Monthly Archives: July 2014

Interview with Jessica Lander, Author of “Driving Backwards”

Hello Everyone!!

Hope your week has been lovely! I’ve thought it was one day later each day, aka Monday felt like Tuesday, etc. I feel like the universe is repeatedly telling me to get some work done! I have been reading like a fiend lately–I’ve torn through five books this week already. No one can stop my awesome and terrible reading power–mua hah haaaaah. What have y’all been reading this summer?

Now for the good stuff–my interview with Jessica! We had a great talk about writing, her novel, the publishing process, and her advice for novices (like me). It was really stimulating and I hope you enjoy it! (Also, you can read the page-turner for yourself here:

LD: So, in your lovely book, “Driving Backwards”, you meticulously and lovingly chronicle the goings-on of Gilmanton, NH, a town where you’ve spent many years. How did you decide to take this project on?

JL: Almost twenty years ago, when I was seven, my family bought a house in the village of Gilmanton Iron Works. I spent my childhood summers growing up in the town, but it was only after I went away to college and returned that I began to look at the town from the perspective of a writer.

LD: How much time did you spend doing research?

JL: I wrote and researched Driving Backwards over the course of five years. Some of that time I was still in college and I would put the book away for nine months when I went off to school, picking it up again come summer.

LD: So, it’s been a long time coming, then. I really enjoyed the charming illustrations scattered throughout. Did you do those?

JL: I did. My mom is a practicing artist and there has always been art in my house. I began having my own public art shows when I was in high school – using the medium of artist books. More recently my creative energies have been consumed by writing. In Driving Backwards I didn’t want to use photographs, but it seemed fitting to capture moments and places in the town through ink and paper.

LD: I agree. What struck me as I read the book was how it is extremely specific to one place (Gilmanton), but at the same time, it could be any American small town. It reminds me of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”—how the experiences of one town shows us something universal about human life. Were you conscious of that as you were working on the book?

JL: Indeed, I really do feel that Gilmanton is every-town. Sure the stories and vibrant lives that are captured in the book are specific to this one town in central New Hampshire, but you can find the same kinds of stories in any small town – if you slow down enough to look and to listen and sometimes ask. I have found this to be true as I have given readings up and down the East Coast. People will come up to me and say “this reminds me of my hometown in Arkansas” or Minnesota or California. I’ve been delighted at just how much people from across America have connected with the underlying threads of the story of this town. But perhaps it is because Gilmanton holds this dual role – at once being briefly the most famous town in America and at once just a small town – like any other.

LD: One of my favorite stories was about the woman who made the goat cheese. As a city girl myself, when I think about farmers, I think of the Old McDonald burly male types. I also didn’t realize that there was much farming going on outside the South. Can you tell me more about that?

JL: Farming in New Hampshire, and I would guess in most places, is a mix of perseverance and creativity. Valerie is a great example. She started farming back when there were few women farmers in New Hampshire and people were telling her it couldn’t be done. But that kind of talk was exactly what spurred Valerie (who in addition was homeschooling 10 children) to try harder. When she first got goats she had no intention of making artisanal goat cheese, but she found herself with excess goat milk and started experimenting. And so she taught herself how to make cheese and now her cheeses are sought after in restaurants and farmers markets throughout New England.

LD: Learn something new every day! So, publishing a book about your hometown must have been nerve-wracking, particularly knowing how people turned on the other famous author from Gilmanton (Grace Metalious, author of the 1950s scandalous novel Peyton Place). Was there anything in particular you were concerned about people reading?

JL: Absolutely! Of course Grace Metalious wrote a book that mixed stories, gossip and fiction, yet readers took most of the writing to be true, particularly the most salacious stories. They came to town and accosted residents for the truth – which did not endear the world to Gilmanton. In writing Driving Backwards there was no one part that I was concerned about people reading. Truly the book is a love story to the town. But naturally as a writer, a journalist, and an inherent worrier, I fretted about the reception of the book. One of the most exciting aspects since the book was published has been hearing all of the great responses from people in Gilmanton.

LD: Whew! So, this is both a book reading blog and a book writing blog, as you know. Can you tell us a little bit about the publishing journey you took with Driving Backwards?

JL: As most authors know, the process of publishing is long and littered with rejections. Over the course of two years I pitched the book to 31 publishers and agents. And I got 31 rejections. Some presses would not even respond, leaving one to wonder whether the manuscript was simply free-floating in cyber space. But I had help from many friends and fellow writers who made connections and offered suggestions. In the end, the rejections forced me to return again and again to the text to rework it – getting the book to what you can read today. Then, just before I was about to put the book away in a drawer, I sent it out to a few more presses, and two publishers wrote to me – within a week of one another – wanting to publish Driving Backwards.

LD: Now that you’re a published author (YAY!!!), is there anything you wish you would have known starting out?

JL: I write for a number of magazines and blogs, but those pieces are between 300-3000 words. Shaping a book of 200 pages is a completely different beast. Over the course of five years I have learned a lot about how you construct and sustain the structure of a book length piece of work. And of course I have come to realize I have much more to learn, which is why I’m particularly excited to start my next book project.

LD: What’s the best piece of advice you got? Worst piece?

JL: Best Piece of Advice: Write what you know
Worst Piece of Advice: A rejection letter saying they thought the book was too parochial – people wouldn’t be interested in small town NH. From readers saying the exact opposite, and indeed drawing connections to their own towns across the country, I’m very glad I ignored the comment, kept writing and kept sending the book to publishers.

LD: What’s the one thing you want aspiring authors to know?

JL: Don’t be afraid to edit. From the intimate position of a writer looking at her work, it can be difficult at times to examine sentences critically, indeed to examine whole chapters critically. But editing is where a piece of writing or a book really takes shape – often in unexpected directions. Chop down sentences, chop up chapters and move them around. Read voraciously. And don’t let rejections stop you from writing.

LD: Thank you so much, Jess! It’s been an honor to have you on the blog.

So there you have it!! Get your copies of Driving Backwards and enjoy! I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and see you next week! Hopefully I will have heard from Nonbinary Review about the Frankenstein piece I submitted (and desperately, DESPERATELY want them to publish), and I may have met a Very Famous Person and I will spill all!!

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My First Published Fiction!!!

Hi Everyone,

Hope you’ve had a great week–mine has been busy! I was in Oklahoma for two days and my schedule is all thrown off. It was worth it to see my mega-talented brother in “Spamalot”, though! If any of my readers are in OKC, run don’t walk to Lyric Theater’s Spamalot! It runs til the end of the week.

Now for the big reveal: my first published fiction!! I am ever-so-excited about it. I go to the website a few times a day, just to reassure myself that it’s still there. I hope you enjoy it!! I’m hard at work on my next piece–this being published thing is addictive! Here’s the story:

Let me know what you think of it!!!

I am buckling down on my novel–hold me to a first draft by Labor Day!–so this is a short post. For the same reason, my interview with the lovely Jessica Lander is pushed til next week. But it will be so worth the wait!

See you next week, dear readers. Let me know what you think about the story!!!


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BIG NEWS!! And New Blog Title!

Hi Everyone,

Hope you’ve had a lovely week so far! I have…except I just wrote a super-long blog post and it’s disappeared. So you’ve all been spared a longish rant on Truth (it was literally about truth/point of view/why can’t we all just get along). So I guess lucky you!!! But grrrrr….Anyway, apart from the deleting, I’ve had a great week for a few reasons:

1) I won a flash fiction contest!! As of Saturday, I will be a published fiction author! It’s a long, long, LONG way from a book deal, but it’s the first fiction I’ve ever published and I am so very excited and proud. I will post the link next Thursday so you can all read it! It’s only 695 words; it won’t take you that long! Ah, the joy of flash fiction. It’s called “A Fish Tale” and it’s a sort-of ghost story. I hope you enjoy!!

2) I got to sit down with author (and friend) Jessica Lander! We talked about books, obviously. I got so excited about her new work, Driving Backwards, that I asked her to do an interview on the blog and she said yes! So next week, you will not only get to read my first published fiction, you will be treated to an interview with the talented and engaging Jessica Lander. Lucky readers!!

The ever-savvy Ms. Lander told me I needed to beef up my blog. She was, of course, correct. Improvements include a page with links to all my published work. I double-checked the links and they all work, so if you’ve been holding off on reading my stuff because you’re too lazy to look it up, you are officially out of excuses. Go forth and read!!

Also, she suggested I needed a catchy title. Now, anyone who’s read my work knows I am absolutely pants at titles. Usually an editor has to make one up at the 11th hour. So, this is bad news. I brainstormed for a few days and came up with “The Adventures of L.S.D.” (L)aura (S)ook (D)uncombe is in fact my name, but is it too crass? Am I appealing to the prurient interest? I chose “Adventures” based on the fact that 2/3 of my favorite books have “the Adventures of” in the title. But is it dumb? Other runner up was “Starring Laura S. Duncombe as Herself”, in homage to the iconic Judy Blume YA book, but then I thought that was copyright infringement or something. Anyway, dear readers, let me know what you think!! And I know you can come up with something better! So please, name my blog. Something cute and clever that captures the tone of my site. If I pick your name, you will win…something. Homemade cookies? A poem composed in your honor? The choices are vast and limitless. So get thinking! (Please)

Well, that’s all for today, folks. Let me know what you come up with, and get psyched for next week!!



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Writing Books Review–Part 2

Hi Everyone!!

We’re back on track–doesn’t it feel good? I’ve been super busy lately volunteering for the Capital Fringe Festival, which opens TODAY and runs through the 27th. I’m volunteering at Baldacchino’s Bar, which is neat because it’s my first time working in a kitchen! It’s so wonderful to be a writer because I can look at every experience (even dishwashing at a restaurant) as something that can eventually be incorporated into a story. Just living is a writing exercise! I know that’s super dorky, but I feel like the Peter Pan quote: “to live would be an awfully big adventure.”

(Side note on Peter Pan–I’ve been looking at Peter Pan wall art recently [whatever don’t judge me] and there are a LOT of Hook quotes on Etsy masquerading as Peter Pan quotes! I love Hook dearly, but let’s get real here. Okay. Rant over.)

Here’s a link on Capital Fringe: If you’re in the DC area, definitely come check it out!!! There are tons of wonderful companies from around the world doing some cutting-edge stuff. It’s exciting!!!

Now onto my review of “Bird by Bird”, by Anne Lamott. I just read this book a few weeks ago and I can’t stop talking about it. I want to tattoo quotes all over my body! It’s just such a wonderful, life-affirming book and it makes me so happy.

The title comes from a story Lamott tells about her father, who was also a writer. Anne’s brother was working on a book report for school about the different birds of the Bay area. He procrastinated until the last minute and was overwhelmed by the task. His father told him to relax, he could do it. “Just take it bird by bird.”

Isn’t that a great life philosophy, too? I used the phrase “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” for a long time to convey this message, but “bird by bird” is shorter and sweeter (and avoids eating elephants, which I’m pretty sure don’t taste too good and are endangered anyway). It’s funny how a lot of these “writing manuals” are really “life manuals”. I’m not sure if that’s because I am a writer, or if a banker would love this as much as I did. Any bankers out there read Anne Lamott?

The book is divided up into four parts: 1) Writing, 2) The Writing Frame of Mind, 3) Help Along the Way, and 4) Publication, and Other Reasons to Write. I found the first two sections laugh-out-loud funny (seriously, I was on an airplane alone and people were giving me strange looks). The last two sections were less valuable to me, but I loved the first two enough to render this an insta-classic for me.

Basically, her writing advice is: write a lot. Don’t ever stop. In the very beginning, she describes writing exercises that she makes her classes do–writing about a childhood memory, or school lunches, or a holiday. She demands 300 words a day, just to keep in the habit. This was great news for me, because I generally write way more than that. But in weird, frantic bursts, so it would probably be better to do it like she says 🙂

She also preaches the value of “shitty first drafts”. She says that writing a first draft without worrying about it frees you to be super creative (and not self-sabotage). Lamott claims that everyone but two writers she knows write shitty first drafts–and the two that don’t aren’t nice people. (This was a laugh-out-loud moment for me).

Throughout the book, she liberally sprinkles wonderful quotes, both by famous authors and herself. I particularly loved her thoughts on perfectionism: she says perfectionists think if they do everything right, they don’t have to die. She reminds us that we are all going to die–what matters is who we are in the face of that. I just love that so much, don’t you?

This book was published in 1994, and it does feel very 90s at times. She’s big on using the word Okay to describe herself and others. Her description of how to take care of yourself during writer’s block sounds shockingly close to advice from a psychiatrist on how to handle clinical depression–but that’s okay. This book is more a “chicken soup for the writer’s soul” than an actual writing manual. But not a hokey, dumbed-down chicken soup…the best chicken soup you’ve ever had, somehow spiked with vodka. Lamott seems to think that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to getting words on paper, and if we could just stop terrorizing ourselves with jealousy, self-doubt, and fear, we’d be able to get it all down. Sounds good to me, Anne.

I highly, highly recommend this book for any writers in your life. Really anyone in your life at all!! It is so, so soothing to know that I’m not alone, there are other weirdos out there just like me, struggling with me, and that I am capable of putting words on paper (and inhabiting this remarkable, wondrous world while I’m at it).

So what are you waiting for? Go buy a copy!!! And check out Capital Fringe! And have a popsicle!! Enjoy this wonderful day 🙂

Tune in next Thursday for news on my crazy new writing project! And probably some pictures of my dog, because he’s adorable. Who knows? See you Thursday!!

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My Top 2 Books about Writing! And some Writing News

Hello Friends!!!

Happy belated 4th of July to my American readers–and happy summer to everyone else! It is hot, hot, HOT here in the DC area, so I am camping out in my basement and writing up a storm! Which is good news for everyone–except my dog who stares at his leash longingly and refuses to listen to all the reasons why a long walk would be a terrible idea in this heat. Sorry, Indiana Bones 🙂 Sorry the holiday threw off my posting schedule–but to make up for it, there’s today’s BONUS post, then back to the every-Thursday schedule. So today, then again on the 10th. Can you handle all this excitement?

I’ve published an article on a BRAND-NEW blog, “A Radical Notion”! It’s a wonderful feminist blog started up in the wake of the Hobby Lobby fiasco by my friend Sky. My piece is about the Christian book “Every Young Woman’s Battle” and how harmful purity culture can be to women, especially smart, well-behaved ones. It’s very personal and I was afraid to publish it, so I’d love some supportive comments! (and check out the rest of this sassy, poignant blog while you’re there:)

I’m also getting started writing “flash fiction”–which is basically a super-short story. They’re usually less than 1000 words long, with a typical story running 300-700 words. I’ve written my first one, a sort of ghost story called “A Fish Tale”. Stay tuned for publication, either here or *fingers crossed* on a flash fiction site/journal!! Any readers out there into flash fiction? What’s your favorite place to read it?

Now to the main post: Books on Writing. I have read a LOT of them, and I continue to do so as I embark on this writing career. Because reading about writing is practically writing, amirite? I will review them every so often here–when I find a really good (or particularly bad) one. But to kick us off, I want to talk about my two FAVORITES: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and On Writing, by Stephen King. I’ll review On Writing First, then Bird by Bird on Thursday (when we’re back to regularly scheduled programming). Here we go!

1) On Writing, by Stephen King.

Man oh man, I love this book. I never read a lot of Stephen King before (and I don’t really read a lot now, to be honest) but this book has been a guiding light to me since high school. King used to write a column in “Entertainment Weekly” called “The Pop of King”, and he frequently referred to himself as Uncle Stevie. That’s what this book has been to me: a cool, nerdy uncle with great advice about a craft we both love, who just happens to be amazingly popular (and prolific). Sometimes when I’m stuck, I can hear King in my head, telling me to cut the adverbs and keep going. It helps 🙂

The first part of the book is an engaging biography of King’s writing life. He had a fairly impoverished childhood in rural Maine, where he read everything he could get his hands on. He fell in love, married, and worked a variety of jobs until hitting the jackpot with “Carrie”. His description of the phonecall where he learns how much he’s sold “Carrie” for is laugh-out-loud funny and also somehow touching. And it just gets better from there. He chronicles his drug addiction and recovery in unflinching detail and offers an account of his being hit by a car and his subsequent recovery–a story I knew in advance but was still shocked by when I arrived at that portion. It’s a testament to how relate-able the book is that when I got to this part, I was geniunely worried for King, even though I knew that he was already fine and the accident was years ago.

What struck me most about the biography portion is how writers are, first and foremost, readers. It doesn’t really matter where you came from or what you like to write–as a kid, you read obsessively and widely. As King described tearing through volumes of short stories late into the night with a flashlight under the covers, I was suddenly back in my childhood bedroom, doing the same. Reading teaches all of us, but particularly writers, how to dream and wonder. And we basically just do that–wonder–on paper for the rest of our lives. Nice work if you can get it, right?

The second part of the book is King’s writing manual–everything he claims to know about writing. Grammar and mechanics are summarily dismissed (get a high school textbook), which frees King up to dish on what he loves best: style. Basically, his advice can be boiled down to two words: no bullshit. He decries flowery prose, endless description, overt insertion of a theme, and his most hated adversary–the adverb. King’s hatred for the adverb is legendary and frequently hysterical. I have been self-conscious about adverbs ever since. He uses a story of his own, as well as famous examples, to demonstrate what he’s talking about. In particular, I found his section on dialogue instructive. His advice is hardly revolutionary, but I have yet to come across a more down-to-earth, accessible manual for exactly how to put words on paper.

The last part of the book (technically part of the second part but worth a separate mention) is the invaluable glimpse into King’s writing life–what time he gets up, how long he writes each day, when he shelves a book for a while, how long he waits between drafts, and who he shows each book to and when. It’s obscenely practical advice that I’ve found other books sorely lack. When I got started, I knew metaphysically what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how long to write per day, where to write in the house, when I should allow people to read my drafts…through this book I was able to develop a battle plan. I don’t follow his recommendations to the letter, but I was able to think about them and come up with my own ideas through his blueprint. It has hands-down saved my career.

Anyone who writes, or anyone who reads, will like this book. Stephen King is a great American storyteller and I am much indebted to him for loaning me his “toolbox”. It’s a quick read–I highly recommend it!!

So that’s all, folks. Tune back in on Thursday for my epic review of Bird by Bird. And who knows? Maybe I’ll have published something else by then! Anything is possible!!


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