Monday, April 30, 2007

The Perils of Diva-dom

I just returned from a wonderful event with a terrific group of people. From fans to booksellers to publishing house types to authors to various and sundry others, we all had one thing in common: the love of books. Nearly everyone was wonderful, from the tireless volunteer organizers to the cover model hopefuls to you name it, they were all nice, fun, and friendly.

Or nearly all, and the very few exceptions present really stood out. Divas who treated others like their personal water carriers. Mean gossips. The abusive or dismissive. Each one made an indelible impression -- and not the one I would imagine they'd prefer to spread. (Though it does -- and faster than herpes in a ho' house.)

As my roommate wisely said, your "public face" is the least expensive and most memorable form of promotion. If you're kind, approachable, and funny, people will remember that about you. They'll root for you when you're down and will cheer you when you make it big. If you're bitchy, snarky, threatening, and concerned only with your own perceived successes, the opposite will happen. Publishing pros and agents may work with you (grudgingly), but you'll miss out on the very best thing about this business... the camaraderie that comes of cheering on real friends and welcoming more into the fold with each event that you attend.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Happy Duke Ellington's Birthday

Every book has a soundtrack. The reader doesn't necessarily hear or even suspect it, but I need that music to anchor me to a certain tone, a certain time and place. I'm beginning a novel that will bring me back to some of my favorite Duke Ellington music in the coming months, and I'm looking forward to that. Here's what The Writer's Almanac has to say about the Duke today:
It's the birthday of Duke Ellington, born Edward Kennedy Ellington in Washington, D.C. (1899). After high school, he worked briefly as a soda jerk, and his first piece of music was called "Soda Fountain Rag," (1915). He composed it in his head before he'd even learned how to write or read music. When he first started playing with a band at local society balls, they would often play "Soda Fountain Rag" over and over again. Ellington said, "[We] would play [it] as a one-step, two-step, waltz, tango, and fox trot. Listeners never knew it was the same piece. I was established as having my own repertory."

After moving to New York City, Ellington expanded his band to 14 musicians. As pianist and composer, he began to produce musical compositions that went beyond the typical three-minute jazz tunes for dance clubs, and he became one of the first Jazz composers to get respect from the classical music establishment.

Duke Ellington said, "Roaming through the jungle of "oohs" and "ahs," searching for a more agreeable noise, I live a life of primitivity with the mind of a child and an unquenchable thirst for sharps and flats."

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Laser-Like Focus

About six months ago, my agent said something that really resonated with me. While I was having a typical neurotic-writer moment and wondering whether I should hedge my bets in this business by writing in a second genre in addition to romantic suspense, she said that she'd been chatting with an editor and the two of them had concluded that the authors with the best chance of making it big maintain a laser-like focus on one goal. All their efforts are directed toward achieving this goal, and it helps them to figure out which opportunities and avenues to pursue and which to let go.

This comment caused me to do some hard thinking about what I want as a writer. From the time I began in romantic suspense, I have had a clear vision of the experience I want readers to take from my stories and the ways I hope to grow within the genre. Chasing the market had nothing to do with it. I simply wanted to write the kind of book I most enjoy. I do have to take notice of the market and adapt accordingly to survive as a writer, but I can't (or won't) change who I am to do it.

As I attend the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention this weekend (and much of the week) in Houston, I find it helpful to keep the idea of "laser-like focus" in mind. So many writers seem to fragment their efforts, writing in multiple genres for multiple publishers, always chasing the latest trend. For some (i.e. "fast" writers whose natural pace has them completing three or more books per year), it has worked well, leading to success (though usually in only one of the areas). For others, it has led to exhaustion and burn-out. For me, it would probably lead to a prescription for Xanax and other anti-freak-out medications.

The trick, I think, is to figure out what works for you. Don't be afraid to experiment and adapt, but don't squander the gifts you are given trying to please everyone. Figure out your core audience and with everything you write, try to give them a consistent experience that will keep them coming back for more.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What a tangled web we weave (or at least we try)

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. The kinky art of shibari or "beautiful bondage" from Japan. The early music of Radiohead. The actual quantity of blood involved in the exsanguination of a 160 lb man. These are just a few of the interesting little side roads I explored while researching details woven into the novel I just finished.

One day as we swilled coffee, Colleen suggested I nuance the bondage stuff with a subtle spider web motif, and by the time I reached the end of the book -- the most intricately plotted story I've ever even thought of attempting -- I realized that's what I'd been doing all this time. Spinning a web in which I hope to tangle the reader's curiosity. If there's a hole, it's gapingly obvious. No loose ends allowed. I learned a lot.

Halfway through the process, I came upon these wise words from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (whose birthday happens to be today):
Constantly regard the universe as one living being, having one substance and one soul; and observe how all things have reference to one perception, the perception of this one living being; and how all things act with one movement; and how all things are the cooperating causes of all things which exist; observe too the continuous spinning of the thread and the contexture of the web.
I've posted the quote under the wise words of my editor at Harper Collins. Several years ago she told me to put up this sign on my office wall:

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney

Lauren Barnholdt is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit with her new novel, The Secret Identity of Devon Delaney, launching the new Simon and Schuster MIX line for tweens. Lauren’s first book for teens, Reality Chick, was a Teen People Can’t-Miss Pick and a New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age 2007.

From the press kit:
Mom says karma always comes around to get you, and I guess it's true. Because last summer I was a total liar, and now, right in the middle of Mr. Pritchard's third-period math class, my whole world is about to come crashing down…

That's because while Devon was living with her grandmother for the summer, she told her "summer friend," Lexi, that she was really popular back home and dating Jared Bentley, only the most popular guy at school. Harmless lies, right? Wrong. Not when Lexi is standing at the front of Devon's class, having just moved to Devon's town. Uh-oh.
I get a kick out of the twenty-something authors I meet here and there. Getting a book out at that age is a huge accomplishment. I sent my first round of query letters on my 30th birthday, and my first book came out when I was 34. The truth is, I wasn't ready for it in my 20s. I enjoyed Lauren's take on the experience of being published (from the sage perspective of a 26-year-old):
People say that once you get published, nothing changes, and that if you think it does, you're just setting yourself up for a huge disappointment. I don't agree --I think everything changes AND nothing changes.

Nothing changes in that you still have to love the writing, you still have to love the process, because none of it gets easier -- writing a book is HARD, revising a book is HARD, and that doesn't change after you've sold one or three or one hundred. Once you're published, a whole new set of problems pops up. Instead of trying to find an agent, you're trying to think of the best ways to promote, how to get your editor to understand your reasons for certain things, freaking out over your cover, worrying that you're not going to get enough attention from your publicist. You check your Amazon rank obsessively, even though your agent tells you it doesn't mean anything. You wonder what will happen if this book, or the next book, or the one after that, just tanks. What if nobody buys it? What if it really does suck? You read your writing over, wondering what sort of drugs your editor must have been on when she offered you money for it, and if she might lose her job once everyone realizes your book is just horrible...

Why wouldn't you freak out? Your work is now going to be out in the world, and that's thrilling and terrifying.
Go, baby girl, go!

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Hemingway memoir promises to be strange indeed

As both a student of the memoir genre and a sappily devoted Hemingway fan, I'm eager to read Strange Tribe, John Hemingway's forthcoming memoir about his life and family. (Pub date is May 1, but Amazon lists it as in stock.) This could be a great book or a perambulating cheese ball. Could go either way. I'm guardedly optimistic. All I know for sure is that I want to read it, but here's a bit of his PR copy:
...the peculiar family dynamics between Ernest Hemingway and his youngest son Gregory. Gregory, the author’s father, tried to live up to Ernest’s “macho” reputation throughout his life. But as a cross-dresser and (eventually) a transsexual, Gregory was obsessed with androgyny and his "female half,” and he struggled with personal demons up until his death in the Women's Correctional Facility of the Miami Dade County Jail in 2001...

This is also John's story--about what it was like growing up in Miami and Montana with his father and his schizophrenic mother, and...shows how the persona of Ernest Hemingway, the most important literary icon of the past 100 years, continues to loom darkly over the often-troubled lives of his descendants.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Having a "wish I'd written that" moment

Willa Cather:
The sun was like a great visiting presence that stimulated and took its due from all animal energy. When it flung wide its cloak and stepped down over the edge of the fields at evening, it left behind it a spent and exhausted world.
And the woman knew how to wear hats, too.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Are all writers killers at heart?

"April is the cruellest month," T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, and the third week of April is going to be a rough one for the American psyche for a long time to come. People struggle to make sense of tragedy, and in the pursuit of understanding, the ever-vigilant media stands ready to trot out whatever scapegoat can be roped by some talking head in a hundred-twenty seconds or less. What video games were to Columbine, writing is to VT. The proof in the poisonous pudding. Before the coroner caught a coffee break, the VT killer became the most famous writer in America, his English assignments more widely read than Moby Dick.

I guess I'm a horrible person, but the first thought that struck me after reading a couple of pages: "This dude was an English major?" I did better than that when I was in eighth grade. Particularly in this extremely creative little story I wrote about a tragically put upon adolescent girl who kills herself, then leaps up out of her coffin at her own funeral and graphically slays the assembled mourners with--I don't know--some sort of ghostly death ray or some damn thing. When I came across that wide-ruled opus in later years, I didn't remember writing it, and of course, I was appalled. Good God, I thought, these are the scribblings of a seriously disturbed child.

Then I remembered that this was the year I read Stephen King's Carrie, which launched my horror/ghost story phase which included everything from Wuthering Heights to H.P. Lovecraft . The details of Carrie stayed with me over the years, but the only Lovecraft story I remember involved some guy dismembering his wife and hanging the bloody chunks on a Christmas tree. (At the end, Lovecraft felt the need to bludgeon readers with the final line, "She was decorating the Christmas tree!")

What Lovecraft's friends and neighbors thought of him, I cannot imagine. Probably something along the lines of, "He was a loner. Kept to himself. But we knew there was something not quite right about him."

My neighbors could say the same of me. Most writers' neighbors are probably left scratching their heads. I defy you to show me three books on the NYT bestseller list in which someone is not murdered. In fact, Jodi Picoult's current bestseller, Nineteen Minutes, involves a school shooting. Since when did the imaginary killing of an imaginary character equate to the actual intent or capacity to kill a real person?

Intention is a crucial component in any work of art. Does a writer seek to reveal something about herself or something about the human condition? I catch a lot of flack for the sex in my books (not to mention the email it generates from prison inmates) even though I say till I'm blue in the face that those passages reveal nothing about myself to the reader. My intention is to reveal something about the reader to her/himself, and I would go so far as to assert that a person's reaction to a work of art is as revelatory as the work, if not more so.

Clearly, the writings of the disturbed young man at VT don't qualify as art. They are masturbatory and reveal more than his lack of skill or talent, but judging a person by the actions of a murderous character--or any ghost that momentarily haunts any writer's brain--strikes me as both ignorant and dangerous and does nothing more than offer a palatable distraction from the authentically disturbing social issues that give rise to human tragedy.

Then again, maybe my ire at the media this week is my own way of escaping the scope of tragedy upon tragedy. As the mom of two college dorm dwellers, I gotta tell you, I cried. I threw up. A host of horrors lurk just below the surface when your children are that age, and I momentarily lost my daily struggle to keep those zombies in their cave. While Nancy Grace and Bill O'Reily blather on, presuming to imagine the agony of a mother who receives her kid home from school in a bag, I can't bear to think about it. Haven't had the fortitude to look at CNN since Wednesday.

I was comforted by something I read last night in the Publisher's Blog at Unbridled Books, the first truly reasoned response I've seen to...oh, the whole damn thing.
as the swallow

There is little that should be said today in this circumscribed forum. But I have been thinking this: T. S. Eliot’s line about April is only a depressive’s assertion about baseless hope and the melding of desire with sad memory. It is nothing more than that. It is not a metaphysical observation.

I know which ogre’s birthday comes at the end of this string of days. And I realize that the co-incidence of Oklahoma City, Waco, and Ruby Ridge is not arbitrary. But sequentially adding in these other, campused, horrors, Columbine and Virginia one might begin to wonder what it is in this single week that now invites cruelty, what now so regularly breaks our hearts.

We could use a chosen day at the end of April in which we might take back the spring of blossoming and desire and baseless hope from the rope of people who bring us grief upon grief.

Fred Ramey
posted 04/17/07

Saturday, April 21, 2007

What the Story Knows That the Author Doesn't

"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."—Michelangelo

I'm happy for Michelangelo, but the truth is, I don't see the finished novel before I begin, or even while I'm working. I catch a tantalizing, sideways glimpse out of the corner of my eye here and there, or see a haunting eye gazing out from the marble and pleading to be freed, but I'm invariably surprised by what I find when I have finally chipped away to reveal the figure inside.

It occurs to me that, for all the myriad books, workshops, and speeches I have studied on the craft of writing, there's an element of mystery to the process. Call it art or inspiration, muse or magic -- but at least in my case, the story knows some things that the writer doesn't.

How else can I explain the way the way that intuition prompts me to sprinkle strange, seemingly-unrelated elements throughout the story? When I take the time to think about them, I often end up telling myself, "Well, that has not a darned thing to do with anything, but I'll just prune it later." Ninety-nine out of a hundred times, it ends up being crucial to the story's resolution, an ingredient guessed only by my unconscious mind -- or by the book itself, which seems to have its own agenda.

As much as any other element, these "surprises" keep me going. As I bring the story home (or shepherd its journey, anyway), I'm equal parts terrified it will implode, exhilarated, and delighted as the hidden structure slowly becomes visible. It's a fascinating process, and I feel privileged to play a part in the same age-old mystery Michelangelo and so many others have struggled to describe.

So what about the rest of you? Do you "see" the finished product and simply transcribe the story you've been given? Do you painstakingingly plan out each element or hang out at the keyboard to wait to see what happens? Does your story take you places you never have imagined, or do you drag it kicking and screaming, step by labored step? (Some days, it sure feels like that to me!)

Friday, April 20, 2007

So Not the Drama

YA Author Paula Chase is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with her debut novel, So Not the Drama. I'm going to dish up her PR exactly as I recieved it, because it gives a great glimpse of the book and because it's an excellent example of a perfect dollop of on pub PR:
“I just realized, I’m the Seinfeld of YA lit,” author Paula Chase says. “Taking tiny teen crisis and turning them into an entire book is my ‘thing.’ In her debut, So Not The Drama, Chase takes her Seinfeldian-style and turns a high school sociology project into a catalyst for good old-fashioned, light-hearted teen angst.

So Not The Drama [Kensington Books/Dafina for Young Readers] introduces readers ages 11+ to bright-eyed, optimist Mina Mooney, a high school freshman with nothing more on her mind than climbing the popularity ladder, until a sociology experiment to rid the world – or at least Del Rio Bay High School – of prejudice backfires. The project causes a rift between Mina and her best friend, Lizzie and sends Mina on a journey of exploration that’s both funny and eye-opening.

So Not The Drama is about the transition from middle to high school and the impact it can have on friendship.

Set to burst on the scene with her self-proclaimed Hip Lit, Chase takes readers back to high school where cliques reign supreme and going to class…a place to be seen.

The Buzz on So Not The Drama…
“Contemporary friendship story, which revels in rich diversity of race, color and class.” —Booklist
“Readers will like the genuine dialogue.” —Publishers Weekly
“A multi-layered story…contemporary and thoughtful.” —Little Willow of Bildungsroman
April Girls Life magazine Book Pick
April/May Crave selection, Right On! magazine

About the Author
Author, Paula Chase has written for Girls Life, Sweet 16 and Baltimore Magazine, among others. In addition to her background in corporate communications and public relations, she founded the Committed Black Women, a youth mentoring program for 14-17 year old girls. Her Del Rio Bay Clique series helped launch Kensington Books YA line and joins a burgeoning number of YA books targeted to multi-culti suburbanite teens. Chase calls her brand of teen literature, Hip Lit, a nod to the diversity spawned by the MTV-watching, 106 & Park-ing, pop culture hungry hip hop generation. The author lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters. Learn more about the series and author at

Go, Girlfriend, go!

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I read an interesting story today over on my Yahoo news page regarding the most satisfying jobs. I wasn't surprised to find my husband's job, firefighting (with 80% reporting they are"very satisfied"), near the top of the list, nor was I surprised to see my earlier career, teaching (69% chose "very satisfied"). In spite of both its frustrations and the less-than-stellar pay, my years in the classroom brought me a great deal of joy since every day, I could see the evidence that my hard work had an impact.

What surprised me was that authors were so high up the list, with 74% reporting they are "very satisfied" with their careers. Maybe I was surprised because authors I know gripe a lot about their unpredictable income and their lack of control over so many components of success, from market trends (and publishers who never met a bandwagon they didn't want to collapse beneath their collective weight) to cover art to the replacement of their brilliant, original titles (at least the authors see it that way) with dorkified titles inspired by focus groups clearly composed of Jerry Springer rejects (Pregnant by the Boss, Blood-Dripping Blades of Death, I Married My Mama's Baby-Daddy).

So what brings authors so much joy? Other than the chance to work in their PJs (as I am now) and spend days playing in worlds of their own choosing (and these are pretty cool perks)? I would have to say that for me it's readers, or specifically, that small, but critical percentage of readers who take the time to let us know they have connected with our stories. Every writer I know loves hearing from them, from the briefest e-mails to the longest letters to those devoted souls who make the effort to come to our booksignings to let us know what our books have meant to them. There is something so rewarding about casting one's words out into the void, like bottled notes tossed into a vast ocean, and having a response float back. A reader who laughed at our jokes (which is more than I get from my teenager). Another who was moved to tears. Yet another who lets me know my words carried her through a particularly-rough time of her life. Some speak of our characters as if they are real people -- those same characters we breathed life into through our imaginations and hard work.

In my opinion, the whole point of pursuing publication is the chance of achieving a meaningful connection with other people. Readers like ourselves, whose pleasure in our work validates that way we see the world and keeps an otherwise-lonely profession rooted in humanity.

So what satisfies you most about writing? Which parts keep you pushing past the frustration of rejection and help you keep the dream alive?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"It's a great life if you don't weaken."

I don't know if John Buchan, First Baron of Tweedsmuir (seriously) was speaking of war or publishing when he made that remark. I can only say it definitely applies to publishing.

Buchan is the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps, a book I fondly remember from my youth. It was published in 1915 and made into a movie by Alfred Hitchcock twenty years later. (I vividly remember checking it out from a tiny, underfunded library in Onalaska, Wisconsin, and reading it high up in the branches of the mulberry tree that dominated the front yard of our house.) Apparently, Buchan never weakened. He was a prolific author and did a whole lot of other interesting stuff.

"It's a great life if you don't weaken."

As Colleen continues to spin those plates and I whack away at the banana stalks with my literary machete, we can't afford to wimp out. We believe in the life. And we try to help each other stay strong.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Wobblies

I'm nearing the end of my current work-in-progress, the harrowing part. I'm looking up at all the plates I've set to spinning atop their narrow sticks, only to see that every blooming one of them is wobbling.

There are only two possibilities at this point. Either the entire novel will crash down and shatter beyond all hope of redemption, or I'll run frantically from plate to plate and get each one spinning fast enough to pull off this miraculous trick we call a novel.

Today, I'm trying to remind myself I have an agent who believes that I can do this, an editor who's bet the publisher's money I can do it, and a fan base (however modest) waiting for my success. I remind myself, too, that on twelve previous attempts, I've spotted the wobbling, despaired of ever making a cohesive novel out of imminent disaster, and yet somehow managed to get the book finished and in print.

That ought to count for something, shouldn't it? But the fact is, the fact that I've written previous novels has not tapped me with the magic wand of confidence. Though some books are far tougher than others, they all have wobbly moments -- moments when one wishes she had chosen a steady-paycheck sort of job, such as, say, working the night shift at the local Stop N' Rob.

But I haven't chosen that life. Instead, I've had the unmitigated gall to try to make it as a novelist. So it's time now to suck it up and get back to working on those plates.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

No one belongs here more than you

Last week, Colleen emailed me a link to an incredibly clever web site promoting No One Belongs Here More Than You, a forthcoming book of stories by performance artist Miranda July.

Check it out.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?

Friday the 13th, but I'd have to say I do feel lucky. My heart sank when I visited the collision center yard the other day and saw the mutilated remains of poor Spiffy da Boxcar. But then I noticed the damage ended just a few inches shy of the area where my backside was situated at the time of the accident. I was lucky to walk away with a few bruises and a stiff case of whiplash.

I've had a frustrating first quarter, but I just spent a few minutes answering email from a couple aspiring authors who are struggling to break into print.

"I've been incredibly lucky," I had to admit. "Even though it doesn't feel like it all the time."

I was lucky all those big NY agents rejected me. I was better off starting out at that little one-man operation in Dallas. I was lucky to be rejected by...well, the dozens of publishers who turned down my first novel. I eventually found my way to a tiny press where a wonderful editor took the time to educate and nurture me. I can look back now and see all those rejections as the stepping stones they actually were -- even though every single one felt like a boot to the head.

Yeah, getting rejected is almost as much fun as getting T-boned at an intersection. But as long as you walk away with your ass intact, you're doing all right.

(This awesome Dirty Harry image was made by uziel3 and posted in the Worth 1000 "Where Are My Pants?" gallery.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Support our troops' wives: Staying Home is a Killer

Sara Rosett is out on the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with the second in her Mom Zone mystery series, Staying Home is a Killer. As the wife of an Air Force pilot, Sara writes fiction that rings true, set in the all-too-real world of a homefront family.

So what's this book about?
Diaper bag over her shoulder and adorable toddler wriggling in her arms, Ellie Avery strives to balance motherhood, marriage, and her professional organizing business, Everything in Its Place, but her ordered world is thrown into disarray when a fellow military spouse’s death looks more like murder than suicide. Toss in her husband’s deployment and her daughter’s separation anxiety, and Ellie has to keep the home fires burning as she sort clues from chaos.

Sara describes her circuitous journey to the bookshelf:
"I loved going to the library with my mom when I was a kid. We'd go almost every Saturday and I still remember walking to the children's mystery section and thinking, "Please let there be a Nancy Drew I haven't read." ...Once I transitioned to the adult section in the library, I couldn't quite find my niche. It certainly wasn't romance. I knew I'd never be able to write steamy love scenes and suspense didn't quite fit me either.

Hopscotching around the country...from one Air Force base to another, I'd hit the base library and local libraries, always searching for a good book. I discovered a new type of fiction was emerging, mysteries with female protagonists who lived in America and did everything from kick-butt PI work to catering. This was a type of fiction I could write...I'd found my niche."

Go, Sara!

"Life on this planet was a crock." Go with God, Vonnegut

In the New York Times this morning:
Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comic talent and urgent moral vision in novels like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Cat’s Cradle” and “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” caught the temper of his times and the imagination of a generation, died last night in Manhattan. He was 84 and had homes in Manhattan and in Sagaponack on Long Island.

I won't bother adding platitudes or praises to the funeral pire. It's probably like Vonnegut said about the passing of fellow curmudgeon Mark Twain:
He finally stopped laughing at his own agony and that of those around him. He denounced life on this planet as a crock. He died.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The First Audience

The book I'm currently writing is a scary thing. Which is good, because as a suspense (even a romantic suspense), it's meant to be. As I was tweaking one particular scene yesterday, I felt the fine hairs rise along the back of my neck. My pulse picked up, and - yes, ladies and gentlemen - I had seriously freaked myself out. Which is kind of strange, since I've written the synopsis. I know how everything turns out, whodunnit (although I'm kind of murky on the secondaries), the whole nine yards.

My husband, who is not a writer, simply shakes his head, as he does when I laugh at something my characters say or can't stop in the middle of an exciting scene while proofing my own galleys. Simply put, he doesn't understand that every writer is his/her own, crucial first audience.

If your own story doesn't make you laugh or cry in the right places, make your pulse race or your palms sweat, turn you on or make you furious, how can you expect it to do any of those things for the larger audience it (with luck and skill) will reach? Writers fail, in my opinion, when they're no longer entertained by their own work, when they're simply going through the motions to earn an advance or meet a deadline.

So as you set to work today, I hope you'll ask yourself some crucial questions. When I reread a section, have I engaged my own emotions? If I hadn't written this book, would I plunk down $6.99 (or more) to read it ? And most importantly, when was the last time I thoroughly entertained myself?

I don't know about you, but that's why I started writing fiction in the first place.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Happy Anne Lamott's birthday!

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little."

Gotta love Anne Lamott, the writing guru who gave us the Bird By Bird guide to life. Single mom. Christian Lefty. Staunch defender of our right to produce "a really shitty first draft". Beyond Lamott's rock solid advice on the nuts and bolts of writing is her ever-philosophical view of fame, fortune, and the vagaries of the publishing industry.
"Seeing yourself in print is such an amazing concept: you can get so much attention without having to actually show up somewhere . . .You don't have to dress up, for instance, and you can't hear them boo you right away."

Monday, April 09, 2007

Thoughts on Characterization

One of the weaknesses I often notice when judging unpublished manuscripts in blind contests has to do with characterization. Or lack of characterization, I should say. Dialogue in particular should not be interchangeable. Each character, even the most minor, should have his or her own voice.

As I'm working on my latest novel, I've noticed a need to go back and work on a pair of brothers I've developed. The trouble? I haven't differentiated these two minor but recurring characters from each other.

Doesn't work for me. After all, how many times have I heard friends with multiple kiddos (I have only one) exclaim, "I can't believe those two came from the same raw ingredients!" How many times have I seen, when I taught middle schoolers, siblings who couldn't be more different? Even when I've owned dogs with similar stats (same breed, gender, age), their personalities have been remarkably different.

We owe each of our characters no less uniqueness. Let the mantra for the day be: "No character is secondary in his/her own story, and no mother ever raised her kid to be a redshirt."

So I'm off to do some editing... and build a little character.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Thoughts on a rainy Easter morning

Easter is a big deal in my latest novel. There's a character named Easter; a little girl who's killed by a drunk driver -- her aunt, actually. Someone with the best of intentions, but very bad judgment. The title of the book, The Secret Sisters, refers to the women who went to Jesus’ tomb on the third morning after the crucifixion and found the tomb empty.

"Why do you seek the living among the dead?" angels asked them. "He is not here. He is risen."

Two thousand years after the angels posed that question to the Secret Sisters, I’m wondering the same thing. And I wanted to ask that question with this book. Are we looking for God in all the wrong places?

Too many people of all religions -- many with the best of intentions but very bad judgment -- seek God among dead teachings that spout God's name, but were designed by men to divide and control.

God is not there.

He is among the living. The loving. The open-minded. The practitioners of daily loving-kindness. He rises up with the peace-makers and the forgivers and the healers.

I know that my redeemer lives. As surely as I know the sun has already risen on the flipside of the cold, rainy skies this morning. It fills me with enormous hope.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Valerie Frankel: mother daughter Easter basket book blitz

The prolific Valerie Frankel is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with not one but two books this week.

Fringe Girl in Love, for the YA audience, is a sequel to Frankel's well-buzzed and widely loved (duh!) Fringe Girl. I Take This Man is about "a bride, a groom, her mother, and his father. Sex, kidnapping, wedding cake and a cabana with a towel warmer. Who could ask for anything more?"

Val is a Brooklyn mommy who writes around two daughters and appears to be handling the balancing act with panache. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries, says, “Valerie Frankel cracks me up! Kooky, sexy, and downright hilarious.” You've seen her stuff in O, Glamour, Allure, Self, and Parenting as well as the New York Times Style section. She's written thirteen novels thus far, including The Accidental Virgin which has been optioned to become a movie starring Heather Graham, Smart Vs. Pretty, optioned to be made into TV show, and The Girlfriend Curse, nominated for a Quills award.

Go, Val, go!

Friday, April 06, 2007

Dance Salad and our never ending quest for 'get it'

Great Pearls Before Swine today.

The sound of one hand clapping. The tree that falls in the forest when there's no one around to hear it. The joke that gets told in the dark.

But Pearls made a ripple in my pondering pool of existentialism today by pointing out that it's all about perspective. Within the frames -- work, family, school, PTO, church -- rules and definitions are accepted as inflexible. Context is harder to break out of than Attica, and you've gotta be friggin' Papillon to escape from the genre-specific pigeon holes the publishing industry wants to stuff every author into.

Last night Jerusha and I went to the Houston International Dance Coalition's Dance Salad Festival, an incredibly entertaining evening of innovative dance companies from around the world. (If there's any way you can make it down to the Wortham Center tonight or tomorrow, I absolutely recommend it.)

The fantastically athletic, ass-over-teakettle exuberant Italian Compagnia Aterballetto was the kind of art that nobody could possibly resist or deny. But then there was the Korean Kim Eun Hee Dance Company. There was a lot of uncomfortable whispering and shuffling from the audience during the long spells of agonizingly slow choreography and lengthy periods of silence. The consensus in the ladies room line during intermission was a great big "huh?".

The piece was called "Burying Together" and instead of offering some kind of storyline or explanation, the program said:
To lean in a diagonal line
In the water that barely stops running
A sacred tree
That did not put down roots
Traces the memory of land.
It's long neck
Fails to raise the darkness
And falls to the water in a curve.
The circumference of time
Turns on its side
Spouting out the warm breath.

"I don't get it," said one patron. "What were they trying to say with all that dragging on and on?"

And I thought, gee, maybe they were trying to say 'and then things dragged on and on'. Or maybe they were trying to drag something out of the audience that some audience members simply weren't trained to give. Personally, I loved it. I was sad that there was so little patience for something quiet and unfolding and contemplative, and I frankly wanted to search out one particular jackass after the performance and bludgeon him with his stupid cell phone.

The greatest frustration any writer faces is when readers (including editors, agents, and -- snarg! -- reviewers) just can't connect the dots of what we're trying to do. "I don't get it" quickly translates to "I don't like it" which instantly morphs into "you suck!" We can hone our language skills to the nth degree, but it's impossible for us to anticipate or change the filter of experience, prejudices, conditioning, and taste buds that every individual reader will bring to our words. All we can do is stay true to ourselves and keep on delivering those punchlines into the darkness, believing that someone outside the box, beyond the frames -- someone we might not have the perspective to see -- gets it.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Writer as Artiste

Having been an English literary graduate, I've been trying to avoid the idea of doing art ever since. I think the idea of art kills creativity. I think media are at their most interesting before anybody's thought of calling them art, when people still think they're just a load of junk.
Douglas Adams (1952 - 2001)
The ambition to create art can be fatal to a writer (and I suspect the same is true of painters, dancers, and high-rise window washers.) It's something like the watched pot that never boils, or those irritating hidden pictures that only become visible when you allow your gaze to slacken.

Instead of worrying about what your critics are going to say or - heaven forbid - how you're Wikipedia entry will appear when you're erroneously presumed dead, try instead getting out of the story's way and simply transcribing the experience. Only later can you or anyone else hope to judge what's landed on the page.

With any luck, it might just be commercial, and as for the question of whether it is art, that's not only out of your control, it's probably none of your business.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

My mom's book on Fort Peck Dam boom towns

The cover of the very first issue of Life Magazine features a famous Margaret Bourke-White photo of the Fort Peck Dam. Inside the issue are more photos and a story about the people working on the dam. It's an important piece of American history. Unfortunately, Bourke-White got a lot of it wrong. I've known this all my life, because my grandfather worked on the dam, and I doubt there's anyone who knows more about its history than my mother, Lois Lonnquist, who as a little girl watched the dam rise up out of the hard Montana landscape.

Shortly after she retired from her editorial position at our hometown newspaper (the Helena, Montana Independent Record) Mom began working on a book about the real folks who built that amazing chunk of American history. I think at times, she felt like this book was almost as much work to build as a giant cement wall, but Fifty Cents an Hour: the Builders and Boomtowns of the Fort Peck Dam is finally out there.

Here's a bit from her web site:
One of the most fascinating chapters in Montana history is the building of the Fort Peck Dam across the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. The story of the people who built it, is another.

Project Number 30, the Fort Peck Dam, was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and built by the Army Corps of Engineers. It provided much needed jobs, and hope for thousands of unemployed Montana workers, and others across the country. It left a legacy of flood control, electric power, and recreation on the Fort Peck Lake enjoyed by thousands today.

My family's four year involvement with "the dam" project led me to write a book: Fifty Cents An Hour: The Builders and Boomtowns of the Fort Peck Dam.

Go, Mom! She's a better writer than I'll ever be, and her tenacity in completing this meticulously researched project blew my doors off.

Check it out.

Monday, April 02, 2007

For All of You Kvetching that You're Too Old to Make It

Take a few minutes to read about debut memoirist Harry Bernstein, 96.
The Invisible Wall, his story of the Christian-Jewish divide in Manchester, England, sounds even more fascinating than that of his unlikely success as a writer. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Here's hoping the rest of us won't have to wait quite so long to make that kind of splash. :)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Siren Call of Hysterical Self-Promotion

I sold my first novel back in 1998 (though this historical romance came out in May of '99), and at the time, I was eager -- make that obsessed -- with doing everything within my power to make certain it succeeded. Part of this was due to the fact that I had some time on my hands. Though I was working what would become my second book, the long lead times and the infusion of energy from *finally* getting The Call, along with my introduction to a fresh-faced and equally manic number of other young writers, combined to convince me that self-promotion was the key.

I pulled out all the stops and threw myself into a phase I've come to call "Hysterical Self-Promotion." I built my own website, spoke every place that would have me, lined up signings out the wazoo, penned articles, dredged up enough cash to place an ad in Romantic Times, and forced myself (not easy, since I'd mostly been in the closet about writing) to tell as many people as I could about my impending *authordom*.

I hope this fervor was regarded with the fond smiles of forbearance one would reserve for a large and overly-enthusiastic puppy. That's the way I look at it when I see other new authors succumbing to the same siren song. And to be fair, all this gushing excitement is WAY more attractive than those cynical and jaded hacks who rain all over everyone's parade with their torrents of bitter disappointment. (Note to self: Quit the business before crushing hopes and dreams of starry-eyed newcomers.)

A dozen sales later, I still do some self-promotion. In the competitive world of writing single-title, mass market paperback romantic suspense, I feel the pressure to do something to help get my name out to both readers and others working in the industry. Such activities have their place, but that place, IMHO, needs to be the back seat to the continued production of damned good stories.

Over time, I've developed a few rules to help guide my efforts:

Never again will I blow my entire advance (and then some, in one particularly dim-witted case) on more self-promo than I can afford. These days I set a strict budget, which amounts to no more than 10% of my advance. Less, when I feel I can get away with it.

Never again will I do stuff I sincerely hate doing. (Namely, in my case, aggressively "pushing" my books on the profoundly-disinterested. I'd never make a decent living in used car sales either.) If you're so shy, you stink at booksignings, don't do them. The results will be painful for everyone involved. If you despise public speaking, you probably won't be good at it. (As a former teacher, I love teaching, so I don't mind at all speaking to groups of writers. But even so, I have to honestly ask myself what's in it for me each time I'm invited.)

Never again will I dis-count my own time as part of the cost factor. This is the one that still gives me the most trouble. I frequently forget that my time on this planet is not an endlessly-refilling well. Time spent on self-promotion activities takes time from my writing (which had better be a priority), my family (which really is a priority), my other obligations (my next life needs to come with a staff), and my chance for rest and relaxation. If I cut short any one of these at the expense of self-promotion, my quality of life -- as well as my work -- suffers.

So how much self-promotion is too much? Are you finding yourself feeling pressured to spend hours "friending" folks on MySpace or spend your hard-earned earnings on schemes of questionable value? Where do you draw the line on the pressure to package not only your work but yourself for the consumer? And do you ever long -- as Dean Koontz's wonderful character Odd Thomas puts it -- for a simple life selling tires to folks who need them?


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