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August 25, 2005



I'm such a blogging amateur! In my rush to publish I forgot to thank Sarah for having me, and for the invaluable service this site provides.
Thank you!

Naomi Hirahara

Provocative post, Jenny. I'm interested in hearing more about this fear you mentioned. Is it fear about not being able to deliver the kind of book that you want? Fear that you've sacrificed entertainment for the message? Or perhaps the reverse?

Mark Sullivan

Greetings from a fellow Montanan. Good for you for taking the risk. I had similar feelings after 9/11 and wrote a thriller that stretched me to the limits. Interesting that the only houses that have picked it up so far are in europe. I'm finding that too many U.S. agents and publishers are frightened of the idea of a provocative thriller based in the post 9/11 world.


Don't worry. Children's programming does improve with age. Now that I'm back to work fulltime, I actually miss some of my daughter's favorite shows.

PK the Bookeemonster

Mark -- where in Montana? I'm in Billings.

Alina Adams

It's amazing how the Boo-Bahs follow Sarah wherever she goes.

She once spent an intriguing morning at my house, hung-over and watching Booh-Bah's with my then five year old.

Neither one of them will ever be the same again.


I'm also a Montanan. At least, I'm a Montanan in the sense that I grew up there and most of my family still lives there. Much like you, I couldn't wait to get out as a kid. Now, as a 30-something quasi-adult, I can't wait to get back. But the question lingers in my head, "What the hell can you do in Montana?"

That brings me to my question for you: "How the hell did you do what you did from Montana?" I mean, I understand the sitting down and writing part, but how did you manage the business aspect while the entire publishing industry was thousands of miles away? How did you make those contacts?

Olen Steinhauer

I'll echo Naomi here: Great post, Jenny. The fear of being "serious" is a numbing thing. It didn't keep me from writing, but what I wrote was for a long time crap, because I thought all "serious" writing required a number of things I didn't particularly like. The results were longwinded and boring. So when I first tried mystery, my only requirement was that I not bore anyone, least of all myself.

Voila! After learning how to make things, in the first place, interesting, it was no longer a chore to try and be "serious" (whatever that really means), because within the framework of "not boring" so much depth is possible.

I may be projecting, but I think the fear Naomi asks Jenny about is the fear of being "found out". Once you stop saying "oh I'm just writing entertainment" you lose the armor that you'd otherwise use against critics, who judge you on levels that "just entertainment" isn't supposed to contain.

I'm not from Montana.

Mark Sullivan

I live in Bozeman. I did the business part by going to conferences etc when I was living in Vermont, then brought it all with me. Off to Bouchercon next week as part of a new agent search. I don't know how Jenny did it. Probably the same way?

Cornelia Read

A great post, indeed--thank you!

I've struggled with the angst/pressure of the "THE book" and the whole serious thing--a side effect of fiction workshops in college, I think, and one which sucked the juice from my will to write fiction for a scarily long time.

Didn't wear off until I realized I don't like READING those THE books.

What a relief! And I ended up doing something kind of serious anyway, at least in parts. How weird is that?

Wicked weird.

Thanks again for such good meaty thoughts on all this. You are a pleasure to read, and Sarah gives great guest.


Interesting post, Jenny. As a former bartender/customer myself, I can identify with the angst and ennui (love that phrase) of the artistic temperment. I went on the same journey - save the fact, I didn't do the bodice ripper - and I'm far behind you on the publishing track. Also realized that if I was a "writer" I'd damned well better write something- everyday - otherwise it would be hard to tell just what the hell I was. Looking forward to your new book. Love something with a little guts.


Sorry to take so long in getting back to everyone. So goes life with a two year-old. Thanks to everyone who wrote in with your encouraging thoughts on children's television. It's good to know I'm not suffering alone.

Naomi: you asked what exactly my fears are as a "serious" writer. Yes, I absolutely fear not being able to deliver the kind of book I want, and not being able to live up to my own expectations. But Olen really said it best in his comment. There's definitely a constant fear that the fraud police will bust down my door and take me away for impersonating a writer.

Ben: you asked about handling the publishing business from Montana. Fortunately for me, this wasn't ever really an issue. I got my first agent through a query letter, so I never had to do the conference circuit (thank god!). I have had to travel quite a bit since my books were published, but that is more for promotion, and then it is always taken care of by my publisher. But knowing what I do now, I would definitely learn from Mark's experience. Those conferences are invaluable for making connections, and friends, too. Writing is an isolated profession, writing in Montana is doubly so, so it's good to get out every so often.

Cornelia: you talked about the side effects of fiction workshops. That really hit home with me since I had my first ever experience with a writing class of any kind when I was invited to teach at an MFA program this summer. Besides being the most humiliating experience of my professional life, it was really depressing to see what "serious" people think of us. I guess I've always been sheltered by the Bouchercon crowd, people who actually take genre writing seriously. So to be treated like a second class citizen for the first time was a real shock.

And finally, Mark: I'm afraid you are dead on right about U.S. publishers being squeamish about this stuff. You and I are not the only writers to have this experience lately. Sad but true.

And now that I've wasted even more of Sarah's space, it's just about my bedtime. Thanks again everyone. I'll check back in tomorrow.


The most humiliating experience of your professional life? Well, I hope you met at least one person there who was half-way decent.

OK, being a genre fiction student in the unnamed MFA program I face that second class citizen feeling Jenny is talking about on a daily basis. I think it is one of the pitfalls of writing genre in an MFA program. But believe me, there is A LOT of really horribly terribly written crap that comes from the more "serious" crowd. I mean awful stuff. I don't think they realize that the pedestal they place themselves upon is only an inch off the ground.


Just to set the record straight, Steve was my savior at said MFA program. Not just half-way decent, but all-the-way decent. I'm glad to have made the trip, since it introduced me to him.

But my experience did make me wonder whether popular fiction tracks at MFA programs are really a good thing. The impression I got was that the distinction between popular fiction and "serious" fiction served to further widen the gap between genre and non-genre writers. While I agree that there should be a place for people who want to write popular fiction in its purest form, I saw first hand that someone like Steve, a serious writer who has chosen noir as his medium, was ostracized by the literary people, many of whom are turning out pure crap. I mean, at least with Danielle Steele there's a plot to sink your teeth into.

Of course I'm also someone who has a sneaking suspicion that writing can't really be taught anyway.

And yes, it was the most humiliating experience of my professional life, and this from a woman who once did a reading in San Francisco for an audience of three, two of which were dogs.

Olen Steinhauer

Sounds horrific, Jenny. I didn't know (I've obviously been out of the loop a while) that they were now doing parallel genre MFAs. It does seem a strange thing--does this mean that different tracks are taught different writing lessons? That doesn't make sense to me.

In my MFA, genre was scorned, in part by myself too because I didn't know any better. Scorn was encouraged. But I imagine that the bulk of profs are the "serious" (non-genre) writers--they must teach because they don't have enough readers to make rent. Genre writers can probably more often choose whether or not they *want* to teach.

Can (good) writing be taught? I agree, Jenny, it can't. But the path to achievement can, I believe, be shortened with the help of a few good profs and workshops. I had some great ones, and I know it helped me. Was it worth the exorbitant price of the diploma? God only knows.


The question of whether writing can be taught seems to be right up there with the existence of God. I certainly don't think there will be an answer in our lifetime.

My mother taught there, so I basically grew up in the MFA program at the University of Montana, and I know scores of brilliant writers who came out of MFA programs, Jim Crumley to name just one. Like so many fine mystery writers, Crumley went into the profession as "serious" writer. The one major regret I have about never having taken workshops is that I never learned how to filter criticism. When I first published I thought I had to do everything anyone told me as far as editing was concerned. Needless to say, this got me into A LOT of trouble.

I don't necessarily have a problem with writing programs. I'm just not sure segregating serious writers from non-serious writers is such a good idea. After all, is there such a thing as a non-serious writer?



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