Book Review: The Letter Writer

Woodrow Cain, a 34-year-old policeman with a recent tragedy in his past, is newly transplanted from North Carolina to New York City in 1942. Danziger is a multilingual man of indeterminate age and a shady past who writes letters for the illiterate, keeping his non-English-speaking clients in touch with their European relatives–or trying to, in […]

When a book goes feral

I’m on the third draft of a novel called LIQUID WORLD and it’s starting to take on a feral quality. This means that I have a healthy respect for it, and take some care in my approach. If I come at it from the wrong angle it could run off into the woods, or worse, […]

3-Day Novel

That crucible of invention known as the 3-Day Novel Contest is now open for registration. Billed as “The World’s Most Notorious Writing Contest,” it originated back in the dawn of time, aka the late 1970s. Read the story of its birth here. My 3-Day Story: I entered the 3-Day Novel Contest in 1989, when I was […]

Writing and Energy

Writer, ghostwriter, terrific person: James Buchanan of Orchard Writing is a regular client and I am in awe of his talent and skill as a writer. Recently, James was kind enough to ask me for my thoughts on what it means to live a writing life. This is a great question. What DOES it mean? […]

Book Review: Dregs

My own novel-in-progress, LIQUID WORLD, is about an introvert who thinks one of the severed feet that washed ashore belongs to his brother. So you can imagine my interest in this police procedural, which transplants the severed feet to northern Europe. My copy of the book was delivered by magic fairies to my “smart phone” […]

Living with Uncertainty while Writing a Book

One of the terrific life-enhancing challenges (effing growth experiences!) of writing a book is that it creates a long-term and continuous state of uncertainty in the writer’s psyche. While you write the first couple of drafts, the following questions are always present: • Is it worth writing? • Can I write it? • Can I […]

Fame At Last!

One of my delightful “sample edit” writers, Alex Clermont, interviewed me. How great is that? Thanks to Alex for taking the time to talk about how writers can check if their work, perhaps, needs edited–either by themselves or, budget permitting, by someone else. Alex’s book, You, Me and the Rest of Us: New York Stories, […]

How to get to ‘THE END’

“I wrote my first draft by following the instructions. The philosophy applies to all projects.”

A note on scheduling

Hello! If you’d like a sample edit, go ahead and send us your manuscript, along with a little information about your timeline and publishing goals (seeking agent or self publishing). The sample normally takes a few days because we are ridiculously thorough, and because sometimes we get several requests at the same time. For editing, we are […]

The Sample Edit

“What I want to do in this little article is go over some of Pat Dobie’s Sample Edit notes on my short story, “Desperate Lives,” and then extract some general rules that can give you focus when you look at your own work.” Alex Clermont, whose work includes Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely, requested a sample edit on […]

Book Review: The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question, Howard Jacobson In 2014, Howard Jacobson once again made the shortlist for the 2014 Booker Prize for his novel, J. (The prize went to Richard Flanagan for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.) I haven’t read J, so herewith a review of Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, winner of the 2010 Man […]

Book Review: When We Were Orphans

When We Were Orphans, by Kazuo Ishiguro This first-person account of a man’s gradual discovery of his past opens in 1923 London and moves back and forth through time, ending with the protagonist Christopher Banks questioning his ‘great vocation’ as a private detective and understanding that his quest to solve his parents’ disappearance has made […]

Editing versus Revision

I have just read a great post by a fellow named Martin Stewart, a dreamy-eyed Scot (two thumbs up right there) who has a great deal of common sense on the topic of revision. Note: Martin calls it ‘editing,’ but that’s because he’s not an editor himself. From this writer’s perspective, what he’s doing is […]

Book Review: The Wilding

The Wilding. By Benjamin Percy. This novel about a three-day hunting trip is a satisfyingly complex adventure that explores the hazy terrain between consumers, predators and prey. The third person narrative rotates among several characters, primarily Justin, a middle-aged high school teacher who spends one last weekend in the canyon with his father and son […]

A Note on Scheduling

Hello! If you’d like a sample edit, go ahead and send me your manuscript, along with a little information about your timeline and publishing goals (seeking agent or self publishing). The sample normally takes about a week because I’m ridiculously thorough, and because sometimes I get several requests at the same time. If I can’t do […]

Book Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn: A Novel, by Colm Toibin. This story of Eilis Lacey immigrating to America is related in clear prose and in a fairly distant narrative voice, which nonetheless shows great flexibility in creating the protagonist’s inner and outer world. The novel begins quietly but becomes a compulsive, riveting read, continually raising the stakes and enmeshing […]

Introverts, find your restorative niche!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain Tidbits from Quiet: Open plan offices reduce productivity and impair memory. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure. Online collaborations can be very successful, but that doesn’t mean work groups are better in all situations. Your sweet spot is […]

Book Review: Freedom

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Accomplished, funny, but problematic: Freedom is like being in the kitchen with an endlessly entertaining friend you wish would go home. This story of the Berglund family and their friend Richard Katz opens and closes in omniscient POV but is primarily in third person limited, rotating among three of the Berglunds […]

Book Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan. This lovely novel of five chapters tells the story of a wedding night, but moves back in time to explore the characters’ pasts and, at the end, moves forward so the reader can view the repercussions of that night. McEwan plays with interior monologue, having the narrator speak for […]

Two writers, two covers

Two writers I like: Caroline Adderson and Jean Thompson. Could it be a coincidence that their book covers are so similar? The Humanity Project was published by Plume (an imprint of Penguin) in 2014. The Sky is Falling was published by Thomas Allen in 2010. What’s it all mean? Nothing, probably. Just a coincidence. For […]

Conveying Historical Information

Trying something new: an analysis of how a good writer does something historical novelists need to know how to do. Here is a mini-essay on how Peter Carey conveys historical information in his novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. The character named Olivier is a young French aristocrat, forcibly removed from the political upheaval of […]

Book Review – Little Bee

I read this novel in about two days. Part-way through I erred by looking at the author photo on the back. Then I suffered for a few pages, thinking, how can this white man possibly know what he’s talking about? This was an egregious error in reading, an insulting refusal to take the work on […]

The Best Critique Money Can’t Buy

There is nothing so precious and productive as a good writing group. Why? It gives a writer: Accountability — people are waiting to read your stuff, so you write it Support — getting published ain’t easy, but we’re in it together Skill-building — not just in writing, but also in giving and receiving critiques Mentorship — […]

Book Review: The Year We Left Home

Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home: A Novel. This novel has seventeen chapters told from seven points of view. It’s the story of four siblings in an Iowa family, and events span a thirty-year period, from 1973 to 2003. Although it is primarily written in close third person, one of the later chapters veers […]

Book Review: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. A wonderful read, all in third person, told from several points of view including a dog’s. A big book with great characters. The dog Almondine broke my heart. The kid Edgar broke my heart. The dad broke my heart. Wroblewski conveys grief and its corollary, tenacity, in a […]

The power of chance

It’s the end of a year and time to review. First, a recipe for the Scots new year drink, Atholl Brose. One story says that in the late 1400s the Earl of Atholl filled a well on his property with whiskey, oatmeal and honey (in right proportion) in order to waylay his thirsty enemy, Iaian […]

Book Review: Ragtime

E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime. Wow. What a book. This is a page-turner (even with its unfashionably long paragraphs –some longer than a full page). We have an omniscient narrator fully in control of his material, a historical period (1910-14 or so) absolutely brimming with fascinating events and people (Magician Harry Houdini, Magnate JP Morgan, Architect Stanford […]

Book Review: The Journalist and the Murderer

Janet Malcolm. The Journalist and the Murderer.  Here’s another dark topic, though it’s not a dark book. And instead of the author’s website, because I couldn’t see one, I link her name to an interview in the Paris Review. This short non-fiction account examines the relationship (and lawsuit) between accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald and journalist Joe McGinniss, […]

Book Review: The False Friend

Myla Goldberg, The False Friend. A compulsively readable novel about Celia Durst, a performance auditor in Chicago who returns to her small hometown 21 years after the disappearance of her childhood friend Djuna, when she starts remembering what really happened that day. But the deed she confesses to is not what everyone else thinks happened. Riveting. Back […]

Book Review: Blood Meridian

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. This novel follows a group of men in various degrees of sociopathy (my layman’s diagnosis) as they hunt Apaches through the high deserts of Mexico and the southern US, slaughtering the inhabitants and encountering the aftermath of carnage committed by their Apache prey. McCarthy seamlessly integrates historical detail and language into this […]

Story of a Novel

Or, how NOT to write a novel. Here, to celebrate Hallowe’en, is the story of 13 drafts of my historical novel, INVENTING PARIS: 1st draft—a dog’s breakfast; the story told from four points of view. Big holes. Barely a draft. Set in Dijon, France, in the summer of 1890. Tons of research on Japanese history, […]

Learning to write from the birds

Last night I was sitting in my office looking out the window at the darkening sky when a crow flew past. I watched him go on his birdy way, and it struck me that lately I had been spending a disproportionate amount of time on pointless stuff. What is pointless? To a writer, it’s anything […]

Book Review: Wake Up & LIVE!

Wake Up & LIVE! Dorothea Brande. The cover of this little self-help book, first published in 1936, says {A formula for success that really works!} Or, “What would you do if you knew it was impossible to fail?” The premise is that we fail (or don’t reach our potential) because we’re always second-guessing ourselves. We might […]

Book Review: The Happiness Advantage

Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage. In the usual writer’s quest to work harder (or at least, to avoid extinction), reading about how to gain an advantage over fate is, alas, mandatory. This book is one in a long line of positive thinking texts that go back to Samuel Smiles in the 1800s (and probably earlier). But […]

Book Review: White Noise

White Noise, by Don Delillo. This novel is a black comedy about Hitler historian Jack Gladney, his fourth wife, Babette, and their kids, many of whom are from various prior unions. Gladney’s a large man who wears academic robes and dark glasses and enjoys a certain stature in his academic niche, despite an embarrassing inability to […]

Book Review: Jack Maggs

Jack Maggs: A Novel. Peter Carey. A third-person account of Jack Maggs, a Londoner shipped to Australia as a boy convict. It tells the story of Maggs’ return to London as a fully grown but immature man: now rich, physically imposing, dangerous, suffering from terrible headaches, determined to contact his son. Maggs is exploited by […]

Book Review: Carthage

Carthage, Joyce Carol Oates. This is a big (482 pages) and disturbing novel about the disappearance of 19-year-old Cressida Mayhew from her home in Carthage, a small town in upstate New York. The main suspect is damaged Iraq war veteran Brett Kincaid, who has recently broken his engagement to Cressida’s older sister, Juliet. Kincaid, physically […]

Book Review: The Twin

The Twin, by Gerbrand Bakker. Trans. David Colmer. This first-person novel about a man in late middle age shows the power of clear, simple language in drawing the reader into the character’s world. The protagonist, a bitter and laconic farmer who gave up his own plans 30 years earlier in order to replace his dead twin […]

Book Review(s): Two by Kent Haruf

RIP Kent Haruf, who died November 30, 2014 at the age of 71. Here is an earlier post about two of his books. A wonderful writer. Plainsong. In this moving story of family disintegration and re-creation, Haruf’s distant omniscient narration is balanced by the weight of scene over narrative exposition—over one hundred scenes in forty-four […]

Book Review: The Brief History of the Dead

The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier. This novel connects the world’s dead to one character, a tenacious young woman named Laura Byrd, perhaps the last survivor of a global pandemic. Brockmeier does the seemingly impossible—makes us care about the dead. They’re dead! Who cares!? The point is, we all do. If we […]

Book Review: Pastoralia

Pastoralia: Stories and a Novella, by George Saunders. I’ve never read anything like these stories: interior monologue so skewed and entertaining that the action seems secondary. But there is action, and it’s pretty intense: a boy dies riding his bike, a poor swimmer plunges into a fast river in a possibly doomed attempt to save two […]

Book Review(s): Two by William Boyd

Any Human Heart. This novel is in diary format. It’s a testament to Boyd’s skill that it’s an involving read. A trip through the 20th century via the life of Logan Mountstuart, whose ups and downs involve public figures and fictional characters, and who has reserves of strength and humour that keep the reader gripped […]

Book Review: Death in Venice

Death In Venice and Seven Other Stories, by Thomas Mann. Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter. Although it’s a hundred years old, this novella feels timeless and pretty near flawless. Gustave Aschenbach, esteemed writer, leaves his home in Munich for a vacation, seeking rest for his strained nerves. He alights at last in Venice, and there begins his doomed […]

How to see your novel fresh (Part 1)

Not everyone can (or wants to) hire an editor. But what an editor can do is see your novel with fresh eyes. That’s harder for the writer, who’s gotten deep inside each character and scene, each sentence and paragraph. What do you need to do? Create Distance.

Craft Book Roundup #1

Francine Prose. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. This is one of the most useful books anyone who is interested in the nitty-gritty of writing could read. Chapters are organized by their topic, for example, “Gestures,” and Prose illustrates by showing how writers have […]