Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Day Late & Several Dollars Short

Just wanted to pop in to say Happy Birthday, Joni! I know, I know - I'm a couple of days late posting, but I hope you had a great one.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tour de Tattoo

YA author Jennifer Lynn Barnes is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with her new novel, Tattoo, in which she accomplishes the high-diving horse trick of combining chick lit with fantasy. Think Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Buzz is good. Best line in the book (according to PW):

"You think you're bad?... I'm on the cheerleading squad; I know what real evil looks like."

Jen's bio says she's been writing since she can remember, but "has been, in turn, a competitive cheerleader, a volleyball player, a dancer, a debutante, a primate cognition researcher, a teen model, a comic book geek, and a lemur aficionado."

And then she graduated from Yale last spring with a degree in cognitive science. Talk about the ultimate "bite me" license.

You go, girlfriend!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Quote of the Day

Last night, I was reading Brother Odd, Dean Koontz's latest entry in the Odd Thomas (love that character) series when I came across this great line:

Humanity is a parade of fools, and I am at the front of it, twirling a baton.

It occurs to me that to be successful, the writer has to embrace this sentiment - or as least risk being caught out front . Without the willingness to occasionally look like a grand fool and the confidence to know you can make it back up on your feet and once again start twirling, the writer becomes mired in a "What-Will-They-Think" mentality ("they" being critique partners, family members, agents, editors, reviewers, and those few who live to write angry e-mails to authors). This is the death knell of creativity.

So have you dropped your baton lately? Will you risk it today?

Go ahead, write fearlessly. You have only a little pride to lose and all the world to gain from it.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Too much information

Friday nights are always the same at my house. The ol’ Grizzly Bear and I pop the cork on a bottle of wine, he kicks back in the recliner to watch Monk, and I retreat to my office to do a scan of my publishing industry info sources.

Publisher’s Marketplace offers a daily “Deal Lunch” detailing who got book deals where and for how much. Subscribers can access a huge data base, including info on who agents whom and what they're selling.

Media Bistro’s GalleyCat is an unending fount of delicious industry tidbits.

And then there are industry updates offered by Yahoo News, AP, BBC, NY Times, and I’m sure the list goes on, but that’s about all the information I can stand. It’s important to stay abreast of the biz, but all these abreast implants are overwhelming at times. This is one of those rare cases where there is such a thing as too much information.

It’s frankly depressing to read about a 19-year-old signing a six figure book deal. So much can and does happen in publishing, anecdotes like that really don’t further my knowledge or expertise. They just make me want to spit. Same with sales figures, reviews, and awards. I’m interested as a reader, but little of that PR blather is really relevant to my daily business decision making.

So what about the info that hits closer to home? I made the dreadful mistake of telling a celeb ghostwriting client about the Amazon sales rank on her book page, and her husband checked it practically every fifteen minutes for the next nine months, relentlessly updating her, me, and our editor with emails about it until he reached the end of his puppy run with the editor and she smacked his nose with the email equivalent of a rolled up newspaper. That stupid number is like a rectal thermometer. The little info it provides could be gotten more comfortably and accurately elsewhere.

Staying on top of those industry updates came in handy when I decided to change agents last year. I knew the players. Knowing what’s selling where and what lawsuits are going on helps me better serve my ghostwriting clients. There are many good reasons to stay informed. But there are just as many reasons to roll your eyes and ignore the lion’s share of the chatter.

Whatever's going on in the industry, at the beginning and end of every day, my fortune rises and falls on going on inside my head.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

The Three People You'll Meet in Every Writers' Group

Not long after I joined my first writers’ group and started participating in critique circles, I discovered there were three types of people involved. The first I’ll call the Little Old Me set. These members clearly enjoyed offering comments and suggestions, though some of them simply listened, week after week, and deferred to those they considered more experienced. Whenever asked about their own work, they set responded with a litany of excuses, details from their busy lives. Or they said they were working on something, but it wasn’t ready.

During the years I attended the group, I rarely saw any of the Little Old Me ladies (sorry, but these were mostly women) progress, and many of them fell by the wayside as the demands of jobs and family overwhelmed them.

Then there was the next category, composed of writers eager to read their work at every opportunity. These members clearly loved an audience, but had little patience for constructive feedback. If it wasn’t praise, they argued — or “retaliated” by attacking their “critics’” work (jumping on anal-retentive issues such as margins or comma usage with savage glee). If they weren’t hyper-critiquing nonsensical stuff to make themselves feel superior, these members were insisting upon reading their contributions (which often far-exceeded the group’s rules on length) and then leaving early. I call this group the Jerks.

And guess what. I never saw any of these guys (they were mainly but not exclusively male) go anywhere with writing, either. However, this was never their fault, and they’d carry on at length about how New York kept down the truly talented and only well-connected sell-outs could place anything in this market. Some went on to self-published, which they felt certain would maximize their earning potential. (And no, I am not suggesting that everyone who self-publishes is a jerk. Far from it.) When that didn’t work out either, they slunk away in cynical disgust.

The third group was the one that kept me coming back. I call this group the Seekers. Eager to learn all they could, they read widely in their chosen genre, sought out expertise on craft, responded with interest (and intelligent suggestions ranging far beyond “Aha! I caught another typo!”) to the work of others, and listened attentively to others’ comments on their own work. Instead of arguing, they jotted notes to think about later, and they ended up taking a lot of the suggestions but not all. Because these writers had a vision for their own work, a long-term target at which they took aim.

These, of course, were the writers who made steady progress. Recognizing each other, they often moved on to form private, closed critique groups, such as the one I have belonged to for about eight years now. Some moved on to publish and some continue working toward that goal, but all of them have learned and grown and few have completely dropped out of the writing scene.

But here's the rub. Every one of us is part Little Old Me, part Jerk, and part Seeker. It’s like the Id, Ego, and Superego of the personality, and not one of us (let’s be honest here) escapes the occasional defeatist thoughts or self-important moments. The question is, which one will we put in charge of our journey?

Friday, January 26, 2007

Gotta Love Melissa Senate

Melissa Senate is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with her latest novel, Love You to Death, in which spunky Abby Foote is on a quest to find out who is killing the men who broke her heart. Buzz is good. Four stars from RT and Publisher's Weekly says readers will "cheer Abby every step of the way."

At first blush, Melissa struck me as one of those annoying “Hottie Literati” types. She’s young, gorgeous, commercially successful. Book deals galore. Lusted after by anthologizers, bar flies, and potential mothers-in-law. This chick would be so easy to despise.

But Melissa defies most of the stereotype that goes with that "Hottie Literati" label by actually loving language and knowing how to use it. She started as an editor, which is probably the best place an author can learn how to craft a solid manuscript that actually stands a chance of making money.

Melissa’s official bio says she writes full time “on the southern coast of Maine, where she lives with her young son and his toys.” Something else many of those hot 20-something authors are lacking – a real life. There’s much to be said for being grounded in both life and art.

Go, girlfriend!

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Flattery Will Get You... Rolling

As a working author of romantic suspense novels, I'm often amazed, flabbergasted, (insert-your-own synonym) with the things friends, relatives, and total strangers say to me in a misguided attempt at flattery. Some of them are hurtful, but many cause intestinal distortions as I struggle to keep a straight face. Anyway, in the name of public education, I thought I'd share some of my favorites.

1. (From older, male family member laboring under delusion I write porn): "I'd read your books, but since my prostrate operation, I can't really enjoy that sort of thing any longer."
My response: Slack-jawed amazement.
What I wish I'd said: "You don't need a 'prostrate,' just a pair of working eyeballs and a brain."

2. (From medical assistant at an office where I'm a patient): "I loved your new book. I just *adore* reading trash."
My response: "Uh, thanks." I think.
What I wish I'd said: "Clearly, you have me confused with somebody else. Somebody who'd spend most of her waking hours writing trash."

3. (From mother-in-law): "You know, an *acquaintance* of mine -- I certainly won't call her a friend any longer -- told me in the church parking lot that "either your daughter-in-law and son have a wonderful sex life or she has a great imagination."
My response: "Well, either one's a gift, don't you think?"
What I wish I'd said: That one still works for me.

4. (From a reader letter): "Do you think you could please stop using words like 'nausea' and 'vomit'? I have a weak stomach."
My response: "Thanks for taking the time to write and let me know that you've enjoyed my books. I appreciate your making the effort to let me know your preferences."
What I wish I'd said: "Next time, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope and a check for $200.00 s/h, and I'll mail you a special readers' kit containing samples of Pepto Bismol, Imodium, and an airsick bag."

5. (From a customer at a book signing): "Could you please sign this book? I know you didn't write it, but it's one I'd rather buy."
My response: "Uh, no."
What I wish I'd said: "I double-dog dare you to take one of my books to Nora Roberts' next signing and try that."

6. (From a gold-chain dripping pseudo-stud at book signing, as girlfriend frantically attempts to drag him away): "I have some -- ah-- sexual techniques I promise would make your next book a bestseller. Want to hear about --" (Girlfriend, in amazing adrenalin surge, drags Pseudo-Stud clear.)
My response: Raised eyebrows, embarrassment on behalf of jerk's poor girlfriend.
What I wish I'd said: "Sorry, I write novels, not short stories."

7. (From overall-clad man at book signing, speaking to young son while pointing directly in my face from across the table): "No, ma'am. I didn't come to buy a book. I just came to show my son. (To ogling boy-child): "This, son, is a real, live arthur."
My response: Friendly finger-wave (using all fingers). After all, there was a kid present.
What I wish I'd said: (Pointing finger back at daddy): "And that, son, is a real, live cheapskate."

As you can see, I'm generally a lot cooler in retrospect, and I definitely prefer laughing off such goofiness to sliding into a funk.

But, my memory cells are running on low power. Anyone have other examples to share?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Writer in the real world

Yesterday, I made a few final tweaks on the manuscript I've been flogging, Fed Exed galley proofs to my editor at Random House, and went directly to get my roots done.

“Goodness,” said Veronica, the sorceress who sees me through all my seasonal changes in foliage. “What have you been doing for the last six months?”

Every time she lifted a section to foil with bleach (I’m a non-blond attempting to have more fun) I could plainly see three full inches of salt and pepper that have grown since last time I had time to think about anything other than this manuscript.

Flannery O’Connor once said, “Writing a novel is a terrible experience during which hair often falls out and teeth decay.”

Maybe she was talking about writer angst, but for me it’s an entire clouding of the mind, un unhealthy disconnect, during which the alternate world of the book occupies the vast majority of my waking thoughts and becomes more real to me than my own roots. And taxes. And dishes. And laundry. People occasionally pitch biscuits or string beans at me from across the dinner table.

“Earth to Mom?”

Both my kids are off at college this year, so I’ve been able to give myself over to the intoxicatingly wonderful “terrible experience” without feeling guilty or neglectful. But the result is that I’ve been utterly neglectful of myself.

Yesterday, I came out of what my daughter calls "Book Head" to find out how many people are pissed at me. There are several. The scrappy-looking roots are nothing compared to the neglected friends, unanswered email, unblogged blogs, overdue taxes, and untended bookkeeping. One of the major challenges of the writing life is balancing art, business, and life.

I’ll let you know if I ever figure it out. Meanwhile, I’m interested in any helpful advice anyone else might want to kick in on comments.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Planting Next Year's Crops

Sometimes it seems as if being a writer is as much about time management as it is about words. Weeks and months can drag by without hearing from an editor or agent to see how last year's crop fared or whether the latest has earned any interest in the market of ideas. And time never moves more slowly than when one is between deadlines.

These long waits are the best times to select the seeds for future projects, whet your plow's blade with fresh research, and to sow the seeds for future work by querying editors for "filler assignments" (I love doing quick "how-to" articles on writing, for example), putting together proposals for presentations, and brainstorming various options/markets/projects while networking with trusted writer buddies. Lately, while waiting to hear about a pending book proposal, I've taken to getting a second underway. Not only is it good insurance, in case the first one doesn't fly for whatever reason, it may raise the possibility of a multi-book deal or get me ahead of the curve the next time I need to hand in a proposal.

You can never really know when, whether, or which (warning: metaphor pushed to critical limit ahead) seeds will bear fruit. Recently, I was asked by a magazine to do an article. I'd e-mailed the query nearly a year before (and promptly forgot about it). I also received an message asking me about a presentation I'd proposed two years earlier. But it's nice to be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes it's a great way to pick up an extra paycheck.

Just as importantly, tossing out these seeds between deadlines keeps me from feeling that I'm completely at the mercy of others. Waiting around passively can turn me into the tragically overwrought Orphan in the Storm. Acting empowers me. And besides that, the more good ideas (and I hope a lot of them are good, but I'm not any more immune from Idiot Thought Masquerading as Brilliance than anybody) I toss out there, the more I seem to grow.

Besides that, I noticed that all the Big-Girl Authors were doing it, and I want to be as cool & successful as they are. :)

So it's time to chime in. What do you do to stay sane and solvent while waiting to hear about a submission?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Quote of the Day

"Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae..." Kurt Vonnegut

I'm told this is a pretty well-known quote, but I'd never read it 'til today. (Thanks, Yasmine Galenorn, for mentioning this on a writers' loop we're both on.) It made me laugh - and think. It's always amazing to me how the same book can be lauded and damned by different critics. So who are we supposed to listen to, you ask?

I think it's the readers and that little voice inside the pumps its fist and shouts out Hoo-Ya when you've reread a passage you have written and it feels oh, so right.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Taking your thrills where you get them...

If there's one thing the publishing industry (and life in general) have taught me, it's to take joy in the small stuff. Even after eleven books, that includes getting excited by the blurb the editor's written for my next book. It's always surprising, fascinating, and impressive to see how she boils down a 100K+-word book so beautifully. Here's the back cover copy for my July 07 book, Head On. I call this novel my Peyton Place meets Last Picture Show book, and even though I've been finished with it for several months, the characters and story are firmly stuck in my head. This was one book I hated to complete (though by the time I finish revisions and galley edits, I suspect I'll be more than ready to move on.)

I'll also repost the artwork above so you don't have to visit the archives to see it. Here's the blurb:

Hell On Wheels...

The full moon brings out the crazies; anyone in emergency services knows that. But for hospice nurse Beth Ann Decker, the gruesome murder that rocks Hatcher County is shockingly unexpected. As is the return of the Texas community's most hated prodigal son -- Mark Jessup. Sixteen years before, the town's bad boy was behind the wheel of a pickup that left three cheerleaders dead and Beth Ann so badly injured that people whispered she'd have been better off in the grave with them.

Jessup is all man now -- tough, uncompromising, rich -- and a possible suspect in this new killing. Beth Ann knows he's the last person she should be spending time with, especially when a nighttime intruder makes it clear that she herself is a target. But in Mark's heated gaze, Beth Ann sees something a lot more exciting than pity. No matter how dangerous the road ahead, she's dead set on meeting life, and love...

Head On.

Here's hoping you find something to celebrate today, from a well-turned phrase to sticking to your writing resolution to good news from The Great Outside. Savor every morsel.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Writing Allies and Enemies

Our dreams are delicate, fragile as hummingbird's eggs. Which means we have to be extra careful to reveal them only to those who will be gentle.

When we share our dreams with those who encourage, who lead us to other knowledge sources, and respect the time (and often money) put into the quest, they help to bolster us through long waits and disappointments. They maintain the vision even when it falters for us. If we're lucky, these writing allies may include a spouse, close friend, or family member, but often, writers find that those who understand best are their fellow writers... or some of them, at least.

When we share our dreams with those who scoff, they infect us with their knowing looks and lectures (for our own good!) about the odds stacked up against us. They speak to us of back-up plans or safety nets. They treat the dream as trivial by interrupting and monopolizing work times or by resenting time and money spent in our pursuit. Sometimes, the discouragement is well-meant, to protect us from disappointment. Other times, it's selfish, borne of jealousy or selfishness. Even so, these unsupportive types are not necessarily bad people, but they are definitely natural enemies of the dream.

So think about the choices you make when you choose to share your aspirations. If you find a certain friend (or spouse, relative, or co-worker) negative or distracting, quit talking about your writing around that person. Save your hopes, your plans, and most especially, your whiny moments (and hey, we all have 'em) for the people who will lift you up and keep you going.

When you finally win that contest, sign with that agent, sell that project, or win that award, there'll be time enough to share it with the naysayers.

Just don't expect them to be founts of unconflicted happiness. Sometimes, human nature is a bear.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Free Fiction Workshop

Important Note: Due to the threat of bad weather, this workshop has been rescheduled for Feb. 6th at the same time and location.

Have you ever wondered what it takes to snag an agent's or editor's (or masses of readers') attention from the very first lines -- and then keep it?

For those in the Greater Houston area (particularly on the North side), I'd like to invite you to attend a free workshop I'll be presenting on the subject. On Tuesday, Jan. 16th, the Woodlands Writers Guild meets at 6:30 PM at the South Montgomery County Community Center on Grogan's Mill Rd. (next to the public library). After the business meeting, I'll give a one-hour presentation called "Emotionally Engage from the Very First Page," which focuses on techniques to quickly pull the reader into your work of fiction. Attendees are welcome to bring the opening page of a work in progress to share and discuss.

Not in the area or have a conflict with the time? Don't worry. I'll be teaching an expanded version of this interactive workshop online for the Outreach Chapter of the Romance Writers of America on July 23rd to August 3rd. (This particular workshop, by the way, is geared to all commercial fiction writers, not just those working in the field of romance.) The cost of this online class is only $10 for Outreach members or $20 for nonmembers.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Curse of the Soul-Sucking Critique Group

Last night's meeting of my long-time critique group, The Midwives, was so constructive, upbeat, and just plain fun that I can't help comparing it to some of my earlier critiquing experiences. Most writers agree that the right critique group is a joy, offering support during tough times, cheers during good times, and honest-but-supportive dialogue about perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of each member's work in progress.

But a lot of times, writers find themselves in less than helpful situations with those who hinder instead of help. For fear of hurting feelings, they stagger along with these emotionally-draining groups for far too long.

Here are some signs that it's time to split the sheets with your current critique partner/group.

  • You dread going and look for excuses to avoid it. Others do the same, so attendance is sporadic and ever-changing.
  • An individual's positive news is greeted with stony, resentful-looking silence or attributed to dumb luck/pandering to the marketplace, etc.
  • One or more dominating individuals not only share their opinions of the work, but try to force absolute obedience by the piece's author.
  • A toxic member gleefully jumps on minor punctuation points or adherence to trivial "rules" or genre conventions or engages in the "revenge hack n' slash" after you have pointed out a problem in his/her own work.
  • Other group members make disparaging remarks about the genre/sub-genre that you write. (It's wonderful to have didn't critique partners writing in different genres as long as everyone agrees that good writing is good writing.)
  • No one appears to be actively, seriously pursuing publication. Instead, there's a pervasive, defeatist attitude about the chances for "real talent" to break into the industry.

If any of these conditions exist in your critique group, you may want to have a frank talk with others involved, or you may just want to cut your losses and move on, or even work on your own. Thanks to the Internet, your next, great critique group may be only a mouse-click away.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Great Resources for Writers

I've been poking around cyberspace a lot while stalling on my latest project (shame on me), and one of the many amazing sites I've found for writers belongs to New York Times Bestseller JoAnn Ross. In addition to writing fabulous suspense and romance, JoAnn is an amazingly generous mentor. Check out her writer's resources section for helpful articles on everything from manuscript formatting to the definition of suspense.

If you're in the mood for cynical chuckles, Miss Snark's blog is a excellent place to stop. This agent incognito dishes out plenty of great advice along with the barbs and can't be beat for pure entertainment value.

Another blog I love to visit is M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype. I especially enjoy the weekly "The Doctor Is In" column with Dr. Susan O'Doherty, a clinical psychologist from NYC who deals with creativity issues and is a writer herself. This week's post deals with coping with professional jealousy, but your own and others. The sad truth is, no matter how modest your accomplishments may feel to you, someone a rung lower down the ladder is going to cast an envious eye, just as you're bound to when others you perceive as less deserving achieve your goals. Learning to deal with the emotions without turning into a QBFH (Queen Bitch from Hell) is important to both your career & mental health.

My final recommendation is mega-bestselling suspense author Tess Gerritsen's blog. She's a major idol of mine, so it's refreshing to see how very human she is. Plus, she regularly offers sane, sage advice on the world of writing and publishing.

So what are your favorite blogs for writers?

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Growing the Dream

Years ago, I spoke to a group of aspiring writers and because I'm a fan of cheesy (and cheap) props, I gave each of them a (drum roll, please) single kernel of unpopped corn. I did this, I told them, to represent the kernel of arrogance that each writer must harbor inside, that tiny voice that says, "I've got something important to say here, and I'm darned well gonna say it."

Flash forward many moons, when I ran into a woman at a signing who smiled and actually pulled that tiny (now lint-covered) seed out of her pocket and told me she'd continued carrying it around. Surprised (and sort of flattered she'd remembered something I'd forgotten), I asked how things were going for her. She shrugged in a self-effacing manner before admitting that she hadn't made much progress. She was still tinkering with the same, unfinished novel, still working without critique partners, and still harboring the same dream, but over time it had grown to look increasingly distant. Of course, I wished her well, thanked her for coming, and mumbled something encouraging.

But I wish I'd told her this. That the "kernel of arrogance," like any other seed, has needs if it's to grow and flourish. The seed requires gentle warmth, in the encouragement of like-minded friends. Some of the longest, most lasting friendships I've had have been sown in critique groups, where we encourage, suggest, and occasionally cajole each other forward. (It may take a few tries to find a group like this as opposing to the soul-destroying, rule-spouting harpies from hell who seek to elevate themselves by slamming those around them. But that's a subject for another post.) The seed needs water and minerals, too, the nourishment of knowledge from those already in the business, from editors to agents to authors at least a step or two ahead. Writer's groups and conferences are great places to meet these folks, and the Internet's a good start, though not quite the same. (Too many people feel the need to be snidely hip, IMO.) Finally, the seed needs light, which means the writer's work must see the light of day. If one continually, ruthlessly reworks the same opening chapter, he/she will never reach the book's end -- which is generally the spot that makes it absolutely clear what tweaks the first chapter needed all along to bring the story full circle. Before that ending is reached, the writer should be judicious about sending out the work. Too harsh a light may scorch, scaring the writer from a project that could have turned out beautifully. But without any feedback whatsoever, in the form of critiques, contest entries, and (here's what we've been working toward) actual submission to agents and/or editors, the dream will certainly wither, unfulfilled.

So are you nurturing your dream or carrying the thing around while it hardens, collects lints, and finally gets tossed out with that used tissue in your pocket? If the answer falls into the latter category, what will you do differently this year?


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