Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bestselling Novelist Michelle Richmond Shares Support & Writing Tips With Writers in SL

Transcript of August 13, 2008, Athena Isle
Writers Meeting in Second Life
Alas Zerbino: Welcome to this Athena Isle Writers meeting at the Story Mountain Center for Writers on Athena Isle.

I'm honored now to introduce our guest today. Michelle Richmond's first book of fiction, a short story collection, won one of the major national writing awards in 2001. Her first novel, Dream of the Blue Room, was an award finalist. Then her second novel, The Year of Fog, did what every writer dreams of: it became a NY Times bestseller, as well as hitting many 2007 top-book lists. Now, her third novel, No One You Know, is just out -- and to stunning reviews!

Michelle Richmond speaks to Athena Isle Writers on SL
Michelle Richmond (center, in pink dress) "talks" to the Athena Isle Writers meeting on Second Life on Aug. 20, 2008.

Alas Zerbino: Michelle is appearing in Second Life as the avatar Michelle Mefusula. Welcome to Athena Isle Writers, Michelle! Please add whatever you wish to introduce yourself.

Michelle Mefusula: It's great to be here. Thanks for inviting me, Alas. And thank you all for being here. Looking forward to hearing your questions.
Alas Zerbino: We're delighted you came! And you've been such a trooper about the weirdnesses of SL!
Michelle Mefusula: It is indeed weird, but wonderful! I could get lost in here.
Alas Zerbino: LOL -- we all do from time to time.

Michelle Mefusula: Are you all writers?
Alas Zerbino: I am
Chepooka Laval: I am not, but I'm a reader! :)
JMB Balogh: Me, I'm just a blogger but a fan of yours and a big reader too
Alas Zerbino: Great -- readers!!
Irisgrl Saphir: I am a writer --lol
Chepooka Laval: she is a writer.
Michelle Mefusula: Ah, yes, I've read your blog, Alas. Are you a fiction writer? Chepooka and JMB ... we writers need readers!
Irisgrl Saphir: yeah--write on!
Irisgrl Saphir: JMB's blog? where?
JMB Balogh: Nobody important is its name
Irisgrl Saphir: Fiction and non-fiction
Alas Zerbino: Yes, I write short fiction and novels -- only published short stories & some poems.
Michelle Mefusula: JMB...a fan..yay! Thank you. Oh, JMB, of course, I've read your blog before.
Michelle Mefusula: Alas...great! It's wonderful that you've published stories and poems. That's not easy to do.
JMB Balogh: You did, did you see my review of Year of Fog?
Alas Zerbino: What's the URL of your blog, JMB?
JMB Balogh: nobodyimportant-jmb.blogspot.com
Alas Zerbino: What a name!! Thanks!
JMB Balogh: YW
Michelle Mefusula: Yes, I did JMB... thank you!

On Publishing and Agents
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Your books have been far more successful than many of today's novelists. Why do you think that's so?
Michelle Mefusula: Alas: Well, The Year of Fog did achieve a level of commercial success that I never expected. It was my third book, and the first one that sold well. I think it was a combination of things--the story, the publisher's efforts, right time and place, etc.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: How did you find an agent?
Alas Zerbino: Good question!
Michelle Mefusula: I published my first two books without an agent. I'd tried very hard to find an agent for my story collection and for my first novel, to no avail. Dozens of rejections.
Michelle Mefusula: I ultimately found my agent while at the Sewanee Writers Conference. I was there as a fellow, and got to sit down with a NY couple who have an old and respected agency in NYC. We hit it off, and I sent them my new novel, The Year of Fog, when it was complete.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: if without an agent how did you find a publisher?
Michelle Mefusula: My first book was published as a result of the Associated Writing Programs contest. It's an annual contest for a story collection, and University of Massachusetts Press publishes the winner.
Michelle Mefusula: My second book was published by MacAdam/Cage, a small San Francisco literary publisher which, at that time, accepted unagented submissions. I'm not sure they do that anymore, though.

Alas Zerbino: So it's true that agents do sign up writers they meet at conferences?
Michelle Mefusula: Yes, I think agents do sometimes sign up authors they meet at conferences, although it definitely helped that I had two books under my belt at that point.

Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Can you elaborate more on "right time and place" (no need to elaborate on the story -- it's a great one!)
Michelle Mefusula: Hmmm, right time and place. Well, The Year of Fog is set in San Francisco, and I did a lot of events when it came out. I also wrote an essay about the inspiration for The Year of Fog which appeared in the San Fran Chronicle magazine, and the following week it was on the SF Chron bestseller list. When it made the list, my publisher took notice, and began to put more effort behind it. So I'd say the success of a book by an unknown writer is often the result of a slow-building avalanche of good publicity.
Alas Zerbino: Wow! Fascinating story!
Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION Is San Fran Chron article online?
Michelle Mefusula: Yes, the SF Chron article is online. May I post the link here, Alas?
Alas Zerbino: absolutely!!

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Have you started working on #5, or do you take a break after pub?
Michelle Mefusula: I've been on a break for about two months, working on events, guest blogging, and preparing for an interview I'm going to do next month with one of my favorite authors, Paul Auster. I'll begin working on number 5 in a couple of weeks.
Irisgrl Saphir: very helpful info on getting published

Unpublished Writers: Submit Short Fiction to Journals
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: What's the most important thing an unpublished writer can do to move toward publication?
Michelle Mefusula: Most important thing an unpublished writer can do: I had my start publishing short stories in literary magazines, and I think that's a very good place to start. When you have a story that is polished and represents your best work, choose ten magazines you'd like to be published in, and send it to ALL of them. I'm a big believer in multiple submissions.

Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Did you ever worry that your fiction wouldn't "make it"?
Michelle Mefusula: Yes, I worried for years that my fiction wouldn't make it, and there were times when I became very discouraged, when I couldn't find a publisher for my books. But I just kept thinking "One day..."
Michelle Mefusula: I think it actually turned out to be a good thing for me that my first two books were not commercial successes. It made me able to manage my expectations. I know people who are discouraged if their first book doesn't make a huge splash, but I always feel fortunate to be able to publish and to write the story I want to write.
Alas Zerbino: That's so important for writing!

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: who do you get to read/edit your work before submission--lots of people?
Michelle Mefusula: My husband is my first editor, and the only person who sees my work before it goes to my agent or to my editor at the publishing house.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Do you have a blog?
Alas Zerbino: Michelle's blog: http://michellerichmond.com/sanserif/
Alas Zerbino: Her website: http://michellerichmond.com/
Michelle Mefusula: Thanks for posting my blog address, Alas. As for that article in the Chron, you can got to my website, click FOG, and then click "the story behind the book." (I couldn't paste the link.)
Alas Zerbino: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/04/29/CMGRJN7UTO1.DTL&hw=michelle+richmond&sn=001&sc=1000

Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Do you write fast first drafts, or deliberate over each paragraph as you write it?
Michelle Mefusula: I deliberate, Alas! Do you deliberate over every paragraph? I did, however, write No One You Know in a year, which is very fast for me. It was the first time I was on deadline for a novel, and it helped.
Alas Zerbino: I do both -- which is why I'm curious. Sometimes I deliberate forever; other times I can't write fast enough.
Michelle Mefusula: Alas, don't you love those times when you're able to not deliberate and you "Can't write fast enough?"
Alas Zerbino: YES!!!!
Irisgrl Saphir: Plugged into the Muse--yeah!!
Michelle Mefusula: But back to what's important for unpublished or beginning writers: find a good reader for your work, someone who will be honest but encouraging. And once you believe something is ready to send out, just keep sending it and sending it until someone bites.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Are your stories "there" when you start or do they grow as you write?
Michelle Mefusula: Inrisgrl: my stories definitely grow as I write. With a novel, I always have an idea where it's going, but not outline. With a short story, it's pretty much a free-fall, and I love that.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Do you re-write a lot--revise for longer than it took to write?
Michelle Mefusula: Oh, yes, Irisgrl, I revise a TON. Every book goes through many rounds of revision.
Alas Zerbino: Sometimes I think I could revise forever.....
Michelle Mefusula: Sometimes it's difficult to know when to stop revising.

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Did your editors at the publisher edit a lot or just barely?
Michelle Mefusula: My editor was very hands-on with The Year of Fog and made many, many suggestions, some of which I took and some of which I didn't. A good editor won't even want you to take ALL of her suggestions...my editor is wonderful. With No One You Know, she did less editing. Part of that was that we had less time, but part of it was that the early drafts of that book were less messy than The Year of Fog.

About Novel Settings
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Your settings are very "atmospheric" - almost dreamy at times. Do you do that consciously or does it come out in your writing process?
Michelle Mefusula: Can I just say it's so cool to have that big poster up over the fireplace?
Alas Zerbino: *big smile* Great!! I'll take a photo and send it to you.
Michelle Mefusula: I think the settings are a natural part of my writing process-it has a lot to do with the way I observe and process the world. I knew that, in The Year of Fog, I wanted San Francisco to be a character unto itself, just as I wanted China to be very present in Dream of the Blue Room.
Michelle Mefusula: When I read a book, I like to have a very strong impression of the place--the sights, smells, sounds, etc, so I think it's something that comes naturally to me when I write.
Alas Zerbino: Yes, I like it when the setting is a character -- especially when it's well done.
Michelle Mefusula: With San Francisco, that was kind of easy--the setting being a character. I live in the fog belt out by the ocean, by far the foggiest part of the city. It's been freezing most of this month!
Irisgrl Saphir: Like Alaska this summer--cold drizzly overcast--but no fog
Alas Zerbino: I know the area! We actually had intense fog here last night and this morning...maybe because I was going to be meeting you?!! :)
Michelle Mefusula: Are you in Alaska, Irisgrl? That's so cool and romantic! Alas...I love that the parameters of our virtual world are infringing upon your real life, bringing fog into your neighborhood.
Irisgrl Saphir: Yep--Alaska, with a sweater on
Alas Zerbino: Yes, and the more time I spend in SL, the thinner the separations seem to be!

Michelle Richmond at Story Mountain Center for Writers in Second Life

Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTIONS: Do your stories come out of your life or are they mostly made-up?
Michelle Mefusula: Irisgrl, the events of my novels are entirely fictional, but the emotions, I'm sure, come partially from things I've experienced. In No One You Know, the narrator has lost a sister. That has never happend to me, but I do have two sisters and was able to emotionally connect with the character on that level.
Irisgrl Saphir: Cool--so many people around me write their life
Irisgrl Saphir: I can't wait to read Fog
Alas Zerbino: If I wrote my life, the stories would be intensely boring! lol
Michelle Mefusula: Me too!
Michelle Mefusula: I do write personal essays for fun, which I publish here and there-- my husband probably wishes I wouldn't!
Alas Zerbino: LOL!

About MFAs for Writers
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: How important is it for an apprentice writer to get an MFA?
Michelle Mefusula: Even though I've taught in MFA programs for years, I don't think anyone needs an MFA to be a writer. I think it's helpful to many people--for one thing, it provides a writer with deadlines and a community of like-minded persons. But there are more and more ways to connect with other writers these days, from virtual workshops to workshops in university extension programs. I think the degree is totally unnecessary. Of course,I'd like to hear an agent's take on that--they might disagree.
Alas Zerbino: Hmmm, I've heard agents say the MFA isn't essential....
Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Do you have an MFA?
Michelle Mefusula: I do have an MFA. The reason I decided to get one was that I knew I wanted to teach, because I felt that was a career that would give me time to write. Although I don't teach much anymore, and writing is my bread and butter, for many years teaching paid the bills while allowing me summers off to write.
Irisgrl Saphir: Imagine earning a living from your writing--my hat off to you!
Alas Zerbino: Mine, too!!
Michelle Mefusula: I also did my MFA in a very different time--1995. BAck then, the majority of the MFA programs were fully funded--meaning students did not pay tuition. I taught a couple of classes and received a living stipend. Many of the newer programs are expensive, and I don't think it's a good idea to go into debt for an MFA!
Alas Zerbino: Stipends -- WOW!
Irisgrl Saphir: The new low-residency ones are great, though.
Alas Zerbino: Irisgrl -- that's been my experience, too
Michelle Mefusula: Yes, I love the idea of the low-res program and actually think these may be worth the money, because you don't have to quit your day job and move across the country to attend.
Michelle Mefusula: As for earning a living as a writer--that only started happening about a year ago. Believe me, it came as a huge surprise!

Alas Zerbino: I was chatting with another writer (fantasizing maybe?) about setting up an unofficial, uncredited, but useful "MFA program" here in SL,
Michelle Mefusula: Oh, I like the idea of the unofficial MFA in SL--I bet it would be popular!

Bestselling author Michelle Richmond at Story Mountain Center in Second LifeAlas Zerbino: QUESTION: What are your thoughts on whether literary fiction writing can be taught? (some say it can't...that writers are "born")
Irisgrl Saphir: Well, it can be honed, developed, with the right guidance and great feedback
Michelle Mefusula: I'm torn about whether literary fiction writing can be taught. I think the desire to write is something that can't be taught, and a writer has to have that. A certain degree of talent helps. But writers can learn certain things--about craft--that make them much better at what they do. Yes, it can be honed, developed.
Michelle Mefusula: And despite what I've said about MFA programs here, I have had the opportunity to watch my students grow and develop. But I've also seen them be discouraged by too much workshopping.
Irisgrl Saphir: That's where low-res is handy---more focus
Irisgrl Saphir: But you gotta want to tell a story......
Alas Zerbino: Yes, the desire to write -- that's essential -- otherwise why go through the pain?
Irisgrl Saphir: The desire to have written is big, too!
Michelle Mefusula: Ah, yes, the pain. The desire to have written--can you elaborate?
Irisgrl Saphir: Having a story and wanting to see it between hard covers, especially when it's not coming out well . . . ahhh

Michelle Mefusula: Is JMB still here?
Irisgrl Saphir: Left about 15 minutes ago, did JMB
Alas Zerbino: JMB seems to have left.
Alas Zerbino: (People come and go much more readily here than in first life.)
Michelle Mefusula: Coming and going more readily...ha!
Irisgrl Saphir: Like the Muse--who comes and goes a lot!
Alas Zerbino: LOL!!
Michelle Mefusula: Ah, yes, that muse does come and go!
Michelle Mefusula: Oh, I just found JMB's blog post about The Year of Fog. She did a very thoughtful write-up and links to another writer's website that focuses on missing persons, very interesting: http://nobodyimportant-jmb.blogspot.com/2008/04/year-of-fog.html
Alas Zerbino: Thanks for getting that, Michelle!

Michelle Mefusula: With low-res you get more one-on-one with the instructor, I think. In a traditional MFA program, a huge volume of the feedback you get is from your classmates--which can be very helpful, but sometimes all the different voices are daunting and confusing.
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: Workshopping is the biggest source of complaints & disillusionment from friends who've done an MFA. Do you think there are better ways to get feedback?
Michelle Mefusula: I think perhaps the best way to get feedback is to form a group of three or four writers who also happen to be excellent and avid readers. People who are really concerned with helping each other become better writers. Workshops are often just so big, and the people who talk the most are not necessarily the ones who are the most helpful.
Irisgrl Saphir: QUESTION: Are the workshops required or can you skip some?
Michelle Mefusula: Usually you're required to do a workshop per semester. Frequently the final semester has "Thesis hours" instead of a workshop.

Most Useful Writing Advice
Alas Zerbino: QUESTION: What's the most useful piece of writing advice you can give to writers (other than "just write")?
Michelle Mefusula: Useful writing advice: Read widely and ecclectically. Some of my best passages have come about when I was just sitting reading a book and was suddenly inspired. For that, it's good to have a notebook in hand when your're writing. And reread! I have some books that I go back to over and over again. Do any of you have those books that speak to you in multiple readings?
Alas Zerbino: Yes, there are several I've re-read -- both for clues and for enjoyment.

Michelle Mefusula: My other writing advice: Know when to let a story go. Not every story is going to work out. Before I wrote No One You Know, I was three hundred pages into a novel that I just couldn't get a handle on. I finally abandoned it, and when I did so, the new novel just sort of came pouring out. I was liberated! So liberate yourself from failed stories.
Alas Zerbino: Great advice!!

Irisgrl Saphir: Thanks for coming, Michelle; I can't wait to read your work!
Michelle Mefusula: Thank you all! I can't believe the hour is over. This has been so much fun, I'm going to have to become a regular SLr now.
Alas Zerbino: That's super, Michelle!
Alas Zerbino: Thank you so VERY much for coming here!!
Michelle Mefusula: A book for all of you to read: The Death of a Beekeeper by Lars Gustafsson. I read it every year. It's amazing and inspiring.

Chepooka Laval: Michelle this was so great! I can't wait to read your work.
Chepooka Laval: I have subscribed to your blog as well
Michelle Mefusula: Thanks for subscribing to my blog, Chepooka! I frequently post writing exercises on my blog--just see the WRITING EXERCISE category if you're interested.

Alas Zerbino: You've given us so much information and advice -- and support!
Alas Zerbino: Chepooka, I'm halfway through No One You Know and can hardly put it down.
Michelle Mefusula: Alas, thank you for reading No One You Know, and thank you for the kind words!
Alas Zerbino: You've been wonderful Michelle!
Irisgrl Saphir: You sure have!
Irisgrl Saphir: Bye!

Michelle Mefusula: I've kind of grown fond of this dress and hate to take it off. Speaking of taking it off, last night as I was trying to figure out SL, I accidentally removed my shirt and couldn't figure out how to get it back on. I was afraid I'd have to appear topless.
Alas Zerbino: LOL! When you find yourself without a piece of clothing, open your inventory (lower right side), open the Clothing folder, find a shirt, right-click onit and choose "wear"
Michelle Mefusula: That's nice to know about the clothing. But now that you've informed me, I have no excuse for wandering around naked, which might have been kind of fun...something I'd never ever do in real life.

Alas Zerbino: Thanks to everyone for making this a great meeting, and I'll let you know when the transcript goes up.
Michelle Mefusula: Thanks Alas, Irisgrl, Chepooka, and everyone for your wonderful questions. This has been such a delight!
Alas Zerbino: Come back again!
Chepooka Laval: Absolutely Michelle!
Michelle Mefusula: Over and out, and I hope to run into you again soon.
Irisgrl Saphir: See you again!
Alas Zerbino: Perhaps you'd come in sometime for a voice reading
Michelle Mefusula: Would love to. Bye!

* * * * *
Editor's Note: Based on reader feedback, I've made some changes to how I post these transcripts. The words of each avatar are the same, but I've rearranged the comments a bit so Michelle's answers fall immediately after the questions they pertain to. Also, I've deleted the date/time stamps and some of the introductory logistics at the start of the meeting. I hope this makes the transcript easier to read if you weren't able to attend the event itself. Please add a comment to this post to let me if these changes work for you. Thanks! ~Alas Zerbino


jmb said...

Alas, it was such a pleasure to attend this round table with Michelle. What's more since I crashed out i get to hear the end of the session.
I did IM Michelle with a question which I was not able to ask and she IM'd me back and also said she went back to read my review of her book, which she had seen when I wrote it. I guess she checks her links on Technorati for I was quite surprised.
I hope to come again soon.

jmb said...

Sorry, I'm JMB Balogh in SL

Joan Kremer said...


I'm glad you found the transcript worthwhile. I'm also glad you could come to Michelle's session--she was great, wasn't she!

I hope to see you again inworld soon!