Diana Renn

Mysteries that Matter


This weekend I attended my favorite writer’s conference: Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace, at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. I’ve been going to this conference since its earliest days, when it was a simple one-day affair. Now it’s exploded into a jam-packed two-day event that draws attendees from all over the country and attracts high-profile keynote speakers such as Ann Patchett, Chuck Pahlaniuk, Jonathan Franzen, and, this year, one of my all-time favorite authors, Ron Carlson. I love how the conference is true to its name, devoting equal attention to matters of the Muse (sessions focused on craft and inspiration) and the Marketplace (everything from acquiring an agent to promoting your published book).

The conference was more of a whirlwind for me than before as I could only attend on one day. I was a sponge during sessions, drinking in all the wisdom I could from workshop leaders and panelists, and then rather frantically trying to connect with old friends and meet people between sessions or bites of food.

Among the many highlights of the day:

  • Kidlit author Ben Winters led an energetic workshop on “Writing Funny for Young Readers.” We analyzed a number of passages from successful and classic kids’ books (Tom Sawyer, Anastasia Krupnik, Beezus and Ramona, among others) to see how tone, character, and conflicts can be vehicles for humor, and vice versa. We also brainstormed what’s funny for kids, and how to be consistent. Some of the passages we looked at were from books I hadn’t read since childhood, but instantly remembered — and now, looking back through an analytical lens, could see why I loved them, what made them sing.The workshop was MG (middle grade) focused, and did not really get into YA (young adult) humor, so I’ll puzzle over humor and the older market on my own time.
  • Acclaimed author Randy Susan Meyers  led a panel discussion with an in-house publicist and a freelance publicist to discuss how authors might leverage both to promote their books. I’m not yet sure if I’d hire an outside publicist, mainly due to cost, but I took away a number of tips for working with publicists when the time comes, and gained a new appreciation for the power of having a team of people involved in promoting your book — and the importance of communicating well with that team. (Plus, if you have never heard Randy speak, you must drop everything and get to one of her book readings or talks ASAP. She is that rare combination of brilliant and funny. She could talk about anything — publicity, her novel, broccoli — and I would go hear her).
  • Ron Carlson gave an inspiring keynote speech. I had chills when he took the stage; I own every book of short stories this guy has written. (I’ve read one of his novels, but prefer his stories for some reason). I’ve been recommending his book on craft, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, for years, and it was great to hear him  give voice to some of the ideas expressed there, such as the need for the writer to “stay in the room” — not to leave the room, desk, or scene when the going gets tough, because the best material usually arises when you stay and proceed ahead into the unknown, toward doubt.
  • Jenna Blum, Ethan Gilsdorf, and Jonathan Papernick gave a rousing “Hour of Power” talk at the end of the day: Guerilla Book Promotion. All three have engaged in innovative strategies to promote their own books. Jenna has visited countless bookclubs and chases tornadoes. Ethan scheduled his own book tour and finds unique book-related venues at which he can speak or give workshops. Jonathan (a.k.a. “Papernick the Book Peddler”) hand-sells his books from a pushcart in New York City and appears at Farmers Markets (where, as he put it, he doesn’t have to compete with the likes of Jonathan Franzen; he’s just competing with vegetables). 

A full day, which I’m grateful I could enjoy. I’m ready to hit the desk again this week and finish Phase One of my revision. As always after the Muse, I’m in awe of how many writers come to conferences, how many of us are engaged in this zany and wonderful pursuit of putting words on a blank page, and how book culture and reading are alive and well.

Have you heard of The Murderer’s Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers? It’s coming out in paperback today, so I thought I’d devote some air time to it. Mainly since I have not stopped thinking about this novel since I read it, and I’ve read three other books since!

First, a confession. As a relatively new mom, I hesitated at first to read a story about domestic violence and its aftermath. These days I’m skittish about stories of children placed in dangerous situations. And this story doesn’t hold back on danger. In the opening chapters, an alcoholic man turns on his family, killing his wife and attacking one of his young daughters. 

But I was quickly pulled into this novel, as is not so much about violence as it is about resilience. It explores how the daughters, Lulu and Merry, attempt to rebuild their lives over the ensuing decades, particularly how they deal with having a father in prison. At a point, the lies they tell the world and themselves in order to cope are put to the test. The girls must make difficult moral choices about how to reconstruct their family narrative. 
It’s a fascinating study of how their survival skills and emotional coping strategies change over time, particularly when one daughter has children of her own, drastically raising the stakes. 

A great strength of this novel is its roster of realistic, psychologically complex characters. Yes, there are murderers and batterers roaming these pages. Yet the men are portrayed not so much as monsters, but as people who commit “monstrous deeds.” 

This is a fascinating psychological study, a story of two of the strongest girls you’ll ever meet in fiction, and, above all, a keep-you-up-all-night-page-turner. And if you’re looking for a book with YA/adult crossover interest (for mature YA readers, anyway), this is a good one. A large portion of the novel portrays the girls coping and rebuilding their lives during their tween and teen years. Even the characters in their adult years, I would argue, are of interest to teens because the moral choices the adults make impact the family’s next generation. 

Here’s the book trailer:

What are some other “adult” novels you know of with the potential for YA appeal?