Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Momentus Interruptus

I'm not the fastest writer in the world, but still, I can usually manage a couple of full-length novels a year by taking the slow and steady route at a fairly-sane pace. But the tortoise still reaches the finish line, so I'm not complaining. Week in and week out, I go for my same 20-25 pages. If I don't make it during the weekdays, I work weekends to catch up.

And I forgive myself for the "think time" needed to get a project underway, for times I have to stop and reread, revisions, and getting stuck when I don't know quite how to get from Point A to Point B. Since I tend toward convuluted plots, where multiple storylines must dovetail and one clue leads to the next, I understand that sticking points come with the territory. At times, I get frustrated and swear to myself that next time, I'm keeping the plot simple and straightforward, but apparently my writer's brain doesn't work that way.

This week, I've come "unstuck" after hitting a major roadblock earlier. I'm really into what I'm doing, and I can barely wait to dive back into it. Except that galleys (page proofs) for my July book have just shown up on the doorstep, a time-sensitive interruption that demands that I drop all else and get on it right away. I also need to pull together an ad, check in with my agent, and - oh, yes - get the car into the shop and take care of my family in a hundred time-consuming ways.

Like the rest of life, a professional writer's schedule can get messy. It's full of fits and starts and unscheduled interruptions. The trick is to allow the work-in-progress to keep percolating, to allow the little detours to invigorate instead of weaken our resolve. Too often, people tell me how they're going to write a book (or get serious about writing) when their kids are older, their various relatives make it through the latest crises, they're retired, recovered from health problems, or finished whatever volunteer duties they've assumed. And, oh yes, they've accumulated enough money so that they can write, stress-free, without the worry of financial obligations.

Well, guess what. That idyllic time of perfect freedom is on all of our horizons. We call it death, but somehow, I don't think that many books are written from the grave. So if you want to write, write now. Because, as John Wayne put it in my favorite of his movies, "Daylight's burnin'."

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Marching toward Zion

Colleen inspired me this weekend with her candid view of the frustration and elation that continually cycles through this process.

I'm driving toward finishing the first draft of my novel in progress. I know what I have to do. I'm not an outliner at the beginning, but at this point, I use a story matrix to keep everything straight. It gives me a quick-glance way to see where the gaps are that need fill and/or backfill.

So I'm down to these last several scenes that I've been putting off for various reasons -- or to be honest -- for one reason: I don't feel like it. These are puzzle piece scenes that are important to exposition, and it feels like assignment writing. (Bleh.)

Oliver Stone: "The secret to writing a screenplay is keeping your ass in the chair."

The same is true for novel writing. This is the point at which it's most difficult and most critical to do that.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Dam Bursts

As reported a few days ago, it's been a tough week, one where I couldn't seem to make any kind of forward motion on the work in progress. For every page I'd write, I'd rip out and dispose of two, and the decent dribs and drabs remained stubbornly disjointed, with gaps I couldn't figure how to close.

Finally, after days and days of this, I figured out I'd skipped a critical "bridge" scene in the preceding chapter. After going back and rewriting it, I've finally broken the log jam. (Cue "The Hallelujah Chorus.")

Sure enough, by bringing work to a complete halt, my subconscious was letting me know I'd forgotten something crucial and no amount of grinding was going to solve the problem. Finally, yesterday, I took the day off to go shopping, blab on the phone, play with the dog (the aptly-named Zippy's always up for a vigorous round of rough-housing), and have dinner out with my husband.

And lo and behold, this morning I knew what I needed. I wrote the bridge scene, came up with a better idea for the new chapter, and basically kicked butt and took names.

As Monty Python so perfectly put it, "And there was much rejoicing."

The next time you're really stuck, go ahead and try a day off. It'll make the spouse, the kids, the pooch happy, and by the time you're back to work, your hard-working subconscious may have solved the problem for you.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Sanding Down the Speed Bumps

This week, I'm feeling frustrated. I've hit a couple of speed bumps on my current work in progress, and though I've wanted to really get in there and write a lot of pages, I've found myself repeatedly going back to the same @#$! chapter-in-progress and literally boxing an octopus. I deleted one day's work entirely (though I saved it to my outtakes files, just in case I need some element). Then I rewrote, starting from a different spot. The results are far, far better -- terrific in spots, but last night, as I lay in bed (insomnia's tough on my body, but I figure out more book stuff after midnight), I realized I still had a problem. So this morning, I got up and started yet another new scene, which I've inserted in front of yesterday's work (which will now have to be not only finished but revised to reflect the new stuff. Ack!)

At the moment, the chapter's still a nightmare, an abominable morass of fits and starts and loose ends that apparently tie in to nothing. It's such a mess I fear I'll die, leaving it unfinished, and someone will find it on my hard drive and take it as proof of my mental decay. The previous chapter, which flowed from my fingertips with an effortless joy, is a distant memory, and I'm left to feel I'm cobbling the current week's work out of bloody chunks torn from my innards.

After writing twelve books, you'd think it would get easier. The scary truth is, writing's sometimes (when it's not play!) very hard work, but at least experience has taught me that when I hit these snags, there's a reason. It often means I haven't adequately thought through this portion of the book, and I'm searching out of transition to a section I have more fully imagined. When I can't move forward, it means there's some plot knot that has to be teased loose or that I've started at the wrong spot or with the wrong character's point of view. As frustrating as it is, the speed bump can't be hurried over because, in this case, my thought process is still lagging somewhere behind my fingers. And because my books have a heavy-duty mystery element, where one clue builds to the next in strict sequence, it's very tough for me to write scenes out of order.

Eventually, I've learned to trust, my brain will catch up, and I'll once more start "making pages." I've also discovered that readers can't tell the effortless parts of a book from those that were agonizing to produce, which is great news. (Nor can they tell the "gift books" from the "books from hell," thank God.)

If this work didn't have its tough spots, I suppose everyone would do it, but they doesn't mean I wouldn't appreciate some better way of sanding down the speed bumps, or at least a little moral support.

So how's your writing coming lately? Are you moving full speed ahead (if so, I hate you at the moment, but at least you can remind me how it feels -- preferably without gloating that you wrote 50 pages before breakfast) or bogged down for some reason? Do you have any great tips to share that help get you through the sticky thickets? If so, I'd love to hear them.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chick lit a la China

Cousins Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan are touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with their first novel, China Dolls. Buzz is good and biz is better. According to PW, the book has already been optioned:
Imagine The Joy Luck Club, but with less angst and more boytalk, and you've got the idea behind Michelle Yu and Blossom Kan's China Dolls (to be published by Thomas Dunne Books this winter). Producer Alex Rose (Norma Rae; Quigley Down Under) was approached by Kan at a screenwriting conference and immediately optioned the manuscript after reading it. This lighthearted romp about three Asian-American Manhattanites balancing life, love and cheongsams presents a multicultural look at surviving stereotypes in the city. First-time novelists (and cousins) Yu and Kan, who are respectively employed as an on-air sports reporter for the NY1 network and as a lawyer, will also adapt their own work for the screen.

Check it out.

The book that keeps on booking

Every time a celebrity does something bald, I get a little PR boost. Last year, Melissa Etheridge going au natural on the Grammies actually got me on the Today Show. Britney Spears shaving her head generated a nice little mention in this morning’s Houston Chronicle.
Joni Rodgers, a Houston author who wrote Bald in the Land of Big Hair, said she shaved her head after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma when she was 32... "You make this outward gesture that says, 'I have changed. I am not who you think I am. This is the raw, naked me,' " Rodgers said.

Not exactly a huge PR blitz or anything, but the book was published six years ago. The fact that it gets mentioned (or that it’s still in print!) is kind of remarkable. Bald in the LBH was never officially a bestseller, but over the years, it’s continued a steady trickle of sales, which is called in publishing lingo “a long tail.”

The long tail concept is something to keep in mind when pitching a book to agents or editors. In nonfiction, that means playing up some undated aspect of the book. How will it continue to appeal to readers five, ten, twenty years from now? (Bald in the LBH is about my cancer experience, a topic which sadly never goes out of style.) In fiction, the long tail might come from a film version of the book down the road or sequels that make people want to go back and read the story from the beginning.

Even if it’s never officially on the main bestseller lists, it’s possible for a book with a long tail to sell more copies than a flash in the pan bestseller. The lists are compiled from sample stores over the course of one week, so long term sales don’t count. (If they did, the Bible and Huck Finn would top the list every week, and great literary artists like Pamela Anderson would never get a fair chance.)

So thanks to Kristin Finan over at the Chron for that nice little Bald shout out. It won’t put me on any lists this week, but it got the ol’ tail wagging.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Tossing organ meat to the beast of my own compulsion

British journalist Julie Burchill said:
Writing is more than anything a compulsion, like some people wash their hands thirty times a day for fear of awful consequences if they do not. It pays a whole lot better than this type of compulsion, but is no more heroic.

I’m in one of those hard-writing phases where I work an ungodly number of hours every day, fiction gushin’ out my head, and I get pretty self-congratulatory about the number of pages I generate in a day’s time. Burchill’s insight made me blink when I came across it today. I’m reminded that I do what I do, not just because I want to, but because I need to. Now’s not the time to think about the marketplace, the agent, the college tuition this book needs to generate. First and foremost, I have to put down the words I want and need to put down for my own sanity.

And while we're bowing to the wisdom of the Queen of English Journalism, here's a great article by Burchill.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Writing Fearlessly

Fear is the enemy of creativity. If a writer is worried about what loved ones might think or some fanged reviewer might say or a certain disproportionately-vocal minority of readers might rant, they risk squandering the better parts of their imagination envisioning disastrous future scenarios. The writing become timid and toned-down, a bland, anonymous shadow that is easily forgotten.

To push back creative boundaries and work to his or her potential, somehow, the writer has to find a way to dissociate from the completed work. By the time any product hits the market, I make it a point to be working one or two manuscripts down the line. That way, I can look at my new release as an artifact of my own past -- the best work I could manage at the time I wrote it. Like a fickle lover, I'm always most enamored of my current creation or next conquest. The last is nothing but a fond memory.

This isn't to say that I don't sponge up praise like a happy glutton or feel bruised (sometimes bloody) over a particularly barbed remark toward the newly-published release. But in my heart, I know my goal is to write books that please their unique audience -- not to please every literate human on the planet.

Do you have any tips to share on how to write fearlessly? If so, I'd love to hear them.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

What's in a Pen Name?

Before I began writing under my legal name, I used two pseudonyms for my historical romances (mainly Gwyneth Atlee). I had several reasons for doing so. I taught children and didn't want to worry about certain parents running to the principal with complaints about the books' adult content. (Parents assume their kiddos' teachers go home to read -- and upon occasion dabble with writing -- stuff like Babar the Elephant or, when we're really feeling edgy, Curious George.) Also, at the time, I was marketing a book in another genre and writing educational articles under my real name and I was shy about attention, so the pseudo seemed like a good idea.

When I switched to writing romantic suspense, I decided a name change was in order. Since I was no longer in the classroom and didn't fret as much what people thought about everything, I chose my own name. For one thing, it was simpler than keeping up with three aliases. For another, people in the industry like the sound of it.

But not everyone can use their legal name, for a variety of reasons. If you're writing something likely to attract stalkers or enrage an ayatolla or your relatives, after reading your books, will send deprogrammers to abduct you and straighten out your head, you might want to give yourself a modicum of privacy. If you're switching genres or hiding out from tough numbers on your last book, that's another reason, as is a real name that's too long, clunky or whatever to work well.

Choosing a good pseudonym requires lots of thought. Ask yourself if the name you're considering:
1. Is simple enough to spell, pronounce, and recall. I went to many a booksigning to find Gwyneth Atlee misspelled on the marquee, though I thought it was common enough (while still being distinctive). People constantly misspelled it online as well, and I still go places and hear people refer to me as Gwenyth Al-tee. **Sigh**
2. Doesn't try too hard by being overly mystical, witty, cutesy, sexy, or exotic.
Though I was trying to sound like a historical romance writer, I've lost a lot of affection for "Gwyneth Atlee" because to me it sounds contrived. (Maybe I think this because *I* contrived it.) I like my one-book, sacrificial (long, sad story) pseudonym, Colleen Easton, much better.
3. Looks as if it could exist in nature, although it's distinctive. A fair number of romance authors I know of have taken their son's first names as last names. (A lot of guy first names are also good old American last names.)
4. Is short enough to be printed in big letters on your book's cover. Also, you'll appreciate this when autographing.
5. Is not at the very beginning or very end of the alphabet because of shelving problems.
6. Is not too similar to another author in the field, or one closely related. Though Colleen Thompson is my real name, there's a mystery/suspense author named Carlene Thompson. (I didn't know this when I started writing romantic suspense, however.) I once drove a long way to an out-of-state booksigning only to be confronted by a smiling, young bookseller who proudly led me to a huge pile of her books. (I couldn't be mad. The bookseller was so mortified - nearly in tears- that I felt sorry for her. After all, who hasn't done something like that? She was so grateful that I didn't spaz out that you can bet she'll remember me from now on.)

Think long and hard before taking a pseudonym. Because with any luck, you'll be living with it for years to come.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Prose by any other name

For a variety of reasons, mostly to do with a) numbers and b) a shift in the direction of my fiction and c) my fame phobia, I decided about a year ago that my novels will be published under a pseudonym from now on. All this time, I’ve been pondering where and how to wear that persona, who really needs to know my true identity, and most importantly, what that new name should be. With two books on their way into the pipeline, my agent has been gently nudging me toward a decision.

Everybody I’ve confided in has hated every name I’ve suggested. My son Spike razzed me about a MST3K ep in which the robots kept suggesting names for a macho character in the movie. Brick Slamchest! Trunk Hammer! Shirley Weinstein?

Yesterday, I had a long conversation about pseudonyms with a bookseller, and she made some really good points about what makes a good author name.

Mid-alphabet last name has max foot traffic in stacks.

Unusual but not unheard of last name makes computer searches more successful. (You don't want to be buried in a million Smiths but don't make people try to spell Kzatvejnevitziavich.)

Sharp, crackly consonants make for a strong, edgy, memorable last name.

Unusual/quirky first names strike as younger and more Southern.

Don't go far from who you are ethnically. (No matter how hot the Indian writers are right now, I as a white/Scandinavian/European person should not try to pass myself off as Govinda Harini.)

First name should be gender non-specific for mainstream and suspense fiction. Sexism is a sad fact of life in the publishing industry. It cuts both ways and can’t be avoided.

Initials instead of a first name in suspense are becoming overused. (PD James has been done. JR Slamchest smells like a poser.)

She helped me narrow down a veritable telephone book of suggestions to a great handle my agent and I both love. I’m so jazzed about it, I’m dying to tell somebody what it is, but I’ve also made the decision to keep it a secret. When this “debut” author’s first novel comes out next year (my lips to God’s ear) less than a dozen people will know that it’s me. I can't wait to make my first disappearance.

Something I learned in my early twenties when I worked as a late night DJ on an album rock station: The only thing more powerful than being beautiful is being invisible.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Countdown Clock

My sister, a registered nurse, shepherds patients through what the hospice industry calls "the dying experience." It was a surprising career choice, seeing as we both came from a family that didn't like to discuss certain great realities. But she's admirably committed to the idea that people deserve to meet death with dignity, as much on their own terms as possible. (My upcoming release, Head On, features a traveling hospice nurse as a heroine and is dedicated to my sis.)

Since she's been in this field, she's gained a perspective that I'm just beginning to appreciate. When they're counting down those final days and final hours, she tells me, nobody ever says, "I wish I'd made more money. I wish I'd had more things." They don't lament the loving relationships they forged, but those damaged ones that have gone unhealed. They regret the apologies withheld in pride or out of petty jealousy.

No one ever wishes they'd watched more TV or had a cleaner house, either. And she's never heard a single soul apologize for taking chances -- no matter what the outcome -- to follow a passion.

The truth is, we're all born with a cosmic countdown clock hovering over our lives, only the numbers are invisible. If you listen very hard, though, you'll hear the seconds ticking down. On your life, your loves, your chance to chase your dreams.

In the end, I don't believe it matters as much if you catch them than it does to say you gave it your best shot. The most lasting, closest friendships of my life have formed as I've pursued my writing. Whatever modest successes I've achieved have certainly boosted me, but temporarily. These friends sustain my spirits in good times and in bad. And so does the knowledge that I'm honoring the gifts and passions I've been given, that I'm doing my level best to improve my craft and put out the best work I can with each effort. That work and that dream immeasurably enrich what time I have.

When my clock counts down its final seconds, I may not be dying on my own terms, but I'm hoping for the solace of knowing that that's the way I lived.

Today, I'm going to focus on the way I use (or waste) my time. If there are chores to do (there are), I mean to rush through them and get to the important stuff -- my family and my writing -- while I still have the chance.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Open mouth, insert foot…but at least let it be my own foot, please.

If wisdom’s ways you wisely seek,
Five things observe with care.
To whom you speak,
Of whom you speak,
And how, and when, and where.

So said Ma Ingalls in one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the words have stayed with me for thirty-five years and counting. Unfortunately, I often remember them in the context of, “Crap! Why didn’t I think of that dorky little Ma Ingalls poem before I said that?”

The publishing industry is a lot like a little town on the prairie. Hard to get to. Population is small, but local heroes are big, as are local scandals. Gossip is gold. Nobody knows everybody, but everybody knows somebody, and somebody always knows somebody else. This dynamic bit me on the ass last week.

Last Monday, I posted my two cents about the downfall of Judith Regan:
But you wanna know what bothers me most about this whole thing? It's the unbridled lip-smacking glee with which so many people are watching Judith Regan get consumed by the volcano.

And I went on to say:
Judith Regan is easy to hate. She's a skank. I'm not defending her.

The lip-smacker I linked to was Media Bistro’s galleycat. In the spirit of dialogue (and hoping for a little link-love, of course) I emailed Ron Hogan, providing a link to the post and saying:
First, thanks for providing me with daily delicious bits about the industry. I enjoy your blog with breakfast every morning, and it frankly gives me the will and conviction to drag myself to pilates.

I was surprised and pleased to get an email back saying:
Thanks! I just mentioned your post on the 'Cat... and rest assured that any "lip-smacking glee" over the situation at this end is strictly ironic!

I was surprised and unpleased (with a capital F) when I went to galleycat and saw:
Judith Regan Finds Support Online

"Judith Regan is easy to hate," author Joni Rodgers admits. Nevertheless, she's sticking up for the embattled editor-publisher because she thinks the way Regan is being treated by HarperCollins is inexcusable...

Excuse me?

In what thesaurus does “Judith Regan is a skank. I’m not defending her” equate with me “sticking up” for her? Never in my original post did I mention Harper Collins. I certainly did not say firing Regan was “inexcusable”, nor do I think that! My post was about the salivating sideliners, not the players themselves, and about the sexism I think is inherent in the coverage of that story. But none of the people who sent me hate mail after seeing this item knew or cared about that.

Know who else was unpleased when she saw this item? My editor. At Harper Collins.

Naturally, someone forwarded it to her skippety quick. I was heartsick. This person has been my mentor and friend for eight years, and I’ve always considered myself ridiculously lucky to have found a publishing home at HC. I should have carefully considered saying anything that could be construed—or misconstrued—as me biting the hand that feeds me. And I should have remembered that seeking to be quoted is just begging to be misquoted. Something that galls me to bitter tears about our little town is that the Nelly Olsons so often have the frilliest Sunday dress, the least accountability, and way more influence than they deserve.

I have strong opinions, and I’m not afraid to speak them. On the inevitable occasions I have to eat my words or take a beating or pay stupidity tax, I suck it up. I’m okay with that. I’m not okay with getting beat up for something I never said and never thought about a situation I don’t even care about. Unfortunately, I’m obligated to suck that up, too, because if I want to put myself out there, have an opinion, and occupy a place in the dialogue, that is sometimes the price. But in this case, it was so not worth it. I wish I’d just kept my mouth shut.

Maaaaaaa! Oh, Ma Ingalls, where are you when I need you?

Monday, February 12, 2007

"But I Don't Have Time to Read"

Amazingly, I hear writers say this often. Wrapped up in their own stories or the dramas of everyday life, they have lost sight of the sheer joy of being sucked into the pages of a well-crafted tale.

Frankly, I don't get it. How can anyone expect to succeed as a writer without reading voraciously, obsessively, and joyfully? Reading current releases teaches us where out writing fits in with what's happening in the world of publishing. Through reading, we determine which part of the bookstore (memoir? genre? literature?) would best suit our current work, which publishing house's sensibilities are most in line with our own, even which agents and editors have worked on books whose readers we believe would like our writing. (Hint: Pay attention to the Acknowledgments, where most authors thank their agent and editor.)

Reading is more important than surfing the 'Net, attending writers' workshops, or even critiquing. If you don't nurture the love of books that first sparked your desire to write, the flame is very likely to sputter and go out.

I've been busy, busy, busy lately. But at the top of my To-Do list is finishing the wonderful book I've started. Then and only then will my writer's heart feel all is right with the world.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Put Up or Shut Up

Yesterday, I attended a workshop sponsored by West Houston Chapter of Romance Writers of America. In addition to having two terrific author speakers, Sophie Jordan and Dawn Temple, and an announcement of the winners of the chapter's Emily Awards (the chapters annual contest for unpublished manuscripts), a pair of highly-regarded agents (include my brilliant agent, Helen Breitwieser, and the very personable and knowledgeable Paige Wheeler) came and spoke. Afterward, each took appointments in pitch sessions, in which authors had the chance to describe a project and hopefully garner a request.

A number of the group's members were invited to submit anything from sample chapters and a synopsis to a full manuscript. And I'm sincerely hoping that this afternoon, each one of those members is busy giving his/her material a final read and polish or printing it out and packing the material to send out Monday morning.

Yet I know not all of them are. Some will be making up for a day "stolen" from family time by hanging out with the spouse and kiddos or taking care of those pesky chores that are always relegated to the weekends. Others will be resting, exhausted by the anxiety of pitching and the stress of being caught up in yesterday's swirl. Still others will delay by telling themselves the work's not ready. They'll put it off until their critique group finishes going through the whole piece, or until they've gotten back results on a few more contests, or until the summer, when they're not so busy. But once resistance gets a toehold, these same writers will delay week after week until months and maybe even years pass. And I promise you, any editor or agent's going to clap on to the fact that a loooooong delay in submitting requested material foretells a lot of missed deadlines and a very slim chance of a writer's being sufficiently prolific to generate enough product to make a profit.

So here's what it comes down to. Everything worth having costs in terms of time and effort. Are your kids going to go to hell in a handbasket because you spent an afternoon pursuing your dreams instead of putting their needs first? Or will you be teaching them by example that reaching for tough goals is a thing to be respected? Is your house going to collapse into ruin because you didn't get to the vacuuming this week? (Go ahead and risk it; I've already proven, after extensive field testing, that a little messiness won't kill anyone.) Is your significant other going to leave you because you didn't spend the afternoon watching him watch sports? (If he's like a lot of men, he won't even noticed, except to momentarily - during the commercial break - feel incredibly heroic for supporting you.)

Yes, you have to put in the time. Yes, you have to risk rejection. But this is the time to ask yourself, "How much do I really want it?" It's the time to put up or shut up, because I can assure you, a publishing contract will not materialize in your life by accident, or because of some dim wish. If you want it, you'd better be ready to work as hard as you can, to put your ego or the line, and take a chance of making a grand fool of yourself.

As Ann Richards famously said, If you can't run with the big dogs, you ought to stay on the porch. Maybe you've been pushed off your comfortable sunny spot by a request, a revise-and-resubmit letter, or some other opportunity. It's up to you to decide whether you're going jump back up there and watch the other pooches whiz past.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Killing the Buddha and maybe my beloved

I am still agonizing over the fate of the character I love.

In her laser-precise critique of my first three chapters, Colleen wrote, “I love this character. You’d better not kill him, either. I mean it.” At lunch with my agent in NY on Wednesday, the idea of a sequel was mentioned. Another thumb up for my beloved.

Elie Wiesel once said:

Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the reader sees. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow

To me – today, anyway – this means that in order to write a true death for this character, I have to know in my heart what his life would have been. And if I am to write a true life for him, I have to truly feel the meaning of his death. I've come to the horrible conclusion that I'm going to have to invest the time and effort to write both and then -- Lord, this is going to hurt! -- throw one version away.

Wiesel’s advice reminds me of a zen parable – here’s a quick version of it from Killing the Buddha, “a religious magazine for people made anxious by churches”:

After years on his cushion, a monk has what he believes is a breakthrough: a glimpse of nirvana, the Buddhamind, the big pay-off. Reporting the experience to his master, however, he is informed that what has happened is par for the course, nothing special, maybe even damaging to his pursuit. And then the master gives the student dismaying advice: If you meet the Buddha, he says, kill him.

Why kill the Buddha? Because the Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha, but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed he will only stand in your way.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The flip side of the celebrity bought-o-biography

I don’t disagree with everything Colleen says below, but I have a different perspective having been involved with a few of these projects.

First of all, the big celebrity advance never comes out of the unknown author’s pocket. Quite the opposite. Those big books are cash cows that enable the publisher to take risks and often lose money on mid-listers like myself. If a big book tanks, the loss is absorbed by other big books. That goes for big advances paid to novelists as well.

The artistic integrity of a book project is a little more difficult to quantify. I really struggled with that when I accepted my first ghost gig. What I ended up learning is that artistic integrity is not inherently missing from or present in any book of any genre. Artistic integrity is supplied by the artist.

I’m remembering something Susan Wiggs said in an RWA workshop I attended a while back: “There are so many things stacked against me in this industry. I didn’t need people telling me my books don’t have value.”

Not every movie is Schindler’s List. Some movies are Weekend at Bernie’s II. I appreciate a fine wine, but I’m sitting here drinking a Diet Coke, because...I just like it. Cultural value is as widely varied within every genre of fiction and nonfiction. Some celebrity memoirs are well-written and meaningful, some suck Cheez Whiz. Some literary novels transport and transform, some are pretentious pieces of crap. A Harlequin Romance got nominated for a Pulitzer this year, for God’s sake! Now that’s an artist who knows how to bring it in any venue!

I prefer to call myself a memoir guru rather than a ghostwriter or book doctor, because my mission in every gig is to excavate the story worth telling and tell it beautifully. I get paid well to do it. And any time a writer gets paid well, honey, an angel gets his wings. I consider it my privilege and duty to stand firm on the value of talent. If writers were able to do that with any sense of unity, we’d all get paid better.

For me, the best part of this symbiotic soup is that I get to experience all the rewards and challenges of my craft without having to do the promotional stuff that distracts me from my real work. I’ve been on the Today Show. It was not that big of a thrill. This morning I woke up at 4:30, knowing the exactly right way to structure a scene I’d been struggling with. Oh, my darlings—HUGE thrill! Meanwhile, my latest memoir guru client is gearing up her fame wattage for the exhausting launch of her book. She’s doing what she does fantastically well—be a star—while I sit here and gratefully write this novel.

She has a great story to tell. I helped her tell it. The publisher supplied baby’s new pair of shoes. Now here come the readers to complete the circle of life.

Cue dramatic sunrise over the Serengeti.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Big Bucks Paid for Book on Celebrity ... Whatever

Criminy. Not only is Scott Baio blabbing over all the nubile young (and not so young) thangs he did in Hollywood (tho', boo-hoo for him, he hasn't found love), but now Sharon Stone has decided to get in on the gravy train. She's allegedly marketing an inner-wisdom-of-me book at the moment.

Thank goodness publishers are willing to shell out the big bucks to celebrities eager to spill the secrets to achieving joy (or serve as terrible warnings). Since celebs are known world-wide as models of lasting inner peace, I'm sure there will be thousands lining up to buy these titles.

Or, as my son pointed out, Larry the Cable Guy got a heck of a lot more for not writing his book than you did for writing yours. As have Nicole Richie and her on-again-off-again buddy Paris.

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against celebrities chowing out of the same coffers where I'm snatching the occasional crumb. But I'd feel one heck of a lot better about it if they had something to say . (I'll admit that some do.) I'd also feel better if I didn't suspect that when one of these giant-advance celeb books doesn't earn out (and the gamble doesn't always pay off), it didn't end up coming out of non-celebrity authors' pockets.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Stick This Idea

Recently, I read a fascinating book called Made to Stick, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (yes, they're brothers, a Stanford professor and a Duke Corporate Education consultant, respectively) that talks about what makes some ideas resonate, grow legs, and spread while others are quickly forgotten. With a nod to Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, the brothers Heath boil down their studies of infectious ideas, from Subway's Jared-the-fat-student-becomes-Jared-the-svelte-spokesman campaign to great teachers to the rat-in-your-fried-chicken urban legend that refuses to die.

In their estimation, the "sticky" idea is simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and contains a final element, "story." With its clear, concise writing, fascinating examples, and a topic that applies to everyone from writers to advertisers to heads of state, Made to Stick practices what it preaches. (It also has a memorable & clever 3-D cover, with a crinkled piece of "duct tape" across its front.)

And maybe, just maybe, it will help me build a better mousetrap the next time I write a novel.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Which way to the Judith Regan slapping line?

There seems to be one publishing industry story each year that makes people in the publishing industry want to become dog groomers -- and makes the general public sit up and say, "What? There's still a publishing industry?"

This year it's the fall of Judith Regan, genetrix of Regan Books, the Harper Collins imprint that imploded over the publication (not) of If I Did It, OJ Simpson's...what are we calling it--hypothetical memoir?

One interesting aspect of the story is the minutia of the book contract, which raises some interesting questions about who gets what if a book is dumpsterized after the writer has completed the manuscript and slogged through the entire editorial process. What happens to the rights and subrights? Does the ghostwriter still get paid? That is one seriously fraught situation. Stuff like this strikes fear into my little ghostie heart.

But you wanna know what bothers me most about this whole thing? It's the unbridled lip-smacking glee with which so many people are watching Judith Regan get consumed by the volcano.

Women in our culture are simply not entitled to be that powerful. The more powerful a man is, the more moral leeway he's allowed. The more powerful a woman is, the more she is reviled no matter how high or low the moral ground she occupies. I didn't hear any complaints from Rupert Murdoch when he was cashing in on the ballerina's "erotic memoir" about her penchant for anal sex or the porn star's "cautionary tale" about her busty, boozy adventures. He's allowed to play out every sleazy card in the deck, but how dare Judith Regan be that evil without a penis? How dare she be that shrewd, unflinching, nerveless...and that bombastically successful?

Judith Regan is easy to hate. She's a skank. I'm not defending her. But let's be honest with ourselves. She's tied to the whipping post right now because she did something nice girl aren't supposed to do. She gave people what they wanted. And she did it better than any man in the business.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Soul sprain

Here's the "I hear ya, girlfriend!" du jour:

On finishing her novel Ship of Fools, Katherine Anne Porter told her editor at McCalls, "I finished the thing; but I think I sprained my soul."

Been there.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Checking the body count

I've been agonizing over the fate of a character in the novel I'm working on. I don't want to kill this person off just to milk for emotion or shock value. But I don't want my love for this character to blind me to the only believable course of events as I've orchestrated them.
Colleen once described the relatively low body count in her suspense fiction as "an economy of corpses." That idea resonates with me. It's about what is needed, what is balanced, not what's dearly wanted or deeply feared. The objective is a satisfying ending. Which is not to be confused with a happy ending. Which is not to be confused with an unrealistic ending.
To be or not to be, that is the question.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Demonic Mnemonics


Tonight's critique group got off on the rousing (!) topic of a couple of persistent grammar demons that plague us.

Ever have trouble remembering whether it's, "If I were going to that party, I'd certainly make a point to keep it in my pants" or "If I was going to the party..." So which is correct?

The subjunctive mood is used ("were") in the case of a purely imaginary or highly unlikely event. For example, the party's being given by the Queen of England or a convention of lesbian ex-nuns. When the situation is more plausible, you'll probably want to stick with "was." For example, if the event turned out to be a writers' party with an open bar.

The usual who/whom confusion was also a topic of conversation. (Usually, we're not this boring. Promise.) "Who" is a subject, which acts. For example, "This is my agent, who takes a smaller cut than the IRS." Because the agent is doing the taking (natch), the correct usage is who.

"Whom," on the other hand, is an object, someone being acted upon. For example, "Whom did you invite to the Queen's reception honoring lesbian ex-nuns?"

But perhaps the evening's most popular example dealt with the strange past tense of the verb "to hang." I've never understood why judges in Westerns sentence criminals to be hanged by the neck until they are dead (as opposed to hung). As someone once explained to me, "A man can be hung like a horse or hanged like a heretic."

I've never forgotten that particular example.

Anyone have any others to share?

Haiku you

The Griz and I were noodling around the interweb, looking for a cool picture to use on labels for a batch of ice wine he’s making, which led us to a site called Bad Haiku, which led me to ask, “Is there any other kind?”

I don’t write poetry, since I try to avoid doing things at which I suck. But I do indulge in haiku once in a while, because – well, c’mon, all haiku sucks, so mine doesn’t stand out as particularly bad. Besides, the value of haiku is more for the writer than the reader.

To the reader, it’s gives a little amuse bouche of an “Ah!” or “Huh?” or just a quick roll of the eyes. But the writer is forced to contemplate and manipulate the words on a minute level. The specificity of it is both meditative and muscle-building.

These are by Bad Haiku poster “Kackarott”:

From his grave I dug
Up Steve McQueen and we drove
Real fucking fast! YEAH!

Dreamt that I was made
Out of chocolate and was
Eaten by fat chicks

There was a pretty
Vagina that spoke spanish
Que' pasa hombre'????

To which “Mox” adds:

the words are a mood
of a temporary time
purifying self

The unsinkable Molly Ivins

My favorite blurb of all time was an Entertainment Weekly review of my book Bald in the Land of Big Hair that offered this delicious pull-quote:

"A mix of Molly Ivins' blowsy wit and Anna Quindlen's suburban logic..."

I was enormously flattered and scorched with shame to be compared to two of my favorite writers. How incredibly sad to hear of Molly’s death this week. We’ve lost a great Texan, a wonderful writer, an amazing woman.

Blowsy wit indeed.

Here are a few of the choice Molly-isms featured in a Star-Telegram editorial today:

“When it comes to voting, we in Texas are accustomed to discerning that fine hair’s breadth worth of difference that makes one hopeless dipstick slightly less awful than the other.”

“The price of gasoline has gotten so high, women who want to run over their husbands have to carpool now.”

“Whee, here we go, the Lege is back in session! And many a village is missing its idiot.”

“There was the president at his press conference looking just like a turtle on a fence post.”

“Not that I’m accusing anyone of lying, of course, but these people are slicker than bus station chili.”

“If God keeps hanging out with politicians, it’s gonna hurt his reputation.”

Go with God, Molly.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

What It Takes: An Interview with Author Christie Craig

Boxing the Octopus is all about (except when it isn’t!) the ingredients a writer needs to survive in the business. Today, I’m interviewing Christie Craig, who recently broke a long book-sale drought in spectacular fashion, selling four humorous romantic suspense novels (to two different publishers) in one week!

BtO: First of all, congratulations on your new sales, Christie. Could you tell us a little bit about each books, including any info you might have on their release dates?

CC: I wish I could give you release dates, but I’m still waiting to get the final word on that. What I’ve been told is that MURDER, MAYHEM & MAMA (title could change), a romantic suspense with a touch of paranormal and humor, will be available in 2007 on-line, and in print in 2008. My first humorous suspense for Dorchester, a part of a three-book series, DIVORCED, DESPERATE, & DELICIOUS (title could change) is targeted to come out late in 2007. Mid-2008 Dorchester will release WEDDINGS CAN BE MURDER, a standalone humorous romantic suspense. Late in 2008 Dorchester plans to release the second book in my series which I’m calling the DD&D books, DIVORCED, DESPERATE & DATING.

BtO: I know that after your debut novel, Two Hearts too Late, written as Christie Clark for Silhouette Romance in 1994, you began a successful career as a freelancer and photographer with numerous magazine credits to your name. Could you tell us a little about how you made this transition?

CC: I started writing novels in 1984, I hadn’t planned to write for the magazines. But after a few years, I realized the rewarding feeling of having a finished project was far and few between when writing novels. Yep, I’m sort of addicted to instant gratification. I decided to try to write a few short pieces for the magazines. At the time, I seriously didn’t know anything about writing for the magazines and especially about writing nonfiction. I thought the same rules for fiction applied for nonfiction. When I wrote my essays, I made sure I had the setting, characterization, and sparking dialogue. It wasn’t until an editor asked me where I’d learned to write creative nonfiction that I realized I was doing something different from everyone else. Basically, I had just happened upon a new style of writing that was popular.

Of course, I got rejections with my freelance submissions. I got a lot of rejections. But I just kept writing, trying to write a new piece every week. I also continued writing novels, attending RWA and trying to improve my craft.

I started branching out in different types of nonfiction: essays, how-to articles, profiles. When I sold my first novel to Silhouette, I was doing pretty well in the freelance business. My goal at the time was to write novels full time. However, I learned the hard way to never quit your day job. When I didn’t sell the second novel or the third proposal, I went back to freelancing. After balancing the freelance writing and novel writing for several years, I knew I had to make a decision when my daughter was about to enter college. I would either have to triple my income in writing, or get a real job to help pay her way through college. I really didn’t want to have to go back to work. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure I’m allergic to working for people, along with panty hose, and office politics.

So, I put the novels on the back burner and wrote full time for magazines. Six years later, my daughter graduated with dual degrees and I had over 2000 national credits.

BtO: What have been some of the highlights of your magazine career?

To read more of Christie Craig's interview, please follow this link.


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