Saturday, March 31, 2007
At critique group Friday night, we Midwives were discussing cover art from our first novels. I loved the cover art on the hardcover of my firstborn, Crazy for Trying, but Gary promptly dubbed this trade paper version "the blow job cover." In an eloquent statement about keeping one's art in perspective, my daughter Jerusha used an old copy to wallpaper our downstairs bathroom.
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Instead of laughing, I winced. First of all, while skimming yesterday's Star section, my eye snagged on that same line. But I never noticed the typo, just as I skip over an embarrassing number in my own work. Although I'm a good speller and taught English for years, I am not a great detail person. With my attention focused on the "global", I insert many bone-headed substitutions, such as "the" for "of" and "your" for "you're", along with occasional permutations that bear little resemblance to English, much less the sheer brilliance (!) I was attempting to transcribe. For some reason, this happens much more regularly with novel manuscripts -- where the big picture is much more complex -- than with articles, e-mails, or other short pieces.
Because I'm a perfectionist about my work, I frequently find myself angry and frustrated when, after many readings, the typos continue to appear. (Do they breed in the manuscript after I've shut down the computer? I'm suspicious.) I've recently set up my laptop to read aloud each chapter and highlight each word as it does so. This helps me a great deal, as do the wonderful, gifted writers kind enough to read my work before it's submitted. I'm also incredibly grateful to the editor and copy-editors who catch not only typos but the seriously-important stuff. Yet even with all these eyes and brains, I still invariably catch a few errors at the galley (page proof) stage. And I never read the published book, because I'm terrified I'll see something glaring that is now beyond my ability to change.
But sure enough, once in a great while some helpful reader will write me to point out something that I -- and every one of the legion of proofreaders -- has managed to miss. Recently, one such entrepreneur made a list for me and helpfully offered her services (for an undisclosed fee) as an editor.
I cheered myself by correcting all the errors in her e-mail before deleting it. Clearly, those mistakes bred inside her file between the moment she hit "send" and the message appeared in my mailbox.
Today, I'd like to know, how do you combat the evil typo? Or perhaps you have stories to share about your own helpful reader letters or battles with perfectionism.
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm "the tortoise" when it comes to writing. I don't sprint to my deadlines but rather keep up a methodical pace by writing a small number of pages per day, five days per week. This gives me "think time," the chance to edit as I go, and an opportunity for some kind of balance in my life. As a long-term strategy, it's worked well for me, though I know plenty of blind-panic deadline maniacs who procrastinate for months before completing their books (often late) in the white heat of marathon sessions.
If the "hare" styles works for you, I don't knock it, but I'd personally find it crazy-making. Except that I've agreed to an uncomfortably-short deadline. Since I absolutely cannot be late (we're really cutting this one close as it is), nor can I stand to be late (I was the annoying Hermione-type in school, who turned in papers a day early), I've discovered the "twin ears" needed to put this tortoise into hare mode: a desk calendar and simple division.
That's my low-tech secret. First I took my deadline and subtracted three weeks from it (though I would prefer a full month) for feedback and editing. Then I estimated the remaining pages and divided by the number of weeks, then divided again to get a per-day count needed. Then I marked the calendar with "P=" for each day's projected page count. Below it, I have "A=" for the actual page count. I scheduled in a couple of days off to attend to unavoidable chores (waving to IRS) and maybe one or two R&R days, which can be used as catch-up days as needed.
What I found was that my usual five pages a day plodding pace will work, if I stick religiously to this plan. I won't feel panicked if I can see that I'm on course. I won't get to have a lot of fun either, but since it would be spoiled by the threat of missing the deadline, I can live with that for the next couple of months. And afterward, I've planned a short vacation to "refill the well" before jumping into the next project.
I don't think there's any right or wrong way to handle deadlines (so long as you do). The important thing is learning your own working style, your strengths and weaknesses and tolerances, and going with what's doable for you.
Monday, March 26, 2007
According to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac yesterday:
It was on this day in 1920 that This Side of Paradise was published, launching 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald to fame and fortune. The first version of the book was called The Romantic Egotist, and Fitzgerald had started writing it in the fall of 1917 while awaiting commission as an army officer. He wrote most of the manuscript at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and sent chapters as he wrote them to a typist at Princeton where he had been a student. In March 1918, he submitted the novel to Charles Scribner's Sons. Scribners rejected the novel but encouraged Fitzgerald to revise it. He submitted a new version titled The Education of a Personage to Scribners in September 1918, but that second version was also rejected.
In July 1919, after his discharge from the army, Fitzgerald returned to his family's home at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul. He pinned revision notes to his curtains and rewrote much of the novel. In August 1919, Fitzgerald finished a new draft, now titled This Side of Paradise. He gave it to a friend from St. Paul for a final edit and sent the new typescript to Scribners on September 4, 1919. Two weeks after he mailed the manuscript, Fitzgerald received Maxwell Perkins' letter accepting the book. Fitzgerald was so excited that he ran outside and stopped cars on the street to announce the news.
Sunday, March 25, 2007
Back in 2004, a guy named Joe Hill self-pubbed a little book of poems through PublishAmerica, a POD (print on demand) press, which vehemently denies being a vanity press. Kinda like I deny being a WASP. (I'd so much rather think of myself as a Viking.) Under the "Editorial Reviews" section for Surviving, there's only this:
I am a thirty-six-year-old man, born in Des Moines, Iowa. I have an eleven-year-old daughter and sixteen-year-old nephew, both of whom I love very much. Without them this world would be unbearable. They give me reasons I never knew I had to live. I thank God every day for the things He has given me, even the things I don't understand. Poems and my children help ease the pain that everyday life can cause. I have recently found out that you can do anything you want when you believe in yourself. And that's what I will be teaching my children.
There are no media or buyer reviews, probably because of the complete lack of both media and buyers that undoubtedly greeted this publication...
Until a few weeks ago.
When the New York Times Book Review trashed Heart Shaped Box, which happens to be the debut novel of Stephen King's son, who is writing under the name...
Out of curiosity, I looked to see if there was another Joe Hill. The first time I looked, the Amazon sales rank of Surviving was in the top 1000. I can't decide which makes me laugh louder, the looks on the faces of all those rabid Stephen King fans when they get their little poetry books or the look on "poems and children help ease the pain" Joe Hill's face when he gets his next check from Amazon.
Like the man said:
I thank God every day for the things He has given me, even the things I don't understand.
Saturday, March 24, 2007
Looks kinda like the Orion nebula, but it's actually where my seatbelt was after Chucklenuts the Trucker decided to make an illegal left, slamming into some unsuspecting schmoe, who then slammed into me. Stuff like that tends to ruin your whole weekend. Home from the hospital now with aching back and hammering headache, I was reminded by a friend that I actually wrote a glib little column about the redeeming social value of pain back when I was doing my syndicated "Earth to Joni" column.
Earth to Joni April 20, 2003
That's Gotta Hurt: Searching for perspective in the House of Pain
I'm not a masochist, but I don't entirely hate pain. There's something mouth-wateringly alive about it. It's visceral, it's animal. It transcends the grinding norm, transporting us to an adrenaline-soaked plane of existence where we suddenly see with crystal clarity the true value of our temple bodies.
Oddly enough, when I shared this insight with Gary on the way to the minor emergency clinic, he was less than receptive. He'd somehow managed to trip over his own shoe (face it, honey, some people are not meant to walk backwards) and was certain his wrist was "utterly shattered."
"On a scale of one to five, how bad does it hurt?" asked the triage nurse. Gary's face reflected a struggle between the need to not sound wimpy and a desire for the big drugs. A manly response would be, "Ah, 'twarn't nuthin' but a two, little lady." But shrieking "Seven! Seven! Hit me in the head with a croquet mallet, for the love of mercy!" might better convey an immediate need for Darvon.
It's really not a fair question. Pain, emotional or physical, is relative.
For example, pain incurred without a good story is definitely worse than pain associated with a clever anecdote. Last year I fractured my instep, and because my foot was swollen up like a Buick, they immobilized it with an extra large boot, which meant I had to walk around like Ronald McDonald for five weeks. When anyone (and everyone) asked me what was up with the giant blue platypus attached to my ankle, I had to pile insult upon injury by telling the clunky truth. Somehow the "paratrooping into a nest of Qaida operatives" fracture gets a lot more props than the "stepped funny on the church playground" fracture.
I don't even try to match pain stories with my father. In the Pain Hall of Fame, Dad is firmly ensconced between Evel Knievel and that coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. He's fallen from various tall places, been sat on by a horse, survived a triple bypass, and received high voltage electric shocks. He's crashed, careened, and catapulted off every mode of transportation imaginable, from a pop-up camper to my son's rollerblades. And he's always very jovial about his current injury, which makes it all the more tragic and brave.
"What, this? Oh, I hit a deer on my motorcycle. And what that deer was doing on my motorcycle I'll never know! Har-har!"
Fortunately for Mom, he still can't top the pain of giving birth. A man could be set upon by flaming wolverines and dragged off the Hoover Dam viewing platform--a woman still trumps him with childbirth. And mom did labor-times-six. Pain resulting from a selfless act is far more painful than pain resulting from general shenanigans. It's a fundamental truth: you will never experience the depth of agony your mother went through to bring you into this world. (And still, you forget to take out the garbage. But--as long as you're happy. That's all that matters.)
To Gary's chagrin, his wrist wasn't broken. It's badly sprained, which is so unfair. All the torment with none of the drama. He's getting plenty of mileage out of the torn ligaments, though. I feel his pain. Especially when I think of all the yard work I'm going to be doing.
"I feel your pain" has become something comedians say when they're sending up Bill Clinton, but we do literally hurt for each other. We cringe when we hear about the root canal, the stubbed toe, the star-spangled migraine. I defy you to refrain from crossing your legs when I tell you my friend Brad once jumped out a kitchen window and landed with one leg inside a barrel and the other leg out. Pain is something every human understands. That understanding provides a root system for compassion, and in our best moments, its fruit is mercy.
A world without it would be excruciating.
Friday, March 23, 2007
Many athletes and actors are said to have off-beat superstitions, from lucky socks to ritual meals to you-name-the-oddity. Perhaps we're susceptible as writers, too, because so much that is important to us remains outside the bounds of our control. Maybe that's the reason I feel compelled to read a book with the number fourteen in the title the next time I'm up for contract -- or perhaps J.D. Robb's fourteenth Eve & Roark book would suffice.
Do you have any writing-related superstitions? If so, I'd love to hear about them.
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
There is no one less likely on earth to have found a church, and certainly being a Christian is the last thing I had in mind. But a spiritual path is a lot of things - registering voters, feeding the poor, getting the homeless off the street. My message is there’s something out there and you will find it. I think Augustine said, ‘To seek God is to have found him.’
Lamott's latest Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith hits bookstores this week.
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Get yourself in that extreme state of being next to madness. You should always write with an erection. Even if you’re a woman.
My own version of that philosophy: Write from the torso; edit from the head.
The first is that utterly visceral, instinctive, and natural state in which we have to shut off the censorship that wants us to be nice, to fit in, to not piss anyone off, to be accepted, to make our parents proud. The second is where cool judgments and harsh cuts have to be made, little darlings have to be slaughtered, and the marketplace has its say.
When the book reaches the shelf, it's (hopefully) a fruitful marriage of art and commerce. The Apollonian/Dionysian Conflict resolved.
Monday, March 19, 2007
On our way home from France a couple months ago, Gary discovered he'd lost his keys somewhere in Paris, so when we got home, I had to climb a ladder and enter the house through my office window. We being the slackadaisical homeowners we are, the screen is still off, and now a large paper wasp is building an elaborate home for her coming offspring in there.
When I first noticed her, my knee jerk response was "RAID!" I'm a year-round windows open kind of person, and this is a honkin' big wasp with a wicked-looking stinger. But as I've been turning myself inside out the last couple weeks, driving hard to finish my novel in progress, I've begun to feel a sort of sisterhood with her. We're both single-minded and diligent. We look at each other once in a while, then lower our heads to our tasks again.
I can't bear to brush her work away, so I'll keep the window closed, I guess, and watch her work unfold and fly away. I only wish I was as beautiful as she is. And I hope the offspring I'm gestating will have the wings -- and the sting -- to make it past my office window.
"We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled.
The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out."
This past week, I've tipped myself over by showing up at the page every day. My minimum, as suggested by a writers' challenge group I've joined, is a mere 100 words. None too challenging for a professional, one might think, and even on the busiest, most messed-up day, running on a few hours' sleep (as I am now, since my new dog was sick again last night), I can force out those 100.
But the 100 words have proven to be a rusty faucet for me. Once I muster up the energy to break it loose, "the beautiful stuff" has spilled out, pages and pages of it.
So this next week, I'm continuing my goal of writing at least a little every, single day to keep the story flowing and the magical muse's cup refilling every night.
Friday, March 16, 2007
I thought BtO readers might be interested in the following course that I'll be teaching online through PASIC (the Published Authors Special Interest Chapter of RWA). You don't have to be a member of either PASIC or RWA to sign up. Feel free to link to or forward this if you know anyone you feel is close to publication or has an interest in learning about agents, editors, contracts, and promotion.
May 2 - 29, 2007
What You Need to Know When You're About to Sell
Instructor: Colleen Thompson
Cost: $25.00 payable by check or PayPal
Workshop Description: This class will address topics writers on the verge of publishing should understand about the business. Lectures will include:
Week 1. Professional relations with your agent and your editor. (Who handles what, when it's okay to call or e-mail, reasonable expectations, etc.)
Week 2. Boilerplate basics. Important things to watch for in those first contracts. (What's negotiable and what often isn't. What's "normal." How the wording of option and out-of- print clauses can affect an author's future.)
Week 3. How to present yourself as an author. (Dealing with other writers and writers' groups. Developing and maintaining a professional image.) Developing/using your talents as a speaker and contributor of articles. How/when to mentor others while protecting yourself from potential problems.)
Week 4. When and how to start promoting. (Getting the most bang for your buck. Setting up your own mailing list and website. Setting and sticking to a budget. Keeping your emphasis on the writing where it belongs.)
Each week's classes would consist of four lectures with an additional day for questions and answers. Outside readings will be recommended but not required. In weeks three and four, attendees will be asked to develop an action plan.
About the Instructor: Colleen Thompson is the RITA-nominated author of twelve novels, including her upcoming romantic suspense, Head On (Love Spell, July 2007), and seven historicals written as Gwyneth Atlee. With honors ranging from a Texas Gold award to award nominations from Romantic Times and the Reviewers International Organization, Colleen has increased her knowledge of the business of writing by working with three different agents, five different editors, and two publishing houses and by picking the brains of numerous, more experienced author friends. A past contributor to The Romance Writer's Report and Writer's Digest, Colleen can be found on the web at www.colleen-thompson.com or on her writers' blog at www.boxingoctopus.blogspot.com.
Deadline to Register: April 24th.
To register, send an e-mail to email@example.com. To pay, send a $25.00 check payable to PASIC, Chapter #143. Mail to Pat Kay, Treasurer, PASIC, PO Box 441603, Houston, TX 77244-1603 or send your $25 payment via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Wednesday, March 14, 2007
Recently, I've discovered a new favorite. Philip Glass, with his minimalist compositions, is amazing. In particular, his SOLO PIANO is haunting and evocative, and I've never been much of a fan of piano 'til now. The link will take you to Amazon, where you can hear a clip from the METAMORPHOSIS series. (Try it!) I first heard #5 on, of all places, Battlestar Galactica. Loved it from the start.
In addition to Philip Glass, I often write to Anonymous 4. The group's ethereal, often medieval music is wonderfully meditative, as is the old favorite, Chant, by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. In a combination of classical and world music, Adiemus is outstanding and never fails to get me in the writing groove.
These are only a very few of my favorites (for writing anyway; for other times, I love classic rock, folk rock, and jazz). What music helps you get in flow with your work, or do you prefer silence or perhaps the background hum of a public place?
Tuesday, March 13, 2007
Jewel's also a good reminder to spay or neuter early. Like our younger mutt, Zippy, she was dropped off at the shelter after having an unwanted litter at less than 1 1/2. With so many animals put down every year for want of homes, it's inexcusable to allow random breeding to take place. (Except maybe in certain passages of our books... :)
What's also ticked me off (beside the zillions of tiny puppies and the plethora of huge dogs and adult cats that no one wants) is the profusion of tiny, poorly-bred, and sadly-neurotic Chihuahuas I've seen up for adoption. I'm blaming Paris Hilton, who thoughtlessly made the micro-foo foo dog a fashion accessory for countless young women -- a little, living doll to be dressed in matching outfits. The trouble is, when the fad passes, a cuter, tinier pup shows up on the horizon, or the dog turns out to be snappish, perpetually frightened, and difficult to housebreak (tiny bladders mean lots of trips out), these poor little creatures are often dumped, and shelter life scares them to death.
Since this isn't an animal rights blog (maybe animal writes, at times), I'll get off my soapbox. I just needed to get that off my chest.
Monday, March 12, 2007
Life is a process of becoming.
Friday, March 09, 2007
I am within nanosyllables of completing my fifth novel, and looking through the manuscript today, fluffing and backfilling, I had occasion to return to some notes I made early on.
I stared at that file, thinking, Bgmdvpwha?
The book I envisioned and outlined so thoughtfully bears barely a fleeting resemblance to the book I wrote. But the book I wrote is the book that had to be written. It was the book I had in me. God knows, I would love to be more literary, more commercial, more Oprah-appropriate, more this, more that. But trying to write what I don’t have in me would be both futile and fatal.
I'm posting a photo of Zippy, a Humane Society "bounce-back" who had already been through at least two homes when we adopted her. She's turned out to be a terrific little mutt, a high-energy cuddler who makes us laugh every day.
Wednesday, March 07, 2007
Tuesday, March 06, 2007
"The stories, the plays, were born in a yelping litter. I had but to get out of their way."
Bradbury was talking about a series of tales set in Ireland, which he had sworn he had no interest in writing about. He found it a dank, depressing place during the time he spent there. But something tamped the seed down deep inside him, where it took root without his knowledge.
Stories happen like that sometimes, sneaking up when the would-be author least expects them. When they've had time to develop in the darkness, they do tend to come all at once, in a rush. When they're forced to light before their time, however, you end up with a painful forceps delivery, inch by bloody inch.
Monday, March 05, 2007
Saturday, March 03, 2007
Book-buying editors sound like they're feeling the heat more than ever. What at least one big-house big-wig editor is telling the cute young novelists this week is that, in the current thinking on author advances, "$125K is the new $250K." We imagine what this really means is that he's damn sick of paying a quarter of a million bucks for a novel that has a 1 in 800 chance of earning out.
You know...yeah. It might mean that. Or it might mean that publishing is like any other industry in America. Top heavy. People at the top expect and receive huge money, while people at the bottom get squat, because that's what they expect and accept.
A lot of people want to write books, but only a few actually do it, and even fewer do it well. So why are those vanishing few not valued in our culture in general or our industry in specific? And why are so many authors willing to settle for sweat shop money?
Answer to both questions: Because we don't value ourselves.
We accept statements like "Nobody's paying more than $125K" (or "nobody's paying more than $5K") without challenge. After having our feet held to the fire by editors, we don't turn around and hold the publisher's feet to the fire, demanding an accurate and prompt accounting of how the book's PR budget was spent, exactly how many books sold through, and what the TRUE average advance is for the type of book we're writing.
The most common excuse for a crap advance is the poor performance of an author's previous title. Supposedly, you're only as good as your last book, and if a book tanks, you assume -- along with everybody else -- that it's your fault, when in fact, writing books is the job of writers and selling books is the job of publishers. Somewhere, someday, a midlist author will step up and say, "If it's possible to market a pet rock, for Christ sake, it's possible to market my book, and somebody in the marketing department should have by God done it."
And then a piglet will fly by outside the 32nd floor window.
So many people want to be published -- and they want it so badly -- we're willing to believe just about anything that begins with the words "We love your book." But for our own sake and the sake of our art, we need to start calling BS on any theory that tries to justify the shrinking value of our work.
Friday, March 02, 2007
It is, unfortunately, a condition I can occasionally relate to, when misfortune befalls others who have gotten More Than Their Fair Share, in the eye of the jealous child-self that occasionally throws a nasty tantrum when others appear to be effortlessly grabbing the brass rings I'm unable to reach. My good-girl self knows better, and I always make an effort to act appropriately while burning with shame about my baser emotions.
But at the moment, it feels pretty good to know it's common enough to have a name.
It's also common enough to have an "anthem," in the form of a hilarious poem by Clive James called "The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered," which I first read about in Anne Lamott's hilarious Bird by Bird.
If James' poem doesn't spark at least a smile of recognition, I'm not sure I want to know you. Here's the opening:
"The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased
In vast quantities it has been remaindered.
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy's much-prized effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs..."
So today, I'm thanking the creators of the word "schadenfreude" and Clive James for making me feeling human. After all, owning up to one's less admirable qualities is the first step toward mining them in fiction.
Thursday, March 01, 2007
Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.
We welcome payola in the form of pies, cakes, neatly folded laundry and free books!