Reasons to Read The Little Friend

I don’t know about you, but nothing inspires me to write more than reading a wonderful novel or story. And after reading Donna Tartt’s book, I couldn’t stop thinking about craft.

A good friend, who recommended the book to me, did me the favor of telling me the ending before I ever picked up the book. Her intent wasn’t to “spoil” the book for me, but a warning not to read it like a mystery novel. All of the criticism of the book I’ve read comes from readers who didn’t enter the book with this mindset, so I’ll pass this information on to you: in the end, you won’t know who the murderer was. Yes, the little girl sets out to solve the murder, but what she learns is so much more interesting.

Here would be my top three reasons for reading this book:

1. The language is both precise and gorgeous. The author’s use of modifiers is so perfect, you’ll want to go try on some adverbs when you’re finished, all those writing manuals be damned.

2. If you’ve ever struggled to understand Dramatica concepts, especially the main character’s unique ability, you’ll see a perfect example here. (I don’t know if this was intentional in the author’s part, but when I read it, it was an “ah-ha” moment for me.)

3. She makes the “villain” (one of them, anyway) so human and vulnerable, that the reader wants him to make good choices, understands when he doesn’t, and hopes his punishment isn’t too harsh.

I’m sure you can think of more reasons to read this book. You are welcome to post them!


Some deep thoughts on the writing life…

… with “Monty”







Cirque Psychologique

Cirque Psychologique.


Nancy Stebbins has a story up at Cezanne’s Carrot!


“Be careful opening those things,” Erdly warns…. “You spill emotional baggage on yourself, it never comes off.”�

Similar book covers

The science of book jacket design is fascinating. Recently, while wandering a bookstore, my daughter found this book on the shelf:

Look familiar?

Holy cow!

We immediately ran over to the Twilight shelf to compare:

Publishing icon, instantly recognizable

They’re similar, but not identical, so they’re not based on the same stock photo–although they may well be part of the same stock photo set.

Nonetheless, the question remains: is HarperOne, publisher of the Lewis book, attempting to attract a Twilight market by using a similar image? It’s pretty blatant.  You’d have to have been living in a cave the past few years not to notice the similarity.

What do you think?


Several other collectors of similar covers: here and here.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

(Nancy’s Critical Introduction for her Pacific MFA thesis)

First though, I’d like to make sure you all know how much I appreciate you: my advisors, workshop leaders, and the other faculty I never got to work with directly, for the knowledge and wisdom you pour into your craft talks and workshops. Shelley, Colleen and Tenley for your dedication and patience. My fellow students. Thank you all so much.

I originally titled this talk “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch,” because I had been pondering transitions in my work, experimenting with making them less and less explicit, especially after doing Pam’s famous writing exercise involving the three memories. At one point I shared with Kellie that this felt foreign to me, as I’d always been a “Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch” sort of writer. And while this has been an important element in the novel, I’d like to officially change the title of this talk to A Tilted World, because I think it has a more overarching meaning.

It has been difficult to narrow down the sort of writing that resonates most with me, because my favorite works seem to have little in common. I love magical realism, Southern Gothic, metafiction, and works that exhibit a wry humor. My favorite writers have included such diverse people as Margaret Atwood, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Peter Taylor, and Carson McCullers.

Kellie used a fascinating phrase early last semester, as we were talking about genres: she spoke of writing that “tilts toward” the magical. I began to think about how the works I love don’t rebuild the world, but instead tilt it just a little through magic or humor, or the odd juxtaposition, all of which cause a sudden shift in understanding, a reframing.

(Continued on Nancy’s Author Page)

Family Literacy Day

Today, January 27, is Family Literacy Day here in Canada.

Family Literacy Day takes place annually on January 27 to celebrate adults and children reading and learning together, and to encourage Canadians to spend at least 15 minutes enjoying a learning activity as a family every day.

One of my writer friends, Lois Peterson, asked, “Which book do you remember sharing as a family when you were growing up?” A particular book immediately came to mind, but it took me all day to remember the title and author. (I really need to run that de-frag program on my internal hard drive.)

There was no division between adult books and children’s books in our home. My dad used to read us stuff well above our levels and continued to read to us well into our teens.  Often, we would take turns. So I learned to love reading aloud, with expression and timing–sometimes even with different voices.

The Sparrow’s Fall, by Fred Bodsworth, is vivid in my memory.  It was first published in 1967 and I remember our volume being hardbound, so I was no younger than twelve when we joined Jacob Atook on his journey. I found this description on

a novel by Fred Bodsworth

The Sparrow's Fall by Fred Bodsworth

“This Bodsworth book deals with two of man’s most basic urges: love and the will to survive. It plays out in the Hudson Bay lowlands in the person of Jacob Atook, a Canadian Indian, who tracks a solitary starving caribou in the worst winter in memory.”

From this book, I learned several key pieces of survival lore:

  1. one should drink one’s urine [a detail my brother, eight years old at that time, found delightfully disgusting] to preserve body heat; and
  2. sphagnum moss is wonderfully absorbent and used by native women for their menses.

To this day, my mother and I say we’re “going out to gather sphagnum moss” instead of running out to Shoppers Drugmart for Kotex. [Interesting trivia: until recently, at least one brand of minipads used sphagnum moss in its absorbent core. I used the product religiously until they changed from this natural absorbent core to a synthetic, wondering all the while whether sphagnum moss is sustainable, or if the environment was being pillaged to harvest it.]

Amazing how books from youth stick with us.  Which book do you remember sharing as a family when you were growing up?

What Is It with Writing?

Since I began this MFA, when I’ve been at my neighborhood pool, or at parties, or at the grocery, there’s a conversation that has occurred, again and again. Let me take you through it. Feel free to imagine the sounds of children splashing, a raucous bar, or the clink of silverware. I’m sure you’ll recognize parts of this, so feel free to pipe in with any exceptional comments you’ve gotten.

The conversation goes like this, with slight variations:

“What do you do?”

“Oh . . . I’m a writer.”

“A bike rider?”

This is said with a puzzled look, because where I live there are so many professional athletes. Usually, I have to say, “No, a writer. W―R―ite ―r.

“Oh! A writer!”

“Yes. A writer.”

There’s an awkward pause.

“Oh! What do you write?”

“Everything. Articles, essays, ad copy, internet sites.”

“Articles! Where would I find your articles?”

“Well . . . right now I’m in graduate school, so haven’t been doing so much of that. School, and the economy taking its toll on magazines’ abilities to pay free-lancers has made me take time off.”

“Graduate school! Well . . . that’s great! For what?”

People seem to love the idea of graduate school. It sounds so . . . scholarly. Hooray!

“I’m getting my MFA in Writing.”


W―R―ite ―ing.”

“What type of writing?”


“Oh! How―nice!” There’s an awkward pause. This time an assessment of my face, maybe my body. “What do you want to do with that?”

I’m willing to bet, if you’re getting a degree in accounting, nobody asks, “What do you want to do with that?” If you’re getting a law degree, nobody asks, “What do you want to do with that?”

W―R―ite,” I say, struggling to avoid a tone similar to that of my pre-teen daughter, and not always succeeding.

And they say, “Oh! How―nice! What type of fiction?”

“Short stories. Novels.”

“So you’re writing a novel?”

“Well . . . no. I’ve been focusing on short stories while I’m in school. They’ve been great vehicles to practice craft.”

“What would you do with those?”

“Well . . . I’d like to sell them to magazines. Well . . . literary journals, actually.”

“What are literary journals?”

“Well . . . they’re magazines that are published once, twice, three, four times a year, mostly by universities. They feature short stories, poetry, literary criticism, that kind of stuff.”

“Oh! How―nice! Who reads those?”

“Well . . . other writers, I guess. Maybe some ordinary folks, I hope. I aim to publish several of my stories from the program, and then sell them together as a collection.”

At this point, a glaze frequently settles over the other person’s eyes, and I think, Don’t― do―it! But I say, “I’ve sold two stories.”


The word sold brings them right back. Hooray!

“Well . . . not sold, actually,” I say. “They didn’t pay anything, and I had to buy my own extra copies, so it’s cost me twelve―dol―lars. But they’re really reputable journals.”

At this point I see the person wonder if I’m on medication. See true sorrow for my husband in her eyes. But I think, At least I didn’t say I wanted to be a po―et!

Read more here

Pen names

A writer friend, poised on the brink of publication stardom, polled us on the subject of pen names. She has an uneasy relationship with her in-laws, so doesn’t necessarily wish to carry her married name into posterity. Likewise, she has no compelling attachment to her maiden name.

“I want my writing,” she says, “attached to a timeless name that is significant to me.”

Several women we know have kept their first married names (and publish under them) to avoid confusion for their children, and for professional reasons.

I decided to publish under my married name because my maiden name–Babic–coupled with my already unusual first name–Loranne–was just too much. Readers would never spell both correctly in an amazon search, I figured. (“Brown” at least they might get right, although you’d be amazed how many people try to add an “e” to Brown.  What’s with that? “Browne” is ever so much less common.)

As for the six people who might remember me from school–well, I hoped they’d be drawn by “Loranne,” check out my bio and photo, and realize–hey, that’s the kid from kindergarten we always called “Lorraine.”

We all agreed our friend should choose a name she’d like to carry with her into the future, something she’d be proud to have engraved on that Pulitzer or Nobel Prize.

Nonetheless, when choosing a pen name, you have to weigh the anonymity against the potential for recognition by the network you already have. Some things to think about:

  • If  you’ve been through an MFA program and developed a community, how will the 100+ fine writers who already know you recognize you behind a new name?
  • How many old friends who know you as YourNameHere will pick up a magazine article, story, or book and buy it because you wrote it, even if they never read it?
  • How will you explain the pen name to interviewers on the book tour? Pen names are rarely secret identities unless you’re also a super hero.

Your nom-de-plume: maiden, married, invented?

To me, pen names make the most sense when you’re writing and publishing in two genres.  You don’t want to compete with yourself or cause confusion in the marketplace. I publish my literary fiction under my married name.  My line of steamy romances (yet to be written, I hasten to assure you–but you never know when you’ll need a potboiler or 10 to pay off the student loans) will be published under the name Lauren Mitchell: nods to various members of my family.

Have you used a pen name or intend to publish under one?  How’s that working out for you and your career?
Lauren Mitchell

Meeting with thesis advisor

The Third Half of the Moon

Nancy’s story is up at The Saint Ann’s Review!