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Showing posts from February, 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 …

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.

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 need…

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…

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 edi…

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.

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…

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 …

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…

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…

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…

"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 spark…

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 &…

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 Wieselonce 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
remain.

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.

Wi…

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.…

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 sa…

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 "…

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 gleewith whi…

Soul sprain

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

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

Been there.

Checking the body count

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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.

Demonic Mnemonics

Image
VS.


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), t…

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 …

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 editorialtoday:

“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 turt…

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 sta…