Famous Writers Who Failed First (Why Curiosity Matters More Than Grades)

If you were the kind of kid who made less than stellar grades in some subjects because you became obsessed with exploring something off the syllabus, you may have been destined to be a writer. There is a noble tradition, in fact, of writers and academic failure.

The list of celebrated novelists is filled with people who did poorly in school. Roald Dahl was told by an English teacher that he would never amount to anything. F. Scott Fitzgerald never finished at Princeton. Paste Magazine’s list of famous writers who never went to college, includes Ray Bradbury, Truman Capote, Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouak, William Faulkner, and Augusten Burroughs. Many of them barely graduated from high school.

A passion for writing, a devotion to reading, and intense curiosity can transform dull students into great writers. I’m not saying that grades are irrelevant. Obviously, there is a place for testing and grades. However, when schools and parents become obsessed with assessment, kids lose out on valuable opportunities to learn and to develop their own unique talents. As a parent, I want my son to do his best. That said, I value curiosity far more than grades, because children who are capable of developing passionate interests and following through on the things that inspire them are likely to be more successful and happier than those who simply follow orders and do well on tests.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do… Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. ~Mark Twain

Take the 10 Days of Beautiful Failure Challenge, and let your curiosity guide you.

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Key to Creativity: Process, not Product

I’ve been hearing a lot about Wired to Create, the new book by psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and science writer Carolyn Gregoire. Those who “derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work,” the authors write.

As a writer, I found this particularly illuminating. For many years, I wrote primarily for the joy of writing and the hope of one day publishing. Somewhere in the last seven or eight years, my writing became more tied to the end product, which is a natural result, I think of being on contract, but also a result of thinking about the reader. As a novelist, I believe it is my duty to think about the reader, but I also like the idea of going back to that place of joy, the flow that arises during “the act of creating.”

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5 Novels You’ll Be Hearing About in 2016

Don’t You Cry, by Mary Kubica

If you enjoyed Kubica’s earlier novel, The Good girl, you’ll want to snatch up this psychological thriller that begins with a roommate gone missing, and leads through a twisty route to a grim discovery about a family. Quinn Collins thinks that she and her roommate, Esther Vaughan, are best friends living in an apartment in Chicago. When Esther disappears, Quinn’s fears about foul play are supplanted by paranoia that Esther was out to hurt her. Interwoven with Quinn’s story are chapters told from the point of view of 18-year-old Alex Gallo, a bright young man who is stuck in a dreary Michigan town, washing dishes to support his alcoholic father. When Alex meets an attractive but seemingly broken woman at the coffee shop, he does everything he can to protect her. The characters are compelling and the mesmerizing story will keep you turning pages. There’s something alluringly innocent (if at sometimes repetitive) about the voice, which lends an even more eerie tenor to the already-creepy plot. If you’re looking for a psychological thriller to keep you up at night, this is the one.

Forthcoming from Mira, March 17, 2016

Pre-order Don’t You Cry (more…)

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booksinc

Good News for the Book Business: Print sales on the rise, independent bookstores going strong

Alexandra Alter reports for the New York Times that a surprising thing has happened in the book business over the last couple of years (although perhaps not so surprising to longtime readers and booksellers): the sharp rise in ebook sales generated by early Kindle excitement has leveled off, and readers are returning to print.

Alter interviewed Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople in Austin, TX, who credits his store’s profitable 2015, in part, to

the stabilization of print and new practices in the publishing industry, such as Penguin Random House’s so-called rapid replenishment program to restock books quickly…Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books.

I’m thrilled that my longtime publisher is taking the lead on this. People say, “Oh, the Big 5 publishers never change,” and I constantly hear complaints that the New York publishing houses have their heads in the sand. But it sounds as though things are changing, and the publishers are finding ways to make print books more appealing–which is good for readers, good for authors, good for bookstores, and good for communities.

I’m fortunate to live in the Bay Area, home of dozens of thriving independent bookstores. At Kepler’s 60th anniversary party last week, lines were out the door. Green Apple, a mainstay of the Richmond district in San Francisco, opened a new branch on the other side of Golden Gate Park a couple of years ago, and it’s thriving. So too are Books Inc., The Booksmith, and many other bookstores in San Francisco, Marin, the East Bay, and Silicon Valley. Southern California has some fantastic indies too. On my Golden State book tour last year, I had the chance to read at Warwick’s, an amazing independent bookstore with a strong community following in LaJolla, as well as LA’s Vroman’s. And in the past, I’ve had the pleasure of reading at West Hollywood’s famous neighborhood store, Book Soup.

And it’s not just the Golden State where independent bookstores are going strong. The article notes: “The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.”

I’m sure there are plenty of reasons behind the shift, but I have an inkling that one contributing factor may be a more even-keeled approach to e-book pricing. When publishers have control over the price of e-books, it levels the playing field for print books and, as a result, for brick and mortar stores. My books often cost the same in paperback as they do in e-book format. As a reader, given a choice between print and digital when the cost is the same, I’ll always choose print. E-books may still be very appealing in contrast to hardcovers, which often cost twice as much, but once a book comes out in paperback, the e-book has no real advantage unless you’re a traveler who doesn’t want the weight of books in your luggage or a minimalist who doesn’t want the bulk of books in your living space.

And while the chains may have trouble competing with Amazon, local independent bookstores offer readers, authors, and communities something that Amazon never can. I think that’s why they do so well. Go into Books Inc. Burlingame during holiday season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, etc., and you’ll see people lining up to have their purchases gift-wrapped. On any afternoon after school, you’ll find kids reading on the bench seat in the children’s section. Earl, the manager, and all of the employees, will put just the right book in your hand if you’re not sure what your looking for.

Amazon can’t give you that experience, but neither can Barnes and Noble–which may be why smaller bookstores seem to be faring better than the chains. Nor can they mimic the experience of walking into Kepler’s and being greeted by the co-owner, Praveen Madden, who is always excited about something he’s reading and will tell you why. Nor can it rival, for an author, the joy of finding all of my books lined up, signed, on a shelf at Green Apple, with handwritten shelf talkers. (Below, the store’s owners: Kevin Hunsager, Kevin Ryan, and Pete Mulvihill).

Two Kevins & a Pete at Green Apple Books, image courtesy Green AppleGolden State book launch at Green Apple

That’s why I bristle at the idea that independent bookstores are quaint entities we need to “save.” They are vital, and they are strong businesses with sound business models: small spaces filled with the kind of books people want to read, staffed by avid readers who also happen to be great salespeople. Independent bookstores tend to be located in community centers. Books Inc., for example, has eight small but incredibly well-stocked and well-curated stores scattered throughout the Bay Area, all located in the middle of communities that have a lot of readers. Green Apple is in the heart of the inner Richmond, near neighborhood markets and restaurants. The Booksmith is in the heart of Haight Street, a neighborhood with constant foot traffic. And what serious reader in San Francisco can resist a trip to City Lights in North Beach? The fact is, ordering books from Amazon is no more convenient than purchasing from my neighborhood store, which is a five-minute drive from my house, gives me “same-day service” without the prime membership price tag, and pumps money back into my community.

I’ve got nothing against e-books, really. But, as my 10-year-old, child of digital everything, consumer of all things electronic except electronic books, says, “I like real books a million times better.”

Read Alter’s article, “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip and Print is Far From Dead.”

photo of Books Inc. courtesy of Yelp

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First Lines in Fiction – Black Glass

Black Glass, by Karen Joy Fowler

Great First Lines in Fiction

First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.

The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.

What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.

What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence.  Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.

Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:

From The “Elizabeth Complex”:

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.

From “Shimbara”:

At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?

Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”

I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.

To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?

We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.

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