Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tool Box: Top Ten Character Name Sources

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 presidents. Mix and match first, middle, and last names. (Ford Adams, Herbert Coolidge, Abe Hoover.)

5) Bartleby. Plug virtually any keyword into the search engine and stand back for a barrage of poets, politicians, authors, and historical figures. (Frank Acosta, Winston Foley, Jenny Rhodale.)

6) Google "surname". Under French, there's Aston and Pomeroy. Dutch offers Barculo and Vedder. Albanian, you say? How 'bout Petrela or Zogjani?

7) Cemetery directories. Hey, it worked for Spoon River Anthology, right?

8) Internet baby namers.

9) Rivers. I actually knew a guy named Zumbro, and I loved that. Niles, Tyne, and Platte work for me as well.

10) The good ol' phone book. In my previous incarnation as a disc jockey, Gary was helping me brainstorm an airname. Unable to come up with one I liked, he convinced me at the eleventh hour to open the phone book, point, and promise to use whatever name I landed on. I accidentally opened to the yellow pages, stuck my finger on "Veterans Administration Loans" -- and VA Lones was born.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

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

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 Dabbler expends far more creativity embroidering her excuses than her plots.
5. The Dabbler frequently (and loudly) decries "that trash" that's getting published nowadays (by sell-outs). He knows he could do better -- and isn't shy about saying so. The Real Deal knows that writing anything commercial is much harder than it looks.
6. The Dabbler refuses to risk criticism/rejection by submitting work to critique groups, first-chapter contests, agents, or editors. The Real Deal knows she'll have to take her lumps, often for years.
7. If the Dabbler does risk and receive any sort of criticism/rejection, he rages against the a. stupidity, b. unfairness, c. potential jealousy of the party involved. The Real Deal feels the sting but realizes it's a subjective business and moves on.
8. The Dabbler is a true "artiste" and New York is just too blind or threatened to recognize her work. This often results in years-long bouts of writer's block requiring expensive therapy. The Real Deal digs in and works that much harder, always believing that the next project with be "the one."
9. The Dabbler is sure that the purchase of expensive equipment/software or travel to distant and costly workshops is "the" secret to success. The Real Deal will write on toilet paper if he has to.
10. The Dabbler's looking for a shortcut -- a favor from the established writer that fills said writer with the urge to run like hell. The Real Deal, on the other hand, knows there *are* no shortcuts and puts in enough sweat equity (without trumpeting it) that established writers feel moved to offer whatever assistance they can.

The good news is that a lot of us start off as dabblers. Heaven knows I did. I started to change when I stopped treating my goal of becoming an author as a daydream and began to treat it like a job.

So what about the rest of you? What took you from Dabbler to Real Deal -- or are you still working on the change? And if you're published, how to you respond to the Demanding Dabblers you meet everywhere? Have any good tips for extricating yourself without resorting to assault?

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

La vie en Laura: a conversation with the budding novelist

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 and yet so huge, I ended up telling the story.

I love that it’s a true story, that this type of thing really does happen to real people, and the message that carries for anyone who doubts that life can be an adventure and a love story.

So let’s dish a bit about the industry. What have we learned since becoming a real live published novelist?
I wish I had networked more during the years I was unpublished. It’s fun meeting people now, but as I realize how much those contacts matter to me and how much they help me, I realize how much I missed writing in isolation. I strongly encourage all writers to meet people, whether via the internet (like a book? write to the author! that’s a starting place right there) or going to conferences or writing groups or all of the above. The three most important pieces of advice I’d give an aspiring writer: Write for the sake of writing. Research the publishing world. Get to know other writers, published and unpublished.

How did you land your first book deal?
I worked very hard for a couple of decades (I started writing when I was nine) and studied the publishing world. Then I submitted a proposal. Yes, a proposal—despite all that research, I didn’t know memoirs were treated as novels and that I should submit the whole thing. A great agent took me on and encouraged me to finish it. When I finished it and it was much more comic and light-hearted I think than he was used to (this was a purely non-fiction agent), he referred me to a close colleague who loved it, and…she shopped it around. Et voilà. We went with Tor Forge.

The Author Blog. Critically important outreach venue or crazy-making waste of time?
You know, when Sébastien asked me if I wanted to have a blog on my website, I said, “Well…I guess so. It will be an easy space for me to post news and contests, right?” But it turned out that I just loved the contact. It is so much fun to be able to meet my own readers and to be able to have a conversation with them. I like to go and visit their blogs, too, as much as I can. And I love the way it gets you observing your own life, the funny or beautiful things you see that you can share. I share a lot of chocolate. What can I say? I find great beauty in chocolate. And quite a bit of humor, too. But it IS very time-consuming. I have a baby and I also work full-time, plus write a book a year, so I have to be careful not to let too much of my writing time be blog-writing (or visiting) time.

Colleen and I are both familiar with the book/baby juggling act. (Good to leave the chainsaw out of that one.) How’s that working out for ya?
My writing schedule is in a constant state of flux, due to the fact that I had a baby last year, and she keeps growing and changing her habits every single day. Generally speaking, I cram writing in any and every way I can. I also teach full time, so life is a real juggling act. I used to run a dance group, too, but around six months into the baby life, I finally gave up on juggling that, too. I was about to go off the deep end, so something had to give.
My writing time is probably the time anyone else would use to clean up or watch TV or maybe breathe. That’s my theory. I do manage to write a surprising amount, still. I just finished the book I started writing right after she was born. How is a mystery to me. How I finished writing it, I mean. How she was born is something of a mystery, too—it’s an amazing experience.

When it comes to storytelling, are you all about method or madness?
My writing environment is a complete mess. My writing process is really to just sit down and write. I will write scenes that come to me for no other reason than I love the imagined scene. For some of those, a story arc develops in my head, and I go for it. I have others, though, absolutely beautiful scenes that I just love, and which keep sitting there, because the story arc for them just won’t come to me. Maybe it never will. Many of those scenes I eventually forget, but there are some I would just love to see develop into a story.

My most effective writing is when I have a mental arc of the story in my head, so that I know where it’s going and the major steps between beginning and end. Then I just write my way through it, letting the characters and dialogue decide. I know so many writers who obsess so much that they can’t ever let themselves get anywhere. Just write it. Then revise a million times.

What are you reading these days?
I’m currently reading A Castle in my Backyard, by Betsy Draine and Michael Hinden, which is a memoir of the authors’ summer life in the Dordogne. They have a real talent for describing people and places, which is something I love and always try to learn from. The other is, The Best of Enemies, by Osha Gray Davidson, which tells the story of the Civil Rights movement in Durham (where I currently live), tying the story to the story of two people, one a Ku Klux Klan leader and the other a black activist, who became best of friends (maybe lovers, I haven’t gotten that far yet so I don’t know). Duke chose it for the students’ summer reading, perhaps in reaction to the lacrosse scandal, and I am finding it fascinating.

Final thought. Are you old enough to have an arch nemesis?
Snails. If you want to know why, read Blame It on Paris. One of the trials and tribulations of falling in love with a Frenchman.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Blame It on Paris!

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 off, calling her “a native of the Deep South who began traveling the world when she was seventeen, backpacking solo through Greece. She went on to win a Fulbright to Tahiti and then to study French literature at Duke University. In addition to the year in Tahiti, she has lived in Madrid and Paris. Now a senior lecturing fellow at Duke and a new mother of one, she divides her time between North Carolina, where she also leads a Tahitian dance group, and France.”

Okay, I don’t just want her book. I want her life. Or at least that bio, which make mine tuck its scraggly little tail between its legs and stumble away whimpering.

The book’s reviews are great, too. Here are a few highlights:

“Hilarious…A fun, frothy tale for anyone who has ever conjured up a dashing handsome foreigner to sweep her off her feet. Readers will be happy to live vicariously in Laura's French fairytale.” –Booklist (Aleksandra Kostovski)

“A frothy French confection.” –Publishers’ Weekly

“Laura Florand offers up an outsider’s oddly inside view of Paris, and she does so in a narrative that is by turns witty and touching, but always charming. Best of all, she turns the tables and lets us see our own culture through the fresh, French eyes of the man she loves. Do yourself a favor: Read this book.”--Joshilyn Jackson, best-selling author of Gods in Alabama (*Note from Colleen: I just finished reading this last night, and it’s fantastic! Talk about your terrific Southern characters!)

“I haven’t laughed so hard over the course of an entire book in a long time.”

“A fabulous romp from Paris to Podunk and back again. Loved it. Laura Florand’s reluctant heroine is adorable, and her perfect Parisian amour can wait on my table anytime.”--Haywood Smith, New York Times best-selling author of the Red Hat Club series

Saturday, August 25, 2007

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

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 books, and I suddenly understood why one day a while back when I was watching my daughter breaking in new pointe shoes before ballet class. Mylene Dressler writes like a dancer. Technical expertise suffused with artistic sensibility. Craftwork born out of rigorous study, innate talent, the discipline to contain one's art entirely within oneself, and the courage to do something dangerous.

So why don't we hear from Mylene more often? She's one of those authors I keep expecting to bust up the bestseller lists, but it doesn't happen, and while I'm sure she wouldn't mind if it did, Mylene's focus remains singular and unhurried. She writes the words she wants to write when the words want to be written. And she deserves the time and space to do that.

So I was delighted to hear from Mylene this week:
"In a few weeks, I'll be taking up residence in the home of Carson McCullers. Yes, Carson McCullers, beloved author of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and novelist-Southerner-dreamer extraordinaire. The Carson McCullers Center in Columbus, Georgia will bring me out this September to live and work in McCullers' childhood home for the remainder of 2007, where I'll complete my new novel, give a few talks at the university, and meet the literary community there. This is only the second time the Fellowship, open to writers from all over the world, has been awarded, and I'm enormously proud to be this year's recipient. You can join me, whenever you like, on this new journey, by checking in on my on-line diary, In Carson's House, where you'll also find more details about my new book (yes, I know this one's been a long time a-borning, but bear with me, it's shaping up to be worth the wait)."

I'm deeply envious, ridiculously proud, and looking forward to hearing more about her sojourn.

Friday, August 24, 2007

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 clause, what is she says no? What if she gets mad and drops me? Will the publisher withdraw its offer? Will I have to start over with a different agent? What if I can't find one quickly?" And so on...)

Either the agency contract or the agency clause in the publishing contract names the agent as the "agent of record" and entitles her to her cut (usually 15%) of the proceeds. Most of the time, the agency clause indicates that all payments from the publisher are paid directly to the agent (who should get out a check for your 85% as soon as the publisher's check clears). A few agents and authors have something called split accounting, where the publisher sends the author her cut and separately sends the agent hers. Some agents are fine with this, but a lot of them will get upset if you even ask, since they feel they should be trusted with your earnings, as is traditional in the agenting world. I think this is fine, as long as your agent has a wonderful track record of being honest and timely in her payments. This is one good reason to thoroughly check on an agent before agreeing to representation. RWA, the Romance Writers of America, keeps a record of complaints against agents. Members can check them out by phoning the RWA headquarters in Houston. Or you can check out the Preditors and Editors website maintained by SFFWA or other online resources.

Most agency clauses assign the agent to act as the author's representative for matters relating to "this agreement" or contract. In other words, when the contract is over (i.e. the book goes out of print and the rights revert to the author), the agent who sold the book no longer has a claim to its earnings. The Author's Guild, the Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, and many other writers' organizations all agree that this is fair, but what's caused a huge controversy is the change in wording instituted by several large agencies (and taken up by others) entitling the agent to a cut "for the life of the copyright of the work" (that's your life plus seventy years) or, worse yet "irrevocably" . That's right: forever.

So what does that mean? Suppose your early books have gone out of print and you've parted ways with the agent who sold them. (Very few authors remain with the same agent throughout their career. Either they fire the agent, the agent goes out of business/dies, or the agent drops the author.) Later, you make a comeback and want your current agent to sell the rights. You do all the legwork on getting back your rights, and your new agent does all the work to re-sell the book. Without both of your efforts, the book would be dead in the water, making no one any money. So why should the original agent (or the original agent's heirs, since in the case of an "irrevocable" agreement, this could go on forever) be paid for work she/they did not
do? And why should you pay 30% of your earnings in two fifteen-percent commissions to two different agents? And once you've passed on to that great Slush Pile in the Sky, do you really want your heirs having to fight with the agent's heirs about this issue? (I'll bet Tolkien's grandkids are glad they don't have this to contend with.) Besides this, if an agency dissolves, there may be no clear successor, which
could tangle things in court for years.

Another tangle cropping up in some agency agreements/clauses has to do with options. When a publisher offers a contract, they'll almost always want the right of first refusal on the author's next work of the same kind. If the publisher wants that next book, it has to (usually, depending on the contract language) renegotiate a new deal with the author. Some agents/agencies are asking authors to sign contracts/clauses that entitle the agent to a cut of the option book. If the author's moved on to a new agent and has the new person negotiate the contract on the option book, this would mean the author would be obligated to pay both agents 15% of the take, leaving her only 70%. I feel that only the agent who negotiates the new deal should be entitled to a commission, but that's something you need to try to negotiate with your shiny new agent before the shiny and new wears off.

Only you can decide what's a deal-breaker and what isn't. But it never hurts to ask for information, explain your reasoning, and request changes in a business-like manner. If you're professional about it, nobody's going to get mad and stomp off in a snit. (And if someone does, who'd want to be stuck with this kind of agent anyway?)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

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

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 encouraged and guided her career. Author and Agent is a warm bath of beautiful language, but it's also a gimlet-eye look at the world of publishing, much of which has not changed a bit in the fifty years since these letters were written.

This astute observation from a New York Times article:
One of the bases for the "absolute trust" between him and Ms. Welty was his determination to respect the integrity of her work yet somehow translate it into an income for her. And the times were right; though publishing was always commercial, it had not yet developed its capacity to make the megabuck deal.

Mr. Russell first offered to be Ms. Welty's "benevolent parasite" in 1940, shortly after he had founded his literary agency with Henry Volkening, an English teacher at New York University. Ms. Welty accepted though she doubted the agency would be able to help her, since all she had to offer was "a collection of short stories by an unknown writer who doesn't ever want to write a novel first," and all that publishers wanted from her was that first novel she didn't wish to write.

What we then follow in the correspondence is her curious evolution into the novelist she thought she would never become. Mr. Russell encouraged her to go on writing her stories and found a market for them, both in national magazines and in a collection that was brought out by Doubleday...

Publishers had a feeling Eudora Welty had the talent to spin straw into gold, and they were right, but she needed her Rumpelstiltskin. As do we all.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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
represented by this agent to comment of his/her working style. If the agent doesn't have a website listing clients, try Google or (Who Reresents is the section you'll need), and try sending polite e-mails explaining the situation to a few of the authors have website/e-mail contact information. If you belong to a writers' organization, you might use its e-mail loop to ask for off-list feedback from anyone who's had dealings with this agent.

Take what you hear with a grain of salt, though, because one author's dream agent is another's nightmare. Authors doing well in their careers are going to be happier than those who are having problems, which often aren't the fault of the agent. Instead, listen for clues about the agent's working style.

I've worked with several different agents over the past dozen years (all well-respected, AAR agents who sell many books), enough to tell you that they vary a great deal. Some are cheerleaders; others are business-like or even abrasive. Some edit their clients' work before it's sent out while others simply decide whether they believe the work is ready or not for submission. Still others, once they've
learned to trust the client, send out her work without even bothering to read it, especially when there's an established relationship with a particular editor.

It's important to remember that different styles suit different
authors. Some love the super-friendly type of agent while others are more comfortable with a "shark" who will shake loose every last dime from the publisher. Many appreciate being a client of a select, one- man/woman "boutique" agency while some would rather be represented by a large agency with lots of supporting players, such as contract departments and affiliated sub-rights agents, who attempt to sell the
work to foreign markets, audio, or the movies. (There are pros and cons to both large and small agencies.)

Another important agent quality has to do with his/her accessibility. Another time, I'll talk more about what it's reasonable to expect from your agent (and what isn't), but communication is key. If you can't reach your agent for days or weeks or longer, small concerns can mushroom into huge problems, so it's good to ask around about how quickly the agent returns calls or e-mails.

Probably the most important attribute to look for is integrity, since the agent usually handles all of the author's earnings. Be especially wary if you hear the agent's not passing through publisher money (less his/her commission) to the author in a timely fashion or if amounts are in dispute. Sadly, there have been cases where an agent's disappeared with client funds, but this is fortunately very rare among reputable, AAR agents.

When you're offered representation, be sure to ask the agent for specifics, including commissions and any other fees, marketing plans for the project, and whether the agency works on a "handshake" or requires a contract. (I've mostly worked with handshake agents, where either player can end the relationship at will, but I think a one-year contract is okay, or an open contract with a 30 to 90-day, at most, opt-out. I wouldn't want to commit myself for longer because no one profits from being stuck in an unhappy agent partnership.) Ask about communication style, frequency, and whether the agent prefers calls or e-mail. Ask about recent sales and about how the
relationship may be terminated if either of you decides it's not working. Take notes as you talk, and listen for the kind of enthusiasm that communicates itself to acquiring editors.

I would also recommend that you ask to see a copy of the agency clause inserted into publishing contracts so you can check its wording (more about this later). If you can contain yourself, tell the agent that you appreciate the offer, but you'd like a day or so to think it over since it's a very important decision. If other agents are looking at the manuscript, you may wish to contact them to gauge their interest before making a final decision. In some cases, you may end up with several choices.(This sounds great but is actually stressful. It's a big decision!)

Once you do accept an agent's offer, be sure to politely contact anyone else who's evaluating your material and respectfully withdraw your query/submission. I can't stress enough that you don't want to leave an agent spending hours or days reading your material only to have them find out someone else has beaten them to it. Agents and editors really hate this, and I can't blame them (no one enjoys having his/her time wasted), so be sure to extend this common courtesy. The industry's a small one, and it never pays to aggravate those you might end up dealing with later.

Later this week: Clauses and Contracts

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

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

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" I don't mean just me and Killer Yapp, I mean you too. You sent me questions, trusted me to snark your work, made "crapometer" an industry term and most of all, you gave me perspective on what it's like to be on the other side of the slush pile.

There's much to be learned in the snark-infested archives. Particularly helpful info under the labels "nitwittery abounds" and "this crazy industry". You'll also find links to a few other agents who blog and a list of 20 Agents to Avoid.

Check it out.

Monday, August 20, 2007

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

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-screened and are the type of stuff they publish.)

Once you've decided you will need an agent, you need to submit
material to the right one. You can try using a resource such as the
most up-to-date edition of Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents or
to learn about agents representing the type of book you're writing. There are many other terrific online resources, such as Preditors & Editors, which list agencies by name and report naughty agent antics, such as charging reading fees or referring prospective clients to high-priced book doctors who "happen" to be their spouses. Agents who belong to AAR, the association of Authors' Representatives, aren't allowed to remain members if they're found to do such things, so I highly
recommend that you stick with AAR agents. One resource I highly recommend is the subscription-based Publisher's Marketplace, which allows you to see who represents many of the authors writing in your field and lets you track particular agents' deals (because it involves agents self-reporting, not all of them keep this updated. But enough are good about it that I feel it's worth the $20 a month - at least to sign up for a month's subscription and research your fool head off. You can opt out at any time.)

If you're a member of a professional writers' organization such a Romance Writers of America, you can access online lists of agents who meet certain minimal requirements. These are agents with a track record of selling manuscripts in your chosen genre.

Speaking of which, it's very important to find an agent who's experienced in placing what you hope to sell. When you promise an agent 15% of your earnings (and 20% on foreign sales), you’re paying for this person’s industry contacts. If he/she has none, you might as well be out there schlepping your work on your own. Don't succumb to the temptation to query anyone just starting out in your genre because it takes time for these folks to learn the market and forge relationships with acquiring editors.

And for heaven’s sake, if you’re offered representation, don’t sign or agree to it with anyone, reputable or not, without contacting and talking to some of this person’s current and former clients and asking about the pros and cons of the agent’s working style. Also, make sure you carefully look at either the agency agreement (if there is one; many reputable agents work on a handshake) or, if there’s no contract, ask to see the agency clause that’s added to the publishing contracts this person negotiated. Otherwise, you’re flying blind, and the results probably won’t be pretty.

Later this week: How to find and contact an interested agent’s clients for a reference, and what to look for in the agency clause/agreement.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

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

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 agent could do no better than they in negotiating their publishing contracts. This is often cited as a reason for going agent-less by authors of juvenile fiction as well as those who sell to Harlequin and Silhouette's "category" romance lines or to smaller presses. (A portion of these authors feel it's worth it to pay the agent so he/she can chase down missing contracts or payments, field questions, and/or schmooze their editor to their benefit.) Some authors, however, don't have agents because they secured a publishing contract before they were able to attract an offer of representation from an agent. This happens, though generally not with the better-paying publishers, who often refuse to consider (or don't seriously consider) unagented work. (They like the agents to separate the wheat from the chaff to lighten their huuuge workloads.)

Agents take on clients they believe have the potential to be moneymakers, if not stars. They will often pass on writers they believe to be publishable at less-profitable levels (or those writing books with niche appeal), just as they pass on published authors with modest earnings potential. If agents didn't make such choices, they couldn't stay in business. Though it's tempting, try not to take it personally.

If you decide to go it alone, I highly recommend that you purchase, read, and take lots of notes on the most recent edition of Richard Curtis's How to be Your Own Literary Agent. It teaches you the basics of literary contracts (which bear little resemblance to other kinds of contracts you may have encountered). Even if you do pursue representation, I think this book is extremely worthwhile. I bought and dissected it after getting my first agent so I could talk about business matters and set priorities on my publishing contract wishlist without coming off as a total moron.

Another book that will help you fully understand the big picture is
The Career Novelist, by agent Donald Maass. I learned a ton about business strategies in publishing from this book and highly recommend it.

Next Up: When, where, and how to look for a reputable agent

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Basic Instructions and a few thoughts on mentoring

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 that it was indeed him, and I started groveling.

The teetering edge of making it. As artists we strive for and fear the big break. What does it feel like to have a powerful mentor step in at that moment? "Fan-Freaking-Tastic!!" says Meyer. "And a little terrifying." And he is quick to add, "Yes, I recognize that I am the luckiest guy on Earth."

Mentoring is a delicate balance, however. Not only does that mix require the powerful advocate, it requires a strength of conviction from the mentee, a certainty about who/what/where/why he or she is as an artist. A week after "The Adams Experiment began, there's this pragmatic response from an artist who clearly plans to remain true to himself:
Many readers have expressed that Scott Adams is "ruining" my strip. I'm really touched that so many of you feel strongly enough about my strip to be concerned.

Think of Scott and me as two guys working on a car to see if they can get it to run better. We pop the hood, tinker with the carbeurator (It's an older car -- something with tail fins) then I drive it around the block a few times. If the change makes the car run better, we keep it. If not, we don't.

The point is this, I'm not going to let Scott do anything that will permenantly damage the car. I need to drive it to work tomorrow.

Like I always say, making a living as an artist is a high-diving horse trick. And unfortunately, it doesn't come with instructions.

Friday, August 17, 2007

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

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're often willing to sign a contract that offers no guarantees or protections to the author who ends up agreeing to paragraph 8 subparagraph .1.2.5 in which she must hand over her immortal soul and date the agent's ugly brother.

But contracts are a lot more negotiable than many writers think. And writers have a lot more power than they recognize. Battles must be carefully chosen. Requests must be made respectfully with the understanding that none of this is personal. But authors have every right -- in fact they have an obligation -- to protect themselves. The first step is the simple recognition: What I do has value. This isn't Oliver begging the taskmaster for food glorious food. This is a conversation between two equals seeking to form a symbiotic alliance. You're looking for a business partner, not a tape worm. If the agency agreement is all about them and they're not willing to compromise, you're better off walking away.

Though it's mainly geared to screenwriters, I learned a lot from the The Writer Got Screwed (but didn't have to): Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry by entertainment lawyer Brooke A. Wharton. (I wish she'd do a fresh edition. This one's getting a little long in the tooth.) Sample agreements, interviews with industry pros, and lots of legalese-to-English translation.

Asked about her book title in an interview on, Wharton said:
I believe it relates to two separate things. One time a while ago I was negotiating a deal and at the end we all just looked at each other and admitted, “the writer got screwed.” But also it speaks to the writer’s position in the industry. The writer is never recognized or compensated commensurately for her or his contribution. But the writer is enormously important to the industry as it exists now, and as more venues are created in which writers’ product can be bought, sold, or exhibited, writers will become even more important. The word “content-driven” really means “writer-driven.”

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Dog-Gone It...

“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 doggie scratch n' sniff. Seriously... I kid you not.

Is it just me, or is this some kind of sign that our civilization is trembling on the precipice of Total Collapse? I love my dogs and all, and I'm very much in favor of the publishing industry (and authors) making a buck, but my "girls" would rather smell other things. And even if they weren't more interested in sniffing out my son's disgusting football socks, subatomic particles from last night's dinner on the kitchen floor, and each other's keisters, I'm not sure I want to fuel either canine's interest in the written word.

Around here, there are plenty of defenseless books with shivers running up their spines at the very thought.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Is there a literary equivalent of cinema verite?

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 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 cameras and the avoidance of any preconceived narrative line. Cinéma Vérité was characterised by the use of real people, as opposed to actors, in unrehearsed situations. Sets and props were never used and everything was shot on location.

Immediacy. Spontaneity. Authenticity. All those are doable. The challenge would be bringing that jarring in-your-face-ness to the narrative passages. A book that came close to achieving the cinéma vérité effect (for me anyway) was the fantastically funny and utterly out of hand novel Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison, which is actually a string of scenes as experienced by a Hollywood screenwriter with ADD. I was so engrossed in this book that I was genuinely unable to put it down while I got a mammogram. Talk about immediacy. Yeah, baby.

Insights, anyone?

(A little aside: How trippy was it to sit there watching the chase play out through the streets of Manhattan, London, Paris, and Tangier and be able to say, "Hey, we were there." Gotta love a movie that travels like we do.)

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 the publisher are right and the author is saved from her own stupidity/naivete/what-have-you. Gone with the Wind was originally called Pansy (urgh!). I'd meant to call my book Night Winds Futile the Winds, from a line of the Emily Dickinson poem, but everyone "heard" it as "Feudal the Winds," or some other nonesensical phrase. My novel Fatal Error (not the most original of titles) fits the book well and was chose after my idea, Heart Drives was batted down as "too romancy". And rightly so, for the book was more mystery/suspense and would have driven off that type of reader (as well as most straight men) with its original title.

But sometimes, you see a title and wonder, "What the heck were they thinking?" Harlequin and Silhouette have been the wellspring of some incredible clunkers of the "Having the Boss's Baby by Force" or "The Pregnant Cowgirl and the Prince" variety.
"Virgin" seems to be a common theme in some of the most excruciating titles, with terms such as "Bride", "Bought by", "Sheik", and "Passion" bringing up the (ahem) rear. I dunno, maybe dumb titles (and before you start flaming me, I'm calling some of these titles and not the books or authors dumb) sell, but it embarrasses me to see romance made into a caricature of itself when so many authors have labored so long to help bring the genre some respectability.

More recently, however, publishers of erotic romance have begun to put out (okay, I confess, there was a little pun intended) books with titles that make those above sound like Atlas Shrugged by comparison. Some are politically incorrect, some are offensive-but-wickedly-funny but all (or most, I gather) are selling pretty well.

The book business has to remain profitable to remain in business, but has it gone too far in terms of titles, covers, and content? What are your nominations for the best or worst titles you have seen of late?

And to rate the title of your manuscript (just for fun), you might try the Lulu Titlescorer. This rating engine gave my upcoming novel, The Salt Maiden, a 35.9% chance of becoming a bestseller. We'll see!

Monday, August 13, 2007

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

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, I wanted to use my two-headed protagonists as a metaphor for the alienation I felt as a gay man. Despite the progress gay people have made since I came out at the age of eighteen in 1969, I remained constantly aware of feeling different. And I felt that no matter how hard I tried to fit in (short of going back into the closet), I would always remain as obviously different as if I . . . well, had two heads. Voilá.

Visit Andrew online to catch up on the book buzz and read chapter one.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

How to Hurt the Ones You Love

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, even as I find their Achilles tendon and draw back my bowstring to take my best shot at it. (Let's hope there's not some kind of law against mixing mythologies in blog posts.)

If you're really going to show a character's growth, to shake this person down to the bedrock of her convictions, she is going to have to be severely challenged. There is going to have to be pain. Otherwise, why would she change a way of thinking that's been working for her (however poorly)? How would she get to a place where she could move beyond the flaw crippling her and find the strength to overcome challenges that would destroy the lesser version of herself? How can she deserve that happy ending and leave the readers cheering when she reaches it?

Do you ever find yourself thinking, "No, I can't do that to my characters. Anything else - but not that"? There may be a few times when you shouldn't. (I draw the line at whacking little kids and stomping puppies. There's some pain that's too painful for me to read about, let alone write.) A lot of times, however, that one "unthinkable" challenge may be the one the hero has to face, the one that will break down the character and then allow him to re-form a more worthy incarnation.

I'm looking for feedback for this article. Do you struggle with the temptation to wimp out when it comes to conflict? Do you have any great techniques for overcoming this aversion? And (keeping to my Indian theme), are there any sacred cows -- places you won't go in which to heap abuse on those poor characters? If your comment is chosen for inclusion in the article (I'll be limited by space and possible repetition), I'll be sure to (with your permission) mention your name and (if you're published, though you don't have to be) most recent book.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Avoiding work is an important aspect of my career strategy

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 the kitchen ceiling, my family begged me to stop. My work avoidance therapy this week came from the extraction of a graphic from a 1930s pulp novel and the obsessive compulsive search for the right color combo.

While I worked, I listened to hours and hours of music. For about three bucks a month, you can program your own station on Yahoo's Launchcast or listen to uninterrupted streaming of their genre stations. ("Classic Soul" and "Martini Lounge" are my current faves.) I've also been lifting weights and going to spin class every day, and let me tell you, the unpasteurized satan milkshake that is spin class puts me in a very specific head space. It's like a test pattern takes over my brain. A test pattern with German techno music. And pain. Lots of pain. But I love that feeling of utter autopilot. It's freeing for someone who can't shut off the noise of constant ideas long enough to fall asleep at night.

Shutting down the idea chatter for a few days opened the flow for one good idea to come shining through. And suddenly, it's writing season again.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Just Woke Up & Decided to Be Evil...

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. That there's always a reason -- a damned compelling reason, to the villain's way of thinking -- that he/she is "forced" to resort to uber-naughtiness to achieve some "greater good." If you don't believe me, read interviews with criminals convicted of the most heinous crimes. The excuses they make for their behavior are incredibly complex, convoluted -- and perfectly rational in their minds. I've heard pedophiles rationalize things in interviews that broke me out in shudders and ignited my eyelashes. I've read the words of serial killers as they spun out the schizophrenic logic like an intricate web of poisoned silk. It's damned unpleasant putting myself into these peoples' minds to write a scene from my books' antagonists' point of view -- I often have to take a break or take a shower afterwards -- but that sort of immersion is critical in depicting an authentic evil. And compared to it, anything else tastes way too much like cardboard.

When it comes to villainy, how much is too much? And do you have any special tips you'd like to share for getting into character when the character's a creep?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

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

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 thought about the fact that no one in the room knew I had this special dream. In fact, no one knew I had an inner life at all. Then it occurred to me that everyone there could be feeling something pretty similar. As soon as I had that thought, I knew I wanted to write about these types of women--to explore the pain, passion, heartache and joy hidden beneath facade of the perfect suburban housewife--and do it with humor and compassion.

I think Long Island women get a bad rap as being full of money and attitude. I can't honestly say that doesn't exist, but it's a distinct minority, and gets blown way out of proportion, even right here at home. One of the reasons I wanted to write Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA was to blow the myth apart. I wanted to show the honest heart of these suburban women, to explore the very real pain, passion and joy that often gets overlooked. Most of all, I wanted to do it with tenderness and humor, which was why it was so important for me to make the book more of a friendship story than anything else.

So introduce us to members of the Applewood PTA.
Maddie is an emotionally-needy ex-lawyer who thinks her marriage is on the rocks. Ruth is a brash and wealthy woman who seems to have it all, but her husband is impotent, brain-damaged and sexually inappropriate, so she hides a lot of pain. Lisa is a timid soul whose alcoholic mother made her afraid to shine. On the surface, I have nothing in common with them, but in my heart, there's common ground with each. I wouldn't be able to write about them if there wasn't.

The difference between the hard and paperback covers is pretty drastic. Did you love or hate one more than the other?
I love my new paperback cover! I think my publisher did a brilliant job with it. The apple works on so many levels. First and most obvious, it says "sin," which there is quite a bit of in the book. Also, it reflects the name of my fictional town, Applewood. And finally, since the story revolves around an elementary school, an apple is a great symbol.

Talk to me about the ins and outs of using George Clooney in the book. Wasn’t it a legal hassle?
The book was originally called George Clooney is Coming to Applewood. Some folks raised an eyebrow, asking if it was really okay to use his name. But when I pointed out that Al Franken wrote a book called Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, most agreed that it wouldn't be a problem. My editor and agents were unconcerned.

Alas, the lawyers at Harper Collins weren't quite so mellow, and put the brakes on at the last minute, saying I couldn't use George Clooney's name in the title without his consent. I was given 48 hours to get approval from Hollywood's most sought-after super hunk. Easy, right?

Fortunately, I'm married to a researcher, and he was able to get me the phone number for Clooney's agent in minutes. So I called the office and they barked out his publicist's phone number before hanging up on me. Then I dialed the other number had this conversation:

"Hello, my name is Ellen Meister and I got your number from George Clooney's agent. They said you were the people to call to—"

"Talk faster. I have people holding."


"Gimme your phone number and he'll call you back."

I blurted out my phone number and tried to explain the nature of my call, but she hung up before I could get it out. This was bad, because it was likely she got the impression that I was looking for a publicist. So I called again.


"Write us a letter."

"WAIT! I DON'T HAVE TIME! I'm in a terrible time crunch and—"

"Here's our email address. Good-bye."

So I wrote his publicist an email and got a quick reply saying it was a long and complicated issue and George Clooney didn't have time for it. I couldn't let it go at that without a bit of groveling, so I wrote back explaining that the book had been my life's work for so many years and that I'd heard that George Clooney was so accessible with a great sense of humor about himself and would he PLEASE pass it by him? The reply was quick. He DID pass it by George Clooney and the answer is no.

So that was it.

If it's any consolation, I like this title better. What’s next?
My next novel is called the The Smart One, and it's the story of a divorced former artist named Bev Bloomrosen, who's about to turn her failed career around and become a school teacher. But when she and her two sisters discover a dead body under the house next door, they come head on with the old childhood roles holding them back. It will be published by Morrow/Avon in 2008.

Let’s wrap it up with the $64,000 Question: Why do you write?
I was born in the Bronx to two devoted readers. I understood from an early age that the best way to get someone's undivided attention was to put words on paper. If I didn't write, I'd be ignoring the thing I'm best at, and that's a scary proposition.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Presenting Ellen Meister: Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA

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

"George Clooney should be proud." ~ Mark Ebner, author of Hollywood Interrupted

Wait a second...George Clooney? PR explains it better than I can:

When a Hollywood location scout comes to Applewood, Long Island, and announces that the local elementary school might make the perfect backdrop for an upcoming George Clooney movie, the PTA's decorum crumbles like a cookie from last week's bake sale.

Enter Maddie, Ruth, and Lisa, three women who become the glue that holds the project together, forging a bond of friendship stronger than anyone could imagine. And not a moment too soon, as marriage woes, old flames, and scandalously embarrassing family members threaten to tear each of them apart. Is their powerful alliance strong enough to overcome the obstacles to getting the movie made in their town? And will their friendship be enough to mend their hearts and homes? Join them as they reach for the stars . . . and try to pull off a Hollywood ending of their own.

At once tender and hilarious, Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA is a captivating story that turns suburbia upside down...with more humor, heartache, and heat than one PTA can hold.

Tune in tomorrow for a conversation with Long Island author, editor, and proud PTA mom Ellen Meister.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

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

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 Sandra Brown is profiled in a piece called "The Woman on Top," which highlights Brown's massive success in the marketplace. Yet Hollandsworth opens with:
"As I walked into her office, she rose elegantly from behind her desk. In heels, she was nearly six feet tall, her body slender but curvy. Her reddish hair with blond highlights was perfectly tousled, and her lean face contained both well-defined cheekbones and soft, full lips. She was wearing a silky beige top that was cut just low enough for me to catch a tantalizing glimpse of a bra strap, and her spectacularly long legs were covered in form-fitting linen slacks that accentuated her pert posterior.

"'Hello,' I said softly, my breath making a hissing sound as I inhaled through my teeth. For a moment, she stared back at me, her brown eyes unblinking, and I could not help but wonder if she too felt something stirring deep inside. Was she, perhaps, already fantasizing about me pushing my way hungrily toward her and pinning her to the desk…"

Excuse me, but what the hell, Skip? And what were the editors of Texas Monthly thinking, to run this article as it was written? Sure, the magazine's known for its irreverent take on a lot of public figures, but I can't imagine a male author would have received this kind of physical scrutiny. More insulting still was the way in which Hollandsworth was lampooning her writing style with this personal affront, the way he counterbalanced each mention of Brown's fifty-five NYT bestsellers, her upcoming first printing of 650,000 for Play Dirty with assertions that critics (in spite of the positive PW review I read of this book) have "always been unimpressed by Brown," claiming her books to be "chock full of ... over-the-top characters, implausible if not impossible plot twists...and cliched happy endings."

For "balance," he goes on to describe his own (shocking) enjoyment of a Brown book he picked up (again, Play Dirty) while writing the article. Mostly in terms of how it wasn't Cormac McCarthy "nor even, really, Dan Brown or John Grisham"), but he kept turning the pages anyway, propelled by the many surprising plot twists, "even if many of them were unrealistic.") It's as if our boy can't quite bring himself to admit that sometimes, a fast, fun, entertaining read is all the reader asks.

I won't argue the fact that not all authors are created equal. I won't defend Brown's prose or tell you people don't have a right to choose their own books. But I will say that the tone of this article, and so many others written about female writers -- particularly writers of work meant for a largely-female audience -- is fueled by ugly, sexist attitudes as well as a desire to keep women in their place.

Though I usually enjoy Skip Hollandsworth's article and Texas Monthly's irreverent take on many subjects, I'm calling you both on this one. And wishing Sandra Brown a #1 NYT slot for her upcoming release.

Monday, August 06, 2007

No magic in Harry Potter sales at the indies

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 weren't even pretending they were going to make a profit on HP #7. For stores like Barnes & Noble, it was a loss leader to get people into the store. For Amazon, it was the mother of all publicity ops, where they proved they could ship when and where promised and staged a donation of $5,000 to the town that bought the most copies of Deathly Hallows. (A donation which pales in comparison to the millions of dollars in sales tax lost to cities and states, as one local bookseller points out.)
"Amazon was selling the book cheaper than we could buy it," Neale says. "I guess they chose to do that in the hope that folks will maybe buy something else. But we're not in the refrigerator business or the wide-screen TV business. We're in the book business."

The book business. Oy. An online Chronicle reader responded, "Who goes to a 'Specialty' book store to buy a major-release book anyway? Half-Price books buys for pennies on the dollar and usualy sells for 1/2 retail...if their model doesn't work, boo-friggin-hoo." And therein lies the problem.

The model did work as long as people bought books at bookstores. The Rowlings and the Grishams and the Kings were the rising tides that floated all the little midlist boats. People just don't clap on to the larger notion that they are trading a culture which values books -- and the people who create, love, and sell books -- for the price of a Caesar wrap and waffle fries at Chick-fil-A. There's no concern about the fact that entities like WalMart can influence what gets published and what doesn't.

The problem is not Amazon. Amazon is an animal following its natural feeding instinct like a great white shark. The problem is a culture in which most people genuinely think saving a buck-seventy on a pair of Levi's at WalMart is more important than having a Levi's factory in their community, and if that puts their neighbors out of jobs and erodes the national economy, friggin' hoo.

The world we live in is created by a zillion little decisions a day. Kever's article offers a reminder that at the very least, we should be more conscious about the book-buying decisions we make. If the few bucks we save is truly worth what we lose, we need to own up to having made that choice.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Tool Box: Project Gutenberg

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 received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In case you're curious, the Top 20 EBooks downloaded yesterday were:

1. Manual of Surgery by Alexander Miles and Alexis Thomson (577)
2. The Outline of Science, Vol. 1 (of 4) by J. Arthur Thomson (442)
3. Manners, Custom and Dress During the Middle Ages and During the Renaissance Period by Paul Lacroix (382)
4. Jokes For All Occasions by Anonymous (340)
5. Searchlights on Health by B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols (297)
6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (267)
7. The Street That Wasn't There by Carl Richard Jacobi and Clifford Donald Simak (266)
8. Our Day by William Ambrose Spicer (264)
9. Woman as Decoration by Emily Burbank (232)
10. Illustrated History of Furniture by Frederick Litchfield (227)
11. Kamasutra by Vatsyayana (225)
12. The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci — Complete by Leonardo da Vinci (206)
13. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (191)
14. The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe (190)
15. Ulysses by James Joyce (186)
16. The Mafulu by Robert Wood Williamson (184)
17. The People's Common Sense Medical Adviser in Plain English by Ray Vaughn Pierce (181)
18. Custom and Myth by Andrew Lang (179)
19. How to Write Letters (Formerly The Book of Letters) by Mary Owens Crowther (176)
20. English Songs and Ballads by Various (165)

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Why Harry Potter Works

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 classic quest tale which is central to so many. There's something innate to humans that makes us respond to the tale of the underdog/last hope who, with the help of friends and mentors, overcomes terrible obstacles (often death itself) to succeed in an impossible quest. Many, many very popular stories adhere to this ancient pattern. FMI, I recommend Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.

3. Imagination. J.K. Rowling has an incredible imagination. Each of her books delights with the sheer inventiveness of the details of the world she has created. Whimsical humor (Bertie's Every Flavor Beans) leavens the darkest of inventions. Though critics may gripe about some elements of her writing or the length of later tomes, the sheer power of her creativity never fails to impress and entertain, especially in the way she shows lovable characters' reactions to each wonder -- or horror.

I feel blessed to live in an age where, for all its troubles, the power of a story can captivate millions of people all around the world. It's story that unites us, story that provides our souls with sustenance, and story that can, upon occasion, supercede much of the harshness inherent in the human condition.

So thank you, J.K. Rowling, for being so damned good at it.


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