft, of course, but you needed far more than craftmanship for this."   

(This is a dream relationship.  Perkins clearly saw and understood Fitzgerald's genius.) 

So inspiring!

For a fascinating discussion of Cugat's artwork for the 1925 cover of The Great Gatsby, see Charles Scribner III's essay at

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Write and Live in 2012

As we welcome the new year and set our writing goals, I'd like to share something I heard yesterday on NPR that stayed with me on a very gutteral level.

As writers, we (well, okay, I) tend to define success based on outcome--did we publish?  This amazing story I heard on NPR yesterday helped me to understand that while we can't always control the outcome in life or in writing, we can control the process. 

So...if you face any adversity in the writing world--namely, rejections, stinging contest feedback, upsetting reviews--you've got to listen to this!

Author Bruce Feiler spoke to Michel Martin on her NPR show Tell Me More.  His topic was overcoming adversity and getting the right start for 2012.

You may know him as the author of The Council of Dads, a bestselling book about his cancer journey and how he asked each of his close friends to share their unique talents with his daughters.

When asked about his new year's resolutions, Feiler offered this story:

Three years ago, he had leg surgery for cancer.  Six months after the surgery, he went to see his surgeon, Dr. John Healey of Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York, and asked him this question (From here on are Feiler's own words.):

"'If my daughters ever come to see you and say, what lesson should they learn from our daddy's story, what would you tell them?'
And this man's a pauser.  Ooh, he pauses longer than anyone I ever heard.  And he said, 

'I would tell your daughters what I know.  And that is--everybody dies.  But not everbody lives.  I want you to live.'

And at its simplest, corest level, I would say, every year, I don't live every day like it's my last but I live every year as if it might be my last.  And my goal every year is to live.

And to me that means--go on an adventure.  Ask a question.  Begin some process that I can look back and say, whatever has happened, good, bad or indifferent, I will have lived my life on my toes and not on my heels."   

To me this means acting, striving to be the very best we can be, controling what we can control, hoping for the best but not taking the worst personally.  Always working to be better.  Or, like my mom always told me, do your best. 

I wish all of you the best in 2012.  And to find joy in the striving!

Here is the NPR link if you'd like to listen.   (The whole discussion lasts 12.5 minutes, and the part above is at the end.)