Tuesday, July 31, 2007

PR pirates: how to blip the radar screen


Stranded on the tarmac in Orlando this aft, I finally had time to read through some articles I'd been storing on my trusty laptop. Seems to me this item from Poets & Writers was sent to me by a fellow working girl after a conversation about how midlist authors can catch some of the free PR that flows so freely to our industry betters.

In "Literary Journalists: How to Get on Their Radar", Jen A. Miller writes:
Those authors savvy about acting as their own publicists also probably know, as any good (and not-so-good) publicist does, that freelance writers are invaluable contacts. Of the 320,000 editors and writers working in the United States, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates that one-third are independently employed. That's more than 100,000 of us freelancers out there, searching for the next great story...The author-freelancer connection can be fruitful for both parties. So how can literary writers align themselves with freelancers? Not all freelancers are the same, of course, but knowing who we are, what we do, what we're looking for, and when, can help you on your way to forging that connection.


Miller goes on to give some great advice about where freelancers can be found and how to approach them. Click here to read the article in its entirety.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The buzz on Morbid Curiosity by Deborah LeBlanc

It seemed like the answer to Haley’s prayers. The most popular girl in her high school promised Haley that her life would change forever if only she performed certain dark rituals. And if Haley can convince her twin sister to participate, their power will double. Together they will be able to summon mystical entities they never dared dream of. But these are powerful, uncontrollable forces, forces that can kill—forces that demand to be fed . . .

If this leaves you wanting to know more about Deborah LeBlanc's new thriller Morbid Curiosity, you're in luck. It's avaialable in bookstores everywhere (and online, of course) this month.

The buzz:
“One of the best new voices of supernatural thrillers!” ~ Cemetery Dance

“It’s now official: Deborah LeBlanc has become a master not only of good spooky stories, but also of crafting great characters to fill them!” ~ Horror Fiction Review

“An imaginative chiller. Riveting!” ~ Publishers Weekly

“Ms. LeBlanc’s tale is a powerful, gripping read, with an ever increasing intensity that forces you to the end without laying the novel aside.” ~ Who Dunnit

Go, girlfriend, go!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Deborah LeBlanc: one writer's curious beginning

Deborah LeBlanc is out on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week with her new thriller, Morbid Curiosity.

I'm always fascinated by writers' beginnings, so noodling around Deborah's web site, I was intrigued to discover that she's a licensed death scene investigator (which is actually not a surprising genesis for the president of the Horror Writers Association.) I also loved this little backstory:
Her first short story was written in the second grade, a tale about a misfit mermaid who grew legs. Admonished for writing the story instead of doing an assigned arithmetic lesson, Deborah's teacher confiscated the pages, and as recompense for not following instructions, gave her an additional math lesson to complete. At the end of the school day, the teacher pulled Deborah aside. Fearing that she might be forced to do additional math, Deborah listened in amazement as the teacher told her she'd read the mermaid story, thought she was a wonderful storyteller, and encouraged her to continue writing. Though the pages of that story were never returned, Deborah has been writing ever since. And she still hates math.

Tune in tomorrow for more about the buzz on Morbid Curiosity. Meanwhile, click here to watch the book trailer.

Friday, July 27, 2007

What's Opera, Doc?

Okay, it's Friday. Time to lighten up for a moment. I woke up from a dream about my favorite Bugs Bunny short, "What's Opera, Doc?", the send up of Wagnerian splendor starring Bugs and Elmer Fudd. I loved this cartoon when I was a little girl. The first time I saw it, I was so taken with it, I got my big sister Diana to help me search through the gigantic bins of record albums upstairs at the public library for the source music. We found Wagner...and Puccini...and Verdi...and my lifelong love of opera was born.

I dream about this Bugs ep from time to time, and I have all sorts of theories about why. Perhaps my subconscious is telling me to lighten up. Or perhaps it's reminding me of the fundamental elements of story that remain unchanged from Die Feen to das Fudd. Or maybe it's something far deeper about the psycho-sexual ramifications of the cross-dressing Bugs. Or maybe it's something about the smallest, silliest seed growing into a lifelong passion.

Ponder with me. Click her to watch "What's Opera, Doc?" in its entirety on YouTube.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A few things that just make my head hurt

Poor Colleen is suffering from the mother of all migraines this week. My heart seriously goes (very quietly) out to her. One of the glib little expressions that oft crosses my lips is, "That just makes my head hurt," and while I will be a little less cavalier about tossing that very relative phrase around for a while, I thought I'd share a few of those things people say that just flog my noggin with a 2X4.

"Everybody has a book in them."
No. They don't. Writers have books in them, and sometimes getting that book out is only slightly less effort than gestating and giving birth to a walrus. Other times it comes out like the toothy little creature that bursts from the guy's abdomen in the movie Alien. My standard response to this one is, "Everybody has a spleen in them, too. Only on rare occasions should it be taken out and displayed on a shelf."

"I'm writing a fiction novel."
Ow! Ow! My head! I can't even think of a scathing response. Usually, this is followed by "Would you be willing to read it and recommend me to your agent?" What can I say? My agent only reps nonfiction novels?

"No one can see me or hear me but you."
I was stunned to hear a variation on this iconic elk turd of exposition the other night in the much ballyhooed series Saving Grace starring Holly Hunter. I love Holly Hunter. I think she's twelve shades of fabulous, and this show was being talked up like it was the greatest writing since Exodus. I was looking forward to it, but I'm sorry, the script was just plain dumb, and when the dude on death row launched into his explanation of what a "last chance angel" is (because he is inexplicably knowledgeable about "last chance angel" codes and policies), tossing in the duh, ya think detail "No one can see him but you" -- oh, my little turtle ears...OW! My F#@%ING HEAD! How many dozen ways are there to show and not tell this factoid or any other factoid for that matter? Why, why, why is that writer's car so much nicer than mine? I swear by Holly's opening scene body double and all else that is pure and holy in the universe, I will not ever type those words in any manuscript. Ever.

Meanwhile...praise God and pass the Advil. Every time I get off on a rant about one thing or another that makes me nuts about the shuffling of words, I quickly remember how lucky I am to be doing what I do for a living. My head is generally a pleasant place, pain-free and full of ideas, for which I am grateful.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tool Time: backing up online

Friday night at Midwives, we were discussing cheap/free ways to back up and store manuscripts online, a topic which usually begins with horror stories about some massive amount of words being lost to fire, floods, or computer crashes. I was a bad backer-upper for a long time and really lived with my heart in my throat about it until I did my first away from home ghost gig. Living in a funky little theatre neighborhood apartment in Manhattan, working for a client who frankly scared me (and whose project will never see the light of day), I realized I seriously needed online storage in case my lap top was stolen.

First I sent myself a Gmail invitation and set up an address with the name of the project to which I could email everything as I wrote it. I like that Gmail is organized through a super-searchable archive instead of folders. Now I set up a Gmail account for each book project, send the drafts there as I work, and forward copies of all my email pertaining to the book to that book's Gmail account, which keeps it all nice and frosty in one place. (And Gmail's chat feature made it possible for me to kibitz with my kids while they were in Amsterdam recently.)

Ghost books, however, also involve audio files of interviews uploaded from my digital recorder. Too bulky to email to scarymeanclient@gmail.com, so I set up online storage for relatively cheap at Streamload, which is now MediaMax. Online storage is super secure, easy and quick to upload, and I can email links that allow a third party to access a single file from my little cyber-fridge without giving out too much info on the account. They offer a free account with 25 GBs, but I quickly upgraded to support those bulky sound files, and now I have plenty of elbow room for photos and other stuff, too.

Another little gem I couldn't live without: the snappy red jump drive that enables me to pop back and forth between desk top and lap top, so my office easily travels with me from Houston to New York...or Starbucks...or my favorite Adirondack chair out on the patio.

Monday, July 23, 2007

It's All Relative


As I've prepared lectures for an online class I'm teaching (Emotionally Engage from the Very First Page), I've been doing a lot of analytical thinking about what makes certain stories and in particular certain characters reach out and grab me by the gut. I can easily list characters with whom I immediately bonded and would follow anywhere (sometimes through some pretty damned unlikely plots.) Among the standouts: Gus McCrae (Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry), Odd Thomas (Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz), Stephanie Plum (One for the Money, Janet Evanovich), Harry Potter (If you don't know, I'm not telling). Sure, there have been books whose plots, premises, and writing styles gripped me -- books that were wildly successful by anybody's standards. (Although I thorougly enjoyed The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, I really didn't care about the protagonists as people.) But the ones whose *characters* captured my imagination are the ones I recall most vividly, and not coincidentally, these characters have garnered the fervid devotion of countless fans.

So how does an author create instant rapport with a larger-than-life character in a tough-to-imagine situation? I believe it's all about relating to emotions with which the average reader can easily identify. Odd Thomas is a young short-order cook who sees dead people and works for justice on their behalf. Pretty tough to relate to on the surface, but he succeeds as a character because Koontz so quickly establishes his humility (his greatest aspiration is tire sales), his intense, teenage love for his girlfriend, and especially his earnest vulnerability. The wry, self-deprecating wit helps, too, and in no time flat, the reader is rooting for this kid.

J.K. Rowling works similar magic with Harry Potter. On the surface, this kiddo shouldn't be relatable. He not only has magical powers, they're unprecendented even in his special world. But Rowling quickly establishes sympathy by setting up Harry as this downtrodden Cinderfella who's the object of much bullying and makes us feel his both his wonder and confusion as the truth begins to be revealed.

Everyone has felt picked on. Nearly everyone has felt the hopeless intensity of young love. And rooting for the underdog -- the little person who somehow finds the guts to fight back -- is practically hard-wired into our DNA.

For me, the lesson in this is to look at my book's opening and ask myself what universal emotions am I using to help my reader relate to someone in one hell of a pickle. If I fail to do so, I could still have a good story. But with that extra boost, I will have something far, far greater.

Does anyone have a great tip for helping the reader relate to the book's characters? I'm always looking for a sharper blade in my arsenal.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Lily Allen makes deplorable adorable

My daughter Jerusha recently introduced me to the delightfully profane music of British singer/songwriter Lily Allen, who looks like Petula Clark, sings like your baby sister, and says stuff like...like this:
There was a little old lady, who was walkin down the road
She was struggling with bags from Tesco
There were people from the city havin lunch in the park
I believe that it's called al fresco
Then a kid came along to offer a hand

But before she had time to accept it
hits her over the head, doesn't care if she's dead
Cause he's got all her jewellery and wallet


And I guess this would be Lily's idea of a love song:

Now listen I think you and me have come to the end of our time,
What d'you want some kind of reaction?
Well ok that's fine,
Alright how would it make you feel if I told you that you never ever made me come?
In the year and a half that we spent together,
Yeah I never really had much fun...

I could see it in your face when you give it to me gentle,
Yeah you really must think your great,
Let's see how you feel in a couple of weeks,
When I work my way through your mates.

I never wanted it to end up this way,
You've only got yourself to blame,
I'm gonna tell them that your rubbish in bed now
and that your small in the game.

It's gotten me thinking about the juxtaposition of innocence and profanity and why it surprises and amuses us so. A trucker saying the F word = so what? But a nun saying the F word = hilarious. Because Lily Allen has the face and voice of a cherub, her gritty lyrics smack us upside the head in an entirely different way. The backstory is hinted at. How did this girl get to this place in her head?

According to the bio on her official website:
Lily Allen is the 21 year old strange glint in her eyes singer/writer who has been tearing up the web at a rate of knots. When she was a young girl- "I was very lonely actually. I went to 13 different schools so never had time to make enduring friendships. Music became a lifeline to me."

Lily finally left school at 15 when it became obvious her creative needs were not being met. "I always read a lot. It was frustrating moving schools so much because I always felt I couldn't articulate my feelings as much as I wanted to. Books and music helped me do that. I became obsessed by quite arcane subjects, like second world war evacuation stories and books about 18th century aristocracy. I started to feel like I could have a voice. But I wanted to write about my own world in an entertaining way. So I did."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Of Mice and Muggles

I'm resolving right now to spend the rest of my summer reading time on the publishing phenomenom I should have been following for years: Harry Potter.

My reading stack grows a lot faster than I can read, so books about a boy wizard were easy to set aside. I mean, the size of the tomes alone makes them gravitate toward the bottom of my heap. My kids have been bugging me to read Harry Potter books since the first one came out ten years ago, and at 18 and 20 years old, they are both planning to be standing in line tomorrow at midnight when the last Potter book goes on sale.

What finally made me resolve to cross over to the dark side was an article in today's New York Times, which says in part:
It is Ms. Rowling’s achievement in this series that she manages to make Harry both a familiar adolescent — coping with the banal frustrations of school and dating — and an epic hero, kin to everyone from the young King Arthur to Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. This same magpie talent has enabled her to create a narrative that effortlessly mixes up allusions to Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and Kafka, with silly kid jokes about vomit-flavored candies, a narrative that fuses a plethora of genres (from the boarding-school novel to the detective story to the epic quest) into a story that could be Exhibit A in a Joseph Campbell survey of mythic archetypes.

In doing so, J. K. Rowling has created a world as fully detailed as L. Frank Baum’s Oz or J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, a world so minutely imagined in terms of its history and rituals and rules that it qualifies as an alternate universe, which may be one reason the “Potter” books have spawned such a passionate following and such fervent exegesis. With this volume, the reader realizes that small incidents and asides in earlier installments (hidden among a huge number of red herrings) create a breadcrumb trail of clues to the plot, that Ms. Rowling has fitted together the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of this long undertaking with Dickensian ingenuity and ardor.

Clearly, the Harry Potter series is a lesson in plot construction, world-building, character development, and voice that no novelist should miss. And beyond that, I think JK Rowling is a magnificent role model for writers. Despite her gallactic success, she's stayed frosty on the personal side, comporting herself with dignity, charity, and an astonishing lack of up yours to the people who contributed the "rags" to the "rags to riches" aspect of her early career. But beyond all that is her staunch refusal to phone in or slapdash these books, which she could have been cranking out like...well, like certain mega-authors who no longer have their feet held to the editorial fire. The Potter series is also a lesson in artistic integrity, which can and should triumph over greed, but often--here in Muggleworld--does not.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Remembering the Dream




Back in 1998, I attended my very first national Romance Writers of America convention with two things: a newly-signed contract on my first novel and a dream, the dream that at the following year's conference, I, too, would be among the hundreds of authors signing for literacy.

It was a powerful dream, filled with longing and excitement, and when it finally happened, it marked an achievement I would never forget.

The dream remains, as vivid as ever. I glimpsed it in the faces of hundreds of yet-to-be-sold authors. I saw it in the shining eyes of my brilliant critique partner, T.J. Bennett, whose debut historical romance, The Legacy, will be out in time for next year's signing. And I saw the culmination of the dream in the smiles of West Houston RWA chaptermates Teri Thackston and Brandy Jordan (pictured above) as they sat on the other side of the aisle for the very first time with their debut novels.

Like a lot of other authors, I tend to focus on the new goals and lose sight of those I have accomplished. Sometimes, it's great to be reminded of the power of those I have achieved. Thanks, ladies, congratulations, and welcome to the sisterhood of the written word!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Eliciting Emotion


One of the best things I did while attending the RWA National Conference in Dallas was spending two hours listening to screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge give a talk called "From Identity to Essence: Love Stories and Transformation." It was a session filled with little gems, and you don't have to be a romance writer to understand their importance.

Hauge spoke of the number one principal of story to be eliciting emotion. A lot of people might wrinkle their noses, thinking of purple prose and melodrama, but that's only what you call it when it's done poorly. What the author is trying to do is help the reader experience the protagonist's authentic emotions by pulling him/her so deep into the character's experience that he/she is experiencing the tension, fighting the fear, or falling in love with the one person who sees through her mask (outward-projected identity) to the fully-realized potential (essence) beneath.

That was one of the many things Hauge said that resonated with me. (Check out his website for CDs and DVD classes. He's an amazing teacher.) It reminded me of my primary job, to create an identifiable but heroic protagonist who's a (braver, finer) stand-in for the reader and to take along that reader for a "safe" emotional ride.

Because without emotion, what's the point? You might as well be reading the phone book.

Today, as you go about your own work, take a look at your scene and ask yourself what emotions your characters are feeling and how you can communicate it in a deeply-personal way. No fair saying, "John was in a funk." You have to draw that reader between the dude's ears and let him/her come to that conclusion.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Focus


Just back from the annual conference of the Romance Writers of America, I'm feeling tired, brain-buzzed, and more convinced than ever that the real name of the publishing game -- at least when it comes to the writer -- is her focus.

It's so easy to be swept up in new trends, the latest self-promotion frenzy, and the sheer energy of great ideas. So easy to get lost in "I Should Be Doing That, Too" that we lose sight of what's important.

So what's important? For each person, the answer will be different, and usually, it takes many years to figure out that target: the personal definition of success at which all the arrows of one's effort should be aimed. Since the target varies with each person, so will the methods of reaching it. In other words, what's worked for an author writing with one goal/audience in mind probably won't work for you. That's why trend-chasers rarely catch up to trend-setters. And why a truly great book can easily outrun both.

Economy of effort in one's career is as critical as economy of words is in one's manuscript. For each strategy considers, it's important to ask "Is this moving me in the direction of the goal? Is it appropriate for my audience? Does it fit both my time and financial budget?" Prioritizing is a necessity, and those who fail to do so eventually flutter to the pathside a publishing like spent and crumpled moths.

So give yourself permission to blaze your own trail -- one that takes you to the unique target of your choice.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Julie Kenner: Demons Are Forever

“What would happen if Buffy the Vampire Slayer got married, moved to the suburbs and became a stay-at-home mom? She’d be a lot like Kate Conner.” ~ Publishers Weekly

Gotta love my fellow Texan and sister in caffeine addiction, Julie Kenner, who says she "spent four years mainlining nonfat lattes" in order to write, practice law full time and take care of kid #1. Now powered by plenty of bestselling buzz (not to mention that second baby girl), Julie has finally quit the proverbial day job. She's writing full time, making the rounds on the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with her latest in as series about a demon hunting mom, which strikes me as a combination rife with both symbolism and comic potential.

Here's the taste-tempting PR on Demons Are Forever: Confessions of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom:
Kate Connor is the busiest – and most dangerous – mommy on the block! Having traded in her professional life for the rewarding (yet arguably less glamorous) duties of a stay-at-home mom, Kate – Wal-Mart shopper, loving wife – has recently rejoined the workforce. Reconciling her home obligations with the demanding needs of her job has proven tricky, however. Kate seems to have not one but two full-time jobs, and there’s no telling which takes more work: being a Level Four Demon Hunter or a Stay-At-Home Mom!

Demons Are Forever: Confessions of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom is the third installment in the devilishly funny Demon series, which has become a favorite amongst young mothers — demon-loving or not. These days, Kate Conner has a lot on her plate. Her daughter has figured out what she’s been up to, and wants to grow up to be just like her mom. Kate also has a sneaking suspicion that her dead husband is using the forces of darkness to filch the body of another human being. And her living husband isn’t exactly acting like the man she married either.

Moreover, Kate’s acquired a precious but deadly item that every demon within commuting distance wants. With husband woes wrecking havoc on her emotions, and an ambitious teenage protégée at her heels, this stay-at-home mom is putting in a lot of overtime. A new take on the demons that moms fight everyday, from car-pools, to chaperoning, to growing pains, Demons Are Forever is a fun, fast, smart and entertaining adventure in mommy-lit.


Carpe Demon, the first book in Julie's series, is currently in development as a feature film with Warner Brothers and 1492 Pictures, and the second, California Demon, is a current RITA finalist.

Go, girlfriend, go!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Very superstitious, writing's on the wall

I consider myself spiritual, but not exactly religious. I wouldn't say I'm superstitious, either, but I have a longstanding ritual that I observe every time I send out a manuscript, proposal, or demo materials.

Up for a crazy cool co-author gig, I FedExed copies of my last two books to the prospective client today. Before I handed over the package, I kissed it, pressed it to my forehead, and whispered, "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace." That's the only prayer I allow myself to speak on behalf of my career, because so often the things we think would be super chilly awesome blow up in our faces, and the things that we would have never in a million years thought to pray for pay out big time.

It took me a long time to figure out that this is the essence (for me) of faith. Not that I believe with unshakable certainty that God will hear and obey my mandates, but that I am peaceful and open to any of the possible tides and eddies of the Tao.

Remember that classic Stevie Wonder song?

Very superstitious, writing's on the wall
Very superstitious, ladders bout' to fall
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin' glass
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past

When you believe in things that you don't understand,
Then you suffer.
Superstition ain't the way.


But I think it's better if you flip that last part.

When you don't understand things that you believe in,
Then you suffer.
Superstition ain't the way.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Just sitting here spinning straw into gold

Okay, my mom and I were talking yesterday and somehow the subject of Rumpelstiltskin came up. I think I said something about writers being expected to spin straw into gold just like...well, that girl...who was locked in the attic and told to spin straw into gold.

"Yes, what was her name?" said Mom. "Not Rapunzel..."

What was her name? I had no idea, and it became one of those niggling questions that gets stuck in your head like the little song they play on the Small World ride at Disney World. (Don't fight it. Resistance is futile. Just sing it over and over until you either pass out or hit yourself in the head with a hammer, and meanwhile, what was that chick's name?!)

Answer: She doesn't have one.

Some poking around today turned up nothing more than "the miller's daughter" and later in the story, "the queen." I find that kind of interesting. How could she not have a name?

"She doesn't get a name because the story's not about her," said Jerusha.

But...yes, it is! She is the one who is challenged, who changes and prevails. The journey is hers.

This is the first question I have to sort out with every novel I write: Who is this book about? And the answer is not always readily available. The novel I just finished was hijacked by a service person who was hired to clean the house of the main (or so I thought) character. So thinking about it from that perspective, I have to wonder...is the story about the miller's daughter? Fairy tales are almost always neatly formed around the title character. Rapunzel. Snow White. Cinderella.

Rumpelstiltskin.

Who is this story really about? And what does "about" mean anyway? I mean, what's that about. If you care to join me in pondering, you may want to refer to this fun annotated Rumpelstiltskin from SurLaLune Fairy Tales.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Behind light words


Walking the doggies in a swampy area up the road a while back, I saw an orchid.

Got the same feeling early this morning when I came upon this poem:

Revelation
by Robert Frost

We make ourselves a place apart
Behind light words that tease and flout,
But oh, the agitated heart
Till someone really find us out.

'Tis pity if the case require
(Or so we say) that in the end
We speak the literal to inspire
The understanding of a friend.

But so with all, from babes that play
At hide-and-seek to God afar,
So all who hide too well away
Must speak and tell us where they are.

from Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Me and Mr. Toad: We look brave...but are we?

A horrible thing happened this morning. I was mowing the lawn and hit a large toad. It didn't kill him, but it lopped off a significant portion of his snout. So I guess, yeah, by now it has most likely killed him. (Please God, make it have killed him.) When I saw him blinking up at me and realized I was seeing the fine ivory bone of his mandible and the pulse of...something...in his gaping mouth, I screamed, scooped him up, and ran inside, chanting like a monk, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!"

When Gary heard me crying and frantic, he came hobbling (he blew out his knee, which is why he's not mowing the damn lawn) thinking I'd hurt myself. I held the poor creature forward between my hands, and it writhed in pain and terror.

"I hit a toad with the mower!" I cried. "Get me something to put him in! We have to take him to the vet!"

"Let me see," Gary said calmly. He gently took the toad, carried it out back, and tossed it into a tall stand of Boston ferns.

Stunned, I started sobbing, "Oh, God, why did you do that? We'll never find it. It'll die."

"It needs to die," Gary said quietly. "It'll be dead in a few minutes." And then he took me in his arms, even though he was freshly showered and shaved, and I was a gross, sweaty, grass-stained toad murderer.

Something you have to know about Gary here is that he is a rescuer. If he sees a turtle on the road -- and I'm talking any road, including the I-45 feeder on numerous occasions -- he will pull over or circle back and get that turtle and deliver it to some appropriately swampy location nearby. Same with snakes, poisonous or not. And toads and frogs and lizards. The very last thing I expected him to do was pitch that toad off the deck into the bushes.

Weeping and pushing the mower through the rest of the jungle that was our front yard, I found myself thinking of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Remember how people expected him to kill that rabid dog? And not because he was cruel, but because he was kind. Because he was discerning and a good marksman. And because he was benevolent enough to do it.

People are fond, in our biz, of the phrase "kill your darlings." I certainly don't equate the cutting of words with the killing of a living creature, because, well, novels are made by fools like me, and only God can make a tree...frog. So don't email me and tell me it's not the same. I know. I'm just saying the killing of one's darlings requires that same discerning and benevolent marksmanship, and an author will most likely not find that within herself.

Colleen posted the other day about being in the company of writers, and this is one of the ways in which networking is so crucial to the art and business of writing. You might be a spot-on, surgically intuitive critique artist when it comes to someone else's work, but there are times when each of us has to find her Atticus. Someone brave and loving enough to be heartless and tell us it needs to die. An editor. An agent. A critique partner. If I've injured an opportunity beyond salvation, if I've mangled an idea or carelessly mowed over a professional relationship, I need someone I trust to step up and tell me to let it go.

I feel really terrible about that toad. Couldn't stop thinking about him all day. Even at the moment I scooped him up in my hands, I was thinking about a book I must have read to my children a thousand times: Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel.

Frog and Toad were reading a book together.

"The people in this book are very brave," said Toad. "They fight dragons and giants, and they are never afraid."

"I wonder if we are brave," said Frog.

Frog and Toad looked in the mirror.

"We look brave," said Frog.

"Yes, but are we?" asked Toad.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Mother to the man

My son turned 20 yesterday. He is twenty years old.

Twenty. Years. Old.

Here he is on a train in London:

Here he is inside my head:

I am the mother of a man. He's educated me far more than I could have ever hoped to educate him. Over the past two decades, in addition to making me laugh daily and investing my life with enormous joy and meaning, he's shown me the pragmatics of how a human being unfolds, and I can't begin to quantify what that's done for me as a writer.

He and his 18-year-old sister are spending the week in Amsterdam while Gary and I sit home repeating "anne frank house anne frank house anne frank house", because isn't that what young people go to Amsterdam for? That and the Van Gogh Museum, right? Nod now. Please.

My sanity has been saved by Gmail's chat feature. I've been clinging to my computer, hoping to see a little green icon by my son's name on my contact list. At first things were not going Dutchtastically well. They arrived at the Bulldog, a popular youth hostel, to find it booked solid from now until wooden shoes go out of style. They hit an Internet cafe to develop Strategy 2.0, and ended up booking a cheap room where they would take turns sleeping on the floor.
Ok, I've consigned myself to staying at that hotel (the bathroom light is broken and I had to tighten the bulb standing on a wet tile floor) tonight and tomorrow. Some guy just walked by the door and said something to me that I can only describe as "completely insane" in a mixture of Dutch and English. Anyway, I just wanted to let you both know that we're alright. We went to the history museum today. Amsterdam is an amazingly boring city. Seriously. Muncie, Indiana has a more interesting history.

But things seem to have improved today.
Our trip is going a little better. We had a good time yesterday, and got some excellent souvenir shopping done today. Jerusha is behind me talking to a bunch of Australians. They just got here from Ho Chi Minh City, which is awesome.

I am the mother of a man, and I'm glad he's the kind of man who appreciates the awesomeness of Ho Chi Minh City, the kind of man who goes to Amsterdam with no reservations, literally and figuratively. My son is wildly creative and funny, and it is thrilling to see him taking ownership of his life. But I am terrified by the prospect of his freedom.

As a writer, I set a wonderful and terrible example for my children. They've seen the high-diving horse trick up close. Yawn. They are unimpressed by my survival in a business where so few are allowed to thrive. They have this horrendous idea in their heads that you can decide to do something that everyone else -- including your mother -- tells you cannot or should not be done and then go do that. They've seen that dry spells without security or steady cash flow are not fatal. They think that failure is invariably followed by rebound, that weeping endureth for a night but a royalty check cometh in the morning. They've been infected with the ideology of doing as you damn please and think that it's worth it to let the proverbial chips fall where they may, even though that usually means buffalo chips falling on your head.

Have I done them grave harm or a huge favor with all that? The Bohemian in me wants to believe that freedom of thought, an eagerness to experience the world, and a grand vision of one's destiny are great gifts. But right now the mother in me is saying...

anne frank house anne frank house anne frank house...

Sunday, July 08, 2007

In the Company of Writers

This coming week, I'll be AWOL from BtO as I travel to Dallas for the national conference of the Romance Writers of America. This will be either the ninth or tenth such conference I've attended, and over the years, I've found my reasons for going have changed.

At first, I was there for the workshops. I attended everything possible (exhausting myself in the process) and nearly swooned to see Nora Roberts and many other favorites. I dutifully showed up at every reception and luncheon, and I went to every publisher spotlight to hang on each editors' words of wisdom in the hope of picking up a clue. (This is a good thing, as I was desperately in need of one.) I enjoyed hearing presentations by agents and more experienced authors and really picked up a ton of information.

I still swoon over a few authors and attend a few of the workshops. I still go to some of the publishers' spotlights, where I try to winnow possible shifts in direction from the chaff of propoganda and "helpful" advice. ("We're looking for a strong voice" or "I can't say what the next big thing is, but I'll know it when I see it." Now there's some wishful thinking.) I go to meet with my agent (a new one this year) and hang out with the wonderful folks from my publishing house. But mostly, I go for the company of writers. Over the years, I've made a lot of friends in the trenches. We've been in the business long enough to know that markets can shift, once-promising starts can go down in flames, and the most downtrodden author can soar to the bestseller lists on the power of a great idea -- if she keeps trying. We've learned the power of discreetly shared information and that we can learn much about trends in the industry simply by listening to each other, and we've learned that real friends root for each other. We celebrate each success and stand firm through the failures. When we're able, we reach down and give our girlfriends a hand up.

Just as importantly, I've learned to avoid the voices of doom. You know them, the ones who are always, always looking for the negative and predicting disaster. Disaster's a very real possibility in this business, but who wants to ruin the good times by constantly looking for it? To me, it's like wasting your whole life in a funk because you know you're going to die someday. Those Eeyore personalities can be contagious and ruin the whole trip for me, so I carefully keep my distance, just as I try hard not to squash the dreams of the next generation of emerging writers.

I'll give you a report when I get back.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Colleen hits the bookstores Head On!

BtO mainstay Colleen Thompson hit the bookstores this week with her latest sexy thriller, Head On, a novel inspired by the tragic story of a collision that took the lives of several teens and by Colleen's sister's career as a traveling hospice nurse.

First, check out the flap copy so we're all on the same page:

Hell On Wheels...

The full moon brings out the crazies; anyone in emergency services knows that. But for hospice nurse Beth Ann Decker, the gruesome murder that rocks Hatcher County is shockingly unexpected. As is the return of the Texas community's most hated prodigal son -- Mark Jessup. Sixteen years before, the town's bad boy was behind the wheel of a pickup that left three cheerleaders dead and Beth Ann so badly injured that people whispered she'd have been better off in the grave with them.

Jessup is all man now -- tough, uncompromising, rich -- and a possible suspect in this new killing. Beth Ann knows he's the last person she should be spending time with, especially when a nighttime intruder makes it clear that she herself is a target. But in Mark's heated gaze, Beth Ann sees something a lot more exciting than pity. No matter how dangerous the road ahead, she's dead set on meeting life, and love...Head On.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this story unfold ten pages at a time in Midwives last year. Colleen makes some unorthodox (hence incredibly brave) choices in Head On. A heroin who's not physically flawless. A hero who's the single dad of a biracial child. But what makes the book uniquely and deliciously Colleeny is her knack for landscaping. Colleen builds an amazing sense of place into this book with her pitch-perfect dialogue and wryly loving portrayal of the tiny prairie towns that dot North Texas.

Gotta love the buzz:

"Thompson's novel is filled with realistic dialogue, compelling narrative and believable conflict. The multiple viewpoints add dimension to the plot, and the characterizations are very well done." ~ Romantic Times

"Well written with realistic and appealing characters, HEAD ON is a mesmerizing story that keeps readers guessing as the murderer draws closer and secrets are revealed. A compelling tale of romantic suspense, it is a strong, satisfying read." ~ Romance Reviews Today

"Collen Thompson creates some really intriguing plot twists and turns combining the past with the present to begin to curve a great future for the characters. As the reader you have to wonder how they will ever get past all of this upset but the steps along the way are incredible. The characters are all strong in their own right but when combined they become explosive. By the end of HEAD ON the reader will have a lot of words to describe Beth Ann but poor won't be one of them." ~ Once Upon a Romance

"HEAD ON is packed with tension and hard-edge suspense. The story is unforgettable and weaves a rich tapestry of good and evil. Prepare yourself for an all-nighter. HEAD ON really delivers. It's a great read." ~ Fresh Fiction

Go, Colleen, go!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Four for the Fourth: Why American Writers Have It Good



On the Fourth of July, it seems appropriate to say Happy Birthday, USA, and to list four reasons I'm grateful, not only as a human being but as a writer, to live in this country.

1. Creativity is valued. From Hollywood to Nashville to New York, writers are valued for, if nothing else, their contribution to commerce. Whether the world loves or hates this country, its contribution to entertainment can't be denied.
2. By and large, the government leaves writers alone. There's no hit squad that shows up at your door after midnight and drags you off, never to be seen again, if you're critical of the regime du jour. No religious police will have you stoned or branded or run you out of the country should your work be deemed "sinful".
3. America gets the power of a dream. We're a nation that takes its dreamers more seriously than most, a country that understands that no matter a person's gender, race, religion, age, or disability, he or she still has the potential to come up with a brilliant idea.
4. Despite the emphasis on the commercial, the purely artistic flourishes. Popular books and movies rule the marketplace, but America's big enough and broad-minded enough to embrace worthwhile forms with smaller audiences, from small-stage plays to poetry readings to poetry slams. People of like interests come together to make art and share art. And with very few exceptions, no one has any say in what we read/watch/enjoy.

Most recently, I was reminded of our freedoms as I read Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, by Azar Nifisi. It made me appreciate what I have -- and appreciate the founding fathers (and mothers!) who struggled to establish a nation where "the pursuit of happiness" is far more than an empty phrase.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Kernel of Arrogance




In her excellent post, Joni mentioned my thoughts on the "kernel of arrogance" each writer needs to be successful, so I thought I'd expand on the theory.

In the heart of every writer, there must lie a tiny kernel of arrogance, hard enough to withstand all slings and arrows. That kernel is what allows the writer to keep from folding to rejections, requests that squash her vision for her work, lousy (i.e. "misguided" reviews), and of course the odds. ("Never tell me the odds!") It's what allows the writer to believe she has something worth saying and to write with sufficient confidence to veer from the expected and take creative risks.

Faced with too much heat and pressure, the kernel will pop, so you have to tend it carefully. Soaked in too much hubris, it with expand and swell until your kernel resembles the KFC Colonel in parade-leading regalia, which is not only obnoxious but can prevent you from hearing valuable advice.

Keeping one's balance in all things writing is always tricky but keeping one's kernel intact may be the toughest yet most important feat of all.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Interview with Jessica Trapp


Tired of overachievers beating down your psyche by telling you how they whipped out a book in two weeks? Historical (and hysterical) romance author Jessica Trapp, has a great solution for the mortals among us.

BtO: Welcome, Jessica, and could you first tell us about SLOW?

Jessica: LOL! S.L.O.W. stands for Snail-paced League of Ornery Writers. A couple of friends and I were having lunch together, moaning and groaning about how that whole book in a month or week (What's next? A book in 24 hours?) makes us want to hurl to even think about. All of us took a long time to get the words on the page and found the process of writing tedious and grueling. We decided to start our own club to console ourselves. In our club nobody could brag about writing 70 pages in a day or some other such insanity. Mostly our meetings include very important, extremely organized and high-falootin' ideas and plans like, "Hey, I'm free today, you wanna go to lunch?" Although lately I've been trying to gather votes to be elected evil queen of the galaxy.

BtO: Now let's talk about your 100 word challenge group. Where did you get the idea?

Jessica: At lunch (Again! Why do so many great ideas happen over lunch?) Heather McAllister told us about a challenge loop she was on with a similar goal. It sounded cool... I ran with it.

BtO: What are the rules?

Jessica:
1. The challenge is to write 100 words a day on the work-in-progress for 100 days in a row. They can be at the end of the manuscript or in the middle of it or wherever. Just 100 words. That's like... 10 lines. We don't count writing-related writing like query letters, cover copy, character charts, etc, but I guess if that's REALLY where someone was at, then they might could count it, as long as they are not demoralizing the rest of the gang by bragging about how they are flaunting the rules. I think people have a pretty clear view of when they are cheating and when they are giving it their best shot. I mean... I tell them they can't count it, but I'm not going to anyone's house to grade their homework. LOL!!!

2. NO BRAGGING. No mentioning word count or page count. I am really grouchy about this. If anyone writes more than 100 words, they put a + a leave it at that. I (for one) was sick and tired of being on challenge loops that were more demoralizing than empowering. I wanted something more supportive--a place to celebrate the little victories and moan about the hardships.

BtO: Have there been any surprises as the challenge has unfolded?

Jessica: Tons!

First, I was really surprised by how many people wanted to join. I though there would be maybe 4 or 5 of us, but the group filled up in a hurry and, even then, folks kept emailing me. I finally started a second loop... and it's full now too!

Second, the challenge is harder than it seems at first glace. It forced me to examine all my little excuses about why I couldn't write today, right now, on the back of a napkin if I had to. There are no excuses and no time off for good behavior. Just because I wrote 5 pages yesterday doesn't mean that I don't have to write today.

Third, I found that once I sat down to write, some days the words just flow and I look up and 10 pages have whizzed by, other days I am grunting out every, single, nitpicking, horrid, hideous word. And you never know what kind of day it's going to be until you show up at the page.

I could go on, but I guess that's enough for now.

BtO: Am I going to get kicked out for repeatedly falling off the wagon? (Though I did make it to day 63 while on my most recent deadline!)

Jessica: Nope. Just start over when you can. The group is to support each other, not to beat each other up. I think the biggest thing many of us have learned is more about our own writing process.

I finished my book early, too, and then I really noticed how much I wanted to have one day a week free from writing. So, next challenge, I'm going to set up different parameters for myself based on what I've learned. Other people finished 100 days and just kept counting. Each of us has our own unique way of approaching writing and discovering our own truths are priceless. One truth people may even discover is that, while this is a good challenge, it isn't the challenge for them. And that's okay too.

BtO: Is your group currently accepting new members?

Jessica: Not right now. But, the idea is free and open to anyone. Maybe people could start their own loop.

BtO: Any suggestions as to how people might set up their own challenge groups?

Jessica: Even though the loop is closed, the list of guidelines for my group is on the home page. I guess I'd tell them to have fun.


BtO: Thanks so much for stopping by. I think the 100 Word Challenge is a great survival strategy for writers at all levels. And I hope BtO readers will check out Jessica's latest historical romance, Master of Desire (insert link, Amazon).

THANK YOU

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