JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

May 20, 2017
by joanna
1 Comment

Preparing for One-on-One (Literary) Agent Feedback

It’s Squib Saturday, and usually I share the most interesting, entertaining or outrageous tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from something I’ve read or done over the past week. Today, I have to cheat, and republish a funny squib I posted last year about fake news.  Let me, please, explain:

For the last few weeks, I have been preparing the opening chapters of Book 3 for a First-Ten-Pages Boot Camp. It’s an online workshop run by the agents of the Talcott Notch Literary Agency who evaluate the first 2,500 words of a novel.


The idea behind the course is that literary agents and acquisitions editors in the major publishing houses receive so many queries and manuscripts they have time to read only the first couple of pages.  If an author doesn’t grab their attention in those pages, it’s curtains!

My enrollment in the course was prompted by the sad feeling that I needed a jumpstart to return to my manuscript after attending a novel workshop in St. Augustine which I wrote about here and here. Specifically, I returned from the workshop with a slew of suggestions buzzing around in my head, and a realization that I needed to rewrite the opening of my thriller to focus on my antagonist.


The rewrite went slowly, and involved lots of procrastination (new thriller, Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane, new season of Veep on HBO ; current season of White House Bloopers (a daily show on any cable TV news channel.) I enrolled in the Boot Camp to give myself a deadline. However, before submitting the first ten pages to the Boot Camp I decided to test-drive them with a beta reader I knew would give me the unvarnished truth — my brother, Michael. Indeed, that’s what I got: “Okay, it’s interesting, I’d like to know more, but I wouldn’t stay up at night to carry on reading. It’s not a page-turner like your first book (Scandal.)

Kiss of Death

Back to the drawing board. I had to write and edit furiously to make the deadline. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have time to find  a new squib for this week, but then I revisited some scenes in Book 3 set in the newsroom of a tawdry supermarket tabloid. And that reminded me of a blog I posted about the heyday of fake news when readers could tell the difference between real and fake news, and were not confused by Donald Trump labelling all mainstream media as the “dishonest media.” It made me laugh. So here is a partial reprint for those readers who missed it last year:

 Oh my! Oh my!

imagesFake news is not a by-product of the digital age. It existed decades ago in varying degrees. Before Infowars, before Breitbart (“Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy”) we had the supermarket tabloids. In the interests of full disclosure, I was the news editor of one of them, Star Magazine, but while I was news editor, at least, I know that the Star never knowingly published a fake news story. However, the bottom feeders in this group, publications like the now-defunct Weekly World News and Sun, with their tawdry front pages nestling at the bottom of racks in supermarket checkouts were a different matter.

Lessons from the Past

Where am I going with this? To share my memory of one of the funniest fake news stories of that era, and its consequences.

The fake news story in question was published by the now-defunct Sun in 1992. The headline on the story was : “World’s Oldest Newspaper Carrier, 101, Quits Because She’s Pregnant.” The story stated she was quitting because she had become pregnant by a millionaire in Stirling, Australia. None of it was true: No millionaire. No pregnant 101-year old, and no such place as Stirling, Australia. But, so far so good, right? Entertaining story; no harm done.

However, the publication needed a photo of this phenomenally fecund newspaper carrier because as everyone knows,  a photo is worth a 1,000 words. According to well-circulated bar stories at the time, the photo editor tasked with the assignment went into the publication archives and found a photo of a newsstand operator in Arkansas.  The photo was dated 1980, and the newspaper carrier in the photo was identified as being about 80 years old at the time.  Good enough, he thought. What are the chances that this lady is still alive? And, so the Sun ran the photo, with her posing in front of her newsstand, alongside the story.

Fiction & Fantasy

United States Court HouseThe rest of the story belongs to the publication’s litigation history since the newspaper carrier in Arkansas was still alive, was 96, and was alerted to the article — and her photo– by a neighbor.  She was eventually awarded $1.5 million in damages by a federal court. But, that isn’t even the best part of the story.

No, the funniest part of the story is the defense that was offered up by Sun editors and lawyers at the trial: something to the effect that the story couldn’t be defamatory because “everyone knows the Sun isn’t a real newspaper, and that the stories in it are all fiction and fantasy.”

It didn’t do the Sun any good in court, but yes, back then, most readers who picked up their “newspapers” at the supermarket checkout pretty much knew they were picking up entertainment, pulp fiction about alien babies, UFOs and Bat Cave dwellers, and not news stories meant to be taken seriously.

Today’s Problem

Today, it’s much more difficult. By the time snippets from legitimate news sites and from online sites masquerading as news sites are tweeted and re-tweeted, and posted to Facebook timelines, who can tell what’s real and what’s fake?

May 13, 2017
by joanna

Never Too Late To Learn How To Write A Book

It’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done. This week: I meet a first-time, award-winning author who was 80 years old when she decided to learn how to write a book.


Eleanor Caro just became one of my heroes. Newly-widowed at the age of 70, she decided she was “not going to sit in a grief counseling group for two years or more.”  So, she upped and moved from her home in Madison, Wisconsin to Claviers, a village in France, population 604, 60 kilometres west of Cannes on the French Riviera.

There, she bought a house, ran it as a bed and breakfast, and had numerous adventures, including an affair. A decade later she returned to the United States, and decided to write a book about spending her 70s abroad. At 85 she self-published the book, aptly titled Still Time. 

A couple of weeks ago, Eleanor, now 91, received the the Palm Beach Book Festival Special Honor Award for her memoir in the annual contest run by the Festival for unpublished works by authors of fiction and non-fiction.

How to Write a Book

When she sat down to write the memoir, Eleanor had not produced any creative writing since her “compositions” in high school. “But,” she said, “I wanted to leave something for my children that let them know that they can do [adventurous] things when they get older.”

Seeing information about a writers group at her local library in Madison, Wisconsin, she decided to join.  She told me at the Festival that she quickly realized she had a lot to learn: The first time she read out her pages to the ten- or- so members of the group ” they told me they had no idea what I was talking about.”

A Writers Group

This week, when I followed up with Eleanor on the phone, she described a feeling that every writer (published or not), and  if truly honest, experiences occasionally (or sometimes a lot):

“The pictures and words were in my head, but I couldn’t get them from my head to my fingers and onto the paper.”

As an example, she said there was a description in the book where she wrote about “walking upstairs to the terrace.”  She added: “there was one young writer in the group who said, “you’ve got to do better than that. You don’t walk upstairs to a terrace; you walk out the back door.” But as Eleanor explained, in Claviers there was no property like patios or backyards attached to the row houses, so terraces were created by taking down roofs, and partial walls of the top floors. “I could see it in my head, but I hadn’t explained the idea to readers who couldn’t picture it like I could so it didn’t make sense. I learned I had to spell it out. ”

The writers group wasn’t enough for Eleanor. Over 2-3 years after she returned from France, she said she “kept going to different places” to learn how to write her book.

Writing Classes

“What helped me most,” she said, “was going to writing classes.” She attended classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and at Edgewood College, Madison. “If I saw a course in writing, I’d take it. Among other things, she learned how to start a chapter, and how to end it and “leave something to keep readers guessing, so they’d want to turn to the next chapter.”

She also recalled an essay she was assigned for one of the classes. “I had to pretend to be an “inanimate object.” She chose to be “false teeth in a glass on a nightstand that began chattering away in the night. I enjoyed those classes, and then I’d come home and work on my book.”

Opening Sentences

At the university she also found her way into writer conferences which she said were attended by “real” writers. She attended several of those, as well as traveling to writer conferences in other states with friends from her writers group. She recalled signing up for a group session with a literary agent at one of the conferences.

“He told us that the opening sentence of a book is the most important sentence you write.  That made quite an impression on me,” said Eleanor. As did the reaction of the group when she read out the first sentences of her memoir, which were:

“You did what?”

“I’ve decided to move to France.” I had lowered my voice. There I said it. My words hung out there.

“You’re going to up and move? And to France?”

Eleanor recalled that all the writers in the group and the literary agent “laughed as if it was the silliest thing they’d heard.” But, she added, ” I couldn’t think of anything else, and for me it was okay. I wasn’t aiming to become a big, bestselling writer.”


Eleanor said she wrote mostly from memory, but with some help from copies of letters she had sent to friends and family while she was living in Claviers. When she finished the book, she asked a published author in her writers group to edit her manuscript. Then, she sent it to one literary agent. “He said it wasn’t quite what he was looking for.”

Undaunted, Eleanor had 100 hardcover copies of the book printed by a printer friend of her daughter. For her 90th birthday, her daughter printed a further hundred paperback copies.  Eleanor, now a West Palm Beach resident,  said she has no idea how to self publish through Amazon. She is delighted with her Special Honor award, and happy with the reaction of family, friends and acquaintances who have read the book. “They ask for more copies so they can pass them on to their mothers.”


Photo credit: Top photo: Bigstock photos



May 6, 2017
by joanna

What I Learned In One Day From Ten Famous Authors

It’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done. This week: Writing Tips & Other Fascinating Facts from Bestselling Authors at The Palm Beach Book Festival.



For the third annual Palm Beach Book Festival, founder and creative director Lois Cahall brought together more than a dozen authors and moderators for two days of talk just about books. The first day served an audience of school kids, teachers and librarians. The second day at the Harriet Himmel Theatre in City Place, West Palm Beach attracted aspiring writers, readers and fans intent on hearing bestselling and award-winning authors talk about the craft, their latest works, and to answer questions from the audience.

Pictured here with her husband Matt Burditt, Lois is a novelist, film critic and journalist. On the Festival website, she states one of the reasons she started the festival was to “bridge the gap between the NYC publishing world and Florida’s untapped talent. There’s a lot of voices here. There’s also a next generation of writers.” So here’s what one of those writers (me) learned from the assembled greats:

Indispensable Tools

It’s difficult these days to imagine writing without access to a computer or wifi or apps like Evernote. Unless you’re Sebastian Junger. The author of The Perfect Storm, and more recently Tribe, shows why you  don’t really need a laptop or Scrivener software or Dropbox to produce award-winning books. Junger (pictured with Cathy Helowicz, executive director of the Palm Beach Writers Group) didn’t have ready access to electrical outlets when he spent time with the 173rd Airborne in Afghanistan for his books, Fire and War. So, with nowhere to plug in chargers for a laptop or ipad, he used good, old-fashioned pens and notebooks to write at the platoon’s outpost. He then taped his notebooks to his body when travelling with the platoon to make sure his notes made it back home safely — a horrifying thought for those of us who can’t write paragraph without saving or backing it up a dozen times over.

Research is Key

As I learned from story guru Robert McKee (at a three-day seminar which I’ve written about previously) research is what makes a story great. McKee says, “research allows you to become the god of the world you are writing about.”   It’s obviously even more important for writers of non-fiction. While Jeffrey Toobin actually lived through the trial of O.J. Simpson,  and his own reporting became the basis for his bestselling book, Run For His Life, that wasn’t the case with his latest bestseller American Heiress. He was barely a teenager when Patty Hearst was kidnapped by the left-wing terrorist group, the Symbionese Liberation Army so every detail for the book was a matter of assiduous research. “Nothing’s been written about her for 30 years,” he said. In a humorous aside, Toobin told Festival attendees,”if  you tell people today that Hearst was on the cover of Newsweek seven times, they’ll say, what’s Newsweek? What’s a cover?”

Plotters or Pantsters?

Like James Patterson, the Festival’s honorary chairman (and super nice guy, as I wrote last week),  fellow Festival author Amor Towles ( A Gentleman in Moscow) believes in creating an outline first. Boy, does he ever!  Towles said he spends one to two years working on his outlines.  “I outline very carefully before I start chapter one.” Likewise, Patterson told the audience that he writes a 50-70 page, chapter by chapter outline for all of his books. Since both Towles and Patterson are bestselling authors, this advice might be worth heeding by those aspiring writers who say they write “by the seat of their pants,” meaning they start each chapter without really knowing where they’re headed.

Memoir or Autobiography?

On the difference between memoir and autobiography, Dani Shapiro, author of   a new memoir, Hourglass, remarked that, in a memoir a writer has to transcend his or her particular circumstances to tell a story in which others will recognize their own experiences.  With memoirs, she said, you’ll get readers saying “we could be sisters” or “wow, we’ve lived the same life.” In autobiographies, she said, “the relationship between reader and writer is different.” The writer needs to put in the “kitchen sink” because readers wants to know everything about you.


These days when everyone has a blog, and anyone with a laptop can self-publish, it’s almost refreshing to come across someone like movie and TV star, Robert (R.J.) Wagner  who is happy to leave writing to a professional  His latest book, I Loved Her in the Movies, is his third collaborative effort with Hollywood historian, Scott Eyman. He said he wanted to work with Eyman  after reading his biography about Hollywood titan, Louis B. Mayer, The Lion of Hollywood. Wagner told the audience he asked a mutual friend to introduce him to Eyman. The latest book is subtitled Memories of Hollywood’s Legendary Actresses and includes his recollections of Norma Shearer, Bette Davis and Marilyn Monroe who, he said, used to “stop by” the house he shared with then-wife, Natalie Wood when they “left the light on.”  Wagner recalled that Marilyn “enjoyed being in an atmosphere that was real.”

Not Just Writing Tips

Discussions between authors and moderators (Vanity Fair correspondent, James Wolcott,  New Yorker staff writer, Patricia Marx  and Leigh Haber, books editor for Oprah Magazine) didn’t just focus on writing advice. Anecdotes and gossip were plentiful, too. Leslie Bennetts, talking about her biography of Joan Rivers, Last Girl Before Freeway, said that she discovered that the late TV star loved the tabloids like the National Enquirer and The Star.

Separating Fact from Fiction

Bennetts said that, at various times Joan Rivers claimed in those publications to have slept with Robert Mitchum. She would then reportedly call  a friend to ask if Mitchum was still alive. In the same way, she claimed to have slept with Johnny Carson. “How do you think I got on the [Tonight] show?” she is reported to have asked.  “It was a certain amount of work to separate fact from fiction in Joan’s life,” said Bennetts .

Likewise for Gerri Hirshey, whose research for her biography of Helen Gurley Brown, the most famous editor of Cosmopolitan magazine included Brown’s claim that she had 179 lovers. “She was much more of a feminist than anyone thought she was,” added Hirshey.

Joan Juliet Buck, a former editor-in-chief of Paris Vogue, and author of her memoir, The Price of Illusion spoke about photos being the best for jogging memory. Buck who is the daughter of a Hollywood movie producer grew up with the daughters of film director, John Huston. She said she ran parts of her memoir past Anjelica and Allegra, and there were passages where they said “that didn’t happen.” I found out that “the stories I had told myself weren’t true, so I had to go beyond that. It took me six years to write the book.”


Photo Credits: author photos of Dani Shapiro and Joan Juliet Buck courtesy of Palm Beach Book Festival program





April 29, 2017
by joanna

Meeting James Patterson at The Palm Beach Book Festival

It’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done. This week: I Discover The World’s Bestselling Author is Also A Super Nice Guy.

How do you introduce an author who has sold more than 300 million copies of his thrillers worldwide to a standing- room- only audience at a book festival?  This is how Lois Cahall, founder and organizer of the Palm Beach Book Festival, did it last week at the Harriet Himmel Theatre, City Place, West Palm Beach.  She told the audience that at one point while organizing the third annual book festival, she realized she had booked only non-fiction writers to appear on the festival panels. “So, I went out to look around for someone who writes fiction,” she said, ” and I found this guy.”

No Introduction Needed

“This guy,”  of course, needed no introduction when he showed his face on stage. It was James Patterson, the only author to have five new hardcover novels debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list in one year. He also happens to be the Festival’s Honorary Chairman. He also happens to be the favorite author of a group of ladies I met a couple of weeks ago in a home which is run by The Lord’s Place, an organization that aids the homeless. I wrote about that meeting and their stories here .

Patterson Meets the Burckle Place Ladies

Upon learning that the ladies loved his books, I and Pamela McIver, my friend, tennis partner, and former Lord’s Place board chairman brought ten of the ladies from the home at Burckle Place as our guests to the Festival — and to get a book signed by the bestselling author.

Lois Cahall (left) Pam McIver (back to camera) and Patterson

As it turned out, with a bit of help from a Festival organizer, the ladies found themselves at the head of the line of fans waiting to have their copies of Patterson’s latest, The Black Book, signed. Hence, they were the closest to him when Lois Cahall led him through the crowd to the signing table. I was determined to get as many photos of Patterson with the ladies (for their own personal albums) and was snapping away when a theatre security guard muscled in on the action telling me to stop the photo-taking.

Patterson wasn’t having any of it. “Snap away, snap away,” he encouraged me, before adding something about being “anti-authority.” Consequently, he created an unforgettable day for our guests — and for me!

Getting Kids To Read

Author Patterson signed dozens of his books at the Festival

For the past decade, Patterson has been devoting more and more time to championing reading among kids. He has donated millions of dollars for that purpose. He told the audience : “It’s up to parents, not teachers, to get their kids reading. If you can get your kids to the dinner table; if you can get them to stop trekking mud through the house, you can get them reading.”

“So what worked with your son, Jack?” asked moderator, author and teacher, Ed Boland. “The taser,” replied Patterson without missing a beat. Then he explained more fully: “Jack wasn’t a big reader. One summer, my wife and I told him he was going to have to read every day of the summer break. We got him the books. By the end of summer he’d read about a dozen. His  SAT reading score came in at 800. You’ve got to get kids to realize there are a lot of books that are more fun than the movies.”

How He Works With Co-authors

Finally, during the Q and A session with the audience, Patterson gave a little insight as to how he collaborates with his co-authors. “Nothing wrong with collaboration,” he replied, “think Rodgers and Hammerstein.”  Asked to explain how the collaboration works, he added: “I write a 50-70 page outline, chapter by chapter. I get the co-author to contribute. Then, I get the pages from them. Then, it’s either ‘hurray’ or ‘we’re off the track.'” When I get the all the chapters in [from the co-author] I write  the last draft.”


Next Week: More from Palm Beach Book Festival 2017 including: How TV and Movie Star R.J. Wagner chose the writer for his memoir, I Loved Her in The Movies.


Photo Credits: From top to bottom:; David Burnett2013/




April 22, 2017
by joanna

Summer Sayonara

It’s Squib Saturday. Time to share the best, most interesting (or most entertaining, or most outrageous) tidbit of information I’ve gleaned from all the stuff I’ve read –or done. This week: When the Season Shuts Down.

In the grand scheme of things, Palm Beach is a tiny speck on the map of the U.S. It’s a barrier island, about 16 miles long, and lies between the Intracoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean in South Florida. The year-round population of the island numbers approximately 8,500. That number swells to about 30,000 in the winter months, when average temperatures are between 75 – 85 degrees fahrenheit.

Snowbirds arrive from the North in November, and generally stay till April. Others hop back and forth for long weekends or weeks at a time escaping the cold winter weather in the North.  In season, Palm Beach is like summer camp (except when Donald Trump visits his Southern White House at Mar-a-Lago, and ties up traffic throughout the island.) These are some of the highlights of a Florida winter :

Literary Lunches

Andy Gross, author of The One Man, and me at lunch

The Palm Beach Writers Group is a terrific support group that gathers for literary lunches at the Chesterfield Hotel once a month in season. Its executive director, author Cathy Helowicz organizes book signings for authors in the group and books guest speakers like thriller writer, Andrew Gross who spoke about what he learned when he was a co-author for bestselling novelist, James Patterson.

The last lunch of the season featured Lisa Marzano, Professor of English and Director of Writing Programs at Palm Beach Atlantic University, addressed the topic of developing our writer skills. The best writing warm-up tip she offered for writers battling “wordiness” was  to simply re-type some passages from an author like Ernest Hemingway to “get a feel for what it’s like to write in a short, sparse, staccato style.”  However, she warned, “don’t put your name on it.”

Fabulous Food

Seafood linguine at the Seafood Bar

Braised short ribs and mash — best item on the menu at Ta-boo

Per square mile, Palm Beach probably has more restaurants than any other city in the country. However, my husband and I are creatures of habit, and we tend to stick to the same places when we eat out: Lunch favorites are the Beach Club or the newly-renovated Seafood Bar (the only oceanfront restaurant, open to the public, on the island) at the Breakers, or Ta-boo, an iconic landmark restaurant on Worth Avenue where the food is terrific, the prices very reasonable — and the people-watching even better. We did have a nice lunch once at Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago when I played in a tennis match there (way before Trump announced he was running for president.) So, we were surprised recently to read that the kitchens at the President’s club (where the membership initiation fee has now been doubled to $200,000) were hit with 13 health violations.

Pristine Pools…

Lap pool at the Breakers is 75 feet long

Par 3 Palm Beach golf course

… And great golf courses, and tennis courts all add to the feeling that the island is just one, big “summer” camp.  The Palm Beach par 3 course is a public, town-owned facility, and despite its name is a challenging little course sandwiched as it is between the ocean and the Intracoastal. It’s where I lose all my golf balls!

All the pools in Florida (including the fabulous Breakers lap pool)  seem to be maintained at a temperature of 86 degrees. I think that’s a little on the warm side — and why I look forward to diving into my own pool when it opens mid-May at a temperature of 72 degrees!!!! Okay, just kidding, I’ll probably wait till it warms up to about 78 degrees!

Gourmet Groceries

Dom Perignon champagne on display in Publix

Is there a supermarket anywhere in the country that sells Dom Perignon champagne?  Publix on Palm Beach does (occasionally along with caviar.) And, there it was last week, sitting alongside a display of Snickers bars (left/above)!!!  What the Publix in Palm Beach does not carry, however,  is the “low-cost, yellow-packaged” Tide detergent, an omission I wrote about in an earlier blog.

Publix, in fact, is a terrific supermarket chain throughout Florida. Of course, not every location sells champagne or caviar, but each one does have the best fruit and vegetables on offer anywhere in the state. In New York, fresh produce is best bought from local farmstands. In Florida, green markets are popular, but it’s this supermarket chain that reportedly scoops up the state’s very best farm produce (and everyone knows that Florida is a fruit -and -veg-growing paradise) before anyone else gets their hands on it.


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