Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Who’s cooler than Jana DeLeon? (Apparently, no one.)

Jana DeLeon is touring the Girlfriend Cyber Circuit this week with her sophomore novel Unlucky . Her debut, Rumble on the Bayou, enjoyed brisk sales and plenty of review love. A tough act to follow. But with a fresh spin on a unique setting, Unlucky buzz is building. We caught up with Jana for a few minutes of conversation with an author whose lousy luck might turn into her big break.

First things first. Tell us about the book and where it came from.
Unlucky is about a woman with luck so bad it’s a statistical improbability. She’s using her bad luck to her favor by working as a “cooler” at her uncle’s casino during a private poker tournament of criminals. (A cooler is a person so unlucky that casinos hire them to sit at a hot table and shut the other players down.) The inspiration for my heroine was easy – she’s me. I have absolutely, positively no luck at cards. In fact, it’s so bad that if I sit down at a table to play, not only do I lose, but everyone at the table does also.

My husband and I got married in Vegas in 2000. Before we left, I studied and studied blackjack combinations, determined to beat the house. Unfortunately, I have absolutely, positively NO LUCK. In fact, my luck is so bad that when I sit down at a table, not only don’t I win, everyone else starts losing too. So I came up with Mallory Devereaux, the unluckiest woman in the world, who needs to make some money fast and decides to do it by “cooling” cards at a poker tournament of criminals.

While writing Unlucky, I contacted several casinos, both in Louisiana and Las Vegas. None of them would confirm or deny the existence of coolers.

Were you always a writer? And did you always know it?
I’ve written stories ever since elementary school but I “decided” I was going to be a writer at my grandma’s funeral. I took one look at my odd, southern, interestingly funny family gathered there and figured, if Evanovich can do it in New Jersey, then by God, I can do it in Louisiana.

Growing up in Louisiana is the reason I write. Without the culture and the fascinating people to draw from, I don’t think I’d have any stories to tell. I plan on setting all my books in small bayou towns. I try to create settings so large they become a character and the characters, well, some of them are already walking among us. I think a lot of people are fascinated by the bayou culture and I’m thrilled to be able to give them a little taste of that.

You were definitely lucky with your first novel. Tell us about your publishing journey so far.
I did my first novel the old-fashioned way. I wrote the book, edited the ever-living heck out of it, queried agents, got/accepted an offer for representation, got a list of edits from my agent (13 pages – yikes), made revisions, my agent submitted and we got an offer. I studied the industry a lot before selling so I wasn’t really surprised about the business end of things, but I was mega-surprised to find out my debut novel had made it in to WalMart. I didn’t even hope for that kind of distribution.

The second book was so much harder. My debut novel did well and garnered great reviews and public accolades, which is great, but that means the next book has to be better. When you write humor, you’ve got to be very careful not to spend too much time thinking about all the pressure or you don’t relax enough for the funny dialogue to flow. Unlucky was a difficult book for me to write, but I worked it out and in writing my proposal for the next book, I didn’t have the difficulties I did writing Unlucky at all. Unlucky was a huge growth process for me and I’m really glad it happened. Now, I believe in myself and my ability to put out a great book, under a deadline, AND still be funny. The most satisfying part is definitely the letters/emails from fans. That’s what it’s all about. My least favorite part has got to be the waiting. The entire business is hurry up and wait, and wait, and wait.

What do you love about the creative process?
My absolute favorite part of the writing process is when I’ve finished the rough draft and start my first pass on edits. It’s then that I read something I forgot I wrote and think “that was funny” or “oh my god, you can write.” It’s then that I realize all the pain of the rough draft was worth it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Face Plants and the Definition of Success

"Show me a guy who's afraid to look bad, and I'll show you a guy you can beat every time."

- Rene Auberjonois

If a writer doesn't take risks, doesn't chance looking like a fool from time to time, the work becomes derivative, a pale imitation of the work of others. By taking the safe course, one can achieve modest successes, but only by forging ahead of the curve can an author -- or any artist or businessperson -- have a shot at breaking out into uncharted territory.

Barbara Dawson Smith, an award-winning, NYT bestselling novelist I very much respect, once said (and I'm paraphrasing because my memory isn't perfect): "My goal isn't to have my books picked up by people browsing the bookstore looking for another historical romance. I want them to go looking for a Barbara Dawson Smith book in particular. I want mine to be the novel picked up by those readers who only purchase two to three books a year."

It's a worthy goal, and one I share (though in the interest of full disclosure, I'd prefer that my readers to go looking for a Colleen Thompson romantic suspense instead.) But it's not a goal I'll achieve if my books are only a pretty good example of the genre. To stand out, I have to celebrate my own voice, to be different.

And if that means risking a giant face plant in a failure meringue pie, so be it. I can always lick off the sweet white goo and give it another shot.

Monday, October 29, 2007

GCC Presents Jana DeLeon's UNLUCKY

Although hard work, talent, business smarts, and perseverance are all key factors in a successful writing career, a body can't underestimate the importance of luck. Which is why I find it so interesting that fellow Dorchester romantic suspense author Jana DeLeon has scored with the release of a brand-spanking-new novel about the unluckiest chick imaginable. According to the blurb:

Her luck’s so bad it’s a crime.

Everyone in Royal Flush, Louisiana, knows Mallory Devereaux is a walking disaster. At least now she’s found a way to take advantage of her chronic bad luck: by “cooling” cards on her uncle’s casino boat. As long as the crooks invited to his special poker tournament don’t win their money back, she’ll get a cut of the profit.

But Mal isn’t the only one working some major mojo. There’s a dark-eyed dealer sending her looks steamier than the bayou in August. Turns out he’s an undercover agent named Jake Randoll, and for a Yank, he’s pretty darn smart. Smart enough to enlist her help to catch a money launderer. As they race to untangle a web of decades-old lies and secrets amid a gathering of criminals, Mallory can’t help hoping her luck’s about to change….

For a book with such an unlucky heroine, Unlucky has so far had great luck with reviews. Here are a few highlights:

“With original, smart and comedic writing, DeLeon delivers a three-dimensional hero and heroine, a community of offbeat secondary characters, a complex and intriguing plot with a hint of the paranormal and a fascinating peek into the world of casino poker.” – Romantic Times Book Reviews 4 ½ Stars! (Score!)

“The setting for this novel is differently refreshing, and anyone with an affinity for casinos and card playing will enjoy the game references. Readers of Ms. DeLeon's UNLUCKY will consider themselves very lucky to have stumbled upon such an entertaining read.” – Fresh Fiction

“Grab a box of Kleenexes for the laughter, sit back and enjoy. Absolutely one of the best romantic suspense novels I have ever read.” – Romance Reader at Heart

A Louisiana bayou gal herself, Jana DeLeon was raised among the gators. Her hometown is Carlyss, but you probably won’t find it on a map. Her family owned a camp located on a bayou just off the Gulf of Mexico—you could only get there by boat. The most important feature was the rope hammock hanging in the shade on a huge deck that stretched out over the water.

Jana and her brother spent thousands of hours combing the bayous in a flat-bottom aluminum boat, studying the natural habitat of many birds, nutria and alligators. She would like you to know that no animals were injured during these "studies," but they kept makers of peroxide in business.

Jana now resides in Dallas, Texas, with her husband, René, three spoiled dogs and three spoiled cats. Even so, you can take the girl out of the bayou, but you'll never... well, y'all know!

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No whine before it's time: Orson Welles reveals the hideous glory of hard times

"In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed—they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!"

It's said that this bit of dialogue was vamped by Orson Welles during filming of The Third Man and was kept because -- well, because he bloody well wanted it kept. He was a great artist, after all. A genius.

Discovering me in the depths of despair in my office one day, my son made me view these two videos. I have them bookmarked just in case I ever take myself too seriously or wax too melancholy about the vagaries of artistic endeavor or forget the refining fire that is hard times.

I especially love the part where he finally begs, "What is you you want? What? In the depths of your ignorance?" as cast and crew struggle through this radio commercial for frozen peas.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

If you want to hear the writing gods laugh...

If you want to hear the writing gods laugh, tell them your plans. Or better yet, tell your agent or editor your plans, in the form of the synopsis submitted with your proposal. Assuming that all goes well and you sell the thing, there with still be plenty of pages left to write. Pages in which your mind will run amok.

This happens to me frequently. I'll have a great idea all mapped out. Something simple and elegant that doesn't too badly strain my abilities. But after the sale, as I get to writing the novel, I start having better ideas. More convoluted ideas, for certain, which will be much more challenging to pull off but suddenly seem so much more interesting.

According to my editor (who is often surprised by my book's endings, which bear so little resemblance to the ones in the synopses), this is very common. So long as the marketing hook and premise remain unchanged and everything hangs together, no one in the publishing house gets upset about this. In point of fact, the ideas that crop up along the way are often the cleverest, most interesting portions of the book. Besides that, they serve to keep the author from getting bored with the "done deal," a book that has already been pre-imagined. They also serve to scare the complacency out of the writer and force her to seriously pay attention to what he or she is doing. Neither of which is a bad idea.

So as Joni (and her parable of the discovery of Lucy's elbow) recently reminded us, detours are opportunities to shake things up in surprising and exciting ways. So the next time you come to a detour in your writing, don't cling too tightly to the plan. Risk a little exploration and see where it takes you.

Have you ever struck pay dirt by exploring a wild hair in your own story? Or has the "wild hare," like Alice's, led you into trouble?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Lucy's elbow: Joni's writing parable du jour

Gary pried me loose from my desk for a few hours yesterday and took me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see Lucy's Legacy, an international exhibition organized in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Exhibition Coordinating Committee. After strolling through a beautiful but de rigueur display of artifacts and art, we stood mesmerized for a full hour in front of Lucy -- "stones, not bones," Gary reminded me -- the fossilized remains of a by-God upright walking, tool-whacking Australopithecus female, who lived approximately 3.8 million years ago.

As we scrutinized Lucy's bits and pieces, comparing the laid out real deal with the fully fleshed forensic model that surveys the crowd with a benignly wry expression, we listened to the story of how Lucy was found by Donald Johanson and Tom Gray in 1974 at a dig near Hadar. They'd gone out early that morning to map another spot and passed right by the place where she lay. They put in a long, hot day surveying for fossils, then headed back to their Land Rover. For reasons he doesn't remember, Johanson suggested an alternate route through the dry river bed on their return, and as they walked, he happened to glance back over his shoulder. His right shoulder, he specifies, because the moment suddenly became incredibly important.

In a fleeting glint of sunlight, he saw Lucy's elbow.

Instantly, he identified the right proximal ulna of a hominid. Then he saw an occipital bone, a femur, ribs, pelvis, the lower jaw. After two weeks of excavation, screening, and sorting, 40% of Lucy's skeleton had been recovered. One of the most significant anthropological discoveries in human history. And one of the most significant human history discoveries in anthropology.

At first blush, this might seem to be a parable about the treasures we pass by, but I choose to take it as a reminder of the precious discoveries that are waiting for us at any given moment. As writers (and undoubtedly this is true for editors and agents as well) we pass through the same dry river beds over and over. If we're trudging, tunnel-visioned toward the Land Rover -- fixed on writing to the market, getting the advance, making the deal, showing up on the lists -- we risk missing those small changes that can yield mind-blowing epiphanies. A little rain gully here, a shift of the wind there. Suddenly, a character reveals herself, first in puzzle pieces, then in full flesh and voice. Suddenly, a question is answered, a knot is untied, a story unfolds.

We are here for the words. What matters is our willingness to see them. Our expertise in identifying them. The enormous tenderness and time we take in excavating and piecing them together.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Never Tell Me the Odds

I am not a numbers person. Instead, I turn my mind to words and scenes, to characters and -- as Joni calls them -- plot bombs.

Maybe that's why I can't stand it when people talk about the odds. The odds against a given individual finishing a novel, finding a decent agent for it, selling it to a major publishing house, getting noticed once it's "out there." They talk about the unlikelihood of said given individual still being in the business after the release of two novels, of four, or of making a real living instead of being the family white elephant.

I am not "any given individual," I'm a writer. A novelist, in my case, which means I have to have the hide of a rhino and, in some respects, the myopia as well. So don't tell me, show me, or rub my nose in all the reasons "no one" can make it in this business. Just get the hell out of my way while I'm charging toward a story.

So what about you? Are you daunted by the odds against you? Or can you "suspend disbelief" to smash right past them?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Leon Hale with a few things you might not want to hear about publishing

I knew I was in for something good when I heard Gary laughing out loud at Starbucks this morning as he read Leon Hale's column in today's Houston Chronicle.

The rumor I'm hearing is that you're writing a book. Is that true?

Well, why not? Half the planet's population seems to be writing books, and the other half is probably threatening to do it...

...since you've already decided to go through with this iffy enterprise, let's say you do finish your manuscript, and it's published, and you get a couple of favorable reviews from critics who have actually read more than the text on the dust-jacket flap.

Now you're faced with going onto the battlefield to promote your creation. You stop being a writer and become a salesman.

You may say, "I don't want to be a salesman. I'm an artist. I want my work to live or die on its merit. Look at Cormac McCarthy. He doesn't promote his books, and they sell by the tens of thousands."

Trust me on this — you're not Cormac McCarthy.

Check it out and be amused.

It's Not Easy Being Mean

I feel like such a creep. I just wasted a character I've really grown to love, a character I have no doubt that readers will adore, too. I'd planned this character's demise from the outset, written it into the synopsis and plotted a good deal of the book around it, from events that propel the story forward to the character arc that will bring the protagonist to full fruition.

I still want to take it back. I thought about it long and hard, but no other event would equal this death's impact. You can't just march in a stranger, snuff 'im, and expect the reader to experience any real emotion. Instead, you have to develop the "victim" as you would any other character. Otherwise you end up with a Star Trek-style Red Shirt, one everyone can guess is doomed from the outset.

Writers don't (or shouldn't) randomly wax characters just because things are feeling a bit boring. We put a lot of thought, a lot of love (believe it or not) into the decision. We do it because death is a universal part of all our stories, as living beings on this planet, and without its shadow falling over our existence, even a fictional life rings false and empty.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The writer down the block: Lydia Davis on an author's place in the community

Scanning interviews with this year's National Book Award noms, I found comments by Lydia Davis (nominated for her story collection Varieties of Disturbance) particularly refreshing and down to earth.

Asked about the role of the writer "in a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis", Davis responded evenly:

I don't want to say how discouraging I find the decline of reading. I suppose as a fiction writer all one can do is be a friendly, positive "representative" of writers and writing among the larger public that doesn't read much--and hope at least to remind people that writers exist and have recognizable human form. In both my former and my present neighborhoods I have been glad to be one of the local writers, the writer down the block, organizing a reading series at the local library, or meeting with the girl scout troop to talk about what they read, etc.--and my neighbors in turn have enjoyed talking to me about writing and books, and have even read my books. I suppose that sort of interaction does no harm, at least.

Hey, Lydia. Would you be, could you be, won't you be my neighbor?

(And please note my remarkable restraint in commenting on the list of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry nominees, a group in which there are very few vaginae and even less melanin. The Dead White Guy Brigade you studied in Lit 101 lives on.)

Monday, October 22, 2007

The second worst book signing ever?

Having read Colleen's post below, I know what I did wrong at this event. I should have showed up with a hundred grand to give away. I am still thinking big, however, and harboring hopes of kicking ass.

The Worst Best Book Signing Ever

Forget what you've seen on TV. Book signings are rarely anything more than quiet affairs. A few bookish friends show, a handful of dedicated fans (if you're lucky), and whatever strangers are drawn to the type of book you're signing or the quaint idea of meeting a "real, live author." Aside from that, you meet the odd person wanting directions to the restrooms or to know where the latest issue of Skin Art Quarterly is shelved. A lot of working-class authors (huge superstars excluded) feel a successful two-hour signing is one where 20, 15, 10, or even 5 signed books are sold.

Unless you've been on TV. Or you're giving away money.

That's right. Paying cash. To people willing to stand in line for your book signing, as The Learning Annex has with Donald's Trump's new book (written with Bill Zanker), Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life. A hundred bucks a pop for the first hundred folks in line (many of whom took off after pocketing their loot), fifty a head for the next two hundred, and ten apiece for the next thousand. Check it out in this article from the NY Times City Room Blog.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a fan of The Donald. His ego alone... well, let's not go there, and the bribes-for-line-standers reminds me of certain totalitarian governments who pay demonstrators to underscore whatever point the regime wants made before the world press. But I'll have to give the man this. I'll bet he doesn't spend a lot of times at signings directing people to the restrooms.

What do you think?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

"Every crooked pot has a crooked cover." (A conversation with Renee Rosen)

Earlier this week, Colleen introduced us to Every Crooked Pot, a lovely coming of age story by Renee Rosen, who's making the rounds on the Girlfriends Cyber Circtuit this week. It took me a couple days to catch up with her for our traditional latte and cyber chat.

Renee, I’m intrigued by the title Every Crooked Pot. Where did it come from?
The title references an old Yiddish expression that 'Every crooked pot has a crooked cover.' In other words, there's someone for everyone and that we love people not just in spite of their flaws but because of them. This title was a gift from a dear friend of mine. Her mother used to tell her that expression and I just loved it.
I dedicated the book to my family and the memory of my father. Though the Rosen clan is very different from the Goldman's, I grew up in a household full of love and laughter (and sometimes tears). My father was an amazing man who provided me with a lifetime of material. The most lovable aspects of Artie can be traced back to him. Every writer should be as lucky as I've been to have such a supportive family and this book was a way to preserve some of those memories we shared growing up "Rosen-style."

Let's hear more about the book. Where did the story come from?
Well, it's no secret that Every Crooked Pot is somewhat autobiographical, and yet, I never thought to write about growing up with a strawberry birthmark over my eye until I enrolled in a week-long writing workshop with Michael Cunningham--who of course went on to win the Pulitzer for The Hours. Anyway, Michael gave us an exercise about childhood memories and I jotted something down about how my father once used my eye to get out of a speeding ticket. People in my workshop seemed moved by this account and that incident ended up inspiring the opening scene of the novel. That was the starting point and then, after that, my characters took over and they told me the rest of the story.

Nina and I are similar in some very obvious ways. We both grew up in Akron, Ohio. We both had larger-than-life fathers and mothers who smoked pipes. Like Nina, (and like everyone else I know) I had my share of heartaches with boys and my share of teenage angst. And that's where the similarities ended. Nina's condition was much more severe than mine ever was and she dealt with her birthmark and her family--especially her father--in ways that were very different from my own experience. And while some people think they've read my diary after reading my novel, I'm going on record here and to say that I still have plenty of secrets.

Would Nina still be Nina if she didn't have the mark on her eye?
I think that Nina is the person she is specifically because of her eye. Having that disfigurement forced her to develop other aspects of her personality that she might not have otherwise. For example, I think her sense of humor stems from her wanting to be accepted by her friends and classmates. I also think that Nina is not unique in that respect because I do believe that our childhood shapes us no matter what. I also believe that what we initially think is our greatest liability can become our greatest asset. It's all in how we confront our obstacles.

What’s the writing process for you? Do you outline or just whack away on the story as the spirit moves you?
If only I could outline my writing life would be much easier--in fact my entire life would be much easier. But I'm afraid I just dive in without a clue as to where I'm going. The entire story in Every Crooked Pot grew completely out of the characters. They ran the show from start to finish and each time I tried to impose something on them, they wouldn't go for it. In terms of process, I've been told I'm an 'organic' writer in the sense that I never outline. I start with a group of characters and let them lead the way. I'm also a chronic reviser. My first few drafts are choppy at best. It's only after I go back over the material time and time again that I can get the texture I'm looking for. As for my environment, I do most of my writing at home--though the past few months, I've done my share of writing in airports and hotel rooms and the occasional friend's couch.

What's the best writing advice you've ever gotten?
An agent once told me that if you hear the same criticism about your work three times, you have to pay attention to it. But, if you get three different responses to your work, then you're probably onto something!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Celebrating Some Good News

I've received some lovely news regarding my upcoming romantic suspense novel, THE SALT MAIDEN (Leisure Books, Dec. 2007). Romantic Times BookClub Magazine has named it a Top Pick. Here's what the (brilliant, much-appreciated) reviewer, Marilyn Weigel, had to say:

"Poetic use of language, intricate plotting and a wealth of fascinating details make Thompson's latest novel a masterful work of suspense. Readers will come for the action and stay for the three-dimensional characters and well-crafted narrative. This is a fabulous read!"

See how perceptive she is? LOL.

Barbara Vey also e-mailed to let me know that THE SALT MAIDEN got a nice mention in her Publisher's Weekly Blog, Beyond Her Book. Thanks, Barbara, and thanks to Jan, who called the book a "couldn't put down until I knew whodunit" read.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

GCC Presents Renee Rosen's Every Crooked Pot

This week on the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, I'm taking a look at author Renee Rosen's Every Crooked Pot (St. Martins, Minotaur, July 2007). Written in the form of a memoir, this coming of age story draws on Rosen's own background, since like the book's narrator, Nina, she was born with a birthmark popularly known as a "port wine stain" and grew up in Akron, Ohio. Though the story is a novel, the emotions feel rich and authentic, and anyone who's every had self-image issues (shyly raising my hand here) or struggled to fit in (waving hand frantically) will relate to Nina's journey.

The critics have seriously been digging on this one. Here are a few of the highlights:
"In a debut novel that could easily have been published as an adult memoir, Rosen looks back at the life of Nina Goldman, whose growing up is tied to two pillars: a port-wine stain around her eye and her inimitable father, Artie... There's real power in the writing as well as a subtle message when a grown Nina finds a cache of notes, showing how she clung to her disability, even after treatment. Rosen writes honestly about sex, and there are some raw words, but this story offers hope for teenagers who, as ever, are trying to separate from their perceived flaws, and from their parents."
-- Booklist (Starred Review)

"[Readers] will empathize with the narrator’s unique situation as a concentrated form of universal worries about finding acceptance, dealing with loss and leaving home.
--Publishers Weekly

"Rosen’s story begins when Nina is just a little girl, and follows her life past her high school graduation. Each important event in her life is so well documented, everything written from Nina’s unique perspective, and all of her feelings pouring out in a jumble that makes perfect sense. Because Rosen has hemangioma herself, I just get the sense that Nina’s feelings, thoughts, and fears are so real, she almost jumps off the page...Every Crooked Pot is just a fantastic tale of discovering oneself and growing up to be the most you can be."
-- Young Adult Book Central (Five Star Review)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reconnecting with Life

Don't get me wrong. Focus is essential to the writer. But too much focus can be stifling. When we live solely in our heads, we miss out on so many great stories, stories that can only come to us through other people, other places, different realities.

I met some amazing women this past week in Montana. All of them have narratives and settings, dreams and disappointments. Hopes.

Had I remained in my cave, chipping away at my deadline, I would have missed the opportunity to connect with them, an act which, for all I know, may have planted the seeds for my next crop of fiction. Because writers process life that way, and this trip has given me so much to ponder.

For example: Why do I live in the Houston area, where it's 90 and humid in the middle of October? And why does Joni Rodgers (left) have steam coming out of her head in the middle photo? I'm really not that annoying on a road trip.

Am I?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The best worst book signing ever

Bopping around my old stomping grounds in Helena today, I passed my old self on Last Chance Gulch, saw a younger Joni reflected in the window of Rock's Western Bar and the No Sweat Cafe, and bumped into the disc jockey me on my way into Montana Book Company. One of my favorite bookstores anywhere and scene of the best worst book signing ever.

Back in the day, before I was (or even knew I wanted to be) a writer, I went to Montana Book Company to get A.B. Guthrie's autograph on Gary's dog-eared first edition copy of The Big Sky. I hiked down the Gulch, thinking I'd be standing in line for at least an hour, but when I got to the book store, there was only a kindly old guy sitting in a rocking chair, reading a fly-fishing guide. I sat on the floor and chatted with Mr. Guthrie for almost two hours. He seemed glad for the company.

Yeah. A Pulitzer Prize-winning author. Sat there talking to some chippie kid about fly fishing and forest fires and books for two hours while nobody else showed up to get his autograph. Seriously puts any poorly attended signing I've done since then in perspective.

Guthrie's best advice to writers:
"If you are inclined to leave your character solitary for any considerable length of time, better question yourself. Fiction is association, not withdrawal. Fiction is love and hate and agreement and conflict and common adventure, not lonely musings on have-beens and might-have-beens."

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mending in the mountains

Taking a moment to check in from Montana. Colleen and I are both huffing and puffing up here in the rarified air of Big Sky, but we both feel energized by the natural magnificence of the place, the amazing generosity of our hosts (the Wellness Community), and the vibrant, wide-open hearts and minds of the women who came here for "Mending in the Mountains."

This extraordinary event brings sixty women cancer survivors together for a weekend at the stunning Lone Mountain Ranch near Big Sky, Montana. There's a harpist playing during the healthy breakfast, local massage therapists and cosmetologists and others have donated services for "spa time", guided spirited walks teach us to cherish every breath. Every detail of the weekend has been orchestrated to nurture, comfort, and shelter the participants.

What's different about this event from every other even I've ever spoke for is the focus on wellness instead of cancer. Usually, I'm the opening act for a bunch of oncologists who deliver a lot of hard information about statistics, treatment options, and clinical trials. Those events are about survival. This one is about survivorship.

The best metaphor I can muster to explain the difference: A friend of mine came home from school one day in the early 1950s to find a backhoe digging a huge hole in the back yard. He was thrilled to flinders. "Hot dog! We're getting a swimming pool!" No such luck. His parents were installing a bomb shelter, which -- as it turns out -- was a really lousy investment.

Survival is about not dying. Survivorship is about living.

Events like this one reaffirm my desire to accept the fact of cancer in my life without bitterness. To cherish every breath. To make my life a swimming pool and not a bomb shelter.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

And yes, the sky really IS bigger!

This is my brain:

This is my brain on Montana:

Any questions?

Filling the Well

In her brilliant book The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron teaches us that creativity is not an inexhaustible resource. But it is, thank goodness, renewable. She uses the term "filling the well" to describe the process of replenishing our store of images and experiences so we'll have more to draw upon when we return to our work.

Cameron's not the first to speak of this. In her classic Gift from the Sea Anne Morrow Lindbergh speaks of the importance of nurturing ourselves by taking time to contemplate, meditate, and enjoy those quiet, beautiful places the world offers.

It's in this spirit that I'm stealing a few days from the manuscript in progress and making my first trip to Montana, thanks to BtO cohort Joni Rodgers. There are lots of things I'd like to do and see, but mostly, I just hope to live fully in each moment and listen to the quiet trickling of my well as it refills.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Outward bound: Andrew Beierle on tour

A while back, I posted about the freakishly fascinating First Person Plural by Andrew W. M. Beierle, which is getting lots of critic love (“astonishing,” “a wholly original, wildly imaginative achievement,” that sort of thing). Last month, a review in Outsmart, Houston's GLBT magazine chimed in:
Author Andrew W.M. Beierle deals with issues around coming out, family, identity, and self-determination, which makes First Person Plural not only a magnificent story, but a morality tale about tolerance, love, and loyalty.

Andrew checked into let us know he's about to set out on an eight-city national book tour.
4 PM Saturday, Oct. 20
Webster's Bookstore Cafe
128 South Allen St.
State College, PA 16801

7:30 PM Wednesday, Oct. 24
A Different Light Bookstore
489 Castro St.
San Francisco, CA 94114

7:30 PM Tuesday, October 30
A Different Light Bookstore
8853 Santa Monica Blvd.
West Hollywood, CA 90069

8 PM, Friday, Nov. 2
Outwrite Bookstore & Coffeehouse
991 Piedmont Ave.
Atlanta, GA 30309

7 PM, Tuesday, Nov. 6
Lambda Rising Bookstore
1625 Connecticut Ave NW
Washington DC 20009

6 PM, Wednesday, Nov. 7
Robin’s Bookstore
108 S. 13th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19107

4 PM, Saturday, Nov. 10
Common Language Bookstore
317 Braun Court
Ann Arbor, MI 48104

7 PM, Friday, Nov. 16
Urban Think!
625 E. Central Blvd.
Orlando, FL 32801

Always gratifying to see good writers do well. Happy Trails, Andrew. May all your Sharpies be well pulped!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Some Days, This Work Is Just Plain Cool

I had one of those rare days yesterday where I'm really deep into the story, lighting like a butterfly on various tweaks here and there, making solid forward progress with a respectable number of pages. The focus was all there, but near day's end, when I took a moment to come up for air, I had one of those moments of awareness that this *is* happiness for me.

Of course, someone else put it more eloquently:

"Nothing contributes so much to tranquilizing the mind as a steady purpose - a point on which the soul may fix its intellectual eye."

- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

I hope today you'll let reviews, rejection, and reality fall by the wayside and take a moment to simply be happy in the work.

Monday, October 08, 2007

A Poem for all Writers

While we're on the subject of poetry, here's one that's stuck with me since I first made its acquaintance back in Nineteen(mumble-mumble) in some review of American literature. Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan colonist is considered the first American female poet, but her early publication is a strange tale. Apparently, her brother-in-law took her work -- without her knowledge or permission -- to England, where it was successfully published in the collection: The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts. The brother-in-law, I'm sure, felt he was doing Anne a favor, and in that paternalistic society, she had little choice but to go along to get along. But in her most famous poem, below, she describes a mixture of pride and mortification that I think every writer can relate to.

The Author To Her Book

by Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672)

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth did'st by my side remain,
Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th' press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call.
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight,
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot, still made a flaw.
I stretcht thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet.
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save home-spun cloth, i' th' house I find.
In this array, 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critic's hands, beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known.
If for thy father askt, say, thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

The good news is that nowadays, few authors have to worry about "helpful" friends and relatives rooting through their hard drives and sending off their imperfectly-edited manuscripts to publishers. The bad news is, we have to bring ourselves to the point of getting it "out of door" or it will fade and wither, a child deprived of light.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A silky Sunday trifle

My high school teacher, Gale Peterson, was a horrible little gimlet. The best way I can explain what I mean is...if Bilbo Baggins and Anne Coulter had a baby together, Petey would be the unholy fruit of that union. But I sort of fell in love with him one day during my senior year.

Of the five people taking Advanced British Lit, I was the only one who'd enrolled in the class voluntarily. The others were draftees and mostly unconscious, so if there was reading aloud to be done, I was almost always it. During a unit on the Cavalier Poets, he commanded me to read a piece by Robert Herrick, which I did out of fear for my immortal soul, and when I ended and looked up, expecting to be excoriated for one reason or another, Petey sat stricken, unable to speak, his eyes welling. In the moment was all the unrequited love of his life -- for some woman, for his students, for poetry he could never write, only long to hear read in the voice of a kindred spirit who loved the language almost as dearly as he did.

I came across the small but perfect poem in the course of research the other day, and dang if it didn't leave me choked up.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
by R. Herrick

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
Oh how that glittering taketh me!

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Synopsis Is Your Friend. Yeah, Really.

During my quest to become a published author, there were few hurdles so fearful as the completion of a synopsis (known to some as the plot outline). I so badly hated the idea of boiling down my gi-normous tome that I put it off until completing the manuscript. Then, sure enough, the boiling-down process was as painful and laborious as I'd imagined.

All that changed in the wake of my first sale, after which my agent told me I didn't have to complete my half-finished second historical romance (what I was writing at the time) to sell it. All I had to do was polish up the first three chapters and send them along with a synopsis. This idea (the book being sold *before* completion)was powerfully tantalizing, but the thought of writing the synopsis ahead of time scared the heck out of me. Since I always thought of myself as a seat-of-the-pants writer, how could I know ahead of time what I would be writing? And later, if it sold, what if I grew bored with the book since I already knew the outcome? Or what if I changed my mind about it or got a better idea as I was writing?

In spite of these fears, the lure of a second contract (and, let's face it, the advance check) cracked its little whip until I had a workable synopis. The proposal did indeed sell, and I agreed to a delivery date quite some distance in the future.

Then I continued working on the book. To my surprise, the work went waaaaayyyyyy more quickly because now I had a roadmap to help keep me on target. With the eending envisioned, there was no more writing down fifty or one hundred page blind alleys that would later have to be cut. And I was never bored because I'd only mapped out the main plot and main characters, which left me free to do whatever I wanted with the secondaries. In fact, I felt I could be more inventive in these areas because I didn't have to fret over whether or not the main plot would hold together. I do remember freaking out because things changed as I wrote, as better ideas did occur. But when I called my editor all in a tizzy, she said something to the effect, "Relax, that happens to everyone. As long as the main premise (especially the set up) doesn't change, it's no problem.

For the first and only time in my career, I turned in a manuscript *six months* before its due date. (Now that I know how to gauge my speed more closely, I usually streak across the finish line with little time to spare.)

Since that time, I've never looked back. Of the fourteen novels I've sold, all except the first have been on proposal. I've learned to look at my synopsis as a handy guide, not only a sales tool but something that helps keep me focused and on track, along with letting me know about how far I am into the story so I can keep the length reasonable. (Left to my own devices, my books would ramble on for seven or eight hundred pages, which would make them too costly to publish.) I think of my synopsis as a road map into alien territory -- but definitely not as holy scripture. In fact, I sometimes jokingly refer to it as "Colleen's Theoretical Idea of How This Story *Could* Go."

And for me, that is a very freeing thought.

So what are your feelings on synopses? Do you use them? Love them? Hate them? Or do they scare the devil out of you?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

F()@# Censorship! It's Banned Books Week

A few years back, I was at a trade event where I shared a signing table with Phyllis Reynolds Naylor. She's a very sweet, diminutive lady who reminds me a lot of my sweet, diminutive mother. She is funny. She is kind. She is smart. And she is not, I feel safe assuring you, about to bring about the ruin of Western Civilization. I am frankly befuddled about why she consistently shows up on the American Library Association's yearly list of most banned and/or challenged books. In fact, the whole idea of banning books leaves me pretty befuddled, and you are invited to join me and millions of befuddled others in the celebration of Banned Books Week.

Bake a cake. Light a candle. Drop a few F-bombs. (Or click here to search for Banned Books Week Read Outs and other events in your area.) Whatever fits into your belief system. Just think about it. That's all the American Library Association is really asking us to do. The problem is, it's a hard thing to think about. When we support intellectual and artistic freedom, we support the publication of Mein Kampf. And stuff like this. When we think about the right wing activists who are galvanized and mobilized and radicalized, we might feel guilty about sitting here on our groovy liberal live-and-let-live asses.

My daughter Jerusha (a big PR Naylor fan in her formative tween years, now a double Dance and English major with a minor in Wild Over-spending) loves all things Ray Bradbury, most particularly The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451, two vociferously challenged and oft-banned books.

"He had so much sadness about the way people are letting go of books," she observed the other night when we were on the topic. "So much of what he wrote is trying to wake people up and tell them you have to read before the stories and the ideas disappear."

As Bradbury said himself, "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Every writer -- every human being, for that matter -- must have boundaries. If we didn't, people would walk all over us. Most of the time, they wouldn't mean to hurt us, but in looking out for their own needs, they'd simply forget that we had a set of our own. And it's not up to others to remember we need the time and space and support to be creative. If it's not important enough for us to politely but firmly insist upon, why should it be important to anybody else?

I like to keep my boundaries clear and visible but permeable, not a razor-wire security fence, but something permeable and friendly, more of a visible reminder than a real deterrent. I want to be able to reach through or over, to offer a helping hand when I so choose. But I don't want to feel encroached upon or obligated.

So what can you do to make writing boundaries work for you?
1. Carve out a given number of hours, pages, or words to produce nearly every day for writing. Insist upon the sanctity of this time, but be flexible enough to rearrange for an emergency or important family event.
2. Check your writing schedule before agreeing to other obligations. Make writing a real priority, and others will respect its place in your life.
3. When you're interrupted while writing, tell the person you'll get back to them (unless the house is on fire) once you're finished with the day's work.
4. Plan for necessary chores/social time/family obligations so you don't feel guilty every second you're not writing.
5. Occasionally make an except for someone determined and appreciative. If this feels like giving a gift rather than being forced into an obligation, you're doing something positive for yourself as well.

So how do you define your writing boundaries? How do you convince others to respect them?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

"And then what?": Judy Larsen speculates on fear, forgiveness, and story

Judy Larsen is touring the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit this week, talking about her debut novel All the Numbers, published last summer by Ballantine. Judy's got one of those "how I became an overnight success in only twenty years" stories. The beginning we all recognize. The fairy tale ending (which is a very fine beginning) kinda makes us cry ourselves to sleep. We had to start by asking her about it.

Okay, Girlfriend. We promise not to hate you. How did this first novel happen?
I've wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, and I even took creative writing classes when I was in college. But, I got practical for a little while and got a degree in English and Education--so I taught high school for 15 years, all the while thinking I needed to find time to write a novel. Finally, the summer before I turned 40 (my self-imposed deadline), I wrote a first draft of All the Numbers. I then spent the next 5 years revising and collecting rejection letters from agents. In the summer of 2004, I attended a week-long workshop at the University of Iowa. I met an editor there who offered to introduce me to some agents. Within 3 weeks I'd signed with my fabulous agent and about two months later we sold it to Ballantine/Random House.

All the Numbers is a book about a deeply personal journey, but it's not something you personally experienced. Where did the story come from?
The essence of All the Numbers is rooted in the fears that every parent has, shoved as far below the surface as we can push them, but present nonetheless. It traces a year in the life of a family that begins with the death of a child--it's raw and painful, but ultimately redemptive. It's about learning how to forgive and live a life you never thought you'd have to.

For me, those universal fears of all parents first bubbled to the surface the night, four weeks before his due date, that my oldest son was born by emergency caesarean section. Up until the last twenty minutes of it, my pregnancy had been textbook perfect. I’d eaten cottage cheese by the bucketful and not a drop of caffeine or wine had crossed my lips. I’d exercised the appropriate amount, put my feet up when necessary, and taken my vitamins. But still, in spite of my care, with no warning, we both nearly died because my placenta separated from the uterine wall. Nothing could have prevented it; nothing could have predicted it. And I learned one of the immutable truths of parenting--no matter how cautious, loving, protective and concerned we are, no matter how long we breastfeed, how many books we read aloud, or how much we limit TV time, bad things can happen. And then what?

When I forced myself to imagine the worst, I always wondered if I would rise to the occasion or sink into the abyss. When I explored these possibilities through Ellen--who is sarcastic and impatient and cluttered--and madly in love with her kids, I tried to be as fair as I could. I wanted her to eventually rise to the occasion (as I hoped I would), but not until she had wallowed in the depths (as I knew I would).

No matter how mundane we think our lives are, many of us will face extraordinary events at least once in our lives. And when we do, it is easy to think, why me? I played by the rules, I’m not a bad person, so why this? Why the illness or the unfaithful spouse or the tornado? When I read about mothers who have faced catastrophe, I always wish I could get a six-month follow-up. How’d they get out of bed the next day? How long before they started making supper? Did they ever genuinely laugh again?

These were the questions I tried to answer for myself through Ellen.

So now that the book’s been out there for a while, how do you feel about the publishing experience?
I guess I was surprised that complete strangers across the country would stumble across it and buy it. And then write to me about it. Stunning. I had no idea how long it could take. Or all the details. But, looking back, I'm glad I was so naive. I might not have done it had I known it would take 7 years from writing the first draft to it showing up at the stores. Hearing from readers all over the country who have lost a child has been very emotional--and humbling. They've lived through what I only imagined, and then they've written to me or come to my appearances and thanked me for writing my book, for giving dignity to their grief. That's really been amazing.

Last but not least: Who do you love to read?
I'd have to say Elizabeth Berg because she writes so beautifully and honestly about regular people. When I read her, it's always a lesson in how to make simple, daily events mean something. My buddy Bev Marshall is another writer like that. And I better toss in John Irving because of the way he weaves different narratives together and it all makes sense in the end.

Care to share your Top 5 Books?
To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury, and Cider House Rules. Can you tell I was an English teacher for 15 years?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Sometimes, It's All About the Angst

Sometimes, you just need a book to rip your heart out. There’s something cathartic in a beautifully-written book that expresses our darkest parental nightmares, something that teaches us that people can survive the worst and heal and live again. For me, such books as At Risk, by Alice Hoffman, The Deep End of the Ocean, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Ordinary People, by Judith Guest, filled such a need. And now fellow Girlfriends Cyber Circuit member Judy Merrill Larsen has come along with a devastating but beautiful debut called All the Numbers, with promises to break our hearts anew.

A high school English teacher with five children of her own, Larsen brings an authenticity to parental loss. Target hailed the book as its “Breakout Debut” in September 2006. Booklist calls it “compelling” and adds: “Larsen depicts a mother’s year of grief and recovery with a sure and honest voice.” But it’s Hillary Williams of Bookloons who really says it all: “Keep a box of tissues nearby while reading All the Numbers, as dry eyes are impossible. Readers will feel for Ellen, cheer her on, and silently applaud the wise and compassionate decisions she finally makes. . . . . All the Numbers is a quick but gripping summer read, both incredibly sad and very satisfying.”

I know there are readers out there who prefer to stick to “happy pill” novels, and I agree that there’s a time and place for them. But for those who like to experience the full range of human emotion, from tragedy to triumph, I recommend that you pick up a copy of the well-written debut.


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