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Showing posts from September, 2009

Three Questions with Steven Pressfield

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I've recommended Steven Pressfield'sTHE WAR OF ART to so many writers, I ought to be on commission. As I've mentioned on the blog, WOA is one of the best resources at a writer's disposal for helping to fight the evil powers of procrastination, which Pressfield calls resistance. I'm such a believer, I'll draw the name of one commenter on today's post and send you your own copy!

And here's something even more exciting. Recently, I was very delighted when Steven Pressfield was kind enough to answer these three brief questions for the blog.

BtO: How does resistance make every other looming task (including toilet-bowl scrubbing) more attractive than the work we're trying to get started?

SP: I don't know, but it sure does, doesn't it? Somebody should write a book about all the different activities that suddenly become so attractive the instant the thought of actually Doing Our Work enters our mind. Did you read that one in Robert McKee's intr…

A tweet in the dark, author to agent

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Blame it on the Middle Sister, my new favorite cheap red wine, or maybe I had my carpal tunnel brace on too tight, but I just couldn't stand it last night when I saw this tweet pop up from literary agent Janet Reid:
One of my least favorite things as an agent: reading a perfectly lovely book, and having NO idea of where to sell it. Dangnabit to helvetica
I don't know Janet, but her solid rep precedes her. She's smart, industry savvy, one of the brave ones. If she thinks this book is perfectly lovely, the author must be good, and if she has no idea where to sell the book, the author is seriously adrift.

I glanced toward my fireplace where I light a candle every night for my friend -- let's call her Jane A, for obvious reasons. Jane A's a terrific writer, but she's been stranded without an agent for almost three years. She keeps getting close-but-no-cigar responses from agents who are intrigued by her query and request opening chapters. Impressed by her opening chap…

Perfectionism as a Crippling Force

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Over on Peter Bregman's How We Work blog, there's a fabulous, must-read post called "How to Escape Perfectionism."

I absolutely believe perfectionism cripples many writers, and that it's really just another word for fear.

Here's my favorite quote from Bregman's post:

[T]he world doesn't reward perfection. It rewards productivity. And productivity can only be achieved through imperfection. Make a decision. Follow through. Learn from the outcome. Repeat over and over and over again. It's the scientific method of trial and error. Only by wading through the imperfect can we begin to achieve glimpses of the perfect.

So for now, I plan to put aside my need to write the scene perfectly and instead go for the very best that I can do today. Because tomorrow, I can clean it up. The next day, I can seek outside input. The day after, I can respond to feedback that resonates with me.

Writing isn't live performance art. It isn't improv. We don't have to…

The Happy Prince (a small Sunday decadence)

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From "The Happy Prince" by Oscar Wilde:
One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.

"Shall I love you?" said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.
To be transported for a lovely half hour of Sunday bliss, click here and listen to Jane Aker's beautiful reading of "The Happy Prince," available for free on LearnOutLoud.com.

Random House lobby is book nerd Mecca

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Book nerd that I am, I feel choked up every time I push through the revolving door into the lobby at Random House. I always try to get there early so I can walk the entire perimeter, taking in the grand history of this place -- this institution -- built by generations of editors who cared deeply about their authors and authors who cared deeply about their craft. This place literally towers with an unabashed love of books. Floor-to-ceiling shelves flank the expansive entryway. Every tome at eye level was in some way groundbreaking. The covers and titles are iconic, instantly evoking an era, a watershed, a sea change. As a reader and a writer, I'm starstruck.

So many of these book covers transport me to an exact time and place in my life as a reader. I always loved that these particular editions of Gulliver's Travels and Tom Sawyer are displayed together. I bought them both off the dollar-a-bag table at the LaCrosse Public Library's annual used book sale the summer before six…

Research Tool Alert: The Criminal Law Handbook

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Ever write a scene involving law enforcement or legal action and fear getting your facts wrong? Then I have a book that should be on your shelves.

As an author of crime fiction, I jumped at the chance to pick up Nolo's The Criminal Law Handbook, by Attorneys Paul Bergman and Sara J. Berman, as an aid to my research. In the past, I've found guides written for the average personal too generic or slanted to be helpful, but this one is helpful, practical, and sensible, with a wealth of plain English examples to help clarify complex issues and enough depth to make it indispensable.

The book is sensibly laid-out with a detailed table of contents and index. The language of the explanations is easy to understand and has no obvious bias. Instead, it counsels restraint while clearly helping the reader understand his/her rights. I also love that www.nolo.com offers free legal updates, along with a variety of other services.

This is a terrific resource for anyone going through or having a …

Say hello to my little friends (2 sweet new research wranglers for the writer's toolbox)

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Spent last week with my current memoir guru client and her wonderful mother. We talked for hours, poured over photo albums, dug into dusty boxes of old letters, sifted through thousands of press clippings. I came away with a blossoming vision of this important book, completely on fire for the project, but more than a little overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information needing to be assimilated. Fortunately, I came to the project armed with two nifty new tools -- both priced at less than $100 -- every research hound needs in her laptop bag.

Sony ICD-UX71 Digital Voice Recorder
Tiny, super easy to operate, and quick to upload with a built in USB connection that pops right into the side of my laptop. Features include ambient noise reduction and transcription friendly slow-down. Stores up to 287 hours of audio and doubles as an MP3 player. And it's red! (Also available in silver for boring people.)

Canon LiDE200 Color Image Scanner
So glad I didn't buy the portable scanner that re…

You Know You're Married to a Writer When...

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1. You begin to associate deadlines with pizza.

2. Your children learn to forage and do laundry before the age of five.

3. You're greeted with the Atomic Death Glare when asking spouse to predict the year's income.

4. You've been brainwashed into thinking of long walks, bookstore runs, vacant stares, and long intervals of computer solitaire as "work."

5. You're not at all freaked to find spouse using flashlight to take notes by bedside after a round of you-know-what.

6. You aren't sure if you own an ironing board.

7. "Vacations" are suspiciously timed to coincide with writers' conferences.

8. You don't find it unusual when spouse shakes you awake to ask if you'd find it plausible if dead body's fingers popped off after being slammed by the trunk lid of a '94 Buick.

9. The only royalty you bow and scrape to comes in an envelope.

10. You've learned you can get your spouse to agree to most anything while she's in a writing trance…

Inertia

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I just handed off a proposal to my agent, so it's time for me to move on to one of several writing items on my to-do list.

Except that I don't wanna. It's a gloomy, rainy day in Houston, and chores need doing, the dogs want petting, the soup requires cooking and...

Oh, crud, it's just inertia, creeping over me like kudzu. And as with kudzu, there's not a darned thing you can do except to whip out your machete (or pen or keyboard in my case) and hack straight through the crud. Because the more you put it off, the thicker inertia's vines grow all about you, and before you know it, you've wasted not a day but a week, a month, or a career to what Steven Pressfield, in his fabulous War of Art, calls the forces of resistance.

By the way, if you're having problems with procrastination, try Pressfield's little book. It's a quick read but one ever writer should own.

Or you can try my time-honored technique and whine about it on the blog 'til you feel too…

What Kristin Chenoweth knows (and Kanye West and Joe Wilson don't) that writers need to learn

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Last year on Emmy night, Kristin Chenoweth showed up dressed to the requisite long and flowy nines, nominated for her role in "Pushing Daisies," a quirky but critically acclaimed show that was on the rise and destined to become a cult hit.

"It wasn't my moment," she shrugged the next time I saw her. "And losing to someone as fabulous as Jean Smart doesn't sting too much."

Last night was her moment. My girl Cheno showed up in an adorable dress that was neither long nor flowy. Hers were the only legs I saw on the red carpet, and if she hadn't been fighting off a migraine headache, she'd have been suffering less than anyone else there because the poorly planned gauntlet stretched out stifling hot in the direct sun.

She was nominated for the same role in "Pushing Daisies," but the show was canceled last spring and sank quickly and quietly beneath the waves. Turns out destiny isn't always what we think it is. As delightful as she…

Benefit Critique Auction

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I've donated a 50-page critique to benefit former RWA National president Janis
Reams Hudson, who has just received a lung transplant in an effort to overcome
end-stage emphysema. Check out my auction on Ebay, please click here. Or check out other fabulous items here.

To read more about Janis and the auction, follow this link.

I hope some of you will consider helping.

If You Build It... They Won't Look Under the Bed

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This past week, I've written some reminders (mainly to myself) that jumping the gun with a submission can be a bad thing, then sending out your "baby" before it's polished can be fatal. But today, let's talk about the opposite problem, the fear-based reluctance to send your project out the door.

Today I finished one last read-through and then sent my much-sweated-over new proposal off to meet its fate. Before doing so, I have to admit, I felt a moment's trepidation, the fear that it may fall short, and the instinctive desire to wrap this "child" in cotton and stuff it somewhere nice and safe.

Unfortunately, that doesn't work any better with manuscripts than it does for our real children. Besides that, manuscripts aren't kids, and it's dangerous for us to think about them that way. Manuscripts are products, and we'd do well to remember that as we edit in response to suggestion, cope with criticism, or face flat-out rejection.

You can'…

Respect for the Work

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This week, I listened to the universe. I got myself unstuck, with a little help from my friend. (Thanks, Joni!) And by golly, I finished the proposal I've been dying to write for quite some time now.

My natural inclination was to throw together an e-mail to my agent, attach the file, and hit send so I could get it to her before the weekend.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, blared the warning claxons in my brain. Because I'm well aware that what looks great to me one minute will soon reveal itself to me to be riddled with typos, awkward sentences, and wordy passages. The trouble is, in the heated glow of my initial enthusiasm, I'll be unable to see any of it.

So out of respect for the work, myself, and my agent's time (everybody deserves a weekend) I held off and read, then reread some more. Afterwards, I called and begged two of my critique partners if they could manage to read as well, and both were kind enough to agree to look it over.

Both are also whip-smart writers with the edit…

Worst blog buddy in the world here (but I promise to do better)

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Just glancing over the last week or so of posts and had to say thanks to Colleen for making the blog worthwhile. I've been buried and haven't added much. I'm turning a corner, however. I'll be back in my natural habitat soon and my list of author interviews is piling up. Almost a dozen terrific authors are patiently waiting for me to swim to the surface, so watch this space for some enlightened Q&A from the people who are launching fall books. You also be seeing a few interesting interviews with publishing pros. (Pay attention if you're a launchee.)

Also on my To Do list is a revamp of our "Feed Me" sidebar, which I'm planning to split into four shorter lists featuring Author, PR, Publishing News, and Reader feeds. Post a comment here clue me in if there's a great writing/publishing blog you'd like us to be aware of.

Meanwhile, thanks for so generously sharing the hard-won lessons of the writing life, Colleen. I promise to be a better blog b…

Foreign Cover Fun:Triple Exposure's Polish Edition

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Look what I found online. The cover art for the brand, new Polish edition of Triple Exposure, Fałszywe ujęcie, from Amber Publishing. I have to admit, I don't always "get" where they're going with their covers but I kind of like this new one. Definitely interesting.

To see the other Polish Editions, follow the link. The fun part is figuring out which art goes with which of my releases. Someday I ought to hold a contest... if I could figure out a way to set that up.

Coming Unstuck without Coming Unglued

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Yesterday, I had a fairly good day writing. Edited the previous day's work, piled into the next chapter, and then somehow wandered...

into...

the...

La Brea Tar Pits.

It happens to every writer at times. Things are grooving right along, and then you realize, hey, there's no bridge between Point A and Point C. So you have to slam on the brakes and somehow figure out a way to build one.

So what do you do to come unstuck? I've developed several techniques to deal with it. I might take a walk or run the vacuum. I'll drive over to the bank or grocery store to take care of some errands. I will pick up my laptop and move to another location, either in the house or over at the library or a coffee joint. Sometimes (shockingly) I even resort to pen and paper because using another modality seems to break loose mental logjams.

Today, however, I've chosen the time-honored Griping About It strategy. I'm blogging about the probl…

How's This for a Boxing Octopus?

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Today I'm giving a big BtO shout-out to all my friends at the Houston Bay Area Chapter of the Romance Writers of America, where I spoke last night on the topic of using sociograms to get to know your characters and shape your plot. It's a brainstorming device I initially shared here and have since developed into an interactive workshop.

Though it's quite a drive for me, I always look forward to speaking to HBA, which has some of the most hilarious chapter meetings and most supportive members I've ever experienced. The speaker intro itself had me rolling (thank you, Anne and Terri!) but when they surprised me with Miss Boxing the Octopus, I could hardly wait to come home and share her on the blog.

Better yet, they somehow figured out that I love mint chewing gum and Jelly Bellies while I'm writing, so I'm fully stocked with a more than generous supply. So thanks a bunch HBA, for making an author feel super welcome!

And no, Joni, I'm not letting you borrow Miss …

What is truth? (Ben Yagoda on the life story of an art form)

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Eagerly awaiting Ben Yagoda's forthcoming Memoir: A History (Riverhead, Nov 2009), a book about books aboout life stories.

From PW:
...a spirited account of a form of writing that since its inception has been one of the most contested and most popular. Without dwelling too heavily on the genre's most recent scandals, Yagoda begins with the fifth-century Confessions of Saint Augustine, still cited as a prime example. ...Yagoda explores the fluid definition of “truth” and whether, given memory's malleability, it's possible to achieve it in any memoir.

Okay, I'm Listening Already!

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Have you ever been encouraged, all right abetted by the universe on a writing project? Back in July, some pages popped out -- something for which I had neither the time nor concentration to spare (I was finishing a contracted work, and then I had to complete another proposal), but it hardly mattered. Once this opening spilled out on paper, I couldn't wait to get the chance to dive into it, since it's a project that's been percolating in the back of my brain for years.

Since then, however, I've been bombarded with signs that this is exactly what I need to be doing. Numerous newspaper headlines and related articles. An in-depth interview with a woman who's through living my heroine's situation. Detailed, specific, up-to-date research all but falling from the sky. A "chance" meeting, on the same day, with someone (who had no idea what I was writing) offering to introduce me to a man who's gone through the exactly career crisis as my story's hero,…

Ah, Paris...

Edith Piaf on Ed Sullivan in 1952

New Cover Art

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I admit it. One of my very favorite parts of being an author (other than interacting with happy readers!) is opening a new piece of cover art. Whenever I receive one, I hold my breath like a little kid about to open birthday presents. And yes, I'm praying for the pony instead of sensible new socks and undies. Or worse yet (gasp), something educational.

I think I got the pony this time, with my cover for my March 2010 release, Touch of Evil. Though it's sexier than my past covers, it conveys the story and its characters nicely.

Hope you'll forgive my sloppy scan. This was the best I could manage for some reason.

Here's a sneak peek at the back cover copy, too.

Tight

The noose cuts off all air, leaving its victim struggling hopelessly against death. One by one, the members of a small town zydeco band are being murdered by a macabre killer.

Tight

Sheriff Justine Wofford is boxed in on all sides, investigating a series of gruesome hangings everyone else considers suicide. Hospi…

Some Things Defy Words: 9/11/01

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Like millions around the globe, I can't help thinking about the events that unfolded eight years ago today, can't help recalling all the lives impacted, all the grief and, yes, the surging of a fierce, defiant pride in our country and its people.

I was with a friend, researching a book and travel article in Key West, when a pierced, tattooed guy taking out his trash blurted the ridiculous "sky is falling" news to us. We didn't believe him, thought it must be some bizarre and cruel "joke" a mentally ill or drug-addled local liked to play on the turistas. It took a while for it to sink in, for more news to reach us from the guide narrating our cheesy tram tour through the city. Few of those riding with us spoke sufficient English to "get" what was happening, but we did, along with the American guide. That moment, and his false cheer for the sake of the other tour guests, stand out as the most surreal of my life.

I don't really like to think ab…

September 10, 1983

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So far...so good.

Get your Jack Imel on! (The writing life is all about multi-tasking.)

"What separates the men from the boys in this business is the ability to multi-task." Wise words from an editor I worked with at Random House a while back. We were talking about the overlapping timelines on two projects that had me editing and writing at the same time. It can be crazy-making, but a successful writing life requires the ability to compartmentalize projects and isolate the muscles you need to do more than one thing at a time. Throw motherhood into that mix, and you're seriously...tap dancing.

Spend a moment with the great Jack Imel from the old Lawrence Welk Show, then get into your jazz pants and have a great day.

Crashing Through Brick Walls: First Lines that Sold

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On one of my writing loops (sending a shout out to my friends from PASIC) we've been sharing first lines from our own novels, specifically our first novels published. It's been so much fun reading the openings of books that snagged an editor's or agent's attention that I thought I'd carry it over to the blog today and see if I could entice any of you to share.

But first, a little about the rumored "rules" for openings. I've been hearing them for years: Don't start with the weather. Or a funeral. Or a woman sipping tea. Don't begin with a long sentence (some rule-spouters are so specific, they give an exact word count you mustn't exceed). Avoid prologues at all cost. Start with dialogue. Begin in the middle of things. Set off at the moment everything changes. Never start with a description. Eschew backstory.

I could go on, but I won't. Because I think it's all a load of bunkum. First lines aren't meant to be paint-by-number prescr…

Are you suffering Rejection Fatigue? (Take two of these with a glass of wine.)

Adding Scott Jeffrey's "Enlightened Business" blog to our Feed Me sidebar after seeing his post about ignoring the critics. Just a few examples of titanically wrong calls on the part of agents, editors and reviewers...
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
“It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”

And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street by Dr. Seuss
“Too different from the other [books for] juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”

Animal Farm by George Orwell
“It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA.”

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Carrie by Stephen King
“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. …

An early end to my Infinite Summer

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After I flooded the bathroom at the Hay-Adams Hotel, I came to the inescapable conclusion that I would never finish reading Infinite Jest. I understand now. This book I've wanted to read for years does not want to be read by me.

Back in May, I enthusiastically hopped on the Infinite Summer bus and dove into David Foster Wallace's hefty tome for the severalth time. Cool, smart people discussing the magnum opus of a brilliant author at a super-doable pace of 75 pgs/week. What's not to love? I ordered a shiny new copy and enthusiastically posted here on BoxOcto:
Am I a huge bifocula for being really excited about this? I don't care. I think when I get to the final page of this extraordinary book, I'm going to be a better reader, a better writer, and I will have settled into a strong habit of crawling into bed at a reasonable hour with a good book.
By the end of July, about 400 pgs in (not even approaching halfway home), I'd remembered all the reasons why I keep pi…

The Camel Bookmobile Project

Read Masha Hamilton's riveting novel 31 Hours this week (more about that tomorrow) and it made me want to go back and check out her previous work. I'll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, be intrigued by these images and click to read the story behind The Camel Bookmobile...

Dialogue's Pettiest of Peeves

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“Let's bring it up to date with some snappy nineteenth century dialogue”

Samuel Goldwyn, the movie Goldwyn (and the G in MGM) said this back in 1924, which brings up another great point about dialogue. It's a tether to the story's setting.

In thought and speech, characters reflect their milieu. Place, time, educational background, social standing: every one of these should be reflected. But delicately, as if you're painting a pastel watercolor instead of troweling foundation on a sow's face. (What an image!)

By this I mean please don't go overboard with dialect. At best, it get be offensive. At worst, incomprehensible. A few dropped g's and f-bombs go a long way, as do "lads" and "lassies." And if you try to transcribe a cherubic little child lisping or using a lot of baby talk, I'm sooo out of there! (Can you hear my pet peeves coming out?)

Resist the temptation to stereotype by prissifying the speech of "good" characters (oft…

The Tao of Dialogue

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One of the most challenging skills a novelist needs to develop is writing great dialogue. For the purposes of fiction (or narrative nonfiction, including memoirs), the author has to do far more than depicting "real conversation," which (if you really listen) is most often halting, repetitive, and mundane enough to put anyone attempting to read it to sleep.

So let's agree that dialogue has to do far more, and far better, than simply sounding real. In general, writers do best to remember the following.

1. Keep it pithy. Assume you're writing the "Best of" whatever comes out of that character's mouth. So you want only the cleverest, the most conflict-rich, and the most character-revealing. And for heaven's sake, avoid the temptation to allow characters to speak in long monologues. Nobody likes a blowhard. Especially in print.

2. Keep it pertinent. All, or very nearly all, dialogue must move the plot forward, heighten the tension of the story question, or …

Your Attention Please

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That's right, I'm after your attention. Or your attention span, which I'm sure must be better than mine of late, with all of life's distractions.

In part, I blame technology, which gives us such a wealth of easily-accessible entertainment and information options, it's becoming increasingly difficult to focus on the work. Twitter tweets for my attention, e-mails and other social networks clamor, and it's not hard to talk myself into the notion that all of these (including the blog) are work, that it's important to "put myself out there."

But I remind myself, that's not the work I chose. (The blog's fun; I admit that. And a nice little journaling warm-up in the mornings.)

And then there are other people's stories (and oh, how I love stories) drifting through the ether. Stories I can plug into via TV, DVD, Hulu.com, audio downloads, Kindle (if I had one), iPhone (ditto), or, lo and behold, the classic book. It's hard to resist the siren …

Speaking of Structure

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Late last night I finished reading a wonderfully rich, inventive novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The book, the ensemble cast story of how a mutual love of books pulled together a small, eccentric band of Channel Islanders (British citizens) and helped them survive the horrors and hardships of German occupation during WW II. I loved it because it truly transported me to another place and time, and rather than detracting, the many voices wove a gorgeous tapestry of a story told entirely through letters, telegrams, and (in one brief section) journal entries.

It's an interesting structure that really works for this book but wouldn't in most cases, and it got me thinking about structurally-different novels. A lot of fascinating possibilities are out there, from variations in tense to changing up or mixing the expected use of third or first person, and/or using the omniscient voice, where the "wise narrator" kn…