Sometimes It’s Best to Ask for Help

I’ve been stuck on my knitting recently. Too busy with other things, not making it a priority, and not having enough time to go to knitting group all contributed to my dropping that favorite (only?) non-literary hobby.

When I started again, it felt good… until I lost my mostly-done fingering weight shawl. Which means I lost the gorgeous yarn I had been saving for the right project, the needles, my prized little canvas drawstring project bag, and the hours and hours I had put into it.

So then I stopped knitting. Again.

Luckily, two knitting friends of mine work at the local yarn store, and I went in last week and begged for help. I told them I wanted to be told what to do. I needed a pattern, yarn, and needles. I wanted them to treat me like a beginner, like someone who had no idea what to buy.

“Surely you have needles!” they said.

“Surely you have stash yarn!” they said.

True. I also have a huge queue of patterns, including some I’ve purchased and never tried. But if left up to my own devices, I wouldn’t match those things up and get started again. The energy just wasn’t there to sort through my yarn, or look for the right needles, which are surely already embedded in an unfinished project from two years ago. These knitting friends suggested the right pattern, showed me suitable yarn, and grabbed a set of needles, and I walked out of the store with a new project, ready to go. Which is exactly what I needed.

Sometimes writing is like that too: we get stuck. We panic, or lose energy, or lose focus, or other things get in the way. Sometimes health gets in the way. Or family issues. Sometimes it’s things we can control, other times not. The reason I’m so focused on building literary community, and connecting with other writers, is that sometimes when we get stuck on a project, help from a friend is exactly what we need. That kind of reassurance, or guidance, or just a kind voice wanting you to get on with something you love, is priceless. So is the writer-friend who is willing to read your manuscript and give you comments. Tell you what’s missing or which darlings are getting in the way. Give you the tools–and the encouragement–to revise.

I try to be that person for authors in my community here in Portland, and also online; I’m not blogging, or commenting on others’ blogs, as much as I used to, because of the press, and nourishing existing relationships, but it’s all coming from the same place. Wanting to encourage and empower other writers, wanting to build a platform for their work with the press, and to share behind-the-scenes tips and thoughts to help others keep going.

Probably I would have started knitting again eventually, but my friends made it easier. I asked for help, and they helped me. I already had the tools, and the knowledge, but I didn’t feel ready to put those things together on my own. I didn’t feel motivated because I was so frustrated at losing those hours of shawl knitting when I lost that project.

I am now working on a bright pink single-ply Reversible Turkish Cowl by Sophie Bayard. It’s a two-line pattern, relaxing and lovely, and it’s exactly what I needed. This week, too, a writer friend of mine, whose work I edit regularly, read a piece of mine–a short story that I wasn’t really sure worked–and told me what was missing. I trust her instinct and totally agree, and we think a paragraph will fix it. Instead of letting that piece of writing go, or continuing to worry that it wasn’t story-like enough, I now have an action plan. I had the tools to fix it all along, but she reminded me that I have them, and pointed out specifically where the weak spot was.

Have you reached out for help from another writer recently? Or have you reached out to help someone else?

Posted in Community, Fiction, Writing | 5 Comments

Trends: WWII

I had the extreme reading pleasure of devouring Tony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah one after the other. They’re both epics about World War II. Nuanced, heartbreaking, gorgeous, suspenseful novels, both. Important, both.

The books themselves feature very different plots, and characters, but they’re both tales of resilience, enhanced with rich (and sometimes horrific) historical details.

All the Light We Cannot See tracks the lives of a young German orphan, who gets filtered into a privileged school for Nazi youth due to his skill with radios, and the sightless daughter of a museum lock-maker, who builds her scale models of neighborhoods so she can learn her way around by touch. Each is tested–and changed–by the world around them.

The Nightingale is about two French small-town sisters whose everyday lives are impacted by the arrival of the Nazis and the shift in the political currents. Kristin Hannah delivers a powerful message about how heroism comes in all forms, and the consequences of acting on principle in a time of war. I was surprised, and oddly grateful, for the horrors she put on the page amid this story of family bonds and community life.

There’s no sugarcoating in either of these novels.

Some pages were hard to read, certainly.

I don’t like intentionally shocking novels; I find that the shock, the horror, pulls me out of understanding the character, but if the shocks come after we know the characters, and love them, then my seatbelt is already on, and I’m along for the ride and can appreciate the bumps and unexpected turns. Moreover, I don’t want to get off the ride.

I think that’s part of the brilliance of All the Light We Cannot See: we know Werner as an orphan who wants to protect his sister. Where he goes, and how he becomes part of the Nazi engine, is perfectly rendered and in context. He has a good heart, and we know that from the beginning.

I’ve only read–and admired–one of Kristin Hannah’s novels, which didn’t prepare me at all for this gorgeous historical epic, newly released, which is full of terrible injustices and dangers and heartbreaks that she poured on to the page. What happened, what she allowed to happen to her characters, took me by surprise, the way the best fiction does, and in a way that felt totally true to the setting.

It was a pretty amazing experience reading both of these novels one after the other. However, it’s meant bad timing for World War II manuscripts that are coming through my submissions portal at Forest Avenue Press. They might be excellent novels, totally different from Doerr’s and Hannah’s, but those two made such an impression on me that I can’t pull myself far enough away from them. In several instances I’ve found myself comparing Nazi protagonists with Werner, and thinking about how even if a kind act is shown by a Nazi in the opening pages, that character is still a Nazi. It’s hard to be sympathetic. With Werner, Doerr avoided that issue by introducing us to him earlier in his life, and letting us see the inexorable machinations that pulled him into service by circumstance.

The bigger takeaway?

It’s all about taste, when it comes to finding the right editor or agent or publisher. And sometimes a manuscript hits at the wrong time for the person reading it. So take heart, and keep submitting, and keep researching where you’re submitting.

Across the board, authors who have taken the time to read one of our books or even look at our catalog have submitted novels that fit my taste; people who throw their books at us like spaghetti being thrown against the wall are most likely to earn form rejections. Sometimes, with all that preparation, and even hitting a person’s taste just right, you’ll run into an unforeseen circumstance; I’ve told our WWII submitters that I haven’t been able to get past my own reading, or see how at this point I could compete with those two novels in the literary fiction marketplace, but perhaps another agent or editor or publisher wouldn’t bring that same perspective, or would welcome a war novel.

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Ellen Urbani in The New York Times

ellen_retouch_04Ellen Urbani, whose novel Landfall is forthcoming from my press in August, has an essay being published in The New York Times on Sunday!

Read A Flower Delivery That Brought More Pain Than Pleasure.

Landfall is the one and only title Forest Avenue Press is publishing in 2015, and it’s set during Hurricane Katrina. We’re launching it on August 29, the tenth anniversary of the devastating storm’s landfall.

I’m so excited about the buzz we’re getting so far, including blurbs from Fannie Flagg, Tony D’Souza, Monica Drake, and Pat Conroy, who said this:

“With her new novel Landfall, Ellen Urbani enters the world of American fiction with a bang and a flourish. She brings back the terrible Hurricane Katrina that tore some of the heart out of the matchless city of New Orleans, but did not lay a finger on its soul. It is the story of people caught in that storm and the lives both ruined and glorified in its passage. Her descriptions of the flooding of the Ninth Ward are Faulknerian in their powers. It’s a hell of a book and worthy of the storm and times it describes.”

– Pat Conroy, author of The Prince of Tides

We have PDFs and epub review copies available now, with paperbacks coming soon. If you’re a book blogger, bookseller, reviewer, or book club member, and Landfall sounds like the type of novel you enjoy, contact me through the press to reserve your copy. Ellen is doing an extensive national tour, with particular focus on the south, so stay tuned for itinerary and whether she’s coming to your town!

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Notes from the Slush Pile

My press opened for its first national submission period on Jan. 1, and oh, how each fresh manuscript feels like a gift! Truly. Even the ones that don’t fit our mission or taste. It means so much when someone shares a novel with us, the product of many hours of hard work.

For years, I’ve been on the other side of the slush pile, revising novel after novel and trying to figure out query letters. While I learned a ton from submitting my own work over the years, I’ve learned even more from bloggers and authors and agents who have taken the time to pass on some notes and suggestions.

So I want to share a few things, while they’re fresh. They’re not necessarily related to any specific submission, mind you, but more a response to patterns and issues I’ve seen over the past three submission periods.

Please remember to address the correct agent/editor/publisher. This is a big one, folks! I’ve had queries asking for representation that clearly were supposed to go to an agent, and queries that are addressing a different press or editor or publisher. Mistakes happen, sure, but if you’re going to double check a submission, start with making sure you’re sending it to the right person. 

Research, research, research, and then submit to the people who have the best chance of loving your book. I’ve been most impressed by authors who are able to tell me why they think their manuscript is a good fit for Forest Avenue Press. Those who have taken the time to figure out what we do seem to be submitting the manuscripts that are piquing our attention. I expect it’s the same for other publishers. If your manuscript is not something we usually do, we’re not going to accept it, because we won’t be the best home for it. You may send me the very best short story collection in the world, or the very best sci-fi novel, but I’m seeking literary novels, and if you give me something else, no matter how brilliant, I will pass, so spend your time on a market that is looking for what you have to offer.

They’re literary novels, not literary fiction novels. Take care to avoid redundancy in your initial approach; after all your letter is showing us how you write, so revise until it’s as clean and convincing as possible.

Follow guidelines. My standard request is a query letter with 50 pages, which is why I’ve been quiet here on the blog so far this month–so much fun reading to do! I have no problem with people who send 45 or 55, based on when an arc ends, but I’m not ready to see a full manuscript until my committee decides to ask for it. If you give me fewer than 50, it’s uncomfortable to have to go back to the author and beg for more pages. I do tend to give authors the benefit of the doubt and read extra pages, even if I think the beginning is not quite right, so submitting the number I’ve asked for is in the author’s best interest.

Along those lines, if an editor or agent requests a certain format or font, do it! You don’t want to stand out for not following directions. I’m pretty flexible on format, myself, but a weird font, or a lack of a title page, definitely stands out when everyone else is following industry standards, and our suggestion of Times New Roman.

Check for typos. They’re hard to spot, I know, and really I mostly ignore them, but sometimes a word (or, worse, a character’s name) is spelled inconsistently on one page, and that erodes my confidence in the story. I would not use a typo as a reason for rejecting someone, because hey, we all make them, but lots of typos = red flag that the manuscript has not been carefully edited and is probably not ready for publication. Inconsistent character name spelling feels like it’s even more than a typo; I feel like the author hasn’t worked with that character enough to make the typing of his/her name automatic.

Happy querying!

And for those of you literary novelists who are curious about our open submission period, you can learn more here. We’re open through March 5!

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The Gods of Second Chances

Laura Stanfill:

Here’s a really lovely new review of one of the books I’ve published this year!

Originally posted on Shannon Fox's Isle of Books:

By Dan Berne

Family means everything to widowed Alaskan fisherman Ray Bancroft, raising his granddaughter while battling storms, invasive species, and lawsuit happy tourists. To navigate, and to catch enough crab to feed her college fund, Ray seeks help from a multitude of gods and goddesses – not to mention ad-libbed rituals performed at sea by his half-Tlingit best friend. But kitchen counter statues and otter bone ceremonies aren’t enough when his estranged daughter returns from prison, swearing she’s clean and sober. Her search for a safe harbor threatens everything Ray holds sacred. Set against a backdrop of ice and mud and loss, this debut novel explores the unpredictable fissures of memory, and how families can break apart, even in the midst of healing.

** Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publicist in exchange for an honest review **

When I first got the email about…

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Being Brave on the Page

As my longtime readers know (hello, friends), my life has taken an unexpected turn since I started writing about writing here in this welcoming WordPress space.

In 2012, I grouped some of my Seven Questions interviews together and published a book, featuring fifteen of them and twenty-seven micro-essays on the craft of writing.

Brave on the Page was named a Powell's Staff Top Five Pick for 2012.

Brave on the Page was named a Powell’s Staff Top Five Pick for 2012.

That collection, Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life, was an experiment. I used the Espresso Book Machine at Powell’s to print and distribute copies. We had a launch party around the machine and the staff cranked out copy after copy, which readers and authors could hold, warm in their hands. It was truly a local experiment: Oregon authors, an Oregon press, printed while you wait at one of the best-known bookstores in the country.

The book was named a Powell’s Staff Top 5s pick, it stayed on the Powell’s Small Press Bestseller List every day for four straight months, and we did an official launch reading that attracted more than 140 people to Powell’s on a cold winter night. An unbelievable run for a little hey-why-not project.

Publishing Brave on the Page made me brave.

It took a while, but I stopped talking about being a founder of a company, or the editor of one particular anthology. I started using the word publisher. As in, I am a publisher. I am a gatekeeper. It started feeling like my identity, instead of a role I was trying on.

Hello, I’m Laura, and I’m a publisher.

By the time our first fiction title came out in September 2013, Stevan Allred’s A Simplified Map of the Real World, I became sure of one this: publishing is what I want to do with my life, and everything I’ve done personally and professionally has led up to finding this career. Publishing is a way to grow literary community, it’s a way to celebrate indie bookstores by organizing author events, and–most of all–it’s a way to put beautiful books into the world. Books that might not otherwise have had a chance.

One of my tell-tale tests is whether I want to run out into the street, after finishing a manuscript, and tell all my neighbors to read it. If I don’t want to run into the street, if I don’t want to talk myself hoarse about the adventure a manuscript has taken me on, then I won’t publish it.

I still love writing fiction, and am wrestling with a new draft of my nineteenth century novel, but I’m also focused on my five-year business plan. Growing Forest Avenue Press. To that end, we have some very exciting news that I’m not quite ready to share, but I will soon.

And because of this exciting news, there’s a little bit of farewell, too. I have to pull Brave on the Page out of print. It doesn’t fit the mission of the press any more; we publish fiction exclusively now. It’s our very first title, but we’ve outgrown it as a business. We’re not planning more creative writing collections, and we’re moving beyond our Pacific Northwest roots and opening nationally for submissions on January 1, 2015.

This is who we are now:

Forest Avenue Press, winner of a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship, publishes page-turning literary fiction. Its titles are infused with a fresh, complex, sometimes nutty, and often-wondrous approach to storytelling.

Brave on the Page made me into a publisher, this sweet 200-page collection fueled by the words of so many Oregon writers who put their brains to work in sharing advice on the craft. I’m so grateful to everyone who participated in that project. It’s still available through local bookstores in Oregon, including Powell’s and Another Read Through, at any Espresso Book Machine until Nov. 15, or online through Amazon, probably also until Nov. 15.

We won’t be reprinting.

It feels sad, and kind of brave, to say goodbye to the project that launched my press.

But it’s time.

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Interview: Valerie Geary, Author of Crooked River, on Raising the Stakes, Ghosts, and Celebrating Her Debut Novel

crooked riverValerie Geary’s impressive debut novel, Crooked River, will be released tomorrow by William Morrow. A twisty literary thriller, peopled with eccentrics and ghosts, Crooked River delves into grief, suspicion, and what it means to be a family.

Protagonists Sam and Ollie take turns narrating this tale of going to live with their recluse father after their mother’s death and discovering a dead body in the river. While a fast-paced tale with a murder at its heart, it’s just as much a novel about sisters and small-town life. Valerie pulls all these threads together with expert timing, delivering a breathless read and a shatteringly evocative conclusion.

I met Valerie recently, at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow in Tacoma, Washington, where she signed copies of Crooked River. Her book launches officially at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 15, at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. If you live nearby, come out to support an Oregon author—and a book set in Oregon.

Welcome, Valerie!

  1. Tell us about Crooked River.

Still grieving the sudden death of their mother, Sam McAlister and her younger sister Ollie move from the comforts of Eugene to rural Oregon to live in a meadow in a teepee under the stars with Bear, their beekeeper father. But soon after their arrival, a woman is found dead floating in Crooked River, and the police arrest their eccentric father for the murder.

Unwilling to accept that her father could have hurt anyone, fifteen-year-old Sam embarks on a desperate hunt to save him and keep her damaged family together. Ollie, too, believes Bear is innocent. The Shimmering have told her so. One followed her home from her mom’s funeral and refuses to leave. Now, another is following Sam. Both spirits warn Ollie: the real killer is out there, closer and more dangerous than either girl can imagine.

Crooked River is my first novel, a coming of age story and a page-turning mystery that I hope will touch readers’ hearts and keep them up past their bedtime.

  1. Can you talk a bit about your decision to tell the story from both sisters’ perspectives? What was it like giving an internal voice to a character who does not speak?

valerie headshotOriginally, I planned to tell this story from Sam’s perspective only. I wrote her chapters first, but when I reached the end, it felt like something was missing. That’s when I decided both girls needed to have their say, and the next day I sat down and started writing Ollie’s chapters. Her voice is so much different than Sam’s, and her unique perspective opened up a lot of the story I had yet to examine; she helped me understand Sam better, too.

Writing Ollie’s internal voice was the easy part–not much different than writing the internal voice of a character who does speak. The more challenging part was figuring out how she would communicate with her sister without talking. I didn’t want her to disappear into the background just because she’s not vocal. Plus she has information Sam needs to know. The challenge, then, was getting Sam to pay attention.

  1. Place is its own, strong character in Crooked River. Is your Terrebonne based on the actual Terrebonne, Oregon? How much research did you do in terms of setting, and how much did you invent? And why Terrebonne?

The Terrebonne in Crooked River is loosely based on the real Terrebonne. By that I mean, they are both located on the same spot on the map and they are both called Terrebonne. Otherwise, the Terrebonne in Crooked River is entirely of my imagination. I picked it for two reasons: (1) it is close to Crooked River and (2) it means “good earth” in French. When people read this book, I want them to feel like they’re in Central Oregon; I wanted that atmosphere. For that, I drew from my own memories and time spent in the area. I also consulted field guides and flipped through a lot of pictures. But all the rest–the businesses and store fronts-is made up. I like the freedom a fictitious town offers. I didn’t have to worry about “getting it right,” I could just focus on the story.

  1. Your novel is a perfect mix of literary language and plot. Do you have any advice to share about writing something with page-turning appeal? What are some literary thrillers or plot-filled novels that have inspired you, and why?

In short my advice is: Delete the boring parts and add a dead body.

To explain a little further: Jump into a scene late and get out early. Cut out anything that sounds like an introduction or summary ending. Explain as little as possible and let the scene speak for itself. Readers are smart; let them fill in some of the blanks.

As for adding a dead body, it doesn’t have to be an actual dead body. Simply, raise the stakes. Make it hard for your character to get what they want. Take away the things they love. Let them lose. Let them fight. Just never make it easy. In every stage of the process, I’m always asking myself, What else could happen? What if she made this choice instead of that one? Where would that lead? I’m rarely satisified with the first answer that comes to mind.

I am a huge Gillian Flynn fan. Also, Tana French and Kate Atkinson. All of these writers get my heart pounding and my brain churning. I love the way they balance plot with character with language. All three do really interesting things with their writing that satisfies me as a reader and inspires me as a writer.

  1. One of the things that impressed me most about Crooked River is how your ghosts are fully developed and organic to the story, not a product of pop culture or other people’s ideas of ghosts. I’d love to hear a bit about your decision to make them so prominent, and any challenges you had to overcome to make ghosts such an important part of the plot.

The decision to add the ghosts came after a friend who had read part of the manuscript asked, “Why isn’t Ollie talking?” My answer for that was, “She’s grieving.”

Seven Questions LogoSo I think maybe the Shimmering were my way of exploring that grief more, opening it up into something physical. Here’s Ollie, this little girl, and she’s just lost her mother. She’s been through the worst trauma of her young life, and now there is this Shimmering following her around. And Ollie’s afraid of the Shimmering. She hates that they follow her. She doesn’t know how to be herself when they’re around. She doesn’t know how to communicate or connect with the people she loves. From my own experience, this is how grief can feel too. Like if you let it in, you’ll be consumed by it–which is Ollie’s fear when it comes to the Shimmering. I wanted these ghosts, apparitions, Shimmering–whatever you want to call them–I wanted it to be less about a haunting and more about a young girl coming to terms with her own loss.

The biggest challenge when I decided the Shimmering were going to play such a prominent role in this book was quieting my own self-doubt long enough to finish writing. I’ve always loved stories with ghosts–whatever form they take–but I worried that what I was writing wasn’t serious, wasn’t “literary” enough. Whatever that means. Ultimately, I just had to stop worrying about other people might think. I had to stop trying to write for everyone else, and just write for myself.

  1. A debut novelist with a major publisher—that’s what all of us dream about! Can you tell us about your path from starting Crooked River to having it released by William Morrow?

I started working on Crooked River as a way to distract myself. I was trying and failing to find an agent for another manuscript, and the best way I knew how to deal with that kind of rejection was to write another book.

Once I found Sam and Ollie’s voices–or once they found me–the writing went pretty smoothly. I was working for an insurance company for a while, but thanks to some smart budgeting and a very supportive spouse, I was able to quit and write full time. Every week day, I turned off the internet and wrote for as long as my brain could handle. In the summer, I wrote outside in the garden. I took the weekends off. After a year of writing, getting feedback from writer friends, and revising, revising, revising, I finally felt the manuscript was ready.

Valerie Geary signs copies of her debut novel at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association's Sweet and Greet, held recently in Tacoma, Washington.

Valerie Geary signs copies of her debut novel at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association’s Sweet and Greet, held recently in Tacoma, Washington.

I sent off a handful of query letters and within a few days I was getting requests to see the full manuscript. By the next week I had multiple agents wanting to represent me and my book. This wasn’t my first manuscript or my first time querying, so all of this felt very surreal. After much consideration, I chose to work with Julia Kenny who’s currently at Dunow, Carlson, & Lerner Agency. She asked me to do a few more revisions, which I did, and then the book went out on submission and things were quiet for a long time.

(Cue crickets.)

One thing the publishing industry has taught me is patience. Nothing happens and nothing happens and then all of a sudden everything happens at once, and the best thing for a writer to do is just keep her head down, keep writing. That’s been my experience at least. Like I said, things were quiet for a long time, and then one day Julia called to tell me the book was going to auction, we were getting multiple offers. I laughed a lot and danced, and I think I probably cried too. I drank champagne at eight o’clock in the morning. It’s a day I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

My editor at William Morrow, Emily Krump, brought a fresh perspective to Crooked River and drew out a lot of the best parts. She stayed true to the heart of my story, but every one of her suggestions resonated with me, and it was wonderful to work with her to shape this book into what it is today.

I still consider myself a “young” writer. I’m new at this. Working with Emily and the rest of the team at William Morrow has been a great experience and a wonderful opportunity for me. I’ve learned a lot this past year, I’ve grown as a writer and as a person, I’m still growing, still learning. There are definitely days where I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing, but now I have people I can go to with questions, people who are helping me succeed. I am incredibly grateful for that.

  1. What are you most looking forward to, in terms of the next few months of book launch joy?

Champagne, and an excuse to eat dessert every night if I want, for as long as I feel like celebrating. I published a book! Now, bring me cake! But seriously, even more exciting to me than cake, is that readers are finally getting a chance to spend time in the meadow with Sam and Ollie. Crooked River has been mine for so long, it’s feels good to be passing it on to other people now.

Thanks so much for your time, Valerie, and all these great answers!

Crooked River is available wherever books are sold; find it at your local bookstore or online. Learn more about Valerie at valeriegeary.com or follow her on Twitter, @valeriegeary.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Seven Questions, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments