Saturday, June 30, 2007

Everything I needed to know about publishing, I learned from Gone With the Wind

According to Writer's Almanac, today is the 81st birthday of a book I loved as a kid and learned from as a writer.
It was on this day in 1936 that the novel Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was first published. When she handed the manuscript over to editors, it was in terrible shape, with more than 1,000 pages of faded and dog-eared paper, poorly typed and with penciled changes. But they loved the story. They asked Mitchell to change the original title Tomorrow Is Another Day because at the time there were already thirteen books in print with the word "Tomorrow" in the title. They also asked her to change the main character's name from Pansy to Scarlett.

Gone with the Wind sold 50,000 copies sold in one day, a million copies six months, and two million by the end of the year. The sales of the book were even more impressive because it was in the middle of the Great Depression. The year it came out, employees at the Macmillan publishing company received Christmas bonuses for the first time in nearly a decade.

So I thought it would be fun to revisit our favorite moments from Gone With the Wind and see if we might extrapolate a few kernels of wisdom about what it takes to make a living as writers.

“I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.” Write what you want to write, then worry about selling it. Mitchell was told by everyone who knew anything that this book was a terrible idea, an untellable story, an unsalable manuscript. Instead of trying to defend her idea, she wrote the thing, then let the book speak for itself.

“You need kissing, badly. That's what's wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.” ‘Tis a gift to be edited. Had Mitchell remained stubbornly married to that lame title and lamer name for her main character, not to mention the enormous quantity of verbiage that had to be cut, the book would have disappeared faster than Mammy's red long johns.

“Lawzy, we got to have a doctor. I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!” Writing books is my job. I am not a cover designer. I am not a PR pro. I am not an editor. One of the great challenges of our work is knowing when to stick by our guns and when to defer to the expertise of others. The publishing industry is unkind to control freaks.

“We're alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd. But able to look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names.” It takes a thick skin, a certain amount of industry savvy, a strongly defined sense of self, and what Colleen calls “the kernel of arrogance” to do what we do and remain sane. It also takes a willingness to tell the truth, even in fiction, and even to ourselves.

“Tomorrow is another day.” Mitchell's first novel, a romance called Lost Laysen remained unpublished during her life, and Mitchell, who was a serious journalist, probably would have preferred that it remain that way. Written when she was 15, the novel is, um...well, it ain't Gone With the Wind. She gave it to her boyfriend who kept it until his death in 1945. Years later, the beau's son was going through his dead father's old stuff and -- fiddle-dee-dee! The silly scribblings of a teenage girl were suddenly Margaret Mitchell's First Novel. It was published by Scribner about ten years ago. I'll leave you to think thinky thoughts about legacy, longevity, and intellectual property.

“With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.” A thousand pages of poorly typed, pencil-whipped manuscript. And they read it.

“Great balls of fire! Don't bother me anymore, and don't call me sugar.” Writing is a solitary and crabby-making profession. I salute anyone who is able to love a writer.

“As God is my witness, as God is my witness they're not going to lick me. I'm going to live through this and when it's all over, I'll never be hungry again!” Just when you think you’ve broken through the brick wall, you’re back on your knees digging carrots. Sometimes, all you got left is your fist, your fury, and the blind faith that it all gets better after intermission.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Tanya Lee Stone: When is a bad boy good for a girl?

Tanya Lee Stone is officially the bravest writer I know. Not only has she stepped up with an emotionally important YA book that honestly speaks to the tortured topic of teen sex, she did it in free verse. Tanya's touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit with the paperback release of A Bad Boy Can Be Good For a Girl that busted out in hardback last year with accolades and starred reviews. Bad Boy was an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, School Library Journal Book of the Month, New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and -- well, the list goes on. And on. And on.

From a starred review in School Library Journal:
Three girls succumb to the charms of one sexy high school senior and emerge wiser for the experience in this energetic novel in verse....The free verse gives the stories a breathless, natural flow and changes tone with each narrator. The language is realistic and frank, and, while not graphic, it is filled with descriptions of the teens and their sexuality. This is not a book that will sit quietly on any shelf; it will be passed from girl to girl to girl.

From the press kit:
Don't let the title scare you.

A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL is a cautionary tale. Teens are dealing with sex, whether we’re ready or not. This novel is about three very different girls who date the same player guy. About how the choices they make shape who they want to be. About empowerment.

Meet Josie, Nicolette, and Aviva. Three very different girls who all meet the same bad boy with an irresistible knack for getting into their blood and under their skin.

Three girls. One guy. Who will come out on top?

In A BAD BOY CAN BE GOOD FOR A GIRL, Tanya Lee Stone takes a hard look at love and sex and asks the questions: “When can a bad boy be good for a girl?”

Tanya is a woman after my own heart. Loves book clubs, despises censorship. The new Bad Boy paperback includes a bonus Reading Guide and Tanya is available for virtual book club visits. She's outspoken about censorship and the need for tackling tough topics in teen books. (Check out her insightful VOYA article: From Forever to Today: The Importance of Sex in Young Adult Literature and a recent interview with AS IF! (Authors Support Intellectual Freedom) in which she discusses sex, censorship, and Judy Blume.

“I get lots of email from teens thanking me for being honest, saying my book helped them, or they gave it to a friend who needs it," says Tanya. "What’s better than that?”

Go, girlfriend, go!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Online Class: "Making Scenes Matter"

Alicia Rasley is a wonderful teacher. If you're looking to improve your novel's scenes, I would highly recommend this online class.

Online class: July 18-31, 2007
"Making Scenes Matter" by Alicia Rasley
Registration at

Scenes are what readers will remember long after
they've forgotten the intricate plot or the hero's
name. They'll remember that brush with death or the
hero and heroine sharing a hot fudge sundae or the
mother visiting her child in the hospital -- the
scenes that made them shiver and laugh and cry. Scenes
are the units of action and emotion.

So in this class, workshop leader Alicia Rasley will
guide you in conceptualizing and organizing a scene
for greater power and drama, including:

* Scene purpose
* Character goal
* Opening
* Rising conflict
* Emotional arc
* Ending surprise or disaster

Alicia Rasley leads writing workshops across the
country, and teaches writing classes through her
website, .

This two-week series of e-mail lectures should have
you looking, thinking and writing in a whole new way.
You can read the lectures and do the (always optional)
homework at your pace, while checking in with the
teacher daily to ask specific questions, get clarity
on any issue of concern and see how other writers work
out their individual solutions.

For details and registration, see


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Usually, I don't have a lot of trouble writing a synopsis. I do it very early in the book's creation, usually by the end of the second chapter, after I've had the opportunity to play with the main characters a bit. At this point, the synopsis is pure discovery, where I play with various ideas and think, "Oooh, I can't wait to write that part for real!"

But this time isn't "usually". With the proposal chapters (four, in this case) flowing, I finished them before going back to the dropped threads of the synopsis I had played with earlier. And then I got stuck, bigtime.

It took me a while to discover why. The story and growth of the characters required me to try something risky late in this novel, something I've never before attempted. I wasn't sure how it would be received, so my subconscious solved the problem by boycotting the writing of the synopsis.

Simply put, I was being a big chicken. But since big chickens don't sell novels on proposal, I'm going to go ahead and lay the kitten on the train tracks (not literally - so please don't get your knickers in a twist), get this story outline on the paper, and then deal with the consequences, for better or for worse.

In writing, fear holds our reins in an iron grip. Time to take the bit in my teeth and get moving.

Question for the day: What is fear keeping you from trying? What's the worst thing that could happen if you go for it anyway?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

American bards: a declaration of interdependence

Revisiting an old friend today. Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. It's one of those books I read over and over and discover something new each time I come to it, because I am just that much different from the last time. I'm at a place in my writing life where I've come to profoundly appreciate the writers whose company I keep (or maybe they keep mine) and the way writers have begun to use the Internet to support each other.

"But why would you want to help your competition?" a young writer asked me recently.

The question made me think about who and what really is my competition. It's not other writers. Authors compete with the continual dumbnation of our culture that breeds less and less interest in books and the people who create them. Our competition is stories that are served over easy with a side order of commercials for used cars and male enhancement products. Our competition is laziness, ignorance, and a lack of patience for a story that unfolds in the absence of pyrotechnics. In the face of such formidable adversaries, we authors must support each other now more than ever.

Walt said it better than I can. (Not that it's a contest!)
The American bards shall be marked for generosity and affection and for encouraging competitors . . They shall be kosmos . . without monopoly or secrecy . . glad to pass any thing to any one . . hungry for equals night and day. They shall not be careful of riches and privilege . . . . they shall be riches and privilege . . . . they shall perceive who the most affluent man is. The most affluent man is he that confronts all the shows he sees by equivalents out of the stronger wealth of himself. The American bard shall delineate no class of persons nor one or two out of the strata of interests nor love most nor truth most nor the soul most nor the body most . . . . and not be for the eastern states more than the western or the northern states more than the southern.

Monday, June 25, 2007

So this is why God created the ellipsis...

By and large, reviewers have been good to me. I've been compared to Molly Ivins, Anna Quindlen, and Larry McMurtry. My memoir about my chemo experience was haled with every possible synonym for life-affirming, including "transcendent", "transformational", and--my personal fave--"upliftinglicious". I've even been called "brilliant", which just makes my kids laugh out loud. Glowing praise is good for book sales. But on a personal level, it's a tar pit. If a writer buys into blather about her book being "an astonishing literary feat," she is bound to be sucked under and paralyzed by comments like "it's a slog." I've also been called "the possibly talented Joni Rodgers" and "midlist wannabe Joni Rodgers", which also made my kids laugh out loud.

Last year, when my novel, The Secret Sisters came out, it got a serious deep-frying from Kirkus. At first, my editor refused to show me the review.

"It's stinky," she said.

Turns out this description of their review was kinder than their review of my book. I offer it here as a public service. Please, enjoy a moment of Schadenfreude -- on me!
A drunk-driving accident has dire ramifications for a tight-knit family. Rodgers's third novel (Bald in the Land of Big Hair, 2001, etc.) is told in alternating chapters from the points of view of sisters Pia and Lily and their sister-in-law Beth. All three are self-centered and savor wallowing in grief. Despite the gut-wrenching losses they suffer, these women remain remarkably shallow and unenlightened. Pia's husband collapses and dies in the novel's first few pages. She remarries out of desperation and proceeds to have a nervous breakdown that's recounted in cliched metaphors. Lily rivals her sister when it comes to doling out self-pity. Serving out a seven-year prison sentence for killing her five-year-old niece in a drunken driving accident, she is bitter, foul-mouthed and reckless. Although Lily wrestles with the shame of her conviction, she is never repentant, and, aside from a few humorously caustic jabs at her prison mates, remains fairly intolerable. Finally, there is Beth, the dependable, sanctimonious, holy-roller of the family. Beth lost her daughter in the car accident and is harboring some severe hatred toward her in-laws. Her pent-up righteousness is dull. It's a slog following these three women through so many pages of depressing action before the slightest bit of sunshine is revealed in an ending that's neither satisfying nor shocking.

What's a working girl to do? This calls for (dun-da-da-DUHN!) Ellipsis Woman! Wielding the dot-dot-dot like Wonder Woman wields her lasso of truth, authors and our trusty PR sidekicks are able to transform "an astonishing pile of crap" into a blurbilicious "...astonishing..." As I puzzled over how to squeeze even three consecutive kind words out of the Kirkus bludgeoning, my son Spike offered these ellipsis-whipped pull quotes:

"A drunk-driving...gut-wrenching...Rodgers...rivals her sister when it comes to...killing...five-year-old...prison inmates."


"Rodgers' the novel's first few pages...and...proceeds to have...a nervous breakdown."

Getting smoked by a book reviewer is like getting up in the middle of the night to use the facilities and seeing a roach by the toilet. Your initial reaction: HORROR! Followed by a brief spike of irritation, and then the realization that you have two choices. A) Debase yourself in order to pursue and destroy the critter as he skitters out of sight. Or B) drop your jammies, shoot him the full moon, and go on about your business.

Update Dec 2009: Read my rant about the demise of Kirkus.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Guys Have Bond & NASCAR...

Male fantasies abound, and most guys are very okay with that. You don't see men dissing other men for loving Bond movies or buying sports paraphrenalia to help them imagine themselves as stars.

So in the interest of equality, why not proudly lay claim to a little romance? C'mon, its summer, so lighten up and check it out.

And just in case this makes you hungry for the real thing , my latest romantic thriller Head On is showing up in stores and online!

Saturday, June 23, 2007


Every so often, my brain needs rebooting. Especially this summer, on the heels of a tight deadline, a tough business decision, and -- heaven help us -- a blown AC compressor (in the Houston area's legendary subtropical soup & a summer of epic mosquitodom).

Sometimes, getting away gives us perspective. Spending time with family and walking the beach each morning and evening reminded me there is another life outside of my imagination -- and that it's a life worth living while I can. The manchild's growing up too quickly, leaving both my husband and I all too aware that each vacation together could be the last one spent together. We make a special effort to savor the moment, to hold onto it and squeeze out each drop of memory we can.

The photo is the view from our condo in Port Aransas, a kitschy-cool beach town on Mustang Island in South Texas. Wonderful shrimp, brightly-painted golf carts to bump over the beach in, tacky shell souvenirs, and miles and miles of salt-scented surf to walk and clear the mind.

Besides that, it gave the AC compressor a chance to come in. And there was great rejoicing...

Friday, June 22, 2007

Kockroach: Tyler Knox flips Kafka

Hate roaches, but I love noir. And Kafka. So I couldn't resist Kockroach, Tyler Knox's quirky, well-written, utterly original spin on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. In Kafka's story, a traveling salesman wakes up one morning to discover that he has turned into a roach. In Kockroach, the metamorphosis goes the other way.
It is the mid-1950s, and in a fleabag hotel off Times Square, Kockroach, perfectly content with life as an insect, awakens to discover that somehow he's become, of all things, a human. This tragic turn of events would be enough to fling a more highly evolved creature into despair, but cockroaches know no despair. Firmly entrenched in the present tense, they are awesome coping machines, and so Kockroach copes. Step by step, he learns the ways of humans—how to walk, how to talk, how to wear a jaunty brown fedora.

Check it out.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Making the most of the longest day of the year

Happy Summer Solstice! I love that Garrison Keillor reminded me in Writer's Almanac today, because the writing life is very much about "to everything there is a season."
Today is the summer solstice and the first day of summer in the northern hemisphere. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night. The entire earth is about 3 million miles farther from the sun at this time of the year. The difference in the temperature is due to the fact that our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. It is that slight tilt, only 23 1/2 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer. The rise in temperature allows most of the plants we eat to germinate. Wheat and many other plants require an average temperature of at least 40º F to grow. Corn needs a temperature of 50º F, and rice needs a temperature of 68º F.

I'm celebrating by working late.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wordplay and other serious business

Well, Colleen has packed up her always pragmatic and evolved writing advice and gone off on vacation this week, leaving me to woo woo up the place to my heart’s content. For starter, here’s a cell cam photo of an early morning visitor to my office window. Just in case anyone would like to join me in meditating on the enormous gorgeousness of life so perfectly expressed in the expanding pink throated dance of lizards.

I woke up with my muscles screaming from my strength training session yesterday, but I went to pilates class anyway. Unfortunately, I had put moisturizer on my legs just before I went, so it was like trying to hold onto a couple of halibuts, and I had a hard time not giggling. As we were stretching out at the end of the hour, I had an epiphany about the muscles I never use. And not just the ones screaming at me from the fierce regions of my torso and extremities.

I was thinking about wordplay muscles and the fine motor skills of creative vocabulary. I think it’s important for writers to fritter away an hour now and then on Word Mojo. Sit down and play Scrabble with the family. Agonize over the New York Times crossword puzzle on Sunday. Anything to maintain our playful relationship with language. To take language as a lover, not trudge alongside it chain gang style. Wordplay is how we do that.

The other night, Gary and I were debating whether or not “no problem” is an appropriate response to “thank you”. I think it makes perfect sense, but Gary insisted, “It’s completely non sequitur. You may as well say waffle bag or metal monkey or—or—go ahead. Say thank you.”

“Thank you, honey,” I said without—no, I swear—not rolling my eyes at all.

“Mail box!”

“Thanks, dear.”

“Balsa wood!”

“Thank you.”

“Premium unleaded!”

So this morning we were driving to the gym, and I hit him with it out of nowhere.

“Thanks, Bear.”

“Shingle trappings!”

And the game was on.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What it is to witness

I pulled into Starbucks as the sun came up yesterday and was hard at work in my particular little corner when a man stopped by the bar to do his cream and sugar. As he was on his way out the door, the dreaded Stranger Eye Contact was made. I smiled and, since it was Sunday, said, “Peace be with you.” And spent the next two hours engrossed in one of the most poignant and honest conversations I’ve ever experienced.

Most folks in the Houston area have heard about the quintessential drivers ed cautionary tale that occurred here last week. Several young teens joyriding. A train. A moment. A tragedy. In less than a second, this man lost his 14-year-old daughter and 12-year-old niece. So now it was Father’s Day, and he was at Starbucks getting coffee to shore himself up after a series of sleepless nights and purchasing a little tan teddy bear to take to a private viewing of his daughter's body.

“The call came, and I was on my way down there,” he told me, “and there was this animal howling that came out of me. A sound that wasn’t human.”

We talked about life and death, about numbness and anger and grace, about parenting and MySpace, about girls, about God.

“I don’t think God made it happen or let it happen. He gave them free will and they made a lousy choice,” he said. “I know God is with me now, because I see him everywhere. Not just in nature or what you usually hear, but in plain stuff. Weird stuff. I don’t know. It probably sounds stupid, but—like here.” He traced his finger down the metal divider that bisects the plate glass window. “That straight line—God is in that straight line. My perception of every second and the details I see—it’s weird. Crystal clear. Like everything is ringing.”

I didn't say much. Partly because it’s humbling how little there is to say to someone in such agony. But mostly I wanted to just listen, because this man so deeply needed to be heard. What came out of him now was innately and intimately human: his story.

We the Species share a profound need to be witnessed. A need that becomes all the more excruciating when the pain seems superhuman, when the journey is as dark and impossible as Dante’s worst nightmare.

Listening to people tell their stories is part of what I do for a living and something I find endlessly fascinating, but as I sat there serving as this man’s witness, I felt over-privileged and guilty. Of course, I was overwhelmed with compassion, because how could you not be? But I also felt ghoulish, because my writer mind suckles experiences like this with the self-loathing of a reluctant vampire. I felt small, surrounded by my clutter of petty worries. And indescribably lucky when my daughter walked in the door, beautiful, whole, full of life and free will.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Chat with Bestselling Author Jennifer Ashley

Today, we're talking to Jennifer Ashley, a.k.a. Ashley Gardner, a.k.a. Allyson James and Laurien Gardner, (or as I’m calling her, A Rose By Any Other Name), about strategies an extremely prolific writer can use to survive and prosper in the world of publishing.

BtO: Thanks so much for taking time from your busy schedule to talk to us.

First of all, Jennifer, congratulations on your RITA nomination for A Novel with Strong Romantic Elements for A Lady Raised High, written as Laurien Gardner. Also, congratulations for reaching the USA Today Bestseller list with The Calling, written as Jennifer Ashley, the first book in the paranormal series you originated, The Immortals. Could you tell us about each of these books and about the series?

Jenn: Thanks Colleen. I’m very excited about both the RITA nomination and making USA Today. Two firsts for me! (What am I going to do next year? LOL)

The Immortals is a four-part series with a continuous arc from book 1 to book 4. The Immortals are demigods—sons of an aspect of the mother goddess and a human. We have five of them, all brothers. The Calling begins the series—Amber Silverthorne is amazed to be rescued from a demon attack by a tall, gorgeous sword-wielding warrior. Turns out he is searching for his brother, another Immortal called Tain, and his search led him to Amber’s sister. The two join forces and try to find Tain and figure out what’s wrong with the world (and they fall in love of course!)

Book 1 ends with Amber performing the Calling spell to summon the other Immortals— Adrian has determined he cannot stop the evil or rescue Tain without his brothers’ help. But a demon breaks the spell, scattering the Immortals across the world. The witches in the Coven of Light (Amber’s coven) must find them.

The Darkening (by Robin Popp) starts the day after The Calling ends, with Darius, the second Immortal, finding himself pulled to Manhattan, and nearly dying in the process (which is all explained by Robin in her wonderful story.) Darius appears in front of Lexi, a werewolf bounty hunter who has been asked by Amber to be on the lookout for any Immortals. Darius is certainly unusual—impossibly tall and drop-dead gorgeous, he has tattoos all over his body that can morph into weapons. He and Lexi have to battle some vampire gangs and a demon with an agenda before they can join the others. It’s a sexy, fun, adventurous book.

Kalen is the third Immortal and appears in Book 3, The Awakening by Joy Nash. Kalen has ignored the Calling (he can, for reasons Joy explains), and Christine Lachlan is determined to find the elusive Immortal and bring him back to Adrian and Amber. She discovers Kalen in a remote Scottish castle, where he has taken to living a rather old-fashioned lifestyle, complete with kilt, not trusting modern conveniences. He has no idea what to make of this modern American witch who has come to bother him about helping Adrian . He has a secret that keeps him from helping her, and Christine has to convince him the world needs him. (Did I mention Kalen is a hunk in a kilt? Mmm, yes.)

The last book The Gathering, by me (Jennifer Ashley) winds up the four-book arc. At first, we meet Hunter, the “crazy” Immortal, who is fun-loving and reckless, but who hides a darkness in his past. He lands on the island of witch Leda Stowe, who rescues and rehabilitates abused exotic animals. When Hunter lands in her lion’s pen, and the lion likes him, Leda knows he’s an unusual man! Because she’s quit the Coven of Light, she has no idea who he is or why he’s wanted, but unfortunately the real world encroaches on her island paradise all too soon.

The end of the book sees all the Immortals together for the final showdown against the demon, and we learn of Tain’s ultimate fate . . .

By the way, I’ve signed to write Tain’s book, if anyone is worried about him.

BtO: I can't wait to read my copy of The Calling! But paranormal romance isn't all you've written as Jennifer Ashley, is it?

Jenn: I also write historical romance (and am actually working on one right now—a Scottish historical). My two historical series so far are the Pirate trilogy (beginning with The Pirate Next Door), and the Nvengaria books (stories involving a fictional country along with Regency England), the first being Penelope and Prince Charming. I’ve been very pleased with the success of both. The Highlander book I’m writing now is the third in the Nvengarian series, and I will be writing more historicals after that.

I have also written a historical fiction novel (The Queen’s Handmaiden) out in October from Berkley, along the same lines as Lady Raised High, about the young Elizabeth I.

I’ve also dabbled in contemporary comedy (Confessions of a Lingerie Addict). I enjoyed that, but my heart is really in historicals and fantasy for now.

BtO: I know you've written (and continue to write) for other publishers under different names. Could you tell us a little about the work you're doing/have done as Ashley Gardner (I'm a huge fan of these books!) and Allyson James and the reasons you decided to branch out? Would you say it had more to do with individual story ideas or your assessment of the state of the marketplace?

Jenn: As Ashley Gardner I’ve done a historical (Regency) mystery series, beginning with The Hanover Square Affair. I write those for Berkley Prime Crime. As Allyson James, I write erotic romance at Ellora’s Cave, and my first Berkley Sensation book under that name (Dragon Heat) will be out July 3.

Let’s see. I took the Ashley Gardner pseudonym because I sold my first romance and mystery at the same time, and my publishers asked me to take the pseudonym for the mystery series (also the books are very different in flavor). As a green newbie, I didn’t argue.

I took the Allyson James name when I wanted to try my hand at erotic romance, because I didn’t think I’d be good at it! It was an experiment, and I figured if my erotic romance tanked, I could have Allyson vanish with no one the wiser. (Allyson who?)

However, Allyson did quite well, to my great surprise! The Tales of the Shareem series at Ellora’s Cave is doing well, and I sold the Dragon series (which is more paranormal romance than erotica) to Berkley. Because I was under contract at Dorchester for paranormals, I had to use the Allyson James name to avoid violating contract clauses (plus if Dragon Heat does poorly, it doesn’t ruin my Jennifer Ashley career).

Now, if you think any of this was carefully planned, you’d be wrong! LOL When I started my career, I jumped at opportunities, because I was convinced I would vanish after one contract. I kept pursuing contract after contract with the idea that, if one thing went wrong, I still had other eggs in my basket. Now I have many eggs, and I need to ease back and decide which eggs I should focus on, and which I should tuck away for later.

To read more about Jennifer Ashley's career and advice on juggling several genres and/or publishers, please click on this link!

Friday, June 15, 2007

All You Really Need to Know

I hear a lot of writers lamenting their lack of higher education, as if college classrooms hold the keys to the kingdom of publishing rather than academia.

Here's all I think you really need, other than a lifelong love of the written word:

"Writing fiction has developed in me an abiding respect for the unknown in a human lifetime and a sense of where to look for the threads, how to follow, how to connect, find in the thick of the tangle what clear line persists. The strands are all there: to the memory nothing is ever really lost."
-- Eudora Welty,
One Writer's Beginnings, Finding a Voice

They don't teach that in Comparative Literature Studies, or English Literature of the Seventeenth Century, nor do you learn such a thing in Freshman Comp. It comes of keenly observing people, looking into your own heart, and daily exploring your discoveries on the page.

And oh, yes, read Ms. Welty's stories to glimpse a master at her work.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Megan Crane: Frenemies

Megan Crane is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with Frenemies, a hilarious novel about growing up and realizing that your worst enemy – and best bud – just might be yourself.

From the Press Kit:
FREN-E-MY\noun: The friend who gives you the sweetest smile to your face, while holding the sharpest knife to your back.

We’ve all heard the saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” but what if they’re one and the same? It’s the cardinal, number-one girlfriend rule: don’t date your friend’s ex. In Frenemies by Megan Crane (5 Spot; June 20, 2007; Paperback Original; $13.99), it is Gus Curtis’ supposed friend and old college roommate Helen who breaks that rule and goes one step further: she doesn’t just date an ex-boyfriend; she steals him from right under Gus’s nose. Just a few months shy of her 30th birthday, Gus discovers Nate, her "Mr. Right," hooking up behind her back with her so-called "friend" Helen. Soon it seems despite working to hard to appear all grown up, Gus is still living the life of a teenager. Gus is left with more questions than answers: Can she win Nate back before she turns 30 (And if so, does she really want him?) Is Helen really as devious and manipulative as she seems, or, worse, is Gus more like her frenemy Helen than she’d care to admit? And is she ever going to grow up? With the clock ticking down to her birthday, Gus discovers that sometimes the best thing about best-laid plans is trashing them altogether. In FRENEMIES, Gus experiences first hand what happens when you reach that inevitable point in life when you must surrender yourself to adulthood and the big 3-0.

Megan Crane is a New Jersey native who graduated from Vassar, got her MA and PhD in literature from the University of York in England, and now lives in LA. She won raves for her first two books, Everyone Else’s Girl and English as a Second Language.

Go, girlfriend, go!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Artistic Integrity vs. Foolhardy Stubbornness

You've written your book, packed it up lovingly, and sent it off (usually in bits and pieces, by request) as directed by some agent or editor. Then you sit back and wait...

And wait and wait and wait some more, while you hair grows gray, seasons change, and hope withers into despair. Okay, maybe it's not that long, but it certainly feels that way. (Important note: The time passes far more quickly when you're working on something new. And unless you've been specifically asked for an exclusive, you should be multiply submitting. Otherwise, you really will go gray before you get anything accomplished.

At last, the stars align, and you hear back from the agent/editor, sometimes in a letter, but often in the form of a phone call or an e-mail. The answer's not a blunt rejection, nor is it an open-armed offer of representation or a publishing contract. This time, it's what's often known as a "revise and resubmit" communication. This means, the agent or editor sees significant potential but doesn't feel the book is working in its present form. It also means a significant investment of time as the publishing pro explains what isn't working, makes suggestions, and offers to reread and reconsider the manuscript with revisions.

Most of the time, to the agent or editor's disappointment, the revisions never show up. (They're really hoping things will work out, considering how much time they've put it.) Sometimes, this is because the author misinterpreted the communication as a "nice" rejection. Other times, the author hopes a different pub. pro. might love the project as is. And on still other occasions, the author is insulted, offended, and stunned to hear suggestions that she never would have otherwise considered, so her knee-jerk reaction is resistance.

So how do you know when the agent/editor's suggestions are on the mark vs. when they're something that will gut your novel and turn it into someone else's?

At first, you really don't. Your natural instinct will be to defend your turf. My advice is to take careful notes if this information comes at you via phone. When the publishing pro stops speaking, regurgitate what they've said and ask if you have it right. Don't argue, ever, and don't try to explain. Simply thank the person for taking so much time and inviting you to resubmit with changes. Then say you'd like a little time to think about the requests. Or, if they immediately make sense to you and seem do-able, set a quick but realistic turn-around date by which you intend to have the manuscript back to the pro for consideration. Do not let seasons or years pass before replying.

It's easier if you receive the invitation and revision suggestions in writing. Then you can scream, shriek, and holler, "Are you kidding? What a freaking idiot!" to your heart's content. You can call your critique partners, too, for some wailing and kvetching... but lots of times, before you're through, it's going to start to sink in.

That agent or editor was right. At least about some of it. And the more you think about it, the more you'll realize, I can do this. Maybe I won't fix the problems in exactly the way she suggested --because by this time a better idea has come along -- but this book will actually be better with the changes.

That's when you know to go ahead and bite the bullet. Because the fact is, this agent/editor has a heck of a lot more experience than you do in the industry and a much more realistic and objective understanding of what sells. Chances are, you'll learn and grow immensely from working with this individual, whether or not you end up signing with her or selling to her.

Other times, however, the agent or editor is dead wrong. She's looking for an easy sale of whatever's hot at the moment, with no regard for your voice or storytelling sensibilities. She's attempting to mold you to a vision that's totally at odds with yours.

You'll know this is the case when, even after days of thought, you get a huge knot in your stomach and tears in your eyes whenever you contemplate some, if not all, of the changes. You don't see your book on the same shelf as this pub pro plans, and you know you wouldn't feel good about it even if her plan succeeded. Your critique partners or others familiar with the story are also flabbergasted by the requested changes (although your gut reaction should carry the most weight.) That's when you're right to say thanks, but no thanks. I don't see it that way.

None of us get crystal balls to help us predict the outcome of these decisions. All we can do is try to stay true to our own hearts and visions while remaining open to good sense.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Alice Sebold speaks a powerful mouthful of mission statement

Last week at Midwives, the topic of "mission statements" came up, and I think I heard mine come out of mouth of Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, during her remarks at BEA:
"I seek to write honest narratives about difficult people and/or lives. I seek not to answer any questions by doing it, just to present a story in a voice that takes hold of you and that you follow -- often despite yourself -- until the end of the ride."

Sebold said she was there to address the kazillion dollar question: "Does the book after Bones suck?" We'll find out in October, when I (along with every book club in America and the UK) will be reading The Almost Moon. Publisher's Marketplace subscribers will find the complete podcast on Publisher's Lunch TV.

Monday, June 11, 2007

This Just In -- Area Author Caught Getting High

For me, a research outing has two important functions. First off, it gives me far more accurate information than book or web research could. It fills my head with images, allows me to hear the way those involved in the activity speak, and gives me an authentic feel for whatever it is I'm hoping to describe.

Secondly, it's fun, and yes, kiddees, fun's important. It freshens our enthusiasm and infuses our work with a passion that communicates itself through the written word. Without it, writing's just another job. A really onerous job, with lousy benefits.

This past Saturday, the benefits were fantastic. Fireman Mike and I, after hanging out last week at a Houston-area gliderport, came back for a sailplane demo flight with instructor/pilot par excellence Glenn Giddings. Each of us took a turn, as that's the way things work in a tiny, two-place sailplane.

I was so excited, I awoke hours early that morning, like a little kid at Christmas. At the gliderport, we had a lengthy wait, as demo flights are squeezed in among lessons and the flights of the soaring club's regular members, but during that time, I was able to take a lot of notes as I chatted with young pilots, older pilots, students of all ages and from many walks of life. The one thing they all had in common was their passion for the sport.

When the time came for my flight, I was nervous. Would I panic upon take-off? Disgrace myself by filling all the barf bags? I'm happy to report that I did neither, in spite of a flutter of apprehension just before I was strapped in, my history of motion sickness (never sit next to me in the back of a bus), and the sauna-like mid-nineties heat.

Being pulling into the air by a towplane (cropdusting planes are most common) is rather like being the kite as it rises behind a running child (only with far less crashing, thank goodness). The glider, with its lighter weight and longer wings, lifts off before the towplane, which spirals us upward to -- in our case -- three thousand feet.

When the sailplane pilot (who is seating directly behind me for this flight so I have the best view) disengages the tow rope, plane and glider peel off in opposite directions. And aside from a bit of wind noise, the cockpit grows amazingly quiet. And cooler, as fresh air streams in through a hand hole (I'm sure this has a more official name) in the side of the canopy.

At this point, I'm in love. I wasn't a bit scared going up, the earth below is quilted green and gorgeous (we're in horse country), and the sensation of soaring is amazing. As my skillful pilot searches out a thermal beneath a cloud base to achieve lift, I feel the glider buoyed upward -- feel the thrill of knowing that what might have been a twenty minute descent will be extended. As a second glider spirals higher on the thermal, I look out to a left to see a pair of turkey buzzards riding the same column of warm air. Ungainly -- all right, butt-ugly -- on the ground, up here the big black birds are graceful aerobats, tumbling through the sky as if for pure joy. (I curse myself for not getting that photo, but some things have to be simply experienced and not seen through a viewfinder.)

For forty-one minutes, we stayed up there. I leaned with the glider's movements, looked for landmarks (a serpentine river and a fish farm, the airfield, and a distant prison farm), until finally -- damn it -- one spiraling manuever gets my queasies started. The pilot, who seems to fear being stuck in the cramped cockpit with a puker more than a crash-landing in a cow field, brings us in, careful to keep his flying as smooth as possible. (Thanks, Glenn!)

Landing is perfect, smoother than a lot of commercial flights I've taken. Once I free myself from the straps and bail out of the cockpit, I bound over to my husband (who's flying next) and say, "It's great! It's so great... Aggh, I think I'm gonna hurl."

I didn't, but it was a near thing. Mike had a great flight, too -- fifty minutes before the queasies slipped up on him, too, but we both enjoyed the experience immensely and with very little additional provocation, could get hooked.

So I'm happy to report, my mission was accomplished. Research, check. Fun quota, check, check, and triple-check! Thank you, Soaring Club of Houston!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Can I get my book with a double shot of espresso please?

I've been getting a hoot out of Doonesbury this week, which featured Jackson Brown prototype Jimmy Thudpucker being interviewed about his latest album on the Burger King label. Obviously (at least to those of us who spend a large share of our waking hours mainlining coffee at the satellite office) that this was a backhanded homage to the Paul McCartney album released by Starbucks this week.

Some people are very touchy about Starbucks as a venue for marketing books and music. Isn't it a little whorish to sell art alongside biscotti and frappacinos? Mustn't we at all costs preserve the sheen of oh I'm above all that I'm an artist and avoid any whiff of would you like fries with that?

My only problem with the McCartney marketing is this photo, which my daughter Jerusha pointed out looks kinda like Zoolander. I mean...McCartney:

Okay, that's pretty cheesy, and if there's anyone in the world who didn't need to stoop to that, it was McCartney. The guy has more money than the gross combined incomes of God, Trump, and Lichtenstein. On the other hand, one of the things I love about Starbucks is the music I hear while I'm there, and I'd be a big fat liar to pretend that it hasn't influenced my music purchases. In fact, of the last ten CDs I've purchased, six were from the artists themselves on the street and the other four still smell faintly of sugar free hazelnut latte. Starbucks does a lot to promote artists who don't get airplay or attention elsewhere.

Last year, they decided to try extending that dynamic to books, and a lot of folks in the publishing industry reacted like baristas were adding a dollop of blenderized baby to every soy chai. But for my taste, seeing the progressive, socially responsible Starbucks corporation get into the game is a lot less troubling than what we've seen of the hyper-conservative, price-depressing WalMart effect.

They started with a sure-fire commercial success by Mitch Albom as a way of retraining customers. C'mon, little turtle ears. Don't be scared. You can come to a book reading and your nose won't bleed a bit. Then they came out with Ishmael Beah's A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, and that campaign included author appearances and a whopping $2 per copy donation to UNICEF. Please, somebody, explain to me how this is a bad thing.

Bottom line, I like what Starbucks does, and I hope they do come to have an influence on the publishing industry, because the publishing industry could use an infusion of latte-based values. When Jerusha became a Starbucks barista, I was blown away by what I learned about the corporate soul of Starbucks. While entities like WalMart club third world economies like baby seals, Starbucks brings their considerable influence to impoverished coffee-growing regions in a humane, moral, and uplifting way with a "rising tide floats all boats" philosophy.

That kind of corporate conscience would be an enormous gift to authors like me, who know all too well that there are worse fates than looking like Zoolander.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Top Ten Reason I Love My Job

Let's face it, some days writing is a lousy job. There's near-constant anxiety over getting published, staying published, shifts in the marketplace, no benefits or sick days, late advance checks or non-existent royalties -- you name it. So why do so many people give up more lucrative (and far more stable) careers to take a shot at this one?

  • I'm my own best boss. Agents can advise, editors can reject, but the buck stops with me when it comes down to creative decisions. Though I work hard, I set my own pace and place -- and nobody docks me for taking an hour to play with my dog in the sunshine.
  • When the words flow, bliss rolls out through my fingertips, and I enter a zone that's as addictive as the most powerful drug.
  • Readers. The ones who buy the books, read the books, and get the books. Those who recommend them to their friends. And especially those wonderful folks who write to let me know they ready got what I was trying to say. Thank you.
  • Workplace. I can work in my messy office, on the deck, or in a Starbucks. Wherever it takes to help me concentrate.
  • The writing community. Writers, editors, agents, booksellers, reviewers are amazing people. For one thing, none of them think I'm weird for loving books.
  • Feeding my head. I love learning new stuff. In college, I could never settle on one thing but always wanted to do the sampler plate (which explains the liberal arts and general education degrees). Because of writing, I've had the opportunity to explore obscure historical events (The Great Peshtigo Fire, the Sultana explosion), fascinating characters (I based one book on a real-life Southern belle/spy who served the Confederacy by becoming engaged to several Union officers in occupied Memphis), amazing places, and extraordinary careers.
  • Nosy questions. One of the greatest privileges I've had as a writer is a free pass to ask people, from paramedics and nurses to sheriffs to steamboat captains to historians and glider pilots, questions about all sorts of fascinating subjects. Folks are amazingly generous and helpful.
  • Travel. Through writing, I've seen places I never would have otherwise, from the settings of my books to scenes of writers' conferences.
  • Adventure. Though I'm no daredevil, in the name of research, I've done some pretty cool things. On the menu today, soaring.
  • And the number one reason: Because in the world of writing, imagination matters. Books and story are important. And dreams become reality, through the written word.
So what do you love best about the writing life? Why have you chosen it for yourself?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Joshilyn Jackson: Between, Georgia

Congratulations to Joshilyn Jackson, who's touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with her gorgeous novel Between, Georgia . Joshilyn is Georgia Author of the Year, and the Between, Georgia audio edition (read by Joshilyn) won Publisher’s Weekly's Listen Up Award and made AudioFile’s Best of 2006 list. Between, Georgia nailed starred reviews in PW, Kirkus, and Booklist and was a #1 BookSense pick, making Jackson the first author in BookSense history to achieve #1 status in back-to-back years.

And talk about buzz...
"One of this decade's most commendable novels. Every now and then a remarkable writer, following in the footsteps of great authors, comes along to reenergize American fiction. So it is with Joshilyn Jackson. ...overflows with gut-wrenching sadness and laugh-out-loud humor. Jackson's novel brilliantly explores abstractions - redemption, love and grace - through the most compelling characterizations to be found in contemporary fiction. Between, Georgia is an exemplary novel by a singular writer who is in full command of the art of story telling. Don't miss it!" (Bookpage)

And more buzz...
"Between, Georgia is a small miracle, and Nonny Frett is the most engaging woman who ever lived in the pages of a book. Joshilyn Jackson is an enormously talented writer." (New York Times bestselling author Anne Rivers Siddons)

And just in case you're not sitting there thinking "I gotta read this book", there's this tantalizing teaser from the PR department:
There's always been bad blood between the Fretts and the Crabtrees. After all, the Fretts practically own the tiny town of Between, Georgia, while the Crabtrees only rent space in its jail cells.

Stacia Frett is a deaf artist with a genetic condition that is causing her to slowly go blind. She's lost the love of her life, and when her vision goes, she'll lose her career as well. She's asking God why He keeps her breathing in and out, until the night fifteen year old Hazel Crabtree shows up on her doorstep brandishing a stomach swollen with a pregnancy she'd hidden for nine months. Stacia thinks Hazel's unwanted baby might be God's answer, and so the Fretts decide to steal it...

Thirty years later, Nonny Frett is a successful interpreter living in Athens, Georgia. She understands the meanings of "rock" and "hard place" better than any woman ever born. She's got two mothers, "one deaf-blind and the other four baby steps from flat crazy." She's got two men; Her husband is easing out the back door and her best friend is laying siege to her heart in her front yard. She has a job that holds her in the city, and she's addicted to a little girl who's stuck deep in the country. And she has two families; The Fretts, who stole her and raised her right, and the Crabtrees, who lost her and can't forget that they've been done wrong.

In Between, Georgia, population 90, the feud that began before Nonny was born is escalating, and a random act of violence will set the torch to a thirty-year old stash of highly flammable secrets. This might be just what the town needs, if only Nonny wasn't sitting in the middle of it...

Fine, Joshilyn. Be that way. We won't hate you because you're beautiful.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Same-old, Same-old

In biology there's a principle known as homeostasis. In a nutshell, it's the idea that all living creatures have some method of keeping internal conditions within comfortable (or at the very least, survivable) parameters. So it's only natural that we humans -- including those of us who take up the writing life -- should strive to stay within our comfort zones.

To me, homeostasis helps take the guilt factor out of what Steven Pressfield calls "resistance" in his excellent book, The War of Art. It's part of our nature to resist change. Even when that resistance stunts our growth and limits our future.

How? Take the writer striving toward publication, who can never seem to Finish the Damned Book. Or the one who can't quit tinkering with that first chapter or looking for validation through critique groups or opening-page contests. Or how about the writer who sways in the wind of every suggestion offered (by whomever!) until her original vision for the book is lost forever? And then there is the writer who can't seem to mail a query to an agent or a proposal to an editor, or the one who freezes, unable to post the full manuscript once it has been requested.

Homeostasis/resistance doesn't take a break when one is published. It keeps writers from trying a new form or genre. It prevents them from taking risks in their work. It locks them into a mental construct of their limits and prevents them from making the changes necessary to break through to the next level.

It's hard work pushing through our fears and taking chances. It never happens by accident but instead requires the force of will. So ask yourself as you go about your work this week: am I going to end up as stunted and twisted as an ancient bonsai, or will I break out of my tiny pot and thrust my mighty roots into the soil?

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Space, the final frontier

Last week I spoke at a Wellness Community Survivorship Symposium in Indianapolis, and before I went on, a panel of three other cancer survivors shared their stories. The first speaker was a dynamic dancer named Paula. (My daughter is a ballerina. I would recognize those power-calves anywhere.) She was absolutely terrific. Poised, passionate, and spot-on for the early morning message. After I spoke, I did a book signing. I was hoping Paula would hang around and chat with me and she did.

Not surprisingly, she was interested in writing a book, and I encouraged her to go for it.

"But how do you find the time?" she asked.

"It's not about the time," I told her. "It's about the space. Create a space for yourself to write, and the time will present itself."

When my sister, writer/producer Jas Lonnquist, first gave me the same advice I gave Paula, I had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma. My kids were 5 and 7 years old. We were living in a crummy (and by crummy I mean slummy) apartment that was supposed to be temporary and turned into the quicksand we were mired in for the year I was in treatment. The kids were stacked like cordwood in their bunkbeds. Gary's and my room was piled with U-Haul boxes. Even our closet was occupado with the biohazard containers and medical supplies needed for chemo.

But Jas's advice rang true. Creating that space in my home was an affirmation, an outward expression of the writing space I was consciously creating in my head, in my heart, in my life. I rescued a piece of laminated counter top from someone's trash in a nearby subdivision, procured three sturdy banana boxes from the produce department at Fiesta, bought an $8 folding chair at Hobby Lobby, and haggled for a 2-drawer file cabinet at a yard sale. Gary moved the sofa three feet or so from the wall, and in the sacrosanct little alley behind that couch, I finished my first two novels. In the twelve years since, I've staked my claim at every house. And once I started earning money as a writer, I insisted that my space include a door.

When someone starts to tell me they don't have the place, time, or opportunity to write that book they'd "give anything to write", I am dastardly unsympathetic. The fact is, we human beans find ways to do the things we truly want to do. The space isn't there to find. It has to be created, carved out, and defended with cannons and wolverines. Establishing that space is a powerful statement of intention. You're declaring to your family and yourself, This is my writing space. When I occupy this space, my purpose is to write.

The scary thing about doing that is, of course, then you have no excuse.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Give me a mystery

Give me a mystery—just a plain and simple one—a mystery which is diffidence and silence, a slim little, barefoot mystery: give me a mystery—just one!

So said Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, beautifully articulating the way human nature longs for puzzlement, for mazes to work our way through, for knots that beg to be untied.

Last night, I managed to tear myself away from Harlan Coben's Promise Me long enough to see the movie Mr. Brooks. I'm on a quest to improve my plotting skills and both the book and the movie provoked big thinky thoughts about what mystery is and what it needs in order to satisfy the cerebral tickle.


My husband had gone to see Mr. Brooks on Saturday night while I was slaving away over a hot critique meeting with the Midwives (actually, we were slaving away over a cold bottle of white wine, but I digress), and he could hardly contain himself long enough for me to go see it. He wanted to talk about it, wanted to compare thoughts, mental notes, theories.

The most wonderful thing about the wonderful Mr. Brooks script is that it does not tie things up with a bow. There is more mystery left at the end than we faced at the beginning, and somehow this is the far more satisfying resolution (not!) to the film. It's anti-whodunnit. We know from the beginning who did what to whom. At the end, we know some portion of the story was a dream, but how much, we're left wondering? All of it? Is it only the horrific scissors-in-the-neck moment? Everything after the hey-Costner-looks-pretty-good-in-his-birthday-suit scene by the kiln? Does his wife know the daughter is a murderer? Is his daughter planning to kill him? Gary and I will be debating it for days.

Part of the bell-ringing realism of Mr. Brooks is his tidy side. He has a penchant for optimization, and we can smoothly accept everything he's been able to accomplish (and see it as an "accomplishment"!) because of his careful attention to detail. To detailing. To a cleanliness that brings him to an orgasm of godliness, and what is godliness if not the power over life and death?

The most disheartening thing that can happen (for me anyway) in a mystery/thriller script or manuscript is that Scooby-Doo moment of unmasking and explanation. "And I'd have gotten away with it, too, if not for you meddlesome kids!" Why? Why? WHY? There has to be a profoundly pragmatic side to mystery or it simply does not ring the right bells. (This is why slasher movies have zero appeal for me. There just so damn impractical!)

I know this is not what he meant when he said this, but Herman Melville expressed it perfectly:
Mystery is in the morning, and mystery in the night, and the beauty of mystery is everywhere; but still the plain truth remains, that mouth and purse must be filled.

PS...later that same day...

How ironic is this? Not only did Promise Me (which was going so well!) end with a Scooby revelation, Coben actually writes:

She met his eye. "Only one thing messed me up."

Myron spread his hands. "Modesty prevents me from saying it."

"Then I will. You, Myron. You messed me up."

"You're not going to call me a meddlesome kid, are you? Like on Scooby-Doo?"

Harlan! Why, why, WHY?

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Muzzling the Inner Critic


Back in the bad old days of the Middle Ages, a device known as the branks, or scold's bridle, was used to torture women deemed to be too loud, too bitchy, or too inclined to cruel gossip. Locked into this hideous, metal gag, the unhappy female couldn't speak without injuring her tongue against the spikes.

I'm appalled, of course, but part of me says, "Heeeey, I've got a use for that. Finally, something to shut up the hellborne shrew sometimes known as the inner critic!"

You know her. She's the voice that mocks that daring new idea you just had, the one who sneers and rolls her eyes at your last paragraph, the bitch who whispers into you ear the cruelest lines of every rejection, nasty comment, bad review, or taunt you've heard since second grade. Is is any wonder you can't write, with this harpy from hell leaning in over your shoulder?

So you have to find some way to silence her to allow you to create. Some writers have tried blunting her sharp tongue with drugs or alcohol. Others whine incessantly. Countless more have given up their dreams (which allows her to sit back in smug satisfaction). But let's discount each of these self-destructive stop-gap measures.

One thing that's worked for me is to give the shrew her space - within limits. Every morning, before I get to work, I edit. During this time, I listen to her commentary and winnow out the wisdom (and it's there) from the patently-ridiculous. But the deal is that after that she has to keep her mouth shut when I'm writing. My evening sessions, especially, I consider experimental, a form of brainstorming on paper. And in brainstorming you save all ideas, no matter how bad you suspect they might be. My internal editor might raise an eyebrow now and then, but she's mostly content to bide her time, waiting for the morning, when she will get her due.

Once in a while, though, she gets out of control, so I whip out of piece of paper -- this has to be in longhand, since the computer's for "real writing" -- and try to make a list called "Ten Reasons I Can't Do This." Once I've written down each dollop of nastiness, I read the list -- and usually start laughing. On paper, the scold's "reasons" look so stupid, so self-pitying, that its easy to wad up the paper or tear it into confetti and toss it in the trash where it belongs.

These are just a couple of my methods. You can find more in two of my favorite writers' resources, The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron, and (especially) The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. These may be the most important writing books I own. Certainly, they're the two that I reach for most often -- because self-doubt never really goes away. It is only temporarily muzzled by the writer's act of will.

So does anyone else have a great method for silencing the inner critic? It's an arm's race here in the trenches, and I'm always looking for new weapons...

Or maybe someone has a spare scold's bridle she could lend me.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Brilliant Diversions of the Lazy Brain

Brains, being... you know, brains, are so darned clever about getting out of work. Especially sustained, detailed work, such as the writing of a novel. Aside from the everyday diversions mine throws at me -- surfing (channel or 'Net), computer games (another round of Scrabble, anyone?), household chores (on rare occasions), Starbucks (where I accomplish nothing) -- I have to contend with the coup de grace, the blindingly-brilliant diversionary idea.

This "brilliant" idea invariably occurs when the going gets tough on the project-in-progress. Inspiration, by this point, has faltered, and there's nothing to do except trudge through the neck-deep, icy muck of hard, mental labor to find my way to the other side. False starts are inevitable and hours of wasted work quite likely. Then, out of the blue, I'm awakened at two or three AM with the idea: the most perfect, wonderful, sure-fire concept for a book that anyone, anywhere has every conceived. My agent will go crazy. A bidding war will erupt. People will line up to buy multiple copies (one to read, one to loan, and one to keep pristine, as an investment).
Move over J.K. Rowling, because my world domination is assured.

In all my excitement, I can't go back to sleep. Besides, if I do that, I might forget this incredible idea. So I jot it down on a notepad I keep beside my bed for just such emergencies. Then I try to catch a few more Zs.

Sometimes, when I wake up and read my hastily-scribbled notes (when they're legible), I can see the truth of it. Other times, I waste a few hours typing rapid-fire notes to flesh out the idea before I force myself back to my contracted work. But almost invariably, when I have time to actually work on this "fabulous" idea, I see it for what it was. A will-o'-the-wisp, that leads me off the path and into danger. A mirage on the horizon, whose shimmer distracts me from digging to the hidden spring beneath my feet.

For me, a truly good idea develops over time. It pulls at my subconscious like a lodestone and comes together slowly, bit by bit. To reach its potential, it requires hard work, almost daily, along with the commitment to see it through to the end.

So what does your brain do to distract you from the true course? And what techniques do you use to ignore its protestations and finally reach "the end"?


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