Thursday, May 31, 2007

Speaking of survivorship

All over the country this weekend, there will be National Cancer Survivors Day events. I'm off to Indianapolis for the The Wellness Community of Central Indiana's 3rd annual Survivorship Symposium, a free educational symposium for people with cancer, their loved ones, and health care professionals. Tomorrow morning, I'll open the symposium by doing the most powerful thing you can do after you've had cancer: live to tell about it.

By the Wellness Community's definition, the term "cancer survivors" refers to those people who have been diagnosed with cancer and the people in their lives who are affected by the diagnosis, including family members, friends, and caregivers. Every one of them has a unique perspective on an amazing journey of pain and discovery, and I look forward to hearing their stories.

Speaking tomorrow afternoon at the Indie conference is the ridiculously talented and hilarious Scott Burton, world champion juggler and author of A Life in the Balance, a refreshingly honest, funny and inspirational book on surviving cancer. (Check him out!)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Darwin Was Here: Rollin' with the Evolutionary Flow

My sister and I were recently discussing evolution. Not the Scopes trial monkey-t0-man type, but the kind that comes flying at you so fast, you sit there gaping like a fool instead of stepping neatly out of the way.

Point in fact: Conditions change, in relationships, the marketplace, careers.
Point in fact: You adapt or you die... or stagger zombie-like through what's left of your life, muttering crap about the publishing world's (or whatever's) unfairness and how you won't pander to whatever raging stupidity is currently in vogue.

If publishers want to stay in business, they have to make concessions to reality. If authors want to continue publishing, they have to do the same. This doesn't mean you're selling out, not if you can find some way to do so that's in line with your core values and your central vision for your work. The commercial authors I know who have been publishing for twenty or thirty years or more have all transformed themselves at some point or another. Those who refused became irrelevant and slipped into obscurity.

In terms of biology, change equals stress. But failure to change? That equals extinction.

You decide.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Colleen ist eine Berliner

I'm going to bug my BtO cohort Colleen Thompson to post a collection of her cool foreign covers. This one is for the German version of Fatal Error being released by Bertelsmann (the streuseler arm of Random House) in December.


Bloodstone author Nate Kenyan is working hard to spread the word about upcoming ThrillerFest and the CraftFest writers conference and asked BtO to pass this along:

ThrillerFest is the most exciting event of the year for fiction's most popular genre. Over 150 of beloved and best selling authors will be in New York City to mix and mingle with fans during this unprecedented four-day celebration. Attending writers will include Clive Cussler, James Patterson, Jeffery Deaver, Heather Graham, Vince Flynn, Lisa Gardner, Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Tess Gerritsen, David Morrell, Jim Fusilli, John Lescroart, M. Diane Vogt, M.J. Rose, Steve Berry, Doug Preston, Joe Finder, David Hewson, Jim Rollins, Michael Palmer, Christine Kling, D.P. Lyle, Christine Goff, Robert S. Levinson, Jon Land, Shirley Kennett and many more.

CraftFest, a day of intensive, interactive presentations the day before ThrillerFest opens, is for writers at every level. They'll learn from the best, a truly awesome group of thriller professionals assembled for one day to teach and inspire!

Registration for ThrillerFest is open to everyone, with three separately-priced events packages: CraftFest on Thursday, July 12; the ThrillerFest Conference from Thursday, July 12 - Sunday, July 15; and the Thriller Awards Banquet at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 14. Day passes are available.

Check it out.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A moment in the life of a working class hero

My husband is a working class hero. A jet plane mechanic who goes unquestioningly to work every night, because working is what you do for your family. And because you respect yourself. I love that about him. But this morning, he dazzled me with a burst of Sparticus that left me thinking about what a hero is and what makes the common man delicious to know. And to love. And to read about.

I tend to bogart the back corner table at Starbucks, where there’s a steady supply of caffeine for me and electricity for the laptop. Gary gets off his night shift at the airport at 8 AM and joins me there, reading the paper, doing the daily Sodoku and crossword puzzle. Sometimes we sit and chat. Sometimes we just sit. He’d just settled in across from me with his coffee when I glanced up and noticed a tall, skinny kid walking briskly out the door. With the tip jar.

Without a second thought, Gary bolted after him, chased him out into the parking lot where his friend was waiting in a bright red sports car. The kid dove into the passenger seat. Bellowing like a centurion, Gary seized hold of the door and held on as the driver jerked the wheel to the side, butting Gary with the front bumper as they blazed out of the parking lot. Unhurt and buzzing with adrenaline, Gary hurried back in and called the police, while I sat there, stunned, seeing with a writers cursedly vivid imagination how this encounter could have very easily gone horribly awry.

What could he have been thinking? A fifty-five year old man chasing after a twenty-year-old punk for a lousy—what could it have been this early in the morning? Sixty bucks? Clearly, he didn’t think. He just acted on autopilot. It was one of those crystallized moments that tells you: This is who you are.

The dude who took the tip jar had obviously given it some thought. As had his friend who was waiting in the parking lot. The writer in me again rears her ugly head, insatiably curious about their backstory. What brought them to this moment, this choice? Being a sappy “everybody is somebody’s baby” type, I actually felt a stab of sympathy for them. Gary is 6’3” and then some, weighs 300 pounds (and then some) and shaves his head. At first glance he looks like the love child of Annie Lenox and Andre the Giant. When he seized hold of that car door, both those scrawny young guys looked scared shitless. In their autopilot moment, they swung that car in a Y-turn and took off, not knowing or caring what they might have done to the human being they left behind. And in his give it some thought moment, Gary got their license number instead of taking after them in his truck.

It’s well and good to be able to do the right thing on further consideration, but a man is who he is in those perfectly crystalized, unconsidered, virgin moments. A coward or a hero. A fool or a scoundrel. Those are the moments in story when the essence of character is revealed.

The redemption – or regret -- comes after.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Oooh, Girl Germs!

Yesterday, as I was discussing possible avenues for promoting an upcoming book with fellow BtO member, Joni Rodgers, I kept alluding to closed doors -- mainly, the bias against "chick books" in general and mass market romantic fiction in particular that makes its authors less than popular among hosts of radio and TV morning shows. Ironically, a large percentage of TV morning shows have an overwhelming female, often romance friendly audience, but even so, those who choose guests react as if they're going to get girl cooties or have their shiny-new college degrees confiscated if they allow a romance author to grace their set.

The bias runs deep, and, oddly, women tend to be worse about it than men. Book club members would far rather pay up to to thirty dollars a copy for a hardcover or up to fifteen for a trade paperback than the seven or eight dollars a pop of a mass market paperback. And if they had to buy it in the romance section of the bookstore... well, fahgeddaboutit.

Yet over the past couple of years, since I starting writing romantic thrillers with a heavy mystery/suspense element and (even more importantly) no face-sucking clinch covers, I've been invited to a number of local book clubs -- the first romance author they either asked or read (in many cases). Many of these ladies -- whom I found absolutley delightful -- expressed astonishment that the book was so well-written and enjoyable. Still, most hastened to assure me they'd be returning to something more serious the next month.

I have no problem with that. I'm an ecletic reader, whose bookcases hold a variety of non-fiction (lots of history), memoirs (The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wells is a recent favorite), and novels ranging from action-adventure/science fiction to romance to mystery/suspense to seriously literary. Depending on my mood, I my want something fast and fun or deep and thoughtful. I think a lot of people feel the same.

There are good books and bad books (by that, I mean poorly written or just plain stupid) in every single category, but I don't believe their are "good" and "bad" genres. I think this snobbism toward books written by women (mainly) and about women for women is ridiculous, and I especially think that the blanket rejection of the feminine perspective (where else but in romance does the woman always win?) by people who probably believe themselves to be feminists is flat-out wrong. Every time I hear it, I think of second grade boys wailing and cringing about "girl germs" on the playground.

Well, my cooties can beat up your cooties. And I make no apologies for that. :)

In memory of R. H. Rodgers

This description of a sailor's guileless spirit comes from Billy Budd by Herman Melville and reminds me of my father-in-law, who served in the navy during WWII.
Habitually living with the elements and knowing little more of the land than as a beach, or rather, that portion . . . set apart for dance-houses, doxies, and tapsters, in short what sailors call a “fiddler’s green,” his simple nature remained unsophisticated by those moral obliquities which are not in every case incompatible with that manufacturable thing known as respectability. But are sailors, frequenters of fiddlers’ greens, without vices? No; but less often than with landsmen do their vices, so called, partake of crookedness of heart, seeming less to proceed from viciousness than exuberance of vitality after long constraint; frank manifestations in accordance with natural law. By his original constitution aided by the co-operating influences of his lot, Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company.

Friday, May 25, 2007

In Memory of the Poet Jon Lokowich

Thy gift, thy tables, are within my brain
Full character’d with lasting memory,
Which shall above that idle rank remain,
Beyond all date, even to eternity:
Or, at the least, so long as brain and heart
Have faculty by nature to subsist;
Till each to raz’d oblivion yield his part
Of thee, thy record never can be miss’d.
That poor retention could not so much hold,
Nor need I tallies thy dear love to score;
Therefore to give them from me was I bold,
To trust those tables that receive thee more:
To keep an adjunct to remember thee
Were to import forgetfulness in me.

Sonnet CXXII
William Shakespeare
in memory of Jon Lokowich who served in Vietnam

Thursday, May 24, 2007

"No sex, please, we're morons."

I think it’s the moral duty of studious readers and of karma-conscious authors to combat the legion of poptarded skimmers posting “book reviews” (which are in fact just opinions, the source of which we have no way to consider) on Amazon,, and other bookselling sites. So I hopped on Amazon yesterday to post this comment on Michael Gruber’s The Book of Air and Shadows:
My husband (a Grisham-Clancy-Elmore Leonard type) and I (a Dante-Hesse-Didion-head) wrestled this book back and forth between our nightstands unmarking each other's places until I went and bought a second copy. That's how engrossing, broadly appealing, and wonderfully well-written it is. I laughed out loud, marveled at a few Proulx-caliber metaphors, and was entirely sucked into the intricately woven story. My dad (Zane Grey-Crichton-AARP Magazine) will be getting a copy for Father's Day.
And I meant every word, though I will say up front that Gruber and I have an editor in common. (I don't know him personally.) Glancing over the other comments, I was stunned to see several utterly unwarranted complaints that the book is oversexed, including this one:
I'm no prude, but reading this book was like watching a good movie that is spoiled by gratuitous sex scenes. One look at the author's picture tells you that our portly writer is projecting his aging sexual fantasies onto his rotund, sex-machine heroes. If characters want to "get it on," please spare me the gory details.
Without even addressing the grossly inappropriate personal attack on the author or debating the meaning of the words ‘gratuitous’ and ‘prude’, I would like to take this moment to request that this person and any other “reviewer” who thinks there’s too much sex in any given book a) close the book and b) shut up.

As you may have detected, this is a pet peeve. I ground my teeth to stumps when I saw this 2-star screed dragging down the Amazon rating on my novel The Secret Sisters:
…I must say, however, that I did not expect the level of "humidity" (i.e., sexual content) that would be found in some of the "tales." I, like Pia, found myself "leaning in closer to hear" and yet not able to imagine why I "wanted to hear them." (Those lines were GREAT writing by the author, by the way!)…I would have appreciated knowing ahead of time that there were some sexual tones in the content.
The rest of the comment is very complimentary, but -- two stars. The dirty bits just ruined it. And apparently, the cover blurb saying "Joni Rodgers can write sex scenes that curl your hair and straighten your toes" (or something to that effect) wasn't enough of a clue that I am not tortured about that topic and treat it with no more reservation than I treat baseball or sleep or pumpkin pie or anything else that enters into human experience. I'm frankly confounded when a reader comes away from a 380 page book remembering nothing but the 3% (if that) that had to do with sex, I can honestly say to that reader, "It's not me, dear. It's you."

There's no such thing as a "sex scene" in good, well-layered fiction. It doesn’t matter if two character are having sex, making coffee, driving to Dallas, or weaving baskets -- something else should always be happening. Character development, a furthering of the plot, some clue to an interpersonal mystery. Sometimes a scene misses the mark and that underlying element isn’t as clear as it could be, but we never hear complaints about gratuitous basket-weaving scenes. The “too much sex” complaint comes from a very specific type of vociferous reader and strikes my ear on exactly the same note as the “too many big words” complaint.

A book is what its author has decided it should be, based on thousands of invested hours. A reader is entitled to an opinion, based on the dozen or so hours he/she has invested in the book, but that means saying, “I didn’t like it” or if they want to be mean, “It made me want to puke” or if they want to be honest, “I didn’t get it.” If they prefer books that have more or less or bigger or smaller of something, I wish them the best of luck on their quest for literature that features whatever commodities in whatever quantities suits their taste, and I promise to never ever show up at their jobs and say, “Hey, you used too much mortar, Mr. Bricklayer” or “I’m no prude, but I would appreciate a warning if you’re going to be tossing around all those numbers, Ms. Certified Public Accountant.”

Yes, there are bigger and more important challenges going on in this business, but I think this one is worth a little rant. Or maybe I just need to get laid.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Coupon Girl: Becky Motew's debut

Becky Motew is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with her debut novel, Coupon Girl, a tale of love, longing, community theatre, and -- yes, coupons. Cruising Becky's website is a delight, and book buzz is healthy with raves from Library Journal:
The book's focus remains firmly on Jeanie, whose wry sense of humor and good-heartedness make her the kind of gal you'd want as a friend. Jeanie is not perfect, and she makes mistakes along the way-especially in the romance department-but she's a lot of fun...this book is strongly recommended for all fiction collections.

And Booklist:
Welcome to the not so glamorous but often hilarious worlds of mail-order marketing and community theater...Motew writes about every day life: work, family, relationships...there's plenty to love about this quirky novel.

Go, girlfriend, go!

Monday, May 21, 2007

Say It Isn't So - Miss Snark Retires Blog

Anonymous agent "Miss Snark" has been a blog staple for years. Her acerbic commentary, helpful advice, and devotion to gin and George Clooney (full disclosure: I share one of those loves; can you guess which one?) have garnered her legions of fans and over two million hits.

But alas, Miss Snark is retiring her blog and leaving us the captains of our own nitwittery. (Anybody have a crap-o-meter I can borrow?) She'll remain an agent (anonymous as ever), and Killer Yap will continue to keep an eye on her.

The blogosphere won't be the same without you, Miss Snark. You'll be missed!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

A lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right.

Driving home from Destin yesterday, my daughter and I listened to an unabridged recording of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 from Blackstone Audio. I'd forgotten what a powerfully well-written, inspiring, and uplifting book it is. Or maybe I never knew. Certainly what it means to me now, as a writer at this moment in time is a far cry from what it meant to me as a high school bookworm.
Montag looked at the river. We’ll go on the river. He looked at the old railroad tracks. Or we’ll go that way. Or we’ll walk on the highways now, and we’ll have time to put things into ourselves. And some day, after it sets in us a long time, it’ll come out of our hands and our mouths. And a lot of it will be wrong, but just enough of it will be right. We’ll just start walking today and see the world and the way the world walks around and talks, the way it really looks. I want to see everything now. And while none of it will be me when it goes in, after a while it’ll all gather together inside and it’ll be me.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Joy of a Great Cover

Here in writing land, it's been a rather harrowing week, but not without its blessings.

Chief among them is the fact that I'll about ready to send in the manuscript of THE SALT MAIDEN (Love Spell, Dec. 2007), a book I've loved working on. Also, I received via e-mail both the lovely (and decidedly creepy) cover art and the back cover copy, which once again proves that my editor has a real genius for encapsulating a story in a manner sure to entice readers.

The cover art can make or break a book. Along with the title, it often what compels a reader to pick up your novel from among its competitors, but the back cover (or cover flap) book description, in my opinion, is what really seals the deal. Most people don't realize it, but very few authors control their own cover art or write their cover copy (since it's a highly-specialized form, more like advertising copy than writing a novel). Titles, too, are often changed, and other than squawk and suggest alternatives, there's not much most authors (unless you're, say, J.K. Rowling) can do about it. So getting to keep my own title, getting pretty much exactly (only better) what I suggested for the cover, and ending up with copy I love is like hitting the Trifecta. It's a victory that keeps me rolling past the speed bumps this job has to offer.

In case you're curious, here's that copy:


Deep beneath the desert lies a woman’s body, mummified by salt, abandoned by those who ought to seek her. With her rests a secret that someone will kill to keep buried.

Devil’s Claw

It’s a barren wasteland, the dead center of nowhere, and the last place Dana Vanover wants to be. But it’s also the last known address of her missing sister. Determined to locate Angie, Dana won’t be deterred by suspicious rednecks, snakebite, or even the grim prognosis of Sheriff Jay Eversole: no woman could survive more than a week alone in the burning heat of Rimrock County . But the endless sands aren’t the only thing hotter than the chili served up in the Broken Spur cafĂ©. Despite small-town dirty politics, a deadly car chase and a dangerous paternity search, Dana and Jay can’t keep their hands off each other. In the least populated area of the country they’ve managed to find love. Now all they have to do is stay alive long enough to uncover…

The Salt Maiden

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Graffiti Girl was here

YA novelist Kelly Parra is touring the girlfriend cyber circuit this week with her debut novel, Graffiti Girl, published by MTV Books. Yes, MTV, as in I want my. An imprint of Simon and Schuster, MTV Books "captures the real-life stories of today's hottest artists, goes behind-the-scenes of hit shows, and brings you fresh & entertaining fiction." (Strange bedfellows at first glance, but I'm in favor of anything that promotes leisure reading by tweens and teens.)

But I digress.

Kelly's enthusiasm about her newborn book and blossoming career are infectious. (As you can see in the better-than-Christmas-morning moment below.) In a heartfelt pub day post on her blog, the Mexican, Filipino, and Italian kid who was "a total art feign" in high school, says:
Today is the official release day of Graffiti Girl...I can honestly say that I am a published author. You see, guys? It can happen. A couple of years ago, when the rejections kept hitting me, I thought it might just be a dream...To get published takes a lot of heart, stubbornness, and imagination. The heart is to believe in your talent and your book. You have to have heart to write characters you care about. The stubbornness because you hit a lot of stop signs on your journey and you have to keep going even though you keep hearing NO. And the imagination part is for writing stories and actually seeing yourself in your mind as a published author. And once you sell, you still need all those aspects to keep selling and competing in this market. Now after about 2 years of interviewing authors in my Words of an Author column I finally get to participate myself.
Graffiti Girl is getting great buzz. "This book blew me away," says Anne Frasier, bestselling author of Pale Immortal. "Kelly Parra writes with the keen eye of an artist. Graffiti Girl is warm, gutsy, and true-to-life--an unflinching, honest portrayal of young adults. A seamless and impressive debut." And I'm guessing the story of the gusty young artist who doesn't want to be another brick in the wall isn't far removed from Kelly's own adventures in art and life. Sounds like a great beach read for the MTV set.

Go, girlfriend, go!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Choose Your Own Mentor

I've given a lot of thought this week to examples. Some working authors in this industry provide an unfailing example of how to act. Others, unfortunately, serve as a terrible warning.

I'll never forget those generous, gracious authors (and more experienced, unpublished souls) who gave me a hand up. These men and women clearly remembered what it was like to step into a world with mysterious and highly-specialized rules of conduct and confusing jargon. They took the time to teach, to explain, and to gently offer advice. Often, they put such advice into the context of funny (but wince-worthy) How I Screwed Up Bigtime stories. I learned more about the business just chatting with these folks than I ever did in years of reading how-to books or blindly writing on my own. Some (as they were able) even gave me cover quotes when I timidly asked, and none ever condescended (at least publicly) to "newbies". As a result, I became their loyal readers and never missed the opportunity to talk them up. They also became role models of how to behave as a professional.

Unfortunately, not everyone has proved to be so pleasant. A tiny but memorable minority of authors loudly bad-mouth the people and companies with whom they work, or fellow writers. They're dismissive of those with fewer accolades or shorter track records. They embrace their inner diva in a big way, or make jaded and cynical remarks reflecting their disillusionment. In doing so, they poison the well of hope where all "younger" (I'm referring to experience rather than age here) writers drink. When I run across these folks, I don't forget them either. And I have to say, their bad behavior prevents me from checking out their books.

As you deal with other writers in the coming weeks, take a moment to ask yourself, am I behaving as a great example... or a highlight from the annals of What Not to Do?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Fabulous flops and flopulous fabs of the publishing biz

"People think publishing is a business," Curtis Sittenfeld was told by her editor, "but it’s a casino.”

Interesting story in the NY Times yesterday about the unpredictable "anything can and does happen" nature of the beast.
Sales in the trade segment (which includes both fiction and nonfiction) grew 5 percent in 2005 from the previous year, but year-over-year sales growth is expected to decline to less than 2 percent by 2010, according to book industry trade group data. The industry does follow trends to pursue growth, but when it comes to acquisitions, methods have not changed much in hundreds of years, says Al Greco, a professor of marketing at Fordham University.

"It’S the way this business has run since 1640,” he says. That is when 1,700 copies of the Bay Psalm Book were published in the colonies. “It was a gamble, and they guessed right because it sold out of the print run. And ever since then, it has been a crap shoot,” Professor Greco said.

There is a “business model” that supports this risk-taking. As Mr. Strachan puts it, “Lightning does strike.”
Sittenfeld herself is a prime example. Her agent managed to squeeze out a $40K advance for her first novel, Prep, which went on to become a surprise hit. So her next book deal -- natch -- was a dandy six figures. The book unfortunately sold a comparatively poo poo 36,000 copies, and where Sittenfeld goes from here is anybody's guess.

The article also invokes Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier's latest "flop", Thirteen Moons, which sold a couple hundred thousand copies, but fell far short of earning out its $8 million advance. (Please, Lord Jesus, let my book sales be as floppy as that!)

This aspect of "boxing the octopus" used to make me nuts. How are we supposed to react, use this info for marketing, or take it as any kind of clue to this industry that has no rhyme or rhythm? But after a decade or so, I stopped trying to make sense of stories like this. The Tao te Ching says, "Do your work, then step back." And I do my best to follow that advice, because really, the only lesson we can extrapolate from a story like this is the importance of writing what you love.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You have to get what you need from the writing of the book. Everything else is a crap shoot.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Like a mother

Marguerite Duras: "For that's what a woman, a mother wants – to teach her children to take an interest in life."
Had to take a moment today for a little shout out to my mom -- author, editor, librarian, historian, photographer, pilot, musician, songwriter, Easter dress maker extraordinaire, Lois Lonnquist.

My childhood memories are largely soundtracked by the astonishingly fast keystrokes of my mother's bulky electric typewriter. (Ratatatttatattattatat DING!) The boxy camera on a leather strap. The smell of the darkroom chemicals. The loop-dee-loops her flight instructor hoped would prove she didn't have The Right Stuff (which of course, she did.) The bank of guitars and mandolins hanging on the wall. Summer days at the library and shelves and shelves of books at our house.

Mom instilled in me and my five sibs an enormous love of words, language, art, and life. How was I supposed to turn out to be anything but a writer?

Thanks, Mom!

Today I'd like to publicly thank my mom for the things she did that helped set me on the path to becoming a writer.

My parents, in a lot of ways, were a recipe for disaster. Married in their teens, when my mother was still in high school, they lived first with my mom's parents until Dad's job at the glass plant allowed them to move into an apartment with walls so thin, the toilet paper fluttered each time the wind blew. Higher education was out of the question. Mom was still nineteen when I was born, and two more kiddos followed in short order. Money was tight for years, but somehow they stuck it out. Dad worked a lot of double shifts (swing shifts, too, which are hell on your body and on family life) to get us into a house. Mom worked when she could (not easy with three small children), and in spite of the challenges of their early years, the two of them are still together. Pretty amazing.

As parents, they made their share of mistakes (who doesn't?), but they did a lot of things right. My mom in particular, since my dad was so often away at work, had a huge influence. Here are a few things she did that helped make it possible for me (and for all three of her children) to pursue a dream.

  • She made the time to read us stories. Snuggled in and around Mom's lap was the place to be, and I can still remember the excitement I felt picking my first few written words out of an oft-repeated (I'm sure Mom was sick of it) picture book and reading them aloud (though "saw" and "was" gave me some trouble.)
  • When I caught the reading bug, she hauled us to the library. Just about every week, though I was (and remain) the only bookworm in the family.
  • Because she was so young and cooped up with a bunch of little kids, in a strange way, she extended her only childhood. My mom played with us. She was the one mom in the neighborhood who would come out on snow days for sledding or a rousing snowball fight. She enjoyed walking in the woods, pointing out a box turtle or an edible berry, and reveling in nature as much as we did.
  • When I caught her enthusiasm for nature and started reading everything I could find about animals, she helped me conduct all sorts of projects, from hatching and raising baby chicks (the Chick-U-Bater still stands out as one of the best gifts ever) to collecting preying mantis egg cases for show and tell (was my teacher ever furious when one supposedly-empty case hatched and filled the classroom with hundreds of the tiny predators), and spawning blue gouramis (bubble-nest-building tropical fish) in an elaborate aquarium set-up. While most girls received Barbies (I got my share, too), I was given a microscope for Christmas, and we all learned (Mom included) a great deal about "wee beasties."
  • She allowed me the privacy to write when I needed it. A friend and I started writing stories together when I was in my early teens. We spent countless hours at it, but we never wanted anyone else to see what we were up to. Grave suspicions arose (and probably some furtive peeking), but my parents didn't insist on micromanaging this activity, even when I locked up the results.
  • When she was in her early forties, Mom took classes and pursued a real estate license, then launched a flourishing career that she's been in ever since. Getting into a profession was a huge leap for someone whose working-class family produced a succession of housewives and factory workers. Any kind of education was looked on with suspicion, and there was plenty of griping that my mom was "getting above herself." But she didn't give a damn. She did what gave her joy, and it was this final lesson that set the example that encouraged me to quit dabbling and get serious about pursuing my own dreams.
So thanks, Mom! And, see? I really was listening to you all along the way.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Next Glimmer

My brilliant and generous critique partners both returned my new manuscript to me yesterday, and both claimed to like the story immensely. (Yea!) Both, too, had wonderful comments, corrections, and suggestions that I'm now going through one by one and evaluating. It's painstaking work, but I enjoy it, and each bit of sharpening makes me more confident that the story will put its best foot forward when I turn it in at the end of this month.

But I have to admit, I'm a little bit distracted. A new story has stepped forward from among the many wallflowers lurking around the edge of my consciousness. I still have little sense of it, only a collection of strong images, a setting, and an impression of the two main characters. In place of a plot, I have an idea of the main challenge facing each character and the conflict between them. But everything else is a blank slate, waiting to be filled.

Right now, this glimmer in my peripheral vision is a bit of a nuisance since for the next two weeks, my focus must remain on the current work in progress. But it's good to know that another story's out there waiting. The tingling anticipation of it tells me the Idea Factory is still in business, and I have the best job in the world.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Jennifer O'Connel: Insider Dating

Jennifer O'Connel is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with the perfect summer beach book (or in the immortal words of Cosmo, “A poolside page-turner.”) Following the F + S = H formula (Funny plus Sexy equals Hot)...
One woman is about to take her knack for risk management to a whole new level in Jennifer O’Connell’s new novel, Insider Dating. Abby Dunn, barely past thirty and still reeling from her divorce, has taken herself off the dating market. Instead, she’s using her experience to turn the tables on the opposite sex by building a database to rank underperforming men and set women straight when investing their greatest asset: themselves.
Seems to me, Jennifer has struck on the perfect blend of art and commerce. She earned a BA from Smith and an MBA from the University of Chicago, and when she’s not writing, she works as a market strategy consultant. If that's not the recipe for a bestselling author, I don't know what is.

Check the girlfriend out!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

It Ain't Over 'Til... You Know

Since Friday, I've been celebrating the completion of my manuscript, The Salt Maiden (Love Spell Romantic Suspense, 12/07). Or so you would think. Actually, the days since have been consumed with the following activities:
  • Tearing off the ending and rewriting it.
  • Fixing continuity errors, from shifting hair and eye colors to geographic faux pas to an amazing space-time warp.
  • Tearing off the ending and rewriting it again.
  • Reading through the full manuscript and making a few more tweaks.
  • Fending off the voices of doom, which feel compelled to whisper the ugliest quotes from the worst reviews I've ever received in my ear at all hours. Meanwhile, those confidence-building voices, freshly stocked with quotes emphasizing my wit and brilliance from all the wonderful reviews, readers' letters, and notes I've received from my agent and editor, have fallen disgustingly silent.
There's a terrible time in the life of a writer: the gap between completing the manuscript and getting feedback on it. It's a high time for my doubts, which generally stomp the hell out the loftier powers that remind me to "write fearlessly." This period of time has always been hard for me, and after writing thirteen contracted novels, it hasn't gotten any easier.

Insecurity is always with us. All of us, especially in such a subjective undertaking. You may never entirely shake it, but the real victory is to write anyway, in defiance... and in a joyous celebration of the stories and characters that kick up their heels and clamor, "Oooh, me next! Write me next!"

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Now in Stores

Congratulations to BtO regular Joni Rodgers, who is celebrating the paperback release of her novel The Secret Sisters today! The gorgeous new cover is almost as richly-evocative as the book's depiction of the complex tapesty of relationship between three sisters.
Not that I'm biased or anything (VBG), but I highly recommend it.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Matzo balls and Monday in the real world

Yesterday, I decided to rejoin the real world and end my Finding Fast on Day 4 with the most comforting comfort food I know -- matzo ball soup from Katz's Deli. ("I can't help it, I gotta tell ya!") Before I committed myself to seven days, I should have checked my calendar. Not a great idea to refrain from speaking the week of a book release, and the trade paperback edition of The Secret Sisters comes out tomorrow. I've got a lot of legwork to do with interviews, press release followup, and a blitzkrieg of chatty, informal visits to bookstores in Houston and Dallas areas. Does all this do any good? Honestly, I don't know. But I'm trying to apply the Buddhist "finding instead of searching" philosophy I learned from this fast. Mindfulness over matter. Wish me luck.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In celebration of the indolent smile

On Day 3 of my Finding Fast, and I'm surprised to find that I haven't been hungry. It's been far more difficult to give up speaking, and not just for the sake of convenience. It's a slow writing time, too (I'm dating a new novel, but we're not in a committed relationship) so I miss the dynamic of thinking in words.

Someone at critique group last night used the phrase "an indolent smile" and I flagged it on my copy, asking, "Did you mean 'insolent smile'?" She did not. And that got me thinking about indolent smiles, which I love the idea of, because I've always associated the word 'indolent' with a type of lymphoma. So I've been lying in bed this morning wondering, Can I purposely reprogram that word inside my head to mean something deliciously lazy and Mona Lisa-like as opposed to something insidiously lurking? Either way, it's a rich, succulent bonbon of a word, isn't it? Luscious on the tongue and lovely to see typed out. (Thanks, TJ!) And I guess that's what I found today.

But Pablo Neruda says it so much better in his Memoirs:
You can say anything you want, yessir, but it's the words that sing, they soar and descend . . . I bow to them . . . I love them, I cling to them, I run them down, I bite into them, I melt them down . . . I love words so much . . . The unexpected ones . . . The ones I wait for greedily or stalk until, suddenly, they drop . . . Vowels I love . . . They glitter like colored stones, they leap like silver fish, they are foam, thread, metal, dew . . . I run after certain words . . . They are so beautiful that I want to fit them all into my poem . . . I catch them in midflight, as they buzz past, I trap them, clean them, peel them, I set myself in front of the dish, they have a crystalline texture to me, vibrant, ivory, vegetable, oily, like fruit, like algae, like agates, like olives . . . And I stir them, I shake them, I drink them, I gulp them down, I mash them, I garnish them, I let them go . . . I leave them in my poem like stalactites, like slivers of polished wood, like coals, pickings from a shipwreck, gifts from the waves . . . Everything exists in the word . . .

I Feel a Draft!

Yesterday, I finished the draft of my work-in-progress, The Salt Maiden. This doesn't mean I'm finished the book; far from it since I'll have to do quite a bit of editing before I turn in the manuscript. But even so, it's a momentous, exhilarating occassion, one I took the rest of the day to enjoy and celebrate.

Many stories are begun, but it's the finishing that brings the greatest rush of pleasure. People who start myriad projects, only to abandon each, are robbing themselves of the feeling of accomplishment. Worse still, they're training themselves to give up the effort when the going gets too tough.

I'm not saying that every project should be completed, but if I'd given up every time I grew discouraged (which happens at least once or twice per book), I would have missed out on this hard-won feeling of accomplishment and the realization that those victories achieved through long, diligent effort are truly life's most satisfying.

Like a marathon runner pushing past her pain, visualize the finish line. Then fight for every step it takes to get there.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Shanna Swendson: Damsel Under Distress

Shanna Swendson is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week with her latest: Damsel Under Distress. Here's the buzz from Armchair:
I love Shanna Swendson’s Katie Chandler novels. They’re quirky and make me laugh out loud. The dialogue is snappy, the characters endearing (well, maybe not the evil ones...) and the plots are fascinating. She’s taken over the throne from Buffy, Sabrina is losing ground and Bridget Jones doesn’t shine as bright anymore, because we have Katie Chandler and she rules.
Genre-bending and pop culture are Shanna's thing. She slipped the surly bonds of corporate America to do what she loves. Her fiction is a mix of fantasy, romance, and chick lit, while her essays and articles explore modern media at its best and worst.

Check the girlfriend out!

Meanwhile, I'm on Day 2 of my Finding Fast. So far, I've found that words are a lot harder to do without than food. And that fasting in any form is about mindfulness, not deprivation. This morning I bumped my head on the freezer door, which would normally elicit a string of sailor talk from me. Instead of cussing a blue streak, I had to pause, feel both the impulse and the pain, and let it go.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Ultimate in Penultimate!

[Writing is] like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. E. L. Doctorow

Sometimes, it's nice to remind ourselves that this writing business rocks. The publishing part can get you down, but is there anything like the rush that comes with unraveling a plot-knot and seeing your way through to The End?

Today I finished the chapter that would not die, the one that (finally) brings home the climax. I then trashed the Awful Epilogue I'd been toying with because suddenly I saw the book's true ending, something that resonates and rings true without being a cloying pile of honey-sweet bee-dung. I haven't yet written that final chapter, but I'm taking a moment to revel in the joy of seeing my destination in the headlights.

Yep. It's true, folks. It's all about the journey.

A week of contemplation and silence

Every once in a while, I feel a need to reboot. I decided to set aside this last week before my kids come home from college for the summer to fast, meditate, and refrain from speaking. It's not a water fast; I'll be doing tea, coffee, and juice. And I will be going to Midwives tomorrow night as usual. (Carrot juice and critique group -- the essential nutrients I need to survive.)

I used to be very ritualistic about this sort of thing. Got up at 5 AM, read preselected scripture, focused fiercely on one particular thing like generosity or humility or self-discipline. (I tried very hard for a very long time to be a good Christian, then decided to give that up and follow the teachings of Jesus instead.) But I haven't planned anything for the coming week. Only to listen instead of speaking and to use hunger as a cue to take in what I really need. Whatever that is at the moment.

From the last chapter of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha:
"When someone is searching," said Siddhartha, "then it might easily happen that the only thing his eyes still see is that what he searches for, that he is unable to find anything, to let anything enter his mind, because he always thinks of nothing but the object of his search, because he has a goal, because he is obsessed by the goal. Searching means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal. You, oh venerable one, are perhaps indeed a searcher, because, striving for your goal, there are many things you don't see, which are directly in front of your eyes."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Just when he was about to give up and go into the underwear business...

Writers Almanac reports today is the birthday of lyricist Lorenz Hart.
He's famous for writing the lyrics to songs like "Blue Moon" (1934), "My Funny Valentine" (1937), and "The Lady Is a Tramp" (1937). As a young man in his 20s, he was drifting around, writing verse in his spare time, when someone introduced him to Richard Rodgers, a teenage composer who wanted to be a lyricist. They worked on a series of amateur musical comedies together, but their future didn't seem promising. Rodgers was just about to give up on music and go into the underwear business when their show The Garrick Gaieties (1925) became a huge success.
Publishing and show biz are filled with apocryphal tale about the starving artist on the cusp of failure, despairing, darkest hour just before dawn, and all that jazz. One of my favorites is how Richard Bach was watching the repo man take his car when the mailman drove up with an acceptance letter for Jonathan Livingston Seagull. And then there are the tragic near misses, like John Kennedy Toole, who won a Pulitzer for A Confederacy of Dunces after he abandoned all hope and killed himself.

So at what point do we sensibly throw in the towel? Is there such a thing as too much belief in oneself? Or too much faith that serendipity will smile our way? I'm at a loss when an aspiring author who's doing everything right (and I know several) can't get a friggin' book contract no matter how hard they work at it. I'm experiencing a terrible dry spell myself right now, and it's agony. I'm writing. A lot. I'm working as hard and as smart as I know how, but the deals just aren't swinging my way.

It struck me this morning that the agony is an essential element of the writing life. Like Tom Hanks says about baseball in the movie A League of Their Own, "If it was easy, everybody would do it." And we've all seen what happens to a lot of writers for whom it does get easy. They stop caring. Stop listening to criticism. Start taking those lovely, delicious book contracts for granted.

I think loving the writing life means appreciating the highs and wallowing in the lows. Giving both their due.

In the imortal words of Lorenz Hart:
The sleepless nights,
The daily fights,
The quick toboggan when you reach the heights—
I miss the kisses and I miss the bites.
I wish I were in love again!
The broken dates,
The endless waits,
The lovely loving and the hateful hates,
The conversation with the flying plates—
I wish I were in love again!

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

How 'Bout That Guru?!

Congratulations to fellow BtO blogger Joni Rodgers, who worked as a memoir guru on the Rue McClanahan memoir, My First Five Husbands... And the Ones Who Got Away. (Don't you just love that title?) This week, the book hit #18 on the New York Times Bestseller List, and it's getting rave reviews and some very nice coverage in the blogosphere.

If this news isn't worthy of celebration, I don't know what is!


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