Archive for the ‘Favorite Books’ Category

What’s the best book you read in 2013?

December 30th, 2013 | Current Affairs, Deep Thoughts, Favorite Books | 70 Comments

As we wrap up 2013, we’re going to be taking a look at some of the top publishing stories of the year, make some predictions for the upcoming year, and get back to answering your questions. But first, I’d like your input on one question:

What was the single best book you read in 2013?

It could be fiction or nonfiction. It could be a new book that released this year, or some great book from prior years that you just discovered. But I’d like to know what your best read was in 2013.

My list of the top ten books read this year:

Heartbreaker, by Susan Howatch — A fascinating look at the good and evil that resides in us, told through the story of a young woman raising money for a healing center who meets a male prostitute looking for meaning in life. Perhaps the best book I read all year.

Lost Girls, by Robert Kolker — A gritty, clear-eyed look at four victims of a still-at-large serial killer on Long Island. Great research and writing.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer — The moving story of a nine-year-old boy who lost his father on 9/11, and who is determined to find out why and how. I was in awe of the writing.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — A wonderful novel about friendships, determination, acceptance, love, success, and baseball. (I’m a sucker for a great baseball story, and the story of Henry Skrimshander is one of the best novels I’ve read in years.)

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson — I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, not just smile and nod. This book by a longtime blogger will make you snort coffee through your nose. Hilarious.

Drift, by Rachel Maddow — You won’t agree with all her conclusions, but this story of how US Presidential power has been usurped to create a military doctrine where we are constantly at war, and where the Prez can now send troops without congressional oversight, is one of the most insightful books you’ll find. (Thanks to my daughter Molly for suggesting it.)

Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende — A young woman travels from Chile to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, thinking she’s searching for her lover, when in fact she’s seeking a new life. This came out several years ago, and I’m glad I finally got to it.

Lamb, by Christopher Moore — Not a favorite of Christians because of the bawdy side (it pretends to tell the adventures of Christ’s childhood friend, Biff), but I was encouraged to re-read this book in order to appreciate the historical work this very funny author put into it. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the humor and could smile at the unique take on theology. This is one of those books that will offend some, but if you take it in the spirit with which it’s intended (that is, a funny and historical spirit), there’s a lot to like. Not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. Debated whether to list this or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but I figured if I didn’t list this one, it would be overlooked.

Out of My League, by Dirk Hayhurst — A great memoir of playing in the minor leagues and trying to make it to the Bigs, told by an insightful, literate pitcher trying to balance his faith and his competitiveness. Loved this book.

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen — This came out years ago, but I simply am listing the top ten books I read this year, NOT the “top ten books that released this year.” I’m a longtime fan of Nouwen, and this book (which began when the author came across Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son parable) offered me new insight into how we all are hurting, and looking for acceptance and peace. A wonderful book that I’ll read again.


That’s my list. Five novels, five non-fiction titles. Some old, some new. Two things to note: First, this list does NOT include any authors I represent. It’s hard to not pick Lisa Samson’s fabulous novel The Sky Beneath My Feet, Ann Tatlock’s Sweet Mercy, Meg Moseley’s Gone South, Susan Meissner’s The Girl in the Glass, or Les Edgerton’s The Rapist, but I wanted to stay away from looking like a homer. Second, I could have once again posted The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, and A Tale of Two Cities, because I read them all again this year, but decided I can’t keep going back to Twain and Dickens or I’ll be outed as a classicist.

One last note: A book I went back to this year, having not read it since junior high was Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Good grief… I had forgotten how good that was. Or maybe I just missed it, having been a dopey 15 year old when I first opened the covers. But a great read, and I’m glad I rediscovered it.

That’s my list. What’s yours? What was the best book you read in 2013?


Thursdays with Amanda: My Favorite Authors and Books

December 5th, 2013 | Books, Favorite Books | 15 Comments

Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

(I’m taking a break from all-things-marketing for the rest of 2013…so if you’re here for posts on platforms and promotions, stay tuned…they’ll come with the new year).


They say (okay, maybe ‘they’ don’t say it, but I’ve heard it on occasion) that the best way to get to know what an agent or editor likes is to find out what they read. What books they cherish. What authors they drool over. The thought is that if you can find an agent or editor who loves books and authors that are similar to what you write, you’re that much closer to getting picked up.

I don’t know how much truth there is in this. Fact is, most industry professionals tend to enjoy literary fiction…and yet as an agent I’m lucky if I get to sell one lit fiction book a year. I think I had somewhere around twenty books come out last year that I had agented. None of them were literary fiction. In fact in my three-year career, I’ve sold one literary fiction title. One.

BUT still. The idea stands. I love literary fiction. I love great speculative fiction. I love gothic fiction. Show me a book that fits these categories and I’m that much more likely to consider it.

So with that being said, I thought I’d take today and go over my favorite authors and books of all time. These are the best of the best, in my humble opinion. And if what you write matches them…well, then. I’d suggest you introduce yourself the next time we’re at conference together.


THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is quite possibly my favorite book of all time, because it changed me. I mean it really did. I read it in high school, and you have to understand that up to that point in my life I had primarily only read super old classics (Jane Eyre-style) and light childrens books (Goosebumps). Gatsby not only gave me a forever love of the 20s, but it showed me that prose doesn’t have to be long-winded and old-fashioned. It taught me about voice. It opened my eyes to how books…even “old” books…can sound and feel and be different. It made me want to write more than any other book ever had.



Best love story of all time. You can call me a creep. You can call me a psycho for thinking Heathcliff is awesome and dreamy, but I can’t help it. *swoon*


MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides

I read this in college when I was fairly close-minded and judgmental. This book tore me open and made me rethink EVERYTHING. It took a subject that is so very black and white for some (it’s about a person who is born as both a male and a female due to some family incest years before), and it proved the gray. It forever changed the way I approach and view certain things and I am thankful for that. That’s what a great book does. It takes what you believe and challenges you to really think through it. Doesn’t matter whether you change your belief or not. It’s all about getting people to think through what they believe and why.



I was gushing about The Grapes of Wrath once, and a friend of mine looked at me with the most confused expression and said, “He spent an entire chapter writing about a turtle that was trying to cross the road.” And this is true. Pages and pages are spent on what seems like nothingness in an attempt to take a break (but not a meaningless break!) from the main storyline. And I loved every minute of it. Steinbeck’s voice and approach grip me so much that he can write about a turtle crossing a road, and I’M RIGHT THERE WITH HIM.



To say that Meno is the voice of a generation would be a bit over the top. But guys, he’s the voice of a generation. Or at least a decade. Hairstyles of the Damned is a hip lit punk rock piece of awesome. And The Boy Detective Fails, Meno’s follow-up full length novel, is so opposite in nature and yet similar at the same time. It follows a man who refuses to grow up, playing boy detective to unearth the mystery behind his sister’s death. I love Meno’s style. He’s one of my favorite contemporary authors. And, he’s super nice.



I’m a slow reader. Painfully slow. I try to tell my authors this and they’re like “yeah, yeah” and then a week later they’re like “Have you read my book?” and I’m like “I’m only halfway done!” and they’re sad. Because I’m so slow, I tend to avoid big books (though my recent obsession with George Martin has thrown this out the window). And at the same time, I can’t ignore a challenge. A book-related challenge, that is. The only reason this book and Middlesex are on the list is because a friend of mine practically dared me to read them. And her dare had nothing to do with the content and everything to do with length. But I am so glad she did. Because of my love for old-timey books, Jonathan Strange will forever be one of my favorites. It’s like Harry Potter for adults… For Bronte-sister-reading, English literature-loving adults.



I have a huge soft spot for Black Literary Fiction, and I owe it all to this amazing, amazing book. I don’t even have words for how much I love this book. It follows the main character’s relationships with three different men. Set in the south in the 20s or so, the setting also takes a strong role in the story. Of all the books on this list, this is the one I’d recommend first. It’s all in the voice and how REAL the main character comes across.



I have this strange love affair with Chicago. I grew up in the suburbs, which is NOT the same thing as the city, butI’ve always tried to position myself in a way that makes people think I’m from the city. This, of course, drives my friends nuts. But anyway, this book is the only bit of nonfiction on the list, but it’s probably the most epic of them all. Chicago World’s Fair. 1893. The city is rebuilding after the fire. Daniel Burnham, famous architect, is one of the key players in getting the city ready for what would turn it into a major player for top US cities. And just a few miles away in Englewood, H.H. Holmes is doing an architectural project of his own. He’s turning the building that holds his storefront into a hotel. But not just any hotel. This hotel has secret passageways, peepholes, an incinerator, a gas chamber, and more. Many of the guests who check in, won’t check out. Thus begins the story of America’s first serial killer.


This is what’s on my list. What’s on yours?


Wondering what to get your writer friends for Christmas? Grab my marketing book!




Where does depth in fiction come from?

May 28th, 2013 | Deep Thoughts, Favorite Books, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft, Trends | 15 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “Put simply, where does depth in fiction come from?”

Depth is found when multidimensional characters who I can relate to, who I care about, face the timeless questions of life in the midst of complex circumstances, then make decisions that are open to interpretation. Their choices may not be right, but as a reader, I get to go through the experience with the characters. I see people in your story I have come to care about facing big decisions, making choices that I may or may not agree with, and I get to go through that season with them, and see the results of their choices, then measure them against my own life. THAT’S what causes me to learn, helps me to understand myself, and leaves me thinking about your book. And this can’t be faked – any bright reader will figure out when you’re faking depth or artificially trying to gin up emotion. So you can’t write with an agenda. Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic masquerading as a novel.

One novelist sent me this: “Writers of historical fiction seem to be interested in knowing what time period editors might be looking for. Is there a ‘hot’ time period you would like to see a book set in or any to avoid?”

Well, it’s changing all the time. Publishing is a tidal business– the tide comes in, the tide goes out. So Amish fiction doesn’t exist, then we’re awash in All Things Amish, then there are considerably fewer of those titles. And there’s nothing wrong with that — the culture embraces some topics or periods for a season. Some have more staying power than others (so “westerns” became their own genre, “Amish fiction” has become it’s own sub-genre in Christian fiction, and Chick Lit disappeared as a relative flash in the pan).Watching the trends can be fun, just to see what publishers are (and are not) interested in. But I rarely encourage writers to try and chase the trend — usually by the time you’ve spotted it, the market has moved on. 

That said, you’re asking a fair question. I’d say right now people have grown tired of the Civil War, but are still interested in Reconstruction, in both the North and South. There is once again interest in the Great Immigration period of 1880 to 1910, but the Downton Abbey craze seems to have gotten a lot of people interested in the empire-building period of the early 1900′s through World War 1 and into the Roaring Twenties. Of course, we’ve seen popular novels set in just about every decade of the 1900’s. Tales set in the 1960’s and 70’s have bombed in most markets so far, so I’d generally be wary of the era of long hair and love beads (and, of course, now that I’ve said that, I’m sure the next #1 NYT bestseller will be something like “Love Child: The Haight-Ashbury Series”).

Finally, I’ve had a couple people say to me, “I write fiction, and I’d like to know what you think is the one best step I could take in my novel writing career?”  

I’ve thought about this a lot, since I represent a number of novelists. I suppose part of me wants to say to beginners, “Take a class so you’re forced to write” or “find a writing partner so you’ve got someone to hold you accountable.” But, after having mulled it over, here’s my response: First, attend a great writing conference, then force yourself to attend stuff and meet people. It just seems like most of the novelists I know (not all, but most) found their careers moved forward by a writing conference. They got a chance to learn from really good writing instructors, they got to hear about the bigger industry, and they got to rub shoulders with a bunch of other writers.

That last part is part is particularly important. Writing is a solitary business, and it’s easy to go into your cave, produce something, and have no context for knowing if it’s any good (besides having a firm belief in your own abilities, and a loving partner who tells you how wonderful you are). So being able to sit and talk with other writers is a blessing — you find out they are facing some of the same obstacles you are, and you’ll be encouraged by the people who overcame those problems and moved on to the next step. You’ll discover creative people who you like, and who inspire you, and who sometimes have great solutions to suggest to you. I don’t do a bunch of conferences any more, because my schedule won’t allow it, but I try to go to RWA and ACFW every year, and get to Thrillerfest or West Coast Crime or Bouchercon or one of the suspense-writers gatherings. Every other year I aim to be at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, since it’s such a fabulous gathering of great minds. And once in a while I’ll speak at a smaller conference (I did one in Nashville and one in Dallas this year), just to meet with authors and try to give back a bit. This is the start of conference season, and there will surely be a good writing conference close to you this summer — try attending one and participating fully. It will make a difference.

The second thing I’d suggest is that you read great books. Don’t just read in your genre, though that’s a good place to start. Pick up GREAT literature and read it. There’s a reason a classic is called that, or why an influential book has staying power — it speaks to people about the art. Recently I’ve read a half-dozen titles that I think are wonderful novels — Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Jack Finney’s Time and Again, Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. I also just read Lisa Samson’s latest, The Sky Beneath my Feet, Ann Tatlock’s Promises to Keep, Vince Zandri’s The Remains, and I just re-read Susan Meissner’s Girl in the Glass and Mark Bertrand’s Pattern of Wounds. All were well-written and interesting. I also read a debut novel, Holly Lorincz’s Smart Mouth (which, if you haven’t read, you should check out on Amazon — the first chapter will have you laughing out loud). And if you want a difficult, edgy bit of reading that will astound you, pick up Les Edgerton’s The Rapist. Tough title, but a fabulously well-written book. If you want to be a great writer, hang out with other great writers. My advice. (And yes, I got to represent several of these titles. I’m biased, but these are all great writers.)

I’m off to BEA. We’ll have some guests blogging this week — thanks to good writers for being here while I’m on the road. Some great advice from thoughtful writer Keri Kent, a beautiful bit of writing from novelist Tina Bustamante, and a couple thoughtful posts from some award-winning friends. Enjoy. See you in New York.



Thursdays with Amanda: Available Now! My Book on Building an Author Platform

March 21st, 2013 | Favorite Books, Marketing and Platforms, Resources for Writing | 4 Comments

Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent.

Alright, all of you Thursdays with Amanda fans out there! I’ve got something for you…

Each week I try to tackle the big, bad topic of how to build an author platform. We’ve looked at Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, blogs, websites, and more, and the backlist of posts has become quite daunting and difficult to search.

SO to put an end to the madness and help all of you navigate the tips, rules, and tricks we’ve discussed on our Thursdays get-togethers, I’ve released an ebook.

THE EXTROVERTED WRITER: An Author’s Guide to Marketing and Building a Platform is a compilation of my Thursdays with Amanda posts PLUS a bunch of great new content (new content includes LinkedIn, strategies for building a Twitter following, how to identify your audience, and more). All in a shiny digital package! Categorized, organized, and hopefully quite navigable, this little ebook is perfect for those who have come to love my weekly blog posts.

Here’s an excerpt from the chapter on knowing your audience:

How to Find Your Audience

All right, enough theory. Let’s get practical. How do you take a book that is loved by everyone and your mother and find its basic readership—those who are most inclined to shell out fifteen dollars to buy it (or those who are most inclined to get their parents to shell out fifteen dollars)?

First, you must identify other movies or books or plays that are similar to your work. So, go to the bookstore or get online and put on your researcher jeans.

The first similarity should be genre. Match mysteries with mysteries, cozy mysteries with cozy mysteries, police procedurals with police procedurals, and so on. Pay specific attention to where these books are shelved. For example, Nancy Drew is a mystery series, but it’s shelved over in the children’s section, making it a juvenile mystery fiction series. You wouldn’t compare readers of Nancy Drew with readers of Agatha Christie (even though Agatha Christie readers most likely read Nancy Drew in their youth). 

The second similarity should have to do with main characters. Match female, upper teen leads with other female, upper teen leads. Match male, mid-fifties leads with other male, mid-fifties leads. This will help you narrow your comparison search. Like the Nancy Drew series, the Hardy Boys is a similar mystery series for children, but it has male protagonists. Therefore, if your children’s mystery had a female lead, you could exclude the Hardy Boys from your list of similar titles. The two series are near identical in many ways, but their audiences are different. You need to only concern yourself with finding the best possible matches you can.

Once you’ve come up with a list of projects that are similar to your own, try out one of these methods to identify and profile your readership. (Yes, we’re getting uber technical at this point.) …


THE EXTROVERTED WRITER is available from:



SMASHWORDS (for all other ereader devices)


Now, here’s where I ask for a favor…will you help me spread the word about my book? Here are some things you can do for me:

1. Write reviews on and

2. Tweet and share this blog post! (You can do that by clicking the social media icons below).

3. Feature me on any writing blogs you may be in touch with (email me)

4. Tweet and share about the book. Here are some Tweets you can use…just add to the Tweet one of the links I provide above (Amazon, Smashwords, etc), and you’re good to go!

Great new book on #authormarketing! Highly recommended for new writers and old pro’s #bookmarketing #ExtrovertedWriter

I’m ready to get my author marketing under control! Can’t wait to read the #ExtrovertedWriter

Hey authors! Highly recommend this book on #authormarketing. It looks at Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and more

And for MORE Extroverted Writer chatter, check out this interview.

Thank you all for making Thursdays with Amanda a GREAT place to blog!

What are the best books of all time?

November 20th, 2012 | Deep Thoughts, Favorite Books | 58 Comments

Someone wrote to say, “A couple years ago you talked about the important of reading great books, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you offer a reading list to authors. What books would you recommend?”

Hmmm…. Okay, I think I did this once before, but here you go. I did some work on this, and I now present The MacGregor Recommended Reading List for Writers…

Ancients (old books writers ought to at least have read once): Homer’s ILIAD and ODYSSEY; Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX; Euripides’ THE TROJAN WOMEN and ELECTRA; Herodotus’ THE HISTORIES; Thucydides’ HISTORY OF THE PELOPPENESIAN WAR; Sun Tsu’s THE ART OF WAR; Aristophanes’ LYSISTRATA; Plato’s SELECTED WORKS; Virgil’s THE AENEID

Classics (the classic books that every writer should probably be familiar with): Augustine’s CONFESSIONS; Dante’s DIVINE COMEDY; Chaucer’s CANTERBURY TALES; Shahrazad’s THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS; Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE; Miguel de Servants’ DON QUIXOTE; Shakespeare’s COMPLETE WORKS; John Donne’s SELECTED WORKS; Galileo’s DIALOGUE CONCERNING THE TWO CHIEF WORLD SYSTEMS; Hobbe’s LEVIATHAN; Descarte’s DISCOURSE ON METHOD; Milton’s PARADISE LOST; Moliere’s PLAYS; Blaise Pascal’s PENSEES; Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS; John Locke’s SECOND TREATISE ON GOVERNMENT; Daniel Defoe’s ROBINSON CRUSOE; Jonathan Swift’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS; Voltaire’s CANDIDE; Henry Fielding’s TOM JONES; Laurence Sterne’s TRISTRAM SHANDY; James Boswell’s LIFE OF SAMUEL JOHNSON; Thomas Jefferson’s BASIC DOCUMENTS IN AMERICAN HISTORY; Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.

Moderns (a change here — we get into the modern version of the novel): Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE; Stendahl’s THE RED AND THE BLACK; Hawthorne’s THE SCARLET LETTER; Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR; Dicken’s THE PICKWICK PAPERS, DAVID COPPERFIELD, HARD TIMES, THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP; Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE; Emily Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS; Anthony Trollope’s THE WAY WE LIVE NOW and THE WARDEN; Herman Melville’s MODY DICK; George Elliott’s THE MILL ON THE FLOSS; Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s FAUST; Gustave Flaubert’s MADAME BOVARY; Selected poems of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman;  Alexis de Tocqueville’s DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA; the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe; Thoreau’s WALDEN.

Moving Toward Contemporaries (these aren’t really “contemporary” yet, but they’re in the time of transition as literature moved toward contemporary books — and yes, feel free to argue with me on definitions, since I’m making this up as I go along): Dostoyevsky’s CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV; Tolstoy’s WAR AND PEACE; Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN; Lewis Carroll’s ALICE’S ADVENTURE IN WONDERLAND; Henry Adams’ THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS; Thomas Hardy’s THE MAYOR OF CASTORBRIDGE; Henry James’ THE AMBASSADORS; Joseph Conrad’s NOSTROMO; Anton Chekhov’s THREE SISTERS and THE CHERRY ORCHARD; George Bernard Shaw’s MAJOR BARBARA; Edith Wharton’s THAT HOUSE OF MIRTH; Marcel Proust’s SWANN’S WAY; Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN; the poetry of Yates.

Contemporary (here’s where there will be the most argument — lots of folks could be added or subtracted): The poetry of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot, and W.H. Auden; E.M. Forster’s A PASSAGE TO INDIA; James Joyce’s ULYSSES; Virginia Woolf’s TO THE LIGHTHOUSE;  D.H. Lawrence’s SONS AND LOVERS; Eugene O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and THE ICEMAN COMETH; Aldous Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD; William Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING; Ernest Hemingway’s THE SUN ALSO RISES; George Orwell’s 1984; Albert Camus’ THE PLAGUE; Saul Bellow’s THE ADVENTURES OF AUGIE MARSH; Aleksander Solzhenitsy’s CANCER WARD; Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE; Thomas Pynchon’s GRAVITY’S RAINBOW; Samuel Becket’s WAITING FOR GODOT.

What’s Missing? Novels from our own day. Genre novels. Christian novels (which we represent a bunch of). Lots of others. What do you think? What’s missing? What would you add? 

What do I need to know about writing my memoir?

September 27th, 2012 | Favorite Books, The Writing Craft, Trends | 7 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “So what do we need to keep in mind when creating memoir?”

Fist, keep in mind there’s a difference between “memoir” and “autobiography.” An autobiography is a straight retelling of one’s life — what happened, what were the events/decisions, what did those result in. A memoir is a more personal narrative of the significant change points in one’s life. It doesn’t have to be linear, whereas an autobiography is almost always linear. And the focus of a memoir can be more on the effects in your personal life — what you were feeling, what you learned, how you changed. The end result is almost always on a catharsis of some kind. So while the goal of autobiography is to get the facts straight, the goal of memoir is something more akin to “revealing myself and my story, in order to reveal principles that will help others live more effectively.” (This isn’t a dictionary definition, it’s a MacGregor Definition.)

Second, people understand the world best through story, so that’s how you have to think. What are the stories that reveal your life and your character? What stories happened to you that changed you?  You see, if you’re not a celebrity, nobody really cares about your everyday life (and, to tell you the truth, I’ve never cared to read celebrity biographies very much because…well, I don’t care about THEIR everyday life either). If someone wanted to understand my life, to see who I am and why, they wouldn’t care about a cold retelling of the facts. They’d rather hear some of my story — my dad’s conversation with me one morning just before he committed suicide, the person who told me I could write, my success as a writer, my failure as a publisher, my mom’s ugly death, the miracle that occurred in my car, the fact that people have stayed with me when I was a jerk, etc. I think if an author can get the stories down, tell them honestly and with a strong voice, they’re well on the way to creating memoir.

Third, most memoirs are about moving forward and finding answers, not about moving toward destruction. Every fiction writer knows an audience likes a redemption story best. So don’t just tell me about all your mistakes — show me. Don’t assume I’m interested in something just because you are. Make me like you before you dump dirt. If I’m not feeling sympathy for you, I’m going to stop reading. And don’t share a bunch of bad stuff about your family, thinking your catharsis is necessarily fascinating reading to others. Again, story will trump a recitation of events. (In I WENT TO THE ANIMAL FAIR, Heather Harpham reveals the presence of some mental illness in her family by telling the story of visiting her grandmother’s house one day and finding toast nailed to the wall. Her entire family was there, but nobody talked about it. They all pretended they didn’t see it, or maybe that toast on the wall was a routine occurrence. It’s a fascinating detail.)

I often get people sending me their personal story — “THIS happened to me, and everybody tells me I should write a book about it!” My response is usually a yawn. Yes, I’m a spiritual person who believes God is alive and doing great things. Yes, miracles still happen. And yes, lives get changed in incredible ways, sometimes through supernatural power and sometimes through dumb luck, and the re-telling of that can be valuable (after all, people have been telling dramatic stories since cave men sat around the fire telling whoppers about the great mastodon hunt). But the fact that something amazing happened to you doesn’t have much to do with the creation of a great memoir. The whole “personal story” book era has come and gone (circa 1977). Like I said yesterday, nobody is buying your personal story.

So fourth, the quality of the craft is essential. If you can write exceptionally well, and reveal yourself on the page, and get beyond the retelling of WHAT happened in order to get us to think about the greater issues of HOW that changed you and WHY that’s important and WHAT the principles for living more effectively are, THEN you’ve got the potential to write a memoir.  As a reader I’ve got to relate to your character, trust that you’re being honest, be interested/entertained by your story, and expect you to relate to timeless questions about life faced in complex circumstances. I want to read about the decisions you made, knowing those decisions might not have been right, and then read about the results. If all those things come into play, you’ve got potential with your memoir. It’s not a recounting of an entire life; it’s the well-written, thoughtful story of an author in a season of time.

So I suppose it’s fair to ask what some good examples are. I can think of several…

- Anne Lamott’s TRAVELING MERCIES. Her spiritual pilgrimage is interesting and inspirational, and her writing is fabulous.

- Jeanette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE has fabulous writing and tells a story you’ll long remember.

- Haven Kimmel’s A GIRL NAMED ZIPPY is a hilarious look at growing up in a small town.

-Lauren Winner’s GIRL MEETS GOD is a dynamite book, and one of those projects that I continually wonder why it isn’t talked about more often.

-Jenny Lawson’s LET’S PRETEND THIS NEVER HAPPENED is a riot, and (mostly) true.

-Madeleine L’Engle’s TWO PART INVENTION is the story of her marriage, and A CIRCLE OF QUIET is a contemplative book with a grand theme.

There are others. A friend of mine, Lisa McKay is just releasing LOVE AT THE SPEED OF EMAIL, which I think is charming. (Got my hard copy today!) What memoir writing do you appreciate?


Another post about favorite books

July 18th, 2012 | Favorite Books | 17 Comments

Marie Prys provides administrative support to MacGregor Literary’s agents as well as overseeing contracts and informational databases. She hails from the Northwest, lives in Richmond, VA, and enjoys a blessed life with her husband and four children. Reading is a favorite pastime she is always trying to find more time for.

When it comes to favorite books, I would be remiss if I didn’t cover Children’s fiction. As a child I was sometimes punished with having whatever book I was reading be taken away until a misdeed had been rectified—such as completing neglected chores. (This was, by the way, very effective, as I was always reading.) As an adult I am again re-reading old favorites with my children, or sometimes just living vicariously through them as they find my old favorites, and together we’ve even discovered new reading gems. Reading in this way creates communion, interaction, and special memories, but it also teaches.

When my daughter got hooked on the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, it was an addiction for me to ask her where she was in the series and what was going on. I relished her enjoyment of the descriptions of sisterhood (Laura is going to be Mary’s eyes now), her disdain for Nellie Olson (She deserved the leeches!), and her anticipation of what would happen when Almanzo Wilder came on the scene.  And as she was reading, she learned geography, American pioneer-era history, and about the intricacies of family relationships.

The scene was no different when my son discovered J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. We discussed the pros and cons of mail by owl (how do the owls know where to go?), and Harry’s incredible successes in Quidditch (It would be the coolest game if it were real), and I taught him how to play chess after he read about Wizard Chess and realized we had that game. Going more deeply into his reading, we also considered what Muggles were and drew parallels to WWII, and considered how people groups should be treated, and what history and the Bible teach us.

During a recent trip we listened to an audio version of P. L. Travers Mary Poppins, and, much to my delight, it was well received by all (it can be hard to please everyone) and led to a great discussion of how the original book was similar (and completely different) from the Disney movie version.

It also warms my heart that my two older children, in spite of their reading proficiency, still enjoy tuning in when I read aloud to the younger two. Last week we started Roald Dahl’s Danny and the Champion of the World. The following passage (p. 34) brought great enjoyment:

“…Whenever my dad thought up a new method of catching pheasants, he tried it out on a rooster first to see if it worked.”

“What are the best ways?” I asked.

My father laid a half-eaten sandwich on the edge of the sink and gazed at me in silence for about twenty seconds. “Promise you won’t tell another soul?”

“I promise.”

“Now here’s the thing,” he said. “Here’s the first big secret. Ah, but it’s more than a secret, Danny. It’s the most important discovery in the whole history of poaching.”

He edged a shade closer to me. His face was pale in the pale yellow glow from the lamp in the ceiling, but his eyes were shining like stars.

“So here it is,” he said, and now suddenly his voice became soft and whispery and very private. “Pheasants,” he whispered, “are crazy about raisins.”

“Just ordinary raisins. It’s like a mania with them….”

[Stop my reading here as I explain what “mania” and “poaching” are.] Then, without missing a beat, one eager listener raises the question I should have expected: “Mom, do you think our chickens would like raisins too?”

Um, no, I think we should leave the raisins to those who poach pheasants.  (And yes, I moved both the bag of Craisins and the box of raisins to the top shelf of the pantry right after our reading that night.)

Thanks, Roald Dahl, for great moments spent reading your stories, and for ideas that will likely lead to some experimentation in my very own backyard, but also hours of enjoyment and memories with my kids.

What children’s books stand out in your memory as great reads, and have you shared them with your own kids? Please leave a comment as I’m always on the lookout for more great books to read.