Sunday, September 30, 2007

Love Me, Love My Story

That's what our characters might tell us, and I believe they're right. When a reader falls in love with one of our main characters, he/she will follow that fictional person almost anywhere, through anything, because the reader cares intensely what happens to this "loved one."

Making a character attractive to the reader is about for more than physical beauty, or making the character a super-nice person who rescues fuzzy bunnies and delivers meals to the housebound elderly. Very attractive, fascinating characters can be plain/homely (a little plainness, in fact, can increase relatability; most of us aren't Miss America), snarky, weak (think of Kyra Sedgwick's character in The Closer, with her sugar addiction), selfish, or even lethal and still likable. So what are some of the "Pied Piper qualities" that keep us turning pages? Here are five that work for me.

1. A fascinating/refreshing/entertaining point of view. This character sees the world in a somewhat off-kilter fashion, and we can't wait to get her take on life's realities. We'd like to hang out with this person in real life. It might be a little dangerous, but at least we wouldn't be bored.
2. Unpredictability (within reason). This character surprises us continually while still remaining true to himself.
3. A moral core. The characters morals may be off, in terms of the reader's, but the character adheres to her own values, at least some of which are admirable and uphold our own morality. Though the person's actions may be wrong, her reasons work for us.
4. Recognizability. We've met folks at least a little like this person, so we believe in him. Or at least willingness suspend our disbelief.
5. Larger than life. This person says and does the things we wish we'd have the brains and guts (or the chutzpah) to attempt for ourselves. She lives life in vibrant color and tends to act rather than be acted upon. This person is the antithesis of the boring dust-mote character (as I call them), who floats through like as a passive victim.

So what makes you fall in love with (or want to hang out with) a particular character? Which characters in books, movies, or television, have been most attractive to you?

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Pirate's Daughter: a gorgeous book, a publishing adventure

When a friend at Unbridled Books graciously flipped me an advance copy of Margaret Cezair-Thompson's forthcoming novel The Pirate's Daughter, it quickly migrated to the top of my gotta read stack. This is one of those luxurious, bottle-of-wine, house-to-myself, let-it-all-go-to-voicemail books that completely kidnapped me for a day.

The story:
In 1946, a storm-wrecked boat carrying Hollywood’s most famous swashbuckler shored up on the coast of Jamaica, and the glamorous world of 1940’s Hollywood converged with that of a small West Indian society. After a long and storied career on the silver screen, Errol Flynn spent much of the last years of his life on a small island off of Jamaica, throwing parties and sleeping with increasingly younger teenaged girls. Based on those years, The Pirate’s Daughter is the story of Ida, a local girl who has an affair with Flynn that produces a daughter, May, who meets her father but once.

Spanning two generations of women whose destinies become inextricably linked with the matinee idol’s, this lively novel tells the provocative history of a vanished era, of uncommon kinships, compelling attachments, betrayal and atonement in a paradisal, tropical setting. As adept with Jamaican vernacular as she is at revealing the internal machinations of a fading and bloated matinee idol, Margaret Cezair-Thompson weaves a saga of a mother and daughter finding their way in a nation struggling to rise to the challenge of independence.

PW says, "[Cezair-Thompson] succeeds magnificently in evoking a world distant in both time and place." Booksellers are loving the heck out of it, and I have a feeling book clubs are going to be all over it as well. The Pirate's Daughter is the #1 Booksense Pick for October, and news of a major paperback deal was just announced. It's always thrilling to see a really worthy book come busting out like this for an author who so deserves to be recognized. Born in Jamaica, Margaret Cezair-Thompson is the author of The True History of Paradise (which I will now make a point of reading) and teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley.

Look for The Pirate's Daughter in bookstores later this month or order now on Amazon.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A little less lonely at the top: NYT splits their bestseller list

In case you don't obsessively look at the NYT bestseller lists every Sunday like a certain fire-in-the-sugar-free-latte-filled-belly writer who shall remain nameless, they finally clapped on to the fact that it makes no sense to quantify Anita Shreve alongside Harry Potter. According to the "Up Front" column:
It gives more emphasis to the literary novels and short-story collections reviewed so often in our pages (and sometimes published only in softcover). Mass-market paperback titles are now covered in a separate list. In addition, we present expanded coverage of paperback non fiction and of advice, how-to and miscellaneous books, as the increased number of titles this week makes clear.
Josh Getlin commented on the split in an LA Times article:
It has been criticized for being ingrown and unscientific, a weekly work of fiction that -- for all its seeming authoritativeness -- is shrouded in mystery. So when the New York Times Book Review announced it would begin splitting its paperback bestseller list into two lists, one reserved for quality paperback fiction, a chorus of voices in publishing began parsing What It All Meant... While all of these lists might be confusing, writers clearly benefit. The bottom line for many in publishing is that "eyeballs on the news page are an extremely important thing, they're crucial to book selling," said Sandra Djikstra, a literary agent based in Southern California... "Creating a new weekly list for paperback fiction is a plus for everybody who cares about the future of good writing."
From her lips to God's ear.

PS ~ The "My Dolly Book" picture really has nothing to do with any of this. I just thought it was trippy.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What Are You Doing to Build Sweat Equity?

I love Habitat for Humanity's concept of sweat equity, where low income family's chosen to have a house built are required to pour 350 hours of their own labor (friends and family can help, but not too much) into both their own and other's houses. In addition, they pay a mortgage on a home sold to them at cost. The idea is that the beneficiaries of the program will appreciate and tend well something that has cost them so much of themselves.

An aspiring novelist must build sweat equity as well. Though mentors and critique partners may provide valuable assistance, many hundreds of hours are needed to hone the voice, develop the craft, and glean enough information about the business to have a shot at breaking in. Unlike Habitat, however, the writer must do all this on faith, with no guarantee of (with daunting odds against, in fact) achieving her goal. Instead, she writes and writes, edits and reshapes, submits and all too often fails, building sweat equity toward a dream so powerful that even an occasional, tantalizing whiff of its aroma motivates her.

Though shelter is a basic human need, the world owes no one his or her own home. Likewise, it cares not one whit, nor does it owe anybody, the self-actualization of a published novel. So that means those of us who chase that goal have only our work, our will, our determination, and whatever talent we've been given to tell the type of stories we're inspired to write. Then we sit back and pray that other people will consider them worthy of exchange for money.

So what are you doing today (not next weekend or when the kids are older) to build sweat equity in your dream? How many hours will you work toward that goal this week?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Nice dress. Take it off.": Literary sex in brief

I've been thinking a lot about sex.

My agent and I have been dialogueing about the sex scenes in the novel she's about to start shopping around, and having already cut a LOT of sex from this book (the plot of which hinges on an unusual sexual proclivity) I was loathe to follow her recommendation that I tone it down. Frankly, I am offended by coyness, which is really just hypocrisy with a sunbonnet on it. However, I am interested in getting this book placed with a great editor for a tasty advance, and the old saw about how "sex sells" really does not hold true for mainstream/suspense fiction.

I did some homework on it. Using Amazon's "Search Inside" feature, I looked for the word kiss in about a dozen bestsellers by highly commercial authors. Every book had some sex in it, but my agent was absolutely correct that there are limits. As I've said before, while my books do have sex in them, I don't write "sex scenes". There's always something else going on. Most of the sex I observed in the suspense novels I searched on was the plugged in (pardon the pun) "sex scene" which really didn't take the characters or story anywhere they couldn't have gone while playing Scrabble.

My epiphany of the week came (as so many epiphanies do) at critique group the other night. One of the midwives mentioned the Janet Evanovich novel High Five, which ends with the main character opening the door for a gentleman caller.

"Nice dress," he says. "Take it off."

Fade to black.

How brilliant is that? It's definitely one of the sexiest things I've ever heard of, and not a wasted word, the essence of excellent dialogue.

Tied in first place for the Shortest Sex Scene in Literature is Barbara Kingsolver. I cannot for the life of me remember which book it's in, but a character hears the crinkle of cellophane in a man's shirt pocket and says, "If that's a condom in there, this is my lucky day." The sex scene in its entirety:

He did. It was.

Kingsolver's books aren't known for being particularly torrid, so she took a lot of flack for the erotic tone of her novel Prodigal Summer. The always erudite Kingsolver responded:
I can't say why other modern writers have turned their backs on Eros, but I can guess, because facing her head-on made me pretty nervous at first. Sex in our strange culture is both an utter taboo and the currency of jaded commerce. It's very tricky terrain to write about copulation, when the language seems to be held in the joint custody of pornography and the medical profession. But Prodigal Summer is about life and fecundity, and it could not be an honest book without sex at its very center. For this book to be taken seriously as literature, I realized I would have to invent a new poetry of copulation, and that is what I tried to do.

Yeah. What she said. I'm going to do that. And I'm going to look at every sexually oriented passage I write from here on out with a very nice dress take it off kind of eye.

A sex scene is a lot like that little black dress. No matter how great it looks, there's a point at which it's simply getting in the way.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Brighter Side of Fear

A couple of days ago I blogged about The Fear Place, which can be an extremely uncomfortable spot while we're creating. But the more I think I about it, the more I believe that there's a time and place to slip inside its barbed-wire borders.

Without fear, we might stop stretching our hands toward perfection. Without fear, we can let the happy babble of outside praise deafen us to the false notes in our current work-in-progress. Our egos can swell so tight inside us that valid doubts are crowded out. Too often, I've seen authors near the top of their game begin to get a little sloppy. "Uneditable," a friend of mine calls those who wield such power that their words can't be questioned. And the work suffers for it in the long run.

I don't want to go to that place, so maybe I'll adopt this as my new mantra: Write fearlessly, but edit ruthlessly. Only don't try doing both at the same time.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Maiden review

Even when all the firsts of the first novel are far behind, every book is like a virgin, and that maiden review tends to set the tone for the entire book launch. If it's a pan-fry, it's difficult to go forward with trust and joy. If it's a rave, you're energized, soaring, optimistic.

So I was thrilled to see this first review for Colleen's forthcoming novel The Salt Maiden from Detra Fitch of Huntress Reviews:
An excellent thriller with a touch of romance. I could not bring myself to set the book down. I simply HAD to know what would happen next. From the beginning it is non-stop action, drama, and mystery. Fans of Tess Gerritsen, Tami Hoag, and Sandra Brown will adore this tale. Phenomenal!


Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Fear Place

Don't get me wrong. I'm happy, happy, happy to be writing another romantic suspense for Dorchester. Especially this one (Triple Exposure), which is a book I've dreamed of writing for some time. Since the research will involve another glider flight (yea!) and a much-anticipated visit to the beautiful West Texas town of Marfa, I'm especially excited...

I am also scared as hell.

Not about the soaring (which I love) nor the prospect of driving nearly ten hours each way and meeting strangers in a strange place all alone (love that kind of thing as well). It's the pressure of wanting this book to be perfect when I'm not, of wanting it to be successful because I care so deeply. And the especially tight deadline doesn't help.

To be an artist of any sort is to dwell inside the fear place. We're afraid because we can neither anticipate nor control others' reaction to our labors. Afraid because the reality never measures up to the ideal held in our minds. Afraid, in my case, that the necessary constraints of deadlines will cause me to get sloppy in my work.

So today, I ask myself what's worse than a tight deadline. To which I answer "No deadline at all." Today I ask myself what I'd rather be doing. To which I answer, "Nothing" and write on.

So what's your creative fear place? Is it the writing, the marketing, the selling? And how do you overcome it to do the work you love?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

The all important face-to-face

When my literary agent first came out of her office to greet me in New York yesterday, my first thought was how much she reminds me of my daughter. Roughly the same height and build, the dancer neck, the fresh face, Jane Austen hair pulled back in a ballerina bun. It makes me a little nervous, I must confess, that she is actually closer to my daughter's age than she is to mine. I chose her over an older, wiser, and far more accomplished agent because I loved how smart and unjaded she is. I don't agree with everything she says, and we're a bit of an odd couple. She's very reserved, and I'm very...not.

I had high hopes and deep fears about this alliance before I met her, and that hasn't changed. We were on the same page with 90% of her comments on the manuscript in play, but I left the meeting not feeling great about it.

We exchanged several emails today, however, and now my high hopes are higher than my deep fears are deep. The tone of our conversation has changed. I feel a lot more free to plainly speak because I feel like I know this person now. She seems more open and relaxed as well having seen up close and in person that I'm not a raving lunatic or a basket case (I heard that!) or grossly nonfunctional in some way.

Most of my working relationships -- and Colleen's too -- are with people we seldom if ever see face to face. It's the nature of the beast for authors who don't live in New York, where the vast majority of the biz takes place. Cyber officing is fantastic, but it's important to make the effort, make the time, make the trip to meet people in person. Put a voice to the email and a face to the phone caller. See what else is on this person's desk. What's outside her window. Who's down the hall. I have a better understanding of what she's up against every day and how I fit into her to do list. On the flip side, I hope she'll know when I'm joking even if I don't follow up with a smiley face emoticon. Hopefully now that we've gotten to know each other a little, the love and the money will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Quickie from Laguardia

In New York for the day, just long enough to stop by and give a dear friend a shnuz before jogging up the street to meet my literary agent. Back at Laguardia waiting for my flight and decided to post a quick one to the blog before departure time.

One question: Whose life is this?

As I strode up Park Avenue after leaving my agent's office, a man fell into step beside me and said, "Life is good, is it not?"

"Yes," I said. "Tell me what's especially good about your life today."

"Just saw Phantom of the Opera. The way they change the stage and all that--holy moley!"

"Ah, the Broadway high," I nodded, understanding completely. "I hear ya."

"I'm not a rapist," he decided to mention.

"Me neither," I said. "One more thing we have in common."

"Thanks for talking."

"My pleasure."

"You know what else is good? Flank steak. And pretzels."

"And taxis," I said because one had finally stopped for me. I gave the stranger a quick shnuz and headed home.

Lord, I love New York.

Name that Character

I admit it. I have trouble writing a story if the characters' names don't feel right. I frequently make changes, change those, and then go back and change again. (Thank goodness for the Search/Replace function!)

I prefer to use names that sound more like everyday people rather than label my poor characters with romance-speak names. (Hmmm... Blade Wulfe for the hero, and let's see... how 'bout Lady Chantilly du Tiffany for the heroine.) So where do I go when I need everyday folk naming ideas? The Social Security Administration has a great site where you can input the character's birth year and come up with a list of the most popular first names. Also, there's a listed posted of most common U.S. surnames that I've found extremely helpful when I'm not reaching for the Houston residential pages for ideas.

But here's a new (to me) resource that takes census info and randomly generates lists of male or female names. Very handy to get a nice group to choose from. You can even set how obscure or how common you would like the names to be.

Check it out and have fun, but don't forget that a good name is, in and of itself, a vital tool for characterization. It clues in the reader as to the character's background, formality, and ethnicity/region. But it shouldn't be so obvious that the poor character couldn't draw breath outside the pages of a book.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What's Your Authorial Mission?

For way too many years, I wandered, meandering from poetry to short stories to plays, then starts to novels in half a dozen genres. As I become the jack of all writing trades and master of none, I at least learned how to write and began to get some sense of what I might be good at. But in spite of contest accolades and critique group praise, my goal of getting published began to feel like mission impossible.

Until I found a focus to my work, or you might call it a vision. It didn't come all at once by any means. First, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a novelist. Then I refined it to author of commercial paperback (mass market) novels. Later, I refined it further, to fast-paced, emotional, suspenseful adult fiction. It took years and hundreds upon hundreds of pages written to winnow down my dream that much. Along the way, I made a study of the type of fiction I wanted to write, and of the heretofore neglected business aspects of it. Gradually (and I hope you're all much faster learners) I came to the place where my mission was to write fast-paced, suspenseful, and emotional commercial novels, which lead me to the romantic suspense I love to read (and write!)

Are you still forming or refining your authorial mission? Where is it you seek to take your readers, and what are the steps you need to take to reach that place? Because if you don't have a goal in mind, you could spend three lifetimes aimlessly drifting through the thickets, the deserts, and the quagmires of possibility.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Black Books: sweet rejection

Thanks to Lark Howard for directing our attention to this way too funny bit.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wrong way, Feldman: Joni’s publishing parable of the week

In Dallas this weekend. Opening keynote at a Leukemia Lymphoma Society conference. I had a fraction of the expertise the rest of the speakers had, which is why I was there. I’m the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as it were. Smart conference planners know people need to laugh a lot, cry a little, and put a face to lymphoma before they get hit with the solid wall of survival statistics, monoclonal antibody therapies studies, and T-cell re-engineering talks. I always work hard to deliver the goods at these gigs. I care a lot about the audience and get paid well, but this time I had the added incentive of a videographer filming me for a new demo video with which my speaking agent will hopefully score me oodles of gigs.

I got up at 4 AM so I could fuss like a Dolly over my hair and makeup. I wore an unadventurous but hopefully slimming all black ensemble, spiced up with a pair of funky brocade demi-boots so it would look more artsy than Amish. I drove to the address of the venue, no problemo, but when I got there…oh, dear. UT Southwestern Medical Center is a huge campus. I parked in the lot I’d been directed to by the event coordinator’s assistant, but had no idea where to go from there. A young woman in a lab coat got out of her car next to mine, and I said, “Excuse me, I’m looking for the blood cancer conference in Zale Lecture Hall…”

“Oh, I’m headed that direction.” She gestured for me to follow, adding, “It’s a long way. I don’t know why they told you to park here.”

“Me neither,” I said, silently cussing that assistant. Those spicy demi-boots are fine for a long day of standing, but not so good for trekking almost a mile through outdoor plazas, underground corridors, and winding linoleum halls. I trotted along as fast as I was able behind the quick-striding young doc, who happened to be going into oncology, and we had an interesting (though slightly breathless) conversation as we journeyed. She left me at a pair of double doors.

“Go through there and turn right. You’ll see the signs.”

Turns out I should have seen the signs a lot sooner. Long story short, I was parked right outside Zale Lecture Hall. She’d taken me to Zale…something else. (Damn those philanthropic Zales! Half the place is named after them.) By the time I got back to where I was supposed to be, my careful coif and makeup were melting down my neck, and I looked like…well, I guess I looked like a peri-menopausal author who’d just race-walked two miles through the stifling heat in shoes I fully intend to set on fire as soon as I unpack my suitcase.

Moral of the story: If someone helps you go in the wrong direction—no matter how kind, how smart, how quick they are—they are not helping you.

At the beginning of a publishing career, you know where you want to go, but you have no clue how to get there. You have the address, but it’s a mighty big place. Lots of doors and double doors. Lots of incredibly slick linoleum. The temptation is to follow people who act like they know what they’re doing or who’ve been successful at finding their own way, but every author’s publishing journey is unique. Each of us has to find her own way, and we have to be selective about who we ask for help. When you’ve been agent-hunting for years and an agent offers representation, the natural impulse is to latch on like a tree monkey, but does that agent share the same vision for your career? When you’ve been querying like an alms-beggar for months and a publisher offers you a contract, the natural impulse is “Where do I sign?”, but is this the right place for you and your book? Beggars can, in fact, be choosers. Beggars in this industry have to be choosers because mistakes cost far more than money—they cost time, emotional energy, and professional good will, and those are precious commodities.

In retrospect, obviously, I should have called the coordinator’s assistant. This is why God created cell phones. I should have paused to consider. I should have had my own plan in place for getting to where I needed to be. I should have asked the right questions. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way in publishing, too.

I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but whenever our kids go astray in some way, Gary shakes his head, gives them the big Easter Island face, and intones, “Wrong way, Feldman.” It’s just an observation. One which need not be elaborated upon. The consequences are self-correcting and educational. Hindsight is a bitch, baby.

A final note about the conference:

A moment of healthy perspective during the book signing after my talk. A man who’d been standing in line struggled for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry. My words won’t come.” I stood up and put my arms around him so he wouldn’t have to cry with some writer looking at him. He whispered in my ear, “Thanks for what you said about people who love people with cancer. When I was my wife’s caregiver, I wished I wasn’t. Now I’m not her caregiver anymore, and I wish I was.”

September is Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma Awareness Month with lots of educational events and fundraisers going on all over the US. Please visit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website to learn more about blood cancers and how you can help.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Wyrdsmiths: The Truly Garagantuan Miss Snark Index Post

Here's a wonderfully-helpful resource indexing many of Miss Snark's most helpful post.

Wyrdsmiths: The Truly Garagantuan Miss Snark Index Post

Thanks to Kelly McCullough for compiling it and, of course, to Miss Snark herself for the words of wisdom!

In Praise of Leroy Jenkins

Yesterday, my son showed me the classic viral video of Leroy Jenkins and his ill-considered full frontal assault on various monsters in the World of Warcraft video game. For those of you (like me) not up on nerd humor, in WoW, online players work their way cooperatively through a fantasy roleplaying game. In the famous video, players are heard strategizing in great detail ("I'm just crunching some numbers on that") when character Leroy Jenkins (who had been away from his keyboard instead of listening) suddenly charges into monsterdom screaming his name as a battle cry. After a stunned moment, his online buddies charge in after him, and everyone, predictably, gets slaughtered while players are heard cursing Leroy.

In writing, there are those who spend months, no, years meticulously planning strategy. They travel to conferences, take classes, and read everything they can find on the various aspects of craft and publication. But they never just charge in and go for it with everything they have.

Now I'm not suggesting that you throw yourself into the fray blindly. Knowledge is a good, make that a great thing, and for many, it can light the pathway to success. My point is that knowledge must be balanced with at least a little of the banzai attitude, or you'll never send out those first queries, enter those first contests, or learn critical lessons from your first defeat. Instead, you will sit safely on the sidelines, forever "crunching numbers" instead of laying claim to the reality of your dreams.

So today I plan to sit down at my keyboard, cry out "Leeeroooyy Jeeenkinnss!" and give it everything I've got. Who's with me?

Friday, September 14, 2007

You Might Be a Writer if You Laugh at This

Here's a Youtube video that's been making the rounds. If you've ever had a conversation with an editor or agent (or even a critique partner) that's left you scratching your head, you'll laugh in recognition. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

First, do no harm: Should there be a 'litblogger's Code of Ethics'?

Very much appreciated Jane Ciabattari's Wednesday post about litblogging ethics over on Critical Mass, including this subsequent comment:

The [National Book Critics Circle] includes members who are literary bloggers whose blogs carry regular book reviews and interviews and podcasts as well as members who are book reviewers for newspapers, broadcast,online publications, magazines, the full range of publications in the 21st century. And as the various forms shift and migrate, it makes sense to answer questions members raise about ethics and what guidelines might be appropriate. That said, yes, some reviewers don't follow the guidlines. And readers pick that up quickly. As for the issues, they have to do with the ethical guidelines suggested by the Online News Association noted in the post. i.e., "The cornerstones of this code of ethics are to 1) Be honest and fair. 2)Minimize harm. 3)Be accountable." And the question is, should these or other ethical guidelines also apply to litbloggers?

I vote yes.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A conversation with Cajun caper diva Toni McGee Causey

After seeing the trailer for Bobbie Faye's Very Very Very Bad Day, you’ll probably want to a) read the book and b) go out for margaritas with the author. Next best thing to being there? Our author E-chat with the delightful Toni McGee Causey.

Even before I was a Southern girl, I loved Southern stories. Talk to us about story-telling in the Cajun culture.
I grew up where it was a family activity to tell stories and to out-do one another while we were at it. I love movies, too, and photography and painting and... and so much more. When I was very young, my dad would play poker every Friday night at my uncle's house, and all of those men would ignore a kid nearby. Cigarette smoke thickened the air, chip racks were discarded (and great toys), and everything from world to local affairs might be discussed. Or my mom and aunt would let me lie down in the back room where they were sitting and talking, and I'd pretend I was asleep because they would tell hysterical stories (and it was so hard to pretend I was asleep and not laugh), and it was, in a lot of ways, magic. I can still hear the clatter of the chips of the table, the snap of someone slapping down a trump card and a chorus of groans or laughs or good-natured cursing, all while someone recounted some story or other. I knew then, the story was what held the magic, and I knew that's what I wanted to do--to be able to tell them, hopefully to a room full of friends.

And how did all that give birth to Bobby Fay?
The inspiration was wanting to write a kick-ass, take-no-prisoners heroine... a woman who has bad luck, but who rises to the occasion when her brother's life is in jeopardy.

To outline or not to outline?
I am somewhere in between the outline/no outline method. I have some rough sketching of what I think will happen for the book and I work on overall arcs, but I do this more by making notes on sections rather than a pure outline.

Tell us what you love and hate about the process?
The daily writing is the most satisfying to me. Seriously--I love the process. I enjoy the brainstorming, character-building, world-building, plotting. I'm one of those weird people who also loves rewriting--it's where a story really takes shape for me. The least satisfying part is probably after it's done (really done, after copy edits and galleys) and before it comes out, because there's this awful suspension of process. It's hard to concentrate on something new because there's promotional stuff to do and, and nothing can be done about the one that's about to come out, and it's a bit like holding your breath... for a month or so.

How about the launch process?
The process of how a book is sold to the chains and to indies surprised me--it's not the catalog (which can be nice), but the sales reps and how much support the house puts behind the book that matters. While I read everything I could to learn and to try to be a good marketing partner, there's always more to know. It's a little intimidating. I think that maybe the most important thing I learned throughout this process is that the people you meet in this business are going to end up being the thing that keeps you sane--because they're going through it to and they understand and--for the most part--everyone tries to help each other. We all hope people read out books, but I also hope the readers read more than one or two books a year, and I want to direct them to friends' whose work I admire. We're in this together, and that's something I hadn't really understood before selling.

Having fun touring the new book?
At one small library where I was to give a talk, my family showed up, but not all at once, and knew most of the people there and there were random conversations and questions and cross-conversations and my family is not the least bit bashful, nor are they unwilling to tell you anything you ask, and there was a point there when I realized I had completely lost control. One of the librarians looked at me and we cracked up, and I tossed out the talk and we just had a party. I ended up selling every book I brought, so it turned out well. But I'm gagging my family at the next event.

We’ve got to ask about the Cirque du Mommy juggling act. How’s that workin’ out for ya?
When the kids were little, I wrote in between the events of the day. I was working full-time (our construction company) and went back to school full time and was a full time mom and yeah, I don't think I actually slept for an entire decade. My parents helped on class nights, and I brought whatever I was working on with me to the kids' events. Luckily, they participated in sports which were more individual-oriented, so I could cheer when they were up and then go back to work while I waited on their next turn. I typically ended up waiting until everyone was asleep to grab an extra hour or two to write. I pretty much gave up TV time in order to have time with my husband in the evenings and then alone time later. It worked well. Mostly. The kids did figure out to get away with stuff, ask me before school when I was more likely to be half-dead and a little slow on the uptake. Or, best, ask when I was in the middle of a scene and had no clue where I was or what they were asking.

You’re having a great ride so far, Toni, and you seem to be handling it beautifully. Any advice for aspiring writers?
1) Read, constantly, in as many genres as possible. I think a lot of new writers stick to just one thing in their reading and a wide variety can help with a comparative anlaysis -- why did X work or not work? how is it done in this other genre and why? This gives you analytical tools to evaluate your own writing and see if you accomplish on the page what you had in your imagination.

2) Write, as much as possible. Write a crappy draft, and finish it. Set it aside, and assess it, see if you think it worked and why. Edit, rewrite, and write some more. Don't worry so much about making "selling" a goal, but "wowing."

3) Get constructive feedback and rewrite. Find people who like to read your genre because nothing will do you more harm faster than to hand something funny to someone who loathes to read comedies... they may be polite about it while they're giving you feedback, but if they don't love that type of writing, their perspective may end up being damaging without them intending to be.

Go, girlfriend, go!

As True of Writing As It Is of Music...

Yesterday a good friend of mine passed on this quote from the late, great Pavarotti:

"Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail."
~ From Luciano Pavarotti, 1935 - 2007

Studying writing has the same pitfalls. You can spend all your time taking workshops, reading books, and (ahem) stopping by blogs or you can do the most important part: the practice.

As Joni would put it, 'Nuff said.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Do Book Trailers Work? This One Sure Did!

Lately, there's been a lot of Internet buzz about book trailers, which are used to promote upcoming or new releases on an author's website, MySpace, Youtube, and the like. As more and more authors jump onto this fun, new bandwagon, I've resisted, saying that though I've seen and admired quite a few, I've never actually purchased a book because of a trailer.

That ends today, with this fabulous trailer for Toni McGee Causey's hilarious Southern (mis)adventure, Bobbie Faye's Very Very Very Bad Day. Why did it convince me to order the book? First of all, it's clever and well-made, amusing in itself and very professional. But more importantly, it led me to look up more traditionally-formatted info about the book, and it's just what I'm in the mood for. Lately, I've been on a humorous Southern fiction kick. I've greatly enjoyed books such as Mary Kay Andrews' Savannah Blues and Joshilyn Jackson's Gods in Alabama.

Here's the description of Causey's book:
Bobbie Faye Sumrall is a dead-broke Cajun living in a broken-down trailer in Lake Charles, Louisiana. When criminals demand Bobbie Faye's Contraband Queen tiara-- the only thing of her mama's she inherited-- in exchange for her good-for-nothing brother, Bobbie Faye has to outwit the police, organized crime, former boyfriends, and a hostage she never intended to take (but who turns out to be damn sexy), in order to rescue her brother, keep custody of her niece, and get back in time to take her place as Queen in the Lake Charles Contraband Festival (think Mardi Gras, with more drinking and pirates). Luckily, she knows how to handle guns, outwit angry mama bears, drive a speedboat, and get herself out of (and into) almost every kind of trouble. If only that pesky state police detective (who also happens to be a pissed off ex-boyfriend) would stay out of her way . . .

I wasn't quite sold yet, since trailer park books really aren't my thing, but the reviews put me over the top. Here are a few highlights:
“Causey doesn't miss a beat in this wonderful, wacky celebration of Southern eccentricity.”
-- Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“This hyperpaced, screwball action/adventure with one unforgettable heroine and two sexy heroes is side-splittingly hilarious. Causey, a Cajun and a Louisiana native, reveals a flair for comedy in this uproarious debut novel.”
--Library Journal (starred review)

And if these enticements weren't enough, the Amazon reader reviews did the trick.

So was it the video trailer that sold me? Not exactly, but it did lead me to discover another new book I can't wait to read.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

It was a dark and stormy night: Fondly remembering Madeleine L'Engle

It's one of those books that came to me at the precise moment I desperately needed it and stayed with me...well, so far forever. Sixth grade was a miserable year for me. At home, my mother was recovering from a terrible car accident. At my strict parochial school, my teacher was an elderly man whose senile dementia erupted daily into verbal abuse and sometimes physical violence. In a desperate effort to be like my uber-perfect big sister, I went out for cheerleading and was horrifically unlucky enough to be placed on the squad. I didn't fit in (to put it mildly), and the other girls didn't candy-coat their disdain for me. I begged to quit. Pretended sprained ankles. Faked sick a lot. All I wanted was to climb up into the giant mulberry tree in front of our house and read.

One day, as I returned my Chronicles of Narnia revisitation stack, the librarian handed me A Wrinkle in Time, which happened to be on top of the incoming bin. "If you're looking for another series," she said. And I shrugged a sixth grader shrug. I started reading on way home and never again looked at my world in quite the same way.

From the obituary on Madeleine L'Engle's official website today:
Madeleine L'Engle Camp Franklin, 88, of Goshen, CT and New York City, died Thursday, September 6th. Born November 29, 1918, in New York City, to Charles Camp and Madeleine Barnett Camp, she was educated in Switzerland and South Carolina, before graduating from Smith College. She was the author of over 60 books, including the award-winning A Wrinkle in Time. ...She was a warm, loving and fun mother, grandmother and friend, who will be missed by many. Her influence will live on in her family and many friends, and in her books which have brought countless delight to all who have read them.

"Artists of all disciplines must be willing to go into the dark," L'Engle wrote in Penguins and Golden Calves. "Let go control. Be surprised."

Friday, September 07, 2007

Men and the art of motorcycle maintenance (or “Why I love this bird”)

Shortly after I posted about risk-takery on Wed morning, my son Malachi walked into Starbucks with his girlfriend, a voluptuous psych major who actually seems to get his sense of humor (a testament to the towering abilities of the psych professors of Central Florida.) Gary and I were doing a fast latte and email check on our way out of town.

I said, “Hey, Spike. How are you today?” He responded, “I am astonishingly well.” And he was. Gary had trucked him and his wounded motorbike around Orlando in search of repairs the previous day, the VPM had driven over from Tampa for a pleasant meet the parents over Mexican food, and Malachi was preparing to meet his fate as a UPS box hefter, a job that might be less than edifying on an artistic level, but will fund his travels to Asia and Europe this year.

Sitting across from him at Starbucks, I observed a happy man. He had wheels. He had a woman. He had work. His life, for this brief and shining moment at least, was working on a mechanical level. When we parted in the parking lot a little while later, I was weeping about this, and thinking I was crying because I wanted him to remain my baby, he put his arms around me and said quietly, “I love you, Mom. I’m still your kid in a lot of ways.”

Meanwhile, holding down the fort here at home, our daughter Jerusha was apparently feeling the need to spread her wings, as it were. For three years, she’s been talking about getting a tattoo of a mechanical bird on her back. The idea presented itself to her in a dream when she was fifteen, and she fixated on it, but I said, “Absolutely not. A tattoo is an adult decision. If you end up regretting it, I’ll be responsible because I gave permission.”

Now she’s eighteen. My permission is no longer required. (Neither is my blessing, so I appreciated that she was up front enough to keep me in the information loop.) With the droning folks conveniently out of town, she drove down to Sacred Heart Studio (“best tats in Houston”, according to her exhaustive research) and talked with a guy named Grimm ((gulp!)) about the design. In an effort to assuage my fears, she sent me a link to his page on the Sacred Heart website:
…I am an artist first and foremost, and then a tattooist, so my style isn't what most consider traditional tattooing. I like rendering things in unusual combinations of color and like my tattoos to look like paintings rather than tattoos…I believe a tattoo should be a reflection of an individuals spirit and perspective on life not mine. Therefore I gather lots of information as well as references from a client when I'm working on a piece.

Decepticons Rule!

Now, I don’t know what “decepticons” are, and I try not to render hasty judgments about the maturity level of people who state that things “rule”, except in cases where this person is jamming a permanently disfiguring ink-loaded needle into the baby soft flesh that was knit in the foundry of my womb. I was not greatly comforted by Grimm’s artistic manifesto. I did look at photos of his other work, however, and he is an amazing artist. He spoke at length with Jerusha about her vision and looked over some Victorian art samples she’d collected, then spent the following day free-handing a design.

As Gary and I drove across the Florida panhandle, I received a text message from Jerusha’s friend Jess: “Tattoo is underway and she’s taking it like a trooper.” A few grainy photos made their way through our leaky cell phone signal. We got the general idea. It was not small. It was not pale. Or fragile. Or temporary. I sent Colleen and the other midwives an email from a Starbucks somewhere in Alabama: “It’s a whole lotta tattoo.” Ever the pragmatist, Colleen urged perspective: “It’s not a swastika, or a 666, or anything that will show under an interview suit.” (Lord, I can’t wait till her kid turns eighteen…)

Grimm’s opus was still swathed in gauze when Gary and I got home last night. Jerusha brought the after care instructions up to my bathroom, where I peeled away the bandage and gently washed away the dried blood, spare ink, and surgical tape stickum. The bird emerged in stunning detail. Spring-loaded wings, hinges, gears, tiny cogs and rivets, even a little mechanical heart. It’s good art. Astonishingly good. Gorgeously rendered, minutely nuanced, placed with enormous sensitivity to the pepper of freckles I kissed the day my daughter -- the child of an artist and an airplane mechanic -- was born.

This tattoo, which I thought was about rebellion, is in fact about resilience and maturity, the beauty of strength and the strength of beauty. It’s about life and art and love all working on a mechanical level.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and the Subjective

It's so tempting to believe rejections, to come to the conclusion that the powers that be are right. After all, it's hard to be objective regarding your own work, and there are always nagging little naysayers in the background telling you that "nobody gets published," "agents only represent experienced authors," and "publishers will only look at work by agented authors." That's a lot of negativity free-floating in the atmosphere, and if you're not very careful, it can overwhelm that tiny voice inside you that's saying, "You are really freaking good!"

The next time you're tempted to give over your destiny to the judgment of others, consider this. Newcomer Joanne Rowling's first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by eight publishers before finally received an offer -- and a less than thrilling advance. Dr. Seuss's first book was rejected twenty-four times. And the list goes on and on.

Think it gets easier after you've first broken down the door? I'm sorry to say that for many authors, every sale's a struggle, and lots of times their editors/publishers are dead wrong about their books' potential commercial appeal.

The only lesson I've found (other than what we all know, that writing's a tough business) is that the writer who works outside the box-like walls of the expected is taking a gamble. Win, and the rewards can be beyond your wildest dreams (Right, Ms. Rowling?). But along the way, you can expect to come across any number of readers who don't get it -- and some of them will be in a position to reject you. Or at least your work.

But only you can decide when it's time to stop submitting a piece and move on to the next project. Only you can stamp out that insistent voice by telling the universe, "This isn't freaking good. It's crap." Just don't be too quick about it, or you make be stamping out the spark that's burning (however slowly) toward the bright future you've been working for so long.

So how do you keep motivated in the face of negativity? Have an inspiring story to share about a time you almost gave up before a success? If so, we'd love to hear it.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

High risk behavior

"The key ingredient to a successful and interesting life," I told my son last night, "is risk-takery."

There was some dispute over whether or not "takery" is a word, but hey, I consider it my right -- nay, my obligation! -- as a writer to facilitate the expansion of the language. What is most certainly not in question is the truth in that statement, and it applies to writing in a number of ways:

Character development depends entirely on the person's willingness (or unwillingness) to be dynamic, to change, to face unknowns. For you romance writers, that's one of the most delicious elements. If a relationship is easy, is passion possible? Without the danger of heartbreak, no enormous loss at stake, there's no credible incentive for change.

Doing anything new and different as a writer sets you up to get smacked around by readers and critics. Colleen and I both have our battle scars. I love that she stepped out on a long limb and pushed genre constraints off the high-dive with her recent release Head On, in which the unmarried hero is the father of a biracial child. And at the risk of giving up a plot twist -- he beats the crap out of the heroine. Risk-takery at its most out-on-the-limbiest!

The biz itself is such a capricious SOB. For writers who know in our hearts that there is no other life in which we can thrive and be joyful -- well, it can get intense at times. I am currently clawing my way out of a long dry spell, and it's been terrifying. The one perk is a renewed understanding of how important it is for me to be a writer. When put to the test, I am willing to risk...and I'm not particularly proud to say this...everything.

As my son succinctly put it: "Mom. You're like a crack monkey. Only with English."

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Everyone's Raving About These Writing Workshops

I've been hearing so many great things about Patricia Kay's online novel-writing workshops from her students -- rave after rave. But it wasn't until she pinch-hit for me last month while I was recovering from a nasty virus that I had the chance to see first-hand what a terrific teacher she is.

All About Scenes & Sequels
Instructor: Patricia Kay

About the Instructor: Patricia Kay is the USA TODAY bestselling author of more
than 45 novels of romance and women's fiction. She is a former writing teacher
with the University of Houston and has given her acclaimed workshops all over
the country.

When: October 8 - 31, 2007

Do the principles of scene and sequel strike terror in your heart? Learn how to
master story construction using this proven method. In a series of lectures,
homework assignments, examples, and class discussion, you will learn the
elements necessary to write terrific scenes and compelling sequels. Here's what
one former student said:

"Out of all the writers I've listened to over the years, you're the one who has
been able to explain things in a language that I can understand. Since I first
heard you speak about Scene & Sequel on the AskAnAuthorAll e-mail loop, the
aspect of PLOT has really been clicking for me. I'm not quite there yet, but I'm
getting close to being able to put the whole story structure thing together."
--- Sheila Seabrook

Cost: $25 payable by check or PayPal. If paying by check, send your check to
Patricia Kay, PO Box 441603, Houston, TX 77244-1603.

If paying by PayPal, send your payment to

Registration Deadline: September 30th

Monday, September 03, 2007

Louisiana after

Started the holiday weekend with a series of exceedingly bummed out phone calls from my son, whose Kerouackian dream of motorcycling from Houston to Orlando was rudely interrupted by technical difficulties. Note for future ref: motorcycle repairmen spend holiday weekends living the Kerouackian dream. Kerouac did not carry a beeper. After working the computer and phones for a few hours, Gary and I headed over to Baton Rouge to truck boy and bike back to Florida.

I've been making that drive along I-10 at least four or five times a year since my kids were small, and there's much to love about it. The lumpy bumpy roads make your voice wobble when you sing "100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall". Sometimes you see alligators in the swamps below the bridges. Verdance and kudzu and lovebugs abound. Every little cafe and gas station bathroom has a dialect-rich conversation to eavesdrop upon. The humid generosity of the people, the dirty jeans on the little boys, the wilted plastic daisy flip-flops on the little girls.

It's cheesy to mention how I cried the first trip I made after Katrina or to conjure the broken Shoney's billboard and the truncated pines. People I met along the way weren't weepy about it. They were matter-of-fact, focused on bleaching stuff, or they were just flat pissed about the scandalous way funding was being passed around. Politics in LA have always had the moral smack of a drive-through daiquiri stand. Hard to wax sappy about a situation that smells as bad as that one did. Two years later, there are still scars and scandals, plus the Katrina trailers, but the drive-through daiquiri stands survive, as do the lovebugs and the salient courage of just folks. Louisiana is still her verdant, kudzu-drenched self.

I lay last night listening to a guy in the motel swimming pool playing Marco Polo with his swarming nieces and nephews. That's the way life plays with us. Calls out. Hides, which is easy because we are so damn blind all the time. Calls out again. We keep swimming toward the sound. I love it that my son was not too grown up to let me and Gary rescue him. I'm actually a little jealous of his journey through the swamp.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Top Ten Clues You May Be Dealing with a Scammer

Nearly every writer I know has been taken at some time or another (usually when he/she's first getting started) by one of those unscrupulous bloodsuckers who live by sucking the juices from other people's dreams. (Let's not sugarcoat it, Colleen. Tell us how you *really* feel.) Sometimes the parasite calls itself an agent. Other times it claims to be a publisher/editor, a book doctor, or a publicist. While I've worked with wonderful, legitimate people in every one of those capacities, scammers have proliferated, thanks to both the Internet and the never-diminishing abundance of people with big dreams (or as I call them, the best people).

So how do you know who's the real deal and who's out to separate you from your hard-earned rubles? Here are a few red flags to alert you that you may be dealing with a scammer.

1. Money flows the wrong way. It is not cool to pay an industry pro a reading fee to consider your material. It's so not cool that the Association of Author's Representatives won't recognize any agent who requires it. Likewise, the publisher is supposed to be paying the author for the privilege of selling her work and making everybody money. If the publisher wants your money, run the other way.

2. The agent tries to sell you on the services of a particular book doctor (who may, for all you know, turn out to be her sister) with the implied promise that if you spend anything from a few hundred to a few thousand getting the book doctored, you'll gain representation -- and RREEEAAALLLYYY BBBIIGGG BBBUUCCCKKKSSS (almost) guaranteed!

3. This person has done business in the industry under multiple names. Maybe in multiple states, too, as he/she stays one step ahead of the law or civil judgments.

4. The name (or one of his/her names) appears on Writer Beware's 20 Worst Agents list or you find multiple negative comments on writer-oriented sites such as Preditors & Editors.

5. You can't find the publisher's books at any bookstore and no one's ever heard of them. Or you can't find any record of any sales to legitimate publishers by this agent or his/her agency. (Many agents post their sales at Publishers Marketplace.) A new agent may not have a long track record, but if he/she is with a good agency, mentoring by experienced agents will occur -- which could end up working out for you.

6. You're promised stardom, but only if you're willing to put your money where your mouth is. The bigger the promises, the more wary you should be.

7. The person you're dealing with has no past or present connections to the New York publishing establishment. Lots of legitimate industry players live outside of New York, but usually they've done some kind of "apprenticeship" working with a more established entity.

8. You've seen other books this person was affiliated with and they look very amateurish. (Misspellings, blank or misprinted pages, cover art that might have been done by a fifth grader.) These books also often cost most than the average books, have not been reviewed by the more persnickety reviews, and can't be found in bookstores or with mainstream online retailers.

9. No author you've heard of will vouch for this person. You suspect the glowing reference you're given may have hidden connections to the person you're checking out.

10. You're being pushed to make a quick decision. When you express doubts or ask questions, the push becomes a shove.

There are many legitimate, hardworking people in the publishing industry. Terrific agents, editors, publicists and book doctors who not only deserve the writer's support but can help her take the next step in achieving her dreams. So do yourself a favor and look before you leap. Check with writer-friendly sites, authors' organizations, and ask around on loops that published authors frequent. If your gut urges you to slow down, listen. Because your gut's the part of the human body where the parasite-detectors were installed.


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