Book Review: Navajos Wear Nikes

I just finished Navajos Wear Nikes  by Jim Kistofic (University of New Mexico Press) and I have the urge to start it again, it was that good. This is a memoir of a young boy who is transplanted from an ordinary life in Pittsburgh to an extraordinary life in the heart of a Navajo reservation.

You know a book is something special when you think about getting back to reading the next chapter during most of your busy day, and when you stay up late into the night to read just one more word. Kristofic takes you into a world that feels unvarnished.

He’s an outsider, a newcomer to the reservation as a young child, as are we who know nothing of this world. With the author, we are initiated into the foreign and the familiar. We wince with the pain of brutality, ache with his sorrows, and always throughout it all there is laughter. This is a place where the land shapes life, where bullying is all a part of making you a “Tough Noodle” and where an ancient culture blends in surprising ways with the modern world.  It’s revealing, enlightening and at times downright hysterical.

As we laugh at the narrator’s keen observations and at the original pranks that only kids on the reservation could possibly think of, we feel ourselves starting to fit in and understand.

Kristofic is a wise and witty narrator and I recommend this amazing memoir to anyone who is looking for a great read, for entertainment, and for words that will take them where they have never gone before. Read it for fun, include it in classrooms and libraries, and share it like a gift with others.

Truly an outstanding experience!

Marie Lamba, Literary Agent

I know that lots of my posts are tongue in cheek, but this time I’m actually serious. I’m pleased to announce that I am now an associate literary agent for the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency in New York.

Actually, I’ve been doing this for a few months but as a “secret agent,” reading manuscripts on the sly…maybe wearing black leather boots, dark shades, and slinking about clandestinely, who knows?  But now it’s finally time to fess up.

Yeah, I’m still an author, but being a writer plus an agent feels like the next natural step for me. And I’m hoping to bring my years of experience as an author, an editor and an enthusiastic book promoter to the table in a way that will benefit future clients.

I’m especially thrilled to be a part of Jennifer DeChiara’s firm.  Jennifer has been, and continues to be, my literary agent, and she’s an agent of the best sort.  She doesn’t just represent a book, she represents and supports an author over that person’s entire career, through all the peaks and valleys.  When I take on clients, I plan to do the same, looking beyond just the one title the writer presents to me and onto the entire career of that writer. It’s about making smart moves for that writer, about mentoring, and about building their future successes. It’s exciting stuff!

Here’s my agenting bio:

As an agent, Marie is currently looking for young adult and middle grade fiction, along with general and women’s fiction and some memoir.  Books that are moving and/or hilarious are especially welcome. She is NOT interested in picture books, science fiction or high fantasy (though she is open to paranormal elements), category romance (though romantic elements are welcomed), non-fiction, or in books that feature graphic violence.

Some recently favorite titles on her shelf include Searching for Caleb by Anne Tyler, Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, Paper Towns by John Green, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, Twenties Girl by Sophia Kinsella, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Shug by Jenny Han, and Doing It by Melvin Burgess.  She also admits to watching many many chick flicks.

To contact her, send only a query letter with the first 20 pages of your manuscript pasted into the bottom of your email to marie.jdlit@gmail.com.

…So, if you have something that you think I’d be interested in, please do send your query letter to the above email.  I ask that you use only this email to contact me in my agent capacity. To keep things sane, I will not respond to unsolicited manuscripts or to queries that come to me via other avenues, including other email addresses, social media venues, etc.

Thanks!

The Ultimate Writer’s Group

Marie's article about her Rebel Writers group is in this issue of Writer's Digest Magazine

What would be your perfect writer’s group?

For me it’s all about having a small bunch of talented people who I also happen to like and respect.  The level of ability should be close to mine or better.  And we should all be working on novels.  I’m so fortunate to belong to The Rebel Writers, a group of 6 amazing people who have been meeting once a month for 10 years now!

How did I end up so fortunate? Well, sometimes you have to lend your fortune a hand.  It started out when a number of us were in a very large writing group. Folks in that group met every other week, and up to 4 submissions were read each time.  This meant a lot of short stories.  It also meant a long delay between when you would be read next.  And if you were subbing chapters for a novel, well you’d have to wait months for your next chapter to come up.  No way were people going to able to comment on things like arc or character development, etc.

So I and a few hand-picked writers from that group who were all working on novels formed a secret group (hence the name The Rebel Writers) and we met secretly for about 2 years!  The reason? Honestly, we didn’t want to hurt feelings, because we didn’t open it to everyone.  The joy of our group is that it’s limited to six, that we meet once a month, and that we cover novels. Huge chunks of novels.  We only read two authors a meeting, and sometimes only one…we can have an entire novel read in a month and discussed for a full two hours.  Beyond excellent!

If you’re interested in forming your own version of The Rebel Writers, I’ve written an article that shows how we run this and what our guidelines for critiquing are, which you can find in Writer’s Digest Magazine’s Feb. ’08 issue and in its 2009 Yearbook issue…click here to order a copy through them.

(Photo by Caitlin Doherty) Launch at Doylestown Books of Jeanne Denault's SUCKING UP YELLOW JACKETS. (front, left to right) Marie Lamba, Jeanne Denault, Chris Bauer, (back) David Jarret, Damian McNicholl, John Wirebach. (Not pictured - Russ Allen)

Our group of unpublished novelists now has four who are published!  Our most recent is Jeanne Denault, who has just launched her stunning memoir Sucking Up Yellow Jackets (O Books). It’s about what it was like to raise an Asperger’s son before Asperger’s was a known condition.  Add in her son’s obsession with explosives and mix this with Jeanne’s wry sense of humor, and you can see why this book is a winner!

We’re thrilled for Jeanne, and can’t wait to see who’s going to have the next book launch.

Other Rebs who have been published?  Well, our first one out of the gate is the wonderful literary author Damian McNicholl.

Damian’s moving novel A Son Called Gabriel (CDS Books) is a coming of age story about a boy discovering he’s gay while growing up in Catholic Ireland.  We knew Damian’s book would be a smash when we’d critiqued it, and weren’t at all surprised when Publisher’s Weekly said, “McNicholl is a graceful writer, and his is a worthy debut.”

After Damian’s success, I broke out of the gates with my YA novel What I Meant…, and I owe so much to the Rebs for their wonderful manuscript critiques and continuing support for my writing.

The next one up was Chris Bauer with his hair-raising novel Scars on the Face of God (Drollerie Press).  It involves the Devil’s Bible, some truly haunting supernatural elements, and, best of all, Chris’ amazing twist of phrase. He adds a literary feel to the most terrifying of tales.  Bestselling author Scott Nicholson says it’s “hotter than the flames of hell,” and he’s right!

So, happy 10th anniversary to The Rebel Writers!  I’m sure much more success is coming to them all soon.

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…

I’m not complaining, but…

Right after I got my advance for my first novel What I Meant…, I wrote the following essay, and thought I’d post it here. You’ve heard of the Haves and the Have Nots, but are you a Have Barely Enougher? This essay is for all of us currently suffering in these tough economic times. We’re getting by, and grateful, but…

I am NOT Complaining, But…
by Marie Lamba
(copyright 2007 M. Lamba)

I am soaking in money from my book advance.

I know what you are thinking. That gloating skank. And I know what you are imagining. Me, naked, rolling around in a room full of $100 bills. You hate me, right?

Well, don’t be hating. I am naked. But that’s because I’m in a tub in a brand new bathroom funded by my book advance. And the new bathroom wasn’t some luxury. It was a necessity.

See, I am a living breathing example of “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” The very day I signed my contract for my first novel (giveth), I went to nuke some tea and found the microwave mysteriously full of water (taketh). The plumber ripped up the wall in the bathroom above the kitchen, but couldn’t find the leak (taketh, taketh). He ripped up the floor around the toilet and found it all rotted away, and later decided that the leak might be beneath the tile floor, involving the tub line. But he wasn’t sure. One thing was for sure, I needed a competely new bathroom, and my check for my book was just about the right amount (supreme taketh, combined with evil laughter).

My whole life has been like this. And, I know, I should be grateful.  Whenever something major has come up, there has been a freelance job or timely tax return that pays just the right amount. I suppose I should view the bathtub (or the microwave) as half full.

And I should be used to this. See, there are the Haves and the Have Nots, and then there’s my family, the “Have Barely Enoughers.” I come from a long exhausted line of them, starting with my grandmother who went from riches to rags during the Depression, then my parents, who dealt with unemployment during my father’s middle age.

In elementary school, I became a Have Barely Enougher in training. When the Lion’s Club delivered a Thanksgiving dinner to our door, there was turkey and rolls, but no pie. At Christmas they brought me wrapped presents, including a sweater that was too big, and pants that were too small. But they also gave me the game Payday (which, I’m sure, was someone’s good-natured way of teaching fiscal responsibility). By junior high, I was surviving the daily embarrassment of handing over state-provided meal tickets to the sneering cafeteria lady for hot lunches featuring gray mystery meat. I’d like to say I was grateful.

I couldn’t help but wonder, why me? Why my family? None of us were lazy. None of us were fiscally irresponsible. We just had bad luck. Medical and employment catastrophes dogged us. Yet through it all we never lost our house, or our sense of humor.

By the time I reached my 20’s, I was an accomplished Have Barely Enougher. My expectations were low, my skin thick. Therefore, it was no huge surprise when, after I got my first real job and put down money on an apartment, the company I was working for abruptly closed. Also not a shocker: the day after my insurance from that job ran out, I broke my leg.

Sure, there was a lot of taketh, but how could I complain? The Lord provide the the unemployment office, where I could collect money that almost covered basic bills. He gaveth me all the TV I could ever watch (until my apartment was broken into and my TV, along with most of my clothes, were stolen).

I’m in my 40s now, and I’ve gotten by. My whole family has. KNOCK ON TONS OF WOOD. Why ask for more? Just think of all those Have Nots.

And yet I can’t help but think, what if God skipped a few takeths just once in a while? Imagine if money actually got to stick around long enough to accumulate interest. The amount my husband and I earned and had to immediately spend over the past 25 years is staggering. What if there had never been a leaking roof (and rotted rafters), or zapped out electrical panel from a freak storm, or totaled car (not my fault), or emergency double root canal?

I sometimes fantasize I’m like those people, the Haves, whose cars are bigger than my living room, and who never have to limit shopping to end-of-season clearance racks. But if I were literally rolling in dough, wouldn’t I still drive a little car and be scandalized by overpriced jeans? Penny pinching is in my blood. Still, it would be nice to have money for my children’s college, or to take a vacation without fear of bankruptcy. I guess my luck could get worse (God forbid), but couldn’t it also get better?

Soon my novel will be out. Will it sell well enough to change things? Will it undo the generations of struggle and transform my family from Have Barely Enoughers to the best sort of Haves? The kind of Haves that wisely use money to improve the environment and find a cure for cancer? (Are you listening, God?)

Actually, I KNOW the book will sell. How can I be so sure? Well, let me put it this way…there are some wet spots blooming on my ceiling, the heater is acting up, there is a strange mold in my closet, and my tooth is just beginning to throb.