Tag Archive | "books"

Good News from Europe for Books and Those Who Love Them

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Good News from Europe for Books and Those Who Love Them


The New York Times published an article about how sales of books are up in France and Europe in general.

Two favorite quotes:

“It’s a happy message,” said André Breedt, research and development analyst at Nielsen BookScan, which tracks book sales. “People have been reading and they will keep reading, no matter what happens.”

“Books are a very cheap treat,” said Helen Fraser, managing director of Penguin Books in London. “When you are reading all this dreadful news in the paper, a lovely 500-page novel by Marian Keyes or a classic by Charles Dickens takes you right away from all that.”

What are you reading?

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The Premise as Journey

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The Premise as Journey


January 20, 2006 My day started listening to Aretha Franklin sing, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and it will end singing the Internationale while my grandmother is interred.  By then it will be tomorrow in the place I am traveling to.

A premise is a journey. It’s the itinerary of a journey, more precisely. It says, if you get on this plane in San Francisco, you will get off in London. It does not say that all planes go from San Francisco to London nor even that all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. It just talks about this plane, this journey. But what it says is true.

A premise is not the flight itself, not the play list you listen to or the memories each song evokes. Not the two seats that you try to lie upon, legs folded against one armrest, head propped on pillows, blankets, jacket at the too-close other armrest. A premise is not the orange juice you drink, the articles you read in the New Yorker, the way you laugh at Eddie Izzard and wonder if the people around you notice. It is not the freelance golf writer on her way from Maui via Los Angeles and San Francisco and London to Scotland who does not like to fly. It is not the view of the ocean cliffs and the Richmond Bridge that you point out to her, feeling that you have been drafted to distract her as the plane takes off. It is not the baby boys you have left behind, the nap they are supposed to be taking and the park they will go to afterwards. It is not your questions about what they make of your absence. It is not your grandmother’s funeral ahead, the dawning realization that she died of old age and is only twenty years older than your mother, her daughter.

The premise takes all of this and more and kneads it as your reader’s mind will knead it, until it joins together and rises, and the journey becomes clear, the specific journey–San Francisco to London, child to adult, a person who feels outside a family to a person who feels inside a family, perhaps. Your premise looks at where you started and what kicked you over to where you landed, and it makes a claim:

Commitment leads to connection.
Ritual triumphs over daily life.
Responsibility conquers division.

Not always. Not all commitment leads to connection. Not all ritual triumphs over daily life. Not all responsibility conquers division. Not all planes that leave San Francisco arrive in London. But this journey went that way, and showed us something about these qualities: commitment, ritual, San Francisco.

Once you have made the journey–written the book–you read back over it and you dig out your premise. What does this journey teach you? Name the qualities that characterize the book’s movement.

This becomes the lens through which you revise. It is the unity that pulls your book together, and anything that does not support your premise belongs in another book.

Now, just to be clear, this does not mean that scenes, actions, characters and events that directly oppose your premise should be excised. On the contrary, your premise requires a good fight, a fair fight, to prove itself. Let it do battle with ideas and forces that suggest it is wrong. Just don’t wander off on a little Los Angeles to Los Vegas loop when you are going SFO to Heathrow. See?

When someone dies there is, I’ve found, a kind of internal reckoning. Their premise becomes clearer, once the whole arc stretches–rainbow-like–before you. Not that I can see anything like the whole of my grandmother’s arc, but I see that she lived a single life, after all. My father used to talk about how life zigzagged while you were living it, but looking back, it turned into a straight line. What is remarkable about a human life is that its conflicts and contradictions and layers all unite, in the end, into a single strand of days, years, decades–nearly nine, in my grandmother’s case.

Near the end of her life, my uncle asked my grandmother what the purpose of life was, and she mouthed one word: “Love.” Now, this is not the most original idea, but if you’d read the whole book, you’d know that there was a distinct character arc, that that moment and that insight represented a journey and an arrival.

Love conquers even politics.
Bitter memories and eccentric independence lead to the embrace of love.
The revolution of the heart conquers even a family whose spine looks like the post-1988 Berlin wall.

What’s the premise of a book you love? Of your own book?

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Starting a Novel and Taking a Trip


Day One. All day, I knew it: this was the day I would start. Angie took the boys downstairs when they woke up at about 6:15, and I got to sleep in until  a.m. As I was coming to consciousness, I was thinking my way through Aristotle’s incline vis-a-vis my new novel. I have been doing this over the past few days, never getting further than the first turning point, but this morning I got to the midpoint before I crawled out of bed.

Then we were packing and getting ready to come up to Sonoma, plus I had to post podcasts and technique boosts and jump starts to my class of folks who were also starting their novels today. My mother came over to play with the boys while Angie and I got things done, because it takes us about a million years to pack for one of these three day trips. We always bring too much of everything except the things we need. It takes us weeks to unpack. In fact, I had to unpack from our last Sonoma jaunt in order to empty a suitcase for this trip.

This is relevant to the craft issues that are the titled focus of this blog. Two journeys were planned to begin today, and my morning was preoccupied in packing for them, with precisely the same set of problems: planning a trip/ novel and actually making one are two very different projects, and from the standpoint of one, it is difficult to remember what one actually needs when immersed in the other.

It rained today. The boys barely know what rain is, we’ve had so little of it in their lifetimes. But today was a real California storm, and we drove through grey skies, over swaths of water, across the Richmond bridge. By the time we got to Sebastopol, I had to let Angie drive because I was so tired. Once she was at the wheel, I kept falling asleep–into deep, sudden, real sleep–only to be jolted awake by a sudden stop or the disturbances of the rain.

And then we were here, the house full of the smell of bread pudding, the boys elated to see Grandpa and Nana. (Grandpa reassuring Angie about Prop. 8: “Even if it doesn’t pass this time, it’s going to happen. It takes a while for us old codgers to catch up.”) Angie and I got to go back into town, to Cooperfield’s bookstore, on our own, and suddenly I was full of energy, and so many amazing books were being sold at double-discounts that my arms, normally weighted with babies, were weighted with books. That feeling kept stealing over me: today is the day. I am starting this book today.

I didn’t like the book anymore, abstractly in my head, but I knew well enough to know that it would feel differently coming out on the screen, on the electronic page, that it would surprise me and find room for anything that mattered to me. I felt in love with the millions of books in the world.

It was cold outside and so warm when we got back to the house, and now tangy orange flavors and salty tamari scents layered into the bread pudding smells from earlier, and the boys looked up, happy to see us but not unhappy that we’d been gone, and I knew: today is the day I will start.

I kept checking my email to see if any of my students had posted a call for help or anything else. We fed the boys. They are saying so many words now. Charlie says, “bear” as if it were two syllables but something like “be-er.” And then “more” rhymes with “be-er.” “Me-re,” he says, frequently. “Mere.”

“Writing is mere,” Annie Dillard says in her wonderful book The Writing Life. The full quote is something like, “Literature is merely literature; writing is mere.”

I wrestled the boys into clean diapers and fuzzy pajamas, and they said nighty-night to the dogs and to Grandpa and Nana, and we sang them their three songs, plus we sang them Tumble Bumble since we didn’t read to them like we usually do.

Leo had a hard time falling asleep. He kept pointing to the fire in the wood-burning stove, and when Grandpa came out looking for his glasses, Leo jumped up, filled with ecstacy at the reappearance of this man he adores, and all-in-all, he was not pleased with settling down for bed, but finally–and really, in not so long a time–he was asleep. It took a little cuddling with Mama on one side and Mommy on the other to do the trick. And while he was struggling and I was shushing him and nursing him and petting him, I was thinking about the opening scene of the novel I was about to begin, and about what I’d worked out when I’d finally typed out my whole Aristotle’s incline that afternoon before the bookstore trip.

Then Leo was asleep and I could get up again and finally have my chocolate chip bread pudding with bourbon sauce, and tell myself that when I reached 1,000 words, I could have seconds, and so I began. At 820 words, I was still thinking about the bread pudding, which in fact had made its way into the novel, but then I was at 1352 before I actually got up to carve myself a piece, and now I am done with my first 1946 words. I need to do 1667/ day to achieve the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 in November, but more like 2000 – 2500 to achieve my own goal . . . We’ll see.

Right now, I am pleased. I am sitting at the marble countertop on the island in the middle of the kitchen/ living room. The boys are asleep to my right. The fire behind me is dying out. Angie is typing a few feet to my left.

There are people who rail against amateurs writing novels and claiming to be writers and thinking they know something about the writing life–people who hate NaNoWriMo and everything it stands for. But I think we are all amateurs when we face the blank page at the start of a new project. None of us is certain that anyone else will care about what we’ve written, much less need it in any way. There is the root of love hidden in that word, and we all do well to remember the excitement of being a beginner–whether for this lifetime or this novel or this day.

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The Library


I am sitting in the Berkeley Public Library, library of my youth, place where I got my first library card. I never thought I’d feel the nostalgia for the library that you read about so often, because, to be honest, my family liked to hang out in bookstores. Seriously, it would be a Friday night or something, and we’d go over to Cody’s for a couple of hours and browse. I remember the glare of the lights inside the cathedral ceilings, intimate against the night outside.

Cody’s is gone.

And the BPL had been remodeled, so although we’d come here to get books, we always went to what is now the first floor level, but which used to be the basement. The grand front entry of old was closed down. I don’t know what I thought had happened to the double-width marble staircase, the three-story tall, windowed reading room, the long wooden tables . . .

Today, looking for a place to sit and type, I was directed by the security guy to go to the back of the basement (which he calls the first floor) and go up the marble staircase. Lo and behold, here is the library of my youth. The heavy card-catalogs are gone, but the tables matching them are still here, the soaring windows, the light and the books. I hear rumors that the vast children’s room upstairs remains. (Is it still vast? I will have to find out . . .)

Having entered the world of blogging, I find myself clicking around, tuning into each day’s report from this or that writer. New pleasures–or the old pleasure of reading inhabiting a new form. I am even intrigued by the Kindle: to be able to carry ten books without hurting your back . . .!  But I do love the good, old fashioned object itself: a book. My boys already love them, too. All the magic of story, all the friends and places stashed away in these bound pages . . . (Why can I not finish sentences on this subject?)

I remember sitting on a bus. I know that my feet did not reach the floor unless I sat at the very edge of the green seat, not really sitting but sort of perching. So I was maybe six? But then I remember this being on a school bus leaving Longfellow Elementary, which at the time was 4 – 6th grades, so maybe my feet did touch the ground and I was nine. I remember an older person (a sixth grader?) reading a thick, hard-backed library book with a crinkly plastic cover. Out of the corner of my eyes I could read some sentences, and in those sentences was a world–some people, some problem. The details are lost to me now, but I longed for that book.

Perhaps that is why I became a writer–to write the stories I’d missed, or misplaced. Perhaps it was the smell of the inside seam of a book, that gluey, pulpy goodness. Perhaps I imagined that authors, like their books, lived in the airy cathedrals of bookstores and libraries . . . and where else would anyone want to be?

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Related Sites

  • 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started See my blog about the wonderful Meg Clayton. The blog is guest authors’ tales of their tales
  • A Bit of This, A Bit of That Prolific, intelligent and quirky blogger and lover of all things bicycle . . .
  • Jamie Ford: Bittersweet Blog The author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) shares the journey; lots of fun.
  • Koreanish A wonderful, helpful blog by the great writer Alexander Chee
  • ReadingWritingLiving Susan’s Ito’s wonderful blog on “trying to do it all: reading writing momming daughtering spousing working living” plus great insights into adoption and other stuff
  • SethFleisher.com Seth is a very good writer–and he’s got content: international politics, being a dad, and, of course, writing . . .
  • Sports Race Politics America Gretchen Atwood is working on an exciting book about the integration of pro-football. Here’s one to watch.
  • Towers of Gold Frances Dinkelspiel’s engaging web site about California history, economics and other important ideas.