Friday, November 30, 2007

Brock Clarke on the southern character (a tasty Friday morning morsel)

What a pleasure it is, in the reading life, to come upon a sentence that's as richly delicious as a bite of warm clafouti. Brock Clarke offers this one in An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England:

...I'd met a few of what he called "his authors," had heard him talk about those authors, and so I immediately pegged Wesley Mincher for what he was: a character, too, the sort of southern character who believed that being a southern character had something to do with misdirectional doublespeak, and losing the Civil War and not wanting others to talk about it but not being able to stop talking about it yourself, and having wise, lugubrious old folks and front porches for them to sit on, and black people, always black people, about whom you knew everything and about whom no one else knew shit, and the idea that self-criticism is art but criticism from outside is hypocrisy, and wise, folksy sheriffs and God and farm animals and good food that wouldn't be good if you ate it in a restaurant and not in your mama's kitchen, and a set of whitewall tires leaning up against the barn that would look good on the 1957 Buick that you had a funny story to tell about.

Lord. I need a cigarette after that. And I don't even smoke.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Guest Blogging on "The Best Job on Earth"

I wanted to post a quick link to Fresh Fiction, where I'm guess blogging about writing romantic suspense, the best gig going.

Please stop by and post a comment if you get the chance!

What's at Stake in Your Story?

As I've been working toward completion of a new romantic suspense, I've been thinking a lot about stakes. As I read through the manuscript, I ask myself not only what's at stake in this story, but what's at stake in each chapter and every scene. If my honest answer is "nothing much" or "it's just about character development" or "to illustrate the setting" (yawn), I go back and revise, sharpening the focus on the question that must be answered and what lies in the balance.

This week marks the release of my thirteenth novel, and though I'm still far, far away from having all the answers, one thing I can say for certain is that stakes count - sometimes more than any other factor - in a book's success. An easily-communicated, succinct "gut-punch" of a story germ (sometimes known as a high-concept story) can be used by the author in a query letter, by the editor when talking to the sales force and/or art director, by the publicist in designing ads or marketing efforts, by reviewers in writing copy, and by readers telling their friends about the great book they've just read. Though not every successful commercial book has this element, those which do very often prosper.

So today, think about the central concept of your own book and try to boil it down to a quick one to three sentences that get across the urgency and make many people, from agents to editors to readers, itch to pick it up and start reading. If you'd like to post the description here, I'd love to see them.

To get you started, here's an example (gleaned from my initial query letter) from my own new release, The Salt Maiden:

The Salt Maiden is the story of one woman's quest to save her missing sister in one of the most desolate corners of the country. With the life of a child hanging in
the balance and every second critical, Dana Vanover refuses to let anything stop her, from rattlesnakes to small town hostility to the desert-hot attraction to the sheriff determined to run her out of town.

Okay, now it's your turn!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Life unpeeled: a conversation with Allison Winn Scotch

Stepping out with a lovely debut novel, Allison Winn Scotch takes a moment to chat about writing, life, and The Department of Lost and Found, which PW calls "a bonbon of a book."

Allison, I know from experience that a book with cancer in it often gets tagged as "a cancer book", but The Department of Lost and Found is really a book about life, isn't it?
It’s funny: on the surface, The Department is a book about a young woman who gets cancer, but to me – and to many readers, so I’ve been told – it’s about much more than that – it’s about a young woman who is trying to figure out her life, what’s important, what’s not, what her purpose is, whom she loves…all of those big questions that so many of us wrestle with as we forge our way to adulthood. And certainly, as I was crafting Natalie’s story, a lot of my own experience rattled around in my mind. For example, Natalie decides, as part of her quest for self-awareness, to track down the five loves of her life and ask them what went wrong. And while, um yeah, I’ve never specifically tracked down my exes, I have thought long and hard about those relationships – sometimes I still do – and have tried to grow from those experiences and reflect on how they helped make me into who I am today.

In the book, Natalie unpeels her life, much like an onion, until she sheds all of the layers that protected her from who she really is and who she needs to become. And I think a lot of us can relate to that – I tried on several career hats until I found my groove as a writer – and I’d hope, like Natalie in the book, that just because we make a wealth of mistakes, that this doesn’t mean that we can’t correct our course or be granted eventual happiness. That’s the beauty of life, and of, I hope, this book.

Where did the story come from?
I lost someone close to me to cancer, and that was definitely the emotional spark for the book, but from there, I took it and created fiction. I wanted to write about a character whose life was in total disarray and who had to be turned on her head in order for her to find a way to right herself. In the book, cancer is just a catalyst for her “aha moment,” much like we’ve all had – that low point maybe after a break-up or after we’ve lost a job or whatever – when we’ve had to dig a little deeper and find a way to nudge our way out of the crap pile that life has heaved on us.

Let's talk about process. Do you outline or wing it?
No outline. I’m a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants type of gal, both in life and in writing. I tend to jot down upcoming scenes about two or three chapters ahead, so, for example, as I wind up one chapter, I’ll write down major plot points for the next few – a scene with a boyfriend, a problem at work – and then I keep doing this over and over again until I’ve written the whole book. This method gives me the freedom to change the plots and the characters as needed, taking them down organic and honest paths, but also gives me momentum for the next day of writing: I don’t open up the document with no idea where I’m headed, which can be really daunting for me and causes me to procrastinate indefinitely.

Any advice for noobs out there?
It’s okay to fail at it. I don’t know if anyone specifically told me this, though I’m sure that I’ve read anecdotal advice that says something similar, but it’s certainly something I’ve learned along the way. My first book was decent enough to get me an agent but not good enough to sell, and in retrospect, that was such a blessing because, man, I read it now, and it just STINKS. But writing that book taught me so much about how to craft a novel and what not to do, and hey, you know what? That’s all good info to have. There’s no shame in it for me. It lead me to where I am now – a published author with a second novel on the way – and so, I’ll own that failed attempt and consider myself luckier for having it.

Last but not least, my favorite question for anyone and everyone I meet: What are you reading?
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perotta, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, and Look Me In The Eye by John Robison. They’re stacked on top of my Peoples, US Weeklys and Entertainment Weeklys. I’m a glutton.

Monday, November 26, 2007

GCC Presents: The Department of Lost and Found

You don't have to have had cancer to have been touched by its profound impact on those diagnosed with the disease. Nearly all of us know someone whose priorities have been completely rearranged by the fight for survival and a suddenly-in-your-face awareness of our own mortality.

Allison Winn Scotch's debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found, takes a hopeful, sometimes humorous approach to what could be a downer of a subject.

Natalie Miller has just had the worst day of her life. Her doctor gives her the shocking news that she has breast cancer and her boyfriend dumps her, leaving Natalie to question everything she knows.

So she decides to take on her cancer the way she does everything—with steely determination. But as she becomes a slave to the whims of chemo, her body forces her to take a time out. She gets a dog, becomes addicted to The Price is Right and, partly to spite her counselor’s idea to keep a journal, Natalie embarks on a mission. She is going to track down the Five Lost Loves of her Life and figure out what went wrong.

Unwittingly, Natalie’s personal challenge to see why good things come and go—and what responsibility she has in it all—forces her to look at her life in a new light. Everything comes under question—her relationship with a mother who drives her crazy, the friendships she could nurture more tenderly, and her knack for pushing away the very people who want to be there for her the most. There’s a wedding, a reunion with the Man Who Got away, and an encounter with Bob Barker himself that helps her face her fears and change her life.

The critics call The Department of Lost and Found

"Funny and frank. A serious comedy that shines light into the darkness." - The Tampa Tribune

"A light, fast and fun read about a serious topic." - The Philadelphia Inquirer

"[The Department of Lost & Found] does a good service to readers showing how breast cancer, while physically devastating, can strengthen one's resolve and give life a new meaning." - Mamm Magazine

"A great way to kick off your summer reading. Editors' choice." – Redbook

"Smart and well-written.” - Marie Claire

"Too good to pass up. You'll laugh a lot (and cry just a little) as Natalie rebounds from the big C and reinvents her life." – Cosmopolitan

"Scotch handles the topic of cancer with humor and hope, never dipping into the maudlin. The changes and realizations that the characters make are profound and moving. An impressive debut." – Booklist

"A bonbon of a book." - Publishers Weekly

Sounds like a great choice for uplifting holiday reading.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Relentless rain, big sleep, and the simple art of murder

Laid low with an anvil-to-the-head case of flu this weekend, I drifted in and out of a 32-hour nap, listening to the endless rain and rolling thunder, huddled under a big eiderdown comforter I schlepped back from Portugal a few years ago and break out only when the weather gets bleak. This cozy hideout was the perfect setting in which to read Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (once I was able to prop myself up with soda crackers and ginger ale) with its relentless rain and coldblooded killers.

I've been studying hardboiled detective stories lately, dissecting the plot clockworks, jotting clues on notecards, charting characters on yellow legal pads. In the process, I've become a huge Hammett-head, practically dislocated my jaw yawning over Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and frankly laughed my head off over vintage issues of Black Mask -- the magazine that gave both Hammett and Chandler their first publishing credits. But while I read The Big Sleep yesterday, there was just me and my ginger ale, and I think I learned more from this straightforward read than from all my squinting and parsing and analyzing. There is something transporting about this book. The relentless rain. The over-the-top blondes. The hats always have some angle, whether they're cocked on top of a fashionable fairy or parked on a telephone receiver.

"If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment; otherwise nobody but a psychopath would want to write it or read it," Chandler wrote in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder". "The murder novel has also a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions." (Hence the rain, maybe. It keeps the head down, the shoulders hunched, the collar up.) Okay, good to know, but more importantly, The Big Sleep corrected my mistaken belief that the detective/murder/mystery novel is all about plot. It isn't. Not when it's done right.

More from "The Simple Art of Murder":

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Signings, signings, signings

More than any other time of year, I love doing autographings during the holidays. There are lots of people out and about, and some of them actually clap on to the idea that a personalized, signed book makes a thoughtful gift. Either that, or they're worn down by the long lines at the electronics superstores and appreciate the mob-free, laid-back, and friendly atmosphere of most signings. I don't believe in hard sells, don't get up from the table and wander the store or get in people's faces or jam copies in their hands. I chat. I offer. And I try to leave potential buyers with the impression that they've just met this really nice, approachable author who clearly enjoys meeting readers. (Most readers, anyway.)

If you're in the Houston area, I hope you'll look for me at the following dates/locations, where I'll be signing my new release, The Salt Maiden. If you're elsewhere, I hope you'll keep an eye out for the book, which is due in stores on or about November 27th. But whether or not you pick up my book, I hope you'll at least pick up one or more as gifts this holiday season - for yourself or others.

December 1, 2007 Autographing at Katy Budget Books, Katy, TX. From 11-2.

December 8, 2007, Autographing with author Christie Craig at Barnes and Noble in The Woodlands Mall (The Woodlands, TX) from 2:00 to 4:00 PM.

December 15, 2007, Autographing with author Christie Craig at Murder by the Book in Houston from 4:30 to ? PM.

January 12, 2008, Speaking and autographing at chapter meeting of West Houston Romance Writers of America. See site for schedule.

January 12, 2008, Autographing at Borders in The Woodlands with fellow authors Nina Bangs, Gerry Bartlett, Christie Craig, and Teri Thackston from 3:00 to 5:00 PM.

January 15, 2008, Speaking and autographing at chapter meeting of Bay Area Houston Romance Writers of America, 7:30 PM.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

"Cooking With Pooh": Joni's publishing parable for Thanksgiving

I s'pose it would be nice if I wrote a heartfelt bit about how grateful I am for all my well-blessed squab-bob-a-doo etc today, and truly, I try to follow the Biblical mandate to praise God in all things, knowing full well that God is going to give me something way better than what I've been praying for, but I gotta tell ya, I've had a cascading wall of crap kind of year, and I'm frankly not appreciating it. So I decided to offer instead a deliciously cynical industry roast, inspired by Phil Kloer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who recently concluded his quest to find the worst book titles ever.

The undisputed winner: Cooking With Pooh. Yes, it is an actual children's book from Disney. An eloquent comment on the industry in itself, but then...

Wait. When you think about it, Cooking With Pooh could be construed as a mandate. A call for unblinking optimism. It's about taking whatever's thrown at you and making the best of it. Writers are great at that. Bitter fight with the spouse? Milk the best lines for dialogue. Consigned to laundromat hell for two hours? Use it for character study. Migraine? Go with it, baby, you'll find some kind of story in there.

When life gives you lemons, you know what to do. And if life gives you pooh, make "yummy yummy cookie cutter treats!" or, as Sarah Silverman says, "When life gives you AIDS, make lemon-AIDS!" (CAUTION: Do not click that link unless you are incapable of being offended.)

So Happy Thanksgiving! Go forth galvanized -- slings and arrows be damned -- and cook with whatever pooh is thrown at you!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Gifts of Reading, Gifts of Memories

Joni's recent post is dead right. The failure to transmit the joy of reading is dumbing down society. I thought of this while waiting around the drugstore the other day and looking at some oldies but goodies that brought back such sweet memories. Language, love, and self-esteem are far more likely to be transmitted a child snuggles next to a parent, another loved one, or sits, rapt, with other children as a teacher reads to a class than any of the Genius Baby software/video learning systems out there. As a longtime educator and a lifetime book lover, I can tell you that human children are designed to imprint upon adults, not pixels, and there's plenty of research out there to prove that reading with a child just 20 minutes a day improves language, reading skills, and even IQ (all test scores rise, including math, which is largely tested through word problems these days). I can also say that the parent (or parental figure's) enthusiasm for reading is frequently contagious, so why not share an old favorite with a child this holiday season?

The Polar Express - My son's about to graduate high school, but we still drag out this classic (the book and not the movie) every holiday season. Magical.

Curious George - Once again, don't succumb to the temptation to pop in the video. Even Forest Gump was smart enough to introduce this long-time favorite to a child.

The Poky Little Puppy. I'm sure my mom wanted to burn this book, I demanded so many rereadings. And the classic edition is still only $2.99. You gotta love those Little Golden Books.

Where the Wild Things Are - My son's all-time fave. Maurice Sendak's illustrations are wonderful art, too!

I could go on and on, but instead I'll ask what are some of your favorite children's book recommendations? Which books did you love as a child or love reading to a child?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Does "Reading at Risk" translate to "writers at risk"?

It's not exactly shocking news that Americans are reading less and less, but the impact of it is worth looking at, especially for those of us who hope to make a living supplying words that are in increasingly less demand. A recent study by the NEA strongly indicates that as we the people read less, we're getting dumber.

According to Motoko Rich's article in yesterday's NY Times:
...Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.

That is the message of a new report being released today by the National Endowment for the Arts, based on an analysis of data from about two dozen studies from the federal Education and Labor Departments and the Census Bureau as well as other academic, foundation and business surveys. After its 2004 report, “Reading at Risk,” which found that fewer than half of Americans over 18 read novels, short stories, plays or poetry, the endowment sought to collect more comprehensive data to build a picture of the role of all reading, including nonfiction.

In his preface to the new 99-page report Dana Gioia, chairman of the endowment, described the data as “simple, consistent and alarming.”

I'm not sure what to do with that. What's my small part in combatting a culture where conversations are getting thinner and the market for my work is getting smaller?

I'm pondering. And open to ideas.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sunday, November 18, 2007

You Tell 'Em, Harlan

Harlan Ellison's an icon: science fiction novelist/short story writer extraordinaire ("A Boy and His Dog" is just one creepy, post-apocalyptic standout) and screenwriter for Babylon Five, The Outer Limits, and Logan's Run,. But over the course of his long, productive career, the man has had enough -- more than enough -- of writers being asked to do things for free (or the good of the hive) and of writers with the I'll-do-anything-please-notice-me mentality.

The language is - uh - candid, but there's a lot here that's just plain right. Plus, it's fun to see an icon say exactly what he's thinking. Check it out.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

"In the destructive element immerse!" (On writers behaving badly)

As an avid Rolling Stone reader from 14 till 40 (when I saw the Olsen twins on the cover, the love affair was so over), I grew up reading and loving Hunter S. Thompson, but the way he killed himself cast a shadow over his writing for me. There was such cruelty and selfishness in the way he did it. (Thompson's young grandson was in the next room when Thompson shot himself in the head.) All that wonderful "gonzo" blah blah blah suddenly seemed...pathetic. An orgy of cleverness, to be sure, but it left a sticky mess for someone else to clean up.

But writers drink, don't they? Writers smoke, get stoned, kill themselves, right? On account of how brilliant and sensitive we are. The two takes on this issue are evident in two Hunter S. Thompson books -- both coming out this month, both with the title Gonzo, both featuring intros by Johnny Depp. (How the heck does that happen?) PR copy for Gonzo from Ammo Books:

Gonzo presents a rare look into the life of famed American author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. For the first time, his photographs and archives have been collected into a visual biography worthy of his literary legacy. With a heartfelt introduction by close friend Johnny Depp, Gonzo captures a man whose life was as legendary as his writing. Gonzo is a tour de force that will take you on an incredible journey into the world of this American iconoclast, who was notorious for his completely truthful -- but not always factual -- hands-on method of reporting.

A different perspective is presented in Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson by Jann S. Wenner and Corey Seymour. Quoting Joe Klein's excellent review in tomorrow's NYTBR:

Hunter Thompson was always much more, and sometimes a bit less, than the sum of his ribald public persona. In compiling this oral history, Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour could easily have succumbed to the same temptation that Hunter did: to celebrate the myth, to recount a numbing parade of hilarious, drug-addled Hunter stories, and to miss the man. Happily, they have produced a rigorous and honest piece of work. “Gonzo” is a wonderfully entertaining chronicle of Hunter’s wild ride, but it is also a detailed, painful account of his self-destructive immersions; the brutality he visited upon his wife, Sandy; and the anguish of a life that veered from inspired performance art to ruinous solipsism.

...His best work was pretty much complete by the time I met him, in July of 1974. Indeed, Nixon’s collapse that summer was so garish — the tearful “my mother was a saint” sayonara — that it beggared any acid fantasy that Hunter might have produced. Reality had gone gonzo. There was nothing left to do except to play his designated role as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, wandering the campus lecture circuit, swindling would-be publishers, entombed in a mausoleum of celebrity he had created for himself.

Friday, November 16, 2007

And speaking of staying inspired...

Doing the work, staying inspired, and moving on to the next book

Colleen and I spent the morning at Starbucks, pouring over a recently completed manuscript with a friend. This is a person with a lot of talent, rock solid technical skills, and a big time fire in the belly. She's been published in the past, but not big published. The breaks just haven't gone her way yet. Now she's adding a third novel to her bank of unsold (no, make that pre-sold) manuscripts.

After we talked through all the elements to celebrate, tweak, beef up, whittle down in the ms, conversation moved on to her next project. Having finished this book a whole five days ago, our friend is already blazing away on something new. She shared her idea with us, and it's a great idea.

"It's waking me up," she said with that familiar spark of divine fire. "I've been sitting there at 3 AM scribbling notes as fast as I can."

In the "many are called but few are chosen" world of publishing, hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers boil down to a only few thousand (if that) actually making a living. What makes the difference? Could it possibly be as simplistic as "just do it"? In many cases, I think it is. The majority of aspiring writers labor through a project and then, instead of moving on while that project works its way through the pipeline, they sit and tweak and masturbate and agonize over why it isn't sold yet. What separates aspiring writers from working authors is working. You don't start the next book after the first book gets published, you start the next book after the first book gets written.

I feel my friend's pain. Because I spent a large share of this year without an agent, I'm sitting on two un--no!--pre-sold manuscripts myself. But I'm blazing away on a third, and it doesn't even cross my mind to do anything else, because this is what I do. I write books. Whatever else happens -- in the industry, in my agent's office, in the acquisition meetings, in the conference rooms and ladies rooms and cocktail parties of Manhattan -- I write books. Of course, yes, it's tremendously frustrating when I don't see a deal for whatever stretch of time, but I know that the worst thing I could possibly do is allow myself to be paralyzed by that.

My father used to tell me, "Luck is preparedness meeting opportunity." When the opportunity arises -- and it will -- my friend will be prepared. She has those three manuscripts in the bank, opening the potential for a two or three book deal. If an editor tells her agent, "This one's not for us. Does she have anything else?" Wha-bam while the iron's hot. Beyond all that is her fresh, forward moving attitude, which attracts opportunities and invites collaboration. And then there's her most valuable asset: her next book.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The envelope please (preferably the one with the money in it)

Results from National Book Awards last night:

FICTION: Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) (That's Denis's wife Cindy above with the book I will be reading soon and sending my son soon after.)

NONFICTION: Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Doubleday) (Two copies on order for Christmas, one for my dad, one for my son, toss-up which one I'll steal.)

POETRY: Robert Hass, Time and Materials (Ecco/HarperCollins) (I don't ingest a lot of poetry, but I did love this book.)

YOUNG PEOPLE'S LIT: Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little, Brown & Company) (OK, I think Sherman is hot, and I don't care who knows it.)

I recall being stunned a few years back when I heard that not one of the novels nominated that year had sold more than 2,700 copies in hardback. This years finalists fared better, for the most part. Critical Mass reports the numbers on this year's fiction finalists (per Bookscan, roughly 70 percent of sales, as of yesterday):

And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris -- 29,092
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson -- 25,688
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski -- 5,336
Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis -- 3,396
Like You'd Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard -- 2,230

Winners receive $10,000, but the real cash value of the award comes to authors in the form of livelier paperback sales and (if the author is any good at speaking) beefier speaking fees. According to an article in the NY Times, it's a mixed bag:

The influence of a National Book Award at bookstores can be mixed. Last year’s fiction winner, “The Echo Maker” by Richard Powers, sold 52,000 copies in hardcover and 31,000 copies in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan, which measures about 70 percent of retail sales. But the previous year’s fiction winner, “Europe Central” by William T. Vollmann, sold only 6,000 copies in hardcover and 26,000 copies in paperback.

If you're really burning up to watch the awards (and I'm such a dang nerd, I admit it, I am) you can watch it on Book TV, C-SPAN2, on Saturday. Check ye olde local listings.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Nora Roberts Talks Writing

Over on Romance Novel TV today, Nora Roberts answers questions about her novels (by the score, and nearly all of them bestsellers) and on writing. Smart, savvy, and successful, Nora pulls no punches. I especially like this nugget: "Without discipline, drive and desire, all the talent in the world isn't going to put an entertaining story down on paper."

Stop by and check out the writing Q&A. And don't expect her to have a lot of sympathy for our (merely mortal) self-excusing and kvetching. Go, Nora!

When authors attack

In case you never thought of "National Book Awards" and "Are you ready to rumble?" simultaneously...

I'm not exactly on the edge of my seat to know which middle-aged white man will win this year's National Book Award tonight, but I do wish I'd been at the National Book Award finalist reading last night when (according to Critical Mass) "extra-textual political reverberations turned into fire-works." Or at least as fiery as the works ever get at a prestigious-to-the-point-of-sphincter-Olympics events like this.

Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass kicked things off by commenting on how odd it was to have such an event without any mention of "this war," and how demoralized he was by living in a country where discussion means a "gingerly conversation about whether we should or should not torture our enemies." It wasn't completely off-topic question, given that the uncle of Edwidge Danticat -- the subject of her NBA finalist, "Brother, I'm Dying," -- died in the hands of the Department of Homeland Security due to the treatment he received upon entering the U.S. from Haiti seeking a political asylum visa. (It's worth noting this potential terrorist was a man in his 80s with a tracheotomy).

Hass' remarks earned applause, but also a follow-up from the next reader, Christopher Hitchens, who was "appalled" that this night could go on without mention of "our victory over the forces of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia," (an oddly retro-Biblical word for someone arguing against religion, but hey) which caused immediate boos and then hisses. "Do you know how you sound?" Hitchens asked the crowd when it increased. "It is the sound of mediocrity."

Um...ouch? Sorry, Hitch, I've seen guys smacked down smarter than that by my little ballerina daughter.

My longtime crush, Sherman Alexie, got in the best shot of the evening, saying about the audience hissing: "It always sounds to me like the sound of white liberal dreams escaping."

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Disproving all those "cat-fight" rumors...

When I first became involved in the writing community, I was a member of a multi-genre group and I attended multi-genre conferences. Whenever I used to hear about romance writers and their groups, words like "catty," "nasty," and "cutthroat" would come up. So I was a little leery when my writing edged into that territory.

And surprised as all get-out to find the opposite was true. For one thing, romance writers train and support their competition by offering free or low-cost workshops, judging contests (again, for free, though it's quite time-consuming), and blurbing debut authors. When friend writers fall on hard times, they organize benefits (such as the one Deborah MacGillivray has put together for author Dawn Thompson, who's had some tough health problems).

To celebrate their fifth years of publication, two other authors from my publishing house, Jennifer Ashley and Bonnie Vanak, have put together an "Oldies for Newbies" contest to promote debut authors on Dorchester's November and December romance list. I thought this was such a nice, supportive gesture, that I've also donated a free book to the cause. Though if Ashley and Vanak are "oldies" with five years in the biz, I'm thinking that makes my nearly ten years ancient.

So let's have a round of cyber-applause for all those gracious enough to offer helping hands!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Merrily, We're Pulled Along... Until We Take Wing

I love attending writers' conferences, watching the fervor with which we all (including the editors and agents attending) collectively put our ears to the railroad tracks of publishing in a vain attempt to discern what's coming. Often, some Chicken Little or another shouts out, "It's going to be X," whereupon others take up the cry. Pulled along by the prevailing sentiment, many struggle to keep up, following along like so many kites pulled by puffing children.

But every so often, one of us is lifted far beyond the trend, buoyed by some unknown, unknowable inspiration. Losing sight of the fray, this one writes a book so special and so different that it soars high above the others and creates a new trend of its own.

Everybody wants to be that writer, wants to lead the wave instead of following. But the magical ingredient can't be bought or earned by study. It can't be found at writers' conferences or in the recorded wisdom of industry professionals. For all our efforts, inspiration is still as mysterious and unpredictable as it ever has been.

All we can do is keep on writing in the hopes that today, or perhaps tomorrow, it will show up to guide our hands.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Dough-see-dough: Is it time to change literary dance partners?

Chatting with a few author friends this weekend, it came up in conversation that several of us had changed agents in the last six months. The very notion of "hopping" strikes fear into every writers heart. Obtaining literary representation is tremendously difficult to begin with. It's hard for newbies to imagine you could ever get disgruntled enough to guillotine this person who was supposed to be your savior, and certainly, we don't do it lightly. Authors are beyond loathe to fire the agent we have until his or her conduct becomes so egregious or the relationship so strained that the situation is unbearable, and by that time, a huge chunk of our most precious commodity -- time -- has been lost.

"In addition to several authors changing out representation, Agents are also in the process of purging their stables and seeking out new clients. Rumors...but anyone on the list serves has probably heard actual names," says Cindy Cruciger. "My theory is that publisher buying slows after October and doesn’t pick up until after the Holidays, publishers and agents start assessing the trends, looking at what writers they have who are writing what against what they believe is going to be the next hot trend and the ones they feel will adjust and sell, get more attention. It’s a dance. Everyone seems to change partners."

So what finally pushes us over the buffalo jump? When is it right to work on the relationship and when is it time for the Dear John?

"I felt like the balance of power was off," said one well-established author pal. "She had it all and I had none. Questions seemed to irritate her. I was always walking on eggshells, afraid to offend. I came away from our interactions upset."

I saw a lot of heads nodding at that, and many authors assume that it's going to be that way. The agent can have as many clients as he can sign, but the author can only have one agent. If he puts you on the back burner, you are screwed. The imbalance of power casts the author as the agent's needy sharecropper, and well, that does not make for a happy, productive exchange of creative ideas.

“What made my situation particularly painful was that my agent never did anything wrong," says another well-published friend. "She was responsive and generous with her time, a fabulous hand holder and cheerleader. She was a delight and [my first novel] would have never happened without her. I genuinely like her as a person and would continue to refer people to her. The problem for me was I didn't believe that her agenting style and my career goals were in sync anymore. It broke my heart to part ways with her--still makes my eyes tear up just thinking about it.”

"It really boils down to different working styles, so it’s the publishing version of irreconcilable differences," says Jackie Kessler. "When you don’t agree with the person who’s supposed to represent you in the business, there’s little choice other than to either be resigned to a miserable business partnership or to find someone else."

Judy Larsen adds to that, "I can tell you that when it's the right match you'll know it. Not to sound too goofy, but it's kind of like marriage. When my first marriage ended, I knew it hadn't been good, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it (well, other than the whole infidelity thing). Over the next twelve years I dated some and had come to think maybe it wasn't in the cards for me. Maybe I was too picky. But then, when I met the right guy, everything clicked. Even when things were tricky. So when I hear some of you talk about the things that went wrong with agents, and how it feels all hot and cold with some of them, I think, man, that's not how it should be. You deserve an agent who wants to help you build your career, who's in it for the long haul, kind of like having a spouse who loves you even when you're tired and cranky."

I agree, but we all know, there aren't enough of those to go around. Marriage is also about compromise, about accepting our partner for who s/he is, and forging a stronger relationship through patient communication. Sometimes.

"You all spend too much time obsessing over the personal relationship," my editor bluntly told me a while back. "It's about sales. Is she selling your work? That's her job. If she's not doing it fire her. If she is doing it, shut up and be grateful."

And Cindy comes up with yet another entirely different take.

"I’m not certain I want another agent," she says. "I would rather just keep a retainer on a good contract lawyer and work at my own pace since I have a day job as well. I’ve had several excellent agents recommended to me but it is not easy to find out what they are looking to represent right now and the process of finding a right fit is painful to say the least."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer 1923-2007: A psychic outlaw. And we liked it.

Norman Mailer died this morning. From the NY Times obit:
Mr. Mailer belonged to the old literary school that regarded novel writing as a heroic enterprise undertaken by heroic characters with egos to match. He was the most transparently ambitious writer of his era, seeing himself in competition not just with his contemporaries but with the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

In his memoir (in a way) The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing, Mailer describes the writing of his third novel, The Deer Park:
"With each week of work, bombed and sapped and charged and stoned with lush, with pot, with benny, saggy, coffee, and two packs a day, I was working, live, and over-alert, and tiring into what felt like death, afraid all the way because I had achieved the worst of vicious circles in myself...and so as the weeks went on, and publication was delayed from June to August and then to October, there was only a worn-out part of me to keep protesting into the pillows of one drug and the pinch of the other that I ought to have the guts to stop the machine, to call back the galleys, to cease--to rest, to give myself another two years and write a book which would go a little further to the end of my particular night.

But I had passed the point where I could stop."

When one publisher after another passed on The Deer Park because of “six salacious lines" Mailer refused to remove, he said, "I felt something shift to murder in me. I felt that I was an outlaw, a psychic outlaw, and I liked it."

"Every moment of one’s existence one is growing into more or retreating into less. One is always living a little more or dying a little bit." ~ from "Hip, Hell, and the Navigator”

More book buzz for Colleen

The Best Reviews weighed in on Colleen's forthcoming novel The Salt Maiden with some well-deserved love today:

Colleen Thompson is an author waiting to “happen”. Oh, she has been out there, is well respected as a growing talent. She has a solid backlist of amazing tales; only, she just has that presence of an author ready to have that break out novel. The Salt Maiden is that book. Her skill and flow of the prose marks her as a master wordsmith. She weaves an intricate plot into this eerie, sinister tale that kept me spellbound. This simply is Colleen Thompson at her very best.

...under the careful crafting of this very talented writer, the reader is guaranteed a tale that will keep them on the edge of the seat, with temperatures rising, as they turn page after page unable to put this novel down.

Very highly recommended.

Go, Colleen, go! (Let's have coffee sometime, as long as you're just sitting around waiting to happen.)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Road Tripping, West Texas Style

It's been a particular challenge writing a novel set in a very real small town located a ten-hour drive away from where I live in Houston. The setting for any novel is a fictional construct viewed through the authorial lens. During several brief stops through the tiny town of Marfa in West Texas during Big Bend vacations/research trips, I was charmed and intrigued by its fascinating history, its beautiful views, its isolation, and of course, the mystery of the Marfa lights. So I started doing research, which led me to discover that thanks to the arrival of Burt Compton of Marfa Gliders, this beautiful area has become a premier destination for the sport of soaring.

Through research, memory, and some soaring in the Houston area, I put together and sold a proposal for Triple Exposure, my seventh romantic suspense novel (fourteenth book overall). With a challenging deadline, I've been working away at it, but I knew I needed to make another trip out to complete my research.

Though it's not the quickest or easiest place to get to, Marfa is well worth the effort. The air is clear, the high desert plains are virtually pristine, and the small-town friendliness and emphasis on the arts entice many visitors (but not *too* many, thank goodness) to pull up stakes and move there. While visiting, Joni and I got our first look at the Marfa lights, sampled art and history, and even dined on "Marfalafel" (yum!) from the famous Food Shark truck.

And I discovered a Marfa very different from my fictional construct. My challenge over the next couple of months will be to merge the reality with the fictional world without sacrificing story.

Meanwhile, thanks to my new friends in Marfa, from Burt and Kathy Compton to Mona Garcia of the Arcon Inn (who makes the most delicious breakfasts ever) and everyone who was gracious enough to answer my questions. And a special thanks to Joni Rodgers for doing Sherpa duty and helping with the drive.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Marvelous Marfa

As Colleen's sherpa on her research trip to Marfa this week, I'm enjoying the all out grooviness of Marfa folk. Artists and cool types abounding.

Check it out.

Who'da thunk? The dirty rotten scoundrels turned out to be dirty rotten scoundrels.

An interesting story in today's NY Times:

Five authors have sued the parent company of Regnery Publishing, a Washington imprint of conservative books, charging that the company deprives its writers of royalties by selling their books at a steep discount to book clubs and other organizations owned by the same parent company.

In a suit filed in United States District Court in Washington yesterday, the authors Jerome R. Corsi, Bill Gertz, Lt. Col. Robert (Buzz) Patterson, Joel Mowbray and Richard Miniter state that Eagle Publishing, which owns Regnery, “orchestrates and participates in a fraudulent, deceptively concealed and self-dealing scheme to divert book sales away from retail outlets and to wholly owned subsidiary organizations within the Eagle conglomerate.”

Regnery is the publisher of Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry and other tomes of that ilk. I'm just curious to know what made authors think that a publisher with such blatant disregard for truth and integrity was going to deal fairly and/or squarely with them.

Sorry, dudes. You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

GCC Presents: One Heck of a Debut with One Hell of a Follow-Up

Once in a while I come across ideas that simply make me say, "Wow, I never would've come up with that one in a zillion years." Girlfriends Cybercircuit member Jackie Kessler has imagined a fascinating universe "peopled" by demons and a 4000-year-old smart-ass succubus named Jezebel. Fun and sexy, her second novel, The Road to Hell, has the critics singing Kessler's praises, as did her debut, Hell's Belles.

Praise for THE ROAD TO HELL:
"Kessler's sizzling sequel to paranormal debut Hell's Belles puts ex-succubus Jezebel--the now-mortal Jesse Harris, a dancer at a strip club--stage center again. For a month after waking up in a hospital, the former 4,000-year-old, fifth-level succubus who used to seduce humans to claim their souls has been living a happy mortal life in New York with a devoted boyfriend, New York vice cop Paul Hamilton. So when Alecto, a Fury from hell, arrives and demands she return to hell to help Alecto's sister, Megaera (Jesse's former best friend who betrayed her), Jesse balks. Much of the rest of the book is spent convincing her to change her mind, with each sexy escapade topping the last, until (among other things) the demons go after Paul, and Jesse has to "pull an Orpheus." Kessler's raunchy blend of heaven, hell and eros makes for a wild thrill ride, and hot, tough-talking Jesse has gumption and sass." — Publishers Weekly

"Kessler's sassy heroine is back with the scorching-hot book two of the Hell on Earth series. A sharp-tongued succubus writes in first person, telling a deliciously wicked story that mixes romance and humor with dark urban fantasy. The combination of supernatural elements with the mundane realities of life in the big city keeps things real. This is one helluva read--put Kessler on your must-buy list." — Romantic Times (4.5 stars)

"The Road to Hell hints at a vast talent that could alter the romance genre the way Kessler's heroine has altered the landscape of the underworld." — Rose & Thorn

“In The Road to Hell, the second book in the Hell on Earth series, author Jackie Kessler reintroduces us to the cutest, sexiest and most downright foul-mouthed perky ex-demon you're ever likely to run across. Once again, Kessler demolishes my preconceptions about romance novels, eschewing the bursting bustier and the bare-chested hero for a sly nod, a knowing wink and a bawdy smile, and giving the best romance authors a serious run for their places on the best-seller lists.” — Novelspot

Kessler didn't originally dream of writing novels but instead aspired to draw comic books. Not Archies, either—superhero comic books. Maybe it was all the heavily muscled guys in spandex…

Around the time she was 15, she realized that as much as she enjoyed drawing (note that I’m saying nothing about the quality of those pics), it was a lot of fun putting words in the characters’ mouths. She didn’t know the term “fanfic” back then, but she started writing stories about the X-Men, Alpha Flight, and the Teen Titans. "Didn’t do anything with those stories," Jackie claims, "other than horrify my mother. She asked why I couldn’t write nice stories, you know, about bunnies. Nope—me, I wanted to write about power. About magic. About hot guys in spandex. And about beating those guys bloody and senseless... So maybe it’s ironic that the book I wound up writing had nothing to do with overly muscled men and everything to do with scantily clad women. (Well, temporarily scantily clad.) Oh, right, and demons."

Kessler lives in Upstate New York with her loving husband, two Precious Little Tax Deductions, two cats, and 8,000 comic books. For more info, please visit her website: And remember: love your inner demon.

Rhett is no gentleman, and frankly, my dear, I DO give a damn!

When I was a kid before the advent of VCRs (aka "when dinosaurs roamed the earth") Gone With the Wind came round to the movie theaters once a year, and every year, I begged to go. The first year I remember seeing the newspaper advertisement -- a glorious full color quarter page featuring the famous image of Scarlet shaking her fist at God -- only my oldest sister Linda got to go. The following year, my sister Diana joined her. The next year, I turned ten. My sister Janis was going to go with Linda and Diana, leaving me behind like a stupid little kid all by myself. As God was my witness, I was not going to let that happen! I started begging and wheedling months in advance and my mother (so wise, Mom, so wise!) told me, "If you read the book, you'll show me that you're mature enough to go to the movie."

I commandeered Diana's well-worn copy and devoured it like a wood chipper. Then Diana, who had the tome practically memorized, quizzed me in front of our mother, and I won my place in the center of row three. The movie swept me away, of course, but right away I noticed that it was very different from the book...

Stephen Carter's review of Donald McCraig's Rhett Butler's People in this morning's NY Times provides an excellent commentary on how the movie sanitized the racism and not-cool-for-enlightened-modern-audiences-ness of the book in general and Rhett Butler in particular.
"Midway through Donald McCaig’s unexpectedly diverting novel, “Rhett Butler’s People,” a black man about to be lynched in the post-bellum South asks Rhett to please shoot him dead before the mob breaks into the jail and does worse. Rhett obliges. Thus does McCaig correct the record. In Margaret Mitchell’s telling — that is, in “Gone With the Wind” — we learn that Rhett has been arrested for killing “this darky who had insulted a white woman.” A few chapters later, Rhett confesses his guilt to Scarlett O’Hara, the other half of Mitchell’s famous romantic pair. “What else could a Southern gentleman do?” he asks.

Mitchell means this admission as a demonstration of Rhett’s sterling character. If one is to rescue Rhett for the modern reader, one must explain away this and several other details that Hollywood conveniently left out of the film. McCaig, the author of two other novels set during the Civil War period, was chosen by the Mitchell estate to write this sequel. He works hard to cleanse Rhett of the stains on his reputation that Mitchell considered compliments. That McCaig so admirably succeeds is both the strength and weakness of his tale and helps illustrate the risk of attempting a sequel to one of the most popular novels in history."

Now, obviously, I think it's extremely uncool to hold up shooting darkies as proof of high moral character, but Margaret Mitchell was a product of the time and place in which she lived, and Gone With the Wind is her work. The hijacking of her characters decades after her death -- whether it's for the benign purpose of masking her racism with lemony freshness or with the more pragmatic goal of cranking out an instant bestseller -- is almost as offensive to me as Mitchell's flattering portrayal of the KKK as gallant gentlemen defending their Heaven-blessed way of life. I think there's great historical and literary value in a book that demonstrates how deeply ingrained that thinking was (and still is for some) in Southern culture. The mamby-pambification of Rhett Butler in these sappy sequels, no matter how well written, is the rape of a great book.

"You, sir, are no gentleman," Scarlet tells Rhett, and truer words were never spoken. More power to him. The volatile love between an ungentlemanly profiteer and an unscrupulous golddigger -- c'mon! That's a great story! The book doesn't have a happy ending because these two shitheels do not deserve it. Mitchell had it exactly right. She paints a lovely picture of the hoop-skirted plantation caste system, but she makes no attempt to disguise the greed and pomposity that built it or the bad end to which it deservedly came.

The conundrum arises from the fact that, as Rhett and Scarlet grow to love each other, we grow to love them. We can't bear it when they embarrass themselves with blackhearted business deals and rampant political incorrectness. For my taste the answer is to forgive and learn from their faults and love the book for what it is: Mitchell's great and only novel, a beautifully told story that deserves to stand for all time as she told it.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Heroes of the Writers Strike

This was too fun not to share!

For the record, I'm sympathetic to writers in every media who don't want the fruits of their labor given away without compensation. And I'd have a bird if someone wanted me to hand over my half-written novel early. Yikes!

Friday, November 02, 2007

What does the looming Writers Guild strike mean for novelists?

I'm interested to hear what others think about the impending television writers' strike and how it affects those of us who write books. According to an article in today's NY Times:
Indeed, most of those affected by such a strike have no direct stake in its issues.

The New York-based book industry, for instance, may find studios reluctant to buy film rights to new works at a time when no writers are available to adapt them for the screen. “In the first part of a strike, buyers will be sitting and waiting to see if it gets resolved,” said Amy Schiffman, who specializes in literary sales for Hollywood’s Gersh Agency.

Another interesting piece starts with a cutesy "Talk about writing yourself into a corner!" (Yeah. Tee. Hee.) Then goes on to detail a semi-scary policy that I would be hard put to go along with.
[The] writers union also tossed in a provision called a “script validation program” that has some members rooting, at least behind the scenes, for the enemy on this one topic.

The union wants members to submit copies of any half-finished scripts to headquarters.

“The filing of these copies will allow the guild to determine the exact status of the material at the beginning of the strike and may protect you in the event allegations of strike-breaking or scab writing are made against you or another writer,” the rule reads in part.

A lot of writers, a paranoid bunch by nature, are not thrilled with the notion of handing over ideas to other writers, whether they are union officials or not. “They are insane if they expect us to do that,” says a writer on a top-rated drama who declined to be quoted by name for fear of retribution.

Huh? Not wanting to hand over half-finished work makes us "a paranoid bunch"? Poo on the Times for that one.

(Oh...Lord...did I just agree with Ann Coulter about something? Excuse me while I scrub myself with Pinesol.)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Reluctant Expert (Being a published author means you can help anyone publish a book... right?)

Having stumbled home from a lovely evening of good wine and live jazz on the Market Street quad, I'm trying to focus my eyes for a bit of catch up reading and just had to pass on the best industry article I've read this week:The Reluctant Expert: Being a published author means you can help anyone publish a book... right? by Steve Weinberg appeared in Publishers Weekly.
When my telephone rings, I almost always check the caller ID before I answer. If the number and name look unfamiliar, I assume that the caller is probably (a) a prison inmate, or (b) a would-be author seeking advice about publishing a book. Why that pairing? As an investigative reporter, I write frequently about malfunctions of the criminal justice system. Having gained a reputation among convicts and their families as a journalist who might look into claims of innocence, I receive numerous calls from desperate people. Most inmates and their loved ones are grateful if I do nothing more than listen. Wannabe authors, on the other hand, expect a great deal and are rarely appreciative when I offer candid advice. All things considered, I’d rather hear from serial killers.

Check it out.


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