Friday, September 21, 2018

The Long View: Giving Novels the Time They Need

By Susan Coll, TWC Novel Year Instructor

Students are frequently more interested in polishing their query letters than in perfecting their manuscripts. That’s a common thread I’ve observed in the many workshops that I’ve run at The Writer’s Center. I’ve heard many a student express the hope that even though the book is not yet the best possible version of itself, an agent or editor will recognize its potential. Perhaps they will even sit by the author’s side and serve tea while they revise.
Photo by Lauren Shay Lavin

Writers are always in a rush to publish—I get it. I, too, am always itching to send off my not-quite-ready manuscripts. The tension between taking the time to write the best book I can and wanting to get it out into the world right away, is part of what keeps my fire burning.

Last year’s Novel Year class—an intensive workshop in which ten novelists spend the year writing and revising their work-in-progress—aimed to take the long view, to slow down and give the novel time to breathe. Sometimes the novel is not ready for publication, and sometimes the world is not yet ready for the novel. Accordingly, I brought in three guest speakers whose work took years to find publishers, and yet who each ultimately had great success:

Julie Langsdorf
In 2008 I ran a workshop at The Writer’s Center called Intro to the Novel. In walked Julie, who could have been teaching the class herself. The novel she had already largely completed was terrific, and I had little to offer her by way of advice other than to encourage her to find an agent. She did, rather easily, but the book failed to sell. The timing might have been off—at the center of her book are affluent suburban neighbors feuding over a behemoth home development project. Her novel was being shopped to publishers just as the housing market began to crash. She thought, “Well, okay, the huge house concept is dead now. I guess I missed the boat.”

Julie put the novel in the proverbial drawer and moved on to other pursuits, but every once in a while she would pull it up, revise it, and put it away again. Last fall she decided to send it back out into the world. The agent who offered to represent her sent the book out on a Friday and by the following week she was fielding calls from editors. The novel, White Elephant, will be published next spring by Ecco.

J.H. Diehl
A middle grade author and Chevy Chase resident, Jean describes her book journey as more odyssey than cruise. She had an agent offer representation for the novel in late 2012, and the manuscript generated a flurry of interest. She was asked to revise for two major publishers, but when the second one still wasn’t satisfied with her second round of revisions for them, she and her agent pulled the book and started searching for a publisher all over again. In June 2016 she received an offer from Chronicle Books, with what she describes as “the kind of over-the-top enthusiastic letter from the editor that every writer dreams of getting.” The book is called Tiny Infinities, and Diehl’s protagonist, Alice, has the charming quirk of mentally categorizing life events. Tiny Infinities was picked as a Fall 2018 Junior Library Guild Selection almost as soon as it appeared in printed galleys. Alice would surely file this one under, “all you need is to find the right editor.”

Paul Goldberg
When I first met Paul some six years ago, he told me that although he had successfully published three books of non-fiction, he’d been unable to sell any of the three novels he had written over the last decade. I took a look at his dusty manuscripts and zeroed in on one that seemed to me particularly smart. He made a round of revisions, gave it a new title, and his agent agreed to send it back out. Many of the editors who had initially rejected it were by now long gone, and it went back out to several of the same imprints. The Yid was published by Picador in 2016 to wide acclaim and was a finalist for two prizes.

Why did this one succeed the second time around? Perhaps the manuscript needed some sharpening, or maybe the provocative new title cast it in a new light, or maybe it was just a matter of serendipity. (Also full disclosure, Paul and I are now married.)

The drive to put your work out into the world is healthy, and I’m not suggesting anyone stop trying. It’s good to keep pushing forward—it’s also good to step back. I happen to believe that there is a nugget of truth in clich├ęs about waiting and that sometimes good things happen later in life.


Susan Coll is the author of five novels, most recently The Stager—a New York Times and Chicago Tribune Editor’s Choice. Her other books include Acceptance—which was made into a television movie starring Joan Cusack—Beach Week, Rockville Pike, and Her work has appeared
in publications including The New York Times, Washington Post,,, and The Millions. She worked as the Events and Programs Director at Politics & Prose Bookstore for five years.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

2017 First Novel Prize Winner Sheila Martin

Sheila Martin will read at The Writer's Center on Friday, September 28, 2018, 7:30pm. Click here for details »

It’s the beginning of summer at Coney Island in the 1950s: the rides are whirring and cranking, kids are screaming and laughing, the smells of Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and sea water hang in the air. In The Coney Island Book of the Dead, the 2017 winner of the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize, Sheila Martin draws from her own memories to create the character of Brooklyn, a spunky 11-year-old who goes on a magical chase to find a mysterious blues singer who may or may not be real. Brooklyn narrates the story with a voice that conveys both innocence and eloquence as she deals with her abusive aunt, her missing cousin, and the old woman who rents the upstairs room in the house she shares with her mentally ill mother. To add to the magic, each chapter includes a painting done by Sheila herself, who is originally a painter and only recently has begun to write. Her debut novel is a triumph; it’s beautifully strange, vivacious, whimsical, and a bit dark. We spoke to Sheila about her prize-winning novel, her art, and her influencers.

Sheila Martin
TWC: What was your inspiration for the book? Did the idea come all at once, or did it develop as you wrote?

SM: It came mostly from growing up in Coney Island and the many oddball people I knew back then, and to a lesser degree from living in Memphis for the past twenty-six years. The idea developed slowly after I did a number of paintings inspired by Coney Island. It occurred to me to write down a few of my memories. I think a lot of people start writing this way, though they usually go on to write memoirs. After a while I thought maybe I could turn it into something publishable, so I turned to fiction.

TWC: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

SM: I’ve always been a visual artist and as a kid I had a knack for story-telling. When I was in the second grade I wrote a fictionalized memoir with scary pictures. In my working life I used to be a
graphic designer before I took very early retirement so I could paint full-time (thanks to my husband Jim). I was also inspired by a talk by Allen Ginsberg in 1993. Shortly after that I started writing
down my memories and eventually the Coney Island stories, which was the first fiction I ever wrote. That’s when I got hooked.

TWC: How do your art and writing influence one another?

SM: As for painting, not much. Some of the paintings are intentional illustrations, like the one of Mississippi, but most of them are visions inspired by Coney Island. But there’s another connection—
writing is a graphic experience for me. I print out sections to see how the words look on paper, then edit from that. It’s very important that they look right.

TWC: Did you weave any of your own personality into your characters?

SM: I drew on memories, sure, but Brooklyn is probably smarter and spunkier than I was. I really was fascinated by the music bar on the boardwalk, but I never could sing and I never had a dog.

TWC: What was your favorite scene to write? What was your hardest scene to write?

SM: There weren’t any. I rewrote them all more times than I can remember and every time was fascinating. A couple of scenes felt cathartic—Brooklyn singing in chapter 19 and the musical duel.
TWC: Growing up did you have authors that influenced you?

SM: When I was very young I had a book called The Little Golden Book of Verse. It had “The Swing” in it by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve tried to find that book online, but can’t. I think I could still draw some of the illustrations from memory. I also loved “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I even memorized part of it when I was a child.

In writing this novel, I was influenced by To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In general, I’m influenced by many modern writers such as Francine Prose, T.C. Boyle, Alison Lurie, George Saunders, Jennifer Egan, and Mary Karr.

TWC: What advice would you give first-time authors?

SM: If they are young—in high school— I’d recommend they major in creative writing in college, if for no other reason than they would at least have a few years to write before they have to get a job. I’m probably saying this because I had such a blast in art school. If they’re starting late in life, like I
did, I’m not sure. When I started writing at about age fifty, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know, but I had no idea how much. I read books on writing and a lot of fiction. Then, when I had a big, messy, overwritten body of work full of purple prose I engaged master fiction editor, Renni Browne, coauthor of the classic Self-Editing for Fiction Writers to help me work it into something readable. I was thrilled when she agreed to take it on. I learned a tremendous amount from her. I never took a
writing class (which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t). I got most of my writing education from Renni. I highly recommend her book.

TWC: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

SM: I’d been writing and painting for The Coney Island Book of the Dead for about twenty years. I wrote reams and reams of subplots with major characters that didn’t make it into the final version. I was sad when it was finally done, so I wrote another novel, The Time Artist. I’ve been trying to get an agent to represent it and have had some close calls. I was also inspired to write fourteen short and flash fiction stories right after I finished The Time Artist, and have been sending them and novel excerpts to journals.

I know it’s off topic, but I want to say what a thrill it’s been to win the McLaughlin-Esstman-Stearns First Novel Prize. I’ve never won anything before. I didn’t even tell anyone except my husband for three days in case it wasn’t really true. I want to especially thank Grace Mott and everyone
at The Writer’s Center for all their support.


About the First Novel Prize

Each year, The Writer’s Center awards $1,000 to the author of an exceptional first novel published in the previous calendar year. Conceived and funded by former board member Neal P. Gillen, the McLaughlin-Esstman- Stearns First Novel Prize honors the late Ann McLaughlin, along with dedicated writers and members of The Writer’s Center faculty Barbara Esstman and Lynn Stearns. Books are judged on a number of criteria, including but not limited to quality and originality of character, setting, plot, and language.

Sheila’s prints can be purchased on her website, You can purchase your copy of The Coney Island Book of the Dead on Amazon.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Meet Amy L. Freeman, TWC’s Development Director

By Tessa Wild, TWC Intern

I sat down with Amy L. Freeman, our new Development Director, to chat about what brought her to The Writer’s Center. She comes to us from Bethesda Cares, where she worked to end homelessness in our community. Now she’s embracing her literary side and is eager to support writers and people who want to write. Her own bylines include The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and more, and she was named 2017 “Voice of the Year” by for her piece on gender pronouns. 


Tessa Wild: What brought you to the Writer’s Center?

Amy Freeman, The Writer's Center Development Director
Amy L. Freeman
Amy L. Freeman: I left a job in February after my beloved executive director retired, and I was gonna write full-time for a year, and about three months into it somebody sent me the ad for a position at The Writer’s Center, and I thought: why would I not surround myself with people who care about what I care about? I tend to believe that every decision we make puts us incrementally closer or farther to our goals, and that seemed like one that would move me closer to my goals.

TW: What are your goals?

AF: Not only to write, but to be part of a literary community in the area in which I live.

TW: What’s your favorite thing about The Writer’s Center so far?

AF: Right now, my favorite thing about it is how much it’s in transition. We’ve got a physical renovation going on upstairs, we’ve got a new season of classes, we’ve got a new website launching in January, and we have a lot of new staff. It’s a time of great transition, but it’s also a time of great opportunity.

We’ve got an extraordinary team of dedicated professionals right now who seem really committed to our mission. So it seems like an extraordinary time to have landed here, and a chance to really help shape the direction of the organization moving forward. 

TW: What’s the story you would most like to tell? 

AF: I’m interested in emotional candor in writing. I know I’ve written something good when I feel physically sick afterwards — it means I’ve gotten down to the core of whatever the humanity, whatever the issue is at which I’m looking. So the story I want to tell is one of emotional honesty, which is rare to find, at least in my personal life. 

TW: If you could meet one author, who would it be?

AF: Probably David Sedaris if he still drank. I would meet him over drinks, cause he’s pretty amusing. 

TW: What writing are you working on now?

AF: I’m always working on essays — two of which got rejected yesterday — and I’m close to finishing what I hope is a final revision of a novel. 

TW: What’s the novel?

AF: It’s called “Smotherly Love.” It's told in three voices, and it’s the story of a mother and two adult daughters. It basically looks at the question of the long-term impacts of a toxic upbringing that masquerades as utopia.

TW: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

AF: I know this is standard advice, but keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Get involved in communities, because you will get rejections, you will get rejections, and then you will get more rejections, and it’s really, really great to have the support of people who are also getting rejections, even though their writing is good. It’s also great to have writing groups, and critique groups, and get feedback, because other times we as writers spend too much time with our own spectacular, yet tiring, brains.