Feb 4, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  

How would you recommend creating and getting to know your characters?

I have a particular method that I have used for a very long time now. I call it the portal method. The first step is to think of at least three important events that have happened in your character’s past. They can be good or bad, but they have to be significant. These are the portals through which you look when you are planning a particular scene. For instance, in The Dark Days Club, my main character, Lady Helen, lost both her parents when she was ten. They drowned on a yachting trip and their bodies were never found. So out of that comes a whole slew of character traits and information, all based on what I imagine would be the psychological consequences of that event. For example, the loss makes Helen feel a sense of abandonment, it has made the idea of family very important to her, she does not like doubt, and she has grown up to be quite cautious. When it comes time to writing a scene that has a link to family – perhaps between Helen and her brother – then some of those traits would come into play. I focus the scene through that “Family/Loss” portal. It provides a base line from which to build the character’s responses, and because these are fixed events in the character’s life they provide cohesiveness to the overall characterization.

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

I always start by researching – many, many months of reading books about my era and searching out primary resources. As I’m doing that, I’m also creating a storyboard and scene breakdown of the plot. Then, when I get to a certain stage in that process, I start writing the first chapter to test out the voice and tone. I keep rewriting that first chapter until I have the voice and tone in place, and I have worked out most of the main plot points on the storyboard. Then off I go, writing the novel. However, that does not mean the research or the storyboarding stops; they continue throughout the whole writing process. There are always delicious new facts to discover and blend into the narrative, and, as I move forward through the manuscript, the interaction between character and plot can sometimes create shifts in the storyline that require a rethink of action sequences or scene placement.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

Every writer rewrites. The first thing that comes out of your mind may be good, but it is not finished. One of my bugbears is the notion that if something is going to be good, then it should arrive perfectly formed. That is absolute 19th century Romantic nonsense. That initial, wonderful rush of ideas is a great start, but the real work is in crafting all that excitement and energy into a meaningful emotional journey for the reader.

Describe your writing style in 5 words or less.

Fluid, suspenseful and slyly humorous.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

  1. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I was about thirteen and had been dragged along to a dinner party by my parents. While the adults ate prawn cocktails, beef stroganoff and talked politics, I took refuge in the living room to finish The Outsiders. I ended up sobbing my eyes out in my borrowed bean-bag, partly because of the sad ending but mainly due to the realization that a good deal of my devastation had been created by the terrible beauty of the book’s circular structure. That’s when I truly wanted to become a writer.
  2. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. Again, I was twelve or thirteen years old. My mother always gave me a book for Christmas and this one came at exactly the right moment—I was ready for well-researched history and dashing romance. I was besotted by the exciting blend of adventure, humor, and buttoned-up characters coming undone by love.       This was the beginning of my love affair with the 18th and 19th centuries, which has now come into full bloom with The Dark Days Club!
  3. If On A Winters Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino. This was one of the texts I read in college. It is a postmodern masterpiece, and has everything you’d ever want to know about creating poignant relationship triangles in fiction, all explored in beautiful prose.

Learn more about The Dark Days Club below.

Feb 2, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  

After developing an idea, what is the first action you take when beginning to write?

My writing generally weaves together three strands of content. There’s some nugget of scientific research that I think is interesting and useful – maybe a study that I’ve just read about, or something which I’ve been wanting to write about for a while. Then, I also want to be clear on the practical advice that’s implied by that scientific insight. But there’s also the story or example that illustrates the topic. And my route into a new article or chapter can be any of those three; I start with whichever piece feels easiest and most exciting to get down on paper. When it’s the anecdote, I usually focus first on scraps of vivid language that an interviewee or client has used to describe a difficult situation. For the science and the advice, I will usually write in bullet points first – what my consulting colleagues used to call a “dot-dash” – to check the flow of the argument and ideas before I start investing in the bounce and feel of the language.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Absolutely. One thing that really helps me is to put on large noise-cancelling headphones. They dampen ambient noise and reduce distraction, allowing me to think more clearly. But they’ve also become something I associate with really getting into deep thinking mode. As a result, simply putting them on sends a clear signal to me that I’m about to focus on my work – making it easier to dive in. (I write about the science behind this in chapter 3 of my book, for those who are interested!) And I’ve had three writing soundtracks in recent years. There was a period where the only thing I listened to was Haydn string quartets. For a long while, I’ve worked with a playlist of rather sparse and instrumental “deep house” music. (I think the two genres have a lot in common, but that’s for a different type of interview.) But sometimes nothing but silence will do.

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

I always loved writing as a kid – especially science fiction, which I imagine was a surprise for my English teachers in the 1970s – and I was editor of my college yearbook and newsletter. I drifted away from writing as I built a career in economics. But after a few years, I had a job which was as much about writing as thinking: authoring the Bank of England’s Inflation Report. This was a publication analyzing and describing the state of the economy, so the writing was dry – yet I still loved it. And I learned many things that have served me well as a non-fiction writer. For example, the publication was so influential that bad syntax in a key sentence might end up moving financial markets in the wrong direction – so I learned the value of precision and clarity, and I learned what made a sentence easy or hard to read. (We even had to put our writing through a computer program to test the reading age required to understand it.)

After reconnecting with my love of writing, I took every opportunity to write in real sentences rather than relying on PowerPoint slides. And once I’d written a couple of articles for the McKinsey Quarterly, I realized that it was time to bring writing back into the center of my life. That’s when I started work on the book, writing a four-page outline of something I wouldn’t finish for another four years.

What’s the best writing advice that you have received?

Lynda Gratton (Professor of Management Practice at London Business School, and author of 8 successful books) told me early in the process of writing my book that I would eventually need to make it my full-time job – at least for a few months. She was right; there really does come a point where you simply have to stop doing absolutely everything else, and say “right now, I am a writer, and my job is to write.” And her advice helped me recognize when it was time to disappear into the writing bunker.

Meanwhile, Matt Lieberman (neuroscience professor at UCLA and author of Social) told me to look after myself physically while writing, reminding me to see exercise as an investment in my mental and emotional sharpness.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

At least four books encouraged me toward writing How to Have a Good Day.

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely. To see such a book capture people’s imagination made me excited that behavioral economics was coming of age. Moreover, I saw that it was possible to make academically rigorous material fun and engaging.

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt. I loved the cross-disciplinary approach of this wise book, drawing from psychology and neuroscience and even ancient philosophy. Also, my husband wooed me with it – it was the first present he ever bought me.

Your Brain at Work, by David Rock. This put neuroscience in the context of the workplace, and it was the first book that I’d seen do that.

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. It was inspiring to see that such deep scientific concepts could excite a broad general audience. It helped too that I had heard him say that he’d found it tough to write the book. Since he’s a brilliant Nobel Prize laureate, that made me feel that it was okay for me to experience the occasional rough patch! And of course, it was all worth it. (I’m sure he feels that too.)

Learn about how to Have a Good Day here.

Feb 1, 2016 Bookspotting

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House.

Kelli

Kelli, in Crown production, is reading The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz.

Find out more about the book here:

Jan 28, 2016 Writing Tips

We know readers tend to be writers too, so we feature writing tips from our authors. Who better to offer advice, insight, and inspiration than the authors you admire? They’ll answer several questions about their work, share their go-to techniques and more. Now, get writing!  

Sparrow Beckett is the pen-name for two writers in two countries who combine forces and collaborate. Justice and Sorcha have both answered the questions below. 

What writing techniques have you found most important or memorable?

Justice: Someone once told me a good novel is made up of mostly strong, colorful nouns and verbs. As writers, we often hear the terms active writing versus passive writing. Filling a book with adverbs makes a story sound passive. So when I’m writing, I go for strong descriptive nouns and verbs.

Is there something you do to get into a writing mood? Somewhere you go or something you do to get thinking?

Sorcha: With an evil day job and a big family, I’m so busy that I’m exhilarated by every free moment to write. If I get stuck in one of my stories, I switch to one of my many others.

Justice: I get inspired from all sorts of things. Sometimes a movie, another book, or even a song I hear on the radio. When I’m feeling low on inspiration, I’ll surround myself with different media and types of art. Usually something will jump out and the wheels will start turning.

Sparrow Beckett
Sparrow Beckett

Did you always want to write? How did you start your career as an author?

Sorcha: I started writing a Black Beauty fanfic when I was seven. For Grade Ten English class, I wrote a novella, and then a novel for Grade Thirteen Creative Writing. My novel was so bad, that the publisher I submitted it to sent me a rejection with a blank space where my name was supposed to go. I quit writing after that. About two decades later, I started writing for fun. That was when I met Justice in an online group, and she introduced me to the modern world of publishing.

Justice: I was a writer before I was a writer, if that makes any sense. Writing is just in me. It’s been a part of everything I’ve ever done, before I even realized it. So finally getting the guts to officially try writing a fiction book didn’t surprise anyone. I started by self-publishing back when it was a budding development. I learned a lot and I think it better prepared me for the traditional publishing world.

What’s the best piece of advice you have received?

Sorcha: Quit making excuses and write.

Justice: Find an amazing crit partner or group – the harsher the better.

What clichés or bad habits would you tell aspiring writers to avoid? Do you still experience them yourself?

Sorcha: I think stalling out of self-doubt is the biggest bad habit to avoid. Feeling like you’ll never be as talented as your favorite author isn’t a good enough excuse to give up. You owe it to yourself to work at it.

Justice: I have to agree with Sorcha. Self-doubt can be crippling and, unfortunately, something many authors, including myself, suffer from regularly. It’s hard to stay positive among rejections and brutal reviews. I have to remind myself constantly that everyone has their own journey, comparing yourself to other authors is pointless, and that giving up just isn’t an option.

What are three or four books that influenced your writing, or had a profound affect on you?

Sorcha: The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon – The main character has an arc that fills me with hope and a sense of personal responsibility.

The Tiffany Aching series by Terry Pratchett – Like most of Pratchett’s work, it shows human nature in a humorous yet poignant light. These books explore themes of power, respect, and responsibility.

The Jalav series by Sharon Green – Explores an interesting example of how a woman can still be strong while submitting to organic power exchange relationships.

The Steamwork Chronicles by Cari Silverwood – This series taught me to be unapologetically sexual in my work.

Justice: A Hunger Like No Other by Kresley Cole – This was the first romance I ever read. Oh the things it opened my mind to… Her mix of sexiness, humor, and adventure made reading fun for me again, and started my love of paranormal romance.

Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly – Wow, this book made me cry, made me think, and made me take an active interest in history. The writing and depth of emotion is beautiful and something I aspire to.

Forgive Me Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick – This book gave me permission to write honestly. It is probably the most earnest, authentic book I’ve ever read.

Learn more about To Have and to Master here.

Jan 26, 2016 Editor’s Desk

Ed Park, Executive Editor at Penguin Press, shares his insights into editing Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel, The Portable Veblen, which went on sale Tuesday, January 19. Take it away, Ed!

I joined Penguin Press in late 2014, and about two minutes later was sent Elizabeth McKenzie’s novel The Portable Veblen. The title made me smile, I remember, and every sentence that followed felt unbelievably fresh to me. It’s the story of a fraught engagement between seeming opposites: thirty-year-old Veblen, a down-to-earth office temp with a sideline in translating from the Norwegian, and Paul, an ambitious neurologist who’s being wooed by Big Pharma and the Department of Defense. Will they make it to the altar? Everything from the Palo Alto setting to the soulful squirrel that Veblen connects with (and Paul wouldn’t mind destroying) was at once strikingly original and true to life.

EdParkVeblenJan2016

It’s been such a joy to watch the excitement build for this one-of-a-kind novel, with sales falling under its spell, and booksellers singing its praises. Along with being an IndieNext pick, Veblen has also received three starred pre-pub reviews and been selected by prominent indies for their signed first edition book clubs.

Adam Kirsch’s early Veblen review in Slate took the thoughts right out of my head: “No matter how many novels you’ve read, it’s safe to say you’ve never read a novel like The Portable Veblen.” It’s true! Thinking about the list I’ve put together so far, I’m hoping something similar can be said for every title. For now, let’s begin with a young woman named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, and a very charismatic squirrel…

everydayebook.com
Jan 25, 2016 Bookspotting

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House.

Kristin, in consumer marketing, is reading an advance reading copy of The Girls by Emma Cline

Find out more about the book here:

Jan 19, 2016 Bookspotting

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House.

miguel

Miguel, in consumer marketing, is reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Find out more about the book here:

Jan 14, 2016 News

The American Library Association (ALA) is joining with Penguin Random House to support the second annual National Readathon Day, which will take place on Saturday, May 21, 2016. It is a day dedicated to the joy of reading and giving, when readers everywhere can join together in their local library, school, bookstore, and on social media (#Readathon2016) to read and raise funds in support of literacy. This year, Readathon Day is presented as part of ALA’s Libraries Transform campaign, and will benefit ALA’s Every Child Ready to Read initiative, a program that supports the early literacy development of children from birth to age five in libraries across the nation. 

Sari Feldman, president of ALA, said, “We are thrilled to partner with Penguin Random House on National Readathon Day 2016.  Not only does Readathon Day present an opportunity to generate excitement amongst readers of all ages, but it also enables children and students everywhere to get involved in an effort that supports youth literacy. The transformational power of reading is fundamental to the value that libraries provide to their communities each and every day.”

Penguin Random House is dedicated to creating lifelong readers by supporting programs such as ALA’s Every Child Ready to Read. As part of its commitment to #Readathon2016, Penguin Random House has announced its Library Awards for Innovation, where libraries across the country will have the opportunity to apply for grant awards in support of creating the most innovative community-based programs in 2016. Libraries are encouraged to use Readathon Day as a jumping off point for submissions to the Library Awards for Innovation.

Leading up to and during #Readathon2016, individuals can contribute to ALA and Every Child Ready to Read by visiting the Firstgiving Fundraising page at www.firstgiving.com/5066/national-readathon-day and sharing with their friends and family.

All readers are encouraged to join in Readathon Day fun on social media, using the hashtag #Readathon2016. Visit the official website, www.readathonday.com, for more information on how to get involved online and in person, including sharing images and videos, and hosting local reading parties.

Last year’s inaugural Readathon Day put the national spotlight on reading in support of the National Book Foundation’s literacy programs. This year, #Readathon2016 shines a light on libraries and early childhood literacy through ALA and Every Child Ready to Read.

Visit www.readathonday.com for more information.

Jan 12, 2016 Editor’s Desk

Editors get very passionate about books they work on – the Editor’s Desk series is his or her place to write in-depth about what makes a certain title special. Get the real inside-scoop on how books are shaped by the people who know them best.

Andria Williams’ debut novel The Longest Night is a book about many things—the Cold War, the American West, gender roles in the 1960s, the birth of nuclear power—but above all it is a portrait of a marriage and the forces that challenge it.  I was immediately drawn into the story by the opening scene of the novel—a man named Paul, racing through the night on a rural road, passing an ambulance and fire trucks that are rushing away from an accident that he is driving towards.  What is taking him there, compelling him to put himself in terrible danger?  Who is he trying to save?

Before we can get answers to this question the novel flashes back to a blindingly hot summer day, three years earlier.  A young family are driving cross-country from Virginia to Idaho Falls, where the husband, Paul, has been stationed for his next army tour.  They stop at a lake in northern Utah where local teenagers are diving from the rocks.  The wife, Nat, is desperate to cool off, and leaves her one and three year old daughters while she climbs to the top of the cliff and dives in, fully clothed.  When she emerges from the lake Paul is furious—embarrassed, ashamed, scared she could have hurt herself.  But as a reader, I was fascinated.  I wanted to know what Nat was looking for in that moment of freedom.  Did she just want to escape the demands of being a wife and mother for those brief seconds?  Did she want to show her husband that she was her own person, still?   Did she want to set an example of fearlessness for her daughters, or was she not thinking of them at all?

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When I describe Andria’s novel I often say that it reminds me of Revolutionary Road, if such a book were set in the American West.  That is to say—it is a story about frustrated ambition; domesticity; the stifling social norms of a small town, ruled by a cabal of wives who never fail to match the color of their centerpieces to the tablecloths.  Yet it is also a story about how love changes in a marriage—how it is shaped by distance and separation; the birth of children; by our challenges in reconciling our adult selves with our adolescent ones.  It is a story rooted in a uniquely specific time and place, that is utterly universal in its implications.  I hope you will enjoy reading it.

Read more about the book here.

Jan 11, 2016 Bookspotting

Ever wonder what Penguin Random House employees are reading? We’re a bunch of professionally bookish people, so you can always count on us to have a book on hand… or thirty piled on our desks. Our Bookspotting feature shows off the range of readers behind the scenes at Penguin Random House.

john

John, in online marketing, is reading The Hanging Girl by Jussi Adler Olsen.

Find out more about the book here:

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