Archive for March, 2010

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As a book reviewer, I get anywhere from fifty to one hundred review requests a week. Of these, I might accept five or so. While I do occasionally take nonfiction books, most of what I accept will be in the genre known as literary fiction. But just what is literary fiction? What differentiates literary fiction from what most publishers class as commercial or genre oriented fiction, and why am I biased towards it? It’s a question I get asked regularly. Some, like author David Lubar (“A Guide to Literary Fiction,” 2002) equate the label with work that is pompous, dull, plotless, and overly academic: “If you’re ever in doubt about whether a story is literary, there’s a simple test. Look in a mirror immediately after reading the last sentence. If your eyebrows are closer together than normal, the answer is yes.” Publishers often use this label for work which defies other genre distinctions, eg it isn’t romance, isn’t “chick-lit,” isn’t science or speculative fiction, isn’t a thriller, action, or political drama. It is meant to denote a fiction which is of higher quality, richer, denser, or, as the literary fiction book club states, work which “can make us uncomfortable or can weave magic.” These distinctions aren’t always clear, and there are some superb exceptions to the genre rule, such as Margaret Atwood or China Mieville, whose high quality work fits the speculative fiction genre, or Umberto Eco and Iain Pears, whose work is full of mystery and suspense. All writers feel that their work is high quality, and most write fiction with the goal of producing great work. So how can we ensure that our work is literary fiction rather than some other form? Here are five tips to guide writers who are inclined to produce literary fiction:

1. Aim for transcendency. The one quality which seems to be present in abundance in literary fiction and much less so in other forms, is what agent and author Noah Lukeman calls “transcendency.” It isn’t easy to define, and in his exceptional book, The Plot Thickens (St Martin’s Press, 2002), Lukeman presents a number of points, such as multidimensional characters and circumstances, room for interpretation, timelessness, relatability, educational elements, self discovery, and lasting impression. I would say that transcendency equates to depth, to writing which does more than entertain its readers, and instead, changes something, however small, in the way they perceive themselves. How do you get transcendency in fiction? With a deep theme, deep and powerful characters, complex plots, and exceptional writing skills. Sound easy?

2. Read quality literature. This is a lot easier than transcendency, though not unrelated. Since achieving literary fiction is a subtle and difficult thing, you’ve got to develop your literary senses. The best way of doing that is to read books which fit this genre. If you want to create literary fiction, chances are, you probably are already reading it. These are books by the writers we call “great.” Your list of names may differ from mine, but these are the writers who win prizes like the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Commonwealth Prize, and the National Book Award to name just a few. The more great literature you read, the better able you will become at recognising the elements which make a fiction literary.

3. Don’t get defensive! Lubar’s article is lots of fun, but literary fiction isn’t meant to be snobbish, academic, plotless, or boring in any way; just well crafted. That may be daunting if you are a writer, but it won’t help your work to shrug off quality by calling it dull or unachievable.

4. Re-write. This may be the single most important distinction between literary and other types of fiction. Work which is timeless takes time. There’s no other way to achieve literary fiction than re-writing, dozens, and maybe many more, times. It isn’t glamorous, nor is re-writing dependent on a muse or inspiration like the first draft is. It is just going over and over a work until every word is relevant and integral to the story. This process cannot occur solely in the fingers of the author. Every writer of literary fiction requires an ideal reader, a critique group, a mentor, or someone who can provide the kind of objective advice which will transform your inspiration into a stunning creation.

5. Don’t stress about it! Of course there is no point in worrying so much that you get writer’s block (and if you do, get hold of Jenna’s terrific book on the topic 🙂 . If you read great books, write fiction which is true to your own creative vision, and revise (with feedback from others) until the work is as perfect as you can make it, you will produce literary fiction. That’s all there is to it. Writing a novel is about as hard as writing gets. Writing literary fiction can take years, often with little reward, at least until the book is completed (and in many instances, thankless even after publication, assuming you are published). But if you can’t stop yourself; if the desire for producing something truly beautiful outweighs utilitarianism, then you are really and truly a literary writer and your work will have transcendency. I’ll look forward to reading and reviewing it!

Magdalena Ball
runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment: How to Review Anything and three other poetry chapbooks Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse and She Wore Emerald Then. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks.

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A teenage runaway disappears from the streets. The only people that care, or even notice, are her two best friends who are also runaways. For reasons of their own, they can’t go to the police for help.

They seek out Michael Sykora, a software designer by day and hit man by night. Known on the streets as The Ghost, Michael has a reputation for taking on the twisted criminals. Rapists. Child molesters. He has never been hired to find the lost. Until now.

Michael teams up with ex-prostitute Nicki and full-time hit man Sean. Together they bend the rules of the justice system in order to find a young girl few people care about. In the process, they uncover a world where salvation comes with a price tag and God’s words are used to incite fear in a congregation of believers.

Mini Interview with the Author:

What inspired you to write this story?

When I started writing Beyond Salvation, which is the sequel to No Justice, I truly had no idea where the story would go. I am very character-driven in m writing and, consequently, my characters lead me more than I lead them. My main character, Michael Sykora, suffered a heart-wrenching loss that permanently altered his life. He now travels in and out of a world that most of us don’t see. I began with the premise of this one lost girl and I explored the kind of world she came from. I wanted my readers to join Michael on that journey and see beneath the surface.

Since Beyond Salvation is a sequel, is it necessary that the reader start with the first book, No Justice?

Absolutely not. When I decided to turn this into a series, I wanted to be sure that each book could stand on its own.

Are you currently working on a third book in this series?

No. I’m working on finishing a separate novel that has been hanging around half-finished and haunting me for way too long!

What are your future writing/publishing aspirations?

I would love to get my books into physical bookstores, which is nearly impossible without a major publisher and/or agent. Aside from that, my aspirations are pretty simple. I want to unleash all the crazy characters in my head and write books that people continue to enjoy reading.

Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

I have been debating as to how to best answer this question. Initially I was going to settle on a polite word of thanks to you and all my readers. However, I feel that there’s something more I need to share. I have chronic, late-stage lyme disease. I say that not because I want sympathy, because I definitely do not. What I do want is for others with chronic health conditions to know that they are not alone. I believe that writing has truly been my saving grace. The process allows me to float away to another place entirely. I hope that my books will give people that same gift; that ability to float away to another place for awhile. We all need that sometimes.

Check out Darcia’s books on Amazon.

Visit her blog and website.

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A native of New Orleans, Cate Tiernan is the author of the young adult fantasy series, Sweep, Balefire and Immortal Beloved. She's here today to talk about her books, writing, inspiration and the challenges she faces as a writer, among other things.

Thanks for this interview, Cate. As a child, you used to explore cemeteries in New Orleans. Surely not the usual pastime for a child! What about cemeteries fascinated you?

Oh, is that not normal? Cemeteries in New Orleans are called “Cities of the Dead” because people are usually buried in little concrete mausoleums, aboveground. I loved looking at the family names and the dates—you could put together a whole story of who married whom, when they had kids, whether catastrophe hit their family. I still love looking at tombstones in any new city or country I’m in, the older, the better.

What was your inspiration for Balefire?

I wanted to set something in New Orleans, because I love the city and thought the setting would be evocative and mysterious. I was writing the fourth book of Balefire when Katrina hit, and I had to keep writing, describing the city as it would never be again. I sat there and cried—it was hard to finish that book.

Do you plot your novels in advance or do the stories and characters develop as you write?

Both. In general I work from an outline, but the outline is often a bit vague, just reminding me of certain elements I have to put in or develop. But I try to get the structure in place, so I can be sure to end up where I need to end up. But the characters and the book’s universe always develop more and more as I go, and become more real, and therefore more self-determining. I’ve been really surprised by some of the decisions some characters make.

Who is your favorite character in Balefire? Why?

I love the twins, of course, and it was their story I wanted to tell. But I developed a real fondness for Richard, even though he was abrasive and emotionally unavailable and calculating. I still love Riche.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?

Having to suddenly wrap up all the plot lines in book 4, when I hadn’t expected to. (And readers noticed, and weren’t thrilled about it.) With Sweep, it was planned to be only four books, but then it went going, and the story wasn’t necessarily structured to keep going. So I always feel like the books after #4 felt a little patchwork. So for Balefire, I set it all up to go on for 12 or 15 books, gave myself lots of characters and plot material to work with, but then it was decided to end it after four books, and I had to cram a lot into the last book, so it feels kind of clumsy and unfinished. Still kind of bummed about that, but those are the realities of publishing.

Did you keep a disciplined schedule? How long did it take you to write it?

I do work just about every day, and I do sit at my desk and try to make my page quota so I can turn in the manuscript on time. But it’s not like I work every day, 9 to 5, without fail. Sometimes I work at night or on the weekends, on vacations, etc., and sometimes I have to take a day off to deal with all the rest of my life. I don’t remember how long it took me to write. More than a year. Two years? Almost three?

Please share with my readers a bit about your road to publication. Was it easy or difficult?

It was weirdly easy, so I’m not a good role model of what to expect or how to go about it. I was an assistant at Random House, in the juvenile department, and so reading lots of kids’ books. I thought, “Oh, I could do this,” so I locked myself in my office for ten days at lunchtime and wrote a book, and submitted it to another publisher (I thought it would be tacky to submit it to RH; later I found out that they felt just the opposite). And they bought it and I revised it and then they bought my next three books. And from there I just made more connections and got other writing jobs. This method would not work in general, and I can’t recommend it.

What is your greatest challenge as an author?

Getting it done. My life is really full and busy and there’s always a million things that need doing. And I love thinking about the book and doing research—the actual writing, while it can be fun and is usually satisfying, is a bit more of an uphill slog sometimes. Not always. But I love it when I’m finished and happy with a book, and I feel proud of it.

What is the single most important tip of advice you’d give new writers?

Clarify for yourself what audience you’re writing for. Clarify for yourself what the message is that you’re trying to get across. Writing a book because it feeds your soul is often not enough, actually. Writing is communication: what are you trying to communicate, and why, and to whom? I guess that’s two tips. Third tip: everyone needs an editor. No one, no matter how genius of a writer, does not need editing. I’ve been lucky with my editors, and feel they’ve greatly enhanced my work.

What is the best writing advice you have ever received?

Don’t just put in everything cool you can think of because you like it—understand why you’re writing it, and make sure every sentence forwards the plot or character development and isn’t just a fabulous one-liner you’re dying to use. I do tend to overwrite. Still.

New Orleans is also the hometown of author Anne Rice. Are you her fan and have you ever had the opportunity to meet her?

I thought Interview With a Vampire was incredible—I’ve reread it several times. But I haven’t been able to get into any of her other books, though she has millions of fans and people have raved about her work. I’ve never met her.

I hear you have a new book coming out this fall, Immortal Beloved. Leave us with a little hook!

Immortal Beloved is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m having a great time with it. Love, love these characters and this story. I’ve previewed about ten pages on my website, but in a nutshell, it’s the story of an immortal, Nastasya, who has finally hit a wall, after 459 years. She can find nothing positive or of worth in her life, including herself. A desperate instinct for survival forces her to try to reclaim her life and her soul, rehabilitating all the beliefs and actions of her past. But is she even worth the effort it will take? Plus of course aching, unrequited love; a shocking, secret family legacy; much magick; stolen kisses; friends and enemies; and the painful exploration of a life that hasn’t seen light of day in four centuries. Whew! I love it.

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Like many readers, and writers, I have a few key books that stand out above others. As I reflect on what those books were for me, it’s interesting to see how they relate to the journey I’ve taken from reluctant reader to writing novels of my own.

GARFIELD, by Jon Davis: As a child, my mom took us to the library as religiously as she took us to church (that would be weekly 🙂 She was a voracious reader and she, of course, encouraged us to love books as well. Alas, I did not love books. There was always something better to do. To pacify her, however, I checked out Garfield. They were the only books I was interested in, at least until The Far Side started publishing comic books as well. Certainly, the literary value of these books were minimal, however, I enjoyed them and I think that enjoyment was a key point in my personal development.

THE DANGEROUS YEAR, by Era Zistel: In the third grade I found this book on the shelves of the school library. I still had no interest in books but we had to check something out. I believe this was the last book on the fiction shelf and it had skunks on the cover. I didn’t like to read anything, but if I had to read, I preferred to read about animals due to the fact that people were so uninteresting. The Dangerous Year was about a family of skunks, most of whom get killed off over the course of a year, hence the title of the book. I really liked the story so I checked it out nearly every week for 3rd and 4th grade. This was an important part of my journey because it was the first book I ever loved. It didn’t cross my mind that I might love other books as well, but it was a good start.

THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, Elizabeth George Speare: In 7th grade I put off a book report until the night before it was due. I didn’t like books, and I thought all the stuff the teacher wanted us to write about was stupid. Symbolism, characterization, story arc meant nothing to me, but my parents were teachers and I couldn’t get zeros. At home, after failing to get my mom to help me by using the book she was currently reading, she handed me a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond and assured me I would not only like it but that I would be able to read it that afternoon and turn the book report in the next day. I thought she was a danged liar, but I had no other options so I pouted to my room and accepted the miserable experience ahead of me. Well, it turned out my mom was right—I did read it and I did like it. Beyond that, I realized that a book could completely capture me, if I let it. This was a pinnacle day for me and broke me out of my determination not to like reading—other than a few select books here and there—and showed me that through a good story I could be transported. I finally understood why my mom read so much. I finally understood what it meant to become part of the story.

HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL, by James Frey: Fast forward a decade and I’d read thousands of books. I was as voracious as my mother was and we had hot dogs for dinner a lot because I needed to read just one more chapter. During a difficult pregnancy I started writing what I thought would be a short story while on bed rest. I had played around with another story a few years earlier, but never thought about publishing it. I didn’t think about publishing this one either until friends encouraged me to do so and I decided why not. I mean, I wrote a BOOK, that must mean I’m some kind of genius, right? It was inspired, it was perfect, it was my way of blessing the whole world with my brilliance! Or not. After a few rejections I realized there was more to publishing a book than simply writing the story. So I went to the library looking for books on writing. I found Frey’s book and was amazed at how much I didn’t know I didn’t know. This book led to other books on writing which provided my education on how to write a book. I’d been learning about structure and characters for years through the books I read, but now I knew how to do it myself. I used the skills I learned and rewrote my book. A year and a half later, it was published.

HARRY POTTER, by J.K. Rowling: I heard about the series for years before I picked it up. It was a kid’s book, and I didn’t read kid’s books, not even when I was a kid myself. I was happy for Rowling’s success, but it did not grab my attention until a friend of mine, who also didn’t read kid’s books, told me how good it was. I decided to give it a try, but bought the paper book version for $7 so I didn’t invest too much in something I was still pretty sure held little interest in me. I finished the first book in a day, and by the end of the week had spent $80 on the next four books in the series. I couldn’t believe I liked it so much, so I dissected the story, the characters, and the setting in my head, focusing on those things that stood out to me. In the process I found flaws in the story and the writing (as always happens when you’re reading critically) and yet, overall, I still loved the books. This was an important day for me because I realized how much I had learned to the point where I could critique someone else’s work. Being able to critique someone else meant I could critique myself. My writing improved because of this, and I waited in line for every other book in the series as soon as it came out.

LEMON TART, by Josi Kilpack: I realize it’s very arrogant for me to use my own book, but I can’t give a fair view of my lifetime relationship with books and leave this one out. It was the first book in my Sadie Hoffmiller Culinary Mystery series, but wasn’t written with that intention. I wrote the first chapter for a contest I didn’t win, but I loved the story. I loved Sadie and after writing several books in my faith based market, I was ready to try my hand at a mainstream novel. I worked on it for a few years before presenting it to my publisher. I wasn’t sure they would want it, seeing as how it was so different than my other books, but they loved it and I realized I was entering a whole new level of writing, promotion, and overall storytelling. I’d become comfortable where I was, but suddenly there was a whole new world of writing for me to explore.

DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE, by Josi Kilpack: Okay, not I’m really coming across as arrogant. Sheesh. But, the fact is that this book was a big deal in terms of my journey. Lemon Tart had done really well, as had the second book in the series, but Devil’s Food Cake amplified the series into an actual SERIES. Suddenly, it seemed more real and with the great reviews of the earlier books my confidence in the future books grew even more.

And so, here I am three books into an eight book series and working hard every day to rise to the challenge of it all. I’m also a mom of four kids and encourage them to not just read, but to read what they love in hopes that whatever their journey may be, they might find books to be a worthy companion, helpmate, and vacation as they go.

About Josi Kilpack

Josi S. Kilpack grew up hating to read until her mother handed her a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond when she was 13. From that day forward, she read everything she could get her hands on and accredits her writing “education” to the many novels she has “studied” since then. She began writing her first novel in 1998, while on bedrest with a pregnancy, and never stopped. Devil’s Food Cake is Josi’s eleventh novel, and the third book in the Sadie Hoffmiller Culinary Mystery Series. The other novels, Lemon Tart (Book 1) and English Trifle (Book 2) were released in 2009. While the books all feature Sadie Hoffmiller as the main character, they stand alone in regard to plot and can be read as a set or as individual titles. Josi currently lives in Utah with her husband, four children, one dog and varying number of chickens.

For more information about Josi, you can visit her website at www.josiskilpack.com or her blog at www.josikilpack.blogspot.com

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The child of two college professors, Skyler White grew up in an environment of scholarship and academic rigor, so naturally left high school to pursue a career in ballet. She’s been dancing around research and thinking through muscle cramps ever since. She has a master’s degree in theater and work experience in advertising, has won awards as a stage director and appeared on reality TV. She is mother to a tall red-headed athlete and a short blond Lego master, married to a Mohawk-wearing inventor, and lives in Texas.

Welcome to the Dark Phantom Review, Skyler! Why don’t you start by telling us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it?

and Falling, Fly is, at its core, a love story between Olivia, the fallen angel of desire, and Dominic, a self-medicating neuroscientist. Having realized everyone you don’t love tastes the same, Olivia goes home to Ireland, to the Hotel of the Damned, only to meet Dominic there. He’s a radical neuroscientist whose research is fueled by his attempts to cure secret, inexplicable flashbacks to things that never happened. He tries to enroll Olivia in his research study. She says medicine can’t cure mythology, and that his “seizures” are memories of past incarnations, which is completely unacceptable to him as a scientist – even if it would actually explain what he’s been experiencing.

I wrote and Falling, Fly because I needed to tangle with Desire – with what it means to want and not get, with what turns desire into craving or addiction, and what takes it away. Because I was interested in the difference between wanting and being wanted, Olivia can only feed on people who desire or fear her. Because, like most women, I struggle with body image, she’s a shape-shifter. Because she let me wrestle with these things through her, she is an angel – even if she’s still kicking my ass.

How long did it take you to write the book?

It took me a little over a year to write and Falling, Fly.

In order to willfully subject myself to the discomforts of writing, I have to be really curious about a question. For and Falling, Fly, the question was: What is the nature of a woman’s desires? How they are different from a man’s, and what happens when they aren’t (or are) satisfied? Of course, the problem with this method is that it forces you to answer your question in order to finish your book.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Not so much writer’s block, which is a nice, clean, hard-edged thing; as writer’s morass – a writer’s bog. I get mired sometimes, but the terrible truth is that I rather enjoy it. I like the struggle, and I’m actually happier in my writerly slough of despond than I am out in the nice, clean healthful air between projects.

What authors or type of books do you read for fun?

I am an avid reader and almost always have at least three different books going at a time. I’ll have a book of poetry I’m reading, and I usually start every reading session with a few pages from that. And then I have a current novel and non-fiction book. Depending where I am in my own process, I’ll move more quickly through one or the other— the non-fiction if I’m doing research before starting a new project, fiction if I’m currently writing. I read a really wide range of genre and non-genre fiction, and there’s nothing I won’t read except bad writing.

Do you think a critique group is essential for a writer?

I know there are writers out there who work without one, but I couldn’t do it. I have an online crit group, and an individual writing partner. My husband is always one of my first readers, too, because he has a great eye and can be more candid than anyone else.

Writing, for me, is a bit like navigating by Google Maps. You start with this global view, but you have to zoom in to get ‘driveable’ detail, and the screen can’t hold both scales of vision in view at one time. Then, once you start actually driving, the roads are different than the map, and you have to adjust or take the scenic detour. At that point, I can still refer to my printed, small-scale maps, and still remember the zoomed-out view, but writing isn’t just driving. It’s driving and leaving a ‘followable’ trail, and that’s where I completely lose the ability to monitor myself. I need outside eyes to tell me if the breadcrumbs are being eaten by birds. I need feedback to determine if the path I’ve taken is clearly marked enough, scenic enough, and fun enough to be worth inviting others to follow.

Everyone is an authority on their own experience. I can know with certainty that my book was fun for me, but to know how it is for others, I need others.

Do you have another novel on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?

My second novel for Berkley is coming out in December. It’s called In Dreams Begin, and I’m going to give you the first sneak peek at the back cover copy, because we’ve just ironed it out, and I’m rather pleased with it:
“Close your eyes tightly—tightly—and keep them closed . . .”

From a Victorian Ireland of magic, poetry and rebellion, Ida Jameson, an amateur occultist, reaches out for power, but captures Laura Armstrong, a modern-day graphic artist instead. Now, for the man or demon she loves, each woman must span a bridge through Hell and across history . . . or destroy it.

“Every passionate man is linked with another age, historical or imaginary,
where alone he finds images that rouse his energy.” W. B. Yeats

Anchored in fact on both sides of history, Laura and Ida, modern rationalist and fin de siècle occultist, are linked from the moment Ida channels Laura into the body of celebrated beauty and Irish freedom-fighter Maud Gonne. When Laura falls—from an ocean and a hundred years away—passionately, Victorianly in love with the young poet W. B. Yeats, their love affair entwines with Irish history and weaves through Yeats’s poetry until Ida discovers something she wants more than magic in the subterranean spaces in between.
With her Irish past threatening her orderly present and the man she loves in it, Laura and Yeats—the practical materialist and the poet magus—must find a way to make love last over time, in changing bodies, through modern damnation, and into the mythic past to link their pilgrim souls . . . or lose them forever.

Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?

Absolutely! http://www.SkylerWhite.com

I’d encourage anyone with questions about and Falling, Fly or comments on it to get in touch with me. A novel is one half of a conversation, and I’m looking forward to listening.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell my readers?

Just that I’m so pleased they’re here. My earliest and most intense reading experiences came before the internet, and although you can’t really miss something that never existed, I missed the communion the Internet has allowed writers and readers to share. I’ll be here throughout the day to answer any questions.

Purchase links:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0425232344
Barnes & Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/And-Falling-Fly/Skyler-White/e/9780425232347/
Borders: http://www.borders.com/online/store/TitleDetail?sku=0425232344
IndieBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780425232347

Watch the trailer!

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