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Showing posts from August, 2007

Tool Box: Top Ten Character Name Sources

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Sometimes a character's name is the first thing I know about him or her. Some names are powerful enough to suggest an entire journey with their distinct melody, ethnicity, colloquial flavor, or historic connotations. Other times I end up changing names two or three or more times until the chemistry comes together. When I need a bit of help pondering, here's where I turn most often.

1) Junior League. Southern fiction begs for beautimous southern names, and signing books at a Junior League event a few years ago, I knew I'd hit the mother lode. Now when I speak at a JL function or fundraiser, I save the program, buy their cookbooks, collect their directories, and mix and match. (Denny and Woolrich Butterfield, India Fast-Langhouse, Sipsy MacKeever.)

2) Civil War archives. A wealth of rich southern grits 'n' gravy names. (Matthias Ayers, Thomas Arble, Boone Goodsell.)

3) Maps. Streets, cities, states, provinces. (Stella Link, Aldine Westfield, Dallas Brown.)

4) US presiden…

Top Ten Ways to Know You're Dealing with a Dabbler

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We've all met them. Anywhere you're introduced (sometimes unwillingly) as an author, eyes light up and mouths flap open, saying, "I've always wanted to write a book, too!" As the hopeful regale you with their grand plans, you subtly tune out within seconds, for you know in your heart that this is just another dabbler, a daydreamer who'll never put in the time and energy it takes.

How can you tell?

1. The Dabbler's going to do it someday. The Real Deal is working on it now.
2. The Dabbler's waiting for life to get less hectic. For the kiddos to get older, the sick parents to get well, the earth's orbit to grind to a complete stop (so distracting!). The Real Deal writes over, around, and through life's disruptions because they never end.
3. The Dabbler's attending workshops, networking with writers, and reading craft books to lay the groundwork for her dream. The Real Deal is actually writing, with or without doing the foregoing as well.
4. The D…

La vie en Laura: a conversation with the budding novelist

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Life can be so brutally unfair. Laura Florand actually met and fell in love with a gorgeous Frenchman. And wrote a book about it. AND got it published. “I’m a traveler,” says Laura. “That’s what I love the most to do, that and cooking and eating.” Okay. So it was inevitable. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person. Laura is out on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week with her debut novel, Blame it on Paris, which reviewers insist on calling “a frothy confection.”

Are you telling us, Laura, that froth is stranger than fiction?
Well, Blame it on Paris actually happened. It is the true story of one American and one handsome Parisian who fell for each other and the way their crazy families and even crazier cultures met, clashed, and—got along. You know that old Reese’s commercial, where the two people collide and one’s chocolate lands in another’s peanut butter? And it turns out to work much better than they suspected? It was like that, but everything that happened was so funny a…

Blame It on Paris!

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What is it about Southern writing that lends itself so well to humor? Though I’m originally from New Jersey and not the South, I so often find myself howling through Southern authors’ descriptions of zany relatives, bizarro neighbors — people I swear I recognize from childhood. Only their in-print versions are much funnier, and I don't have to restrain myself from choking anybody.

Here’s one with an especially compelling twist. Laura Florand’s Blame It on Paris begs the question, “what does happen when you put a small-town Georgian in Paris and a handsome, sophisticated Parisian in small-town Georgia? Especially when two huge families, one French and the other American, decide it’s up to them to further this romance. The Parisian’s family wants Laura to learn how to prepare snails, while Laura’s family keeps serving Sébastien Mad Dog 20/20 (LOL!) as good wine. How will true love survive?”

What a combination of settings, and Florand’s bio describes a woman qualified to pull it o…

And then there was one: Mylene Dressler at Carson McCuller's house

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This week's Boxing the Octopus was a crash course in the author/agent relationship, and I hope our readers in agent search mode found it helpful. (Bowing here to Colleen, who seriously knows her stuff and so generously shares what she's learned.) Having the right I'll have my people call your people people is an important aspect of a healthy career, but at the end of the day author stands alone. Writing is a solitary endeavor and the place and space to reside within oneself and create--that is precious.

Heard this week from my friend Mylene Dressler, who's been the darling of critics and book clubbers since her lovely first novel, The Medusa Tree. The Women's Press recently named Mylene's The Deadwood Beetle, to it's all-time Great Books By Women Writers list. The distinction is based on a survey of book clubs, asking members the only question that really matters: "What book do you most recommend to other readers?"

I've always loved Mylene's…

Your Contract with a Literary Agent

Agents do a ton of work on the behalf of their author clients. They risk a lot of valuable time, along with money in the form of long distance phone calls, overnight mailings (sometimes), etc. So it's only natural for them to want some guarantee of renumeration -- otherwise they'd be hobbyists and not businesspersons.
To secure their rights, every agent/agency will either ask the author to sign an agency agreement up front or will add a clause to the end of every publishing contract they negotiate that spells out the specifics. If an agent offering you representation works on a "handshake" (as many do), you should ask to see a copy of the clause it adds to book contracts. If you don't, you risk being put in a terrible position -- trying to negotiate that clause, if needed, while the agent is trying to negotiate the best deal possible with the prospective publisher. Talk about an anxiety-ridden situation. ("If I make the agent mad by asking for changes to her …

Agent and Author: Eudora Welty and her "benevolent parasite"

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While we're core-dumping a lot of hard info about the agent-author relationship this week, we're not saying much about the fairy tail romance that happens between an author and agent (or an author and editor) once in a blue moon, the marriage of true minds that breeds not only good money, but the more elusive goal: good art. One such exquisite click is chronicled in Author and Agent: Eudora Welty and Diarmuid Russell By Michael Kreyling.

In his first letter to Welty, Russell wrote, "An agent is rather a benevolent parasite because authors as a rule make more when they have an agent than they do without one." He pulled no punches with her. He challenged her. Never let her off the hook. I read this book about a thousand years ago (I think it came out in the early '90s) because I was in a delicious all-things-Eudora phase, devouring any and all words of hers, but I ended up getting a lot more than I expected from this exchange of letters between her and Russell, who…

More Agent Basics

Once you've narrowed the field and read up on the submission
requirements of agents of interest, I recommend that you query your top three to five choices simultaneously (life is way too short to do this one at a time) and evaluate their responses. If you receive only form rejections, you may wish to retool the query letter before sending out more submissions. If you receive a request for material, go ahead and send it, but you don't have to mention your other queries unless you're specifically asked for an exclusive.

If the agent requests an exclusive look at your material, it's
reasonable to allow this – if you limit the period. Thirty days is
more than adequate, and if you have more than one agent asking or a time-sensitive project, it's fine to offer a two-week exclusive (or whatever you and the agent mutually agree to).

When you're at the point where you feel an offer is likely, it's time
to ask around to see if you can get authors who are or have been
repres…

Miss Snark forever: an agent's blog lives on...and on...

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Can't address the topic of literary agents without offering a link to Miss Snark, wherein an anonymous New York literary agent "vented her wrath on the hapless world of writers and crushed them to sand beneath her T.Rexual heels of stiletto snark." Miss Snark stopped blogging in May of this year after two years and 2.5 million hits (God knows how she found the time to keep posting as long as she did), but the archives live on, and the blog is still one of the most entertaining and pragmatic resources an aspiring writer could hope for.

There's been a lot of speculation about Miss Snark's real life identity, but I'm not going to speculate or offer links here. She was able to speak freely by keeping her name a secret, and her contribution to struggling wannabes was so generous, I think she deserves to be allowed to disappear into the dusk with her dog, Killer Yapp.

Quoth Miss Snark in her parting post:
I'm pretty proud of what we did here. And by "we"…

The Why & How of Working with a Literary Agent: Part Two

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Most authors of commercial hardcover, trade paper, or single title mass market paperback fiction will want to pursue agent representation before submitting a manuscript to editors at publishing houses. The key word is "before" because
more agents will turn you down flat if they discovered you've already tainted the waters by getting the manuscript rejected at every publishing house in New York. (If you have done this, you will probably be better off starting a new book. There are rare exceptions, but you usually get only one shot to make a sale per house. And you are much less likely to get a “serious” read if you submit directly to the publisher's slush pile – the term for unsolicited manuscripts -- instead of going through an agent. Editors look at so many inappropriate, truly horrible slush submissions, they have a tough time getting out of
find-the-flaws-and-reject-this-crap-quickly-to-reduce-the-piles mode. At least they know the agented submissions have been pre…

The Why & How of Working with a Literary Agent: Part One

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If you're just entering the think-I'll-write-for-a-living game, don't be surprised if you feel like a doofus. You should. Even if (maybe especially if) you have prior business experience, you're going to find the business of writing runs counter to every scrap intuition a rational person might be blessed with. Publishing's a very old business with its own traditions, and woe unto you if you don't take the time to learn the rules of the game. Since the acquisition of a literary agent is often the first stop on the Publishing Facts of Life Tour, I'll be spending some time this week sharing what I've learned over the course of a dozen years, thirteen novel sales, and associations with four different reputable agents. Feel free to chime in on the comments section with your own observations or questions.

Not every author works with an agent. Some make the choice not to share 15% of their earnings (and 20% of foreign sales, typically) due to the belief that an…

Basic Instructions and a few thoughts on mentoring

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Whacking your way through the banana stalks of life, you may become confused and require assistance. Fortunately, we now have Basic Instructions: Your all-inclusive guide to a life well-lived , which addresses such potentially tricky topics as "How to explain the plan" (code names can be invaluable), "How to apply the laws of physics to a relationship" (entropy dictates that heat and energy will dissipate over time), and "How to be suave" (make sure your compliments are well-worded and vague).

Basic Instructions was first seen in the Seatle Weekly, and creator Scott Meyer is also blogging about "The Adams Experiment":
For those who aren’t already aware, Scott Adams (The creator of Dilbert) has taken an interest in my strip. He e-mailed me out of the blue a couple of months ago to tell me that he liked my work. I wrote back that if he turned out to be one of my comedian buddies jerking me around, “A river of bloody tears (would) flow.” He verified …

Contract wars: Please, sir...may I have some more?

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Colleen and I were coffee-talking yesterday about a migration toward the absurd that we're seeing in the agent agreements authors are being asked to sign. Colleen is the most contract-savvy author I know, so I'm going to bug her to comment on a series of specific issues (basket accounting, option clauses, sexy stuff like that) next week. Meanwhile, I wanted to offer a few thoughts about the topsy-turvy dynamic that starts where the entire publishing industry starts: inside writers' heads.

The author/agent agreement -- particularly for first-time authors -- is prone to lopsided contracts because the writer so often sees herself as the wide-eyed supplicant proffering a little bowl for any scoop of gruel that might dribble down from New York. The notion that "beggars can't be choosers" breeds a timid approach to negotiations in authors who have battled long and hard to get an agent's attention. Unwilling to blow the opportunity to gain representation, they&#…

Dog-Gone It...

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“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
—Francis Bacon


My recently-adopted shelter mutt, Jewel, is a really sweet dog, but also really lucky. Really lucky we're suckers and haven't bounced her back to the shelter on account of her crimes against property. From the bathroom woodwork to a section of carpet, we had several major issues in the first few weeks she lived here. But we've worked with her, and she's much better now.

Well, mostly. She still eats my husband's shoes upon occasion, and the other day she chewed up a couple of paperbacks from my massive To Be Read stack. Seems the dog, like her owner, has developed a taste for romantic suspense. I've been trying to thin the TBR stack lately, but this really isn't what I had in mind. So now Jewel's back to getting crated in my absence, when she wreaks occasional havoc due to separation issues.

Or maybe I should buy her her own books, for example this d…

Is there a literary equivalent of cinema verite?

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Gary and I made the mistake of arriving spot on time to see The Bourne Ultimatum Saturday night. The only seats in the packed house were way up front, and after two hours, my eyes felt like a couple of fried eggs. Over hard. The whole movie is shot in cinéma vérité. ("French for cameraman with hangover," says my cynical spouse.) My eyes naturally fought to focus, and the effort left me with a C-clamp of a headache.

It got me thinking, though. What is cinéma vérité about? What does it actually do to the viewer, physically and emotionally? And is there a way to do the same thing with a book? An enlightening article on filmeducation.org sheds this light:

Cinéma Vérité literally means ‘film truth’ in French and was a style of film making developed by film directors in the 1960s. The film directors of the Cinéma Vérité movement strove for immediacy, spontaneity and authenticity in their films, primarily through the use of portable and unobtrusive equipment, such as small, hand-held…

Titles: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

I have to admit it. Lately, I've become a connoisseur of book titles. I admire the witty and evocative: from Leslie Langtry's 'Scuse Me While I Kill This Guy to Andrew W.M. Beirle's The Winter Of Our Discothèque and Ursula K. Leguin's classic The Left Hand of Darkness. Intriguing titles have enticed legions of potential readers to pick up the book and take a peek.

But recently, I've been noticing bad titles. Horrible titles that, were they inflicted upon one of my manuscripts, would cause me to boycott booksignings, change my name, and refuse to admit to this bastard offspring of my imagination. Please notice that I use the word "inflicted," because in any number of cases, that's what happens. The book's editor or someone from the marketing department takes one look at the title the author gave the manuscript and thinks, "That will never sell."
A new title is concocted, with or without the author's blessing.

Often, the folks from th…

Freaks ’R’ Us: Inhabiting Alien Characters with Andrew W. M. Beierle

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Award-winning author Andrew W. M. Beierle bravely writes for a market PW calls "small and finicky", but he does it so well, it's possible that he might just crack open a few minds outside the pigeon hole into which the monkey chorus has tried to cram him. Beierle is about to follow up his acclaimed first novel, The Winter Of Our Discothèque (best title ever, no?), with a book about conjoined twins, one of whom is gay. First Person Plural is being hailed by early reviewers as "utterly original," "intricately imagined," and "that rarity in fiction, a novel of ideas". Due out from Kensington this month(which frankly alters everything I thought I knew about Kensington!) it's been named a September 2007 Main Selection of the InsightOut Book Club.

In his essay "Freaks 'R' Us: Inhabiting Alien Characters", Beierle explains a little of the process he used to get into the heads of Owen and Porter Jamison:

In First Person Plural, …

How to Hurt the Ones You Love

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Within the next two months, I'll be writing an article, "How to Hurt the Ones You Love," for an upcoming edition of the Romance Writer's Report, the trade publication of the Romance Writers of America. I chose the topic for this article based on the number of women -- nice women -- who tell me that one of their biggest challenges is heaping misery on the characters they've come to know and love. And not just misery, but the toughest challenges of that fictional person's life.

This has never been a problem for me. Maybe because, all rumors to the contrary, I'm not really that nice of a person. More probably because I find stories without conflict boring as hell, or I have this deeply-buried need to play the evil goddess. (See Kali, Indian goddess of destruction, above.) But unlike Kali, I don't get drunk on the blood of my victims (although I've been known to fantasize about such when stuck in gridlock traffic). I suffer along with my characters, ev…

Avoiding work is an important aspect of my career strategy

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I shudder to imagine what Colleen is going to think when she wakes up to find yet another color scheme on this blog. I've been noodling endlessly with the design all week. It's not my area of expertise, so there's been some frustration, but in general, I find it meditative. And every once in a while I have to do something that completely removes me from writing for a few days.

I don't believe in "writer's block", but like Pete Seeger and Jesus said, to everything there is a season. Sometimes it is not writing season. Unfortunately, I've become such a workaholic that it is not possible for me to not write unless I'm fiercely focused on something else. I used to paint trompe-l'oeil scenes around my house, but after the tree grew in the stairwell, Saint Basil of Cappadocia appeared on the coat closet door, my son's wall turned to a stack of cinderblocks, my daughter's room turned into a Monet landscape, and an Aztec sun god burst through t…

Just Woke Up & Decided to Be Evil...

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Not long ago, I read the first historical romance (I won't mention the title here) I've picked up in a long while, and I have to tell you, I was loving it. Wonderful, witty heroine, great, brisk pace, and a fabulous romantic conflict between the protagonists. Loved the author's voice, too. I was really enjoying myself... until I came to the villain, who was a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash of the first order. His motivation didn't work for me, and I couldn't begin to make sense of his actions. To me, it honestly felt as if this guy woke up one morning and decided to be evil.

Since I write romantic suspense (and have an unfortunate tendency to ruin otherwise good books by dropping into hyper-analysis mode), I paid particular attention. Villains are my stock in trade. I like a down and dirty antagonist -- the scarier the better, and just this side of over the top, as the genre demands. But I try to stay mindful that every villain is the hero of his/her own story.…

Secret confessions of a debut novelist: a conversation with Ellen Meister

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A Long Island PTA mom herself, Ellen Meister says she’s no stranger to the scandal and drama of the carpool set. (“I write, swear, sing, and dance,” she says, “all from the front seat of my minivan.”) An ad copy writer with a flair for storytelling, Ellen served as editor of an online literary magazine until Harper Collins picked up her debut novel, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. She is unabashedly in love with the English language. Her Applewood characters are heartfelt and human, and once you get to know their author, you’ll know why.

Let’s start with the backstory on Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA. Please tell me it has nothing to do with “Desperate Housewives”.
Back in 2000, I finally got the gumption to stop procrastinating and pursue my lifelong dream of writing a novel. My head was swimming with the notion when I attended the first PTA meeting of the year at my local elementary school. As I smiled, greeting all the other women with my best soccer mom persona, I…

Presenting Ellen Meister: Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA

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When I told my friend Syd that I'd been asked to serve as president of the PTA at my kids' elementary school, she responded with a single word: "Run!"

Rather than go into the gory details of that experience, allow me to direct your attention to Ellen Meister's debut novel, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA, now available in trade paperback. When the book came out in hardcover last year, the buzz fairy was definitely in the house.

"Meister's debut novel is heartbreakingly funny, her characters facing life's dramas and disappointments head on with wit and spunk." ~ Library Journal (starred review)

"Ellen Meister has written a beautiful book about love, life and friendship that you are sure to never forget." ~ Fresh Fiction

"With sexy characters, sharp dialogue, and snappy pacing, Meister's sassy, saucy debut novel could well turn into a movie of its own." ~ Booklist

"Comical yet poignant." ~ Kirkus Reviews

"G…

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go to the Newstand

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A few days ago, I watched the movie North Country on DVD. Despite the overblown and highly improbable (dramatic as they were, they legally couldn't have happened that way) court scenes and the way the lily was gilded by piling on one too many dramas in the heroine's backstory, it was still worth watching for its terrific acting and, more importantly, the depiction of the kind of crude sexual harassment that way too many women have been subjected to in the workplace.

I remember some of similar abuse (though milder than that depicted in the movie), and I'm thrilled that women don't face nearly as much as they did even a couple of decades back. But a lot of the condescending, limiting attitudes are still in place, and in the literary world, I see this antiquated bullshit applied all too often to the women who write romance novels.

Take this article from the August issue of Texas Monthly, by Skip Hollandsworth. In it, New York Times bestselling romantic suspense author San…

No magic in Harry Potter sales at the indies

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Excellent book industry article by Jeannie Kever in the Houston Chronicle yesterday. In "The tricky web woven around discount books: Selling Potter at a lower-than-list price hurts small book dealers", Kever examines morality, duality, and causality swirling around the fastest selling book in history.
Consider the screwy economics of publishing, where selling 150 books might be more profitable than selling millions. And where personal service occasionally trumps price.

"The retail book business is sort of unusual," explains Dan Neale of Brazos Bookstore. "If a book becomes real popular, the major retailers cut the price."

Brazos Bookstore, like many other independents, did not discount Deathly Hallows, charging the list price of $34.99.

"There's no way we could have (discounted)," says Lillie Woodard of Katy Budget Books. "In order to afford the (book release) party, we couldn't discount the book."
Kever reports that the big chains …

Tool Box: Project Gutenberg

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Project Gutenberg is a library of 17,000 free ebooks whose copyright has expired in the USA Book listings. Search engine, newsletter, articles, and information by the truck load, including info on how you can help. Right now, I'm revisiting A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which I'm using as counterpoint in a novel I'm working on. PG makes it super easy to copy and paste so quotes stay accurate.
Book the First: Recalled to Life

I ~ The Period

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being …

Why Harry Potter Works

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I was thrilled yesterday to finish reading the last installment of Harry Potter (The Deathly Hallows). I got hooked on the series when it first came to the U.S. and have been avidly following it ever since.

I won't post spoilers here, nor will I pick any minor nits. Instead, I'd like to focus - as a writer - on why the series has worked so well for me -- and millions more.

1. Larger than life characters who are nonetheless relatable. Sure they have unimaginable (to most of us Muggles) powers, but Harry's still every child who's felt unloved, just as Hermione is every bright girl who's felt pressured to tamp down her intelligence (that's why we love her for continuing to be a know-it-all), and Ron is every friend who's walked the line between loyalty and doubt. From the most major characters to those playing smaller roles, Rowling takes the time to humanize each one.

2. The Hero's Journey. Joseph Campbell studied powerful myths/stories and wrote of the cla…