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April 9, 2012

On Tact: The Importance of Magnolia Sh*#

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 10:25 am

“Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” — Isaac Newton

I am a southern girl at heart. I was raised by southerners– a southern mother, a southern daddy, southern grandparents, a giant, closeknit southern family. As I’ve made my way out into the world, personally and professionally, I’ve taken all the things I’ve learned from all those southerners and applied them to my life. I try to be: gracious, kind, thoughtful, reliable, and tactful. It was the way I was taught to be.

Unfortunately, the world we live in can often be, for lack of a better word, untactful. My father may have been raised largely in North Carolina, but he was born in New York, a place he always felt more at home. For all his depth of sensitivity, he could be impatient, no-nonsense, and sometimes abrupt. My mother taught me how to be gracious and my dad taught me how to stand up for myself and make my point (he was fond of saying: “Be Hemingway, not Dickens. If you’ve got a point to make, make it and don’t beat around the bush.”) (In southern terms: “Be Scarlett, not Melanie.”). One of the hardest things to learn as a professional writer is how to write sensitively and observantly, opening your heart and yourself completely for all the world to see, opening veins and bleeding onto the page, and then send that writing out into the world to agents, editors, readers, bloggers, critics, friends, strangers, the guy down the street yelling at his dog, the woman in the grocery store with her basket in the middle of the aisle, the man on his cell phone who almost drove you off the road. Everyone will have something to say about it.

You have to be able to work closely and well with your professional contacts while also speaking up for the things that are important to you, letting them know if you don’t like the cover they’ve created, negotiating business terms, defending a portion of the book that you know belongs there, protecting your work and yourself, as you would your child, if they are asking too much or presuming too much or not doing enough for it or for you. This is the part of the job that I dislike because even though I will always stand up for my work (it’s easier in some ways than standing up for myself), it can still be uncomfortable. As my mother says, to be a writer you have to have the soul of an angel and the hide of an armadillo.

Years ago, my mom was working on a book for a publishing house that was also publishing a Very Big Name. He was a difficult, volatile political figure who was being paid a million dollars for his memoir. My mother’s important, groundbreaking literary biography was all too often pushed aside so that the people at the publishing house could focus solely on the Very Big Name, who wasn’t even writing his own book and was having tantrums left and right. The publisher knew whereas the Very Big Name would only be difficult and demanding, my mother would be gracious and forgiving, and so they presumed once too often on her good nature. Finally, when her book was in actual danger of being pushed aside altogether, my mom– like the proverbial mother lifting the car off her child– confronted her publisher. As she said to him, “I may not have a million dollar advance, but I can sure as hell have a million dollar tantrum.”

They paid attention.

Her wonderful literary agent, the late Lucy Kroll, once told my mom very early on in her career, “If you’re going to be a success in this business, we’re going to have to get rid of this magnolia shit,” which was how she referred to my mom’s good southern manners. My mom said, “You all had better be grateful for that magnolia shit. It makes your work a whole lot easier.”

And that pertains to life as well. Too many people– not just those in the writing and publishing and reviewing profession– don’t take responsibility for themselves, for the things they say, for the things they do. They don’t think about how something might sound or feel to the person hearing it. I’m not advocating lying or gushing. I’m advocating sensitivity. If you have something to say that may be challenging, there’s a way to deliver it thoughtfully and kindly. Too many people speak without thinking and presume on good natures and graciousness.

I’ll take magnolia shit any day.

April 2, 2012

Let the writing begin…

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 9:30 am

I haven’t blogged for a week because, unfortunately, when something’s gotta give in my schedule, the blog is the first to go. I figure when it comes down to writing for my website or writing for Penguin, I will always choose the latter.

Last week was a mad scramble to get through some important research (not by any means the last of it, however) and do some last bit of outlining before I start writing book number seven. (I wish book number seven had a title so that I didn’t have to keep calling it book number seven, but until it does I’ll just refer to it as Velva Jean in Hollywood.) This weekend I took that outline– composed and arranged in a stack of virtual index cards through the writing program Scrivener— and presented it to my boyfriend. We sat on the sofa in our living room, surrounded by cats, and I told him the story from start to finish.

We did the same thing last year around this time when I was writing Becoming Clementine. I’m finding that nothing is more helpful, when you’re getting ready to write, than to tell someone you trust every single scene of the story. Some things don’t sound as strong or compelling or make as much sense when said aloud to an audience, and some sound even better so that you know you’re on the right track. He has questions or ideas, which lead to other ideas of your own, and before you know it you are reorganizing the puzzle pieces a bit until– oh yes– they seem to fit more naturally. You discard this and add that, and by the end of it you realize you’ve done a lot more good, solid work than you knew. As Louis said afterward, “You really know your story!”

Of course, it is fiction, which means things will change along the way. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “It’s like making a movie: All sorts of accidental things will happen after you’ve set up the cameras. So you get lucky. Something will happen at the edge of the set and perhaps you start to go with that; you get some footage of that. You come into it accidentally. You set the story in motion, and as you’re watching this thing begin, all these opportunities will show up.”

The important thing is to have a good, detailed idea of the first couple of chapters and know all the most crucial beats that follow. Inevitably the characters and story will veer from the path now and then, taking you places you don’t anticipate. But it’s good and necessary to have a road map.

So my road map is in place, even though the research will continue and the route will alter before I get to my destination. But now there are no excuses, no reasons to delay. The book is due in September and it’s time to draw the blinds and lock the doors and turn off the phone and start writing.

March 22, 2012

Becoming Clementine — the book trailer

One of the latest phenomenons in the writing world is the book trailer. These trailers are meant to do what movie previews do– alert an audience to an upcoming project and inspire them to see (or, in this case, read) it.

Five books into my career, I’d never had a trailer for any of my books. But for book number six, my publisher suggested that it would be a good thing to have. Which translates to: Jennifer becomes a filmmaker over night. (Although publishers love to promote them, the book trailer is almost always the author’s responsibility.)

Now, I do have an MFA from the American Film Institute, but even so, to produce any sort of mini movie in a week (my deadline) is a daunting task, especially when you are still continuing to work fulltime. For that week, I was producer, writer, director, prop master, continuity person, P.A., stylist, set designer, editor, researcher, rights coordinator, and actress. And my wonderful boyfriend– who taught himself Final Cut Pro as we went– was co-producer, co-director, co-editor, as well as cameraman, sound technician, sound mixer, and special effects man.

When we were finished making the trailer, I truly felt as if we deserved an Oscar simply because of the amount of time and effort that went into it. And so I give you my (abbreviated) Academy Awards acceptance speech: “I couldn’t have done it without my boyfriend. Period. But I also want to thank composer Michael Hoppé for his beautiful song ‘Tapestry,’ which was not only the soundtrack for the trailer, but the soundtrack for the actual writing of the book (the song I listened to again and again when I wanted to write the more poignant, heartfelt scenes). And I want to thank musician, friend, and Velva Jean fan Briana Harley for her oh-so haunting rendition of ‘Oh My Darling Clementine.’ She nailed it. There are others– my beloved and brilliant mother, my cats (thank you, Lulu, for allowing us to lock you away while we were filming so that you didn’t end up in every single scene), my stepmom for her savvy feedback, and all my friends and loved ones, who may not have held a boom or donned a blonde wig for this, but who helped out just the same…”

I could go on, but then my speech would be longer than the trailer itself.

Last week, our little movie debuted at Penguin’s Annual Sales Conference, and now, for the first time, we’re releasing it here.

Enjoy! And please comment! (And don’t forget to pre-order the book, which will be out September 25!)

March 16, 2012

The Importance of Writing Twaddle

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , — jennifer @ 9:28 am

Katherine Mansfield once said, “Looking back, I was always writing. Twaddle it was, too. But far better to write twaddle or anything, anything, than nothing at all.”

I have good friends who are good writers, but some of them are so terrified of writing anything bad or imperfect that they just don’t write. Ever. One of the greatest things I’ve learned about writing is that you have to let yourself write garbage because even garbage is better than a blank page– at least it gives you something to edit and work from. And, almost always, when I allow myself to just fill up a page with any old kind of writing– not stopping to edit and fuss and tweak it to death in that precious, early stage– I will work myself into the flow of it so that suddenly the writing will become better and smoother and more natural as I go along. Eventually I’ll hit my stride.

Before I went to the American Film Institute for screenwriting, I wasn’t so fond of writing twaddle. Oh, I would do it, but I didn’t want to do it. I was more reluctant, back then, to let the words fall on the page however they might without running along behind and fixing them. But I learned at AFI that the important thing is to get the words onto paper (or computer screen) and not edit yourself until it’s time (i.e. after all the words are there and you’ve written your way to the end of the project). In the years that have since followed, this has only gotten easier and easier to do.

Right now I’m simultaneously researching, outlining, and writing (a little) of the Velva Jean in Hollywood book. Ideally I would research for a long time, and then I would take my time outlining, and then I would begin writing, but my September deadline demands a different sort of very rushed schedule, with everything needing to be done at once. You can imagine the twaddle I’m writing now. But it’s necessary twaddle because I cannot get to that polished, finished manuscript without it. As Bernard Malamud once said, “You write by sitting down and writing.”

March 12, 2012

The Places a Book Can Take You

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 8:56 am

Right now I am so busy juggling two books, that my readers and friends worry about me. Their primary concern is that my work is too isolating and that it keeps me too burdened down at my desk. I am at my desk a lot, especially at this moment as I’m editing what’s called the galleys or first pass of my upcoming book (to be released September 25), Becoming Clementine; producing, writing, directing, designing, acting in, and scoring a trailer for the book; and researching/outlining/writing the book that comes after, due to my publisher September 15. It’s true I’m at my computer or working somewhere for hours every day. But, while I may at times feel overwhelmed (to put it mildly), I never feel limited.

As a little girl, the thing I loved most about writing was that it could take you anywhere. Through my stories, I could see the world– the universe!– or imagine a new one. I could be anyone or anything.

Now that I’m all grown up and writing for a living, this is still the thing I love most about writing. I get to travel, through words and computer, to distant, exotic, foreign lands, often going back in time to long ago worlds or forward in time to ones that haven’t even been created.

One of the other best things about writing books is that they can literally take you to the most interesting places.

I’ve written each of my books because they were stories I wanted to read. I didn’t write them because I wanted to travel to this setting or that one to do research or because I hoped I might be invited on nice trips someday. But that’s exactly what has happened.

For research, I’ve been all over Scotland and Canada. I’ve been to Paris, London, Maine, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Vermont, Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, the Smoky Mountains, Missisippi, Newfoundland, and the tiny town of Wilson, North Carolina, to eat barbecue with the son of Arctic heroine Ada Blackjack, the subject of my second book. I’ve toured Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert and climbed around the imposing Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway and stood on the dock in Victoria, BC, where the men of the Ice Master expedition set sail in 1913. For my memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries, I even reunited with my high school classmates in our small Indiana hometown, retracing the steps of my big-haired, boy crazy teenage self.

With my publishing team from Pan Macmillan, I was one of the first to ride the London Eye, soon after it opened.

I traveled to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the jawbone of one of the sailors I wrote about in The Ice Master to reunite his last remains with his great-nephew while teams of news crews filmed us.

I was invited to Venice, Italy, to speak to the Italian Explorers Club and receive the Giuseppe Mazotti Prize for Literature, Italy’s highest literary honor.

I’ve attended a ball on the Queen Mary, had tea at the home of Lord George Emslie, Lord President of the Court of Session and Lord Justice General, Scotland’s senior judge from 1972 until 1989, and drunk moonshine with gold miners in the mountains of Georgia. I’ve posed for pictures in front of icebergs and on top of mountains, in graveyards and ruins, and with puffins and moose and llamas. I’ve become good friends with the families of the men and women I’ve written about.

In 2005, a few years after the publication of my Arctic nonfiction adventures The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack, I was invited to the high Russian Arctic for two weeks aboard an ice breaker. With Quark Expeditions, I traveled up the Bering Strait, stopping at remote Inuit villages, before reaching Wrangel Island– the setting for those first two books– where I was dropped by helicopter with Bob Headland, then head of the Scott Polar Research Institute, and a Russian translator, and allowed a private tour.

I appeared at the Southern Spring Home & Garden Show in Charlotte, North Carolina, where award-winning designer Joycelyn Armstrong had created a kitchen inspired by Velva Jean Learns to Drive.

Just last year, I returned to my Indiana hometown for the official book release party for Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and listened to Mayor Sally Hutton proclaim it “Jennifer Niven Day.”

In 2014, I’ve been invited to go back to the Arctic– for a month this time– for the 100th anniversary of the Ice Master expedition rescue, and will once again travel by ice breaker up the coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.

Most recently, I was invited to the San Diego Air & Space Museum for a Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure, hosted by Adventures by the Book. As we were on our behind-the-scenes tour, exploring the basement of the museum where all the planes are constructed and refurbished, my boyfriend said, “You get to go to the coolest places.”

And I do. But perhaps none cooler than the places I get to go to every day when I’m just sitting at my desk.

March 6, 2012

The Reading Chair

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , , — jennifer @ 11:34 am

This week I’m working on the loose galleys of Becoming Clementine, which means reading the entire book at least once with a colored pencil by my side (I typically choose some shade of purple, but for this one I’ve decided to use green).

Even though this stage isn’t as grueling or intense as the editing/copy editing phase of book writing, it still means long hours pouring over the manuscript, trying to make sure every last word is in place.

In an earlier post, I talked about trying to find just the right reading chair for my office– something cushy and comfortable that would be a great place to sit for hours at a time.

After scouring the internet and visiting furniture store after furniture store, my boyfriend and I paid a visit to H.D. Buttercup, which is the largest furniture retailer in Los Angeles– 150,000 square feet. Its located inside the historic Helms Bakery Building, built in 1931 (ancient by L.A. standards), which once housed the famous family-owned and operated Helms Bakery. Back in the days when the bakery was still a bakery, the air of Culver City– including nearby star factory MGM– was filled with the aroma of freshly baked bread.

My father loved shopping, but I do not. I made it through that store in record time, flinging myself into every chair until I found The One. I’m almost always one to impulse buy, as my mother calls it (she’s sometimes like me in this way), but my boyfriend believes in comparison shopping, so even after I saw the chair and fell in love, we continued testing others.

Of course I bought it in the end, now knowing more than ever that I’d gotten the very best one, and it currently sits in my office covered in cats. Every single time I get up to refill my water or check email, another cat seems to appear and my place is once again taken.

But when I can get in it, the new reading chair is the perfect place to read galleys, especially now that I’m learning to juggle at least one lap kitty with the book pages, my green pencil, my eraser, and my pencil sharpener.

The galleys will Fedex their way back to Penguin on Friday, and then I will turn back to Velva Jean’s Hollywood adventure. At that point I’ll be back at my desk, which means the cats will almost certainly become bored by the chair and find other places to nap.

March 1, 2012

The Things That Help Me Write (or: Thank God for “Supernatural”)

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , , , — jennifer @ 2:22 pm

When Judy Garland was just a talented teenager at MGM, she worked a very demanding schedule– sometimes 18-hour days, one after another. To keep her going and to ensure she would be able to perform, MGM supplied her with sleeping pills so that she could rest between scenes, and then, when it was time to roll the cameras again, they would ply her with amphetamines to wake her up.

Thankfully, I haven’t ever used either, but there are certain things that do keep me going when I’m working a grueling schedule. And right now I’m working a very grueling schedule–producing, writing, editing, designing, outfitting, directing, scoring, and starring in a trailer for the book; editing the first pass galleys of Becoming Clementine; continuing to research (when time permits) and outline the Hollywood book; writing the Hollywood book; doing publicity/promotion for past and future books; and redesigning my website, among many other things– which is why I haven’t blogged a word for over a week.

So, in no particular order, these are some of the things that are helping me through (aside from my boyfriend, my mom, my cats, my hilarious and loving family, my friends, my readers, and my ever-supportive and encouraging literary agent):

Supernatural (few things help inspire or comfort me more than watching the super-hunky Winchester brothers hunt monsters and battle demons– it’s perhaps the one thing that seems harder than writing)

Exercise (namely: Physique 57)

Google breaks

Singing songs into my best friend Joey’s voicemail

Things to look forward to– whether it’s getting together with friends or an upcoming Charles Boyer film on TCM or a walk around LACMA with my boyfriend at the end of our work day

Our new car– the cutest, sexiest Mini Cooper S you ever did see

The Bachelor and my Tuesday morning discussions with Mom during which we analyze the show (and the people on it) at great lengths

The Walking Dead (See Supernatural comments above, only in this case, of course, sheriff’s deputy Rick Grimes and company have to battle zombies)

The anticipation of John Carter

Stepping out into the CA sunshine at least once a day

My new office desk chair (no more back pain!)

My new office reading chair (see above)

The never-ending gratitude– even in the face of tremendous deadlines– that comes from knowing I’m getting to do what I love to do

The knowledge that someday, many, many months from now, I will have a break.

February 15, 2012

Come Fly with Velva Jean and Me!

Novelist John D. MacDonald once said, “If you would be thrilled by watching the galloping advance of a major glacier, you’d be ecstatic watching changes in publishing.”

I’d like to amend that just slightly to say if you would be thrilled by watching the galloping advance of a major glacier, you’d be ecstatic watching a writer working on a book.

Today is one of those days when the work is not terribly exciting, but it’s necessary. There is a lot of this kind of thing going on: researching and locating of film clips for the trailer, scripting the trailer, renewing library research materials, discussing various book matters with my agent, discussing website update plans with my boyfriend (who also happens to be my web programmer/designer), reading and making notes on the Hollywood book.

Because it is one of the less glamorous work days, I thought I would look ahead to next Friday, February 24, when I’ll be stepping away from my desk (!) and leaving the 1940s and all of the above matters behind for a day (!) and heading to San Diego for Adventures by the Book’s Velva Jean Learns to Fly Aviation Adventure.

Please join me! I promise it will be a good deal more exciting than watching glaciers.

February 10, 2012

Ten Good Things About Working (Really) Hard

Filed under: writing — Tags: , , , , — jennifer @ 11:50 am

As I emerge from the Excruciating Land of Copy Edits (14- to 16-hour days, every day for the past nine days), I think it’s time to stop feeling sorry for myself for not having a weekend last week (or, as is all too common, some weeks) or regular sleep or time to exercise, and think about the positive aspects of having such a busy schedule:

1. I am saving money on makeup and hair supplies and blow outs at the Dry Bar.

2. We are saving money on dining out, going out, and seeing movies.

3. I am getting to know intimately the Los Angeles Central Library, where I seem to be nearly every Saturday returning Hollywood-related books and checking out new ones.

4. I have lots of quality time with my cats.

5. We are really getting our money’s worth out of our apartment because we are in it all the time.

6. I am saving a good bit of money on gas and– a huge bonus– I almost never have to worry about traffic.

7. When I do go out for fun, I am hugely appreciative, much more so than any normal person. (It’s what I imagine being let out of prison feels like, except that I rarely feel imprisoned at my desk.)

8. I don’t have to hear about the upsetting things going on in the world because I don’t have time to read the news.

9. Because of all the practice, I am now the world’s fastest typist.

10. At the end of it all, I have a book I’m very proud of and that I’ve worked very hard for, so that I can look at its pages and see every long hour, every missed weekend, every drop of blood, sweat, tears, and love.

February 7, 2012

Behind the Book — Writing Advice from My Uncle Bill

My mother, Penelope Niven, and I are both writers, and because of this my family often participates in our author events, traveling with us on tour (when possible) and purchasing multiple copies of our books to give to everyone they know. When my grandmother Eleanor was alive, she would call up bookstores in the greater Charlotte, North Carolina, area and ask if they carried the latest books by Mom or me. If they didn’t, she would say, “Well you should!” and hang up.

While most of my family members, wonderful as they are, don’t understand the actual day-to-day process of writing a book, they are our greatest and most enthusiastic fans.

My mom’s brother, Bill, however, seems to get it. Bill isn’t a writer, but he is creative. He is brilliant, possessing a wonderful kind of downhome, folksy wisdom. He’s tall and rambling—and, at 65, is the same big-hearted country boy who, at least once a week, used to “find” stray animals in the bushes outside the house where he and my mother and their two sisters grew up. He has a North Carolina accent a mile wide.

Historically, Mom writes very long books. Her biography of Carl Sandburg, the definitive work on his life, is 843 pages and her biography of Edward Steichen, the definitive work on his life, runs 808. Her upcoming, hugely anticipated biography of Thornton Wilder, due out in October from HarperCollins, is 836 pages. (Voices and Silences, the book she wrote with James Earl Jones, is a mere 394 pages.)

As I am in the thick of edits/copy edits of my upcoming novel, Becoming Clementine (from Plume this fall!), and as I prepare to return to the researching and outlining of the novel that will follow it (title still to be determined), I keep Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing nearby, along with a picture of his daddy, my granddaddy, who also had wise things to say about the writing process, namely: deadlines are really lifelines and, when editing, you can almost always lose the last sentence of every paragraph.

While most of Bill’s comments originated with my mother’s work, they are certainly relatable to my own, especially as I am faced with editing and cutting and trimming down the length of Becoming Clementine, and trying to think of alternate ways to say “like,” “said,” and “just,” all of which I tend to overuse.

Uncle Bill’s Advice on Writing

1. A book should not be so long and big and thick that it has to be hauled around in a wheelbarrow.

(Case in point, each first draft of each Velva Jean book has been cut down drastically, and my first draft for The Ice Master was 813 pages long. In the end, I cut 300 of those pages before it ever went to print.)

2. You have to remember that there were parts of Carl Sandburg’s life that were boring even to Carl Sandburg.

(Or Velva Jean’s life, or Ada Blackjack’s life, or ice master Robert Bartlett’s life, or my own life, goodness knows, as told in my high school memoir, The Aqua Net Diaries. In other words, you don’t need to relay everything that ever happened to your character/subject. Pick and choose the moments to write about.)

3. If you are bored writing something, people will most likely be bored reading it.

(I remember this every time I conduct research or write a new scene and find my attention wandering off in the middle of it, or, most recently, when I reread Becoming Clementine and feel the slightest bit restless.)

4. It must be easier to write short than to write long.

(Even as I’m stripping out words or lines or paragraphs or whole chapters of Clementine, I’m thinking to myself: Why didn’t I just leave these things out the first time around? The answer, for me at least, is that even when I remove sections of a manuscript, I know the material was once there. I think writing long to end up writing short helps the book seem deeper and more layered, even if you’re the only one who knows what’s missing.)

5. A lot of people seem to think that just because they can write the alphabet they can write books. From what I’ve seen of your work, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

(It is, truly, but it’s surprising how many people don’t realize it and how astute—I would even say profound—this observation is. I work all the time. ALL the time. Yet one of the things I hear most often from well meaning people is: “I’ve always thought I would be a writer if only I had the spare time,” as if we are talking about Canasta or kite flying or crossword puzzles. My mother hears this frequently too, and once, at a party, she heard it from a prominent brain surgeon. When he said, “I’ve always thought I would write a book if only I had the time,” she replied, “That is so funny. I’ve always thought I would practice brain surgery if only I had the time!”)

6. I remember the little girl who looked at one of your mom’s books and said, “Wow! I didn’t know anybody knew that many words.” And your mom said, “It’s not so many. I used a lot of them more than once.” Still it must be hard to keep track of them so you don’t repeat words too often and get on your reader’s nerves.

(It is hard to keep track of them, particularly when you write two nonfiction books about Arctic expeditions and have to describe ice again and again. This is one reason Mom and I love to read the dictionary because even when you use a lot of words, there are still so many to learn.)

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